Saturday, July 21, 2012

New Formalism and the Short Story--Part III: Structuralism, Reader Response Theory, and Deconstruction

My thanks to Tim Love for raising an important issue about the relationship between literary criticism and literary fictionTim wonders if theory influences student writers directly, or if it affects the zeitgeist, making editors more likely to take on certain types of writing.

It’s a good question, especially now that there are so many creative writing/MFA programs alongside literature departments in American and British, universities, making the connection between criticism and creative writing all the more possible.  Kelcey Parker, in her essay (which I mentioned last week) on the relationship between the rise of creative writing programs and the concurrent rise of the “New Formalism,” discusses this issue, and I will come back to it next week when I attempt an examination of links between the “new formalism” and the “old formalism.”

However, as I think about the relationship between what has been taught in university literature classrooms in the twentieth century and what has been written by short story writers, at least in America, I do see a general correlation, although I am not sure which came first—the theory or the story.  For example, during the 1940s and 1950s, when Formalism or New Criticism was the dominant academic approach to literature, the dominant short story form was the so-called “traditional” or “well-made” story, e.g. the stories of John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, Katherine Anne Porter, Bernard Malamud, etc. When structuralism and deconstruction were enjoying a brief heyday in the 1960’s, the self-reflexive stories of William H. Gass, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and John Cheever interested academics. I am not sure what brand of criticism can be correlated with the so-called minimalism of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, Ann Beattie, etc. in the 1970s. But when cultural and ethnic criticism became popular in the academy, a number of writers representing various cultures also became popular, e.g. Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Aleksandar Hemon.  I will come back to this question next week when I make a leap over culture criticism to the “new formalism.”   But, for now, indulge me in an admittedly oversimplified summary of Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Reader Response criticism.

Taking its initial cue from Russian Formalism, Structuralism began as a reflection of the need to understand literary criticism as a unified scientific field of study rather than the practice of the explication of individual works of art.  Concerned not with meaning but more generally with what makes meaning itself possible, Structuralism gets its most powerful and immediate impetus from the methods of modern linguistics as developed primarily by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The seminal document of modern Structuralism is Course in General Linguistics, a collection of Saussure's lecture notes edited by some of his students, originally published in 1915 but not translated into English until 1959.

The central ideas of Saussure that have proven most useful to literary theory by the Structuralists are fairly easy to summarize, although their implications have proven highly complex and controversial.  Saussure's basic assertion was that "language" should not be thought of simply as a horde of those words we use with which to communicate.  Instead, language is made up both of individual utterances (which Saussure called parole) as well as the general system of language that makes such individual utterances possible (which Saussure called langue). Although individual utterances make up the governing system of language, they do so not as an aggregate of utterances, but rather as an elaborate system of generative principles. 

Furthermore, the individual "sign," such as designated by a single word in a language, is also made up of two parts.  First, there is the sound that we make when we utter the word "house"; then there is the concept we have in our minds when we utter such a word.  The sound image Saussure calls the "signifier," whereas he calls the mental concept the "signified."  What is important to remember about these two notions is that there is no intrinsic or "necessary" relationship between the two.  There is no essential quality of "houseness" inherent in the sound we make when we say "house."  The relationship between the two is purely arbitrary and conventional; it results from the tacit agreement of those who belong to a certain speech community that such a sound image will signify such a concept.

The final distinction Saussure made that has become important to the study of literature is the distinction between studying a phenomenon, such as language or literature, as it develops over time, (which Saussure calls a "diachronic" study) and studying it as it exists at any one given moment in time (which Saussure calls a "synchronic" study).  These two approaches for studying a cultural phenomenon are related to the realization that all utterances and other examples of sign systems communicate simultaneously in two different ways: first along the linear, time-bound axis, as the sentence, "the dog bites the boy" communicates by the syntactic relationship between the signifiers "dog," "bites," and "boy"; and second along a vertical, spatially-fixed axis that exists tacitly for each of the signifiers in the string on the basis of similarity of function.  For example, the signifier "dog" could be replaced by "cat," "snake," "lion," in short anything that might plausibly perform the same function as the signifier "dog."  The linear relationship between the signifiers in the string is called the "syntagmatic" relationship, whereas the spatial relationship is called the "paradigmatic" relationship.  The first is governed by the principle of contiguity or combination of signifiers, whereas the second is governed by the principle of similarity or substitution.

