1-16 of 16 Results

  • Keywords: form x
Clear all

Article

Sublime  

Ian Balfour

The sublime as an aesthetic category has an extraordinarily discontinuous history in Western criticism and theory, though the phenomena it points to in art and nature are without historical limit, or virtually so. The sublime as a concept and phenomenon is harder to define than many aesthetic concepts, partly because of its content and partly because of the absence of a definition in the first great surviving text on the subject, Longinus’s On the Sublime. The sublime is inflected differently in the major theorists: in Longinus it produces ecstasy or transport in the reader or listener; in Burke its main ingredient is terror (but supplemented by infinity and obscurity); and in Kant’s bifurcated system of the mathematical and dynamic sublime, the former entails a cognitive overload, a breakdown of the imagination, and the ability to represent, whereas in the latter, the subject, after first being threatened, virtually, by powerful nature outside her or him, turns inward to discover a power of reason able to think beyond the realm of the senses. Many theorists testify to the effect of transcendence or exaltation of the self on the far side of a disturbing, disorienting experience that at least momentarily suspends or even annihilates the self. A great deal in the theoretical-critical texts turns on the force of singularly impressive examples, which may or may not exceed the designs of the theoretical axioms they are meant to exemplify. Examples of sublimity are by no means limited to nature and art but spill over into numerous domains of cultural and social life. The singular force of the individual examples, it is argued, nonetheless tends to work out similarly in certain genres conducive to the sublime (epic, tragedy) but somewhat differently from one genre to another. The heyday of the theory and critical engagement with the sublime lasts, in Western Europe and a little beyond, from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. But it does not simply go away, with sublime aesthetic production and critical reflection on the sublime present in the likes of Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and—to Adorno’s mind—in the art of modernism generally, in its critical swerve from the canons of what had counted as beauty. The sublime flourished as a topic in theory of criticism of the poststructuralist era, in figures such as Lyotard and Paul de Man but also in Fredric Jameson’s analysis of the cultural logic of late capitalism. The then current drive to critique the principle and some protocols of representation found an almost tailor-made topic in Enlightenment and Romantic theory of the sublime where, within philosophy, representation had been rendered problematic in robust fashion.

Article

Prosody  

Meredith Martin

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.

Article

Sean Pryor

If poetics customarily deals with generalities, history seems to insist on particulars. In the 21st century, various literary critics have sought to manage these competing imperatives by developing an “historical poetics.” These critics pursue sometimes very different projects, working with diverse methodologies and theoretical frameworks, but they share a desire to think again about the relation between poetics and history. Some critics have pursued an historical poetics by conducting quantitative studies of changes in metrical form, while others have investigated the social uses to which poetry was put in the cultures of the past. Both approaches tend to reject received notions of the aesthetic or literary, with their emphasis on the individual poet and on the poem’s organic unity. Much work in historical poetics has focused instead on problems of genre and reception, seeking the historical significance of poetry in what is common and repeated. Sometimes this work has involved extensive archival research, examining memoirs, grammar books, philological tracts, and other materials in order to discover how poetry was conceived and interpreted at a particular time. These methods allow critics to tell histories of poetry and to reveal a history in poetry. The cultural history of poetic forms thus becomes a history of social thought and practice conducted through poetry. For other critics, however, the historical significance of a poem lies instead in the way it challenges the poetics of its time. This is to emphasize the singular over the common and repeated. In this mode, historical poetics aims both to restore poems to their proper historical moment and to show how poems work across history. The history to be valued in such cases is not a ground or world beyond the poem, but the event of the poem itself.

