In a groundbreaking 1967 essay, Roland Barthes declared that "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."57 In the fifty years since its publication, "The Death of the Author" has greatly influenced the way students, teachers, and academics conduct analysis. Most critics have come to acknowledge that the personal and historical context of the author is not entirely irrelevant, as Barthes might seem to suggest; rather, most people value Barthes' notion that we must free ourselves from the trap of authorial intent. This is to say, what we have to work with it the text itself, so it doesn't matter what the author wanted to say, but instead what they did say. Therefore, we should work from the assumption that every choice the author made was deliberate.
This choice to avoid speculation about the author's intent or personality is consistent with the theories of text wrestling analysis explored in this chapter's introduction. Because meaning is always and only constructed through interpretation, we should let go of the idea that the author (or the "secret meanings" the author wrote into a text) is hidden somewhere beneath the surface. There is nothing "hidden" behind the text or in between the lines: there is only the text and those who interpret it.
This idea might seem to contradict one of the central frameworks of this textbook: that unpacking the rhetorical situation is crucial to critically consuming and producing rhetoric.
Overlooking authorial intent does not mean that the authors' rhetorical situation is no longer important. Instead, we should simply avoid unproductive speculation: we can consider the author's occasion, but we shouldn't try to guess about their motives. For instance, we can say that Malcolm X's writing was influenced by racial oppression in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S., but not by his preferences for peas over carrots. It's a fine line, but an important one.
Moreover, the choice to focus on what the author actually wrote, assuming that each word is on purpose, is part of the rhetorical situation of analysis. Your audience might also be curious about the author's intent, but your rhetorical purpose in this situation is to demonstrate an interpretation of the text - not the author.
Radical Noticing: Seeing What's on the Page
When we were early readers, we were trained to encounter texts in a specific way: find the main idea, focus on large-scale comprehension, and ignore errors, digressions, or irrelevant information. As Jane Gallop discusses in her essay, "The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters," this is a useful skill but a problematic one. Because we engage a text from a specific interpretive position (and because we're not always aware of that position), we often project what we anticipate rather than actually reading. Instead of reading what is on the page, we read what we think should be.
Projection is efficient - one e-mail from Mom is probably like all the others, and one episode of The Simpsons will probably follow the same trajectory as every episode from the last twenty-odd years. But projection is also problematic and inhibits analysis. As Gallop puts it,
When the reader concentrates on the familiar, she is reassured that what she already knows is sufficient in relation to this new book. Focusing on the surprising, on the other hand, would mean giving up the comfort of the familiar, of the already known for the sake of learning, of encountering something new, something she didn't already know.
In fact, this all has to do with learning. Learning is very difficult; it takes a lot of effort. It is of course much easier if once we learn something we can apply what we have learned again and again. It is much more difficult if every time we confront something new, we have to learn something new.
Reading what one expects to find means finding what one already knows. Learning, on the other hand, means coming to know something one did not know before. Projecting is the opposite of learning. As long as we project onto a text, we cannot learn from it, we can only find what we already know. Close reading is thus a technique to make us learn, to make us see what we don't already know, rather than transforming the new into the old.58
Analysis as "learning," as Gallop explains, is a tool to help interrupt projection: by focusing on and trying to understand parts, we can redirect our attention to what the author is saying rather than what we think they should have said. In turn, we can develop a more complex, ethical, and informed understanding of a whole.
Perhaps the most important part of analysis is this attention to detail. If we assume that every word the author published is intentional (in order to avoid speculation about authorial intent), then we can question the meaning and impact of each word, each combination of words, each formal feature of the text. In turn, you should pay special attention to words or forms that surprise you or confuse you: the eye-catching and the ambiguous.
Symbols, Patterns, and References59
There us no definitive "how-to" guide on text wrestling, but I often ask my students to direct their attention to three particular elements of a text during their interpretive processes. When you draw connections through the following categories, you are actively building meaning from the words on the page.
27) Symbol: A symbol, as you may already know, is an artifact (usually something concrete) that stands in for (represents) something else (often something abstract).
- Barack Obama's 2008 campaign logo: the O, of course, stands in for the candidate's last name; the red lines seem to suggest a road (implying progress), or maybe waving American flag; the blue curve represents a clear, blue sky (implying safety or wellbeing); the colors themselves are perhaps symbolic of bipartisan cooperation, or at the very least, the American color palette of red, white, and blue.
- In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," the titular black cat symbolizes the narrator's descent into madness, alcoholism, and violence, and later his guilt for that descent.
- The teaspoon used to hypnotize people ion the film Get Out (2017) symbolizes wealth, power, and privilege (a "silver spoon [Wikipedia entry]"), suggesting that those structures are tools for control and domination.
- In Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, the monster Grendel symbolizes a fear of the unknown and the intractability of nature.
- In The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock symbolizes nostalgia and hope.
