John Paul Riquelme

Boston University






The wet center is bottomless.  – Seamus Heaney, “Bogland”[1]


            The engaging complexity of Wolfgang Iser’s work arises from many converging elements but primarily from his continuing attempts to identify and explore terra incognita that turns out always to be the terra infirma on which we tread.  Like Seamus Heaney, when Iser digs with his pen he excavates territory that has no bottom. His writings consistently and insistently expose and describe doubled, antithetical aspects of cultural production as they contribute to a process of continual emergence. By evoking creativity’s place in culture, Iser provides compelling evidence concerning the role of the aesthetic in human experience.  Several crucial issues arise from Iser’s commitment to our creative involvement with literature and with other elements of culture.  They include especially the question of the political views that stand behind and within his theorizing and the question of his theory’s relation to literary modernism as both a shaping source and an object of commentary.  The two questions are not entirely separable, considering the frequent charge that the politics of literary modernism is reactionary.  The democratizing aspects and implications of Iser’s writings suggest that his aesthetic politics cannot easily be dismissed along with the modernist texts to which it responds.

Nowhere is Iser’s emphasis on continual emergence clearer than in his attitude toward literary texts as cultural artifacts in which we recognize what we are not and what we might be.  For Iser the act of reading involves our realizing that we are not what we mistakenly think ourselves to be and that, as a consequence, we may become something we never imagined possible.  Iser gradually develops this attitude in his essays and books in English concerned with reading:  “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction” (1971), The Implied Reader (1974), and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978).[2] The process of continual emergence is equally clear in Iser’s latest book, The Range of Interpretation (2000).  While he provides a typology of interpretation, virtually a periodic table of kinds of interpretation, Iser describes the interpretive act as a form of translation in which what is basic and unavailable to us becomes “a productive mapping of ever new territories.”  The interpretive mapping is related to literature because it is a form of “figuration” that “equally assembles and dismantles territories.”  These territories are not firm ground.  Like reading, interpretation is to be understood as performance rather than explication; instead of the unearthing of some buried object, interpretation is the process of digging itself.  Both reading and interpretation involve the negotiating of a liminal, or in-between, space by means of activities that avoid, “colonization,” the ideological superimposing of meanings on human experience.  Emergence is the “hallmark” of interpretation, which Iser presents as acts of world making.[3]

            In his move from reader-response theory and criticism to the charting of a literary anthropology, Iser has maintained his focus on creative production, which he eventually presents as an imperative within culture. To provide an alternative to the historical materialist’s emphasis on labor and struggle in human history, Iser explores the concepts of play and staging as defining elements in human experience that enable the writing of the history of the future as something new.  In sketching the ways in which the unexpected and unprecedented can emerge, Iser begins from literature as a base.  His phenomenological writings about the mental processing of literary texts, which had a strong influence on Anglo-American literary theory and criticism in the 1970s and 1980s, established an affective model of aesthetic response that stressed the reader’s activity.  For Iser, the act of reading is not an act of understanding something contained and given in advance by the text; instead, it generates a new perspective and mental object out of textual elements.

But his description of reading left room for being misunderstood as pertaining to individual readers primarily and to literature in a narrow way. Iser’s larger interest was instead the place of creativity in culture.  This interest, which was implicit in Iser’s writings concerned with reading, became explicit in some of the essays collected in Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (1989) and, most emphatically, in The Fictive and the Imaginary:  Charting Literary Anthropology (1993).[4]   Iser attempts to construct a bridge from literature to culture as the context of the whole that includes literature when he articulates the concept of staging to evoke the recursive embodiments that literature enables.  As Eric Gans points out, with its link to ritual, staging is an anthropological category.  By means of it Iser is able to present literature as part of the fieldwork we are able to carry out on ourselves.  This fieldwork can proceed when we discover ourselves in the position of being in-between.  We can explore this liminal space in our encounters with art when our role approaches that of the actor as an activating element in an aesthetic experience in which we become what we are not.  As Oscar Wilde says in one of the epigrams from the opening of The Picture of Dorian Gray, “From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type” of all the arts.

Iser's development of the in-between as a central concept, which Winfried Fluck mentions prominently in “The Search for Distance,” creates a resemblance to other post-structuralist theorists, some of whom give the concept a sharply political coloration.[5]  On the surface, however, Iser seems not to be readily comparable to theorists and critics who express overtly political aims. He does not invite the comparison.  The degree to which Iser’s aesthetics is an aesthetic politics that is anti-colonial in character or else an aesthetics intentionally distanced from politics has yet to be settled.  Paul Armstrong’s “The Politics of Play” outlines an implicit political vision in Iser’s aesthetics, one reminiscent of Karl Mannheim’s description of democratization in “The Democratization of Culture.”[6]   Although Iser does not write directly about social relations, he uses a vocabulary that Mannheim would accept to describe his position on the processual character of representation as a “’democratizing’” (FI 289) of the concept of mimesis.  In Mannheim’s essay, written in 1933, just after Hitler came to power, he argues for the permanently revolutionary character of democracy, understood as a system whose defining and sustaining element is the democratizing process.  That is a process in which horizontal and vertical elements have become mutually implicating and mutually defining.  In Mannheim’s post-Enlightenment, post-Romantic conception of democratization, social machinery that is maximally emancipatory, both over time and at any given historical moment, comes into being in a sustainable way only in a permanently revolutionary situation.   That situation is one in which groups negotiate for power in a manner that continuously brings new leadership into positions for influencing or making choices for the community.  The political process that Mannheim advocates in response to Fascism admits and institutionalizes the need for perpetual instability and uncertainty in order to make freedom possible; without uncertainty, or what Iser calls indeterminacy, is no freedom.  Mannheim’s political process is a democratized version of Trotsky’s idea of “permanent revolution,” which Murray Krieger mentions in his essay when he suggests that “permanent carnival” is possible in art.  Carnival, Mannheim’s democratization, and Armstrong’s conception of Iser’s politics all involve a continual, unpredictable shifting of positions within the structure of power relations.  Iser’s anti-hierarchical views are evident when he describes the liminal space in chapter six of The Range of Interpretation as a vortex (a term with a history in modernist aesthetics) that names the coming into being of tangled hierarchies, a phrase Iser takes from Douglas Hofstadter.[7]  One of the passages that Iser quotes from Hofstadter can be read as an allegory of the possibility of achieving democratization when Hofstadter presents emergent phenomena in relation to “an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level” (Hofstadter 709). 

Our sense of the political and ethical dimension of Iser’s aesthetics can vary depending on whether we situate his writings primarily in the context of the English-speaking audience for his work or in the historical context from which it emerged, a context that includes the rise of fascism in Europe and the Nazi genocide.  As Gabriele Schwab argues in her essay, “’If Only I were not obliged to manifest’,” Iser’s work responds to the Holocaust in striking ways.  In his essay Winfried Fluck historicizes Iser’s overt separating of the aesthetic from the political by explaining the situation of intellectuals in Germany immediately after WWII. These essays respond to the question of Iser’s politics by bringing to the fore how deeply his writings are motivated by political and ethical considerations, ones that take a stand against totalitarianism and against prejudicial thinking and behavior. In these essays, it begins to become clear just how strongly Iser’s intellectual orientation was affected by growing up and living in a divided and divisive society, first in Nazi Germany and then in a Germany that had been partitioned.  His writings can be read in one way as responses to a destructive and self-destructive cultural situation.  It is worth remarking that in The Range of Interpretation the placement and the vigor of Iser’s commentary on Franz Rosenzweig gives this important Jewish thinker’s work a crucial role in the book’s history of interpretation.  Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption is the climax of that history.  The choice of Rosenzweig, a philsopher whose works are largely neglected by comparison with those of Heidegger, is an anti-fascist act, though Iser does not characterize it in that way.  Iser provided in his work on reading an alternative to formalist and to Marxist approaches to literature.  In his later writing about creativity and interpretation, he provides an alternative to humanistic thinking influenced by Heidegger. 

The writings of a European intellectual shaped by the historical circumstances surrounding WWII, writings that also draw heavily on a wide range of Continental philosophical sources, will likely be read in unexpected, sometimes wrongheaded, ways and used for unintended purposes by readers educated and formed by other social and intellectual circumstances.  Part of the difficulty that remains for English-speaking readers of Iser is to understand the intellectual context in which the work originated by contrast with the context into which it has been translated.  There is a large obstacle for some readers to overcome, for example, in Iser’s phenomenological attitude toward mind, which is not compatible with ego-psychology.  Brook Thomas’s “Restaging the Reception of Iser’s Early Work,” sketches some of the misreadings of Iser’s first influential writings in English by British and American theorists.  In the process, he clarifies Iser’s commitment to the aesthetic, as does Murray Krieger in “The ‘Imaginary’ and Its Enemies.” Krieger brings to the fore more recent intellectual politics on this side of the Atlantic, in relation to which he sees Iser is a persuasive defender of the aesthetic. Like Gabriel Motzkin’s “Iser and the Philosophers,” Krieger’s essay also contributes to our understanding of the philosophical traditions to which Iser’s work needs to be compared. 

