Practicing ‘Literariness’: a reminder for philosophers and philosophasters
(Let’s start with the words of Italo Calvino, in his celebrated and uncompleted “6 Memos for the New Millennium”):
“…my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” (1988, p. 3)
Calvino is echoing an age-old sentiment; that literature is a search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living. The same philosophical state explored and beautifully explicated in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Weight in this context is not simply detail, although it is this. It is also the weight of ideas and concepts; specifically, ideas that chase after something singular and univocal.
To put forward my thesis allow me make a swift and dogmatic assertion: Literary communication is, due to its fictional medium, non-essentialist. This is simply because a literary text is not a philosophical or scientific text. The literary text encourages a certain degree of ambiguity and under-determination. Even when it does set out with didactic ambitions, all it can ever do is present one more possible world — one amongst a plurality that is the whole of literature and by extension, the universe of discourse itself. It is out of this mythic-poetic plurality that the philosopher’s truth itself emerges (something philosophers too often seem to forget): to harken after the sublime over the beautiful, the wholly mind-independent reality beyond the mind-dependent, some certainty beyond appearances. This is the “quest for certainty” in all its iterations.
Adopting general literary values when we get down to do philosophy — whatever your particular ‘soapbox’ happens to be (lecture hall, paper, laptop, or cat) — can help serve to dissolve the rather ubiquitous hold this ‘quest’ has on our thoughts and practices. It is my belief, echoing the views of Calvino and Kundera, that a philosophical outlook that adopts the values inherent in literature can aid in the dissolution of this “static syllogized view of order” (Eco, 1962/1989), proliferated and disseminated by a scientific and philosophical privileging of essentialism over plurality, the univocal over the multiple.
Part of adopting a literary perspective to the practice of philosophizing, involves some new concepts. Personally, I’m attracted to the Russian-American linguist Roman Jacobson’s (somewhat out of fashion) conception of ‘literariness’ in place of the more absolute designation ‘literature’.
“The object of a science of literature is not literature, but literariness — that is, that which makes a given work a work of literature. Until now literary historians have preferred to act like the policeman who, intending to arrest a certain person, would, at any opportunity, seize any and all persons who chanced into the apartment, as well as those who passed along the street. The literary historians used everything — anthropology, psychology, politics, philosophy. Instead of a science of literature, they created a conglomeration of homespun disciplines.” (Jacobson as cited in Ejxenbaum, 1971, p. 8)
The advantages I see in this concept is in the turning away from literature as being tethered to a concrete work or text. It is an appropriation of literature as a philosophical value to be found in anything.
Jacobson sees the literary message’s defining feature and difference as residing in its “emphasis on its own formal structure” (Scholes, 1982, p. 20). That is, it turns attention away from the referential meaning of the communicative act and calls attention instead to its own expression, the play of words, sounds and possibilities within the message itself. This ambiguity according to Jacobson, defines the poetic function.
“Ambiguity is an intrinsic, inalienable character of any self-focused message, briefly a corollary feature of poetry […]. The supremacy of poetic function over referential function does not obliterate the reference but makes it ambiguous. The double-sensed message finds correspondence in a split addresser, in a split addressee, and besides in a split reference, as it is cogently exposed in the preambles to fairy tales of various peoples, for instance, in the usual exordium of the Majorca storytellers: ‘Axio era y no era’ (‘It was and it was not’).” (Jacobson, 1960, p. 370–371)
In Jacobson’s work the poetic function is, in a certain sense, always in conflict (despite the inter-connectedness of the two) with the referential function. When one is winning the other is losing: it is a relation of ‘supremacy’ as he says. The literary theorist and semiotician Robert Schole believes that by adhering too stringently to Jacobson’s formulation we lose touch with the centrality that the ‘literary’ has in our lives. In short we run the risk of relegating ‘literariness’ to that Kantian realm of the purposeless aesthetic object. Since what I am imagining here is a conception of literariness that is pragmatic and applicable to many diverse aspects of human life this formulation will not do for my purposes either.
