Key Theories of Wolfgang Iser

Wolfgang Iser’s (1926-2007) theories of reader response were initially presented in a lecture of 1970 entitled The Affective Structure of the Text, and then in two major works, The Implied Reader (1972) and The Act of Reading (1976). After examining a number of English novels in The Implied Reader, Iser outlines his approach in a section of this book entitled The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.1 Iser begins by pointing out that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also “the actions involved in responding to that text.” He suggests that we might think of the literary work as having two poles: the “artistic” pole is the text created by the author, and the “aesthetic” pole refers to “the realization accomplished by the reader” (IR, 274). We cannot identify the literary work with either the text or the realization of the text; it must lie “half-way between the two,” and in fact it comes into being only through the convergence of text and reader (IR, 275). His point here is that reading is an active and creative process. It is reading which brings the text to life, which unfolds “its inherently dynamic character” (IR, 275). If the author were somehow to present a story completely, the reader’s imagination would have nothing to do; it is because the text has unwritten implications or “gaps” that the reader can be active and creative, working things out for himself. This does not mean that any reading will be appropriate. The text uses various strategies and devices to limit its own unwritten implications, but the latter are nonetheless worked out by the reader’s own imagination (IR, 276).

iser2_optTo explain this process, Iser draws on Roman Ingarden’s concept of “intentional sentence correlatives,” according to which a series of sentences in a work of literature does not refer to any objective reality outside itself. Rather, the complex of these sentences gives rise to a “particular world,” the world presented in the literary work (IR, 277). Iser’s point is that the connections between various sentences or complexes of sentences are not established by the work itself, but are determined by the reader. A sentence in any literary work, claims Iser, characteristically “aims at something beyond what it actually says.” Iser reminds us of Husserl’s observation that a group of sentences creates an expectation in the reader; but what tends to happen, says Iser, is that in truly literary works these expectations are continually modified as we go on reading; indeed, a good literary work will usually frustrate our expectations. When we read expository texts (of science or philosophy, for example), we look for our expectations to be confirmed. But we regard such confirmation in literary works as a defect, since we are likely to be bored if a text merely rehearses what we already know and if our imagination is not called upon to work (IR, 278). The text produced by our response when reading is called by Iser its “virtual dimension,” which represents the “coming together of text and imagination” (IR, 279).

Iser draws attention to two important features of the reading process. The first is that reading is a temporal activity, and one that is not linear. As readers, we cannot absorb even a short text in a single moment, nor does the fictional world of the text pass in linear fashion before our eyes (IR, 277, 280). Whatever we read sinks into our memory and is “foreshortened”; it may be evoked again later against a different background, enabling us to develop connections we had not anticipated: “the reader, in establishing these interrelations between past, present and future, actually causes the text to reveal its potential multiplicity of connections. These connections are the product of the reader’s mind working on the raw material of the text, though they are not the text itself – for this consists just of sentences, statements, information, etc.” (IR, 278). As readers, we occupy a perspective that is continually moving and changing according to the way we make sense of the accumulating fictional material. Moreover, our second reading of the same text will proceed along a different time sequence: we already know the ending, for example, and we will make connections that we had earlier missed. The text thus created by our reading is a product of our processes of anticipation and retrospection (IR, 281).

The second important feature of the reading process is that, when we are confronted with “gaps” or unwritten implications or frustrated expectations in the text, we attempt to search for consistency. Though our expectations are continually shifting, and images are continually being modified in their significance, we will “strive, even if unconsciously, to fit everything together in a consistent pattern” (IR, 283). According to Iser, this consistency of images or sentences and coherence of meaning is not given by the text itself; rather, we, as readers, project onto the text the consistency that we require. Hence, such textual consistency is the product of the “meeting between the written text and the individual mind of the reader with its own particular history of experience, its own consciousness, its own outlook” (IR, 284). We attempt to understand the material of the text within a consistent and coherent framework because it is this which allows us to make sense of whatever is unfamiliar to us in the text (IR, 285).

