Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Reading and ‘the Other’
Sajit M. Mathews
Human existence is undeniably interrelated and interdependent. Right from pre-birth stage as ovum and sperm, to post-death stage as food for bacteria, life has to encounter numerous situations, persons, ideas and things. All such encounters necessitate the existence of ‘the other’ if we claim ourselves to be ‘selves’. The extent of this encounter varies from person to person depending on one’s psychological disposition and various social, cultural and other factors. Even for those who have minimum possibilities for actual encounters, literature keeps a wide door open, to ‘the other’ in various ways. As C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) says, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” while sitting in my reading room.
For a reader, a literary text is something that is outside of him/her. It is written by an author of another time and place having probably a totally different upbringing and mental make-up. The reader has to encounter this totally strange object of consciousness, taking risks about his/her identity as in any other encounter in the world. Here, the text itself is ‘the other’. Thus, reading a text of literature is an encounter of the readers’ self with ‘the other’.
The relationship between self and ‘the other’ is always characterized by distance. In encountering the text which is ‘the other’, reader has to cross this distance. Therefore, reading literature entails problems for the reader and ‘the other’.
Two Equations Between the Reader’s Self and ‘the Other’
1. Introspection- Introspection says that more of you is inside yourself. Self can know itself by itself, from itself. Here, growth or expansion of identity has to do with self reliance. The agency of self growth is introspection.
2. Interpretation- Interpretation occurs when there is interaction between two parties. The self knows itself by getting in touch with the other because what is outside of you is also part of you. Interpretation happens on a common ground of dialogue.
Literary theory has nothing to do with introspection as a way to or an agency of reading, because the starting point of experience of literature is an engagement with the text, which is a form of ‘the other’. Reading is an act of dialogue or interpretation entailing ‘the other’. The experience of literature is an example of the growth of self from the other. It has to do with ‘the other’ and its role in reader’s self. Experience of a literary text begins with the engagement with the other.
Fusion of Horizons
Reading is a dialogue between the reader and the text which is ‘the other’. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) maintains that in dialogue we can sometimes achieve fusion of horizons. Horizon is a metaphor for our situation in this world. Fusion of horizons is an event of truth. Our world, comes to presence as the prejudged, the always understood or interpreted. This is truth for us and it is no less truth when we become aware that truth is inseparable from prejudices. In genuine dialogue with the other there is a possibility of risking the very prejudices that make our world and costitute our truths. Dialogue moves in two directions- ‘back’ towards our pre-understandings and moves ‘forward’ towards achieving a common understandings. This could be towards agreement or at least toward recognition of exactly what we disagree about and why. This back and forth movement is what Gadamer means by fusion of horizons.
It is the same movement that happens in reading. The alien text engages in a dialogue with the reader. The preunderstandings and pre-knowledge of the reader and the cumulative meanings of the text enter into a meaningful interaction and a fusion of horizons happens, to reveal truth. New understandings and new meanings emerge out of this interaction, adding to surplus meaning.
Fear of ‘the other’
Literary text is apparently strange or unfamiliar to the reader. This apparent nature breeds fear because ‘the other’ is deemed to be different and strange. So one remains fixated in the familiar. The little ‘me’ is preferred to the alien ‘other’. The limited, comfortable space within is preferred over the ever expanding world outside. According to Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007), we need to step out of the familiar and go into the new and unfamiliar in order to grow.
Object Constancy and Reading
In literary experience, there is a problematic distance between the reader’s self and the other. Only when this distance is bridged, one can enter the unfamiliar other. The courage to do so comes from a concept called ‘object constancy’ in psychology. It is an assurance or trust that a child develops while it is six months to five years old. For a child, mother is the very first object. Even if the mother is physically absent, the child knows that the mother is there. This trust in the mother is called object constancy. That same trust is one’s capacity for dialogue with the other.
Here, the role of the other (text) is as an agent of expansion of the identity of the reader’s self. The more you read, the more you are connected with yourself because You are ‘the Other’ and more of you is outside of you. Our call in life is to add the other to self, not to isolate. Reading does exactly that, by getting in touch with the other. In the absence of dialogic interpretational skill, one will subtract the other from self leading to exclusivist and extremist world view.
