IDEAL READER and other READER POSITIONS
One of the ways that Althusser describes the effects of interpellation is that ideology “hails” us or calls out to us, asking us to become what ideology asks us to become, or do what ideology asks us to do.
This is especially true of how texts treat their readers. Texts invite their readers to learn lessons, accept certain values, or to take on certain roles in response to the text. Through their surface ideology texts ask the reader to patiently internalize a lesson while enjoying a riveting story. They ask the reader to consider a certain idea, to imagine a particular thing, or to respond to the text in a particular way.
The passive ideology of any given text calls on the reader to internalize unspoken cultural values, to see their identity through subject positions assigned to them.
Perhaps most importantly, texts invite the reader to find a certain type of pleasure in a certain response to the text.
In these ways, each text has what might be called an ideal reader in mind, the sort of reader who responds to the text in the way they are assigned, who finds pleasure in the ways the text asks them to find pleasure, who willingly accepts the values the text puts forth.
This could be as simple as a woman liking a romantic comedy or a guy liking a violent buddy picture. What interpellation suggests is that these responses are not based upon biology (for example, the idea that men are just naturally attracted to violence), but rather that viewers are asked to respond to their particular gendered roles when they respond to texts in a given way.
Naturally, we are often asked to read or respond to texts in which we are not the ideal reader. I am sure you can think of examples of texts you have encountered that are clearly not aimed at you. And even if we are the ideal reader the text has in mind, we can still adopt a role in which we step outside of this position.
So, below I’ll describe a variety of ideal reader positions that different texts invite the reader to take on based upon their nature as texts. And then later, I will describe two positions that the reader can adopt with any given text. I’ll start with familiar ones and move on to ones that are maybe less familiar. For lack of a better way of dividing them up, let’s think about these as active and passive ideal reader positions.
TYPES OF TEXTS THAT CALL FOR PASSIVE READER POSITIONS (buys into a more patronizing narrative)
Didactic – Didactic books have a clear lesson that they aim to pass on to the reader. Didactic books are designed with the priority of conveying a single dominant lesson designed by the author for the reader’s consumption. The author presents this information as though they are an authority (because they are an adult) and they expect the child to accept the lesson as truth. The ideal reader, in turn, is asked to read the story in order to best understand the importance of the lesson. They are not asked to question this lesson, to consider complexities, or to doubt the author. Their role is to listen to the story passively and enjoy the story that is presented.
Monologic – This is a term used by the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin for any texts that are single voiced, or characterized by the presence of a single dominant presence (usually the narrator, an adult presence, or child telling the story) who organizes information and presents it to the reader. Didactic texts often have a monologic tone to them when a clear single lesson is told by a strong narrative voice, like a story read at bedtime. Many children’s texts are monologic, such as the Harry Potter series which tends to have a strong narrative voice presenting the story to a captive audience.
Readerly – This is a term used by the literary critic Roland Barthes to describe texts where our pleasure comes from consuming a well crafted story. Such texts are “readerly” because they encourage us to find pleasure in remaining a reader, in taking in what the author has created. Readerly texts, like many novels you would read on an airplane, don’t ask much of us other than our rapt attention. By the time the text has reached our hands the text is completed. It tells us everything we want to know and gives us everything we expect, teasing us along the way but wrapping things up in a pleasant way. Readerly texts ask us to find pleasure in what is predictable; in other words, when you pick up a readerly text you may not know the story, but you know exactly what type of experience you are going to have.
TYPES OF TEXTS THAT CALL FOR ACTIVE READER POSITIONS (buys into a more productive narrative)
Ambiguous – As opposed to didactic books, ambiguous texts ask more questions than they answer. They present difficult moral situations and ask the reader to consider different possibilities. Or, in terms of plot, ambiguous texts have endings that are not immediately clear, they call for the reader to rethink what they have read and make abstract conclusions that are grounded in complex evidence. Ambiguous texts put readers into positions where they are asked to wrestle with an idea or even the text itself.
Dialogic – As opposed to monologic texts, Bakhtin describes dialogic texts as those that are many voiced. Dialogic texts present multiple viewpoints that wrestle for the reader’s attention, or more than one perspective, none of which is presented as the correct view. Different voices compete for power, but none win out. There is no single dominant voice (either a presence in the text, or an author passing on a lesson) that controls what is to be taken from the text. Playground rhymes might be considered dialogic because they are shared by a community. Ambiguous texts that present multiple points of view might also be considered dialogic.
Writerly – As opposed to readerly texts, Barthes describes writerly texts as those that encourage the reader to take on an active role, almost at the level of co-creator of the text (like a writer). The text may not be fully complete by the time it reaches the reader’s hands. Our reactions to the text are not predetermined. Meanings are not placed by the author for us to find. There is pleasure to be found in taking different routes through the text (particularly if the text encourages us to take different routes) or to wrestle with ideas without consideration of what the author meant by it. We are encouraged to notice, to pay attention, to find connections that are of our own design. The readerly text is designed to make sense to us, to give us everything we need. In the writerly text, the way has not been prepared; it is not a narrative to be read in the traditional sense, it is a work in which the reader is required to acknowledge and participate in the writing process. When you encounter a writerly text, you are not immediately sure what to do with it. It requires you to change your perspective, to reconsider how you are going to read, what you are going to do with the thing in front of you.
READER POSITIONS YOU CAN TAKE WITH ANY TEXT
Close Reader – This is the type of reader we are most often taught to be in high school. Close readers look deeply into the text for meanings that are often found in symbols or metaphors. Close readers are attentive to what the author is trying to convey. To read Shakespeare for his themes and ideas, as well as to find pleasure in his use of language that conveys those themes, is to be a close reader. Close readers go beneath the surface, but what they analyze is always at the level of surface ideology. Surface ideology may contain very overt explicit lessons (especially in didactic books), but it can also have deeper meanings that attentive readers find the more closely they read. Close readers look for what the book is trying to teach them, both in simple and in complex ways.
Resisting Reader – This is the type of reader who openly resists being the ideal reader. Such a reader actively examines the passive ideologies found in a text, particularly since we are not typically called upon to look at passive ideologies. They ask questions about the text; they resist the effect they are supposed to feel in exchange for asking direct questions about the text. Or, the reader may be outside of the ideal reader position already (if, because of race or class or gender they are not who the text is aimed at), and, in turn, they ask difficult questions from this outside position.
I hope that I have been asking you all to be both close and resisting readers all semester, and you have all done this in various ways. By looking closely at these texts for complex meanings, you are being adept close readers. But by examining the passive ideologies and asking questions of the text, you are also being adept resisting readers (especially those of you who openly resisted the effects of the American Girls books).
As for the other positions, we’ll look at more examples as we go along that will hopefully make these ideas clearer.
*modified from Chris McGee's original