Wolfgang Iser
The Range of Interpretation
New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. 206. $27.50

Reviewed by Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso

Twenty years ago the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory opened with Harold Bloom's The Breaking of the Vessels. Over these two decades, the most celebrated theorists of our time from Jacques Derrida to Edward Said have delivered lectures on a variety of subjects, from history to psychoanalysis to musical theory. Wolfgang Iser's The Range of Interpretation constitutes his contribution to this now famous lineage, a contribution no doubt deserved by America's leading reader-response theorist.

The book provides us with an eclectic genealogy of the theory of criticism as it has evolved from the early essays of Samuel Johnson until the hermeneutic work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. These lectures serve as a compendium of Iser's literary theory from The Implied Reader (1974) to The Fictive and the Imaginary (1993), analyzing the methodological categories that the interpretive activity requires. As Iser himself acknowledges at the very beginning, for a long time "there was a tacit assumption that it [interpretation] came naturally" (1), and so there seemed to be no necessity for a theory of the reader's response. Implicit to this attitude was that texts contain stable and fixed meanings, and that therefore reading is a matter of unearthing. Iser has long attempted to provide such a theory by first showing how responses to art and literature can be formulated within certain horizons of expectation.

The Range of Interpretation opens with a brief chapter that studies how interpretation and translation are kindred genres, since both require the transformation of somethingwhether an utterance, a text, or a non-linguistic objectinto something else, akin but different. Both activities are based on the transcription of the codes in which the object is embedded, which at the same time constitute its main horizon of intelligibility as a cultural artifact. This transposition of the original into the interpreted (or translated) is done for the purpose of grasping by a different individual or community, and therefore implies different genres of interpretation which depend on how the liminal space between original and translation is negotiated.

After this introduction, which sets the broadly methodological and cultural terms of interpretation, Iser revises a variety of accounts of the subject. From Samuel Johnson's reading of Shakespeare and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus to Paul Ricoeur's readings of Freud, the main body of the book identifies the principles and shortcomings of interpretation theory, notably the recursive loops (that is, the endless circular transformation of the matter to be interpreted according to the register in which it will be offered) and the transactional ones (when interpretation takes place in a sort of vacuum, without reliable facts to be taken as starting point). By theorizing both, Iser attempts to make available the most primary architecture of interpretation, the hermeneutic circle in which reading takes place, whether or not this is stabilized by a priori data. In so doing, he contributes a necessary work that not only revises traditional hermeneutics, but also updates the anthropological and cultural basis of the activity of reading.