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  • Beyond Objectivity: The Reader-Writer Transaction as an Altered State of ConsciousnessVolume 40, Number 1, November 1977
  • Walter J. Ong

The reader of literature is attracting more interest today than perhaps ever before in literary studies, or, for that matter, in psychological, linguistic, philosophical, or other studies. In fact, fascination with readers' roles has become so common as to appear in many instances simply a fad. But the phenomenology of the reader and the text calls for serious attention. The list of works dealing with the reader and the text is growing daily: there are those of Wolfgang Iser, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur in Europe and of Wayne Booth, Norman Holland, and Stanley Fish in the United States, not to mention some of my own recent and of scores of others. Last December's Modern Language Association Forum on the Reader of Literature attracted an audience of well over 1,000 persons of all ages and theoretical persuasions and of the most varied practical interests.

My own statement that "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction,"1 seems to run counter to current trends. It seems to put readers down, to suggest that readers are in fact nothings, having very little if anything to say. However, although readers are indeed fictions, they are not nothings, but are supremely important. Not only do they read, casting themselves in the fictionalized recipient role that the author has negotiated for them and with them, but they also, paradoxically, have a great deal to say that goes into the texts they read. It is this contributory role of the reader that I will discuss.

The fictionalizing of a reader differs from the fictionalizing of anything else. For the fictionalized reader enters into the actuality of the author's writing. And the fictionalizing of the reader is carried on not only by the writer but also by the reader, who has to fictionalize himself or herself in key with the author's fictionalization in order to appropriate what the author has written.

All communication is an insistently reciprocal operation. There is no one-way human communication. Feedback is not merely added to human communication but is actually part of all utterance in the first instance. The writer fictionalizes the reader so that the fictionalized reader can enable the writer to find and shape what he or she has to say. The writer needs feedback not just after he has written something but, in some fashion, before he [End Page 198] writes. This is one of the many paradoxes in human communication, the paradox of anterior or antecedent feedback.

To assess the situation of the reader, it will be helpful to note that of the speaker and hearer in oral communication. When one human being makes an oral utterance to another, he or she does not lay down in front of the other an object to be picked up. Neither does the speaker throw an object at the hearer that sticks in the flesh or even lodges in the mind. An oral verbal utterance is paradigmatically an action of one consciousness upon another or others, an "outering" (uttering) of an interior consciousness whereby the interior enters into another interior to evoke a response.

There is no point in speaking if there is no one to respond. It is impossible to have a real utterance without an expectation of some response, if only from oneself as an imagined hearer. (The response might be silence, which in an oral context can be a response but which has no real equivalent in reading. One of the deepest differences between oral and written communication is that writing provides no silences—for the good, if paradoxical, reason that the text is total silence.) In an utterance, the conjectural response or range of possible responses is a determinant of what is said. Thus the hearer to whom an utterance is addressed is never merely a passive presence. His or her presence and conjectural response or range of possible responses has entered into what is said while it is being formulated. (Speech act theory, as worked out by J. L. Austin and J. R. Searle, treats certain abstract features of...


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