LINGUIST List 14.2104

Fri Aug 8 2003

Review: Linguistic Theories: MacKenzie (2002)

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  1. Kenesei Andrea, MacKenzie (2002), Paradigms of Reading.

Message 1: MacKenzie (2002), Paradigms of Reading.

Date: Mon, 4 Aug 2003 18:34:43 +0200 (CEST)
From: Kenesei Andrea <>
Subject: MacKenzie (2002), Paradigms of Reading.

MacKenzie, Ian (2002) Paradigms of Reading. Relevance Theory and
Deconstruction, Palgrave/Macmillan

Announced at

Andrea Kenesei, 
Department of English and American Studies, Veszprem University,

MacKenzie (M.) discusses Relevance Theory (RT) versus the
deconstructionist approach to reading through the works of Paul de Man
(d. M.). The author very systematically and convincingly confronts
pragmatics with deconstruction.

Chapter 1 introduces Sperber and Wilson's RT of reading as opposed to
the deconstructionist approaches to interpretation and understanding.
On one end of the scale there is d. M.'s and Derrida's negative and
pessimistic account of language, and on the other end there is the
positive pragmatic perspective. The author contests d. M.'s claim that
language is ironic and inhuman by proposing a pragmatic alternative.
The active human agency, which pragmatics takes for granted, is
obviously a more beneficial basis to analyse the reading process than
the impersonal approach of the poststructuralist, deconstructionist
and Lacaian theories. RT opposes the Saussurian claim that there is no
correct reading because meaning can never be fixed, and d. M.'s claim
that the tropes and ironies in language undermine the intended
meaning. According to RT, the signifiers provide the starting point
for an inferential process that leads to the discovery of the intended
meaning. The author describes the different views on reader
interpretation of literature-the theory of Schleiermacher and Dilthey,
Poulet and Richards, Gadamer and Sperber and Wilson (S&W). He points
out that he does not intend to provoke ''Damascene conversions'' among
deconstructionists. Nevertheless, he emphasises that from a pragmatic
viewpoint d. M.'s account is inadequate.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the discussion of spoken communication in view
of RT, since S&W concentrated on this aspect of communication.
M. interprets S&W's theory on how utterances express thoughts, what
additional attitudes and performances are added to utterances. Even
pragmatics admits the fact that due to semantic and referential
ambiguities utterances can never fully express thoughts. No comparison
is made at this point with the deconstructionist view, but the reader
infers that the point M. makes is that pragmatics focuses on the
possibility of filling the gaps between what goes on in the mind and
what is verbally expressed. Inference is given priority to
recognition. Besides inferences there is ostension that the speaker
has, i.e., the effort to make the audience understand that information
is being passed on. The contextual effects are in direct proportion to
relevance, whereas the processing efforts are in indirect
proportion-the greater the first is the greater the relevance; the
greater the second is the lower the relevance. M. briefly describes
what is well-known about assumptions and how the memory works,
however, the already known is treated in view of the novelty-RT. And
he does this very convincingly, systematically and in a readable
fashion. The use of ''she'' and ''he'' for speaker and hearer,
respectively, taken from S&W, gives the reader a familiar feeling
about communication. A comparison is made between Grice's principles
and S&W's model; the former must be consciously applied, the latter
need not. Explicatures are strong assumptions of the hearer, and
implicatures, which produce the poetic effect, are the weak ones. At
the end of the chapter there is a shift from spoken communication to
poetic language.

Chapter 3 is about how the understanding of literary language is
governed by relevance. M. outlines S&W's assumptions about how the
theory of communication and the theory of cognition determine literary
interpretation. The conclusion is that the optimal relevance of
communication must shift towards the maximal relevance of cognition in
order to fulfil the claims of the understanding of literature. Mention
is made how Hirsch, Barthes and Focault see the role of the author in
reading literature. The history of hermeneutics is discussed briefly
through Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Parry (romantics) with reference to
the opposition represented by Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and
Gadamer. As for the shared cultural background of people, S&W assume
that this is the basis of the similar interpretations of public
representations. From the description of the reader-response theories
(Iser, Mailloux, Eco, Gutt, Poulet) we learn about the different views
concerning the relationship between author and reader. As for the
poetic effects, d. M. and S&W agree that the weak implicatures are
dominant and cognition is primary to communication. Then comes the
depiction of the opposition between S&W and Dawkins regarding
culture. Positive hermeneutics regards the reader as one who
reconstructs the context which is shared with the author, invents the
author and her intentions, and projects into the author's creative

