Presidential Lecture Series
spacer   Photo © Leonardo Aversa

Stanley Fish wrote a review of Wolfgang Iser’s work in 1981 claiming that two of Iser’s books outsold every other book in literary theory that year at John Hopkins’ press, except Derrida’s Grammatology—a book, Fish added, perhaps more often purchased than read. Iser’s work continues to exert a far-reaching, if quiet influence in literary studies. Many students (and scholars), not unlike apprentices in the master artisan’s studio, are scarcely aware of the existence of the influence, much less the source.

And yet however quietly, Wolfgang Iser undoubtedly stands among the most prominent literary theorists of the late twentieth century. From his involvement in founding the innovative University of Constance in Germany in the late 1960’s, to his additional tenure as professor of English at the University of California at Irvine, Iser has explored how literature functions in the human experience. His major critical works on Beckett, Pater and Shakespeare (among others) are known for their sensitive commentary and original application. Iser’s most recent work elaborates the insights of thirty years of criticism into a "literary anthropology" that asks the largest questions about what it means to be human. As a scholar whose work commands international respect, Iser has already helped determine the future direction of the humanities.

Iser’s contribution to literary theory began with his inaugural lecture at Constance in 1970, "Die Appellstruktur der Texte." Already the lecture prefigured what would shortly become known as his theory of "aesthetic response." Two related volumes soon followed, one critical (The Implied Reader, 1972) and one theoretical (The Act of Reading, 1976). These works provided a rigorous grounding for the paradigm shift of the late 1960’s in Germany that redirected the attention of literary theorists from the author to the reader. Instead of asking what the text means, Iser asks what the text does to the reader. His theory of response complements Hans Robert Jauss’ theory of reception. Together the two comprise the so-called Constance school, which has since set the course for much of social, systems and communication theories in the contemporary German intellectual arena. Iser and Jauss both draw from their common teacher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, but in his close analysis of text processing Iser is also influenced by Husserlian phenomenology as interpreted by Czech theorist Roman Ingarden.

Iser’s theory of aesthetic response (Wirkungstheorie) differs from other theories of reader response (Rezeptionstheorie). Significantly, Iser does not analyze actual readings of texts, but proceeds from an ideal "implied reader." For Iser, the reader does not mine out an objective meaning hidden within the text. Rather, literature generates effects of meaning for the reader in a virtual space created between reader and text. Although reader and text assume similar conventions from reality, texts leave great portions unexplained to the reader, whether as gaps in the narrative or as structural limits of the text’s representation of the world. This basic indeterminacy "implies" the reader and begs her participation in synthesizing, and indeed living, events of meaning throughout the process of reading.

Such a theory of aesthetic response denies the simple dichotomy of fiction and reality. According to Iser, fiction proposes alternate worlds created within the virtual reality of the text’s meaning. In other words, in literature the actual and the possible can exist simultaneously. Literature thus takes on a greater human function of imagining beyond the given constraints of experience. For example, in the political sphere, Iser’s theory of reading might commend a critical democratic politics that urges constant re-examination of social and individual conventions by "deforming" and defamiliarizing accepted perspectives. After The Act of Reading, Iser began exploring these broader implications of reading for human experience and constitution.

In 1989 Iser published Prospecting, a collection of critical and theoretical essays from the previous decade. In it he extrapolated from the conclusions of reader response into a new terrain he now called "literary anthropology." In a famous paragraph from the preface, Iser summarizes the enterprise:

If a literary text does something to its readers, it also simultaneously reveals something about them. Thus literature turns into a divining rod, locating our dispositions, desires, inclinations, and eventually our overall makeup. The question arises as to why we need this particular medium. Questions of this kind point to a literary anthropology that is both an underpinning and an offshoot of reader-response criticism.

Literary anthropology is not a second phase of Iser’s work as much as an expansion of his original project into its fullest dimensions. After evolving an account of "reading" from the dynamic of text and reader, he can also describe "texting," as it were—that is, a retrospective description of the nature of readers based on the effects a text can produce on them. One might say that Iser’s phenomenology has been inverted, so that the phenomenon under examination is no longer our literature only, but now also us.

Within a few years Iser published two books that further developed the project. The Fictive and the Imaginary (1993), his greatest theoretical labor since The Act of Reading, expounded in a philosophical mode many of the same topics presented in Staging Politics (1993), a study of Shakespeare’s histories. "Staging," for example, is one of several anthropological categories Iser derives from the human propensity to "fictionalize." Fictionalizing pervades life, from lie to dream and from hypothesis to explanation. Human existence cannot experience its beginning or its end. Nor can we, even in the most intense epiphanic moments, possess the full meaning of what occurs. Because human being finds itself thus decentered, unable to be present to itself, it creatively constructs a virtual self-possession out of imagined possibilities in literature. This is the impulse to fictionalize: the universal but asymptotic attempt to be and have oneself at once. Iser is fond of quoting the pithy alternative of Beckett’s Malone: "Live or invent."

From the fictionalizing impulse Iser infers his anthropological conclusion. Human existence is fundamentally malleable, conceivable according to any of the infinite semblances of reality available within literature. Human existence always stretches past itself, seeking just that resolution a comprehension it cannot claim. Fictionalizing, then, is the anthropological analog of the text’s indeterminate potential for meaning-effects. The study of literature, Iser concludes, tells us perhaps more about ourselves than about the books we read. In reading we discover not only alternate visions to explore, but also our own human thirst for freedom of action, ultimate understanding, and unity of experience.

By David Albertson

(c)2000, Stanford University


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University