A text cannot speak for itself: it needs a reader as well as a writer. Research work in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics has emphasized the creative activity of the reader. Cognitive psychologists explain the interpretative act of reading in terms of 'schema theory'. The notion of a 'schema' (plural 'schemata' or 'schemas') derives from the work of the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett (1932), who in his classic work, Remembering, defined it as 'an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences.' Bartlett explained memory as a creative process of reconstruction making use of such schemas. According to contemporary schema theory, perception, comprehension, interpretation and memory are mediated by mental schemata - hierarchical structures (or 'frames') for organizing knowledge. Many psychological experiments have shown the importance of our expectations in making sense of new experiences. Schemata embody such expectations. In the case of reading, they provide mental frameworks which help the reader to go, in Jerome Bruner's phrase, 'beyond the information given'. Even the most mundane texts require the reader to go beyond that which is explicitly stated in order to make sense of them, though we are normally unaware of the extent of such interpretation in our everyday reading. Readers draw upon different repertoires of schemata, partly as a result of relatively enduring differences in background (e.g. experience and knowledge) and of relatively transitory differences in viewpoint (e.g. purposes). For experienced readers reading is a continual process of making inferences, evaluating the validity and significance of texts, relating them to prior experience, knowledge and viewpoint, and considering implications. Such psychological accounts do not suggest that a text means whatever a reader wants it to mean, but simply that readers must make active use of schemata to make sense of the text, and that different readers may employ different schemata and may vary in their interpretations. Reading is not passive 'information retrieval' and a text does not have a single, unchanging meaning.
Apart from psychology, another influence on models of meaning-making with text is 'reader-response criticism' in literary theory. In 1980 Stanley Fish wrote an influential book, Is There a Text in This Class? He argued for the fundamental importance of readers' interpretations of texts: a text is not a text without a reader and a context. He stressed meaning-making as a process, not as the 'extraction' of 'content', but he limited the possible range of readers' meanings by stressing the importance of 'interpretative communities'.
Of course, the extent to which the reader is involved in constructing meaning depends partly on the kind of text involved. Some texts are more 'open' than others. For instance, one would usually expect more active interpretation by the reader to be involved with a poem than with a telephone directory. David Olson has argued that in formal scientific and philosophical writing 'the meaning is in the text' rather than in its interpretation (Olson 1977, p. 277), but (whilst some may indeed see this as a goal), textual meanings can never be severed from interpretation. In his widely-acclaimed book S/Z (1970), Roland Barthes referred to two kinds of writing in terms of the extent to which they involve the reader: the 'readerly' (lisible) and the 'writerly' (scriptible). Texts of the readerly kind leave the reader 'with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text' (cited in Hawkes 1977, p. 114): they treat the writer as producer and the reader as submissive consumer and suggest their 'reflection' of 'the real world'. Texts of the writerly kind invite the active participation of the reader, and also, in their attention to linguistic mediation, an involvement in the construction of reality. Ironically, it is readerly texts which tend to be described as 'readable', whilst writerly texts are often referred to as 'unreadable' because they require more effort. In passing, it is worth noting that the extension of Barthes's notion to other media could be productive, involving a consideration of the extent to which engagement with such media might be regarded as userly or makerly.
Returning to readers and texts, the degree of a reader's involvement depends not only on the type of text and on how readerly or writerly it may be, but on how the text is used. Poetry is sometimes 'consulted' for biographical information and telephone directories have occasionally been used as sources of 'found poetry'. At least with experienced readers, how a text is used is almost entirely up to the reader. Certainly, the reader's purposes are at least as important as the author's intentions. Whilst Swift's Gulliver's Travels may have been primarily intended as a satire, this does not stop children enjoying it purely as entertainment. Spectacular examples of bureaucratic prose may lead not to enlightenment as intended by the writer but to hilarity. And most readers of an academic text are likely to use it primarily for their own purposes rather than to establish the author's 'intentions'. Nor are these purposes static: we may return to a text and make quite different meanings with it on each occasion. Where we have left marginal glosses, we may sometimes wonder how we could possibly have been so intrigued by ideas which now seem insignificant. The text you are now reading may itself be interpreted in any number of ways according to its readers' purposes.
(Adapted from my book, The Act of Writing)
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