* A motif is closely related to a symbol, but it is different. A motif is a recurring image, word, or phrase that helps to carry a theme or other abstact idea. For example, William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" includes frequent use of the word "dust". While the dust is not directly symbolic of anything, it certainly brings to mind a variety of connotations: reading "dust" makes you think of time passing, stagnancy, decay, and so on. Therefore, the motif of "dust" helps contribute to bigger characteristics, like tone and themes.
5. Pattern: Patterns are created by a number of rhetorical moves, often in form. Repetition of phrases or images, the visual appearance of text on a page, and character archetypes might contribute to patterns. While patterns themselves are interesting and important, you might also notice that breaking a pattern is a significant and deliberate move.
- The episode of the TV series Master of None titled "Parents" (Season 1, Episode 2) tells the respective stories of two immigrant families. By tracing the previous generation of each immigrant families through a series of flashbacks, the episode establishes a pattern in chronology: although the families have unique stories, the pattern highlights the similarities of these two families' experiences. In turn, this pattern demonstrates the parallel but distinct challenges and opportunities faced by the immigrants and first-generation American citizens the episode profiles.
- In Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est," each line of the first stanza contains ten syllables. However, the following stanzas contain occasional deviations -more or fewer syllables- creating a sense of disorder and also drawing emphasis to the pattern-breaking lines.
- Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio and Leadbelly, painstakingly crafts patterns in his poetry. For instance, his series of sonnets on Millie and Christine McKoy [Wikipedia entry] follows not only the conventions of traditional sonnets, but are also interlocking, exemplifying the distinct but overlapping voices of conjoined twins.
6. Reference: A reference is a connection a text makes to another text. By making a reference (whether obvious or hiddent), the referencing text adopts some characteristics of the referenced text. References might include allusion, allegory, quotation, or parody.
- C.S. Lewis' classic young adult series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is a Christian allegory. The imagery used to describe the main hero, Aslan the lion, as well as a number of the other stories and details, parallel the New Testament. In turn, Aslan is imbued with the savior connotation of Jesus Christ.
- The TV show Bob's Burgers makes frequent references to pop culture. For instance, the fictional boy band featured in the show, Boyz 4 Now, closely resembles One Direction, *NSYNC, and Backstreet Boys - and their name is clearly a reference to Boyz II Men.
- "Women Hollering Creek," a short story by Sandra Cisneros, deals with the dangers of interpersonal violence. The protagonist refers frequently to telenovelas, soap operas that set unrealistic and problematic assumptions for healthy relationships. These references suggest to us that interpersonal violence is pervasive in media and social norms.
In addition to looking for symbols, patterns, and references, you might also focus your analytical reading by using a sociocultural critical lens. Because your attention is necessarily selective, a limited resource, these lenses give you suggestions for where you might direct that attention. While it is beyond the scope of this book to give in-depth history and reading practices for different schools of literary criticism or cultural slides, the following are common lenses applied during textual analysis. (Free resources from the Purdue OWL introduce students to some of these schools of criticism.)
As you engage with a text, you should look for touchstones, tropes, or symbols that relate to one or more of the following critical perspectives.
- Gender and sexuality
How does the text portray the creation and performance of gender? How many people of different genders are included in the story? Do the characters in the text express gender according to traditional standards? How do characters resist the confines of gender? How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to women, men, and non-binary or genderqueer characters?
What relationships- familial, friendly, romantic, sexual, etc. - are portrayed in the text? How do these relationships compare to the relationships of the dominant culture?How much attention, agency, and voice are allowed to LGBTQIA25+ people?
How does the text represent people with disabilities? Does the text reveal damaging stereotypes or misconceptions about people with disabilities or their life experiences? Does the text illuminate the social/ environmental construction of disabilities? How does the text construct or assume the normative body?
- Race, ethnicity, and nationality
How does the text represent people of color, of minority status, and/or different nationalities? What does it suggest about institutionalized racism and discrimination? How does the text examine or portray cultural and individual identities? How do the characters resist racism, xenophobia, and oppression? How do they reproduce, practice, or contribute to racism, xenophobia, or oppression?
- Social Class and economy
How does the text represent differences in wealth, access, and resources? Do people cross the divisions between socioeconomic statuses? Are characters of greater status afforded more power, agency, or freedom - in plot events or in the text more generally? How do exploited people resist or reproduce exploitation?
- Ecologies and the environment
Does the setting of the text represent a 'natural' world? How does the text represent nature, ecosystems, non-human animals and other living organisms? Does the text, its narrative, or its characters advocate for environmental protection? Does the text speak to the human impact on global ecological health?
What is the relationship of the characters and the setting, historically and culturally? Does the text take place in a currently or formerly colonized nation? Which of the characters are from that place? How have the effects of colonialism and imperialism influenced the place and its indigenous people? How have subjected, enslaved, or exploited people preserved culture or resisted colonialism? How does the text represent patterns of migration- forced or voluntary?
Some texts will lend themselves to a certain lens (or combination of lenses) based on content or the rhetorical situation of the author or reader. Bring to mind a recent movie you watched, book you read, or other text you've encountered; by asking the italicized questions above, determine whether that text seems to be asking for a certain sociocultural perspective.