A Thousand Responses

In the postmodern scheme of things, the old saying ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ takes on a whole new meaning.  It is not so much what those thousand words are that the picture intends to convey, but rather what the thousand responses it evokes.  Be it a painting, a film, or a literary work, all have the potential to elicit a myriad of responses, reactions as varied as each individual life lived.

Some ready examples can be found in Ripple Effects’ comment sections.  On a post about a movie I highly recommended, a reader responded that she had fallen asleep while watching it.  Or, take the Edward Hopper paintings.  While I found the phrase ‘existential loneliness’ to be an apt description for his works Nighthawk and Automat, a commenter expressed a sense of coziness and quiet content as her response to these paintings. Conversely, while I perceive Cape Cod Morning as anticipatory with positive excitement, the commenter sees “a woman trapped, caught in frustration or even despair, longing to move into the world but still constrained inside the structures of her life.”


There had been readers’ responses in the past long before the computer age. But what we have now is nothing short of phenomenal.  The Internet has enabled us to share and exchange our very personal reaction to a single source material simultaneously, allowing multiple voices to resound instantaneously from all corners of the world.  Every voice has the potential to call forth attention, every subjectivity can be equally amplified.  Reader’s response is thus given a heightened significance.

From this perspective then, the reality of a piece of writing, or artwork, seems to have shifted from the author to the reader, or the artist to the viewer, for it is the recipient now that speaks to the work, giving it meaning and application.

Should we still be concerned with the original intent of the piece?  Is it mere speculation to discuss about it, while in the mean time, it is more real and substantial to talk about what our response is, our own personal engagement with it?  Further, instead of focusing on one intended interpretation, should we explore rather the multiplicity of interpretations elicited from readers’ own perspectives and experiences?

Writing before the rise of the Internet, the French literary critic Roland Barthes put it most starkly in his essay “The Death of the Author”:

“… a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there  is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.  The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination…”

and a warning here, the language used in the following excerpt may be objectionable to some:

“Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature.  We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth:  the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

The postmodern theorist Michel Foucault wraps it up succinctly:

“What difference does it make who is speaking?”

The listener seems to have taken up a much more significant role these days.

Our postmodern literary theorists have thus spoken: The author is dead, long live the reader, and the words.

This idea may not sound so radical, for similar notions have been expressed. Instead of an all-knowing authority, the author is more like a recorder of a tale, the scribe writing down the oracle.  The Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje’s words come to mind.  Even as an author, it seems his creative process is one that awaits the revealing of his story, capturing it in words as it unfolds itself:

“I don’t know what would happen… I don’t want to know.”

Further, Ondaatje welcomes the multiplicity of interpretations.  In his discussion with film editor Walter Murch, he addresses this issue in a positive light:

“We are not held hostage by just one certain story, or if we are, we know it is just one opinion: there are clear hints of other versions.”   — The Conversations, p. 160.

Multiplicity enhances and enriches a scene.  That is the amiable way of putting it, while Barthes is more matter-of-fact in pointing out where meaning and significance lie:

“… it is language which speaks, not the author.”

In a way, such a perspective could be a much-needed humbling reminder in our too crazed, celebrity-driven culture.

But for those of us who strive with all earnestness and honesty to instill meaning in our writing, who have been meticulous and intentional in our craft and guarding its integrity as we create, when we speak, don’t we wish someone out there would receive our message accurately, as it is intended?

Why do we write, or create anyway?  Do we want our readers to know about us or just to hear the words we happen to utter?  Further, shouldn’t we be concerned that what we elicit could well be interpretations far from what we have intended to get across?  How do we balance author’s intent with readers’ response?

Simple questions, but ones which I’m sure can elicit a thousand responses.


To read Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author’,  Click Here.

To read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What Is an Author’,  Click Here.

