ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 16

 - The Social Permeability of Reader and Text


In this first lecture on the theory of literature in social contexts, Professor Paul Fry examines the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and Hans Robert Jauss. The relation of their writing to formalist theory and the work of Barthes and Foucault is articulated. The dimensions of Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, along with the idea of common language, are explored in detail through a close reading of the first sentence of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Jauss’s study of the history of reception is explicated with reference to Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 16 - The Social Permeability of Reader and Text

Chapter 1. Language in Social Context [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So we arrive at our turn to sociogenesis. Genesis is, of course, here obviously–even as we read both Jauss and Bakhtin for today–a misleading term in a certain sense; because obviously, the most egregious difference between Jauss and Bakhtin–and once again you’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, my goodness. Why have these two texts been put together?”–the most egregious difference is that Bakhtin’s primary concern is with the “life world” that produces a text and Jauss’ primary concern is with the “life world,” or perhaps better “succession of life worlds,” in which a text is received. I think you can tell, however, from reading both texts, and will be conscious as you go through the materials that remain on the syllabus, that the relationship between the production and reception of literature, or of discourse of any kind, once you factor in the social setting of such a text, becomes much more permeable, much more fluid. There’s a certain sense in which the producer is the receiver; in which the author is the reader and stands in relation to a tradition, to a past, as a reader; and the reader in turn, in continuing to circulate texts through history–that is to say, in playing a role as someone who keeps texts current–is perhaps even in concrete terms a writer. That is to say, he or she is someone who expresses opinions, circulates values, and keeps texts, as I say, in circulation.

I’ve always felt this about Jauss’s sense of what a reader is. What kind of reader would it be who was responsible for the continued presence, or influence, of a text through literary history who wasn’t in some sense communicating an opinion? This is obviously truer today than ever before when we have blogs and discussion groups and when everybody is circulating opinions on the internet. Plainly the reader, plainly the taste-maker, the reader as taste-maker, is at the same time a writer. Just in passing–this has become a digression but I hope a useful one–in this context, one can think about a really strange pairing, Jauss in relation to Bloom. If Bloom’s theory of strong misreading as a principle of literary historiography can be understood as a relationship between writers as readers and readers as writers, so by the same token if we see Jauss’s analysis of reception in these terms, and if we think of reception as a necessary circulation of opinion, there is, after all, a sense in which for Jauss, too, the reader is a writer and the writer is a reader. That is undoubtedly a remote connection, but it is a way of seeing how both Bloom and Jauss are figures who have strong and interesting and plausible theories about literary history.

All right. To go, however, back to the beginning–back to the sense in which we’re at a watershed, or a moment of transition in this course, leaving for the moment out of the picture the intermediate step of psychogenesis–to go back to this sense of our being in a moment of transition–as always, such is the calendar, just at the wrong time: we finally accomplish our transition, then we go off to spring break, forget everything we ever knew and come back and start off once again as a tabula rasa. We’ll do our best to bridge that gap. In any case, if we now find ourselves understanding in reading these two texts for the first time, really–although it’s not that we haven’t been talking about “life” before. Obviously, we have been, as it’s not as though the Russian formalists culminating in the structuralism of Jakobson don’t talk about a referential function. It’s unfair even to the New Critics to say that somehow the world is excluded from the interpretative or reading process–even though all along we’ve been saying things like this, we still sense a difference. The difference is in the perceived relationship between the text, the object of study, and the life world–the sense, in fact, in which a text is a life world. This has, after all, something to do with our understanding of what language is.

So far we have been thinking of language as a semiotic code and also with the strong suspicion that this semiotic code is a virtual one. We have been emphasizing the degree to which we are passive in relation to, or even, as it were, “spoken by” this language. In other words, it’s been a constant in our thinking about these matters that language speaks through us, but we have exercised so far a curious reticence about the sense in which this language is not just a code, not just something that exists virtually at a given historical moment, but is in fact a code made up of other people’s language: in other words, that it is language in circulation, not just language as somehow abstractly outside of networks of circulation available for use.

