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Annotated Bibliography 1

Robert Crossman, "Do Readers Make Meaning?" in The Reader in the Text, edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton University Press. 1980.

Summary

In this essay, Crossman deals with a central issue of literacy: Do readers make meaning? He argues that this question is vague and ambiguous, and that the problem lies with the different senses of the word 'meaning'. 'Meaning' can stand for (1) a speaker's intention, (2) the common understanding of something, and (3) an individual's subjective valuing of something. Depending on how we use and understand the word, we will have different answers to the question of whether readers make meaning.

He starts by presenting E.D. Hirsch's argument that authors make meaning, and counters Hirsch's argument with his argument that meaning is dependent on context, not the author alone. Subsequently, he uses an example to illustrate what he means. He analyzes In a Station of the Metro, a famous two-line poem by Ezra Pound written in 1914. He discusses how we go about deciding what the poem means, and also lists and elaborates on a few different ways several meanings can simultaneously make sense, depending on the contexts the reader places the poem in. He draws the conclusion from this example that since multiple meanings of the poem can exist, "there is no such thing as the meaning of Pound's poem" (p. 154)

Next, he discusses the notion whether there is inherent meaning in the words. According to Hirsch, he says that this is not so, and in order that a literary work will have "a definite and discernible meaning…we must agree that this is the meaning the author intended" (p.154). Crossman infers that Hirsch's arguments hinges on the assumption that a text can only have one meaning, and that this meaning is the one intended by the author. He counters Hirsch's arguments by showing the flaws and fallacies in his arguments, and also refutes Hirsch's claim that tolerance of a plurality of meanings produces anarchy. Crossman argues that if a text can only have one meaning, it will not lead to social harmony but discord, since everyone will be imposing one's notion of the meaning on others! Finally, having discussed the issues above, Crossman concludes that authors make meanings, but readers too, do make meanings.

Review

This is one essay that I would label as 'systematic' and somewhat 'mechanical' in its arguments and presentation. Robert Crossman starts off very well by posing the question: "Do readers make meaning?" and went on to discuss the different senses of 'meaning'. I was drawn into reading further.

Subsequently, he presented Hirsch's argument, and make it explicit to the reader that his motive of writing this essay is to counter Hirsch's argument, spelling out exactly how he is going to do that. This is the point where I start to have a 'mechanical' feel about the essay. Point by point, line by line, he leads the reader through his arguments by using a poem as an example and demonstrating clearly and systematically, how it can have different meanings in different contexts. This is an instant of systematicity in his work. His essay reminds me of an issue presented by Charles Ess i.e. whether discursive texts need the structure of an argument (refer to my summary and review on Ess). Crossman's essay seems to be a good example of a discursive text taking the structure of an argument, and I am clearer about what Ess meant when he makes that point.

This essay has been useful in demonstrating that readers do make meaning, as much as authors do, and I gain a deeper insight into how a reader may do so i.e. make meaning. Even though this essay is not written specifically for hypertexts, it is still useful because it has demonstrated to me how the reader makes meaning from a text by placing it in a context they have mentally constructed. I thought I could extend this to hyperlinks as well. I can now argue that even though the author creates links, the reader has an active part to play in interpreting the links and the pages that the links lead to, and this is nothing very different from reading a print text. Readers to interpret, regardless of the kind of text. One thing different may be that hypertexts do not allow as much room for reader's interpretation than a print text due to the presence of hyperlinks. It is as if the author has predetermined how a reader should make sense of a word by linking it to something. This leaves the reader with little or no alternatives, so to speak.

 

Summarized and reviewed by Tan Lee Peng

 

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Copyright Renee's Realm. 2000.