Seminar: Literacy Theory
Dr. David Jolliffe
31 Mar 2009
Far from being a monolithic or absolutely precise term, “reception theory” (or “reception study”) instead serves as an umbrella term referring to a critical approach to studying literature that places meaning within the reader, thereby concentrating on an audience’s interpretive practices, rather than authorial intention and the text itself. In other words, reception theory shifts the emphasis from “the author and the work to the text and the reader” (Holub, 1984; xii). This practice can be applied in order to speculate on the construction of meaning vis-à-vis the individual reader’s perception of a text, as seen in the work of foundational critic Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007); furthermore, reception study also tends to be highly historical, using reviews, scholarship, and other historical documents to chronicle responses to authors and texts in a given period. Additionally, the term can be used to “refer to an inquiry into a text’s effect on specific classes of readers” (Harkin 411). Since these “specific classes” often refer to groups based on gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, and so forth, reception theory is frequently aligned with critical methods such as feminist theory, Marxism, post-colonialism, queer studies, and others.
Among its many affiliations, reception theory is most closely aligned with—yet also distinct from—other reader-oriented systems, most notably “reader-response theory.” Both theories are umbrella terms for literary criticism that locate text and reader as central in the construction of meaning, and Iser—one of reception theory’s originators—is often also considered a reader-response critic as well. However, Robert C. Holub distinguishes the two methodologies on the bases of unity and mutual influence. Unlike reception theory, the label “reader-response” was given to certain critics in retrospect; reception theory, on the other hand, “must be understood as a more cohesive, conscious, and collective undertaking” (Holub, 1984; xiii). This undertaking was concentrated in West Germany, particularly at the University of Constance, during the late 1960s; in fact, reception theory’s founders are generally referred to as the “Constance School”. Further, according to Holub, there is virtually no indication of mutual exchange or influence between the two camps, with the notable exception being the shared importance of Iser.
The emergence of reception theory as a purposeful and cohesive movement can be seen as a reaction to specific political, cultural, and intellectual circumstances occurring in West Germany during the 1960s. Holub argues:
Reception study arose as the result of a crisis in methods during the sixties, one which was, no doubt, closely related to larger social and political changes in Germany and the Western World at that time. The manifestations of a crisis in the literary academic sphere were evidenced in a variety of tendencies: the re-examination of the literary canon, the demand for more relevant curricula at universities, and the attempts to reform academic programs were the most notable of these signs of intense reevaluation. (1982; 83)
Reception theory emerged from this climate, and its founders—most notably Iser and Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997)—saw their work as a corrective to theories of study they considered obsolete or elitist. In particular, the reception theorists challenged and rejected theories of literary study that saw meaning as rigidly fixed and wholly located within an ahistorical text, examples of which are the New Criticism and Formalism. The founders and early advocates of reception theory were so convinced of its monumental importance that many of them, including Jauss, would invoke Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts in science to describe the revolutionary character of their work.
Despite some of its founders’ extraordinary claims of a massive critical sea change, reception theory has a lineage that can potentially be traced back as far as classical Greece. Plato clearly understood—and warned against—poetry’s affective power on people, and subsequent artistic movements such as Romanticism stressed poetry’s emotional impact. However, reader response has its firmest roots in the philosophical traditions of phenomenology—such as the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Roman Ingarden (1893-1970)—and hermeneutics, whose practitioners include Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002). Phenomenology—the name derives from the Greek word for “appearance”—disavows “the ‘external’ world of objects [in favor of] the ways in which these objects appear to the human subject, and the subjective contribution to this process of appearing” (Habib 709). Related to this philosophical outlook is hermeneutics, especially as manifested in the work of Husserl’s student Heidegger, who indicated that “art does not simply express prior or ready-made truths: rather, it both creates and preserves them” (Habib 717). These two philosophical traditions would feed into reception theory, although it is, of course, not a straight trajectory. Before reception theory was formalized by the Constance School, its basic tenets were prefigured in the work of critics such as Louise Rosenblatt, who argued for the “transactional” nature of reading, and Wayne Booth, who stressed fiction’s rhetorical power.
