12 Aug 2016

Iser (§5) “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” part V, summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. All boldface and parenthetical commentary are my own. You may encounter typos, because proofreading is incomplete. I apologize for the distractions.]




Wolfgang Iser


“The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”





Brief summary:

When we read a literary text, our interpretations are acts of creation. And they are phenomenological in the sense that we experience what it is like to be a participant in the described situations. But these situations and the characters in them are unfamiliar to us. So when we read, we absorb that unfamiliarity into our own conscious life, as if we are living it for ourselves. By doing so, the reader’s own consciousness is modified in such a way that it is as if it is really the consciousness of the character or of the author. The reader’s own personal subjectivity is placed in the background, while an “alien me” comes into the reader’s direct awareness. By means of this structure, not only do readers, by reading literary works, have new sorts of experiences that they learn from, they also develop their own personalities, as they integrate into their inner lives the lessons and ideas they learned by adopting the foreign consciousness provided by the text.






Iser reviews three things we have noted about the reading process: {1} it involves anticipation and retrospection [see section 2], {2} this causes the text to unfold as a living event [I am not sure where this exact point is made, but see section 3 for the discussion of the imaginative engagement with the text which opens up a rich vibrant experience in the present act of reading] {3} and this results in the impression of lifelikeness of the literary work [see section 4]

In our analysis of the reading process so far, we have observed three important aspects that form the basis of the relationship between reader and text: the process of anticipation and retrospection, the consequent unfolding of the text as a living event, and the resultant impression of lifelikeness.

(Iser 296)


Iser then restates his general point of the openness of the interpretative process. To build consistency in the literary work, we choose certain possible interpretations and exclude others. But by excluding those others, we give them a place as a possible alternative. In that way, rather than destroy alternative interpretations, we instead leave them in the background to possibly reemerge as dominant ones.

Any “living event” must, to a greater or lesser degree, remain open. In reading, this obliges the reader to seek continually for consistency, because only then can he close up situations and comprehend the unfamiliar. But consistency-building is itself a living process, in which one is constantly forced to make selective decisions – and these decisions in their turn give a reality to the possibilities which they exclude, insofar as they may take effect as a latent disturbance of the consistency established. This is what causes the reader to be entangled in the text “gestalt” that he himself has produced.



Because of this revisionary process, we can change not just the assumptions we have about the text, but also ones we have about life itself. For, whatever assumptions we bring to the text before reading it are also open to revision through the process of reading that text.

Through this entanglement the reader is bound to open himself up to the workings of the text, and so leave behind his own preconceptions. This gives him the chance to have an experience in the way George Bernard Shaw once described it: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.”23 Reading reflects the structure of experience to the extent that we must suspend the ideas and attitudes that shape our own personality before we can experience the unfamiliar world of the literary text. But during this process, something happens to us.

[Footnote 23 (quoting): G. B. Shaw, Major Barbara (London, 1964), p. 316.]



Iser then says that we need to look more at how the text affects us and alters the assumptions we had before reading it. It is a process whereby we incorporate “the unfamiliar into our own range of experience” (296). Iser says that this element of the process has been obscured in literary discussions, because they focus instead on the similar sort of process of absorbing the unfamiliar, which they call the identification of the reader with what they read. Iser says that the problem with this notion is that it is used as if it were an explanation for this process (of absorbing the unfamiliar), when in fact it merely just describes it. When we normally use the term identify, we mean that affinities are being established between ourself and someone other than ourself. [By this means, we take ourself as a familiar grounds as the basis of which we experience the unfamiliar grounds of the other person.] Iser then gives his criticism of how this notion is used. The author’s aim is not simply to establish affinities between readers and fictional characters. Rather, they want to “convey the experience and, above all, an attitude towards that experience” (296). [I am not exactly sure I know what is meant there. But perhaps the idea is that the the characters have certain kinds of experiences. The author wants the reader to also have something like that experience and to develop a perspective or judgment of that experience. They do so by means of getting the reader to feel as if they can be having that character’s experience. Thus] the identification is merely the means to stimulate “attitudes in the reader” (296).

