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New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 21-38

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Where is a Text?
A Neurological View

Norman N. Holland

Where is a text? The question lies at the root of much thinking about literature, but most crucially, at the core of reader-response thinking, and its difficulties with literary people.

Reader-response criticism has trouble with literary people because literary people have trouble with reader-response criticism. Imagine for a moment the familiar scene of a slightly bored academic audience being addressed by a reader-response critic, me, for instance. I assert that what you or I know of a text is only your or my conception of it. Ouch! Red alert! Grumbling ensues and indignant questions. "Are you saying the text does not exist?" (Echoing the notorious question of Stanley Fish's apprehensive student, "Is there a text in this class?") "No, I said nothing at all about the existence or non-existence of the text." (No, I am not Bishop Berkeley nor was I meant to be.) Saying a book is "all in your mind," is not saying the book is not real--as real as anything else (as the good Bishop would have said). Nor is it saying that you do not feel inspired or moved or pleased or annoyed by the book.

I try to shift the ground. "Let me put that another way, more accurately. 'What you know of a text is simply the sum of your perceptions of it.' Is that better? Or, still more accurately, perhaps, 'You cannot know anything save through some human process of perception in your brain (seeing it, hearing about it), unless your knowledge is innate or comes by divine revelation.'" To me, that seems so obvious as almost to be tautological, and, to be sure, at this point, the grumbles usually die down. But not the discontent or the disagreement with the first statement.

People will agree to these latter statements, but balk at the idea that one cannot talk about "the" text, supposedly an independent thing "out there," in a world of not-me beyond our eyeballs, apart from our perception of it "in here." They fulminate still more if I try to apply the same reasoning to a movie on a screen or a play on a stage. Even for someone like me who has been thinking as a reader-response critic for years, it is hard to avoid traditional phrasings like these: [End Page 21]

That actor made me laugh and laugh.

The cantata is joyous.

Citizen Kane is a troubling movie.

I was moved to tears by the Ode.

It is not hard to poke holes in such phrasings and show that they do not correspond to the psychology of the event. But it is hard indeed not to use them.

* * *

Why is it hard? And how?

While teaching a stalwart group of graduate students in a seminar called "The Brain and Literary Questions," I was preparing a class by reading a chapter in our neuroscience textbook, M. Deric Bownds's excellent Biology of Mind. 1 I was struck (sic) by a particular passage. That is, I felt flabbergasted. For me, a reader-response critic weary of the familiar protests, it resonated.

Bownds was describing "the brain's ability to generate perception distinct from sensation." He described an experiment involving blind people. It began with

attaching to their backs a patch driven by a video camera that the subject controls, a camera whose output to the patch causes the stimulation of multiple points on the skin. Each point represents one small area of the image captured by the camera. Within hours, some subjects can learn to recognize common objects such as cups and telephones, to point accurately in space, to judge distance, and finally to use perspective and parallax to perceive external objects in a stable three-dimensional world. . . . After a few hours, the person no longer interprets the skin sensations as being of the body but projects them into the space being explored by the body-directed "gaze" of the video camera. What develops is...


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