Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Can There Be Texts without Audiences? the Identity and Function of Audiences

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Can There Be Texts without Audiences? the Identity and Function of Audiences

Article excerpt

The audience is the real or imaginary group of persons who are in fact acquainted, could be acquainted, or are meant to be acquainted with a given text. Etymologically, the term "audience" refers to a group of listeners. This meaning of the term goes back to a time when the primary form of acquaintance with the work of an author was through the spoken word. From the invention of the printing press, however, until the time when the use of the radio became widespread, written texts were the primary way of learning about an author's work. Although contemporary media have changed this to a certain extent, in science and the humanities it is still true that the audience for an author's work consists largely of readers. For my present purposes, the distinction between readers and listeners is immaterial and, hence, I often refer to an audience as a group of readers, although what I say about it will apply, mutatis mutandis, to listeners as well.

The notion of audience raises all sorts of interesting philosophical issues. Perhaps the most obvious of these is whether texts must have audiences at all. Some authors claim that they need not, because the authors themselves have no audience in mind when they compose a text. If texts are intended to convey meaning, however, it would appear that they must at least be intended for audiences. How is this conflict to be resolved? It appears that in order to do so we must first settle the issue of the audience's identity, but this is not easy. Is the audience whoever is intended, by the author, to understand the text? Is the audience whoever actually comes into contact with the text? Or is the audience whoever potentially could come into contact with the text? I shall begin, then, by discussing the identity and function of the audience. Once these issues are settled I shall take up the question of whether there can be texts without audiences.


The Identity of the Audience. In order to clarify the identity of the audience I shall discuss, first, the different types of audiences that a text may have and, second, the number of persons that may compose them. There are at least five different types of audiences for a text. In order to facilitate their discussion I have named them as follows: author as audience, intended audience, contemporaneous audience, intermediary audience, and contemporary audience.(1)

The Author as Audience. From the moment an author has put something down in writing, has said something, or even has thought about the parts of the text he is composing that are already established, even if only provisionally, and goes back to what he has written, said, or thought, he becomes an audience. If the text is written, it acquires a status more independent from the author than if it is spoken or thought. Even a spoken text or a thought text, however, can be ex- amined by an author as an audience examines if when it is recorded on a tape or (in this case) on the author's memory. In all cases, the author who approaches the text he has composed may function as audience insofar as he goes to the text with the aim of understanding it. Indeed, the whole process of composing a text involves a person in a continuous switching back and forth between the roles of author and audience, whether as writer and reader, speaker and listener, or thinker and rememberer. In order to see the effect of what he says and how he says it, he needs to look at it as an observer rather than as a composer.(2)

In many ways, the effectiveness of authors depends on their dexterity at this switching of roles and on understanding the needs of an audience. Good writers, for example, say only what needs to be said in order to convey a certain meaning; they use what the audience already knows to determine what to write; they are economical and effective. Bad writers, on the other hand, repeat material the audience already knows and fail to say what is necessary for understanding - they are thus boring or unclear. …

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