Making Readers

Theories of Audience: Bourdieu, Smith, Ross

"On 22 February 1774, literature in its modern sense began" (Ross, 410)

Historical, shifts in canon:

    1. presentism, writers-are-us;
    2. significant work of the past, free of local values;
    3. creation of new taste for work embodying eternal human values

Shift from producer to receiver; from community to individual

Shift from shared, common humanity to oppositional, defamiliarizing truths

Education: shift from ethical to aesthetic.

Argument: How to regard properties of literary work? Cultural relativism vs. essentialism.

18th C shift from production to consumption, from producer to reader (Ross, 397); emergence of "literature" as elite, imaginative writing.

Prior to 18th C, writer as representative of community, shared values (Ross, 400); [later, oppositional stance of writer: e.g., Wordsworth's 'levelling muse'; Shelley, etc.]

Canon of past: "presentism" that serves immediate interests of culture (Ross, 401); emergence of modern canon with older writers independent of any local interests, hence reader is to be active and autonomous (Ross, 404)

Emergence of reader as focus, negotiate field of "commercial humanism" as private individual (Ross, 406); reader to be educated: guidebooks, etc., especially Blair (Ross, 406-7); emergence of aesthetic judgement, redeem literature from commerce (Ross 407-8) [cf. circulating libraries, etc., Gothic, Austen's novels inserted in]

Theories of taste? Education: Appreciation of work of art requires possession of relevant codes, cultural competence (Bourdieu, 2). Na´ve reader, listener, cannot go beyond "sensible properties" (2). Empathy for work of art requires prior act of cognition, decoding (3).


-- Rejection of "aesthetic": the "significative force" of works is not to be understood by aesthetic criteria: "The essential game is being played elsewhere" (Chartier, xi). Value as radically contingent -- no universal values (Smith, 30); production of near uniformity in judgement only means contingency operates for that group as non-contingency (Smith, 40).

Next step, spread of reading for its own sake:

Elite vs. popular notion of reading, latter slaves to fashion; Colman, 1761 (Ross, 413). That reading might lead to vice (Wittmann, 300-1). Emergence of capitalist book trade, a "deluge of novels," (Wittmann, 304), mere merchandize (Benedict, 68-9).

Aesthetic "pure gaze" implies a break with ordinary attitude to the world; refusal of the "human" (Ortega y Gasset), of passions, feelings of ordinary people. Opposed to "popular" aesthetic (Bourdieu, 4). Working class refusal of experimentation, Brechtian alienation, etc. (4); rejection of Kantian disinterestedness: every image must have a purpose (Bourdieu, 5).

To read canon of past work is to encounter the alien, alterity; problem for universal standards of taste, consensus, Hume (Ross, 413-4; cf. Smith, 37); cf. Darnton on difference now: "our relation to those texts cannot be the same as that of readers in the past" (Darnton 155); but an 18th C consensus that this will emerge, Priestley (Ross, 414-5); essentialism of.

How canonical texts become so and survive, "even if" values attributed to it change (Smith, 49). How they foster the conditions of their own endurance, as "witness to lost innocence," etc.; will "shape and create" culture (Smith, 50). Canonical text seems to speak directly to us (Gadamer); but only because it has shaped the culture in which its meaning has been naturalized (50-1).

Wordsworth creating taste, trying to free poetry from commerce; appeal to People of future rather than Public (Ross, 415-6). Cf. Rousseau, who "instructed his readers how to read him" (Darnton, 156). That "reading redeems us" -- Wordsworth's belief; we will hear "the music of humanity" (140); cf. "Immortality Ode." Poetry "can set one free of the ruins of history and culture" (McGann, cited Kooy). Author as genius (expressive individualism); Austen name in catalogues: compare late 18th to 1832 (Benedict, 74).

So what enduring values are ready to be touched into life?

No innocent reader?


Bourdieu, Pierre. "Introduction." Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. 1-7.

Ross, Trevor. "The Emergence of 'Literature': Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century." ELH 63 (1996): 397-422.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988

Document created October 18th 2004 / updated November 16th 2009