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 As a discipline semiotics seems small, vulnerable and out-of-date.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.
Stephanie Nelson and Barry Spence
Time is an inherent, constitutive aspect of narrative, whether the narrative concerns fiction or fact. To speak of narrative is to invoke time and multiple temporalities. Aristotle’s emphasis on action as a primary component of narrative implicitly acknowledges time as fundamental, since any action requires time. Whether narrative is seen as a series of connected events or as primarily the creation of a storyworld, the functional and structural roles of time stand. As a result of this, time has been one of the most analyzed, researched, and theorized subjects in the field of narrative theory. Discussions concerning such narrative concepts as story, plot, character, or point of view can hardly avoid considering temporal dynamics. And the elemental nature of time in narrative remains constant whether narrative is conceived more narrowly as depending on the presence of a narrator or is defined as the conjunction of a story and its representation. To consider the ways in which narratives involve the interrelationships of different temporalities is also to be reminded of the disjunction between so-called “real” or clock time and time as it is experienced. In contrast to the uniform directionality of clock time, time as it is experienced is constantly intertwined with memory and anticipation: that is, any experienced present is also interwoven with multiple pasts and futures. Narrative time captures this experience. Since a narrative is always a representation, a particular and subjective presentation of a story, the chronological sequence of events in a narrative may be represented in an infinite variety of ways. A given story can be told from its beginning moving through to its conclusion, or it can start with the end and build the story by revisiting earlier events, or it may start in the middle and proceed toward its end and at various points tack backward to earlier points, or it can do any combination of these. A representation of a story can create two storylines in parallel, the narrative crosscutting between the concurrent storylines, just as individuals can participate in one spatial-temporal setting while also immersed in another, whether technologically (as on the telephone or Internet) or mentally. In this way narrative time is in many ways truer to human experience than what is conventionally thought of as real time, namely the uniform absolute time undermined by Einstein’s discovery of relativity. What seems indisputable is that humans are hardwired to create and communicate with narrative; they habitually generate and trade in narratives as a way of making meaning of experience and of building connections with fellow humans. As a result, humans also constantly manipulate time, making sense of past, present, and future experiences through narrative. Just as anticipation of the future relies on the sense one makes of the present, the act of remembering has more to do with making narrative meaning than with accessing some fixed or stable mental recording of an event. Time is something an audience actively creates rather than something it passively experiences, and this may be borne out most vividly in the continuous activity of making narratives.
Prosody refers, most broadly, to versification and pronunciation. Historically, prosody referred to the branch of grammar that contained versification as a subsection, but since the late 19th century literary scholars and poets have interchanged versification and prosody, while linguists use prosody to refer to pronunciation. Since the beginning of the 20th century scholars have also referred to prosody as a “poetics,” or a system of meaning-making, and do not directly engage in analysis of meter but rather use the term prosody to signify any aspect of literary style or figurative language that might contribute to the affective register of verse-form. The philological register of prosody may use versification in order to make a claim about how a verse-form reflects a national, historical, or even ethnic character, a practice that began in earnest during the mid-18th century and persists into the 21st century, though with some critical distance. Because the measure of verse is subjective and historically contingent, debates and discussions about prosody are a constant and tend to repeat. There is no one progress narrative of prosody, writ large, but the progress narrative of poetry within prosodic discourse is one of its main tropes. That is, while there are theories of prosody that posit progression, there is little agreement about the evolution or even naming of prosodic systems. Each history of prosody therefore posits a new theory. Thus, the theory of prosody might always be seen as the proliferation of conflicting theories about prosody, in no way limited to one national language; in fact, theories of prosody from other languages applied to English are much older and more robust than theories of prosody that derive from only English—for instance, measuring English by Latin prosody, or French, or German, and so on. Despite the proliferation of conflicting theories, scholars who work on prosody nevertheless agree broadly that, like the subject of grammar under which prosody was historically a subset, prosody is a set of interrelated features in language that, according to how you measure these features, either appear to adhere to a particular system or do not. Also, scholars agree that, like grammar, prosody as an interpretive system often hovers between the prescriptive and the descriptive. In the conflicts over theories of prosody, adherents to one system attempt to convince adherents to another that theirs is superior, and these debates and conflicts continue unabated in linguistic prosodic criticism. Those