Moviegoers reflect about "What's going on"

Material Information

Moviegoers reflect about "What's going on" a reader-response perspective on the meaning-making experiences of individual film viewers
Weaver, Roberta Susan
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xi, 285 leaves : illustrations ; 29 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Motion pictures -- Appreciation ( lcsh )
Motion pictures -- Appreciation ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references.
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, Department of English.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Roberta Susan Weaver.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
25352756 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L54 1991m .W42 ( lcc )

Full Text
Roberta Susan Weaver
B.A., University of Denver, 1985
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Department of English

This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Roberta Susan Weaver
has been approved for the
Department of

Weaver, Roberta Susan (M.A., English)
Moviegoers Reflect about "What's Going On": A Reader-
Response Perspective on the Meaning-Making
Experiences of Individual Film Viewers
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Elizabeth Hamp-
This reader-response approach to the meaning-making
experiences of film viewers uses contemporary literary
and film theories, in combination with transcripts from
actual interviews, to describe how ten particular viewers
talk about their viewing habits and experiences. The
several interviews with the viewers, edited transcripts
of which are included in the appendix, are protocols of
limited meaning-making experiences.
According to the author's interpretation of certain
aspects of reader-response theory, film viewers'
experiences may be partially attributable to three levels

of texts which impact the making of meaning: first-level,
which is the film itself, as an artifact; second-level,
which is the viewer's created text of the film; and
third-level, which is the text of the film as modified
during viewer interactions with subsequent artifacts.
Four of the paper's five chapters include an
introduction to the thesis, which also addresses film as
an art; a survey of the literary theory preceding reader-
response theories; an expansion of reader-response
theories to encompass film viewers specifically; and a
methodology section which (1) describes the kinds of
questions asked of the ten viewers, the kinds of talking
and reading transactions they were asked to participate
in, the circumstances under which they were interviewed,
and the five specific films used as reference during the
interview process and (2) includes a section of case
studies which illustrate how the interviewed film viewers
in their own words account for their meaning-making
experiences and how those experiences may demonstate
reader-response theories at work. This application of
theory to the actual experiences of viewers provides a
test of the paper's premises and arguments. The paper
concludes with a chapter summarizing the viewers'
responses and emphasizing the reader-response
context of the study.

The form and content of this abstract are approved. I
recommend its publication.

In loving memory of my grandparents
who always demonstrated an unswerving belief
in what I could do with my writing.
Their faith and love even now
strenghten me every day.

1. INTRODUCTION...................................1
Bumpy Road Ahead: A Quest to Acknowledge
the "Reader".............................1
The Search Leads to Viewers..............2
Since This Theory Is "Reader"-Response,
Why Not Readers ?........................5
Bumpy Road Continues: Film as an Art..........7
Expanding Artistic Boundaries............7
The Camera in Art.......................14
Looking through the Window..............17
Poetry, Poet Audience, Art.................24
Beginning: Meaning and Response..............30
The Changing Audience....................... 36
Art as a Science?............................39
The New Paths: New Criticism into Reader-
Response Criticisms.....................44
Plurality and Variety in Reader-Response

Verbal Languages, Visual Images..............53
Three Levels of "Text".......................56
"Accretion by Amendment".....................67
The Making of Meaning........................74
General Overview.............................87
"What Does It Mean?"....................87
Being Cinemate "......................91
My Viewers..............................93
The Viewings and the Interviews.........94
Detailed Descriptions of Screenings..........96
Miller's Crossing.......................96
The Ploughman' s Lunch.................100
Jacob's Ladder........*................101
Under the Volcano......................104
The Viewers Themselves: Case Studies........106
The Viewers Themselves: Case Studies,
Kevin and Melissa......................165

Trends in Responses...................176
5. VIEWERS' VOICES: WHAT IS GOING ON?............187
Observations on My Viewers..................190
"What 'Is' Going On?".......................195
Does This Theory and Research
Inform Understanding?.................199
A. VIEWER SURVEYS...............................205
WORKS CITED......................................278
WORKS REFERENCED.................................281
On Criticism................................284

3.1. Visual representation of Fish's
"Is there a text..." example.....................58
3.2. A reader's meaning-making experience.............61
3.3. A reader's gestalt with a text...................62
3.4 A reader's on-going meaning-making experiences... 63
3.5 The levels of text................................64

Dr. John Lofty,
who has been, simply,
a wonderful educator and a good friend;
Dr. Liz Hamp-Lyons,
who agreed to pursue with me a project in great flux;
All ten of my articulate and voluable viewers,
who are the backbone of the project;
Dr. Suzanne Schneider,
who has provided direction on the complex issues
of texts and film media;
and my family and friends,
who have been patient in the midst of my panic
and faithful when I thought I'd lost face.
To celebrate, let's all go to a movie!

Bumpy Road Ahead:
A Quest to Acknowledge the "Reader"
The thesis which follows outlines my attempts to
understand and apply the literary conventions of reader-
response theories in a non-literary situation. The idea
that readers define from their reading their own meanings
and values, beyond any meanings or values given or
sometimes thrust on them by literary critics (and in turn
by teachers and other students and readers), has always
seemed to me obvious. But I also realized that what may
seem obvious to me is itself not obvious in the broad
literary community. So I set out two years ago to
examine the many reader-response theories and obtain,
through them, some justification for my sense of
obviousness. The more I read, the more I concluded that
certain aspects of the reader-response theories closely
describe how readers read, since in so many ways I had
experienced that kind of reading myself: the reader's
ideological assumptions, personality, background, memory,
awareness of culture and history, literary expectations,
and so on, would affect how the reader, in connecting

word to word in the reading process, would finally make
meaning of the reading. Each reader's meaning, then,
would be a subjective and continuous interaction between
the text as produced on the page and the text as re-
produced by the reader, based on aspects of his or her
self. Intrigued by this "interaction," I wanted to see
if readers could describe or even identify that exchange
of meanings in their own reading.
The Search Leads to Viewers
My continuing search ultimately has led here, to an
exploration of a different kind of reader with a
different kind of text: viewers of moving pictures.
Generally, moving pictures combine the linearity of most
literature forms with the spatiality of pictorial arts
(photography, painting). As Rudolf Arnheim explains in
Visual Thinking, intuitive and intellectual cognitions
are both required to understand linearity and spatiality.
"Intuitive cognition takes place in a perceptual field of
freely interacting forces"; the processes of intellectual
cognition, on the other hand, "follow each other in
linear succession," or what Arnheim calls "the stringing
of concepts in verbal sequences, the counting or adding
up of items, the chains of logical propositions in
syllogisms or mathematical proofs" (233). Readers of
written texts practice some of the same intellectually

cognitive processes as viewers, but less frequently are
they called upon to "read" within "a perceptual field of
freely interacting forces." Such an intuitive activity
is usually left for viewers of visual arts; though
readers may and I believe do recall and project during
the reading process, they do not have a "single"
pictorial image to reflect upon (and even one pictorial
image usually consists of several interacting images).
The combination of cognitive processes, then, seemed
in my estimation distinctly more complicated than either
process on its own. Despite that, I reasoned, the
meaning-making processes of viewers (though two-fold)
should be quite similar to the meaning-making processes
of readers. In order to pursue an examination of my
theory in real-world terms, I asked several friends, whom
I knew to be moviegoers at some level, to participate in
my research. My viewers, ten in all, watched one or more
of five specific films and participated in group or
individual discussions about their viewing experiences.
I also provided for each film several written essays
which I hoped might provoke discussion and add to the
viewers' meaning-making experiences.
By placing my viewers mostly in informal "round-
table" atmospheres, I hoped to eliminate any expectation
that I wanted them to recite the plot or execute high-

school symbol hunts. I wanted instead to convey my
desire for honest and thoughtful conversation about each
viewer's feelings and experiences during and after
viewing a film. I hoped finally that in talking about
and reading about certain films, they might vocally
demonstrate their meaning-making experiences in the same
kinds of language I would expect to hear from readers in
a reader-response approach to their making of meaning.
In the simplest terms, then, my goals throughout
this study have been two-fold: first, to discover if
actual viewers respond to films as the reader-response
theorists describe readers as responding to written
materials and, second, to attempt to trace these viewers'
meaning-making activities in relation to specific films.
The experiences of film-viewers, at least according
to the viewers I interviewed, do reflect certain aspects
of reader-response theory. A great many factors proved
to influence the way the viewers I interviewed make
meaning as they view, factors which I examine in detail
in Chapter 4. The most intriguing aspects of this study,
addressed largely in Chapters 4 and 5, have been these
interviewed film-viewers themselves. They spoke with
what seemed to me a surprising degree of openness about
very personal responses and feelings, reactions both
intellectual and emotional. This openness allowed me to

observe more and question more than I might have been
able to do otherwise.
And if the observations I made and answers I
received didn't always fit my expectations, in
retrospect, I realize, why should they? Above all else,
as the reader-response theorists reiterate in their
various fashions, people (whether readers or viewers) are
individuals, each with his or her own personality and
background and culture to influence how he or she reads
(or views). What I can do, and indeed what I attempted
to do, is account for their experiences based on what I
observe and what they tell me. That account of "what's
going on" as viewers view films is the heart of the
thesis, recurring throughout Chapters 4 and 5. Chapters
2 and 3 contain a review of the theories of literature
and of film which I used to ground my own theories of
viewers' meaning-making processes.
Since This Theory Is "Reader"-Response,
Why Not Readers?
Now, you may ask, why focus on film? Though I hope
to address that question repeatedly in the work that
follows, the most obvious answer remains: because as a
student of language I can't expect not to focus on media
other than literature. The world is changing and the
media with it. As much as anyone may mourn its passing,

print is dying. It has fallen victim to, according to
Neil Postman, "a vast and trembling shift from the magic
of writing to the magic of electronics" (13).
As a student of literature and language, I should be
prepared to accept the reality that "literature" now
encompasses all kinds of texts written, verbal, and
visual; I should know also that language is not just
words, it is communication, and communication is not
limited to a traditional understanding of literature.
The novel is now in grave trouble, not only
because of growing illiteracy but also from
the even greater threat of the more
assimilable visual arts. Man craves the
products of imagination, in one form or
another. But more and more he counts the
costs of understanding them. If you can see
something on [screen] in a couple of hours,
why waste a day or more on the complex
business of reading it in text form? (Fowles
I could be resentful of the newer light-based visual
media, as John Fowles and others like him are, and
consider them a threat or I could embrace them as just
as intriguingly complex a form of communication and
imagination as literature. Since the visual arts are not
going to disappear from the field of communication, the
wisest course is not only to accept their presence but to
explore their impact as well. My exploration, limited in
scope as it is, begins in Chapter 2.
But first, in order to refute Fowles' above

disparagement of the "more assimilable visual arts" and
establish a case for film as an art, let me explore the
nature and history of film. Once we begin to understand
the verbal and visual connections between literature and
the light-based media, we may acknowledge film's place
among the arts. Moving pictures, products of human
imagination which create new "worlds" into which
audiences may enter, often compel their readers and
viewers with a reality-effect so convincing that their
artistry cannot be doubted. "It is in the creation of
this false 'seeming'...that an art of the film first
makes its appearance" (Stephenson and Debrix 35).
Bumpy Road Continues:
Film as an Art
Expanding Artistic Boundaries
Film, certainly a newer art than literature, has not
always been an "accepted" art form. "Intellectual"
audiences, in particular, have had some difficulty
accepting films as anything more than "intellectual
demoralization" because they appeal to some immature or
corruptible, emotional center in their audiences (Braudy
Although the literate person can no doubt refer
to the emotion great works of art release in
him or her, he or she is made uneasy by an
emotional response to works that are not
clearly accessible to the older categories of
critical value. (Braudy 2)

