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in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet


Winfried Fluck



In the current critical climate of a far-reaching politicization of literary studies, it has become customary to dismiss reception aesthetics, and, more specifically, the theory of reading developed by Wolfgang Iser, as being ahistorical, apolitical, and, worst of all, "liberal."1 Although the major discussions of, and objections to, Iser's theory of reading focused initially on the question of the precise nature of the text-reader-relationship, this political critique set in already in the 70s and early 80s and has since then taken the standard form of criticizing Iser's "liberal humanist ideology." (Eagleton, 79) In this argument, liberalism is not used as a term of political theory, for this would mean to refer to a body of assumptions about political organization, the distribution of power, or issues of justice and fairness2. Instead, "liberal humanism" functions as a shorthand for an apparent evasion of political commitment and ideological analysis in favor of a persistent belief in the transcending powers of art. From this point of view, an increased cognitive mobility of the individual reader will not lead to change but merely to self-confirmation: "The reader is not so much radically upbraided, as simply returned to himself or herself as a more thoroughly liberal subject." (Eagleton, 79) Already in 1980, Lentricchia had argued that Iser's reception theory posits a seemingly "neutral" reader while, in reality, it privileges a certain historical type by defining the reader "as an autonomous and private individual." (Lentricchia, 149) The term 'private individual' does not only point to a retreat from politics. It also draws its polemical edge from an insinuation of an attitude that is considered socially irresponsible. Consequently, Iser's reading subject is described in the language of personal indulgence: "So from a theory which in its beginnings appeared to promise movement in a historicist direction, we end with a theory centered in the delights of the personal (sic) reading subject." (149f.) The true purpose of Iser's theory of reading "is not to know the text (...), but to experience ourselves as active, creative, and free agents..." (149) The cognitive mobility which reception aesthetics envisages is really a fight against the boredom of the bourgeois subject: "Perhaps because Iser defines authorial intention as the desire to help the reader to avoid boredom by experiencing the joy of his activated deciphering capacity, he is uninterested in asking what a text is and what a reader is." (149) In this sense, the aesthetics of reception embodies "some straightforward hedonistic values." (149) Others have stated the case less hyberbolically, but have remained within the paradigm of liberal self-indulgence. Holub, for example, takes Iser to task for implying "a competent and cultured reader" and criticizes "the espousal of a liberal world view." (Holub, 97f.)3 Even Jane Tompkins, who played an important role in introducing a variety of theories of the reading process to American readers, insists that the "divorce between literature and politics, which was finally effected with the advent of formalism" (xxvi) has not been overcome but perpetuated by critics like Iser: "In short, reader-response critics define their work as a radical departure from New Critical principles, but I believe that a closer look at the theory and practice of these critics will show that they have not revolutionized literary theory but merely transposed formalist principles into a new key." (201)

In their determination to "unmask" Iser, critics such as Eagleton or Lentricchia can be seen as representative of current forms of political criticism. Their criticism paved the way for a wide-spread perception of Iser's phenomenological theory of reading as an escape from politics. As a result, reception theory and the aesthetics of reception, once considered one of the major reorientations in contemporary literary theory, have begun to disappear from surveys of major approaches of literary criticism. In the recent volume on "Criticism" of the Cambridge History of American Literature (Carton & Graff, 1996), which presents a survey of contemporary literary criticism from the point of view of a "politically oriented criticism," reception aesthetics is no longer even mentioned. This disinterest has also affected the perception - and critical reception - of Iser's more recent project of a "literary anthropology" which grew out of his theory of reading (partly in response to certain recurrent points of criticism levelled at reception aesthetics). This anthropological turn has provided the basis for some of the most interesting and promising work currently done in literary studies in Germany, but it has had surprisingly little impact on current debates in American literary and cultural theory which continues to focus on "invisible" manifestations of discursive power effects. Another way of making the same point would be to say that reception aesthetics and literary anthropology are no longer of central theoretical interest because contemporary literary theory has refashioned itself as "critical theory" to which they do not seem to be able to contribute anything.

But if it is true, as Eagleton claims - I think, correctly - that "there is no such thing as a purely 'literary' response," that "all such responses...are deeply imbricated with the kind of social and historical individuals we are" (89), and that, moreover, informing and sustaining literary theories "are more or less definite readings of social reality," (90) then one would in face be required that we look more closely at the historical and political constituents of a particular theory. To restrict the search for a historical context to the convenient label "liberal subject" is a piece of - unexamined - essentialism in reverse and actually strikingly ahistoricist, because the term is, at a closer look, not used as a category of historical analysis but for the purpose of ideological contrast between a Marxist perspective and its absence. Neither Eagleton nor Lentricchia, in contrast to their own professed theoretical orientation, is interested in approaching the issue historically4. In almost all discussions of the aesthetics of reception, the discussion has remained on a synchronic and strictly innerdisciplinary level, constituted by the broad umbrella terms reception theory or reader response criticism, so that the "context" in which reception aesthetics is discussed is that of competing theories of the reading process. In this essay, I propose to provide another context by trying to recover some of the historical and political experiences that stand at the beginning of Iser's work and have provided it with a set of questions and themes to which he has returned time and again. As I want to claim, the three major stages in the development of Iser's work - his "modernist" phase, his reformulation of a modernist aesthetics as a theory of reading, and his extension of an aesthetics of reception into literary anthropology - can be seen as three stages in the development of a project that has its origin in the immediate post-War period when Iser began his studies at the Universities of Tübingen and Heidelberg.


Where attempts are being made to provide a historical context for reception aesthetics, the major point of reference is usually the German student movement of the 60s which initially considered reception theory as a useful ally in the fight against a sterile, obsolete, and, in many cases, deeply compromised form of philology. Iser himself has characterized reception aesthetics as a reaction to "the widely justified dissatisfaction of what had been taught in the literature department," and as response to a far-reaching crisis of legitimation of literary studies at the German universities of the 50s and 60s. In this sense, the aesthetics of reception was directed against "the reification of the bourgeois concept of literature" as much as was the protest of the student movement. Yet when the student movement turned to orthodox Marxist and Maoist positions in the early 70s and began to question the "social relevance" of literary studies altogether, the two allies in an initially broad movement for academic reform parted company. The experience of a "fossilized" philological method provided scholars like Iser and Jauss with an impulse to make literary studies relevant again, but it was the challenge of a politicized student movement that gave a specific direction to that impulse. Since the student movement turned to a naive mirror-reflection theory ("Widerspiegelung"), a defense of literature as a form of communication with its own specific potential for responding to reality had to be able to legitimate literature in a way that resorted neither to the concept of "Widerspiegelung," nor to the outworn philological concepts and practices of the past: "In order to find a more adequate answer to why literature was still important, a paradigm change became necessary."5 The turn to the role of the reader in the process of meaning-formation provided an ideal solution. By focusing on the activity of the reader, a convincing case could be made that the significance of literature was not identical with the textual object and could not be reduced to a message. The study of literature could thus be limited neither to formal analysis nor to an assessment of the "realism" and political correctness of a particular form of literary representation.

