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Bodyreading


by Madeleine R. Grumet - 1985

Curriculum not only brings purpose to the reading process by providing a ground for intentionality, it also provides another stage where the possible worlds that the text points to can be identified and experienced as good places for grazing.


What does it mean to be a bodyreader? The term is drawn from Merleau-Ponty’s term the body subject.1 He used that phrase to rescue thought from its exile to the vast, inaccessible reaches of idealism. Despite the great complexity of his analyses, to read his work is to feel oneself come home, to gather up our politics, our psychology, our history, our literature, and our science, and to carry them like this week’s groceries over the snowbank that blocks the driveway, up the stairs through the storm door and into the house. To the place where we live.


To bring what we know to where we live has always been the particular project of curriculum, and we can name the converse, to bring how we live to what we know as the project of curriculum inquiry. Our current concern about the distance between what we know and how we live is mirrored in our fear that our children do not read. It is a serious concern. It is the fear that what we know, the symbolic inscription of our collective experience in the world, moves away from them like an ice floe and leaves them stranded, separated from the past, and, we fear, from the future as well. We have seen the impulses to grasp that which seems to be escaping us expressed in the reactionary back-to-basics drills, and in the school reports that encourage us to extend, tighten, and enforce all sorts of requirements. I think that the new concerns about reading acknowledge, at least tacitly, the many ways in which reading is contingent, tangled up with the world from which texts and readers come. The act of reading requires what Ricoeur calls both sense and reference, both what we know and how we live.2 The sense is the what of the text. The reference is what it is about. Ricoeur establishes these categories to undermine idealism, that confusion which Sartre describes as taking the word for the world. In Interpretation Theory Ricoeur maintains that “language is not a world of its own. It is not even a world. But because we are in the world, because we are affected by situations, and because we orient ourselves comprehensively in those situations, we have something to say, we have experience to bring to language.“3


Ricoeur’s work is drawn from an enterprise that we call hermeneutics. This word, which refers to the various methods that we employ to draw meaning from texts, comes from the name of the messenger of the Greek gods, Hermes. Both in literature and in cult, Hermes was identified as a protector of cattle and sheep, a point that may not seem immediately significant but that is, as I shall try to demonstrate, essential to this argument. Representations of Hermes show him either in flight, hence his winged feet, or in a more pastoral moment, carrying a shepherd’s staff, a sheep slung over his shoulder. Whereas hermeneutics was originally grounded in philology, as interpreters of the Bible endeavored to justify their interpretations of text through recourse to historical and comparative linguistics, contemporary hermeneutics provides what Suleiman calls “the self-conscious moment of all criticism, when criticism turns to reflect on its own intentions, assumptions, and positions.“4 I have created the persona of the bodyreader to bring to reading what Merleau-Ponty’s figure of the body subject brings to epistemology, the sense that reading is an act that is oriented toward what the subject can do in the world. Bodyreading is strung between the poles of our actual situation, crowded as it is with our own intentions, assumptions, and positions, and the possibilities that texts point to. Contemporary feminist theories of the text and programs of literary criticism such as poststructuralism or deconstruction have also pitted themselves against the idealism that imputes a meaning to the word, the sentence, the text, that is distinct from the actual and possible world of their readers. Their analyses reveal the ways that reading throbs with the conflicts that shape our mortal condition: the dialectics of birth and death, of private and public meaning, of gender, of class. Reading instruction in the public schools is not exempt from these concerns. These are human concerns, and reading is a most human activity. It would be a gesture of shallow arrogance to suggest that we can resolve these issues. What I hope to suggest are ways of working with teachers and students that honor them, ways that permit the sorrow and celebration that Yeats seeks in the poetry of the mortal condition: “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing, for every tatter in its mortal dress.“5


Decentered, lost in thought, locked into the courtesies and protocols of our very formal operations, we forget that the symbolic systems of language, number, art, and culture are part of our lived worlds. Even though Saussure has convinced us that language is not the echo of nature,6 we need not think that the arbitrary character of the signifier is proof that we live locked into a linguistic fiction. Merleau-Ponty maintains that “words, vowels and phonemes are so many ways of ‘singing’ the world, and that their function is to represent things not, as the naive onomatopoeic theory had it, by reason of an objective resemblance, but because they extract, and literally express, their emotional essence.“7 I have argued that curriculum, like language, is a moving form; conceived as an aspiration, the object and hope of our intentionality, it comes to form and slips, at the moment of its actualization, into the ground of our action. It becomes part of our situation.8 And of course it is this fluidity that Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty are trying to recover for language. It is more difficult to grasp the protean nature of the word once it has become the text. “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.“9 I will not take time now to recount the history that has bonded text to class and caste, made it the emblem of authority, the sign of immortality and a rebuke to the lively imagination. Literacy has traveled a long and winding path from reading entrails to answering multiple choice reading comprehension questions on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, although on second thought both enterprises may be seen as attempts to control the future by making the correct interpretation. One wonders whether the priest ever looked up and muttered “none of the above.”