Article

William Gass coined the term “metafiction” in 1970 to get a handle on then-recent and innovative fictions by Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. In the critical context of the early 21st century, however, the term should be understood to name any fiction exhibiting a concern with the process, philosophy, and consequences of fiction-making. The history of metafiction is longer than that of the English-language novel. Metafictions dating from the last decade of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st typically concern themselves with the situation of discourse: they portray their characters awash in language that is potent because its origins and effects are myriad. Such metafictions ask how, why, and from where literary or narrative discourse stages its arrival on the page. In contrast, the major innovations of postmodernist, mid-20th-century metafictions are rightly characterized by Brian McHale as “ontological”; they urgently question the nature of reality as their language transports authors, narrators, readers, and characters among the different existential frames of history and fiction, past and present, and textual and corporeal reality. As a result of this difference, there is a gap between metafictional practice of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and the work of metafiction’s most influential critics: Gass, Robert Scholes, Linda Hutcheon, and Patricia Waugh, all of whom studied the varieties of metafiction in the 1970s and 1980s. As contemporary metafictions attend to the situation of discourse, they dramatize how pieces of language move—not just across pages, but across plots, cultures, and philosophies. Various motives drive this contemporary interest in dramatizing how language moves and touches, including the influence of Deconstruction in the American academy. Deconstruction, like Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism, writes drama into the very making of meaning. Contemporary ideas and materials—from Twitter narratives to viral memes to massively multiplayer online role-playing games—have mobilized discourse in new ways and transformed many of the philosophical puzzles of mid-20th-century metafiction into aspects of lived reality. Contemporary metafiction, consequently, puts metafictional devices and concerns into a new relationship with representation (mimesis). The world has caught up with metafiction, if it ever really lagged behind, and new forms of metafiction are being developed now to activate metafiction’s older questions anew.

Article

Julian Murphet

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.

Article

The creative writing of landscape and environment is riding high on the research agendas of a number of scholarly fields. In literary studies, ecocriticism has seen attempts to map a set of characteristics that constitute an environmentally oriented text, often with the result that nonfiction writing (or, less often, poetry) is the form prioritized. By contrast, fiction has been seen as less capable of embracing landscape and environment because it is concerned first and foremost with human affairs and has taken the narrative shapes that typically accompany this emphasis. However, the postwar and contemporary period has seen extensive formal experimentation running counter to this set of assumptions. First, novelists concerned with landscape and environment have found ways to demonstrate the implication of human history in natural history. Second, nonfiction writers have recognized that they might profitably deploy literary forms and techniques usually associated with fiction in their writing of landscape and environment. The upshot has been a generic coalescence and the emergence of landscape writing as a category that straddles habitual divisions in the way that literary forms are conceived. The plasticity of the environment—for better or worse—has registered in urban and rural settings, as well as those that fall somewhere between this (perhaps outmoded) binary. The increasingly unavoidable knowledge of the consequences of human actions upon the environment form an important context for the falling away of older forms such as the nature novel and act as a spur to re-conceptualize both places and ways to write about them.

Article

Aesthetic modes and categories of perception and judgement were crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s “theory of descent with modification through natural selection.” Indeed, Darwin understood the aesthetic as fundamentally constitutive of the natural historian’s method. In the closing retrospect of the journal of his circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on HMS Beagle (1836), Darwin assesses his experience in aesthetic terms—of pleasure and pain, wonder and horror, the picturesque and sublime—rather than in terms of acquired scientific knowledge. Darwin’s account of the voyage makes aesthetic discrimination the main technique of natural-historical observation: it affords cognition of the natural world as a complex interplay of formal differences constituting a dynamic totality, a living system. A key aesthetic category, the sublime, articulates the awful discrepancy between human and natural scales of history, event, and meaning. Darwin makes a strategic appeal to the aesthetic to justify his new vision of nature to the Victorian public, overriding its scandalous ethical and political implications, in On the Origin of Species (1859): “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” As well as the exposition of an argument, the Origin is a treatise on method. Darwin trains his readers to appreciate the evaluative scrutiny of formal difference that characterizes the operation of natural selection itself. The opening chapter, on artificial selection, proposes the domestic animal breeder as a “connoisseur,” expert in assessing minute morphological variations without concern for an ultimate end—that is, the improvement of the race. The figure is an analogue for natural selection, the motive principle of which is the fine but decisive discrimination (for life or death) of individual differences. The “powers of discrimination and taste” determine human evolution—constituting its medium, the semi-autonomous domain of culture—according to Darwin’s next synthetic statement of his theory. The Descent of Man (1871) proposes the supplementary agency of sexual selection as the main motor of human cultural development. Its productive principle is, once again, the evaluation of fine formal differences (“there is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things”), trained, however, upon pleasurable appearance rather than function or use. Sexual selection generates “the differences in external appearance between the races of man,” as well as between the sexes, explicitly on grounds of aesthetic preference: Darwin conflates skin color, body hair, and other physiological features with artificial ornaments in a rhapsodic vision of the infinite variety of human standards of beauty. Sexual selection claims a field of formal superfluity or redundancy, neutral with respect to the pressures of natural selection, in which the aesthetic comes into play, originated by the erotic drive but not functionally bound by it. Darwin decisively relocates aesthetic judgement—and the play of form—upon a principle of etiologically generated, infinite formal differentiation: emancipating it from the strongly normative teleological account that Victorian culture took over from German Idealism.

