Analysing Iago’s weasel words using rhetoric and pragmatics (research digest)

16/03/2017

Reading time: 7 minutes

Overview

• Summary of the paper
• Keller on Iago’s weasel words
• Using this in teaching and learning
• Reading suggestions

Summary of the paper

Stefan Keller combines ancient rhetoric and three contemporary linguistic theories – speech act theory, relevance theory and politeness theory – to explore Iago’s language in act 3, scene 3 of Othello. These linguistic theories have been introduced in some of our previous blog entries. Links to these posts can be found at the end of this section. Keller illustrates how these theories can be used alongside an understanding of classical rhetoric to analyse the language of Shakespeare and to gain insight into his characters, their communication styles and their relationships.

Keller on Iago’s weasel words

The sophistication and breadth of Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical figures suggests, according to Keller and others, that Shakespeare was among several Renaissance writers who were well-versed in these classical models (handbooks of which, such as Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence (1593), were very popular at the time). As Keller notes, classical rhetoric focusses on techniques available to monologic oration. Pragmatic models of communication, though, can also accommodate conversational dialogue, and pay attention to the communicative context. Pragmatic models are therefore in some ways more appropriate for analysis of drama, and provide a useful addition to classical rhetoric in the study of Shakespearian dialogue. This is particularly the case for Othello, where Iago’s disturbing manipulation of Othello, through conversation alone, is at the heart of the play.

As Keller writes, the ‘challenge for Iago is to achieve his appalling goal while appearing to be helpful and unobtrusive’ (405). His success relies on his ability to guide Othello to infer meaning from what he says (and doesn’t say), while the surface meaning of his speech allows for plausible deniability. Keller cites Grice’s co-operative principle (within speech act theory): “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 13) Speakers can (and very often do) purposefully and meaningfully violate this principle, by being obscure or by overtly exaggerating, for example, to invite inference. Inference essentially works through the hearer

a) noticing that the what the speaker has said isn’t as clear, informative, honest or relevant as one might expect (in accordance with the co-operative principle);

b) assuming that the speaker is therefore trying to communicate something more through this obfuscation; and

c) trying to work out (led by what the speaker has said) what else the speaker might be trying to suggest.

Often inference works through the hearer trying to make sense of how the speaker’s words are relevant to the topic of conversation.

Keller draws out some illustrative examples of Iago’s style of conversational manipulation, and analyses them in relation to classical rhetoric, the co-operative principle, and ideas from relevance theory and politeness theory. He gives an example of Iago’s self-interruption (the rhetorical figure of aposiopesis) in which Iago overtly denies the import and relevance of what he has said, refusing to directly answer Othello, leaving Othello to wonder about and try to infer why Iago is being obscure.

IAGO:           Ha, I like not that.
OTHELLO:  What dost thou say?
IAGO:           Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what. (3.3.34-6)

Othello continues, ‘Was that not Cassio parted from my wife?’, to which Iago responds:
Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like
Seeing you coming. (3.3.38-40)

Both of Iago’s responses here also involve paralipsis, which Keller defines as ‘pretending to pass over a matter in order to give it more emphasis’ (403). Iago could simply have replied ‘Yes’ or ‘I think so’ to Othello’s second question here. Instead, Othello is directed by the length of Iago’s reply to infer that Iago feels this extra detail is important. Significantly, ‘I cannot think it’ is not ‘I do not think it’, which allows for the inference (among other possible inferences) that maybe he does think this, but something stops him from wanting to. Iago also adds a description of the manner of Cassio’s supposed departure, ‘steal[ing] away’ (neatly evoking associations of theft), ‘guilty-like’ on (and therefore implicitly in reaction to) ‘seeing [Othello] coming’. As Keller says, ‘by denying the relevance of Cassio’s behaviour, Iago makes it all the more relevant for Othello’, that is, by implying that it would make no sense for Cassio to behave that way, Iago leads Othello to consider why Cassio might behave that way – to infer the contextual relevance of such behaviour (403).
Iago begins his second response here by partly echoing Othello’s words (‘Cassio, my lord?’). This rhetorical figure is called anadiplosis, and it occurs twice as often in Othello as it does in Hamlet, and three times as often as it does in King Lear (Keller, 404, n.). Keller cites the following exchange:

OTHELLO:   Is he [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO:            Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO:            My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO:   What does though think?
IAGO:            Think, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Think, my lord! By heaven, though echo’st me
As if there were some monster in my thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.103-11)

On the surface, direct repetition does not add meaning, but only repeats it. The meaningfulness of repetition therefore lies in what can be inferred from the act of repetition itself within the context of the conversation. The exclamation at the end of Othello’s repetition of ‘Think, my lord!’ leading into his direct comments on Iago’s echoing, serves to signal his frustration, for example. Iago’s responses here, though, are more controlled: they could be an act of double-checking he has heard Othello correctly, but this in itself suggests Iago does not believe or understand what he is hearing, hence the need to check. Othello picks up on this implied incredulity, and the sub-textual suggestion, in turn, that his own thinking is too deviant to be easily understood or shared.

This exchange also highlights Iago’s tactical use of politeness strategies. Keller notes that this scene involves ‘the highest frequency of “my lord” vocatives from Iago in the play’ (406). These vocatives serve as ‘on record’ (overt) ‘positive politeness’, affirming that the addressee is liked, and that his or her wants are shared and supported, etc. Iago also often uses ‘negative politeness’, apologising and making excuses for possibly causing offence (through lines such as ‘my lord, pardon me’, 3.3.13, and ‘I do beseech you … [to ] take no notice’, 3.3.147-53). He also suggests potentially offensive things only indirectly, or ‘off record’ – that is, ‘in such a way that it is not possible to attribute only one clear communicative intention’ to the utterance (Brown and Levinson, 1994: 70). Keller describes Iago’s strategy here as ‘suggestive obscurity’ (Keller, 407).
As in the previous extract, Othello increasingly names and makes explicit what he perceives to be Iago’s implicit suggestions. He even states

Exchange me for a goat
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference. (3.3.183-6)

It would appear, in moments such as these, that Iago has failed in in his attempts to stay on the side of subtle suggestion and have Othello feel responsible for his own inferences. These moments are fleeting, however, as suggested by Othello’s subsequent plea that Iago speaks ‘With franker spirit’ (3.3.198). Iago’s deniability remains just plausible enough for Othello to be torn between self-loathing and suspicion.

Keller’s article usefully illustrates how some contemporary linguistic theories can take textual study beyond labelling rhetorical figures to analysing how the utterances these figures actually function to create the play’s powerful effects.

