If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

However cliché it may have grown with age, this simple thought experiment demonstrates how essential reception is to the process of communication and, therefore, to the study of media.

Reception is broadly defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action of receiving, or taking in, physically or spatially.” Asking who or what does this receiving yields several of the word’s more specific senses. The body, the mind, and all manner of mechanical apparatuses, for instance, are capable of such reception. Concerning the body, for example, Aristotle described human sensory perception by likening it to the way that wax receives the image imparted by a signet. [1] The mind is more exclusively the subject, on the other hand, of the OED’s additional denotation of reception as “the action of receiving mentally.” And yet another of its specialized senses, familiarized by the ubiquity of the television and radio, refers to “the receiving of broadcast signals; the efficiency with which this is done, as regards audibility, picture quality, freedom from interference, etc.”

To do justice to the complexity of a full-bodied notion of media, though, one must consider that these senses of the word operate in concert as much as they do exclusively. The quality of one’s radio’s reception, for instance, determines what its listener hears and, thus, what the listener’s mind can make of those sounds. Still, each reception involved in this serial transmission is an example of the broader, generalizable concept. Umberto Eco’s linear diagram of the sender-receiver circuit illustrates this concept, picturing the role of the receiver. [2]

Similarly, W.J.T. Mitchell explicitly identifies the receiver as one of the crucial components of all media systems. There are four: “the sender, or ‘producer’ of messages, the code that makes it possible to understand messages, the receiver or ‘consumer’ who takes in the message; and the embodied message in the form of an image.” [3] In context, this brief anatomy serves Mitchell’s purpose of showing how quickly actors who assume the roles of the sender and receiver naturally end up exchanging them with one another. [4] This reversibility suggests one of the primary reasons why the concept of reception, even as distinct from that of the receiver, merits its own discussion with respect to media: Especially since the 1960s, literary and media theorists have repeatedly challenged the common sense notion that reception is a passive activity.

Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking theory of media, for instance, weighs in on the issue. His opinion is so well integrated, though, into his explanation of the novel concept of the “temperature of media” that it can be too easily overlooked. Hot media, he explains, are filled with data, whereas cool are “low definition,” providing less. “Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.” [5] The idea is one that applies a kind of technological determinism even to reception itself. Rather than assuming that the nature of audience response is constant, McLuhan insists it varies with the particular media. The specific attributes of a medium determine whether, and to what extent, the reception of the information it transmits is passive or participatory. [6]

This particular attribute of McLuhan’s theory, in contrast to its terminology, is not entirely novel, though. As it is an extension of the familiar adage “form follows function,” one might reasonably expect to see it (or something like it) much earlier in the century. And indeed, it plays a significant role in Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”—and a much more openly political one. In Benjamin’s essay, the qualities of singularity and reproducibility dramatically affect the way audiences experience works of art, just as other specific features of various media have direct effects on their reception. He contrasts, for instance, architecture and painting, later enlisting the adverbs “tactilely and optically” to describe the type of reception which each, respectively, engenders. [7] Painting, “by its nature,” has insisted on being viewed individually, or at least among very few people at a time. Architecture, though, due to its scale, longevity, and purpose of shelter provides an entirely different experience—one consisting of habitual exposure over a long period of time and as a part of a group. The latter experience, dignified by the epithet “simultaneous collective reception,” joins “reception in a state of distraction” in characterizing the potentially revolutionary dynamics of film for the working class. Both result from specific dimensions of the media, like the setting of the cinema and the “shock value” of film. [8]

Counterintuitive though it might sound, “reception in a state of distraction” represents a more participatory reception, for Benjamin, than contemplation. He first indicates this when writing that the latter is like entering into a work and being absorbed by it, whereas the former amounts to the masses absorbing a work into themselves. [9] He gives another useful explanation by way of his example of audience comportment at a Charlie Chaplin film. Attendees enjoy themselves while assuming the appraising role of the film expert, one the one hand, and tuning their reactions to those of their neighbors, on the other. [10] While McLuhan’s notion of audience participation measures interaction with the medium, itself, Benjamin’s adds to such activity the audience’s action as a group: Participation equally consists in enhanced collective awareness. This is, after all, in keeping with his estimation that the “original and justified interest of the masses in film” amounts to “an interest in understanding themselves and, therefore their class.” [11] Importantly, he also remarks that, as was the case with (another reproducible medium) the press, the film allows its audience to become actors. So observing, he declares, “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character”. [12] In a sense, this might simply recall the aforementioned reversibility of sender and receiver that characterizes, say, dialogue. Critics of proceeding generations made considerably more of it, though.

They would likewise fix their attention on the work of Roland Barthes. His canonical essay, “The Death of the Author,” is constantly cited in defense of poststructuralist modes of criticism and marks a moment of radical reconceptualization of the reception of creative works.

