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Text, Reader, Reading

Risa S. Bear, M.S., M.A.

Renascence Editions
University of Oregon

1. Text: Creating the Program

    It is a commonplace, dating back to Plato, that writing is storage. We write in hopes of giving continuity to our transitory thoughts over time, but in a sense it is a vain hope. A thought is not a particular thing in the world, but partakes of the nature of a generalization, something which cannot exist as a stone does, but exists at best as a potential whereby events may be brought about that resemble other events because a system (or mind) requires for its continuation that there should be such similarities. Philip Sidney, writing in the 1500s, noted that this gulf between ontological particularity and epistemological generality holds true across all disciplines:
There is no Art delivered unto mankind that hath not the workes of nature for his principall object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become Actors & Plaiers, as it were of what nature will have set forth. So doth the Astronomer looke upon the starres, and by that he seeth set downe what order nature hath taken therein (157).
That is, the astronomer sets down an observation, in hopes of finding the order in heavenly things, but is ultimately deceived if he takes the observation as having any direct relation to the order, if any, that is actually present1 in the heavens:
The Astronomer with his cousin the Geometrician, can hardly escape, when they take upon them to measure the height of the starres. How often thinke you do the Phisitians lie, when they averre things good for sicknesses, which afterwards send Charon a great number of soules drowned in a potion, before they come to his Ferrie? And no lesse of the rest, which take upon them to affirme (168).
So that those who work in knowledge do not work in the world, whatever that may be, but in a constructed world, building a model which it is hoped is like the world, and from which we, as readers, may take away what we will. Sidney is arguing in favor of fiction, by the way, and suggests that the poet's model, in not asserting itself to be about particulars in the world, may have distinct advantages. The fiction writer
worketh, not onely to make a Cyrus, which had bene but a particular excellency as nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyrusses, if they will learne aright why and how that maker made him (157).
This is programming. The Cyrus that is to be bestowed is an encoded Cyrus, awaiting downloading by the reader.

While you are reading you are engaging with the text. Once you have done reading you have read the work. It is necessary to separate "text" from "work" to understand this. Once we have read through to the last line of Paradise Lost, we can now run the entire program (which requires those "natural tears" for its full impact) as a practically extratemporal gestalt. The poem is never actually on the page, only the code for setting up the poem is there. The text contains no work, only the means for recreating the work in the mind. The poem is different upon each downloading; it is a unique patterning that moves almost invisibly from author to reader, by means of but not fully in the text. It lives fully only in the life, individually and collectively, of its readers -- of whom the author is but one. The text is the nexus, the transition point.

    Language is inherently algorithmic. The form of an argument espousing an assertion is "a = b; b = c; therefore a = c." The form of an argument refuting an assertion is "a = b; b not-equals c; thereforenot-equals c."2 Writing is a reduction of language, and carries some but not all of the import of speech, just as speech is a reduction of interpersonal communication, so much of which is body language and not portable, except partially through such media as film and video. Despite the reductions, if it may be presumed the author and the reader have approximately shared assumptions as to what a, b, and c are, the argument, as written and as read, should be persuasive. We tend to think of this method as deduction, and assume that it is done in, of, and about the real world. Yet the central operator, "therefore," takes place only in the minds of the communicants. We proceed strictly by analogy. It is all done in order to create a metaphorical leap of faith. Longer arguments, with the citing of alleged instances to support them, are simply this same structure in the form of routine with subroutines. Hence, programming. An author hopes to communicate something like the author's thought; the thought itself, as a phenomenological event, is gone forever. This analogical structure is ubiquitous in communications, whether explicit, as in science journal articles, or implicit, as in most commercial advertising.You will find this structure, I believe, in all fiction and in all purported nonfiction, and I believe this is Sidney's argument.

