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A Mad Trapper's Examination of Reader Response and Reception Theory

I begin this work with the intention of examining the way a reader responds to text. Focusing upon Reader Response and Reception theory I use a specific text, Rudy Wiebe’s The Mad Trapper, to ground an examination of what is otherwise a heterogenous grouping of methodologies. A reading of The Mad Trapper works both as a self-declared artificial structure around which to gather Reception and Reader Response’s heterogeneity and as a reading of text which informs and refers to a reading of theory. Beginning with the premise that The Mad Trapper, as are all texts, is unintelligible outside the social practices by which it is constituted, this reading of Reader Response and Reception methodologies attempts to take into account the text’s methods of production and reception in the interpreting world, as well as the consciousness responsible for the final incarnation/construction of the text: the receiving reading subject. Although Reader Response and Reception do not exhaust the methodologies which deal directly with how a text operates in the world, my reading of Reader Response provides a self-grounding way to understand the phenomenon of textual influence and interpretation. Thus I undertake in this text a twofold project, a discursive exposition which strives to explain both the critical practices of Reader Response and Reception theory and their relationship to text. This text becomes then a double reading which weaves its excessive traditional academic exposition with specific readings of The Mad Trapper text. Realizing that the different theoretical methodologies which I discuss in this exercise employ disparate understandings of how the reader and writer interact with text, I try to foreground my reading of the concerns of these methodologies by utilizing a voice appropriate to their theoretical circumstance. While discussing phenomenological criticism, I employ a textual voice which takes account of phenomenology’s usage of ‘authorial intentionality’. In the same way, while treating the different stances of Reception and subjective criticism, I ascribe my reading of that methodology to a reading of either a critic’s paradigm or the critic his/herself.

My reading of Reception[i] and Reader Response theory positions these methodologies as ones which place the site of meaning (understanding, effect and influence) as an interaction between text and reader. This interaction is seen to be enacted by the response experience of the reader, not dependent solely upon specific information located in the materiality of text and somehow ‘innocently’ extracted. Reader Response theory examines both the active participation of the reader in the work (in terms of an interpretation on the basis of individual ‘repertoires,’ ‘interpretive strategies’ or unconscious desire of reading) and the interactions (political, personal and ideological) between the contributory and creating reader and the fluid--and in a sense--uncontrollable text.

The understanding that Stanley Fish’s “Normal circumstances” seems to share with basic tenets of Reception methodology is that a speaker is always in, and cannot be separated from, a context. Though not an official statement of a member of the Konstance school of Reception theory, this essay’s Poststructuralist argument that “a system of language cannot be characterised in isolation from a context of discursive circumstances which situate us [and that] each and every instance of consciousness or utterance is framed by a specific situation” is one which speaks to the concerns of Reception theory (Fish in Freund 109):

We are never not in a situation. A statute is never not read in the light of some purpose. A set of interpretive assumptions is always in force. A sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one . . . No sentence is ever apprehended independently of some or other illocutionary force. (Ibid)

Positing a specific conceptual framework in the light of which a text is understood, Reception theory examines how a work is received by its audience. On the basis of changing communal responses to the work and informed by intertextual placement, textual positioning, economic and production factors, Reception criticism examines the transforming interpretation of a work over time as the ‘communal horizon of expectations’ of the audience change and are informed by other readings. This is a methodology which examines how a text is culturally positioned (by reviews, critical interpretations, and intertext) and therefore read, and how individual readings inform (or dictate) subsequent readings. In many ways Reception methodology, at least in its various mission statements, is more sensitive than Reader Response to the pedagogical placement of the text. By asking how it is that a text makes meaning, instead of the more New Critically-oriented questioning of the text’s meaning to a particular (and lest we forget) created notion of a reader, Reception methodology makes the understanding of textual effect far more amendable to political (including both feminist and pedagogical) analysis.

