Interwingularity & Literary Theory   no comments

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In short: “It’s what I say it is”

The idea of looking at this discipline is to see if the study of Literary Theory offers up insights as to better ways to structure hypertexts, thus improving the richness of the overall Web experience. I am not thinking directly of hypertext literature so much as hypertext in general. Might we improve the way we describe and learn things, by borrowing from literature? At distance, this seems a reasonable hypothesis.

What is Literary Theory?

Beyond describing it as the study of literature this has proved a somewhat slippery definition – references are inconsistent. The best consensus is that it encompasses the body of ideas and methods used in practical reading of literature. However, most references go on to then ask is “What is literature?” and consensus begins to weaken and rapidly arrives at a conundrum akin to defining Art, and Duchamp’s “Urinal”[1]. Thus what is defined as Literature, or there terms used to define it actually tends to vary slightly depending on which school of Literary Theory being studied. It is perhaps a reasonable working definition to say that today, most Literary Theory┬áschools of thought see Literature in terms of ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ writing as opposed to all forms of writing. This is worth noting, in light of the opening paragraph, as much of Hypertext is not expressly literary.

It is also clear that Literary Theory and Sociology are closely intertwined, with literary schools linked to many of the genres within Sociology. Literary Theory doesn’t see it’s purpose to explain Literature to a general audience, as I’d supposed before investigating the discipline. Rather it provides methodologies for introspection, these varying depending on the school of though being applied. This makes for difficult study as such genres are broadly interpretive and introspective and I have a cognitive impairment that makes ‘normal’ introspection extremely difficult. So if my perspective of the discipline seems to take an external viewpoint it is by necessity rather than choice.

How did Literary Theory Arise?

Whilst literature has long been studied, the formal discipline of Literary Theory is a comparatively modern field and mainly based in the Western Cultural tradition (I’ll return to a dissenting view later). Modern Literary Theory’s roots appear in the 18C. At this time, Literature was was taken to mean many forms of writing valued by society (or the more privileged classes thereof); poems, essays, letters, history and philosophy. Note that these forms include both the ┬áliteral and fictional. During the 18C gradually the concept of Literature coalesced as a notion of whether writing conformed to a standard of etiquette, of being ‘polite letters’. As such, the literal forms began to be left aside as Literature began to take a more explicitly idealogical form. In turn, Literature thus became an expression of its exponent’s ideology. As access to literature and the opportunity to discuss it passed from an elite to a larger middle class, so the field broadened and fragmented.

During the 19C that modern (Western) notions of Literature develop. Come the Romantic period, Literature becomes essentially a synonym for ‘imaginative’ writing. The field is still broad but many forms of literal writing are now excluded. In this same period, an burgeoning middle class (and some educated working class) seize on this imaginative writing as a way of expressing their aspirations and political views. It also offers an alternative to the newly popular empiricism. Literature moves from belles lettres to being a conduit for radical expression. It may be argued that Literature and ideology were no longer usefully regarded as separates. This duality seems to underpin modern Literary Theory. The discipline should not be seen as a disembodied set of ideas, rather it is embodied as a force within institutions and schools of thought.

Approaching the discipline in search of its┬áraison d’├¬tre, but lacking the power of introspection, Literary Theory’s aggressive need for inwardly focussed self-justification offers little clear purpose. This is hard to process – so much intellect in harness, but to what useful end? It has proved difficult, with the time/depth available to study to draw a line from Literary Theory to actual advances. Instead, the focus seems to be a retrospective approach of justifyingÔÇôwithin it’s own lexiconÔÇôexisting works, like a parent parent daring one to say that the daubing attached to the fridge is anything but impressive.

Do not rush to suppose this suggests I see nothing of merit in Literary Theory. Far from it, it cannot be the case that so much intellectual effort hasn’t but adding to the sum of human knowledge. But exactly what is┬áso far evades me at this (depth of) level of study. It also shows a disinterest by Literary Theorist for engaging with a wider audience, which again is worthy of note in the context of the Web and its aspirations for openness.

Origins of Literary Theory – a dissenting view

It seems mainstream Literary Theory doesn’t like to acknowledge older study of literature, or indeed non Western/English language literature. The reasons for this distain I’ve found hard to trace as practitioners care not to elaborate. Hogan[2], holds a mirror to this pointing out pre-existing strands of literary scholarship in a number of other parts of the worlds and which predate┬áLiterary Theory’s supposed start date. He also cites other (Western) papers that look beyond the narrow confines of Western literature, indicating his position is not singular even if in a minority.

The mainstream’s insular scope for Literary Theory┬áseems an odd position to take, in scholarly terms. However, the deeply introspective nature of the subject may mean they simply don’t feel the need to justify the position. In essence the “it is because I say it is” approach to definition. I’m still researching this aspect, as its exclusionary nature sits at odds with the Web’s inclusive nature and thus pertinent to the central thrust of this exercise. Assuming for a moment that notions of Western Literature may help structure better hypertext, how inclusive is that of a readership that extends beyond Europe and North America?

What now?

This article, now written, feels remarkably light in content and unreflecting of the scope of my reading for it. But it has revealed that the term ‘Literary Theory ‘doesn’t describe a coherent whole, but rather it exists as an umbrella term for an ecosystem of differing and often opposed schools of thought. ┬áTherefore the next step is to review the major schools of thought within Literary Theory.

Sources

Primary book sources for this period of study are listed below. What’s harder to show is the disproportionately large amount of online research investigating these start points: listing places that didn’t offer new light on the topic seems self-serving.

What I have learned is that Literary Theory doesn’t reward the skeptic. Like a religion, it’s essentially accessible only to those who believe – another experience I’m ill equipped to understand.

Primary Sources:

  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford : Blackwell, 1996.
  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1997

Footnotes:

  1. Duchamp’s Fountain.┬áhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duchamp%27s_Fountain (accessed 26 Oct ┬á2013)
  2. Hogan, Patrick Colm. Ethnocentrism and the very idea of literary theory. College Literature v23, n1 (Feb, 1996)

Written by Mark Anderson on November 3rd, 2013

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