In Chapter 4 M. goes on to introduce the notion of negative
hermeneutics, which, unlike positive hermeneutics, considers the
literary work a resource rather than a source, and which explains the
unconscious authorial motivations, and which, for this reason, is not
the scope of RT. The unconscious identity of the reader is revealed
through Holland's theory, which says that reading is a process where
the reader only ''replicates'' himself, thus never gets any novel
experience. M. argues that Holland's wrong in attributing too much to
the reader's identity but we may object that in interpretation the
reader's world schemata are of primary importance. The question is, to
what extent identity and knowledge mutually determine each other. This
is proved by the ''anticipatory hypotheses'', which are based on these
two factors. RT incorporates the positive elements of other
models-while reading literature the hearer/reader takes his time to go
over the tremendously many processing processes, in conversation the
same processes take place in the nick of time. The intentions are
conscious, the processes are unconscious. I do not agree that Fish's
''anticipatory hypotheses'' are ''premature'', as M. claims, because
if nothing but the title of a text, which is a macroproposition, has
the force to bring about preliminary assumptions. He talks about the
reader's expectations-if there are expectations, there are hypotheses
as well. The fundamental difference between RT and deconstruction is
that they treat the same thing only from two different angles-the
former accepts that texts are more than often ambiguous; the latter
rejoices in hunting obscurities. Is that such a big difference? It is
true, however, that RT respects the reader, and deconstruction does
not, as it seems to disrespect everything.

Chapter 5 starts with McCloskey's definition of rhetoric and metaphor,
and refers to d. M.'s description of (tropical, mechanical and
indecipherable) literary language. Relying on Rousseau's views on
discourse, d. M. seems to have an erroneous starting point of
''metaphor'' instead of ''common noun''. In this part of the book,
like elsewhere, there are cross/ and backward references to authors
citing somebody else. All agree in one thing-that language is by
nature poorer than the world around us. Neither actions nor objects
and concepts can be fully described and referred to with words. This
is the basis of the apparently intricate, yet fundamentally bipolar
debates about meaning. M.'s technique of arguing and reasoning is
smooth and easy to follow. He shifts to d. M.'s approach clearly and
convincingly. d. M.'s views are not novel; he builds his theory upon
Rousseau's and Nietzsche's ideas. Even a naive layman would draw the
conclusion that provided d. M. were right, nobody including himself
would understand what he said. If figural meaning is self-destructive,
there is not much meaning left in ordinary language, which operates
with more figural meanings than one would ever think of. d. M.'s logic
is not logical at al-for him figures represent language, figures do
not represent things but then what represents things? There is
language and there are things, the two are not connected in his
view. Then what is language for? d. M., by questioning the role of a
signifier in number, questions communication as such, but gives no
other solution, as M. vividly shows. The discussion of metaphor,
truth, lie etc. is more about Rousseau, Friedman, Nietzsche and Marx
than d. M.. However, the conclusion d. M. draws about the tropological
nature of numbers is as illogical as almost everything he is convinced
of. d. M. does not seem to notice that he has fallen into his own
trap-if things become real in the mind, and if language is created by
the mind, then the two must meet in the mind, that is, they cannot do
without each other, which contradicts what he stated earlier. While
discussing catachreses, we must bear in mind that if every dead
metaphor were substituted by a non-metaphorical word, every language
would contain an insurmountable number of words, which would work
against the common sense of people. Man invented metaphors to simplify
language and to keep the linguistic tools within treatable
boundaries. This common sense is best proved by the simple fact that
the same metaphors and dead metaphors can be found in many languages,
taking the foot of a mountain or the legs of a piano as very good