This “something” needs to be looked at in detail, especially as the incorporation of the unfamiliar into our own range of experience has been to a certain extent obscured by an idea very common in literary discussion: namely, that the process of absorbing the unfamiliar is labelled as the identification of the reader with what he reads. Often the term “identification” is used as if it were an explanation, whereas in actual fact it is nothing more than a description. What is normally meant by “identification” is the establishment of affinities between oneself and someone outside oneself – a familiar ground on which we are able to experience the unfamiliar. The author’s aim, though, is to convey the experience and, above all, an attitude towards that experience. Consequently, “identification” is not an end in itself, but a stratagem by means of which the author stimulates attitudes in the reader.



So Iser has just established that the process of absorbing the unfamiliar is not simply identification, because the process involves also having the experiences the author wants the reader to explore. Now Iser clarifies that he is not saying this means the reader does not get lost in the text by means of this identification process. Surely we do identify highly with the characters and their lives to such a degree that we feel very little distance between ourselves and them.

This of course is not to deny that there does arise a form of partici | pation as one reads; one is certainly drawn into the text in such a way that one has the feeling that there is no distance between oneself and the events described. This involvement is well summed up by the reaction of a critic to reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “We took up Jane Eyre one winter’s evening, somewhat piqued at the extravagant commendations we had heard, and sternly resolved to be as critical as Croker. But as we read on we forgot both commendations and criticism, identified ourselves with Jane in all her troubles, and finally married Mr. Rochester about four in the morning.” 24 The question is how and why did the critic identify himself with Jane?

[Footnote 24 (qtg.): William George Clark, Fraser's, December, 1849, 692, quoted by Kathleen Tillotson, Novels of the Eighteen-Forties (Oxford, 1961), pp. 19 f.]

(Iser 296-297)


[Iser’s next point is very interesting, but I might not express it precisely. To understand the point, let us set up a contrast. In one case, you learn things from experience, and I learn things from experience. In our learning things from experience, we gain our knowledge in a very direct way, and we might find ourselves for the most part to be convinced of what the experience has taught us. Then, we have the task of explaining our knowledge to one another. If I simply tell you everything I learned from my experience, and you do the same for me, we might struggle to understand one another, especially if our overall experiential backgrounds are different. But suppose now that instead of just telling me what you learned from experience, you also enabled me to have a very similar experience that would teach me the same things. That would seem to be a much more effective way to get me to understand what you mean. The point Iser might be making here is that the reading process may seem like the mode of communicating knowledge where we just try to tell the other person what we have learned. But when we take into account the phenomenological dimension, we see that there is also a communication of experience, in a sense. The author does not just tell the reader certain ideas. The author provides textual givens that the reader uses to simulate certain experiences, and thereby the ideas are communicated more effectively and convincingly. Iser further includes in this notion an ambivalence between subject and other. While we read the text, we maintain our own subjectivity, as it is we who are having the experience. But the experiences we are having are experiences of another person (either the author or characters – I am not sure). So it breaks down the boundaries of our subjectivity, and this is why it is so often thought simply as identification.]

In order to understand this “experience,” it is well worth considering Georges Poulet’s observations on the reading process. He says that books only take on their full existence in the reader.25 It is true that they consist of ideas thought out by someone else, but in reading the reader becomes the subject that does the thinking. Thus there disappears the subject-object division that otherwise is a prerequisite for all knowledge and all observation, and the removal of this division puts reading in an apparently unique position as regards the possible absorption of new experiences. This may well be the reason why relations with the world of the literary text have so often been misinterpreted as identification. From the idea that in reading we must think the thoughts of someone else, Poulet draws the following conclusion: “Whatever I think is a part of my mental world. And yet here I am thinking a thought which manifestly belongs to another mental world, which is being thought in me just as though I did not exist. Already the notion is inconceivable and seems even more so if I reflect that, since every thought must have a subject to think it, this thought which is alien to me and yet in me, must also have in me a subject which is alien to me. . . . Whenever I read, I mentally pronounce an I, and yet the I which I pronounce is not myself.”26

[Footnotes 25 and 26 (qtg): 25 Cf. Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading,” New Literary History, 1 (1969), 54.

