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Gabriele Schwab


I. Fictionality and Negativity: Connective Tissues in Iser's Work

In relation to the empirical world, the imaginary as otherness is a sort of holy madness that does not turn away from the world but intervenes in it.3

[N]egativity provides the structure underlying the interaction between text and reader.4

Wolfgang Iser

The two epigraphs chosen for this section contain in a nutshell the most pressing concerns in Iser's work. Literature as an instrument of “holy madness" figures as a kind of cultural broker whose main role consists in intervening in the empirical world. Defying ontology, fiction, Iser asserts, is most tangible in its impact on the reader: "The more fiction eludes an ontological definition, the more unmistakably it presents itself in terms of its use. If it is no longer confined to an explanatory function, its impact becomes its most prominent feature."5 Yet how are we to determine this impact? "It has always been assumed that fiction can produce realities,"6 writes Iser almost laconically. Yet, in light of his claim that negativity structures the interaction between text and reader, his insistent question "Why do human beings need fictions?" leads to a quasi-paradoxical answer: fictions become our uncanny doubles, reflecting to us something we otherwise cannot perceive. This "holy madness," this haunting attraction to our self-produced doubles, eternally recreates our world, albeit to produce difference rather than similarity. Mirroring something in us we can never see or fully grasp, literature suspends us forever in a productive negativity, a "space between" the knowable and the unknown. This “space between" needs to remain free of empirical manifestations yet paradoxically manifests itself in our empirical world.

Already motivating Iser's reader response theory, the question of why we need fictions links the different phases and decades of Iser's work and continues to inform his recent turn to literary anthropology. Any answer to the question holds a promise to legitimize literary studies - a deeply felt concern when reader-response criticism emerged in the sixties and flourished in the seventies. This very concern takes on a new urgency at the turn of our century when "fictions" seem to have been hijacked by media culture, and the discipline of aesthetics is often considered a mere remnant of an obsolete humanist heritage. Yet, the very question of why we need fiction obstinately stays with us. It also lies at the heart of the recent anthropological turn in literary studies - a turn brought about when the new paradigm of culture emerged, challenging the hegemony of the textualist paradigm by asserting its prominence across disciplines. It is in addressing the human need for fiction at its most fundamental level that Wolfgang Iser's work anticipated this "anthropological turn" and retains its relevance and vitality in current debates in literary and cultural studies.

For Iser, the need for fiction is intimately tied to its generation of a productive negativity that must be retained at all cost, both in writing and in reading literature. Such commitment to negativity, however, creates a certain predicament - one Samuel Beckett voiced most succinctly in The Unnamable: "If only I were not obliged to manifest." This "resistance to manifestion" marks a distinct cultural sensibility typical of the historical moment in which Iser develops his theories. Derived from a profound philosophical and epistemological skepticism, the pervasive suspicion against manifestation requires Iser to search for a radically new form of thinking and writing - a search in which Beckett becomes the most inspiring source. Beckett serves as a model for Iser's new aesthetics of negativity, which is designed to forgo the pitfalls of concrete manifestation, and ultimately to undermine any form of determinacy. Iser’s own "resistance to manifestation" emerges in recursive loops that consistently qualify his statements, marking the epistemological premises and basic political stance of his work, as well as its emotional energy or underlying mood. This mood is neatly summed up in Iser’s anthropological claim that "determinacy [...] makes us feel disappointed." Or, as he states in The Act of Reading: "What the language says is transcended by what it uncovers, and what it uncovers represents its true meaning."7 Determinacy exerts a double constraint in the production of meaning, both from the side of the referent and that of the signifier. Accordingly, meaning in Iser's aesthetics of negativity is both anti-referential and highly mobile, sensitive to context and open to change. Indeterminacy, then, assumes the status of the most basic and productive aesthetic category.8

In a similar vein, The Fictive and the Imaginary features "staging" as an anthropological mode that introduces indeterminacy by bringing “to light what is excluded from knowledge and experience."9 We can easily see that this "aesthetics of double meaning" favors what is not said over what is said. In a "space between" that requires readers to develop the "negative capability" of reading between the lines, the “unformulated" gains prominence over the formulated. Aesthetic experience engages in a productive negativity, performing readings as an act of creation rather than reception. It is the silence in a literary work - the unsaid - that functions as an "enabling blank," a productive textual energy that, in turn, becomes the determining force in the constitution of meaning. Silence, for Iser, also precludes that the text assumes absolute authority. Instead of engaging in a power game, the rules of which are negotiated between textual authority and interpretive community, Iser's "implied reader" engages in a play of resonance and difference. Within this framework, fictionality and negativity emerge as the two fundamental anthropological modes which human beings of all times have used to refashion their world. Iser sees such refashioning itself as an anthropological need, arising from an excentric position that places on human beings the burden of being cognizant of their own mortality, but prevents them from ever fully knowing themselves.


