Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading”


“Books are objects. On a table, on bookshelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility… Are they aware that an act of man might suddenly transform their existence? They appear to be lit up with that hope. Read me, they seem to say. I find it hard to resist their appeal. No, books are not just objects among others” 1320.

“It would never occur to me to walk around a sewing machine or to look at the under side of a plate [feminized objects!]. I am quite satisfied with the face they present to me. But statues make me want to circle around them… Isn’t it because they give me the illusion that there is something in them which, from a different angle, I might be able to see? Neither vase nor statue seems fully revealed by the unbroken perimeter of its surfaces. In addition to its surfaces it must have an interior… the entrance to a secret chamber. But there is no such entrance” 1320. [think Heidegger and Husserl – the atomization of the object is infinite – also, the illusion of depth – the interface of surface and “depth.”]

“It is this openness of the book which I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled-up as in a fortress. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it… You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” 1321.

“I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case, the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself… to think what it thinks and feel what it feels” 1321.

“It is as if [the object] no longer existed, as long as I read the book… no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist… not in the paper object. Nor, surely, in external space… my innermost self… [the objects in it, like fish in an aquarium] need the shelter I provide: they are dependent on my consciousness… in order to exist as mental objects, they must relinquish their existence as real objects” 1321.

“On the one hand, this is cause for regret… I deliver myself… to the omnipotence of fiction… I become the prey of language… [which] surrounds me with its unreality. On the other hand, the transmutation through language of reality into a fictional equivalent has undeniable advantages. The universe of fiction is infinitely more elastic than the world of objective reality… They are objects, but subjectified objects. In short, since everything has become part of my mind, thanks to the intervention of language, the opposition between the subject and its objects has been considerably attenuated… I am freed from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects… They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject… I am thinking the thoughts of another… as my very own… I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him” 1322.

“Reading is just that: a way of giving way not only to a host of alien words, images, ideas, but also to the very alien principle which utters them and shelters them… the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but feel what I read… Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another… within me” 1323 [facile, also absorption, feminizing]

“The subject who is revealed to me through my reading of it is not the author, either in the disordered totality of his outer experiences, or in the aggregate, better organized and concentrated totality, which is the one of his writings… what matters to me is to live, from the inside, in a certain identity with the work and the work alone… Nothing external to the work could possibly share the extraordinary claim which the work now exerts on me” 1324.

“Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal… a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects” 1325.

“This astonished consciousness is in fact the consciousness of the critic… an uncertain movement of the mind toward an object which remains hidden. Whereas in the perfect identification of two consciousnesses, each sees itself reflected in the other, in this instance the critical consciousness can, at best, attempt but to draw closer to a reality which must remain forever veiled… since sight, the most intellectual of the five senses… against a basic opacity, the critical mind must approach its goal blindly, through the tactile exploration of surfaces… the material world which separates the critical mind from its object” 1326.

“The critics linguistic apparatus can… bring him closer to the work under consideration, or can remove him from it indefinitely… he can approximate very closely the work in question, thanks to a verbal mimesis which transposes into the critic’s language the sensuous themes of the work. Or else he can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power ont he part of the subject… [the object’s] infinite distance from the subject” 1328.

The first is complicity (union without comprehension), the second is disinterestedness (comprehension without union). He proposes the idea “not of practicing them simultaneously, which would be impossible, but at least of combining them through a kind of reciprocation and alternation” 1329. (A dialectic?) This is “a critical method having as guiding principle the relation between subject and object” 1332.


Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum”


As the self-proclaimed “inventor” of reader response theory, Stanley Fish remains a controversial figure. One of many critics to overturn the centrality of the text to New Criticism, Fish nevertheless ruffled feathers even in his own community of thinkers (Wolfgang Iser wonders how Fish’s refusal to acknowledge subjectivist readerly tendencies can account for different readings of the same text). Nonetheless, his ideas remain highly influential; I am particularly interested in how a focus on the reader can help us understand the way that viewer assimilates new knowledge over time, especially in a long-form text that the reader enters and exits, and which is so clearly imbricated in the period of life they spend consuming it. It is worth comparing Fish’s “interpretive communities” to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” a term Lauren Berlant uses in The Female Complaint. 

Fish uses the Milton variorum, with its “surveying of the critical history of a work in order to find disputes that rested upon a base of agreement with the experience of a work, and argued that formalist criticism, because it is spatial rather than temporal in its emphases, either ignored or suppressed what is really happening in the act of reading” 2071.

“The facts that I cite as ones ignored by a formalist criticism (premature conclusions, double syntax, misidentification of speakers) are not discovered but created by the criticism I was myself practicing… that a bad (because spatial) model had suppressed what has really happening – loses its force because of my realization that the notion ‘really happening’ is just one more interpretation… the problem of accounting for the agreement readers often reach and for the principled ways in which they disagree” 2071.

“It was at this point that I elaborated the notion of interpretive communities as an explanation both for the difference we see – and by seeing make – and for the fact that those differences are not random or idiosyncratic but systemic and conventional” 2071.

“What if the [readerly] controversy is itself regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced?” 2073.

“In other words, it is the structure of the reader’s experience rather than any structures available on the page that should be the object of description” 2074.

