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The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility: second version: Walter Benjamin
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accompaniment to everyday life. It began to keep pace with movable-type printing. But only
a few decades after the invention of lithography, graphic art was surpassed by photography.
For the ﬁrst time, photography freed the hand from the most important artistic tasks in the
process of pictorial reproduction – tasks that now devolved upon the eye alone. And since
the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction
was enormously accelerated, so that it could now keep pace with speech. Just as the
illustrated newspaper virtually lay hidden within lithography, so the sound ﬁlm was latent in
photography. The technological reproduction of sound was tackled at the end of the last
century. Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that
permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their eﬀect, but it
also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes. In gauging this standard, we
would do well to study the impact which its two diﬀerent manifestations – the reproduction
of artworks and the art of ﬁlm – are having on art in its traditional form.
In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of
art – its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence – and nothing else
– that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. This history
includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes
in ownership. Traces of the former can be detected only by chemical or physical analyses
(which cannot be performed on a reproduction), while changes of ownership are part of a
tradition which can be traced only from the standpoint of the original in its present
The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity, and on the
latter in turn is founded the idea of a tradition which has passed the object down as the
same, identical thing to the present day. The whole sphere of authenticity eludes technological –
and of course not only technological – reproduction. But whereas the authentic work retains its
full authority in the face of a reproduction made by hand, which it generally brands a
forgery, this is not the case with technological reproduction. The reason is twofold. First,
technological reproduction is more independent of the original than is manual reproduction. For example, in photography it can bring out aspects of the original that are accessible
only to the lens (which is adjustable and can easily change viewpoint) but not to the human
eye; or it can use certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, to record images
which escape natural optics altogether. This is the ﬁrst reason. Second, technological reproduction can place the copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot
attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form
of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record. The cathedral leaves its site to be
received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the
open air is enjoyed in a private room.
These changed circumstances may leave the artwork’s other properties untouched, but
they certainly devalue the here and now of the artwork. And although this can apply not
only to art but (say) to a landscape moving past the spectator in a ﬁlm, in the work of art
A RT I N T H E AG E O F I T S T E C H N O L O G I C A L R E P RO D U C I B I L I T Y
this process touches on a highly sensitive core, more vulnerable than that of any natural
object. That core is its authenticity. The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that
is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical
testimony relating to it. Since the historical testimony is founded on the physical duration,
the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction, in which the physical duration plays no
part. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is aﬀected is the authority
of the object, the weight it derives from tradition.
One might focus these aspects of the artwork in the concept of the aura, and go on to
say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the
latter’s aura. This process is symptomatic; its signiﬁcance extends far beyond the realm of
art. It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the
reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it
substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to
reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced. These
two processes lead to a massive upheaval in the domain of objects handed down from the
past – a shattering of tradition which is the reverse side of the present crisis and renewal
of humanity. Both processes are intimately related to the mass movements of our day. Their
most powerful agent is ﬁlm. The social signiﬁcance of ﬁlm, even – and especially – in its
most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic side: the liquidation of
the value of tradition in the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is most apparent in the
great historical ﬁlms. It is assimilating ever more advanced positions in its spread. When
Abel Gance fervently proclaimed in 1927, “Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Beethoven will make
ﬁlms. . . . All legends, all mythologies, and all myths, all the founders of religions, indeed,
all religions, . . . await their celluloid resurrection, and the heroes are pressing at the gates,”
he was inviting the reader, no doubt unawares, to witness a comprehensive liquidation.1
Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does
their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in
which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history. The era of the migration
of peoples, an era which saw the rise of the late-Roman art industry and the Vienna Genesis,
developed not only an art diﬀerent from that of antiquity but also a diﬀerent perception.
The scholars of the Viennese school Riegl and Wickhoﬀ, resisting the weight of the classical
tradition beneath which this art had been buried, were the ﬁrst to think of using such art to
draw conclusions about the organization of perception at the time the art was produced.2
However far-reaching their insight, it was limited by the fact that these scholars were
content to highlight the formal signature which characterized perception in late-Roman
times. They did not attempt to show the social upheavals manifested in these changes in
perception – and perhaps could not have hoped to do so at that time. Today, the conditions
for an analogous insight are more favorable. And if changes in the medium of present-day
perception can be understood as a decay of the aura, it is possible to demonstrate the social
determinants of that decay.