But Iser’s speculations about the role of imagination in humankind’s continual self-fashioning derive not only or primarily from philosophical thinking. His sources are also the literature to which he responds.  Although Iser’s range of literary reference is extensive, central to it are writings by literary modernists.  In “The Four Sides of Reading,” besides distinguishing Iser from other theorists of reading, Bianca Theisen brings out the resonance between elements of recursive observation in Iser’s theory and Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

When Iser himself writes about modernist literature, however, he writes not about German texts but primarily about Irish works, those of Joyce and Beckett.  Several of the essays, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s “A ‘Figure’ in Iser’s Carpet,” Gabriele Schwab’s, and my own, begin exploring how important Beckett’s writings are not just as the object of Iser’s analysis but as a motivating force in his theorizing.  It may be the case that all humanistic theory that has cogent implications for understanding art shares a figurative and conceptual territory with some of the seminal literature of its time.  In the writings of Iser on Beckett, we have a theorist shaped by an internally divided society producing works in one language that he participates in translating into another; in producing those works, he responds to the writings of an Irish author shaped by an internally divided society, an author who wrote in one language and then translated himself into another. [Not included in the NLH version: The relations here, like some of Iser’s formulations, call to mind the graphic work of M.C. Escher as their counterpart.]  Although this convergence of internal division, repetition, and translation as a process of emergence remains to be mapped, its outline suggests that Wolfgang Iser and Samuel Beckett dug in the same bogland, a special field that is not solid ground.  In the future, Iser may well be recognized as the Beckett of contemporary humanistic theory.






[1]                Seamus Heaney, “Bogland,” Door into the Dark (1969; London, 1990), p.56.


[2]               Wolfgang Iser, “Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction” (1971), repr. in Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore, 1989), pp. 3-30; The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore, 1974); The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore, 1978).  All of these texts were originally written in German and then translated into English with Iser’s active participation.  They appeared originally as:  Die Appellstruktur der Texte.  Unbestimmtheit als Wirkungsbedingung literarisher Prosa (Constance: Universitätsverlag, 1970); Der implizite Leser.  Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett (Munich: Fink, 1972); Der Akt des Lesens.  Theorie äesthetischer Wirkung (Munich: Fink, 1976).  Increasingly, the English versions differed from their German counterparts.  Iser added as the final item in the English version of Der implizite Leser an essay that appeared in English in NLH (1972) before its publication in German, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” an anticipation of The Act of Reading.  While preparing his texts for an English audience, Iser provided equivalents in the receiving language that amount at times to reformulations for a different audience of aspects of the German texts, in comparison to which the English texts cannot be said to be the same.  The process bears comparison to Beckett’s participation in the translation of his own works from French into English.  A bibliography produced by Eddie Yeghiayan of writings by and about Iser is available on line (


[3]               My citations from The Range of Interpretation come from chapter six, “Configurations of Interpretation: An Epilogue,” and from the overview of that chapter contained in the “Preface.”  Page references are not possible, since, as I write  this,  the book has not yet been made available by the publisher, Columbia University Press.


[4]               Wolfgang Iser, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore, 1989), and The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charging Literary Anthropology (Baltimore, 1993), hereafter cited in text as FI.


[5]               The centrality of the in-between in their writings also raises the possibility of linking elements of Iser’s theorizing and the work of Homi Bhabha, whose commentaries on post-colonial matters differ in obvious regards from Iser’s writings. It may, in fact, be that Bhabha’s and Iser’s understanding and description of modernity’s character overlap in significant ways.  Distinctions do need to be drawn, but considering the similarities in their terminology at times, the shared concept of the in-between, and a shared anti-mimetic attitude, the distinctions may not be absolute and may not provide the whole story, which remains to be told convincingly.  If there is a clear similarity between theories that appear to stand in such opposition, the difference becomes more difficult to parse and the project of formulating it more urgent.  In “Location and Home in Beckett, Bhabha, Fanon, and Heidegger” (Centennial Review 42 [Fall 1998], 541-68), I explore briefly the shared antimimetic attitude of Bhabha and Iser and their common use of terms, including hybrid, mimicry, and bridging, to evoke the in-between.  I suggest there that both take positions that are “largely modernist in character” (546-47).


[6]               “The Democratization of Culture,” in From Karl Mannheim, ed. Kurt H. Wolff (New York: Oxford UP, 1971), pp. 271-346; originally published in Essays on the Sociology of Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 1956), pp. 171-246.  In his editor’s introduction (lxxxviii), Kurt Wolff claims that the original German MS of “Die Demokratisierung des Geistes” has never been made available by the scholars who translated it and other previously unpublished essays for Essays on the Sociology of Culture.


[7]               Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.  (reprinted 1983; New York: Penguin Books, 1980): 684.