Character is a property of narrative and discursive textuality, even as it is also a moral and ethical category referring to individual and collective norms of behavior and motive. This double valence has affected the concept since Aristotle and Plato first began the unfinished, centuries-long project of literary theory. On the one hand, stemming from Aristotle, there has been a tradition of formalist conceptions of character, understanding it as a device used by writers to drive narrative momentum and effect transformations within the discourse. The domain of action, and its variously entailed reactions and consequences, was thought to belong to the agents of narrative discourse by rights, while what was generally called their “character” typically concerned the incidental qualifications and explanations of their actions in speech and thought. Once that distinction is made, however, there are smaller and smaller units into which agency can logically be subdivided, and more and more arbitrary and capricious qualities of character used to flesh out an abstract narratological principle. The histories of formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism attest to this labor of specialization and fissiparous subdivision of the bound concepts of agent and character. On the other hand, stemming from Plato, we see a centuries-long interest in the mutually interactive relations between imaginary persons, or fictional selves, and the fashioning of public or social selves in regimes of education and discipline. The question of the role of literary characters in the formation of good citizens, or indeed delinquent ones, is one that refuses to go away, since it has proven impossible to separate fiction from reality in the complex processes of self-fashioning through which every subject must go. One last matter of interest has exerted more theoretical influence over the concept in recent years, and that is the topic of affects: the qualities and intensities of human feelings can be seen to have had a major bearing on the writing and elaboration of fictional beings, and vice versa, at least since the late 19th century.
The Arabic language has a rich history of literary criticism and theory, starting from the 8th century ce up to the 21st century. This literary criticism and theory engages with a poetic tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. The inquiry into literary quality was motivated by an interest in evaluating poetry, a general concern with eloquent speech, whether in verse or prose, and by the desire to articulate the beauty of the Quran. The transmission of Aristotle’s Poetics into Arabic also spurred interest in the poetic, particularly in Arabic philosophy. The study of eloquence crystallized into a standardized science by the 13th century ce, with branches focusing on (1) the role of syntax in literary beauty (the science of meanings); (2) simile, metaphor, and metonymy (the science of elucidation); and (3) rhetorical figures (the science of rhetorical figures). The aesthetic developed in the early criticism of the 9th and 10th centuries was concerned with articulating the merits of an idealized classical style of pre-Islamic poetry, from which the “modern” poets of the early Abbasid period diverged. This classically oriented aesthetic was dominated by a concern with the truthfulness and naturalness of poetry, typical of the style of the “ancients,” on the one hand, and the limits of unrealistic imagery and affected artificiality, which characterized the more ornate modern Abbasid style, on the other. This binary outlook shifted after the 10th century, however, to an aesthetic of wonder. A theory of aesthetic experience began to develop, therefore, which was based on the ability of poetic language to evoke wonder in the recipient. As a result, wonder-enhancing characteristics such as strangeness, the unexpected, and the rare became essential components of aesthetic judgment. Moreover, the ability of language to make meaning manifest in ways that allow for an experience of discovery and hence wonder, became the foundation of aesthetic inquiry in post-10th century Arabic literary theory.
The contested category of Asian American literature presents a rich opportunity to explore questions of epistemology. At the start of the 21st century, a formal turn in literary study further illuminates shifts in structures of knowledge and ways of knowing. Asian American literature emerged in the 1970s as a critical response to a history of exclusion and misrepresentation. As the field established itself, literary knowledge was defined quite narrowly: it is produced by Asian Americans and the subject of knowledge is Asian America itself. The reading practices that arise from this central paradigm have been called “instrumental” or “sociological,” insofar as they conceive of literary language, with varying degrees of formal interest, as an instrument or expression of Asian America. From the 2000s onward, scholarship on Asian American form and poetics has grown steadily, and what distinguishes this particular movement is its privileging of form as its primary object of investigation. Correspondingly the subject of knowledge also shifts from Asian America as the default referent to Asian American literature and the literary tradition. Critics note that one consequence of making form the prime objective is a potential tendency to drift away from the ambit of Asian America altogether. Those literary texts featuring conspicuous formal experimentation have garnered a lot of attention; less has been paid to the early texts, like the anthology Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974), where formal concerns are not as explicit. Yet upon closer examination of Aiiieeeee! one discovers another type of figurative activity that can help redefine Asian American literary knowledge, offering us new ways of reading and looking at race.