Notes on: Denzin, N (1990). Reading cultural texts: comment on Griswold. American Journal of Sociology, 95 (6): 1577 – 1580.

Dave Harris

Griswold had apparently offered a 'comparative, statistical reading' of the fiction written by George Lamming, a Barbadian novelist. She says that meaning is constructed through metaphor which structures the interaction between texts, and the meanings held by 'cultural readers'. This acknowledges humans as the 'active constructors of cultural meaning' but who still works with an institutional framework, with social and cultural systems. It does permit quantitative statistical research methods. It looks holistic and complete, but it has problems.

It still works with a modified but traditional sender receiver model, where a sender produces a message in a novel that sent to a receiver. The receiver interprets the most salient messages which 'elicit, call forth and trigger presuppositions held by the audience member' (1578), but this is untenable. It reifies qualities and seeks 'a concrete, fixed presence of these objects in the world of experience… A determinate set of meanings'. The analytic framework imposes these and produces empirically describable units related to each other but not interactionally. This is 'abstract, ahistorical, reductive'. It has some 'hidden master code' where meaning making subjects are fully conscious of what they're doing, but they have been constructed as 'differentially wide-awake', formed by cultural and ideological processes, constituted as 'culturally communicative subjects'.

It also assumes that semantic content is always legible and clear instead of ambiguous, open-ended and multifocal [citing Bakhtin]. An empirical approach makes reviews static and consensual, and 'she never applies for theory to herself and her readings of the reviews… Her theory of cultural power is tautological, for strong objects as defined as those that elicit strong responses'. This assumes transcendent meanings, which tacitly supports 'a "high" culture theory of aesthetically powerful texts'.

The notion of metaphor means a dichotomy between society culture that is never clarified, it works artificially to invent relations between society and culture and freezes 'the indeterminacy of meaning (1579). She locates meaning in the object or creator or reader — but meaning is always 'localised contextualised, and indeterminate'. Lamming's novels are taking is meaning what the reviewers have said, and these reviews themselves are reified by content analysis to produce determinate meanings.

'Meaning is always indeterminate', not an effect or a product, but 'a process of deferral and delay', it cannot be translated or re-contextualised it is 'always absent' as it is searched for. It eludes persons who try to fix it. There are no total objects with concrete presence as Derrida reminds us. Instead novel writing and book reviewing involve deferral 'that always displaces the fixed presence in the moment of speaking or writing' that is fixed only by locating them within a logo centric system of thoughts that concretise is meaning through fixed procedures, like the sender receiver model all content analysis. This produces 'a self-fulfilling prophecy… She fabricates the very things she says are fabricated'.

Cultural studies should focus on how this happens, how meaning is fabricated in everyday life by a 'logo centric, political economy of signs and meanings'. It must do deconstruction, showing how these processes reproduce and end in 'the simulated, hyperreal implosion of meanings and messages into the cultural realm' [citing Baudrillard this time]. This sort of deconstruction will explode the existing political economy, and 'valorised the fundamental indeterminacy of meaning and being', showing how language and codes have become 'manipulated commodities'. This will leave 'undoable' conventional sociology's of culture that use cultural and sociological data in their interpretations. In fact they only reproduce 'superficial sociologies of literature and culture' (1580) which 'reified the determinate indeterminacy of meaning at all levels of human group life'.

Griswoldd W. Provisional, Provincial Positivism: Reply to Denzin. (as above 1580-83)

It is too ambitious to develop a whole explosion of repressive political economies of signs, and her own ains are more modest — how to develop a better understanding of how a literary work is actually experienced by readers.

She does not retain a linear sender -receiver model, with a fully conscious sender. Meanings instead are produced by interaction between 'socially located persons and cultural objects'(1580). Shared social locations 'are likely to produce overlapping sets of meanings'. The intention of the author need to play no part in the interaction of readers ['tenor' , which apparently includes reviewers] except to identify selections the authors made. There is usually only the evidence of the text itself. Authors statements about their own intentions are not always reliable. In her case, discussing Lamming, reviewers were preoccupied with the representation of race but we do not know the conscious intentions of the author.

She is not claiming that there is always a 'legible semantic content' (1581). She is more interested in 'multi-vocality' where novels can mean different things to different readers — race, or identity, for example. Some people thought Lamming supported black power. These different interpretations and their bases is what led to the research.

It is a mistake to equate cultural power with 'whatever elicits the strongest reactions', for example both pornography and greeting card sentiments can elicit strong reactions but 'neither are powerful under my definition' [why not exactly?]. Cultural power requires a balance of coherence and ambiguity. Powerful objects can stir people to make meanings, but these meanings will still be various.

Denzin argues for indeterminate meaning. There is a difference between a text having a meaning and groups of readers finding shared strands of meaning in it, even if they fabricate it. It is that that she wanted to research. She says that many Americans found a particular Lamming novel to be about race, for example while West Indians and Britons did not. Deconstruction assumes an 'ever receding horizon of meaning'. This is both a pessimistic view of culture and, agreeing with Eagleton, 'profoundly apolitical as well': it is a 'sociological nonstarter'.

Denzin wants to undermine any sociology of culture that refers to cultural and sociological data, but she believes this should be tackled via 'a provisional, provincial positivism'. The provisional part means taking Weber's view that there are inevitable choices using nonscientific criteria, where values are 'incommensurable'. Once these choices are made, science can operate by axiomatically assuming that the world is indeed as we have defined it. 'Reality is a social construction' (1582) but scientists must operate in it for now, in order to undertake research. Some provisional use of theories or facts is essential to provide 'a stable place to stand for the time being' — or else there is only 'a vortex of multiple perspectives'. Social bases of selection can be further analysed by sociologists of science — but this is not the entirety of the social science and its enterprise.

Provincial positivism means that within the discourses of the day, within a particularly limited location, 'some concepts of theories, provisionally chosen, can get you farther than others.' It is like the way literary theorists use the concept of genre — it is not a hard and fast category but rather a declaration of categories that might 'lead to the most fruitful implications'. Particular plays may be described, at different times,  as, for example 'tragedies of blood, revenge tragedies… Tragedies of state…' There is no underlying Aristotelian classification here, but rather operations within 'salient, contemporary discourse'. These classifications help you make progress.

Equally provincial is referring to meaning as metaphor, and then even quantifying references. It is not to claim 'a universal conceptualisation of the phenomenon' but indicates a language that others in the provinces can understand if they speak the same tongue. This then permits predictions to be made, theories developed, relationships to be posited and tested — but these are all provincial and subject to change. Such provincialism is 'absolutely necessary' (1583) if the communication of results among interested provincials is to take place. It helped develop an investigative structure and comparable research, and even 'discourse for reaction, disagreement and scholarly debate such as that which Denzin has initiated here. If meanings were altogether indeterminate, such debate would not even be possible'.

Denzin page