Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007)

Literary critic, cultural theorist, philosopher, essayist and “father” of reception theory Wolfgang Iser died yesterday. Here is how Tom Van Imschoot from Ghent University described Iser & his work in an article for the Literary Encyclopedia:

Of all literary theorists who gained prominence in the second half of the 20th century, Wolfgang Iser is among those who most rigorously confronted the question why we need the inessential form of fiction called “literature” and how literary theory might provide us with a way to disclose its function. Starting out with reflecting on how literature functions as a medium of interaction between the context from which it emerges, and a reader who makes the literature concrete, Iser contributed to the development of literary theory by turning literature itself into a mode of reflection. In this so-called “Wirkungsästhetik” [“aesthetics of effect”] he conceived of the literary text as a structure that elicits aesthetic responses in its reader by opening up her or his habitual worldview. At the same time, this groundbreaking concern with what a literary text does to its readers enables the anthropological interest already recognizable in Iser’s early writing to come to fruition. This literary anthropology, in which Iser’s theory of reception is implicitly integrated, charts the particular potential that literary fiction “stages” to extend oneself beyond the limits of what is cognitively graspable. Yet, it does not postulate that literature is anthropologically grounded. By rethinking literary fiction in terms of fictionalizing acts that transgress what is real and engage it in interplay with the imaginary, literature is recast as a medium that makes it possible to act out the very groundlessness of our anthropological condition and virtually explore what is otherwise inaccessible. Eventually, this possibility also inspired the widest curve in Iser’s reasoning when he extended his theory beyond the domain of literature into the realm of intercultural translatability and up to “the range of interpretation” by means of which humans arrange their world. This latest and widest curve, centered on boundary-crossing and liminality, also offers insight into what is at the heart of Iser’s theoretical reasoning: a radical concern with the experience of being between what one really is and one’s imaginary possibilities, or (to put it simply) of “the state in-between” in which humanity is permanently caught.

And here’s a short bibliography of his major works:

Die Weltanschauung Henry Fieldings
Walter Pater. Die Autonomie des Ästhetischen
Der implizite Leser. Kommunikations formen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett
Der Akt des Lesens. Theorie ästhetischer Wirkung
Laurence Sternes “Tristram Shandy”. Inszenierte Subjektivität
Shakespeares Historien. Genesis und Geltung
Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology
Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre. Perspektiven literarischer Anthropologie
The Range of Interpretation

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