Of the Constance School, Iser and Jauss are generally acknowledged as its two most influential figures. The outlines of Iser’s theory of reading are presented in a 1970 lecture, “The Affective Structure of the Text,” and two works, The Implied Reader (1972) and The Act of Reading (1976). At its most basic, Iser’s theory identifies two “poles” to a piece of literature: its artistic pole (controlled by the author) and the aesthetic pole (realized by the reader). Iser argues that reading is an active process which brings the text to life; therefore, meaning is found in the convergence of the artistic and aesthetic poles. This authority does not mean that any reading will be validated, however, as the “text uses various strategies and devices to limit its own unwritten implications” (Habib 724). Iser’s colleague Jauss also felt the active role of the reader had been incorrectly undervalued, but, unlike Iser’s tendency to concentrate on individual readings, Jauss sought to “bridge the gap between historical and aesthetic approaches to literature” (Habib 721). Jauss saw texts as dialogic, devoid of fixed or essential meanings; instead, the meaning of a text is fluid and must be “[grounded] on the history of a work’s reception, [and] on the succession of readers’ experiences of that work” (Habib 721). Jauss postulates a “horizon of expectations” for audiences: the horizon serves as a “framework of assumptions” (Habib 722) that informs reader responses to and interpretations of a text, as well as the significance the text is granted by its audience. Certainly reception theory—during its germination as well as today—encompasses many theoretical positions beyond Iser and Jauss, some of those positions being contradictory, and its application has been extended to film and media studies. However, as Iser and Jauss are generally recognized as the critical approaches most important among reception study’s foundational theorists, their work remains central. But, with the purpose of determining the relationship between reception theory and reading, between the two of them, Iser’s work is especially useful. Jauss’s work, which strived to negotiate Marxism’s recognition of historical circumstance with Formalism’s emphasis on aesthetic perception, is relevant to reading mainly with respect to his “horizon of expectations.” This formulation of a historically-bound framework of expectations for readers places the reading act in context without subordinating reading to historical factors. Doing so both points to an explanation for changing critical consensuses on texts, as well as highlights a text’s inexhaustibility. Yet, of reception theory’s two main critics, Iser is typically acknowledged as being more concerned with the micro-level issue of response, in contrast with Jauss’s macro-level concern with reception (Holub, 1984; 85); therefore, of the two, Iser’s work is more directly related to reading.
Iser’s work reacts against the traditional assumptions of literary interpretation, which held that a text contains a fixed, “hidden” meaning, and that the aim of critical reading was to decode or uncover that stable meaning. Iser attempts to correct these assumptions by pointing out that the reading process is a temporal, yet non-linear, activity, and also that reading is characterized by a search for consistency, which requires that the reader “fill in gaps” at moments of indeterminancy, for instance, when confronted with implication. In this way, then, Iser sees reading as mirroring the way we experience life: “once our preconceptions are held in abeyance, the text becomes our ‘present’ while our own ideas fade into the past” (Habib 727).
Although Iser strives to situate reading as an event in time or a “dynamic happening” (qtd in Habib 728) with the reader playing a crucial role, he anticipates and defends himself against charges of subjectivism. Iser acknowledges that, to a certain degree, meanings drawn by readers are indeed private, but that they are regulated or limited—but not controlled—by textual conventions and devices. The production of meaning is “intersubjective”: readers, guided by the text, will often respond to the same elements, yet “different readers may then draw widely diverging conclusions from this range of meanings” (Habib 729). By acknowledging this negotiation between determinacy and indeterminacy during reading, Iser seems to be following in the footsteps of Louise Rosenblatt and her transactional model of reading. Rosenblatt herself, however, suggests that although Iser and other reception studies advocates’ “theoretical phrasings at times seem transactional nevertheless concentrate primarily on analyses of the text and see the reader’s contribution only as filling in ‘the gaps’ rather than transactionally creating meaning through the aesthetic stance and the triadic relationship with all the verbal signs” (45). Certainly the distance between Rosenblatt and Iser is measured in degrees, but probably Iser’s most important—if controversial—elaborations upon Rosenblatt’s foundational work is his concept of the “implied reader.”
Apparently drawings its name from Wayne Booth’s “implied author,” the implied reader is Iser’s attempt to configure the reader’s position without relying on “real” readers—which depends upon the survival of historical documents—or “hypothetical” readers—which is often a synonym for the “ideal” reader of a critic’s mind. Iser’s implied reader is a somewhat ephemeral textual process that anticipates a recipient and then structures meaning for the reader. In other words, Iser sees his implied reader, which he deems a “transcendental model,” to be a convergence of the textual conventions that control its perspectives and “the reader’s active role in bringing together the varied perspectives offered in the text; the text itself does not bring about this convergence” (Habib 730). The implied reader, then, encompasses not only the textual structure, but also the reader’s act of processing those structures, actualizing them, and filling in the text’s negations for the sake of consistency.
Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
Harkin, Patricia. “The Reception of Reader-Response Theory.” College Composition and Communication 56 (2005): 410-425. JSTOR. 13 Mar 2009. www.jstor.org.
Holub, Robert C. Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction. New York: Methuen, 1984.
---. “Trends in Literary Theory: The American Reception of Reception Theory.” The German Quarterly 55.1 (1982): 80-96. JSTOR. 13 Mar 2009. www.jstor.org.
Rosenblatt, Louise. “Viewpoints: Transaction Versus Interaction—A Terminological Rescue Operation.” Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 38-49.