The Johns Hopkins University
THE FOUR SIDES OF READING:
PARADOX, PLAY, AND AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FICTION IN ISER AND RILKE
Throughout his work, from The Act of Reading to The Fictive and the Imaginary, Wolfgang Iser has outlined what we could call a cybernetics of reading. Reinterpreting Roman Jakobson's notion of the poetic function, Iser understands the relation between syntagma and paradigma as a systemic one, and describes the reading process as a self-regulating system that "is cybernetic in nature as it involves a feedback of effects and information throughout a sequence of changing situational frames." Drawing on Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory in The Act of Reading and on Gregory Bateson's analysis of metacommunicative frames in The Fictive and the Imaginary, Iser accounts for the relation between syntagma and paradigma as a four-sided distinction between perspectival arrangements that guide the reading of the text or between four textual moves which correspond to game structures. Unfolding the relation between paradigma and syntagma as a four-sided distinction, Iser is able to avoid the aporias other theories of reading encountered when they foregrounded either syntagmatization or paradigmatization of the relation between the axes of combination and selection. The essay traces this problem through theories of reading from Poulet and Holland to Riffaterre and de Man in order to set it off from Iser's configuration of this relation. Seen as a systemic relation or a feedback process, reading cannot be adequately described by the recourse to linguistic codes and literary competence as advocated by Fish, Riffaterre, or Culler. Rather, the fictional text stages itself as an observation of observers in a world that is constructed on recursive observations. Literature, Iser argues, does not refer to 'world', but to models and schemata in which 'world' is seen and represented: selection here is always a second-order selection of selections already made. Literature observes the blind spot of what are first-order observations for it-socio-political and historical contexts, other texts, other art works-but it also feeds its own observations back into its own operations, and observes itself observing. An interpretation of Rainer Maria Rilke's fictional autobiography Malte Laurids Brigge will exemplify how Iser's distinction between four perspectival arrangements and four game structures can account for such second-order observation in modernist fiction.