II. The Act of Reading and the Implied Reader

And if there is not one specific meaning of a literary text, this 'apparent deficiency' is, in fact, the productive matrix which enables the text to be meaningful in a variety of different contexts.

Wolfgang Iser10

In assessing Iser's historical and transnational importance, one should recall that his theory of literary response gained its international acclaim during the emergence of the so-called Konstanz School of which he and Hans-Robert Jauss are the most prominent representatives. Strongly influenced by Husserl's phenomenology, Ingarden's aesthetics and Gadamer's hermeneutics, this theoretical movement - which expanded its scope and impact with the interdisciplinary research group Poetics and Hermeneutics - aimed at nothing less than a thorough reconceptualization and reorientation of literary studies, critical theory and, more generally, the practice of interpretation.

It was Gadamer's dialogical hermeneutics that provided the grounds for thinking about the activities of reading and interpretation in anthropological terms. In Gadamer's dialogical model interpretation figures as an anthropological modality of being, designed to facilitate the mediation between human beings and the world. However, since such mediation can never provide any closure or be completed, the need for interpretation is potentially endless, just as every new historical manifestation requires new mediations. In "Text und Interpretation," Gadamer reminds us that the term "interpretation" is derived from the role of the translator who mediates between the languages of different cultures. Texts serve as intermediary objects (Zwischenprodukte) in such mediation; their manifestation as writing operates as a temporary stasis in an ongoing dialogical process.

This model proved extremely fruitful in its critical appropriation by the Konstanz School, namely Iser's reader-response theory and Jauss' reception aesthetics. In Iser’s recent work, the concern with interpretation as mediation between the languages of different cultures was fuelled by the cultural and anthropological turn in literary studies. The Translatability of Cultures11, Iser’s recent collection of essays, co-edited with Sanford Budick, was conceived in response to the challenge this turn presented to issues of cultural translation and translatability. Iser's literary anthropology takes up this challenge, not surprisingly prioritizing the unsayable and untranslatable over cultural and historical determination.12 Literature, Iser argues, does not mirror cultural determinations but negotiates cultural boundaries, freeing one from prescriptions of identity rather than freezing one in them.

Looking back at the reception aesthetics of the Konstanz School, it is remarkable to what extent Iser's model of reading had already at an early stage privileged cultural transfer and negotiation over individual reception. While Gadamer and Jauss base their theories of literary reception on a model of interpersonal dialogue, Iser's concept of the "implied reader," by contrast, emphasizes the communicative dimension inherent in texts themselves. In light of Iser’s later work, one could argue that the impetus of the "implied reader" as a category has been to foreground cultural mediation. Iser demonstrates that texts carry within themselves their own model according to which they attempt to shape their interaction with readers. Rather than referring to an individual, empirical, or ideal reader of a literary text, the category of the "implied reader" addresses the text's strategies of communication.

To put it differently, Iser works with the assumption that in their rhetorical devices, as well as their methods and techniques of communication, texts enfold a kind of imaginary reader as the addressee of their own alterity. Never simply replicating the world, literary texts are always marked by a certain alterity. While a text’s guiding devices exert a certain control by inviting specific responses, individual readings will never simply coincide with the parameters of "the implied reader." Instead, actual readings are shaped by the contingencies and idiosyncracies that determine the historical situation in which they take place. The act of reading, then, unfolds in the space between the implied reader and the concrete reader, a space marked by the dynamics of cultural interaction and negotiation. The "implied reader" is, in other words, a textual agency that actively confirms, interferes with, or disrupts a culture's familiar communicative patterns. Granting that a text cannot adapt to individual readers who, in turn, can never fully verify their responses in a face-to-face situation, Iser shifts his interest to the interactive quality of reading as transfer, processing and mediation/translation.