who practice literary prosodic criticism in the 21st century tend to adopt a system of verse-measure with little interest in its history, or even with what linguistic prosodic critics might call a sharp disregard for its inaccuracy. Linguistic prosodists—who have made significant advances in the field—are sidelined by the momentum of a literary history that has rendered their ongoing work too specialized for general use. There are also those who believe that prosody—or, rather, specific paralinguistic features of prosody—exists, like grammar, in particular bodies, to be awakened or cultivated by a particular kind of reading or hearing ear or a particular kind of feeling body. Trends in cognitive science have influenced one strain of theorizing about prosody as a form of subconscious knowledge in no way dependent on the cultural formations that may have organized sonic features into recognizable systems. Historical prosodists, those who study the history of thinking about prosodic form but also practice prosodic reading, posit that prosody is culturally contingent and, along with phenomenology, might be better considered as a part of cultural criticism rather than a privileged key to poetic meaning. Finally, where prosodic theory happens is a live question. Whether discourse about prosody (or meta-metrical discourse, as in Gascoigne or the various grammars discussed here) is prosodic theory or whether poets writing in a variety of prosodic forms (whether interpreted by critics or not) posit prosodic theories in their practice is at the heart of what many mischaracterize as a divide between historical prosody and other theories of reading. This divide is artificial, but the fact is that disagreements about what and how prosody means have led to a variety of approaches to the study of prosody in poetry, and despite this disagreement prosody is nevertheless taught in most academic settings as if it has an agreed upon past, present, and future.
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.
Intertextuality is a concept first outlined in the work of poststructuralist theorists Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes and refers to the emergence of and understanding of any individual text out of the vast network of discourses and languages that make up culture. No text, in the light of intertextuality, stands alone; all texts have their existence and their meaning in relation to a practically infinite field of prior texts and prior significations. Such a vision of textuality emerges from 20th-century developments in our understanding of what it means to use and to be in language. No speaker creates their language from scratch; all linguistic utterances depend upon the employment and redeployment of already existent utterances. Intertextuality is part, then, of a radical rethinking of human subjectivity and human expression, a rethinking that at its most extreme argues it is language rather than human intention that generates meaning. Having found expression in the radical texts of early poststructuralism, intertextuality became a popular concept within literary criticism, often reimagined in ways that appear far less skeptical about authorial intentionality. A survey of literary theory and practice from the 1970s onward will show a host of critics and theorists employing the term to foreground formalist, political, psychoanalytical, feminist, postcolonial, postmodernist, and other modes of interpretation and commentary. At times these approaches bring the concept much closer to ideas centered in the humanistic subject, such as influence, allusion, citation, and appropriation, while at other times they continue and extend the deconstruction of traditional models of intention. What all theories and practices of intertextuality seem to share, however, is a need to reimagine the act of reading, given that reading can no longer be confined to the reader’s encounter with a single, stable, inviolable text. Taken together, intertextual theories and practices have demonstrated in a myriad of ways the need to move beyond the Author—Text—Reader model to models of reading which, by treating all texts as intertexts, confront the limits of interpretation itself.
Space is a fundamental, ineliminable dimension of existence, which manifests itself in every aspect of material, psychological, and social life. It is also a purely dimensional category, in the sense that it cannot be directly perceived. All representations, therefore, have a necessary spatial dimension and all representations of space require a medium (like objects and events) through which its presence can be made manifest. Moreover, spatial concepts are essential tools for rational thought, indeed, quite possibly a foundational element of rationality itself. Spatial metaphors consequently permeate every aspect of thinking, including topics that are not usually taken to have an intrinsically spatial dimension—from the spatialization of time that Zeno exploited and Henri Bergson complained about to the heavily spatialized vocabulary of information technology (with its computer domains, IP addresses, etc.). This combination of existential importance and cognitive adaptability helps to explain space’s enduring appeal as a focus of critical attention in literary studies but also the difficulty of the subject: the multifariousness and polysemy of spatial terms leads to much confusion between different modes of spatiality and much reliance on loose and often mixed metaphors. It is important, then, for literary critics and theorists to attend closely to the zones of overlap and confusion that might cloud spatial analyses in order to maximize the explanatory potential of the cluster of analytic tools that fall under the heading of spatial analysis. This has become especially apparent in the wake of the spatial turn that took place in literary theory and criticism toward the end of the 20th century.
