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Literary critic Wolfgang Iser to speak at Stanford on April 3

The humanities "respond to what appears to be in the air," Wolfgang Iser told an interviewer in 1998.

"The humanities have to become market-oriented," he added. "This happens in Europe to a large extent by dissolving the old departmental set-up and establishing 'area studies' instead, such as Institutes of Western European Studies or Far Eastern Studies."

When the German-born literary critic and philosopher lectures at Stanford on April 3, he will be the final speaker this academic year to address the future of the humanities in the Stanford Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts.

Iser's talk, "Context-Sensitivity and Its Feedback: The Two-Sidedness of Humanistic Discourse," will begin at 7 p.m. Monday, April 3, in Room 113 of Building 260. It is free and open to the public.

A prominent literary theorist, Iser in the late 1960s founded the innovative University of Constance in Germany, where he was professor of English and comparative literature. Former professor of English at the University of Heidelberg and currently on the faculty of the University of California-Irvine, he is the author of major critical works on Beckett, Pater and Shakespeare and proponent of a theory of "aesthetic response." In his recent work Iser has explored notions of a "literary anthropology."

According to commentary posted by David Albertson, a graduate student in religious studies, on the presidential lectures website (, Iser's The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response "provided a rigorous grounding for the paradigm shift of the late 1960s in Germany that redirected the attention of literary theorists from the author to the reader." Instead of asking what the text means, Iser "asks what the text does to the reader."

In his 1989 Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, Iser summarized his project as follows: "If a literary text does something to its readers, it also simultaneously reveals something about them. Thus literature turns into a divining rod, locating our dispositions, desires, inclinations and eventually our overall makeup. The question arises as to why we need this particular medium. Questions of this kind point to a literary anthropology that is both an underpinning and an offshoot of reader-response criticism."

Iser has held fellowships at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University; the Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Wassenaar, Holland; the Council of the Humanities at Princeton; the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; and the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy.

The study of literature, Iser argues, tells us more about ourselves than about the books we read.

"Literature has been around for the last 2,500 years," he says. "Obviously it satisfies a human need. If fiction is considered the hallmark of literature, then fictions could be a means of exploring the human makeup."

When he was asked about the future of departments of language and literature in a 1998 interview by Richard Oort, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California-Irvine, Iser said the humanities "can be conceived of as a self-defining process."

In the early 19th century, he said, they served as "curator" of the nation state. Toward the end of that century, departments of English and French were established because "people wanted to know how other nations conceived of themselves through art and literature."

In the 20th century, Iser said, "quite a few paradigm switches have occurred, ranging from the predominance of historical preoccupation through close reading to theory, to name only a few prominent ones."

After the Berlin Wall came down, Iser said, he was involved in designing a new area studies institution at Humboldt University.

"The curriculum of such institutes is basically cross-cultural, as experts are needed for both industry and European administration who are familiar, for instance, with English literature, common law, international government, industrial management, and equally with what would be the equivalents in French, Italian and other European cultures."

Iser argued that such a market-oriented reconceptualization of the humanities "need not and should not dispense with research altogether."

"However, the future research will certainly not be confined to literature, although literature may be an important component of interdisciplinary subject matters that have first of all.


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