Reader Response theory is a form of textual interpretation which generally places far more emphasis upon the individual reader’s interaction with text than does Reception’s notion of community. As a methodology Reader Response problematizes the ontology of textual production by examining the process of textual interpretation itself: the completion of the polyphonic text by the unstable subject. Positing the reader as an interactive responder to text, Reader Response criticism is ostensibly ideologically dependent upon recognizing the importance of the reader in the interpretation of the text. Denying Booth’s New Critical understanding that “a critic who denies the authority either of author or text is trying to fly without a supporting medium,” Reader Response questions this total reliance upon what it construes as an easily problematized support mechanism (Booth in Suleiman 42). Though specific Reader Response theories are understandably limited by specific premises about the constitution of a particular reader, Reader Response’s critical approach defines part of its mandate as an investigation of how a reader makes meaning, and, in the case of psychoanalytic Reader Response theory, even delves into theorizing about the subject which interacts with text. Reader Response theory is based upon both the reader’s seemingly ‘individual’ and idiosyncratic interpretations and a conceptualization of reading methodologies to which the reader is party when selecting a way of thinking about the text. Positing a reader who engages cultural conventions or strategies on either an individual or consensual level to structure an interpretation of the text, Reader Response’s incorporation of (or by) reading strategy operates both at the level of the linear progression of words (syntactically or grammatically through the text, or narratively, in a linear progression of the story through consciousness) and the meanings which cultural conventions ascribe to the text. Many Reader Response methodologies posit a reader who is alert to the literary status of the text and interpret according to the conventions of genre, pedagogical positioning of the author, as well as the codes which are implicit within communication, either ‘in’ the text or incorporated within the ‘interpretive strategies of the reader’. Accordingly, Reader Response and Reception are both methodologies which undertake to examine diverse branches of knowledge which both leads to their heterogeneity as well as complicates their analysis.

Included as well under the spreading umbrella of Reader Response theory, Psychoanalytic criticism focuses upon the reading subject and the desire or pleasure with which this subject approaches the text. Generally speaking, this is a theoretical position which foregrounds the reader’s subjective response to the text on the basis of his/her unconscious desire for a unified narrative or the pleasure or discomfort which is realized when particular reader expectations are either fulfilled or frustrated. Using conceptions of need and desire, identity, and the Other, psychoanalytic criticism finds the text in the patterns of the reader reading and, in the case of Poststructuralist psychoanalytic methodologies, finds the text which is the reader inscribed in the structure of the narrative text.

In many ways the reasoning behind Reader Response’s subjective approach to critical interpretation is its own best argument. Reader Response’s mandate of placing the dependence of the critical approach upon the reading subject (a stance which more traditional methods of criticism would attempt to ignore but inevitably hovers behind their work) uncompromisingly places the text in the world from which it gains its meaning. By foregrounding a self employed in interpretation, whether the implicit self as interpreter of text, or the explicit speaker in the critical work, Reader Response foregrounds a ‘readerly/writerly’ presence in criticism which is its strength and vitality. This is a positive view of a methodology, however, which because it has been much criticized contains internal mechanisms of defence. The charges of vulgar relativism such evocative, ambiguous, and (in Barthes’ sense of the word) ‘playful’ theory opens itself to have been handled a number of ways, ranging from a rousing concurrence to attempts upon the part of Reader Response theorists to ground and limit their seemingly relativistic stance by citing specific requirements of readerly competence and certification (under the auspices of the theory) a reader must maintain.

Although the attempt on the part of such theory to de-mythologize the process of textual understanding, influence, and interpretation is commendable, it leaves any reader discussing the methodology in the difficult position of having to re-examine and problematize his/her own reading and interpretation. Making a reading of literary values which transcend a merely textual interpretation (and are instead incorporated by the interpreting body of practice) is a process which demands that the reading itself remain aware of its own interpretive values. Bearing this mandate in mind I feel a need, if I am going to rationalize the use of these interpretive tools, to utilize them in my own work. By way of example, I cannot speak of political, pedagogical, or textual interpretation without addressing my own suspect textual position. I cannot in all conscience begin an exposé of audience interpretation, without speaking about my own audience, the text that I am writing, and the untenable position that I am in ideologically. I understand that this type of academic throat-clearing is often associated with any ‘theoretical’ or Poststructuralist account, but it also addresses a concern with self-reflexivity which--though this questioning rarely extends beyond the introduction of the paper--needs to be addressed and re-addressed throughout such a work’s entire structure. I have no fear that this critically self-reflexive attempt will make my argument either more objective or stronger, but it is an important way of positioning myself (especially given my analysis of Reader Response) in correspondence not only to an absence of a transcendental truth value, but in reference to a theorizing whose premises are flawed by an appeal to such verities. This description of the subjective flaws and weaknesses in the argument, the impossible chimera of objectivity (regardless of academic trappings), with its hopes of promoting further analysis (and thus conveniently preserving and perpetuating such academic work) works to foreground both the endlessness of analysis and the self-problematizing nature of Reader Response. Whether or not a theoretical stance is explicit, it has theoretical underpinnings which, to be self-reflexive (or ‘honest’ in the ancient nomenclature still in use), it must admit the ownership. Furthermore, there is a tremendous irony in discussing what text does in the world when the question of my own text’s performance remains a pertinent and unexamined question.

