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15 - Reading and game theory

"Opening a path for yourself, with a sword's blade, in the
barrier of pages becomes linked with the thought of how much the
word contains and conceals: you cut your way
through your reading as if through a dense forest"1.

Reading a text is a semiotic act: the reader gains meaning from that text. Given that semiosis is an interpretive act, as we have seen, reading is a succession of interpretations and reinterpretations in the light of what the text says about itself (intratextual links), of what the text says of the world (extratextual links), of what the text says about other texts (intertextual links). Every time the reader finds a new sign before her, she has to undertake a process of decision-making, often forcing her to predominantly trust one sense to the detriment of other senses, which then determines a chain of consequences for the interpretation of the signs that follow, and on the interpretation of the whole of the text.
  In this view, reading is a process having something in common with games of skill or of strategy that have a set of rules that do not impose a predetermined behavior on the player, leaving room for individual creativity and ability2. Another common feature shared by reading and games of strategy is the fact that, in both activities, the final result in unknown, which creates an atmosphere of anticipation that makes the path leading to the end seductive.
  In a game like chess, the moves are not random, the decisions are made s ystematically, although personal preferences remain a component of their selection. As a consequence, even within the framework of a very firm decision making activity, there is (semiotic) space for risk taking, for bet placing, for creative inference

because the understanding and use of signs is never a matter of recognition of a stable equivalence, but always a matter of guessing, or creative inferring3.

Reading proceeds step by step, one choice after another, and adjustments are made at pace that permits the reader to follow along, for example, the presence of an intertextual link, which makes her suspect that other passages of the text already read were supposed to be related to that same link as well.
  Or, more simply, the reader notices the recurrence of a word or expression which, in a given passage of the book, explicitly manifests a certain gravity and a precise meaning, while until that point it was enveloped in the thickest interpretive mystery. The reader now has to backtrack - with her mind or her body - to all the previous occurrences of that word or expression in order to check the effect of their co-textualization with the benefit of hindsight, i.e. in the light of the interpretation that was only possible to arrive at after the "illumination".
  At the end of a reading, the interpretive path arrives at a result/conclusion. Even the (temporary) result is related to the whole of the reader's knowledge. Every reading exerts an influence on the reader's worldview, but in the meantime the reader's worldview exerts an influence on the results of her reading that she may consider unsatisfying, which can induce her to begin the reading/game anew.
  According to Peirce, a rule is an interpretive habit based on a conscious resolution the interpreter makes to act in a certain way4. Reading can be conceived as a language game for one player - the reader - who, by trial and error, confronts a succession of interpretive hypotheses. When the hypotheses are accepted, she goes on, while when she finds flaws in them, she goes back and starts again.
  Decisions regarding single lexical problems (semantic field of a word, activation or suppression of senses, "narcosis" of meanings and emphasis on other meanings) intertwine with the decisions regarding global problems of textual interpretation. The inferential movement, besides proceeding from one word to the next, from one sentence to the next, endlessly oscillates from micro-interpretation to macro-interpretation. The overall interpretation of the text is compared to the interpretation of its single fragments because textual coherence demands a correspondence between the two levels.
  While the rules of the game are fixed, the strategies to play it are dynamic. Reading, meant as a game, consists also in continually challenging the interpretive rules in the light of the new findings. The hermeneutic circle in which the reader makes inferences on the text and checks them against the ongoing text describes what Eco defines "unlimited semiosis".
  This is not the place to enter into details on the consequences interlingual translation has on the hermeneutic circle, but we can sense by intuition that the translator is in a very delicate situation: her interpretation blocks some interpretive possibilities, opens others that were unforeseen by the prototext author, and sets interpretations that, the author intended to have temporary and dynamic. If reading can be compared to a never-ending and always open game, the reading of a translated text is also a game, played with other rules and on another text. If it is explicitly a translated text, the reader knows that someone has played the game for her and is telling her something about the game.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

GORLÉE D. L. Semiotics and the Problem of Translation. With Special Reference to the Semiotics of Charles S. Peirce.Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1994. ISBN 90-5183-642-2.

PEIRCE C. S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and Arthur W. Burks, 8 vol., Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, 1931-1966.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 42.
2 Gorlée 1994, p. 71.
3 Gorlée 1994, p. 73.
4 Gorlée 1994, p. 84.