From an epistemological point of view, the ensuing interaction between reader and text refers metaphorically to the exchange between a textual agency that provides signposts and boundaries and a reader who actively "processes" the text. Negativity and indeterminacy facilitate a productive interaction. Just as a successful text breaks through the boundaries of cultural and historical determinations, a productive reading "processes" and thereby actively changes what is "manifest" in a text. Determinacy would disappoint us in a reading as much as in a text. In this respect, Iser's position is diametrically opposed to any "identity politics." Instead of functioning as a mirroring device, literature rather unsettles preconceived cultural constructions of identity while at the same time exploring our need for them.

I am, of course, aware that, in highlighting the role of otherness and cultural mediation in Iser's theory of the "implied reader," I am myself performing a kind of hermeneutic mediation. I draw to the foreground a possible understanding of the "implied reader" that, while certainly implicit in Iser's concept, emerges in its full relevance only in the context of the current anthropological turn in literary studies. At the time - The Implied Reader's most immediate impact took place in the early seventies - Iser's insistence on the irreducible alterity of literary texts was received as a challenge to aesthetic theories based on traditional notions of mimesis or literary realism. On the other hand, Iser was also perceived as breaking through the limitations of a purely formalist or structuralist aesthetics by demonstrating that the very constitution of a text's meaning depends upon the active participation from and interaction with readers.

Iser's confrontation with competing theories of literature - be they mimetic aesthetics, formalism and structuralism, poststructuralism or cultural studies - always follows the same logic of taking a stance against "closure." This is where Iser's own political stance must be located - a stance that opens up a new space for theorizing that rests on an anti-mimetic bias, an insistence on the irreducible openness of the aesthetic realm, and a respective need for the negotiation and mediation of difference. Literature in this model is located in a "space between" cultural manifestations, while reading operates very much like a play across boundaries.

Such a deeply anti-mimetic theory of literature will, of course, also take a strong stance against theories of reading that anchor the authority over meaning and interpretation solely within the text. Such theories, Iser suggests, suffer from a reductive notion of the interaction between reader and text. As he formulates it, the "'transfer' of text to reader is often regarded as being brought about solely by the text. Any successful transfer however - though initiated by the text - depends upon the extent to which this text can activate the individual reader's faculties of perceiving and processing."13

Processing, in this context, appears as a highly dynamic response. Instead of simply taking in what a literary work offers in terms of knowledge or pleasure, in processing literature we must actually engage in undoing and remaking ourselves, including our cultural formations. Processing, in other words, involves us existentially in the very structure and structuring of our being and our cultural groundings. Iser asserts that in "doubling ourselves" through fiction we "undo" ourselves in order to escape the prisonhouse of historical, cultural or psychological determination.


III. Literary Anthropology

[L]iterature is a decisive means of shaping cultural reality.

Wolfgang Iser14

In moving from a theory of reading to a literary anthropology, Iser has decidedly eschewed a model of cultural anthropology in favor of a more traditional anthropology that draws mainly on Plessner, Gehlen, and, more recently Eric Gans. This choice is not surprising, given his concern with negativity and indeterminacy, and it also explains why, instead of expanding the notion of cultural transfer, Iser moves toward a new notion drawn from play and performance theory. "Staging" is henceforth cast as an anthropological activity fundamental in establishing the relationship between the fictive and the imaginary. In Prospecting, Iser writes: "Since literature as a medium has been with us more or less since the beginning of recorded time, its presence must presumably meet certain anthropological needs."15

The Fictive and the Imaginary expands the trajectory of Prospecting in charting these anthropological needs. Complementing the "act of reading" with the more subliminal "act of staging," Iser now grounds literature's anthropological function in the performative acts through which individuals and - we may add - cultures double themselves through fictions. Understood as a process of mediation instead of a mimetic act, this doubling opens up a performative space in which both writers and readers enact the difference between "being" and "having oneself." Iser borrows this distinction from Plessner's anthropology in order to map the internal gap within human beings that results from the fact that they will never be able fully to know what motivates and drives their actions or, as Plessner says, their "being."

With his recourse to Plessner's notion of "having oneself," Iser once again emphasizes that he is less concerned with cultural or symbolic alterity, or cultural contact, than with the intrinsic alterity that results from what Plessner and - more radically - Freud call the excentric or decentered position of human beings. In contrast to Freud, Plessner refrains from defining this decentered subjectivity, thus making it possible for Iser to figure this unconscious space as a pure blank instead of an area of repression, conflict, and contestation. It is this difference between "being" and "having oneself" or, as Iser formulates it, "the unavailability of human beings to themselves," that for him generates a profoundly human desire for self-exploration and self-representation from which the anthropological need for fiction arises.

