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Article

Simon Burrows and Michael Falk

The article offers a definition, overview, and assessment of the current state of digital humanities, particularly with regard to its actual and potential contribution to literary studies. It outlines the history of humanities computing and digital humanities, its evolution as a discipline, including its institutional development and outstanding challenges it faces. It also considers some of the most cogent critiques digital humanities has faced, particularly from North American-based literary scholars, some of whom have suggested it represents a threat to centuries-old traditions of humanistic inquiry and particularly to literary scholarship based on the tradition of close reading. The article shows instead that digital humanities approaches gainfully employed offer powerful new means of illuminating both context and content of texts, to assist with both close and distant readings, offering a supplement rather than a replacement for traditional means of literary inquiry. The digital techniques it discusses include stylometry, topic modeling, literary mapping, historical bibliometrics, corpus linguistic techniques, and sequence alignment, as well as some of the contributions that they have made. Further, the article explains how many key aspirations of digital humanities scholarship, including interoperability and linked open data, have yet to be realized, and it considers some of the projects that are currently making this possible and the challenges that they face. The article concludes on a slightly cautionary note: What are the implications of the digital humanities for literary study? It is too early to tell.

Article

Reception-oriented literary theory, history, and criticism, all analyze the processes by which literary texts are received, both in the moment of their first publication and long afterwards: how texts are interpreted, appropriated, adapted, transformed, passed on, canonized, and/or forgotten by various audiences. Reception draws on multiple methodologies and approaches including semiotics and deconstruction; ethnography, sociology, and history; media theory and archaeology; and feminist, Marxist, black, and postcolonial criticism. Studying reception gives us insights into the texts themselves and their possible range of meanings, uses, and value; into the interpretative regimes of specific historical periods and cultural milieux; and into the nature of linguistic meaning and communication.

Article

Rhizome  

Claire Colebrook

The concept of the rhizome was first articulated in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, published in French in 1975 and translated into English in 1986. Here the term emerges from a reading of Kafka’s description of movements in his novels and short stories, but it is also tied to a mode of reading and of composition. In Mille Plateaux (1980), translated into English as A Thousand Plateaus in 1987, the term has both a broad reference towards modes of thinking and analyzing that are nonhierarchical and decentered, and a more specifically literary sense of styles of writing. In A Thousand Plateaus, the term is introduced in order to describe a mode of composition that is distinct from the book, and a theory of language that is opposed to a basic structure, logic, or grammar from which variations develop. Languages and dialects do not emerge from a central grammar; instead, everything begins with variations of sound and sense. There is no universal grammar; every language has its distinct mode of growth. It is therefore illegitimate to talk of grammar “trees,” and far better to think of variation without a center. Rather than a linear development or progression, a rhizomatic text is composed of multiple points of entry. A rhizome is a lateral, decentered, proliferating, and interconnected web of relations and is therefore unlike the hierarchical (root, branch, offshoots) model of a tree.

Article

Ross Posnock

Like cosmopolitan, sophistication is a fighting word in American culture, a phrase that discomfits, raises eyebrows. It is not who we are, as President Obama used to say, for it smacks of elitism. Whereas the first word has had a stormy modern history—Stalin, for instance, used cosmopolitan as a code word for Jew—sophistication has always kept bad company, starting with its etymology. Its first six letters saddle it with sophistry, both tarred with the same brush of suspicion. Sophistry was a form of rhetoric that attracted the enmity of Socrates and Plato, with repercussions deep into the 17th century. In 1689, when John Locke said rhetoric trafficked in error and deceit, he was echoing the Greeks who tended to dismiss the art of persuasion and eloquence in general as sophistry, morally debased discourse. In the West, rhetoric, sophistry, and sophistication are arraigned as a shared locus of antinature: empty style, deceptive artifice, effeminate preening. They all testify to the deforming demands of social life, the worldliness disdained by Christian moralists, starting with Augustine, as concupiscence. This is the fall into sin from the prelapsarian transparency of Adam and Eve’s spiritual union of pure intellection with God, the perfection of reason that permits transcendence of the bodily senses. The corporeal senses and imagination dominate when man gives himself over to the world’s noise and confusion and is distracted from self-communion in company with God. Given that sophistication’s keynote is effortless ease, from the point of view of Augustinian Christianity such behavior in a basic sense violates Christian humility after the fall: with man’s loss of repose in God comes permanent uneasiness, inquiétude as Blaise Pascal and Michel de Montaigne put it, a chronic dissatisfaction and ennui that seeks relief in trivial divertissement (distraction), convictions that Montesquieu, Locke, and Tocqueville drew on for their root assumptions about how secular political institutions shape their citizens’ psyches. American Puritanism is in part an “Augustinian strain of piety,” as Perry Miller showed in his classic study, The New England Mind, hence suspicious of any distraction from worship of God. Puritans banned theaters two years after the nation was founded. Keeping vigilant watch over stirrings of New World worldliness, they permanently placed sophistication in the shadow of a double burden: Christian interdiction on top of the pre-Christian opprobrium heaped on sophistic rhetoric. Only by the mid-19th century does sophistication finally shed, though never definitively, sophistry’s fraudulence and deception and acquire positive qualities—worldly wisdom, refinement, subtlety, expertise. The year 1850 is the earliest positive use the Oxford English Dictionary lists, instanced by a sentence from Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography: “A people who . . . preserve in the very midst of their sophistication a frankness distinct from it.”