In Chapter 6 the counter-argument M. gives to ''Unmediated expression
is a philosophical impossibility'' could have been ''but a linguistic
possibility'' because thoughts are indeed more complex than
language. d. M. insists that even everyday language is exposed to
uninterpretability and ambiguity. If so, he should not have written a
single sentence because to interpret it is a task with no end or
progress. We are relieved though because M. puts it in words what we
have in mind as a counter-argument to d. M.. In ''What's the
difference'' d. M. is right after all-in everyday conversations there
are many cases of unsuccessful communication of the Bunker type-it is
true, however, that they often are the result of people's bluntness
and language itself. d. M. seems to neglect the fact that language is
man's invention and it is used by human beings. In connection with
literature d. M. makes a distinction where he should not-between
aesthetic values and linguistic structures. The opposition between
rhetoric and aesthetics also lacks ground. If, according to d. M., the
literary reading is rhetorical and rhetoric contains no aesthetic
component, then what text is aesthetic? The question is left
unanswered. And this is not a logical continuation of Nietzsche's
equating rhetoric and language. (M.'s grouping of the literary devices
is very useful.) That grammar cannot be considered to be a trope is a
question that deserves discussion in a separate book. But there are
views according to which literature, or one literary work, is one
macro-metaphor; this represents a somewhat similar logic as d. M.'s
collapsing of grammar. d. M.'s account of irony is again something
startling-irony is an inherent feature of language and not the
speaker's attitude, he says. d. M.'s account of reading is totally
sceptic-for him readability as such is non-existent because the
readings of a text are incompatible. d. M. questions the rightfulness
of the trivium and believes that the rhetorical function undermines
grammar and logic. M. argues that d. M.'s main shortage is the
ignorance of inferences a reader makes. Also, M. attacks d. M. for
making apodiptic statements, for being too self-confident setting up
his theory, which is not too difficult to find fault with.

In Chapter 7 the refutation of d. M.'s claim that the word-thing link
is conventional starts with the use of the deictic elements. We could
argue though that it is just these conventions that allow for a
consensus in understanding. Claiming that language constitutes
experience rather than reflects it, d. M. shares the Whorfian view
that language is prior to thought, language determines culture, or as
d. M. says, the ''self''. However, the binary oppositions d. M. makes
include the separation of the self and the world-the question is
whether culture is made up of selves or it is the reflection of the
world. The conclusion of ''Being and becoming'' might be that all
those binary oppositions are rather for uniting than separating the
self and the world, language and cognition and representation and
thought. Reading ''Concepts, metaphors, catachreses and reference'' I
had a feeling that d. M. writes about blunt people who are indeed
blind to metaphorical meaning-I guess that the basis of the
contradiction between the deconstructionist and the pragmatic approach
is that the former is disillusioned by the bluntness and blindness of
so many of us, which is a reality, and the latter has an idealistic
and optimistic opinion of people's mental abilities. In ''Reference
and ideology'' M. can but repeat that man has not been able to invent
any better system to convey thoughts than the system of signs,
therefore no matter how much d. M. is right that language is not the
best model for cognition, we can but surrender to it. In ''Ich kann
nicht'' M. discusses symbol and sign as seen by the Man through
Hegel's account of the subject. d. M. is criticised for not
paraphrasing but misinterpreting Hegel. Part of the problem might be
the translation of ''Phenomenology''. Individuation or generality is
the main question discussed here. d. M. dislikes the idea that his
opinion is consequently others' opinion as well. Hegel is a starting
point for d. M. and the pragmaticians alike concerning the deictic
''I'' but they take different routes-language is not possessed by
anybody, says he and language belongs to all, they say. The problems
of reference cluster around names and grammar. The question is whether
grammar suspends referential meaning or not. Again, d. M. claims that
it does, unlike the pragmaticians.