2. Reader: Operating System

    We hope to convey something, such as Cyrus, or rather an idea of Cyrus, from one place and time to another, from person to person. Notice the responsibility that is placed on the reader: "if they will learn aright." In Sidney's social context, there was thought to be a universal standard of conduct and knowledge, rooted in the pervasive presence of the state religion and in an educational system that had little to go on beyond the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the Greek and Roman classics (still true for many of us today), so that the "fit reader" would be apt to be one whose goals in reading did not clash with what Queen Elizabeth I, and the power apparatus she represented, would wish them to be. Today's fit reader of Sidney is perhaps the historian of Renaissance thought or literature, who will put the text to different uses than Sidney or his contemporaries could have envisioned. But the take-home message for us today in his insight is that there is in a sense never a particular in writing, only the general; the replicability of the text is its defense against the ravages of time for that very reason. It is, in a sense, not there, not in a book, which is paper that degrades, nor on a disk, where the iron oxide may degrade, but in code, which we decode word by word,  sentence by sentence, from whatever medium has been used as its substrate. Not there, because in the physical world there are no generals, only particulars, whereas in conceptualization, we have if not only generals, then in our individual minds particular conceptualizations which we take for generals.
    And more by sentence3 than by word. All this might be easier to grasp if we understand that there is a reason why most words in dictionaries have more than one definition.4 We cannot know, when we walk into a classroom and see the English word "fault" on a blackboard, whether the preceding class was on geology or ethics. But if the word has been used in an entire sentence, then perhaps we may guess (unless we read only, say, Chinese).

    Stanley Fish remarks in Is There a Text in This Class? that a work barely exists, or, to put it more strongly, never exists until there is a reader (3), and adds that the reader is a socially contexted phenomenon:

Categories like "the natural" and "the everyday" are not essential but conventional. They refer not to properties of the world but to properties of the world as it is given to us by our interpretive assumptions (271).
    A text must have a context to be read.5 The reader must have some concept of the signs with which the text has been composed and a conceptualization of the culture in which the text has been produced, in order to derive from the text something like that which the author has envisioned should be derived from it.

stop sign

The word "STOP," in white letters on an octagonal red metal signboard, placed near an intersection, has in some parts of the world a context in which the operation of motor vehicles and the rule of law are brought together; the traffic engineer hopes for a normative outcome in a number of instances.

    When we write for an "intended audience," we are hoping that a majority of our readers will be equipped to download, compile, and run our program in a satisfactory manner. Thus it may be appropriate to consider the reader as analogous to an operating system.

3. Reading: Download, Compile, Run

    It appears to me that a (codex) book, as a phenomenal object occupying a place on the space-time continuum prior to its being seen by a reader, is no more than compressed vegetable fiber and a quantity of tacky black dye derived from vegetable matter either directly, or remotely (from coal tar). But once it is presented to those with education appropriate to a particular interpretation of the object, it becomes something more: a nexus, a bridge where the act of reading flows the work, incrementally, to the reader. It is a storage device, just a we think of it, but it does not store the work, it stores the means of access to the work, containing, in the placement of shaped dried droplets of dye, a coded program to be run. We open the book, we look at the page, our eyes travel, in cascading saccades, left to right or right to left, or perhaps top down, depending on the language from which the program is derived. Sentences are downloaded, absorbed in a temporal sequence into memory, in such a way that the thoughts, images, or clusters of thoughts and images which the program calls forth (uniquely in each reader) are compiled in a way analogous to, but not necessarily identical with, phenomenal experience of the sensory-derived "real world."6

    The experience of "reading the book" creates the work almost as a standing wave of thought, to which we add bits of the whole as each sentence is acquired. What Hans Robert Jauss, Hans-Georg Gadamer, or Stanley Fish might refer to as "context" or "horizon"7 comes into play here -- but not as the active determinant of the passive reader's unique experience of engaging with the text. Rather the reader actively assimilates the program coded within the book into the ongoing experience of her or his own life, weaving meaning into the code and deriving meaning from the results, against a background of experience from which material is selected for the weaving. No two readings are identical, as no two readers, including the same reader twice, stand in the same place or breathe the same air. The program runs, and because the reader is a very fast neural-net processor, the program loops, is entirely recalculated with each sentence, deferring the final run to the reading of the final sentence. A programmer might see in this what is called brute-force programming; our brains don't handle the processing very elegantly. But that they do this at all is miracle enough.

    We easily look upon a text, in book or file form, as a stable object (at least until the author gets round to messing with it again), but it is not. The continuum is comprised of both space and time. Not only do substrates deteriorate (paper, film, disks, CDs), readers also change, even as they are reading. Unlike other operating systems, readers are modified by all programs (texts).

All texts have been hypertexts since the day that two texts were available in the same code and the same reader read both. Texts refer to one another by the mere fact of their existence in a common code; they refer to one another in citation and reference; they refer also to the external "world" and to other places within themselves, just as HTML documents do. Reference is the meat of every sentence in every text, for a text that refers to nothing is itself necessarily blank. So the reader reaches out, in reading, to touch in neural model all that has gone before, concurrently is, and might be. It is an act of creating, within, something new, a realignment of posited conjectures and affirmations that would have been difficult or impossible to achieve had no one attempted the coding of the program.