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What, then, is the aura? A strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a
distance, however near it may be.3 To follow with the eye – while resting on a summer
afternoon – a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the
beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch. In the light of this
description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay. It rests on two
circumstances, both linked to the increasing emergence of the masses and the growing
intensity of their movements. Namely: the desire of the present-day masses to “get closer” to
things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness [Überwindung des
Einmaligen jeder Gegebenheit] by assimilating it as a reproduction. Every day the urge grows
stronger to get hold of an object at close range in an image [Bild], or, better, in a facsimile
[Abbild], a reproduction. And the reproduction [Reproduktion], as oﬀered by illustrated magazines and newsreels, diﬀers unmistakably from the image. Uniqueness and permanence are
as closely entwined in the latter as are transitoriness and repeatability in the former. The
stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a
perception whose “sense for all that is the same in the world”4 has so increased that, by
means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique. Thus is manifested in
the ﬁeld of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing signiﬁcance of statistics. The alignment of reality with the masses and of the masses with reality
is a process of immeasurable importance for both thinking and perception.
The uniqueness of the work of art is identical to its embeddedness in the context of
tradition. Of course, this tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable. An
ancient statue of Venus, for instance, existed in a traditional context for the Greeks (who
made it an object of worship) that was diﬀerent from the context in which it existed for
medieval clerics (who viewed it as a sinister idol). But what was equally evident to both
was its uniqueness – that is, its aura. Originally, the embeddedness of an artwork in the
context of tradition found expression in a cult. As we know, the earliest artworks originated
in the service of rituals – ﬁrst magical, then religious. And it is highly signiﬁcant that the
artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function. In
other words: the unique value of the “authentic” work of art always has its basis in ritual. This
ritualistic basis, however mediated it may be, is still recognizable as secularized ritual in even
the most profane forms of the cult of beauty. The secular worship of beauty, which
developed during the Renaissance and prevailed for three centuries, clearly displayed that
ritualistic basis in its subsequent decline and in the ﬁrst severe crisis which befell it. For
when, with the advent of the ﬁrst truly revolutionary means of reproduction (namely
photography, which emerged at the same time as socialism), art felt the approach of that
crisis which a century later has become unmistakable, it reacted with the doctrine of l’art
pour l’art – that is, with a theology of art.5 This in turn gave rise to a negative theology, in
the form of an idea of “pure” art, which rejects not only any social function but any
deﬁnition in terms of a representational content. (In poetry, Mallarmé was the ﬁrst to adopt
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No investigation of the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility can
overlook these connections. They lead to a crucial insight: for the ﬁrst time in world
history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual. To an ever-increasing degree, the work reproduced becomes the reproduction of a work designed for reproducibility.7 From a photographic plate, for example,
one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But as
soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function
of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a diﬀerent practice: politics.
Written late December 1935 – beginning of February 1936; unpublished in this form in Benjamin’s
lifetime. Gesammelte Schriften, VII, 350–84. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn.
This version of the essay “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”
(ﬁrst published in Volume 7 of Benjamin’s Gesammelte Schriften, in 1989) is a revision and expansion
(by seven manuscript pages) of the ﬁrst version of the essay, which was composed in Paris in the
autumn of 1935. The second version represents the form in which Benjamin originally wished to
see the work published; it served, in fact, as the basis for the ﬁrst publication of the essay – a
somewhat shortened form translated into French – in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in May 1936.
The third version of the essay (1936–1939) can be found in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4:
1938–1940 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 251–83.
1 Abel Gance, “Le Temps de l’image est venu!” (It Is Time for the Image!), in Léon Pierre-Quint,
Germaine Dulac, Lionel Landry, and Abel Gance, L’Art cinématographique, vol. 2 (Paris, 1927),
pp. 94–96. [Benjamin’s note. Gance (1889–1981) was a French ﬁlm director whose epic ﬁlms
J’accuse (1919), La Roue (1922), and Napoléon (1927) made innovative use of such devices as
superimposition, rapid intercutting, and split screen. – Trans.]
