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Review of  Paradigms of Reading

Reviewer: Francisco Yus
Book Title: Paradigms of Reading
Book Author: Ian L MacKenzie
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 14.2251

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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,

[For another review of this book, please see --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
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

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
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

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:

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 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.