Once more we encounter the notion that literature enables one to experience what would otherwise remain inaccessible. According to this deeply anti-mimetic concept, literature functions via indirection, invoking what otherwise cannot become present. "'Imaging' depends upon the absence of that which appears in the image,"16 writes Iser in The Act of Reading (which appeared in German twenty years ago). In 1991, The Fictive and the Imaginary reiterates this very notion: "What is staged is the appearance of something that cannot become present."17 In this mode of negativity literature does not replicate or mirror anything outside itself, but rather unfolds unlimited potential alternatives to concrete historical manifestations - be they of human subjects or cultures. The "reenactment of life in literature"18 as an anthropological activity thus supplements, interferes with or reveals alternatives to the psychological or cultural forces that impose concrete historical determinations.

As we can see, these statements imply a strong epistemological claim. If it is true that by "staging" fictional worlds/selves, literature discloses otherwise unavailable manifestations of "being in life," one may conclude that writing and reading generate an alternative literary knowledge distinct from other regimes of knowledge. Iser writes: "Staging thus becomes a mode that functions to its maximum effect when knowledge and experience as ways of opening up the world come to the limits of their efficacity."19 Staging then appears as an "anthropological mode that can claim a status equal to that of knowledge and experience insofar as it allows us to conceive what knowledge and experience cannot penetrate."20

We can see from these remarks that, while working with a cognitive model of mind and knowledge, Iser places literature in a liminal position in relation to this cognitive model. Within his literary anthropology, the role of the performative dimension of staging is to open up a sphere beyond the boundaries of cognitive experience. In Prospecting Iser writes: "These unavailable territories mark the boundaries beyond which the systems cannot work, and they are themselves featureless. They resist conceptualization by the conscious mind and can only be conjured provisionally into shape through arrangements of language such as those found in literature."21

In this respect, Iser's literary anthropology once again straddles the boundary between an aesthetics of production and an aesthetics of response. Far from having given up the perspectives developed in The Act of Reading, both Prospecting and The Fictive and the Imaginary work toward realizing their full potential. Being neither completion nor compensation, literature allows us actively to shape the world and ourselves by bringing us in contact with something that we cannot know or experience consciously. Or, as Iser writes in Prospecting: "Literature refers to things that are suppressed, unconscious, inconceivable, and perhaps even incommensurable."22


IV. Questions and Alternative Trajectories

[W]e are not prepared to accept the limits of cognition, and so we need images to mirror forth the unknowable.

Wolfgang Iser23

This is the trajectory of thought that has most influenced my own theory of reading as a special form of cultural contact.24 And this is also the perspective from which I would like to formulate a set of interventions and questions meant to continue a long-standing engagement with Iser's work. My first intervention addresses the theory of reading, and in particular Iser's notion of the reader's "processing of the text." Rather than differentiating between concrete historically, culturally or psychologically determined modes of processing, Iser focuses on the general structure of processing as such. At this high level of abstraction, “processing" figures as a deliberately undifferentiated transfer. However, if one is interested in manifest rather than virtual responses, processing appears not as a neutral "transfer" but as a heavily invested "transference."

The notion of "transference" allows one to perceive the literary text as an agency that invites a certain form of "controlled projection." While retaining the notion of two agencies involved in the reading process, the model of transference takes into account that the agency of the text performs a different role from that of the reader. Texts are then perceived as active agencies that produce certain subject-effects in their recipients, thus enabling a process of interaction and exchange that affects both agencies involved. Such a model of transference shares Iser's anti-mimetic assumptions about literature’s transformative function. In exploring the dynamics that propel such transformation, a model of transference, however, relies heavily on the operation of the cultural imaginary and its unconscious processing. Just as in Iser’s model of transfer, the "enabling blank" continues to function as a productive agency. However, while in Iser's notion of "transfer" the blank generates the reader's active participation in the constitution of meaning, in a model of transference the enabling blank is seen as soliciting a culturally and politically charged negotiation. Such response is not free from what is commonly referred to as the "violence of interpretation." On the other hand, in case of a successful transference - one that does not remain entangled in a mere “acting out" of the text - the interaction with the text’s “enabling blank" may also facilitate the transformation of preconceived images, ideologies, fantasies and phantasms. In guiding readers through a “violence of interpretation," literary transference may produce the paradoxical effect of undoing the violence of the symbolic order or symbolic determination. In short, while Iser’s model of transfer describes the general structure of an active participation, a model of transference explores the violence of interpretation and the power of the text to address and work through such violence. Working with the notion of a more specifically defined transference rather than an indeterminate sense of transfer, however, requires a theory of reading with a psychological grounding. Moreover, if one conceives of transference as a process that works collectively as well as individually, such grounding must draw either on cultural psychology and/or cultural anthropology. Rather than presenting an alternative, a psychologically inflected cultural anthropology would productively complement Iser’s theory. My second intervention addresses Iser's assertion that literature provides a particular medium for dealing with decentered subjectivity. We recall his claim that “staging" functions to its maximum effect at the limits of knowledge and experience. If it is true that literature establishes a contact with an intrinsic alterity that cannot be known or experienced as such, literary anthropology’s foremost task would seem to be the development of a dynamic concept of the unconscious capable of describing the interaction that facilitates such a contact. Such a concept of the unconscious need not be a psychoanalytic one. As we know, there are many different concepts of the unconscious before and after Freud, including some more recently developed in cognitive psychology. But in order to conceptualize the role of negativity, the unsayable and the intrinsic alterity of human beings in the act of reading or in a literary anthropology, a theory needs to define the status of the unconscious in literary knowledge. In Iser's theory, the unconscious remains a pure blank or a gap to be filled. However, in order to account for the fact that the "gap" within knowledge and experience becomes the driving force that Iser suggests it is, one would need to draw on a more dynamic concept of the unconscious.