2 Alois Riegl (1858–1905) was an Austrian art historian who argued that diﬀerent formal orderings
of art emerge as expressions of diﬀerent historical epochs. He is the author of Stilfragen: Grundlegungen zu einer Geschichte der Ornamentik (Questions of Style: Toward a History of Ornament; 1893) and
Die spätrömische Kunst-Industrie nach den Funden in Österreich-Ungarn (1901). The latter has been
translated by Rolf Winkes as Late Roman Art Industry (Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider, 1985). Franz
Wickhoﬀ (1853–1909), also an Austrian art historian, is the author of Die Wiener Genesis (The
Vienna Genesis; 1895), a study of the sumptuously illuminated, early sixth-century copy of
the biblical book of Genesis preserved in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.
3 “Einmalige Erscheinung einer Ferne, so nah sie sein mag.” At stake in Benjamin’s formulation is an
interweaving not just of time and space – einmalige Erscheinung, literally “one-time appearance” –
but of far and near, eine Ferne suggesting both “a distance” in space or time and “something remote,”
however near it (the distance, or distant thing, that appears) may be.
4 Benjamin is quoting Johannes V. Jensen, Exotische Novellen, trans. Julia Koppel (Berlin: S. Fischer,
1919), pp. 41–42. Jensen (1873–1950) was a Danish novelist, poet, and essayist who won the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1944. See “Hashish in Marseilles” (1932), in Benjamin, Selected
Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 677.
5 Applying Kant’s idea of the pure and disinterested existence of the work of art, the French
philosopher Victor Cousin made use of the phrase l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) in his 1818
lecture “Du Vrai, du beau, et du bien” (On the True, the Beautiful, and the Good). The idea was
later given currency by writers such as Théophile Gautier, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles
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6 The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898) was a central ﬁgure in the Symbolist movement,
which sought an incantatory language divorced from all referential function.
7 In ﬁlm, the technological reproducibility of the product is not an externally imposed condition of
its mass dissemination, as it is, say, in literature or painting. The technological reproducibility of ﬁlms is
based directly on the technology of their production. This not only makes possible the mass dissemination of ﬁlms
in the most direct way, but actually enforces it. It does so because the process of producing a ﬁlm is so
costly that an individual who could aﬀord to buy a painting, for example, could not aﬀord to buy a
[master print of a] ﬁlm. It was calculated in 1927 that, in order to make a proﬁt, a major ﬁlm
needed to reach an audience of nine million. Of course, the advent of sound ﬁlm [in that year]
initially caused a movement in the opposite direction: its audience was restricted by language
boundaries. And that coincided with the emphasis placed on national interests by fascism. But it is
less important to note this setback (which in any case was mitigated by dubbing) than to observe its
connection with fascism. The simultaneity of the two phenomena results from the economic crisis.
The same disorders which led, in the world at large, to an attempt to maintain existing property
relations by brute force induced ﬁlm capital, under the threat of crisis, to speed up the development
of sound ﬁlm. Its introduction brought temporary relief, not only because sound ﬁlm attracted the
masses back into the cinema but also because it consolidated new capital from the electricity
industry with that of ﬁlm. Thus, considered from the outside, sound ﬁlm promoted national interests;
but seen from the inside, it helped internationalize ﬁlm production even more than before.
[Benjamin’s note. By “the economic crisis,” Benjamin refers to the devastating consequences, in the
United States and Europe, of the stock market crash of October 1929. – Trans.]
Benjamin, W. (2002). “What is epic theatre?” in M. Huxley and N. Witts, eds, The Twentieth Century
Performance Reader, 2nd edn. London: Routledge, pp. 73–9.
Berger, J. ( 1990). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
McLuhan, M. and Fiore, Q. (1967). The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Eﬀects. London: Penguin.
Sontag, S. (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin.
W. Benjamin (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings
on Media, ed. M. W. Jennings, B. Doherty and T. Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
pp. 20–5, 42–4.
INTERACTION BETWEEN TEXT
Wolfgang Iser was a German literary theorist concerned with the way in which meaning is
generated between the reader and the written word. Drawing on psychoanalytical research,
particularly the work of R. D. Laing on interpersonal communication, Iser argues that the interaction between text and reader is regulated by “revelation and concealment” through a series of
structured blanks. Of equal importance is the fact that the reader is also brought into being, is
“produced”, through this dynamic exchange with the work.
