Presidential Lecture Series

"The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology." Style v29, n4 (Winter, 1995).
Review by Terence R. Wright

No one in the history of literary theory can have written so much with such seriousness on the subject of play. In his book on Tristram Shandy and in Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, [Wolfgang Iser] entitled chapters "The Play of the Text." Sanford Budick and he then edited a book subtitled The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. Now he plays once more with the title "Text Play" in the penultimate chapter of The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology. Iser's strength, which can also be seen as a weakness, is that he draws from such widely differing fields of knowledge to produce a synthesis that some find rich, but others find incoherent. On the one hand, it is difficult not to respect the extent to which Iser trawls philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and literary theory for useful ideas. On the other hand, it is frustrating to find concepts from all these areas mixed together without adequate recognition of the conflicts between the systems of thought from which they have been taken. The bulls have been let among the sheep and the resulting offspring are unrecognizable and sometimes unreadable hybrids.

Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, as its subtitle indicates, plots a change in Iser's central concern. It moved from an opening section that put "Reader Response in Perspective" through a middle section of detailed textual analysis ("Paradigms") to a final chapter entitled "Toward a Literary Anthropology." Iser's most recent book explains two of the terms introduced in the previous book, the "fictive" and the "imaginary," and claims, in its subtitle, to be "charting literary anthropology." The last few chapters of Prospecting explain in a relatively clear and accessible way what it is that Iser values in literature. He tries to get away from mimetic notions of representation that are not present in the German term Darstellung, which recognizes "the performative qualities through which the act of representation brings about something which hitherto did not exist as a given object" (236). Systematic conceptualizations cannot afford to incorporate these playful or performative qualities "in view of the finality of the explanation to be achieved and the certainties to be provided by them." The "ludic nature of literature," on the contrary, simultaneously presents and withdraws from such complete explanation (245). Rather than simply re-present an already-given truth, a play performs a fiction of whose limitations as "truth" it is aware.

Iser's The Fictive and the Imaginary begins with a similar celebration of the plasticity of literature, which "manifests itself in a continual repatterning of the culturally conditioned shapes human beings have assumed." Literature, according to Iser, "reveals that human plasticity is propelled by the drive to gain shape, without ever imprisoning itself in any of the shapes obtained" (xi). Iser finds the fictive a useful category because it avoids the straightforward binaries real/unreal or fact/fiction. The fictive is neither simply true nor untrue; it is "an operational mode of consciousness that makes inroads into existing versions of world. In this way the fictive becomes an act of boundary-crossing which, nonetheless, keeps in view what has been overstepped. As a result, the fictive simultaneously disrupts and doubles the referential world" (xiv-xv). In the footnotes to the first chapter, Iser provides some helpful definitions of reality ("the variety of discourse relevant to the author's approach to the world through the text"), of the fictive ("an intentional act, which has all the qualities pertaining to an event" rather than simply "unreality," "lies," or "deceit") and the imaginary, "not to be viewed as a human faculty," but as a set of playful functions, a transitional play area (305). In fact, Iser's footnotes are probably the most readable part of the book, much of which involves a tedious recounting of a variety of attitudes to fiction held by a range of philosophers from Bacon to Hume to Bentham and Vaihinger, followed by a number of psychoanalytic views of the imagination, from Freud to Lacan to Winnicott to Castoriadis, followed by Huizinga and Caillois on play. Anyone who completes the course will have learnt something about differing attitudes to literature over a range of centuries and disciplines. Perhaps that is what Iser means by "charting" literary anthropology, as if the reader were accompanying him on a long voyage through previously unmapped oceans. What a reader of The Fictive and the Imaginary will experience, however, besides seasickness, is a great deal of reflection about reading as an activity, why we do it and what we gain from it. The book remains very much at this general, rather abstract level. If this is literary anthropology, give me Reader-Response any time.


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