Asian American literary studies, and multi-ethnic literatures more broadly, have maintained a constant faith in the power of literature as a potential tool of anti-racist education. This faith in literature’s potential is not naïve, since it also recognizes how even the most diverse and ideal literary education can be co-opted by the workings of capitalism and neoliberalism. These fields are founded in an enduring and powerful belief that literature affects the social, cultural, and political esteem of a minority group in the United States. Within the field of Asian American studies, academics, activists, and cultural critics have sought to harness the power of various forms of cultural discourse and literature by mediating the stories told about (and at times by) Asian Americans. As Asian American literature has grown in popularity, there has been increasing attention to questions of who is represented within Asian American literature and who is deemed worthy to produce these representations. Such concerns have over time produced an abiding if somewhat tacit interest in questions of literary reception in the field. In fact, although many of the major literary controversies in Asian American studies have circulated around questions of representation and reception and ushered in paradigm shifts in how the field has conceptualized itself, it is an area that remains understudied. Asian American literary reception study and studies of readership are still emerging and crucial areas of analysis that could pose and posit answers to questions of literature’s possibilities and limitations as a tool of anti-racism in 21st-century America.
“Discourse” is language in use, and discourse analysis is the study of language in use. Language occurs, reflects, and is interpreted within social and ideological contexts. In turn, language constructs social realities, relationships, and power structures. Discourse analysis explores those functions, operations, and powers of discourse, in texts and other forms of communication events, investigating the ways in which discourse becomes meaningful. It focuses on how implicatures arise in relation to the contexts in which discourse functions. Discourse analysis is particularly interested in the interpersonal dimensions of discourse and in the social relationships and positions constructed through discourse. Discourse analysis has chiefly been informed by text linguistics and pragmatics, though its applications span many disciplines, from geography to psychology, and from literature to politics. This is partly because discourse is a universal and transdisciplinary phenomenon, and partly because many disciplines are asking similar research questions of the discourses and discursive constructs with which they engage. While traditional discourse analysis can be loosely divided into text-focused and speech-focused domains, many discourse phenomena occur across modes, and many discourse analytic approaches are likewise relevant across modes. Discourse is also being recognized as inherently (and in some areas increasingly) multimodal, opening up new avenues of study. Discourse analysis is essentially a critically reflexive field. It is motivated by an interest in social structures and ideologies underscoring discourses and discourse practices and also in social structures and ideologies embedded within discourse analytical stances. This criticality makes it a crucially important tool for the 21st-century era of instant global sharing of discourse, of easily digitally manipulable multimedia discourse, and of “post-truth” Western discourses of political power.
Patrick Colm Hogan
Like writers elsewhere, literary theorists in North America have drawn on philosophical, psychological, political, and other writings to understand the nature and function of literature. Indeed, American literary theory is in some ways best thought of as reworking—selecting, hierarchizing, interpreting, and above all synthesizing—a particular body of such precursor texts in order to produce ideas and practices that have value for literary study in an American context. To understand the precise nature of this re-fashioning of theory, we need to begin with an understanding of just what literary theory is, what topics it addresses, what varieties it comprises. Though often seen as a unitary field, literary theory may be normative or descriptive and explanatory; it may address individual works or groups of works. In short, it has many varieties. Next, it is important to consider the context in which theory and criticism are produced. Specifically, we need to understand the professional and institutional structures in which theory is articulated and applied, in particular the ways it enters into teaching and publication practices. There are also ideological or cultural influences on the nature and development of literary theory in America, including issues of national self-concept. These bear especially on the ways in which theorists address political concerns or take up political rhetoric. Of course, to understand American literary theories, one must consider not only the institutional, professional, and cultural backgrounds, but the theories themselves. These theories may be broadly organized into global and local or topical theories, theories that provide a general basis for theoretical reflection and theories that focus on specific topics, such as LGBT literature or African American literature. American literary theory has tended to be of the latter sort. In connection with this, American theory has tended to draw on a few global theories and a few “master theorists,” as we might call them. The most common way of treating these global theories and theorists in topical theories is to intertwine them syncretistically, producing mixed or eclectic theories. Finally, one might distinguish canonical and non-canonical theories, which is to say, theories that are widely recognized and taught as theories and theories that are advocated by a more limited group of partisans. This division is often consequential for the development of intellectual trends as the challenges and opportunities posed by non-canonical theories, theories that offer alternatives to the status quo, may affect the historical trajectory of literary theory, changing its course. That redirection of theory may be particularly likely in the current social context, where the humanities are threatened both politically and institutionally (e.g., in university funding).