So we begin now to think of language still, and the relationship between language and speech, but now it’s not a language abstracted from reality; it’s a language which, precisely, circulates within reality and as a matter of social exchange and social interaction. Language is now and henceforth on our syllabus a social institution. In literary theory it has the same determinative relationship with my individual speech, but we now begin to understand the claim that I don’t speak my own language in a different register. Hitherto it’s been, well, “Language is there before me, what I speak is just sort of that which I borrow from it,” but now this takes on a new valency altogether. What I don’t speak is my language; it’s other people’s language. My voice–and the word “voice” is obviously under heavy pressure here, even though nobody says it goes away–my voice is a voice permeated by all the sedimentations, registers, levels, and orientations of language in the world that surrounds me. I take my language, in other words, from other people. I stand here–for my sins–lecturing in kind of an ad-lib way, and that makes it even more pronounced in what I say. You’re hearing the internet. You’re hearing newspaper headlines. You’re hearing slang. You’re hearing all sorts of locutions and rhetorical devices that I’d be ashamed to call mine, [laughs] at least in many cases, because they are in the world; they are out there, as we say.

What’s out there gets to the point where it’s in here, and the next thing you know, it becomes part of the ongoing patter or blather of an individual. It is, in other words, the speech of others that you’re hearing when you hear an individual. The extent or the degree to which this might be the case is, I suppose, always subject to debate. We’re going to take up a couple of examples, but in any case, you can see that without the structure of the relationship between language and speech having really changed–and in fact it won’t really change as we continue along–without the structure of the relationship between language and speech having changed, the nature of this relationship and the way in which we think of it in social terms is changed, and the social aspect of it now comes into prominence and will remain there.

Chapter 2. Bakhtin, Jauss, and Formalism [00:22:01]

Now in order to see how this works in the case of today’s two authors a little more concretely, I wanted to turn to a couple of passages on your sheet. You got my grim warning last night that if you didn’t bring it, I wouldn’t have any to circulate. We’ll see how well that worked, and if it didn’t work, well, perhaps it’ll work better in the future. In any case, first of all turning to the first passage on the sheet by Bakhtin–by the way, if you don’t have the sheet, maybe somebody near you does, or maybe somebody near you has a computer which is being used for the correct purposes that can be [laughs] held somehow between the two of you. These are all possibilities.

The first passage on the sheet by Bakhtin is about the relationship between what he takes to be a formalist understanding of double-voicedness–for example, the new critical understanding which he’s not directly talking about but which we could use as an example of irony–the ways of talking about not meaning what you say. He’s talking about those sorts of double-voicedness in relationship to, in contradistinction to, what he means by “genuine heteroglossia,” and he says, first passage on the sheet:

Rhetoric is often limited to purely verbal victories over the word, over ideological authority. [In other words, I am sort of getting under your ribs if you’re somehow or another voicing an authoritative, widespread, or tyrannical opinion by some form or another of subverting it–in other words, a kind of a binary relationship between what I’m saying and what’s commonly being said out there.] When this happens [says Bakhtin] rhetoric degenerates into formalistic verbal play but, we repeat, when discourse is torn from reality it is fatal for the word itself as well. Words grow sickly, lose semantic depth and flexibility, the capacity to expand and renew their meanings in new living contexts. They essentially die as discourse, for the signifying word lives beyond itself; that is, it lives by directing its purposiveness outward. Double-voicedness, which is merely verbal, is not structured on authentic heteroglossia but on a mere diversity of voices.

In other words, it doesn’t take into account the way in which there are seepages or permeabilities among the possibilities and registers of meaning, depending on extraordinarily complex speaking communities coming together in any aspect of discourse, ways in which we have to think about the life world of a discourse in order to understand the play of voice. Heteroglossia is the language of others. That’s what it means if we are to to understand the way in which the language of others is playing through and permeating the text.