References
Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Grice, Paul, Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

This is a research digest of the following article: Keller, Stefan D., ‘Combining Rhetoric and Pragmatics to Read Othello’, English Studies, 91.4 (2010): 398–411.

Using this in teaching and learning

The ideas below suggest how you can use this research digest to support your teaching of Othello on AQA’s A-level English Language and Literature specification. You could also adapt the ideas to any of the other plays studied on Dramatic Encounters and to supporting students preparing for NEA (Making Connections).

1. As a starting point in exploring inference and politeness in Othello, students can

a) look at one exchange where a response is not directly relevant to the preceding utterance, and list the possible inferences that are available, thinking about how it could be relevant to the conversational context. These inferences can then be put in order from ‘strong’ (most plausible inference) to ‘weak’ (least plausible inference), and the students can discuss and justify their ordering. This activity will help students to better understand the process of inferencing and different degrees of inference.

b) look at one instance of politeness in the play, and discuss what aspect of the hearer’s personality or position is being overtly or covertly appealed to or protected. This will help students understand how characters use language to relate to each other, and to position themselves and each other in relationships.

2. Keller points out that ‘strictly speaking, “off-record” utterances are impossible in drama, as the audience is always fully aware of Iago’s intentions’ (406). Students can explore the added complexity of conversational implicature and inference in the context of drama, where there is a double layer of communication (character to character, and playwright to audience), and at least two communicative contexts – here one in which Othello knows certain information, and one in which the audience knows far more. These different communicative contexts guide inference differently for different hearers. Students can visually map out these layers/contexts of communication. They can then go further to explore the relationships between inference and ‘dramatic irony’ in this play and others. This will help students understand how meaning is communicated in drama.

3. Othello himself, in shining the spotlight on the subtext, is shown in this scene (and elsewhere) to speak frankly, in marked contrast to Iago. Keller begins and ends his study of this play with attention to the plain speaking of Desdemona and Emilia, which is similarly cast as all the more admirable in contrast to Iago’s sophistry. Desdemona and Emilia do speak with rhetorical skill (employing a range of classical figures), but, Keller implies, with none of the insidious and off record strategies of Iago. This is not to say that their communication does not involve and invite inference (as most communication does), but that their explicit and implicit communication is working in a different balance, and to different ends. In this light, the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia could offer a route into the gender politics of the play. Students can investigate literary criticism which discusses the play’s gender politics, including feminist readings, and can explore how far and in what ways the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia can account for these readings.

Reading suggestions

Some of the related blog entries listed at the top of this research digest provide suggestions for reading on these pragmatic theories (relevance theory, politeness theory and speech act theory).

  • A research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’, summarising an article by Adrian Pilkington on ‘Poetic Effects’ from Lingua1 (1992): 29-51 (posted on 28/09/2016)
  • A research digest on ‘Impoliteness and entertainment’, summarising an article by Jonathan Culpeper, ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link’ from Journal of Politeness Research 1 (2005): 35-72 (posted on 06/04/2016)
  • Classroom activities on ‘Understanding implicatures’ (posted on 17/11/2016)
  • Reading suggestions on ‘Politeness and impoliteness’ (posted on 17/06/2016)

Keller points readers towards other works specifically on politeness theory and Othello:

  • Brown, Roger, and Albert Gilman. ‘Politeness Theory and Shakespeare’s Four Major Tragedies.’ Language in Society 18 (1989): 159–212
  • Busse, Ulrich. Linguistic Variation in the Shakespeare Corpus. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002
  • Kopytko, Roman. ‘Linguistic Politeness Strategies in Shakespeare’s Plays.’ In Historical Pragmatics, edited by A. H. Jucker. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995
  • Magnusson, Lynne. Shakespeare and Social Dialogue. Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

For work using speech act theory and the co-operative principle to explore Shakespeare’s work, see

  • Fish, Stanley. ‘How to do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism.’ Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 983–1025
  • Gilbert, Anthony. ‘Techniques of Persuasion in Julius Caesar and Othello.’ Neophilologus 81 (1997): 309–23

Implicature and literary texts (research digest)

28/09/2016

Reading time: 9 minutes

Poetic effects

This post digests Adrian Pilkington’s influential paper on ‘poetic effects’, which shows how ideas from pragmatics can be used in exploring literary texts and in accounting for literary interpretations. The paper refers to Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’.

Pilkington focuses on the notion of ‘implicature’, originating in the work of H. Paul Grice. Grice coined the term to refer to what we indirectly communicate. We can illustrate this using an exchange discussed in the paper by Pilkington:

Alan:                    Drink?

Beth:                    I’m a Mormon.

Implicature:     Beth does not want an alcoholic drink.

Here Beth directly communicates that she is a Mormon and indirectly communicates (‘implicates’) that she does not want an alcoholic drink. This follows as long as Alan access the following contextual assumption:

Mormons do not drink alcoholic drinks.

Grice developed an approach which aimed to explain how implicatures are communicated. Pilkington’s paper focuses on more recent ideas, developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in their work on relevance theory. They suggest that utterances typically communicate a range of implicatures with varying amounts of evidence for each one. While Grice’s approach would have focused on the implicature that Beth does not want an alcoholic drink, Pilkington points out that Beth’s utterance also makes it possible to infer further conclusions, including:

Implicatures:

Beth does not want to drink other alcoholic drinks.

Beth does not drink coffee.

Beth does not smoke.

Beth might practise polygamy.

These depend on Alan accessing and using the assumptions that Mormons don’t drink coffee, don’t smoke, and that they can be more likely to practise polygamy. There are other possible conclusions which Alan might arrive at (depending on whether appropriate contextual assumptions occur to him) and which he is likely to be less sure of, such as:

Possible implicatures:

I will not have much in common with Beth.

Beth might be offended by my way of living.

These are weaker implicatures than those about coffee, smoking and marriage, which are in turn less strong than the implicature that Beth would not like an alcoholic drink. In fact, it might be hard for Alan to decide whether Beth intends to convey an assumption about her attitude to Alan’s way of life at all. Two key ideas developed within relevance theory are: first, that implicatures can be stronger or weaker; second, that there is not always a clear distinction between intentionally communicated implicatures and conclusions for which the addressee is wholly responsible.

Pilkington goes on to consider how weak implicatures can contribute to what have been termed ‘poetic effects’, which are often thought of as vague, impressionistic and hard to capture. Relevance theorists have suggested that poetic effects involve the communication of a relatively wide range of relatively weak implicatures. Pilkington discusses the effects of repetition in the Biblical utterance:

Oh Absalom, my son my son!