I recognize that there is certain sadness that clings to the notion of bodyreading. The very need to present it seems to come from a sense that it expresses a continuity and an integration that we have lost-that it describes a place where we once were, a way of being that we can only remember. Psychoanalytic theories of language reinforce this sense as they establish desire as the precondition of symbol formation. They predicate the presence of the word on the absence of pleasure. To think, to speak, to read, to write, is to celebrate the presence of an absence. It follows then that all our assertions become suspect, like television commercials that push the very features that their products lack. Perhaps I do produce the bodyreader to recover what is lost. The bodyreader denies our terror of being lost in the world. It denies the sad intuition that the world as we have named it and now manipulate it is no longer a world that will sustain our bodies or those of our children. It repeats that tendency to impute to the past the ideal we wish for the future. Our lives are full of such histories- Marx’s species community, Freud’s infantile symbiosis. Perhaps a bodyreader is such a fantasy and Lacan is right when he suggests that the word is a sign of our alienation, that language is the expression of desire that is predicated on loss.10


But this melancholy sense of language sings our sadness, and it is our responsibility as educators not to be caught in an understanding of symbol systems that reduces them to elegies for lost worlds. Language can lead us somewhere else, to the place where we live, to the world, and to the world as it might be, and bodyreading need not be seen as a nostalgic fantasy, but as a practical necessity, the exploration of a world where we can live. When we consult the etymology of the word read, we find that read is lodged in the very guts of the word ruminate, which means to think things over. Nevertheless, ruminate is not associated with a group of animals noted for their erudition. Ruminants are cattle, also sheep (enter Hermes), goats, antelope, giraffe, and deer. “The skeletal and muscular systems of the ruminant together form a perfectly constructed running mechanism; their digestive system is also elaborately planned so that they may hastily snatch a meal in some favorable grazing ground and store the food temporarily in a special compartment of the stomach until they have found a refuge where they can masticate and digest it at leisure.“11


The ruminant does not give up the world in order to think about it. On the hoof it stores the world that it consumes in multiple stomachs until it has found a place of safety to bring back what has been swallowed in haste for a good chew. Actually the ruminant’s stomach has four compartments and it is the very last compartment, that has gastric glands in its walls for secretion of digestive juices. It is this fourth stomach that is called the read. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers us a citation from 1450 where the reid is not only associated with the stomach of a cow but is used to signify the stomach of a human as well: 1450 Holland Howla, “He cry’d ‘Allace . . . revyn is my reid. I am ungraciously gorrit, halthe guttis and gall.’ ” Some of us have had a similar response to what we take as being misread. The OED also tells us that “the original senses of the Teutonic verb [reden] are those of taking or giving counsel, taking care or charge of a thing, having or exercising control over something else.” (Can we then assume that the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes were more interested in comprehension strategies than in decoding?) “The sense of considering or explaining something obscure or mysterious is also common to various languages,” the OED tells us, and it is this sense of mystery that I hope to recover for our work with children and texts when I maintain that we have not lost our stomach for reading.12


The anatomy of mystery that lodges explanation in the stomach of the cow suggests that reading was and may still be a ritual of divination, for ritual, in the words of Meyer Fortes, prehends the occult and makes it patent.13 It seeks what is hidden, internal, unseen in our experience. The reader pores over the text, like the priest reading the entrails, seeking signs of how to live. Nevertheless, unlike our ancient predecessors, we are plagued by our intolerance for ambiguity. Embarrassed that we cannot make the task clear and simple, we misrepresent it to children, suggesting that meaning is hidden in the folds of the topic sentence or the story structure. That is the positivism that characterizes most of the language arts curriculum as well as reading in the content areas. Its simplistic certainties are balanced by the solipsism of what we call recreational reading where we surrender to prose, cherishing reading experiences that envelop us in fantasies that confirm our individuality, drawn from unrealized selves that no one else could ever know. This tendency to locate meaning either in the words, sentences, structures of texts, or in the secret thoughts of the reader tells us that both community and curriculum are defunct, an impression that has been confirmed in the narratives of educational experiences written by students who have studied philosophy of education with me. Some of those students are practicing teachers, some teachers in training. Rarely are experiences related to reading as part of the school curriculum presented as educational.


