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Chapter 5
Writings on the Wall
Chapter 5
The Meaning: A Review of Reader-response Theory
Recognizing, reading and interpreting signs is all well and good, but to what
extent can the sign serve as an indicator or a predictor of what events are to follow?
At what point does the interpretation reach beyond the meaning of the sign? To
address these issues, a close examination of the principles of Reader-response theory
and semiotics may help interpreters avoid reading more into the signs than the signs
What does the work really mean? What was the original meaning of the
work? How can there be so many meanings? How does one know the real meaning?
When does one cross over into irrelevance or into a “wrong” interpretation? These
are especially important questions in terms of intentional and unintentional meanings
and/or misinterpretations of Holocaust-related images. For instance, Leni
Riefenstahl’s great and infamous Triumph of the Will was both hailed as a spectacular
documentary and criticized as a propaganda film. For some, the film was a factual
representation of the popularity of Hitler’s Germany. Other evaluators of the film
suggest the film’s intent was not factual but contrived to glorify and enhance the
popularity of Hitler’s Germany. Which interpretation is correct? Is Triumph a
documentary film or is it propaganda? Or is it both? Traditional semioticians would
argue that interpretation is limited by the content and structure of the work and should
not go beyond what was intended.
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Questions about the credibility of interpretive prerogative have continued as
interests in critical attention have shifted away from historical, biographical and
intention-focused systems of analysis. Traditional semioticians argue that meaning
derives from, and therefore critical attention should be focused on the intention of the
work, for therein lays the meaning of the work. Reader-response theorists, however,
argue that “intention” is undiscoverable, that valuable meaning can be derived from a
review of what is perhaps unintentional in the works. Such an interpretive strategy
suggests that what the authors or creators intended need not necessarily be included in
the interpretations of their works. Some Reader-response critics go even further to
argue that meaning does not even need to be derived from the work alone, but that
readers bring meaning to the text. These theorists argue that literary criticism should,
therefore, concern itself with both the intended and the received meanings of literary
works and that interpretation does not need to be explicitly supported by the text to be
valuable or valid. These critics note that when writers write, the writers may believe
they know why they consciously chose certain words and created certain images to
produce a thematic notion that they wished their readers to encounter. What neither
writers nor readers can really know, these critics argue, is if these words and images
reflect an expression that comes from some place deeper in the writers than even the
writers had intended or perceived. If such a depth is conceivable, then searching out
the writers’ consciously intended meanings may not reveal the truer, deeper meanings
of the works. Based on this premise, Reader-response critics argue, it is possible that
writers might create more than was intended. If so, then, no certain answer is
possible. Reader-response theorists such as Jonathan Culler argue all reader-
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generated interpretations are valuable, even if only for interest’s sake (110-112). In
fact, this theory suggests that only those readers who go beyond the superficial and
beyond the consciously intended meaning will get to the deeper “heart of the matter.”
But, how far away between the lines of the text or image is too far?
In addition to expanding the scope of literary analysis, Reader-response theory
may also expand the significance of the work. Given that writers wish to have an
effect on their intended readers, an analysis of all of the responses generated by the
work can provide writers with information about how the work has been received and
if their conscious intentions or some other goals have been achieved. I am no longer
surprised when an artist, being asked if this or that was the intended meaning of the
work, evasively says he or she is pleased that such a thought was evoked. When
artists define a work they limit the work. In this regard Maupassant admonishes
readers to remember how silly it is to believe in a single reality when we each have
one born of our senses and one born of our mind (11). As do modern Reader-response
critics, Maupassant seems to encourage readers to bring meaning or to create meaning
and to allow the work to be associated, for good or ill, with even more than can ever
be known about what was intended.
Finally, Reader-response theory is a literary theory that crosses over
traditional disciplinary boundaries and is as applicable to textual fiction as it is to line,
form and color in painting and the elements of mise-en-scene in filmmaking.
By accepting that readers may not only perceive meaning in a work but also
create meaning, Reader-response criticism also crosses over the traditional boundaries
of what is interpretively credible and not credible, while trying to avoid outright “mis-
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interpretation” (emphasis intended). When is it fair to say this or that interpretation is
“not in Kansas anymore,” has gone beyond reason?