This search for consistency has a number of implications. Firstly, it makes us aware of our own capacity for providing links, our own interpretative power: we thereby learn not only about the text but also about ourselves. The non-linear nature of the reading process, says Iser, is akin to the way we have experiences in real life. Hence the “reading experience can illuminate basic patterns of real experience” (IR, 281). As Iser states, the manner “in which the reader experiences the text will reflect his own disposition, and in this respect the literary text acts as a kind of mirror” (IR, 280–281). On the other hand, by making certain semantic decisions and ruling out others, for the sake of a consistent reading, we acknowledge the inexhaustibility of the text, its potential to have other meanings that may not quite fit into our own scheme. Indeed, our desire for consistency involves us to some extent in a world of illusion: as we leave behind our own reality somewhat to enter the reality of the text, we build up a textual world whose illusory consistency helps us make sense of unfamiliar elements. The consistency is illusory because we “reduce the polysemantic possibilities to a single interpretation in keeping with the expectations aroused, thus extracting an individual, configurative meaning” (IR, 285).

Iser sees the polysemantic nature of the text and the illusion-making of the reader as “opposed factors,” but both are necessary in the process of reading: if the illusion were destroyed completely, the text would be alien to us; and if the illusion were allembracing, then the polysemantic nature of the text would be reduced to one level of meaning. Hence we try to find a balance between these two conflicting tendencies. According to Iser, however, the “dynamism” of the text, its sense of life-likeness, presupposes that we do not actually achieve this balance. Even as we seek a consistent pattern in the text, we are also uncovering other textual elements and connections that resist integration into our pattern (IR, 285). In other words, even “in forming our illusions, we also produce at the same time a latent disturbance of these illusions.” It is the reader’s attempt to conduct this balancing operation, oscillating between consistency and alien associations, between “involvement in and observation of the illusion . . . that forms the esthetic experience offered by the literary text” (IR, 286). In seeking a balance, we start out with certain expectations, and it is the shattering of these expectations that lies at the core of our aesthetic experience. The very indeterminacy of the text, the very fact that parts of it are unformulated or unwritten, is the driving force behind our attempt to work out a “configurative” meaning, a meaning that is consistent and coherent (IR, 287). It is the very shifting of our perspective that makes us feel that a novel is true to life, and we ourselves impart to the text this dynamic life-likeness which allows us to absorb unfamiliar experiences into our personal world (IR, 288).

Following an insight in John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1958), Iser believes that in reading a text, we undergo a process of organization similar to that undertaken by the creator of the text. In other words, we must recreate the text in order to view it as a work of art. And this act of aesthetic recreation, says Iser, is not a smooth or linear process and it actually relies on continual interruption of the flow of reading: “We look forward, we look back, we decide, we change our decisions, we form expectations, we are shocked by their nonfulfillment, we question, we muse, we accept, we reject; this is the dynamic process of recreation” (IR, 288). Two factors govern this process of recreation: firstly, a familiar repertoire of literary patterns, themes, and social contexts; secondly, strategies that are used to “set the familiar against the unfamiliar.” It is the “defamiliarization” of what the reader thought she knew which creates the tension between her intensified expectations and her distrust of those very expectations (IR, 288). Hence it is the interplay between “illusion-forming and illusion-breaking that makes reading essentially a recreative process” (IR, 289).

The bases of the connection between reader and text, then, are: anticipation and retrospection, hence the unfolding of the text as a living event and consequently an impression of life-likeness (IR, 290). During the reading process, the work’s efficacy is caused by its evocation and subsequent negation of the familiar; in other words, the reader thinks her assumptions are affirmed by the text; she is then led to see that these assumptions are overturned and she enters the assumptions of the textual world itself, her reorientation marking an expansion of her experience, which learns to incorporate unfamiliar perspectives (IR, 290–291). Reading, for Iser, reflects the way in which we gain experience: once our preconceptions are held in abeyance, the text becomes our “present” while our own ideas fade into the past. We suspend the ideas and attitudes governing our own personality so that we can experience the “unfamiliar world of the literary text” (IR, 291).

