Theoretical tourism – an interesting academic concern


Introducing her critical reading of Como agua para chocolate (de Laura Esquivel), Cecilia Lawless writes:

“Laura Esquivel has written an unclassifiable work, which simultaneously breaks and brings together bou[n]daries of genre so as to concoct something new in Mexican literature. Como agua para chocolate. Novela de entregas mensuales con recetas, amores y remedios caseros (1989) is a mixture of recipe book, how-to household book, socio-political and historical document of the Mexican Revolution, psychological study of male/female as well as mother/daughter relations, an exploration into gothic realms, and ultimately, an extremely readable novel. My interest in this text lies in the very basic beginnings of questioning and uncovering – “cooking-up” – the layers of possibility that this text presents. In essence, every analysis of literary work acts as a recipe ….” (p.261)

However, she observes: “how can Western feminist theory find access to this text without appropriating yet another Latin American work?
In drawing a parallel between literary theory and cooking recipes, I would admit that I am against a form of theoretical tourism on the part of the first world critic where the margins become a linguistic or critical creation, a new poetics of the exotic; however, I do enjoy tasty cooking.” (p.261)

I like this term – theoretical tourism – and it does apply well to certain criticisms of this text…

Ref: Cecilia Lawless ‘Experimental Cooking in Como agua para chocolate.’ Monographic Review / Revista Monográfica Vol.VIII pp.261-272 (I don’t have a full reference here, but I believe it is 1992)

Genres as Fields of Knowledge


Wai Chee Dimock asks: “If genres are vehicles that “actively generate and shape knowledge of the world” (Frow), what would students learn if literature were taught under this rubric?” (p.1383)

Far from being a neat catalog of what exists and what is to come, genres are a vexed attempt to deal with material that might or might not fit into that catalog.” (p.1378)

What exactly are genres? Are they a classifying system matching the phenomenal world of objects, a sorting principle that separates oranges from apples? Or are they less than that, a taxonomy that never fully taxonomizes, labels that never quite keep things straight? What archives come with genres, what critical lexicons do they offer, and what maps do they yield? And how does the rise of digitization change these archives, lexicons, and maps?

“Theorists from Benedetto Croce to Jacques Derrida have long objected to the concept of genre, pointing out that something as dynamic as literature can never be anatomized ahead of time, segregated by permanent groupings. “[I]nstead of asking before a work of art if it be expressive and what it expresses,” genre criticism only wants to label it, putting it into a pigeonhole, asking only “if it obey the laws of epic or of tragedy.” Nothing can be more misguided, Croce says, for these “laws of the kinds” have never in fact been ob served by practicing writers. Derrida makes the same point: “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity.” Such border policing is an exercise in futility, he says, for the law of genre is an impossible law; it contains within itself a “principle of contamination,” so much so that the law is honored only in its breach.” (p.1377)

Genres have solid names, ontologized names. What these names designate, though, is not taxonomic classes of equal solidity but fields at once emerging and ephemeral, defined over and over again by new entries that are still being produced. They function as a “horizon of expectations” to some extent (Jauss), but that horizon becomes real only when there happen to be texts that exemplify it.” (p.1379)

Wai Chee Dimock’s discussion of epic and how it exemplifies the problems around ‘genre’ is really interesting, but I don’t want to over-quote and don’t have time to synthesise… one point I did really like:

Switching genres is one of the most eloquent signs of political agency: the Ramayana now is a host of variants afloat in the generic pool. These effluences are just as striking outside India. As the Sanskrit epic spread to Japan, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Java, and Indonesia, it flourished as street theater, song-and-dance cycles, shadow-puppet shows, a pan-Asian vernacular tradition carried on for two thousand years and serving every conceivable political end (Iyengar; Raghavan; Blackburn). With immigration to Europe, these vernacular subgenres became European subgenres.” (p.1384)

Literary history is a history of kinship.” (p.1381)