The question remains, however, why Iser was so strongly convinced that the study of literature was important. Before literature could be defended against claims of "irrelevance," there had to be a will and strong motivation to do so. This sense of a special importance of literature was not the result of a reaction to the student movement. It was the result of much earlier experiences. Iser's theory and theoretical development, I want to claim, cannot be fully understood and appreciated without taking into account the historical moment immediately after World War II and the encounter with a compromised cultural heritage that it brought about for a young intellectual coming of age in post-War Germany. In a rare autobiographical statement, a short, little-known speech of self-characterization, delivered in 1976 on the occasion of his induction into the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, Iser traced his decision to study literature back to the experience of a "zero hour" in post-War Germany: "When the war ended, I was 18 and thought that the study of literature could help me to realize my own need for distance." ("Antrittsrede," 27) "Distance" here refers not to a wish for disengagement but to the opening up of a space for self-determination. It promises to overcome an all-pervasive corruption of thought by Nazi ideology and to finally find a way of thinking for oneself: "As other members of my generation, I hoped that the study of literature would finally enable me to develop my own perspective on life." (27)6 Literature provides "distance" not through escape but through its potential to open up another perspective upon that which is unquestioned. This assertion against dominant, unquestioned systems of thought became the driving force of Iser's intellectual development and the major focus of his own theoretical work. The search for distance invests his work at every turn. In fact, his work can be understood as one long, ongoing exploration of the conditions which constitute distance and the possible modes of maintaining it.

Iser's search for distance can be misunderstood as liberal self-indulgence only, if one disregards the historical context in which it has its origin. The first step in that search was to overcome exactly those received bourgeois notions of culture with which critics still want to associate Iser's work. Iser himself speaks of "the illusory nature of humanistic culture" (Prospecting, 207) and "a humanistic ideology" that led "to a whole fabric of delusions" (206) and then approvingly paraphrases Herbert Marcuse: "This basic disposition of humanistic culture, Marcuse concluded, lent itself readily to any kind of manipulation, as evinced by the political fate of Germany, from which this ideal originally arose." (209) Thus, "Humanization through culture has been proved by history - especially in Germany - to be an illusion..." (207) Although the classical humanist tradition gave rise to the prospect of distance through its promise of aesthetic transcendence, this promise is also the basis of its "irrelevance" in a situation such as the post-War period. "Autonomous art did not ennoble man, as is all too clear from the appalling slaughter that has taken place in this century." (206) To reaffirm a tradition of humanist education would thus merely start another cycle of self-deception7. Iser is very much aware of this danger from the start and looks for ways to dissociate himself from this tradition through a series of reorientations within his field of study. His early academic career is characterized by three practical acts of distancing: To turn to "foreign languages" and especially English was the first of these acts8; to turn to literature in an academic discipline which still defined itself primarily as the historical study of language was another9; to focus on modernism, then still considered a symptom of cultural decay in both conservative and leftist camps, was a third10. These reorientations paved the way for a theoretical reflection on the role and function of literature and, particularly, on its potential to provide distance. The most important step in the pursuit of distance consisted, however, in the development of a theory of literature that would emphasize literature's potential to expose the limitations and unacknowledged deficiencies of accepted systems of thought.

In his Heidelberg address, Iser concedes that the hopes he put on literature may have been influenced originally by the bourgeois sacralization of art. It makes good sense, therefore, that he started his own theoretical project with a study of Walter Pater, because Pater's aestheticism provided a radical version of the idea of art as the ultimate value of existence. An analysis of Pater's work "seemed to promise experience of what it meant to make Art the ultimate value of finite existence. Such an experience would bring to light the problems which New Criticism could not cope with, since it was no longer concerned with the consequences of the autonomous object." (Pater, vii) The "New Criticism has separated artistic technique from its pragmatic functions and has made it into an end in itself." (Prospecting, 15) Pater may stand firmly in a tradition of conceptualization as autonomous, but his radical commitment to "art for art's sake" made him shift his attention to the experiential dimension of our encounter with art and to the stature of aesthetic experience. Iser's somewhat surprising turn to a writer who already looked "dated" in the era of the New Criticism, thus serves two purposes. On the one hand, it allows him to address what he considers a weakness in formalism's approach to art which, in light of the origin of his own interest in literature, must have appeared especially glaring: New Critics have nothing to say about the function and aesthetic effects of the literary works they are interpreting closely. Pater, in contrast, "dealt precisely with these problems, because for him Art was an ultimate value, enabling man to forget the pressure of finite human existence. For Pater autonomous Art and real life joined hands, as it were, under the table - a relationship that could only be anathema to the basic principles of New Criticism. And so by analysing Pater's work I hoped to uncover what had been glossed over by New Criticism and had thus ultimately caused its demise as a paradigm of interpretation." (Pater, viif.) Iser never subscribed to the idea of art as a self-referential object. Pater was of interest to him because he discusses art in terms of possible effects, without, on the other hand, using mimetic models. What Iser takes from Pater is the conceptualization of the aesthetic sphere as an intermediate realm "in-between." It is a configuration which was extremely useful for the search for distance and to which Iser therefore returned again and again in later stages of his work, although in some interesting transformations.

For Iser's later work, Pater's definition of the aesthetic mode is helpful on two accounts: On the one hand, Pater describes the aesthetic not as a quality of the object but as an attitude to be taken toward an object, so that the description of aesthetic experience cannot be confused with the search for meaning, or, worse, a "message." On the other hand, the aesthetic sphere is described by Pater in a way that creates something like an in-built distance. It constitutes itself out of an "interpenetration of opposites" which has the effect of invalidating "existing norms without replacing them with others." (Pater, 81) The basic characteristic of this space "in-between" is that it is a state between either-or positions, never identical with any of them, but, instead, always moving between them. As Iser would later describe the effect: "The resultant dynamic oscillation betwen the two ensures that their old meanings now become potential sources for new ones. It is such transformations that give rise to the aesthetic dimension of the text, for what had long seemed closed is now opened up again." (Prospecting, 237f.) In this model, the incessant movement "between" is the crucial factor, because it prevents the subject from the danger of becoming arrested in any one position or perspective and in this way secures distance. Where distance to a position is established by mere negation, on the other hand, one is in obvious danger of taking up merely a counter-position - and thereby losing one's ability to preserve a critical distance to that counter-position. The only way to prevent this is to be in movement between position and counter-position, so that the two constantly put each other in perspective. This space in-between should not be understood as a dialectical synthesis, however, that is, as creation of a "third" position in which the first position and its negation are reconciliated. It is a halfway state that is, by definition, not a position, because it can only be conceptualized as an interplay between its constituents: "Reconciliation was not a dialectic movement toward synthesis; it was, rather, an interaction of opposites, a telescoping of incompatibles.."(39) One should not mistake this model as an acceleration of a flight from commitment, therefore, but, quite on the contrary, as a consequent application of the idea of negation which also embraces negation itself.

