On “Towards an Aesthetic of Reception” and “Is There a Text in this Class?”

by vinnyhaddad


I am pairing my comments on Hans Robert Jauss’s Towards an Aesthetic of Reception and Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in this Class? because each attempts to unpack the shortcomings of formalist readings of texts in an attempt to reassert the “reader” in the triangle author-text-reader.[1] Each text critiques the formalist tradition and its sanctification of “the text” as a fixed, authoritative object. In positioning the text as such, as a finished product that contains within it a fixed meaning, formalist analysis ignores the active process of reading (for Stanley Fish this very act of reading is what creates the text itself because the text is simply constituted by interpretation). The point at which a text is analyzed, critiqued, and discussed, the reader is so far removed from the reading process that the initial encounter, the “prehension,” is obscured. Jauss and Fish essentially, although for slightly different reasons and with slightly different methodology, seek to invite critics to have a more self-conscious approach to their reading experience, allow themselves to be “multiple readers” and engage with the process of interpretation. I will illuminate some of the nuances of their positions here, and offer a brief analysis of how I see these key progenitors of reader-response theory functioning in my critical framework.

For each of these theorists, the method of reader-response is crucially a historical act (Fish, 49; Jauss, “Literary History as Challenge”). Jauss juxtaposes the formalist approach to history (a dialectical relationship between many literary schools in a historical moment (“‘wherein one represents the canonized height of literature’; the canonization of a literary form leads to its automization, and demands the formation of new forms in the lower stratum that ‘conquer the place of old ones,’ grow to be a mass phenomenon, and finally are themselves pushed to the periphery [17]) and the Marxist approach (processual and “reciprocal interaction between work and mankind” [15]) to illustrate that while the former lacks an awareness of literature’s role as an affective force in history, the latter lacks an awareness of the distinctness of literary history to other histories, particularly, here, History. Jauss proposes that the reader resolves this aporia: “If on the one hand literary evolution can be comprehended within the historical change of systems, and on the other hand pragmatic history can be comprehended within the processlike linkage of social conditions, must it not then also be possible to place the ‘literary series’ and the ‘nonliterary series’ into a relation that comprehends the relationship between literature and history without forcing literature, at the expense of its character as art, into a function of mere copying or commentary?” (18). Jauss’s manifesto for the study of an “aesthetic of reception” challenges the critic to view literary history synchronically and diachronically at the same time by positioning the reader at the center of analysis.

For both Jauss and Fish, the question of the multitudinous and amorphous nature of our concept of “the reader,” and his conjoined “affective fallacy,” can be daunting for the critic, but the fear that “anything goes” is not only a red herring, but fallacious. The text arbiters a limited range of responses, given a particular subset of assumptions we can make about readers of a text. For Jauss, the reader’s “horizon of expectations” with a text are ever-changing based on the active reading process, but the initial set of expectations are set by experience, experience with genres, with poetic language, with politics, and with history:

“The psychic process in the reception of a text is, in the primary horizon of aesthetic experience, 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, which can be comprehended according to its constitutive motivations and triggering signals, and which also can be described by a textual linguistics” (23).

The sort of analysis that Jauss describes dovetails with Fish’s work with Milton’s poetics. The problem that Fish is attempting to resolve is an important one: shedding the illusion of objectivity in favor of arguing for an interpretation with controlled subjectivity (49). Is There a Text in this Class? illustrates a fascinating evolution in Fish’s thinking about the concept of the reader and how to best defend his position that reader-response is both preferable and achievable. In his opening manifesto, “Literature in the Reader,” Fish begins with his concept of the “informed reader,” a somewhat stable entity that embodies the following three qualities:

“1.) is a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built up; 2.) is in full possession of the ‘semantic knowledge that a mature…listener brings to his task of comprehension,’ including the knowledge (that is, the experience, both as a producer and comprehender) of lexical sets, collocation probabilities, idioms, professional and other dialects, and so on; and 3.) has literary competence. That is, he is sufficiently experienced as a reader to have internalized the properties of literary discourses, including everything from the most local of devices (figures of speech, and so on) to whole genres” (48).