Article

Mark Vareschi

Literary criticism has long wavered in its attitude toward intention, sometimes considering it inaccessible and undesirable, and at other times, the source and arbiter of meaning. Much of this debate hinges on whether intention is understood as a mental event in the mind of a human or not. While some influential scholars of literature have tended to approach intention with the view that intention is a mental state, philosophers of action have long held that intention is a description of action that occurs in the world. This latter view promises to reinvigorate intention as a useful concept in literary study as scholars continue to expand the notion of text, beyond its purely verbal component, to text understood as the literary artifact comprising, and shaped by, human and nonhuman agency alike.

Article

Patrick Jagoda

Networks influence practically every subfield of literary studies. Unlike hierarchies and centralized structures, networks connote decentralization and distribution. The abstraction of this form makes it applicable to a wide variety of phenomena. For example, the metaphor and form of the network informs the way we think about communication systems in early American writing, social networks in Victorian novels, transnational circulation in postcolonial literature, and computer networks in late 20th-century cyberpunk fiction. Beyond traditional literary genres, network form is also accessible through comparative media analysis. Films, television serials, video games, and transmedia narratives may represent or evoke network structures through medium-specific techniques. The juxtaposition of different literary and artistic forms, across media, helps to defamiliarize network forms and make these complex structures available to thought. Across subfields of literary studies, critics may be drawn to networks because of their resonance with histories of the present and contemporary technoscience. Scholars may also recognize the sense of complexity and interconnection inherent in networks, which resonates with experiences of intertextuality and close reading itself. In addition to studying representations of networks, literary critics employ a variety of network-related methods. These approaches include historicist scholarship that uses network structures to think about social organization and communication in different eras, quantitative digital humanities tools that map networks of literary circulation, qualitative sociology of literature and reader-response theory that analyze networks of readers and publishers, and formalist work that compares network and aesthetic forms.

Article

Stephen Cohen

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.

Article

Daniel Tiffany

Lyric poetry is an ancient genre, enduring to the present day, but it is not continuous in its longevity. What happens to lyric poetry and how it changes during its numerous and sometimes lengthy periods of historical eclipse (such as the 18th century) may be as important to our understanding of lyric as an assessment of its periods of high achievement. For it is during these periods of relative obscurity that lyric enters into complex relations with other genres of poetry and prose, affirming the general thesis that all genres are relational and porous. The question of whether any particular properties of lyric poetry endure throughout its 2,700-year checkered history can be addressed by examining its basic powers: its forms; its figurative and narrative functions; and its styles and diction. The hierarchy of these functions is mutable, as one finds in today’s rift between a scholarly revival of formalist analysis and the increasing emphasis on diction in contemporary poetry. As a way of assessing lyric poetry’s basic operations, the present article surveys the ongoing tension between form and diction by sketching a critique of the tenets of New Formalism in literary studies, especially its presumptions about the relation of poetic form to the external world and its tendency to subject form to close analysis, as if it could yield, like style or diction, detailed knowledge of the world. Long overshadowed by the doctrinal tenets of modernist formalism, the expressive powers of diction occupy a central place in contemporary concerns about identity and social conflict, at the same time that diction (unlike form) is especially susceptible to the vocabularistic methods of “distant reading”—to the computational methods of the digital humanities. The indexical convergence of concreteness and abstraction, expression and rationalism, proximity and distance, in these poetic and scholarly experiments with diction points to precedents in the 18th century, when the emergence of Anglophone poetries in the context of colonialism and the incorporation of vernacular languages into poetic diction (via the ballad revival) intersected with the development of modern lexicography and the establishment of Standard English. The nascent transactions of poetics and positivism through the ontology of diction in the 21st century remind us that poetic diction is always changing but also that the hierarchy of form, figuration, and diction in lyric poetry inevitably shifts over time—a reconfiguration of lyric priorities that helps to shape the premises and methods of literary studies.