In reducing the unconcious to an unstructured blank, Iser's theory is bound to eclipse the pervasive role ambivalence and violence play in interpretation on both a personal and a cultural level. Derrida has brought a similar charge against Gadamer whose hermeneutics fails to recognize that ambivalence, power, conflict, denial, and repression are crucial forces in reading and interpretation.25 It is in its avoidance of a dynamic concept of the unconscious that Iser's theory differs most radically from deconstruction with which it otherwise shares the resistance to manifestation. While Derrida draws heavily on Freud's theory of the unconscious and the vicissitudes of interpretation in order to engage it on his own terms, Iser avoids the confrontation with psychoanalysis or with alternative cognitive theories of the unconscious altogether. I would even venture to conclude that a resistance to the unconscious as manifestation forms part of the political unconscious of Iser’s work.

This avoidance also bears upon the cultural implications of Iser’s literary anthropology and its relation to cultural alterity. How is the intrinsic alterity of human beings related to, or even constituted by, the Other - another human being, a cultural other or a symbolic alterity? I see a connection between the patterns according to which a culture relates to its others and the patterns we follow in relating to the alterity of a literary text. If, as Iser argues in The Implied Reader, texts carry within themselves a model according to which they shape the response of readers, then they also carry within themselves an implied model of cultural contact, or, if you like, an "implied Other." Such an "implied Other" is structurally operative, it seems to me, at the level of both the text's negativity and the reader's internal alterity, even before one differentiates between concrete historical and psychological modes of "processing." Iser's relatively undifferentiated notion of alterity posits the Other as an empty category. In any direct interaction with literature, however, such an Other assumes an unavoidable concretion, imposing the effects of an often unconscious cultural cathexis on reading and interpretation.

I am well aware that the high level of abstraction and aggregation Iser has chosen as his mode of theorizing deliberately avoids the level of concreteness and manifestation at which I pose these questions. At the same time, however, this very mode of abstraction, which informs the architecture of Iser's model, opens up a kind of blank space in Iser's own theories, leaving room - if not more actively calling for - very different historically and culturally embedded theories of literature. This mode of abstraction also determines Iser’s engagement with competing theoretical models. In a sense, his theories function as a metacommentary that absorbs and transforms other theories. Iser's style of thinking and theorizing foregrounds the patterns of abstraction that motivate theories. His emphasis on cognition, aesthetic reflection and self-reflexivity, and his interest in how the human mind is molded by abstractions of thought and patterns of relationship, determines his own methodology. Rather than polemically engaging with other theories, Iser adapts various theoretical models, translating them into his own framework and converting them into variables of interpretation and methods of reading. Polemics itself would already seem too much of a confinement to concrete manifestation, a production of negative energy instead of negativity. In this sense, Iser's mode of theorizing shares crucial features with the mode of operation in the production and reception of literary texts he calls "staging." As if by osmosis, his theories resonate with what they attempt to show, thus performing what one could see as a theoretical aesthetics of negativity.

