Freedom, one of the hallmarks of selfhood, is governed by emotional and bodily autonomy. In this essay, I will define autonomy according to a person’s self-determination and agency. That is to say, the process by which a person controls his life and the specific actions he uses to control his life, despite the inherent vulnerability of a physical body, as defined by Judith Butler. To portray this idea, I will apply reception theory and cognitive criticism to Jillian Weise’s The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, showing that writing itself is an act of agency and a byproduct of self-determination.
Public intellectual and scholar Judith Butler insists that, by virtue of its physicality, the body “is to be given over to others even as a body is, emphatically, “one’s own”” (Butler 116). Though I am the one who controls my body, I cannot stop anyone else from looking at me or making judgments about me based on my physical appearance. As long as we exist as physical beings, we will be vulnerable in this way. Butler posits, and I agree, that we can never achieve complete physical autonomy. However, autonomy of the self is possible.
Mark Turner, reception theorist and cognitive critic, defines the self as “a mind in a brain in a body” (qtd. In Hamilton 647). The self is not a part of the body, rather, it resides inside the body. The body is a vessel through which we perform life. Our self-determination and agency (which, when used together, amount to autonomy) come from the self and allow us to guide our own lives and form our own identities. This can be achieved through the projection of thought and imagination: the creation of art.
Art is a crucial act of agency, which stems from self-determination. It serves to inform others of the perceptions of the creator. In Weise’s first poem, “Translating the Body,” the reader is provided with the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word “Translate.” The fourth and final definition is most telling about what the poems do for the reader. It reads, “4) To interpret, explain; to expound the significance of; also, to express one thing in terms of another” (qtd in Weise 1). In the act of writing poetry, Weise translates her thoughts to the implied reader.
The implied reader is the person who, in Weise’s mind, reads and is affected by her words. This implied reader is not necessarily you or me, but a hypothetical being with his own agency. As the actual reader, I have my own kind of agency that is different from the implied reader’s. Wolfgang Iser, reception theorist, writes that the implied reader is required if the author of a text is to have any agency at all. In his book The Implied Reader, he explains that “[literature] is the genre in which reader involvement coincides with meaning production” (xi). He explains that in order for a meaning to be derived from a text, both the author of the text and the reader or implied reader must have different notions of the text that create the meaning. Craig A. Hamilton, interpreting Iser, writes,
“Iser argues that there are “two poles” in any text: “the artistic refers to the text created by the author, and the aesthetic to the realization accomplished by the reader.” Somewhere between the poles is “the literary work,” which readers create by reading or “creating” a text.” (Hamilton 642)
That is to say, when a reader thinks about the text, she makes her own assumptions about it and draws meaning from it depending on her personal psychology. This is how she “creates” the text. The meaning of her text will always be different from the meaning of the author’s text, and the of the implied author’s text (which we will discuss shortly). This is significant because the words themselves do not change, but the meaning changes because, according to cognitive criticism, with each reading–even each reading completed by the same person—the reader’s personal psychology also changes (Hamilton 644).
By writing these words and manipulating the reader to create a new text, the author holds a tremendous amount of self-determination. He makes himself extremely vulnerable, allowing for an infinite amount of judgments to be made about him and the meaning of his work. This willingness to be vulnerable is not a weakness, but a demonstration of immense autonomy. The writer is confident enough in his identity to allow himself to be changed by his work, and to allow his words to take on a meaning that he may not have intended. This is not, however, an issue of interpretation or misinterpretation. Though some may disagree, Iser believes that the words themselves mean nothing, rather that the meaning of a text comes from the reader’s psychology.
As Iser states, “interpretation [is] always legitimate if it reduce[s] the text to meaning” (qtd in Hamilton 643). This means that it is up to the author and the reader to make them mean something. Therefore, no contrived meaning can ever be right or wrong. Scholar Craig A. Hamilton explains Iser’s thoughts, revealing, “there is a very powerful convention in reading literature: assume there is universal meaning in a text about the human condition in general rather than the persona’s [read: speaker’s] life in particular” (Hamilton 643). This allows for there to be an infinite amount of meanings and truths that exist at once in a piece of writing.
