Role of the Reader

Date: Wed, 13 May 1998 00:20:02
From: eldon
Subject: role of the reader<sic>

    "As the source of a message's closure, the encoder's presence hovers over the text like a spectral figure in loco parentis, overseeing and invisibly directing the decoder's respectful, _appreciative_ practices. The decoder is "bound" once more, through the agency of the encoder and a host of protective buttresses that could be accurately be grouped under the rubric of "competence", not to "impair" the message's "original essence"...[...]...
    "...the only way that multivocality, or openness, or infinite semiosis, can be conceived of systemically, is to base them on a necessarily domesticated decoder who willingly adheres to prescribed rules...[...]...
    "Open works [Eco] adds, are "art stripped of necessary and foreseeable conclusions, works in which the performer's freedom functions as part of the _discontinuity_ which contemporary physics recognizes, not as an element of disorientation, but as an essential stage in all scientific verification procedures..." Eco's vocabulary choices here reveal his interests in this position once again. This type of openness, he suggests, tames "indeterminacy" into a "valid" simulacrum or tool. It produces "discontinuity", not "disorientation"...[...]...
    "For instance, his depiction of James Joyce's immensely polysemous novel, "Finnegan's Wake", reveals a great deal about Eco's own investment in hobbling the decoder in this vein. Longoni reflects a parallel historicizing assertion by arguing that works of modern writers such as Kafka and Joyce "_impose_ on the reader a plurality of interpretations, because for them there no longer exists a unique interpretation of the world. Reality itself is fragmented, and it is represented in the literary text by fragments that can be endlessly reassembled"..."
    (excerpts from Scott Simpkins' lecture "The 'problem' of controlling the decoder", a critique of Eco's 'Role of the reader'. The Cyber Semiotic Institute homepage)
so, does this mean that because readers (decoders) are required to accept a multiplicity of readings of a text, reflecting a so-seen multiplicitous, fragmented 'reality', it is then to be concluded - decoded in this instance - as an interpretation of an encoder in the position of hobbler, of container of the reader, of _imposer_ of a freedom to make a fragmented, multidimensional reading, therefore situating the decoder-encoder relationship as one based on a rigid power structure? one bestows a favour on the other, only because one has the power to do so? i am inclined to a more lenient reading of eco in this instance, but the argument is interesting.

the writer, having first produced a text, is thereby in a position to 'bestow' this work upon his or her audience, who must take up the interpretations offered, or, presumably, be cast out of the garden?

such an underlying assumption might conceivably be traced to the concept of sequentiality, where the producer is equated with the creator of any work, with special claims over its further use. The receiver, the consumer, of any such product in this type of scenario then, is constrained by the fact of his coming to the work after its conception.

but the writer's original intention, his or her encoded 'meanings' or senses within a text notwithstanding -- by this i mean to say that such senses are not to be discounted -- must however be ultimately discounted at every new reading, due, firstly, to the non-retrievable nature of such original intent.

if, for example, it were possible to go to the source and ask the horse so to speak, for an explication, a dissertation on his/her text's 'original meaning', this would entail the production of yet another text, and this revelatory text itself would depend upon the writer himself in this case being able to retrieve his own intentions at the time of inscription.

secondly, and more saliently, the decoder brings his or her ways of apprehending the world to bear on the interpretation of any text, at any one point in time. people do claim after all that a certain text has taken on a wholly different patina -- taste, smell, texture -- when reread at one remove in 'time'.

this is because any previous reading/decoding of any text in fact does not exist - and if it does, it exists only as a memory of such a reading in the decoder's mind.

it therefore seems impossible for me, at this point, to conceive of any encoder 'imposition' of a certain decoding of a text. <but i may change my mind> to be sure, the encoding of specific readings or directions to decoding is signposted, sometimes loudly, in any work, and these may be discovered and described, interpreted even in the light of some social context in which an abstracted audience, and thus, such posited decodings, are likely to occur, but always with the proviso that such an analysis occurs within such and such a context, and may or may not be _valid_ at each instance. (1)


taking mailing list interaction as an instance, in the broad sense, of a context, and referring further to instances occurring within particular mailing lists of our own experience, it may be possible to go some way towards a 'genre of discourse' (as Lyotard (The Differend) is pleased to term it) as a validating process for issues of reader hobblement or no:

    "No phrase is able to be validated from within its own regimen: a descriptive is validated cognitively only by recourse to an ostensive ('and here is the case'). A prescriptive is validated juridicially or politically by a normative ('it is the norm that...'), ethically by a feeling (tied to the 'you ought to...') etc."
    -- (JFL, 41)
and so what of reader-response, or the role of the reader in relation to texts produced in this medium?

can we posit a 'group', or community of readers within which responses can be seen as evidence of particular instances of this or that type of behaviour, such as encoder control over decoding processes, dependent in turn upon some type of shared awareness of group norms or feelings?

because it is _this _ medium, and participants (or 'subjects' if you prefer) are sometimes motivated to make written contributions, while other Read Only Members look on in silence, the 'value' of reader responses continues to lead me into speculation.

