There may be no such thing as an “unmediated response,” but there is such a thing as limited preconceptions

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From Donald Keesey’s Contexts for Criticism:    

                “For the belief is widespread that the reader should confront the work with no preconceptions and should achieve thereby an authentic, unmediated response.

                “But in fact there can be no unmediated response” (Keesey 1).

I definitely agree with Keesey that it is impossible to approach anything without some preconceived notions.  Even if we know absolutely nothing about a short story, we will still form opinions about it based upon the author’s name and its title.  For example, I knew nothing about the “The Yellow Wallpaper,” nor did I know anything about Gilman before we were assigned it in this class.  Yet, as soon as I read the title, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was already judging the story. 

However, while it is impossible not to formulate certain views on a text which will bias one’s reading of it, I also think that Keesey is overlooking the value of reading a text relatively unencumbered by the baggage of extensive study of the work.  I know that it is detrimental to me to read literary articles before I have thoroughly considered what a literary work may mean.  For example, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” was providing me with an extreme challenge of interpretation.  I could not come up with any original readings of the poem.  I had read Austin’s article before thorough considering what I thought the poem meant and this cause me problems.  This is not to say it is impossible to come up with one’s own reading after reading a critical article, but I know from experience that it makes it much more difficult.  Every time you try to analyze a phrase, the critic’s opinion keeps seeping into your thoughts, preventing you from escaping even greater influence on your reading than you would have had otherwise.  I am not trying to suggest that we should not read critical articles, I think they are important.  I just think that Keesey is undervaluing the benefits of reading a text with a relatively unhindered perspective. 

Read more about Keesey’s text. 

4 Comments

I know what you mean about critical essays leaking into your own thoughts. I am totally lost for ideas for our "casebook" this week because I feel that the essays we read covered the history and stole any ideas I may have had. I wanted to do Keats but there isn't much information on him and we're kind of presed for time. I may have to find something outside our readings...

If I understand what you are saying, and please correct me if I do not, then I have to agree with you. I think it is much too difficult to get our minds to wrap around a text, initially, if we have other peoples thoughts and ideas cluttering it. The essay's are of definite value, but if I tried to keep up with them and read the text I would just get frustrated. I need to have my own base opinion before I can hope to glean properly from others. Does that make sense? Sorry if I've rambled.

Greta Carroll said:

Mara, exactly! That is precisely what I am saying and feel. It just makes it so hard to have someone else’s ideas bouncing around your brain when you are trying to come up with your own original reading. Basically, I’m kicking myself for not analyzing Keats’s poem before I read Austin’s article. As soon as you read someone else’s opinion, your own opinion is going to be affected. I am proposing that while there is no such thing as an unmediated response (as Eagleton observes); there are different levels of preconception. And the fewer ideas you have about a text before you read it, the more unique of a perspective you will have and the more likely you will be to notice something no one else has yet. I guess it’s kind of like Dr. Jerz mentioned in class the other day. Sometimes it’s the people who aren’t English majors who really notice the unique things. It helps to look at things from a fresh perspective sometimes.

Ellen Einsporn said:

I completely agree, Greta. I like the idea of reading a text before I read any outside sources because the reactions I have are my own. It's no fun to have someone else's thoughts crowding your head. I think it hinders our creativity as critics. At the same time, reading the opinions of others can spark new trains of thoughts in our heads as well. So, while I value outside sources, I think it is important to think about the text independent from the opinions of others so that we can honestly call our interpretation our own and find a sort of gratification in the fact that we've interpreted something ourselves. Once we have this personal take on the text, we can then go back and look at it from the perspective of others to test/strengthen our claims.

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