|NEW LITERARY |
SPECIAL ISER'S ISSUE
RESTAGING THE RECEPTION OF ISER'S EARLY WORK,
OR SIDES NOT TAKEN IN DISCUSSIONS OF THE AESTHETIC
In the early 1980s Stanley Fish labelled Wolfgang Iser's work "hopelessly conservative" and "reactionary," while Terry Eagleton dismissed it as impotent "liberal humanism." These charges, Thomas argues in his introduction, grow out of the manner in which Iser's early work was appropriated by Anglo-American critics. If, on the one hand, that appropriation contributed to Iser's popular early reception, on the other, it led to various misunderstandings. Drawing on Iser's later work on literary anthropology to restage that early reception, Thomas both corrects those misunderstandings and points to the limits of the Anglo-American turn in the 1980s to political criticism. Whereas that criticism too often reduced the aesthetic effect of works of literature to a form of rhetorical power in which authors and critics were inevitably positioned as taking sides in political debates, Iser's work, Thomas argues, does not fit easily into the sides that were drawn in the so-called "culture wars." The second section of the essay looks at Steven Mailloux's and Jane Tompkins' accounts of Iser's work. Their mistaken claim that Iser is a liberal pluralist who defends the notion of an independent, determinant, literary text influenced both Fish and Eagleton. The third section shows how Fish transforms Iser's complicated, interactive account of the relationship among the given, the determinant, and the indeterminant into a simple binary opposition between the determinant and the indeterminant. The fourth section argues that Eagleton's desire to use literary criticism to produce better people and a better world is more indebted to the tradition of liberal humanism than Iser's literary anthropology, which offers an account of the function for literature in the wake of the failure of liberal humanist aesthetics. The fifth and final section uses Iser's discussion of the "phenomenology of politics" staged in Shakespeare's history plays to place in perspective Fish's, Eagleton's, and Iser's different views on the relation between literature and politics. Iser finds politics, like literature, an "indispensible and permanent necessity." Nonetheless, he feels that to reduce one to another is to do injustice to their separate, if at times overlapping, functions. In contrast, Eagleton's desire to produce "better people" ultimately subordinates literature to politics. Finally, Fish, although he claims to respect the boundaries of different disciplines, argues that everything is political because for him any debate in which people take sides is political and all disciplines generate such debates.
Iser is thus basically an Aristotlean; Eagleton and Platonist; and Fish a sophist. Neither inherently conservative nor radical, Iser's work, Thomas concludes, presents a model of aesthetic experience that can provoke readers into imagining new possibilities, not because they have positioned themselves on one side of a rhetorical debate, but because the act of reading literature has the potential to force them to confront the explanatory limits of existing systems of rhetoric.