A Case for Intransitive Reading

In my last post (link), I argued that if you want to accurately understand what a text means, you need to acknowledge that it will mean multiple things; I also observed that that “if” was not a given. In this post, I am going to elaborate on that conditional. Now, I have written about it before in my discussion of taking someone to account for their tweets (link) and in my discussion of three kinds of reading (link). To further explain my argument to Jon, this post will mostly be a synthesis and summary of those two, reviewing why exactly a person might want to understand what a text means independent of particular authors and readers.

gc8Ufs

Source: Kennedy Library at flic.kr/p/gc8Ufs

A Review

I have identified and named three kinds of reading; I do not pretend that I am the first to identify these things, but I’m going to use my system because I think it is a good one. I laid these out in “Headcanons, Singer-Songwriters, and J. K. Rowling’s Tweets” on this blog (linked above), in order to update and improve my work in “A Theory of Reading 1.0.” I’ll block-quote these kinds of reading below:

Transitive interpretation attempts to understand something beyond the text object itself, something which the text communicates according to the conditions of its creation: the author’s state of mind, information which the text conveys, and so on. This is, as I said, a vexed process; no absolute understanding of that information is possible through the text (or out of the text, but that’s another story), yet the text is still evidence for better and worse arguments about the author, the text’s topic, and so on.

I stole the transitive-intransitive distinction from Roland Barthes, though it should be noted that Barthes denies that texts are transitive at all.

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Complexity as Accuracy

Jon was talking to me about what he wanted to teach his students in the coming year, and he remembered that, years ago, I had argued that complex readings are preferable to simple ones.1 He asked me why that was; he couldn’t recall the argument, only the claim.

I believe he was referring to the series I wrote about literary criticism, or perhaps just literary interpretation, where I tried to lay out what I took to be the lowest common denominators of most people working in literature departments (link). That series does, by way of its central argument, explain why I prefer a complex reading to a simple one; however, that central argument is spread out over several posts, and my series does not answer this question easily or directly, so for simplicity’s sake I will make the case here.

Rackham_GoblinMarket

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s “The Goblin Market,” a poem often read as containing lesbian subtext.

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