Visual: ‘Self Portrait’ by René Magritte, 1936.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

19 thoughts on “A Thousand Responses”

  1. Very interesting. I’ve often thought Barthes represented the literary/critical equivalent of Newton’s Third Law: “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Except, of course, it would need to be rephrased into “For every interpretation, there is an equal and opposite interpretation”.

    It’s become my conviction that those who make the reader solely responsible for meaning are as off the mark as those who give all credit to the author. From my perspective, meaning is discovered in the dialogue between author and reader, where the author’s intent and the reader’s understanding are equally critical to the process of interpretation.

    Questions of intent are particularly critical when it comes to foundational texts: the Bible, the Koran, the US Constitution. If you listen to the discussions, it’s fascinating to hear precisely the same issues being raised over and over. What was the original intent of the document? What did the words mean in their historical context? Do they mean the same thing today? How does our experience shape our understanding of the text?

    From this very narrow perspective, there’s not a whit of difference between a strict constructionist view (of the Constitution) and a fundamentalist interpretation (of the Bible). One document is historical/political, while the other is religious, but understanding the variety of interpretations both have received requires scrupulous attention to hermeneutical principles.

    And one other note: there is a danger lurking here for the unwary. If the author’s intent is irrelevant, and every interpretation is valid, how can any text be said to be truly “foundational”?
    Relativism has run amok in our society as it is, and such views only encourage the tendency to reduce such texts to irrelevance – in my opinion, of course 😉

    As a writer, I do have intentions for my words, and I’m quite aware which readers understand what I have to say, and which don’t. That’s not to say that “understanding” can’t be broad, or that diversity of opinion and response isn’t valid, but still… the author counts. Always.

    Betcha the good Mr. Barthes knows the difference between readers who get his point, and those who don’t. There’s something just flat funny about such a prolific author telling us the author doesn’t matter 😉


    1. Linda,

      You’ve raised some very good points. Yes, I agree with you that ‘relativism has run amok in our society…’. While we should be given the freedom of expression, of voicing our response to a source material, I do believe that the creator of that material does have some intended message, or else, why speak?

      The same applies to Barthes’ own essay… if one comes to read it without knowing any of Roland Barthes’ post-structuralism theoretical perspective, would that person understand and appreciate what Barthes had in mind as fully? The author does matter, together with his theoretical stance and frame of reference. And you’re right, I’m sure Mr. Barthes knows the difference between those who get his point and those who don’t… and I’m sure too, that he had wanted his readers to get his point, or else, why write?


  2. This is wonderful.

    Your words about the craft of writing – what the writer puts in – strikes me regarding blog writing. I am always intrigued, as you are, how readers will respond – and to what – in a post. Certain elements are completely ignored, while others resonate. If we could sit in a salon and discuss, one person’s response would lead to another and it would feel more whole. So in this sense blogging feels unfinished, a little unsatisfying in this regard.

    I am reading “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Before starting, I read the prelude by the editor about Tolstoy’s obsession with Christian morality, with hammering a message home to the reader, with what Nabakov described about him: “Somehow, the process of seeking the Truth seemed more important to him than the easy, vivid, brilliant discovery of the illusion of truth through the medium of his artistic genius.” Tolstoy himself wrote: “. . . a writer who has not a clear, definite, and fresh view of the universe, and especially a writer who does not even consider this necessary, cannot produce a work of art. He may write much and beautifully, but a work of art will not result.”

    I confess Tolstoy’s point of view turned me off before starting his story! So how will this color my reading of Ivan Ilych? And funnily enough, my nephew – a pastor – is dying to talk with me about this his favorite story. As a poet who learned from a mentor to show don’t tell, I don’t want to be clobbered with a message. But if I did not know what I know about Tolstoy, would the message have felt more subtle? Maybe ignorance would have been “blissier.”

    A friend said to me this week that beyond some very helpful information on the Internet for research, mostly the Internet is about self. My take is that we are in an age when self is coming forth – has evolved to be the all important. This can be good and helpful, and it can be annoying. As we writers keep exploring it and writing about it, it will evolve yet more. Always there is the archetype, and the negative archetype, has been since myth and religion as long as writing existed.