But how does this happen? Many critics have suggested that the reader “identifies” with certain attitudes or characters in the fictional world. Iser’s explanation of such identification derives in part from Georges Poulet’s essay “Phenomenology of Reading” (1969). Following Poulet, Iser insists that in reading, it is the reader, not the author, who becomes the subject that does the thinking. Even though the text consists of ideas thought out by the author, in reading we must think the thoughts of the author, and we place our consciousness at the disposal of the text. According to Poulet, consciousness is the point at which author and reader converge, and the work itself can be thought of as a consciousness which takes over the mentality of the reader, who is obliged to shut out his individual disposition and character (IR, 292–293).

Iser modifies Poulet’s insights to urge that reading abrogates the dualism of subject and object that constitutes ordinary perception, and this division now takes place within the reader’s consciousness. Though we may be thinking the thoughts of the author, our own personality and disposition will not disappear completely but remain as “a more or less powerful virtual force,” and in reading there will be “an artificial division of our personality.” We, as readers, “assume” the individuality of the author as a division within our personality, thereby establishing the alien “me” and the real, virtual “me.” Indeed, it is this relationship between the alien themes of the text and the virtual background of familiar assumptions that allows “the unfamiliar to be understood” (IR, 293–294). Someone else’s thoughts can only take shape in our consciousness if our own unformulated faculty for deciphering those thoughts is brought into play and achieves formulation. In this way, reading is a genuinely dialectical process with myself being infused by the author’s subjectivity and perpetually negotiating between the illusionary world of the fiction and the real world of which my own subjectivity is a part (IR, 293–294).

The production of meaning in literary texts not only entails our discovering unformulated or unwritten elements of the text; it also gives us the chance to formulate our own deciphering capacity, to formulate ourselves and to expand our experience by incorporating the unfamiliar (IR, 294). Hence, for Iser, the reading process mimes the process of experience in general: the aesthetic dimension of a literary work is located in the act of its recreation by the reader, a process that is temporal and also dialectical insofar as it allows the assumptions of the reader to interact with those of the text, yielding knowledge not only of the text but also of the reader herself.

But if the text at one level “mirrors” the reader, and if it is the reader who makes the connections between a text’s various elements, what is to stop the reading process from being entirely subjective and even impressionistic? While Iser acknowledges and even insists that “the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations,” and that the reading process will vary from individual to individual, he also urges that such variation can occur only “within the limits imposed by the written as opposed to the unwritten text.” He compares the variety of possible readings with the way two people might gaze on the same constellation of stars: one might “see” a plough and the other a dipper. The “stars” in a literary text, says Iser, “are fixed; the lines that join them are variable” (IR, 280, 282). One might also argue in Iser’s defense that his concept of the reader as split between two personalities, the author’s and her own, also disables complete arbitrariness of interpretation since it is a prerequisite of the reading process that the reader’s preconceptions are held in suspension or, at the very least, compelled into dialogue with the assumptions and attitudes in the text.

In fact, this possible charge of uncontrolled subjectivism is confronted in Iser’s The Act of Reading.2 In this book, Iser enlists two basic arguments against such a charge. The first argument is based on the nature of meaning, and the second hinges on the question of whether a truly objective interpretation is possible. The meaning of a literary text, says Iser, is not a fixed and “definable entity” but a “dynamic happening” (AR, 22). It is, in other words, an event in time. Every fictional structure, according to Iser, is two-sided: it is both “verbal” and “affective.” The verbal structure of effects embodied in the text “guides the [reader’s] reaction and prevents it from being arbitrary”; the affective aspect is the realization in the reader’s response of a meaning that has been “prestructured by the language of the text” (AR, 21).

However, though the textual structures guide the reader’s response, they do not completely control it: some elements of the text are indeterminate and their meaning must be worked out by the reader. It is this mixture of determinacy and indeterminacy that “conditions the interaction between text and reader, and such a two-way process cannot be called arbitrary” (AR, 24). In this way, literary texts initiate “performances” of meaning “rather than actually formulating meanings themselves.” Indeed, the very aesthetic quality of a text, says Iser, lies in this “performing” structure, which could not occur without the reader (AR, 27). Hence, not only is “meaning” an event in time, but also it is located in the interaction between text and reader. Iser effectively extricates the notion of meaning from its status as a spatial concept, as an entity somehow hidden in the textual object, and sees it as a temporal concept, as a relation that is produced in the reader’s consciousness.