We may then read Iser according to his own theory, filling in the gaps and endowing his patterns of thought with historical, cultural and personal concretion. Even though such a reception may change some of Iser’s premises along the way, it is in accordance with his own concept of reading as creation rather than reduplication. It may even further the task Iser assigns literary anthropology in the current historical situation of the humanities: "Perhaps it [literary anthropology] may form the starting point for a task to be shared by all the interpreting disciplines in the humanities - namely, to work out a theory of culture."26


V. Politics and Ideology

Autonomous art did not ennoble man, as is all too clear from the appalling slaughter that has taken place in this century. The humanistic ideology led instead to a whole fabric of delusions.

Wolfgang Iser27

This quotation constitutes one of the rare occasions in which Iser alludes to the historical time and place in which he conceived his theories. The resistance against manifestation materializes as a desire to resist ideology and ideological discourse. Iser began to formulate his theories, which, in turn, enfold a distinct philosophy of life, in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust in post-war Germany. Many scholars and intellectuals at the time avoided facing this history in their writings, yet their silence resonates for generations to come. This silence cannot be fully accounted for by the sheer incomprehensibility and unspeakability of the holocaust. Theories that posit the Shoah as "the unspeakable" - even though undoubtedly right in a radical sense - inevitably face the dilemma that silence is always haunted by the specter of "silencing" and therefore remains highly ambiguous, if not complicitous, as a political stance. Guilt and shame, or what Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich diagnosed as an "incapacity of mourning" resulting from overwhelming collective guilt, cannot account for the existential and cultural ramifications of this silence either.

The German silence after the holocaust inevitably marks any subsequent production of knowledge, and therefore also bears and weighs on Iser’s aesthetics of negativity and its resistance to manifestation. Many scholars and intellectuals after the war took refuge in rejecting politics and political involvement altogether. This reaction describes a pervasive mood in post-war Germany, a mood born of the desire for a sanctuary from the real and harboring the illusion that one was able to transcend politics and ideologies of whatever coloration. The generation of those born after the war could no longer share this desire to stay clear and clean of politics, nor could they share the belief in an apolitical "blank space" free of ideology. Yet, there is another silence, resulting from the translation of political into radical epistemological skepticism, which deeply marked major theoretical movements in the postwar intellectual climate in and beyond Germany. It is this epistemological skepticism that the postwar generation needs to acknowledge, assess and address as a cultural legacy that cannot simply be ignored. I see such diverse theorists, philosophers and writers as Beckett, Adorno, Iser, and Derrida sharing this profound epistemological skepticism - albeit with very different stakes and goals.

Speaking through indirection and/or radical self-reflexivity, the "silence" that inhabits this radical epistemological skepticism borders on paradox in its attempt relentlessly to face the epistemological and moral traps of speech and manifestation. It is in this historical and philosophical context that I perceive silence in Iser's work. I am tempted to argue that the very forms Iser's writing and theories assume over time, and the very moves he reiterates time and again, betray a confrontation with World War II, albeit one marked by a deliberate, sometimes desparate, practice of indirection. As we learn from Beckett - who had worked in the French resistance and was to become the deepest inspiration for Iser's work - there are many forms of silence. Iser's writings resonate with a Beckettian silence - a silence born of the fear of committing to something confining, something whose consequences can never be known entirely, something that can be appropriated to different or, as Iser would say, ideological ends. I see Iser's silence as an intellectual version of this far more general disposition and mood of the time. Translated into a philosophy of negativity, it even shuns any explicit connection to the very historical context that tacitly marks it.

Silence in this sense operates within Iser's theory as a defense against the legacy of the past. At one level, it is the silence of a crypt, of something encapsulated and removed from the real and from speech. Encrypting the unspeakable of the historical situation from which it emerges, the very mode of Iser’s theorizing marks a radical attempt to transcend the political and ideological. Ultimately, the blank space in Iser's work pursues nothing less than the transcendence of history and, I would add, by extension, mortality. Despite the knowledge that such transcendence cannot be more than an enabling fiction, its pursuit nonetheless endows living with an endless, sometimes feverish, productivity. Based on the most radical suspicion of the political, silence in Wolfgang Iser's aesthetics of negativity is therefore at once philosophical, epistemological, and moral. It is the silence of an empty mind able to listen to the murmur of something beyond confinement, form, or substance. “[My] mind at peace, that is to say empty,"28 says Beckett. Epistemological doubt is translated into a way of thinking and living, coloring one's very relationship to objects - in life as well as theory. Like Beckett, Iser fears the reduction of the other, the incommensurable, to something familiar. "The thing to avoid, I don't know why, is the spirit of system,"29 says the unnamable toward the end of Beckett's trilogy. In this vein, one could perhaps describe Iser's theories as the most systematic attempt to forgo the determinacy of system.

