Buyer (or, Reader) Beware

The process by which a human becomes rhetorically literate is akin to consumers becoming wise in purchasing practices. “Caveat Emptor,” Latin for “Buyer Beware,” heeds warnings to buyers. “Caveat lector,” Latin for “Reader Beware,” expresses the need for readers to beware. Individuals must establish audial and visual security against the countless messages that fly through the intangible parts of our world and attempt to penetrate, without permission, the entirety of their beings.

Each day humans face a cascade of social, cultural, and political messages. Words, crafted by another human being, are delivered to the masses via literature, radio, television, and websites, among other mediums. To teach a person how to listen to those messages and to think critically about their intention, implication, and effect is invaluable. To purport that this skill has no importance is dangerously ignorant and cripplingly limiting. Sophistry runs rampant in a culture of uneducated minds for its own financial, immoral benefits. Modern criticism produced by Roland Barthes, Edward Said, and Elaine Showalter ignite the conversation of relevance and value of their craft; the powerful knowledge retained by each of the aforementioned authors bears with its presence deep responsibility to be shared. In the social and political climate of our world in 2017, their insights are vital to the sane evolution of our species.

For Roland Barthes, language is a barrier of truth, not a window into it. The cultural critic has, up until recently, had a duty to interpret the person responsible for the language we read: the author. “The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as…it discovered the prestige of the individual” (Barthes, 1466). He continues, “It is thus logical that in literature, it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.” This reflects capitalist thought; readers often attribute all meaning of a written work to its author. Advocating for authorial intention as the inarguable meaning of a text forces a culture of the one and the many. Believing in the intention of the author as the sole route by which to understand a poem is to give away any readers’ interpretive power, much in the same way consumers give power and money to capitalist marketers. This insight is powerful for readers, whose perspectives and potential understandings are opened by the figurative “death” of the author. The author’s death allows the text to become “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings…blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (1468). With no author to psychoanalyze, potential for more interpretations is reborn out of a text that may have otherwise been accepted as “solved.” The death of the author is a return to unhinged interpretation, a moving away from reading the mind of the other into reading the mind of the self, the reader who reads. Barthes’ words allow readers to reclaim their power, calling their thoughts the “one place where this multiplicity (of interpretation) is focused” (1469). While Classical Criticism once denounced the reader entirely, modern criticism offers a shift in the power struggle in favor of the receiver. Words, once spawned by a (usually) deceased author, can only retain as much power upon the mind of the reader as the reader allows. An educated mind can interpret textual bodies by his own volition, without requesting permission of the Classical Criticism to do so. Barthes espouses this notion, “We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society… 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” 1469-70).

The birth of the reader is a literary revolution; it can alter the course of our world’s shared social, cultural, and political progress. What’s needed for these changes to unfold, to become manifest, Edward Said points out, is an informed democracy. “The cult of expertise and professionalism, for example, has so restricted our scope of vision…the general public is best left ignorant, and the most crucial policy questions affecting human existence are best left to ‘experts’” (Said, 119). Now that the reader is born, how can he learn to read political rhetoric with a discerning eye? He must gain this skill, somehow. However, in our culture the only way to do that and to be heard is by earning a degree from the establishment. That is, if a critic wants to make public his insights regarding fallacious political arguments, he must be accredited. And, as Said points out, the places of accreditation are often the graveyards of antiestablishment-born thoughts. They are, rather, sterile hospital rooms where like-minded thinkers of antiquated educational ideologies are bred. Herein we are introduced to what Said calls the “politics of interpretation” (133). “Galileos and Einsteins are infrequent figures not just because genius is a rare thing but because scientists are borne along by agreed-upon ways to do research, and this consensus encourages uniformity rather than bold enterprise” (126). Just as a healthy, advancing society that values equanimity should foster the growth of diversity in the minds of its civilians, so too must “specialists,” Said argues, be open to the multiplicities of interpretation presented by both educated and uneducated readers. Unfortunately, this out-of-the-box thinking is often stopped before it can start. Separation of fields, Said notices, profoundly impacts the confirmation bias experienced in the worlds of higher academia. Separation “is capitalized on by professions, institutions, discourses, and a massively reinforced consistency of specialized fields” (132). For this reason, a reader’s criticism about political discourse of unjust social policies can quickly be written off as insignificant if that reader has not earned an “expert” status in his chosen subject matter by the establishment. Modern Criticism encourages constructive, critical analysis of established interpretive communities. This empowers readers while simultaneously threatening those who control the public discourse; some may not benefit from an enlightened, educated democracy.