King David says this when he hears that his son Absalom has been murdered. The repetition encourages thoughts about David’s relationship with his son and his emotions on hearing of his son’s death. Pilkington suggests that this repetition gives rise to poetic effects because we can access a wide range of assumptions about their relationship, how it might feel for David to have lost his son, and so on. By contrast, repetitions such as the following will seem pointless or ridiculous in most contexts because we cannot access such a rich set of possible implicatures:

Oh Anna, my colleague, my colleague!

The pubs have closed, closed.

The relevance-theoretic account suggests that poetic effects arise when an utterance communicates a rich set of weak implicatures.

Pilkington’s discussion of ‘Digging’ focuses in particular on the ending of the poem. He suggests that this gives rise to a fairly wide range of implicatures because the rest of the poem has made this possible. The poem is ‘spoken’ by a poet (who clearly has a lot in common with Heaney himself) sitting at a table near a window and writing. The poem begins:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Outside, his father is digging in the garden. The poem leaps back in time to when his father was younger and digging in potato fields. His father ‘could handle a spade’ and comes from a long line of men who dug the land. The poem contrasts the father with the poet who has not joined in this tradition. The poem ends back at the window:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

What inferences do readers make at the end of the poem? Pilkington focuses on the key metaphor evoked by the use of dig as something the poet will do with a pen. He suggests that the earlier mention of the father and his digging in potato fields, along with other contextual assumptions, make it possible for us to access a wide range of relatively weak implicatures. Pilkington cannot come close to listing all of the possibilities but he lists a small set as a starting point, including these:

Digging is how the poet’s forefathers earned their living

Digging is an activity with a long tradition in the community.

Digging involves hard work.

Digging involves intense concentration.

Digging is a manly occupation.

Digging is a worthy occupation.

Digging involves taking things from below the surface.

For each one, he suggests, we can go on to think about ways in which writing poetry is similar or different to the kind of digging his father was engaged in. This poem is successful because the effort involved in thinking about the broad range of implicatures it suggests is rewarded by the relatively rich interpretations this leads to. He also considers how deriving this set of weak implicatures might lead to emotional responses and to what extent this approach might account for more broadly aesthetic experiences.

A key feature of the paper is that it shows how ideas from pragmatics are useful in accounting for literary interpretations and in exploring literary texts. Exploring the implicatures of texts is a fairly accessible way of beginning to explore texts and interpretations of texts more fully.

This is a digest of the following article:

Pilkington, Adrian. 1992. Poetic Effects. Lingua 87.1: 29-51.

You can read ‘Digging’ and hear Seamus Heaney reading it at the Poetry Foundation website here.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use the ideas in this paper in the following ways to develop understanding of pragmatics and literary texts:

  1. The notion that implicatures can be stronger or weaker is a key notion in relevance theory. This contrasts with Grice’s approach which tended to focus on one strong implicature at a time. Students can explore this contrast by looking at short texts and analysing them in three stages:

a. identify one strong implicature of the text

b. make a list of other implicatures which might follow from the same text

c. for each implicature, identify contextual assumptions which give rise to the implicature

This activity could lead to broader discussion of what kinds of texts are more likely to be read for a wider range of weaker implicatures and which are more likely to be read for a narrower range of stronger ones (see activity 4 below).

  1. Students can develop their own spoken and written communication by rewriting utterances to adjust the likelihood of particular inferences being made by hearers or readers of their utterances. This might also focus on the extent to which different versions give rise to stronger or weaker implicatures. They could explicitly explore the effect of this in their recreative writing (Writing about society, A level; People and places, AS level)’
  1. Students can explore the novel and poems they are studying (Imagined worlds and Poetic voices A level; Views and voices, AS level) by making a list of possible implicatures which they think the text suggests and organising them into stronger or weaker implicatures. Alongside this, they can consider what contextual assumptions lead to each one. Which conclusions depend only on assumptions derived from the text? Which derive from more general contextual assumptions? Do some of them depend on knowledge about the author? Or the context in which the text was produced?
  1. Students can aim to develop richer or shallower interpretations of particular texts across the specification and on the NEA (Making Connections, A-level) by focusing to a greater or lesser degree on stronger or weaker implicatures. A fairly shallow interpretation of a text might focus mainly on ‘what happens’ in the text. A richer one would focus on broader themes, the psychology of characters, the emotional impact on audiences, and so on. Students can reflect on this explicitly by comparing different kinds of interpretations of texts and different kinds of reading practices. What would a very shallow interpretation of a particular text look like? What would a much richer one look like? Are there texts which are more likely to give rise to richer interpretations than others?
  1. Students can also compare different parts of particular texts and alternative possible versions of the same text. This might inform the study of any text on the AS and A level specifications. Pilkington suggests that the connection between the pen and a gun at the start of ‘Digging’ (where the pen rests ‘snug as a gun’) does not lead very far and so has a much less rich interpretation than the notion of the pen as something to dig with at the end. Students could explore this in greater detail, listing possible implicatures of both parts. Alternatively, they might consider other utterances which lead to weaker interpretations. Pilkington suggests, for example, that the simple sentence ‘The poet digs with his pen’ would be far less evocative or interesting than Heaney’s poem. Students could discuss why this is so.

Reading suggestions

There has been a huge amount of work on pragmatics since Grice developed his ideas over 50 years ago (his key texts began to be shared in the 1960s and published in the 1970s but some of the work predates this). Here are some sources on pragmatics in general, on relevance theory in particular, and on pragmatics and literary interpretation.

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

An accessible introduction to pragmatics, covering Grice’s approach and other approaches developed from that, including discussion of relevance theory.

Blakemore, Diane. 1992. Understanding Utterances. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

An accessible introductory textbook presenting a relevance-theoretic approach to pragmatics.

Clark, Billy. 2013. Relevance Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

A more comprehensive accessible account of relevance theory, including discussion of how it developed from the work of Grice.

Dan Sperber’s website, here.

This site provides access to downloadable versions of a wide range of work by Sperber, including work with Deirdre Wilson.

Relevance Theory Online Bibliographic Service, here.

This site gathers all academic sources which discuss or apply ideas from relevance theory. This is probably not the most helpful place to find sources when beginning to study pragmatics but it is interesting to see just how much work has been published on this approach to pragmatics.

Pilkington, Adrian. 2000. Poetic Effects. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

A book-length study of poetic effects from the perspective of relevance theory. Develops further the ideas in the paper discussed in this digest, including the limits of how far this approach can go in accounting for emotional and affective responses to literary and artistic works.

