’s Act Of Reading Essay, Research Paper
Critiquing a Critique: Wolfgang Iser s The Act of Reading
Texts on critical theory present an interesting challenge when one sits down to critique or review them. The purpose of these texts is to persuade the reader that all texts should be read and critiqued in the manner described within its pages. The process of evaluating such a book based on criteria that the reader has already established is made much more difficult by the fact that the focus of the book is to explain, in the majority of the cases, why the criteria being used is inferior to what the book itself recommends. How then, does one approach the problem that surrounds critiquing an instructional text on how to critique?
The simplest way to approach the dilemma is to establish whether or not the points made by the author are valid, regardless of whether or not the reader agrees enough with the other to adopt his style of criticism. In this particular case, the author, Wolfgang Iser, is attempting to convince his readers that an approach he calls aesthetic response is the proper way to read and critique texts. Iser claims that his style is universal and can be applied to virtually all forms of writing. For this to be true, then one of the books written by Iser to help describe the process, The Act of Reading, should be able to validate his aesthetic response theory once it is read and critiqued by the manner described within the theory itself. Interestingly enough, the style of Iser s book and the approach the author takes in explaining his theory to his readers run completely counter to the ideals of his theory.
Iser s aesthetic response theory contains is based on several points. First, the purpose of the reader is not to attempt to discover the single, hidden meaning within a text. The author backs up his position by providing this explanation:
If the critic s revelation of the meaning is a loss to the author then meaning must be a thing which can be subtracted from the work. And if this meaning, as the very heart of the work, can be lifted out of the text, the work is then used up-through interpretation, literature is turned into an item for consumption. This is fatal not only for the text but also for literary criticism, for what can be the function of interpretation if its sole achievement is to extract the meaning and leave behind an empty shell? The parasitic nature of such criticism is all too obvious (4-5)
In other words, texts would not be useful to a person after having been read by a single person a single time. If Hamlet had but one underlying meaning, then after the person to have ever read or seen the play discovered the meaning, then the rest of us would have nothing left to do. The play would have already been stripped of its purpose and we would be left with empty pages.
Iser continues by explaining that the meaning of a text is dynamic not concrete. Texts have potential meanings that the reader is supposed to identify. The meaning, however, is not completely abandoned to the subjectivity of the reader. Therefore, the discovery of meaning is a two-way process. Iser presents the reader with this defense of his idea:
If the virtual position of the work is between text and reader, its actualization is clearly the result of an interaction between the two, and so exclusive concentration on either the author s techniques or the reader s psychology will tell us little about the reading process itself. This is not to deny the vital importance of each of the two poles-it is simply that if one loses sight of the relationship, one loses sight of the virtual work. (21)
The reader does not have a set of blueprints set in front of him or herself that provides detailed instructions on how to excavate the meaning from the work. The reader cannot approach the text in an attempt to compare it to something familiar, for each text is inherently unfamiliar to the reader since the potential meaning of the work has yet to be discovered. Thus, the reader must discover the meaning of the text by interacting with it. The text provides certain structures built into itself that help guide the reader along the way, but in no way do these structures provide the meaning of the text on their own. Through this interaction, the reader will create a meaning for him or herself out of the potential meanings uncovered in the texts.
These two major points that Iser makes early in his book do not appear to hold true in his own text. The book reads like a step-by-step instruction manual on how to approach a text. There does not seem to be much room left over for interpretation. The structures inherent to the text that are supposed to guide the reader to discover potential meanings of the book do much more than guide, they dictate. The reader is not allowed to interact in a unique manner with the text, because Iser has already stripped it down and provided the reader with only the meaning and a shell of a text that once housed that meaning.
Later in the book, Iser explains that the reader will only realize the meaning of the text if the reader can detach him or herself from the experience enough to be able to watch the interaction between him or herself and the text. The text is supposed to act like a mirror being held up to the reader that reflects the reader s disposition.
This detachment is accomplished, in part, by the building of mental images that occurs in the reader s head while he or she is interacting with the text. Iser gives this explanation of the importance of the mental image:
But if we are absorbed into an image, we are no longer present in a reality-instead we are experiencing what can only be described as an irrealization, in the sense that we are preoccupied with something that takes us out of our own given reality. This is why people often talk of escapism with regard to literature, when in actual fact they are only verbalizing the particular experience they have undergone. (140)
Iser believes that the building of the mental image is the key action required to fully allow the reader to be detached from the reading and be able to watch the experience as it occurs.
Unfortunately, in The Act of Reading, the mental images are being described to the reader, for the reader is being told how to perceive what is being read. To further complicate matters, Iser quotes many authors and philosophers, such as Jean Paul Sartre, Edmund Husserl, C.S. Lewis, and even Sigmund Freud, in an attempt to prove his point to the reader. What results from the massive amounts of quotes and references is that the reader is being the mental images of the some of the greatest minds, both past and present, in the world. The mental images that the reader is supposed to construct without outside guidance are actually provided to the reader in detail, going completely against Iser s own beliefs.
The concept of detachment is further developed towards the end of the text, when the idea of negation is brought into the picture. Iser believes that the interaction that causes the new experience that the reader is being exposed to can only truly come about when the reader chooses to ignore the life story of the author and the prior experiences and opinions of the reader. The only way for text to be filled with meaning is for no part of the text to already be filled by prior dispositions of either the author or reader. It is theorized that negation will heighten the reader s awareness of what is being experienced without providing any biases that could corrupt the experience.
The Act of Reading, while not being based on the author s life story, is based on one of the author s theories for life. Due to the fact that the book seeks to persuade the reader into adopting the aesthetic response theory, the text is saturated with the beliefs of the author. The reader cannot ignore them, because they are the lifeblood of the text, without them there is no book.
The reader also cannot ignore all prior beliefs of his or her own. The text calls into question the current beliefs and past experiences of the reader, therefore the reader is forced to dwell on the attitudes that he or she brought into the reading. To separate oneself from these effects would be to allow oneself to be easily persuaded without having the tools for an argument. The author s views would appear to be correct because the reader is not allowed to bring experiences into the discussion.
Iser s claim that the aesthetic response theory both can and should be used to read and review all texts proves to be unfounded when used to review The Act of Reading. Several of the points that are key to the theory fail to hold up against the text. Iser s text, due to both the style in which it was written and the prolific use of outside sources, fails to allow the reader the freedom of interpretation that Iser claims the reader must have. The problem that fouls up Iser s theory is fundamental. It is not possible to allow a reader to have a unique interaction with a text or to grant the reader freedom in discovering the meanings behind texts if the manner in which the reader approaches texts is described by a theory. Both Iser s theory is destroyed by his own text that proves, upon review, that literary theories do not promote complete freedom of interaction or thought when they dictate how a reader thinks.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University
Press, 1978. 4, 5, 21, 140.