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.


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.

Intransitive interpretation attempts to understand the text object itself. The text does have an internal meaning-structure, as I described in A Theory of Reading 1.0, independent of particular authors and readers but dependent on particular languages; intransitive interpretation is the attempt to understand that meaning-structure. It follows the general rules I described before […].

Intransitive interpretation is what I was describing in my last post; it is the attempt to understand the text’s field of possible meaning.

Transformative interpretation attempts to move beyond the text object itself, like transitive interpretation, but it does not look at some originating communication. Instead, transformative interpretation concerns itself with the potential meanings which are unrealized in the text. These are not what I am calling “possible meanings”; in the text as it is, they are not good readings. However, by changing the text in some way—adding to it with fanfiction, making unwarranted interpretative rules as in headcanons, re-writing certain sections, even just changing its linguistic context—the interpreter not only creates their own text object but highlights something about the original text object, pointing out an absence, a thread of meaning that remained undeveloped, an assumption so deep as to be almost invisible.

Transformative interpretation is probably the least familiar to most readers, but it is a common enough activity and should be listed here.

Why Read Intransitively?

It is obvious why people read transitively: transitive interpretation is fundamental to any act of communication. Transitive interpretation is in some sense the default position of interpretation. So why attempt the other kinds of reading? In particular, why read intransitively? As always, this argument relies on a person’s pre-existing values: if you do not share the values I am starting with, my argument will mean nothing to you. But I think an intransitive reading pertains to certain things many people find themselves attempting to do.

First, there is curiosity, or the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. If I wish to understand, in a scholarly sense, something about literature or a subset of literature, an intransitive reading is probably going to be part of that. (Of course if my interest is in reception history, I might have no interest in an intransitive reading, but at least in most cases intransitive readings are used to support other kinds of arguments.) In such cases accuracy matters, and a person with these concerns would be bound by what I discussed in my last post.

Of course not everyone wishes to understand literature for its own sake; why might they care? In that case, a person might still want to recommend a book to a friend. If I enjoyed a book, I might want to share that experience with others who I think might enjoy the book. Unfortunately, I cannot share with that person my personal experience of reading the book; what I am recommending to my friend is the text object itself. Therefore it might behoove me to assess that text object, rather than just my experience of it. Such an assessment, if it is to be any use at all, will have to be intransitive: what does the actual text mean? That is the only thing I can give to my friend. (Of course, as the image I chose for this post implies, people might recommend books for reasons wholly indifferent to their contents, but I assume this is unusual.)

There are other normative stances a person can take to text beyond recommending it: a person could condemn a text, or recommend it with particular caveats, or try to edit it, or censor it, or make it mandatory reading (perhaps as an example of good writing, or an example of bad writing). In all of these cases, that person cannot actually share their experience of reading the text; they are sharing (or forbidding, etc.) the text itself. The text is the only thing any two people have in common. Of course, a person can describe their experience of the text, and “share” it in that sense, but that doesn’t prevent anyone else from experiencing it differently.

This gets a little funny when it comes to condemning or lauding someone for writing a particular text. In that case, many different things seem to matter: to the extent intent matters in any other kind of judgement, so authorial intent matters when judging an author for their writing. However, authorial intent cannot be all that matters, because the book they actually wrote might differ from what they intended to write or what they believed they had written. The only way to assess the book which the author actually wrote, and for which they are responsible, is to read intransitively.

In a culture like ours, where people often recommend, condemn, or otherwise make normative claims about books, and in which some of those claims have real consequences, an intransitive reading is indispensable–at least, it is indispensable if you wish for your normative claims to reflect and respond to reality. I hope that is true of most of us.

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