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Reception Theory

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated January 11, 2018.

RECEPTION THEORY: A variant of reader response theory emphasizing how each individual reader has a part in receiving (i.e., interpreting), the text. German scholar Hans-Robert Jauss in the late 1960s was the primary advocate. The central concern in this theory is called a "horizon of expectation," i.e., that a reader's experience of textual meaning will dramatically alter depending on the time and place of the reader. This idea contrasts radically with the New Historicists or biographical critics who argue that textual meaning will dramatically alter depending on the time and place the author wrote the work.

To illustrate this, imagine three different readers encountering the same text. Suppose the text is a hypothetical text by Cicero in 40 BCE, in which Cicero advocates fortitude in the face of adversity. Cicero writes the work while sitting in a cemetery where his ancestors are buried, and though he never mentions that in the text itself, the background of his ancestors' deeds inspires his whole work. Twenty year later, Reader A is from the Roman Republic in 60 BCE. He reads Cicero's treatise outside a Tuscan slave market during a boom in the slave trade. Reader B is another Roman, but he lives in 455 AD and he's a soldier reading the treatise in a military fort on the frontier where the enter barbarians are about to come crawling over the territorial boundaries. Reader C is a 19th-century British art student studying sculpture while she visits Italy. She's not even Roman at all, and she reads the essay while in a plaza surrounded by the broken architecture of a toppled empire. As a female reader, she also is keenly aware of a certain masculine bravado here, as it's clear from context that Cicero is thinking exclusively of Roman men--a distinction Reader A and B wouldn't even be aware of, necessarily. Each reader sees something different in the text. Which one is correct?

A biographical critic would say that the correct interpretive technique is to read the treatise and try to reconstruct the intentions of Cicero back in 40 BCE. The individual author is what's important for this traditional school of interpretation. A New Historicist counters that the corrective interpretive technique would be to de-emphasize Cicero's intentions, but instead to place that text in the larger historical background of 40 BCE. What's important is how readers at the time of Cicero would react to the text and how it fits into other textual traditions at the time, regardless of what Cicero meant to do. The reception theorist would argue that it is fruitless and unrealistic to re-create what Cicero meant or to re-create how most other Roman readers would have reacted. After all, when we approach a text, we cannot erase our later knowledge of what happened after Cicero's death or the last two-thousand years of history. Even if we could erase or ignore it, would it even be productive to do so?

All readers in different times and places will inevitably experience the work differently because of their varying circumstances in culture, time, and place shape them to be different readers. So, Cicero may argue about the fortitude Roman citizens should have, and the inspiration for his thought may have come from the fact he was writing in a cemetery. He thought of his dead Roman ancestors and wanted Rome to go back to the ways of previous generations. However, if Cicero never actually mentions the cemetery or his Roman ancestors in the text, we cannot (ever!) recover that unstated intention. Instead, new generations always read--and must read--the text through their own situation and their own time, and that's not a bad thing. So, twenty years later, Reader A interprets the call to fortitude through the context of the Roman slave trade. He sees that stoic model of endurance as good advice for slaves, as slaves must learn to bow before necessity as the slave trade grows in Rome and their forced labor grows harder.

The next Roman reader encounters the text 400 years later, but for him, the call to embrace fortitude is a patriotic reminder that soldiers must be tough and protect the empire, which is what Rome needs in the fifth century. He's a military man, so he can't help but think of the advantages of fortitude in a military situation.

Finally, 2,000 years after Cicero, the 19th-century British art student encounters the same text. She reads the treatise on fortitude, and as an art student, she cannot help but see in the treatise echoes of fortitude in Roman sculpture. As she reads, her mind is filled with imagery of marble statues of grim Roman soldiers and tough athletes. She sees the musculature and determination depicted in Roman arts as another manifestation of what Cicero explores philosophically. Encountering the text in the piles of broken statuary, and knowing the historical reality of Rome's disintegration, she cannot help but see Cicero's argument as ironic or tragic, for she knows the outcome of Rome's fate, and Cicero did not.

For the Reception Theorist, it's not a question of which reader is correct. The question is meaningless, as Cicero is dead and cannot tell us what the text means. Even if Cicero could be resurrected and tell us what he intended, Cicero could not have predicted the larger context of history after he wrote and how that context would shape readers' reactions. Finally, even if Cicero knew the future thousands of years in advance, Cicero could not change the fact that his future readers will have different cultural backgrounds and individual experiences, and thus react differently than classical Romans would. Since readers cannot purge their own knowledge or recover the exact mindset of an author or his age, they should instead be aware of how their horizons of expectations only partially overlap (or don't overlap at all!) with that of the author. They should realize they bring something of their own to the text when they read, and embrace that individualistic response rather than reject it or ignore it, according to this line of thinking.

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I consulted the following works while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:

Works Cited:

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  • Anderson, Douglas. "Note on the Text" in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
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  • Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
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  • Crow, Martin and Virginia E. Leland. "A Chronology of Chaucer's Life and Times." As condensed and reproduced in Larry Benson's The Canterbury Tales, Complete. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. xxiii-xxv.
  • Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
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  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
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  • O'Donoghue, Heather. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
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  • Palmer, Donald. Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 2nd edition. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.
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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2017. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated January 11, 2018. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.