This "uneasiness" has characterized audience
response to many new kinds of art, especially in the
twentieth century. Many artists, including the creators
of visual images, have been exploring the boundaries of
audience acceptance and testing traditional
definitions of art. Today, performance-based, multi-
media artists like Karen Finley, who in one of her
performances smears her own body with chocolate as she
sings and recites prepared dialogue (thereby combining
the visual with the verbal), raise controversy about the
meaning and purpose of art, as does a kind of "found"
art, in which cultural artifacts (children's lunchboxes,
religious relics, and the like) may be part of the
finished project.
As indicated, this controversy over a traditional
meaning of art is a fairly modern one to which many
artists in many media have contributed. In the
nineteenth century, Marcel Duchamp, a French Dadaist,
would take a "ready-made" a shovel, say, or a
urinal sign it, title it, and call it art. In the
1950s and 1960s, Andy Warhol, influenced by Duchamps and
similar artists, took "commercial art" images the
Campbell's Soup label, reproductions of the faces of pop
stars and turned those into art. At about the same
time, still photographers could finally claim their art,

largely unrecognized until then. Cristo, another
contemporary artist, who though not a photographer had to
rely on that medium in order for his work to be widely
seen, strung a red cloth across a valley and called it
Valiev Curtain. Without photographs of Valley Curtain
(art themselves?) his art had a very limited audience.
By imposing images directly on strips of developed
film, for example, and otherwise painting or altering a
negative or positive bit of celluloid, filmmakers, too,
have challenged accepted definitions of their art, which
in the eyes of many (mostly literary-oriented) critics
seems to be no real art at all. Instead, they see film
as a denial of readers' intellectual abilities. As Leo
Braudy indicates, "Here in essence is the literate
person's belief that the true appeal of films is anti-
intellectual, [a] separation of the responses of feeling
and understanding" (3). Because literature and many
other arts are often generally regarded as "intellectual"
pursuits, any sense of the "anti-intellectual" in film's
appeal has contributed to a certain lack of respect for
film's presence among other art forms. Over the past
fifty years, film has gained and also lost respect
as an art:
* In the beginning days of cinema, film's
immediately identifiable fixed iconography and

"stereotyping" of characters and situations may
seem, now in retrospect, immature and fatuous
but actually served to aid audiences in
understanding this "new visual representation
of reality" (Panofsky 290);
* In the 1960s and 1970s, college and university
students across the United States participated
in "serious discussion of good movies" as "part
of most students' undergraduate experience"
(Ebert 46), thereby elevating their experiences
of film to a level of art and intellect that in
its turn may have been over-intellectualized;
* Today, in the 1990s, with mass-produced Hollywood-
style movies dominating the domestic market
(Ebert 46), film seems again to be regarded as
a pleasure medium, unrelated to art or meaning
but nonetheless reflecting certain voyeuristic
or fantasy-fulfillment wishes in its audience.
Is film an art despite being iconographic, over-
intellectualized, or mass-produced? With "products" that
don't necessarily fit any traditionally accepted
definition of art, are Duchamp, Warhol, Cristo, and
Finley really artists? Because these artists define
their work as art, does it thereby become so? Perhaps,
but the influence of audience should not be ignored.

Without an audience who also says, "This is art" who
can say, "This changed me" is the "product" of
artistic effort really art? be complete, a work of art must sooner
or later reach out again into the real world
from which it has sprung, and touch the
feelings of at least someone somewhere.
(Stephenson and Debrix 22)
A definition of what this "touching" consists of,
however, is absent in Ralph Stephenson and J.R. Debrix's
meaning of art. There is surely more to be considered.
Ernst Cassirer provides a more detailed definition
of art:
But neither art nor language are simply a
"second nature." They are much more; they are
self-dependent and original human functions
and energies. It is by virtue of these
energies that we succeed in building up and
organizing our perceptions, our concepts, and
intuitions. In this sense they possess not
only a reproductive, but a really productive
and constructive character and value; and it
is this character that gives to both of them
their true place in the universe of human
nature. (165)
Cassirer's addition of the concepts not only of re-
production but also production and construction implies a
certain amount of meaning-making activity on the part of
artist and audience alike. With "performance" art or
"found" art or "ready-made" art, with painting or
photography or film, the real criteria for "art" seem to
be that art, perhaps, reproduces but with production
(creativity) and construction (effort). In those

respects, as Cassirer seems to indicate, almost any
activity could qualify as art, so long as the artist
herself classifies her activity as art and/or the
audience accepts it as such.
Can critics and theorists produce a more definitive
definition of art? They can try, but the subjective
nature of "art" further implies that there is no one,
right answer, just as the reader-response theorists claim
in literature. Cassirer may continue on the subject of
Art does not deceive us by a mere
phantasmagoria of words or images. It enchants
us by introducing us into its own world, the
world of pure forms. ...the artist
reconstructs the world. That is the real power
that we find in every great genius of art.
Stephenson and Debrix also may elaborate further: is a process in which the artist makes
use of his experience, intuition, or
inspiration, selecting and arranging it to
create beautiful and true artistic objects
which to a greater or lesser extent imitate
"reality"...and...through these objects he
communicates his experience to an audience.
Are their definitions any more "correct" than anyone
else's? From a reader-response perspective, each member
of an audience has his or her own definition, which may
or may not be modified by any other definitions.
But this need for "reality" imitated does appear
quite often in discussions of art, particularly in

painting of certain pre-camera periods, in photography,
in film, in literature. Its capacity to produce a
semblance of reality, in fact, seems to distinguish film
as an art unique among most other arts, since film-
viewers are invited, coaxed, compelled to regard the
moving picture as a kind of reality, a reality they
usually have no hesitation in accepting. As Braudy says,
the difficulty with film is not accepting the seeming
reality of the screen world, "it is extracting yourself
from the cinematic illusion that is so much more
believable than your normal life" (73). And critical
impulses either for or against imitation can be traced
back to Plato, as will be seen in Chapter 2.
Among the stirrings that make human beings
create faithful images is the primitive
desire to get material objects into one's
power by creating them afresh. Imitation
also permits people to cope with significant
experiences; it provides release, and makes
for a kind of reciprocity between the self
and the world. At the same time a
reproduction that is true to nature provides
the thrill that by the hand of man an image
has been created which is astoundingly like
some natural object.... In practice, there
has always been the artistic urge not simply
to copy but to originate, to interpret, to
mold. (Arnheim, Film 157)
This is the artistic tension: to imitate, but also to

The Camera in Art
Perhaps a desire to reconstruct the world or to
capture a beautiful reality finally did lead to the
development of the camera and then of moving pictures.
As Louis Menand argues, it certainly wasn't entirely a
scientific pursuit, since the cultural aspects of moving
pictures were quickly exploited: motion pictures became
"a new entertainment medium," not a scientific instrument
(26). Budding makers of motion pictures, not yet
artists, wanted to create a semblance of reality that
would amaze and confound audiences.. They succeeded; the
semblance was so convincing, early screen audiences would
duck in fear at the "sight" of an approaching train.
Once film became film art and audiences more inured to
the magic of moving pictures the attempts to reproduce
reality were directed toward camera tricks and editing.
A film art developed only gradually when the
movie makers began consciously or unconsciously
to cultivate the peculiar possibilities of
cinematographic technique and to apply them
toward the creation of artistic production.
(Arnheim, Film 35)
A change in a medium of communication usually results in
shifts of this sort: painting experienced a similar shift
of emphasis with the introduction of perspective and
again with the invention of the camera. As the methods
for creating the images changed, so could the images

For centuries prior to the invention of the camera,
which could freeze what the eye sees into a framed,
ownable bit of reality, paintings "duplicated" the world
as the painter saw it. By introducing perspective during
the Renaissance, painters gave spectators the sense of
being center of the universe, all reality leading to this
focus. Is it only coincidence that our modern version of
theater and drama also arose out of the Renaissance
preoccupations with humanity and the physical world?
More likely, perspective in painting and the ingenious
placement of humanity and its many actions on a stage for
observation, participation, and empathy from an audience
indicated a growing artistic awareness that audiences
wished to be involved in art, to be at the "center" of
art, to be caught up by art and represented in it.
Though modern audiences have continued to make such
demands on art, painters in particular would eventually
decline to fulfill expectations. The camera, serving as
it does to "freeze time and space," alters how people
understand the concepts of time and space.
Every culture codifies the significances of
not only objects and behaviors but also of
time and space. The world encountered by the
poet, the novelist, and the filmmaker is
prestructured by his culture; and he cannot
ignore cultural significations if he is to
communicate. Without such pre-signification,
neither films nor books would make much sense
to their audiences. What we see is already a
universe of significations. (Eidsvik 310)

Time and space in literature are immortal, because books
are artifacts; time and space on film are also captured
and held. In still photographs, the single image is
locked into a frame; with moving pictures, the
progression of images occupies a time and space of its
With the introduction of the camera, painters and
spectators both began to see "reality" differently. The
focus of certain arts shifted: painting moved toward
impressionistic representations of the world; photography
moved, through the development of moving pictures and the
additions of sound and color, toward more and more
realistic representations of the world. "The camera
and more particularly the movie camera demonstrated
that there was no centre" in the photograph (Berger 18)
for an audience to occupy. Photography and moving
pictures decenter the audience by "mechanically"
reproducing "reality." But moving pictures in particular
also provide their audiences with a "sublime" experience,
one very similar to what the Romantics attempted with
their poetry:
...the cinema grew directly out of the
aesthetic aspirations of the nineteenth
century, and it responds to a very nineteenth-
century yearning: the desire to experience a
sensation that is the equivalent of an

intensified, exalted, and perfectly formed
microcosm of experience itself. (Menand 26)
Moving pictures seem real.
Looking through the Window
The two-dimensional, "edged" surface of film, often
physically framed in the case of a photograph, more
symbolically framed by the black space surrounding the
screen in the case of moving pictures, creates a window
into a world inaccessible to the audience except on a
visual (and with moving pictures, partially verbal)
plane. The frame, physical or symbolic, asks audiences
to look, to watch, but not to project themselves through
the window into the world beyond. Very often, after they
have mentally removed the frame, audiences do project
themselves into the film world, but this is only possible
once they have acknowledged the existence of the frame
and then proceeded to ignore it. This is not to say that
photography and filmmaking do not emotionally involve the
viewer. It would be naive indeed to imagine so, since
images, narrative or news-related, "faithfully recorded"
on film can be enormously moving, arousing anger,
admiration, antipathy, excitement, tears: Robert
Mapplethorp's controversial photographs of unclothed and
semi-clothed human bodies; Star Wars' Luke Skywalker
rescuing Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader's

torture chamber; the famous Life photo of the returning
World War II GI kissing a nurse amidst chaos around him;
jumpy, obviously unprofessional home-movie footage of the
assassination of John F. Kennedy.
But the frame around (and sometimes within) the flat
or projected image puts a distance between the audience
and that image a distance not present between reader
and novel or reader and poem. The reading of literature
is not limited by a "frame," as is the viewing of photos
and films; literature has no boundaries of visual
perception, simply because the visual in literature is
internally evoked by the reader. Film-viewers,
especially, are provided with the visual faces,
bodies, mannerisms for the characters; carefully detailed
and researched sets for the action; and, of course, that
frame beyond which nothing can be seen. Viewers'
"impression (quite a dark theater) that nothing
takes place outside the unfolding work is sustained by
images of spatial completion and emotional satisfaction"
(Affron 36). Filmmakers work very hard to achieve this
"spatial completion and emotional satisfaction"; none of
it just happens. Actors perform their roles (which means
not only their physical presence and mannerisms but also
their voices, an addition of the sound element that only
serves to make the actor's character even more "real");

innumerable designers and dressers prepare the sets; the
director and cinematographer determine angle, lighting,
lens, camera distance, camera movement, and so on, for
every scene. The still photographer's job is just as
involved, if on a smaller, more individual, scales even
with "still life" subjects, the photographer has dozens
of choices to make and people to consult; with live
models, those choices and consultations become more
pressing. The production of visual information within a
photograph or film requires the concentrated artistry of
dozens of people, on film, behind the camera, on the set,
in the developing and editing rooms.
The results of this collaborative effort? A single
photograph (or series of photographs) or a complete
narrative (or sometimes non-narrative) film. Though
photographs are individual units "the need to make one
statement" (Braudy 37) films are "moving pictures"
which typically combine the sequential approach of most
literature with the visual impact of photography and
paintings. Film is both linear (scene following scene,
cut spliced to cut) and spatial (each frame, each scene,
each cut is an image in and of itself, to be perceived as
And the impact caused by the presence of the frame,
especially in the dark movie house where the only visual

appeal comes from the projected light of the film,
shouldn't be discounted, as Charles Affron noted above.
At the theater, in a museum, even at home watching
television, a viewer has endless opportunities to change
the concentration of his or her gaze. In films,
especially those films seen "on the big screen,"
opportunities exist within the frame for directing the
gaze, but those dozens of filmmakers nonetheless
manipulate the viewer's gaze by limiting the
opportunities. The artistry in filmmaking, like the
artistry in photography, is essentially the skilled
manipulation of the image. And whereas the artists exert
the manipulation, viewers interpret it.
The better one reads an image, the more one
understands it, the more power one has over it.
The reader of a page invents the image, the
reader of a film does not, yet both readers
must work to interpret the signs they perceive
in order to complete the process of
intellection. (Monaco 128)
The camera, though mechanical in nature, is not
really art-less. It aids artists photographers,
filmmakers in the creation of their art. Like a
writer's pen or typewriter, the camera serves as a tool
by which the artist may produce artistic works, products
which audiences will see and, hopefully inevitably,
respond to. Such "seeing" and "responding" are important
to the audience experience, but they are even more

essential to the meaning-making experience as the reader-
response theorists understand it. Just as a reader might
see the words on the pages of a novel and read them in
order to be a reader of that novel, so might a viewer see
an actual still photograph and "read" the images within
it. Of course, the photograph, unlike the novel, has no
particular language with which to "tell" itself. There
are no words to read, unless the photographer or
someone else such as an editor or critic has added to
the images of the photograph a title, a caption, an
explanation. Such an addition would influence a viewer's
perception of a photograph with a second layer of text on
which to respond: the photograph plus the words
accompanying it.
John Berger argues clearly in Wavs of Seeing that
the addition of words does change how a viewer will view
an image. His example: a reproduction of a Van Gogh
painting, placed on the right-hand page with only white
space surrounding it; on the next page, the same
reproduction with the words "This is the last picture
that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself." The
viewer's initial impression of the un-captioned
reproduction is altered by the words which accompany the
second reproduction whether the words accurately
reflect information about the image, whether they reflect

(or not) what the viewer may have been thinking of the
image, whether the viewer even considers the words
pertinent to the image. "It is hard to define exactly
how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they
have. The image now illustrates the sentence" (Berger
28) .
This addition of the verbal affects images in modern
sound-era films as well. Films are accompanied by words,
are changed by them and, as with the.painting of Van
Gogh, the viewer determines how. With these "non-
intellectual" arts such as photography and filmmaking
(which are not non-intellectual at all, as we have seen),
viewers it seems have always had more control over the
meaning of the images they see than readers have had over
the literature they read. In the past with moving films,
the images have taken precedence over the words, and
films have fallen victim less often than literature to
some "inherent-meaning" approach. Of course, viewers
don't have a half century of literary theory driving them
toward discovery of a meaning. Readers do, especially if
they have been exposed to or have even been indoctrinated
with the notion that meaning is somehow inherent in an
art work. The struggle to shake that notion has been a
fairly recent one. The long path that has finally led to

a focus on readers' acknowledged responses is described
next, in Chapter 2.

Poetry, Poet Audience. Art
The many critical approaches to the art of
literature seem overwhelming: the attempts of Western
culture to explain its art, and somehow, to one extent or
another, itself, seem innumerable. Literary theorists
have always struggled to place the elements of
criticism the work, its author, its audience, the
universe in which it exists in relation one to the
A critic tends to derive from one of these
terms his principal categories for defining,
classifying, and analyzing a work of art, as
well as the major criteria by which he judges
its value. (Abrams 6)
The elements of criticism, therefore, must have a
critic to manipulate them. And in modern usage, the term
"critic" implies acts both of judgment and interpretation
("defining, classifying, analyzing") on the part of a
scholar or more general writer. The term, though not
specifically delineated as such by Abrams above, also
implies a knowledge of the work of art and of its
circumstances beyond that available to the work's
ordinary audience. In other words, the "critic," because

he or she has knowledge and understanding specific to the
work, somehow also has the privilege of judging and
interpreting it. From about the mid-nineteenth century
until the last thirty years or so, this definition of
"critic" prevailed in literary theory, in classrooms of
literature, even (because of how people learned
"criticism" in school) in friendly discussions of books
and movies. This kind of critical community had secured
for itself a place in literary theory that seemed
unlikely to shift. There was no concern, it seems, to
value anything (audience least of all) other than the
subjective work of art. But because the elements of
criticism actually include the work, its author, its
universe, its audience and its critics, the critic's
place has proved no more secure over time than that of
any of the other elements. The role of criticism, like
the purpose of art and the meaning of art, has evolved
over time.
For many twentieth-century theorists like the New
Critics, the foundation of criticism did reside and in
many ways does still firmly in the work of art itself,
with nominal consideration for the author, the universe,
or the audience. The most recent twentieth-century
theorists, however, have been approaching texts and the
criticism of literature from the perspective of the

audience, establishing a series of literary theories
which are summarized by the terms "reader-response" or
"audience-oriented" criticism. Such reader-response
theorists are attempting to describe and explain the
reading and meaning-making experiences of readers in ways
which seem almost dichotomous to the theories of the
formalists and the New Critics who have so far placed
their critical trust in the interpretation of "objective"
texts rather than in the experiences of "subjective"
readers. Because of this emphasis on the reader, these
audience-oriented theories in many ways also seem
dichotomous to the critical thinking of several
centuries' worth of "literary" critics dating back to
Plato. But no matter how dichotomous reader-response
theories may seem as compared to more dominant literary
theories, they derive some of their impetus and elements
of their direction and focus from the critical thinking
that precedes them. The critical paths leading from The
Republic to the Romantics to "reader-response," and
various points in between, may not be direct or
continuous ones, but the sources and foundations of
audience-oriented criticism can be traced and detected
along such paths. Those other paths provide the
Literary theory in general may not have evolved

along any predictable paths but it has certainly followed
ones which provide intriguing glimpses of humanity's
attempts to represent itself, both in its art and in its
awareness of that art. Many of these paths, of course,
search for a findable "object" which the artist (poet,
novelist, dramatist, actor, painter, and so on) and the
art (poem, novel, play, performance, painting) somehow
represent and reveal. Such paths, more or less
objective, focus on the work of art and occasionally on
the author or the author's world as their sources of
critical examination. The role of the audience is
largely ignored along these paths until the middle of the
twentieth century, when reader-response theorists of
literature begin to find paths of their own,
interconnected, intersecting and, sometimes, parallel
Literary theory has required several hundred years
to arrive at the particular set of theories in which the
audience not the text, not the world, not even, in
many theories, the author determines its own meaning,
providing its own interpretation of literary texts. Such
audience-oriented theories have not been voiced lightly;
they rely, as already indicated, on hundreds of years of
critical thinking, each thinker providing the foundations
for later support or the particulars for argument and

refutation. Sometimes, these arguments have centered
around a developed perspective of the purposes of
literature, sometimes around a location of the elements
of criticism.
* Does literature represent nature? (For Alexander
Pope, literature should contain the truth and
candor of nature.)
* Reflect it? (Percy Bysshe Shelley holds up his
"mirror" to produce the beautiful in nature.)
* Effect societal change? (Samuel Johnson would
certainly have it that way.)
* Derive from the author's unique imagination? (Sir
Philip Sidney viewed poetry as an imitation of
the imagination.)
* Instill an emotional, personal response in the
reader? Just how important is this "reader,"
To many reader-response theorists, without the reader
there is no text, no author, no world this reader,
understandably, is more important than anything else.
And this reader's response? Also integrally important.
Only by examining the course of literary theory do
contemporary students of literary theory, themselves
presumably interested in the changing roles of theory and
criticism, begin finally to comprehend the variety and

complexity of their chosen topic. Issues which may seem
clear in the twentieth century appear muddied in ancient
or Renaissance thinking, perhaps. Concerns which arise
for the Romantics and the Victorians seldom seem
overwhelming to the formalists or the New Critics. And
the Augustan satirists certainly define the purposes of
poetry ("the work of art") from a perspective different
from almost anyone else's. Just as the purposes of
literature have changed over time, just as Abrams'
elements of criticism have shifted in importance, so too
have the roles of criticism and the definition of words
like "meaning" and "response" changed and shifted under
the aegis of the various literary theorists.
These two terms, "meaning" and "response," are
especially important to understand for those interested
in the "reader-response" theories of "meaning-making"
experiences. But, as Jane P. Tompkins argues in her
essay "The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of
Literary Response," the definitions given these two terms
change drastically depending on the critic: the ancients
(Plato, Aristotle, Horace), the Renaissance critics
(Sidney), the Augustan satirists and their critics
(Pope), the Romantics (Shelley), the Victorians (Oscar
Wilde), the eighteenth-century (Lord Karnes) and modern
formalists (I. A. Richards, T. S. Eliot, the New

Critics), and contemporary reader-centered theorists
(Wolfgang Iser, David Bleich, Louise M. Rosenblatt)
define meaning and identify response in ways specific to
their theories or manage not to acknowledge them at
all. These two issues, which in their applications help
differentiate the literary theories one from the others,
most impact the eventual development of audience-oriented
theories: deconstruction, feminist, Marxist,
psychoanalytic, phenomenological, rhetorical, and
historical, to name the most pervasive.
Beginning: Meaning and Response
Plato, for example, in The Republic regards art as
imitation (mimesis) of something which already exists in
nature and nature, in turn, is itself a representation
of what for Plato is the ultimate reality (and what might
be termed the "universe" aspect, using Abrams' categories
from above). Because such art is twice-removed from its
source ("ultimate reality"), Plato does not value it as a
tool in his quest to attain that ultimate reality: art is
imitative of something which Plato feels should not be
imitated, because then the audience may believe in the
"reality" of the "copy." Since "truth," as Plato would
have it, belongs only to the universe of ideals, art
creates an artificial universe of ideals that cannot be

"truth." Plato's placement of "truth" in this world of
ideal forms, this ultimate reality, indicates his belief
in this world's constant objective reality.
What is more important to Tompkins' argument,
however, is that Plato's theory discusses not the meaning
of art, but the effect of imitative art on the behavior
of art's impressionistic audience, "Response, to Plato,
means the effect that discourse has on human behavior.
What matters, ultimately, is the behavior, not the
discourse" (Tompkins 205). Plato provides what appears
to be one of the earliest sources for "the idea that
Truth is One unambiguous, self-consistent, and
knowable [which] has a long and venerable history in
the West" (R. Crosman 162). For Plato, then, "universe"
appears to be the principal category influencing his
theory of art. But since Plato does not view art from
quite the same perspective as do modern theorists, who
for several decades have been concentrating their studies
on the "meaning" of art, rather than its effects, he
means something different by "audience reaction" than do
modern theorists.
For Plato, the poet is a dangerous purveyor of the
power of language, someone who attempts to convince his
audience of the "reality" of the "copy." The poet tries
to affect the actions of his readers, of the whole of

society, with his words. Modern theorists, less
interested in behavior, concentrate on a search for
meaning that may center in the text itself and not on the
effects of the text. The differences here have to with
the emphasis on effect or, as with most modern literary
theorists, on interpretation, whether of the text
directly or of the response of the reader upon reading a
When the literary work is conceived as an
object of interpretation, response will be
understood as a way of arriving at meaning, and
not as a form of political and moral behavior.
(Tompkins 206)
For example, New Criticism places interpretation and
meaning in the text; reader-response criticisms place the
meaning-making experience, the interpretation, with the
reader; Plato did not place interpretation or meaning-
making anywhere at all.
After Plato and other early critics such as
Aristotle and Horace, the view of art remained somewhat
stable, though Aristotle instilled an element of
recreation, which Plato never allowed, to the vision of
art's purpose. Horace progressed along the same line of
thinking even further by adding didacticism to
Aristotle's delight. However, neither critic denied the
imitative nature of art. That remained for critics to
introduce much later, after art has become a product of

the Romantic poet's divine muse and "spontaneous
overflow" of expression. During the Renaissance,
however, writers continued to describe art in terms of
mimesis. of imitation. Like the works of Plato and
Aristotle, Sir Philip Sidney's "An Apology for Poetry"
maintains the imitative qualities of the work of art but,
unlike Plato, he does not regard "imitation" as "lie."
For Sidney, the imitation is not a copy of nature or a
copy of some world of ideals, but is instead an imitation
of imaginative products of the poet's mind ("Defense of
Poesie," referenced in Adams, Interest 25-26). The poet
never lies with his art of imitation because he is not
attempting to speak truth (Adams, Theory 168): he is
reproducing an art created from his imagination, not from
an "objective reality." Most Renaissance writers, in
fact, were using their art in subjectively real, "socio-
political" atmospheres, carrying out social transactions
between poet and patron/audience, for example, or using
art as a form of influence, expressing "an attitude
toward real persons and events praising, blaming,
memorializing, petitioning, thanking" (Tompkins 208).
Response, then, is as important, if not more so, to
the Renaissance poets as to the ancients. Plato,
generally deploring the responses evoked by art, sees
those responses as "ruinous to the understanding of the

hearers" (Adams, Theory 33); Sidney expressly wishes to
evoke responses, but "audience" ones rather than
individual ones. Renaissance poets "value poetry for
what it can do, and especially for what it can do for the
aristocracy it serves" (Tompkins 208). Such poets
perform a specific service for a preordained audience, an
audience very often present as a body when the poet
presents his poem and from whom he anticipates a response
not an interpretation of meaning. The social purpose
of the Renaissance writers and the sense of imagination
and creation never arose for the ancients and is indeed a
departure from the thinking of Plato, one which marks a
distinct branch in the paths of literary theory.
Sidney's "path" does not burden the poet, since the poet
uses an imaginative mind to produce a social art, with
the need or desire to access an objective truth. Sidney
does not address "meaning" in the sense understood by
reader-response theorists, because meaning for them is
derived from a personal response, not the collective
"audience response" typical during this period.
Nor is an Augustan satirist Pope, perhaps
searching for objective truth when such a poet conceives
of his poetry "as a missile designed to inflict damage on
the objects of its ridicule, and to rouse public opinion
against them" (Tompkins 212), tailoring the verse to a

particular person or situation in much the same way the
patron-sponsored Renaissance poets did, but for rather
different purposes. When the poet is seeking a specific
audience reaction from a specific audience, toward whom
and for whom he has directed his poem, as the Renaissance
and Augustan poets did, then the artist expects to arouse
reactions in his audience not of individual, interpretive
response but of behavioral action. Once again, response
is not a product of an individual meaning-making
experience; but, on the other hand, since the satiric
poem is no longer restricted to an aristocratic audience,
response encompasses a larger, more societal audience in
Augustan terms than it did in Renaissance ones.
The work of art, however, was at just about the same
time extending into a realm of "feeling" and "meaning"
where the audience would expect to experience an
aesthetic reaction. As eighteenth-century formalist
theorists conceive of the term, aesthetics is "the study
of the perception and evaluation of works of art,"
transformed to a "higher plane" of understanding which
draws on the universal laws of the mind and makes of art
a science (Tompkins 215). But just as the formalists are
asserting the "science" of literary criticism, literature
is finally becoming the recreation of the masses. With
the advent of commercial printing presses and a growing

literate population, literature "assumes the fixed
condition of print. The literary work becomes endlessly
reproducible, available to anyone who can read" (Tompkins
214). This shift, which begins to occur in the second
half of the eighteenth century, becomes more an issue
with the Romantic poets almost a hundred years later.
The Changing Audience
The Romantics derive their concepts of poetry and
literature from the idea that the work of art is a
created object from the artist's imagination (poeisis).
which also plays a key role in how Victorian literary
theory develops. But the Romantic emphasis on the poet's
rejection of intellect and expression of self an
emphasis that essentially denies the need for an
"audience" results in a literature of intensity that
does not address a "known" audience. (Because of the
advances in printing and literacy, the Romantic poet did
not "know" his audience anyway and, unlike his
predecessors, could not address a particular patron or
monarch.) This literature evokes a response, yes but
the poet cannot know who his reader will be, cannot be
party to the response, and, because of these
prohibitions, cannot (indeed does not wish to) influence
behavior in the manner of some earlier poets.

...once authors become dependent for their
means of support upon the sales of their
printed work, the personal relation to their
audience is severed and the relationship
becomes more purely economic. (Tompkins 214)
In addition to providing a printed literature, the
latter half of the eighteenth century introduces the
"literature of feeling" sentimental and Gothic novels,
poetry of sensibility in which writers are producing
an art "designed to give the reader certain kinds of
emotional experience rather than to mold character or
guide behavior" (Tompkins 214-215). Such a desire to
give an emotional experience cannot rely only on mimesis
for its effect; a deliberate creation of the writer's
mind must also be involved.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the desire
to provide an emotional experience has moved beyond just
"literature of feeling." The poet may now express, in
harmonious and aesthetically pleasing sounds, the true,
the beautiful, and the good. The poem evokes a
"feeling," just as it was expected to do earlier, but not
so much sensitive, sentimental or supernatural feelings
as a more distanced, aesthetic, "art because it is
beautiful" reaction. Such a change in the circumstances
surrounding the reading of a poem could not help but
change the way the poem is written and received: poetry
is deified. Although for Percy Bysshe Shelley in "A

Defense of Poetry" poetry is still a form of imitation
a mirror he perceives it as indeed something divine
and poets as the "unacknowledged legislators of the
world" (Adams, Theory 513). In giving poetry the persona
of a mirror, reflecting a beautiful, idealized version of
life which without the poet is normally distorted,
Shelley maintains the aspect of mimesis seen in the views
of literature which have preceded him. But by also
attributing a divine expression of eternal truth to
poetry, he is following another aspect, that of objective
reality. In many ways, Shelley proves to profess a view
of literature which is ideologically similar to the views
of the ancients. What is new to the Romantics, however,
is the element of divine inspiration without which the
Romantics could not have been the poets they were.
As Tompkins describes the criticism of Romantics
like Shelley, such critics utter "nervous proclamations
that literature is a universal force for good with power
over the hearts of millions" (218). Although the claim
for such power suggests the concern with effect typical
of the Renaissance and Augustan poets, the Romantics,
realizing they lack the ability or the will to effect
social change or even social concern, also lack the
certainty to assert belief in such power with confidence.
The Romantic critic's somewhat wobbly desire for a "power

over the hearts of millions" actually views response in a
newly personal way, as the psychic reaction of an
individual, not of all hearts collectively. This shift
in critical thinking, parallel to the shift in literature
itself from dedicatory and socially satiric to impersonal
and privatized, moves "from literature's social and moral
effects and toward the psychology of reading" (Tompkins
215). No wonder the Romantics seem a bit hesitant not
only do they claim a divinity for their art but their art
is part of a strange new world of individual readers.
Art as a Science?
For Oscar Wilde writing "The Decay of Lying" in the
late nineteenth century, individuality is very much a
part of his philosophy of art: egotism, he says, is the
result of indoor living, where man creates his own beauty
and comfort clearly Wilde's preference because, on the
other hand, outdoor living (nature), actually denies a
person's individuality by being indifferent (Adams,
Theory 673). Wilde's ironic dialogue, which finally
insists that life imitates art rather than the other way
around, develops a literary theory in which the "lie" is
cherished as the means by which inchoate nature is made
both beautiful and comfortable. Vivian, the
personification of the artist (and, largely it seems, of

Wilde himself) at his most cynical, describes lying as an
art on a par with poetry (Adams, Theory 674), but, he
qualifies, as an art that is decaying literature, he
indicates, tries to be too realistic, too truthful,
instead of beautiful. The lie gives beauty to the
Why does Wilde talk of art as lying? Because
he recognizes the dominance in his time of
scientific and discursive modes of
structuring...reality, and he wishes to
attack this dominance in his view a
terrible imbalance by the shocking
inversion of normal terminology. If
naturalism and science bring truth, then art
brings lies, and Wilde chooses lies. Who
wants truth? (Adams, Theory, introduction to
Wilde 672)
The idea of art as a science, introduced by the
formalists in the eighteenth century, developed
concurrently with other literary theories. These
theorists (Lord Karnes, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, and
others) advocate aesthetics and that "higher plane" of
understanding described by Tompkins above.
Patiently and systematically, Karnes constructs
[in Elements of Criticism! a detailed theory of
the relationship between language and emotional
response, not to urge the noble uses of poetry,
but in order to enlarge his reader's
understanding of a new subject. (Tompkins 215)
Formalist thinking, which emerged just after a period in
history in which physical scientists claimed objectivity
and distance from the sources of their study, approaches
literary criticism as if it were indeed a science. Such

an objective approach, termed an "objective paradigm" by
David Bleich in Subjective Criticism, assumes "that all
observers have the same perceptual response to a symbolic
object creat[ing] the illusion that the object is real
and that its meaning must reside in it" (Bleich 98). The
objective paradigm as described by Bleich requires that
responses to literature be as absolute and reproducible
as experiments in science presumably are, and that
meaning be recognized as an answer rather than a
The kinds of experience that come under
scrutiny experiences of the sublime, the
romantic, the picturesque, the pathetic, the
beautiful have little to contribute to the
making of better citizens. (Tompkins 216)
According to formalist theories, those experiences don't
"contribute" they create an "object." Gone is the
literature of change and reform. In its place is a
literature of emotion, but not of humanity. The emotion
is a product, not really a feeling.
For the formalist critics, emotions "are considered
desirable and interesting in themselves" (Tompkins
216) though they certainly don't produce "better
citizens," they do produce the desired object the
emotion. The poem becomes a kind of ineffectual icon
which represents a source not necessarily of goodness and

beauty (humanist concerns), but of scholarly and
scientific study.
Yet at the very time when [Karl] Mannheim,
[Sigmund] Freud, and the physical scientists
were looking to subjective forms of thought to
better authorize knowledge, criticism turned in
the opposite direction, emphasizing the
"scientific" attitude, featuring the objective
autonomy of a work of art. (Bleich 33)
Freud, for example, turned to a more subjective kind of
interpretation to analyze dreams, though he continued to
place the symbolization of dreams in an universal
context. Literary criticism, which may have appeared to
be only a step or two behind the physical sciences,
lingered on the objective paradigm rather than moving
with the sciences toward increasing subjectivity. "Only
after the objective paradigm had run its course in
critical and literary study did the subjective forms of
thought become viable" (Bleich 110).
New Criticism, of course, served more than any other
theory to root literary study in the objective paradigm,
so prevalent during the twentieth century. New
Criticism, which is less a theory of literature than a
method of interpretation, values literary constructs in
the work of art, such as complexity, irony, tension, and
paradox, over either the author or the reader.
"Interpretation," then, is the recovery of the work's
"inherent meaning," not of the author's intended meaning

or even of a reader's created meaning. I. A. Richards,
one of the most influential critics of modern theory,
feels that poetry should arose feelings in the reader
the more feelings a poem arouses and the greater the
equilibrium of those feelings, the better the reading
experience (Adams, Interests 96) but Richards also
requires that poetry, as implied by the term
"equilibrium" above, restrain such feelings and keep them
under control. Nineteenth-century critics, who try to
detach poetry from the world around it and who promote
poetry's divinity, view poetry, as Richards does, as a
way of bettering the lot of mankind.
But for Richards, that betterment is achieved
through an inert reading experience; for Shelley, without
poetry life lacks idealized beauty; and for Wilde,
without poetry ("lying"), life lacks realized beauty.
The idea that poetry is an ordering force that
can provide a stay against a world in
confusion...takes [nineteenth-century
criticism] one step further by making poetry
act not simply to purify and refine the
feelings but to neutralize them completely
through a process of mutual cancellation.
(Tompkins 220)
Richards continues this neutralizing process by defining
poems as objects with specific structures which may be
examined and analyzed; readers are too capricious in
their judgments for critics to place much faith in them
and, with readers' equilibrium of feelings achieved (see

above), critics actually need not consider the reader's
possible, individual role in interpretation. Richards'
formalist, almost structuralist, approach (along with the
work of another modernist critic, T. S. Eliot) helps pave
the way for New Criticism.
The New Paths: New Criticism into
Reader-Response Criticisms
Eliot is, strictly speaking, a pre-New Criticism
modernist, but his theories and goals fit well into the
critical thinking of the "real" New Critics: John Crowe
Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and a few
others. Indeed, Eliot seems to influence them a great
deal. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot
effectively establishes the poem as "object" while
eliminating a sense of the poet's individual talent. He
also maintains the continuity and evolution of
"tradition" by setting the artistic abilities of the poet
among the dead, with each poet modifying the tradition
for himself.
...Eliot effects two major changes in poetic
theory simultaneously. He severs the tie
between the poem and its origins more
completely than has ever been done before by
denying that there is any direct relationship
between the life of the work and the life of
its maker. And second, he transforms
Richards' theory that poetry balances the
warring impulses of the reader from a theory
of reading into a theory of the poem itself.

The poem now becomes the place of order and
equilibrium.... (Tompkins 220)
With Richards and Eliot as guides, the New Critics forged
a critical path of such influence on twentieth-century
American literary thought that its effects are still felt
every day, in discussions of literature and other arts,
all over the country. Interpretation of the "object" of
art has remained the dominant mode of critical discourse.
And, as reader-centered criticisms have evolved in the
last thirty years, they too have concerned themselves
with interpretation.
For whatever direction the revolt against
formalism may take, the assumption that
criticism is synonymous with interpretation,
the belief that the discovery of meaning is the
goal of the critical enterprise, remains
unquestioned. (Tompkins 223)
This is one of the major legacies of a quarter of a
century of literary criticism.
Finally, with the advent of reader-response
criticisms, interpretation becomes more "translating"
than "discovering." Readers and authors (and authors, in
the process of writing, are also readers of their own
work) are understood to create meaning during the action
of reading. "The text, in other words, supplies [the
reader] with words, ideas, images, sounds, rhythms, but
[the reader makes] the poem's meaning by a process of
translation" (R. Crosman 152). Crosman's "translations"

include adding to a text, subtracting from it,
rearranging it, building it into individual mental
contexts making it, ultimately, each reader's own.
For Bleich, interpretation is a judgement of meaning
which he terms a resymbolization:
Symbolization occurs in the perception and
identification of experiences; resymbolization,
when the first acts of perception and
identification produce in us a need, desire, or
demand for explanation. (39)
Interpretation, however, is not "an effort to reconstruct
the artist's original experience and the associative
communicative intention" interpretation explains the
effect of a work of art on a reader "regardless of the
artist's intention" (Bleich 89).
Wolfgang Iser, a phenomenological reader-response
critic, views the process of interpretation as a filling
in of "the gaps of indeterminacy" in a poem "gaps
which are there because the artwork never completely
corresponds to real objects" (May 1763). Additionally,
during interpretation, a reader may never exhaust the
work's full potential (Iser 55), because "the reading
experience is a dynamic interchange with the text, not a
passive experience" (May 1763). The dynamism of Iser's
critical approach transforms the interpretive process
from one of passive absorption to an intellectual

construction that moves and unfolds as the reader reads.
The reader's
initial speculations generate a frame of
reference within which to interpret what comes
next, but what comes next may retrospectively
transform [his] original understanding,
highlighting some features of it and
backgrounding others. (Eagleton 77)
Also incorporated into Iser's version of reader-
response theory is his idea of the "implicit reader" (one
who is not required to bring his or her unique experience
to the experience of reading). This "reader" supplants
the reader's experience during the reading of a poem and
seems to arrive at each new work of art as a kind of
"cultural virgin" (Eagleton 89). This implicit reader
appears unaffected by the reading process as it continues
across time and from poem to poem. Most other
response-oriented critics do not recognize such limits on
the reader's actual experiences of reading. In fact,
most theorists would allow the reader to draw on
everything he or she may contribute in the way of
predictions and recollections, assumptions and reactions,
experiences and disappointments, psychological,
historical, and sexual stereotypes and ideologies
whatever has impacted the reader as a person. From
these, readers in the audience-oriented theories create
their own meanings.
Louise M. Rosenblatt is especially eloquent on this

subject, developing in The Reader, the Text, the Poem a
context of reading that provides readers with a great
number of sources of input. All readers are actively
involved, she indicates, in building up "a poem" for
themselves out of their responses to the text: they draw
on past experience; they select from possible external
referents, searching for context; they reinterpret
earlier parts of the text in light of later parts; they
heed images, feelings, attitudes, associations, and ideas
evoked by the words and referents; in short, they select
and organize their responses out of the stream of their
lives (Rosenblatt 10-11). The meaning-making and the
actual interpretation, however, are slightly different:
the reader responds to the text and "construes or
organizes his responses into an experienced meaning....";
what the reader then interprets is the "evocation" of the
work, the reverberations of it (Rosenblatt 69-70). The
actual meaning of the work arises out of response rather
than interpretation, because interpretation occurs after
the creation of the meaning. Rosenblatt emphasizes a
transaction of reader and poem during the reading process
(the meaning-making experience rather than the
interpreting experience); this transaction certainly
includes the reader's background and prior experience.

Plurality and Variety in
Reader-Response Approaches
As has become apparent,
audience-oriented criticism is not one field
but many, not a single widely trodden path but
a multiplicity of crisscrossing, often
divergent tracks that cover a vast area of the
critical landscape in a pattern whose
complexity dismays the brave and confounds the
faint of heart. (Suleiman 6)
Indeed, as indicated earlier, there are many kinds of
reader-response theory, but each shares in specifying the
role of the reader in reading, interpreting, and/or
meaning-making. Inge Crosman usefully delineates
"headings" of reader-response theory in her annotated
bibliography (she cautions that many authors may not
practice the same "kind" of theory even though they are
under the same heading and that there are no absolute
boundaries between categories [401]):
* Rhetorical, which includes "studies with a primary
interest in the situation of communication, its
meaning, ideological content, or persuasive
force" (402);
* Semiotic and structuralist, which address "the
analysis and description of texts, the process
of reading, and the contexts in which reading
and the construction of meaning take place"
* Phenomenological, which focuses on "aesthetic

perception, the role of the imagination, and
the construction of meaning" (412);
* Psychoanalytic and subjective, which concentrate
on "how a reader's personality shapes reading
and/or interpretation" (414);
* Sociological and historical, which examine "the
reading public at a particular time, within a
given social and cultural context" (416);
* And hermeneutic, which addresses "authority in
interpretation to relativism, as in the work of
the deconstructionists" (419).
This list seems most useful in indicating the great
variety of approaches to literary criticism which may be
classified "reader-response." Awareness of this
plurality should aid students of literary theory in
understanding how pervasive the audience-oriented
criticisms have recently become and how important they
have become to the present and future of literary theory.
As Steven Lynn says in his essay "A Passage into Critical
...I am assuming that plurality is better
than unity, that the relative is better than
the absolute (or even a quest for the
absolute). And, given what we know about
language and knowing, it seems silly to me to
assume otherwise.... Obviously, if this
"reading" of meaning is correct, plurality
offers us a richer universe, allowing us to
take greater advantage of the strategies our
culture makes available strategies that do

not approach a text, but rather make it what
we perceive. (269)

This shift toward plurality that Lynn described in
the previous chapter has had great impact on many
branches of human study, though of course the study of
literature remains even now most dominate. But the range
of audience-oriented criticisms may nonetheless be used
to examine any number of art forms, from paintings to
theater and music, from still photographs to moving
Until recently, literature, it seemed, had had the
distinction of being one of the few really suitable
topics for critical analysis, even for reader-response
theorists. "Print biases are so built into literary
criticism that it is difficult to think fairly of
literature in any other medium" (Eidsvik 308). One of
the reasons that "print" is so important is that the
texts it produces are critically accessible. Charles
Eidsvik explains, "The fact that books are artifacts
which lose nothing in duplication makes print virtually
the only medium which can fare well in an aesthetic which
values immortality" (309). But the idea of audience as

central to a meaning-making experience should be
applicable to the study of any art in which a person
becomes a member of an audience, whether as a reader, a
viewer, a listener, a participant. Each member of this
audience whether the "text" as presented be a poem, a
novel, a painting, a photograph, a play, a film, an
opera, a concert is an individual with personal
responses. Though as a group an audience may have
generally similar reactions to events in a performed
play, for example, each person brings a different
background, different values, a different culture to the
audience experience and thus each will make different
meanings from the play.
Verbal Languages, Visual Images
Of course, the experience of watching a play is
never quite identical to that of reading a novel or poem,
viewing a painting or photograph, watching an opera,
listening to a concert, or watching a film. The natures
of these media are such that, even after acknowledging
certain visual or perceptual similarities, no two of
these audience experiences may be identically approached
or interpreted. Verbal language, which authors use to
create their novels and poems, is a one-dimensional
sequence: word follows word, until the author's purpose

is accomplished. Visual media, on the other hand, are
two- or even three-dimensional: paintings (and other art
forms, such as sculpture, pottery, and textiles) and
photographs are visual units in and of themselves.
A pictorial image presents itself whole, in
simultaneity. A successful literary image
grows through what one might call accretion by
amendment. Each word, each statement, is
amended by the next into something closer to
the intended total meaning. (Arnheim, Visual
The study of "literary images" is a well-documented one,
as students in any literature class could verify. The
study of pictorial images, however, has for the most part
been confined to fine arts classes, directed toward
artists rather than audiences. The visual has been taken
for granted. In fact, most viewers do not have the
background or experience to deal with pictorial images.
Literary symbol hunters often become confused
and confusing when they talk about films
because they think of their discoveries as
isolated things, copses of meaning in a
landscape of exposition. But the surrounding
world is a necessary part of the meaning of any
film object or action. (Braudy 42)
The impact of the visual is just as essential to meaning-
making in its way and within its media as the
understanding of the verbal. The "shift" toward
plurality, as indicated above, should include not only
readers and verbal texts but also viewers and visual
texts. It should, arising as it does now, in the

twentieth century and with the history of literary theory
behind it, encompass any kind of audience experience.
Verbal language and pictorial image (which actually
fuse in the production of moving pictures) might seem
almost dichotomous. The verbal has a concreteness about
it absent in the visual. A speaker, writer, or reader
can communicate in a common language because words, the
medium of the language, whether verbalized in print or
vocalized, have certain (not entirely) unassailable
meanings. Visual images do not facilitate this
convenient exchange of expression. Because their images
do not possess a verbal language common to artist and
audience alike, creators of visual images cannot be even
reasonably certain what their audiences may be deriving
from those images. In order to perceive visual images,
though, audiences participate in the same kinds of mental
processes as verbal language requires: the processes of
thinking, which "are not the privilege of mental
processes above and beyond perception but are the
ingredients of perception itself" (Arnheim, Visual 13).
In particular, "visual not a passive
recording of stimulus material but an active concern of
the mind" (Arnheim, Visual 37). That active mind, which
can process everything from verbal language to visual

image and, with that input, create on-going meaning, is
what makes reader-response theories work.
Three Levels of "Text"
But every "active mind" must have some kind of text
with which to interact in order for meaning to be made in
the ways reader-response theorists describe. Stanley
Fish is especially eloquent on the subject and definition
of "texts": across the breadth of Is There a Text in This
Class? he illustrates that term and others in the
language of a reader-response theorist. In his
introduction (1-17), Fish describes how his assumptions
in 1970 about readers and texts (derived from his
understanding of the work of other critics and theorists)
had colored any position he might take, but how over the
course of ten years, his assumptions and therefore the
kinds of arguments he might make from the basis of his
changing assumptions themselves changed.
Whereas I had once agreed with my predecessors
on the need to control interpretation lest it
overwhelm and obscure texts, facts, authors,
and intentions, I now believe that
interpretation is the source of texts, facts,
authors, and intentions. Or to put it another
way, the entities that were once seen as
competing for the right to constrain
interpretation (text, reader, author) are now
all seen to be the products of interpretation.

Although Fish is obviously still making assumptions
(as do all critics) about the relationships between
texts, readers, and authors, his approach is especially
enlightening in its argument for the "changing" text.
First, Fish allows a literary text to be "made" during
the reading process, not before or after.
...interpretive strategies are not put into
execution after reading; they are the shape of
reading, and because they are the shape of
reading, they give texts their shape, making
them rather than, as is usually assumed,
arising from them. (13)
Readers are not extracting meaning but establishing it.
Texts are no longer "entit[ies] independent of
interpretation" but entities which have emerged "as a
consequence of [readers'] interpretive activities" (13).
Texts, therefore, do not have predetermined meanings, as
some formalists would have it, nor do they somehow
"arise" from a post-reading interpretive activity, as
Fish debunks above. Instead, in Fish's view, texts are
"set" only in the sense that each text exists in a time
and place, within particular reading communities.
Mine is not an argument for an infinitely
plural or open text but for a text that is
always set; and yet because it is set not for
all places or all times but for wherever and
however long a particular way of reading is in
force, it is a text that can change. (274)
This "changing" text, then, is only a text when a
reader reads it and negotiates meaning with it; prior to

that interaction, the text is what might be termed an
artifact: a collection of words on a page, a canister of
film on a reel. Once readers enter the equation to enact
the "changes," the artifact transforms into a text, which
has meaning based on the readers and the situation. Fish
refers often to this situational meaning of texts, where
readers make certain assumptions about a text based on
the circumstances surrounding its "utterance." In
discussing the sentence, "Is there a text in this
class?," Fish distinguishes between incompatible meanings
of the word "text" derived from variations in:
* The person asking the question;
* The person asked the question;
* And the situation in which the question is asked.
As Fish demonstrates, within particular circumstances,
both the person asking and the person being asked must
share the same assumptions about the meaning of "text" in
order for their situational meanings to correspond. The
person asking the question, a student, refers to "text"
as the underlying assumptions at work in a particular
classroom; the person asked, a professor whose class she
is taking, believes her to mean a required textbook; the
situation is the classroom where she is student and he is
teacher. Confusion results when these two specific
speakers' individual meanings do not correspond, and real

understanding can occur only when each speaker recognizes
the assumptions of the other and alters his or her own
"meaning" to also encompass the other's.
Perhaps these interactions and negotiations on the
meaning of "text" will be easier to understand when
represented visually. Let Rl represent the first speaker
of "text," R2 the second; tl represents Rl's meaning of
the word "text," t2 is R2's meaning. These two speakers
exchange their ideas on the definition of "text" until
they have determined a mutually satisfying meaning, Tl-2.
This negotiating process is illustrated in Figure 3.1.
---/ Tl-2
Figure 3.1. Visual representation of Fish's "Is there a
text..." example.

The two speakers, Rl and R2, are connected by a vertical
double line, which indicates the transaction the
dialogue between them. From this transaction emerges
the mutual meaning, Tl-2, represented by the horizontal
line, broken and arrowed. Each speaker maintains a
personal definition of the word "text," represented by tl
and t2; each meaning of "text" is encompassed with its
speaker inside a large oval, which indicates that the
speaker and the meaning he or she has defined for "text"
are inseparable (though not unalterable). As the two
readers interact with each other to negotiate a mutual
understanding of the word "text," they modify their
individual meanings of "text" to create a new meaning,
Tl-2. Of course, the mutually understood meaning of Tl-2
must necessarily recognize if not encompass both
individual meanings of the word "text."
Fish's identification of the changes wrought on
language by its users arises very clearly from a reader-
response definition of meaning-making but is perhaps too
specific for application to language users other than
speakers. Fish's example with "Is there a text in this
class?" is limited because it specifically involves a
misunderstanding between two people who are speaking
directly to each other, within a real environment with
which both are very familiar. Most of the ambiguity

which exists in the conversation is erased once the two
participants arrive at a mutual understanding of the term
in conflict. This verbal negotiation of meaning is
interactive and immediate. But the "negotiation" of
meaning that two people may engage in is greatly limited
when only one reader is involved. Without the verbally
interactive component, the negotiation of meaning is much
more personal and relies less on community meanings than
on individual ones. When one individual, interacting on
his or her own with a written document, creates a text of
that document, this meaning-making experience is perforce
less situational and more personal than the meaning-
making experience between two speakers figured above.
In terms of readers and film-viewers and their
created texts, therefore, the usefulness of visualizing
Fish's example stops here, because most readers read on
their own without verbal interaction with other readers
to help them create some kind of mutually negotiated
meaning. Film-viewers, who usually view without verbal
negotiation with other viewers, are similarly alone in
their viewing. But what may be extracted from Fish's
rather complicated and multi-source negotiating process
are three elements:
* An artifact t;

* A reader R who creates meaning through interaction
with artifact t;
* And a text T that results from the interaction.
Readers are individuals whose prior reading and
experience, background and ideologies provide the basis
for their assumptions and expectations when entering into
any negotiations with artifacts and/or other readers;
artifacts may be of visual (filmic), verbal, and/or
written media; and texts are the meanings created from
such artifacts through readers' negotiations.
The isolation of three of these interactive elements
(Rl, tl, Tl), as seen above in Figure 3.1, may now be
extrapolated into Figure 3.2, which represents a single
reader's meaning-making experience with a given artifact:
Rl and tl, connected by a double two-way line which
represents the reading process, interact to produce Tl.
/ Tl
Figure 3.2. A reader's meaning-making experience.
By reading tl, Rl is in the process of "creating" Tl,
creating a "meaning" of tl. During this reading

interaction, Rl somehow internalizes and modifies tl.
Once this reading has begun, however, reader Rl is
herself modified by the meaning she is making of tl
and that meaning is represented by Tl. To indicate the
gestalt of her reading experience, now that she has read
tl and has internalized Tl, she is represented in Figure
3.3 by RTl the reader whose background now includes
created text Tl.
Now, suppose reader RTl reads a second artifact
t2. As she did in Figure 3.1, the reader will create a
meaning of it from the reading process this time, T2.
However, her experience of the previous reading may
impact the meaning she will now make of t2 and may, in
turn, also impact the created meaning, Tl, already in
place. Should she in fact further modify Tl based on her
reading of t2, then Tl becomes (Tl). Figure 3.4
illustrates the role of this second artifact in the
meaning-making experience.

---/ T2
----------/ (Tl)
Figure 3.4. A reader's on-going meaning-making
Under most circumstances, the reading of an artifact will
result in some kind of created text. Under some
circumstances, the reading of an artifact may result in
modification of a created text. Whatever the
circumstance, the reader internalizes all created and
modified texts and may use them in the creation of
further texts.
As the reader encounters each new artifact and
through interaction creates his or her own text of it,
that text becomes part of the reader's experience. These
texts may be subject to retrieval and modification during
subsequent artifact readings. Indeed, the infinite range
of created texts stretches back into the reader's past,
reflecting those aspects of previous texts which the
reader calls upon when reading a new artifact, and
extends forward with each new artifact read and thereby
absorbed as part of the reader's experience.

