An anti-abstract: I’m not going to use this post to talk about people who deliberately misinterpret Barthes in order to give a psychological assessment to long-dead authors and put words into the mouths of living ones, Tumblr. That would be pointless, and it wouldn’t be fun.
An abstract: I’m going to talk about what I think reading, or indeed watching, or any form of apparently one-sided, supposedly non-interactive communicative art is.
What is reading?
What a bizarre question. What happens when you read something?
Well, your brain makes an attempt to decode the verbal and visual encoding of non-verbal ideas and emotions encoded by someone else’s brain into that medium in an attempt to communicate those ideas to another person, like so:
(Image originates here)
That little overlap in the middle is to do with shared cultural references, experiences in common (whether culturally expected, like Western children being expected to have some experience of “Christmas”, or universal human experiences, like having a poo), common observations, and of course shared language, whether that language is verbal (I am talking to you in English because my attempts to learn any other languages so far have led to hysterically funny failure; I am a bear of very little brain), or non-verbal (semiotics, sociomusicology, have at you).
When you read, you are trying to extract meaning from a meaning-carrying device primed by someone else.
Reading is a creative act.
In order to read, you create a new universe.
The foundations of that universe are laid in the head or heads of the creator/s of the meaning-carrying device. A code is laid down to be read, a set of instructions to the brain which are both direct and descriptive (“I have hit my foot”, said Peter.) and figurative and evocative (The red fog enveloped Peter’s heart as he swore at the throbbing mass his foot had become.); direct and descriptive code relies a little on shared experience (we assume you have hit your foot, know what a foot is, and what hitting it entails), filling in gaps (it is most likely Peter did not deliberately strike his foot with his own hand, and that he has bumped it against something unnamed, probably while in motion), and so on. Figurative and evocative code requires more faith in the shared experience with the reader, and shared cultural references (red is equal to anger, fog is absence of clarity in thought due to emotional upheaval, we know that Peter’s foot is still a foot but the sensation of pain has transfigured it on an experiential level).
When code is laid down it is inert. A film that is not watched and a book that is not read have no meaning. They have potential meaning, in the way that a rock balanced on top of a gantry has potential energy. This is authorial intent. Without anyone to read it, the intent has no function.
When a reader comes to a text they decode it, but this term implies a simple undoing of the coding process.
What actually takes place is creative interpretation of the code, and in the process of this, a story, or version, is created. Sometimes these deviate drastically from the intended content of the code.
No two stories/versions of the same code are the same.
Every person’s reading of a text, every reading by the same person of the same text, is unique, regardless of what shared opinion of the text they come in with.
Because no two people are the same, and what causes a particular interpretation and emotional reaction – alchemical reaction – is the amalgamation of every single experience, thought, belief, and resonance that one person has had throughout their life, which will inevitably pick out different emphases among the text and trigger different emotional experiences, memories, prejudices, and fears.
In literary criticism, in order to present an interpretation of the text as valid it must be supported with evidence from the text and an argument which convinces and which typically draws on an accredited theoretical framework, or builds it own. In reading, all interpretations are valid, and equally valid, and no one reader’s interpretation may supersede another’s by virtue of authority alone. In fact, the attempt to communicate the experience of reading creates another story/version, that of the experience-telling, which exists between the various readers of the work, and at second-hand, as a catalyst, the creator of the work.
In other words, the story created in the interaction between the creator/s of a work and each individual reader is a private and unique story as it is experienced by the reader. This act of creation is not duplicated, not possible to share in its entirety with anyone, and is not owned by the work’s creator (they only made the code to be read), and not owned by the reader (they brought their self and attendant experiences to the code to read it, but the code is not theirs). It exists independently of both.
Each reading is a temporary and private work of art.