A comparable response to formalism on the part of Hans Robert Jauss–I should say in passing that both Bakhtin and Jauss have authentic and close relations with the Russian formalists. Bakhtin begins, in a way, at the very end of the formalist tradition, as a kind of second generation formalist, but quickly moves away–it is breaking up in the late 1920s–from that and begins to rewrite formalism in a certain sense as a sociogenesis of discourse in language; and by the same token, Jauss in his theory of literary history–which is not enunciated in these terms in the text that you have, but rather in the long text from which I wish your editor had taken an excerpt, called “Literary History as a Provocation to Literary Theory.” You have excerpts from that on your sheet. In any case, in Jauss’ understanding of the relationship between the text and the life world, Jauss cobbles together, as it were, aspects of Russian formalist historiography, particularly that of Jakobson and Tynjanov, and a Marxist understanding of, as it were, the marketing, reception, and consumption of literary production. These pairs of ideas go together in his developing of his thesis about literary reception, to which we’ll return at the end of the lecture.

The second passage on the sheet, which distances him, in which he wants to distance himself somewhat from both of these influences, goes as follows:

Early Marxist and formalist methods in common conceive the literary fact within the closed circle of an aesthetics of production and representation. In doing so, they deprive literature of a dimension that inalienably belongs to its aesthetic character as well as to its social function, the dimension of its reception and influence.

In other words, the way in which a text, once it exists, moves in the world, the way in which it persists, changes as we understand it and grows or diminishes as time passes in the world: this is the medium, the social medium, in which Jauss wants to understand literary–precisely literary–interpretation, as we’ll see.

Coming a little closer to this issue of the relationship between thinking of this kind and the formalist tradition, Bakhtin on page 592, the left-hand column toward the bottom–I’m not going to quote this, I’m just going to say that it’s there–Bakhtin begins a sentence about, as he puts it, literary “parody” understood in the narrow sense. Now what he’s implying here is that the theory of parody belongs primarily to Russian formalist literary historiography. In other words, the relationship between a new text and an old text is one of, broadly conceived within this discourse, parody. Bakhtin picks up the word “parody” in order to say also on page 592, the left-hand column about halfway down:

… [A] mere concern for language is [and it’s an odd thing to say, “a mere concern for language” [laughs]] but the abstract side of the concrete and active [i.e., dialogically engaged] understanding of the living heteroglossia that has been introduced into the novel and artistically organized within it.

To pause over this, “parody”: if we linger merely on the literariness of parody, we simply don’t have any grasp of the complexity of the ways in which the dialogic or the heteroglossal modulates, ripples, and makes complicated the surface of literary discourse. Parody once again leaves us with a sense of the binary: the previous text was this, the secondary text or the next text riffs off that previous text in a way that we can call parodic–but that’s binary. It’s one text against another and leaves out the whole question of that flood or multiplicity of voices which pervades the text.

Okay. So then Jauss has an interesting moment again, in the fourth passage on your sheet, in which he is obviously directly responding to that passage at the end of Tynjanov’s essay on literary evolution which we’ve had on the board and which we’ve discussed before. You remember Tynjanov makes the distinction between evolution–the way in which a sequence of texts mutates, as one might say, and the way in which, in other words, successive texts (again) parody or alter what was in the previous text–and modification, which is the influence on texts from the outside by other sorts of historical factors which may lead to textual change. Tynjanov says that it’s important, actually for both studies–for the study of history and also for the study of literary history–that the two be always kept clearly distinct in the mind of the person looking at them.

Well, Jauss’s response to that is perhaps chiefly rhetorical, but it nevertheless once again does mark this shift in the direction of the understanding of language as social that I’ve been wanting to begin by emphasizing. Jauss says:

The connection between literary evolution and social change [that is to say, those features in society that would and do modify texts] does not vanish from the face of the earth through its mere negation. What is he saying? He’s saying “does not vanish from the face of the earth” because Tynjanov said it did. [laughs] There is no doubt that that’s the passage Jauss is talking about.] The new literary work [he goes on] is received and judged against the background of the everyday experience of life.

