Reception theory, the approach to literature that concerns itself first and foremost with one or more readers’ actualization of the text, is based on a collective enterprise that has had far-reaching institutional consequences. Hans Robert Jauss, with his University of Constance colleagues Manfred Fuhrmann and Wolfgang Iser and with philosophers, historians, and critics such as Rainer Warning, Karlheinz Stierle, Dieter Henrich, Günther Buck, Jürgen Habermas, Peter Szondi, and Hans Blumenberg, is part of a loosely organized group that gathers regularly at colloquia, the proceedings of which are published in the multivolume Poetik und Hermeneutik.
The group’s first and most provocative pronouncements were two inaugural addresses at the University of Constance, Jauss’s in 1967, later published as Literaturgeschichte als Provokation für die Literaturwissenschaft (“Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”), and Iser’s, “Die Appellstruktur der Texte,” in 1970, published in English as “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction” (in J. Hillis Miller, ed., Aspects of Narrative, 1971). Whereas Iser’s work was based more on the works of Roman Ingarden and Hans-Georg Gadamer and on the German phenomenological tradition, Jauss’s explicit aim was to reintroduce the issue of history into the study of literature. Jauss reacted against three different ways of referring to history in literary studies: an idealist conception of history as a teleology; the positivist bias of nineteenth-century historicism, which has to forgo questions of relevance in order to save objectivity; and Geistesgeschichte, a history of ideas based on an irrationalist aesthetic. The two last alternatives both have to abandon the question of aesthetic value judgments, and Jauss sees Marxist theory and criticism and Russian Formalism as the two most influential methodologies that attempt to come to terms with the relationship between history and aesthetics. The two schools react strongly against the blind empiricism of positivism and against an aesthetic metaphysics, but they attempt to solve the problem in opposite ways.
Jauss criticizes Marxist thinkers such as Georg Lukács both for their naive view of literature as a passive reflection of the real world and for the classical contours of the canon on which their aesthetic is based. But he retains their insistence on the historicity of the work. From the Formalists he adopts the idea that in art the process of perception is a means in itself, an idea that originally implied a refusal to include a historical dimension but later was introduced in Iurri Tynianov and Boris Eikhenbaum’s work on the evolution of literary forms. Jauss regrets the absence of a link between these literary evolutions and developments in nonliterary history. A new and more valid history of literature must take into account both the Marxist insistence on mediation and the Formalist findings about how literary works are perceived. This alternative is an aesthetics of reception, which shifts the critic’s attention away from the producer of the text and from the text itself toward a dialectic of production and consumption. The history of literature becomes a crucial element in literary criticism because it allows us to comprehend the historical determiners of our understanding. The central notion Jauss uses to accomplish this task is the “horizon of expectations,” or Erwartungshorizont, a term that derives from a number of German philosophical and historical traditions, indicating, in general, the set of expectations against which readers perceive the text. This structure is objectified ideally in works such as Don Quixote, which provoke expectations and then proceed to destroy them, and Jauss in fact follows the Formalists in defining aesthetic value as a function of the distance between these expectations and their destruction in the work itself.
In 1969 Jauss published an essay in which he used Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions to show that a shift in paradigms had occurred that was based on three methodological novelties: a relationship between aesthetics and history, an attempt to combine structural and hermeneutical methods, and an aesthetics of effect that could deal equally well with canonized as with popular kinds of literature. The institutional consequences of this paradigm have been realized in the structure and curriculum of the University of Constance. Jauss does not overdramatize the effect of the works of the Poetik und Hermeneutik group. The impact of his own inaugural lecture was immediate though not always positive, and in the early 1970s he repeatedly defended and adjusted his theories, whether in a confrontation with the aesthetics of the Frankfurt School, especially the posthumously published work of Theodor W. Adorno , or in response to the criticism on reception aesthetics formulated by leading critics in the German Democratic Republic.
Unlike Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory, Jauss believes that literature and art can play a role in our society that is both progressive and affirmative, and he points to the elitist consequences of positing an autonomy of art that cannot do justice to the role of art in the pre-autonomous period. To Adorno’s negative aesthetics Jauss opposes the aesthetic experience itself, the pleasure involved in our enjoyment and use of art and literature. Inspired partly by Immanuel Kant, partly by Jean-Paul Sartre , and partly by the work of the German phenomenologist Moritz Geiger, Jauss replaces the horizon of expectations as the cornerstone of his theory by the aesthetic experience as a dialectic of “Selbstgenuß im Fremdgenuß,” of self-enjoyment in the enjoyment of something other. Reception theory came under attack from critics in the German Democratic Republic in the early 1970s, when influential theoreticians such as Robert Weimann diagnosed it as the logical result of a refusal to confront the Marxist answers to contradictions inherent in a bourgeois society. Jauss was singled out as the target of these attacks because he had attempted to reintroduce a non-Marxist and subjective concept of history in literary studies.
Jauss’s work in the late seventies, gathered in his Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics (1982), moved toward a more hermeneutical interest in the aesthetic experience itself. Jauss distinguishes three basic experiences: a productive aesthetic praxis (poiesis), a receptive praxis (aisthesis), and a communicative praxis (katharsis), and he claims that a detailed study of these three elements can help literary history steer a course between an exclusively aesthetic and an exclusively sociological perspective. Central in this new phase of Jauss’s thinking is the third, communicative aesthetic praxis, which is defined as “the enjoyment of the affects as stirred by speech or poetry which can bring about both a change in belief and the liberation of his mind in the listener or the spectator” (92). Important here is both the active part of the recipient of the aesthetic object and the two opposites this definition avoids: the unmediated losing oneself in the object and the sentimental self-indulgence by the subject in itself. The aesthetic experience can have three functions in society: it can create norms, simply pass on existing norms, or refuse to conform to the existing norms. Both bourgeois and (neo-)Marxist literary theories have failed to see the continuum between a progressive change of horizons and the adaptation to existing norms. Whereas Jauss seems to have moved closer to Iser’s insistence on the role of the individual reader, quite a number of his younger colleagues in Germany have concentrated on the sociological and empirical considerations of his early essays. On the basis of a “constructive functionalism” not unrelated to Habermas’s communicative rationalism and to Imre Lakatos’s critical rationalism, Norbert Groeben and Siegfried J. Schmidt have developed a theory of literature that opposes to the hermeneutical schools an empirical and functional view of literature. Hermeneutics can at best have a heuristic function: its findings must be tested intersubjectively and empirically before they can claim any validity. Work in this field is truly interdisciplinary and employs concepts and methods from social psychology, text theory, pragmatics, communication theory, linguistics, and philosophy.
Reception theory has initiated a new interest in the historical dimension and the communicative aspects of the literary text and has been very influential in the empirical and sociological study of literary phenomena in the 1970s and early 1980s, but its impact seems to have been limited for the most part to Germany and Western Europe.
Hans Robert Jauss, Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics, 1982; Robert C. Holub, Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction (1984).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.