Reading Cultures: The Construction of Readers in the Twentieth Century

By Molly Abel Travis | Go to book overview

NOTES
Introduction: Readers in and out of Texts
I should make clear at the start that in differentiating the actual reader from the textual reader, I am not making essentialist claims about my ability to access and convey in unmediated fashion the presence of the "real" reader. My rendition of this reader is as much a construct as the textual reader is. What I am interested in exploring is the changes in and the differences among constructions.
I am indebted to Molly Rothenberg's explanations of the various conceptions of agency and her psychoanalytic critique of a naive performative notion of agency that implies an unsplit subject that can be fully present to itself in a performance of self that completely accounts for the subject and controls the effect of signification. A full discussion of Rothenberg's argument is forthcoming in her collaborative text with Joseph Valente, Raising the Unreal: A Post-Lacanian Approach to Cultural Analysis.
My ideas about agency have been informed by Paul Smith's argument in Discerning the Subject ( 1988). Smith engages in an astute critique of several critical theories (including Althusserian Marxism, Derridean deconstruction, and Kristevan semiotics) in regard to their inability to allow for agency, yet he himself does not construct a theory of agency. He suggests that one must turn to cultural studies to discover descriptions of agency.
See Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson Relevance: Communication and Cognition.
Criticizing the Screen project from the perspective of psychoanalysis, Joan Copjec points out that Althusserian film theory mistakenly believes itself to have followed directly from Lacanian theory when in actuality it has "Foucauldianized" Lacan by conceptualizing "the screen as a mirror," with the subject recognizing her- or himself as perfectly represented and fully present on the screen. Antithetical to the conclusions of psychoanalysis, this conception of the film screen ignores, in Copjec's words, "Lacan's more radical insight, whereby the mirror is conceived as a screen" or a "veil of representation" that seems to be hiding some reality about the subject but that "actually conceals nothing; there is nothing behind representation," no way by which the subject can confirm the truth of its being (15-16, 35-36).
Radway's study was well received and seemed to signal an impending change in reader/audience research. But this change did not occur in literary criticism dealing with the reader. The question is, why have theories of structural determinism held such currency for so long? First of all, as a result of trenchant critiques of modernity, there is among literary critical theorists a profound distrust of any claims that appear to champion an atavistic individualism. One can also point to the arrogance of theorists and critics who feel that the benighted public is incapable of reading and actively appropriating on its own. In this scenario only theoreticians/critics can be the right kind of readers, using deterministic theories but themselves not

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