English 738T, Spring 2015
Header image

Reading Between the Words: Part 1

Posted by Philip Stewart on Thursday, May 10th, 2012 at 11:58 am

(first of a multi-part post)

“Thinking is conducted by entities we don’t know, wouldn’t recognize on the street.” –Shelley Jackson, “Stitch Bitch: the Patchwork Girl”

In “Stitch Bitch,” an essay about her hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, Shelley Jackson treats us to a succession of metaphors for embodiment and the way we read: The body is a “statue,” a “hard kernel.” Hypertext is “the banished body”; it sets up “rendezvous between words never before seen in company”; when it diverges at a choice-point it dissolves as “a Cheshire aftercat.”

Hypertext brings into action properties that lie dormant in conventional linear narrative. Jackson enumerates these properties in the section entitled “Collage.”

“We don’t say what we mean to say. The sentence is not one, but a cluster of contrary tendencies…. But nobody can domesticate the sentence completely. Some questionable material always clings to its members. Diligent readers can glean filth from a squeaky-clean one. Sentences always say more than they mean, so writers always write more than they know, even the laziest of them.”

Hypertext through its strategy of design activates those dormant meanings:

“It was not difficult, for example, to pry quotes from their sources, and mate them with other quotes in the ’quilt‘ section of Patchwork Girl, where they take on a meaning that is not native to the originals.”

To understand what Jackson hypothesizes to be happening in hypertext, it helps to understand the workings of the narrative style it would subvert. Conventional linear narrative, which Jackson describes as “fated slalom,” is configured so as to shepherd readers away from divergent threads: “Plot chaperones understanding, cuts off errant interpretations.” How narratives repress the penumbral interpretations that could emerge from them, how they tame the many voices of inherent allusion and come to sound like one voice or one story, how they filter their rich harmonies down to singular melodies, is far from entirely understood. At the sentence level, this resolves to a question of how a sentence’s prevalent meaning is composed out of words that are in themselves inherently polyvalent and ambiguous. Arriving at sentence’s end, we usually have an unequivocal idea of what we have just read. But how does the brain make meaning, word by word, as it reads a sentence? When—at what moment in the reading—have we dispensed with alternative interpretations, including the senses of words that don’t fit?

In a series of experiments beginning in the late 1970’s, psycholinguist David A. Swinney developed an innovative way to pinpoint the moment of  word disambiguation in sentences. Swinney asked: As we are reading, do we access all of a word’s senses at once, and only then disambiguate them to fit the prior context, the flow of the sentence they occur in? Or, does the sentence we are reading, and our understanding of it, preselect what senses of a multivalent word’s meaning we perceive, so that we never even entertain irrelevant ones? At stake was an understanding of how verbal memory is organized, and whether word senses are accessed independently from sentence interpretation. Do we really have access to the “contrary tendencies” made possible by the breadth of allusion, and semantic potential, that its constituent words carry within them? We disambiguate words at some point; but when?

Swinney’s questions concern what psycholinguists call “lexical access.” To answer them, his group developed the ingenious “cross-modal priming task,” where one mode was auditory, the other visual, where listening to a soundtrack and reading from a screen could together be used to tease out the timing of disambiguation for words within sentences. In one experiment (1981), the auditory track plays a set of strategically constructed sentences, each with a carefully chosen word—let’s call it a target word–placed somewhere within it. That target word is in itself ambiguous, but the sentence is designed to support just one interpretation of it.   At the same time, via the visual track, other carefully chosen words are flashed on a screen.  The flashed words are, in fact, prompts that are semantically related to one or another meaning of the ambiguous target word from the auditory track. And all this takes place while the experimental subject engages in a psycholinguistic “lexical decision task” (LDT).