In his essay, he depicts the authorial figure, “the genius, ” as a product of a distinctly modern, European, capitalist ideology—a lionized legend, propped up by bourgeois taste for the “prestige of the individual.” [13] Due to the intermediary—language—which separates the author from the reader, the author cannot be identified by or with his text. Even the author’s experience, Barthes insists, is mediated[link] to such an extent that it disallows originality: “Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely…” [14] There is no purpose, therefore, in seeking to know what an author “meant by” his work.

On Barthes’s model, then, a text, in the most universal sense possible, has no fixed meaning to be uncovered at all. Taken seriously, this denial could completely disorient the conventional criticism of his day; Barthes gives every signal that he knew so. The essay is an attack thereupon, and Barthes dedicates an entire section of it to explicitly insisting that the demise of the “Author” and that of the “Critic” are one and the same. [15]

Yet, his goal was not so much to disorient criticism as it was to redirect it. Turning it from the author to face the reader, instead, Barthes figures reception as a highly active affair, indeed—an intense mental activity. Certain instances of his phrasing particularly emphasize the point. For instance, he writes, “In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced…” [16] And a bit later, “There is…someone who understands every word in its duplicity and who, in addition, hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him – this someone being precisely the reader…” [17] “The death of the Author”—as the object of criticism—is the birth, the animation, of the reader as such.

Barthes was widely influential, and much ensuing criticism and scholarly writing has felt his influence. Interestingly, though, there was also a parallel development in German literary theory that shares this emphasis on the reader, without owing any intellectual or methodological debt to structuralism. And its name alone would suffice to guarantee its discussion here, as it is called “reception theory.”

Set in motion by Hans Robert Jauss, reception theory emerged as a cohesive movement in the late 1960s, concentrated especially around the University of Constance, and represented “a general shift in concern from the author and the work to the text and reader.” [18] Notwithstanding that this adequately describes Barthes’s redirection, Jauss’s “aesthetics[link] of reception” takes a very different and singular critical approach. Reception theory is, for instance, a variant of phenomenology—which itself focuses on the reader’s conscious experience of a text, rather than the underlying codes which govern that experience. Furthermore, its guiding principle of the reader’s “horizon of expectations” sets it apart even from other phenomenological approaches—including its relative, “reader-response criticism.” [19]

Reader-response criticism describes the production of textual meaning by tracing a supposed reader’s process through a text. Reception theory is sympathetic to this approach, but it takes a more diachronic stance. Jauss reflects that the expectations with which readers approach a work change over time and vary from person to person. Therefore, interpretation according to his model constructs a history of a work’s reception and the changing prejudices ‘ which have informed its many readings. [20] It does not, however, write authorial intention out of the derivation of meaning. Instead, it strikes a compromise. Literature is seen to be a “dialectical process of production and reception.” [21] Thus, with a hint of temperance, reception theory yet contributes to the past century’s theoretical reconstitution of reception as a creative, or at least non-passive, act. In the words of Jonathan Culler, “Focus on historical and social variations in ways of reading emphasizes that interpreting is a social practice.” [22]

A. Staab
Winter 2007


1. D. W. Hamlyn, Aristotle: De Anima, Books II and III (with Passages from Book I), (1968, repr., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 42-3.

2. W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 209.

3. Emphasis added.

4. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? 219.

5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, intro. Lewis H. Lapham (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995) 23.

6. Incidentally, the descriptors “hot” and “cool,” as defined, also correspond somewhat to the qualitative denotation of reception. That is to say, whatever the usual temperature of a particular medium, when its addressee finds himself momentarily experiencing “bad reception,” the medium is, at that moment and by McLuhan’s definition, a cool medium.

7. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in Selected Writings, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) 120.

8. Ibid., 116-120.

9. Ibid., 119.

10. Ibid., 116.

11. Ibid., 115.

12. Ibid., 114.

13. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image – Music – Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977) 142-3.

14. Ibid., 146. 15. Ibid., 147. 16. Ibid. 17. Ibid., 148. 18. Leon C. Holub, Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction (London: Methuen, 1984) xi-xii. 19. Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 123. 20. Ibid. 21. Holub, Reception Theory, 57. 22. Culler, Literary Theory, 64. Emphasis added.


Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” In Image – Music – Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 142-148. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In Selected Writings, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 101-133. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. 1997. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hamlyn, D. W. Aristotle: De Anima, Books II and III (with Passages from Book I). 1968. Reprinted with report and revised bibliography by Christopher Shields, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Holub, Leon C. Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction. London: Methuen, 1984.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964. Reprinted with introduction by Lewis H. Lapham. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

“Reception,” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED Online. 16 Feb. 2007 .