Shunning theoretical application or appropriation - which Iser considers a colonizing activity - he practises a highly unfamiliar form of theorizing that could be described as a preemptive "recursive looping" through familiar figures of thought. In this process of migrating into and out of "other" or "foreign" theories, they are stripped to the bone in an effort to discard their ideological baggage. What is left - the outlines of certain forms of thought or abstract shapes of reasoning - is used to enforce the movement of negativity, the undercutting of statement or positionality. Reflexivity becomes nothing more or less than a resonance of the enabling silence at the core.

I will always remember the intervention of a grey-haired Japanese scholar at a plenary session on Iser's work who stated that Iser's thoughts on negativity reminded him of Zen philosophy. Yet Iser's movement toward such an emptiness of mind is, as in Beckett, a movement marked by the impossibility of ever reaching its goal, a movement condemned eternally to loop backwards, always changing without ever coming to rest. In this sense, Iser's mode of thought emerges - again like Beckett's - from a profoundly Western mind, one marked by spirals of reflexivity rather than the meditative void of a Zen meditation. Yet, remarkably enough, both Beckett and Iser converge on a silence that is haunted by the desire to cut loose from manifestation. Even though they can never embrace the notion of mystical silence, their spirals of negativity harbor a tacit dream of ultimate silence and purity of mind. Both, however, are forced forever to defer the realization of this dream, and, in this sense, Zen becomes the unattainable Other of both Beckett's and Iser's spirals. Instead of granting a meditative transcendence, the silence that inhabits their dis- and recursive loops ignites an endless productivity.

Silence as an enabling force thus creates this endlessly looping thought characteristic of both Beckett's and Iser's work. A feverish activity suspects every utterance of being already corrupted by ideological traces. "If only I were not obliged to manifest." The troubling legacy left by this radical political and epistemological skepticism cannot be ignored, even though for some of Iser's students it meant moving through the loops and silences in order to risk speaking from a different place in history. What Dieter Henrich once called the "effort of form against itself"30 becomes, following Iser's thought, a challenge imposed on every manifestation. Can we write or rewrite history without succumbing to the falsifying impositions of "form," that is, of the modes of thinking and speaking available to us historically? Can we ever write anything without making such impositions and avoid what Jameson terms the "ideology of form"? Iser has asserted many times, resisting his own desire and enabling illusion, that the answer is no. Yet, he has also insisted that this doesn't free one from the obligation endlessly to question the impositions of form, of manifestation, of differentiation.


VI. Writing against Death

No cries, above all no cries, be urbane, a credit to the art and code of dying.

Samuel Beckett31

Ultimately, these questions challenge our most basic modes of living. Life is manifestation, differentiation. In this sense, Iser's endless looping around silence can also be seen as a form of speaking against death, a productivity that defies the weight of mortality even as it relentlessly explores it. This leads one back to the “resistance against manifestation." Like Beckett - or, for that matter, Derrida - Iser is never satisfied with the unavoidable, temporary manifestation of a particular thought or argument. As if each argument were inhabited by a drive to surpass itself, he moves through ever more refined spirals of abstraction, emphasizing how literature helps us to disconnect ourselves from and even transcend concrete historical manifestations. "[Literature] allows us, by means of simulacra, to lure into shape the fleetingness of the possible and to monitor the continual unfolding of ourselves into possible otherness."32 But in "othering" us, does literature only project us toward the "fleetingness of the possible" or does it not also connect us to what appears as "other" to us - be it outside or inside, internal or cultural alterity? In providing a space of transference that facilitates imaginary encounters with otherness, doesn't literature transform us in order to ground us in a larger world?

Iser ends his literary anthropology by asserting that literature helps us cope with the knowledge of our own mortality. For him this very knowledge lies at the roots of our need for fiction. When the Unnamable utters his "if only I were not obliged to manifest," it is endlessly to conjure the end while defering the sense of an ending, if not death itself. In playfully carrying out the duplicity that results from the intrinsic alterity of human beings, Iser argues, we may "win the infinity which makes one forget the end."33 Iser thus ends his literary anthropology by touching upon the anthropological foundation of an ancient theme: "Telling stories in order not to die" is what propels the energy of storytelling in The Arabian Nights. "Writing in order not to die," is, for Foucault, the most subliminal energy of literature. In a literal - and therefore, of course, silly - sense it is true that, if we were not obliged to manifest, we would not be condemned to die. But wouldn't we then hover - like the Unnamable - in an eternal space between, a limbo inhabited by those who are never quite born or who are buried before their time?