Iser's analysis of Pater's work does not provide him only with a model for the description of the aesthetic mode. It also provides him with an opportunity to explore the possibilities of describing the "in-between world whose territory Pater wanted to chart" (135) and to develop a vocabulary for its description which would form the basis of the description of aesthetic experience in his later work. For any reader who is aware of the centrality of the idea of the "in-between" for Iser's theory of reading and of fiction, it must be striking to realize the extent to which this idea (and the language for describing it) are already present in the book on Pater. Again and again, the book returns to that elusive transitional quality which characterizes the "in-between" state. Pater's interest in transitional periods provides one opportunity: "When this happens, the determinate becomes vague and permeated by a dark and still uncertain future, giving rise to a discernible moment of transition in which the old loses its validity and the new is not as yet firmly established. The two must interact, since the new depends on the old for its shape, gaining determinacy to the degree in which it erodes the old. The moment of transition brackets the two together and thus encompasses what in terms of philosophical and moral definitions can only be conceived as separate entities." (38f.) It is art which brings about the reconciliation between old and new and "so the transitional quality was only to be understood in aesthetic terms." (39) Art, for Pater, "is an in-between region of undecidedness, separating itself from a single metaphysical interpretation of the world without being committed to rejecting such an interpretation." (40) Art brings about a reconciliation, "an interaction of opposites, a telescoping of incompatibles.." (39) Beauty embodies a quality which belongs to a region halfway between empirical reality and a transcendent world... (66) "The untamed mobility of sensual experience and the abstractness of the transcendental idea find common ground in aesthetic qualities in which neither pure experience nor pure abstraction is ultimately triumphant." (87) Art thus can be seen as "an intermediate realm, situated between an experiential and an intangible reality, and this realm takes on a tangible reality in history." (69) The relation of art to periods of transition is therefore twofold: "as the only genuine representation of the interpenetration of opposites, it nevertheless appears to be dependent on history, which alone provides the backing for such a view... And the absence of the overriding ideal rendered the process aesthetic, since all these periods of transition invalidated existing norms without replacing them with others. Art, as aesthetic reconcilitation, embodied this in-between world and drew its tangibility and its legimitation from history." (81)11

Pater's Imaginary Portraits reveal how conscious he was "of the problems associated with the aesthetic sphere. (...) It is a sphere suspended halfway between dissatisfaction with human experience and the moral resolve to change reality." (167) This halfway position is for Pater the true sphere of life: "It is in the middle terms that Pater embraces, whereas Pascal would obliterate them with his demand for all or nothing." (168) The avoidance of "either / or decisions" creates a problem, however, as soon as it is used as a recipe for living: "The aesthete lives in contradiction to reality, and herein lies the revolutionary aspect of his attitude, for his approach breaks up existing, solidified forms of life. But he can go no further than this negative contradiction, being unable to devise new forms and ideals. This is why all Pater's characters perish in the end." (168) The negating potential of the aesthetic mode is turned into mere negation once it is lived. Mere negation reifies distance because it arrests distance and robs it of its ability to constantly renew itself. The conflation of art must contradict Pater's own conception of the aesthetic mode because it leads to a "reification of an in-between state" (169) and thus turns art into another ultimate ground which would be in need of negation. What was designed to break through reification (16), ends up in a new form of reification. (168) Iser, therefore, cannot accept Pater's extension of the aesthetic sphere to an aesthetic existence, because it robs the aesthetic of its very potential for distance.


The challenge emerging from this dilemma is that of a reconceptualization of the aesthetic that retains the idea of a specific function and potential of the aesthetic mode, without, however, turning it into another model for living. The literature to achieve this, not only for Iser, was modernism. Iser saw the book on Pater as paving the way for his study of modernist literature which interested him as "Reflexionskunst," as an "art of reflexivity."12 Reflexivity is needed because it can secure and increase distance. In the traditional modernist argument, it does this by breaking up an illusion of representation. In his first studies of modernist literature Iser seems to subscribe to this traditional modernist model. In an early essay on "Image und Montage," Iser describes imagism as an art form that helps to liberate an object from conventionalized forms of perception: "The function of art lies in the subversion of the illusions on which our perception is based; because the poetic image opens up an unexpected view of the object, it draws attention to the illusionism of conventional forms of perception."13 Iser's interpretation draws on T. E. Hulme's argument that the purpose of literature lies in the deautomatization of perception: "Poetry is to defamiliarize the conventionalized forms of perception, so that teleologically inspired constructions of reality are not confused with reality itself. This project is generated by an important impulse of this new type of poetry: the impulse to create the possibility for freedom. In order to realize this potential, the different perspectives on the object must contain a certain degree of reflexivity, for the poetical images are to reveal a dimension of reality that is hidden by convention."14

For this modernist model, reflexivity is crucial, for it alone can elevate the defamiliarization of convention beyond the level of a mere routine of making things new, so that defamiliarization leads not only to a new perception but also to an increased understanding. It is important to realize, however, that Iser quickly began to move away from an aesthetics of defamiliarization and that his own project should not be confused with this branch of modernism. The distancing already begins in "Image und Montage," where Iser takes pains to differentiate the modernist project of deautomatization from the Marxist concept of defamiliarization ("Verfremdung"), as it is propagated, for example, by Ernst Bloch in his book Verfremdungen: "Imagist poetry only bears similarities to the Marxist concept of defamiliarization ("Verfremdungseffekt") in that the image brings about a deautomatization of conventional forms of perception; the ensuing pluralization of perception, however, is diametrically opposed to Bloch's Verfremdungseffekt."15 In a later contribution to a volume of the group Poetik und Hermeneutik on Positionen der Negativität (Positions of Negativity), the argument is broadened to also include the concept of defamiliarization outlined by Russian formalism16. Iser illustrates the difference between their and his position by distinguishing between acts of perception (Wahrnehmung) and acts of imagining (Vorstellung). Perception is directed at objects that are already there and exist independently of the act of perception, while the 'objects' of the imagination are never identical with reality and thus give shape to something that is absent17. The concept of defamiliarization expounded by Russian formalism is built on perception; its purpose is to liberate our perception from unquestioned habits and conventions in order to enable us to see things in a new and 'fresh' way18. Iser's concept of negation on the other hand emphasizes the power of art to articulate something that is not pre-given and yet unformulated. This is an important modification that paves the way for Iser's transformation of the modernist project into the theory of reading developed in The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading. The modernist theory of defamiliarization can temporarily open up distance but it cannot maintain distance. This formalist concept of defamiliarization cannot explain aesthetic experience, but only aesthetic experience can create a form of distance that is more than a temporary complication of the act of perception.

