Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 2 – Polyvalence

The first part of the book is entitled “Meaning” and is made up of three chapters, the first of these is “Polyvalence” in which Powell discusses the theory underpinning Reader-response criticism.

He offers the following definition of polyvalence: “In literary theory Polyvalence refers to the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” In other words, what history and daily experience teach us is that texts (of all kinds) “can mean different things to different people. They can even mean different things to the same person when they are read or experienced under diverse circumstances.” (17) It is a simple fact that people respond differently to movies, stories, jokes, songs, etc. Who is reading, when, where, and why, make all the difference.

He takes up Wolfgang Iser’s theory [1] that all stories have “gaps” that readers fill in the act of reading; imaginatively filling in un-narrated details, seeking clarity from what is left ambiguous, making connections not explicit in the narrative. (16) According to Powell “Polyvalent interpretations result from readers filling gaps in divergent ways.” (17) He then discusses “four factors that influence how readers fill gaps.” (17)

Social Location – One’s social location is constituted by such factors as age, gender, career, social class, income, education, personality, health, the list can go on and on. In other words, what makes you you, the particulars that influence our perceptions and experiences.

Reading Strategy – Powell describes reading strategy through a few examples, but to keep this post short I will note only the last. He gives the example of a women who each morning reads a passage of Scripture “expecting God to speak to her.” (19, the passage, Isaiah 55:1, is the first illustration so far employing a non-narrative text) The result is that she discerns that God wants her to carry out a very specific act that is only very loosely connected to the text. He contrasts this with his typical reading strategy which pays close attention to the literary and historical contexts of the text, with her reading which “looks for direct existential engagement.” (19)

Choice of Empathy – Readers typically “identify” with certain characters in a story and their “experience” of the narrative is determined by this. This usually occurs without thought or deliberation, influenced by such factors as social location and reading strategy. While this can result in the reader elevating minor points or even missing “what the author would have regarded as the “main point” of the tale,” for Powell this “does not constitute misinterpretation” because “readers are not constrained by authorial intent.” (22)

Conceptions of Meaning – Powell outlines and contrasts two conceptions of meaning:(23)

Meaning as message. The meaning of a text may be described in essentially cognitive terms. Understanding the meaning of a text entails identification of the point or points that are being made therein.

Meaning as effect. The meaning of a text may be described in emotive or affective terms. Understanding the meaning of a text involves recognition of its impact on those who receive it.

The former tends to be author oriented and the latter reader oriented. These are not mutually exclusive conceptions, but at least in terms of narratives, the former does not do justice to the genre. The parables of Jesus, for example, cannot be reduced to a message because it is in their form as a story that they function to impact the reader. “The narrative form of a story—it’s characters, plot, settings, and rhetoric—are as integral to its meaning as any message(s) its author may hope it conveys.” (27) The field of biblical studies has privileged meaning as message, Reader-response criticism “advocates” for meaning as effect.

Powell concludes the chapter by stressing the importance of this last factor for interpretation:

“The mere fact that people define meaning differently opens the door to polyvalence. And if meaning can (I would say should) sometimes be defined in terms of effect, that open door is thrown wide. Authors might intend to convey more than one point in a text, but there are limits to how many points can reasonably be attributed to such intention. Reader-oriented meaning-as-effect assumes a potentially unlimited range of meaning. Every individual reader may be effected differently.” (27)

Now for some comments. While Powell states that polyvalence occurs with all forms of communication, all but one of his examples/illustrations so far have been narratives, typically films. Something else needs to be said regarding different genres where Iser’s theory of “gaps” is not so fitting. I can easily see how social location, reading strategy, and conceptions of meaning would contribute to a plurality of interpretations of NT letters (or any writing actually), but not in terms of gap filling.

In terms of the one non-narrative example so far, Powell refers to the woman’s engagement with Isaiah 55:1 and the guidance she received as an interpretation of the passage. But I do not think this is an appropriate label, and am not sure that she would use the langauge of interpretation to describe what she was doing either.  But then perhaps this is because of my own understanding of what “interpretation” should signify. Powell’s use seems to be more inclusive of various reading strategies. The reason I note this is that diverse reading strategies come with diverse objectives/goals/aims which I would argue requires us to clearly place them in separate categories in order to avoid ambiguities which otherwise allow for overly general claims to be made, about polyvalence for example, that would otherwise clearly be untenable. [2] This brings me back to the previous comment on the application of Powell theory to non-narrative texts.

Finally, in regards to the two conceptions of meaning (meaning as message and meaning as effect), which of these  conceptions belongs to Powell’s definition of polyvalence as “the multiplicity of potential meanings that seems to be present in any communication event.” Are we talking about a multiplicity of messages or effects? I think that Powell would put the accent on the latter (while not excluding the former), [3] and that we need to recognize this when seeking to assess the theory.

[1] On Iser’s theory see Anthony Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zoncervan, 1992), 515-524

[2] Similar reservations could be made in regards to his use of meaning. However, Powell is being somewhat descriptive in his use of the term (especially in regards to the two conceptions), a term which is used to mean many different (though related) things. Powell is very inclusive in his use of this term to, and in the next two chapters will explore through two experiments that he carried out, how various conceptions of meaning (as well as the other factors that influence gap filling) work themeselves out in practice.

[3] His reference to communication as an “event” firmly includes the reader, whereas refering to communication as an act might cut off the reader by considering communication complete with the author’s production of a text.

 

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3 thoughts on “Adventures in Biblical Reader-Response Criticism part 2 – Polyvalence

  1. We have to be careful not to limit how God can use his word while also guarding against blatant misuse – as with proof texting to bolster ones position.
    In personal devotions seeking a word from God – he can use anything to speak to us what he wants to communicate and if we are reading the Bible he will use that. But that is very different from reading to understand what a passage is about for ones own use or to teach.
    Generally this only becomes a problem if we only read scripture for one of these reasons. Either to get daily guidance or simply to find out what scripture means without it impacting us.

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  2. I very much agree. Powell wishes to make room for such devotional “reading strategies” (to use his term), and wants to stress the capacity of the text to impact us, while still insisting that when it comes to doctrine, we need to employ the tools of textual exegesis and seek the authors intended meaning of the text.

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  3. Even in a devotional sense, can the text mean to us what it never meant to the original audience? I am reminded of a term, sensus plenior, which I am inclined to believe is not our prerogative to exercise. The Bible authors wrote from inspiration and we read from illumination. Careful exegesis leads to better hermeneutics, but not infallible application. Context in both study practices is key. Micah 6:8

    Thanks for the post, and again, I like your writing style.

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