    I think that as we examine the act of reading, especially in a non-hierarchically networked world, reader-response theory will mature from that which it now is, too easily dismissed by its detractors as leaving no place for the author, into a model8 in which the reader creates the work but acknowledges a dynamic partnership with the author, whose programming of the text is a real work, without which the work in the reader's mind could never have come to be.9


1. Sidney's strength is that he argues for "poesie" by arguing a reinterpretation of the epistemological ground of knowledge. That his insight has implications beyond "poesie" is corroborated by remarks since made by others whose field of consideration is the sciences and not literature.
. . . metaphor has the same general properties as reality; reality is not thought or understood otherwise than by metaphor. (Bachelard, 64)

Statements can be logically justified only by statements. (Popper, 43)

What makes insensible things intelligibly describable is analogy, notably the special form of analogy known as extrapolation. (Quine, Word and Object, 14)

. . . utterances about physical objects are not verifiable or refutable by direct comparison with experience. They purport to describe, not experience, but the external world. They can be compared with the world only through the medium of our experience of that world, but the connection between our experience and the world already  involves a step of hypothesis or inference which precludes any direct and conclusive confrontation of the utterance with its subject matter. There is many a slip betwixt objective cup and subjective lip. (Quine, Methods of Logic, xii)

2. Readers familiar with Predicate Calculus here may be thinking, "oh, but this should be a discussion of modus ponens and modus tollens; and she's being much too simplistic here." If I were a brilliant person I would undertake an argument that Predicate Calculus might indeed be a model for the next fruitful direction in literary criticism, with a look at discourse as possible-worlds theory. But I will leave this to the philosophy professors. I'm interested in shaking a few readers from the superstition of textual essentialism, but don't claim to have a coherent theory of my own. If you will read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid I believe you will, yourself, think more useful thoughts than any you find in this essay. But even that author makes no claim beyond the tentative.

3. Here I gloss over an important point for the sake of brevity. The argument of Jeremy Campbell in note 5 below is that meaning resides in context; words can only be regarded as unambiguous when they reside in sentences, whether actually present or implied. Castiglione comes tantalizingly close to arguing this view in the Courtier:

    I would know then, quoth the Count, whether this stile and measure which you speake of, arise of the sentences or of the
     Of the wordes, answered Sir Frederick.
     Do you not think then, quoth the Count, that the wordes of Silius and Cornelius Tacitus are the very same that Virgil and Cicero use? and taken in the same signification?
     Sir Fridericke aunswered: They are the very same in dede, but some yl applyed and dyverslye taken.
     The Count aunswered: In case a manne should pyke out of a booke of Cornelius and of Silius, al the woordes placed in other signification then is in Virgil and Cicero, (whiche should bee verye fewe) woulde you not then saye that Cornelius in the tounge were equall with Cicero, and Silius with Virgil?
     Then the L. Emilia: Me thinke (quoth shee) thys youre dysputation hathe lasted to longe, and hathe been verye tedyouse, therefore it shall bee best to deferre it untill an other tyme.
4. I. A. Richards, writing in 1936, commented on this:
A chief cause of misunderstanding . . . is the Proper Meaning Superstition. That is, the common belief . . . that a word has a meaning of its own (ideally, only one) independent of and controlling its use and the purpose for which it should be uttered. This superstition is a recognition of a certain kind of stability in the meanings of certain words. It is only a superstition when it forgets (as it commonly does) that the stability of the meaning of a word comes from the constancy of the context that gives it its meaning. (11)
5. Jeremy Campbell has a very handy anecdote for illustrating the necessity of context:
The cable had been sent from Paris . . . PLEASE SEND ME FIFTY DOLLARS AMERICAN EXPRESS NICE LETTER OF EXPLANATION FOLLOWS LOVE LOU. The message presented no problem to Mrs. Tribus, although the word "nice" was a little strange . . . to Tribus himself however, it looked wrong. He knew that there were three American Express offices in Paris and the cable should have specified which one . . . Then he realized that "nice" was not an adjective . . . but the name of a town on the French Riviera. . . because of his prior information, Nice was more probable than nice in the context of the whole message. (65)
The context must include geographical knowledge of France greater than that Paris is in France, otherwise some of the information in the cable is simply not there.

