Viewing as Action: Film and Reader Response Criticism

Article excerpt

The only character is the spectator.

Alain Resnais

One of the major developments in literary criticism over the past decade has been a growing concern with the role of the reader in actualizing and creating meaning. The rise of the reader correlates with the decline of the text as a stable, decipherable entity. Whereas the American New Critics, influenced by the Romantic, organicist view of the text, searched for unifying themes and patterns of imagery, meanings embedded in the text, response critics analyze the production of meaning through the act of reading. The New Critical methodology of retrospective close reading spatialized the text; most response criticism emphasizes the dynamic, temporal aspect of the interaction between text and reader. By redefining the critical enterprise as the description of a process, rather than the discovery of a product (meaning), response critics try to evade the major pitfalls of interpretation.

Another likely reason for the shift of critical perspective is the increasingly intense and self-conscious reader involvement demanded by the texts themselves. Just as the New Critical approach offered a way of coping with the intricate, self-referential texture of Modernist writing, so response criticism is itself a response to the "ludic" emphasis in much contemporary literature. Epitomized by Nabokov's novels, such works are primarily constituted, not as representations or criticism of life, or as self-contained artifacts, but as elaborate games with their readers. Their challenge is not so much to our ideas about life as to consciousness itself, to the conventions by which we structure and apprehend "reality." Response critics are particularly attracted to such works, not only because they engage their readers so directly, but also because they dramatize the constructive nature of perception.

The relationship between response criticism and developments in hermeneutics and contemporary literature is fairly evident; less obvious, but just as important, are its connections with cinematic experience. In this essay, I propose to examine the work of two of the most influential response criticsStanley Fish and Wolfgang Iser- in relation to film. Although neither critic deals directly with film, the conception of literature underlying their methods is strikingly cinematic, while the methods themselves are often explained through film analogy. Their work is another indication of the extent to which our experience of films has altered, often unconsciously, the way we write, read, and think about literature. In turn, the methods of Fish and Iser offer valuable tools to the practical film critic. We need new ways of analyzing film response. The idea is to restore film to the dynamic, experiential context usually ignored or suppressed by formalists, while avoiding the breezy imprecision of impressionist criticism and the narrow dogmatism of much psychoanalytic study. Of course, both methods entail disadvantages of their own; my claim is not that they offer a complete and infallible account of response, but simply that they bring into relief some of its neglected features.

Stanley Fish is best known for the model of reading set forth in his essay "Affective Stylistics: Literature in the Reader" (1970).1 Fish's affective method is simply "an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time."2 By "response," Fish means a succession of deliberative acts performed by readers of specifiable linguistic and literary "competence" under pressure of the temporal flow. These acts include "the making and revising of assumptions, the rendering and regretting of judgments, the coming to and abandoning of conclusions, the giving and withdrawing of approval, the specifying of causes, the asking of questions, the supplying of answers, the solving of puzzles."3 Although the acts are primarily cognitive, they result in such emotional experiences as surprise, regret, embarrassment, fulfillment, and frustration. …