Article

Robert J. Griffin

Anonymity is defined as the absence of the author’s name on a title page, or in any other paratext of a publication such as a preface or dedication or manuscript colophon; pseudonymity is included because it presents a false name to the reader while concealing the author’s name. A theory of anonymity establishes the general conditions of possibility for anonymous authorship, and thus has a different object than a literary history that describes the variable causes of anonymity: the decisions of authors, editors, or publishers, or the fact that the author was either originally unknown or has come to be unknown over time. In the most general sense, the conditions of anonymity are inherent in language itself, and especially so in writing; the writer is separated from the written. While writers have always exploited this knowledge in practice, the fullest theory of the anonymity of language was developed extensively by the linguists, critics, philosophers, and historians of culture associated with structuralism and poststructuralism in mid-twentieth century France. While the concerns of the problematic of enunciation—who is speaking, and from what place?—were central to this group of thinkers, and are indeed familiar under the headings of the critique of the cogito and the relation between writing and death, it is less widely recognized that an explicit theory of anonymity as a condition of speech and writing was constructed in the movement that can be traced economically from Benveniste to Barthes, and then to Derrida and Foucault.

Article

Class  

Benjamin Balthaser

Class is not a term like style that refers to a quality inherent in the literature itself, or genre, that while historically produced, nonetheless is imagined to have formal properties. Class is rather a way of seeing, an analysis of how literature has been constituted by capitalist social relations and also has responded to—and been seized by—working class movements, from the abolition of slavery to the archipelago of movements against neoliberalism in our post-Fordist age. “Class” understands working class literature in a US context, as literature that was once about working class people, from the mediated publication of slave narratives, to the middle class gaze of realism, to its transformation in the 20th century into literature about the subjectivity of working class people themselves. As Hungarian Marxist theorist Georg Lukacs notes, class has both an objective and a subjective quality: workers are both reified as alienated commodities while at the same time perceives their interests as qualitatively different from those of the capitalist who purchases their labor power. Or as Marx put it, “abstract labor” is always in conflict and in contradiction with “living labor,” the real embodied lives of workers whose persons are part of the commodity circulation process. Thus the novels that arose out of the working class revolutions of the 20th century often focus on the first person process of subjectivization, as the working class protagonist realizes their own alienation and strives to transform it in the process of personal and often social struggle. Of particular interest in the US context is the way in which race and class often function as double and mutually reinforcing forms of alienation. At the height of the working class literary movement in the mid-20th century, novels such as Carlos Bulosan’s America Is the Heart and Richard Wright’s Native Son offered engagements with this double question, with Ann Petry’s The Street and Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio furthered this question with the gendering of labor. In the post-Fordist era, the question of class and subjectivity has fragmented even further, without working class parties and large industrial unions to offer a totalized countervision of working subjectivity. Novels such as Helena Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange offer a fragmented and transnational vision of new working class subjectivities, while novels such as Philip Meyer’s American Rust pose a reification of whiteness as a way to shore up a declining working class control over their labor and fragmenting subjectivity.

Article

John Lavagnino

Digital textuality has its roots in the most familiar digital system, the alphabet. In defining rules for what aspects of an inscription contain information, the alphabet makes exact copying of writing possible; such exact copying is the fundamental digital characteristic, without which digital machinery could not work. But copyability can have practical limitations, when more complex forms are built up out of basic digital elements: documents, in particular, often assume particular concepts and systems. Digital document systems can be based on many different theories of documents, and typically combine incompatible theories in one document; they also hide considerable amounts of information from users. Very different digital approaches to texts are found in databases, which atomize texts and render all relationships explicit; this degree of formalization is not common in the humanities, but it enables the creation of widely used research tools (such as library catalogues). The principal innovation in digital documents so far is the hypertextual link, which in connecting texts more closely together created new possibilities for expression and exploration. The creation of vast amounts of digital text led to the unexpected importance of searching, which was made more usable by exploitation of the information provided by links. Searching has overturned ancient hierarchies of importance and attention, by making forgotten texts as accessible as canonical ones.

Article

Irony  

Claire Colebrook

Irony is both a figure of speech and a mode of existence or attitude toward life. Deriving from the ancient Greek term eironeia, which originally referred to lying, irony became a complex philosophical and rhetorical term in Plato’s dialogues. Plato (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 bce) depicts Socrates deploying the method of elenchus, where, rather than proposing a theory, Socrates encounters others in conversation, drawing out the contradictions and opacities of their arguments. Often these dialogues would take a secure concept and then push the questioning to a final moment of non-knowledge or aporia, exposing a gap in a discourse that his interlocutors thought was secure. Here, Socratic irony can be thought of as a particular philosophical method and as the way in which Socrates chose to pursue his life, always questioning the truth of key ethical concepts. In the Roman rhetorical tradition irony was theorized as a rhetorical device by Cicero (106–43 bce) and Quintilian (c.35–c.96 ce), and it was this sense of irony that was dominant until the 18th century. At that time, and in response to the elevation of reason in the Enlightenment, a resurgence of satire emerged: here the rigorous logic of reason was often repeated and in a parodic manner. At this time, modern irony emerged, which was subtly different from satire in that it did not simply lampoon its target, but suggested a less clear position of refined and superior distance. The German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) was highly critical of what came to be known as Romantic irony, which differed from satire in that it suggested a subtle distance from everyday discourse, with no clear position of its own. This tendency for irony to be the negation of truth claims, without having any clear position of its own, became ever more intense in the 20th century with postmodern irony, where irony was no longer a rhetorical device but became a manner of existing with no clear commitment to any values or beliefs. Alongside this tradition of irony as a distanced relation to one’s speech acts, there was also a tradition of dramatic, cosmic, tragic, or fateful irony, where events might seem to act against human intentions, or where human ambition would seem to be thwarted by a universe that almost seems to be judging human existence from on high.

Article

Midrash  

Carol Bakhos

In modern parlance, midrash (Hebrew root drš, “to investigate, seek, search out, examine”) refers to any act of interpretation, but in its strictest and most precise sense it refers to ancient rabbinic biblical interpretation. Midrash is both the process and product of interpretation contained in vast compilations of midrashim (plural) as well as in other rabbinic works such as the Talmud. Compendia of midrashim not only preserve interpretations and teachings but also reveal a curiously postmodern, polysemic approach to scriptural exegesis. These compilations are often categorized according to three (problematic) descriptive binaries: halakhic or aggadic; tannaitic (70–200 ce) or amoraic (200–500 ce); and exegetical or homiletical. Through the midrashic process, the Jewish sages of antiquity made the Bible relevant to their contemporaries, taught moral lessons, told fanciful stories, and developed as well as maintained theological beliefs and ethical codes of behavior. The study of midrash provides a portal into the cultural world of the rabbis of late antiquity; it also serves to highlight their approach to and assumptions about scripture, and their guiding hermeneutical practices and principles. Midrashic interpretation employs a variety of exegetical techniques that are often tightly connected to the language of scripture. In addition to wordplay, the rabbis occasionally use gematria, whereby the arithmetical value of Hebrew letters is used to interpret a word or verse. Intertextuality and the atomicization of scriptural words, phrases, and verses are fundamental characteristics of the midrashic method. Although the term midrash applies specifically to rabbinic biblical interpretation, it is sometimes used more broadly as a synonym for aggadah, which includes rabbinic stories, maxims, and parables. Critical editions of midrashic compilations as well as digital advancements and translations give scholars in cognate fields the necessary tools to understand rabbinic literature and undertake comparative studies.

Article

Amritjit Singh and Aaron Babcock

Racial patterns at any given time have been intertwined with local contexts, economic and political conditions, technological change, and a growing awareness of the socially constructed nature of race and gender. Race in the modern sense of the term emerged first in the 18th century amid the transformative changes of the industrial revolution, a growing slave trade, and the spread of European settler colonialism and imperialism in Asia, Africa, and the Western hemisphere. As a means of categorizing populations, race was a useful tool in justifying both slavery and imperialism. A further solidification of racial taxonomy developed over the course of the 19th century in which peoples and nations were grouped as genetically distinct. Race was thus essentialized and difference became widely accepted as biological and measurable. In the early decades of the 20th century, the view of race as biologically determined and immutable gradually gave way to sociological and anthropological reconsiderations of previously held assumptions. Contemporaneous to this reorientation of thinking on race was the growth of ethnicity as a related but distinct form of grouping populations that reframed identity as rooted in a shared national and sociopolitical history. In the 20th century, race across scholarly disciplines began to be divested gradually of its biological and genetic aspects and a recognition of race as a legal and social construction had emerged, especially in Postcolonial Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). In fact, what was viewed as “race” around 1900 (e.g., the Irish race, the Jewish race) came to be defined as “ethnicity” in the 20th century. For centuries, however, race has been used as a means for exercising power and control and as a defense of a racial caste system that privileges select groups. Through their many creative uses of memory and history, writers and artists in the United States and elsewhere have long responded in multiple genres by offering their own versions and visions of individual and community, complicating in the process our understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, nation, majoritarianism, and citizenship—the tangled issues that continue to haunt Americans and many others around the globe. Historians, literary scholars, and theorists have also played an active role in challenging old orthodoxies on race and ethnicity through multiple overlapping approaches, including African American Studies, Ethnic American Studies, Black Feminism, Postcolonial Studies, and Critical Race Theory (CRT).