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“No author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: the truest respect that you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine in his turn as well as yourself” (Stern 9).
Reader-response criticism forms the general basis of this thesis, and Iser’s theories are what it particularly relies on. This criticism would in many respects appear to be acting as a response to formalism, which concentrates on the materiality of the text to the exclusion of everything else. Besides, it aims to react to New Critical bias against reader (Davis and Womak 53). Hence, its main focus is on the act of reading itself, especially on the ways in which reader respond to literary text. In fact, the goal is to restore the neglected angle of the literary triangle reader-text- author.
Since this movement has got multidisciplinary aspects, any survey of it must take into consideration its various forays into such critical modes as rhetoric, structuralism, history, and psychology (Davis and Womak 55). Among all, the advent of structuralism establishes one of reader-response theory’s most important foundations as it found out the various processes in which the readers determine the meaning during their textual encounters (58). Regarding the issue, Barthes highlights the “quality of experience associated with ‘applied’ reading in which the text ‘imposes a state of loss’, ‘unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, and psychological assumptions’ and ‘ brings o a crisis his relation with language'” (qtd. in David and Womak 60). In addition to, Genette’s theories “regarding the nature of discourse” and “his concept of ‘narratee’ contribute meaningfully to our understanding of the act of reading as a rhetorical enterprise” (57).
Being a theoretical paradigm, reader-response criticism considers three major questions: do the reader’s various responses to literary works lead to the same reading?; can the literary texts actually be capable of possessing as many meanings as readers create?; and the last but not the least, can some readings be particularly taken as more valid and acceptable than others (David and Womak 52)?
Although the reader-oriented critics had the same objectives, they did not have the same procedures for dealing with the questions. One group’s main presumptions are based on psychoanalysis. Norman Holland, using Freudian psychoanalysis, maintained that maintained that readers’ responses indicate their psyche. In fact, it is the reader who converts the text into a kind of private sphere to develop his/her fantasies, even if the text be taken as a total autonomous structure. David Bleich tried another way via establishing “subjective Criticism”. In his opinion, there is no objective phenomenon known as text out there, so it is just the reader’s subjective experience which results in meaning. The difference between the two is that while Holland gives a role to the text in the text-readdder transactions, there is not such a grant in Bleich. However, the point is according to both of them, there can be no correct interpretation. Next to them comes Sanley Fish, who in his earlier stages talked about “affective stylistics” which is about the analysis of the text’s effects on the reader. Later, by answering the question “is there a text in this class?” negatively, he hinted at and emphasized on the total subjectivity of the readers’ responses. Recently, proceeding these ideas, he talked about the interpretive communities as the basis of the discrepancies between the responses. Therefore, according to him, having knowledge about different interpretive communities is a decisive factor in any reader-response criticism.
Iser and Jauss, the fathers of the Constance School of German Reception Aesthetics, concentrate on the role of both the reader and the text, and highlight the interaction between them. Their specific presumption is that “any literary text involves a process which structurally includes an addressee whether the author subjectively recognizes this fact or not” (Barnouw 213). Having suggested a reading of the history of the txt reception, Hans Robert Jauss tried to find out the supposition which have been formed. Then, he focused on the dimensions of the horizons of these suppositions and their fulfillment. Wolfgang Iser (d. 2006), describes his approach as a theory of ‘Wirkungsaethetic’ which “grow out of a German tradition of hermeneutical and phenomenological reflection on aesthetics” (Brook 14). In his view, it is the active experience of the reader which creates the meaning; in other words, the text can only have a meaning when it is read and central to this reading activity of every literary work is “the interaction between its structure and its recipient” (Iser, Act 20).
