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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 61-72
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From Personal to Social Transaction:
A Model of Aesthetic Reading in the Classroom
Mark A. Pike
This article seeks to define more precisely the nature of the individual transaction that occurs between reader and text and the potential for aesthetic reading in literature classrooms by relating knowledge of the way pupils engage in literary transactions to theoretical perspectives that address the issue. The validity of Louise Rosenblatt's transactional theory of the literary work, expounded in Literature as Exploration and The Reader, The Text, The Poem, and its relevance for contemporary educators, particularly in the field of English education, has recently been reasserted by Jeanne Connell in her timely and cogent article in this journal. 1 The present article, however, seeks to refocus debate by problematizing and subsequently developing some aspects of key theories such as Rosenblatt's while examining the individual and social nature of reading in schools. Rosenblatt's view that aesthetic experiences can have both social origin and effect certainly deserves further theorizing if aesthetic experience in school communities and classrooms is to flourish.
The influence of John Dewey's Art as Experience upon Rosenblatt is evident as this seminal text conceives of our primary task as the restoration of "continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and everyday events." 2 Such continuity with experience is vital because, for Dewey, "experience is the fulfillment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things, it is art in germ." 3 Applying such a notion to education in schools, Rosenblatt saw the aim of literature lessons as the growth of experience rather than the acquisition of knowledge. Yet, despite such progress, in the United Kingdom, teachers of English are in the unenviable position of having to deliver an extensive body of knowledge prescribed by the National Curriculum and also to focus explicitly upon the features of certain types of text as they teach the National Literacy Strategy. 4 In Rosenblatt's work the emphasis on our experience of [End Page 61] literary works provides a much needed alternative to positions such as that adopted by New Criticism where "it is never what a poem says which matters, but what it is" because we acknowledge we can only ever gain access to what a poem says as "the sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one." 5 Clearly, understanding the reader's transaction with texts is where we must begin if we wish to foster aesthetic reading in our classrooms.
Transactional theory also appears to be closely related to Martin Heidegger's thought in Being and Time where Dasein (givenness, existence, being) is seen as a distinctive characteristic of the human being as our consciousness projects things of the world and is also subjected to the things of the world which belong to us, in some sense, only as long as our consciousness is projecting them. 6 The validity of Dewey's view, where experience is not separated from art, can be seen when we acknowledge that we can "never adopt an attitude of detached contemplation, looking down on the world as if from a mountain top" for we are "inevitably merged with the very object of our consciousness." 7
Such a view reflects Hans-Georg Gadamer's position in Truth and Method in which Heidegger's explanation of situation is applied to literary theory because, for Gadamer, the literary work cannot appear as a packaged and completed artefact in which meaning is neatly wrapped because it is influenced by a particular reader's actions at a particular moment. 8 Rosenblatt's realistic conception that "each reading involves a particular person at a particular time and place" is developed in this article as it seems that, even now, many reader response critics and curriculum designers "write as though people read literature in a vacuum or in a generalized kind of academic setting" which often does not apply...