Chapman, Siobhan and Billy Clark (eds.) 2014. Pragmatic Literary Stylistics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

A collection of chapters applying ideas from pragmatics in accounting for interpretations of literary texts. It includes an introduction with general comments on different approaches to pragmatics and their relevance in approaches to literary texts.

 

What makes a narrator ‘reliable’? (Research digest)

01/07/2016

Reading time: 5 minutes

Reliable and unreliable narration have been widely debated within literary scholarship over the last half century. However, as Terence Murphy notes, significantly more attention has been paid to trying to figure out how an impression of narratorial unreliability is constructed than has been paid to working out how and why a narrator might be believed to be reliable. Murphy also refers to Wayne Booth’s seminal book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) which contains Booth’s discussion of narratorial reliability and unreliability.  Here, Booth suggests that Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922), is a good example of a reliable narrator. On this basis, Murphy offers a brief discussion of the key critical debates around the concepts of reliability and unreliability, and also of the relative scope for perceived un/reliability of first-person narration in contrast to third-person narration, which is usually considered more distant and objective. Picking up the example of Nick Carraway, Murphy then suggests that there are five ‘determinants’ of reliable narration in first-person fiction, and argues that unreliability is created through departure from or absence of those determinants. He presents these five determinants as a model which can be used as a critical tool to discuss the relative reliability of any first-person narrator.

Murphy’s five determinants of reliability

1) Narration from a place of security, at the place where the narrator was born or has settled. Murphy points out that Carraway narrates from “back home” (Fitzgerald 1990 [1922]: 167), which, Murphy suggests, is testament to Nick’s maturity and freedom.

2) Use of the ‘middle’ style of standard English (as according to classical rhetoric), neither colloquial and marked by representation of accent and dialect, nor poetic, ornate, sophisticated and opaque. Nick’s language is of this ‘middle’ style.

3) Observer-narrator status. Nick Carraway is an example of a narrator who is not the main character in the story, but instead tells the story of that main character. Nick’s own role in the plot is limited.

4) Ethical maturity and a conventional moral stance. Nick Carraway has been through the trials of the First World War, which has tested and developed his moral beliefs, and which earns him respect.

5) Retrospective re-evaluation or re-interpretation of another character. Murphy contrasts plot structures which centre upon a hero’s journey, or upon a new self-realisation on the part of the first-person narrator, with plot structures which centre upon the observer-narrator’s re-evaluation of another character. In The Great Gatsby, Murphy argues, the climax of the plot is Nick’s re-interpretation and new understanding of Gatsby, which replaces Nick’s prior impressions.

Murphy’s discussion of each of the five determinants exposes some complexities and caveats within the model. Problems include issues arising in the case of the narrator who is reliably conveying his or her perspective, but whose perspective is naïve, or whose stance is psychologically or morally deviant. At the heart of these issues is the broader problem of the relativity and subjectivity of perspectives on events, and the relationship between notions of perceived reliability and the possibility of a single ‘truth’, or ‘true’ rendering of events. Murphy presents his own views on these issues, and coins some terms to help him handle them (such as ‘standpoint limitation’, related to multiple narrators). The model, and the critical complexities with which it engages, offer a useful springboard for exploration of narratorial un/reliability.

This is a digest of the following article: Murphy, T. P. (2012) ‘Defining the reliable narrator: The marked status of first-person fiction’, Journal of Literary Semantics 41, 67-87.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways. 

  1. Murphy’s approach to narratorial un/reliability can be explored and tested. Here is one set of activities through which a class can explore his ideas.
  • Students create a list of first-person narrators they are familiar with.
  • Students then rank those narrators according to how reliable they feel each to be.
  • Next, students rank them according to how many of Murphy’s determinants are present or departed from in each case.
  • Finally, students compare the two ranked lists to explore correlations and differences, and reflect on whether the relationship between the two lists of rankings supports or undermines Murphy’s claims.

2. An alternative method of exploring Murphy’s model would be to creatively recast the narration (AS level ‘Remembered places’, A-level ‘Writing about society’).

  • Students take the example of the narrator at the top of the second ranking created in activity 1 – that is, the narrator which most closely follows Murphy’s list of determinants – and identify a passage in a text where the most determinants are present.
  • Students then creatively rewrite that instance of narration in one of two ways:

i) Half of the students take care to systematically depart from each of Murphy’s determinants, to aim to create the impression of an unreliable narrator.

ii) The other half of the students rewrite the narration with the same aim – to create the impression of unreliable narration – but without attending to following or departing from Murphy’s determinants at all. Rather, they can follow their intuitions, and experiment with other possible strategies for creating an impression of unreliability (for example, flouting Grice’s maxim of quantity).

  • The students then compare their recast versions, discuss the stylistic choices they made in changing the narration from reliable to unreliable, reflect on how far they achieved their goal of creating an impression of narratorial unreliability, and consider what strategies or ‘determinants’ were most significant or successful in achieving that impression.
  1. Novels can have multiple narrators, as in the case of the frame narratives in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In such cases, two or more different characters might offer their perspective on the same event. Even in fiction with one single narrator, and also in drama with no narrating character, there are often multiple ‘tellers’: characters other than a narrator figure who relay to other characters short narrative reports of particular events. Two characters might narrate the same event at different times to different audiences, or might (collaboratively or competitively) co-narrate an event (AS level’Views and voices’, A-level ‘Telling stories’).

Students can explore instances of an event ‘told’ by multiple tellers, and can:

  • compare the relative impressions of reliability conveyed in each telling, and
  • reflect on the impact upon their interpretation (of the characters and the event) of the author’s choice to provide two tellings, and the choice of presenting them in the particular order given.

 

Transitivity and Transformation: Characterisation in The Double Hook (research digest)

24/06/2016

Reading time: 7 minutes

The Double Hook (1959) is a novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Watson that centres on the lives of a group of characters in a small community in British Columbia. One of the characters, James leaves the town after killing his mother and becomes an isolated, peripheral figure. He later begins a journey home that ends in his reintegration back into the town. Literary critics generally view this return as a kind of personal redemption and as a celebration of the spiritual rebirth of both James and his community.

Yinglin Ji and Dan Shen analyse the shifting characterisation of James throughout the novel by drawing on Michael Halliday’s system of transitivity. Halliday’s model (from his systemic functional grammar) accounts for how different processes (verbs), participants in those processes (usually nouns) and circumstances of those processes (usually adverbs or prepositional phrases) are used by writers and speakers to represent their version of the world. The model is fairly complex and only a quick sketch is provided below.

