Reception theory  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Reception theory is a version of reader response literary theory that emphasizes the reader's reception of a literary text. (Also called audience reception.) In literature, it originated from the work of Hans-Robert Jauss in the late 1960s. Reception theory was at its most influential during the 1970s and early 1980s in Germany and USA (Fortier 132), amongst some notable work in Western Europe.

This approach to textual analysis focuses on the scope for "negotiation" and "opposition" on the part of the audience. This means that a "text"—be it a book, movie, or other creative work—is not simply passively accepted by the audience, but that the reader / viewer interprets the meanings of the text based on their individual cultural background and life experiences. In essence, the meaning of a text is not inherent within the text itself, but is created within the relationship between the text and the reader.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall is one of the main proponents of reception theory, and developed Hall's Theory of encoding and decoding, focusing on the communication processes at play in the televisual form. Reception theory has since been extended to the spectators of performative events—predominantly theatre. Susan Bennett is often credited with beginning this discourse within theatre. Reception theory has also been applied to the history and analysis of landscapes, through the work of landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, motivated by recognition that the survival of gardens and landscapes is due to their public reception.



A basic acceptance of the meaning of a specific text tends to occur when a group of readers have a shared cultural background and interpret the text in similar ways. It is likely that the less shared heritage a reader has with the artist, the less he/she will be able to recognise the artist's intended meaning, and it follows that if two readers have vastly different cultural and personal experiences, their reading of a text will vary greatly.

Reception theory and landscape architecture

Whereas in literature, the interaction between text and reader occurs within a framework that controls and limits the interaction, through genre, tone, structure, and the social conditions of the reader and author, in landscapes the interaction occurs through movement and viewing, framed by typology instead of genre and tone. Instead of an “implied reader,” reception theory of landscapes assumes an “implied visitor,” who is an abstracted concatenation of responses of many visitors at different times.

The theory recognizes that there is no single reading of a landscape that fulfills its entire potential, and that it is important to examine the motives of visitors and the factors influencing their visits (whether they read guidebooks about the place before visiting, or had strong feelings about the place or the designer, for instance).

One key difference between reception theory in literature and reception theory in landscape architecture is that while literary works are accessible only to the imagination, physical landscapes are accessible to the senses as well as to the imagination. However, purely mythological gardens (such as the Garden of Eden and the gardens of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) are accessible only to the imagination, and extant historical gardens form a middle ground, with their reception influenced by sensory experience as well as readings of historical accounts of visits to those gardens.

Reception theoretical analysis of landscapes differs from typical writing on the history and analysis of landscapes, which tends to focus on the intentions of the designers, the conditions leading to the creation of the design, and the building process. Reception theory also tends to de-emphasize commonly used terms of description like 'formal' and 'picturesque,' unless those terms were known to have meaning to landscape visitors themselves.

See also

Further reading

  • Amacher, Richard, and Victor Lange, eds. New Perspectives in German Literary Criticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.
  • Bennett, Susan, eds. Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Eagleton, Terry. “Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Reception Theory,” in Literary Theory. University of Minnesota Press, 1996. p. 47 – 78.
  • Fortier, Mark. Theory / Theatre: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Hohendahl, Peter Uwe. "Introduction to Reception Aesthetics." New German Critique 10 (1977): 29-63.
  • Holub, Robert C. Crossing Borders: Reception Theory, Poststructuralism, Deconstruction. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992.
  • Holub, Robert C. Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction. London: Methuen, 1984.
  • Hunt, John Dixon. The Afterlife of Gardens. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
  • Jauss, Hans Robert. Aesthetic Experience and Literary Hermeneutics. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.
  • Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Trans. Timothy Bahti. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.

See also

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