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Review of  Paradigms of Reading

Reviewer: Andrea Kenesei
Book Title: Paradigms of Reading
Book Author: Ian L MacKenzie
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 14.2104

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Date: Mon, 4 Aug 2003 18:34:43 +0200 (CEST)
From: Kenesei Andrea
Subject: Paradigms of Reading. Relevance Theory and Deconstruction

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

Reviewed by Andrea Kenesei, Department of English and American
Studies, Veszprem University, Hungary

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 process.

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

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 examples.

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".