However, our acts of imagining do not automatically possess an aesthetic quality. Such an aesthetic quality is created only when the 'imagined objects' are deformed, negated, or delegitimated in their validity, because such negation also challenges us to imagine that which is negated. It does this in a double sense, for in order to make the negation meaningful we have to mentally construct not only the object or situation itself which appears in negation but also that which it negates. We also have to relate it to the absent or non-verbalized horizon of meaning in which the negating act makes sense and by which it is motivated: "Negation therefore represents a specific modality to which this knowledge is subjected in a sense once defined by Husserl as follows: 'No matter what kind of object may be involved, it is always characteristic of negation that the superimposition of a new meaning upon one already constituted is tantamount to the displacement of the latter; and correlatively in a poetic sense a second concept is formed which does not lie beside the first, displaced one, but above it and in conflict with it.'" (Act, 213) Negation, therefore, not only engenders blanks within the textual repertoire but also maneuvers the reader into an intermediate position between what is canceled and what has to be supplied as the motivation for the cancellation: "It is through the blanks that the negations take on their productive force: the old negated meaning returns to the conscious mind when a new one is superimposed onto it; this new meaning is unformulated, and for precisely this reason needs the old, as this has been changed by the negation back into material for interpretation, out of which the new meaning is to be fashioned." (Act, 217) Negation in the modernist sense of deformation, subversion or defamiliarization is an important starting point to set in motion this movement between what is canceled and what is put in its place in motion, but it is not sufficient to describe what takes place in experiencing an aesthetic object. A "negative aesthetics" is therefore insufficient for Iser. In order to capture the specific potential of aesthetic experience he adds the term negativity to that of negation. Negativity goes beyond the semantic level of negation to include an "unformulated and unwritten dimension" of our experience of the literary text: "Blanks and negations increase the density of fictional texts, for the omissions and cancellations indicate that practically all the formulations of the text refer to an unformulated background, and so the formulated text has a kind of unformulated double. This 'double' we shall call negativity, and its function deserves a few concluding remarks. Unlike negations, negativity is not formulatd by the text, but forms the unwritten base; it does not negate the formulations of the text, but - via blanks and negations - conditions them. It enables the written words to transcend their literal meaning, to assume a multiple referentiality, and to transcend their literal meaning, to assume a multiple referentiality, and so to undergo the expansion necessary to transplant them as a new experience into the mind of the reader." (Act, 225f.) Negativity is redefined as effect of a structure of doubling which characterizes the literary text and distinguishes it from other discursive modes by definition.

What the term negativity allows Iser to do then is to transform the configuration of an interplay or "in-between" from a movement between either-or opposites, as it is still conceptualized in the book on Pater, to one between present and absent dimension of the text - and thus to stress the crucial role of imagining acts in aesthetic experience. Negativity as an experience of non-identity is an unformulated constituent of the text. It is the precondition for making us experience something which is not already there: "This brings us to the third feature of negativity. Communication would be unnecessary if that which is to be communicated were not to some extent unfamiliar. Thus fiction may be defined as a form of communication, since it brings into the world something which is not already there. This something must reveal itself if it is to be comprehended. However, as the unfamiliar elements cannot be manifested under the same conditions pertaining to familiar existing conceptions, that which literature brings into the world can only reveal itself as negativity." (Act, 229) Negativity, in this sense of an unlimited negating potential, also functions as the negation of the negation19. It is permanent distance, so to speak, because it dislocates all norms, meanings, and forms of organization, not just those we would like to negate. This continuous invalidation is also the precondition for activating literature's special potential: "In this way negativity not only shows that it is not negative, since it constantly lures absence into presence: While continually subverting that presence, negativity, in fact, changes it into a carrier of absence of which we would not otherwise know anything." (Budick, xiv) Negativity thus "does not so much indicate oppositions as combine negation with a resultant unforeseeability." (Budick, xv) By transforming a modernist concept of de-automatization into an aesthetics of negativity, the "new" perception of the modernist model becomes an intangible other with which literature brings us into contact.

It is obvious that such a use of the concept of negativity stands in marked opposition to an Hegelian negativity which is to bring about self-consciousness20. On the other hand, Iser refers to Adorno's aesthetics in his own definition of negativity and thereby points to a common interest in the negating potential of literature which, in view of the complete collapse of a once cherished cultural tradition, linked a wide range of intellectual projects in post-War Germany21. Iser's contributions to the Poetik und Hermeneutik- volume (above all his position papers "Konträre Leistungen der Negation" and "Negativität als tertium quid von Darstellung und Rezeption"), his concluding chapters on "Negation" and "Negativity" in The Act of Reading, and the introduction to the volume Languages of the Unsayable. The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, written together with Sanford Budick and entitled "The Critical Turn: Toward 'Negativity' and the 'Unsayable'," testify to the fact that Iser, in marked contrast to a perception of his approach as "formalist" or "liberal humanist," works within a critical tradition based on the premise of literature's negating potential. But the difference is more significant than the similarities. The way in which this common starting point was realized in the theoretical work of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and the Constance School of Reception Aesthetics soon led in very different directions. The Poetik und Hermeneutik volume on "Positions of Negativity," published in 1975, brings the contrast out into the open. In its attempt to make literature politically relevant, the student movement had initially revived critical theory and its project of a "negative aesthetics," but had eventually watered it down to the idea of explicit political criticism which would leave only a choice between "affirmation" or "negation" for literature. In this way, the student movement has arrived at "pure" negation and has merely turned the idealistic tradition of the 19th century upside down: "With pure negation the revolution remains dependent upon that which it negates. (...) Thus, the tradition of the nineteenth century has prevailed over its would-be-destroyers." (Prospecting, 200)22 Reception aesthetics defines itself against this reduction and this, in turn, meant to reconsider and reconceptualize the terms negation and negativity23.

In his essay on "Negativity and Identification," ("Negativität und Identifikation")24, Hans Robert Jauss therefore takes his point of departure from a critique of Adorno's aesthetics of negativity. His basic point is that Adorno's radical restriction of negativity to those hermetic modernist works that defy a seemingly all-pervasive logic of systemic affirmation cannot account for a wide range of aesthetic experiences. "The history of art simply cannot be subsumed under the general term of negativity..." (Weinrich, 285) Negativity defined as social resistance is subject to historical change. Art that was once conceived as a negating act often changes its function during the historical reception and may even become a cherished "classic." More importantly, Adorno's concept of negativity cannot account for art's potential to establish new forms of orientation and is thus inadequate to account for a wide variety of art forms, because for Adorno this "positive" communicative potential is immediately suspected of reaffirming a systemic logic of instrumental reason. In his own attempt to present an alternative, Jauss thus restricts the use of the term negativity to the idea of negation and goes on to revive such seemingly traditional concepts like identification and cartharsis for the description of aesthetic experience25. In contrast, Iser reclaims the term negativity for the description of aesthetic experience itself by radicalizing the idea of the intermediate realm. Like Jauss, Iser wants to draw attention to the productive communicative potential of literature. But in contrast to Jauss he does not advance this project by pointing to the variety of alternative modes of aesthetic experience, but by locating this potential in negativity itself, because it is negativity, defined as the doubling structure of the literary text, which generates aesthetic experience by articulating something that is absent26. The concept of negativity thus allows Iser to transform the search for distance from a figure of self-defense to a source of creative self-extension. For Adorno, negativity is inextricably linked to a particular historical situation which, in the present, leaves only the option of hermetic withdrawal27; for Iser negativity becomes a prerequisite for the articulation of something that is otherwise not accessible, or indeed is "unsayable."28


This transformation of negativity from a concept of radical resistance to an enabling structure and productive matrix lies at the center of Iser's reception aesthetics which cannot be understood without the constitutive role which the terms negation and negativity play for his theory of reading29. The crucial concept of the blank is a rewriting of the idea of negation in phenomenological terms that allows Iser to ground the promise of distance in the act of cognition itself. As Iser has pointed out repeatedly in defense of the concept, a blank is not to be equated with a mere gap, or an ideologically instructive omission. Nor is it an innertextual rupture that indicates an underlying contradiction of the textual or social system. It is an intentional, often carefully crafted, suspension of connectivity in order to make us provide links for what is disconnected. The difference is significant and of central relevance for the question of distance: A gap allows readers to indulge in their own projections (or suspicions), a blank compels them to set up relations between their own imaginary projections and the world of the text and thereby prevent a mere identification with either one of them. The possibility of distance to one's own dispositions is thus no longer generated by certain defamiliarizing strategies of avantgarde literature but by the very activity through which we make sense of literary texts, because this activity requires an interplay between a textual segment and the mental projection of a meaningful context and creates a constant switching of perspectives between reference and negation, blank and suspended relation30.