When reading presents itself under the category of educational experience, it is usually presented as a process that creates privacy, substituting self-satisfaction for a relation that originally required another, usually a mother.


Even before I can consciously remember, I know that I was read to every night of my early childhood. I loved to be read to. At ages three and four, my brother and I would each pick out a book for my mother to read to us. John always picked ‘Boy’ books such as the Little Tug Boat and the Little Engine that Could. I picked fairy tales and Peter Pan, and Winnie the Pooh. We would both get ready for bed and go into John’s room and listen to his story, which I always loved almost as much as my own. Then, although he is two years older than I, he would go to sleep and my mother would read my story in my room. . . . I loved the stories so much that I would memorize them and tell/read them to the amazed cleaning lady the next morning turning the pages at the appropriate times.


Finally I was old enough to go [to] the first grade. I knew the alphabet already and soon I learned all kinds of amazing things about vowels and consonant blends. Then it seemed one day that I just suddenly knew how to read.14 It was the most incredible gift. I could do for myself the thing my mother had always had to do for me. I remember reading ahead in my first Dick and Jane reader, amazed at my own ability to find out what would happen next. I read an entire book before dinner that I received on Christmas morning. I read almost all the books in my age section of the children’s room at the library. I had the most construction paper balloons on the wall for summer reading books.


The novelty of reading has worn off to a certain extent. However, I still find myself engrossed in novel after novel, upset and dazed when I am forced back into the real world outside my book. I still read every night before I go to bed, it is force of habit I guess.15


The narratives evoke reading as a form of comfort and safety, reading in bed, surrounded by pillows and quilts, reading surreptitiously by the light of the flashlight, giving oneself to the text as one dare not surrender oneself to the world. Rarely do the readers in these tales offer an account of their reading experience to anyone else. It is a private pleasure. “We read,” Stanley Elkin says “to die, . . . it has something to do with being alone, shutting the world out, doing books like beads, a mantra, the flu. Some perfect, hermetic concentration sealed as canned goods or pharmaceuticals. . . . Not so much a way of forgetting ourselves as of engaging the totality of our attentions, as racing car drivers or mountain climbers engage them, as surgeons and chess masters do.“16 It is rare to find a reading narrative that presents this kind of negotiation:


Later in France. A summer day. I remember a sleeveless dress. The poster was big with red, black and white colors. It showed two hands holding each other tightly, and the caption read as follows: “Workers, unite against poverty for freedom and justice!” Very impressed, I stood in front of it. With all the wisdom of my eight years I thought it was great. I did not really know why, I just liked it. My aunt, by that time, had caught up with me. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked her, still contemplating the poster. “What?” “The poster,” I answered, wondering how she could have missed it. She grabbed my hand, pulled me away and told me with a harsh voice, “Never, do you understand, never read posters like this one. They tell lies. They are bad. They are communist.“17


Often, when schooling is the location of the reading narrative, meaning falls into one of the two forms presented in these stories. It is either an individual’s fantasy, sensual, ideal, offering visions of power and control to the reader that are uncontested, or meaning is imposed, negating the reader’s interpretation of the text and substituting a rebuke for negotiation. In With Respect to Readers Slatoff decries this dualism:


Most aestheticians and critics . . . speak as though there were only two sorts of readers: the absolutely particular individual human being with all his prejudices, idiosyncrasies, personal history, knowledge, needs and anxieties, who experiences the work of art in solely “personal” terms, and the ideal or universal reader whose response is impersonal and aesthetic. Most actual readers except for the most naive, I think, transform themselves as they read into beings somewhere between these extremes. They learn, that is, to set aside many of the particular conditions, concerns and idiosyncrasies which help to define them in every day affairs.18


