Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Reader Response Theory: Do Cats Write Poems?

Reader response theory is the idea that a reader is the author of the text. Author might be a weird word to use, but archaeologist seemed like a reaching metaphor. However, thinking of it like a archaeologist for a moment (or paleontologist if you prefer), you could see how the two are similar. When unearthing a monument (or dinosaur bone) you are asking yourself what it could possibly be. A reader's job, according to RR theorists, is to do the same thing to a text. In doing so, the reader is actively involved in the making of textual meaning.

Louise Rosenblatt commented on a group of graduate students who were asked to look at a poem and find out its meaning. What she discovered was that each reader was not a "blank tape registering a ready-made message," (10) but instead was "actively involved in building up a poem for himself out of his response to the text."  The most interesting point Rosenblatt makes is that "[the reader] had not fully read the first line until he had read the last," (10). This implies that the meaning of the poem was not directly evident, but took analysis from the reader. This concurs with the RR theory that believes the peculiarities of a reader are not meaningless. These peculiarities, or idiosyncrasies, are what help a reader define meaning (to play devil's advocate though, idiosyncrasies are unique to each reader, which might cause different interpretations...and are there multiple interpretations? ...But I digress) and thus the poem itself. Lastly, RR theory suggests that the meaning of a text must be found by the reader. If there is something to be found, let the archeologist find it, don't assume it will climb up out of the sand.

And with that I give you Van Gogh's Cat of the Future...or so you would think if I were not to tell you that this masterpiece was done by me.

What inspired the art below is the idea that the reader is involved in the making of textual meaning, and therefore, in a way, the text itself...though not physically.

Here we see a reader, creating the text, and the visualization occurs, where the cat appears, because the reader has determined that the cat is the meaning. This prolific rendering may be too abstract to understand at first glance, but the idea is that the reader is placing the words onto the page. He holds (with his invisible hands) the word "cat" which follows the word "The" and thus creates the first two words, "The cat," which defines the meaning of the final text for the reader, that there is a cat. This is evidenced by the appearance of a cat.

I know, I often out-profound myself.

Though the reader does not know the outcome of the cat, or where it fits into the story, he does know that at some point he will need to have known the existence of the cat. Even though, as Rosenblatt pointed out, the reader will need to know the end before he or she understands the beginning, they still have an active role in defining the beginning until they get to the end. Without some grasp on the beginning itself, there would be nothing to take with you to help you in the end.

Final thoughts:

I like this theory. I don't LOVE it because I want to think of myself as an analytical scholar who deciphers meanings based on ancient texts and understands allegories and archaic allusions. I'm not that person, solely because smart people often (but don't always) droll on and "talk smart" to reach that cathartic nirvana they're always chasing but never quite reaching. 

But I do like it. I like that it lets the reader define a text, not because of how they feel, but because of their ability to understand a premise, idea, or motif. And though I don't believe all or most or even a good percentage of readers are scholars, they must all have the desire to learn and therefore some coherence to ideas and understanding of thought.

  • If I tried hard enough would I wake up and be a Harvard professor with a wicked cool mustache?
  • Do all readers have valid opinions or is there a limit to the interpretation of a text?
  • Why are New Critics such haters?
  • Is RR theory just a secret plot by the Organization of Popular Read Authors Hereinafter (OPRAH) to observe how texts change through time periods?
  • If the 1920s focused on the text, do these ideas recycle and we'll see a resurgence of New Critics?
  • Will they be called New New Critics?
  • Will they think of a more time-sensitive name?
  • Finally, how does reader response match up to canonized analyses?


  1. I AM SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW!!! Emmett, I just knew that once I saw your best work, I would adore it....and I do. This is witty without having the wit distract me from understanding your points. You ask wonderful questions, and push deeply into the ideas of the theory as you create your art. This is a great model of a well-developed and provocative blog post. And it also makes me excited for what you will make of poststructuralism, since I can see the philosophical bent to your thinking. Great work here!

  2. First of all, I really enjoy how you start your post off with the analogy of a reader being like an archaeologist. That comparison never occurred to me, but once you said it, it made perfect sense! Also, yes, I think if you tried hard enough, you could potentially wake up as a Harvard professor with a really cool mustache. Believe in yourself.