The whole point about the concept of the blank lies in the possibility to describe this configuration of interplay: Blanks elicit a constant switching of figure and ground through which we try to compensate for the suspension of connectivity and the ensuing indeterminacy of the text. Blanks thus initiate a certain mode of text processing characterized by constant perspectival shifts. As a "negating" structure, suspended in connectivity and, hence, characterized by indeterminacy, the literary text can be meaningfully processed only by a movement back and forth between figure and ground which compels the reader to look at the text from constantly reversed angles. These constant perspectival shifts generate "distance" in a far more persistent and systematic way than modernist strategies of negation could. Even uncompromising forms of negation entail, in the final analysis, only a change in position31. This is not to say that the reader cannot or should not take up new perspectives or positions. But the provisional nature of this perspective, its status as a "try-out," will work against a loss of distance. The argument is not for an elusive position outside of ideology, but for an awareness of the provisional nature of any given world-view. The literary text is especially well-suited to create an awareness of this provisional nature, because, in reading, we inevitably have to complement the linguistic representation of reality by mental images. These images are necessarily provisional and unstable, because we create them as we go along reading. Hence the often unpleasant and irritating need to reconsider and revise our mental constructs in the course of the reading process. The literary text can therefore be seen as a training ground for the ability to correct or revise our interpretations of reality and to make us aware of their provisionality32.

Most forms of reader-response criticism can be characterized as theories of meaning in which the reader is assigned a new role and a new freedom in the construction of meaning. This explains the predictable and often-repeated objection that Iser's theory of reading is only a half-hearted attempt to liberate the reader, because he does not give up the idea of textual determinants33. It is one of the most misunderstood aspects about reception aesthetics that it is not a theory of meaning but of aesthetic experience34. Consequently, Iser is not talking about the level of meaning, but about the act of text-processing in which everything that is non-identical has to be referred back to that which it negates or complements in order to be able to construe it as an object35. The reader is not discovered because he has been neglected so far, but because he is the agent who is needed to realize the potential of literature to provide an aesthetic experience. This potential does not arise from the semantic level but from a complex set of interactions: "Whatever the relationships may be like, two different types of discourse are ever-present, and their simultaneity triggers a mutual revealing and concealing of their respective contextual references. From this interplay there emerges semantic instability that is exacerbated by the fact that the two sets of discourse are also contexts for each other, so that each in turn is constantly switching from background to foreground. The one discourse becomes the theme viewed from the standpoint of the other, and vice versa. The resultant dynamic oscillation between the two ensures that their old meanings now become potential sources for new ones. It is such transformations that give rise to the aesthetic dimension of the text, for what had long seemed closed is now opened up again." (Prospecting, 237f.) As a logical consequence, Iser's theory of reading moves beyond interpretation to text processing, because it is this processing which opens up the possibility of aesthetic effect. This shift from meaning to aesthetic effect marks a crucial step in the search for distance. If distance would depend on (negative) textual meaning, then it could not be permanently secured, because it could be the representation of just another ideology. Thus, it has to be located in a realm that is, by definition, not identical with meaning. The true potential of literature lies "in-between." Or, to put it differently: The promise of literature to provide distance resides in its aesthetic dimension.

Do all literary texts provide this distance? Is it provided, for example, by sentimental or realist novels which are, after all, historically highly influential manifestations of the potential of literature to have an impact on the reader? Is negativity in Iser's definition of a double structure an element of all literary texts or are specific literary strategies or genres required to produce it? In one way, there can be no doubt that negativity is a characteristic of literature in general, if it is defined as a specific form of communication in which reality is doubled and thereby made "irreal."36 But it is also plausible to assume that certain textual strategies may be especially effective in achieving this result, for example, by breaking up the illusion of representation through a decontextualization of images, as in the case of imagism, or by the dissolution of realist modes of narration, as in Ulysses and other examples of high modernism. Iser himself gives rise to an understanding of his aesthetics of reception as a specifically modernist project by beginning a programmatic essay on Ulysses with a reference to the close relation, since the Romantic era, between new forms of literature and new literary theories which grow out of the literature they seek to understand. He continues: "This radical switch engendered by Ulysses also necessitated a change of interpretative paradigm that would enable the critic to capture the experience undergone in Ulysses." (Prospecting, 135) The emergence of reception aesthetics is thus explained as a response to experimental modernism. If Ulysses "is first and foremost a structure for eliciting responses and thereby engaging its readers, then a theory that is applicable to such literature must incorporate this change: it must replace the author-oriented perspective by one that is reader-oriented." (136) Seen this way, Ulysses and "reader-response theory" become part of a modernist teleology "from representation to effect." (136) Ulysses destroys an illusion of representation to which the realist novel of the 19th century had accustomed its readers, reception aesthetics is the fitting approach for a literature that disrupts representation and thus forces the reader to supply what is suspended, negated, or deformed: "This shattering of hallowed expectations points to the fact that the strategies of the novel are less concerned with depicting a given reality than with undermining attitudes of the reader established by tradition. (...) The undercutting of norms, however, will inevitably bring them above the threshold of consciousness and thus exhibit them for inspection. They are then shifted into a new perspective that is not part of them and that consequently brings to light that which remained hidden so long as their validity remained unquestioned." (136) In statements like these, Iser still seems to tie the potential of literature to provide distance to an anti-representational mode.

There is a fine line between focusing on a text because it is especially well-suited to exemplify an aspect that characterizes all literary texts, and elevating a particular type of text or genre to a norm against which all other texts are measured. The Implied Reader is an especially interesting book in this respect. On the one hand, the book valorizes literary modernism as a literature which stands at the end of a line of development in which blanks assume an increasingly important role, so that modernist literature emerges as a literature which seems to realize the potential of literature most effectively. On the other hand, the description of this special potential points to an element which must, in principle, be a quality of all literary texts. It is often forgotten that The Implied Reader deals not only deal with Faulkner, Joyce and Beckett but also with Bunyan, Scott and the realist novel. To tie the negating potential of literature to certain modernist strategies would clearly strengthen the claim that literature is a medium which is especially well-suited to provide "distance," but it would also weaken the claim that this effect is a consequence of literature as a medium. Thus, tying this function to modernist strategies tendentially undermined a general defense of literature as inherently "different."