Process types

Material = doing, happening

e.g. He kicked the ball

Behavioural = physiological or psychological behaviour

e.g. He breathes; she smiles

Relational = having or being

e.g. John has a piano; The car is red

Existential = existing

e.g. There is a dog

Mental = sensing, feeling and thinking

e.g. I saw the car; I like football; I believe in ghosts

Verbal = saying, telling

e.g. I shouted; I told her a story

Within a clause, participants may be attached to material processes either as agents (doing things to other participants), or as goals (having things done to them), and to other processes as entities in the various acts, states and events that the verbs depict. Circumstances function to give more information about a process, such as its manner, location and reason. So a description of a whole clause would be as follows:

The police                        caught                 the suspects             last week

participant (agent), material process, participant (goal), circumstance

Transitivity in literature is often explored in terms of patterns. Ji and Shen use this model to map out how Watson presents James’s character across the novel. They begin by summarising existing literary criticism that suggests that James’s return to his community symbolises rebirth and regeneration, and then argue that this can be shown by looking at the changes in transitivity patterns across various points in the novel. They emphasise that their analysis isn’t just about presenting the mind style of a character (see our previous digest on deixis for examples of this) but rather shows how psychological changes are foregrounded. They argue that these changes are important in our overall understanding of the novel.

To do this, Ji and Shen look at the representation of James and his actions in three chapters that show stages of his journey back to his community. They start by focusing on Chapter 8. In this chapter, they show that James is largely represented as passive with very few material processes used in which he is the agent. Indeed, Ji and Shen show that, unusually, James’s horse is given the agent’s role in many of the clauses. In contrast, James is represented through mental processes, which highlight his internal rather than his external behaviours. Interestingly, Ji and Shen also point out that, at this stage in the novel, even the mental processes tend to be ones related to perceptions and feelings (such as hearing and feeling) rather than those which are more active (such as states of knowing and believing). They argue that much of James’s psychological activity is focused on simply responding to his immediate environment, which demonstrates his inability to transcend his physical situation.

This pattern changes in Chapter 13 where James is now shown to be able to think beyond his immediate environment and engage in self-reflection. Here, Ji and Shen demonstrate that James now acts as an agentive participant at the head of material processes much more frequently. This highlights his ability to exert a physical influence over other entities in the fictional world. Furthermore, there is a pattern of more active mental processes, with James now represented as a thinker rather than a merely a feeler of sensations. Ji and Shen argue that the pattern of processes in this chapter demonstrates the mental transformation that James has undergone at this point in the novel; he is now self-reflective and self-conscious. To this end, James emerges as physically and mentally ready to return to his community.

Finally, Ji and Shen focus on Chapter 18, where James returns to his community, begins to rebuild his past and reclaims his position as an integral member of the town. In this chapter, James is now almost exclusively represented by Watson through the use of material processes that show strong action and volition. The range of process types also increases with Watson representing James and his state of being through existential processes which highlight his re-established position in the community, and through verbal processes which convey his authority and ability to express his point of view to others. Furthermore, Ji and Shen show how the representation of James and his horse in the clauses in this chapter highlight James’s transformation from a passive to an active character. In this chapter, his horse is now usually the goal in a material process, with James restored to the agent in the clauses.

Overall then, Ji and Shen seek to show that a transitivity analysis can account for Watson’s characterisation in transforming James from passivity and isolation to activity and integration back into the community. The authors argue that such an analysis can show the ‘geography of James’s mind’ and help both to support existing literary-critical responses to the novel and to provide some fresh analytical insights.

This is a digest of the following article: Ji, Yinglin and Shen, D. (2004) ‘Transitivity and mental transformation: Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook’, Language and Literature 3(4), 335-348.

Using this in teaching and learning

 You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

1.Analysing characterisation in terms of transitivity patterns would be a good way of exploring individual characters in prose fiction (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). Students could look at selected extracts focusing on key characters in their set novel and highlight the main processes that are used to represent them.

  • To what extent do these patterns map onto ways in which the characters generally function in the novel and the ways in which they are viewed by others?
  • Students could also follow Ji and Shen in tracing an individual character across various points in the novel. Are there different representations during key scenes? Can the mental or physical transformation of a character be explained using a similar approach to Ji and Shen?

These kinds of exercises could also be undertaken with texts being studied for the NEA (Making Connections, A level) and could inform an interesting investigation on characterisation either as a concept or as part of a wider thematic study.

2.Looking at transitivity patterns could also support a more extensive study of characterisation in students’ chosen set texts. For example, students could explore how representation at the level of the clause combines with other ways of presenting characters (speech and thought, physical description, body language and so on). They could think about how characters are developed in the novel and in the poems they are studying (Poetic voices, A level; Views and voices, AS level; Imagined worlds, A level), and find and comment on the connections between transitivity patterns and other ways that writers presents fictional entities.

3.The distribution of material processes (actions) and relational/existential processes (states of being/description) can also be explored through the lens of genre. When working with material for their NEA (Making Connections, A level), students could think about how certain texts (or parts of them) focus on providing either actions or description and how they might account for these by relating these to generic conventions. For example, how are events in crime thrillers told? Is there an equal distribution of processes at key moments (e.g. murders, discovery of bodies)? Do different writers have a noticeable style in terms of how they typically choose to present such events?

4.Equally, students could explore transitivity patterns in non-literary material/genres, drawing on the Paris Anthology (Imagined worlds, A level; People and places, AS level) and more widely, again to support their selection and analysis of non-literary material for NEA (Making Connections, A level). Some genres (e.g. recipes) might typically make use of one kind of process more often than another but can students find more complex examples? And, do other factors such as audience, purpose and mode influence the ways in which writers and speakers might want to represent actions, people, states and events? This provides a useful way into exploring the concept of representation more broadly and will support students across the entire specification.

Impoliteness and Entertainment (research digest)

06/04/2016

Reading time: 8 minutes

Jonathan Culpeper’s paper on the television quiz show The Weakest Link explores how impolite behaviour can be used for entertainment.

The Weakest Link ran in the UK from 2000 to 2012. Culpeper describes it as an ‘exploitative’ show ‘designed to humiliate contestants, not to support or celebrate them as is often the case in standard shows’. The show is designed to maximise the potential for impoliteness (unlike ‘standard’ quiz shows such as University Challenge and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? where hosts are supportive to contestants).

