Eric Gans


        In the epilogue to his major work of literary anthropology, The Fictive and the Imaginary (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993) Wolfgang Iser puts aside his categories of fictive and imaginary, first for those of “mimesis” and “performance,” and finally for that of “staging.”  This essay claims that the transcendence of reality through representation that is for Iser the raison-d’être of the human as a literary being can most parsimoniously be explained by means of a generative hypothesis of origin.
        Human language is unique in allowing us to combine or “stage” ideas in our minds independently of our real-world situation. If we assume that staging is the source of our general linguistic capacity and of the mental space in which we conceive our ideas, then Iser’s metaphor challenges literary anthropology to construct the relation between fiction as mental staging and the stage as the locus of cultural performance.
        For Iser, the key operation by which we continue to expand this mental space is called “fictionalization.” In contrast with the traditional opposition between fiction and truth, Iser insists on the dependency of the fictional world on the elements it borrows from the real world, understanding the aesthetic relation as the conversion of a “reality reproduced” into a “sign.”  Described thus, the operation of fictionalization is tantamount to the originary emergence of language in a prelinguistic world.  The sign, having been generated by the fictionalizing/sacralizing act, simultaneously “cast[s] the imaginary as a form.” Iser’s use of “form” is literary rather than eidetic; fiction permits us to “conceive” the referent of the sign not as a direct vision of the Idea but through a narrative understanding of human reality.
        Iser demonstrates that Western aesthetics has evolved from a model of art as “imitating” something given to one in which art generates a “phantasm” in the reader’s consciousness.  But when the object of representation becomes altogether phantasmic, the “stage” of representation is called for in order to “give [it] appearance.”
        The metaphor of staging brings to mind the origin of the stage as a ritual altar raised above the everyday world.  To stage an action is to locate it in the sacred middle/center surrounded both spatially and temporally by the profane.  The metaphor of staging underlines the presence on the aesthetic scene of living actors whose symmetrical confrontations on stage incarnate the conflictive potential of mimesis.
        It is because the Ur-narrative is not only one of unrealized possibility but of conflict and resolution that we need staging. In order to become the “subject” who says “I,” we must understand ourselves simultaneously as center and as periphery, both as the sacred source of language and as one of those “subjected” to it.  But we can only anticipate in our imagination the new degrees of freedom that will be the product of this praxis if it is staged as fiction. In order to reaffirm our solidarity with the emergent freedom of the human, we need not merely language, but literature.