The problem is addressed by moving from the historical approach of The Implied Reader to the phenomenological approach of The Act of Reading37. This move solves a problem (that of a modernist teleology), but creates another one. By giving up the possibility of historical differentiation, the description of aesthetic effect has to focus on the systematization of the network of textual perspectives and relationships that function as a prerequisite for the production of an aesthetic effect. This brings about a rich and useful inner differentiation in the description of the reading process and the sources of interplay, but it also leads to a formalization that, ironically enough, can never go beyond the description of the literary text's potential: "As meaning arises out of the process of actualization, the interpreter should perhaps pay more attention to the process than to the product. His object should therefore be, not to explain a work, but to reveal the conditions that bring about its various possible effects. If he clarifies the potential of a text, he will no longer fall into the fatal trap of trying to impose one meaning on his reader, as if that were the right or at least the best, interpretation." (Act, 18) But this triumphant liberation from the "fatal trap" of a search for meaning has a price, because it limits the possibilities of literary criticism to that of pointing out basic operations of text processing and, as a consequence, results in characterizations that can be marked by frustrating sameness.

In his critique of naively mimetic readings of Ulysses, Iser quite rightly criticizes a Marxist interpretation based on the mirror-reflection theory, because it will find in the literary text only a confirmation of its own prior economic and social analysis. This provides a severely restricted description of aesthetic experience: "Why should the futility of every-day life be reproduced in a novel, and why should we be fascinated by the reproduction of our drabness and misery?" (Prospecting, 136) Instead, a reader-oriented analysis "serves to elucidate the processes by means of which everday life is made accessible to experience." (137) It does this, by making the reader aware, as it is put in the preface to The Implied Reader, "of his own tendency to link things together in consistent patterns, and indeed of the whole thought process that constitutes his relations with the world outside himself. (...) In this way, the reader is forced to discover the hitherto unconscious expectations that underlie all his perceptions, and also the whole process of consistency-building as a prerequisite for understanding." (Reader, XIV) The terminology used in different essays varies, but the basic pattern of the argument - and the function it assigns to the literary text - is remarkably similar. By shattering expectations, undercutting norms, and undermining traditional attitudes, these unquestioned forms of sense-making will "inevitably" be brought above the threshold of consciousness" and thus exhibited for inspection: "They are then shifted into a new perspective that is not part of them and that consequently brings to light that which remained hidden so long as their validity remained unquestioned." (Prospecting, 136) The result of such self-awareness is an insight into the provisionality and artificiality of our ways of world-making. But why should we be returning to literature again and again in order to gain this one insight, as if all reading can only lead to a reenactment of always the same experience? Moreover, why should we be reading literary criticism that will predictably and unfailingly find this one potential in its interpretive objects? One may even argue that the emphatic promise of self-awareness is undermined by the puzzling fact that the approach reveals no awareness of the problem that a phenomenological theory of reading will inevitably privilege those aspects of aesthetic experience which it is especially well-suited to describe, so that its description of the "openness" of aesthetic experience remains inextricably linked to a phenomenological description of the operations of cognitive faculties. The challenge of rescuing literature from being merely the illustration of a particular perspective would in this case be met by describing it in a way that turns it into an illustration of another philosophical perspective.


If literature does indeed bring to light the artificiality of all concepts used in conventional orientation, why are we exposing ourselves again and again to this experience? The phenomenological approach of The Act of Reading, chosen for good reason to give a generalized account of the reading process that would not be restricted to an anti-representational mode, cannot deal with this question. Thus, it makes good sense (and is another example of the admirable way in which Iser continually develops and extends his theory) to return to a reconsideration of the function of literature and to move from reception aesthetics to the project of a literary anthropology as it is presented, above all, in his two recent books Prospecting and The Fictive and the Imaginary38. This anthropological turn solves two problems: First, it helps to do away with the still lingering modernist bias of reception aesthetics by shifting the point of emphasis from the categories art and literature to that of fiction or, more specifically, to the fictive as an elementary part of all human sense-making activities39. It does this by reconceptualizing the basic interplay which leads to the "in-between" state of aesthetic experience in terms of a new set of categories, the real and the imaginary.

The transition to literary anthropology is ushered in by a reconsideration of the issue of representation. In the programmatic essay on Ulysses, the word representation still refers to a mistaken belief in the mimetic function of art. An a-mimetic modern literature of "effect" can thus be set in contrast to an outworn literature of representation which betrays literature's true potential. In an essay on representation in Prospecting, the term is freed of its association of mimesis and redefined as Darstellung, "that is, as not referring to any object given prior to the act of representation." (Prospecting, 236) Representation, in this sense, can be seen as "an act of performing and not - as Western tradition has repeated time and again - an act of mimesis, since mimesis presupposes a given reality that is to be portrayed in one way or another." (243) Representation is first and foremost an act of performance, because it brings forth "in the mode of staging something that in itself is not given." (248)40 Constituted by negation (and turned into an aesthetic experience by negativity), the literary text can never be identical with "the real." This fundamental non-identity of the literary texts leads to forms of doubling that pervade all levels of the literary text (selection, combination, and self-disclosure)41. Since "the various acts of fictionalizing carry with them whatever has been outstripped," the resultant doubleness might therefore be defined as coexistence of the mutually exclusive or seemingly incompatible, which for Iser becomes a formula "to pinpoint the aesthetic nature of fictionality in literature." (Prospecting, 240) The literary text is thus constituted by inherent difference: "The doubling effect as the hallmark of literary fictionality comes about because the mutually exclusive realms that are bracketed together nevertheless retain their difference. If they did not, that which appears as doubled would instead merge into one." (241) Representation, as the illusion of a meaningful world, arises out of a wish to remove difference. However, "the removal of difference that is the origin of representation is always visible in the product" and this "irremovability transforms representation into a performative act of staging something other than itself." (245) Representation is therefore both performance and semblance. "It conjures up an image of the unseeable, but being a semblance, it also denies it the status of a copy of reality." (243) Representation is a performative act because it represents something that has no given reality of its own. In this sense, negativity is not only a constituent of a certain type of modernist literature or a certain type of multiperspectival text but characterizes all fictionalizing acts. While in the Ulysses-essay, our "indefatigable quest for an underlying organizational schema makes it evident that in Ulysses we are confronted with the processing of reality rather than with its representation," (135) representation itself has now become a mode of processing.