David Vichnar and Louis Armand
Etymologically and conceptually linked with sense perception (as opposed to, in the Platonic tradition, noēsis or intellection) in ancient, medieval, and early-modern thought, aisthēsis formed part of theorizing not only questions surrounding beauty and art, but also perception, epistemology, and even ontology (in, for instance, the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas). During the Enlightenment and its project of subdivision and categorization of the “humanities,” aisthēsis became subsumed, in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, by “aesthetics,” the study of beauty in the narrower sense. However, by the beginning of the 20th century and the Marxist/Freudian/Saussurean revolution in humanist inquiry and the “avant-garde” revolution in the arts, aisthēsis resumed its place and function as a central node in a vast network of concerns: for the Marxists, the history of aisthēsis follows the pattern of social development of progressive mastery over nature by humankind, described as a process of rationalization (the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory); in psychoanalysis and phenomenology, artistic activity is regarded as the “sublimated” expression of socially objectionable energies, taking place in a world conceived of as indefinite and open multiplicity (John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, et al.); in poststructuralist theory, the image not simply “acquires” a politico-aesthetic function by way of an act of judgement, but rather accedes in its very technological condition to a political imaginary, to an aesthetics as such (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, et al.). In the second half of the 20th century, with the progressive technologization of society, aisthēsis formed the backbone of media studies, which examines how technological innovation overthrows a settled political and aesthetic order, with special attention paid to the effects of electronic media and the hypertext: non-linearity, repetitiveness, discontinuity, intuition (e.g., Marshall McLuhan and Jay David Bolter). At the dawn of the 21st century, in the aesthetico-mimetic doubling of the mediasphere, from teletext and satellite TV to the World Wide Web and GPS, a critical, ecological mode of thinking aisthēsis assumes the ideal function of an “avant-gardism” in affecting the structure of how things come to mean, how meaning is virtualized, and how the virtual is lived.
From the Platonic ur-antiformalism, the reaction to which gave shape and purpose to classical and early modern literary theory, to the agon between form and history that dominated 20th-century literary criticism and pedagogy, the concept of form and the methodologies of its study (formalism) have at once grounded and challenged our understanding of literature. Is form an ornament or supplement to literature’s essential content, a component of literature’s meaning and function, or the very defining essence of the literary? Does form inhere in the macro-structures of literary mode and genre, the micro-structures of figure, style, and prosody, or the unique shape of the individual text? Does form stand apart and insulated from the vicissitudes of history and the pressures of ideology, is it the object (or agent) of historical and ideological determination, or does it provide us a vantage from which to understand and perhaps resist them? These questions and the variety of answers they have generated have shaped and continue to shape both the practice of literary studies and its status as an academic discipline.
Yoon Sun Lee
The goal of narratology is to construct models or statements that apply universally to narratives as such, or to recognized types of narrative, defined primarily through formal characteristics. In contrast, Asian American literature is defined by reference to a social group with a concrete historical existence. Though the two enterprises may seem to have little in common, their rapprochement can be productive. Categories from both classical narrative theory as well as more recent cognitive narratology can help identify and compare important features of Asian American narratives. Conversely, Asian American literature shows how narratology can build on the knowledge that narrative is a social practice, and that its formal analysis requires the consideration of power, kinship, diaspora, and racial embodiment, as well as gender. For example, the relation between the narrator and narratee plays a major role in canonical works of Asian American literature; narratological analysis benefits from examining how this relation is shaped by generational and spatial dislocation, as well as claims to referential truth.
The concept of the “transpacific” has inherent asymmetries that must be explored in order to generate a more nuanced interpretive logic of transpacific possibility. Such epistemic asymmetry should be considered not simply as a description of the massive inequalities undergirding the geopolitical arrangements of the transpacific world, but also as a catalyst through which transpacific knowledge and critical orientations of the transpacific are produced. Scholarship evidences three key turns—through militarization, the ecological, and indigeneity—that collectively work to map the uneven terrain of the transpacific. The poet Lawson Inada’s wry observation about the epistemic, economic, and aesthetic challenges posed by the transpacific—that “the problem . . . is water”—provides a starting point from which to trace a fluid genealogy of transpacific literary and cultural production. This fluid genealogy traces alternative versions of the transpacific as “imaginable ageographies” to counterbalance the existing architectural ideas about security, economics, and militarization that have delimited this arena. Analysis of a wide range of texts demonstrates that transpacific asymmetry and transpacific interconnection can both be usefully leveraged to disrupt hierarchies of knowledge and practice.