    Sorry so long.


  3. Clarification: I agree wholeheartedly with Tolstoy’s words here about art needing to be fresh. It was his insistence on sending a message that turned me off.


    1. Ruth,

      Ha interesting, what you’ve expressed here illustrates Barthes’ point in that, let the words speak and don’t bother with who the author is or even what he’s said about the piece. Take the words at their value.

      I know what you mean by not every work of art or writing has a ‘message’. But if we don’t think of it as a didactic message, let’s say, e.g. a photo conveying a sense of beauty, can’t we say that’s the ‘message’ already? Thus, we have shown visually the concept of beauty without verbally telling.

      Yes, the Internet, especially many of our social networking sites are about self, real or virtual. Linda has recommended a Wired Magazine article on Sherry Turkle that’s brilliant, her take on this phenomenon of our modern age. Here’s the link: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.04/turkle.html?pg=1&topic=

      I hope you’ll still enjoy Tolstoy despite knowing his intention.


  4. Interesting point, Ruth, about the internet being about self.

    When I began blogging, I didn’t want my writing to be “about me”. On the other hand, personal essays imply pretty strongly a unique perspective, a particular way of being in the world, and idiosyncratic ways of expression.

    Figuring out how to make writing “mine” while avoiding self-absorption and the kind of self-revelation that’s really quite boring has been more difficult than I imagined. I’m just getting a feel for it.

    Now, I’ll circle back to Barthes. If the author doesn’t count, why bother with a personal essay at all? Why bother with any writing at all? I re-read the linked essay twice again last night, and finally just closed it with a sigh, thinking, “Oh,those French intellectuals”.

    Without a living, breathing, hoping, grieving, searching author to give me a new pair of eyes with which to see the world, why should I read anything at all?


    No matter how one deconstructs it, a piece of writing is more than just words. The same as learning a language is more than merely mastering the phonetics and syntax, there’s the semantics as well, the cultural meaning and context embedded. Well there you go, having uttered the above words give away my theoretical stance.

    I believe there’s an interaction between the author and the reader that’s beyond deciphering. Also, wasn’t Barthes supposed to be the one who appreciated multiplicity? Why only the reader then?

    The author does matter… but it’s also important to lay aside the self and hear the responses. Like a pebble thrown into the pond, the ripples are the beauty that can be seen, while the pebble disappears into the deep.


  5. Arti, Linda, Ruth,

    First, you’ve all made my head hurt with your excellent points, albeit in a good way. Second, no one has mentioned Mr. Foucault, which I find very interesting. And now I can’t find my copy. Bother. Will press on.

    For as long as there have been “writers”–from paleolithic cave drawings, through hieroglyphics through the earliest forms of ‘alphabet’ to now–there have been readers. Communication has always required an audience, even if it is an audience of one and that ‘one’ is the writer her (or him)self painstakingly reviewing every line. Ruth’s “archetype” and “negative archetype” (Jung?); present as she says from the beginning of mythology, the onset of religion. “Art” in any form came into being as soon as humanity began to ask “Why?”