26 Ibid., 56.]

(Iser 297)


Iser then elaborates on Poulet’s insights. It is by means of this breakdown of the reader’s subjectivity that the author’s ideas are internalized in the reader. This is because the consciousnesses of the author and the reader converge. Poulet says that this merger requires two things, namely {1} that the author exclude personal details from the story [so that it is not too strongly dominated by the author’s consciousness] and {2} that the reader puts aside their own personal dispositions [so that they can better integrate with those of the author]. “Only then can the thoughts of the author take place subjectively in the reader, who thinks what he is not” (298). Iser then says “It follows that the work itself must be thought of as a consciousness, because only in this way is there an adequate basis for the author-reader relationship – a relationship that can only come about through the negation of the author’s own life-story and the reader’s own disposition” (298) [I do not follow the reasoning for this point. For some reason, if we think of the literary work as anything other than a consciousness, then we cannot understand this author-reader relationship. I am not sure how to think of the work as itself being ‘a consciousness’. But that it is the product of consciousness is more obvious, and that it is constituted entirely by consciousness would also make sense. Perhaps the idea is that the author-reader relationship is a merger of consciousnesses by means of the literary work, and that could only be possible if that work involved a hybrid of the consciousnesses of author and reader and thus was itself a sort of consciousness.] Iser then says we should further develop Poulet’s basic insight.

But for Poulet this idea is only part of the story. The strange subject that thinks the strange thought in the reader indicates the potential presence of the author, whose ideas can be “internalized” by the reader: “Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal. | mean that consciousness forms the point at which author and reader converge, and at the same time it would result in the cessation of the temporary self-alienation that occurs to the reader when his consciousness brings to life the ideas formulated by the author. This process gives rise to a form of communication which, however, according to Poulet, is dependent on two conditions: the life-story of the author must be shut out of the work, and the individual disposition of the reader must be shut out of the act of reading. Only then can the thoughts of the author take place subjectively in the reader, who thinks what he is not. It follows that the work itself must be thought of as a consciousness, because only in this way is there an adequate basis for the author-reader relationship – a relationship that can only come about through the negation of the author’s own life-story and the reader’s own disposition. This conclusion is actually drawn by Poulet when he describes the work as the self-presentation or materialization of consciousness: “And so I ought not to hesitate to recognize that so long as it is animated by this vital inbreathing inspired by the act of reading, a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects.”28 Even though it is difficult to follow such a substantialist conception of the consciousness that constitutes itself in the literary work, there are, nevertheless, certain points in Poulet’s argument that are worth holding onto. But they should be developed along somewhat different lines.

[Footnotes 27 and 28 (qtg, and referencing Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading,” New Literary History, 1 (1969)): 27 Ibid., 59.

28 Ibid., p. 59.]

(Iser 297-298)


[Iser’s next ideas are a bit harder to grasp, but they seem to be the following. The reader’s and the author’s consciousnesses merge in the literary work. Because the reader integrates the thoughts of the author into their own consciousness, the boundary or division between self and other is broken down, and it only can be found somehow within the reader (I am not sure how. Iser places the term “division” in scare quotes. Maybe the idea is that the division between reader and author in the mind of the reader is only something felt indirectly perhaps by recognizing that parts of one’s own consciousness are being thought by oneself and yet have some odd alien character. I am not sure.) This furthermore means that the reader loses their individuality, and they internally undergo an artificial division in their personality. But the reader’s own unique personality hangs somewhere at the edges of their awareness. This means that with respect to subjectivity, there are two levels (namely, the immediate direct level of having absorbed the author’s consciousness and the implicit, boundary level of the original self who hangs in the background). So there is the level of the alien “me” and also the level of the real, virtual “me”. (They remain in contact, which is why they can together produce the consciousness of the literary text.) And in fact, each text will draw a different internal boundary on the reader, such that the real “me” will take on a different form in each case. (I am not sure I understand how that would work, however. I would have thought that the real “me” remains unaltered in each case. Perhaps it is modified in its relation to the alien “me”.)