Liminality and the Other
For hermeneutics, when the two different categories meet, there is a space between them where neither is itself. It is the problematic zone of liminality. Interpretation is an exchange of meaning in liminality. Passage through liminality is always problematic. Life is full of limilalities or problematic meeting places like the transition from childhood to adulthood through adolescence. Reader and text are two categories with liminal space between them. Textual interpretation happens in liminality. The engagement of the reader with the text (the other) happens in liminal space. This engagement is not introspection, but interpretation.
Reading and the Other
Every piece of writing is born with a readerly expectation. The Reader is integral to the text as an ontological value. For phenomenology of literature, the ontology of the mode of existence of the text is as an appearance in the consciousness of the reader. A text necessitates a reader. A text as a fete of writing is complete only when it becomes an object of the readers’ consciousness. Prior to reading, text is indeterminate. That is, a scheme of clues, directions, triggers and promptings which expect a reader and is designated as ‘the implied reader’. Implied reader is the ‘act of reading’ that the fete of writing requires (not the historical reader). It is the act of reading built into the writing, inspisating the writing. In the terminology of reception theory, it is the act of reading that 'concretizes' or ‘realizes’ the literary work. In short, without reading there would be no literary work at all.
But again, there is no grand universal reading provided for all. Everyone reads the same text differently because some of the clues or directions in the implied reader are foregrounded only for particular readers. This emphasizes the fact that one needs muatuality or commonality of ‘horizons’ to read any text. This again implies that no reading is absolute.
We see the application of the same in life. No two people understand a third person uniformly. One’s friend will be another one’s foe and another’s inspiration and so on. The problem of the reader and the other is reflective of the problem of violence and peace. All societies have the problem of ethnic self subtracting self. The more the fear of the other, the more the violence. Exclusive ethnocentric self promotes endless violence. We must orient ourselves as world centric and peace favouring people. Polyphonic magnanimity and dialogic solidarity and bridge building should survive the contracted ethnocentric self that breeds violence. To fear the other is to be afraid of oneself, which is the casualty of adulthood.
Reading as a discipline lets us overcome this difficulty with the other, by offering countless opportunities to get in touch with ‘the other’. Reading teaches us to incorporate the meaning of the other into our horizon. It could help us replace aggressive advocacy of violence with self-respecting inclusivism. Acceptance of the other with its merits and flaws is a virtue reading can promote, without which our world might not see another happy century.
Monday, March 12, 2012
Friday, March 02, 2012
1. Nature of the Life of Meaning in Time and our Life in Meaning in Time
Written text is fundamental to human communication, second only to spoken word. Text enables us to take history forward. It makes us feel proud of our past and allows us to think of a better future. A text is more than its component words. Texts have influenced minds, raised questions, answered some and left many unanswered. it has caused revolutions. ‘What changes the world’ is what we make out of the text in and for our times- that is, its meaning in time. Readers come and go, but texts continue to influence and change the world. Therefore, study of text and its meaning are extremely important in understanding our life and its meaning in the present world.
Synchronic Language and Diachronic Text
Our world is composed of many codes. Language is the most complex code. We need this code to speak, write and understand. Any realization of language is only a disclosure or parole of the treasury of the code of language. This code of language is synchronic. It is static and doesn’t have complexities of growth, and is ‘of a time’. It was Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), a Swiss linguist, who proposed that language as a system of signs should be studied as a complete system at any given point in time. This implies that language is synchronic- ‘of a time’.
On the contrary, a literary text is diachronic. It is an anti-realistic perspective. Diachrony suggests changes in meaning over time. Meaning begins to move across time. The text doesn’t cling to the author’s bosom. It drifts away from the writer. This is called distanciation.
In the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005), the transition from speaking to writing is marked by what can be called ‘alienation’ or ‘distanciation’ (Verfremdung). The realization of discourse in writing distances the text from its context of spoken discourse. During this transition, the original context of the discourse vanishes. The text takes on a whole new meaning and is no longer bound by its original writer. The text is distanced or alienated from the author. It is now ready for the reader to read and interpret.
This distanciation is the first step in the diachronic journey of the text. Text leaves its origin and ground and moves away from the author. This can be equated to Individuation in Developmental Psychology, proposed by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). The text undergoes a sort of diachronic individuation. The text is now free to move in time and space. There are no limits as to where to go or how far to go.