The development of Wolfgang Iser’s literary career (1926-2006) involves three major stages: the modernist phase, when his preoccupation was modernist literature and studying Pater’s aesthetics; the aesthetic phase, when he spent time improving his famous theory of aesthetics; and the anthropological phase, when he extended his aesthetic of reception into literary anthropology (Fluck 177). Following some works on Fielding and Pater, he published The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett in 1972 (trans. 1974). The Implied Reader proposes a theory of novel reading along with an interpretation of the history of the novel. Not only does it cover Faulkner, Joyce, and Beckett; but also it discusses Bunyan, Scott, and the realist novelists. Therefore, in the first ten chapters of this book, Iser practices the application of a method which is in fact going to be sketched out in the eleventh chapter, titled “The Reading Process, A Phenomenological Approach.” Iser goes over the aspects of the readers’ processes of constructing meaning. His phenomenological approach takes account of the text, together with the different activities which are included in the act of critical interpretation (David and Womak 61). In order to devise his approach, he has resources in Gombrich and the formalists, as well as Poulet and Merleau-pontying.
Iser believes that the literary work is born out of the convergence between the reader and the text. This convergence must remain “virtual”, as it is not “to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader” (Implied, 275). He conceives the notion of the reader’s role in various ways. He believes the reader is able to connect different phases of the text together under any condition. It is, for him, always always “the process of anticipation and retrospection that leads to the formation of the virtual dimension, which in turn transforms the text into an experience for the reader.” This experience is very similar to our real life experiences; and thus the “reality” of the reading experience can illuminate basic patterns of real experience” (281).
Implied Reader and Repertoire
Iser extensively elaborates on this preparatory model in his magnum opus The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1976; trans. 1978). In this book, he, firstly, restates the central point of his last work about the situation of the literary work between the two main poles of the artistic and the aesthetic. What he means by the artistic pole is the author’s text; and the aesthetic one indicates the realization which is accomplished by the reader. Out of this virtuality the text dynamism is born. It shows the meaning of a literary text is a dynamic happening, something that takes place as it is not already there (Act 20-22).
The kind of reader upon whom Iser depends so much is not an actual one whose responses are colored by his/her private experiences. While Fish and Wolf respectively believe in “informed reader” and “intended reader”, Iser believes in the “implied reader” whose predispositions are set down by the text and “is firmly rooted in the structure of the text”. The implied reader’s character or historical situation is not in any way predetermined. All in all, the concept of the implied reader points to a “network of the response-inviting structures which force the reader to comprehend the text (Act 32-34).
Although literary text is written in language, there are differences between literary language and everyday practical language. According to his idea, the point of their separation and difference should be found out in the matter of the situational context. Literary text selects the conventions in its own way, and then depragmatizes them. Hence the fictional sentences are made without references to the real world (Iser, Act 63).
On the one hand, this lack of context is a symptom of the fact that literature involves a different application of the language. On the other hand, it brings about two ranges of indeterminacies:
Indeterminacy between the text and the reader,
Indeterminacies between the text and the reality.
These very indeterminacies enable the reader to communicate with the text. When something is not determinate, one tries to determine it via one’s production. Yet, this point should be considered that every interpretation is not acceptable since the text has got its columns of determinacy which are its structures (Iser, Act 65-67).
The mode of grasping literature is unique. Literature cannot be taken in wholly and in one look. The acquisition of knowledge is an effect to be experienced rather than a subject-object relationship. So the process of text transferring is intersubjective, and the reader has no chance of detaching himself as he is busy with the building on the object (Iser, Act 109). Here, Iser followes the observation of J.M. Lotman’s who believes that the literary text has one special quality; “it delivers different information to different readers”_ each in accordance to the capacity of his comprehension. In fact he sees literary text act as a sort of “living organism which is linked to the reader”. Therefore their relationship is that of the “self regulating system”; the text is an array of signifiers which are received by the reader while the reader is inserting his own ideas into this array (66-67).