(this last sentence may indeed contain one of those loud 'signposts' mentioned earlier. in effect i have given a type of 'directive' to the reader to consider what i have written/will wriet as 'speculation', and if anyone should respond saying, you have that wrong, buddy, then i have the device of this safety belt in place so that i may stamp my foot and make petulant gestures at this 'command function' which i have embedded alongside the 'report'.)

since i have mentioned an assumed existance of a group, even a community of readers who in this _instance_ do not merely consitute an audience by virtue of their ability to respond or write-into any text appearing onlist, it seems pertinent to distinguish the means through which such an assumed group may be said to come into an agreed shared 'existence'.

firstly, the concept of temporality again seems a requirement for perception - humans tending to use change in relationships between 'self' and any 'external' objects to effect such perception:

    "Objects and circumstances which remain absolutely constant relative to the observer, unchanged either by his own movement or by external events, are in general difficult and perhaps always impossible to perceive. What we perceive easily is difference and change - and difference is a relationship."
    (GBateson. 87:173)
looked at in this way, a sense of relationship is necessarily constituted by difference, or an awareness of difference. to belabor the point a little longer, i want to cite another social semiotician who says:
    " is clear that while _social_ beings share much , they also are, in any particular _instance_, on any given occasion divided by differences of whatever kind. This difference always has a linguistic form, and leads to dialogue, and hence to text. Texts are constituted in and by this difference. Where there is no difference, there is _silence_."
    "-no text is the work of any one person."
    (Kress. 85:32)
the concept of _silence_, and silence as a phrase in negative response, especially in the sense given it by Lyotard, will be taken up again shortly. in the meantime, it can still be seen as significant that for any group awareness of itself to occur, there also needs to occur some relationship based on an awareness of difference: a perception that an 'other' exists and that this other is also aware of one's existence. in the context of mailing list interaction, it seems obvious that such a perception may be generated by having one's posts responded to...are you receiving me?

    "...the reality of the interactive whole [is] a determinant of the functions of the constituent parts... The condition for the existence of a determinative group in this sense seems to be that each participant be aware of the perceptions of the other. If I know that the other person perceives me and he knows that I perceive him, this mutual awareness becomes a part determinant of all our action and interaction...[..]..if only to stress that the group as defined in terms of mutual awareness of perception, is something different from groups determined merely by mutual irritability or responsiveness...[..] ...the motivation for deliberate falsehood can hardly exist without awareness of the other individual's perception..[..]..thus the occurrence of falsehood becomes evidence that the group is one based upon mutual awareness of perception."
    (GB, 208-209)
<please, please, try to deceive me>


it is here that i want to refer to Lyotard's concept of the the phrase 'silence' as a negative response type, in place of what might have otherwise become part of a dialogue. and in this context, introduce again the usually vexed question as to why the silent majority (ROMs) are textually unresponsive. apart from wholly practical considerations such as hectic schedules which prevent complete attention to message flow, those who do not actively participate in list dialogue may occasionally raise their hands and say that they are 'learning', 'enjoying the performance' and other admissions of passive one-way reception of encoded messages (in some cases this may take the opposite extreme -- i think of Post Only Members, who use lists as billboards for forwarded material or works in progress, but do not enter into any exchange with other participants, or who may not even read exchanges that occur onlist). their interpretations of discussions and the formation of group self awareness may be wholly their own, and not at all _imposed_ by the writers of texts onlist, but because these 'differences', this multivocality, is not available as part of the ongoing discourse, such interpretations are not part of a 'mutual awareness', thus cannot be considered as contributing to group norms. in effect, such listmembers do not exist until they post.

so for those who would participate, and yet do not post, do not respond onlist, what motivates such negative phrases in response?

paragraph 25 of The Differend outlines what Lyotard considered the four essential attributes of a 'phrase' in his sense of the term: it has a 'topic', or referent; what is signified about this referent - the 'sense'; an 'adressee(s)'; and an 'addressor' _through_ which the signification is made.

    "The disposition of a phrase universe consists in the situating of these instances in relation to each other."
he then continues by characterising the relationship between these instances and places where a phrase is constituted by silence:

    "26. Silence does not indicate which instance is denied, it signals the denial of one or more of these instances...[for example]...1) that of the situation in question (the case) is not the addressee's business (he or she [feels that s/he] lacks the competence, or he or she is not worthy of being spoken to about it, etc); or 2) the case never took place [does not exist]; or 3) that there is nothing to say about it (the situation is senseless, inexpressible); or 4) that it is not the [addressor's] business to be talking about it ([s/he]they are not worthy, etc). Or several of these negations together."

