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Date: Mon, 25 Aug 2003 20:41:21 +0200 From: Francisco Yus Subject: Paradigms of Reading; Relevance Theory and Deconstruction
MacKenzie, Ian (2002) Paradigms of Reading. Relevance Theory and Deconstruction, Palgrave/Macmillan.
Francisco Yus, Department of English Studies, University of Alicante, Spain
[For another review of this book, please see http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-2104.html --Eds.]
In this book, Ian MacKenzie (henceforth I.M.) discusses and contrasts two approaches to literary communication and reading, namely deconstruction, as supported by Paul de Man (henceforth d.M.), and relevance theory (henceforth RT), created by Sperber and Wilson (1986/95). He also addresses the (now almost rhetorical) question of where the meaning of a text is supposed to lie. As I pointed out in a former review (Yus, 2002: 624f), "literary theories [are] divided as to where the meaning of a literary text lies: either that meaning is only the author's intended interpretation (intentio auctoris), or the 'objective' meaning of the text itself (intentio operis), or the reader's personal interpretation of it (intentio lectoris)". Relevance theory is clearly reader-centred, but d.M. tries to deconstruct this emphasis by resorting to a series of "deconstructivist tricks" aiming at subverting this role of the reader in the eventual meaning of a text. Clearly, this is a losing battle, as I will try to show below.
Chapter 1 ("Pragmatic Banality and Honourable Bigotry", p.1-15) is an introduction to the general issues addressed in the book, together with a main introduction to the basic tenets of relevance theory (henceforth RT) and deconstruction. From the beginning, I.M. positions himself clearly on the pragmatic side of this contrastive analysis, favouring the inferential account of communication suggested by RT instead of the deconstructionist account which insists on the materiality of language, and disregard the enormous role played by contextual factors in linguistic communication (p. 2). For d.M., language is invariably ironic, random, arbitrary, irresponsible, mechanical and inhuman, very far away from the interpretive picture within RT, according to which utterances (or texts) resemble the thoughts that the speaker or writer intends to communicate, providing clues and blanks to be filled inferentially by the addressee (listener or reader), a far more interesting approach. Indeed, for I.M., "substituting the word inference, or more specifically the word relevance, for d.M.'s term rhetoric, very often allows one to explain language use more adequately" (p. 3). Later in the chapter, I.M. provides the basic aims of the book: he is "specifically concerned to contest d.M.'s notions of the random, mechanical, arbitrarily or aberrantly referential, ironic and inhuman nature of language" and proposes "a pragmatic alternative to this theory" (p. 4). In chapter 2 ("Relevance Theory and Spoken Communication", p. 17- 28), I.M. provides a general outline of RT, with the central issue of linguistic underdetermination (the fact that utterances or texts rarely -if not never- code the thoughts that the speaker or writer wants to communicate with them). I.M. also introduces the notion of poetic effect, basically linked to the notion of weak implicature, and which is the traditional RT approach to figurative language. As I sketched in Yus (2002: 621-622), underlying this notion is the claim that every utterance is used to represent a thought of the speaker's (or writer's). Often (if not always) communicators are not literal in the way their utterances communicate their thoughts. Even at the explicit level, utterances are often incomplete and the communicator expects the addressee to be able to fill up the blanks, as it were, in the (context-bound) processing of the utterance. The same applies to metaphors and related tropes. In this case, there is an interpretive relation between the speaker's (or writer's) thought and what it represents. In highly innovative metaphors, the result is a wide array of contextual implications whose extraction is the interlocutor's responsibility (weak implicatures). Therefore, there is a whole continuum in