In his Reception theory, Robert C. Holub, one of the contributors of Reception Theory explains it as “a general shift in concern from the author and the work to the text and the reader.” This more or less resembles the reader-response theory but has its convergence and divergence. According to Holub, Reception Theory was a revolutionary approach to contemporary literary criticism. It reflects a paradigm shift in the history of literature, and it is considered “a reaction to social, intellectual, and literary developments in West Germany during the late 1960s.”
This new paradigmatic approach to literary criticism has an outlook which focuses on the function of the reader in a process of literary experience. Hans Robert Jauss, one of the main contributors to Reception Theory, points out in one of works, the rise of the new paradigm and emphasizes the importance of interpretation by the reader, replacing the obsolete literary scholarship methodology which involved the studies of accumulated facts. Jauss’ theory views literature “from the perspective of the reader or consumer” and treats literature “as a dialectical process of production and reception.” In his article Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory (1969), Jauss states the following:
…the relationship of work to work must now be brought into this interaction between work and mankind, and the historical coherence of works among themselves must be seen in the interrelations of production and reception. Put another way: literature and art only obtain a history that has the character of a process when the succession of works is mediated not only through the producing subject but also through the consuming subject—through the interaction of author and public.
Jauss’ argument for a paradigmatic change in the study of literary history, gives a critical attention to the historicity of interpretation or what he called Rezeptionsästhetik, which in turn owes a great deal to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics, particularly the concept of the “Fusion of Horizons.”
Considering the Reception Theory and Gadamerian hermeneutics in the context of 20th-century intellectual history, shows part of the general tendency in the post-war world towards a more open and more self-consciously historical perspective that moves away from the 19th-century positivistic beliefs in the objectivity, progress, and scientific truth in human understanding and knowledge. “Understanding is not, in fact, understanding better,” as Gadamer puts it. “It is enough to say that we understand in a different way, if we understand at all.” This statement indicates the shift of emphasis in modern hermeneutics from an unchanging meaning in a correct understanding based on the recovery of the authorial intention to the variability of meaning based on the diversity of subjective perspectives or horizons.
People understand differently because they have different subjective positions, and recognition of the important role played by that subjectivity necessarily leads to the recognition of the reader’s or the spectator’s function in making sense in understanding and interpretation. In Jauss’ argument, a literary work is “not an object that stands by itself and that offers the same view to each reader in each period,” but it is “much more like an orchestration that strikes ever new resonances among its readers and that frees the text from the material of the words and brings it to a contemporary existence.”
The idea that a literary work is not immobile, but always changing in the aesthetic experience of reading as a “contemporary existence,” can be traced to Gadamer’s discussion of the work of art as play, which is always a “presentation for an audience.”
Reception theory can be said to have built on Gadamer’s understanding of art as play and the experience of art as participation, on the concept of “contemporaneity,” which means, as Gadamer explains, “that in its presentation this particular thing that presents itself to us achieves full presence, however remote its origin may be. Thus contemporaneity is not a mode of givenness in consciousness, but a task for consciousness and an achievement that is demanded of it.” That is to say, in a spectator’s or a reader’s aesthetic experience, the work of art achieves full presence in the consciousness and becomes something that exists at the present moment, “contemporaneous” with the reader’s consciousness, even though the work itself may originate in a remote past.
From this we may conclude that meaning of a literary work or a classic is always the merging of what the work says and what the reader understands it as saying in the contemporary situation, a Gadamerian “fusion of horizons.” The study of reception is thus the study of how the fusion of horizons happens in the reading of a classic, and how the changes of horizons constitute the history of a classic’s reading and interpretation. Reception acknowledges the historicity of understanding, and sees all texts, including the classics, as having their meaning generated in the encounter between the text and the reader.
So, how much “power” of interpretation does Reception Theory actually give to the reader? Holub suggests that Reception Theory is a creative process that occurs in the act of reading. He states, “The literary work is neither completely text nor completely the subjectivity of the reader, but a combination or merger of the two.”
Wolfgang Iser, one of the most prominent figures in Reception Theory, points out the importance of this literary process, as well. Iser takes a phenomenological approach to Reception Theory and he “decontextualizes and de-historicizes text and reader.” Iser argues that the reader’s involvement coincides with meaning production in literature.