The familiar information and signifiers of the text are called repertoire by Iser. Repertoire, in a sense, contains references to the earlier works, to social and historical norms and events, and to the contemporary culture. Since these extratextual realities are removed from their original context and function, they are modified and are not mere replica. However, their backgrounds are implicitly present while they are capable of new connections. So, literary repertoire, in deep levels, functions against the thought system and tries to bring the system problems into the surface. Through rearranging and reranking the current patterns of the reading, literature reconstructs the things which were concealed by the ideology of the day (Iser, Act 72-74). As Roland Barth states, “literature is paradoxical, it represents history and at the same time resists it” (qtd. in Iser, Act 73). Hence, while this literary recodification allows the contemporary reader to grasp what they cannot normally get in the ordinary process of living, it enables the observer of the next generations to see a reality that has never been their own (74).
Phenomenology of the Reading
During the time-flow of the reading, the wandering viewpoint apprehend the literary object in different phases, but none of these manifestations and phases can be identified as the aesthetic object. Rather the incompleteness of each one necessitates a synthesis which transfers the text to the reader’s consciousness (Iser, Act 109). While clarifying the process, Iser mostly pays attention to the Ingarden’s phenomenology, especially when he takes every moment of reading as “a dialectic of pretension and retension, conveying a future horizon yet to be occupied along with a past (and continually fading) horizon already filled” (112). “Each individual image emerges against the background of a past image,” and then “all cohere in the reader’s mind by a constant accumulation of the references” which is termed the snowball effect. The articulation of the text into past, present and the future by the wandering viewpoint leads to an uninterrupted synthesis of all the time phases. As a meaning develops along the time axis, each production is a highly unique and individual experience (148-149). Through this point, Iser reveals the presence of another stage of comprehension along with the strange intersubjective nature of the meaning. And that is significance which according to Ricoeur “represents the active taking over of the meaning by the reader” (150-151). The significance is the reader’s absorption of the meaning into his own experience and existence; therefore, it is considered a rather sociological acceptance of the literary work (151).
Successful communication depends totally upon the reader who must put together the prefigured structures and signals of the text and forms the syntheses. Since these syntheses take place independently of the conscious mind, they are called passive syntheses. Through his process, Iser goes on to focus on the mental imagery as a basic element of passive syntheses. Trying to clarify this concept, he makes a distinction between perception and ideation. Perception does need the presence of the object while ideation does depend upon its absence and nonexistence. Reading literary texts relies on ideation and mental images since a text just provides its reader with some aspects out of which a totality must be conceived. Being synthesis of different moments, images are quite open and more powerful than the real objects; they are not sheer description of physical body, but a bearer of meaning. This is why in the case of watching the film adaptation of a novel, most viewers are frustrated as they thought more of the characters than what they come across; besides, they are not as active in production as they wish to be (Iser, Act 135-139).
Interacting structures of the text should be grouped in order to produce a consistent interpretation. Psycholinguistics experiments have also declared that meanings can just be compiled by means of grouping. The method which is offered by Iser to make selections from the text provided opportunities in meaning construction is gestalten forming. The reader has to identify the potential correlations between the signs and formulate an initial open gestalt which is closed after selective decisions are made (Iser, Act 119-123). Through the closing process of gestalten, only one possibility can be chosen and this choice mostly depends on the individual disposition and experience. The rejected possibilities are put on the fringe and go to the background, without disappearing, while their shadows are felt on the text to color the gestalt. If the gestalt closure happens to be a configurative meaning rather than a characteristic of the text, it results in the illusion production. An illusion is seen as a self-produced gestalt in which the reader is entangled. Yet, it is quite changeable since the rejected possibilities are waiting in ambush. All these put the reader between involvement and detachment, between illusion-making and illusion-breaking. Therefore, s/he cannot feel free to choose whatever comes to hand as the gestalt would be immediately transformed and replaced by the new ones if it seems to be dubious or unequaled with other aspects of the text (123-127).