    Fast forward several millenia to England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Two friends, poets both, take long walks together, argue, and produce the “Biographica Literaria,” which is essentially this argument over the role of author/artist verus that of the reader/observer (the author’s presence in his–at that time, for the most part–creation). Wordsworth v. Coleridge; Balzac v. Flaubert; Ruskin v. Pater… I don’t believe that any of us standing on this side of the vast chasms that were split open during the 19th century can truly appreciate what intellectual life was like before. Before Darwin splintered biology, or Freud the psyche. And then Proust, Foucault mentions Proust specifically, squished the novel into the product of self, making the very different stream-of-consciousness techniques of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce possible. Some seventy or eighty years before Michael Ondaatje, Woolf noted that “writing is a species of mediumship.” And Yeats wrote in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”: I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Faulkner agreed. They all speak of what Noam Chomsky would later call “deep language” reaching that place (a mystical cave, perhaps) where the words live…
    All of the signs and signifiers(semiotics), the deconstruction that is at the heart of both men’s argument was huge litcrit stuff. They are talking of novels in both essays; the critical, the appreciative, the argumentative essay was expected to have an author (“creative nonfiction” the subjective “personal essay” did not exist atthe time of these articles; these guys certainly didn’t want to be left out of their own work, as Linda observed!)The literary response to the scientificity of those men was the meta-fiction of John Barth and the early Robert Coover.When Gen -X came along and wanted to be really hip and “postmodern” it was like watching someone in a funhouse mirror: look at me writing about myself writing–and writing about it! Endless visions of the same thing…
    “Self” directly or indirectly has been the subject of most Modernist literature; “self” mockery is a current trend…and the internet has become the perfect venue for it. We all leave little pieces of our “selves” so-called everywhere we leave a comment, every time we post.It’s inevitable. As it would be if we were writing letters or publishing essays or poems or fictions or whatnot in actual journals. That is the risk of writing, the risk of any art. It is the risk of “self” exposure, and it is a scary experience…
    I am sorry to have gone on for so long, and to have strayed so far off topic.I only wished to show that this argument is an old one, and that writer and reader are joined like person to shadow; the reader cannot exist without the writer, but the writer can be without the reader, because it is a built-in mechanism.
    I do hope some of this made sense.
    Thank you Arti, for a most thought-provoking essay, and the lovely metaphor at the end. The pebble falls…


    1. ds,

      If a tiny pebble can make such a ripple, I don’t mind diving in again. Thanks for the thorough overview! Something I’ll refer back to time and again.

      Coincidentally, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the intellectual rival to the post-structuralists, just passed away at the ripe old age of 100. About these contemporary theorists, Mr. Lévi-Strauss had once commented: “French society, and especially Parisian, is gluttonous. Every five years or so, it needs to stuff something new in its mouth.” Not unlike the Parisian fashion of the day. Here’s the link to today’s NYT obituary:

      Again, I sincerely thank you for your time and effort in reading and responding to my post. A vivid example of the intricate interaction between the writer and the reader, and with other readers as well!


  6. You know, as much as I do believe it’s the text that matters, not what the author “intended,” it’s still impossible for me to wonder what was going on in the writer’s mind and what the writer hoped to accomplish. I think it’s impossible to push authors and artists out of the picture entirely, and that’s fine. What really bothers me is when people what the artist says about the work is the final word. That’s just not true!


    I really like how you put it regarding the author and reader interaction: ‘a big messy process’, which I believe is not all within our deciphering, because as you mentioned in your post “Keats and Authorial Intention”, the unconscious is involved in the poetic (or any creative) process. All too complex and intriguing to simply say who’s got the final word. Totally agree with you.



  7. Oh, and look at this! I was reading Damyanti’s blog tonight. She’s just been to a Singapore Writers’ Festival and provided some glimpses into that world.

    She referred to a conversation with Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, the author of “A Long Walk Home” and “Earning the Laundry Stripes”. Manreet says what begins between an author and a reader during the reading process is a dialogue, a two-sided encounter.

    I couldn’t help but think of this discussion, and smile at the fact that a Malaysian blogger has alerted me to another writer a world away who also likes the concept of dialogue between author and reader.

    Who knew?


  8. Sorry about the “term paper.” (aka, ridiculous manifesto)I got carried away.I did see that Lévi-Strauss had passed–and thought immediately of your post! Thank you for the link to the Times article. And your patience…


    I’ve always enjoyed your sharing… long or short. In this particular case, I’ve appreciated it all the more because of the pertinent info you’ve prepared for us! No patience required on my part, and no apology needed on yours. Thanks again!



