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Semiotics refers to an intellectual tradition that deals with processes of making and interpreting meaning in all kinds of text, in all modes. However, semiotics was never integrated into mainstream disciplinary structures. Because of this marginal status semiotic tendencies flourished outside and between the major disciplines. As a discipline semiotics seems small, vulnerable and out-of-date. But as a broad intellectual tradition semiotics can be seen as a meta-theory which encompasses literary theory. This second perspective makes semiotics more useful for literary readers, and hence is emphasized in this chapter. Semiotics’ value is enhanced when it is seen as a complex, heterogeneous field with fuzzy boundaries and productive entanglements with literary objects and theories.
“Semiotics” comes from Greek semeion (sign, omen, or trace), something that points towards important, often hidden meanings. Signs in this sense go beyond words and verbal media. This scope gives “semiotics” a radically disruptive quality. Western culture in the modern era has been based on the primacy of words as carriers of all meaning and thought. Semiotics is the site of a radical challenge to this dominance. Semiotics sees signs and meanings everywhere, in every mode, not just in words.
The changing media of literature in the present and past raise many semiotic issues for literary theory. Poetry always carried meanings through sound as well as words. Drama needs to be performed. Film and multimedia carry the role of print fiction in new contexts. In the multimedia 21st century, literature has gone beyond writing, and its theories need a semiotic dimension.
Semiotics has a divided history, with two founding fathers. Peirce emphasized complexity and flow, and Saussure emphasized structure. Before 1960 structuralism dominated, but by the end of the 20th century post-structuralism prevailed. Semiotics went underground, but left traces everywhere of the intellectual revolution it participated in. It helped to trigger the turn to meaning across the social sciences and celebrated the irreducible complexity and diversity of forms and meanings in literature and life in the modern world.
“Sentiment” is a term that signifies differently in its different English forms (sentiments, sentimental, sentimentality, sentimentalism), and these forms themselves signify differently at different times and in different languages. In French, whence it derives, the verb sentir means “to feel” or “to sense,” and a relatively clear distinction can be made in that language between sentir and penser (“to think”), and likewise between un sentiment and une pensée. In English, however, especially in the 18th century when the notion of the sentiment became central to empiricist moral philosophy, the term tends to straddle thought and feeling. In the accelerated development of the concept in the work of David Hume and his friend Adam Smith, sentiment might best be understood as feeling reflected in thought, which later figured centrally in William Wordsworth’s account of the poetic process. Even before Wordsworth, Laurence Sterne had deployed the recently coined English adjective sentimental, and he exploited this new understanding to develop a new and massively influential mode of ambivalence in fiction. Such an understanding also helped to underwrite the fully elaborated 1795 theoretical intervention of the Anglophile German writer Friedrich Schiller, who had to invent the German adjective sentimentalisch from the Anglo-French term. Schiller distinguished the sentimental mode in poetry from the naive on the dual grounds, already established in British writings on the subject, that the sentimental involved “mixed feelings” born of an act of “reflection.” Even as this more technical understanding of the sentimental mode was being developed, however, critique of “sentimentality” in a strictly pejorative sense was underway. In modernist literary theory, certainly, much energy is mobilized around this critique, as is clear from a foundational work in the institution of “practical criticism” by I. A. Richards at Cambridge, who produced a full taxonomy of the forms of sentimentality, a deviant kind of emotional responsiveness he opposed to another, which he called “inhibition.” The modernist intolerance of what it called “sentimentality” would be taken up as part of a broader and more programmatic critique of commercialized culture under capitalism in later work by Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno and by Jean Baudrillard.
Mary Louise Kete
To survey the history of sentimental literature in America is to gain insight into some of the most critical moments in American culture. As Thomas Paine's influential essay of 1776 explained, it is on the grounds of “common sense” that the colonial Englishman would be able to “generously enlarge his views beyond the present day” and so imagine and ultimately fight for independence. And the existence of common sense, Paine and his audience understood, was proved by the recognition that all people respond to the loss of their children in the same way. Sentimentality—featuring broken homes restored, dying children revived, and lost lovers found through the power of shared emotions—is a way to remind readers that at root we are all lost children, no matter how vast may seem the differences made apparent by logic and circumstance. Sentimentality expresses the utopian impulse to abolish boundaries and expand community upon which the ideological force of American identity depends. In other words, it is a term for a discursive mode, not a genre nor a historical period, that is used to construct a shared or common sensibility that hides the traces of its invention under the cloak of tradition.
Susan David Bernstein and Julia McCord Chavez
Serialization, a publication format that came to dominate the Victorian literary marketplace following its deft adoption by marketing master Charles Dickens in the 1830s, is a transcendent form. It moves across not only print formats and their temporal cycles of distribution (daily or weekly installments in periodicals, monthly part-issue numbers, volumes), but also historical time and place. The number and varieties of serial publications multiplied during the middle of the 19th century due to the improved technology of printing, the cheaper cost of paper production, and the abolition of taxes on advertising. Moreover, serialization continues to be a staple in popular culture today; the long-form serial on television may be the most obvious descendent of the Victorian novel issued in parts. The history of the Victorian serial in its many forms spans from its roots in the 18th century to its reconfiguration following the advent of radio, television, and the internet. The most prevalent accounts of the serial have focused on the economics of the literary marketplace and print culture including the sharp increase of periodicals at midcentury. In recent years, scholars have come to understand the serial as a reflection of historically specific concepts of time and space, as an important location of experimentation and collaboration, as a book technology that fosters critical thinking and active reading, and as an object of transatlantic, even global, circulation. New studies of serial forms include digital approaches to analysis, web-based resources that facilitate serial reading, and comparative work on 21st-century media that underscores the continued role of serialization to create imagined communities within cultural life.
As Australia and New Zealand gradually emerged as independent nation-states around the turn of the 20th century, the serial issue of literature became steadily less prevalent and influential. During the colonial era itself, with the local book industry still in its infancy, periodical publishers assumed a crucial role in the distribution of literary material and the formation of cultural identity. Trends already apparent in the metropolitan print market in the later 19th century were thus found in even more marked form at the Australasian periphery. Though prose fiction was by no means the only literary genre to be issued in installments, novels and short stories dominated to an overwhelming extent. And, while monthly literary magazines also had a significant qualitative role to pay, general weekly newspapers (or, more accurately, “news miscellanies”) were quantitatively the much more important venue in terms of both supply and readership. It is necessary to distinguish three major sources of provision, each constrained by distinct business practices and intellectual property regimes:
(A) metropolitan fiction, initially supplied through informal “borrowing” from British periodicals, but later distributed in broadcast fashion by British syndication bureaus like Tillotson’s of Bolton, supported locally by agents such as Gordon & Gotch in Melbourne;
(B) colonial fiction of local color by local authors, often for little remuneration, and typically flagged by phrases such as “specially written” for the local press; and
(C) other peripheral fiction, including from the British provinces, from other British colonies, and, last but not least, because of the lack of international copyright protection, from America (with New York story papers such as Robert Bonner’s Ledger or Street & Smith’s Weekly common sources).
All three types represented important influences in the process of negotiating community affiliation during the lengthy transition from colony to nation, but, though the first was undoubtedly most pervasive, in literary terms at least the second was by far the most valuable. The historical details concerning the cultural role of the press indeed serve to cast doubt on the more generic theorization concerning center/periphery relations found in the work of scholars advocating a “world literature” approach, who tend to focus exclusively on the market for books. To sum up in the words of Clara Cheeseman (1852–1943), a New Zealand serial novelist of the final decades of the 19th century whose fiction was exceptional in finding an outlet among the London publishers: “It is to the old newspapers that we must go if we want to see the beginning of colonial fiction . . . there are in the dusty files of these [the Australasian and the Sydney Mail] and other journals many stories of colonial life which have never struggled out of the papers into book form” (“Colonials in Fiction,” NZ Illustrated Magazine 7 (1903): 273–282, here 274). As early 21st-century research in this field attests, with the long-term commitment of both governments to making their press heritages digitally accessible via the “Trove” and “Papers Past” websites of the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand, respectively, this task has now become a good deal less formidable.
The study of settler colonialism has evolved from a nearly exclusive examination of the interplay of Indigeneity and white settler colonial domination to an engagement that has become attentive to questions of racialized migration. Because British settler colonies violently displaced Indigenous peoples without widespread exploitation of their labor, racialized migrant labor has played an important role in establishing and developing settler colonies, from the exploitation of enslaved and convict labor, to indentured and contract labor, and to contemporary iterations of guest and undocumented labor. The reliance on hyper-exploitable, deportable, or disposable classes of migrants has been an integral logic of settler colonialism in North America, rendering Indigenous communities even more vulnerable to dislocation, dispossession, and environmental harm. Asian North American cultural representation offers a rich site to explore settler colonial logics of land dispossession, resource extraction, relocation, urban redevelopment, and incarceration. In particular, Asian North American cultural production has often recycled settler colonial tropes that both denigrate and romanticize Indigenous cultures in claims for belonging that attempt to challenge the racial logics of civil, social, and political exclusion. In North America, the projection of a heroic “pioneer” identity aims to recover early Asian labor from historical obscurity by demonstrating its vital contributions to developing the settler nation. These expressions reinforce the value of Western civilization and industry over an empty, uncivilized, and unproductive Indigenous world. Asian American invocations of “local” identity in Hawai‘i similarly assert a romanticized identification with Indigenous cultures that obscures Asian Americans’ structural dominance and active role in the dispossession of Native Hawaiians. Alternatively, Asian North American cultural producers have also become strong voices in social and cultural movements to prioritize Indigenous self-determination, ecological protection, and decolonial anti-capitalism. Critical approaches to Asian North American representation have become increasingly attuned to reckoning with colonial complicity, exploring the ethics of responsibility, indebtedness, and solidarity with Indigenous communities.
Ellen McGrath Smith
Anne Sexton is one of the most charged and memorable personalities in American literature. Her image as a taboo-breaking, glamorous New England housewife-turned-poet has made her a cultural icon for two generations in the United States and beyond. Her image has led many conservative critics to dismiss much of her work as extreme and sensationalistic while overlooking Sexton's incomparable flashes of imagery and insight. At the other extreme, her image has drawn many readers who admittedly read little poetry before Sexton's, expanding the audience for American poetry. In between these two extremes fall readers who, for many reasons, see Anne Sexton as a key player in the emergence at mid-century of a more personal and direct type of poetry, often referred to as confessional poetry, a term coined in 1959 by the critic M. L. Rosenthal in his review of Robert Lowell's groundbreaking collection of personal poetry, Life Studies (1959).
Two influential approaches to understanding sexuality emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe: sexology and psychoanalysis. These approaches develop a method for thinking about human sexuality apart from religious discourse. Sexology births the concept of the congenital “homosexual,” often understanding this figure as pathological. In turn, psychoanalysis, as it was first developed by Sigmund Freud, considers infantile sexuality as polymorphous and perverse. It analyzes how this perversity develops into adult genders and sexualities, sometimes through the repression of drives that, even in their repressed form, continue to show effects. In both these models, sexuality is figured as a natural force, one that may come to be shaped by social and cultural milieus, but that is ultimately innate. Breaking from this tradition, Michel Foucault’s 1978 The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 offers a different, groundbreaking approach. Rather than arguing that sexuality is repressed, Foucault argues that sexuality, as a discrete nexus of experiences and sensations, emerges in a particular nexus of power and knowledge, one that disciplines bodies to become productive and docile while also seeking to manage populations through the human sciences. In this vision, sexuality does not oppose power, but rather sex and power spiral together, producing or inciting one another. Feminist, queer, and decolonial approaches to sexuality also consider how the organization and even production of sexuality is tied to structures of power and inequality such as patriarchy, heteronormativity, colonization, and anti-black racism. For example, black feminist and queer of color scholarship explore the ways in which racial difference and inequality has been justified through the production of gendered, sexual stereotypes. Indigenous and decolonial approaches build on this argument, looking to how colonization was often figured as a form of erotic penetration of a feminized land, considering how enforcing heterosexuality and binary gender formation have been key to both colonization and settler colonialism, and attending to the ongoing legacies of colonial sexual violence. These approaches often seek to reclaim and reimagine the erotic as a part of a project of resistance and collective survival.
Sam Shepard is the best known, and has proved the most enduring, of those American dramatists who began their careers in the radical and alternative theater movements of the 1960s. Although his plays have become thoroughly mainstream, something of the aura of those early years still clings to his work.
The short story is the only genre that can be considered uniquely American. The genre began as sketches, or tales, as in the classic tale “Rip Van Winkle.” The genre remained undefined until Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. Since Poe’s review, in which he distinguished short fiction from other genres, the American short story has evolved both in form and in content. Like other genres, the short story has evolved through various movements and traditions such as realism, modernism, and postmodernism; however, it has remained unique because of publishing opportunities that differ from longer works such as the novel. The short story genre shares elements of fiction with the novel, traditionally consisting of characteristics such as plot, character, setting, point of view, theme, and writing style. Although the short story shares elements of literature and writing devices with other literary genres, avenues for publication differ greatly. Unlike a novel, a short story is not published as a single entity. It is usually presented with works by other authors in a journal or magazine or in a collection of previously published stories by one author. The rise in popular magazines during the 1920s gave rise to the short story, as the magazines provided a publication outlet. During the second half of the 20th century the short story became less commercial and more literary, paving the way for artistic stories such as one appropriately called “The New Yorker Story.” However, as it became less commercial, the short story fell from popularity and became somewhat obscure in the manner in which poetry remains. Because short stories do not sell, publishers are hesitant to produce them. But during the 1970s, American universities began teaching creative writing classes, and the short story provided a suitable genre for teaching the art of fiction writing. Hence, the American short story experienced a renaissance, and a wave of literary journals emerged. About this time, minimalism was one of the styles most often used in the short story. Raymond Carver built on what Ernest Hemingway had started in America, and the short story took on a new form. During the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, women and ethnic writers were given more opportunities to publish short fiction, and the short story reflected progress in civil rights issues. Currently, the rise in technological advances has brought even more opportunities for publication, and more and more American authors are publishing short stories online, now a respected publication venue.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 5 March 1948, Leslie Marmon Silko emerged in the late twentieth century to make her mark in a history of storytellers. Silko's work was recognized by the Native Writers' Circle of the Americas lifetime achievement award in 1994. In addition, she has been named a Living Cultural Treasure by the New Mexico Humanities Council, a title that befits the way her work strives for multiple perspectives while remaining true to the concept of storytelling embedded in her Laguna Pueblo ancestry.
With his characteristic blend of whimsy and high seriousness, Charles Simic once remarked: “There are three ways of thinking about the world. You can think about the Cosmos (as the Greeks did), you can think about History (as the Hebrews did), and since the late eighteenth century you can think about Nature. The choice is yours. Where do you prefer to find (or not find) the meaning of your life? And do you include God on the menu? I myself fancy the cosmic angle. The brain-chilling infinities and silences of modern astronomy and Pascalian thought impress me deeply, except that I'm also a child of History. I've seen tanks, piles of corpses, and people strung from lampposts with my own eyes. As for Nature so-called, it's a product of Romantic utopias: noble savage, Rousseau, earthly paradise in the manner of Gauguin, the projects of Charles Fourier, our Transcendentalists, and so forth” (The Unemployed Fortune-Teller, 1994). Simic's qualifications and quips—“Until we resolve these questions, a nap in a hammock on a summer afternoon is highly recommended”—suggest that his three worldviews are tentative rather than dogmatic. While steeped in tradition, his own views, in fact, run counter to traditional assumptions about an orderly, meaningful, divinely created cosmos; a linear concept of history proceeding from genesis and fall to judgment and salvation; and a pastoral view of nature.
James A. Lewin
What makes Isaac Bashevis Singer so exceptional? He is not only the sole writer working primarily in Yiddish to have won a Nobel Prize but also the only Yiddish writer included in the canon of American literature. Of course, Singer benefited from good, timely English translations. But he may have jumped out of the pack of acknowledged Yiddish masters of fiction because of a resonance in his work with ingrained American interests and values. His conjunction of spiritualism and sexuality definitely piqued the interest of readers of magazines ranging from Commentary to Playboy. On a deeper level, his commitment to conservative traditionalism also corresponds with an American yearning for basic moral clarity. Ironically, however, Singer's vision of ethical truth questions the assumptions of the tradition from which he developed. More of a muted reactionary than a homespun conservative, Singer responds to cultural and moral crisis with an aesthetic of storytelling. Singer reminds us that the pursuit of redemption, though heartbreaking and unrequited, cannot be abandoned.
The term singularity has been put to a variety of uses by philosophers and literary theorists with a limited degree of consistency among them. It is very often contrasted with one or more other terms which might seem to be synonyms, such as particular and individual, and its relation to universality and generality is frequently discussed. Although the term itself is not an important one for Kant, his discussion in the Critique of Judgment of the peculiar nature of aesthetic or reflective judgment marks the beginning of a long history of philosophical attention to the artwork as a singular entity resistant to analysis and the experience of art as unamenable to explanation. Some philosophical deployments of the concept of singularity stress uniqueness, self-sufficiency or transcendence (Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, Hans-Georg Gadamer); others see singularity as self-divided and existing only in relation to other singularities (Jean-Luc Nancy) or to generalities (Jacques Derrida). Singularity is sometimes understood as an event rather than an entity (Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Nancy, Derrida); for some thinkers, it is closely connected with community (Giorgio Agamben, Nancy). For Derrida, the most influential of these philosophers for literary studies on this topic, singularity is inseparable from iterability; a mark or sign is able to remain the same through history and in various realizations if it is able to change with each new context in which it appears. As a term in literary theory, singularity is usually regarded as a distinctive quality of the literary work, combining as it does a sense of the work’s uniqueness with its participation in general and generic codes and norms. The reader’s encounter with the singularity of the work is an encounter with otherness that necessitates a change in his or her frameworks of understanding and feeling; every such reading is singular in that the reader and the context of reading will always be different. Iterability is a condition of literary singularity: works retain their identity only because they are open to change.
Tzarina T. Prater
Studying Sino Caribbean participation in the two cultural juggernauts of Caribbean cultural production, music and Carnival, reveals the vexed position of these modes of performance in relation to conventional historical narratives of colonialism, as well as struggles related to multiple and resilient essentialist discourses of nationalism and identity formation. The complex diasporic histories of music and Carnival are tied to violent exploitive labor formations at the core of colonial capitalism. Sino Caribbean experiences are marked by marginalization, conflict, and rebellion as well as acclimation, inclusion, and challenge to diasporic theories and critical praxis. This labor history is frequently ignored by cultural chauvinists whose critical lenses do not engage beyond the Anglo-American academic bastions. Outside of music aficionados and Caribbean communities, very few are familiar with the integral role of Sino Caribbean peoples in the production and dissemination of reggae, jazz, and by extension, hip-hop music. This historical and critical lacuna can be addressed by shifting away from Atlantic- and Pacific Rim–bound ideological articulations of diaspora that ignore the contiguities of African, Caribbean, and Asian experiences in the Caribbean, and by focusing on this history as integral to a greater understanding of colonial and neocolonial political and economic formations.
David Jeddie Smith was born on 19 December 1942 in Portsmouth, Virginia. He graduated from the University of Virginia, and was then educated at Southern Illinois University, where he earned an M.A. degree. He received a Ph.D. in 1976 from Ohio University, where he was able to write a creative writing dissertation. His poetry has earned him many awards and recognitions, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Lyndhurst Foundation. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for both Goshawk, Antelope (1979) and Dream Flights (1981).
Aaron K. DiFranco
In promoting a life close to nature and exploring the relation between the inner mind and the outer world, Gary Snyder falls into the tradition of American romanticism following Thoreau and Whitman. But whereas the transcendentalists perceived nature as symbolic and looked through it to find spiritual truths, Snyder emphasizes how the spiritual takes shape within the real, physical, and imaginative interactions between elements that make up the ecology of one's place. His engagement with the natural world and resistance to the monoculture of Western commercial industrialism have turned him toward environmental activism as well as philosophical meditations as lucid and penetrating as those of Emerson or John Muir. His work champions the idea of wilderness, where the multiplicity of nature and culture—inherently interconnected—can manifest itself in all its forms.
Steven P. Schneider
Born in Fresno, California, on 12 April 1952, Gary Soto is one of the most prominent Mexican-American writers of his generation. Soto's grandparents were born in Mexico, migrated to the United States, and worked in the fields and factories of Fresno. His father, Manuel Soto, was killed tragically in an accident at work when Soto was five years old. Soto's mother, Angie Trevino Soto, raised him, his older brother Rick, and his younger sister Debra in Fresno, located in the San Joaquin Valley, the setting of much of Soto's writing.
South Asian American visual culture is a diverse field of visual art, created by artists who are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, among other diasporic locations (e.g., Kenya). South Asian American artists work in a range of media forms, including photography, sculpture, installation, video, painting, and drawing. Collectively, these artworks are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries as depictions of contemporary South Asian immigrant life. However, a close reading of individual works produces a more dynamic picture. Instead of viewing South Asian American visual culture solely in terms of artists’ own immigrant biographies, scholarship and museum practices have begun to focus on how its aesthetic and political contributions have been central to the representation of racialized, gendered, and sexualized immigrant bodies in the United States since the turn of the millennium. Drawing across archival collections, aesthetic histories, and digital media forms, artists create works that link the colonial documentation of “native” bodies on the subcontinent with the surveillance and documentation of immigrant bodies by the US state. Alongside artists, academics and activists also work to produce curatorial interventions through exhibitions that generate feminist and queer critiques of the relation between nation-state and diaspora. Emphasizing the transnational ties of capital and labor that bind together the subcontinent with the United States, South Asian American visual culture creates new frameworks for the relationship between race, visuality, and representation.
Thomas Ærvold Bjerre
Southern Gothic is a mode or genre prevalent in literature from the early 19th century to this day. Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation. While related to both the English and American Gothic tradition, Southern Gothic is uniquely rooted in the South’s tensions and aberrations. During the 20th century, Charles Crow has noted, the South became “the principal region of American Gothic” in literature. The Southern Gothic brings to light the extent to which the idyllic vision of the pastoral, agrarian South rests on massive repressions of the region’s historical realities: slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Southern Gothic texts also mark a Freudian return of the repressed: the region’s historical realities take concrete forms in the shape of ghosts that highlight all that has been unsaid in the official version of southern history. Because of its dark and controversial subject matter, literary scholars and critics initially sought to discredit the gothic on a national level. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) became the first Southern Gothic writer to fully explore the genre’s potential. Many of his best-known poems and short stories, while not placed in a recognizable southern setting, display all the elements that would come to characterize Southern Gothic.
While Poe is a foundational figure in Southern Gothic, William Faulkner (1897–1962) arguably looms the largest. His fictional Yoknapatawpha County was home to the bitter Civil War defeat and the following social, racial, and economic ruptures in the lives of its people. These transformations, and the resulting anxieties felt by Chickasaw Indians, poor whites and blacks, and aristocratic families alike, mark Faulkner’s work as deeply Gothic. On top of this, Faulkner’s complex, modernist, labyrinthine language creates in readers a similarly Gothic sense of uncertainty and alienation. The generation of southern writers after Faulkner continued the exploration of the clashes between Old and New South. Writers like Tennessee Williams (1911–1983), Carson McCullers (1917–1967), and Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) drew on Gothic elements. O’Connor’s work is particularly steeped in the grotesque, a subgenre of the Gothic. African American writers like Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) and Richard Wright have had their own unique perspective on the Southern Gothic and the repressed racial tensions at the heart of the genre. Southern Gothic also frames the bleak and jarringly violent stories by contemporary so-called Rough South writers, such as Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Dorothy Allison, William Gay, and Ron Rash. A sense of evil lurks in their stories and novels, sometimes taking on the shape of ghosts or living dead, ghouls who haunt the New Casino South and serve as symbolic reminders of the many unresolved issues still burdening the South to this day.