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Literary theory in the twentieth century was heavily influenced by linguistics. The structuralist model that set the waves of literary theories in motion originated in Saussurean linguistics and its Jakobsonian elaborations. One could argue that until the 1980s all literary theory, and all linguistics for that matter, was based on an analysis of langue, or the system of language or literature or text, to the detriment of parole, the practices, contexts, and negotiations of speakers, writers, and readers. The structuralist model, with its theoretical expansion of close-reading practices, already entrenched in the wake of the New Criticism, generalized the frame of mind that was soon to become the bogeyman of poststructuralist and cultural studies attacks. The formula could be summarized as No history, no ethics, no themes, no aesthetics, and no context—period.
The study of poetry is still obstructed and dominated by the unsolved question as to what poetry is. Most have concluded that it is unproductive to try to answer this question too quickly or even, perhaps, to ask it. This creates a block. Where terms such as poetry, lyric, and form remain academically current, they may do so as a kind of revered but disbelieved magic. Lyric suffers from some of the same difficulties as poetry (Culler; Prins; Terada). These difficulties go further than those attending any indistinct yet prevalent cultural concept. They concern also the long “war embrace” between poetry and philosophy, an antagonistic cooperation (Coleridge 191).
At the end of the twentieth century, the expansion of trauma from a therapeutic concept to a way of theorizing about the ruptures of history and memory had, in Geoffrey Hartman's words, added a “displaced evangelical intensity” to literary studies (293). The literary turn to trauma highlighted an ethical dimension to practices of writing, reading, and interpretation; texts were then freighted by violence, called to witness the horrors of history, challenging claims to the clarity and accessibility of words and narrative. Hartman conveys his hesitations about this turn by invoking a religious term—“evangelical”—which is etymologically related to gospel, or “good news.” His concern about an infusion of religious zeal into the study of literature may enact a critical refutation of the historical erasure of Jewish origins by Christian claims to “good news.”
In August 2009, when Richard Poirier died, I was mourning the death of Michael Jackson, with an intensity that surprised me. While I had admired Jackson's talent and followed his career with steady interest for decades, my grief was out of proportion to my feeling for him when he was alive. I felt caught up in a psychic complex that had hold of the wrong object but was determined, nonetheless, to play itself out. Puzzled by the intensity of my grief, I began reading everything about Jackson I could find—books, journalism, Web postings—while listening intently to his music, trying to hear something in it that would console me and justify my frenzied mourning. But instead of hearing that, I heard Poirier had also died.
New Archives, New Aesthetics: Talks from the Convention
The recent turn to aesthetics in literary studies has been embraced by some of its advocates as a polemical riposte to critique: a practice increasingly attacked from multiple directions but here specifically for doing artworks the disservice of reducing them to encryptions of history or ideology. But while the new or revived focus on pleasure (and, to a much lesser extent, displeasure)1 has been vaunted for the way in which it seems to circumvent the reduction of artworks to historical or ideological concepts, our aesthetic experience is always mediated by a finite if constantly rotating repertoire of aesthetic categories. Any literary or cultural criticism purportedly engaged with aesthetics needs to pay attention to these categories, which are by definition conceptual as well as affective and tied to historically specific forms of communication and collective life. But how does one read an aesthetic category? What kind of object is it, and what methodological difficulties and satisfactions does its analysis pose?
[B]y carrying us beyond paper, the adventures of technology grant us a sort of future anterior: they liberate our reading for a retrospective exploration of the past resources of paper, for its previously multimedia vectors.
—Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine
This essay explores some of the ways that the contemporary mediascape has begun to transform the questions we can ask of our students and ourselves. Our subject derives from an undergraduate English course, Literary History and/as Media History, that we designed to address the lack of critical attention paid in the curriculum to the media of literary works. The course, whose catalog description follows, was intended to cover a lot of historical ground while highlighting theoretical questions that generally remain unasked in Norton Anthology–style surveys:
Living in an era of rapid technological innovation, we tend to forget that print itself was once a new medium. The history of English and American literature since the Renaissance has been as much a response to the development of new material formats (scribal copying, printed playtexts, newspaper and serial publication, “little magazines,” radio, film, television, the internet) as it has been a succession of ideal literary forms (poems, plays, and novels). This course will survey literary works from the sixteenth to the twentieth century in relation to the history of media. What can these histories say to each other? Are they, indeed, one history?
Predicting any future—or futures—for literary criticism is a risky business, perhaps all the more so now that the relation of literature to its others is arguably subject to greater and faster changes than ever before. The changes to come in literary criticism will be determined by transformations in literature proper as well as by any number of forces outside literature. By changes “within” literature we cannot mean simply those to contemporary or recent literature, whose canons—to say nothing of what exceeds these canons—are far from settled. The literary past continues to change even if every given text endlessly repeats itself like a broken record. For an authoritative formulation of this position, one need not turn to some outré poststructuralist or to Walter Benjamin's contention that even the dead are not “safe” from the reaches of the present (“On the Concept” 391). One can appeal to the sober, usually conservative thinking of T. S. Eliot:
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. (38)
In 2001, the official year of the “life sciences” in germany, ottmar ette began pulling together ideas for what was to become the programmatic essay excerpted and translated here. Ette is known for different things in different places: in Spain and Hispanic America, he is renowned for his work on José Martí, Jorge Semprún, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, and a host of other authors. In the francophone world, he is best known for his writings on Roland Barthes and, more recently, on Amin Maalouf, while his reputation in his native Germany rests on his voluminous work on Alexander von Humboldt and on the new literatures in German. That this polyglot professor of Romance literatures is, at heart and in practice, a comparatist goes almost without saying. He is also, perhaps as inevitably, a literary theorist and a cultural critic, whose work has attracted attention throughout Europe. In his 2004 book ÜberLebenswissen—a title that might be rendered in English both as “Knowledge for Survival” and as “About Life Knowledge”—Ette first began to reclaim for literary studies the dual concepts of Lebenswissen and Lebenswissenschaft, which I have translated provisionally as “knowledge for living” and “science for living” to set them off from the biotechnological discourses of the life sciences. While ÜberLebenswissen focuses on the disciplinary history and practices of the field of Romance literatures, its companion volume from 2005, ZwischenWeltenSchreiben: Literaturen ohne festen Wohnsitz (“Writing between Worlds: Literatures without a Fixed Abode”), extends Ette's inquiry to the global contexts of Shoah, Cuban, and Arab American literatures. Both volumes urge that literary studies “be opened up, made accessible and relevant, to the larger society. Doing so is, simply and plainly, a matter of survival” (ZwischenWeltenSchreiben 270).
“Mon Dieu! quel succès!” such was the response of the Moroccan novelist, poet, and sociologist AbdelkéBir Khatibi (1938–2009) when he learned that his 1974 study of the “intersemiotics” of the Islamic body, La blessure du nom propre (“The Wound of the Proper Name”), which dealt, in part, with the monotheistic interdiction against tattoos, had inspired a reader to get a tattoo (Langue 15). While one might be tempted to interpret this remark merely as Khatibi's vindication of the affective powers of his writing, it in fact reveals an important element of his critical-literary practice: his way of bringing deconstruction to bear on the tasks of decolonization. The curious case of the tattooed reader illustrates how, by deconstructing holy writ's apparent desire “to erase in a single palimpsestic gesture all later writing, especially that which is traced on the body” (Blessure 66), Khatibi helped create the conditions for somebody else to perform an act of auto-bio-graphy, understood as a form of mental and corporeal decolonization.
Starting with two twentieth-century lectures (both titled “What Is a Classic?”), delivered by T. S. Eliot and J. M. Coetzee forty-seven years apart, this essay looks at the ontology of the classic in particular and canon formation in general in the globalized and multicultural field of twenty-first-century English studies. It focuses on the agonistic process through which the classic assumes form and coherence and on the position of the critic making a claim about the classic. The essay evaluates the importance of this contestation of literary value for interlopers and latecomers to the Western canon, concluding that the “perduring” classic is, perhaps, the invention of the outsider. With close attention to the unstable relation between the classic as preeminently European or national and the classic as trans- or international, the essay seeks to reclaim the foundational concept of the classic for world literature, postcolonial studies, and literary criticism in an international frame.
The study of textual evolution, or revision as a textual phenomenon, requires a form of fluid-text editing that not only gives readers access to the textual identities that constitute the versions of a work but also makes the revision process witnessable by generating revision sequences and revision narratives for every revision event. Traditional editorial approaches that mix versions in the editing of a work compromise the integrity of textual identities, and the problem of mixing versions is demonstrated in three examples of the way editors and critics (in the context of orientalist and colonialist discourses) have changed the text of, or rewritten, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: Edward Said's mistaking John Huston and Ray Bradbury's film ending for Melville's, the British expurgations that modulate Queequeg's homosexuality to preclude the idea of homosexual domesticity and marriage, and the British editors' conversion of Queequeg's Christianity (and modern editors' perpetuation of the unwanted conversion). These historical and modern cases show that readers, sometimes despite themselves, revise texts materially in ways that mirror their desire and the ways of power. Editing the rewriting of a text like Moby-Dick in a digital critical archive would preserve all versions and generate revision narratives that textualize the otherwise invisible dynamics of revision in a culture. With its capacity to edit fluid texts, digital humanities scholarship is well situated to expand the discourse on the dynamics of textual evolution into the literary and cultural criticism of the twenty-first century.
The branch of literary history occupied with generic evolution customarily views masterworks as the drivers of formal change: their success causes later writers to follow their innovations. This article considers the case of the comtesse de Lafayette's La princesse de Clèves, which broke from received Aristotelian ideas on the use of history by focusing on an invented heroine; because the princess was invented, she blocked traditional reading strategies and allowed instead for readerly identification. It is tempting to conclude from this that the novel's innovations made it a harbinger of the future, an ancestor of the nineteenth-century novel. Yet writers of Lafayette's time did not follow her cue, and no trail leads from the princesse de Clèves to later fictive protagonists. Theories of literary evolution must take into account that in many cases there may be no reassuring causal relation between masterworks and broader literary practice.