It is this process of gauging the context for meaning that helps us to constitute understandings that make us members of what Fish calls interpretive communities.19 Discriminating the idiosyncratic from the general is delicate business. It is the basis of the prediction that Frank Smith defines as the prior elimination of unlikely alternatives.20 But what reading is about, very much like writing, is bridging the gap between private and public worlds. Its purpose is not to reduce mystery to what is obvious, patent, nor to confirm solipsism, but to provide a passage between the images, impulses, and glimpses of meaning that constitute being in the world and our encoded representations of that world. If we were to transpose the terms of hermeneutics into ego psychology, translating what we consider to be idiosyncratic on one hand, and general on the other, into the terms internal and external nonego, respectively, we would have to acknowledge that like ego identity, meaning is the provisional achievement of a dynamic and somewhat risky process. If reading is a passage between the public and the private worlds, the journey is fraught with danger. To give oneself up to the text is to relinquish the world in order to have the world, it is a birth and a death. And so it should not surprise us to find a child wary of reading, reluctant to follow that line across the page without knowing where it leads. Permit me to read to you. I promise that we will not go too far, just far enough to share Galway Kinnell’s childhood discoveries of the mysteries of birth and death and culture. Once again, it is a ruminant that leads us into the light as well as the darkness:


Freedom, New Hampshire

by Galway Kinnell


We came to visit the cow

Dying of fever,

Towle said it was already

Shoveled under, in a secret

Burial place in the woods

Weeks. we never


Found where. Other

Children other summers

Must have found the place

And asked, Why is it

Green here? The rich

Guess a grave, maybe,

The poor think a pit


For dung, like the one

We shoveled in in the fall

That came up green

The next year, and that,

For all that shows, may as well

Have been the grave

Of a cow or something.


We found a cowskull once; we thought it was

From one of the asses in the Bible, for the sun

Shone into the holes through which it had seen

Earth as an endless belt carrying gravel, had heard

Its truculence cursed, had learned how sweat

Stinks, and had brayed—shone into the holes

With solemn and majestic light, as if some

Skull somewhere could be Baalbek or the Parthenon.


That night passing Towle’s Barn

We saw lights. Towle had lassoed a calf

By its hind legs, and he tugged against the grip

Of the darkness. The cow stood by chewing millet.

Derry and I took hold, too, and hauled

It was sopping with darkness when it came free.

It was a bullcalf. The cow mopped it awhile,

And we walked around it with a lantern


And it was sunburned, somehow, and beautiful.

It took a dug as the first business

And sneezed and drank at the milk of light.

When we got it balanced on its legs, it went wobbling

Toward the night. Walking home in darkness

We saw the July moon looking on Freedom, New

Hampshire,

We smelled the fall in the air, it was the summer,

We thought, Oh this is but the summer!21


Well, I think this is a poem about reading. And if the first few pages of this article succeeded, schema theory maintains that you now share the assumptions, associations, vocabulary, and expectations that confirm this interpretation.22 Together we appropriate this text with impunity; we use it to make sense of the work we have to do. As the poem continues, it becomes clear that what concerns the poet is not the way that the corpse of the cow, nor its sun-drenched, time-filled skull, nor its damp, milky calf encode birth, death, and the passage of time called civilization. What concerns the poet is the death of his brother, Derry, who along with the speaker constitutes the we of the tale, the we who search for the buried cow, the we who find the cow skull, the we who see the Parthenon in it, the we who attend the birth of the calf. And Derry is not a mere witness of these moments, for the world and its symbols evolve within human relationships. It is Derry’s presence that makes such a reading possible. Every text, every symbol, every word, is a passage between one consciousness and another. In almost every story of reading that my students tell, someone else is there in some way to witness the symbolic act, to receive or repudiate the reader’s interpretation. Even when reading is a refuge from society, from friends, from parents, they are there, hovering on the other side of the door. Just as the capacity to have a world is mediated by other people for the body subject, the capacity to read a world is mediated by other people for the bodyreader.


Now it becomes clear to us why the “great debate” about reading instruction in the primary grades has been waged with such passion ever since Icklesamer published a primer in 1527 in Germany entitled The Shortest Way to Reading that proposed introducing children to speech sounds associated with well-known words before teaching them letters as the basic unit of instruction.23 The issue about whether phonics or sight words provide the best foundation for beginning readers is now generally conceded to be a nonissue as it is now recognized that the complexity and richness of the reading process is hospitable to multiple instructional approaches. What is interesting to note at this point is that in this controversy we find not only a history of ideas about cognition, but a history of the human relationships that each form and unit of instruction implied. The feminist challenge to the status of the text and of language as a bulwark of patriarchal privilege has led us once again to look at the human relationships within which symbolic competence develops.