To explore the origins, concerns about and the advantages of employing a
Reader-response approach to analyses of multimedia materials, this chapter will begin
by briefly looking at the literary connections shared with textual and non-textual
messaging. Then, the chapter will proceed to a review of the writings and comments
of such literary critics as Umberto Eco, Paul de Man, Richard Rorty and Jonathan
Culler, all of whom focus on the need to acknowledge or ignore the limits of
interpretation. Finally, two Reader-response constructed exercises will illustrate some
of the benefits and drawbacks that continue to make Reader-response theory a
valuable, though contested, tool in the search for meaning.
Historically, Reader-response theory extends from the late 19th through the
early 20th century and expands the traditional range of literary investigation. This
system of analysis reaches beyond what earlier critics considered “[…] the business
of literary criticism […] to discuss the literariness of literature, to discuss that which
makes literature different from other kinds of discourse” (Lemon 25). Literary
criticism’s literary heritage encompasses elements of the “formalist,” the
“structuralist,” the deconstructionist, and semiotic approaches as well as the ideas of
such literary theorists as Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Pierce (discussed more
fully in chapter 4), who both agreed that virtually everything was a potential sign.
Though semioticians were not the first to include imagery as a viable focus for
literary criticism, they did argue that the study of signs revealed deeper meaning than
traditional analysis had produced, that poetry was something other than prose, that
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poetry created images and images were the stuff of art—and that therefore the art of
“thinking in images” (Lemon and Reis xvii) was fair ground for literary criticism.
These early semioticians argued that signs are used by someone to signify something
to someone else and that in traditional, textual, literary terms they can be created by
manipulations of the plot structure of a work, the setting of a work, the development
of a character or of any other element of fiction within the work. Signs may even be
found in the words, the spellings of words, and the colloquial and idiomatic language
use of fashionable expressions. These same components of composition, structure,
narrative and characterization are also visually used in the productions of such media
as painting and film. Thus, the choices made to use particular words, images, and
signs, as well as the choices of how, when and where they are used, make up the stuff
from which meaning can be manipulated and derived. Because these choices may
have been conscious or unconscious thematic expressions, they are well within the
realm of literary criticism.
Indeed many literary theorists today acknowledge a need for multimedia
literacy. While describing his sense of visual literacy, for instance, Joseph Piro
suggests that “Rather than seeing it [literacy] as a behavior connected solely to the
written and spoken word, it needs to be thought of more in terms of Eisner’s
definition as ‘the ability to encode or decode meaning in any of the forms of
representation used in the culture to convey or express meaning’” (qtd. in Piro 128).
The suggestion that visual images are also literary is doubly relevant to
Reader-response theory. First, the very notion of applying a literary theory to a visual
image challenges the normative meaning of “literary” theory while at the same time
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challenging the very meaning of the word “text.” The notion of visual images as
literary works suggests that an image is a story and comprises a non-alphabetical
textual narrative constructed with medium-specific devices such as color, line and
figure placement to mention just a few. These devices should be read as letters and
words and signs. The notion that “visual text” is a part of the semiotic heritage of
Reader-response theory accepts that a “picture is worth a thousand words,” and that
those words make up stories that include and are intended to convey or evoke
What is at question here is whether or not a single work can have multiple
meanings, different meaning for different people or even different meanings for the
same person at different times. Reader-response critics contend that individual
readers or viewers who are differently prepared to read/view/receive a work come to
the work with different educational, cultural, political and vocational backgrounds
and are, therefore, likely to focus on different signs in the work. These different
perspectives Reader-response critics claim will respectively suggest different
meanings and give rise to different interpretations. Does this mean that any and all
interpretations are equally credible interpretations? Will such a theory lead to critical
chaos or even worse—misinterpretation--as “readers” later modernize and revise
previous interpretations?
The connection of the visual arts to Reader-response theory adds to the
volatility of the debate over what is and is not “over-interpretation” (Eco 52) by
questioning the very nature of “text.”