…the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or with the realization of the text by the reader, but in fact must lie halfway between the two. The work is more than the text, for the text only takes on life when it is realized, and furthermore the realization is by no means independent of the individual disposition of the reader…The convergence of text and reader brings the literary work into existence, and this convergence can never be precisely pinpointed, but must always remain virtual, as it is not to be identified either with the reality of the text or with the individual disposition of the reader.
This suggests that Reception Theory defines literature as the process of how the reader and the text interact with each other, and it was a revolutionary way of looking at the history of literature and literary criticism. Reception Theory, however, confines the role of the reader within this process, and the “power” of the reader does not function as the dominant in the act of reading the text. Reception Theory introduces the necessity of the reader’s involvement in the history of literature, and this drastic and “revolutionary” development was rather natural considering the influential writings on the theory of relativity by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and the concept of “paradigm shift” by Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996). Both Einstein and Kuhn raise questions as to how one should approach the notion of “truth” and “fact”, thus, suggesting the importance of interpretation. In addition, these two authors provided the foundation for Reception Theory, which requires the notion of interpretation to be included in the process of literary experience.
Jauss’s reception theory definitely puts more emphasis on the indeterminacy of meaning in all texts, rather than embracing the normative sense of any text, be it classical, canonical, or scriptural. Martindale, who follows Jauss closely, likewise emphasizes the changing meaning of the classics and dismisses the idea of an original, recoverable meaning. “The desire to experience, say, Homer in himself untouched by any taint of modernity,” says Martindale, “is part of the pathology of many classicists, but it is a deluded desire.”
Sappho provides yet another example. We know very little about the life of Sappho, but modern critics have understood her as a lesbian. Since we cannot get rid of our modern concept and cannot think otherwise, says Martindale, “why should we seek to pretend otherwise? Whatever the case in Archaic Lesbos, the certainty is that Sappho is now a lesbian (as Emily Wilson wittily puts it, ‘it is only a slight exaggeration to say that Baudelaire, through Sappho, invented modern lesbianism, and Swinburne brought it to England’). Should we give up all this richness—in exchange for little or nothing?”
There may be some tension between “whatever the case in Archaic Lesbos” and the modern conviction that “Sappho is now a lesbian,” but for Martindale, the former is elusive and forever lost, while the latter is “the certainty” achieved in modern criticism despite its 19th-century provenance.
There seems a clear privileging of the modern and modern understanding over whatever the ancient condition and its texts might be. In this sense, reception theory puts more emphasis on the reader and the reader’s present situation than anything else. Modern subjectivity gets an even stronger confirmation in William Batstone’s remark that “we cannot understand what we do not understand, and so, when we come to understanding (of any thing, of the other) we come to self-understanding.” That seems a very strong endorsement of the circularity of the hermeneutic circle, but if all understanding is self-understanding, is there any criterion outside the interiority of the hermeneutic circle, by which we may judge one understanding from the next in terms of persuasiveness or validity? What would be the legitimate ground for differentiating various understandings and interpretations? Or has reception theory with its emphasis on the constructedness of meaning eschewed that question altogether?
Batstone brings up the political dimension of this issue when he deliberately asks: “How might Goebbels or Mussolini or even Stauffenberg figure within the claim that Virgil can only be what readers have made of him? These readers require an oppositional reading, a reading that suppresses their ambitions.” He puts it provocatively, saying that “Goebbels was right, and that is why Thomas believes in the suppression of Goebbels’ reading.”15 But in what sense was Goebbels right? In Batstone’s formulation, the politics of reading becomes a pure game of politics but no reading, because a previous reading needs to be suppressed not because it is in any sense wrong or a distortion of the text’s proper meaning, but because the regime or political situation has changed. Thus reception theory puts the reader’s role to the fore and argues that all understanding is self-understanding, and that all interpretations are imbedded in the social, political, and intellectual conditions of their times. Goebbels’s reading needs to be suppressed not because it is invalid, not even because its Nazi ideology is wrong, but only because the Nazis are defeated and its ideology needs to be suppressed by the winner’s ideology. In such a formulation, then, the politics of reading is constituted by nothing but political power, in which interpretation is not a matter of validity or invalidity, but a matter of discursive authority totally depending on who has the power to speak.