Preface: Literariness of Theory*
Summary: The very terms literature and theory cannot avoid the conceptual essentialism or fundamentalism: the best one can do is to admit (or pretend to accept) that there is some sort of boundary between these texts or discourses or activities. Consequently, instead of - or at least besides - asking the question of appropriateness or truth or validity of one theory or another, there is a possibility to concentrate on how the theory is fabricated, the way it is presented, the textual, tropical or generic nature of the theoretical text. The two theses of the paper are that there may be a systematic review of how a theoretical text is formed in order to be taken as a more or less literary one; and that we should turn to some extreme cases of theoretical/literary relation in order to have a better insight to the problem itself. The first thesis is a programmatic one, rather than something completed; the idea rests on the disqualified concept of the Russian Formalism of literariness (literaturnost’). Theoretically, we could take into account several levels of literariness, without ever finding the core of it, still, it may shed light on theoretical texts even when they clearly remain on the side of theory. As to case studies, Roland Barthes’s Systeme de la Mode is touched upon (as seemingly clearly non-literary), and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s first chapter of his Loose Canons (as seemingly clearly literary).
The title of this conference indicates a number of interesting approaches. One of them would certainly be to regard literature as a theoretical sort of product: either as texts which embody a number of theoretical ideas, or as a site of theory, inasmuch as reading is always theoretically loaded. Reading, which is a prerequisite of literature, is never innocent (or, as it is often said, it is never a first reading); furthermore, the reader, whatever naive he or she may be, always have some theories of what he or she is up to with his or her reading activity. It may be a bit far fetched to call these often subconscious, automatized, ideas a theory; any theoretician could easily reject such a use of the word. Still, there is a theoretical possibility to find theories underlying readings.
On the other hand, theories themselves can be regarded as literary texts: do not take this sentence too seriously, here I must make a number of qualifications. First of all, it is in clear in a number of cases (though not necessarily all of them) what counts as a literary text and what as a theoretical one. Usually, we have a rather firm set of conventions concerning the position of texts; we know what discourse we are involved in, we know the tacit rules of understanding, whatever they may be. Also, regarding theoretical texts as literary ones may have a number of motives: it may have its roots in simple ignorance of the traditions of reading that text; it also may be a consequence of a momentary mistake; it can be that the very point of the discourse in question tends to blur or deconstruct the distinction; or it may be a deliberate effort on the part of the interpreter (either as part of his or her irony, or as part of some demonstration) to show that just any text can be taken to be whatever one wishes to.
An example of the last motive could be Berel Lang’s ironic speculation on the reading of the telephone book, which is to suggest that this text is very close to what we would suppose to be a literary text. Other examples are many, from Nietzsche to Derrida, where the status of the discourse is either non-conventional, or it is exactly the status what is at stake, or where different reading conventions can function simultaneously.
Nevertheless, all I have said so far is bound to collapse or at least to be shaken. The very terms literature and theory are hitherto taken as something granted, as a sort of essential to one or another text, and it does not really help if we take them as characteristics of one or another discourse: the essentialist or fundamentalist nature of the concepts themselves will probably survive. And perhaps there is no way out of this situation: the best one can do is to admit (or pretend to accept) that there is some sort of boundary between these texts or discourses or activities, and continue the argumentation accordingly.
Do we read Umberto Eco’s or David
Lodge’s novels as being full of theoretical allusions and even implications
just because we happen to know that the biographical author is familiar, to say
the least, with the theories in question? Or are they theoretical as they are,
in themselves? What is Rousseau’s Émile? Is it philosophy (that is, theory), or a narrative?
What is Borges, in a number of his short stories? Does the story of Pierre Ménard have serious and interesting theoretical
implications - or is it our reading, the tradition of reading of Borges that
makes him a quasi-theoretician? And what about Swift’s passage on the strange
system of naming in Gulliver? It
became, just as Lewis Carroll’s
It was almost twenty years ago that Elizabeth Bruss has published her Beautiful Theories, a seminal book concentrating to the theoretical/literary interface. Of course, I can neither substantially modify nor even to summarize the main theses of the book. All I can do is to add some minor contributions to the excellent insights of Bruss’s. As you will remember, her idea is that, I quote, „Following Derrida, we might say that „theory” is neither fact or fiction, neither the real not the imaginary, but establishes a point where such dichotomies break down and an apparently exhaustive taxonomy shows itself inadequate.” Consequently, instead of - or at least besides - asking the question of appropriateness or truth or validity of one theory or another, there is a possibility to concentrate on how the theory is fabricated, the way it is presented, the textual, tropical or generic nature of the theoretical text.
Without calling into question the
extraordinary novelty of Bruss’s book, it must be
noted that the idea itself is neither a brand new one nor is it unique. On the
one hand, there is a genre tradition, that of the essay, which can traced back
at least to the Romanticism or to Montaigne or
perhaps even to Plato, that of the theory formed artistically; and the very
texts that Bruss chooses for analysis are, so to
speak, in the tradition of the essay: for instance, Susan Sontag
or Roland Barthes or Harold Bloom undoubtedly fall
within this tradition. In some cases this tradition is even contaminated with
the conventions of scholarly journalism (without any negative overtone of the
word): Barthes’ Mythologies
is a clear example. On the other hand, reading theoretical works as having at
least a touch of literature was, by the time Bruss’s
volume was published, a well known, though far from systematic, practice. In
fact, Bruss himself refers to Culler’s arguments
defending Lévi-Strauss as someone who made myths „interesting”, or to
Derrida or to Hayden White, and it is exactly these ways of reading theories
that trigger her own account. One could also add to her list the radical (and
very interesting) reading of
In this paper, apart from listing all the difficulties we have to face and complaining about them, I would wish to forward two theses: one is which I will not elaborate upon, although I am sure it should be done (even if perhaps it cannot be done); and another, more simple one. The first thesis is that there may be a systematic review of how a theoretical text is formed in order to be taken as a more or less literary one; the second thesis is that we should turn to some extreme cases of theoretical/literary relation in order to have a better insight to the problem itself.
As I indicated, the first thesis is a programmatic one, rather than something completed: it well may be that one can single out some characteristic types of literalization (if that is a correct word) of literary theory. I must tell you in advance that I will not be able to do that job; still, there may be a well justified ambition to point out some literary characteristics that theoretical texts may have, to present a sort of list and then make a more or less systematic typology. The idea rests on the disqualified concept of the Russian Formalism of literariness (literaturnost’): that is, it may be supposed that certain characteristics of the text itself warrant a specific (literary) status of the text. Even though the hypothesis is admittedly false, that would not cause the main problem: it is always very interesting to review the consequences of a misconceived starting point. But the closer one gets to these issues, the less transparent they seem to be (as in the most cases it used to happen). For instance, Hayden White’s tropical analysis of the of the narrative, including the historical narrative, is absolutely convincing; so that the inherent and necessarily metaphorical nature of literary theoretical texts could be taken as one of the aspects of „literariness”, and should be added to our list. Also, one should take into account that literary history is inevitably history, story, with characters, motives, places, time and plot, perhaps climax and anti-climax. Literary history is telling a story of how literature emerged, developed and perhaps disappeared: a typical story-telling situation.
However, it remains a question how far and what specific texts are regarded as theoretical and/or historical: we often face histories which are generally classified as a non-literary texts, but some histories, such as Tacitus, Livius or Gibbon are traditionally regarded as pieces of literature. Also, it is a question whether theoretical texts should undergo a narrative analysis. The process of reading or reception of the literary work is, of course, a temporal phenomenon, and temporality would indicate the presence of at least a kernel of the narrative. But what about translation, then? It also has its temporal aspects, as well as interpretation itself: does it really mean that speaking about literary theory whatsoever we must always think in terms of narrative?
Theoretically, we could take into account several levels of literariness (a misleading concept, I repeat). One could look for the metaphors of the text, the repetitions on different levels, the parallelisms and the chiastic or mirror structures; the rhythm of the sentences (length, punctuation, repetition of sentence structure); the position of the persona behind the text (singular or plural, apostrophe, whether it turns to the reader or not, etc.); we could look for the traces of certain genres in theoretical texts, starting from drama (dialog, as in Plato or Diderot) to lyrical poetry (as in Barthes or perhaps Heidegger) to narrative (as in literary histories).
Of course, one can never find the gist of literariness: still, there may be a more or less comfortable list of what „literary means” (priyom) are used by theoretical texts even when they clearly remain on the side of theory. Moreover, a list like this list should be done - even if it cannot be made, as I have indicated: because the very idea of describing a text, from a neutral, innocent, external point of view seems to be doomed to failure. Just as we can never establish the „literariness” of a literary text, just because we are always in a communicative situation with that text which preforms our conception of that text, the same applies to any other text. All we can perhaps do is to give account of our own conventions.
Nevertheless, it is a common experience of us all that some theoretical texts differ from some other ones. Let me take two examples, two ends of the range, so to speak: one from the sixties, another from the nineties. The first is Roland Barthes’s Systeme de la Mode, and the other is Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s first chapter of his Loose Canons. Now Barthes is, admittedly, one of those theoreticians who always explore and transgress the boundaries, if any, between literary and theoretical discourse. He is generally supposed to be, and rightly, I think, a full-fledged writer in the same time as a real, genuine theoretician. This image of Barthes is much fainter when one turns to his so-called Structuralist works: the Éléments de la sémiologie, for instance, is never praised for its literary potentials. It is not by chance that Bruss uses this work only as a meta-text in her book, illuminating Barthes’s conception of writing. Similarly, she refers only once to the Systeme de la Mode. Now if you read that rather early work carefully, you will find, on some quite hidden points, very strange stylistic lapses (are they lapses?), some fractions or eruptions: there are, for instance, evocations of the genre of the ode on some points, highly poetized and rhetorized paragraphs, asides and repetitions. These may be taken simply as slips of the tongue, or as proofs of Barthes’ early attraction to literary way of writing. But they may also raise the suspicions whether the rest of the book is not rhetorized in a way or another: whether the very strict technical descriptions and argumentations are not, in themselves, parodic or at least parts of a literary project. Seen from this angle, it may become apparent that Barthes’ sentences are extremely long, and that he just loves colons and semi-colons, by which he binds together several long and sarmentose sentences. He uses catalogues, the text is full of aphorisms, and the terms written with capitals dangerously resemble to the characters of a story.
We find a real story on the other extreme (or at least the other pole of the range), which would be Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s short story, Canon Confidential: A Sam Slide Caper. As some of you will remember, it is a short detective story, with overt intertextual references to Raymond Chandler and written completely complying to the conventions of what Chandler’s prose has established, where the fist person singular narrator, a private investigator, tries to find out what goes on in the tricky canon business, and, in the end (like sometimes in Chandler’s stories) he himself becomes very much involved in the dirty practices of the canon people. This excellent piece can be taken as a reflection on the status, nature and history of canon formation: it is, then, a theoretical work. But is it not a theoretical work simply because we know that Gates is in the tricky literary theory business? The setting, some characters, the story itself are clearly fictive; the narrator is evidently different from what we believe Henry Louis Gates Jr. would be. (By the way, is Barthes’ narrator identical with the biographical Roland Barthes? Is it theoretically possible? And if not, is it not another sign of the inherent literariness - or at least fictitiousness – of any theory, and, to be sure, of any writing?)
We could perhaps take Gates’s funny story as nothing more than a funny story, a pastime entertainment of an academic, an atelier text written in order to make the professionals laugh and to make other professionals ridiculous. But is it not because we have some prejudices about what a serious theoretician should do? And if so, how can we take theoretically seriously texts which have been written by serious writers but definitely not theoreticians?
Let me finish by some university experiences of mine. Last year in Santiago de Compostela, Djelal Kadir has asked us to have seminars or classes about the topic of the would-be conference, Literatures of Theory, and he even sent us later the project of his own course. Now we are having this conference and I must confess that we in Pécs did not have any seminar with that title or with that topic. However, the issue seems to be a hot one. Although we did not have Literatures of Theory course proper, our students have repeatedly raised issues directly related to this problem. Just to quote some examples: One of our students has written a paper on the philosophical aspects of the poetry an outstanding contemporary Hungarian poet. Another chose to analyze a turn of the century Hungarian Positivistic literary history (which was very influential, even decades after its publication) to show that not only is it full of metaphors and other tropes but it also can be read as a (literary) narrative. A favorite topic of a third student of ours was the anecdotes of the New Historicist Greenblatt, which can be taken part and parcel of Greenblatt’s theory as well as an element of literary communication. There was a very interesting paper commenting on the impossible debate between Gadamer and Derrida, and emphatically exploring the different stances that these two take towards writing, which has its consequences in the literary nature of Derrida’s texts versus theoretical nature of those of Gadamer. And in other courses the literary nature of theoretical texts has repeatedly been addressed.
Speaking of university education, to emphasize the literary nature of theoretical texts may have some curious side-effects. Sometimes it leads the students just to give up any argumentation or logic whatsoever (even if we know that argumentation and logic is highly questionable in literary studies), and they choose to imitate the literary text in question or to write a literary paraphrase or to get as close to the literary discourse as they can. It is, of course, a pretty common critical practice, literary critics very often try to evoke the literary works they talk about by this sort of literary intertextuality as Michal Glowinski labeled it. Subjective accounts of emotions or streams of thought provoked by the literary text is a natural consequence of the literary theoretical thinking of our age. Also there may be a sort of despair, a feel of loss of the firm basis of distinction between discourses: it is often asked whether this or that type of text still counts as literary theoretical proper, if it is legitimate to play around literary texts or to let the free associations flow instead of strictly analyzing works of art, in a properly controlled way, pursuing, in this sense, normal, traditional literary studies. Too much freedom may sometimes frighten the uninitiated. And perhaps not only them.
work - my participation at the conference as well as
my work in
1997-1999 - was supported by the Research
Support Scheme of the OSI/HESP, grant No. 1578/1977.. - During the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Committee for Literary Theory of
the International Association of Comparative Literature (AILC), in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, the members of the Committee
decided to have their next conference in Pécs,
Hungary, with the title „Literatures of Theory”. The official host of the was
the Department for Modern Literature and Literary Theory of the
 Berel Lang, „Reading”. In Berel Lang, Faces... and Other Ironies of Writing and Reading. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-12.
 Cf. also Malcolm Bowie, Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
 Elisabeth Bruss, Beautiful Theories. The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univerfsity Press, 1982.
 Bruss, pp. 490-1.
 p. 46.
 Shoshana Felman, Le scandale du corps parlant,Don Juan avec Austin, ou La séduction en deux langages. Paris: Seuil, 1980. (The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983.)
 See e.g., Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism. A Metapoetics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, esp. pp. 23, 114.
 Hayden White, Metahistory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
 Paris: Seuil, 1967.
 „Canon Confidential: A Sam Slide Caper”.
Henry Louis, Jr. Loose Canons. Notes on
the Culture Wars.
 Glowinski, Michal. „Intertextuality in Critical Discourse.” In E. de Haard, T. Langerak, W. G. Weststeijn, eds. Semantic Analysis of Literart Texts. To Honour Jan van der Eng on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990, 201-205.