The experiment uses a series of sentences and target words, but as an example, let’s say the ambiguous target word is “scale,” and that two among its available meanings are: “a weighing device” and  “a protective plating on a fish or reptile.” We can’t be sure which meaning is relevant until we hear it used in a sentence: “The postal clerk put the package on a scale to see if it had enough postage” vs. “The dinner guests enjoyed the specially prepared river bass, although one did get a scale caught in his throat.” You (the experimental subject) are asked to listen to one of those sentences read aloud as a soundtrack over headphones, but at the same time you have a task to perform: Watch a monitor screen and when a string of letters appears, just as quickly as you can, press a button telling whether it is a word or not . This is the “lexical decision task.” Ideally, when you see “Glmople” or “~!@#$%^&” you press the “no, not a word” button and when you see “breakfast” you press  “yes, that is a word.”

For a long time psycholinguists have known that performance on the LDT can be facilitated, speeded up, if you have read semantically related words just beforehand. Swinney’s addition of the auditory track to the visually presented LDT enabled his uniquely time-sensitive measure of lexical access. Thus, using the ambiguous target word (e.g. “scale”) Swinney could flash related words on the screen and measure the time it took for people listening to that audio track to press the button for “yes” or “no,” “word” or “not a word.” He could probe with those visually flashed words to see which senses of “scale” were active in the listeners’ minds. All he had to do was to choose probe words to flash on the screen that were related more to one sense than the other, at any given moment. A probe word related to “scale” as “a device to measure weight” could simply be “weight,” then; and a word related to “a protective plating on a fish or reptile” could simply be “fish.” If there is priming—if hearing “scale” helps us to answer the LDT more quickly—then we can measure it.

Swinney found—contrary to earlier experiments by other researchers who had probed for lexical access only after the sentence was over—that at the moment the ambiguous word (“scale” again) was played on the soundtrack, multiple senses of that word were accessed.

That’s at the moment we read a word. How long, though, do all senses of a word remain available to us, after we read it? Swinney knew from others’ experiments that alternative meanings were unavailable by the time a sentence had been read. How long during sentence reading were alternative word senses available? Swinney’s second experiment was designed to provide an answer. Probing with the same sets of visually flashed words a second-and-a-half later, a second-and-a-half after the onset of the ambiguous word in the soundtrack, Swinney found the priming effect was gone. Only the probe words related to relevant senses of “scale” gave rise to a faster LDT while irrelevant senses that had been primed in the previous experiment were gone–knocked right out of the sentence interpretation. As Onifer and Swinney (1981) conclude, “In the absence of any strongly biasing context, it appears as though all meanings of a lexical ambiguity are accessed, at least momentarily. Such access is not available to conscious introspection, and the listener eventually becomes aware of only one of the meanings accessed for the ambiguity.”

Swinney has illuminated the cognitive processing that goes into reading within a small unit of narrative, the sentence. On this fine scale, his group’s results bear out Shelley Jackson’s descriptions of a conventionally linear “slalom” narrative, a narrative that does not invite attention to its inherent ambiguities. Each word arises in turn with its full multiplicity of meaning, only to be delivered to consciousness in a tightly narrowed sense that fits the sentence’s unitary whole. There’s a verbal sleight of hand in an unequivocal narrative that sluices the course of consciousness: It’s a magic trick. To disperse attention is to disrupt what happens between the words, before reading resolves into an unequivocal interpretation.

None of this is to say that we never access multiplicities of meaning within the “slalom” linear narrative, or that we cannot. It is simply a typical case, and subject to habits of reading as much as it is to the formulae of writing. What Swinney’s work shows is a particular instance where, as Jackson declares, “We don’t say what we mean to say. The sentence is not one, but a cluster of contrary tendencies.” Lexically, it inescapably is. Hypertext works to subvert and call attention to a multiplicity of meaning inherent in any text. Its point of intervention is that interstitial moment when we are at the business of unconsciously sloughing away meanings that fail to fit a larger frame of narrative, where we are reading, literally, between the words.

(Part 2 is here.)

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 You can leave a response, or trackback.

2 Responses

Leave a Reply