Central to the reading of every literary work is the interaction between its structure and its
recipient. This is why the phenomenological theory of art has emphatically drawn attention
to the fact that the study of a literary work should concern not only the actual text but also,
and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text. The text itself simply
oﬀers “schematized aspects”1 through which the subject matter of the work can be produced,
while the actual production takes place through an act of concretization.
From this we may conclude that the literary work has two poles, which we might call the
artistic and the aesthetic: the artistic pole is the author’s text and the aesthetic is the
realization accomplished by the reader. In view of this polarity, it is clear that the work itself
cannot be identical with the text or with the concretization, but must be situated somewhere between the two. It must inevitably be virtual in character, as it cannot be reduced to
the reality of the text or to the subjectivity of the reader, and it is from this virtuality that it
derives its dynamism. As the reader passes through the various perspectives oﬀered by the
text and relates the diﬀerent views and patterns to one another he sets the work in motion,
and so sets himself in motion, too.
[. . .]
Similar conclusions may be drawn from psychoanalytical research into communication, as
carried out by R. D. Laing, H. Phillipson, and A. R. Lee, whose ﬁndings provide insights
that can be utilized in assessing text–reader interaction. In Interpersonal Perception, Laing
writes: “My ﬁeld of experience is, however, ﬁlled not only by my direct view of myself
(ego) and of the other (alter), but of what we shall call metaperspectives – my view of the
other’s . . . view of me. I may not actually be able to see myself as others see me, but I am
constantly supposing them to be seeing me in particular ways, and I am constantly acting
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in the light of the actual or supposed attitudes, opinions, needs, and so on the other has in
respect of me.”2
Now the views that others have of me cannot be called “pure” perception; they are the
results of interpretation. And this need for interpretation arises from the structure of
interpersonal experience. We have experience of one another in so far as we know one
another’s conduct; but we have no experience of how others experience us. In another
book, The Politics of Experience, Laing writes: “. . . your experience of me is invisible to me and my
experience of you is invisible to you. I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. We are both invisible men. All men are invisible to one another.
Experience is man’s invisibility to man.” It is this invisibility that forms the basis of interpersonal relations – a basis which Laing calls a “no-thing.” “That which is really ‘between’
cannot be named by any things that come between. The between is itself no-thing.” In all
our interpersonal relationships we build upon this “no-thing,” for we react as if we knew
how our partners experienced us; we continually form views of their views and then act as
if our views of their views were realities. Contact, therefore, depends upon our continually
ﬁlling in a central gap in our experience.
[. . .]
An obvious and major diﬀerence between reading and all forms of social interaction is the
fact that with reading there is no face-to-face situation.3 A text cannot adapt itself to each
reader with whom it comes in contact. The partners in dyadic interaction can ask each other
questions in order to ascertain how far their views have controlled contingency, or their
images have bridged the gap of inexperienceability of one another’s experiences. The
reader, however, can never learn from the text how accurate or inaccurate are his views of
it. Furthermore, dyadic interaction serves speciﬁc purposes, so that the interaction always
has a regulative context, which often serves as a tertium comparationis. There is no such frame
of reference governing the text–reader relationship; on the contrary, the codes which might
regulate this interaction are fragmented in the text and must ﬁrst be reassembled or, in most
cases, restructured before any frame of reference can be established. Here, then, in conditions and intention, we ﬁnd two basic diﬀerences between the text–reader relationship and
the dyadic interaction between social partners.
Now it is the very lack of ascertainability and deﬁned intention that brings about the text–
reader interaction, and here there is a vital link with dyadic interaction. Social communication, as we have seen, arises out of contingency (behavioral plans do not coincide, and people
cannot experience how others experience them), not out of the common situation or out of
the conventions that join both partners together. The situation and conventions regulate the
manner in which gaps are ﬁlled, but the gaps in turn arise out of contingency and inexperienceability and, consequently, function as a basic inducement to communication. Similarly, it
is the gaps, the fundamental asymmetry between text and reader, that give rise to communication in the reading process; the lack of a common situation and a common frame of
reference corresponds to the contingency and the “no-thing” which bring about the interaction between persons. Asymmetry, contingency, the “no-thing” – these are all diﬀerent
forms of an indeterminate, constitutive blank which underlies all processes of interaction.