Using Jacobson’s popular model of communication, Scholes asserts that we sense ‘literariness in an utterance when any one of the six features of communication loses its simplicity and becomes multiple or duplicitous” (1982, p. 21). Scholes provides an excellent analysis of these forms of literariness that are just one strike removed from ordinary discourse. I will not go into this here but a quick glance at the following examples can perhaps shed light on this re-thinking of these ‘ordinary’ forms of literariness:
“duplicity of sender — — role-playing, acting
duplicity of receiver — — eavesdropping, voyeurism
duplicity of message — — opacity, ambiguity
duplicity of context — — allusion, fiction
duplicity of contact — — translation, fiction
duplicity of code — — involved in all the above” (1982, p. 31)
I find this explication more useful than Jacobson’s “double-sensed message”, as it presents literariness not as some deep-rooted aesthetic potential contained within the self-focused message, but rather as a normal communicative act, specifically one that “functions to create a tension between the utterance as communicative and externally referential on the one hand, and as incommunicative and internally referential on the other” (Scholes, 1982, p. 23).
As Umberto Eco has shown in his essay On the Possibility of Generating Aesthetic Messages in an Edenic Language (1979, p. 90–104), the ambiguity contained in the aesthetic message — the calling into question of the legitimacy of the code — is indispensable for language to transform and develop. Through hilariously fictionalizing Adam and Eve’s linguistic development in the garden of Eden, Eco shows us that the aesthetic message is a necessary component of any language system and not at all necessarily unique to (or tethered to) formal artistic practices such as poetry or literature.
Adam and Eve are perfectly and completely taken care of.The language delivered to them replicates the garden of Eden itself. It is all providing, and (that word again) univocal, and in this sense seeks to reduce or eliminate ambiguity. Adam and Eve possess a rudimentary language (made of only A and B’s) of six binary pairs (yes/no, edible/inedible, good/ bad, beautiful/ugly, red/blue, and serpent/apple). Holding the whole structure together is how the middle four pairs are linked in “a series of connotative chains”, connections that in themselves assert a certain aesthetic orientation:
“Red = Edible = Good = Beautiful Blue = Inedible = Bad = Ugly” (Eco 1979: 92)
In Eco’s thought experiment the aesthetic emerges from out of a motivated political event, where an aesthetic regime or worldview is called into question and dissolved. David Perry (2015, p. 24) explains:
“Eco posits that this connotative chain of straightforward binaries is disrupted by God’s prohibition of the forbidden fruit, which fatally breaks the semiotic chain by asserting that the “beautiful” fruit is to be placed in the “inedible” category, and thus pushes Adam and Eve into linguistic innovations in which, for instance, the apple becomes “redblue”. It is in these disjunctions between appearance and meaning that Eco posits the origins of the “aesthetic” use of language, the discovery of “the arbitrariness of signs”, and the seeds of the Fall… Yet Eco’s hypothetical Fall appears to be a fortunate fall, freeing humans from an arbitrary system of binary absolutes, and allowing the aesthetic pleasure of linguistic play.”
Eco reminds us that in order “to create an aesthetic message, there must also be alterations in the form in which it is expressed, and these alterations must be significant enough to require the addressee of the message, though aware of a change in the content-form, to refer back to the message itself as a physical entity” (1979, p. 90). Adam and Eve’s learning of the aesthetic, in a sense, frees them from a world of absolutes and universality (the very possibility of univocal truth, identification, and reference) and it is in this uncertainty that aesthetic pleasure and literariness are to be located.
I see this as the core idea behind late Heidegger’s (1971/2001) privileging of the poet over the philosopher: the poet, who turns her head towards the play of words and sounds, who is aware that the meanings behind these words are not as clear and concrete as the philosopher suspects. Perhaps this is also inherent in the thinker who sees meaning not as something ‘out there to be found’ but as something made… something discovered. My point here is not to drift into a solipsism that denies any sort of ‘real world’ outside the constructions in our heads. For, even speaking of construal presumes there is something external to us to construe in the first place. As a follower of Charles Peirce, I can’t deny the brute force reality of fallibilism (the idea, that that all learning in a certain fundamental way begins with ‘real-world’ resistances: the wall we walk into where we thought there was done; the burning of our hand on the coffee pot in a morning stupor). With this formulation, the truth of a text is revealed not by uncovering some underlying ur-code, but by a merger of horizons, in the Gadamerian sense — those of the reader, the author, the text itself, and the intertextual web these three actors spin. It is this collective web that also brings out the socio-political-historical dimensions of the reading process. The reader merges their unique personal acquired experiences with those of the text and through this dialectical process, meaning is created. Not an ahistorical, atemporal meaning (synonymous with capital T, Truth), but rather a meaning that is a direct result of the unique interplay of these three actors. It is this sense that the meaning is always something virtual and mediating. It lives not in what is materially present, but rather paradoxically, what is absent but still weighing upon the actual as a field of possibility and becoming.
