Professor Wolfgang Iser

Radical literary theorist


Wolfgang Iser, literary scholar: born Marienberg, Germany 22 July 1926; Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of Konstanz 1967-91 (Emeritus); Professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine 1978-2005 (Emeritus); married; died Konstanz, Germany 24 January 2007.

The influence of Wolfgang Iser has been so deep and so pervasive that many are unaware of the origins of ideas that he first described and which are now commonplace. By theorising the simple perception that the meanings of a literary text are not created solely by the author and that the reader is not an inert recipient, Iser transformed the way in which literature is perceived, interpreted, presented, and theorised in academia, although - unfortunately - not yet in mainstream culture.

In a pleasing little book, How to Do Theory, published a few months ago, Iser described the changes that he helped to bring about.

Until after the Second World War, interpretation - "criticism" - had seldom questioned its own practices. Emerging from a tradition of biblical hermeneutics in which a professorial priestly class advised laities on what were the "right" meanings, literary studies could no longer cope with the fact that interpretations are contested, that what is taught as "true" or "correct" frequently changes, and that the whole enterprise relied on hierarchies that post-war generations had every reason to distrust.

The arrival of literary theory, whether based on aesthetics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, information theory or reader response, offered a way of understanding and legitimating the existence of differences in interpretation without conceding to the undisciplined individualistic consumerism that Iser dubbed "the great adventure of the soul among masterpieces".

Born in 1926 in the spa town of Marienberg, Iser studied English literature, German literature, and philosophy at Leipzig (in the Russian occupation zone), Tübingen and Heidelberg, where he received his doctorate for his dissertation on the 18th-century English novelist Henry Fielding. A series of academic appointments followed, including a spell at Glasgow University in the early 1950s that he looked back on with affection. But it was with his arrival at the recently founded University of Konstanz in 1967 that his main work began, and he was to remain there for the rest of his life, with occasional appointments elsewhere, notably at the University of California at Irvine. He was a frequent visitor to Britain and a valued overseas Fellow of the British Academy.

In the 1960s, Iser and his colleagues at Konstanz deliberately distanced themselves from the traditions of older German universities. Ignoring institutional linguistic boundaries (Germanistik, Anglistik), and well schooled in aesthetics, philosophy and other theoretical disciplines, they set out to investigate literature itself as the most complex - as well the greatest achievement - of all symbolic communication. The seminars were soon famous all over Germany, and the "Konstanz school" pioneered some of the most vital recent innovations in the humanities.

Iser recalled in 1976 the circumstances of his decision at the age of 18 to devote himself to the study of literature. Standing amongst the ruins of Germany at the end of the Second World War, among colleagues who were compromised, the young Iser needed no convincing that the notion that high culture is benignly humanistic was an illusion. Indeed, the bourgeois sacralisation of art and literature was part of the problem.

Going back to Walter Pater and others who propounded the autonomy of an aesthetic sphere ("art for art's sake"), Iser began to develop ideas that would simultaneously undermine the illusion and liberate consumers of art and literature from dominant - and dominating - systems of thought.

In a series of books, notably the short work Der Akt des Lesens: Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung (1976; published in English as The Act of Reading: a theory of aesthetic response, 1978), Iser emphasised that literary texts do not relate to contingent reality, as mainstream culture still largely assumes, but to systems through which the contingencies and complexities of reality are reduced to meaningful structures.

Since all texts contain gaps that the reader must fill from his or her own imagination and experience, meaning is made as the reader responds aesthetically to what is not there. Furthermore the text itself, to a large extent, constructs the reader who is implicit in its rhetorical structures. As Iser put the point later in a typical sentence, "The paradigmatic axis of reading is prestructured by the negations in the text."

Iser's theories of aesthetic response (that are applicable to popular as well as elite cultural production) differ from those of his colleague and sparring partner in the Konstanz school the late Hans Robert Jauss, whose Towards an Aesthetics of Reception (1982), was concerned not with the reader implicit in the text but with the encounter with the text of real readers who bring "horizons of expectations" to that event. The overlap in the terms used in the continuing debates has obscured the fact that there is no necessary contradiction between the two approaches. Indeed they are complementary.

Neither man ventured far outside theory, and the main follow-up work, such as empirical psychological studies and attempts to trace the effects of historic reading on the construction of mentalities, tends to take Iser for granted and to build on the insights of Jauss.

A tall, lean, man, with an exhilarating and commanding presence, Iser could have played Sherlock Holmes or an old-fashioned aristocrat in a 1940s play. And, although personally delightful and polite, professionally he gave no quarter. "Mutton" was how he once described some of his more plodding colleagues - a word from his Glasgow days.

In his lectures, both in English and in German, although they were always carefully crafted, even his most attentive listeners struggled to keep up, following the argument through subordinate clauses, and constantly having to supply for themselves the examples he rarely mentioned. Determined as he was never to condescend, Iser's dense written style too sometimes appeared to consist mainly of propositions and abstract nouns.

The theorist of reader response always demanded that his readers do the work that his theory imputed to them.

William St Clair

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