For even this most novice deconstructionist, problems begin to clearly arise from this description of the encounter between a person and a book. How much familiarity with literature is required before one is “mature,” “informed,” and “competent”? However, Jauss establishes an important corollary to the variances in readers’ skill levels and competencies: “The interpretive reception of a text always presupposes the context of experience of aesthetic perception: the question of the subjectivity of the interpretation and of the taste of different readers or levels of readers can be asked meaningfully only when one has first clarified which transsubjective horizon of understanding conditions the influence of the text” (23). In other words, “literary competence” is necessary, but also slightly misleading as a relational concept between Fish and Jauss. For Jauss, the texts affect the reader in both a “literary series” and a “nonliterary series,” meaning that each book a person reads both affects the following book that they read and their experience of reality: “The relationship between literature and reader can actualize itself in the sensorial realm as an incitement to aesthetic perception as well as in the ethical realm as a summons to moral reflection. The new literary work is received and judged against the background of other works of art as well as against the background of everyday experience of life” (41). Jauss goes on to explain exactly how this distinction plays out in the lived praxis of two hypothetical people as a way to open up a broader view of community and history:

“For the reader is privileged above the (hypothetical) nonreader because the reader…does not first have to bump into a new obstacle to gain a new experience of reality. The experience of reading can liberate one from adaptations, prejudices, and predicaments of a lived praxis in that it compels one to a new perception of things. The horizon of expectations of historical lived praxis in that it not only preserves actual experiences, but also anticipates unrealized possibility, broadens the limited space of social behavior for new desires, claims, and goals, and thereby opens paths of future experience” (41).

In other words, not only might someone behave differently, think differently, after reading a text, but new thoughts and new possibilities come into being for the individual and the community through the fictive world. This is important to keep in mind as we examine the alternative model Fish formulates as his thinking evolves.

In his essay “Interpreting the Valorium,” Fish asserts a new framework: “interpretive communities.” “Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properities and assigning their intentions. In other words, these strategies exist prior to the act of reading and therefore determine the shape of what is read rather than, as is usually presumed” (171). The example that Fish uses is that of a reader that believes that there is one “true text” and his duty is to uncover its meaning versus the reader that believes a text contains within it many texts and many possible interpretations. Each will come away with a very different reading process because their interpretive strategies shape the way that they write the text they are reading. Fish goes on to state,

“Interpretive communities are no more stable than texts because interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned…The only stability, then, inheres in the fact (at least in my model) that interpretive strategies are always being deployed, and this means that communication is a much more chancy affair than we are accustomed to think it” (172).

Initially, it could be argued that “informed readers” came to different conclusions about a text only in their judgment of it (a step so far removed from reading that it in fact obscures the initial encounter with the text). Here, Fish suggests that it is also possible that readers “write” the texts differently based on different pre-reading interpretive models. Fish makes a beautiful rhetorical move to close this particular essay: “The only ‘proof’ of membership [to this or that interpretive community] is fellowship, the nod of recognition from someone in the same community, someone who says to you what neither of us could ever prove to a third party: ‘we know.’ I say it to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand), only if you already agree with me” (173).

Jauss and Fish dovetail in a highly productive way. Jauss’s fidelity to the reading experience as formative does not eliminate Fish’s assertion that the reader in fact also “writes” the text. Each is attempting to describe not only the active position a reader has in their encounter with a text, but how the text delimits the potential outcomes for a reading experience. Each offers a way of understanding how the text plays a critical role in affectively attuning geographically dispersed audiences. The learned interpretive strategies, shared linguistic and semantic maturity, and historical lived praxis each seem entirely unwieldy and unjustifiable positions to lay out about readers on their own. I would agree that at times in reading Stanley Fish’s descriptions of readers, he seems to be describing a particularly privileged subset of the population that enjoys a particular station in life that allows for the “literary competence” that allows entry into any interpretive community to begin with. The interpretive strategies that Fish lays out even appear particularly academic ones, but I would submit that these academic ones represent an increased diversity than are available for “non-professional” readers. As Timothy Aubry argues, middle-class American readers’ (as a problematic but functional descriptive category) interpretive tendencies are shaped by American public schools, by publishers’ marketing strategies, and by Oprah Winfrey’s book club. With the proliferation of nationalized standards in education, more finely tuned algorithmic maps used by booksellers like Amazon, and the somewhat ironic crystallization of fewer, more tightly regulated interpretive communities on-line, the task may actually be more achievable, or at least achievable in a different way, in today’s literary field than in the seventies when Jauss and Fish were wrestling with these problems.

[1]Reading for a Qualifying Exam is demanding and time is of the essence, so the following comment comes without having familiarity with the oeuvre of Stanley Fish. However, I was astonished that he did not reference Hans Robert Jauss a single time in Is There a Text in This Class? Perhaps it is because of my “evolving horizon of expectations,” but I see Fish’s persuasive argument as a oblique elaboration of the theses laid out by Hans Robert Jauss in his essay, “Literary History as a Challenge.”