In other words, the work exists in a life world. There is no easy or even possible way of distinguishing between its formal innovations and those sorts of innovations which are produced by continuous and ongoing factors of social change. They interact. They seep into one another in exactly the same way that all the registers and sedimentations of human voices interact and seep into one another in Bakhtin’s heteroglossia.

Chapter 3. Bakhtin and Authority [00:28:35]

All right. So these then are the emphases of both of these writers with respect to formalist ideas which have played a prominent part in most, if not all, of the literary theory that we have studied up until now. I’d like to linger a little while with Bakhtin before turning back to Jauss. Now heteroglossia or diversity of speech, as he calls it sometimes–he says at one point again on page 592 toward the top of the left-hand column–heteroglossia is what he calls “the ground of style.” I want to pause to ask a little bit what he might mean by this expression, “the ground of style,” the italicized passage. It is precisely the diversity of speech and not the unity of a normative shared language that is the ground of style. In other words, I’ve already said, of course, when I speak I’m not speaking to you in an official voice. I am not speaking the King’s English. In fact, on this view there’s really no such thing as the King’s English. Nobody speaks the King’s English because there is no such isolated distilled entity that one can point to. Language, at least the language of most of us–that is to say, of everyone except people in hermetically sealed environments like, for example, a peculiarly privileged, inward-looking aristocracy–the language of virtually all of us is the language of the people, the language of others.

It is that which we have to continue to think about as we consider how a style is generated. We speak of a style as though it were purely a question of an authorial signature. Sometimes we think of style and signature as synonymous. “Oh, I would recognize that style anywhere.” Coleridge said of a few lines of Wordsworth, “If I had come across these lines in the desert, I’d have said ‘Wordsworth.’” Well, obviously there is a certain sense in which we do recognize a style: for example, the style of Jane Austen. [Points to quotation on board.] I suppose arguably you could think that this is the style of Dr. Johnson, but most people would recognize it as the style of Jane Austen; and yet at the same time, as we’ll see in a minute, it is a style made up, in ways that are very difficult finally to factor out and analyze, of many voices.

Okay. So this would suggest, I think–this idea of a style as a composite of speech sedimentations–this idea would suggest that possibly there isn’t a voice, that to speak of an authorial voice would be a very difficult matter and might lead us to ask, “Does this move the idea that the sociolect speaks through the idiolect, the idea that the language of everyone is, in fact, the language that speaks my speech, my peculiar individual speech–does this once again bring us face to face with that dreary topic, the death of the author?” I don’t think so, not quite, and certainly not in Bakhtin, who gives us a rather bracing sense of the importance of the author in a passage on page 593, the right-hand column. He says:

It is as if the author [this is, of course, sort of coming face-to-face with the problem of whether there still is an author] has no language of his own, but does possess his own style, his own organic and unitary law governing the way he plays with languages [so style is perhaps one’s particular way of mediating and allocating the diversity of voice that impinges on what one’s saying] and the way his own real semantic and expressive intentions are refracted within them. [And here Bakhtin saves or preserves the author by invoking the principle of unifying intention and the way in which we can recognize it in the discourse of any given novel.] Of course this play with languages (and frequently the complete absence of a direct discourse of his own) in no sense degrades the general, deep-seated intentionality, the overarching ideological conceptualization of the work as a whole.

So this is not, though it may seem to be in certain respects, a question of the death of the author as provoked by, let’s say, Foucault or Roland Barthes at the beginning of the semester. It’s not that exactly. Everything that we’ve been saying so far can be seen to work in a variety of novels. The novel is the privileged genre for Bakhtin. He, I think perhaps somewhat oversimplifying in this, reads the novel, the emergence of the novel, and the flowering and richness of the novel against the backdrop of genres he considers to be monoglossal: the epic, which simply speaks the unitary voice of an aristocratic tradition; the lyric, which simply speaks the unitary voice of the isolated romantic solipsist. Over against that, you get the polyglossal, the rich multiplicity of voice in the novel. As I say, I think that the generic contrast is somewhat oversimplified because nothing is easier and more profitable than to read both epic and lyric as manifestations of heteroglossia. Just think of The Iliad. What are you going to do, if you really believe that it’s monoglossal, with the speeches of Thersites?