One of the most interesting and useful aspects about Iser's discussion of representation is that it does not remain on the level of a systematic description of doubling structures but begins to describe them in terms of human needs. While the reader of reception aesthetics is still primarily a text-processing consciousness in inspection of its own faculties, the potential of literature to create an intermediate realm through negation and negativity now assumes a more concrete dimension: "In this respect the required activity of the recipient resembles that of an actor, who in order to perform his role must use his thoughts, his feelings, and even his body as an analogue for representing something he is not. In order to produce the determinate form of an unreal character, the actor must allow his own reality to fade out. At the same time, however, he does not know precisely who, say, Hamlet is, for one cannot properly identify a character who has never existed. (...) For the duration of the performance we are both ourselves and someone else." (Prospecting, 244) Why do we seek out the experience of staging ourselves as someone else? For Iser, the answer lies in our anthropological makeup: "Literature reflects life under conditions that are either not available in the empirical world or are denied by it. Consequently literature turns life into a storehouse from which it draws its material in order to stage what in life appeared to have been sealed off from access. The need for such a staging arises out of man's decentered position: we are, but do not have ourselves." (244)42 By stepping out of ourselves in order to grasp our own identity, we act out a wish to overcome our own duality: "Wanting to have oneself as one is, means needing to know what one is." (213) But this drive to grasp the inaccessible can never be entirely successful: "Because it conjures up an image of the origin out of which this split arose, literature makes perceivable what is otherwise sealed off from cognitive penetration. Yet picturing what eludes our grasp in the incessant effort to accommodate ourselves to the world serves only to indicate how we conceive the inconceivable and why we conceive of it in such kaleidoscopically changing imagery. Since the impenetrability of that origin inscribes itself insistently into all of literature's ideas, it turns them into pure semblance. At this point the question of why we should want to think the unthinkable at all arises." (213)

Iser's move from "reader response to literary anthropology" (as the subtitle of the essay-collection Prospecting puts it) leads to a gradual shift in the explanation of the function of fiction and thereby also provides the search for distance with a new grounding43. While in reception aesthetics, the transgressive potential of literature promises to make us aware of the hidden deficiencies of a thought system or of our own unexamined modes of explaining the world, the major emphasis is now put on a search for an ungraspable and intangible origin. While in the modernist stage, distance was provided by the negating potential of literature and in reception aesthetics by the exercise of our sense-making and text-processing faculties, it now gets an almost existential grounding, namely "the indeterminacy of human existence," "the insurmountable finiteness of man," or its "irremovability." (150f.) In response to our desire to know that which is inaccessible to us, literature offers two choices: Either to provide an illusory image of the unavailable or to "stage the desire itself, and so raise the question of the origin and nature of that desire - though the question, of course, is unanswerable." (247) There is, then, a chance of self-awareness, but it now is an awareness not so much of our cognitive faculties but of our inescapable entanglement in a fiction of origin.

In the early development of Iser's theory of fiction distance was provided by literature's potential to highlight the inner limitations and weaknesses of thought-systems. However, in this case, literature's potential to provide distance would depend on our sharing this world. In trying to justify the distancing potential of literature on more general grounds, Iser therefore proceeds to a phenomenology of text processing. But the constant acceleration of the frequency of cognitive disruption and perspectival change in experimental postmodern literature or the serialization of "suspended connectivity" in various forms of popular culture undermine the equation of active text-processing with self-reflexivity and self-awareness44. Iser therefore begins to explore the possibility of an anthropological explanation of aesthetic experience which conceives of literature as a search for an origin we can never have. In contrast to reception aesthetics, this anthropological model of explanation no longer justifies distance as a quality we have to cultivate but as an inescapable human fate which provides our encounters with literature with an endlessly supplementary dimension45. This supplementarity is constantly renewed because the imaginary, defined here not in psychoanalytical terms as the source of an illusion of wholeness, but phenomenologically as an indeterminate, somewhat diffuse, and protean flow of impressions (Fictive, 3), again and again refuels the search for a ground or origin. With the imaginary, Iser provides a new version of the indeterminant that triggers ever new sense-making activities. The development sketched out in this essay can, in fact, be illustrated by the different terms used for this indeterminant element: from the modernist concept of negation to its phenomenological redefinition as blank and, finally, to an ungraspable substratum of human existence that strives for articulation but can only represented as "semblance." The first depends on anti-representational strategies of deformation, the second is constituted by suspended connectivity and motivation, the third confronts us with the ultimate unknowability of the self and the end.

The concept of the imaginary solves a crucial problem in Iser's theory of aesthetic experience. What blanks provoke us to do is to provide links to counter the experience of suspended connectivity. We have to become active as readers, because we have to establish meaningful continuity. But why are we reading literature in the first place? Because we enjoy our faculties to come up with continuity or our capability for self-reflexivity, that is, for the thrill of cognitive mobility? To many, this looked like a philosophically minded reader who bears striking similarities to Iser himself. Moreover, where do the images come from through which we realize the text's cues? And what impact do psychic and emotional aspects have on our ideational processes?46 Clearly, Iser aims at a moment in the mental construction of an object before these aspects have a bearing. Before we invest emotions in Hamlet, we have to construe him as a mental object. But because we do not precisely know who Hamlet is, we will inevitably construct an image of him by drawing on our own feelings and emotional needs. Iser acknowledges this, when he says: "...the required activity of the recipient resembles that of an actor, who in order to perform his role must use his thoughts, his feelings, and even his body as an analogue for representing something he is not." (Prospecting, 244) But nowhere in his aesthetics of reception is the role of emotions and the unconscious addressed. With the concept of the imaginary, on the other hand, the whole array of emotions, moods, day dreams, phantasms or unconscious wishes, in short, the world of desire, is theoretically included as a crucial element of the interplay that constitutes the fictive, without, on the other hand, tying the imaginary to any one particular theory of emotion or desire. The concept of the imaginary is therefore ideally suited to address the question of function without giving up the indeterminacy that secures distance. Thus, although a deliberately "empty" concept of the imaginary may appear unsatisfactory in its lack of a more concrete description of psychic processes, there is a good reason for it within Iser's approach47. For as soon as the imaginary would be defined through Lacan's mirror-stage, it would merely illustrate a theory and thus lose its quality as an indeterminant. Instead, Iser has to preserve a structure of non-identity. With the concept of the imaginary, he has found a way to talk about an aspect of aesthetic experience his literary theory had neglected so far - but with distance, and by maintaining an ineradicable source of difference48.


Ever since the demise of a mimetic theory of literature, literary studies have had to grapple with the question of what role literature is to play in our lives. On the one hand, discarding the idea of mimesis has liberated literature. On the other hand, it has also created a problem of legitimation, because literature now has to be justified on other grounds than a promise of truthful representation. In the 20th century, and especially after World War II, the answer to this challenge of legitimation has increasingly focused on the negating potential of literature. If literature is not to be justified by truthful representation, the source of its special potential must be derived from the fact that it is, by definition, different and thus ideally suited to counter dominant ways of worldmaking. In the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, in which art becomes the last placeholder of a utopian impulse that has not yet entirely submitted to reification, this negating potential becomes the central issue of aesthetic theory49. When this critical theory was rediscovered by the student movement of the 60s, especially through the influence of Herbert Marcuse, it was soon criticized as not political enough and was replaced by an equation of negation with powerful or effective social criticism50. As a consequence, oppositional criticism routinely began to divide literary history into "affirmative" or "negative" (subversive) texts without ever considering the question whether such an equation of negation with social criticism does not severely reduce the negating potential of literature, because it restricts aesthetic experience to the confirmation of ( or a failure to confirm) a prior analysis of the economic or social order - not to speak of the fact that the history of 20th century intellectual movements is that of a constant embarrassment and invalidation of such claims for superior insights51.

