Reader Response Theory And The Restrictive Nature

Reader Response Theory And The Restrictive Nature Of Freedom Essay, Research Paper

During the mid twentieth century, the literary community witnessed the descent of the New Criticism and the emergence of the reader response movement. The reader response movement sharply contrasts the theories of New Criticism in that it focuses on the importance of the reader in the creation of the literary experience. Like New Critics, reader response theorists do not entirely agree on all issues and, consequently, different branches of the movement form. The phenomenological approach represents the notion that the author and reader collaborate to produce the literary work. Phenomenologists credit the reader with having a performative role in the literary experience. Authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Wolfgang Iser, and Hans Robert Jauss are associated with the phenomenological approach to literature.

Because the reader response movement is built on the foundation that the audience is an essential part of the literary process, phenomenologists tend to show a great deal of respect for the reader. In fact, a major underlying theme of this movement is the idea that the reader should be granted freedom to interpret a literary work in any way he/she likes. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his essay entitled “Why Write?”, describes this best when he says “the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (627). Wolfgang Iser echoes this belief in the need for readers’ freedom in his essay, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”: “No author worth his salt will ever attempt to set the whole picture before his reader’s eyes … it is only by activating the reader’s imagination that the author can hope to involve him and so realize the intentions of his text” (961). Sartre and Iser appear to imply that the reader’s freedom and imagination are absolutely necessary in order for the writer to fully achieve his/her goal. THis concept seems ideal in theory, but somewhat flawed in practice. How much freedom is really allotted to the reader in the interpretation of a text?

In his essay, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”, Hans Robert Jauss identifies a “horizon of expectations” that every reader brings with him/her upon approaching a literary work (937). This “horizon of expectations” is made up of the reader’s experiences, assumptions, and preconceptions concerning literature. In addition, this “horizon” also includes genre conventions, and the cultural and social issues of the time. If Jauss is correct in his conviction that the reader possesses this preset “horizon of expectations” about a work before even engaging with it, then isn’t the reader’s freedom already restricted from the very beginning?

Of the three aforementioned authors, Sartre is the most adamant in addressing the pertinence of freedom in the literary experience. Sartre claims, “the book does not serve my freedom; it requires it” (627). Freedom is “required” of the reader. How does the author or text cater to this requirement? Sartre describes many way in which this is accomplished. He states that, although the text is laid out by the author, the words on paper have no relevance until the reader creates meaning for them: “from the very beginning, the meaning is no longer contained in the words, since it is he (the reader), on the contrary, who allows the signification of each of them to be understood; and the literary object, though realized ‘through’ language, is never given ‘in’ language” (626). Sartre provides the reader with the freedom to interpret the language of the text in many different ways. He defends this freedom by supporting the premise that a word which may evoke a certain meaning or feeling in one individual, may trigger a completely varied response in another. Iser illustrates a similar idea in his essay with a fitting analogy: “Two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper” (960). The nature of the semantics of our language would indicate that this phenomenon is feasible to a certain extent. This semantic freedom can only be taken so far, though. One could not easily argue for the interpretation of the word “black” as meaning the color that is known as “white”. In this respect, the reader can never attain total freedom.

Although Jauss does not openly address the issue of reader freedom in his essay, he provides hints about his position on the matter. The overriding theory of Jauss’ “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” is that there exists a “horizon of expectations” that every reader possesses upon greeting a new work of art. This “horizon” encompasses any opinions about the title, the author (his/her typical subjects, themes, style, etc.), or the genre. It also incorporates the issues of the current time period, including societal and cultural ideologies. Jauss explains the effect of this “horizon of expectations” on the reader and the literary experience: “A literary work, even when it appears to be new, does not present itself as something absolutely new in an informational vacuum, but predisposes its audience to a very specific kind of reception by announcements, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics, or implicit allusion. It awakens memories of that which was already read, brings the reader to a specific emotional attitude, and with its beginning arouses expectations for the ‘middle and end’, which can then be maintained intact or altered, reoriented or even fulfilled ironically in the course of the reading according to specific rules of the genre or type of text” (938).

The words “signals” or “allusion” make reference to devices that provoke an involuntary impulse to think a certain way. The use of these terms insinuates that Jauss feels that the reader somehow loses control over his/her creation of the literary experience. In addition, he comments how a work “predisposes its audience”. Very similar to the term “predisposition” is the term “prejudice”. Both terms are rooted in the notion of a preconceived opinion or inclination. Jauss’ definition of the “horizon of expectations” denotes biases or prejudices that are embedded in the reaer’s consciousness before engaging in a text. These prejudices or “expectations” undoubtedly hinder the reader’s freedom of literary interpretation. Jauss finalizes this conception when he adds, ” the psychic process in the reception of a text is … by no means only an arbitrary series of merely subjective impressions, but rather the carrying out of specific instructions in a process of directed perception” (938).

The reader response movement, and more specifically the phenomenological approach to literature, is based on the belief that the literary experience has its birth in the collaboration of the writer and reader. Although the writer is solelly responsible for the composition of the text, the reader plays an equally important role in the work’s creation because it is the reader who ultimately performs the text. Phenomenologists support the bestowal of great freedom to the reader in the “performance” of the text. Ideally, freedom is defined as an unrestrained condition- or not being under another’s control. This is not the freedom that the phenomenologists grant their readers, though. The freedom that they detail is both limited and restrictive.


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