Presidential Lecture Series

by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht

It may seem that I, a former student and long-term admirer of Wolfgang Iser, am too biased - and doesn't hermeneutics tell us that we are never unbiased anyhow? But there is no doubt in my mind that nobody in Iser's and my own academic discipline, nobody in the field of literary criticism, has pushed the intellectual limits of "literary theory" further than he has. First of all because, for about forty years now, Iser has been one of the very few "literary theorists" capable of developing his own conceptual thought (and doing so quite eagerly!) - instead of relying on collages of quotes drawn from more or less trendy philosophers. And among the "happy few" (very few!) literary theorists who can compare to Iser in their philosophical competence, nobody has focused more strictly than he has on key concepts of literature, instead of using the reflection on literature as a launch pad for some kind of non-literary reflection (though this, of course, is perfectly legitimate in and of itself). One might indeed argue that ever since literary criticism in the early sixties began to give up its exclusive focus on the substance of the literary text - in order to become interested in those specific capacities of the human mind which literary texts activate - ever since, there have been no more important and more central concepts for literary theory than those notions to which Iser has dedicated most of his lifework. These are the concept of Reading (or the question, as Iser puts it, "why readers have images in their minds, while only perceiving letters") and the concept ofImagination (which for Iser contains the question of "why human beings stand in need of fictions in order to extend themselves").

There is a third key concept in Iser's work, however, that has always bothered me. This is the concept of Literary Anthropology, the name that Iser gives to the exploration of the human mind's potentials through observation of its reaction to the challenges that come from literature. Hoping to provoke some answers from (or, at least, some discussion with) Wolfgang Iser during his forthcoming visit to Stanford, I will here, rather schematically, list my reservations and doubts about "Literary Anthropology":

1) Does Iser's program not imply the completely unproven assumption that literature is more "challenging" to the human mind than any other medium (or, at least, than most other media)? Could literature not - at least sometimes - be the opposite, i.e. a medium that allows the mind to relax? Whatever the answer to this last question may be, the only reason to believe that "literature" feeds more successfully than any other medium into the kind of anthropology that Iser has in mind is the traditional over-eagerness of many literary critics to show that "literature" is, and always will be, good for at least something - and this demonstration is indirectly also meant to prove the pertinence of literary criticism and literary theory. Sometimes I feel that Wolfgang Iser is too secure (and too much in sync with the early 21st century) to participate in the belatedly romantic indulgences of literary criticism - both with itself and with its object of study.

2) My second point is a comparatively harmless one, and Iser is certainly aware of it. Iser's use of the word "anthropology" is, without any conceptual exaggeration, precisely the opposite of the word's general meaning in contemporary English. Whereas "anthropology" in most English-language contexts refers to a discipline that explores and emphasizes the differences between various human cultures (normally without trying to find and define something like a "common denominator" for all of them), Iser - despite all the relativizations he has offered - uses "Anthropology" to refer to the project of bringing together, into a single concept (albeit a concept of ever- growing complexity) all the various forms and types of performance of which the human mind is capable. Finding itself in a genealogical relationship with Kant's use of the concept, Iser's notion of "Anthropology" cannot help being synonymous with the concept of the "transcendental subject."

3) Now, is there anything wrong with a more or less Kantian concept of"anthropology" - is there anything wrong with it, once its difference vis-a-vis the concept dominant in the English-speaking academic world is made explicit? Is it just a concession to political correctness if we endlessly emphasize, "salute," and "affirm" cultural variety - and if, in a complementary movement, we condemn any attempt at finding a"common ground" for all these varieties, i.e. a transcendental concept of what it might be to be "human"?

4) The "real" question, then, is the question about the consequences of allowing, promoting, or even disallowing a type of human self-reference and self-description that does not exclude the possibility of a "common ground" for all those practices which we consider to be human. On the one side, it is clear that certain practices and disciplines absolutely need concepts with such a transcendental claim (however culturally specific the particular claims made might turn out to be). The legal system in general, and legal practice in particular, for example, need a founding notion of what can be considered "human behavior" in order to clarify the much more difficult issue of which types of human behavior may be defined as "humanly possible" or as "illegal." A similar argument can be made for medicine, both as a discipline and as a practice. But I ask myself whether such obvious necessities for a transcendental concept of the "human" can or should oblige literary studies and the humanities at large to cultivate "Literary Anthropology"?

5) I am of course not arguing that such a "common denominator" of what it is to be human "does not exist." This negative claim would be metaphysical in the worst sense of the word. I am only saying that literary studies and the humanities generally might be well-advised to avoid the "common denominator" - and to use instead their insights (their "anthropological" insights, as Iser would say) in order to constantly challenge, dilute, and keep flexible those concepts of "the human" which other sectors of our social practice are in need of - but whose reification and ossification they ought certainly to avoid. To end with one (politically "very meritorious") example: if our concepts of gender and human sexuality have dramatically changed over the past decades, was it not a good thing for literary studies in this context to constantly (and simply) undo institutionalized versions of these concepts - instead of trying to come up with endlessly refined (but still transcendental) notions of them?

Whether or not we want a "Literary Anthropology" depends on where we, the literary critics and theorists of literature, want to stand in the division of intellectual labor.


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