Reception Theory in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric


As readers, it is important that we are mindful of the goal of reading: understanding. In order to reach understanding, we must first be mindful of what we are reading and why. Who is presenting the text to us and what do we expect to take away from it? Each person comes to a text with different intellectual, cultural, and emotional backgrounds which inform her understanding of it. The way the reader’s mind influences her reading and her subsequent understanding of the text is called Reception Theory, popularized by literary theorist Wolfgang Iser in the 1970s. Literary theorist W.J.T. Mitchell (1986) applies a similar philosophy to images, which he believes also inform a reader’s understanding of a text. Mitchell’s understanding of “language”—which will refer to both text and image from this point on—is crucial to the study of Reception Theory and the way it works with and alongside texts like Claudia Rankine’s lyrical novel/multi-media art piece Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).


I: Ethical Images

Reception Theory is not only useful when reading strictly textual works, but also crucial to the understanding of multi-media texts, such as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). In this work, reproductions of art works created by other artists provide context for Rankine’s words. Though Rankine utilizes artwork that doesn’t belong to her, her work is ethically sound because, as Mitchell (1986) notes,

“Texts and speech-acts are, after all, not simply affairs of “consciousness,” but are public expressions that belong right out there with all the other kinds of material representations we create—pictures, statues, graphs, maps, etc. We don’t have to say that a descriptive paragraph is exactly like a picture to see that they do have similar functions as public symbols that project states of affairs about which we can reach rough, provisional, agreements” (20).

Since Mitchell does not provide a reason as to why the artist loses his authority over his public work, we might turn to Reception Theory. Whenever an artistic act or representation becomes public, the creator loses his authority over it and its meaning. Even though the text or work of art is made by the author, the reader brings her own personal psychological, emotional, and intellectual backgrounds to the text, synthesizes the author’s ideas with her own preexisting ones (a process Iser, who does not consider visual art in his argument, terms “literary work”), and finally realizes a truth about the piece. In other words, Iser writes that “reader involvement coincides with meaning production” in the act of reading a text (Iser xi).

Therefore, instead of individualized images, Rankine’s images are treated as a part of Citizen as a whole. Rankine’s use of images is not dishonest by any means. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1921) points out, humans have a tendency to codify words and symbols so that they form a complex iconography that is almost universally understood. For example, most people would recognize a cross as a symbol of Christianity. Mitchell’s assertion that “we can reach rough, provisional, agreements” about a text is a direct reference to Wittgenstein’s theory. Codified language makes contextualization—and therefore literary work—possible since it is the context through which we view a text or work of art that most informs its meaning. According to Reception Theory, contextualization is both inevitable and crucial to the understanding of any work, especially of images in relation to text.


II: Literary Work in Citizen

Citizen contains two tiers of literary work—one due to its form as a multi-media piece, another that requires a reader to contextualize the text as a whole. According to Iser, when a reader sees text and images next to each other, he will “analogize” between the two symbols during literary work (Hamilton, 643). However, Iser also wrote that textual forms such as “wandering viewpoint; theme; horizon; blanks or gaps; connections or connectability; [all terms that he leaves ambiguous]” and images exist “only in the text,” (qtd. In Hamilton, 643). I disagree. Though he argues that these forms cannot exist in the reader’s mind, Iser relies on him to “realize” a text through the recognition of such forms. Iser’s argument is appropriate when we apply it to the first tier of literary work in Citizen—the one that happens inside the text—but does not address the issue of the second.

The first tier of literary work is completed inside the text and is independent of the reader. This is the form of literary work that deals with both text and images. In order to treat it correctly, I will turn to Barthe’s essay “The Photographic Message” (1978). Though Barthes himself is only concerned with photographs and their role in journalism, I will use some of his ideas to talk about images in Citizen. In keeping with Mitchell’s earlier statement about language, Barthes writes (perhaps in response to Iser, though he never engages him directly), “connotation, the position of second meaning on the photographic message proper, is realized at the different levels of the production of the photograph (choice, technical treatment, framing, layout) and represents, finally, a coding of the photographic analogue” (Barthes, 199). All of these critics note that language is codified—and I wholeheartedly agree. However, when Barthes examines the intentional treatment of images and how such artistic choices change the meaning, he touches on something that the others did not discuss. All agree that language is codified, but none mention the fact that text and image codify each other when they are put into the same space. For example, when Rankine includes a photograph of one of Nick Cave’s “sound suits” below an anecdote about Serena William’s “immature and classless” behavior at the 2012 Olympics (33). The figure in the photograph bends over, revealing the intricate flowers and patterns sewed to her back. If we take the image out of context, it is beautiful but confusing—what does it have to do with Serena Williams’s behavior?  It is only after the text and the image interact that the image receives its meaning. Perhaps the figure bends over to show that she, like Williams, is only considered beautiful and impressive when she is compliant or subordinate. We must recognize the importance framing devices such as cover art, bibliographic codes, whitespace, images, and words in the creation of meaning. All of these components participate in the first tier of literary work, and, therefore, implicitly in the second.

