The Demeaning of Meaning: The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished

In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions:  either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.

“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.

While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense.  In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month.  Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless,  I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.


Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?

–Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in The Patriot

Last week we established (I hope) that while critics of the author have created something of a bugaboo in their depiction of the author as tyrant, there are some sincere concerns we could raise concerning authorial idolization.  This week we see the pendulum swing, as it so often will, to an equally dangerous extreme.  Western literature in the late Twentieth  Century, claiming to be terrified by the threat posed to innocent readers,  reacted by utterly destroying all that it meant to be an author.  In place of the author, they offered a real Tyrant of the Text, or more precisely, millions of tiny tyrants.  However, rather than freeing readers this approach instead enslaved them to a sort of petty ruler that is harder than ever resist: themselves.

In the late Nineteenth Century, there had indeed been a very strong focus on the author as the arbiter of the text, even if it did not rise to the boogeyman-tyrant some have alleged.  At times, the text itself and its plain meaning were both lost in the search for the writer’s intent and biography.  In response to this over emphasis, the New Criticism broke the text off from the author, insisting it had a life of its own.  They began to study it separately, taking it apart much as the scientists of the period might enthusiastically vivisect some poor animal.

In divorcing the text from the author, they therefore broke it away from the writer’s meaning and intent.  While the New Critics were personally still sincere in their search for meaning, it didn’t take long for a new movement to ask the obvious question:  If a text has no permanent tie to its author, how can it mean anything?

Three thousand tyrants on the march....
Three thousand tyrants on the march….

Enter postmodernism.  Disgusted with the arrogance and failed promises of the “Enlightenment” and early progressivism, postmodernism called everything previous generations had believed so fervently into question.  While postmodernism is a very diverse thing, it can usually be boiled down to this: the application of the idea of relativism to a particular field of study.  (That can look radically different in different contexts–hence why some scholars miss the connection.)  With no absolutes, there was no Truth, no transcendent right and wrong, no objective meaning to life in general.  Further, the very idea that an author could communicate at all came under siege from the deconstructionists, who insisted in their relativism that language could communicate nothing of objective value.  After all, words must mean one thing and not another regardless of context for language to be useful, and it was strongly argued (ironically through language itself) that this was impossible.  Language was simply a relativistic arrangement of arbitrary symbols that could be interpreted however the reader felt like interpreting them.  My truth might be different from your truth and I might take your arrangement of symbols to say something completely different than what you intended because my context was different.

Of course, there had always been problems interpreting authorial intent, but now postmodern readers  ceased to even make an effort to discover it.  If it was not even theoretically possible for the text to mean something, if the language in which it was written communicated nothing objective or reliable, why even try?  This obviously not only “emancipated” the reader from the “tyranny” of the author, it obliterated the author entirely.  Carried to its logical end, this idea makes the reader the sum total of the reading experience.  The text means nothing and anything the reader takes from it is relative to that reader and to his or her experiences and thoughts.  The reader imposes his or her will onto the text, rather than taking something from it.  For many people, it is a liberating experience to think that they not only have something to offer, they define the process.  In a grander way, it is a chance to fulfill that which humanity has sought since Eden:  to revel in the power of a god, to determine our own truth, and to create our own reality in the text (albeit on a pitifully small scale).

We have, however, traded the one hypothetical tyrant three thousand miles away for the three thousand very real tyrants one mile away.  Worse, they are lords of an impoverished state who can never offer us more than we already have.  While I have made what I think are strong arguments against postmodernism elsewhere*, I begin to find a selfish one to be the most potent of all:  the idea that the reader is the essence of the text is not, and could never be, fulfilling to anyone who aspires to rise above the level of a narcissist.   When I read a book, an article, or a story, I’m looking to go beyond myself.  I want to experience something new, something bigger than me.  I want to read a story or see a world I could never have thought of on my own.  I want to engage with a mind different than mine, one that will show me ideas and consequences that would never have occurred to me.  If postmodernism were to be correct (and thankfully I don’t believe that it is), none of that is possible.  How can the text introduce me to something bigger, grander than myself if it has nothing to offer me other than what I bring to it?  Further, this must be universally true for all readers, if the text is truly relative to them and not to some higher standard.  A genius could never transcend his own brilliance anymore than a dullard could be free of his ignorance. They each look into a text and see only themselves starting back out.