One of the most culturally salient features of the show was the extremely impolite persona of the presenter Anne Robinson. Culpeper points out a number of ways in which this persona (distinguishing it from the ‘real’ Anne Robinson) is impolite to contestants. The focus of the show is on identifying ‘weak links’, ie contestants who are performing poorly. Between rounds of questions, each contestant identifies one other who they think has been performing poorly and the contestant with the most nominations has to leave. Robinson discusses nominations with some of the contestants and is impolite to them while doing so. Culpeper discusses several ways in which she is impolite. These include utterances which imply negative judgments about the contestants and their jobs, mimicry and prosody. Discussion of prosody can focus on pitch, rhythm, tempo, volume and voice quality. Here, Culpeper focuses in particular on pitch movement and stress placement.

In this exchange, Robinson mimics a contestant called Danny:

Danny:  a little bit harsh Anne, I live in Solihull now so I’ve moved up

AR:         what was wrong with Liverpool

Danny:   eer

AR:         eeh

Danny’s pronunciation of the filler eer includes a vowel articulated closer to the front of the mouth than would be produced by a speaker of something approximating ‘Received Pronunciation (RP)’. Robinson responds with an even more fronted vowel. As is often the case with mimicry, Robinson exaggerates features she mimics.

Another example appears in her chat with a contestant called Jay:

Jay:       the Australian army trained me

AR:       oh. is that why you go up in all your sentences

Jay:       yes

Robinson asks Jay whether his Australian training explains his use of what is sometimes described as ‘uptalk’ and mimics this by producing marked high rising tones centred on the words up and sentences. Again, her mimicry exaggerates the contestant’s manner of speaking. In fact, Culpeper points out that Jay’s speech does not provide much evidence of uptalk. This does not detract, though, from the opportunity to mimic him.

Robinson uses prosody to be impolite here:

AR:          Shaun, you’re a traffic management operative

Shaun:    that’s correct

AR:          okay, what do you actually do

Shaun:    er put traffic cones in in the road

AR:          you don’t

Shaun:    I do

AR:           well what an interesting person you turned out to be

Robinson begins her interaction with Shaun by quoting what we assume is his own description of his job. She then asks him “what do you actually do?” prompting him to use a more everyday description of the relatively mundane task of putting traffic cones in the road. As Culpeper points out, we might assume that Robinson’s utterance “you don’t” is sarcastic even without hearing how she says it. The prosody plays a significant role since it is a form often taken to be ironic. As Culpeper points out, the prosody is also consistent with surprise so contextual assumptions play a role in recognising this (and other) sarcasm.

Robinson’s prosody falls throughout the utterance “well, what an interesting person you turned out to be” in a way which ‘resembles a staircase going down’ and so ‘seems to signal boredom’. The earlier utterance (“you don’t”) had prosody consistent with surprise associated with something we assume to be mundane. Here, words which suggest interest are accompanied by prosody suggesting boredom.

These features, and others discussed in the paper, contribute to attacks on the ‘face’ of the contestants. The notion of ‘face’ is key to work on politeness. Culpeper refers here to Helen Spencer-Oatey’s (2002) update of Brown and Levinson’s (1987) ideas on this. She suggests a distinction between ‘quality face’ and ‘social identity face’:

Quality Face:

refers to ‘a fundamental desire for people to evaluate us positively in terms of our personal qualities, eg our confidence, abilities, appearance, etc.’

Social Identity Face:

refers to ‘a fundamental desire for people to acknowledge and uphold our social identities and roles, eg as group leader, valued customer, close friend’

Quality face is attacked by features which suggest the contestants are unimportant and have negative qualities. Social identity face is attacked by negative attitudes to their accents or jobs.

Culpeper also considers the idea that our understanding that Robinson is performing a role for the purposes of entertainment might mean that this is not really impolite after all. However, there is clear evidence that contestants do take offence. For example, Danny laughs nervously and looks down after his pronunciation of eer is mocked and another contestant smiles and exhales after a negative implication about his job. Culpeper suggests a distinction between impoliteness which is ‘sanctioned’ and impoliteness which is ‘neutralised’, concluding that the impoliteness here is sanctioned but not neutralised.

Culpeper’s discussion reveals a number of ways in which we can attack each other’s face. This approach can be applied in analysing a wide range of texts and interactions.

This is a digest of the following article: Culpeper, Jonathan. (2005). ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link.Journal of Politeness Research 1, 35-72.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Culpeper’s paper discusses other uses of prosody. In particular, he discusses the main catchphrase “You are the weakest link. Goodbye.” Classroom discussion could focus on this utterance and consider the contribution to impoliteness of its prosodic form. This might lead on to discussion of other prosodic forms and how they contribute to meanings. Clips and episodes of The Weakest Link are available on the internet. One entire programme is currently available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMs5YNrBvkg This could support students with potential topic areas for their Non-Exam Assessment (Making Connections, A-level).
  1. Culpeper’s paper could be used to explore ways in which work on politeness has developed since the work of Brown and Levinson (1987), including in the focus on impoliteness as well as politeness. Again, students could explore some of these developments looking at different types of non-literary material for their Non-Exam Assessment (Making Connections, A level). One specific area to focus on could be Spencer-Oatey’s new proposals about the notion of face, intended to replace Brown and Levinson’s account which focused on ‘positive face’ and ‘negative face’. For Brown and Levinson, positive face was about a positive consistent self-image, about this image being appreciated by others, and about wanting our own wants to be desirable to others. Negative face was seen as being about our actions being unimpeded by others. Students could explore the extent to which Spencer-Oatey’s ideas can map on to these two notions. (Culpeper suggests that Spencer-Oatey’s new notions account for aspects of positive face and that ideas about negative face map onto a different notion proposed by Spencer-Oatey: the notion of ‘sociality rights’, which are about ‘entitlements’ that we claim in interactions with others).
  1. A natural next step would be to look at other kinds of interactions and explore ways in which we aim to be polite or impolite in interacting with others. The ideas developed by Culpeper and others could be explored in any kind of interaction. Students might begin by considering examples from their own interactions, including in classroom discourse. Another possibility would be to look at current quiz shows and other television programmes. Culpeper mentions an example where impoliteness is implicated in an exchange between the hosts Ant and Dec on the programme Pop Idol:

Ant:         Our judges have been accused of being ill-informed, opinionated and rude.

Dec:         We’d like to set the record straight: our judges are not ill-informed.

In discussing other examples, students might consider how other approaches they have considered are relevant here. Dec’s utterance here could be explained with reference to how pragmatic theories account for implicit communication.