In Fundamentals of Language (1969), Roman Jakobson suggests that the distinction between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic corresponds not only to the two basic ways that simple linguistic chains signify, but also two basic means by which larger units of linguistic chains such as literary works signify.  All discourse, says Jakobson, communicates along two lines of meaning: one topic may lead to another through the process of combination based on contiguity, or else a topic may lead to another through the process of substitution based on similarity.  The first corresponds to the trope known as "metonymy," whereby something is suggested by something else contiguous to it; for example a doghouse may "stand for" a dog because a dog lives there.  The second corresponds to the device known as "metaphor," whereby something is suggested by something else that can be substituted for it; for example a dog can be referred to as an animal, a pet, man's best friend, a pest, etc.

The first significant attempt to use the linguistic approach to apply to a signifying phenomenon other than language itself was the effort by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to understand myth. In his most familiar discussion, "The Structural Study of Myth," a chapter from his 1958 book Structural Anthropology, Levi-Strauss laid out an approach to myth that has since been used for the study of literary fictions.

Myth is story, says Levi-Strauss, made up of basic constituent units or distinctive features that share similar functional traits.  However, these units are larger than the units of phonemes or morphemes that make up language; thus Levi-Strauss calls them "gross constituent units," and terms them "mythemes."  After breaking down the myth into mythemes, or units based on similarity of function, Levi-Strauss then determines how these units are related to each other in what he calls "bundles of relations."  He then reads the myth not in terms of one event after another in a causal-chronological relationship, but rather in terms of the logical relationships between the various sets or "bundles."

In this way, Levi-Strauss breaks down the syntagmatic flow of the myth based on contiguity, groups the resulting motifs together into paradigmatic sets based on similarity, and then reads the paradigmatic sets in terms of their logical relationships.  The result is, as Roman Jakobson stated in his famous 1958 "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics," similarity is imposed onto contiguity and thus equivalence is made the constitutive device of the sequence. In other words, the syntagmatic, which is "just one thing after another" and therefore meaningless, is transformed into paradigmatic sets made up of units based on similarity which communicate by logical relationships.  Levi-Strauss's method has served as the model for further studies of literary narratives as if they were structured the same way language is.

Structuralist critics have been primarily concerned with various ways to extrapolate from the study of language a method for the study of literature.  The most basic way they attempted to do this in the 1960's was to treat literature as a second-level language system above language itself.  Although a poem or a story is made up of language and thus can be broken down into such units as phonemes and morphemes, Structuralists made use of Saussure's ideas of the distinction between langue and parole to refer to a distinction within literature itself between the individual work of art (parole) and the system of genre (langue) to which it belonged, or else between the genre (parole) and the larger system of literature as a whole (langue). Carrying this approach even further, they suggested that literature was not only made up of language, it was "like" a language in many other ways as well.  The field of study that has made the most extensive use of such linguistic approaches is the field that Structuralism may be said to have invented--narratology.

Drawing their inspiration initially from Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale, such narratologists as A. J. Greimas, Claude Bremond, and Tzvetan Todorov were concerned with identifying the fundamental elements of narrative and their laws of combination.  Perhaps the most familiar to Anglo-American readers is Todorov, whose collection The Poetics of Prose, translated in 1977, made his approach easily accessible.  Basically, Todorov reduces the action in individual stories to a basic syntactic summary and then analyzes that summary by focusing on active verb forms in the stories such as "to change," "to transgress," "to punish," etc.  It has often been pointed out that whereas such an approach works most effectively with highly formalized works such as stories and tales, it works least effectively with more "realistic" works such as the novel.  The Structuralist approach to narrative, claim many of its critics, drains the human content out of literary works and then deals only with their mathematically pure, linguistic-like, structure.

Reader-Response Theory

 Because of this refusal to deal with the human origin of the work, its human content, or its human effect on the reader, the Structuralist approach was challenged almost as soon as it began by critics concerned with the "subjectivity" of literature, particularly with the subjective involvement or response of the reader.  However, there are two distinct sources for literary criticism that focuses on the reader--the phenomenological theory derived from Edmund Husserl and the psychoanalytic theory derived from Sigmund Freud.  The first has often been called "Reception Aesthetics," whereas the second has been termed "Transactive Criticism." 

The Phenomenologists criticize such linguistically-based approaches as Structuralism because they try to fix invariant patterns in literary works and thus abstract the human being out of the work's concrete experience.   The subtlest spokesman of Phenomenology's interest in understanding the subjectivity of literature from the inside rather than objectively from the outside is philosopher Paul Ricoeur.  However, Ricoeur's discussions of how meaning is created in The Rule of Metaphor (1977) and how history is like narrative in Time and Narrative (1984) have had less effect on literary criticism than European Reception Theory introduced in German in the late 1960's by Hans Robert Jauss.

Making use of Husserl's basic notion that one perceives reality through an abstract structure of expectation (termed "horizons"), Jauss argues that to study literary history, the focus should be on the reader's literary horizons, that is, the structure of generic norms the reader has internalized as a result of all previous texts he or she has read.  Following this same approach, Wolfgang Iser, the best-known spokesman for Reception Theory now in the United States, focuses on reading as a dynamic process during which the reader continually fills in what Iser calls "gaps of indeterminacy" in the text--gaps which are there because the art work never completely corresponds to real objects.  Iser's reader is not one who brings his or her unique experience to the reading experience, but rather is what Iser defines as an "implicit reader," one who alters the self to fit the kind of reader that the work requires.  This simply means that the reading experience is a dynamic interchange with the text, not a passive experience; the person you are for the time you are reading Huckleberry Finn, for example, is not quite the same person you are when you read The Scarlet Letter.

Another well-known advocate of reader-based criticism is American critic Stanley Fish, who has called his approach to literary texts "Affective Stylistics."  Like Iser, Fish's notion of a reader is not one who brings to the text all the individualities that define him or her in everyday life, but rather is what some have called a "superreader” who interacts with the text in a highly-sophisticated rhetorical way.  Fish says that the so-called "objectivity" of a text is a dangerous illusion; reading, and thus the text itself, constitute a temporal, not a spatial, experience, as Formalists, Myth Critics, and Structuralists say that it is.  A sentence, for example, argues Fish, is not an object, but an event, something that happens to, and with the participation of, the reader.  Fish says that in his method of analyzing a work, he monitors the temporal flow of the experience as it is structured by what the reader brings with him or her, and thus he can chart reader response as one that develops in time.

In contrast to Phenomenologically-based Reader Response Theory, which focuses primarily on the reader's general and rhetorical expectations as he or she reads the work, psychoanalytically-based Reader-Response Theory focuses on the reader's specific response based on his or her unique personality or identity.  The best-known advocate of this brand of criticism, sometimes called  "Transactive Criticism" or "Buffalo Criticism," because it originates from State University of New York, Buffalo, is Norman Holland.

Holland's first major theoretical book, The Dynamics of Literary Response (1968) came at a time when new Criticism's explication of individual poems was beginning to pale on critics and students and when much psychoanalytic criticism up to that point, influenced both by Formalism and Myth Criticism, had degenerated into the simple interpretative task of searching for dream or myth symbols in literary works. Holland argued that Freud's theories, particularly in his study of wit and jokes, offered the basis for a general theory about the dynamic transaction between reader and text in which basic interests or themes in the reader's personality "constructed" themes in the text.

Thus, like Fish, Holland urges that texts should not be studied as objects but rather as dynamic transactions between readers and texts. Holland argues that by means of literary form, (which works like defense mechanisms in human beings) and by means of literary meaning (which works the way sublimation does in human beings), literature can transform unconscious desires in the reader into a higher aesthetic, intellectual, and moral unity.  This unity, which exists not just in the text, but which is created by the needs of the reader, is what the critic should focus on.

The second most familiar critic within this psychoanalytic-based reader-response tradition is David Bleich, whose first book, Readings and Feelings: An Introduction to Subjective Criticism (1975) had a major impact on the way literature is taught in the classroom, particularly the high school classroom, in the United States.  His more substantial theoretical book, Subjective Criticism (1978), criticizes Holland for focusing too much on the objectivity of the text, as the New Critics did, and instead offers a radical new "subjective" paradigm of thought which is based on epistemological issues of how one "knows"; consequently, he connects psychoanalytically-based Reader- Response Theory with some of the issues that have dominated phenomenologically-based theories about the reader.


 It is an interesting irony of modern criticism that even as Structuralism was being introduced to American critics in 1966 at a conference at Johns Hopkins University entitled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," a relatively unknown philosopher named Jacques Derrida delivered a paper entitled "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" which was already seriously challenging Structuralism.  In this milestone essay, Derrida challenged the basic assumptions of Structuralism as illustrated by Claude Levi-Strauss; then in a series of important, but often dense and unreadable books published in the following year, On Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena, he further undercut Structuralism's philosophic foundations as established by Ferdinand de Saussure. His approach, which has come to be called "deconstruction," is to analyze such thinkers as Levi-Strauss, Saussure, and Edmund Husserl in such a way as to show that their own arguments undermine themselves and thus create a basic contradiction which itself is the key to understanding.

As a result of Derrida's critique of Structuralism, the movement never really got started in America.  Moreover, by the time it was introduced to English-speaking critics, its most influential advocate in Europe, Roland Barthes, had already begun to offer his own challenging critique primarily in his work S/Z (1970).  Whereas in his earlier critical statements Barthes, like other Structuralists, had appealed to a general structure, something equivalent to Saussure's notion of langue from which one could derive an analysis of an individual text or parole; in S/Z Barthes analyzed a short novel by Balzac as being a work which instead of having a single parole-like system governed by its dependence on a large langue-like system, is a system in and of itself.  Barthes argued that there is no transcendent or primary model equivalent to langue, but rather that each text is traversed by numerous codes which constitute its meaning.  The implication of this shift is that if that the text does not have a meaning determined by a transcendent code it may have numerous meanings which are created by the reader as he or she applies the various procedures demanded by the multiple codes that traverse it.

However, it is Derrida's challenge to Structuralism's assumptions of a transcendent code that has had the most powerful impact on contemporary literary theory.  In his 1966 presentation at the Johns Hopkins Conference on Structuralism, Derrida challenged the methodology of Levi-Strauss on the basis of what he called Levi-Strauss's tacit nostalgia for a central and transcendent "presence" or "fixed origin."  Derrida exposes the Kantian basis of Structuralism and dismisses as a fiction, albeit a functional fiction, the apriori mythic consciousness on which all forms of Formalist criticism, from the Russian Formalists to the Structuralists, had depended.

In referring to Saussure's influential distinction between signifier and signified, Derrida argued there was no transcendent signified to which a signifier referred, but that a signifier referred only to other signifiers in an endless play of signifiers.  Derrida insisted that the Structuralist endeavor was based on what he called a "metaphysics of presence," that is, some hypothetical mythic moment when signifier and signified were intrinsically related and indivisible. Derrida has claimed that this illusion is damaging, for it allows us to avoid dealing with the reality of our fragmentary reality on the assumption that there is some unified, pure meaning or reality that can be grasped.  According to Derrida, everything is a mediated "text"; there is nothing outside of the text, and all that texts can refer to are other texts.

In a related move, Derrida dismissed the assumption of linguistics that writing was secondary to and derivative of oral speech, for this, he said, was just another version of the "metaphysics of presence."  To believe that writing is secondary to speech is to believe that although writing is a highly-mediated sign system that one must interpret, its source is in speech, which, by comparison is unmediated, and thus its truth is immediately knowable.  Derrida argues, however, it is an illusion to think that truth is apparent at the moment of speech.  In fact, once it is shown that speech is susceptible to the same distance and difference from meaning as writing itself is and thus not a primary source of truth, then writing can be studied as the model of what Derrida calls a "metaphysics of absence," which allows for the "free play of signifiers."  According to Derrida, there has never been an original source; there has never been anything but a string of substitutional signifiers in a chain of differences on to infinity.  The most basic implication of Derrida's approach for literary criticism is that if a work can have no ultimate meaning it can have limitless meanings.

It is this basic implication that American followers of Derrida, primarily the so-called "Yale School," which includes Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, Paul De Man, and Harold Bloom, most took to heart.  Although these critics differ in many particulars in terms of their engagement with the ideas of Derrida, basically they all proceed on the assumption that the notion of referentiality is an illusion.  A sign, says J. Hillis Miller, marks not the presence of, but the absence of, an object.  All the world is a text in which there are not facts, only interpretations.  Similarly Paul De Man argues that what reading reveals is the confrontation with a language that always vacillates between the promise of some referential meaning and the rhetorical subversion of that meaning.  Only Harold Bloom differs in his approach by focusing on the problem of literary history from a psychoanalytic point of view.  Although he agrees that every text is an intertext, he argues that literary history is the history of the clash of the strong personalities of young poets in conflict with powerful previous poets or precursors.  Literature develops by means of purposeful "misreadings" by present poets of previous ones.

Structuralist and Deconstruction theories about the nature of literature have also been integrated into two of the most pervasive and powerful models for the analysis of human experience in Western culture--Marxism and Psychoanalysis. Although both of these models were guilty of reductionism when first used by literary critics in the early part of the 20th century, more recent approaches to Marxism, derived primarily from the so-called Frankfurt School of social theorists, and more recent explorations in psychoanalysis, derived from the work of French analyst Jacques Lacan, have attempted to make use of the linguistic revolution to better understand Marx's critique of society and Freud's creation of the unconscious.

The best-known Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School are Theodor Adorno, its chief aesthetician, who argues that the greatness of the art work is that it allows those things to be heard which ideology conceals; and Louis Althusser, who urges that critics lay bare the author's "problematic," that is, the unconscious infrastructure or base of his "potential thoughts" which make up the existing "ideological field" within which he works.  Pierre Macherey makes the connection between Marxism and Structuralist and Post-Structuralist theories even more obvious in A Theory of Literary Production, originally published in Paris in 1966 and translated into English in 1978.

For Macherey, criticism is not explication, nor is literature mimetic.  Criticism is a form of knowledge; its object is not the literary work, but rather a product of literary criticism itself.  Whatever phenomenal reality is revealed by the literary work has no prior existence but is rather the product of the laws of the work's production; the task of criticism is to reveal these laws.  In an effort to connect the concept of "ideology" with linguistic theories about structure, Macherey argues that ideology cannot be reduced to a set of concepts; ideology is, in fact, the tacit internalized realm of structures itself.  It is this realm of the unsaid and the unsayable that makes the said possible.  For Macherey, the task of criticism is not to try to articulate the unsaid, the so-called latent meaning, but rather to lay bare the laws of the production of the said.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, strongly influenced in his reading of Freud by Saussure and Levi-Strauss, argues that the unconscious is structured like a language and therefore needs to be understood linguistically.  However, he begins to sound more deconstructive than structuralist in his approach when he argues the signifier is privileged over the signified and that the child's early ego development is based on an illusion of wholeness and totality which obscures the reality of one's fragmentary self.  Rivaling Derrida in the complexity and density of his ideas and his prose style, Lacan's theories, which have been termed "French Freud," have had a profound influence on psychoanalytic approaches to criticism in America.   The journal Yale French Studies has been most instrumental in disseminating the views of Lacan primarily in the writings of such critics as Shoshana Felman, Peter Brooks, and Barbara Johnson, who have offered new Lacanian psychoanalytical approaches to Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Throughout the 1970's, the American Deconstruction critics, Hartman, DeMan, Bloom, and Miller carried on a vigorous defense of deconstruction against more traditional critics, primarily in the most important journals of modern literary theory, such as Critical Inquiry, New Literary History, and Diacritics. As might be expected, traditional critics have accused deconstructionists of being subjective, relative, unreadable, and perversely contradictory.  And indeed, if one follows Derrida's line of thought and rejects any ultimately absolute meaning, then literary analysis becomes justified not on the basis of its truth-value but rather on the basis of whether it is interesting.  Deconstruction critics do not strive for some final reading of a work, but rather attempt to present an engagement with the work that indeed rivals the work itself for its fictionality and imaginative structure.

It is this ultimate divorce, not only from historical and social referentiality but also from any responsibility either to the world or to the text, that has lead to a reaction against Deconstruction in the 1980's that marked a return, although a return with a crucial difference, to the view of literary works as cultural documents of political and historical significance—a reaction to which gave rise to the Formalist or New Critical revolution the 1940s and 1950s in the first place. 

Finally, whew!  an examination of the “New Formalism” next week


Lee said...

Thoroughly helpful, especially since I've been struggling with the concept of referential vs. non-referential models of language lately.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. I'm currently working on a paper for my literary theory class and your posts (this one in particular) have helped me better understand Toril Moi's "Sexual/Textual Politics."

Kate Prudchenko
Twitter: @kprudchenko