Again, we might object: even if we grant that the text somehow guides the reader’s reaction, could not the meaning thereby generated in the mind of a given reader be entirely subjective and private? Iser acknowledges that what is private is the reader’s eventual incorporation of the text “into his own treasure-house of experience” (AR,24). However, such arbitrariness is limited by the fact that the act of understanding a text is “intersubjective”: though readers may draw very different conclusions from what they read, they will often respond to the same things: “a literary text contains intersubjectively verifiable instructions for meaning-production, but the meaning produced may then lead to a whole variety of different experiences and hence subjective judgments” (AR, 25). The point is that the process of “meaning-production” itself will occur within a range limited by the textual structures; different readers may then draw widely diverging conclusions from this range of meanings. Iser sees this intersubjective model of reading as an advance over objectivist theories which presume that a text itself contains a single hidden meaning or set of meanings that can be discovered by the critic.

Iser points out that such objectivism is based on an “ideal standard” to which literary works should conform: and, far from being objective, this ideal standard is open to dispute. Who, moreover, defines this standard? The critic? But the critic, says Iser, is hardly infallible; he is another reader who will bring his own background and dispositions into play when judging the meaning or value of a literary work. Such “objective” judgments, then, may rest on intensely private foundations (AR, 24).

In The Act of Reading, Iser further elaborates his important concept of the “implied reader.” He points out that when critics talk about literature in terms of its effects, they invoke two broad categories of reader: the “real” reader and the “hypothetical” reader. The former refers to an actual reader whose response is documented, whereas the hypothetical reader is a projection of all possible realizations of the text (AR, 27). Iser sees both of these concepts as deficient. The documented response of real readers has often been thought to mirror the cultural norms or codes of a given era. The main problem Iser sees with this approach is that any reconstruction of real readers depends on the survival of documents from their era; and the further back we go in history, such documentation becomes increasingly sparse, and we must reconstruct the real readership of a text from the text itself (AR, 28). On the other hand, Iser points out that the “hypothetical” or what is sometimes called the “ideal” reader is often nothing more than a creation of the critic’s mind. Moreover, the code of an ideal reader would be identical to that of the author, thereby making reading superfluous (AR, 28 –29). Since the “ideal reader” must encompass all the potential meanings of a text, Iser acknowledges that such a concept might be useful in order to “close the gaps that constantly appear in any analysis of literary effects and responses” (AR, 29).

Iser evaluates newer models of the reader that have arisen in more recent years, models that have sought to break free of the traditional restrictive models cited above: the “superreader” of Michael Riffaterre, the “informed reader” of Stanley Fish, the “intended reader” of Erwin Wolff, and the “psychological reader” of Norman Holland and Simon Lesser. Iser has criticisms of all of these models. Riffaterre’s concept of the “superreader” refers to a “group of informants” who converge at “nodal points in the text,” and their common reactions establish the existence of a “stylistic fact” (AR, 30). Iser acknowledges the value of Riffaterre’s concept in showing that stylistic qualities cannot be constrained within the province of linguistics but must be discerned by readers. But he points out that Riffaterre hopes to guard against inordinate variation of response among readers by appealing to the “sheer weight of numbers.” Also, his concept depends on the historical position of a group of readers in relation to the literary work (AR, 30–31). Iser sees this weakness also in Fish’s concept of the “informed” reader, characterized by Fish as a competent speaker of the language, having “mature” semantic knowledge and possessing “literary competence.” What he views as positive in Fish’s model is its demand that the reader engage in a process of selfobservation while reading, and its stressing, like Riffaterre’s model, the insufficiency of a merely linguistic model (AR, 31). Iser insists that the reader’s role is larger than that of the fictitious reader, who is only one aspect of the former. His critique of the psychological models of reading is centered on his objection that they do not adequately describe our reading of literature as an aesthetic experience: the text tends to lose its aesthetic quality and is merely regarded as material to demonstrate the functioning of our psychological dispositions (AR, 40).