The debate over whether to privilege sight or sound in reading instruction becomes pertinent to our understandings of the epistemologies and cognitive styles associated with male and female gender identities. Despite the drill sequences and the repetitious and highly organized character of phonics, the mimesis and recitation of sounds that it requires is reminiscent of the echolalia that constitutes the babble of infants and early speech. This is the preoedipal discourse of mother and child, highly inflected, immediately echoed- the original language, the mother tongue, sounds that communicate intimacy without denotative meaning. A differential response to a mother’s voice precedes the specific response to her face, a response that does not develop until later. Identification with mother is the original subject and object relation for both male and female babies, who are born into a nurturant field in which both are initially matrisexual.


Chodorow argues that the processes of gender identification that male and female children experience involve different responses to this early preoedipal relation, to what is simultaneously the other, mother, the world.24 Girls, permitted to sustain the original identifications with their mothers, need not repress sound and touch as significant ways of being attached to the world. For males, on the other hand, gender identity requires a repudiation of preoedipal experience. To be male is to be, in effect, not mother, and that early identification as well as the sensual modalities that dominated it are repressed so that an identification with a father whose presence and relation depend more on sight than on sound or touch can be achieved. Linguistic competence and literacy are the achievement of the older child, whose object relations have enlarged to include its father in what Chodorow calls the relational triangle. In ‘Upright Man,” Erwin Straus argues that it is the upright posture that gives sight its epistemological primacy in human thought.25 Surrendering the detail, the intimacy and texture that touch and sound provide, sight provides us with a view and privileges the structural relations of abstract and rational thought. These speculations drawn from object relations theory and phenomenology suggest that coming to know the world may differ for boys and girls, orienting them to epistemologies at particular stages of their development that are gender specific. Such theories are less useful in predicting who will read well when than they are in reminding us that symbolic competence is generated within intense human relationships, and that our understanding of the relation of gender to language acquisition cannot be limited to sexual stereotypes and the sexual politics of the classroom but must also address the evolution of language in the mediation of desire and the constitution of the ego.


Touch and the voice are the sensual passages between parent and child. Because these modes of contact are associated with the intimacy of familial or erotic relations, they are barred from the classroom, where sensuality in any form is anathema.26 Even if early reading instruction maintains the singsong chant of children’s voices, that maternal modality soon gives way to silence. Recitation is replaced by workbooks, and the look dominates the classroom. Now it does sound as if I am taking the phonics side in this dispute as I invoke echolalia and the maternal voice as the foundation of linguistic competence. And I want to make it clear that I am quite convinced that Frank Smith is right when he maintains that phonics works only when you have a rough idea of what the word is that you are trying to read and some sense about how it sounds when you say it.27 Smith has some difficulty accounting for the success of phonics given his conviction that it is merely epiphenomenal to the process that attaches meaning to print and that its complexity and artifice estrange those children whom we later call dyslexic from texts. What Smith needs to acknowledge is the ceremony that surrounds phonics. The physical activity is stimulating. The turn to phonics in many systems has been accompanied by the move to decrease the teacher/pupil ratio by hiring aides to work with children.


In Divinity and Experience, Godfrey Lienhardt observes that the rituals of the Dinka require that all ceremonial utterances of the priest be repeated by everyone in attendance at the ritual.28 Prayers and incantations have no efficacy if muttered in private. Performative utterances rely on social confirmation to be compelling. (And that is probably why I run around telling everyone I know that I am starting a new diet when I decide to try to start a new diet.) And so, if as Merleau-Ponty maintains, speech sings the world, phonics provides a choral grasp of meaning that brings a social and emotional resonance to the meaning of texts.


Now I acknowledge that a goal in the development of reading skill is to release us from the physical marking and iteration of sound. And even Julia Kristeva, who invokes the sensuality and intimacy of echolalia to assert the epistemological claims of the first language, the mother tongue, warns feminists not to sink into its rhythms and secrets, not to forsake the public and political sign for the private, familial sound.29 Like the ruminants, we must learn to swallow print without chewing it. The problem is that when we stop to think it over, we lose our sense of where the thought came from, and confusing the contents of long-term memory with memory itself, we fall into insidious idealism. If cattle treated grass the way we treat text, they would soon starve to death, thinking that they are the producers of their own cud. The problem is that in the silence of the secondary classroom, too often, nothing is happening, no grazing, no galloping, no chewing, no mooing, no nothing. Even babble is preferable to that kind of silence.


