Reception theory

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Reception theory is a version of reader response literary theory that emphasizes each particular reader's reception or interpretation in making meaning from a literary text. Reception theory is generally referred to as audience reception in the analysis of communications models. In literary studies, reception theory originated from the work of Hans-Robert Jauss in the late 1960s, and the most influential work was produced during the 1970s and early 1980s in Germany and the US (Fortier 132), with some notable work done in other Western European countries. A form of reception theory has also been applied to the study of historiography, as detailed in Reception history (below).

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall has been one of the main proponents of reception theory, having developed it for media and communication studies from the literary and history-oriented approaches mentioned above. His approach, called the encoding/decoding model of communication, is a form of textual analysis that focuses on the scope of "negotiation" and "opposition" by 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 her or his 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.

Hall also developed a theory of encoding and decoding, Hall's theory, which focuses on the communication processes at play in texts that are in televisual form.

Reception theory has since been extended to the spectators of performative events, focusing predominantly on the theatre. Susan Bennett is often credited with beginning this discourse. Reception theory has also been applied to the history and analysis of landscapes, through the work of the landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, as Hunt recognized that the survival of gardens and landscapes is largely related 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 or 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. Umberto Eco coined the term aberrant decoding to describe the case when the reader's interpretation differs from what the artist intended.[1]

Reception theory and landscape architecture[edit]

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, whereas 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.

Reception history[edit]

According to Harold Marcuse,[2] reception history is "the history of the meanings that have been imputed to historical events. It traces the different ways in which participants, observers, historians and other retrospective interpreters have attempted to make sense of events both as they unfolded and over time since then, to make those events meaningful for the present in which they lived and live."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eco, Umberto (1972). "Towards a semiotic inquiry into the television message". Working Papers in Cultural Studies. University of Birmingham. 
  2. ^ Harold Marcuse, University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of History Reception History: Definition and Quotations.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]