According to Iser, all of the models cited above are restricted in their general applicability. His concept of the “implied reader” is intended to overcome these restrictions. In analyzing responses to a literary work, he says, “we must allow for the reader’s presence without in any way predetermining his character or his historical situation.” It is this reader, who is somehow lifted above any particular context, whom Iser designates the implied reader (AR, 34). The implied reader is a function not of “an empirical outside reality” but of the text itself. Iser points out that the concept of the implied reader has “his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader.” He defines the implied reader as “a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him.” The implied reader, then, designates “a network of response-inviting structures,” which prestructure the role of the reader in the latter’s attempt to grasp the text (AR, 34).

Iser explains that there are two aspects of the concept of the implied reader: “the reader’s role as a textual structure, and the reader’s role as a structured act.” By the first of these, Iser refers to those elements in a text that help a reader to “actualize” unfamiliar or new textual material. The text must be able to bring about a standpoint or perspective from which the reader will be able to do this. For example, in a novel, there are four main perspectives: those of the narrator, characters, plot, and the fictitious reader. The meaning of the text is generated by the convergence of these perspectives, a convergence that is not itself set out in words but occurs during the reading process. During this process, the reader’s role is to occupy shifting perspectives that are to some extent prestructured, and then to fit these various viewpoints “into a gradually evolving pattern” (AR, 35). The components that prestructure the reader’s role are: the different perspectives represented in the text, the perspective from which the reader holds these together, and their point of convergence (AR, 36). Indeed, the second aspect of the concept of the “implied reader” is the “reader’s role as a structured act.” By this, Iser means the reader’s active role in bringing together the various perspectives offered in the text; the text itself does not bring about this convergence. Iser sees “textual structure” and “structured act” – the two aspects of the “implied reader” – as related in the manner of intention and fulfillment (AR, 36).

Iser also sees the notion of the “implied reader” as explaining the tension that occurs within the reader during the reading process, a tension between the reader’s own subjectivity and the author’s subjectivity which overtakes the reader’s mentality, a tension between two selves that directs the reader’s ability to make sense of the text. The reader’s own subjective disposition, says Iser, will not be totally left behind: “it will tend instead to form the background to and a frame of reference for the act of grasping and comprehending.” Every text, says Iser, constructs its work, in varying degrees unfamiliar to possible readers; these readers, therefore, must be placed in a position to actualize the new perspectives. It is part of the reader’s role to be a fictitious reader, and her existing stock of experience will provide a referential background against which the unfamiliar can be conceived and processed (AR, 36–37). Given that the text’s structure allows for different realizations and interpretations, any one actualization, says Iser, “represents a selective realization of the implied reader” and it can be judged against the background of the other realizations “potentially present in the textual structure of the reader’s role.” As such, the notion of the “implied reader” performs the vital function of providing “a link between all the historical and individual actualizations of the text.” In short, the “implied reader” is a “transcendental model” which allows us to describe and analyze the structured effects of literary texts (AR, 37–38).

Iser’s concept of “negativity” is important in his analysis of the reading process. All of the text’s formulations, he says, are punctuated by “blanks” and “negations.” The former refer to omissions of various elements between the formulated “positions” of a text; “negations” refer to cancelations or modifications or contradictions of positions in the repertoire of the text. These blanks and negations, says Iser, refer to an unformulated background: this fact he calls “negativity.” It is negativity that enables words to transcend their literal meaning and to assume multiple layers of reference (AR, 225–227). Negativity, urges Iser, is the basic force in literary communication, making possible: (1) an understanding based on the reader’s linkage of individual positions in a text, directed in part by blanks and negations; (2) deformations of organized structures of familiar knowledge and their remedy or the reader’s search for the underlying cause of those deformations; here, negativity is a mediator between representation and reception, enabling the reader to construct the text’s meaning on a question–answer basis. In this sense, negativity is the “infrastructure” of the literary text; (3) since literature presents something (knowledge or perspectives) that is not already in the world, it can reveal itself only through negativity, through the dislocation of external norms from their real context. In other words, everything that has been incorporated into a literary text has been deprived of its reality, and is subjected to new and unfamiliar connections. Negativity is the structure underlying this invalidation or questioning of the manifested reality (AR, 229). The reader must formulate the cause underlying this questioning of the world, and to do this, she must transcend that world, observing it, as it were, from the outside.

