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Reader Response, Identity, and Pedagogy

“I ask you to speak to my perceptions. Whether or not you do, Mary, again I thank you for what I have learned from you. This letter is in repayment.”--Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”


Walter J. Ong’s “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction” is an article I mention many times when in the classroom and when referring to my own pedagogy to other scholars and educators. Ong’s discussion in this article deals with Reader Response Theory--an essential piece of discourse dealing with identity and textual interpretation.


Teaching with this text must be done with care since Ong has essentially a two-pronged thesis. He works in his specialty area, the namesake of one of his books Orality and Literacy, the history and differences of spoken versus written communication and writing as a technology. Ong situates himself in this discussion while also illustrating the nuance of Audience in both written and oral communication. To point to the obvious, a speaker has a visible audience (more or less, even in a podcast or vlog setting) but the writer deals with the audience as they would like them to be and in their own image. Therefore, the author of a written work has limits, usually, as far as their identity will allow them to go, even if they make provisions to consider “outsider” identities (outsider as in outside of their own life experiences).


A perfect example of this, I’ve found, is a published letter (“An Open Letter to Mary Daly”) written by Audre Lorde in response to her colleague Mary Daly’s acclaimed book Gyn/Ecology. Lorde emphasizes how despite her attempts to cater to the subject positions of women of color, Daly fails to demonstrate a full and reverent knowledge of the experiences of women of color--one of the unfortunate failings of feminist discourse (and the reason for the distinction of feminism and womanism).


When we read Lorde’s text, her “reader response,” we see directly how identity position matters exponentially when engaging with a text.


She begins rhetorically by demonstrating respect and prior knowledge of Daly’s work:


Thank you for having Gyn/Ecology sent to me. So much of it is full of import, useful, generative, and provoking. As in Beyond God The Father, many of your analyses are strengthening and helpful to me. Therefore, it is because of what you have given to me in the past work that I write this letter to you now, hoping to share with you the benefits of my insights as you have shared the benefits of yours with me.

I’d venture to say Lorde uses the “sandwich” method of criticism that serves us well in professional life. If you are unfamiliar with the sandwich method:


1. We give a compliment to show “hey, your work means something--thank you for undertaking it at all.”

2. Weave the critique and be sure it’s well wrought.

3. End with respect and encouragement. Everyone has room to improve and we all should be lucky someone cares.


Lorde weaves a pointed critique highlighting Daly’s deficit in study {as an aside, typical of white feminists]:


So I wondered, why doesn't Mary deal with Afrekete as an example? Why are her goddess images only white, western european, judea—christian? Where was Afrekete, Y emanje, Oyo, and Mawulisa? Where were the warrior goddesses of the Vodun, the Dahomeian Amazons and the warrior—women of Dan? Well, I thought, Mary has made a conscious decision to narrow her scope and to deal only with the ecology of western european women. Then I came to the first three chapters of your Second Passage, and it was obvious that you were dealing with noneuropean women, but only as victims and preyers—upon each other. I began to feel my history and my mythic background distorted by the absence of any images of my foremothers in power. Your inclusion of African genital mutilation was an important and necessary piece in any consideration of female ecology, and too little has been written about it. To imply, however, that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women is to lose sight of the many varied tools of patriarchy. It is to ignore how those tools are used by women without awareness against each other.

My favorite part of Lorde’s text is when she cuts to the heart of her response as Daly’s audience member:


So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women? Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us? This is not a rhetorical question.

Lorde ends with an appropriate exhortation. Here is a highlight:


I ask that you be aware of the effect that this dismissal has upon the community of Black women and other women of Color, and how it devalues your own words. This dismissal does not essentially differ from the specialized devaluations that make Black women prey, for instance, to the murders even now happening in your own city.

Ong’s article is a way to give students a rounded definition of Reader Response Theory. Students can even begin to critique the referential choices Ong makes in his opening when he cites philosophers with only a certain identity (read for yourself).


Sure, sometimes the work of identity studies can become exhaustive, but it is the true work theoretical interventions hope to do: demand rigorous scholars and readers who revere historical lessons and hope to add to our understanding of human experience.




Mauve Perle Tahat is a writer and PhD candidate living in Northern Appalachia. She has taught in colleges and community centers for the past 8 years. Her PhD is on carceral logics in the U.S. and the waiting body. Puppets and phenomenology are her other reading interests and she also founded 3 literary journals since 2014. In high school her AIM username was xheythatsmycatx.

 © MPT 2020 

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