Chapter 4. Pride and Prejudice [00:35:16]

Okay. In any case, the basic idea, however, is I think extraordinarily rich and important, and I thought we could try it out by taking a look for a moment at the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, which I’m sure most of you know [gestures to board, on which is written, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”]. It is plainly an example of the relationship between what Bakhtin calls “common language”–“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” or in other [laughs] words, it’s in everybody’s mouth–and something like authorial reflection, or what he elsewhere calls “internally persuasive discourse.”

Now in traditional parlance, this would be a speech which manifests irony, the rhetoric of irony against which Bakhtin sets himself in the first passage on your sheet. “How ridiculous!” we say. Jane Austen doesn’t believe this. This is drawing-room wisdom, and everything in her sentence points to the ways in which it’s obviously wrong, even while it’s being called a truth: “universally” meaning the thousand people or so who matter; in other words, [laughs] there are a great many people who neither acknowledge nor care about any such thing. Then, of course, the idea that “a single man in possession of a good fortune,” or indeed otherwise, has nothing to do but be “in want of a wife.” Obviously, this is what is being said not by the man in the street but by drawing-room culture.

Now even before we turn to the complication of the ways in which the sentence is being undermined, bear in mind that the plot of the novel confirms the “truth.” In other words, Darcy and Bingley, both of them “in possession of a good fortune,” do turn out very plainly to have been in want of a wife and, in fact, procure one by the end of the novel. That is precisely what the plot is about, so that the conventions governing the plot of Pride and Prejudice altogether confirm the truth that is announced in this sentence, even though it is a truth that is plainly to be viewed ironically. That in itself is quite extraordinary and, I think, reinforces our sense that this is one of the great first sentences in the history of fiction.

Let’s turn now to the way in which we can think of it as something other than a simple irony. Of course, there is this word “want.” We’ve been thinking a lot about want lately because we have just gone through our psychoanalytic phase. What exactly does this [laughter] [laughs] single man really want? In a way, the subtle pun in the word “want,” which means both “to desire” and “to lack”–well, if I lack something, I don’t necessarily desire it. I just don’t happen to have it, right? On the other hand, if I want something, I can also be said to desire it. Well, which is it? Is it a kind of lack that social pressure of some sort is calculated to fill, or is it desire? If it’s desire, what on earth does it have to do with a good fortune? There are elements of the romance plot which raise precisely that question. Desire has nothing to do with fortune. Convenience, social acceptability, comfort: all of those things have to do with fortune, but desire, we suppose–having passed through our psychoanalytic phase–to be of a somewhat different nature. The complication of the sentence has to do actually with the question of the way in which the meanings of these words can be thought to be circulating and to create ripples of irony of their own far more complicated than “Oh, the author’s much smarter than that, she doesn’t mean that,” which is already a complication introduced by the fact that her plot bears it out. How can her plot bear it out if she’s being so ironic?

Of course, there is obviously a good deal more to say. A single man in possession of a good fortune obviously may not at all want a wife, for a variety of reasons that one could mention, and that can’t be possibly completely absent from Jane Austen’s mind. So that has to be taken into account in itself and certainly does [lights go off in lecture hall]–I think you see it’s the sort of sentence that bears reflection beyond a kind of simple binary of the sentence as spoken by the man in the drawing room, or the woman in the drawing room. “It’s idiotic, it’s obviously wrong–we simply can’t say that”: the style of the author is a style that is sedimented by and through complexities of circulated meaning that really can’t be limited by any sense of one-to-one relation of that kind. [crew talk]

Chapter 5. Common Language [00:40:02]

All right. What else about Bakhtin? One more thing: His idea of common language. This is not a concept that is supposed to have any one particular value attached to it. It’s a little bit like the rhizome. It could be good; it could be bad. Common language could be a kind of Rabelaisan, carnivalesque, subversive, energetic body of voices from below overturning the apple carts of authority and the fixed ways of a moribund social order. It could be that, but at the same time it could itself be the authoritative, the reactionary, the mindless. Common language could be that universality of acknowledgement which seems to go along with unreflected, knee-jerk responses to what one observes and thinks about. Common language has that whole range.