The bodyreader who is still alive and well in many elementary classrooms where language experience, directed reading-thinking activities, and phonics provide a rich and varied sensory and interpersonal ground for learning soon gives way to the reader who discriminates the private self from the public text. Meaning is either in here or out there. When it is in here it is identified with feeling, sensuality, and imagination that cannot be communicated and cannot be negotiated into any statement that deserves or attains the status of knowledge. When it is out there, it belongs to the text and to the teacher and understanding means that the reader stands under the text, under the gaze of the teacher, and learns to anticipate and repeat the interpretation that is an index of comprehension.


The world, Merleau-Ponty has told us, is the answer to the body’s question. What we discover is what we can look for. “One’s own body is the third term, always tacitly understood, in the figure-background structure, and every figure stands out against the double horizon of external and bodily space.“30 The body that makes it possible for us to have a world does not assemble a motley group of objects around it that it crowns with the title of objectivity. The world we have is the world that rises to meet our intentionality; it coheres around our needs, wishes, possibilities, real and imagined. The coherence of the text, like that of the world, is the possible and actual ground of our action. Meaning is something we make out of what we find when we look at texts. It is not in the text. Now this is hardly news, but I am sorry to tell you that the myth of the meaningful text still flourishes in the secondary classroom. Abandoned by cognitive theories, by epistemology, by aesthetic and literary theory, the secondary school curriculum stands alone, proclaiming the authority of the text. Using single textbooks, sometimes supplemented with library readings or handouts, the students are sent to read unburdened by motives, interests, questions, tasks, rationales, or expectations. If there is such a thing as a pure read, the textbooks of the secondary curriculum get it. All the baggage that I have just listed appears after the fact, when it appears at all, usually in some evaluation format.


We can see an example of this approach in Harold Herber’s text Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, a book that is widely used by reading specialists. Herber identifies three levels of comprehension: the literal, the interpretive, and the applied. Herber presents these levels as a sequence:


. . . first, the reader examines the words of the author and determines what is being said, what information is being presented. Second, the reader looks for relationships among statements within the materials, and from these intrinsic relationships derives various meanings. . . . Third the reader takes the product of the literal—what the author has said—and the interpretive—what the author meant by what he said—and applies it to other knowledge that she already possesses, thereby deepening the understanding.31


The absurdity of this sequence would only be matched if I took out flour, sugar and butter, milk, eggs, vanilla, cardamon, and baking powder, mixed them all in a bowl, observed the blend, noting its texture and flavor, applied this information to my previous experience, and hypothesized that I might be making either a cake, a pudding, an omelette or a quiche, a blintz, a crepe, or a pancake. As Frank Smith has noted, only in schools are we so stupid. Only in schools does the text become a spectacle, and do we, the dazed spectators, eyes glazed, sit in mute reception, waiting for something to appear. No, television has not ruined reading. Reading in school has trained us for television.


Let me stop this tirade, or at least turn its energy to something more useful. First, we must ask how the very women and men who bake cakes, drive cars, and maybe even write poetry come to banish intentionality from human action when they teach children to read. That question takes two forms in the work that I have done and would like to do. It leads us to the history of reading in the culture of schooling and to an understanding of the status of the text as a guarantor of patriarchy.32


Because schooling is a complex, ceremonial, and ritual form, it is important to study the status of texts in the exchange systems, totem systems of the classroom. For we have displaced school bodies with school texts. I do not ask my students, “Do you understand me?” Instead I ask them to understand my reading of the text. We pass texts between us. We touch the text instead of each other and make our marks on it, rather than each other. The text is material, it has texture, it is woven, we pull and tug at it, it winds around us, we are tangled up in it.


We need to work with teachers to investigate our understandings and experience of reading. Writing projects have shown us that the process of composition is very different from the ways that it has been conceived and taught in the school curriculum. Writing does not record preaccomplished thought; the act of writing constitutes thought. The Bay Area Writing Project and its spinoffs in the National Writing Project33 are projects aimed at engaging teachers in writing so that together they may participate in the activities that bring thought to expression and name those processes. Reading seminars for teachers drawn from various disciplines may provide us with the opportunity to reclaim reading as intentional activity. It is no accident that the analysis of writing comes to mind when we think about reading. Attention to the moments of composition have revealed the contingencies, elisions, contradictions, and explosions that constitute the text.