[. . .]
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With dyadic interaction, the imbalance is removed by the establishment of pragmatic connections resulting in an action, which is why the preconditions are always clearly deﬁned in
relation to situations and common frames of reference. The imbalance between text and
reader, however, is undeﬁned, and it is this very indeterminacy that increases the variety of
If these possibilities are to be fulﬁlled, and if communication between text and reader is
to be successful, clearly, the reader’s activity must be controlled in some way by the text.
The control cannot be as speciﬁc as in a face-to-face situation, equally it cannot be as determinate as a social code, which regulates social interaction. However, the guiding devices
operative in the reading process have to initiate communication, the success of which is
indicated by the constitution of a meaning, which cannot be equated with existing frames of
reference, as its own speciﬁc quality manifests itself in questioning existing meanings and in
altering existing experiences. Nor can the control be understood as a tangible entity occurring independently of the process of communication. Although exercised by the text, it
is not in the text. This is well illustrated by a comment Virginia Woolf made on the novels
of Jane Austen:
Jane Austen is thus a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears upon the
surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she oﬀers is, apparently, a triﬂe, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader’s mind and
endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial.
Always the stress is laid upon character. . . . The turns and twists of the dialogue
keep us on the tenterhooks of suspense. Our attention is half upon the present
moment, half upon the future. . . . Here, indeed, in this unﬁnished and in the main
inferior story, are all the elements of Jane Austen’s greatness.4
What is missing from the apparently trivial scenes, the gaps arising out of the dialogue – this
is what stimulates the reader into ﬁlling the blanks with projections. He is drawn into the
events and made to supply what is meant from what is not said. What is said only appears to
take on signiﬁcance as a reference to what is not said; it is the implications and not the
statements that give shape and weight to the meaning. But as the unsaid comes to life in the
reader’s imagination, so the said “expands” to take on greater signiﬁcance than might have
been supposed: even trivial scenes can seem surprisingly profound. The “enduring form of
life” which Virginia Woolf speaks of is not manifested on the printed page; it is a product
arising out of the interaction between text and reader. Communication in literature, then, is
a process set in motion and regulated not by a given code but by a mutually restrictive and
magnifying interaction between the explicit and the implicit, between revelation and concealment. What is concealed spurs the reader into action, but this action is also controlled
by what is revealed; the explicit in its turn is transformed when the implicit has been
brought to light.
[. . .]
Whenever the reader bridges the gaps, communication begins. The gaps function as a kind
of pivot on which the whole text–reader relationship revolves. Hence the structured blanks
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of the text stimulate the process of ideation to be performed by the reader on terms set
by the text.
[. . .]
If we are to grasp the unseen structure that regulates but does not formulate the connection or
even the meaning, we must bear in mind the various forms in which the textual segments are
presented to the reader’s viewpoint. Their most elementary form is to be seen on the level
of the story. The threads of the plot are suddenly broken oﬀ, or continued in unexpected
directions. One narrative section centers on a particular character and is then continued by
the abrupt introduction of new characters. These sudden changes are often denoted by new
chapters and so are clearly distinguished; the object of this distinction, however, is not
separation so much as a tacit invitation to ﬁnd the missing link. Furthermore, in each articulated reading moment, only segments of textual perspectives are present to the reader’s
wandering viewpoint, and their connection to each other is more often than not suspended.
An increase of blanks is bound to occur through the frequent subdivisions of each of the
textual perspectives: thus the narrator’s perspective is often split into that of the implied
author set against that of the author as narrator; the hero’s perspective may be set against
that of the minor characters; the ﬁctitious reader’s perspective may be divided between the
explicit position ascribed to him and the implicit attitude he must adopt to that position.
As the reader’s wandering viewpoint travels between all these segments, its constant
switching during the time-ﬂow of reading intertwines them, thus bringing forth a network
of perspectives, within which each perspective opens up a view not only of others but also
of the intended imaginary object. Hence no single textual perspective can be equated with
this imaginary object, of which it only forms one aspect. The object itself is a product
of interconnections, the structuring of which is to a great extent regulated and controlled
[. . .]