The levels of artifact and text with which a reader
thus interacts seem to be three: the artifact, or what
might be termed first-level; the creation of the actual
text through the reading process, or second-level; the
infinite modifications of any created text through the
reader's further interactions with artifacts, or third-
level. Figure 3.5 illustrates each level in conjunction
with the elements of Figure 3.4:
level :
modified text
Figure 3.5. The levels of text.
Three levels of text are now completely represented:
* First-level, the artifact itself tl, t2
* Second-level, the created text Tl, T2
* Third-level, the modified text (Tl)
If this interpretation of reader-response theory is
accurate (or at least on the right track) in its
assumptions about how people read, then the following
----\ Tl,
----/ T2
first- second-
level: level:
artifact text
t T

statements may be assumed as fairly representative of
this interactive reading process:
* Reading is a process, for example, of
"translating" (R. Crosman), "resymbolizing"
(Bleich), filling in "the gaps of
indeterminacy" (Iser) within an artifact
(novel, poem, essay, play, et cetera) to create
a new text.
* This new text, resulting from a dynamic and
continuous interaction between the reader and
the original artifact, incorporates the
reader's contributions: his or her predictions,
recollections, assumptions, reactions,
experiences, disappointments, stereotypes,
ideologies, and so on.
* Readers, during or after this initial reading
process, may also interact with other kinds of
original artifacts (critical readings, further
readings by the same author, or discussions
with other readers, for example) to create
additional "new" texts of each original
* Readers, continually interactive with artifacts
and created texts, are constantly adding to and
subtracting from these texts as they further

"translate," "resymbolize," and fill in "gaps."
Their backgrounds as readers and as individuals
also constantly impact the various artifacts in
the reading process.
"Accretion by Amendment"
Readers as they read seem to put words together to
form understandable units. These units, derived from the
various artifacts, allow readers to produce further texts
which they have "created" through their interactions with
artifacts. Meaning is achieved as these readers begin
making connections between the artifacts as given and the
texts they create for themselves; or, stated more simply,
in the process of creating texts, readers create meaning
as well. This making of meaning must be the end product
of any reading experience, whether of written or visual
material, and as such is integral in the interactions
between reader, artifact, and text. Meaning-making has a
symbiotic connection with a reader's created texts:
meaning cannot be made until a reader has interacted with
an artifact to create a text.
When modified slightly, these reading experiences of
textual interaction and eventual meaning-making are
possible with viewers of visual images. Such images,
like verbal language, should be understood in relation to

everything around them, Arnheim's "accretion by
amendment," which indicates that each reading is amended
by subsequent reading "into something closer to the
intended total meaning" (page xx above). The context of
an image, like the context of words in print, provides
the atmosphere in which a viewer may begin to make
meaning of the image. Meaning would arise out of the
viewer interacting, consciously and subconsciously, with
the film, in the ways described above, to create his text
of the film. Any additional artifact material later
added by the viewer critical readings, other films,
discussions, and any writing the viewer does about the
films, the readings or the discussions would create a
group of third-level texts, just as it does for readers.
As with readers, all three levels would be interactive
For example, then, a reader, bringing her "self" to,
say, The Scarlet Letter (a first-level artifact), would
create of the novel her own individual text of it her
"meaning" of it (a second-level text). As she reads more
about Hawthorne's novel, as she talks to other people
about their experience of The Scarlet Letter, as she
writes about her reading and talking experiences (all are
types of first-level artifacts), she would create more
and more involved (third-level) texts of The Scarlet

Letter that could amend each other as she moved through
the entire meaning-making process.
A still photograph, though it would consist of
images instead of words, should provide a viewer a
similar experience of interlocking levels of text and
interlocking understandings. The viewer would use the
visual images of the photograph (first-level) to form a
more or less familiar, decipherable content: a tree, a
dog, a field (second-level). As the viewer makes
personal and cultural connections (individual memory and
a broader awareness of possible symbolism and metaphor,
for example) between the photograph as artifact and what
the images of the photograph represent to him, then he
has created a second-level text of the photograph the
photograph begins to have meaning which he has defined
for himself. If he pursues his meaning-making through
reading and discussion, he should be adding third-level
texts to the two levels of text he already has, all of
which should be in constant flux.
In moving films, the equation is more complicated.
Like a novel or play, a narrative film "tells a story" in
the sense that characters are involved in a series of
events that constitute the plot. To do this, a film uses
written or verbal words in the mouths of characters
dialogue or, in the period since the introduction of

soundtracks attached directly to films themselves, voice-
over narrations. In silent films, dialogue appears as it
would in a novel written out but is then juxtaposed
with bits of the moving film itself, from one to the
other and back. Each scene in a foreign-language film
provides the dialogue written out at the bottom of the
frame, subtitles to be read during the action instead of
sandwiched between scenes. Finally, regular English-
language, sound-era films provide a synchronization of
sound and movement, so that characters speak without the
intermediary of the printed word. While this
synchronization makes.such films seem very real and
almost magical in their reality the combination of
verbalized language with visual image creates a medium
neither entirely verbal or visual: "...a moving picture,
even when it has learned to talk, remains a picture that
moves and does not convert itself into a piece of writing
that is enacted" (Panofsky 286) a film exists as a
sequence of frames in time (pictures that move), but,
though verbalized, it is not a "piece of writing."
Because in these films word and image are
simultaneous and, to make the equation even more
complicated, the word is now aural instead of visual
the viewing experience encompasses more subconscious
responses and connections than conscious ones. A viewer,

bringing his "self" to a film like American Graffiti,
would create of the film his own text of it a
"meaning" that might combine memories of his own youth
(though perhaps not in the 1960s) and his favorite car,
his best friends and his favorite Friday night hangout,
identification with the Richard Dreyfuss character's
struggle to leave the world of adolescence behind him,
awareness of the historical implications of another
character's announced intention to fight in Vietnam, and
so on. As this viewer reads critical reviews of American
Graffiti, as he talks to other viewers about their
experiences of the film and the meanings they made from
it, as he perhaps writes to a friend about seeing the
film and his responses to it, he would create more and
more involved texts of American Graffiti that would amend
each other as he, like the reader of The Scarlet Letter
mentioned above, moved through the meaning-making
With a novel, at least, a reader may say, "With this
passage I could imagine the room where the character
lived." With a film, the viewer sees such a room in
innumerable scenes, visually, not through her
imagination, and very often may not ever notice the
details of the set design. The novel's description of
the room seems to force the viewer's imagination to

create what the film simply presents in an unobtrusive
manner. But whether she realizes it or not, the viewer
surely made determinations about the room just by its
presence on the screen. The dozens of artists who
typically collaborate on the making of a film made
choices about how to represent the room colors,
lighting, design, its actual contents that contribute
to the creation of the illusion of the room's reality.
The viewer in turn somehow stores in the subconscious a
more or less limited knowledge of these choices and may
later be able to retrieve that knowledge if required. At
the same time, it would follow, the viewer would store
additional knowledge of some of the many other choices
made by the filmmakers and actors, and again retrieve it
as needed. This process of storage and retrieval is an
automatic one rising out of the viewing experience when a
person is one member of an audience, essentially alone,
with a big picture show flickering in the dark. This is
one of the most magical qualities of film, that one
person, even in the midst of a large group of people, may
become an unidentified "viewer" in communion with a
source of light. But when viewers, despite the "frame"
that constantly assures them that what they are looking
at cannot possibly be "real," nonetheless somehow believe

it is., their active minds are at work convincing them of
this reality.
This response, as demonstrated above, might evolve
from an interactive shifting between levels of text so
that viewers ultimately not only make "sense" of the film
(follow plot, understand dialogue, react to scenes of
violence or sex, empathize with particular characters)
but "meaning" as well a personal enrichment that any
kind of art might provide, an enhancement of knowledge
and awareness that may result from the culturally
oriented film medium, an emotional catharsis that is
sometimes induced by shadow plays of human activity.
According to the possible viewing scenarios already
described, a viewer, essentially alone in the dark as she
watches a film, is probably responding to and
understanding the film as a film, an artifact. As she
begins to put images and sequences together, to compare
her emotional and intellectual responses with her
developing sense of the film's plot and characters, she
should be moving beyond simple understanding into the
creation of her film. Should she add interaction with
new artifacts to her evolving meaning of the film, she
will create new texts and modified texts of the film and
of the artifacts: she will create more and more third-
level texts.

The Making of Meaning
But what exactly is this "evolving meaning" that the
above viewer develops during and after her viewing of a
film? More specific to this paper's argument, what is
meaning and how is it made? Are there different levels
of meaning that correspond to second- and third-level
texts? Yes; in Making Meaning, David Bordwell defines
four possible types of "meaning" as he applies the term
to works of art:
* Referential, in which the referents may be either
imagined or real, intratextual or extratextual;
* Explicit, which emerges from a conceptual and
abstract understanding of the work;
* Implicit, which embodies all the covert, symbolic,
and indirect themes, problems, issues, or
questions, manifest in the work;
* Repressed or symptomatic, which is a consequence
of the artist's obsessions and processes. (8-9)
The first two kinds of meaning deal with the audience's
comprehension of the work, which roughly correspond to
the creation of second-level texts; the second two with
interpretation, or the creation of third-level texts,
"...comprehension is concerned with apparent, manifest,
or direct meanings, while interpretation is concerned
with revealing hidden, non-obvious meanings" (Bordwell

2); comprehension provides the basis for interpretation.
Both activities involve, specifically, film-viewers who
must execute the making of meaning within Bordwell's
parameters. For example:
Roughly speaking, one can understand the plot
of a James Bond film [comprehend it] while
remaining wholly oblivious to its more abstract
mythic, religious, ideological, or psychosexual
significance [interpret it]. (Bordwell 2)
Most film-viewers, like most readers, seem to have little
difficulty in comprehension aspects of viewing and
reading. A basic understanding of the "language" (and
film does have a language of its own, not unlike English
or mathematics, which requires a certain level of
familiarity and literacy in order to be understood)
usually provides an adequate basis for comprehending a
film or novel. Interpretation, on the other hand,
typically requires more intellectual effort than bottom-
line comprehension. So what exactly do these activities
comprehension and interpretation entail? Viewers
seem to comprehend on a first-level basis rather quickly
and painlessly; they even comprehend on second-level with
the same ease. Only with interpreting at first- and
second-levels do some viewers seem at a loss and under
pressure to find a "meaning" an "interpretation"
that will also satisfy their comprehension.
When Norman Holland describes the making of meaning

as "almost any kind of coherent thought about the work
[that] will open up the paths of gratification, so long
as it 'makes sense' of the text" (349), then, he is
defining this phenomenon. He continues with the
following list:
Historical generalizations about period or
genre or style; the resonant pronouncements
that American Studies critics are likely to
make about the American character;
psychological comments about characters,
author, or theme; phenomenological statements
bringing out the essence of the writer's
subjectivity; statements of moral,
philosophical, or political import all are
ways different readers may "make sense" of a
text, that is, make it acceptable to the
conscious ego.... (349)
The "coherent thought" involved in these activities does
encompass both comprehension and interpretation, as
Bordwell describes, but is a more specific example of
cognitive processes at work, of an "active mind." What
Holland and Bordwell share, then, in how they describe
these cognitive processes, is an emphasis on how complex
meaning-making activities are and how various. Film-
viewers are not looking for some one, perfect meaning so
much as they are stretching the envelop of their
abilities to comprehend and interpret the films they see.
Before, in the age of New Criticism, art works were
felt to have a discoverable "meaning": readers, if they
read well enough and closely enough, should be able to
describe a novel's "meaning." Now, however, the concept

of the making of "meaning" is composed of so many
elements, several of them subjective to each viewer, that
an objective, universal meaning in an art work is simply
not possible, much less discoverable. But the lingering
bonds of New Criticism remain hard to disentangle even
from a reader-response understanding of meaning,
committed to acknowledging a reader's response.
Bordwell's term, "interpretation," still carries
overtones of the single-meaning explication so popular
with New Critics and, as Bordwell points out, film
studies at the university level are dominated by theory
classes taught along New Criticism's lines (26).
Film interpretation here does not and should not
imply the search for one interpretation, passed out by
the filmmaker, a critic, or a teacher, and imposed on
viewers everywhere. According to Bordwell,
"interpretation" involves a viewer's construction of
implicit and/or symptomatic meanings based on the film's
"textual cues" and on her own "knowledge structures" (3).
The film's "cues" initiate a viewer's interpretation (and
comprehension) activities, but the viewer's "knowledge
structures" are what allow him to actually interpret (and
comprehend) the film.
Film is so much a part of our growing up that
it seems fatuous to say we must learn how to
watch motion pictures and interpret their
meanings, or to assert that we each view and

interpret the same film differently in the
light of our individual values, education and
life experience (Madsen 3)
but, as Roy Paul Madsen himself proved, it needs to be
But Leo Braudy maintains a different view:
The idea of meaning has become more important
than the articulation and specification of
meaning, and the ability to evoke the dread of
unreachable truth more important than the
ability to express it with clarity and order.
Since Braudy views cinema as producing "objects" instead
of meanings, film for him is "consumed" in the viewing
process. Reader-response theorists believe that texts
are "used": the "consumers" of art are not passive
receivers; they make a choice.
Where once the work of art was judged purely
according to arbitrary ideals and artificial
requirements, now it can be seen as "semi-
finished" material, to be used by the observer
to complete the artistic process rather than
simply consumed. (Monaco 18)
This scenario, in which meaning is achieved when James
Monroe's observer interacts with the work of art instead
of simply treating it as disposable, reflects the
interaction of reader and artifact described above.
Holland's description of meaning adds an element of need
to the interaction process:
In short, we seem to need meaning. We have
already considered meaning as the
transformation or sublimation of the
unconscious fantasy embodied in the work....