6. Or perhaps it is the same after all. Biologists have begun remarking that this analogical nature of sensory interpretation is not limited to reading, but is the universal mode of animals and in a sense even plants in responding to the information obtained from their environments. Rupert Reidl comments:

Life is a hypothetical realist . . . there are many indications that support the reality of the world . . . but none of them is logically convincing. However, the solution that living creatures have found for the reality problem avoids deductive conclusions and depends on probabilities. (19)
Roland Barthes compares life itself to language:
Today we recognize in the living organism the same structures as in the speaking subject: life itself is constructed as a language. (100)
But these are not new ideas. I. A. Richards remarked in 1936, almost as an aside, that "The theory of interpretation is obviously a branch of biology . . . ."(12) I recently, while standing in line prior to a university convocation, quoted Richards to a noted English professor, who said, a bit patronizingly, that, "Well, no, but language is a branch of biology." I was flabbergasted. Language is a thing studied, biology is a study. "Theory of interpretation," or literary criticism, is a study. Throughout the humanities, this confusion of apples and oranges exists in a profusion with which, say, biologists or computer scientists are relatively unencumbered.

7. Jauss spoke of the "horizon of expectations" which the culturally contexted reader brings to the work: "The coherence of literature as an event is primarily mediated in the horizon of expectations of the literary experience of contemporary and later readers, critics, and authors" (166).

8. Or if you prefer, "mapping." Mary Catherine Bateson has written effectively on this:

Any kind of representation within a person of something outside depends on there being sufficient diversity within him to reflect the relationships in what he perceives.... One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity that we don't ordinarily have access to. (287-289)
9.     The implication of all this for textual studies is that while the work of editors and critics in elucidating the texts that have come down to us has been real work for which we can be grateful, we should never, metaphorically speaking, place more weight on our theory of copy-text and the rule of authorial intentions than it can bear. Jerome McGann rightly criticizes the direction such studies have taken: "In asking us to analyze textual problems -- indeed, to decide the most basic textual issues -- within a sharply restricted analytic field, these approaches have tended to suffocate textual studies as well as the larger enterprise of which they are a part." (119). He argues, I believe persuasively, for a look into social context when editing, and for withholding judgment as to authoritative text -- that final intention, for example, is not always the best or only useful form of a text, assuming we have in hand anything we have the right to call "final intention." He cites Auden's "September 1, 1939" as a famous instance:
The instruments agree that this is one of Auden's most important works, so that a collected edition without it -- particularly a posthumous edition -- seems an anomaly. Agreement is also general that the removal of the eighth stanza weakens the poem. In all respects, then, the case illustrates the relative nature of authority in matters dealing with cultural products like poems . . . .  this final Auden example graphically reveals the ambiguity in a concept like the authority of the text. The work we know as "September 1, 1939" exists in print in several different versions, and one of these is an absent text (as it were), a suppressed poem. (88-89)
But notice also McGann's almost offhand inclusion of "the larger enterprise." Like Sidney, for whom literature was but one aspect of the single enterprise of constructing a general understanding of the world, McGann points toward an epistemological unity. As the sciences and the humanities, like mutually unknown continents, drift inevitably together, our cultural cartographers must begin to work toward a world map.

Works cited:

Bachelard, Gaston. The Philosophy of No. Trans. G. C. Waterston. New York: The Orion Press, 1968.

Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

Bateson, Mary Catherine. Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.

Castiglione, Baldessar. The Booke of the Courtier. Tr. Thomas Hoby. Found online 5/21/02 at Renascence Editions: <>.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge, HUP 1980.

Campbell, Jeremy. Grammatical Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Hofstader, Douglas R. Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. A Metaphorical Fugue on Minds and Machines in the Spirit of Lewis Carroll. New York: Random House. 1980.

Jauss, Hans Robert. "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory." Trans. Timothy Bahti.  In Adams, Hazard, and Leroy Searle, Critical Theory Since 1965. Tallahassee: FSUP, 1986.

McGann, Jerome J. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism. Chicago: UCP, 1983.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

Quine, Willard Van Ormond. Methods of Logic. New York: Holt, 1950.

Quine, Willard Van Ormond. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MITP, 1960.

Reidl, Rupert, and Robert Kaspar.Biology of Knowledge: The Evolutionary Basis of Reason. Trans. from the third German edition by Paul Foulkes. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1984.

Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. London: OUP, 1936.

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Defence of Poesie <>. Ed. Risa S. Bear

<>See Adams, Critical Theory Since Plato. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1971.
See also Risa's Commonplace Book>.

Latest iteration: 06/04/11. Previous, and perhaps better, iterations lost, as is common with texts on computers. What does that imply for textual studies?