Suppose it is the year 5055 and you are living in a primitive new world. You know nothing of the world of 2004. You come across on your food forages a cache of manuscripts from the 20th century. (For present purposes, we will assume you can read English). Among these manuscripts you find a book titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by an author named Philip K. Dick. Not knowing anything of the life of Mr. Dick or of his cultural background, you would be forced to bring your own limited knowledge to the story. You may recognize the text as a fictional story or you may choose to read it as historical fact. You would have no background from which to place the text in its proper context. You would be forced to bring your own meaning to the text by providing the text with a context.
We are speaking here not of words by themselves but of whole texts. While agreeing with Derrida that the words are repeatable and can be cited in many different contexts, our concentration here is on particular texts as a whole. The context of a single word can shape meaning and the meaning can be re-contetextualized. We understand that the word is not anchored and can be moved elsewhere into infinite contexts but does the same hold true for an entire text?
A text is produced to convey an idea. Finding the context of the text can narrow all of the meanings of that central idea down. The context of a text limits and shapes its meaning. However, it is not possible to find every context and therefore every meaning. In a sense, the context is going to interrupt the meaning. Meaning is always being ruptured by one form of context or another. Here we will explore three distinct forms of context: the historicity and cultural backgrounds of a text, the intention of the author and of the reader, and finally, the background noise surrounding a text.
Bronislaw Malinowski in his essay “The Role of Myth in Life” says that “The text, of course, is extremely important, but without the context it remains lifeless” (Malinowski 201). The contexts here are the cultural and sociological components that surround a text. This context, consisting of the understanding of the culture in which the text extends from, is essential to effective communication of the text. This is especially important when approaching a text in which the present day reader is not the reader that was the intended audience. This present day reader is far distanced from the text’s creation.
Literature Professor John Lye of Brock University offers this observation, “Reading is thus tied to the text and its historicity; every reading is only an interpretation, an engagement of the historicity of the reader with the historicity of the text. There is no stable reading, only historical reading…meaning as it emerges through the historical reader’s understanding of the historical text” (Lye).
If Lye’s statements are valid, then this statement shows the importance of understanding the historicity and culture of a text. Using the example set forth in the first paragraph of this essay, the historicity of the year 5055 reader and the historicity of the text he is reading are far removed from one another and therefore the validity of the text is vulnerable to misinterpretation because its context has vanished.
William Faulkner writes, “The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important…” (Faulkner Quotes). Faulkner speaks of the author as invisible, of the unimportance of who wrote the words, of the “death of the author”. But this is simply not the case. The historicity of the author very often is of utmost importance. The authors of the Bible are dead, are invisible but without searching out the historicity of the culture of these authors, the reader of the text will be falling through an abyss of endless meaning. Scholars and lay readers alike must delve deeply into the historicity of the Bible text in order to establish, at the very least, an approachable context for finding meaning.
Without this knowledge of historical context behind the writing it is not possible for the reader to understand the text validly. As stated in the above example using Philip Dick’s novel as a model, without knowing the historicity and cultural background of the period in which the novel was written can lead to error in interpreting the text itself. Without knowledge of the author and the author’s background can a reader begin to interpret the text in the manner that the author intended? The 5055 reader may very well take as historical fact the apocalyptic world that Dick has created. The reader may not even possess the background to understand what science fiction or satire is.
This leads us to the question of intention on the author’s part. Intention of the author does not have complete control over what something means. Serres says, “…it (the text) is understood only if the receptor possesses the key to the drawing”. While the text is readable even without knowing intention, it would seem of paramount importance to know the context in which the text was written, to “possess the key to the drawing.
Toni Morrison is sometimes shocked at the response that her novels generate concerning meaning. Morrison’s intentions when writing each novel quite often do not match up with the meanings culled from her reader’s. Morrison’s latest novel, Love, seems to be largely about miscommunication, skewed meaning, and misread intentions. The author has no choice but to release his text to the world and let context, let meaning, be drawn by the individual reader.
All of the characters in the novel are finding meaning in their own ways and largely finding skewed meaning. The picture of Cosey that hangs over Heed’s bed is a perfect example of intention and meaning. The characters looking at the picture all bring their own meanings to it. “Vida believed a powerful, generous friend gazed out from the portrait hanging behind the reception desk” (45). The picture, in itself a representation of the character of Cosey, becomes a text itself that is open to interpretation (or misinterpretation). The next line reminds us that possibly this is not the correct assumption. “That was because she didn’t know who he was looking at” (45).
The readers never do discover who Cosey was looking at, although he can make a few guesses. Cosey’s character is left to individual interpretation and the reader can never quite decide whether to like him or hate him. The picture of Cosey is readable without knowing intention but the reader finds himself yearning to know the intention. He doesn’t know who Cosey was looking at, and therefore he doesn’t know who he is looking at. Even if the reader did know it doesn’t mean he would know who Cosey really is.
When Junior meets Heed for the first time, she is looking for “the face behind the face” (28) and she is listening “for the words hiding behind talk” (28). Here again is the possibility of hidden meaning in the text itself. The entire novel consists of a search for “the face behind the face”. The characters are introduced backwards, with their meanings coming only at the end of the novel, and even then they are left fairly open to interpretation. Morrison is talking to us through her characters and we are frantically searching for the hidden words that will reveal all to us. The line on page 28 “Junior fixed on the hands more than on what occupied them” made me think of words and meaning, with the hands being the vehicle of transport for the text and “what occupied them” being the meaning. The reader’s job in searching for meaning is to pry those hands open and reveal what occupies them.
Perhaps this Morrison’s novel is meant to address the very issue of how readers are misconstruing her words. She lays out an intricate web of gossip, lies, and miscommunication so that we as reader’s can see how bringing meaning to a text does not make that meaning valid. There are so many readers who bring their own history and backgrounds to the text and therefore there are an infinite number of ways for the text to be read. Nietzsche said “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations”. (Bennett and Royle 113). The reader can never simply validate a text and move on because there is no validation. The world of words is a place “Where all is known and nothing is understood” (4).
If the reader is unaware of the author intentions, then the text is subject to miscommunication. “In such a typology, the category of intention will not disappear; it will have its place, but from that place it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance” (Derrida 18). While intention is certainly beneficial to a valid reading of the text, it is not essential. The author of the text can only do so much. The intention of the author does not have control over what the text means to the reader once the text enters “the essential drift” (Derrida 8).
Additionally, what expectations does the reader bring to the reading of a text? Without knowing context, the reader writes the text they read. The reader, in a sense is constructing the author. In positioning the reader within the reading of a text, does the author then become simply a byproduct of the text? Bennett & Royle say that “…factors such as the life of the author and his/her intentions, or the historical and ideological context in which the text was produced” are inconsequential (Bennett & Royle 11). If this were the case, then how would one be expected to read the text without noting the position of the author as he/she wrote it?
Is the text created through the process of reading (Bennett & Royle 12)? If so, this would make the reader the authority of the validity of the text and therefore of the experience itself. Should the reader be responsible for validating the text when the experience was not theirs to begin with? In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, psychologists Michael White and David Epston say, “Since we cannot know objective reality, all knowing requires an act of interpretation” (White/Epston 2). Therefore, the text is open to the interpretation of the reader.
A deconstructionist reader might respond that “while any text demands a ‘faithful’ reading, it also demands an individual response” (Bennett and Royle 17). If an individual is reading a text, then the position of individual can be thought of as being moot because the reading of the text usually carries with it the knowledge that one is reading of someone else’s experience. Therefore, can the reader be excused from reading into the text their own experience?
All acts of interpretation are fraught with human subjectivism. While the reader understands that they are reading someone else’s experience, it is often difficult, if not impossible, for that reader not to read into the text his own experience. So, which comes first – the text or the reader? Derrida says that the text may be understood as fundamentally incomplete, to be constructed in the act of reading – the reader makes the text and the text makes the reader.
Another issue surrounding finding meaning in context is that of background noise. The distinctive dialect, the regional accents, the cultural backgrounds, the historicity, the intention of the author, and the intention of the reader all constitute background noise that provides the reader with clues to the context in which it was written. At the very least, these background noises afford the reader a chance to narrow down the infinite number of contexts to choose from. The text is altered depending upon this background noise. This makes knowing the context advantageous to a valid reading of the text. As Lengis says, “…background noise is essential to communication” (Lengis). Without applying these contexts that make up the background noise the validity of the text can be at stake.
The background noise makes up the Constitutive Outside, the outside makes the inside. The noise – the context, in this case - create the meaning of the words. There can be no pure message without this noise because there must be differentiation. But the distinction between the inside and outside is unstable. There is the historicity surrounding the text, the intention of the author framing the text, and the interpretation of the reader narrowing down the context even closer. The trick is to differentiate where each context begins and where each context ends – if that is even possible to do.
The background noise pulls the other contexts into even more focus by providing the reader with other tools for discovering meaning. In uncovering dialect, sentence structure, even errors in the text, the reader pulls the frame of the text even tighter. On reading Morrison’s novel, Love, the reader encounters the background noise of dialect – a distinctive southern African American dialect. This noise situates the text in a certain time and place and enables the reader to focus on closer meaning.
To summarize, three forms of context are important to a valid reading of an entire text. Historicity provides the reader with a base from which to build meaning. Intention of the author and interpretation of the reader provide the reader with a frame in which to narrow context even more. Finally, background noise adds an even more focused context from which the reader can draw valid meaning. All of these contexts searched out and applied make for the validity of meaning within a text.
Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 2nd Edition. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature, Event, Context.” (1972). Limited Inc. (1977). Evanston, IL Northwestern UP, 1988. 1-23.
Lingis, Alphonso. “The Murmur of the World.” The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1994. 69-105.
Lye, John. “Some Principles of Phenomenological Hermeneutics”. Brock University.
Date Accessed March 5, 2004. Last updated November 7, 2003.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. “The Role of Myth in Life”. Sacred Narrative. Dundes, Alan,
ed., Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
Serres, Michel. “Platonic Dialogue.” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Eds. Josue V. Harari and David
White, Michael and David Epston. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. WW Norton &
Company: New York. 1990.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2004, 2006
Malinowski, Bronislaw. “The Role of Myth in Life”. Sacred Narrative. Dundes, Alan, ed., Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.
Serres, Michel. “Platonic Dialogue.” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Eds. Josue V. Harari and David
White, Michael and David Epston. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. WW Norton & Company: New York. 1990.