In a similar way, the relationship between the implied author and the real author lends itself to heightened autonomy through self-determination and demonstrations of agency. The implied author is the character whom the reader creates while reading. This implied author is never the real author, and, in the case of Jillian Weise, changes in each poem. This understanding of the implied author comes from the thoughts she leaves on paper especially through metaphor. Turner illuminates, “metaphor is not merely a matter of words but… rather a fundamental mode of cognition affecting all human thought and action, including everyday language and poetic language” (qtd. in Hamilton 651; Turner’s emphasis). Since a metaphor is not meant to be read literally, it opens itself up to even more interpretation than a regular written word. Again, this shows the stability of the way an author self-identifies, despite her changed persona as the implied author. Furthermore, Turner argues that “good literature is powerful because it masterfully evokes and manipulates our cognitive apparatus” (qtd in Hamilton 642). The author’s words themselves, even the meanings of those words, are not as important to the issue of autonomy (and therefore self-determination and agency) as is the fact that the author can manipulate the reader’s perceptions. The author’s words make us think about her in a certain way—as the implied author, which she can use to her advantage. Though she is not (in reality) the same person as the author, the author takes on the implied author’s persona in the reader’s mind. In this way, the author can manipulate her words to guide the reader toward a certain kind of implied author, for example, a brave one, or one who is in control of her life.
This method can be observed in a number of Weise’s poems. For example, in the poem “Below Water,” Weise both uses this method and exemplifies it in writing for the reader. The speaker muses,
“We used to strip bare, until I caught
you staring at the railroad tracks
along my spine, and I thought
Mine, mine. Above water only faces.
Below water, I kick one and a half
legs, pretend to be a mermaid.” (Weise 5).
In this poem, the speaker reveals that someone, a certain “you,” stares at her scars and makes her self-conscious. The act of staring allows the “you” to take the speaker’s physical body. She has no choice to hide it. However, “below water” –a phrase which may be a metaphor for the speaker’s imagination– she pretends to be a mermaid. She sees herself as something else, but this view of her is hidden to “you”. Therefore, while she lacks physical autonomy, since “you” can still see her, the speaker gains autonomy of the self. She is in control of how she identifies. Even the act of “concealing” he scars by donning a red swimsuit shows that the speaker has the power to change how she is perceived. Her scars, metaphorical and literal, are hidden (Weise 5). The speaker consciously hides certain parts of herself that may change another person’s view of her. The same can be said for the author. The author displays certain words that prompt certain meanings. For example, just as scars prompt us to wonder about the story behind them, phrases like “used to” and the use of enjambment prompt the reader to consider all kinds of implicit properties of the text (Weise 5). Therefore, the reader considers the events concerning the speaker, and, in this case (if we can assume that the speaker is autobiographically influenced), those of the implied author. It is significant to note that this does not tell us anything about the true author. Everything we gain from reading poetry is, in some way, abstract, we can never give the words the same meaning as the author does. This idea stems from one of the most important principles of reception theory, discussed earlier: that a person’s reading of a text depends on his personal psychology. Since no two psychologies are the same, no two readings will ever be the same. In this way, the characteristics we project onto the implied author (who, we must recall, we see as the real author) also apply to the true author. By manipulating her words, the true author hopes to project a certain personality onto the implied author, in such a way molding the reader’s view—maybe even her own view of herself– according to her wishes. This is an act of self-determination since it dictates, or helps to dictate, the way others perceive the self.
In writing poetry, Weise reassures herself of her own autonomy. She projects a different identity onto herself through her speaker, and thus through her reader. When we form perceptions of the implied author, those perceptions become true. The real agency in writing lies in the fact that writers manipulate our perceptions of them, their world, and their meanings while still allowing us to have our own. Perhaps these guided perceptions do not conform to the author’s wishes, but this does not change the fact that she has allowed us a way to create someone or something new. She still uses her agency, though perhaps it does not work according to plan. The very act of writing is, as Turner and Iser agree, wholly dependent on the reader and his own personal psychology. The reader’s psychology works in concert with the words to realize the author’s self determination whether it creates the desired identity or not.
- Butler, Judith. “Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy,” from Ways of
Reading: an Anthology for Writers. 113-131. Print.
- Hamilton, Craig A., and Ralf Schneider. “From Iser to Turner and Beyond: Reception
Theory Meets Cognitive Criticism”. Style 36.4 (2002): 640–658. Web.
- Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974. [Translation of
Der implizite Leser: Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett]
- Weise, Jillian. “Translating the Body,” The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. Brooklyn: NY,
Soft Skull Press, 2007. 1. Print.