Wolfgang Iser on literature as a lie

An issue that arises in reading Wolfgang Iser is the matter of fictiveness, the role of a fiction in literature itself. This concern goes back to the beginnings of all thought about art as essentially a lie, and it remains to be seen whether we can properly account for the centrality of this element to our criticism. Of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (which is undeniably attendant to such concerns) Iser writes that it remains “an ideal whose desirability is questionable. Would the role offered by the text function properly if it were totally accepted?” [Iser, The Act of Reading, 37] One response to this is to question any such notion of total acceptance. A suspension carries with it the intimation of provisionality, a qualification which we might expect Iser to be aware of, given his continual references to heuristics of application [39], or replacing”ontological arguments with functional arguments” [53].

Some valid approaches to a more consistent position are made when Iser begins to supplement Austin and Searle‘s speech acts and performative utterances with Stanley Cavell‘s stressing the importance of implication in all our utterances. Iser says that poetry is not merely “void” in the strict sense which Austin suggests to us, and indeed if it were then all languages would habe to be drawn in terms which would be a return to the univocity of the Scholastics, since “what is meant can never be totally translated into what is said” [59]. There need not be a one-to-one correspondence of our words with reality, this should help us to say. We might even hope that this would lead us to an emergent understanding of language and literature (with the most significant ground work done by other theorists of the metaphor, such as Johnson, Lakoff, and Turner), apart from the standard model which calls for a linear correspondence of word with semantic unit.

As an aside to this, while recognising the use of speech acts in working out a functional model of communication, I am not sure that finessing Austin and Searle via Cavell is necessary if we return to a notion of linguistic communication’s unit as being the sentence, as Paul Ricoeur suggests. The sentence allows for “implication” once we recognize the role played by metaphor. This is a different approach, however, and one which may not be available to Iser given the terms he has set out for himself. Indeed, this brings me to my next point, which is whether the invocation of the “pragmatic” truly serves us as well as Iser seems to hope.

We find the pragmatic convincingly overturned in his discussion of conventions, that hope of its rehabilitation seems distant. He notes that a convention as understood by Austin has a vertical (or hierarchical) structure, which suggests that it is an essentially utilitarian norm [61]. Literary language reorganizes these norms into an alternative arrangement, namely a horizontal model which serves to disrupt conventions as Austin would understand them:

…these conventions are taken out of their social contexts, deprived of their regulating function, and so become objects of scrutiny in themselves. And this is where fictional language begins to take effect: it depragmatizes the conventions it has selected, and herein lies its pragmatic function. We call upon a vertical convention when we want to act; but a horizontal combination of different conventions enables us to see precisely what it is that guides us when we do act. [Iser, 61]

Literary language, then, is an affront to notions of utility as have here before been invoked, and yet it remains indispensable. Why? Part of the answer to this may be found in a tentative rejection of the route Iser takes via analytic philosophy. Without attempting an excursus on empiricism in the British tradition of “common sense” understandings of the world, we must note that as far back as Hume this view was deeply problematic. Iser, in setting out systematically what his findings are, in a sense has made it rather easy for one to come along and begin to pick holes in his edifice (affirmation always being more difficult than rejection). He allows a critic to carefully choose his own battles, and to a great extent this is to be regarded as a testament to his achievement.

Sadly, such polite apologies will not serve us. For me, the only outline that remains valid of this problem is Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of agon, with suspicion and tradition forever orbiting each other, like wary vultures circling a carcass. This view begins with an axiomatic rejection of norms, whether they be norms of idealism, or utility, or pragmatic solution. Iser remains at an impasse which reveals itself in the almost nonsensical phrase above, namely the depragmatization which remains pragmatic. In a profound sense, Iser is correct, but for all the wrong reasons.

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