Think of the repugnance one often feels for a text that is recently completed. There, clinging to all the lines, are shreds of the ideas that never quite made it to expression, fragments of the negative example, the other possibility, that the sentence, the chapter, the ideology, the deadline, the habit, the defense mechanism, just could not admit. Only time and forgetfulness smooth these rough edges so that we no longer remember what has been left behind, and then the text that has seemed so partial, merely provisional, prevarication, becomes THE TEXT, clear, complete, necessary, and sufficient. Some of the reader-response research done in Indiana by David Bleich and Eugene Kintgen confirms my own impressions from engaging students in that process we call “close reading” of texts.34 We see that both writing and reading require what Kris35 has named regression in the service of the ego. The interpretation of theoretical texts and dense prose often calls on students to draw from their own store of associations, and very free ones at that, in order to construct the world that the word can live in.


The clarity and apparent independence of the complete text are illusions that contemporary literary criticism has assailed. It does seem unfair and unkind to keep children playing in the shadow of the authority of the text, while the grown-ups dismantle it and revel in the newfound light. Whereas structuralists had seen the oppositions in a text as functioning to maintain its shape and integrity, deconstructionists celebrate the discovery of contradictions that undermine the authority of the text. They study the sense of the text to discover its multiple and conflicting references. Here is Eagleton’s portrayal of the “writable” text, a text filled with what Barthes has called double signs, signs that reveal that they are merely provisional, material, historical signifiers that can barely contain the meanings that leak from their seams, boil over their rims, cascade over their banks into a new channel.


The “writable” text, usually a modernist one, has no determinate meaning, no settled signifieds, but is plural and diffuse, an inexhaustible tissue or galaxy of signifiers, a seamless weave of codes and fragments of codes, through which the critic may cut his own errant path. There are no beginnings and no ends, no sequences which cannot be reversed, no hierarchy of textual “levels” to tell you what is more or less significant. All literary texts are woven out of other texts, not in the conventional sense that they bear the traces of “influence” but in the more radical sense that every word, phrase or segment is a reworking of other writings which precede or surround the individual work. There is no such thing as the “first” literary work: all literature is intertextual. A specific piece of writing thus has no clearly defined boundaries: it spills over constantly into the works clustered around it, generating a hundred different perspectives which dwindle to vanishing point. The work cannot be sprung shut, rendered determinate, by an appeal to the author, for the “death of the author” is a slogan that modern criticism is now confidently able to proclaim.36


Well, Hallelujah. Ding dong the witch is dead, dissolved in the spillage of those liquid texts. Barthes’s playfulness, his nihilism, may be the most extreme, antic spirit to undo the text. Because most of us are more didactic than he, we cannot quite accept the telos of a vanishing point and rush to grab hold of meaning before it disappears around the bend of signification. (Our experience also suggests that vanishing points provide a teleology that has a poor track record with most school boards.) Nevertheless, his assassination of the text is a coup d’etat that can return the text to teachers and students, once again material, maleable, to be fashioned by them into what it is they need. Intertextuality invites us to use multiple texts, splicing them, interweaving them with each other, with our commentaries, with our questions. This is the promise of word processing, not some video version of the questions at the end of the chapter, but the presentation of text that can disappear at the touch of the delete button. There are no sacred texts. Let the cursor unravel the binding of the text as readers erase what they do not believe, or add whatever it is that the author left out. Why not invite them to weave their questions, responses, and arguments into the texts themselves, and so acknowledge the wisdom of graffiti?


The deconstructionist approach of Derrida is less jocular. He works, as Eagleton says, to embarrass the text, to show where the text, in spite of itself, slips up, says what it does not mean, means what it does not say. The work is more serious, and more abstruse. Supported by the theory of Lacan and the critiques of the French feminists, deconstructionism exposes meaning as an alias, a false identity constructed to disguise the plurality of meanings that is the text. But this openness to meaning does not collapse into an absence of meaning. It allows meaning to be provisional, lively, fluttering. It allows interpretation to be an act that transforms the text, and the world and the interpreters as well. Barthes has returned the pleasure of reading to us, its sensuality, its power. Over and over again he shows us how the passages that lead us into and out of texts are also forms of intentionality that we bring to the world around us:


To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work. Likewise for the text, it produces in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand.37


Barthes’s own texts show us that the glimpses of our world that our reading of another world provides need not slip from consciousness because they are not in themselves complete or elaborate literary forms. His texts about reading resymbolize his experience, gathering up not only the sense and reference of the text, but the sense and reference of his own intentionality as well, and winding it into a new spool.