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Thus, a primary contention among critics is over the boundaries of
interpretation. Even among the deconstructionists, Reader-response criticism is
notorious for its every-interpretation-is-a-valuable-interpretation approach to
criticism. Literary and art critics alike probe the question of just how open the critical
passageway is from a literary analysis’ search for the author’s intent to an analysis of
the symbols purposely or unconsciously embedded into the text, the painting, the film
or their respective structures. Even more debated is the notion that no reader-received
interpretation leads to misinterpretation. At what point, less liberal critics wonder,
does reader-created interpretation become irrelevant or go perhaps beyond criticism
to speculation or revisionism?
While Umberto Eco is an early and adamant supporter of moving away from
the confines of classical formalism, as articulated by Victor Shklovsky, who, as has
been noted, is said to have argued that the purpose of literary criticism is to discover
and emphasize the “literariness of literature” and “to discuss that which makes
literature different from other kinds of discourse” (qtd. in Lemon 25). Yet, Eco is not
amenable to letting literary criticism move beyond the discovery of the author’s
literary intention. He is not at all sanguine about drawing conclusions about the
author’s unconscious psychological motivation if such an analysis cannot be
supported from material in the text itself, unless such a tendency has been evidenced
from a historical perspective of the author and his or her earlier works. Interpretation,
for Eco, must be rooted in the intent of the text. For instance, in his work on overinterpretation, Eco posits the following case:
If we are to decide whether the phrase ‘the rose is blue’ appears in the text of
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an author, it is necessary to find in the text the complete phrase ‘the rose is
blue’. If we find on page 1 the article ‘the’, on page 50 the sequence ‘ros’ in
the body of the lexeme (word) ‘rosary’ and so on, we have proved nothing,
because it is obvious that, given the limited number of letters in the alphabet
that a text combines, with such a method we could find any statement we wish
in any text whatsoever. (“Over” 56-57)
While Eco, as a semiologist, not infrequently says that everything is a sign, he also
believes there is a limit to what can be said of a work. Signs cannot mean just
anything. Writers, in an effort to communicate their ideas, write to model readers, and
interpretation cannot go beyond the model writer’s intent without making the
interpretation irrelevant, disconnected from the text. That is, when interpretation
goes beyond what can be supported in some intentional form or other from the text,
the interpretation is valueless. If one shows someone else a chair, and the viewer says
it is a refrigerator, it is a wrong interpretation, for even if the chair does provoke in
the viewer a sense of “refrigerator,” the chair is not a refrigerator. Instead, Eco argues
the author intends for his intended readers to discover and consider what is in the
work, and critics must “[…] respect the text, not the author as person so-and-so” (66):
a chair is a chair and because even if a refrigerator manufacturer made it, the chair is
still not a refrigerator. Or, more seriously, because Martin Luther fought to liberate
people from the Church, his anti-Semitic tracts were no less anti-Semitic (see chapter
In light of such examples, Eco will not fully open the door to readeroriginated interpretation, nor will he fully transfer the making of meaning to the
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reader. He seems to argue that if the work had no intentional meaning, then the work
was originally meaningless, and if that then it is a whimsy to later create a meaning
that had never been intended.
However, some Reader-response theorists, such as Paul de Man, push the door
more widely open than Eco and include Reader-response-generated interpretation,
though also only to the extent that support for the interpretation can be found within
the text. For such “pragmatists” as de Man, finding meaning is never the result of
“[…] forcing certainties but discovering and maintaining multiple possibilities” (560),
that the earlier formalist theory’s systematic analysis of a text was far too limiting and
had perhaps become trite. After all, he seems to ask, “What is there to be gained from
the seek-the-pieces-and-put-the-puzzle-together-and-get-meaning approach to literary
criticism?” Nothing but, “Imprisonment and claustrophobia […]” (561). While de
Man moves away from the author’s intention to include readers’ discoveries, one of
his critics notes, he still adheres to the guidelines that one can “[…] find out what the
text is ‘really’ about” (Rorty 103), and thus sets the literal text itself as a boundary to
credible interpretation.