“This kinship network, muddying temporal, spatial, and generic lines, invites us to rethink our division of knowledge.” (p.1386)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Wai Chee Dimock ‘Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge’ PMLA, Vol. 122, No. 5, Special Topic: Remapping Genre (Oct., 2007), pp. 1377-1388

Routledge / Taylor and Francis – free articles: Shakespeare, Women’s Lit, Life Writing…


Taylor and Francis just sent out an email notifying us of some of the free article collections they have put together (on literary studies in a general sense, Shakespeare, Women’s lit, Life writing etc.) – pretty cool. They connect us to documents which organize these articles for consideration:

Modernism’s ‘Gothic Moment’ and the ‘awareness of mutability’


A Companion to the GothicIntroducing the complexities of Gothic literary history for his 2001 Companion to the Gothic, David Punter poses the question:

“Where might we […] locate the ‘Gothic moment’ in modernism? Or might we prefer to see in modernism precisely that movement of the mind that seeks to exorcise the ghost, to clean out the house, ruined though it may be, and assert the possibility of a life that is not haunted as it situates itself resolutely in a present that strains towards the future?” (pp.iix-ix)

Placing the Gothic in context of contemporary literary criticism, Punter goes on to write:

“…perhaps what Gothic and much contemporary criticism share is indeed an overarching, even a sublime, awareness of mutability, an understanding of the ways in which history itself, and certainly narratives of history, are not stable, do not constitute a rock onto which we might cling – indeed, as Gothic has always sought to demonstrate to us, there are no such rocks, there is no sure foundation. Thee is, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, only distortion – slips of the tongue, tricks of the eye, which ensure that what we see is always haunted by something else, by that which has not quite been seen, in history or in text – just as Gothic itself, we might say, consists of a series of texts which are always dependent on other texts, texts which they are not, texts which are ceaselessly invoked while no less ceaselessly misread, models of méconnaissance in the form of lost manuscripts, of misheard messages in cyberspace in the attempt to validate that which cannot be validated, the self-sufficiency, the autonomy of a textuality that is already ruined beyond repair.” (p.x)

Interestingly, having considered briefly the importance of the word to the Gothic (and I hope I’m not taking his concluding statement too out of context here), Punter ends his Introduction with the following suggestion:

“…perhaps […] archaism in some form, and especially in its pre-verbal form, is everything; perhaps we might be driven to think that Gothic, even in its most bourgeois forms – and there have been plenty of those – remains popular, remains current, because it gives permission. Quite what it gives permission for is, inevitably, never known, cannot be predicted in advance, and cannot be owned in words; perhaps there is no pre-set programme that Gothic will ‘turn on, in any of the senses of that phrase. But if Gothic has come to serve as a kind of cultural threshold, or as a repertoire of images that fatally undercut the verbal compact’ on which, among other things, the modern state rests, then more than ever it deserves and needs to be investigated. And I hope that these more political and, indeed, dangerous questions, questions that cannot be endstopped, as the unconscious cannot be endstopped, at the boundary of the word, will be in readers’ minds as they survey the material discussed in this book and the critical questions raised in the course of what remains an ongoing (even if exemplarily ruinous) debate.” (p.xiv)

Ref: (italics in original) ‘Introduction: The Ghost of a History’ pp.iix-xiv, Ed. David Punter (2001) A Companion to the Gothic. Blackwell Publishers: Oxford

Cognitive Narratology


In a (2010) discussion of recent narratological history, Monika Fludernik explains the concept of cognitive narratology. It is a really interesting discussion – and the many works she points to as relevant look particularly interesting (hence the list of references below). Fludernik explains:

“Turner and Fauconnier see metaphors as only one subtype of the cognitive strategy they call blending. Blending consists in fusing two scenarios together and thus creating new meaning effects.” (p.926)