I would prefer to suffer under the “tyranny” of an author with the hope he or she could open some new door to me I hadn’t noticed before than to know I’m forever stuck looking at the same four windowless walls through different sets of reflective glasses.

But there is an even greater danger in this debate for those who call themselves “Christian.”  It has the ability to shake, indeed to invalidate, our entire faith.  We’ll look into that question next.

Next Week:  Why It Matters, Biblically 


*i.e  They really mean to say there is no meaning?  They use language to insist that language communicates nothing? There are no absolutes except the absolute that there are no absolutes?  Only academics could take nonsense like that and pretend it’s profound, let along take it seriously.  It would be more respectable intellectually for them to simply spend their time twiddling their thumbs.

Posts in this Series

  1. The Author as Tyrant?
  2. The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
  3. Why it Matters, Biblically
  4. The Redemption of Meaning:  Freedom with Respect

9 thoughts on “The Demeaning of Meaning: The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished

  1. There is, of course, another thing that goes by the name Postmodernism. Modernism largely sought to turn its back on the past in an attempt to move forward into the future. Its failure to do so, and arrogance in the attempt, birthed the Postmodern practice of turning back and considering that past, present and future all have something to offer, and that the arts were as free to look to, and use, any elements that came to hand. This is, perhaps, more clear in the visual art world than in the literary. Postmodern literature is not something I really understand, but perhaps Postmodernism in the art world shares this much with it’s learned cousin, that symbols, words, etc. are fair game to use for any meaning, even if it was not the meaning originally intended. But in the sense I just described, I consider myself a postmodernist. Most people are, I think, unconsciously postmodern without knowing it. Geek crossover is an example, like my brother’s t-shirt that has the TARDIS being stolen from a train by the ship from Firefly. 😉

  2. I have a framed picture of Holmes grappling with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls with the TARDIS hovering below. The caption says “The timely intervention of the Doctor prevented the death of Sherlock Holmes.” 🙂

    One of the things that worries me about postmodernism is that it often presents itself as “discovering” something that people had long known about before the modern period. It can be very selective in its use of history. In doing so it presents us with false dichotomies: You just either accept the modernist or postmodernist answer. That’s compounded by the fact that, as you noted, many (if not most) postmodernists are “unconscious postmodernists.” They’ve just absorbed postmodern ideas because someone told them they should or they thought it would be cool. Even the conscious postmodernists have rarely taken the time to really think through what it all means. That’s in keeping with the spirit of postmodernism, of course, since everyone takes what he/she wants, but I don’t think it’s a great recipe for a life well-examined.

    Both of the points you mentioned liking above were very well established before the modernist period, and you can embrace them without having to resort to postmodernism and its accompanying relativism. For instance, the quote I mentioned last week from Machiavelli shows that he took the past very seriously indeed–as did many others. When Juliet reminds us that “That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet,” she is pointing to the fact that we can indeed play with symbols without abandoning the idea of meaning. All of that came long before the first identifiable postmodern thought–which comes with a LOT of extra baggage that I’ll deal with next week.

    So, I agree completely with your ultimate goals. I know I want to “Think outside the box” and get creative with meaning and symbology, blending genres, the present, the future, and the the past. I just think that you’ll find some form of premodernism to be infinitely better grounding for doing so than postmodernism. 🙂

    1. I would love to see that picture! XD

      ‘Tis possible. It is certainly true (again, I speak mostly from an art-history p.o.v. as I am more familiar with it) that elements were, depending on the period, fair game. Sometimes symbols were very fixed, and sometimes they were not, and sometimes there were clear, set styles, and sometimes a fantastic jumble of ideas and influences. The cycles of art and culture are fascinating, and humbling when people need to be reminded that they aren’t as “new and original” as they think.

