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Comparative Critical Studies 3.3 (2006) 191-198

Elinor Shaffer

The study of reception has been one of the dominant modes of literary inquiry in the last thirty-five years, from the first ground-breaking work by the Constance School, that is Hans-Robert Jauß and Wolfgang Iser and their colleagues at the new University at Constance. This had a political urgency about it in post-war Germany which still has resonance: the claims of great literature and pure poetry and national cultural traditions had been hijacked by the National Socialists, calling in question for a post-war generation the whole apparatus of literary history and criticism, and the roster of great names and works before whom one must automatically genuflect. Outside Germany this recoil was less marked, but nevertheless chimed with growing interest in works not labelled 'classic' or 'great', with minor or mixed or unidentifiable genres, with women's writing (by definition excluded from the rolls of 'past greatness'), with exotic, minority or 'multi-cultural' writing, and with new media.

The Constance School met the crisis with an approach through the successive receptions of new work, that is through an objective study of what readers had said about new work, without prior evaluation or established value, and of the accumulation of responses over historical time. Jauß's work, taking its cue from Hans-Georg Gadamer's seminal hermeneutical treatise Truth and Method (1960), was seen to necessitate a placement of readers too in relation to their own time and 'horizon of expectations'. If Jauß's approach had its 'sociological' side, and in the U.S. led to studies of 'readers reading', in Iser's work, especially The Implied Reader (1972) and The Act of Reading (1976), it became a subtle internal reading of what the text itself required, permitted or called forth from its readers. Special Issues 1 and 2 of Comparative Critical Studies ('The Act of Reading and After: The Reception of Wolfgang Iser in Britain', 2003) recorded the impact in this country of this major repositioning of literary-historical and critical procedures.

Amid the plethora of theories that appeared in the next twenty [End Page 191] years, a garnering of the twentieth century's new thinking from the Russian Formalists through the central European structuralists and the French absorption and transformation of these ideas, reception history and reception aesthetics held their own as methods especially suited to literature.

We are now concerned to examine and to forward reception studies in their current and future forms. They show the maintenance of the capacity to adapt to historical and critical transformations in the literary and cultural world that characterized the technical innovations of its modern founders. Some of this work builds on research already undertaken in the Research Project on the Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe, of which ten volumes have been published,* and on a British Academy inquiry which will lead to a new publication on theory and practice in reception studies.

In this Special Issue, Els Andringa, in 'For God's and Virginia's sake why a translation?' Virginia Woolf's transfer to the Low Countries' employs the fruitful method of Itamar Even-Zohar's polysystem.1 This is an approach closely linked to the leading Dutch journal Poetics Today and to the Porter Institute (Tel Aviv). Central to the polysystem theory is the assumption that a culture consists of a system of subsystems, i.e., groups of actors who share repertoires of cultural knowledge, values and conventions (for example, political and religious groupings). These subsystems are hierarchical but competitive and ever-shifting. Thus one is using (as with Pierre Bourdieu) a heteronomous system that takes into account forces not only inside but outside the literary system itself. The study of the reception of any given author while it may, indeed must be studied in itself (the translations, editions, modes of circulation, critical and creative responses to [End Page 192] individual writers and their works), may also gain from scrutiny of its placement or operation within the polysystem of a particular culture. In...


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pp. 191-198
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Archived 2009
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