"Determinacy disappoints us," Iser says as we recall, insisting that it is "indeterminacy" that guarantees fluidity and flexibility, and hence life. Yet, as Iser also asserts indirectly, it is a life overshadowed by the knowledge of mortality. Literature keeps us in contact with this knowledge, while conveying that we may only have it in a mode of negativity. In this sense, fiction is the only defense we have against a knowledge that would otherwise be unbearable. Or, as Steiner writes in a quotation with which Iser ends his latest essay on the presence of the end: "It is the aesthetic which, past any other mode accessible to us, is the felt configuration of a negation (however partial, however 'figurative' in the precise sense) of mortality."34 Unable to experience death, Iser suggests, we need to find an indirect knowledge that stages the sense of an ending in a fictional mode, yet keeps death itself forever indeterminate.

[...] it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.

Samuel Beckett35




1.  Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, New York: Grove Pr., 1978, p. 10. (back)

2.  This essay has grown out of a shorter presentation given at the Colloquium UERJI on Wolfgang Iser's work at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.  A portuguese translation of the shorter earlier version is forthcoming in a volume edited by Joao de Castro Rocha.  The present essay is deeply indebted to the conference at Rio, and particularly to the rich discussions which followed the presentations. (back)

3.  Wolfgang Iser, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1989, p. 275. (back)

4.  Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading. A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978, p. 230. (back)

5.  Prospecting, p. 267. (back)

6.  Prospecting, p. 267. (back)

7.  The Act of Reading, p. 142. (back)

8.  See also "Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction," in J. Hillis Miller, ed., Aspects of Narrative, New York: Columbia UP, 1971, pp. 1-45. (back)

9. My translation from the German original, Das Fiktive und das Imaginaere. Perspektiven Literarischer Anthropologie, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991, p. 508. (back)

10.  The Act of Reading, p. 231. (back)

11.  Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, eds., The Translatability of Cultures: Figuration of the Space Between, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996. (back)

12.  This is also true for Iser's Wellek-Lectures at the University of California-Irvine which are forthcoming from Columbia University Press under the title Unfolding Interpretation: Iterations of Translatability.  (back)

13.  The Act of Reading, p. 107. (back)

14.  Prospecting, p. 283. (back)

15.  Prospecting, p. 263f. (back)

16. The Act of Reading, p. 137. (back)

17.  The Fictive and the Imaginary, p. 298. (back)

18.  The Fictive and the Imaginary, p. 298. (back)

19. The Fictive and the Imaginary, p. 298. (back)

20.  The Fictive and the Imaginary, p. 299. (back)

21.  Prospecting, p. 212. (back)

22.  Prospecting, p. 211. (back)

23.  Prospecting, p. 282. (back)

24.  Gabriele Schwab, "Reading, Otherness and Cultural Contact," in: The Mirror and the Killer-Queen.  Otherness in Literary Language, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996, pp. 1-46. (back)

25.  Jacques Derrida, "Guter Wille zur Macht I.  Drei Fragen an Hans-Georg Gadamer," in Philippe Forget, ed., Text und Interpretation,  Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1984, pp. 56-61. (back)

26.  Prospecting, p. 281. (back)

27.  Prospecting, p. 206. (back)

28.  The Unnamable, p. 31. (back)

29.  The Unnamable, p. 4. (back)

30.  Dieter Henrich, "Kunst und Kunstphilosophie der Gegenwart - Überlegungen mit Rücksicht auf Hegel," in Wolfgang Iser, Immanente Ästhetik - Ästhetische Reflexion, Poetik und Hermeneutik 2, Munich: Fink Verlag 1966, p. 30. (back)

31.  The Unnamable, p.36. (back)

32. The Fictive and the Imaginary, p. 303. (back)

33.  My translation from the German original, p. 515. (back)

34.  Quoted in Wolfgang Iser, "Die Praesenz des Endes.  King Lear - Macbeth," in Karlheinz Stierle and Rainer Warning, eds., Das Ende. Figuren einer Denkform, Muenchen: Fink Verlag, 1996, p. 383. (back)

35.  The Unnamable, p. 179. (back)



© Gabriele Schwab
© E-magazine LiterNet, 20.02.2000, № 2 (3)