An even more accepting advocate of Reader-response theory, and one who
opens the interpretive door yet more widely is Richard Rorty as he argues, there is
no…”code of codes” (91) for which Eco, and to some extent, de Man may be
searching, but that every reader brings his or her own schema through which the text
will be “read.” He notes that pragmatists, such as he considers Eco and de Man, who
can escape from their pragmatism…
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[…] will eventually come to think of [themselves] as, like everything
else, capable of as many descriptions as there are purposes to be served. There
are as many descriptions as there are uses to which the pragmatist might be
put, by him or her self [sic] or by others. This is the stage in which all
descriptions (including one’s self-description as a pragmatist) are evaluated
according to their efficacy as instruments for purposes, rather than by their
fidelity to the object described. (92)
Indeed, Rorty goes on to point out about texts and meaning that “We don’t
exactly make them, nor do we exactly find them […]” (100). Instead, he notes,
“These assertions are always at the mercy of being changed by fresh stimuli, but they
are never capable of being checked against [his italics] those stimuli” (101). He
concludes by arguing that “[…] you should not seek more precision or generality than
you need for the particular purpose at hand” (104). While de Man wants a pragmatic
connection to the text, Rorty argues that for validation’s sake interpretation cannot be
checked against the text or anything else. The text and the interpretation are what
they are, and may be considered something quite different in another context or
through the eyes and thoughts of the next reader. But, for purpose of instruction or
exhibition of analytical skills, text can be limited, though the practice may wrongly
suggest the text is limited in any way.
Jonathan Culler, however, seems to throw the door wide open. Culler writes,
“[…] I think that the production of interpretations of literary works should not be
thought of as the supreme goal, much less the only goal of literary studies, but if
critics are going to spend their time working out and proposing interpretations, then
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they should apply as much interpretive pressure as they can, should carry their
thinking as far as it can go (110). Culler goes on to point out that there are different
purposes for literary criticism, such as understanding of the meaning and
understanding of the system [my emphasis]. Culler notes that these two goals are not
in conflict, but “What is confusing in literary studies is that many people are in fact
attempting to analyze aspects of the languages, the system […] while presenting what
they are doing as an interpretation of the literary work” (117). Those who engage in
such practices, he writes, “[…] are just using literary works to tell stories about the
myriad problems of human existence” (117). What is most liberating is his basic
deconstructive premise that “meaning is context bound—a function of relations
within or between texts—but that context itself is boundless: there will always be new
contextual possibilities that can be adduced so the one thing we cannot do is set
limits” (120).
In an attempt to illustrate some of the different interpretations and how they
might be derived through the application of
formalist, deconstructionist and Reader-response
theories, this paper considers two images:
Heartfield’s poster of horizontally juxtaposed
images, Wie Im Mittelalter So Im Dritten Reich (Fig
1) (As It Was in the Middle Ages so It Is in the
Third Reich) and, Judy Chicago’s The Banality of
Evil (Fig 2), in which fact and fiction co-exist in the
same space and time.
(Figure 1)
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The formalist or intentionalist (Poirier 253) theorists believe the goal of
literary investigation is to discern and identify the author’s intended thematic focus.
In this context, then, one should be able to identify the common variables in
Heartfield’s double image and derive from them his intended meaning. Obviously,
both of these images, for instance, include the human form within a circular form.
The art historian H. W. Janson notes that Heartfield extends the meaning of the first
image, which Janson describes as “a Gothic image of humanity punished for its sins
on the wheel of divine judgement” (879). Such would be a formalist analysis of this
first image. As such, the formalist interpretation of the second image would find
what is common to both images, as well as make the connections that generalize and
extend the meaning of the first to embed meaning in the second. Thus, the message
of second image must be interpreted according to the context of the first, next to
which the second has been juxtaposed. Such an interpretation would seem to demand
that the reader/viewer see the second image as humanity being punished by divine
Nazi judgement. However, the second image, Janson suggests, is a misinterpretation
of the first. Janson does not seem to believe that Heartfield meant to suggest that
Nazi judgment was divine but that humanity has historically been wracked by both
divine and Nazi judgement.