If the text strategies are arranged in such way to get the reader focused on special selections, the text, in Iser’s view, can be taken as didactic. Nevertheless, the text would not reside in one gestalt; it is a living thing growing out of all possibilities and changes:
. . . the meaning of the text does not reside in the expectations, surprises, disappointments, or frustrations that we experience during the process of gestalt forming. These are simply the reactions that take place when the gestalten are disturbed. What this really means though, is that as we read, we react to what we ourselves have produced, and it is this mode of reaction that, in fact, enables us to experience the text as an actual event. We do not grasp it like an empirical object, nor do we comprehend it like a predicative fact: it owes its presence in our minds to our own reactions, and it is these that make us animate the meaning of the text as a reality (Iser, Act 128-29).
Furthermore, frequently during the reading process the reader feels impelled to devise some significance which have not been displayed in the printed text, but should have been grasped. Now, if through his way of comprehension, the reader faces some unfamiliar knowledge, his/her meaning-construction encounters some problems. For example, in the case of a text which is supposedly alluding to different kinds of motifs, the readers who are not quite acquainted with all the classes of these references come across the gaps which would stop their full understanding. Therefore, the significance of the theme will not be well achieved as far as the repertoire includes unfamiliar elements for the reader (Iser, Act 143-45).
Blanks and Negations
Reading is an activity which is guided by the text and processed by the reader who is then influenced by what he has dealt with. The reader is supposed to supply what is meant from what is not said since what are said, provide our references to non-said. This communication lacks the face-to face interaction of everyday social dialogue; so, it does not have the chance to be clarified (Iser, Act 166). What happens here is what Marleau-ponty described as an aspect of language: “Language is meaningful when instead of copying the thoughts; it allows itself to be broken up and then reconstituted by thought” (qtd. in Iser, Act 168).
These fractures in the literary systems are marked by gaps or blanks which arise out of asymmetry and contingency. Therefore, they “function as a kind of pivot on which the whole text-reader relationships revolves” (Iser, Act 169). The hidden information stimulates the reader to fill in the blanks with his own projections that have to be changed if they do not fit because the text cannot change itself (167).
The blanks will vary regarding the intention and genre of the literary texts. In propagandist or commercial texts, for instance, the number of blanks is decreased to such an extent that the reader’s viewpoints are prearranged and fixed. Only those who are aware of the cultural codes can easily achieve the meaning. Different functions of the blank can be more clarified through the following instances which in their turn explicate extreme positions. Firstly, the thesis novels (with didactic or propagandist purposes), which lesson the reader’s activity of ideation through a reduction in the total of blanks. Secondly, the serial novel (like those by Dickens and other nineteenth century novelists), in which, because of financial goals, there is a controlled increase in the number of blanks to stimulate readers’ interest and curiosity. And finally, the modern novels in which the blanks become thematic, so the readers have to confront their own projections (Iser, Act, 190-4).
In order to expands on the features and functions of the blanks, Iser describes them “as an empty space” which “are nothing in themselves, and yet as ‘nothing’ they are a vital propellant for initiating communication. Wherever there is an abrupt juxtaposition of segments, there must automatically be a blank breaking the expected order of the text” (Act 195). In other words, there is an empty space between segments and cuts of the texts which gives rise to a general network of possible connections, the ones that are going to provide each picture or segment with its determinate meaning (196).
Another rise of blanks may occur via the recurrent subdivisions of each of the textual perspectives: “thus the narrator’s perspective is often split into that of the implied author set against that of the author as narrator; the hero’s perspective may be set against that of the minor characters” (Iser, Act, 196-7). To intensify the reader’s imaginative activity, the text may suddenly cut to new characters or even different plots, so that the reader has to search out the connections between the familiar story and the unfamiliar sudden situation. Sometimes even the dialogue and what is apparently said brings up the blanks: each speaker’s words leave something open to be filled in and when the partner tries to close the gaps, s/he creates further blanks. Thus the matter is more complicated than it seems as Hilary Corke declared: the dialogue is “not a transcript of what he or she would have said in real life but rather of what would have been said plus what would have been implied but not spoken plus what would have been understood but not implied” (qtd. in 193).