Outside of the establishment lies what Elaine Showalter calls, “The Wilderness.” The wilderness is the world of theory, the place where rogue ideas await their conception into the world of form. Modern criticism, its teachings and its comprehension, invite readers into the wilderness. It is here, in the wild world of theory, where readers can encounter a thought that challenges their perception, and take this thought back into the civilized world to incite change. Showalter’s essay discusses Feminist Criticism, and questions how it should come to define itself in a linguistic world that has historically been a monolithic narration of “white fathers” (Showalter, 5). “If we see our critical job as interpretation and reinterpretation, we must be content with pluralism as our critical stance” (4). Feminist Criticism is a landmine, uncovered by an informed group of female readers and writers that threaten to uproot the foundations of thousands of years of male-dominated discourse if activated. With unyielding varieties of what it means to be a “woman” writer, this form of criticism is a pluralistic, inclusive, and expansive revision of the previously monolithic forms of cultural discourse. Showalter’s criticism of current Feminist models reveals the crippling presence of a phallocentric language that must be ignored, avoided, or manipulated by women writers to express themselves. “The problem is not that language is insufficient to express women’s consciousness but that women have been denied the full resource of language and have been forced into silence, euphemism, or circumlocution” (13). How can women express themselves in a language if they are not inherently of the language, itself? A Native American Indian cannot express himself fully in English discourse while maintaining the authentic integrity of his native language. Showalter cites Gera Lerner, “What would history be like if it were seen through the eyes of women and ordered by the values they define?” (Lerner, 18). At the higher university level, “history” courses are requirements to graduate, to become “accredited,” but women’s studies, ethnic studies, and environmental/animal studies are all electives, unnecessary for graduation. Students are required to read history, the white male’s narrative, but not required to consider the perspectives of all other races, genders, and non-politically powerful dynasties. Feminist Criticism has the potential to unlock centuries of the untold disenfranchisement of women living in a culture that is dominated by patriarchal rhetoric. “To see women’s writing as our primary subject forces us to make the leap to a new conceptual vantage point and to redefine the nature of the theoretical problem before us” (6). Out in the wilderness of literary theory, ideas fight for the chance to be conceived in the minds of readers. A critic that hears these ideas as they pass across the wild landscape of the conscious mind can choose which ones to assimilate into his attention. He or she is then well prepared to uncover the outdated theories that are the foundation of the era of Ronald Reagan in which we find ourselves .

Barthes, Said, and Showalter’s modern criticism can change the world. “The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish” (McKenna) . To know and to understand the words presented to your consciousness from an outside source has unyielding benefits for you as a human. It does not benefit privatized corporations or marketers for the pubic to be informed; more money stays in the hands of the consumer if he understands the nature by which marketers’ rhetorical manipulations attempt to wriggle it out of his bank account. Politicians must become transparent with their intentions if democracies use criticism to their advantage, criticizing the politician’s rhetoric and demanding honesty. Every kind of person at every wake of life can be seen and heard if taught this skill. Modern criticism, much like Socratic philosophy, may not have all the answers to the perils of modern culture, but it can aid us in formulating better questions. “It is assumed that the skills traditionally associated with modern literary criticism…are there to be applied to literary texts, not for instance, to a government document” (Said, 132). Why not?

© 2016 Shawna Rodgers
All Rights Reserved.

Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, “The Death of the Author.” New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967.
McKenna, Terence. “Conversations at the Edge of Magic.” Starwood Festival XIV. Sherman, NY. 19 July 1994. Lecture
Said, Edward. “Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2000. Print.
Showalter, Elaine. The New Feminist Criticism, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” New York: Pantheon, 1985.

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