Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is Literature?

There are three major theories associated with the definition of literature: mimetic, expressive, and didactic. Literature is conceived as holding a mirror to nature and is thus considered mimetic. The expressive theory regards literature as stemming from authors inner being, and hence similarly depends on a notion of mirroring, though here literature reflects the inner soul rather than the external world of the writer. The didactic theory sees literature as a source of knowledge, insight, wisdom, purgation, and perhaps prophecy, and is compatible with both the mimetic, and the expressive theory i.e., literature can depict external and internal realities while at the same time, disseminating valuable knowledge and clarifying emotions.

The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism suggests that the dominant view of literature as mimetic and didactic is alive today and it rose with ancient Greeks, and was later challenged by the Romantics and then the moderns. Hence, it is important to develop a historical perspective on the idea, activity and definitions of literature.

The idea of literature from the Renaissance onward has for the most part focused on two issues: the moral worth of literature and the nature of its relationship to reality. At the end of the 16th century Sir Philip Sydney argued in The Defense of Poesie that it is the special property of literature to express moral and philosophical truth in a way that rescues them from abstraction and makes them immediately graspable. Matthew Arnold also asserted that the cultural role of literature should be to take over the sort of moral and philosophical functions that had previously been fulfilled by religion. Then we have William Wordsworth's notion that the object of poetry is "truth carried alive into the heart by passion." Besides, John Dryden in Of Dramatick Poesie (1668) put forward the less idealistic view that the business of literature is primarily to offer an accurate representation of the world "for the delight and instruction" of mankind.

The idea of delight sounds fine but when literature encompasses "instruction," it becomes problematic. Perhaps that is why the writers and theorists during the 19th century often felt that to justify literature by pointing to its accuracy and realism was to put it in competition with the sciences, social sciences, journalism, and photography---a competition they believed it could not win. However, by emphasizing the literariness of literature, they would accord it a distinctive and elevated aesthetic status over competing fields and domains, ensuring its survival and dignity in challenging times.

The later 19th century saw a development towards an aesthetic theory of literature, i.e., literature for literature's sake. Literature has also been conceptualized in the light of critical and theoretical literary perspectives which were in vogue at various points in history. In formalist theory of literature or poetics, neither depiction of external or internal reality nor knowledge about existence or refined emotion distinguishes literature from ordinary and scientific discourse: instead literariness (or poeticity) renders literature distinctive and special. This kind of definition of literature was a turn away from the notion of literature as simply a reliable recorder of nature (mimetic); or as stemming from the author's inner being/soul (expressive); or as a source of morality (didactic).

The premise of the New Critics school of literary theory, on the other hand, was that a work of literature should be studied as a separate and self-contained entity, which set the New Critics in opposition to biographical criticism and to those schools of criticism such as Marxist, psychoanalytical, historical -- that set out to examine literature from perspectives external to the text.

Modern theorists often insist that the language of literature, unlike that of newspapers and science, foregrounds (i.e., a position of prominence, as opposed to background) poetic effects (particularly tropes and figures) that range from alliteration, assonance, metaphor, and paradox of rhythm and rhyme.

Hence, the question, “what is literature?” can be answered by imagining literature with such terms as representation, expression, knowledge, poetic or rhetorical language, genre, text, or discourse. As in most situations and contexts, it is always helpful to be more specific about the self, the text, and the culture, when it comes to defining literature.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are so many approaches to literary theory and criticism such as mimetic theory, expressive theory, didactic theory, formalism, New Criticism, cultural studies, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, modernism, New Historicism, phenomenology, post-colonial theory, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, queer theory, reader-response/reception theory, and semiotics. Is literature defined differently with respect to all these approaches? It would be quite a chaos if it is. But if it is not, it would be quite a loss.

Nomi said...

May be chaos and creativity are in a cause and effect relationship. It is good that great literature is difficult to interpret and hence needs effort and discipline and many perspectives? This difficulty and mystery and beauty are perhaps what make it great in the first place. Meanings are manifold and always changing with the discovery of new knowledge, development of greater skill, and the application of different perspective. Hence, meaning corresponds to the prevailing "knowledge-skill-perspective" quotient one brings to the task of interpretation. Great literature is therefore the most exhilerating gift to any culture for it helps growth, development and enjoyment.

Anonymous said...

Reading, explicating, making sense—there are three names given to the activity of interpreting. But why restrict interpretation to literature only; the whole world (inner and outer) is an object for the world of literature, and in need of interpretation.

Nomi said...

Indeed, anything can be viewed as a “text,” and hence anything can be interpreted. Interpretation can be directed toward poems, plays, essays, films, situations, events, actions, psychological states of self and of others, gestures, statues, paintings, graffiti, treaties, and even silence, and so on. All such objects of interpretation, we can call “texts.”

In its current meaning however, “interpretation” conveys the sense of an explication pointed in several directions simultaneously: towards the text to be interpreted; toward the author of the text; or an audience in need of the interpretation; the context (historical, regional, social, technological, cultural, economic, situational, inter-textual etc) in which production, dissemination and reception of texts take place.

Nomi said...

There are many ways of interpreting a given text and sometimes they yield contradictory meanings. Some literary theorists argue that most interpretive acts take place within the context of power relations (whether of nation, family, gender, class, race, religion etc) in a historical community, involved in that context. Historicizing or allegorizing or punning or etymologizing can be used to interpret a particular text’s meaning but certain interpretive conventions become in certain contexts, the most privileged ways of making sense of texts. Identifying puns may be acceptable for interpreting ancient and contemporary graffiti but not for reading constitutions. Allegorizing may be appropriate for poetry and scripture but not for international treaties. For legal texts, theories of “neutral” principles are often proposed as ways to guarantee that interpreters resist more literary methods of explicating.

Nomi said...

No discussion of interpretation will be fair if it does not take unconscious (human, cultural, and archetypal) into consideration. Perhaps one of the most important abilities reading literature critically (or like a professor) can develop in us is the ability to see connections where we didn’t suspect they existed. For instance, connections between our personal psychological conditioning and the way we rather "intuitively" or somewhat "instinctively" interpret a given text; between the ideologies, slogans, curriculum, media messages, and identities --religious, political, economic, sexual, social-- we have “internalized” unbeknownst (implicit memory, cognitive unconscious), in a particular culture, and the texts we find cognitively, aesthetically and emotionally convincing and pleasing; between a nation’s political situation (who is in power) and what its intellectuals and professors and media personalities consider “true,” “good” and “beautiful.” In a given context, power and interpretation can have a hidden relationship, which thinkers like Michel Foucault have persuasively demonstrated.

Anonymous said...

“To read is to translate, for no two persons' experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally.”
― Wystan Hugh Auden

Anonymous said...

Interpretation is a chaotic affair. Is there a single meaning, or as many meanings as there are minds and cultures to make or receive them? Besides, is meaning stable? How does one account for the fact that works such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover are interpreted as so poisonously obscene at one period of history (1930–1959) that it is a criminal offence to possess them, yet so innocuous at another period (1983) that they can be broadcast in the UK as a BBC Book at Bedtime. There is no humorist like humanity.

Anonymous said...

The issue of interpretation and cultures becomes urgent when literature to be interpreted happens to be a sacred text of a particular culture. Is a sacred text to be interpreted literally, or figuratively or as a word of the Divine? Is clash of civilizations actually a clash of interpretations of sacred texts? Are the meanings of sacred texts debatable as the number of sects within organized religions surely depict? Salman Rushdie found it the hard way that the interpretation of texts can be a matter of life-and-death, especially when "divinely authored" texts are involved. If a text is a product of Divine intelligence, why so much conflict over actual meaning of the text? Divine could have been more clear. Do literary texts and legal texts need to be interpreted differently? Blasphemy in one culture is truth in another.

Anonymous said...

The book, How to Read Literature like a Professor, mostly uses classic books of Western literature to teach how to read between the lines. But why not read between the books first. The bias behind selection and also interpretation is inevitable because the literary works which are considered classics have something to do with who is or has been in power on the globe. It is always an empire with all the coercive political and hence cultural power behind the scenes that sets the stage for a classic. If a language is a dialect with an army behind it, then classic literature is a writing with imperialism behind it.

Lets take the example of the European Union, which currently has some 27 member countries. Which of those countries can be said to have classic literatures? The answer would be those which had great empires (Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Austria, Belgium).

Does Luxembourg have its classics? Or Moldova? Where are their Goethes, Austens, Shakespeares, Racines or Cervantes? or in other words, "classics" – the great old books which people still want to read.

Nomi said...

"Classic" and its "hidden" relationship to power is just one perspective, although not entirely an invalid one.

Indeed, defining a “classic” to the satisfaction of all is difficult. Some scholars suggest that classic in any culture points toward something that which is held to be centrally important by that culture; be it "narcissistic attachment" or "true excellence," a classic is a fruit of the culture in which it happened; classics can only occur when a civilization is mature and its language and literature are mature; a classic is the work of an evolved consciousness; when all else goes under, a culture preserves its classics because they have some enduring value; in extreme cases of the sacred texts, classic is sometimes what human beings can choose to die for, depending which sacred text they have "imbibed" and “internalized” and are now “unconsciously attached." History of the world is a history of clash of identities, which are mostly created by texts in mass circulation. Is clash of civilizations a clash of classics?

Classics are also said to cross time and transcend national borders. Shakespeare is accepted as a transnational “classic” in Germany, Goethe in England. The huge majority of books do not outlast the period that gave them birth, nor do they migrate to find homes in other languages. Shakespeare still speaks to us, although no one today speaks Elizabethan English, and blank verse is no longer the standard stage medium. When a literary genius writes, he or she can create a classic.

Some have also argued that there are three key elements in the idea of the classic: imperialism; civilization; antiquity. Classics incarnate the highest human standards of mind and morality – they are both civilized and civilizing.

What all classics, however, seem to have in common is that they have all outlived their authors, are still read, and constitute the standard by which other works of the same kind are judged to be meritorious. Dickens's Pickwick Papers has outlasted the stagecoach, or Tolstoy's War and Peace has outlasted serfdom. Perhaps universal truth or goodness or beauty comprises a classic. But the question is, are human beings universal and free enough to identify universal truth, goodness and beauty, no matter which culture they find it in? Is that question relevant to the enduring "free will" issue? What kind of an education can create an unbiased citizen of the world who could identify true classics of all cultures?

Nomi said...

Some scholars argue that "pliability" of the classic is its essence. A true classic “accommodates” itself, makes itself at home – wherever it finds itself on the planet, at any point in time. It is the classic’s ability to be both antique, yet modern, and this pliability makes it an eligible "citizen of the world."

A work like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice perhaps will be relevant as long as there is this "will to marry." Every generation will read, or understand, or enjoy it differently insofar as every generation is different, but search for true love is timeless. And there will always be a human unconscious. No final interpretation and adaptation of the novel can be achieved but every generation will find its own optimal adaptation. And the classic is "tolerant" of each and every rendering of itself.

Nomi said...

David Hume's essay, "Of the Standard of Taste" has some gems of insight, not irrelevant to the idea of a classic: "The same Homer, who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory. Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator, but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours. On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with. Envy and jealousy have too much place in a narrow circle; and even familiar acquaintance with his person may diminish the applause due to his performances. But when these obstructions are removed, the beauties, which are naturally fitted to excite agreeable sentiments, immediately display their energy and while the world endures, they maintain their authority over the minds of men."

Anonymous said...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the author of a literary text like everybody else, has an unconscious, and therefore various unconscious intentions, in disguised forms, would leave traces in the literary work itself. It follows then that if the meaning of literature is the original intention expressed in the work, then the correct interpretation of work is actually the reconstruction of this intention. But if some intentions are unconscious and leave only symbolic and subtle traces in the work, then an important part of the correct interpretation of a literary work is the unearthing and interpreting of these unconscious drives, intentions, desires, wishes. A literary critic, to be a true critic,
must also be a psychoanalyst.

Nomi said...

The notion of unconscious is evolving rapidly in the light of interdisciplinary research. So why stop at psychoanalytic/Freudian unconscious. One recent claim is that much of our thought belongs to the "cognitive unconscious," as opposed to the Freudian unconscious. The cognitive unconscious isn't "unconscious" in the Freudian sense of repressed memories or libidinal tendencies. Cognitive unconscious contains those massive chunks of specific information, and sets of brain operations and processes that go into making us experience the world, the way we do. We cannot be aware of the complex “behind the scenes” processing that generates them. Cognitive unconscious also highlights the role culture, identity, politics, language and repetition play in its dynamics. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff offers a succinct description of such unconscious dynamics:

“Language gets its power because it is defined relative to frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives, images, and emotions. Part of its power comes from its unconscious aspects: we are not consciously aware of all that it evokes in us, but it is there, hidden, always at work. If we hear the same language over and over, we will think more and more in terms of the frames and metaphors activated by that language…Cultural narratives and frames are instantiated physically in our brains. We are not born with them, but we start growing them soon, and as we acquire the deep narratives, our synapses change and become fixed. A large number of deep narratives can be activated together. We cannot understand other people without such cultural narratives. But more important, we cannot understand ourselves—who we are, who we have been, and where we want to go—without recognizing and seeing how we fit into cultural narratives. What is at stake is the deepest form of freedom, the freedom to control our own minds. To do that we must make the [cognitive] unconscious conscious.”

Nomi said...

In addition to the Freudian and cognitive unconscious, there are arguably several different types of unconscious structures in human beings. As Marxists have pointed out, an artist exists in a setting of techno-economic structures, so a particular artwork will inexorably reflect the "base" of economic realities. Hence, the correct interpretation of a text involves underscoring the class structures in which that text is produced. Similarly, Feminists have pointed out that the hidden structures are primarily those of gender, so that even Marxists were driven by the unconscious disguised intentions of patriarchal power. Then there is the Jungian “collective unconscious” which highlights the archetypes--the “primordial images,” the “psychic residue” of repeated types of experience in the lives of pre-modern ancestors--which are inherited in the collective unconscious of our species as a whole, and are expressed in myths, religion, dreams, and private fantasies, as well as in the works of literature. As well, the schools of
existential-humanistic and transpersonal psychology have suggested numerous realms of the human unconscious that are a key to understanding some salient aspects of conscious life. These varieties of unconscious structures serve as background contexts through which our surface consciousness manifests. Therefore, without thoroughly accounting for all types of unconscious and their relevance to a particular expression and interpretation of literature, there might be something missing in our understanding.

Nomi said...

We can tentatively conclude that reading literature thoughtfully will necessitate the application of multiple literary perspectives and some deep humility. Despite some overlap among perspectives, most remain distinct from one another in terms of their concern, focus and purpose. Here is a brief summary of some of the major ones:

Formalism attempts to reveal the ways in which “literariness” of literature and verbal devices, should be the ultimate source of our interpretations.

Marxism attempts to reveal the ways in which our social class and socioeconomic system are the ultimate sources of our interpretations.

Feminism attempts to reveal the ways in which patriarchal gender roles are the ultimate source of our interpretations.

Psychoanalysis attempts to reveal the ways in which repressed psychological conflicts are the ultimate source of our interpretations.

Reader-response theories attempt to reveal the idiosyncrasies (and identities) of readers as the ultimate source of their interpretations.

New Criticism attempts to reveal the ways in which objects should be treated as aesthetic entities, and therefore interaction of verbal features and ensuing meanings should be the ultimate source of our interpretations.

Phenomenology attempts to reveal the ways in which focusing on the work as it appears to consciousness should be the ultimate source of our interpretations.

Structuralism, which appeared in opposition to phenomenology, attempts to reveal the underlying hidden and several structural systems (i.e., structures of language, of the psyche, of society) as the ultimate sources of our interpretations.

Post-structuralism, which responded negatively to structuralism’s insistence on frameworks and structures (i.e., language as a closed system etc), attempts to reveal the ways in which structures of language, mind and culture are “unstable” and “undecidable,” and that instability and undecidability should be the ultimate concern of our interpretations.

Deconstruction (which can be considered a branch of poststructuralism) attempts to describe a text through its relationships to various “con-texts,” and these con-textual relationships should be the ultimate concern of our interpretations. Derrida famously articulated that "there is nothing outside the text." That is to say, all of the references used to interpret a text are themselves texts, up to and including the "text" of "reality" as a reader knows it.

The multiplicity of valid perspectives on literature highlight the argument that no general theory of literature and interpretation seems plausible. Literature is far too complex to be subsumed under a single perspective as each perspective discloses distinct and inter-connected dimension of the mysterious yet somewhat knowable relationship between literature, mind and the universe. Einstein was right: "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."