metaphors between communicator-backed strong implicatures and the weak implicatures which the interlocutor is responsible for extracting. However, we should not make a direct equation between implicature and weak effect. Kenesei (2003), in a recent review of this book, seems to make this link when stating that "explicatures are strong assumptions of the hearer, and implicatures, which produce the poetic effect, are the weak ones". Both explicatures and implicatures can be -and often are- ostensively backed up by the speaker, but there can be a point in which their extraction is increasingly the addressee's responsibility. Indeed, readers of literature will normally be willing to devote some additional mental resources in order to access a wider array of weak implicatures because the sensations obtained offset the cognitive effort required in exchange, regardless of whether these are intended by the writer or not. Personally, I wish I.M. had focused more on the current development of this view of metaphor in terms of "ad hoc concept formation", within which metaphoric concepts are viewed as making a contribution to the proposition expressed by the utterance (and are no longer viewed as implicatures), a development of RT which is extensively dealt with by Pilkington (2000) and also by other authors within an RT perspective (e.g. Carston, 2002). Chapter 3 ("'Positive Hermeneutics': Relevance and Communication", p. 29-46) is about literature from an RT perspective. The relevance- theoretic focus is, predictably, on how the reader mentally attempts to find a relevant -i.e., intended- interpretation of the text, that is, a close parallel to the writer's thoughts using the words on the page as "a guiding light". Sometimes the reader will fall short of reaching the author's thoughts or intended interpretations, but this is not essential to enjoy literature. Even if there are easy-to-spot intended meanings in the text, "rather than attempt to infer manifestly communicated informative intentions, readers can let meaning proliferate, and manipulate, decompose and recompose fiction for as long as the effort brings results" (p. 33). The chapter is filled with opinions by different authors on the task of writers and readers, often within specific research areas such as hermeneutics (e.g. Dilthey) or reader-response theories (e.g. Iser). I found this section extremely useful, and I enjoyed reading about how intuitive Bahktin was on the dialogic nature of literary communication. Besides, when writing about the interpretive quality of human interpretation, there is also some reference to the epidemiological model of cultural spread envisaged by Sperber (1996). Chapter 4 ("'Negative Hermeneutics': Themes, Figures, Codes and Cognition", p. 47-61) introduces the term "negative hermeneutics", which falls outside RT in its attempt to access unconscious authorial intentions. RT is instead "concerned with conscious intentions and does not consider the possibility that we are definitively cut off from authors' communicative intentions because we are bound by interpretive strategies emanating from our own unconscious" (p. 48). There is again (as there is throughout the book) a contrast between the RT view and the views of other authors (e.g. Holland). Chapter 5 ("Words, Concepts and Tropes", p. 62-83) is about tropes and especially metaphor. Again, I wish I.M. had devoted more time to current developments of RT in the account of figurative language as ad hoc concept formation (see above). Ad hoc concepts apply not only to figurative language. Wilson and Sperber (2002), for instance, describe Peter's interpretation of Mary's utterance in (1b) not as conveying the encoded concept FLAT (as stabilised in dictionaries, for example) but the related ad hoc concept FLAT*, with a more restricted encyclopedic entry and a narrower denotation, constructed ad hoc for this particular occasion, as paraphrased in (1c):
(1a) [Peter and Mary are discussing their next cycling trip. Peter has just said that he feels rather unfit]. (1b) Mary: "We could go to Holland. Holland is flat". (1c) Holland is FLAT* (where FLAT* is the meaning indicated by 'flat', and is such that Holland's being FLAT* is relevant-as-expected in the context).
Mary's word "flat" is taken here to warrant only those effects which make it worth processing in the specific context (1a). Since there is no one-to-one correspondence between the dictionary entry "flat" and the ad hoc concept FLAT*, its relationship is a matter of resemblance, rather than pure description. FLAT* is an unglossed version of the word 'flat' which retains only the attributes which are relevant for the processing of the utterance. On a different context, Mary may well use the word "flat" not to communicate the concept FLAT* but another ad hoc concept FLAT** whose specific attributes will be relevant in that context but not in context (1a). Obviously, the biologically rooted relevance-seeking mental procedure should guide the hearer on every occasion to the recovery of the intended CONCEPT* (metaphorical or otherwise) based on the word encoding it. A similar analysis has been provided for figurative language in general and metaphors in particular, but it is not pursued in the book as deeply as I expected. What is indeed pursued, and very well so, is the account of all the aspects in which d.M. is wrong. I.M also wittily uncovers d.M.'s own (typically deconstructivist) liking for contradictions, for example when d.M. writes that "it is impossible to say whether denomination is literal or figural: from the moment there is denomination, the conceptual metaphor of entity as difference is implied, and whenever there is metaphor, the literal denomination of a particular entity is inevitable" (p. 148 of Allegories of Reading, quoted on p. 67). Chapter 6 ("Rhetoric as an Insurmountable Obstacle", p. 84-106) also focuses on d.M.'s insistence on the unpredictable and ambiguous nature of language, the impossibility "of making the actual expression coincide with what has to be expressed, of making the actual sign coincide with what is signifies. It is the distinctive privilege of language to be able to hide meaning behind a misleading sign" (p. 11 of Blindness and Insight, quoted on p. 84). As I pointed out above, within RT it is claimed that utterances and written texts normally underdetermine the thought(s) that the speaker or writer intends to communicate, but the claim is made without such pessimistic connotations. Speakers and writers do leave blanks to be filled inferentially, but hearers and readers normally manage to reach an adequate level of understanding so that communication can often be labelled successful. d.M. is clearly wrong when he argues that neither grammar nor intended reference can contain the figural possibilities in language, so it is impossible to decide between literal and figural readings. Needless to say, utterances are often ambiguous and reference assignment is hard due to many potential referents, but on every occasion the same principle applies: the gap between the semantic representations of sentences and the thoughts communicated by utterances is filled by the inferential recognition of the communicator's intentions with the aid of contextual information (p. 85). The same insufficient argument by d.M. is found in his account of irony ("irony is something that language does, rather than a conscious attitude on the part of a language-user", p. 100), clearly misguided if we contrast it to current pragmatic theories such as the one suggested by RT: irony as the ostensive communication of an echo and a parallel attitude of dissociation towards the proposition expressed by the utterance. In chapter 7 ("Words and the World: The Problem of Reference", p. 107-130), I.M. continues with d.M.'s account of the "slippery" nature of language, especially when dealing with indexicals. Again, "although... the relationship between words and things is conventional or contractual rather than phenomenal or constitutive, it does not follow that the referential function of language is always unstable, or that we cannot express our thoughts" (p. 107). Chapter 8 ("Mechanical Performatives", p. 131-151) is about speech acts. The basic point of discussion is the codification of acts by the grammar. In my opinion, some analysts of speech acts are often too concerned with analysing what speakers do with language, instead of guessing what intentions and attitudes underlie the public use of language. Indeed, there are many linguistic devices to show what acts are performed with the utterance (e.g. verbs such as warn, ask, apologise...), but often these acts can only be grasped inferentially if there are no linguistic cues. Inside an RT point of view, the discussion is now centred upon which acts are ostensively communicated and which are not (see, for instance, Nicolle, 2000). However, d.M.'s concern is, rather, that "language is capable of performing randomly, mechanically, non-referentially and non-cognitively, entirely beyond anybody's will or control" (p. 132). The relevance-theoretic and deconstructivist positions cannot be more different. The extreme case of this differentiation is when d.M. treats texts as mechanical, devoid of users' intentionality. Chapter 9 ("The Madness of Words and the Enunciating Subject", p. 153-175) is a continuation of the arguments against d.M.'s deconstructivist tricks in his analysis of language. The mechanical view of language places d.M. close to other analysts such as Saussure and other French critics such as Foucault or Derrida. In all cases the mechanic nature of texts dissociates them for their users. Culler's quote on p. 155 is illustrative: "we often think of the meaning of an expression as what the subject or speaker 'has in mind'. But as meaning is explained in terms of systems of signs -systems which the subject does not control- the subject is deprived of his role as source of meaning". The result is a excessive emphasis on "intentio operis" over "intentio auctoris" or "intentio lectoris". Finally, chapter 10 ("'When Lucy ceas'd to be', p. 176-195) collects all the interpretive hypotheses which analysis and critics have suggested for Wordsworth's short lyric "A slumber did my spirit seal". All the opinions about what the right interpretation of the poem is confirm the unpredictable nature of literary communication, in which ''there is a difference... between language directed at known addressees and language directed at addressees most, if not all, of whom will be unknown, which is the typical case with literature. Only in the former case can communicators make ready assessments concerning which contextual assumptions are easily accessible to their addressees'' (Pilkington, 2000: 82). In literature, it is more difficult (if not impossible) to make assumptions mutually manifest, and thus a greater load of responsibility is laid upon the reader in extracting the intended (or, alternatively, his/her own) interpretation of the text plus whatever feeling and emotions are associated with the comprehension of the text.
I.M. provides a good number of valid arguments against d.M.'s "deconstructionist tricks", as I call them. Trying to subvert, in a "topsy-turvy" kind of way, the analysis of where the meaning of text is supposed to lie, is a losing battle in my opinion. Indeed, the relevance-oriented cognition-centred arguments accounting for what goes on in the reader's mind are far more scientific than the philosophically-oriented ones provided by d.M., even if some of d.M.'s ideas are, no doubt, thought-provoking and some are even illuminating. It could even be argued that I.M. knew this battle was lost long before he undertook this analysis of relevance theory and deconstruction. And I must say this is not the only case. In a previous publication of mine (Yus, 1998), I also compared Derrida's deconstructionist approach to the oral-written interface (basically centred upon the logocentrism/phonocentrism debate) to a pragmatic account of the similarities and differences in the contextual support available for these two types of discourse. I also knew this was going to be a losing battle for deconstruction. Derrida's attempts to place written communication in higher order compared to oral communication was unsuccessful. He does cling to deconstructionist tricks, for instance when he states that if writing is a supplement to oral communication, it can only supplement speech if speech itself is limited and not self- sufficient, only if there is a fault in speech that allows writing to become its supplement. Again, the pragmatic research on the richness of contextual support in face-to-face situations provides good arguments to invalidate these deconstructionist tricks.
Carston, R. (2002) Thoughts and Utterances. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kenesei, A. (2003) "Review of I. MacKenzie's Paradigms of Reading. Relevance Theory and Deconstruction." The Linguist List 14.2104, 8-8- 2003. Available at http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-2104.html#1.
Nicolle, S. (2000) "Communicated and non-communicated acts in relevance theory". Pragmatics 10(2): 233-245.
Pilkington, A. (2000) Poetic Effects. A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Sperber, D. (1996) Explaining Culture. A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (1986/95) Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wilson, D. and D. Sperber (2002) "Truthfulness and relevance". Mind 111, 443: 583-632.
Yus, F. (1998) La Preeminencia de la Voz. Alicante: University of Alicante, Servicio de Publicaciones.
Yus, F. (2002) "Review of A. Pilkington's Poetic Effects. A Relevance Theory Perspective". Journal of Pragmatics 34: 619-628.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Francisco Yus teaches pragmatics at the University of Alicante, Spain. He has a PhD in linguistics and has specialised in the application of pragmatics (especially relevance theory) to media discourses and conversational issues. For instance, he has made two applications of pragmatics to characters in alternative comics (Conversational cooperation in alternative comics, 1995; El discurso femenino en el cómic alternativo inglés, 1998), proposed a pragmatic verbal-visual model of communication in media discourses (La interpretación y la imagen de masas, 1997), studied the written-oral interface (La preeminencia de la voz, 1998) and developed a pragmatic approach to Internet-mediated communication (Ciberpragmática, 2001). Latest research has to do with the application of relevance theory to the analysis of misunderstandings and irony in conversation, as well as to the production and interpretation of humorous discourses.