Imagining institutional rationality? A fictional encounter between Ian McEwan and Wolfgang Iser
journal contributionposted on 05.07.2010, 15:23 by Peter J. Armstrong
Arguing that institutional rationality constitutes a meta-institution upon which the specific institutions of the capitalist social order depend, this paper explores the possibility that it might be interrogated through the imaginary worlds created by readers in their responses to literary fiction. It does so by constructing a fictive encounter between the response aesthetics of Wolfgang Iser and two novels by Ian McEwan, Saturday and Enduring love, both of which feature institutional rationality as a core element of the 'reality' from which they are constructed. The conclusions are somewhat negative. The problems posed to McEwan's personifications of institutional rationality, despite the author's reputation for arbitrary and sometimes macabre plotlines, are nowhere such as to call into question their understandings of the events which befall them. Nor, reading the novels as explorations of that very one-dimensionality, are readers likely to be induced into a questioning of their own understandings of the world. This is because the novels in question, like most modern literary fiction, have been produced within a tradition which reaches back to the romantic/humanist reaction to institutional rationality, and this makes it possible for readers to distance themselves from characters in which it is exemplified. Far from producing a critical Imaginary, readers who respond in this manner are likely to externalize any interrogations of institutional rationality suggested by its fictional recontextualization and produce, instead, one in which the superiority of their own understandings of the world is confirmed. Whilst this may be opposed to institutional rationality in the routinised sense of an antagonistic accommodation, nothing new is added by the reading of the novels. Whilst some of the problem may lie in the characterization of the principle protagonists in the selected novels - which is both flat and static - it is suggested that there is also a problem with the initial expectation of a critical imaginary created by Iser's theory. The fact is that its creation depends on an assumed response on the part of the reader that has no evidential basis. This empirical deficit cannot be made good either by Iser's earlier construct of an 'implied reader', nor by his later posit of self-aware role-taking as a fundamental anthropological need. Whilst one cannot rule out the possibility that some readers might respond as Iser supposes - even to the novels discussed in this paper - there is no particular reason to rule it in either.