>From Chapter 8 we learn that d. M. subverts Austin's notion of
performative and says that performative utterances-like all other
linguistic performances-are independent of the user, they are only
bound to language. ''The purloined ribbon'' is about d. M.'s
interpretation of Rousseau, which, according to M., is a distorted
translation and thus a misinterpretation. Also, d. M. favours a
rhetorical instead of a psychoanalytic reading of ''Confessions'',
and, as M.'s greatest accusation, d. M. understands a metaphorical
meaning where there is none. In ''Excuses, fictions and machines'' it
becomes clear that Rousseau's confession must be seen as a case of
truth-falsity opposition rather than d. M.'s fictional referential
reading, which results in an over-euphemistic explanation of
Rousseau's story. d. M. is constantly criticised for ''interpreting
[many philosophers] extravagantly'' for his own purposes. The
exclusion of the speaker's intentions is again visible in treating
language and texts in a mechanical fashion. (From d. M.'s articles
written during WWII we learn that he took sides with fascism.)

In Chapter 9 d. M. is again accused of not having too many novel ideas
but only paraphrasing others. Saussure's deconstructionist followers
distort his signification by implying a passive participation of the
hearer as well as the speaker. (The distortion was not that hard
though.) M. comes up with a good solution to the problem of man and
language interaction: we should not apply exclusion, as Holland
suggests, but inclusion. Rhetoric is revisited from the point of view
of the self, which is the result of language for d. M. He attributes
cognition to language rather than the individual. d. M. deprives
especially literary language of every human feature; the text is
autonomous for him. The conclusions he draws from Benjamin's
speculations on translation are subversive, far-reaching and again
free from human intention. M. clearly demonstrates how RT can cope
with all these nonsensical approaches. I can argue with Frost's claim
that a poem is lost when translated with my own research where I
proved the contrary (Fordítástudomány 2003). (Mention must be made
though that I worked mainly with free verse.) Currie is called for to
support M's criticism concerning d. M.'s nearly exclusive wearing
borrowed plumes.

Chapter 10 is devoted to interpretations of a Wordsworth
poem. Bateson, then Hirsch operate with contextual implication. There
is disagreement concerning how many readings are allowed and which is
the optimally relevant. Davies' interpretation is based on the
personal deixis of ''spirit'' and the reference to the female
character. Caraher's reading is based on the punctuation and a
different denotation of the feminine deixis, and in general
supplements other readings. His reading barely suits RT. Holland gives
a psychoanalytic explanation making sexual inferences, and also
concludes that this kind of analysis is very much like the formalist
approach. He says that the number of the readings of a text is the
same as the number of the readers. Matlak stresses relying on the
biographical background when interpreting texts. d. M. relates the
message to temporal allusions-both futuristic and eternal. Miller's
opinion resembles Hollands in that any reading is possible. M. makes
it clear at the beginning of the chapter that ''All [RT] aims to do is
to offer explanations of existing readings in cognitive pragmatic
terms''. Well, to choose from a basket is easier than weaving the
basket... What is more, the reader is curious to know which
interpretation RT or M. finds the most relevant-there is no choice
made and the final paragraph does not seem sufficient to solve the
problem. If it is true that a contextual basis and inferential
processes are required to decipher any piece of information, why does
RT not accept that any interpretation is viable or that there are as
many interpretations as readers/hearers?

Chapter 11 ends with an overall definition of RT: ''[RT] focuses on
the potential richness of intended or interpreted meanings, including
poetic effects.''


MacKenzie aims to prove that RT, being a novel approach to
communication, is capable of overriding the hitherto existing theories
of understanding and interpretation. According to RT, hearers are able
to choose for themselves the most relevant information with the
smallest processing effort and the greatest possible cognitive effect;
let it be literary or non-literary language, literal or non- literal
meaning. The book is not narrowed down to the description of RT but
gives a comprehensive outline of the deconstructionist views opposing
the pragmatic approach of RT. The author's knowledge cannot be more
comprehensive and his arguing technique cannot be more
convincing. However, the penultimate chapter seems to leave something
behind-without an example of how RT sees for example the poem
interpreted the reader is not fully convinced. If we choose the most
relevant interpretation then there are as many of them as there are
readers. And then who decides which is the most relevant? If the
reader does, then the above statement must be true.

About the reviewer

Andrea Kenesei is a senior lecturer of linguistics. Her interests
include pragmatics, psycholinguistics, discourse and text analysis,
linguistic analysis of literature, translation and reader-response
theories. She is working on her PhD dissertation on "Reader-response
of translated verse".
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