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3 Ways of Reading ‘This chapter deals with how we talk about the ways we read gender in texts — ‘ways of reading. It also looks at how our reading practice positions us to think about and understand — and sometimes to talk about — gender in certain ways. It is this reciprocity ~ we not only read texts, but are positioned by them ~ ‘which has made reading a focus for gender theorists. Understanding this inter- relationship of reader and text not only enabled theorists to posit readers as active participants in meaning-making, rather than just as passive recipients of textual messages; it also made it essential to understand the reading process and how it might be used as what Teresa de Lauretis (1998) called a ‘tech- nology of gencler’. That is, reading might be seen as a practice by which certain vviews about gender are incorporated into the thinking of readers and viewers, Note here that we use the term ‘reading’ not only in relation to both readers and viewers, but also in relation to written texts. It might be useful at this stage to clarify the terms we use to talk about reading, beginning with “ext itself Text ‘Text has many complex, technical definitions, but the essential features are these: a text is a combination of signs (Thwaites et al.1994, p. 67); a text involves an act of communication; in the process of communication a reader or viewer activates those signs to produce or generate meanings. We might summarise this as follows: A text is a sign-based communicative practice that involves readers or | Viewers activating signs to generate meanings, In stressing the productive or generative nature ofthe text, we are referring back to the writings of linguist and cultural critic Roland Barthes (1977), who 89 90 Gender Studies described the move from ‘work’ to ‘text: a move away from the notion of the literary or artistic work existing, in isolation; preserved by its brilliance; and whose meaning did not change from generation to generation (if only we could work out what that meaning is). Instead, Barthes proposed the notion of text to express the culturally enmeshed practice of the artistic or literary production: existing within a particular context of production and consump- tion; reinvented by successive generations to explore their particular problems; and meaning not one but many different and often contradictory things, according to the ways in which the meanings are generated. So you might think of the plays of William Shakespeare which are now ‘enmeshed in cultural meanings for us, including the idea that Shakespeare is the world’s greatest playwright — a historically and culturally specific idea, ‘with which not all societies and cultures would now agree and which has not always been the case in English literary opinion. Shakespeare's work exists for ‘us as the product of a specific culture and time, to which we often refer in an attempt to locate meanings in the plays (context of production). It is also a contemporary theatrical - and filmic ~ practice, and contemporary audiences bring to their watching or viewing of the plays (and films) meanings or ideas | drawn from their own education and experience (context of consumption). Shakespeare's plays are reinvented in successive productions which some- times quite overtly relate them to specific contemporary experience: for ‘example Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo arid Juliet (1996) charac- terised the feuding Capulet and Montague families as Anglo-Celtic and Hispanic and located them in a version of contemporary Los Angeles. And many different and conflicting meanings may be generated from the one play: for example Romeo might be seen as pitiable because of his thwarted love for Juliet or as socially irresponsible for placing lives in danger to gratify his own desires; atthe same time, the play might be seen as a meditation on the nature of institutional power and influence and the way that it is enacted in the everyday lives of individual subjects - a reading which might have us once again pity Romeo, even if we find his actions culpable. in a sense this represents a dethroning of the literary work; itis no longer seen as the sole source of transcendent meanings which we mortals need to seek out. Yet it does not deny that a particular combination of signs was orig inally put together by someone who understood at least part of the potential of that combination to generate meanings, nor does it deny the power of particular combinations to generate in and through readers or viewers new insights abont the nature of themselves and their world. Instead it argues against the notion of fixed meaning, and for the idea that meanings are gener- ated partly by features outside the work itself: for example contemporary social, cultural and political practice and the reader's familiarity with other cultural stories and artefacts. So someone familiar with the practice and history of an art form such as opera might well generate different meanings = Ways of Reading a from a particular operatic work than a novice; similarly, someone conversant swith the history and practice of blues music may understand a contemporary blues song, differently from the casual listener. or those involved in the study of concepts such as subjectivity, identity and embodiment, the value of this definition of ‘text’ is that it opens up one bf the mechanisms by which, as Hall (1996b, p. 4) notes, the individual consti- futes identity and through which the body is constantly reformed; by enabling us to see a way in which fundamental issues such as gender, sext- Sly lass, race and so on are re-presented, resisted and incorporated. In the {exis of a culture, meanings about some or all of the fundamental issues of identity may be generated by the reader, viewer or listener. In this way the reader explores that issue ~ relates it to her or his own experience and iden- fty, sometimes overtly, at other times subliminally. Sometimes we walk out of a film thinking I didn’t like that movie’, without specifically formulating our reasons. But when we put inthe work to do so, we often find its not only the splatter effects or the sentimentality which made us squeamish, but the kinds of value espoused; ideas about gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity or other things which we find fundamentally offensive. And often we also feel irri tated at the skill of the film-maker who can have us go along with those values as we watch the film, so that we also feel coerced into something we disagree with. ‘The notion of text enables us to stand back from a film — or a song, book, advertisement, conversation, television programme (any combination of signs) - and analyse how we are positioned by that particular combination of signs. Further, we might ask if there is a way of reading that combination ‘which enables us to resist being positioned in ways which are offensive to us, and we might also then question the way institutions operate to make one reading or meaning seem correct and others either less corrector plain wrong, Texts, Bodies and Identity ‘Stuart Hall (1996, p. 11) observed that the body has served as a kind of suture, pinning back together the fragmented postmodern subject; the body holds together in one space/ time location the many different subject position- ings of the postmodern subject. For Hall, even the work of Foucault, which demonstrates the ways in which the bodies of individuals are disciplined by the regulatory practices of their society, is problematic since it does not address the ways in which those bodies incorporate the discipline or how bodies resist; the body, for Foucault, is the passive recipient of any and all social and cultural influences and pressures. One of Hall's responses to this problem is to explore the ways in which individuals formulate themselves in relation to the narratives and representations which characterise their society;