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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

Reading  

Stephen Watt

“Reading” is one of the most provocative terms in literary theory, in part because it connotes both an activity and a product: on the one hand, an effort to comprehend a text or object of knowledge, and on the other, a more formal response. Both senses of the term originate in the premise that literary and other cultural texts—including performances, scripted or not—require a more deliberative parsing than weather reports and recipes, or sentences like “rain is expected today” and “add one cup of flour.” At the same time, reading serves as an explanatory trope across various sites of 21st-century culture; in a tennis match, players “read” the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and strategize accordingly; a cab driver “reads” a GPS when plotting an efficient route to convey a passenger. But an engagement with literary and cultural texts is a different matter. In its former sense as a set of protocols or procedures, reading resides at the center of disciplinary debates as newly formed schools, theories, or methods rise to challenge dominant notions of understanding literature, film, painting, and other forms. Frequently, these debates focus on tensions between binary oppositions (real or presumed): casual versus professional reading (or fast vs. slow), surface reading versus symptomatic reading, close reading versus distant reading, and others. Like the term “reading,” readers are variously described as “informed,” “ideal,” “implied,” and more. In some theoretical formulations, they are anticipated by texts; in others, readers produce or complete them by filling lacunae or conducting other tasks. Complicating matters further, reading also exists in close proximity to several other terms with which it is often associated: interpretation, criticism, and critique. Issues of “textuality” introduce yet another factor in disagreements about the priorities of critical reading, as notions of a relatively autonomous or closed work or object have been supplanted by a focus on both historical context and a work’s “intertextuality,” or its inevitable relationship to, even quotation of, other texts. In the latter sense of a reading as an intellectual or scholarly product, more variables inform definitions. Every reading of a text, as Paul Ricouer describes, “takes place within a community, a tradition, or a living current of thought.” The term “reading” is complicated not only because of the thing studied but also because of both the historically grounded human subject undertaking the activity and the disciplinary expectations shaping and delimiting the interpretations they produce. And, in the 21st century, technologies and practices have emerged to revise these conversations, including machine learning, computational modeling, and digital textuality.

Article

Parody, Pastiche, and Intertextuality in Asian American Novels  

Amy C. Tang

The repetition and reframing of styles, forms, and texts variously known as pastiche, parody, intertextuality, appropriation, or sampling is a pervasive practice in Asian American literature. Since the emergence of Asian American literary studies in the 1970s, such strategies have formed a key site for negotiating the terms of Asian American identity, politics, and culture. While pastiche has been recognized as a signature style of postmodern culture at large, it has held particular significance for Asian American literary and cultural studies because of its resonance with Asian American identity. Because Asian Americans have long been stereotyped as mimics of Western culture, and because the category Asian American refers to a coalition of multiple and diverse ethnic groups, Asian American identity itself seems constituted by the formal operations of imitation and recombination central to parody and pastiche. The close alignment between Asian American identity and these formal practices has made shifting critical attitudes toward parody, pastiche, and intertextuality into a telling register of evolving conceptions of Asian American identity. In the cultural nationalist era of the 1970s, pastiche was seen as the formal expression of Asian Americans’ tendency to repeat and reproduce dominant ideologies, a sign of complicity with white racism, and a lack of cultural integrity. By contrast, a second wave of Asian American criticism in the 1990s embraced strategies of textual repetition as subversive parody rather than complicit pastiche, reinterpreting them as articulations of a politically oppositional, hybrid and heterogeneous Asian American subject. Since the turn of the millennium, the use of parody, pastiche, and intertextuality in Viet Nguyen’s prize-winning 2015 novel The Sympathizer intimates yet another iteration of Asian American identity centered on the war refugee, a model of Asian American subjectivity which shifts attention from traditional topics of immigration and assimilation to urgent questions of imperialism and militarism. Taken together, these examples demonstrate how the formal strategies of parody, pastiche, and intertextuality have served as crucial sites for the invention and reinvention of Asian American identity, politics, and aesthetics.

Article

Anthology  

Ben Grant

Anthologies, in the broadest sense of collections of independent texts, have always played an important role in preserving and spreading the written word, and collections of short forms, such as proverbs, wise sayings, and epigraphs, have a long history. The literary anthology, however, is of comparatively recent provenance, having come to prominence only during the long 18th century, when the modern concept of “literature” itself emerged. Since that time, it has been a fundamental part of literary culture: not only have literary texts been published in anthologies, but also the genre of the anthology has done much to shape their form and content, and to influence the ways in which they are read and taught, particularly as literary criticism has developed in tandem with the rise of the anthology. The anthology has also stimulated innovation in many periods and places by providing a model for writers of different genres of literature to emulate, and it has been argued that the form of the novel is much indebted to the anthology. This is connected to its close association with the figure of the reader. Furthermore, anthologies have helped to define what literature is, and been crucial to the canonization of texts, authors, and genres, and the consolidation of literary traditions. It is therefore not surprising that they were at the heart of the theoretical and pedagogical debates within literary studies known as the canon wars, which raged during the 1980s and 1990s. In this role, they contributed much to discussions concerning the theories and politics of identity, and to such approaches as feminism and race studies. The connection between the anthology and literary theory extends beyond this, however: theory itself has been subject to widespread anthologization, which has affected its practice and reception; the form of theoretical writing can in certain respects be understood as anthological; and the anthology is an important object of theoretical attention. For instance, given the potential which the digital age holds to transform how texts are disseminated and consumed, and the importance of finding ways to classify and navigate the digital archive, anthology studies is likely to figure largely in the Digital Humanities.