  1. Ideas about politeness and impoliteness can also be useful in looking at literary texts on the AQA specifications. For example, students could look at ways in which speakers in the poetry of Donne or Browning use politeness strategies (Poetic voices, A- level; Views and voices, AS) and/or at how characters in prose interact (Imagined worlds, A- level; Views and voices, AS). Another very natural application would be to consider ways in which conflict of various types is constructed and understood (this could include exploration and comparison of conflict used to create tension and conflict used to create humour). A good starting point would be to look at interactions between characters in drama (Dramatic encounters, A-level), noting ways in which they aim to protect or attack the face of others and what the effects of these strategies might be.

 

 

Me, myself and I: the language of egocentric points of view (research digest)

30/11/2015

Reading time: 7 minutes

One aspect of the language of point of view is what is known as deixis. Deictic words ‘point’ to entities, places or moments in time, but, notably, in doing so signal the subjective position of the speaker in that instance of pointing. Words like ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are deictic. The special characteristic of deictic words is that in order to understand which person, thing, place or time the words are referring to, you need to know the context in which the words were used – who by, where, when, etc. For example, if you opened a charity fundraising letter which began with “As I stand here looking at this family now”, the words ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘I’ are only meaningful and interpretable if you know who the speaker is, where their ‘here’ is, and the date/time at which they spoke. ‘This’ suggests a referent near (or ‘proximal’) to their ‘here’ (as opposed to ‘that’, which suggests distance). This contextual information – the spatiotemporal co-ordinates of the subjective position of the speaker – is known as the deictic centre. Deictic words communicate the person, thing, place or time they are referring to in relation to that subjective deictic centre, and so signal that subjective centre as much as they signal the person or thing etc. that they are referring to. There are three main categories of deixis:

  • Person deixis, e.g. personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’, etc.; demonstrative pronouns ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, etc.
  • Spatial deixis, e.g. locative expressions ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘nearby’, etc. and verbs suggesting direction towards or away from the speaker (‘come’ and ‘go’).
  • Temporal deixis, e.g. temporal adverbs ‘now’, ‘then’, etc., and other temporal expressions such as ‘tomorrow’, ‘next year’, ‘a while ago’, etc.

In fiction, deictic language helps to build the spaces and temporal settings of fictional worlds, and helps to determine the positioning and orientation of narrators and characters within worlds.

In her article ‘Deixis and Fictional Minds’, Elena Semino looks at how the subjective viewpoints of protagonists are portrayed through their use of deictic language. She focusses on two unusual minds: that of the poetic persona of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Wodwo’, and that of Christopher, the first person narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She reveals some distinct peculiarities in the way the characters use deictic language. The linguistic details of these peculiarities corroborate some of the literary criticism about the two texts, and enrich our understanding of exactly how these fictional minds are constructed as unusual.

The poetic persona of Hughes’ poem, the ‘wodwo’ of the title, is a wild, sprite-like creature. Semino begins her analysis of the poem by pointing out that the poem’s free verse form, non-standard punctuation (including capitalisation only of ‘I’) and fragmented syntax create an effect of disorientation, anxiety and rushed, chaotic movement. She perceives a lack of boundaries and an impression of the speaker as primitive and self-focussed. She observes repeated references to lack of roots and to searching, suggesting themes of origins and identity. Semino then reflects on how the deictic language contributes to these impressions. She reveals:

  • the unusual frequency of the speaker’s reference to itself (13% of the words are the person deictic words ‘I’ or ‘me’).
  • the frequency of spatial deixis referring to places near the speaker (proximal deixis), in contrast to use of only ‘that’ and ‘go’ to refer to things or places further away from speaker, or to movement in that direction (distal deixis)
  • the use of present tense verbs only, reflecting the immediate ‘now’ of the speaker, with no reference to a past or future outside of that immediate context.

Semino argues that the lack of distal deixis works with the free verse structure and lack of punctuation to make it hard for the reader to distinguish between the different times and places of the speaker’s action, creating a sense of confusion and lack of boundaries. She also argues that the wodwo focuses on itself, and its ‘here’ and ‘now’, without reference to or distinction in relation to other places, times and beings. This all contributes to sense of a mind unable to differentiate the world beyond its own immediate experience.

Semino next analyses the deixis of Christopher, Haddon’s narrator, and explores how the deictic patterning here contributes to the impression of a mind with autism. She starts by noting some salient linguistic features of Christopher’s narration, such as his (generally) limited vocabulary. She then turns to Christopher’s inability to use deictic pronouns (like ‘he’ or ‘it’) to refer to people or things he’s just mentioned, instead repeating full noun phrases (such as ‘the man’ and ‘the window’), arguably reflecting a difficulty in comprehending his environment. She also foregrounds Christopher’s unusually high use of the deictic pronoun ‘I’, and his unusually low of use of ‘you’ (apart from, occasionally, a general ‘you’, as in ‘one’) and of ‘we’, suggesting a limited will or ability to talk about, and relate to, the mental states and beliefs of others.

Semino cites the interpretative impressions of several literary critics who talk about the speakers of these texts as having unusual minds. She uses her analysis of the deixis in the two texts, and its integration with other salient features, to show the linguistic bases of these interpretations of the speakers’ nonstandard and egocentric ways of seeing their worlds.

This is a digest of the following article: Semino, E. (2011) ‘Deixis and fictional minds’, Style 45(3), 418-440.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Semino explains, in her article, that when discussing ‘Wodwo’ with her students, she asked them to pick out some of the lines in which they felt the deixis was unusual and challenged them to change the wording to a version they felt was closer to that which they’d expect – something more standard. She gave the example of lines like ‘… if I go / to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees’ (lines 21-22). By intervening in and rewriting extracts, students become more aware of the particular effects of the words used. Deictic language is frequent in the poems studied in Poetic voices (AS and A level). Students could be guided through examining the effects of the deictic patterning in the poetry of John Donne, Robert Browning, Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney through rewriting some of the more deictically dense lines. By comparing alternative versions, students can explore how the subjective points of view of the poetic personas are constructed as more or less standard and as more or less egocentric.
  1. Deixis is used in literary narration to construct and convey the parameters of a fictional world and the position and perspective of a speaker within it. We use deixis in spoken discourse, too, to depict remembered places, to enable a hearer to imagine and orient themselves within the surroundings. However, places can be described equally vividly without any use of orienting deixis – without reference to a particular perspective. In looking at the anthology of texts explored in Remembered places (AS and A level), students could investigate which speakers tend to convey remembered places with little or no deixis, and which speakers depict a place through reference to a perspective within it. In the latter case, students could explore whether that perspective is the speaker’s own remembered position or a ‘projected’ position. Students could also explore collaborative use of deixis, in conversational interactions, whereby speakers negotiate and clarify subjective positions and orientations within their respective imaginative conceptualisations of the place.
  1. Within her article, Semino reports how she compared the frequency of the wodwo’s and Christopher’s uses of ‘I’ with the frequency of ‘I’ in the ‘Imaginative Writing’ section of the British National Corpus Sampler (which contains approximately 233 000 words). In doing so, she verified her intuition that the wodwo and Christopher use ‘I’ much more frequently than is standard in imaginative writing, providing clear evidence of their comparative egocentricity. CLiC 1.0 (see http://clic.bham.ac.uk/) is a freely available online corpus tool which can be used by students for personal investigations like these within their work on Making connections (A level).
  2. As mentioned above, Semino looks at how Christopher’s limited vocabulary contributes to her impressions of his mind. Authors construct a character’s personal vocabulary, at the level of lexis, and combine this with personal styles of expression at higher discourse levels, such as styles of phrasing, of conversational interaction, and so on, to convey a fully-fledged, believable and individual ‘mind’. Students can explore how authors create characters’ mind styles through this combination of personal vocabulary and expressions in their study of their set novel Imagined worlds (A level) and use this to construct their own voices when completing textual intervention tasks Writing about society (A level).