The important thing about it is that it’s out there and that it circulates and it exists in relationship with what Bakhtin calls “internally persuasive discourse”–in other words, the way in which the filtering together of these various sorts of language result in something like what we feel to be authentic: a power of reflection, a posing of relations among the various strata of language, such that they can speak authentically, not necessarily in a way that we agree with but in a way that we recognize to constitute that distilled consciousness that we still do call “the author,” and to which we ascribe, in some sense, authority. Precisely in the peculiar self-mocking relationship between this sentence of Pride and Prejudice and the plot of Pride and Prejudice as a whole, we feel something like the internal persuasiveness, the coherence of the discourse.

I think, maybe just to sum up Bakhtin, I want to quote you from the other long excerpt that you have in your anthology, which I would encourage you to read. Sometimes I have asked people to read it but I decided to drop it this year–but it’s still a very strong and interesting argument. It’s called “Discourse in the Novel,” and I just want to read in the left-hand column, near the bottom of the column: “The ideological becoming of a human being in this view is the process of selectively assimilating the words of others.” In other words, the coherence of my mind, of what I say insofar as coherence exists, is the result of selecting out, of selecting among, in my assimilation of the words of others, such that there is a pattern of, again, coherence.

All right. So finally, the novel is the social text par excellence for Bakhtin for these reasons, and it confirms again what we have been saying about a new way of thinking of language. Language, as that which speaks through us, is not just language; it’s other people’s language, and we need to understand the experience of the process of reading and of texts as they exist and the nature of authorial composition as an assimilative, selective way of putting together other people’s language.

Chapter 6. Jauss and the History of Reception [00:50:13]

All right. Now quickly Jauss. He takes us back, obviously by way of Iser–I think you can see that Jauss’s talk about horizons of expectation and the disruption of expectation has a great deal to do with Iser’s understanding of the role of the reader in filling imaginative gaps that are left in the text, which are based on a complex relationship with a set of conventional expectations–by way of Iser to Gadamer; because after all, what Jauss has to say is a way of talking about Gadamer’s “merger of horizons.” But for Jauss it’s not just my horizon and the horizon of the text. It’s not just those two horizons that need to meet halfway on common ground as mutually illuminative. It is, in fact, a succession of horizons changing as modes of aesthetic and interpretive response to texts are mediated historically–as I say–in a sequence.

It’s not just that the text was once a certain thing and now we feel it to be somehow different, hence in order to understand it we need to meet it halfway. It’s rather a matter of self-consciously studying what has happened in between that other time and this, here and now. The text has had a life. It has passed through life changes, and these life changes have to be understood at each successive stage in terms of the three moments of hermeneutic grasp, as described by Gadamer in the historical section of Truth and Method. The distinction between intelligereexplicare, and applicare–understanding, interpretation, and application–that Jauss talks about at the beginning of his essay actually goes back to the eighteenth century. What Jauss has to say about it is, yes: these three moments of hermeneutic understanding exist for any reader or reading public at any moment in the history of the reception of a text.