Hence negativity provides a “basic link between the reader and the text.” Iser sees it as characteristic of a work of art that it enables us to transcend our own lives, entangled as they are in the real world. Negativity, then, as a basic element of communication, is an “enabling structure” that gives rise to a fecundity or richness of meaning that is aesthetic in character. Each decision we make as readers must stabilize itself against the alternatives that we have rejected, alternatives which arise from an interaction between the text and the reader’s dispositions. The richness of meaning derives partly from the fact that there are no rigid criteria of right and wrong, but this, according to Iser, does not mean that meaning is purely subjective: the “very existence of alternatives makes it necessary for a meaning to be defensible and so intersubjectively accessible.” Moreover, as we gain insights from a literary work, we do not merely use these mechanically to complement our previous insights, or our previous understanding of earlier parts of the text; rather, an interaction occurs that leads to a new meaning. Hence the production of meaning of literary works does not take place according to “regulative or constitutive rules” but is “conditioned by a structure which allows for contingencies.” Iser acknowledges that it is the reader’s own competence that will enable the various possibilities of meaning and interpretation to be narrowed down: it is the reader who provides the “code” that will govern her communicative relation with the text, rather than there being a preexisting code between text and reader already in place. In the latter case, literature would have nothing, or at least nothing valuable, to communicate (AR, 230).

What Iser is reacting against in his account of the reading process is what he considers to be the “classical norm” of interpretation, and the implications of this norm. According to Iser, the aim of conventional, classical interpretation was to uncover “a single hidden meaning” within the text. Meaning was considered as “representative,” having a direct reference to the outside world; and hence the literary work was considered to be a vehicle for the expression of truth (AR, 10–12). Beyond this, interpretation aimed to instruct the reader as to the text’s meaning, value, and significance (AR, 22). Such a model of interpretation promoted the treatment of a literary work as a document, testifying to characteristics of its era and the disposition of its author. What this model ignored, according to Iser, was the status of the text as an event as well as the experience of the reader (AR, 22). Iser sees his own project as emerging from a more modern constellation of approaches which rejected the idea that art somehow expresses or represents truth and which focused more on the connections between the text and either its historical context or its audience (AR, 14).

And yet, Iser points out, various elements of the classical norm have persisted, even within approaches that aim to reject it. The New Criticism, for example, “called off the search for meaning,” rejecting the idea that the literary work contains “the hidden meaning of a prevailing truth,” and focusing on the interaction of elements within the text. Nonetheless, elements of the classical norm have crept into this new approach: the New Critical values of harmony, order, completeness, and removal of ambiguity differ from the classical norm only inasmuch as these values are freed from their subservience to the expression of truth. In the New Critical approach, qualities such as harmony are considered valuable in their own right. In many modern conceptions of art Iser sees the classical values of symmetry, balance, order, and totality as occupying a central role. Why this obstinate persistence of the age-old classical norm, even within the texture of theories that claim to subvert or transcend it?

The main reason, according to Iser, is that consistency is essential to the very act of comprehension. And the very fact, acknowledged in modern theories, that a reader cannot grasp a text all at once obliges her to engage in the process of “consistencybuilding” to make sense of the text (AR, 15–16). The meaning of the text is not formulated by the text itself but is a projection of the reader. Hence as readers we have recourse to the classical values of symmetry, harmony, and totality, values that enable us to construct a frame of reference against which we can make unfamiliar elements accessible. The fragmented or disjointed nature of the literary work – leaving many blanks, gaps, and connections for the reader to work out – conditions “consistency building throughout both the writing and the reading process” (AR, 17). So, in historical terms, the task of the critic has altered: instead of explaining how a text, with all its qualities of harmony, order, and totality, contains a hidden meaning, she must now acknowledge that consistency-building, as a “structure of comprehension,” depends on the reader rather than the work. The critic must explain, then, not the work itself (which is an abstraction from the entire situation of reader interacting with text) but“the conditions that bring about its various possible effects.” In other words, what is needed is not instruction passing from critic to reader in the meaning of the text but an analysis of the reading process (AR, 18–19). It is here that Iser’s own work is designed to intervene.

Notes
1. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974). Hereafter cited as IR.
2. Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978). Hereafter cited as AR.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Reader Response Criticism

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2 replies

  1. Beautiful Article! Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

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