 

Just where do I stand? How do texts position their readers? (Research digest)

24/11/2015

Reading time: 5 minutes

Who decides what a text means? The writer? The reader? The text itself? This depends on how you view the act of reading!

Some schools of thought regard the writer of literary fiction as the ‘authority’ over its meaning and give prominence to readings that attach a biographical significance to texts, place them firmly within a historical, social and cultural content of production and foreground authorial intention. On the other hand, reader-response theories highlight the importance of a reader’s belief systems, experiences and competencies in bringing the text to life through interaction – sometimes downplaying the role of the author completely. Then there are those theories and frameworks of reading that focus on the text itself, viewing it as a self-contained entity that simply requires close analysis to unlock its meaning.

Peter Stockwell addresses the question of meaning within the parameters of recent work in stylistics, arguing that a reader is positioned to adopt a particular vantage point towards events and characters in a fictional world. Stockwell begins his paper by distinguishing between two types of reading: everyday reading that is focused on the text itself (‘direct consciousness’); and a more scholarly and inward-looking analytical reading that is focused on trying to explain how a reader engages with a literary work (‘self-consciousness’). This latter ‘thinking about reading’ is, Stockwell suggests, the focus of stylistics as a discipline. In the context of his discussion, he draws largely on a branch of stylistics called ‘cognitive poetics’ that has been influenced by advances in cognitive science, linguistics and psychology.

Stockwell is interested in a way of re-establishing what he terms the ‘ethical dimension’ of literary reading. That is, he argues for viewing literature as a ‘rhetorical act of communication’ between writer and reader. He sees reading as a combination of text-driven constraints and a reader’s own disposition, a stance that draws together aspects of both author-centred and reader-centred theories. Stockwell also suggests that readers will often attempt to assign some kind of authority/agency to their imagined version of the author (he calls this process ‘mind modelling’), arguing that the claims that “an author thought this…” is often a kind of readerly short-cut where the notions of a real life person and implied author are conflated. In other words, readers will naturally try very hard to see a reading experience as an interaction between two people.

To explain the importance of a text-driven approach, Stockwell uses the terms ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred responses’ (borrowed from interactional sociolinguistics) as a way of differentiating between types of reading. He argues that most literary works have a ‘text-driven preferred response’ – for example, it would be very hard (but not impossible) to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and feel attracted to the political system and government of Airstrip One. Whilst a preferred response can be very defined (e.g. the message in Nineteen Eighty-Four) or clear but undefined (e.g. when a reader feels a sense of chaos in absurdist fiction), Stockwell suggests that all literature will contain textual patterns that motivate certain kinds of interpretations and impose constraints that make others dispreferred.

In the final part of his paper, Stockwell shows how readers navigate various ethical positions, adopting mental stances that are textually realised by shifts in time, place, modalised expressions that make suggestions about how things should be or might be, metaphors, reported speech and thought, negation, and hypotheticals. Using a combination of two cognitive poetic models, Text World Theory and Deictic Shift Theory, he argues that several versions of the reading-self (or what are termed ‘enactors’) can be tracked as part of the reading process. This in turn can account for the idea that reading has a ‘transformative effect’ and readers feel moved by the narrative, shifting their attitudes towards characters, events and concepts.

Stockwell ends his discussion with a detailed analysis of three extracts from Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Emma (Jane Austen) and Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegurt). In each of these, he uses the concept of ‘deictic braiding’, a kind of complex patterning around the various types of deixis 1 (person, time, space, social relations and textuality) to explain how these texts position their readers.

Overall, Stockwell is careful to point out that although it is readers, rather than texts, who create meanings, we should be mindful of the ways that textual imposition and readerly disposition work together in the complex act of meaning-making. This acknowledges the potential of texts to evoke meaningsthe relationship between author and reader and provides a motivation for rigorous stylistic analysis. Stockwell is clear to point out that that it is simply not enough to say that a reader is positioned by a text but that it is also ‘essential to observe and analyse how that positioning has occurred’.

This is a digest of the following article: Stockwell, P. (2013) ‘The positioned reader’, Language and Literature 22(3), 263–277.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s specification in the following ways

  1. The term ‘preferred response’ can also be understood as the kind of reading that is most commonly held about a particular text. Ask students to explore literary criticism and the responses of other readers (using online reviews) on their chosen novel (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). What do they notice? How can they account for any radical readings (‘dispreferred responses’)?
  2. John Donne, Robert Browning, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy (Poetic Voices, A level; Views and Voices, AS level) have all been described as poets who offer strong moral messages. How might students use the terms positioned reader, preferred response and dispreferred response to discuss their work? One interesting exercise would be to take one poem that appears to have a very clear message and try to read it in alternative terms. How difficult is this? Does the language mean that some interpretations simply are less possible (or even impossible)?
  3. Stockwell’s paper concentrates solely on literature but students could also explore these ideas with non-literary material and apply this to non-literary material from the AQA Anthology as well (Remembered Places, A and AS level)
  4. The activities above could motivate a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A level). Students could explore material that has a very strong moral message and undertake a fine-tuned analysis of the ways in which the texts impose certain points of view. This would work particularly well, for example, with science-fiction and political discourse. Can they explain how that positioning has occurred?