This determination to be as critically self-conscious as possible, however, causes me to greet this work with a great insecurity. I find myself continually re-examining the text to reiterate, or otherwise confine an endlessly sliding signifier whose vague surface constantly eludes. I have become increasingly conscious of the various stances and positions which affect my relationship to the work which I am undertaking, how ‘written’ I am, and of the manifold self-serving motivations with which I approach this work and which (institutionally) support research of this type. My status as a student in a specific pedagogical position (under the demand of thesis completion to affirm my certification, entrance into the fellowship of English studies, and the continuation of my income), my work within an institution implicated in capitalist practice, my choice of text and methodology which to interpret, and my position relative to these texts, all work to undermine narrow notions of objectivity or free agency, which analysis from the Romantics on have touted, and Poststructuralist practice has deeply problematized. Inevitably and irredeemably culturally-written, my historical, cultural frame of reference, as well as personal and public repertoires have a meaning which, I am beginning to see, confines my exclusive perception to its narrow self. This is a meaning which constructs not just what I perceive, but what I thought of as my notion of how it is that I perceived it. Even the staid and academic approach to a text, however, which seems to be controlled, scientific, and for which I have received certification,[ii] is an undertaking which is fraught with ideological implications.

Never free from ideology, and having no faith in a concept of innocent reading which compounds from a shared experience and yet remains untouched by political ideologies, I gingerly approach my text with a vision of having the tools of my craft fully in sight, and my intentions as clear as possible (or in terms of the unconscious) as clear as I wish to make them. I believe a full examination of this untenable position fully befits the entrance into a Reader Response/Reception examination of text.

A thesis exists as, and for, many (and some of them blatantly contradictory) reasons. As a document it is ideologically presented as an attempt to analyze a particular subject whose explication will prove valuable to, it is implied, a number of people, or more generously, the world. A thesis with its ideological and pedagogical constraints, authoritative stance, substantiation through its appeal to other authorities recognized by the discourse, however, works only to support, or more strongly, enforce, the ideological position of the very discourse it pretends to question (with source material from the same discourse) and ultimately undermine. This document’s status as an unpublished and generally disregarded (see the conspicuous absence of MA theses in the MLA database by way of authoritative example) text which is commonly only read by an audience of three (the three readers on my committee who are partially responsible in its outcome and therefore collude in its status as an the ideological rite of passage) undermines its pedagogical and ideological positioning. Existing to prove student certification and as a task for the completion of which one is to enter into the academy, a thesis endures for a score of reasons institutionally which have little to do with a disinterested search for knowledge. This position is amply demonstrated by the ‘Regulations and Guidelines for the Preparation and Submission of Graduate Theses and Reports,’ a text which delivers to me the vaguely threatening message that it is to my “advantage” to follow its instructions, without which it claims, my work is “substandard, . . . unsound” and cannot be received by the academic community (1). The presentation of the enterprise itself is such ideologically that I write under a pretence of, and faith in, a scholarly interest that I have no reason to expect or meet. Thus my textual address refers not just to the vague limits of ‘good scholarship,’ but also my ideological position of completion of this rite of passage to prove my certification (to my audience of three) in the closed and subjectively validated discourse of English Letters. Bearing this somewhat negative impression of the enterprise in mind I vacillate between a reading of this work as “largely wasted energy which postgraduate students are required to pour into obscure, often spurious research topics in order to produce dissertations which are frequently no more than sterile academic exercises, and which few others will ever read” and an ideologically untenable position that this little-read document is, in some sense, monumental (Eagleton, Literary Theory 213). Psychologically, this thesis is an attempt to prove my proficiency in a practice so alienating that its little account of my presence defines hypocritically and traditionally that I must write as a generic we, instead of privileging (provisionally as I later discuss) my fictive existence with the shifter pronoun ‘I’. I employ this discourse, and this is common to academic writing, to write myself cohesive and unified, and parade that ‘implied author’ as a ghost before the text, although some of the theoretical work in which ‘I’ discuss the subject or ‘I,’ deeply problematizes such notions. The hypothetical and politically-aware stance that I am required to maintain must also remain aware that any proficiency in this particular discourse could well be turned against me, and that my careful and academically-accepted flaunting of the conventions of traditional criticism, and the highly artificial work which is the traditional construction of a thesis, could thus level against my theoretical technique those critical methodologies for which there are no real answer.

I offer this self-reflexive back-pedalling as a way in which the ‘implied’ readers of this text (my 3 committee members) may understand my ideological position in relation to the work which I have undertaken and how this influence alone precludes any chance of academic objectivity in any absolute sense. A way in which to discuss this dilemma of objectivity and ideological positioning is to examine my(?) choice of text and my position relative to it.

Though the selection of a methodology seems straightforward (in the sense that it is a choice which is easily, in Barthes’ sense of the term, naturalized), I would argue that an examination of my motivations and reasoning concerning the selection of the text through which to read Reader Response may (though in a complicated manner) both inform and problematize selection of methodology and text in general. My choice of text through which to read this methodology is much more (and paradoxically less) difficult to rationalize and comprehend than the choice of methodology itself. In this instance, selection of text is a decision which may inform our understanding of the pedagogical function of theoretical interpretation itself. I choose The Mad Trapper deliberately (in a academic sense), for reasons which are both definable (in the sense that they can be supported by some sort of reasoned or traditionally-understood argument) and never to be articulated (and thus proceed by an almost unconscious determination). The easily supportable (in the sense that orthodox interpretive technique regards and recognizes these methods as valid) academic reasons for a choice of this text are many, especially for an analysis which is concerned with audience and cultural-dependent research.

Intriguingly complicated by its diverse status as a historical document for the Canadian public, historical narrative, high and low cultural text, The Mad Trapper is a text which is rich in its cultural, historical and popular associations. As a blending of history and narrative (what Hutcheon terms Historiographic Metafiction), high art and the sub-literary ‘northern adventure’ or detective story, this text is shot through with such widely diverse texts as polemic newspaper articles, nostalgic childhood memories, popular songs, and other Mad Trapper texts including Wiebe’s own topical essays and stories, the tall tale and adventure genre, and even the ideological placement of the RCMP in Canadian society. Operating on the boundaries of literature, The Mad Trapper’s reading as history and document is also informed by the other modes in which the narrative is found: filmic versions and easily saleable narratives, all of which undermine and inform the text, and I would argue have a particular placement (for identifiable reasons) in the Canadian cultural milieu. The Mad Trapper labours under so many influences that it becomes difficult to pin it to one reading, and thus provides an endlessly fluid (though embracing elements of Reader Response methodology would require this reading of all text) text for interpretation. Examining this text’s conditions of production, and analyzing the treatment that the same narrative receives by other works upon the topic (for example, Thomas Kelly’s Rat River Trapper, Dick North’s The Mad Trapper of Rat River, Thomas York’s Trapper, as well as the filmic version, Death Hunt) is to examine the cultural positioning of what has been (strangely) a very neglected work, and ambitiously, is to make a reading of a culture and how that culture produces and understands texts.

Using an unavoidably individualistic ‘repertoire’ of reading (which, I would argue is an inevitable, though unannounced trait of all readings), as well as strategies proposed by genre, intertext, pedagogical assumptions, symbolic structures and cultural conventions, my readings of this culturally-implicated text will each inform and reread the text in the context of a given theoretical technique. By this method I hope to displace the ‘authoritative’ text, as well as problematize the function of interpretation as a pedagogical convention.

Another academic (in the sense that this reasoning can be substantiated within academic discourse) function of selecting one text to access a body of otherwise diverse analysis is a blatant appeal to particular ‘readerly’ conventions of academic discourse. Using a specific text in such a structural fashion combines what otherwise are the discontinuous and unharmonious group of elements of which Reader Response is constituted. The choice of one text through which to conduct an analysis has the narrative advantage of offering continuity, and thus operates as an obvious and device-baring (though the device is only bared to those who understand the convention being parodied or read a break in the convention as parody, which I am sure my three readers do) attempt to offer a form of artificial unity to a seemingly disparate text. The choice of text is always implicated by its correspondence to what is it that we wish to study and the ease with which it fits to the methodology, though that by no means exhausts the possible reasons for choice of text. This is a way of theorizing the place of subjective choice in the impossible objectivity of textual analysis. We find, in Fish’s sense of ‘interpretive strategies,’ only what those strategies allow, permit, and define for us to find. I would argue that this little-admitted academic constraint or controlling gesture is one to which we (my three readers and I) are all party and that this seemingly menace of classic objectivity (by exposing its technical function) is an unavoidable function of a Reader Response analysis.