      At this point, I think we’ve reached into semantics, though, and the problematic elements of relativism in what we read into “Postmodernism.” Perhaps it is very postmodern of me to think that I needn’t choose between my perception of postmodernism and older forms and ideals. I’m not a relativist. I believe in absolute Truth. However, I think relativism shines a light on some truth, truth about human nature, assumptions, and perspectives. It can be a moderating, humbling influence, though taken too far it will become nonsense.
      I consider myself a postmodernist, not because I mean to be one, but because that is what my culture is, it’s part of the base-code for my software. I could no more extract it, at this point, than I could unlearn how to read English. In and of itself, I do not think it is a bad, or good, thing. It’s has strengths and weaknesses, and my business is to figure out what those are. I rather agree with C.S. Lewis, in his “In Defense of Old Books.” No era of mankind has ever gotten (nor will ever get until the end of it) everything right or wrong. One must figure out the prevailing assumptions of one’s generation.

      Also, I’m gonna call you on misuse of “infinitely.” 😉

      1. Ah–but is it a misuse when it’s hyperbole? Besides, if I relativistically redefine that particular string of symbols to simply mean “pretty good” based on my own personal context, who’s to disagree? 😉

        One thing that might be worth considering is this: I can understand the logic behind calling yourself a “postmodernist” because of your context (I grew up in the same context–at least from college on out), but I wonder if it isn’t something that you’ll find holds you back. It is one thing to admit that we are profoundly influenced by our context and quite another to let it define us.

        I think we agree completely that no particular era has ever gotten it completely right. I haven’t actually argued anything of the sort, in fact. I use the Lewis quote myself quite often. It’s our job as intelligent thinkers and believers to look at all eras and use each one to bring us closer to the truth. Sometimes that means taking a piece of one worldview and rejecting the piece sitting right next to it. Sometimes that means rejecting something we hold dear from our own context and bringing in something new (to us). The idea is to use each new encounter to get us closer to the truth (never perfectly, but as close as we can manage).

        I believe semantics are extremely important. In the words of Miss Granger, “Fear of a name only increases the fear of the thing itself.” That’s a very old idea–“As a man [or woman] thinketh in his heart, so is he.” So, while I easily admit my own context, I don’t categorize myself by it. To my own mind, I’m not modern or postmodern. From the way, you write, I think you’re probably in very similar boat. If not, I hope you’ll think about it. You’re a more than strong enough thinker that I don’t believe you should pigeonhole yourself with a label like “postmodernist” when your ideas seem to be much bigger than the average philosophical postmodernist’s.

        That said, I also think that when we’re talking philosophy, we can objectively (somewhat) categorize ideas for the purpose of discussion. I can call Foucault a “postmodernist” because his ideas are best described by that label from a philosophical standpoint. You can do the same thing to my ideas or yours as long as there is an agreement on definitions, so I don’t think I’m being hypocritical in talking labels in my posts but then saying we should transcend them in my comments. 🙂

        1. Ah, but you have other words to mean “pretty good” and nothing else that means “infinite” so if you’re going to change it’s meaning and not impoverish your language, you should, literally, create another word to mean “Infinite.” 😉 …it’s a pity there isn’t a tongue-in-cheek icon.

          You make most of my points for me, actually, so I think we are on the same page, save that I still think you name a few things too broadly. Names are powerful and useful, they draw boundaries.

          To name myself as postmodernist in my thinking is, far from being limiting, quite empowering. You are right in that I could cling to it as a limiting identity. On the other hand, in Naming it, I can begin to see it for what it is, to recognize its pros and cons, and to sometimes call its bluff. I

          I do not believe that I can just shut off, or move past, the filter of the context of my life. Maybe I am wrong in that, and so limiting myself more than I know. It will take a lot to convince me, though. In the meantime, admitting my postmodernist filter is the only thing that allows me to perceive it instead of assuming that I see clear and unbiased reality. Does that make sense? Language becomes so tricky sometimes.

          I’m not calling you a hypocrite, I promise. I’m just prodding your definitions. To call a specific person a postmodernist, or a relativist, can be quite accurate, and the problems you are discussing in your posts are problems within postmodernist, relativistic thought. No question there. I’m just begging the question as to whether or not these problems represent the whole. It’s a baby-bathwater question.

          Prodding definitions and blanket statements is something of a mania with me. I apologize it if gets annoying. You can shoo me away, if you like.

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