“In a matter of seconds, then, line 7 has led four experiential lives, one as we anticipate it, another as that anticipation is revised, a third when we retroactively identify its speaker, and a fourth when that speaker disclaims it. What changes in each of these lives is the status of the poet’s murmurings – they are alternately expressed, rejected, reinstated, and qualified – and as the sequence ends, the reader is without a firm perspective on the question of record” 2078 [uncertainty]

“This, then, is the structure of the reader’s experience – the transferring of a moral label from a thing to those who appropriate it. It is an experience that depends on a reader for whom the name Bacchus has precise and immediate associations; another reader, a reader for whom those associations are less precise will not have that experience because he will not have rushed to a conclusion in relation to which the word ‘misused’ will stand as a challenge… the action of the mind which its possession makes possible for one reader and impossible for the other… [to] realize at the end of ti that he has been asked to take a position on one side of a continuing controversy” 2080.

“It would be possible to continue with this profile of the optimal reader, but I would not get very far before someone would point out that what I am really describing is the intended reader, the reader whose education, opinions, concerns, linguistic competences, and so on make him capable of having the experience the author wished to provide… it seems obvious that the efforts of readers are always efforts to discern and therefore to realize (in the sense of becoming) the author’s intention. I would only object if that realization were conceived narrowly, as the single act of comprehending an author’s purpose, rather than (as I would conceive it) as the succession of acts readers perform in the continuing assumption that they are dealing with intentional beings” 2080.

“It would appear that I am open to two objections… the procedure is a circular one. I describe the experience of a reader who in his strategies is answerable to an author’s intention, and I specify the author’s intention by pointing to the strategies employed by that same reader. But this objection would have force only if it were possible to specify one independently of the other. What is being specified… are the conditions of utterance, or what could have been understood to have been meant by what was said… The second objection is another version of the first” if the content of the reader’s experience is the succession of acts he performs in search of an author’s intentions, and if he performs those acts at the bidding of the text, does not the text then produce or contain everything… have I not compromised my antiformalist position? This objection will have force only if the formal patterns of the text are assumed to exist independently of the reader’s experience… they are in the text before the reader comes to it …[but this is] the spectacle of an assertion supporting itself” 2081.

“It is my thesis that the reader is always making sense (I intend ‘making’ to have its literal force), and in the case of these lines the sense he makes will involve the assumption (and therefore the creation) of a completed assertion” 2081. [faceting, facere]

“How easy it is to surrender to the bias of our critical language and begin to talk as if poems, not readers or interpreters, did things. Words like ‘encourage’ and ‘disallow’… imply agents, and it is only ‘natural’ to assign agency first to an author’s intentions and then to the forms that assumedly embody them. What really happens, I think, is something quite different: rather than intention and its formal realization producing interpretation… interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out” 2082.

“What I am suggesting is that formal units are always a function of the interpretive model one brings to bear; they are not ‘in’ the text, and I would make the same argument for intentions” 2083.

“The form of the reader’s experience, formal units, and the structure of intention are one, that they come into view simultaneously, and that therefore the questions of priority and independence do not arise… what produces them?… if intention, form, and the shape of the reader’s experience are simply different ways of referring to… the same interpretive act, what is that act an interpretation of? I cannot answer that question, but neither… can anyone else, although formalists try to answer it by pointing to patterns and claiming that they are available independently of (prior to) interpretation… I would argue that they do not lie innocently in the world but are themselves constituted by an interpretive act, even if, as is often the case, that act is unacknowledged” 2083.

“What is noticed is what has been made noticeable, not by a clear and undistorting glass, but by an interpretive strategy… the choice is never between objectivity and interpretation but between interpretation that is unacknowledged as such and an interpretation that is at least aware of itself… I must give up the claims implicitly made in the first part of this essay… that a bad… model had suppressed what was really happening… just one more interpretation” 2085.

“The price one pays for denying the priority of either forms or intentions is an inability to say how it is that one ever begins… why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same…? … both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts, something which produces them” 2085.

“The notions of the ‘same’ or ‘different’ texts are fictions. If I read Lycidas & The Waste Land differently (in fact I do not), it will not be because the formal structures of the two poems (to term them such is also an interpretive decision) call forth different interpretive strategies but because my predisposition to execute different interpretive strategies will produce different formal structures. That is, the two poems are different because I have decided that they will be” 2086.

Augustine advocates the opposite, in a tradition of Christian exegesis: that every reading conform to the scripture and the love of God.

“Why should two or more readers ever agree…? …Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually assumed, the other way around” 2088. (think Marxist critics, often)

“This, then, is the explanation both for the stability of interpretation among different readers (they belong to the same community) and for the regularity with which a single reader will employ different interpretive strategies and thus make different texts (he belongs to different communities). It also explains why there are disagreements and why they can be debated in a principled way: not because of a stability in texts, but because of a stability in the makeup of interpretive communities and therefore in the opposing positions they make possible” 2088 (Althusser/ ISAs).

“The ideal is of perfect agreement and it would require texts to have a status independent of interpretation. The fear is of interpretive anarchy, but it would only be realized if interpretation (text making) were completely random. It is the fragile but real consolidation of interpretive communities that allows us to talk to one another, but with no hope or fear of ever being able to stop” 2088.

“Interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned… How can any one of us know whether or not he is a member of the same interpretive community as any other of us?… The only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” 2089.