Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 5, 2000

Literary theorist Wolfgang Iser talks about aesthetics

Undergraduates finally got a voice in the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts when the guest speaker was introduced not by a tenured faculty member but by a senior majoring in religious studies.

"Iser's reader has no easy ride," David Albertson said, quoting from one critic's comments about literary theorist Wolfgang Iser, the 20th and final speaker in the initial two-year phase of the series.

Addressing a full house in the Law School on Monday evening, Albertson said he welcomed the challenges presented by Iser's rigorous theories. Andrew Blotky, a sophomore majoring in political science who passed up the NCAA basketball finals to attend the lecture, concurred.


Related Information:


Blotky is one of 29 undergraduates enrolled in the honors program core colloquium of Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities who are doing precisely what Iser advocates. Blotky and his classmates are exploring the philosophical, literary, historic, ethical, social and aesthetic values that comprise the humanities -- in short, exercising their imaginations.

"Literature not only activates the imagination, but also invigorates perception," Iser told listeners as he stood tall and erect in a navy-blue suit and spoke precisely, with a soft German accent. "Literature, as I have tried to outline it, is a procedure of anthropological discovery, a storage of cultural memory, a virtual reality."

In a talk titled "Context-Sensitivity and Its Feedback: The Two-Sidedness of Humanistic Discourse," Iser approached the future of the humanities by talking about how they have evolved since their inception at the beginning of the 19th century.

When the study of rhetoric declined in that period, Iser said, "natural philologies" began an ascent.

"The nation was defined through the study of its own literature, history and philosophy. The idea of the nation state legitimized the humanities."

As the humanistic disciplines experienced what he called "shifting manifestations," Iser said, art continued to be "a response to people's oppressive awareness of the difficulty of existence."

By giving readers and viewers "moments of rapture," he suggested, art and literature became "not the transcendence of reality so much as a flight from it."

A prominent literary critic, proponent of a theory of "aesthetic response" and author of major critical works on Beckett, Pater and Shakespeare, Iser is best known for asking not what a text means, but what a text does to the reader. His works include The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response and Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology.

Fast-forwarding to the current state of the humanities, Iser argued that because of "large-scale politicizing" numerous disciplines now include group interests that are vying with one another to promote their respective agendas.

"The conviction that everything is political has proved to be the lowest common denominator," he said.

In their present state, Iser said, cultural studies, "powered by dissatisfaction with the outdated agendas of the literature departments," gain their legitimization from what they reject and have become highly diffused.

Iser argued that throughout the 19th century the literary canon was "the means of transcending social barriers." Intimate knowledge of the canon, he said, "was able to propel individuals from different walks of life up the social ladder."

Once perceived as "an imaginary museum of literary masterpieces," a "treasure house" and a "place of detached enchantment," the canon in recent decades has experienced a change in status. Today, Iser said, the marketplace is the new standard.

In the present climate, the market appears to provide legitimization, he said.

He added, to sympathetic laughter, "the world has problems, and the university [has] departments."

But Iser refused to concede defeat to market forces.

Literature, he argued, still has power as a "paradigm of emergence," as a training ground for the imagination, for "flights of fancy," for "boundary liftings and crossings."

"The virtual reality of available information has alerted us to what the competing virtual reality of literature is like and is able to perform," Iser said. "Literature becomes a panorama of what is possible."

Iser's endorsement of the "almost inexplicable renaissance of aesthetics" drew mixed grades from undergraduates in the Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities (ISH) colloquium who met the following day.

About half of the 17 students who went to Iser's lecture said they had found meaningful touchstones. But almost all said the talk, like others they had attended in the lecture series, was difficult to understand.

Paul Robinson, the Richard W. Lyman Professor in Humanities, and Helen Brooks, a senior lecturer in English and ISH, who co-teach the colloquium, echoed the students' concerns and said that they and some colleagues wish the presidential lectures could have been more accessible to undergraduates.

Robinson encouraged students to work hard to understand the kind of language that is used by Iser and other humanists, from "discourse" to "identity politics" to "deconstruction." But he added that sometimes texts and talks "are just not very clear or well organized."

"It seems like as the work becomes more and more abstract, it becomes more muddled," Blotky said.

Fiona McNiff, a sophomore who plans to design a major in early modern studies, said she appreciated the "two-sidedness" of Iser's aesthetic response theory.

"I like the idea that when you read a text, you are giving something to it and it is giving something back to you," McNiff said. "So I wanted to take my ideas to his talk and respond, but it was really challenging." SR