I’ve been teaching reception theory at Rhode Island School of Design since 1998. If reception theory is still a bit marginalized in humanities disciplines, it’s definitely an odd approach in an art and design school, where students are primarily focused on learning how to create and produce. However, that is the reason why I think it’s important to teach it: it provides a small counterweight to the power of intention (“This work articulates my struggle to make sense of my upbringing”), or, conversely, to its casual abandonment (“People can feel whatever they feel.”). I want my students to glimpse that creativity and meaning are far more complex and non-linear, far more deeply contextualized (in moments, communities, and pasts), than most would like to acknowledge.
In some semesters, I have been more provocative than in others:
Mostly, I’ve just tried to introduce undergraduates to the classics in the field. From the early to the mid-2000s, I focused on theories about different forms of cultural expression: literature, film, television, and music. We read Iser and Radway, Eisenstein and Staiger, Kubey and Katz, Adorno and Hebdige. As I wrote in the catalog description for "Reception Theory and Popular Culture" in Fall 2000:
In this course, we will explore the ways various scholars have conceived of popular culture audiences, from early psychological analyses of reading to current historical and ethnographic investigations of popular music. By focusing on the differing ideas of audience and methods of audience research within and across these disciplines, we will discuss the impact of, and problems with, ideas of reception, consumption, and resistance.To the extent that reception studies and debates have unfolded in separate disciplines, this comparative framework was useful. Studying reception this way, though, was also limiting. I found, over time, that students did not necessarily have access to a meta-discourse that would enable them to move outside of disciplinary conceptions. There was also a lot of repetition that made the course into a kind of "parade of theories," with the students passively watching the authors march triumphantly by. That led me to start thinking about reception more anthropologically—not as a response to particular forms of expression, or even particular works (as reception is often conceived in literature and music), but rather as a culturally- and historically-contingent behavior that merges consumption, attention, sensation, association, memory, and enthusiasm—in short, what we might call “audiencing.”
For the past several incarnations of my reception theory course, I’ve moved to a different structure that avoids my previous formalism for a new focus on themes and debates around the whole notion of “receiving” art. I don’t know if the students care, but personally, I find not having to think about reception in strict disciplinary terms quite freeing. (Of course, doing so is the luxury of someone teaching in a department called “History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences”). At any rate, this spring I will give it another try:
Audience (Spring 2011)
Stemming from developments in literary criticism and media studies in the 60s and 70s, the field of audience studies examines the complex ways that people read, view, and hear---or “receive”—artistic expression. Its radical emphasis on audiencing as a primary source of meaning has been controversial, challenging fundamental concepts of authorship, creativity, critical authority, and the work. In this course, we will analyze classic audience studies from across fields in the arts and humanities and explore the ramifications of those studies for disciplinary practices in art and design.
In this brief introductory section of the course, we will examine the concepts of “authorship” and “intention” against which reception theory is traditionally defined.
February 23: Martha Woodmansee, “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of ‘The Author,’” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, (Summer, 1984), pp. 425-448.
February 28: Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Aspen, Nos. 5 & 6 (1968) www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/; Michael North, “Authorship and Autography,” PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 5. (Oct., 2001), pp. 1377-1385.
How do audiences—readers, spectators, listeners—make sense of artistic expression? We will consider “audiencing” from a number of perspectives: phenomenology, biology, history, psychology, and sociology.
March 2: Wolgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 2, On Interpretation: I (Winter, 1972), pp. 279-299.
March 7: Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 465-485.
Rhetoric and the SensesMarch 9-14: Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Emotion, Cognition, and ResponseMarch 16 Roger Pouivet, “On the Cognitive Functioning of Aesthetic Emotions,” Leonardo, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2000), pp. 49-53.March 21 Noel Carroll, "Toward a Theory of Point-of-View Editing: Communication, Emotion, and the Movies," Poetics Today, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 123-141; Charles Carson, "'Whole New Worlds': Music and the Disney Theme Park Experience," Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov. 2004), pp. 228-235.
Rhetoric and the Senses
March 9-14: Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Emotion, Cognition, and Response
March 16 Roger Pouivet, “On the Cognitive Functioning of Aesthetic Emotions,” Leonardo, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2000), pp. 49-53.
March 21 Noel Carroll, "Toward a Theory of Point-of-View Editing: Communication, Emotion, and the Movies," Poetics Today, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 123-141; Charles Carson, "'Whole New Worlds': Music and the Disney Theme Park Experience," Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov. 2004), pp. 228-235.
Sum: Frameworks of Interpretation
March 23 Paper #1 Due
We will evaluate reception theory by looking at particular problems and debates in audience studies, including fandom, participation, and politics.
Popular Culture and Politics
April 4: Adorno, “The Culture Industry” (at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm.
April 6: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) at https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/display/MarkTribe/Visual+Pleasure+and+Narrative+Cinema.
April 11 Daniel Cavicchi, “Loving Music: Listeners, Entertainments, and the Origins of Music Fandom in the 19th Century,” in Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Cornell Sandvoss, Jonathan Gray, and C. Lee Harrington, editors. New York: New York University Press, June 2007.
April 13 Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell, 'Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality' from Participations -http://www.participations.org/Volume%204/Issue%201/4_01_graymittell.htm
Participation and Technology
April 18-20 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press, 2008.
Sum: Issues in Reception
April 25 Paper #2 Due
What’s the use of audience studies? We will think about the implications of reception theory for various fields of art and design.
Provocations and Challenges
April 27-May 2 Michael Kammen, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in
American Culture. Random House, 2007.
Your Own Art and Design
May 9 Steven W. Dykstra, “The Artist's Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn - Winter, 1996), pp. 197-218.
May 11 Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Material Virtues: On the Ideal and the Real in Design History,” Journal of Design History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1998), pp. 191-199.
Sum: Audience Research and Practice
May 16 Presentations
May 18 Presentations