But, evidently, since we seem to need
meaning, it must serve defensive as well as
pleasurable functions.... [The viewer]
brings to it [a film] his capacity to fantasy
and his own defensive structures.... He also
brings and this is a vital element in his
response his own associations, fantasies,
and fears related to the conscious and
unconscious content of the [film]....
Meaning represents our conscious intellection
about the text as a separate entity. (345-
According to reader-response-oriented film theorists
like Bordwell and Holland, viewers should respond to
visual and aural stimuli in ways similar to the ways
readers respond to reading. As shown above in Chapter 2,
pages 49-50, Inge Crosman provides useful descriptions of
various reader-response theories. Suppose film-viewers
respond in the ways Crosman describes of readers:
* A rhetorically oriented viewer might address the
propagandistic and manipulative aspects of
* A semiotic- or structuralist-oriented viewer might
talk about plots and dialogue, looking for
meaning-making experiences in analysis of
* A phenomenological viewer might imagine further
the "world" of a particular film;
* Viewers whose concentrations lie in psychoanalytic
and subjective approaches might compare their

own personalities with their reactions to
* Viewers' emphases on sociology and history might
direct them to respond to films in relation to
both their own and films' cultural contexts;
* And hermeneutic viewers might address questions of
critical authority when discussing films.
These kinds of viewers would not necessarily exhibit
extraordinary interpretive or even comprehensive meaning-
making experiences with every film, even from the vast
array of approaches just outlined. Many elements could
prevent a viewer from achieving more than comprehension
or a second-level textual understanding. Perhaps, if a
film seems not to fit any established genre or fails to
fulfill certain viewer expectations, the film might
become "too hard to understand" and cause viewers because
its difficulty to step out of any meaning-making process
they may be engaged in. If a film seems boring or
predictable, if it fails to capture their interest,
viewers again may exit the audience, figuratively as well
as physically. For most viewers, the two hours they
decide to spend with a film should, they consider, be
enjoyable or at least, not boring. Film-viewers, more
than almost any other general audience, would seem to
have in their art a source of pleasure unburdened by any

"didactic" overtones: they watch films because they want
to and because they somehow derive pleasure from the
watching, not because a teacher has compelled them to
read or a museum guide has pointed out which exhibits to
see. This lack of a history of didacticism in film-
viewing may be one of the reasons viewers seem more
eloquent when talking about their feelings and
impressions than they might be if discussing a particular
poet's use of imagery or if reflecting on a nineteenth-
century portrait of an American president.
Film, at least in the minds of many who enjoy it,
seems less intellectualized than either poetry and
painting. What are the other advantages, then, of the
"throwaway" art of film?
* Film is "disposable" in the sense that, like
disposable income (easy to spend, but usually
nothing to show for it), once a viewer sees a
film, he has only a ticket stub to show for the
experience (except of course for whatever value
he feels he derived from seeing the film);
* Films are (usually) watched in one sitting of
about two hours;
* Films are accessible to a vast number of people,
in theaters, on video, on television;
* Film is not a exceedingly "literate" medium, since

the ability to read is not essential to
enjoyment (as it is with books);
* The countless numbers of films available to watch
now, and increasing every week, provide an
infinite variety of choices, enough to satisfy
almost everyone;
* And, in this impatient age of new communications
media, most moviegoers these days seem to have
grown up watching television and movies and
could not imagine a world without them.
For these reasons, film-viewers are almost ideal
subjects for a study of reader-response theories. They,
more than readers, do not seem to feel that what they are
doing when they talk about a film is "interpreting" the
film (even if it is) they derive, first and foremost,
enjoyment rather than self-imposed meaning-making. Film-
viewers choose the films they see for reasons that are
subjective in the extreme: a favorite actor, a screenplay
based on a best-selling book, a penchant for a particular
genre or period, "it looked like it would be something
I'd like," everyone else has seen it, a best friend
recommended it, and so on. Though the film-viewer's
experience may be ephemeral, the combinations of visual
and verbal, sound, color and movement in films create
moments that may seem extraordinarily real: "Think about

the novel we can't put down. That rare experience in
literature is the common experience in film...where we
know that once we leave the spell is broken" (Braudy
112). These moments of reality make film-viewers more
aware of their own enjoyment than what meaning they may
be making. But, conversely, film-viewers verbalize as
much about their meaning-making as they do about their
enjoyment. And these are the moments I've tried to
highlight in the next chapter: the viewers I interviewed
help demonstrate not only film-viewers' willingness to
discuss their enjoyment and struggles to make sense but
also help illustrate the three levels of text and
Bordwell's four specific kinds of meaning. §
The amount of time required to watch a film usually
seems minuscule compared to the five or ten or twenty
hours required to read a novel, especially when, as
Braudy notes, the novel may never cast the spell over the
reader the way a film more likely will. And almost
everyone goes to movies or watches movies on video or
television. Even when a network's censors and a
network's commitment to advertising time necessitates
cutting a feature film into often disjointed pieces, the
film is still capable of casting a spell of involvement
over the vast numbers of viewers watching. Also
contributing to most films' accessibility is film's

reliance on the verbal and the visual, rather than the
written. A non-literate (non-writing) background does
not prohibit most viewers from enjoying and understanding
films. Even speakers of languages other than English may
follow an English-language film if they are moderately
film-literate and understand the conventions of film.
Unlike the publishing industry, which may overall issue
three or four best-selling and generally popular books a
season, the filmmaking industry produces one or two well-
attended and excessively popular films a week, which
people will see in droves during opening weekend.
Holidays provide the film industry's best customers in
numbers that publishers can only boggle at: an average
film, doing moderately well at the box office, might
typically make in just one weekend two or three million
dollars maybe more. And such a film will continue to
make good money for several weeks afterward. Films at
the top of the box office make even more.
Most important of all, however, is the pervasiveness
of television and film in the last thirty years. Any
adult today around the age of forty grew up, to some
extent or another, on television and film. Today's
teenagers and young adults, who are a substantial section
of the film audience population, have known little else:
their world has always included the presence of film.

When a medium is so much a part of people's background,
it must impact the way they see and understand not only
the medium itself but also the world in which the medium
exists. For better or worse, film is a part of the
American culture, and in turn of many other cultures,
since film is one of the country's most in-demand
exports. "The movie, as much as the alphabet and the
printed word, is an aggressive and imperial form that
explodes outward into other cultures" (McLuhan 303).
Reader-response theorists should ask questions of a form
so "imperial and aggressive" or else how may they
begin to understand readers' response to other forms?

In talking with and observing the reactions of
several actual film-viewers, I heard a great many
intriguing comments from viewers, heard them struggle to
vocalize their responses, and also heard them speak very
eloquently and feelingly on a variety of topics. My
research is overflowing with dialogue transcripts that,
even when they include unexpected remarks from the
participating viewers, are always intriguing and valuable
for the insight they provide on human perception and
meaning-making. This group of ten film-viewers was, if
nothing else, willing to talk: to me, to each other. My
goals were to explore how viewers respond to films, to
questions, to written critical material, and to the
presence of other viewers. I hoped this exploration
would allow me to observe more closely the cognitive
activities at work when these viewers watched films and
participated in discussions about them, hoping finally
that I could pinpoint covert instances of meaning-making
in their interactions with the films and with each other.
For these reasons, I felt the study to be a worthwhile

pursuit, since if nothing else it would give me a chance
interact with people myself, learning from them as they
talked to me.
General Overview
"What Does It Mean?"
I conducted several non-specific-film interviews
with the my viewers, who talked about themselves as
moviegoers: their expectations, how they choose the films
they see, how they find value in what they see, and so
on. But I always hesitated to ask film-viewers "what
does it mean?" because then they might think it the
scene, the film, the critical writing, whatever we were
discussing at the time had to "mean" something. In
the past, some literary and art critics have convinced
audiences that a work of art must have a meaning: a
meaning that is round and whole, discoverable only by
those who can unlock the code used by the artist or, in
some cases, by the critic. Of course, and still
according to some thinkers like the New Critics, even the
artist doesn't know the entire "meaning" that is left
for the truly intrepid reader/viewer/listener to uncover
with a critic's guidance. According to reader-response
theorists, however, the audience doesn't have to be
intrepid they need only be themselves, people who

read, view, listen, and bring their personalities and
backgrounds to their audience experiences. My viewers
did this repeatedly. Their knowledge of other films,
literature, music influenced them, as did their personal
and professional experiences. Of course, when a viewer
like Martha says, "I've been in the media, so I can say
this with some clarity," she's making the theorist's job
easy. Very seldom do viewers come right out and say
exactly what has influenced their meaning-making; more
often, they don't even know. But the evidence is
nonetheless there, in the transcripts, if theorists are
willing to nudge the words a little, to push on the ideas
and, finally, to make a few conjectures. Their
conclusions may be wrong, of course, but that's not
really the point. The point is to understand how people
might be making meaning, might be drawing on their own
knowledge and experience to do so, might be creating
texts through interactions with books and films. The
theory is in place now it may be applied and tested.
"Meaning," then, should not be a separate, isolated
experience of a work of art it should be an
integration of the "self" of every person in the audience
with elements of the culture, the artwork, the artist,
the time period. Every film-viewer, in bringing his or
her "self" to each viewing experience, just as they do to

the reading of a novel or poem, should be participating,
simply by viewing, in making "meaning." The interactions
of all the variables of film, all the variables of self,
and all the variables of additional sources of textual
input should provide the flux of texts described earlier:
first-level, second-level, and third-level texts created
and modified during the viewing process. The film
provides the first-level; the viewer and film provide the
second-level; with the addition of further first-level
texts to the transaction of viewer and film, third-level
texts are created.
These interactions are part of an obviously
complicated process, dependent as it is on innumerable
variables. The variables of self might include some of
the reader-response influences mentioned already: memory,
personal background (religion, childhood, schooling,
family relationships), cultural background (previous
reading; previous film-viewing; familiarity with cultural
values, expectations, and ideologies; familiarity with
other cultures); and so on. The variables of film might
include but are not limited to: type of screen, large,
small, or television; type of film, genre, narrative,
non-narrative, unclassifiable; the director, the actors,
the subject, the mise-en-scene, the approach, the
accessibility, the language/dialogue, et cetera;