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date: 30 November 2020

Stylelocked

  • Daniel HartleyDaniel HartleyDepartment of English Studies, Durham University

Summary

Modern style emerged from the ruins of the premodern “separation of styles” (high, middle, and low). Whereas, previously, only the nobility could be represented in the high style and commoners in the low, modern style harbors a democratic, generic potential: in principle, anyone can write about anything in any way he or she likes. The history of modern style, as a central critical and compositional principle, is thus deeply imbricated with modern democracy and capitalist modernity. It has a unique relationship to the history of realism, which was itself premised upon the demise of the separation of styles. Many critics (e.g., Erich Auerbach, Roland Barthes, and Fredric Jameson) stress the way in which, as a concept and linguistic practice, style connects the body to a generic, Utopian potential of the everyday. Feminist critics, such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, have pursued style’s relationship to the body to delineate a specifically feminine mode of writing [écriture féminine]. Marxist critics, such as Raymond Williams, have argued that style should be understood as a linguistic mode of social relationship. The corollary is that social contradictions are experienced by writers as problems of style (e.g., in Thomas Hardy: how to unite the “educated” style of the urban ruling class with the “customary” style of the rural working class into a single artistic whole). Other critics (e.g., Franco Moretti, Roberto Schwarz) have extended this logic to the scale of “world literature:” they identify stylistic discontinuity as a feature of peripheral world literature that seeks to imitate European realist forms; it is caused by a mismatch between prevailing modes of production and dominant ideologies at the core and the (semi-)periphery of the capitalist world-system. Free indirect style, which merges narrator and character into a new, third voice, has been identified as a key feature of prose fiction in the world-systemic core—the symbolic embodiment of modern, bourgeois forms of power (an “impersonal intimacy”). Finally, “late style”—a concept associated with Theodor W. Adorno and Edward W. Said—has become an influential way of characterizing works of artistic maturity written as the author approaches old age and death (though it is certainly not limited to biological maturity). It is a style in which form and subjectivity become torn from one another, the latter freeing itself only then to subtract itself (rather than “express” itself). Style thus hovers between the impersonality of the demos and the grave.

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