  9. Wow, this is an interesting discussion, I have been reading it for the past hour! Thanks for the link, and if I ever write to Manreet, I’ll definitely tell her about this…..


    Thanks for stopping by! I’ve appreciated your site, offering us a different cultural perspective on writing, and the interchange between writers and readers… and, thanks for the time you spent on this! Your comment is always welcome.



  10. I was sent here by DS. This is just the conversation to have over a good meal. There is much to ponder and to savor. I believe I’ll linger here for a while.


    Welcome! Plunge right in… we’re having great fun making ripples.



  11. Your term ‘existential loneliness’ has simmered in my mind and so perfectly describes what I see. It’s brilliant and I confess that now I can’t describe Hopper any other way. I see the same in Hammershøi.

    In the same way we cannot control what someone thinks of us, we can control even less how something we create is interpreted. The reader’s (or viewer’s in my case) own world view acts as a lens on everything they see.

    The masterful writer uses familiar symbols in their language to communicate something that is meaningful to his culture and times. His intent is there. I find it interesting that we reinterpret historic literature or translated texts and scarcely realize that with the lens of common culture removed, our view will be altered from the artist’s contemporaries or cultural (read language) natives and likely move away from the author’s intent. This is something that academic specialization seems to encourage for some bizarre reason. It kind of reminds me of how art schools tend to ignore teaching the techniques of drawing and painting in favour of pure interpretation. I have nothing against non-objective art forms, but, the finest of the non-objective and abstract artists had a classical foundation. Sorry – way off topic!

    In art the meaning of symbols evolves over time, but, history often allows a window into the world view of a work’s contemporaries. Perhaps what I intended will be obvious, perhaps not. I like to think that archetypes I use are not positive or negative – but both – Each archetype has two sides and that these are a part of what might be called ‘cultural’ or even more Jungian “collective consciousness”. The face of the archetype evolves, but its characteristics do not and will be revealed.

    In the end, the creation that best reflects the nature of the human condition will keep alive the author/artist’s intent and allow interpretation. Both are necessary in order to have grounding in the physical world and a relationship with it.

    I am a little out of my element with literary criticism and made some left turns, but, I enjoyed this discussion all the same. It is pretty late here so I hope I made some sense… LOL!


    1. Michelle,

      The term ‘existential loneliness’ has been used by some as they respond to Hopper, an apt description I feel. Different viewers might see differently, as they interact with the paintings with their own subjective experience, creating meaning in the process. This idea, of course, would be supported by Barthes and Foucault.

      However, I believe there are universals. That is why a certain piece of writing, or artwork, could stir up resonance, all because of our underlying humanity. There might be a thousand individual responses, but I’m sure such reactions share some commonalities, in larger categories such as ‘loneliness’, ‘fear’, ‘joy’, ‘hope’… It is its ability to speak to the universal that art or writing appeals to us all. The idea of ‘archetypes’ would fall into this category, a particular representing the collective.

      Universals, the idea that there are common bonds that bind us all, something inherently meaningful in our humanity, a ‘meta-narrative’, would of course, be refuted by Barthes and Foucault.

      Thank you for your late night thoughts… nocturnal musings.


  12. Excellent post and excellent comments. Art is in the eye of the beholder, no? What this made me think of was my senior English thesis on Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” At the urging of my professor, I faithfully deconstructed the work as it related to Schopenhauer or Buber or some other philosopher. I reread it 8 years later and realized that it was simply a story about a family dealing with an addict. As readers we approach writing from where we are at at the time. That’s the beauty of it all. It can be fresh again in five years, seen from completely different eyes.


    Ha… Interesting! I’m sure reading the play for marks and a prof must generate quite different resonance than reading it simply for pleasure. And you’re so right, ‘it can be fresh again… seen from completely different eyes.” Aren’t we all grateful for such new perspectives as years go by…



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