If reading removes the subject-object division that constitutes all perception, it follows that the reader will be “occupied” by the thoughts of the author, and these in their turn will cause the drawing of new “boundaries.” Text and reader no longer confront each other as object and subject, but instead the “division” takes place within the reader himself. In thinking the thoughts of another, his own individuality temporarily recedes into the background since it is supplanted by these alien thoughts, which now become the theme on which his attention is focused. As we read, there occurs an artificial division of our personality because we take as a theme for ourselves something that we are not. Consequently when reading we operate on different levels. For although we may be thinking the thoughts of someone else, what we are will not disappear completely – it will merely remain a more or less powerful virtual force. Thus, in reading there are these two levels the alien “me” and the real, virtual “me”-which are never completely | thoughts into an absorbing theme for ourselves, provided the virtual background of our own personality can adapt to it. Every text we read draws a different boundary within our personality, so that the virtual background (the real “me”) will take on a different form, according to the theme of the text concerned. This is inevitable, if only for the fact that the relationship between alien theme and virtual background is what makes it possible for the unfamiliar to be understood.



Iser then makes the point, by quoting D.W. Harding, that rather than the reader imposing their mental life upon the text and shaping it that way, instead the text  also shapes the reader. Iser then says that in order for us to have new unfamiliar experiences through the reading process, something needs to be “formulated” in us. [I am not sure what is meant by formulation exactly. Iser then says that for this to happen, our “unformulated faculty for deciphering” the author’s thought needs to be brought into play. I do not know what is meant exactly by an “unformulated faculty.” And I am not certain what he means when he says that in this process of deciphering, our unformulated faculty formulates itself. Iser’s final point is that this formulation of our faculty for deciphering could not come from our “own lines of orientation”. I am not sure what this part means, but perhaps Iser is saying that our inner lives are modifiable. And we have a faculty that deciphers the author’s thoughts through the reading process. That faculty does this partly by modifying itself so that it takes on the modes of consciousness of the author (or that the author is inducing in the reader).]

In this context there is a revealing remark made by D. W. Harding, arguing against the idea of identification with what is read: “What is sometimes called wish-fulfilment in novels and plays can ... more plausibly be described as wish-formulation or the definition of desires. The cultural levels at which it works may vary widely; the process is the same. . .. It seems nearer the truth . . . to say that fictions contribute to defining the reader’s or spectator’s values, and perhaps stimulating his desires, rather than to suppose that they gratify desire by some mechanism of vicarious experience.”29 In the act of reading, having to think something that we have not yet experienced does not mean only being in a position to conceive or even understand it; it also means that such acts of conception are possible and successful to the degree that they lead to something being formulated in us. For someone else’s thoughts can only take a form in our consciousness if, in the process, our unformulated faculty for deciphering those thoughts is brought into play – a faculty which, in the act of deciphering, also formulates itself. Now since this formulation is carried out on terms set by someone else, whose thoughts are the theme of our reading, it follows that the formulation of our faculty for deciphering cannot be along our own lines of orientation.

[Footnote 29 (qtg.): 29 D. W. Harding, “Psychological Processes in the Reading of Fiction,” Aesthetics in the Modern World, ed by Harold Osborne (London, 1968), pp. 313 ff.]



Iser says that reading has a dialectical structure, and it is found in this deciphering procedure. [I might not present the ideas here very well. Iser seems to be saying the following things. In the first place, we are not normally aware of our deciphering capacity. But when we read, that capacity comes to our attention. I am not sure why we are not normally aware of it, however. Perhaps in daily life it is automatic, but when we read, it is less automatic or less transparent, maybe because it involves us dealing with a foreign sort of consciousness. Iser then makes the point that by constructing the text through our interpretative interactivity with it, we also “formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously seemed to elude our consciousness” (299). Perhaps the idea here is that by taking on the foreign source of consciousness, we can restructure our own consciousness and subjectivities. But I am guessing. I will also guess at his final point. He writes, “These are the ways in which reading literature gives us the chance to formulate the unformulated”. Perhaps he is referring to two unformulated things that we formulate. We formulate the world of the text by means of our interpretations, and in that process we formulate ourselves as conscious beings who make choices as to how to understand ourselves and our worlds.]

Herein lies the dialectical structure of reading. The need to decipher gives us the chance to formulate our own deciphering capacity-i.e., we bring to the fore an element of our being of which we are not directly conscious. The production of the meaning of literary texts – which we discussed in connection with forming the “gestalt” of the text-does not merely entail the discovery of the unformulated, which can then be taken over by the active imagination of the reader; it also entails the possibility that we may formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously seemed to elude our consciousness. These are the ways in which reading literature gives us the chance to formulate the unformulated.

(Iser 299)





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



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