“Blending, as Turner and Fauconnier argue, is responsible for the specifically human development of imagination and creativity. In particular, their blending theory aims at combining metaphor and narrative under one cognitive umbrella. Metaphor and narrative have been regarded as constitutive nonscientific modes of human cognition. Turner and Fauconnier depict them as two sides of the same coin, like Saussure’s signifier and signified: through blending, narrative approaches a situation in which one scenario merges with another, while in metaphor (generally acknowledged as a case of blending) the superimposition of two scenarios evokes narrative sequences.” (p.926)

“Cognitive narratology demonstrates that readers do not see texts as having narrative features but read texts as narrative by imposing cognitive narrative frames on them—for instance, by interpreting animals as quasi- human protagonists in fables.” (p.926)

“One can, moreover, diagnose an emotive turn in the humanities, which has given rise to numerous studies on the emotions and on empathy in literature.”6

“Current introductions to cognitive literary studies document the existence of a variegated set of approaches, methods, concepts, and theories that are often either application-oriented (taking one element or insight from cognitive studies in order to read one text or genre from that perspective) or theoretical and resistant to general application.7 The field at the moment resembles a group of construction sites, as some scholars concentrate on metaphor and blending theory (e.g., Gavins and Steen), others on cognitive reflexivity (Zunshine), still others on deixis (Stockwell) or space perception (Tsur). The different cognitive approaches show no sign of coalescing.” (p.927)

In her footnotes (6 and 7 are referred to above), Fludernik points to a number of works in the field:

“4. For a good basic introduction to blending, see Fauconnier and Turner, “Mechanism.” More generally on Turner’s recent work, see Turner, “Cognitive Study,” Lit­erary Mind, “Mind,” Reading Minds, and “Way”; Fauconnier and Turner, “Rethinking” and Way.
5. Turner established a research center on cognitive studies at Case Western Reserve University in 2004.
6. Let me note here the Journal of Narrative Theory 34.3 (2004) and the Journal of Literary Theory 1.2 (2007), as well as a few of the numerous books on the emotions and empathy: Benedict; Roberts; Kövecses; Terada; Hogan, Mind; and Keen.
7. For introductions see, e.g., Coulson and Oakley, Conceptual Blending and Conceptual Blending Theory; Richardson and Steen; Semino and Culpeper; Stockwell; Gavins and Steen; Herman; Hogan, Cognitive Science; Zunshine, Why We Read and Strange Concepts; and Tsur. Discussion of these problems is provided in, among others, Gibbs; Adler and Gross; and Sternberg.” (p.928)

Note that in the blurb about her, it indicates that Fludernik is “completing a study of prison metaphors in English literature” (p.924) – sounds fascinating to me!

Ref: Fludernik, Monika. ‘Narratology in the Twenty-First Century: The Cognitive Approach to Narrative’. PMLA 125.4 (2010): 924–30.

Reference is to:

Adler, Hans, and Sabine Gross. “Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature.” Poetics Today 23.3 (2002): 195–220.

Benedict, Barbara M. Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in En glish Prose Fiction, 1745–1800. New York: AMS, 1994.

Coulson, Seana, and Todd Oakley, eds. Conceptual Blend­ing. Spec. issue of Cognitive Linguistics 11.3–4 (2001): 175–358.

Coulson, Seana, and Todd Oakley, eds. Conceptual Blending Theory. Spec. issue of Journal of Pragmatics 37.10 (2005): 1507–742.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. “A Mechanism of Creativity.” Poetics Today 20.3 (1999): 397–418.
———. “Rethinking Metaphor.” The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Ray Gibbs, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 53–66.
———. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic, 2002.

Gavins, Joanna, and Gerard Steen, eds. Cognitive Poetics in Practice. London: Routledge, 2003.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr. “Evaluating Contemporary Models of Figurative Language Understanding.” Metaphor and Symbol 16.3–4 (2001): 317–33.

Herman, David, ed. Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: Center for the Study of Lang. and Information, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. New York: Routledge, 2003.
———. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.Richardson, Alan, and Francis F.

