Postmodernism: power and agency (readerly/writerly)

August 17, 2016 – 2:22 pm

I’ve broken my lit review chapter into a series of short, connected essays on postmodernism, narrative, and ontology. Todd said that those were sort of like blog posts, and that he’d read them if I posted them. So here goes… crappy early drafts disclaimer and all that. Have fun. Not in sequential order.

Postmodernism plays extensively with ideas of power and agency, as part of its quest to disrupt structure and authority. Postmodern projects frequently examine the notion of who has permission to modify the world. Who has this privilege, and who believes they have this privilege? Which aspects of the world are they able to modify, and how?

Permissions for modification are a familiar idea in engineering, particularly in computing. The entire concept of file permissions is built around the notion of granting or denying various people access to read and write to various areas on the computer. In the case of a large software project, one engineer might have the permissions to examine a piece of code and see what it does, but not have the permissions to modify it. This is called “read access,” because it lets the engineer read the file, but no more. A different engineer might be able to not only read that piece of code, but also edit it and change what it does. This is called “write access,” since the engineer has the power to write (or re-write) the file in question.

The notions of “read access” and “write access” to software files in the technical realm map to the notions of “readerly” and “writerly” approaches to a text in the philosophical realm. The terms writerly and readerly were coined by Roland Barthes in his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (which the 1975 English translation renders as “The Pleasure of the Text”) in order to refer to the role of a text’s reader. Here, a text refers not just to printed words on paper, but more broadly to include other things that convey meaning, such as software code, videos, dance moves, and so forth.

Texts themselves can be said to take a more readerly or writerly approach. A readerly text treats readers only as readers, passive recipients of knowledge. Readerly texts place readers in the epistemological position that Baxter-Magolda calls “following formulas” (2001) and Kegan calls the “third order of consciousness” whereby external voices serve as privileged authorities (1994). In a sense, if expertise is the ability to independently create and navigate within a complex context, readerly texts restrict readers from reaching for higher levels of expertise (S. Dreyfus & H. Dreyfus, 1980)

By noticing and naming the “readerly” approach to texts, postmodernists draw attention to them and remind readers of their agency with regards to interpretation of the texts that they encounter. There are two main approaches to rendering a text “readerly.” The first is narrative seduction, where an author uses authoritative-sounding words to “convince” readers “of the author’s right to serve as ‘The Great Interpreter’” (Lather, 1991, p. 10). The second is banality (Bruner, 1991, p. 9-10), where an author deliberately writes in a boring style that “assum[es] shared and standard meanings” which habituates readers to overlook things they might otherwise examine, thus “suppressing the discourse” (Mishler, 1986, p. 65).

Foucault’s 1969 lecture “What is an Author?” and Umberto Eco’s essay collection titled “The Role of the Reader” (1979) speak out against readerly texts and echo Barthes’ call for the death of the author (1967) and the deliberate exposure of the hermeneutic richness inherent in all texts. Instead, they call for writerly texts, which demand that readers co-construct meaning with the author as they work through the text. A good analogy for a writerly text is a workbook with blank spaces for reflective exercises; it is clearly incomplete unless a reader is actively grappling with it, working as a co-author and using their own context to inform a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Now, it is possible to treat any book as a workbook even without explicit blank spaces and the word “workbook” printed on its cover. Active and critical readers will scribble margin notes and write commentary, effectively rendering any book a “workbook” that allows their own co-authorship. This was Barthes’ key insight: all texts are writerly. Cavallaro points out that the very word “text” comes from the Latin “texere,” meaning “to weave.” (2001, p. 59). The fabric of texts can be endlessly made and unmade; they aren’t closed, finished, or exclusive to one maker. It is simply that some texts pretend to be readerly and make readers forget their own agency.

The continued tongue-in-cheek awareness of one’s own agency and writerly power shows up in spaces that are not unfamiliar to engineering educators. In particular, it shows up in hacker and maker culture. For example, the hThe Maker’s Bill of Rightsof-rights/) makes statements like “screws, not glues” and “if it snaps shut, it shall snap open” (Torrone, 2006), design tradeoffs oriented towards keeping technologies “hackable,” or modifiable by their owners. [IMAGE: popular maker t-shirt that says "I void warranties," from Thinkgeek]. “Nightwork,” a book documenting MIT hacker culture, describes its practitioners as simultaneously laughing at authority’s attempts to keep them out of “off-limits” spaces, such as placing a faux police car on the roof of a building — and respecting authority’s ability to get things done; hackers occasionally leave notes informing official maintenance workers of overlooked spaces in need of repair (Peterson, 2011).

The notion of a readerly approach to the world also appears in formal engineering education research and advertising. “Changing the Conversation,” the National Academy of Engineering’s project to investigate the “branding” of engineering as a discipline, ended up recommending taglines like “engineers make a world of difference” and “engineers shape the future,” emphasizing the writerly power engineers have to reshape the world they live in (NAE, 2008). The theories of Barthes and other postmodernist philosophers who wrote about power and agency can be used to illuminate the discipline’s aspirations for empowering its practitioners.

Know someone who'd appreciate this post?
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  1. One Response to “Postmodernism: power and agency (readerly/writerly)”

  2. - a bit more explanation of the “great interpreter” would be helpful. I have guesses, but rather get a bit more detail.
    - Is boring their word or yours? If it is yours, I think you may want to use another word. It is very subjective.
    - I think the hacker paragraph can be expanded. For example, s little more context behind “screw not glue,” and the meaning behind “I void warrenties.” (I get it, but not everyone does)
    - You talk about how engineering education is writerly, but not readerly. You may want to expand.

    ( I will try to comment more on your blog posts tomorrow/coming days)

    By Julia on Aug 18, 2016

What do you think?