Less outrageous than Barthes, less destructive than Derrida, are the reader-response theorists. Those who have been very much influenced by Piaget’s epistemology contend that meaning does not reside in the text, nor in the schemes of the reader, but that it symbolizes the reader’s experience of the text. While these theorists offer us some information about the processes of individual readers, reader-response founders in the classroom where even Stanley Fish, who has placed meaning in the response of the reader to the text, falters and accedes to interpretive communities who can, according to their own consensual light, privilege some interpretations as being better than others. Holland’s identity themes provide a psychoanalytic frame for reader responses that portrays them as unconscious ego adaptations revealing readers’ identity themes, thus conflating the reality principal with the text. Bleich solicits the writing of response statements, documents that record readers’ associations and interpretations. He does not reduce these documents to case histories or diagnoses, but he does have difficulty when he talks about the contribution of response statements to the negotiation of meaning. It is not clear what is being negotiated and what the protocol for that negotiation is.38


It is an easy task to find the flaws in each of the reader-response schemes for the identification of meaning. Each of these critics has been kind enough to attack the rationales and claims of the others.39 Their disputes reveal that despite these theorists’ apparent readiness to return meaning to readers, those meanings and the ways they are articulated and negotiated are still claimed as the property of the critics. Sensing each others’ attachment to this capital, they accuse each other of being Indian givers, and delight in finding the deeds that ensure that the property will revert to its original owner, the critic, of course, hidden under the mattress of every reader-response theory. But their property squabbles need not undermine our sense that the text is a new territory for our explorations with students. And their work is very important to us because it acknowledges the classroom as an interpretive community and makes its protocols and curriculum absolutely essential to this process we call reading.


If we can just wrest meaning from the grip of knowledge and return it to art, we will be able to given students something to do with texts. Activity-based curricula that are bonded to social, political, and physical action cannot contain the possibilities of meaning. The world is too unwieldy, the classroom too constricting. Exhausted, confusing the reference of the text with tomorrow, those teachers who have sensed the glory of engagement too often are disappointed and retreat to the cynical postures of critical thinking-adversarial, analytic attacks on meaning, where students are endlessly playing the seconds in their teacher/critics’ duels.


Because art forms express knowledge about feeling they provide a bridge between public and private readings. Because aesthetic activity requires the making of things, comprehension is made palpable and accessible to the perception and response of other readers. Every time a text is drawn into performance, it is the reading of the text, and never the text itself, that is performed. We need to cultivate the irreverence of theater director Jerzy Grotowski if we are to recover the mystery that our ancestors associated with reading:


For both actor and producer the author’s text is a sort of scalpel, enabling us to open ourselves, to transcend ourselves, to find what is hidden in us all. In the theater, if you like, the text has the same function as the myth had for the poet of ancient times. The author of Prometheus found in the Prometheus myth both an act of defiance and a springboard, perhaps even the source of his own creation. . . . For me, a creator of theater, the important thing is not the words but what we do with these words, what gives life to the inanimate words of the text, what transforms them into The Word.40


Meaning is continually deferred. Like Io, ranging over the earth, pursued by the gadfly of Hera, meaning never rests in The Word, but in our ceaseless rumination and resymbolizations. Ricoeur is clear that the reference of the text, what the text is about, can never be identified as either the author’s or the reader’s situation. “The sense of the text is not behind the text, but in front of it. It is not something hidden, but something disclosed. What has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse, but what points to a possible world.“41


Theater is the enactment of possible worlds. It places action in time and space. Literally, the action takes place. Something happens, and what theater displays is the comprehension of the bodyreader. Performance simultaneously confirms and undermines the text. The body of the actor, like the body of the text, stumbles into ambiguity, insinuating more than words can say with gesture, movement, intonation. Mimesis tumbles into transformation and meaning, taken from the text, rescued from the underworld of negotiation, becomes the very ground of action.


Suzanne Langer sees this as the function of theater. Neither show biz nor ritual, theater’s function is “to delimit the world where virtual action takes place.“42 And this, I suggest to you, is what curriculum can bring to reading. It not only brings purpose to the reading process by providing a ground for intentionality, it also provides another stage where the possible worlds that the text points to can be identified and experienced as good places for grazing.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 2, 1985, p. 175-193
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 656, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:55:20 PM

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