< note that here lyotard is referring to a specific case involving a denial that the holocaust took place. for this addressor, i feel that it is not my business to be talking about this case, and so have removed reference to it from the quotation above>

to link these types instances with listmember silence as response to various posts, might be valid in particular cases, where participants actually deny that they have the _competence_ to reply to an issue raised. however, the silent phrase makes such linkage mere speculation again. we are left with an unmarked 'signal'.

of course, as i have put forward elsewhere, most silences may be those in response to a _lack of difference_ in opinion a la kress' observation above, and may result from a prevalent net norm that one should refrain from wasting bandwidth with the mere comment of 'me too', or 'i agree'. in such cases, one may assume that one's readers are in total agreement with one's position as outlined in any particular text.

with a nod in his direction, i now want to draw attention to alan's posts and (at least) the cybermind norm that they are generally not responded to onlist (whether or not private one to one communication occurs in response to alan's texts appearing onlist is not at issue here).

the question might be whether these texts are 'closed' to the extent that the silence of addressees is actually _imposed_ upon them by directions or signals within the texts, so that readers feel constrained to respond in certain ways and no other, as simpkins suggests eco believes; or whether a combination of denials of the competences or instances noted above has any bearing on such non response.

do readers, for example, feel that they are not worthy of writing into such texts, or do they feel that the writer himself is not competent to speak on such matters? or is it that they deny the existence of the topics in question as something able to discussed onlist? or is it that such texts are meaningless and lack sense? <then again, maybe there are just too damn many of them!>

or is it rather that such posts evoke the silence of 'poetics', where that which has not yet been said, that for which phrases have not yet adequately been devised, that which hitherto has been felt to be inexpressible, are able to _affect_ the reader in such a way that no response is possible save that of silent appreciation?

    "It is not expected of the Assembly that it should take the floor, that it should debate, nor even that it should judge. The epideictic is not dialectics, nor is it even forensic or deliberative rhetoric; it leans rather towards poetics. It is a matter of arousing in the addressee not phrases, but those quasi-phrases which are silent feelings. If phrases took place, they would sooner or later remove the equivocation from the pathos and dissipate the charm (it can be observed here that certain phrase families - the poetic ones - are staked upon the addressee's silence as a signal of feeling) the addressor is presupposed a disimulation, an occultation, the apocrypt (it's not me, it's the gods, the heroes who are phrased through my mouth...)..."     (JFL, p21)

no conclusion


thanks to all who made it this far, L.

Date: Sat, 16 May 1998 17:21:35
From: eldon
Subject: Re: role of the reader

alan wroet,

>Can you say more here about recent lexicography, dictionaries, computers?
>I'm curious about the huge projects now going on, involving say expert
>systems or ways of dealing with a total sememe completely out of
well, i could say something about my own derived theories and notions on this topic, make a "completely out of control" sememiosis, but, instead, some description.

a few universities, some with commercial partners, keep on collecting texts from all over the place. oxford university is one. alma mater birmingham is another and there's several in the us altho i can't be sure which ones.

they keep the texts as a data base. they apply concordancers on them- select the word and the field (such as uk newspapers)- it tells you more data on the word's frequency and the other words which are likely to be in its vicinity and the possiblity of them appearing within spitting distance of each other.

studies using this are called corpus linguistics collocations are descriptive devices for, as some call it, 'parole'- words as they have been used, in talk too, but not so much of that -- transcribed, obviously. a synoptic approach. slightly predictive, if one is willing to see vast screeds of data (eh, i made a mistake, only 10's of millions of words) as producing useable patterns, like when you throw a die enough times, mebbe.

i'd like to forward them the cybermind archives i have, give 'em a more well-rounded database....

anyway, a links page for some corpus-based studies can be found at [ ]

and if you want to get some more info on the cobuild (birmingham corpus) [ ]

they also have a demo look, it's not so fully-fledged, (have a word starting with 'j' in mind) and you need telnet or java capabilities

coding and abstracting grammar is a completely different thing, the main reason being that, as we have discussed, grammar and words themselves are not separable like that. if words are taken away, then we are left with a slot and filler type grammar, mathematical, not so good, unless you believe that green ideas sleep furiously... which of course they might, for a shizophrenic.

one person i know who is making a good stab at it um, creating a a program for coding discourse features, that is, is mick o'donnell. have a look at [ Coder] for Mac

there was also a tagger program going on at birmingham, but it seems to have been taken off public access. no guarantees, but see [ CoBuild ] pages

hope this is useful to someone,

L, I


Lexa for DOS


(1) Thus is the infinite regression of la langue disposed of. 9407

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