23 May 2016

Iser (§3) “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” part III, summary


by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. All boldface and parenthetical commentary are my own.]



Wolfgang Iser


“The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”





Brief summary:

The literary work of art is not merely an objective given. It arises through the imaginative interaction of the reader with the raw text. It is important for the author to leave out details so that the reader’s imagination is activated and put to the artistically creative task of determining those story features for herself. Thus the exact same text will be imaginatively pictured and conceptually interpreted in different ways by different readers and also in different ways by the same reader upon additional readings. But the reader’s becoming artificially and imaginatively aware  of the perceptible features of the story’s elements is not the only important component of the imaginative literary experience. As well there is the awareness of what would need to be different from the reader’s given reading experience in order instead to have the experience of the story elements. So for example, to read about a mountain that is mentioned in a text involves not only creatively picturing that mountain’s details in one’s own particular way. It also involves becoming aware of what about our current situation (reading the book in a chair, for example) would need to be different in order for us to have the experience of seeing that mountain (as for example realizing the way we would be awed by it and influenced by the other perceptual and emotional components of such an experience.)






In the prior section we saw how the process of reading a literary text involves the interwoven temporal dimensions of time consciousness, even on second readings when outcomes are known in advance. Iser now notes that we cannot on the basis of the text’s contents know how the reader’s consciousness organizes and interprets the parts. [Our phenomenal consciousness constitutes the literary entities and their relations while reading. But the way those entities come to be constituted and related will vary from person to person, and even for any one person, it can vary from reading to reading.]

The impressions that arise as a result of this process will vary from individual to individual, but only within the limits imposed by the written as opposed to the unwritten text. In the same way, two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The “stars” in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable. The author of the text may, of course, exert plenty of influence on the reader’s imagination – he has the whole panoply of narrative techniques at his disposal – but no author worth his salt will ever attempt to set the whole picture before his reader’s eyes. If he does, he will very quickly lose his reader, for it is only by activating the reader’s imagination that the author can hope to involve him and so realize the intentions of his text.

(Iser 287)


Iser then expands upon this notion of the reader’s active, imaginative participation with the creation of the literary work. He does so by quoting Gilbert Ryle’s account of imagining a mountain. [The idea seems to be the following. Suppose there is some mountain that you are actually seeing. This engages your consciousness in a certain way, and also it presents the mountain to you in its actuality. Now suppose instead that the mountain is mentioned while you are reading a literary text. In the first case of actual seeing, there is merely a perceptual act with its normal other acts of conscious awareness. But in imagining oneself seeing the mountain, there is a more “sophisticated” act of awareness, because this imaginative act involves as well the thought of you being somewhere else and seeing the mountain. This is at least how Ryle will put it. The idea here might be something like us thinking, “I am standing in front of the mountain, and I am seeing that it has these features”. But if you were actually just standing there, you would not have this thought. You would just see the features. The second idea in Ryle’s account seems to be the following. When we imagine the mountain, we are considering not just what the mountain is like but also what would need to be different about our given experiential situation in order for it to be an actual experience of the mountain. So for example, suppose we are sitting in a comfortable chair indoors reading something that mentions the mountain. When we imagine that mountain, we become not just aware of its features. We also become aware of what it is like to be standing there seeing that mountain. In that case, we might note that unlike now where we are sitting indoors, to see the mountain would involve also hearing the sounds of wildlife, smelling the scents of a forest or pasture, feeling a cool breeze, being awed by the mountain’s majesty, and so on. Iser will emphasize the role of the mountain’s absence in the structure of the experience. But we might also think of the experiential factor here as being simply one of difference. So in Iser’s account, the structural feature of the experience that allows us to creatively imagine the mountain is the absence of that mountain from our current perceptual awareness. However, I am saying that if we are reluctant to put too much emphasis on structures of absence, we can instead say that the important structural feature here is difference. In other words, what makes it possible for us to creatively generate the artificial experience of the mountain is the fact that there is a difference between seeing it and imagining it, and we exploit that difference when creatively reading the text. Iser’s further point will be that the literary text will not give us the full experience, but it will leave out details so that we can construct those by transporting ourselves imaginatively into the situation.]

Gilbert Ryle, in his analysis of imagination, asks: “How can a person fancy that he sees something, without realizing that he is not seeing it?” He answers as follows:

Seeing Helvellyn (the name of a mountain) in one’s mind's eye does not entail, what seeing Helvellyn and seeing snapshots of Helvellyn entail, the having of visual sensations. It does involve the thought of having a view of Helvellyn and it is therefore a more sophisticated operation than that of having a view of Helvellyn. It is one utilization among others of the knowledge of how Helvellyn should look, or, in one sense of the verb, it is thinking how it should look. The expectations which are fulfilled in the recognition at sight of Helvellyn are not indeed fulfilled in picturing it, but the picturing of it is something like a rehearsal of getting them fulfilled. So far from picturing involving the having of faint sensations, or | wraiths of sensations, it involves missing just what one would be due to get, if one were seeing the mountain.10

If one sees the mountain, then of course one can no longer imagine it, and so the act of picturing the mountain presupposes its absence. Similarly, with a literary text we can only picture things which are not there; the written part of the text gives us the knowledge, but it is the unwritten part that gives us the opportunity to picture things; indeed without the elements of indeterminacy, the gaps in the text, we should not be able to use our imagination.11

(Iser 287-288)

[Footnote 10: Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind(Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 255.]

[Footnote 11: Cf. Iser, pp. I Iff., 42ff]

[Recalling footnote 8 from p.285: For a more detailed discussion of the function of “gaps” in literary texts see Wolfgang Iser, “Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction,” Aspects of Narrative, English Institute Essays, ed. by J. Hillis Miller (New York, 1971), pp. 1-45.]


Iser illustrates this fact by noting that if we first read a book then secondly see a film adaptation of it, we might be disappointed that the way the film gives visual definition and character to the story world is not how we imagined it while reading. Iser then claims that the story’s hero must be pictured and not seen. [I am not sure what is wrong exactly with seeing it. The problem might be that it ceases to be a literary text and instead becomes a show. But for our reading experience to be literary rather than cinematic or theatrical, we need to be the painter of the pictures. Iser also says that the imaginative literary experience, by being largely constructed by the reader herself, is not just a richer one but it is also “more private”. The idea here might again be the personalization of the experience. It might also have something to do with the tangible features of the story not being a public spectacle, like with film, allowing each reader to make it whatever they want it to be.] And furthermore, the problem might be that when we see it, that prevents us from revising or altering the determined qualities of the presented story elements. In a literary text, however, we have that freedom to vary the way we imagine the elements.]

The truth of this observation is borne out by the experience many people have on seeing, for instance, the film of a novel. While reading Tom Jones, they may never have had a clear conception of what the hero actually looks like, but on seeing the film, some may say, “That’s not how I imagined him.” The point here is that the reader of Tom Jones is able to visualize the hero virtually for himself, and so his imagination senses the vast number of possibilities; the moment these possibilities are narrowed down to one complete and immutable picture, the imagination is put out of action, and we feel we have some- how been cheated. This may perhaps be an oversimplification of the process, but it does illustrate plainly the vital richness of potential that arises out of the fact that the hero in the novel must be pictured and cannot be seen. With the novel the reader must use his imagination to synthesize the information given him, and so his perception is simultaneously richer and more private; with the film he is confined merely to physical perception, and so whatever he remembers of the world he had pictured is brutally cancelled out.

(Iser 288)



Main work cited:

Wolfgang Iser. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3 (1972): 279-99.

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