In Ricoeurian hermeneutics, distanciation is not looked at negatively as something that needs to be overcome. On the contrary, distanciation turns out to be the very condition of meaning making because it paves the way for ‘Semantic Autonomy’. Semantic Autonomy is nothing but the fact that through the act of writing, the text is freed from the ‘intention of the author’. Against this backdrop of distanciation, ‘Semantic Autonomy’ is inbuilt in the text, i.e., the reader is absent from the act of writing; the writer is absent from the act of reading [death of the author].
Thus freed, the text becomes a ‘projected world’ with a career in time. It has a diachronic life of its own. Hermeneutics focuses on this diachronic life. Literary text is an ‘outward seeker’ looking for readers of all times. It sets out on a diachronic journey in time and space. It is disposed with a quality namely, ‘universality of address’. It is ready for uptake anywhere in the world. For Ricoeur destination of the text is readers’ appropriation - self understanding through dialogue with the text which is a form of the other. Text is a complexified other. Appropriation is making the other myself, that is, ‘Otherness’ into ‘own-ness’. Hermeneutics deals with this appropriation- self understanding through dialogue. It happens across problematic zones of liminality.
If I am a realist reader, I go back to the author’s time and space to capture the authorial meaning. The spatiotemporal gap does not count for a realist. One is a contemporary of all times in realist reading. It is an unproblematic travel according to realist hermeneutics. But Ricoeur says such an unproblematic passage is not possible. For him, a reader in the present understands a text of the past with all the ‘receptions’ it gathered during the gap between past and present.
Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997) spoke of reception history (Rezeptions Geschichte) of a text. “Literature and art only obtain a history that has the character of a process when the succession of works is mediated not only through the producing subject but also through the consuming subject—through the interaction of author and public.” We receive a text with a history and all the meanings it accumulated during the journey through time and space. Ricoeur says, when you read it, you read it with all its history and the diachronic journey it made. The process of reading, for reception theory, is always a dynamic one, a complex movement.
All readers have an age, history, era and situation in an epoch, which is named a horizon. A horizon of expectation (Prejudice for Gadamer: 1900-2002) is what we can see within a horizon. It is within a horizon of expectations that Reception takes place. Time is a continuum of receptions in horizons of expectation.
Text goes through receptions through generations of horizons of expectations. Text has a meaning, excess/more than what it had at its birth, because it travels in time gathering meaning. The excess meaning a text acquires during its diachronic journey across time is called Surplus Meaning.
This means, text does not remain disembodied in a vacuumized zone, available for uniform reading. Text travelling through history is historicized in reception. No text is complete in the past. Meaning is not closed and complete in the past but open in its future. Meaning of a text is the future of the text. It is not a finished fact, but an unfolding fate. It comes to my horizon as a sedimentation of a complex reception history that it incurs during its diachronic journey. The sum total of all these is the meaning of the text.
Ricoeur and Gadamer speak of us being implicated into unfolding meaning in an unconcluded world where last word is not said about anything. Jauss says, “A literary text is not an object that stands by itself and offers the same face to each reader in each period.” Neither writer nor reader has the privilege of a final meaning. Meaning is on an unfolding trajectory in contemporary literary theory. This view is anti-theological and sponsors multiple readings and meanings. It is open to the future. Ricoeur’s surplus meaning is a sign of ever unfolding evolutionary meaning on a journey towards the Omega point in the future.
“The sense of a text is not behind the text, but in front of it,” says Ricoeur. Such an attitude to written text would revolutionize one’s perspective. Wherever tradition or faith has declared a dead end to meaning making and interpretation, there was bloodshed. When meaning is closed, tolerance vanishes. Self righteousness looms in the world, which in turn brings in wars to eliminate the ‘difference’. An open attitude to meaning would ensure cohabitation of ‘difference’ in a colourful, multi faced and peace promoting world.
As we are being pulled into the future, into an ever unfolding, ever complexified world of meaning, there needs to be an air of magnanimity to breath and elixir of tolerance to quench our thirst with. If humanity has to coexist, we need to turn and see that there is truth in our neighbor too. Such an atmosphere of mutual human trust will blossom only when we accept that meaning is not exclusive, but inclusive.
“Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world; the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken; the world is open and free; everything is still in the future and will always be in the future,” says Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). Meaning is not closed in the past, but is open to the future. There is no degradation, but expansion, addition and increase of meaning. Act of reading is never a distortion. Thus irrespective of changing readers, the text unfolds its meaning into a life of ever increasing spectrum of meaning, enriching the horizons of our lives with prosperous texts of ever blooming realizations.