Friday, May 15, 2009

what is reading?

A good friend of mine has recently put me on to an article that is giving me the language to say things I've been struggling to say for a couple years now. The article, "Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity," by William A. Johnson (The American Journal of Philology 121/4: 593-627; available here if you have access to JSTOR), examines acts and significances of reading as more than individual, cognitive events.

I mention the article here mostly to highlight Johnson's definition of reading, which I think deserves some consideration. Read this and feel free to offer comments. (This quote begins in mid-sentence; I recommend reading the entire article if you're interested in more.)

I prefer to look at reading as not an act, nor even a process, but as a highly complex sociocultural system that involves a great many considerations beyond the decoding by the reader of the words of a text. Critical is the observation that reading is not simply the cognitive process by the individual of the "technology" of writing, but rather the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular sociocultural context. (Johnson 2000: 603; original italics)


Don said...

...but rather the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular sociocultural context.

Help me out here... Is Johnson saying that unless one understands the milieu of the text, reading doesn't happen (yeah, I realize I just took what he was writing and beat it into my mold with a sledgehammer)? My oversimplification not withstanding, is this really a new thought? Or is he saying that each "sociocultural context" renegotiates the meaning (e.g. a 21st C. goth culture that names itself "The Last Full Measure of Devotion" because it sees its 'cutter' behavior as something of societal value beyond itself)?

Rafael said...

Not sure about the goth comment, but let me try anyway:

No, Johnson isn't saying that we only read a text when we understand its generative context. Rather, he's saying that reading always involves a larger context than simply an individual reader and a text. So the same text means different things in different milieux. (I think this is what you were saying about "renegotiat[ing] the meaning.")

This is fairly readily seen when we compare, say, nineteenth century biblical scholarship and its contemporary counterpart. Both seek to understand the text in a reconstruction of its original context, but they are vastly different. And while I'm not willing to say there aren't better or worse readings (i.e., I don't agree that all readings are equal), I do think that all our readings of biblical texts are open to revision, expansion, clarification, etc. I certainly don't read the Bible the same way I did ten years ago!

For my purposes, then, it doesn't do any good to say, as many NT scholars do, that the early Christians took non-messianic Hebrew biblical traditions (e.g., Hosea 11.1) and read them messianically. While the text's "original meaning" matters for us (and so Hebrew Bible scholars will spend considerable time researching Hosea's context, rhetoric, and so on), I think we have be careful (and very humble) passing judgment on how people in other cultures and historical periods read the same texts. How an OT text was read in the first century CE matters more for NT research than what we think that same text meant when it was originally written.

Does that help?

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