Article

This essay considers the expressive and figurative dynamics of Asians in science fiction in the early 20th century. Racial sentiment and policy in the era saw and defined Asians as “ineligible aliens” to exclude from immigration and citizenship. Asian figures expressed these dynamics in science fiction, adapting Orientalist tropes and Yellow Peril themes to the imperatives of the emergent genre. The invisible menace of villainous masterminds like Fu Manchu from crime and detective fiction were refigured as visible science fiction foes whose defeat redeemed the power and potential of science from its degenerate and dehumanizing application. Asian racial tropes aligned particularly with science fiction’s concern about extra-terrestrial life forms. While the term “alien” was not used in the period for such creatures, its later prominence expressed valences and associations, particularly with “invasion,” that Asians originally represented in the genre.

Article

Anthony Pym

Literary translation has progressively been dominated by a Western translation form that imposes basic binarisms, assuming separate (national) languages, a foundational opposition between domesticating and foreignizing translation strategies, and separate voices for author and translator, with the latter in a subordinate position. This binary, individualist, and nationalist conceptualization furnishes a way of talking about translations that often has little to do with the vitality and pragmatism of the literary translator’s craft, where there are mostly more than two options in play. When coupled to notions of literariness that privilege means of expression, the form also produces strong concepts of untranslatability, usually based on the banal observation that different languages offer different means of expression. A strong answer to the alleged impossibility of translation is the idea, found in Walter Benjamin and Andrey Fedorov, that literary translations do not replace their “source” or “start texts” but are instead an interpretative extension of them, and should be read as such. The Western translation form also overlooks the variety of translative activities that existed prior to its rise in the early modern period. With its emphasis on separation and accuracy, it traveled out with the railway lines and steam printing presses of modernity, supplanting most of the non-Western translation forms as literary practices. Western translation studies, as an academic discipline, has followed the same paths several generations later, imposing its binary metalanguage in the process. In this, it has become part and parcel of a world configuration of networks where a few central languages, with English as a super-central language, have enormous numbers of translations being done from them, while they themselves appear to have relatively few translations in them. This has been called the “three-percent problem,” so named because only 3 to 4 percent of texts in English are translations. The low percentage is nevertheless a function of the huge number of titles published in English, which means that English regularly has more translations than do French or Italian, for example. There are nevertheless hegemonic relations in the way that international literary events are created in central languages and then translated outward, such that a disproportionate degree of fame tends to accrue to those who write in the central languages. Can this configuration be changed? If the foundational binarisms of the Western translation form were based on the fixity of the printing press, which separated languages and objectified stable texts, then new translation forms should be sought in the global accessibility and fluidity of digital technologies, which offer translators unexplored possibilities.

Article

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.

Article

Song  

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.

Article

Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is an intellectual movement in the arts and humanities sharing certain affinities with both phenomenology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). It is a philosophically realist position often at odds with existing currents in postmodernism and critical theory. The best-known idea of OOO is that objects “withdraw” from all direct human and non-human contact, so that relations between things are always indirect and must be accounted for rather than taken for granted. More broadly speaking, however, OOO is a theory of two kinds of objects (real, sensual) and two kinds of qualities (real, sensual). Real objects and qualities are not directly accessible to thought, perception, practical use, or even causal relation, and must be approached by more allusive means. Sensual objects and qualities, by contrast, exist only for some other entity, human or otherwise. Each type of object has troubled relations with each of the two forms of qualities, resulting in four basic tensions, the analysis of which is the heart of object-oriented method in every field and not just literature. OOO literary theory has a special fondness for the weird: especially the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose work is taken to exemplify two of the key ontological tensions. Dante and Edgar Allan Poe are also key OOO figures, due to their manner of theatrically investing their characters and readers in sincere relations with objects. OOO’s relation with the formalist aesthetics of Immanuel Kant is ambivalent, since Kant is admired for cutting off the aesthetic object from its surroundings but challenged for his modernist assumption that the human and non-human must never be mixed.