Now we are in a position to qualify more precisely what is actually meant by reader
participation in the text. If the blank is largely responsible for the activities described, then
participation means that the reader is not simply called upon to “internalize” the positions
given in the text, but he is induced to make them act upon and so transform each other, as
a result of which the aesthetic object begins to emerge. The structure of the blank organizes
this participation, revealing simultaneously the intimate connection between this structure
and the reading subject. This interconnection completely conforms to a remark, made by
Piaget: “In a word, the subject is there and alive, because the basic quality of each structure
is the structuring process itself.”5
The blank in the ﬁctional text appears to be a paradigmatic structure; its function consists
in initiating structured operations in the reader, the execution of which transmits the
reciprocal interaction of textual positions into consciousness. The shifting blank is responsible for a sequence of colliding images which condition each other in the time-ﬂow of
reading. The discarded image imprints itself on its successor, even though the latter is meant
to resolve the deﬁciencies of the former. In this respect, the images hang together in a
sequence, and it is by this sequence that the meaning of the text comes alive in the reader’s
I N T E R AC T I O N B E T W E E N T E X T A N D R E A D E R
1 See Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art, transl. by George G. Grabowicz (Evanston, 1973),
2 R. D. Laing, H. Phillipson, A. R. Lee, Interpersonal Perception: A Theory and a Method of Research
(New York, 1966), p. 4.
3 See also E. Goﬀman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (New York, 1967).
4 Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader: First Series (London, 1957), p. 174.
5 Jean Piaget, Der Strukturalismus, transl. by L. Häﬂiger (Olten, 1973), p. 134.
This extract is reproduced from Iser’s 1978 publication following the edited version as it appears in
Counsell and Wolf (2001) Performance Analysis.
Bennett, S. (1997). Theatre Audiences: a theory of production and reception. London: Routledge.
Fish, S. E. (1980). Is there a Text in this Class?: the authority of interpretative communities. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Tyson, L. (1999). “Chap. 6. Reader-response criticism” in Critical Theory Today: a user friendly guide.
New York: Garland, pp. 153–96.
Source: W. Iser (1978). The Act of Reading: a theory of aesthetic response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, pp. 20–1, 164–9, 196–8, 203.
Lois Tyson offers a succinct introduction to semiotics, a branch of structuralist criticism. She
explains the use of semiotics as a tool for the analysis of the way in which signs function
symbolically in society. Tyson gives us a “semiotic” explanation of a number of “objects” and
“behaviours” in popular culture. These range from Roland Barthes’ on wrestling, to the analysis
of advertising billboards and restaurant menus.
Just as structural anthropology applies structuralist insights to the comparative study of
human cultures, semiotics applies structuralist insights to the study of what it calls sign
systems. A sign system is a non-linguistic object or behavior (or collection of objects or
behaviors) that can be analyzed as if it were a language. In other words, semiotics examines
the ways non-linguistic objects and behaviors “tell” us something. For example, the picture
of the reclining blond beauty in the skin-tight, black velvet dress on the billboard advertising
a particular brand of whiskey “tells” us that those who drink this whiskey (presumably male)
will be attractive to seductive, beautiful women like the one displayed here. As this example
illustrates, semiotics is especially interested in analyzing popular culture. Other examples of
the kinds of pop-culture sign systems semioticians tend to examine might include pictorial
ads in magazines, popular dances, Disneyland, roller derby, Barbie dolls, Cadillacs, and, to use
two examples analyzed by the famous semiotician Roland Barthes, professional wrestling
and the striptease.
Here’s a simpliﬁed summary of Barthes’ semiotic analysis of professional wrestling: He
argues that professional wrestling (the brand of wrestling in which the contestants use
pseudonyms like Gorgeous George or Haystacks Calhoun, dress in costume, and orchestrate
the match in advance) can be viewed as a sign system. It can be interpreted as a language
with a very speciﬁc purpose: to provide the audience with the cathartic satisfaction of
watching justice triumph in a situation that (unlike life) makes it very clear who is good and
who is evil. This purpose is revealed in the structural similarities of the matches, regardless
of who the contestants are: for example, (1) each wrestler is a clear type (clean-cut
All-American, mean-tempered slob, barbarous evildoer, and so on); (2) each match contains
contestants who, by their type, their behavior during a particular match, or both, can be
clearly identiﬁed as the “good guy” and the “bad guy”; and (3) each match ends with the
triumph of goodness over evil.