He makes a considerable to-do about distinguishing between the aesthetic response to the text and a subsequent or leisured, reflectively interpretive response to the text. This may seem a little confusing because he admits with Heidegger and others, as we’ve indicated ourselves in the past, that you can’t just have a spontaneous response to anything without reflection. There’s always a sense in which you already know what it is, which is to say a sense in which you’ve already interpreted it; but at the same time, Jauss makes a considerable point of distinguishing between these two moments–the aesthetic, which he associates with understanding, and the interpretive, which he associates with what is in the hermeneutic tradition called interpretation. Now why does he do this? It’s a question of what he means by “the aesthetic.” A text enters historical circulation and remains before the gaze of successive audiences in history because it has been received aesthetically. Aesthetics is the glue that keeps the text alive through history. In other words, people continue to say, to one degree or another, “I like it.” If they don’t say, “I like it,” there will never be a question of interpreting it [laughs] or transmitting it historically, because it’s going to disappear. As Dr. Johnson said, “That book is good in vain which the reader throws away.” In other words, from the standpoint of interpretation or from the standpoint of philosophical reflection or whatever you might wish to call it, a book may be good, just incontestably good–but if it didn’t please, if it didn’t give pleasure, if it didn’t attach itself to a reading public aesthetically by means of pleasing, none of what would follow in the hermeneutic process could ever take place.

So that’s why Jauss makes such a point of distinguishing between the aesthetic and the interpretive. Then of course the historical study of reception is what shows us the degree to which any set of moments of aesthetic and interpretive reception is mediated by what has gone before it. In other words, a text gradually changes as a result of its reception, and if we don’t study reception, we are left naively supposing that time has passed and that the past has become sort of remote from us so we have certain problems interpreting; but these problems as far as we know haven’t arisen from anything that could properly be called change. There has been an unfolding process of successive interpretations whereby a text has gone through sea changes: it’s become less popular, more popular, more richly interpreted and less richly interpreted, but tends to keep eddying out from what it was sensed to be originally, to the point where all sorts of accretive implications and sources of pleasure may arrive as we understand it. In a certain sense, once again it’s like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” but now it’s not just Pierre Menard and Miguel de Cervantes. It’s as though a succession of people, perhaps whose native language was not French necessarily but who knows–German, Russian, whatever–continued to write in Spanish a text which turns out to be word-for-word Don Quixote as the centuries pass, each one acquiring a whole new world of associations and implications and giving pleasure in successively new ways. When we finally get to the point in the late nineteenth century, when we encounter this Frenchman, Pierre Menard, writing Don Quixote, the important thing would be to understand that lots of people have done it between him and Cervantes. This is a kind of skeletal model of how a reception history according to Jauss might work.

Now the history of reception studies two things. It studies changing horizons of expectation, and that’s something you’re familiar with from Iser–that is to say, the way in which a reader has to come to terms with conventions surrounding expectation in any given text, in order to be able to negotiate what’s new and what’s nearly merely culinary in the text–it involves changing horizons of expectations which don’t just change once in the here and now, but have changed successively through time. It also involves changing semantic possibilities or, if you will, changing possibilities for and of significance–what does the text mean for me now?–but understood again not just as something that matters for me, but has successively mattered for successive generations of readers in between.

Just to take examples of how this might work in the here and now, there is just now on Broadway a revival of Damn Yankees, which is about a baseball player who sells his soul in order to beat the Yankees. One can’t help but think that the revival of interest in Damn Yankees has something to do with the steroid scandals and the way in which so many baseball players do sell their souls in order to win and in order to have good careers. It occurs to one that it is in this sort of atmosphere of social and cultural censure that we’re suddenly interested in Damn Yankees again. Perhaps there will be a revival of Tony the Tow Truck because in the economic downturn, obviously to be rich or to be glamorous like Neato or to be busy like Speedy–all of this becomes obsolete, more or less irrelevant and beside the point, and what really matters is little guys helping each other. So Tony the Tow Truck could be revived today as a parable of the good life in the downturn, and so it will probably be read by everyone, it will give pleasure, it will therefore be interpreted, and it will survive to live another day historically, fulfilling the three moments of the study of the history of reception required by Jauss.

All right. So with that said, it’s been a very interesting fifty minutes I think. [laughter] With that said, I hope you all have a good break and we’ll see you when you get back.

[end of transcript]

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