Francisco Vaz da Silva
Because the marvelous elements in fairy tales call for an explanation, a cohort of bright minds have pored over the problem of fairy-tale symbolism. Models sharing the nineteenth-century penchant for genetic inquiries have assumed that symbols are the survivals of archaic metaphors. Thus, Max Müller proposed that myths and fairy tales stem from obscured metaphors about solar phenomena; Sigmund Freud speculated that fairy-tale symbolism is the fossilized residue of primordial sexual metaphors; and Carl Jung submitted that symbols express immanent archetypes of the human psyche. Such early approaches assume that symbols convey fixed meanings, and they disregard the effects of folklore variation on meanings. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did take variation into account. They conceived Märchen in terms of immanent blueprints incessantly recreated in myriad retellings, but they never tried to make sense of the themes by means of the variants. This path was taken by folklorists influenced by Freud. Alan Dundes proposed to harness tale variants to grasp symbolic equivalences, and he pioneered the study of folk metaphors. But Dundes focused on preset Freudian symbols, a trend that Bengt Holbek followed. To this day, the prospect of addressing fairy-tale symbolism beyond Freud’s assumption of fixed translations remains elusive. Nevertheless, the basic tools are available. Maria Tatar remarked that fairy tales are metaphoric devices, and Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out that metaphors—in switching terms that belong to different codes—lay bare the broader semantic field underlying each transposition. Müller, Freud, Dundes, Tatar, and Lévi-Strauss variously glimpsed metaphoric patterns in tale variations. The time is ripe to synthesize these intuitions in the light of contemporary cognitive research on conceptual metaphor, so as to address the creative dynamics of symbolism in fairy tales.
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.
“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.
Description is generally associated with the novel in its modern form, a perception captured in one of the dictums from Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Descriptions: There are always too many of them in novels.” But description has a much longer history and abounds in other genres, from the epic to lyric and didactic poetry to tragedy and beyond. In the 18th century, it was even considered a genre unto itself, in the newly conceived genre of descriptive poetry popularized by the Scottish poet James Thomson. Description also features prominently in genres of writing often considered nonliterary, such as encyclopedias, scientific writing, how-to manuals, and travel guides. Indeed, critical suspicion surrounding description in Western rhetorical and poetic tradition stems in part from the perception that it can too easily become a site for the incursion of the nonliterary (i.e., things rather than people, scientific or technical knowledge, abstruse vocabulary) into the literary domain. Description resists easy definition and has been characterized as one of the blind spots of Western literary discourse. In antiquity, rhetorical and poetic treatises gave scant attention to description, and neoclassical poetic doctrine was more concerned with policing description’s boundaries than defining it. It was not until the 18th century that description emerged as a theoretical problem worthy of debate and as a prominent literary practice. Since antiquity, description has been associated with visualization and the visual arts, through the rhetorical figures of enargeia and ekphrasis and the Renaissance doctrine of ut pictura poesis. Through this association, description has close ties to mimesis and has proved especially vulnerable to Platonic attacks on poetry, and on literature more broadly, as a mere copy of reality. In the 19th century, description featured prominently in the realist novel, but in the mid-20th century it was used, notably by the French New Novelists, as a means of contesting realism. Formalist and structuralist criticism sparked renewed interest in theorizing description in the 1970s and 1980s. At the beginning of the 21st century, in an age of interdisciplinarity when the boundaries between the literary and the nonliterary have become increasingly porous, description has once again emerged as a key theoretical problem for thinking across disciplines and has even been proposed as a new mode of reading that avoids the pitfalls of humanist hermeneutics.