Such an interpretation derives from a fairly classical semiotic approach
because each of these images is filled with signs that could be argued to have
discernibly communicated the author’s intended meaning. All the images are
accounted for: the wheel and the man in the first, enclosed in a circle suggesting the
singularity of the divine in its being without a beginning and is endlessness. In the
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second image there is also a circular background; there is a swastika instead of the
wheel, and there is the man wracked across it. The interpretive question raised here is
what does the second set of images add to the first?
There is also the caption, “Wie Im Mittelalter So Im Dritten Reich,” that
emphasizes an intended connection between the two images, and thus focuses
attention on their sameness. Yet, as Janson sees it, the images are not parallel.
Perhaps he believes this because he believes that Nazi judgment is not divine
judgment, that this image reflects neither the eternal longevity of divine judgment nor
the infallibility of divine judgments. For Janson, Nazi judgment may be neither
eternal nor infallible, and for these reasons he sees the second image as but a
mistaken extension of the first—a false analogy.
Within the context of these images, if one considers what it might have felt
like to the bearers of Nazi judgments, a different context is established. In this
altering of perspectives causes different interpretations of the work to emerge from
within, beneath and perhaps from beyond the physical, observable, identifiable
characteristics of the text or images. What did Nazi judgments seem like to those
who were judged? Did they not seem eternal? And, for those who died as a result of
Nazi judgment…was not Nazi judgment eternal for them and for those to whom the
dead were lost? Perhaps Janson discriminates too vigorously; perhaps, as Eco
suggests, what is important is that interpretation does not go beyond the author’s
intent. Janson’s argument is that Heartfield’s intended meaning must be found
beyond the meanings of the symbols themselves. In this way, Janson’s interpretation
seems to go beyond Eco and de Man and unintentionally illustrates Jonathan Culler’s
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argument that sometimes meaning is birthed from what the reader or viewer discerns
beneath or between the lines in some unique and authentic way.
Those critics who wonder about the value of those interpretations that do not
attend to the author’s intention might find comfort in noting that there is a valueadded effect to looking beyond the intention of the artist. Since the image of man’s
being wracked on the wheel of divine justice prompted Heartfield to make an
associative analogy that emphasizes the suffering caused by the Nazis, so viewers
who are unfamiliar with the historical allusions might draw an altogether unrelated
interpretation of the work. For instance, one might argue that because the Swastika
was derived from an earlier form of the Star of David (Gilbert 24) Heartfield’s poster
illustrates mankind suffering at the hands of Jews. Such a reading makes clear what
could be considered one of the dangers that lay in unlimited interpretive license,
though knowing such a thought could be formalistically structured may have a value
of its own.
To explore the range of responses a Reader-response exercise can evoke, one
might consider how Heartfield’s poster might be interpreted in light of some current
political, religious, economic or more personal context.
Another Holocaust related image that can be used to explore the contributions
of Reader-response theory to expanding the boundaries of interpretation is Judy
Chicago’s Banality of Evil (Fig 2).
A formalist analysis of this image would make note of the details included in
the image. Such an analysis might mention, for instance, that the people in the
foreground seem to be relaxing, having a drink and a cigarette. Such an analysis
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would also note the soldier in the middle-ground, his head in hand, perhaps lost in an
introspective moment or just tired. In the background such a formalist reader would
note the soldiers and their dogs herding people into a barn-like structure. But, what
does it mean altogether?
For someone familiar
with the events depicted
in the image, seeking
the author’s intent in the
image can reveal the
irony of the banality in the foreground, while such inhumanity goes
(Figure 2)
on in the background. The guards herd their naked victims into what is
ichnographically reminiscent of a gas chamber. Those whom Richard Rorty labels
“pragmatists” would be concerned, however, that by revaluing the various parts of the
composition so as to argue that this image illustrates the consequences of drinking is
an untenable interpretation and would underscore the interpreter’s need to appreciate
the limits of credible interpretation.