The first tier of literary work is completed independent of the reader, but it is only realized, and therefore synthesized with the reader’s own mental formations during the second round of literary work when the reader is involved (the one Iser writes about). Recall the main tenet of Reception Theory: reading is the process of “discovering links and working out how the narrative will bring the different elements together” (Iser, Prospecting 11). In the same way that the words around “sound suit” change its context and therefore its meaning, the reader’s perceptions inform the text. To treat words and images separately in Citizen is a grave mistake that prevents the reader from fully participating in language and meaning-making.

In another sense, what is not part of an image’s context is just as important as what is. While readingCitizen, it is important to consider the fact that the images are not cited until the end of the text. The absence of credit to a different author creates distance between the image and its connotation in Citizen and its connotation elsewhere. For example, if I see Kate Clark’s Little Girl on page 19 and decide to look up what the artist had to say about her, I remove her from context of Citizen, and place her into a different one. In the process of searching for her original context, I temporarily leave the world of Citizen, and interact with other texts (the internet, books, other forms of media) that distract me from the meaning-making process as it applies to Citizen. I’m searching for someone else to tell me about the image in a different context. When this separation occurs, I cannot understand Citizen in the same way as I would have without the citation because the information I glean from the image’s other contexts becomes part of the context through which I understand Rankine’s text. Unless the reader recognizes that the original creator’s interpretation of her work is not the only “right” way to think about it, this disruption is destructive to the process of understanding the text.


III: Reflecting on Reception

 While Reception Theory is inevitable in every text, it takes on a new importance in Citizen. A common theme in the discussion of racism is stereotypes—Citizen confronts the reader directly with words and images on stereotypes, especially during the section of the discourse that deals with Serena Williams as the Angry Black Woman, “Crip-Walking all over the most lily-white place in the world” (33). William’s reaction—after winning an Olympic gold medal, clearly a cause for celebration—is compared to “cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church” (33). Many symbols come to mind here, from gangs to country clubs. The real issue, though, is that in that moment, Williams was being judged in the context of “the most lily-white place in the world.” The very fact that she was chastised for celebrating, compared (wrongly, and because of white misconceptions about a popular dance move) to a gang member and condemned like a sinner in church for celebrating a job well done, better than anyone else in the world, in fact, is ludicrous. When spectators place Williams in the context of the Angry Black Woman stereotype, they take her out of her own context and impose another one onto her, forcing her (but only in their minds) into a different mode of being. It is important to note that Williams’s behavior itself doesn’t change; only the way it is received does.

Reception Theory itself becomes a form to be included in the process of literary work. After interacting withCitizen, the reader must consider her reaction to the anecdotes and images, her understanding of the meaning of the text, and the process of literary work. The understanding that she gains in her reflection onCitizen becomes part of the context of her worldview and is carried on until it changes again with a new experience or understanding.


Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. “The Photographic Message,” from A Barthes Reader. 194-210. PDF.

Hamilton, Craig A., and Ralf Schneider. “From Iser to Turner and Beyond: Reception Theory Meets Cognitive Criticism”. Style 36.4 (2002): 640-658. Web.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974. [Translation of Der implizite Leser: Kommunikationsformen des Romans von Bunyan bis Beckett]. Print.
Mitchell, W.J.T., “Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology”. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago Press. 1986. 7-47. Print.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press. 2014. Print.
Many thanks to my peer editors, Lucas and Charlie, for sticking with me and reading so many versions of this essay. I really appreciate your help and the time you took for me. Hope you enjoy! Also, thanks, Dr. ‘Chill for a great semester!
Pledged, IJS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *