Reception theory

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Reception theory

Reception theory: A type of reader-response criticism that examines the reception of a literary work — namely, how that work has been viewed by readers — since its initial publication. German theorist Hans Robert Jauss is the key figure associated with reception theory. In his essay “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory” (1967), Jauss used the term aesthetic distance to describe the difference between how a work was viewed when it was originally published and how that same work is viewed today and explored the diverse responses of readers over time to a given literary work. Jauss later elaborated on this approach in his book Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics (1977).

Like other reader-response critics, Jauss rejected the theory that a single, correct meaning can be derived from any given text, noting that a text can be rationally interpreted in numerous ways. He argued that readers’ responses are conditioned or even determined by the confluence and interplay of their “horizon of expectations” and textual elements that confirm or challenge those expectations. While Jauss conceded that individual readers (with all of their idiosyncratic responses) contribute to the production of meaning in a text, he noted that the elements of the text itself serve to limit and shape readers’ interpretations. He thus struck a balance between the contributions of reader and text in establishing meaning.

Unlike some reader-response critics, however, Jauss emphasized that readers’ expectations change with the passage of time. These changing expectations, coupled with knowledge of (and reaction to) past readers’ responses, combine to produce for each literary work a critical “tradition” that is continuously enriched and modified as new generations of readers emphasize different points or see old ones in a new light. Ultimately, Jauss proposed the existence of an active and evolving dialogue between texts and the continuous flow of readers over the course of time.

Several critics have extended reception theory to other areas. For instance, in works such as “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse” (1973), cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall applied reception theory to media and communication studies, arguing that texts go through a process of encoding and decoding in which producers encode texts with particular ideologies and audiences decode them, resulting in interpretations ranging from dominant readings that accept the intended meaning to oppositional readings that reject it to negotiated readings that fall somewhere in between. In Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception (1990), Susan Bennett applied reception theory to theater.

For further reading, see Robert C. Holub’s Reception Theory (1984).