Taking note of such a critique, a further radicalization of contemporary criticism has taken place in which the possibility of negation is questioned altogether, either because it is seen as part of a ritual of dissent that has the paradoxical effect of confirming a liberal consensus, or because there can be no "outside" position in a discursive system which constitutes the very terms and structure of negation. In contrast to Iser's view, neither the fictive nor the aesthetic mode can in this view provide distance because neither is defined any longer by non-identity. In a system in which the manifestation of power, racism, or imperialism is everywhere, that is, both "inside" the text and "outside" of it, there can be no difference between text and ideological system. Instead of non-identity, the literary text is characterized by a negative identity in which an "absent cause" pervading and marking all aspects of the system is reproduced52. As a result of this conflation of inside and outside and the radical rejection of the negating potential of literature linked with it, all fictionalizing acts and forms of aesthetic experience can function only as sources of systemic containment53.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, the historical situation in post-War Germany strongly reinforced an emphasis on the negating potential of literature that has stood at the center of critical theories of literature since the Romantic era. In view of the sweeping triumph of Nazi ideology, post-War intellectuals turned to art as a resource for negation and as residue of critical practice. Iser's literary theory does not stand in opposition to this critical tradition, as the vague term liberal humanism with its associations of individual indulgence and aesthetic escapism insinuates, but is very much part of it. However, he takes the idea of negation in a different direction which can be appreciated best when compared it with its currently prevalent alternatives. One is the reduction of the negating potential of literature to an articulation of the right kind of politics which informs past and present forms of political radicalism and many manifestations of the current identity politics in literary studies. The other is an emphatic rejection of the potential of fiction or art to provide a different perspective at all. In both cases, the potential of literature to be different is eliminated - in the first case by reclaiming literature as a place to establish identity, in the second by the sweeping claim of a negative identity. In both cases, the price is high, because both approaches can only give an extremely impoverished and underdifferentiated version of aesthetic experience and our encounters with fictions54. As a consequence, the literary text can be described only as reenactment of an all-pervasive power effect and not as a struggle with, or negotiation of, that power effect by means of the transgressive potential of fiction. Ultimately, what such a conflational epistemology denies us is to take our own attitude toward the world.

In contrast to these approaches, Iser offers an original and suggestive reconsideration of the negating potential of literature. The development of his theoretical work is an admirably consistent attempt to retain the idea of negation - in a way that would not discredit the aesthetic dimension but describe it as potentially a radicalized form of negation that includes the possibility of a critical perspective unto itself. This "radicalization" is achieved by extending the idea of negation to that of negativity. At the beginning of his post-War interest in literature, Iser may have derived his hopes for distance from the traditional bourgeois belief in the power of art to transcend everyday reality. His study on Pater helped him to realize that the "other" world of art, inevitably and by definition, constitutes itself in relation to that which it negates. It thus does not transcend reality but opens up a new perspective on it. In his early work on modernism, this perspectivation is attributed to formal strategies of the text that give the text a dimension of reflexivity. By clarifying his position in contrast to formalist notions of defamiliarization and other versions of a modernist negative aesthetics, Iser goes beyond this textual model, however, and locates the source of distance no longer on the level of an interplay of opposites (negation) but on that of an experience of non-identity that creates a structure of doubling (negativity) beetween the present and the absent, the expressed and the inexpressible. By transforming negativity from its Frankfurt School-meaning of a radicalized, last-stand residue of resistance to a doubling structure which constantly deligitimates and reconstitutes itself, Iser actually provides a much more complex and sophisticated model of the relation among the various constituents of the literary text than many versions of the current cultural radicalism: On the one hand, these constituents are never independent of one another and constantly act upon each other; on the other hand, they do this without ever losing their difference and thus their potential for a transgression or redefinition of existing worlds. If non-identity is a prerequisite for aesthetic experience, then aesthetic experience is a means to preserve the possibility of difference.

Iser's redefinition of the negating potential of literature as negativity in the sense of a doubling structure allows him to pinpoint a basic constituent of aesthetic experience and to describe literature as an intermediate realm in which self and other interact. By dismissing his literary theory as "liberal" or "liberal humanist," oppositional critics have dismissed an account of aesthetic experience that could enrich their own work, for in its reduction of the idea of negation, the current cultural radicalism has consistently failed to give a convincing account of aesthetic experience55. One may very well argue, on the other hand, that Iser's use of negativity creates a problem insofar as it seems to put a severe restriction on what can be said about literature. In Iser's redefinition of negativity, the doubling structures of literary fictionality can be described only as potential, that is, in terms of their various doubling operations, because any attribution of a more specific meaning or function would arrest the ceaseless play of negativity56. The starting premise, the assumption of non-identity, prevents the theory from ever going beyond the assertion of negativity and can thus lead only to ever-new rhetorical evocations of the "in-between." There cannot be any cultural or literary history written on this basis, because it can result only in the ever new confirmation of the potentiality of literature57. And although Iser's anthropological turn promised to provide a more concrete and varied description of the function of literary texts, it does not really enlarge the descriptive range at a closer look, because the anthropological reason given for why we need fiction is another version of the experience of non-identity, namely the unknowability of the self and the inexperiencability of the end. (Prospecting, 148) However, if these descriptions eventually take on a certain monotonous dimension and do not open up into "history," it is not because Iser evades such issues, but because he remains true to his own starting premise. In order to grasp fully the logic of this choice, we therefore have to return to its historical source.

I have attempted to describe Wolfgang Iser's work as an ongoing project from its beginning in a politically and intellectually devastated post-War Germany to its recent reconceptualization as a literary anthropology not only in order to liberate it from its being stereotyped and banalized as "reader-response criticism," but even more so to reconstruct the logic and remarkable consistency of a project that cannot be understood without the historical context to which it emerged as a response. For a critical intellectual, the situation in post-War Germany left only one choice: the search for a distance that would keep open the possibility of negation and self-reflexivity. Iser's interest in literature was triggered by the promise of a medium that could provide and maintain such distance. His literary theory was developed in the search of such distance and designed to prevent its possible collapse. Its most frustrating aspect, the refusal to endanger the distancing potential of literature by going beyond a description of potentiality to changing historical uses and functions, must be seen in this context. It reflects the experience of a totalitarian system, which was highly successful in eliminating differing perspectives. In this situation, critical distance must be sought from "within," and it must come from a medium that cannot be as easily controlled as other discourses, because it is, by definition, characterized by non-identity and thus carries an inherent potential of negation. A generation like mine that has not experienced history in the same way, may not be entirely convinced by Iser's definition of the intermediate realm of fiction as a ceaseless play of negativity, but before we criticize it, we have to make an effort to understand its inner logic, consistency and admirable consequence58. And if we fail to be entirely convinced, it makes little sense to restrict our discussion to one technical aspect of it, such as the exact nature of the determining role of the text. Instead, we have to see these aspects as part of a larger project, and we have to take into account the tacit assumptions about history and society on which this project is built.


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