Seminar: Tue 12-2 pm in USP Seminar Room 3
Fri 12-2 pm in USP Tutorial Room 1
A/P Lo Mun Hou
Office: Cinnamon South Learn Lobe #02-02
Tel: 6516 4077
That a reader might have a role to play in the creation of meaning has long been recognized. Since the 1970s, the field of literary studies has logically suggested that the text, the author, and the reader are three sites from where meaning can come. “The reader,” Terry Eagleton further observes, “has always been the most underprivileged of this trio—strangely, since without him or her there would no literary text at all. Literary texts do not exist on bookshelves: they are processes of signification materialized only in the practice of reading. For literature to happen, the reader is quite as vital as the author.” In other words, not only can the reader contribute to the making of meaning, this role might even be the biggest one—to the point where, not just “meaning,” but the very existence of “literary texts,” and “literature” itself, in Eagleton’s estimation, depends on the reader.
But how should we think about readers? What problems arise when we specifically think of the reader as the originator of meaning and texts? Should we speak of “the reader,” or “readers”? Is there, in other words, a universal, a- or trans-historical, and objective Reader, or are readers historically specific, subjective, and even “biased”? What is a “biased reading” anyway? Can “bias” be a reading strategy, or does it invalidate an interpretation? Furthermore, if the reader creates meaning and texts, is there any sense in which the text in turn—or even first—creates the reader, or perhaps the thinking individual or subject? Might texts have a constitutive function, in which we are produced as particular kinds of subjects as a result of reading? Are we subjects of reading?
This module will explore these questions by focusing on the reader, and by thinking through key terms such as “meaning,” “interpretation,” and “subjectivity.” To do so, we will operate, often simultaneously, on three levels. First, we will engage with films, poems, stories, and novels that thematize the act of reading (for example, by featuring readers as characters, or by addressing or even interpellating actual readers). Second, we will discuss essays by literary critics and theorists, linguists, philosophers, historians, and sociologists that debate the above questions. Finally, since we will ourselves be readers, we will also scrutinize and reflect on our own processes of reading.
Readings for the module will likely include essays by J. L. Austin, Roland Barthes, and Stanley Fish; short stories by Rebecca Harding Davis and Charlotte Perkins Gilman; poems by Elizabeth Bishop and Alfred Lord Tennyson; the novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, translated from Italian; the French film Caché; and the Iranian memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran.