The topic of rhythm in literary theory draws both on discussions of poetry and prose and on much broader currents of thought in the natural sciences and philosophy. In Western thought, rhythm was a central focus of attention in ancient Greece, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when theorists and practitioners of literature and the other arts often referred back to classical models. This is also the case in more recent theorizing of rhythm in the context of everyday life in advanced modern or, as some would say, postmodern societies. Nietzsche, who constantly circled around the term and with frequent direct and metaphorical references to dance, is in many ways the central figure in these discussions. He was massively influential after his death in 1900, both in Germany and more widely, for example, in Britain and North America, and he was taken up again, along with Heidegger, in much French thought after World War 2. Contemporary debates around rhythm and its relation to meter continue to refer to classical Greece, and in Chinese and Indian thought there is a similar continuity of attention to issues of rhythm.
Textual studies describes a range of fields and methodologies that evaluate how texts are constituted both physically and conceptually, document how they are preserved, copied, and circulated, and propose ways in which they might be edited to minimize error and maximize the text’s integrity. The vast temporal reach of the history of textuality—from oral traditions spanning thousands of years and written forms dating from the 4th millenium bce to printed and digital text forms—is matched by its geographical range covering every linguistic community around the globe. Methods of evaluating material text-bearing documents and the reliability of their written or printed content stem from antiquity, often paying closest attention to sacred texts as well as to legal documents and literary works that helped form linguistic and social group identity. With the incarnation of the printing press in the early modern West, the rapid reproduction of text matter in large quantities had the effect of corrupting many texts with printing errors as well as providing the technical means of correcting such errors more cheaply and quickly than in the preceding scribal culture. From the 18th century, techniques of textual criticism were developed to attempt systematic correction of textual error, again with an emphasis on scriptural and classical texts. This “golden age of philology” slowly widened its range to consider such foundational medieval texts as Dante’s Commedia as well as, in time, modern vernacular literature. The technique of stemmatic analysis—the establishment of family relationships between existing documents of a text—provided the means for scholars to choose between copies of a work in the pursuit of accuracy. In the absence of original documents (manuscripts in the hand of Aristotle or the four Evangelists, for example) the choice between existing versions of a text were often made eclectically—that is, drawing on multiple versions—and thus were subject to such considerations as the historic range and geographical diffusion of documents, the systematic identification of common scribal errors, and matters of translation. As the study of modern languages and literatures consolidated into modern university departments in the later 19th century, new techniques emerged with the aim of providing reliable literary texts free from obvious error. This aim had in common with the preceding philological tradition the belief that what a text means—discovered in the practice of hermeneutics—was contingent on what the text states—established by an accurate textual record that eliminates error by means of textual criticism. The methods of textual criticism took several paths through the 20th century: the Anglophone tradition centered on editing Shakespeare’s works by drawing on the earliest available documents—the printed Quartos and Folios—developing into the Greg–Bowers–Tanselle copy-text “tradition” which was then deployed as a method by which to edit later texts. The status of variants in modern literary works with multiple authorial manuscripts—not to mention the existence of competing versions of several of Shakespeare’s plays—complicated matters sufficiently that editors looked to alternate editorial models. Genetic editorial methods draw in part on German editorial techniques, collating all existing manuscripts and printed texts of a work in order to provide a record of its composition process, including epigenetic processes following publication. The French methods of critique génétique also place the documentary record at the center, where the dossier is given priority over any one printed edition, and poststructuralist theory is used to examine the process of “textual invention.” The inherently social aspects of textual production—the author’s interaction with agents, censors, publishers, and printers and the way these interactions shape the content and presentation of the text—have reconceived how textual authority and variation are understood in the social and economic contexts of publication. And, finally, the advent of digital publication platforms has given rise to new developments in the presentation of textual editions and manuscript documents, displacing copy-text editing in some fields such as modernism studies in favor of genetic or synoptic models of composition and textual production.
Sexually explicit images are among the oldest known representational artifacts, and yet none of these were ever understood as “pornography” until the word and concept began to emerge in Western European languages during the 19th century. At that time, it was used equally to refer to written texts and visual representations. The word has since entered into much more widespread usage, often referring to any and all sexually explicit material, more often to material that appears specifically designed “to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings” (Oxford English Dictionary). Since the popularization of internet pornography in the late 20th century, the term has even come to be applied to any image considered to emphasize the pleasure and seduction of the viewer over realistic representation (as in “food porn,” “real estate porn,” etc.). Many attempts have been made to define pornography more specifically, but little consensus has been achieved. Courts of law have generally avoided defining the word “pornography,” preferring to categorize sexually explicit or arousing representations in terms of “obscenity.” Feminist scholars have disagreed on the definition of pornography to the extent that the conflict became known as the “Porn Wars” of the last several decades of the 20th century. Sexually explicit or sexually stimulating representations can elicit powerful emotional responses that vary widely, and they are inextricable from questions of social power. Thus, the very act of defining pornography is implicated in political struggles over some of the most fundamental issues of human life: gender, sexuality, social equality, and the nature and power of representations. There remains no general or stable agreement concerning what it is, what effects it may have, or even whether it exists at all.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.
John D. Niles
The human capacity for oral communication is superbly well developed. While other animals produce meaningful sounds, most linguists agree that only human beings are possessed of true language, with its complex grammar. Moreover, only humans have the ability to tell stories, with their contrary-to-fact capabilities. This fact has momentous implications for the complexity of the oral communications that humans can produce, not just in conversation but also in a wide array of artistic genres. It is likewise true that only human beings enjoy the benefits of literacy; that is, only humans have developed technologies that enable the sounds of speech to be made visible and construed through one or another type of graphemic representation. Although orality is as innate to the human condition as is breathing or walking, competence in literacy requires training, and it has traditionally been the accomplishment of an educated elite. Correspondingly, the transmutation of oral art forms into writing—that is, the production of what can be called “oral literature”—is a relatively rare and special phenomenon compared with the ease with which people cultivate those art forms themselves. All the same, a large amount of the world’s recorded literature appears to be closely related to oral art forms, deriving directly from them in some instances. Literature of this kind is an oral/literary hybrid. It can fittingly be called “literature of the third domain,” for while it differs in character from literature produced in writing by well-educated people, the fact that it exists in writing distinguishes it from oral communication, even though it may closely resemble oral art forms in its stylized patterning. Understanding the nature of that hybridity requires an engagement not just with the dynamics of oral tradition but also with the processes by which written records of oral art forms are produced. In former days, this was through the cooperative efforts of speakers, scribes, and editors. Since the early 20th century, innovative technologies have opened up new possibilities of representation, not just through print but also through video and audio recordings that preserve a facsimile of the voice. Nevertheless, problems relating to the representation of oral art forms via other media are endemic to the category of oral literature and practically define it as such.