Conceptualized by Hans Robert Jauss in his Toward an Aesthetic of Reception in the late 1960s, Reception Theory refers to a historical application of the Reader Response theory, emphasizing altering interpretive and evaluative responses of generations of readers to a text. It focuses on the scope for negotiation and opposition on the part of the general public, over a period of time in history, as they interpret the meanings of a text based on their respective cultural background and life experiences. A reader’s response to a text is the joint product of the reader’s own horizon of expectations and the confirmations, disappointments, refutations and reformulations of these expectations. Since the linguistic and aesthetic expectation of readers change over the course of time, and since later readers and critics have access to the text as well as its criticisms, there develops an evolving historical tradition of interpretations and evaluations of a given literary work. Jauss refers to this tradition as a continuous dialectic between the text and the horizon of successive readers; the literary text, in itself, possesses no inherent meaning or value.
Jauss seeks to bring about a compromise between that interpretation which ignores history and that which ignores the text in favour of social theories. Horizons of expectations do not establish the final meaning of a work. Thus, according to Jauss, any work cannot be judged as universal, that it will make the same appeal to or impact on readers of all eras. Jauss thinks it possible only to the extent that we regard our interpretations as stemming, from a dialogue between past and present and thereby representing a fusion of horizons.
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