Academic constraints are not the only ones which support this hypothetically objective task, however. Insidiously I (and I theorize all readers) have reasons which are less easily rationalized (and this reveals the crux of my argument about selection of text) either academically or objectively.

Through family connection I have been thoroughly inscribed in different readings, ‘tellings’ of this same general narrative of the mad trapper story. Although I (and upon this ground all is conjecture) may not be taking upon this project to bring psychic closure to the multiple reading I received during sporadic visits by Earl Hersey’s (as one of the principle players in this northern drama) folk rendering of this narrative offered to me as a child, this early indoctrination means that I cannot hope to approach the text innocently, despite all best possible intentions. I do not use my lack of innocence in my interaction with the text to woefully regret a position which might otherwise be refreshingly objective, but to foreground instead a lack of innocence in all reading. The incapacity of analysis to thoroughly guard itself against such subjective influence, or conversely, uncritical objective posturing has driven me to discuss a text for which I cannot claim innocence, but about which I am so thoroughly guilty, that I may foreground the function of the ‘guilt’ with which I am party as technique and explication. I have chosen therefore a text which has meanings for me on so many levels that I cannot claim, as indeed none of us can ‘truly’ claim, any form of innocent interpretation, but conversely expect that my pre-written interactions with the text, problematize, if not deconstruct my analysis. My position in reference to this particular text offers me a way to foreground my lack of innocence in such a way that we may come to discuss (and not to achieve a super or meta-objectivity) the thorough ‘writtenness’ or subjective screen through which both objectivity and analysis is misunderstood or deformed. In many ways (as perhaps is proper in an reading of Reader Response theory) it is the status of objective that is on trial here (not that this discussion of personal and ideological and thesis-dependent constrictions exhausts the possibilities of my thorough ‘writtenness’) not textual interpretation itself or (insidiously and inevitably) subjectivity.

This endless re-evaluation which is the function of such an analysis may even, and must be, employed on the level of language. For example, even the use of the word ‘text’ to describe the particular work I am examining implies a host of discursive preconceptions with which I view the work and are implicit in the inherent hypocrisy of the academic method--that modern discourse now contains both the reality-contaminated language of language as referent, and a meta-discursive shell of poststructural ontological disruption. The effect of such an argument supposes that we work within two discourses now. By example, I am writing to you in a traditional academic method, trusting to the transparency of the signifier and the stable relationship of signified and signifier, while all the time writing of the inherent instability of my language and discursive structure.

Caught in the conundrum of theory production, and deeply implicated by present academic practice, I cannot help but be aware that I, to maintain a competitive position in this practice, must publish (assure it is topical) and otherwise jockey for position in the academic institution.

Striving to be aware, both of the demands of the structure in which I have enclosed myself (MA degree and thesis) and the highly ideologically-suspect institution which attempts to perpetuate itself in a world in which its capitalist use-value grows quickly questionable is to write on many levels at once. I undertake an enterprise (MA Thesis, interpretation, theory) with an understanding that it is deeply inscribed in cultural, capitalist and ideological practice, and strive to keep aware of the task at hand and the ideological implications that I work inside, through, and perhaps overwhelmingly, against. I thus position this work as an example of text as well as theory, created and utilised for a host of reasons, in some senses with a strong sense of my specific audience in mind (my three readers as well as the more sloppy academic understanding that this is for all academics and addressed accordingly) and having my own pedagogical and political reasons for its creation, reception and eventual, although limited, dissemination in the world. Left as though a ‘frog under a coconut shell’[iii] with no hope of ever penetrating to the essence of a world which is beyond my scope and which I cannot hope to understand, I am left with only the responsibility and perhaps mandate of identifying the shell which encloses me and upon which I base my concept of the world.

 [i] For the purposes of this analysis, I interpret Reception theory to be a study of the rules governing audience interaction with text and not the rather limited alternative definition it receives at the hands of rigorous historical readings such as Richard Holub’s survey of classical Reception theory: Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction, a work which concentrates solely upon those theorists associated with the German Konstance school of self-declared and organized Reception theorists.

 [ii] In the form of MA thesis proposal acceptance.

 [iii] A Thai figure of speech (kob ni ka la krob) used to describe a chronic narrowness of vision.

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