While every critical reader must be wary of going beyond reasonable
interpretations of any work, there is an engaging immediacy about interpretively
going beyond what can be reasoned about the work that enlivens the very practice of
interpretation and promotes multimedia communication structures and literacy. For
instance, Reader-response advocate and practitioner, Joseph Piro, presents a
description of an anonymous 3rd grade teacher’s attempt to improve her students’
literacy, and her use of classical paintings to engage students in creating meaning in
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the work by “unfreezing” the work and asking students to tell “what happened” (133).
The process has four basic steps: “[…] engaging the reader, entering the story,
exploring the story and evaluating the story” (128). Such a process would certainly
find support in Becky Francis’ description of Stanley Fish’s Reader-response
assertion that “meaning is not embedded in the text; instead, there are as many
meanings as there are interpreters” (qtd. in Francis 50).
Ms. Francis’ claim that “[…] a majority of readers will interpret the text in a
particular way,” seems plausible. Perhaps even Eco and De Man would be consoled
to know that asking people who are unacquainted with the related historical details
what this scene describes might serve to validate that the author communicated
his/her intention (50). But, as Rorty and Culler suggest, the same investigation may
lead, perhaps more importantly, to some interesting and valuable insights that would
not have been generated had the exercise been limited to what the image “really”
To begin such an exercise with Judy Chicago’s work, an effective Readerresponse prompt might ask readers to respond to the work by describing or explaining
“What happens next?” And to go on from there….
Suggested exercises
1. Identify a Holocaust-related image and discuss its semiotic elements and how the
work might be interpreted to illustrate a contemporary or current concern. Explain
why the interpretation is credible and why it is not “overinterpretation.”
2. Discuss Edvard Munch’s The Scream in terms of its relation to Holocaust-related
paintinging. Discuss how the work might be the result of “overinterpretation.”
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Summary Notes
I. Noted Contributors
II. Significant Concepts
III. Textual/Visual Expressions
(Titles etc.)
IV. Language: Interesting, foreign/discipline specific
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Works Consulted
Cheu, Hoi. “There is No Class in This Text: From Reader-response to
Bibliotherapy.” Textual Studies in Canada June 2001, 37-44. Academic
Search Premier, Gale Group, 10 Feb. 2003.
Culler, Jonathan. “In Defense of Overinterpretation.” Interpretation and
Overinterpretation. Ed. Stefab Collini. Cambridge: University of Cambridge
Press, 1990. 109-123.
Eco, Umberto. “Interpretation and History,” “Overinterpretation,” and “Between
Author and Text.” Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Ed. Stefan Collini.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 23-88.
Fish, Stanley. “Is There a Text in This Class.” Major Statements. 4th ed. Eds.
Charles Kaplan and William Davis Anderson. New York: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 2000. 573-585.
Francis, Becky. “Relativism, Realism, and Feminism: an Analysis of Some
Theoretical Tensions in Research on Gender Identity.” Journal of Gender
Studies 11 Nov. 2002. Academic Search Premier, Gale Group, 12 Feb. 2003.
Lemon, Lee T and Marion J. Reis. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays.
Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Man, Paul de. “Semiology and Rhetoric.” Criticism: Major Statements. 4th ed. Eds.
Charles Kaplan and William Davis Anderson. New York: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 2000. 559-572.
Maupassant, Guy. “The Writer’s Goal.” Glimpses III. Ed. Chauncey G. Parker III,
Carrollton: Alliance Press, 1997. 9-11.
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Poirier, John C. “Some Detracting Considerations for Reader-response Theory.” The
Catholic Bible Quarterly 2000. Academic Search Premier, Gale Group 17
Feb. 2003.
Piro, Joseph M. “The Picture of Reading: Deriving meaning in Literacy through
Image.” The Reading Teacher Oct. 2002. Academic Search Premier, Gale
Group 17 Feb. 2003. 126-134.
Rorty, Richard. “The Pragamatists’s Progress.” Interpretation and
Overinterpretation. Ed. Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1990. 89-108.
1. Heartfield, John. As in the Middle Ages, so in the Third Reich. Retrieved from H.
W. Janson. History of Art. New York: Abrams,1995. 878.
2. Chicago, Judy. Banality of Evil. Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light.
New York, Penguin Books, 1993.