Keen, Suzanne. Empathy and the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Semino, Elena, and Jonathan Culpeper, eds. Cognitive

Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Cul­ture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Perry, Menakhem. “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates Its Meaning.” Poetics Today 1.1–2

Richardson, Alan, and Francis F. Steen, eds. Literature and the Cognitive Revolution. Spec. issue of Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 1–182.

Roberts, Nancy. Schools of Sympathy: Gender and Identi­fication through the Novel. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s UP, 1998.

Semino, Elena, and Jonathan Culpeper, eds. Cognitive Stylistics. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2002.

Sternberg, Meir. “Universals of Narrative and Their Cognitivist Fortunes.” Poetics Today 24.2–3 (2003): 297–395, 517–638.

Stockwell, Peter. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.

Terada, Rei. Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject.” Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.

Tsur, Reuven. Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. 1992. 2nd ed. Brighton: Sussex Acad., 2008. Ansätze in der Erzähltheorie. Ed. Ansgar Nünning

Turner, Mark. “The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature.” Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 9–20.
———. The Literary Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
———. “The Mind Is an Autocatalytic Vortex.” The Literary Mind. Ed. Jürgen Schläger and Gesa Stedman. Tübingen: Narr, 2008. 13–43.

———. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.
———. “The Way We Imagine.” Imaginative Minds. Ed. Ilona Roth. London: Oxford UP; British Acad., 2007. 213–36.

Zunshine, Lisa. Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2008. Print.
———. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.

Easy-to-read intro to ‘literary theory’


I like this book – just started reading it and it’s ‘easy’, ‘clear’, and inclusive. She puts key theories in context and makes sense of them in a truly accessible way. like.

Mary Klages Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed 

Table of Contents

1. What is “Literary Theory?”; 2. Humanist Literary Theory; 3. Structuralism; Interlude: Humanism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism; 4. Deconstruction; 5. Psychoanalyses; Interlude: ‘Self’ to ‘Subject’; 6. Feminisms; 7. Queer Theory; Interlude: History to Historicism; 8. Ideology and Discourse; 9. Race and Postcolonialist Theories; 10. Postmodernism; Coda – ‘Now what?’; Bibliography; Index.

Art as commodity: Godzich on Adorno


Again, Godzich wrote this book 20 years ago, but it’s an interesting statement: “…the situation of art today is, in Adorno’s own term, ‘aporetic.’ For if, in the past, art had been in the service of rituals or other religious beliefs and practices, its achievement of autonomy in the age of Enlightenment was but the prelude to a new enslavement. Our society, which Adorno sees as ruled by instrumental reason, whose institutional hallmark is the bureaucracy, is totally, and structurally, unwilling to let art have its autonomy to give it the motility of a commodity, which becomes subject to the operations of a market, and thus functions as the vehicle of dominant ideology. The market itself is the object of controls, among which is the scholarly study of art, which serves to establish hierarchies of (marketable) values and thus provides the ground for market strategies.

Turning art into a commodity leads to a valorization of concepts that insists on its form as closed, on its aspect as finished or polished product. Such closure is achievable, under present socioeconomic circumstances, only by doing violence to the form of the art object, which otherwise necessarily reproduces the conflicts and contradictions of society. True art resists commodification by refusing this closure. It insists on its unfinished character, and on its overall uselessness, its incapacity to serve any end, for, in the radical affirmation of its uselessness, it calls into question the claims to harmonious totalization that our society advances ideologically. In practice, this signifies that the study of art, and a fortiori of literature, should not take the form of a traditional aesthetics but rather than of an analytics which, in the immediate study of individual art objects, would elicit the mode of their apprehension of history, that is, the way in which they reproduce the social agonistics of their moment. This requires a strong denunciation of all approaches to art that wish to reestablish an ideal and separate position for it. What matters most, in Adorno’s view, is that each individual analysis bring out the fundamentally critical moment in the artefact, whereby it stands in opposition to, and negates, the order and ideology of its society.” (p.44)

Ref: Wlad Godzich (c1994) The Culture of Literacy. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts and London, England.