In consequence, this is the process through which the blanks function:
The blank in the fictional text induces and guides the reader’s constitutive activity. As a suspension of connectability between perspective segments, it marks the need for equivalence, thus transforming the segments into reciprocal projection, which, in turn, organize the reader’s wandering viewpoint as a referential field. The tension which occurs within the field between heterogeneous perspective segments is resolved by the theme-and horizon structure, which makes the viewpoint focus on one segment as the theme, to be grasped from the thematically vacant position now occupied by the reader as his standpoint. Thematically vacant positions remain present in the background against which new themes occur; they condition and influence those themes and are also retroactively influenced by them, for as each theme recedes into the background of its successor, the vacancy shifts, allowing for a reciprocal transformation to take place. As the vacancy is structured by the sequence of positions in the time-flow of reading, the reader’s viewpoint cannot proceed arbitrarily; thematically vacant position always acts as the angle from which the selective interpretation is to be made (Iser, Act 202).
This process have just discussed the kind of blanks which arise from a rapid and continual switch from theme to horizon, and so organize the syntagmatic axis of the reading while there are also blanks along the paradigmatic axis which are called negation by Iser. The repertoire depragmatizes the society norms and expose them in such a way to provide the reader with an opportunity to become aware of what he has been so far unaware (Iser, Act, 212). This awareness is intensified if the validity of the norms is negated:
Such a negation produces a dynamic blank on the paradigmatic axis of the reading process, for the invalidation denotes a deficiency in the selected norms, and so the reader is constrained to develop a specific attitude that will enable him to discover that which the negation has indicated but not formulated.
The process of negation therefore situates the reader half way between a “no longer” and a “not yet” (Iser, Act 213).
Negation as an active force encourages the reader to build up its implicit but unformulated cause as an imaginary object. While the syntagmatic axis is related to the structure (changing perspectives), the paradigmatic one is related to the contents, the negation of which results in additional blanks. These blanks, thus, have a restrictive impact on the way “in which the segments maybe combined and a selective influence on the meaning produced by the reader’s act of ideation” (Iser, Act, 215).
All in all, the intimate connection between the two functions of blanks along the axes is the basic condition of interaction between the text and the reader.
This is how Iser sees and develops the reading process. His book and writings are really useful in refining the analytical tools and therefore improving the critical discussion of fiction. His reader is meant to be a less exceptional one, and his model of aesthetic response has been particularly practical in the case of analyzing narrative. From his point of view, literary texts of 19th and 20th centuries became more and more indeterminate and as a result “the reader’s viewpoint became less clearly oriented, which meant correspondingly greater demands on his own structuring activity (Iser, Act 205).
Although in his review on the Act of Reading, Fish begins by admitting Iser’s widespread popularity, he goes on to underestimate his fame by accusing him of being a pluralist in the field of literary criticism. “Iser is”, he writes: “A phenomenon: he is influential without being controversial, and at a moment when everyone is choosing up sides, he seems to be on no side at all or (it amounts to the same thing) on every side at once” (Fish 2).
Some critics criticized his work of being presented on a highly abstract and esoteric level. Hahn takes Iser’s book as a proof of Hegel’s prediction that “in times to come more energy and effort would be devoted to reflecting about art than to creating it” (2). On the other hand, Scholes appraises Iser as being patient, sensitive and careful in his reading of texts from Bunyon to Beckette; therefore, “If his books delivers somewhat less than it promises, the reasons for this are to be found in the profound problems of approaching texts by way of the reader, rather than in any lack of sensitivity, learning, or balance in Iser himself” (3).
Although, recently, Iser’s aesthetic has been criticized of disregarding social and political situations, some critics have read his works in the light of the same subjects. Winfried Fluck, for instance, identifies Iser’s idea of silence with Germany’s silence about the Holocaust after the war. Considering the social base, Gabriel Schwab emphasizes Iser’s concern with the reader’s individuality at the time that it was neglected by other approaches.
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