So, we have put forward the contingent and provisional nature of the literary truth — a truth that demands to be actively discovered by a reader, where many interpretative possibilities are possible, even welcome, but also a truth that will not simply accept any possible interpretation. But let us pause for a moment to consider the implications this hypothesis has on our earlier re-formulization of ‘literariness’ as a tension between the internally and externally referential.
I believe the bridge between these ideas lies in the concept of surprise. Literariness surprises us by thwarting or delaying our normal expectations. It plays with the clarity and ephemerality we come to expect from language and our normal communicative mediums. It is precisely this new-found ambiguity in the message (what the Russian formalists would call defamilarization) that causes us to question and re-evaluate our normal cognitive and interpretative processes. The sense of surprise we are presented with in the reading process, a deviation from our referential and semantic norms, is what Michael Riffaterre (1983) has aptly called the ungrammaticality of a text. This does not mean a text or messages lack of grammar, but rather the unfamiliar dissonance in the coding of the message that is our call to arms, so to speak. Ungrammaticality is what ‘pulls us up short’ as Gadamer would say; it is this surprise in the literary utterance that demands our active role in meaning making. It is out of this sense of surprise and our ability and willingness to rise and meet the unknown, that literariness emerges.
Literariness extends all the way from the master’s work of art, down to the most banal acts of perception. This defamilliarizing process is representative of the societal role of the artist according to Umberto Eco (2000, p. 211), to suggest and present alternative possibilities of distributing what is sensible, what is visible, what is imaginable:
“The work of the artist always tries to call our perceptual schemata into question, if in no other way than by inviting us to recognize that in certain circumstances things could also appear to us differently, or that there are alternative possibilities of schematization, which make some features of the object pertinent in a provocatively abnormal way.”
To even take up this stance means taking a step beyond substance dualism (that this is this, because it is not that) to embrace the principle of the included middle (that this is always becoming that) (see this interview with Inna Semetsky). It is the potential to become other and new, that is important, not the internal structural cohesion of objects.
If there is one point I have emphasized through this article, it is that Literariness extends beyond our interactions with art and art-making, just as literature is bigger than fiction or poetry. Literariness is, I think, a form of praxis that we must continually strive to enact. I will conclude by speaking to how it is from out of the praxis of literariness, where plurality, freedom, tolerance and diversity, and all our democratic values manifest.
Literariness arms us against this logic of non-contradiction, because well, life doesn’t neatly fit into opposing pairs as we already saw with Adam and Eve. Literariness is a political tool that each of possesses by nature of being human with that innate capacity “to perceive resemblances even between things that are far apart” that Aristotle spoke about in The Rhetoric. Martha Gessen possesses this praxis of literariness is her political analysis, and this is probably why she has become one of the few contemporary journalists to offer an analysis of Trump’s speech that reveals anything substantial. By not taking his confused ‘word piles’ to be referentially true or false, but by rather making visible the emergent forms of signification interlaced into the rhythm of his syntax and delivery, she reveals something of the ‘qualities of feeling’ that Trump spins in his rhetoric. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Trump about his first 100 days in office, followed by some of Gessen’s interpretation (http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/05/13/the-autocrats-language/):
“Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area — you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away — and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet … every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. [unintelligible] ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.
Here is a partial list of words that lose their meaning in this passage: “responsibility,” the number “fifty-nine” and the number “seventy-nine,” “death,” “people,” “risk,” “city,” “civilian,” “hamlet,” “decision,” “hard,” “normal,” “life,” the “United States.” Even the word “unintelligible,” inserted by the journalist, means nothing here, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered during a face-to-face interview? The role of the journalist is, too, rendered meaningless in the most basic way: the interviewer feels compelled to participate, interrupting this incomprehensible monologue with follow-up questions or words like “right,” but these serve to create the fiction that something is indeed “right” or could be “right” about what Trump is saying — when in fact he is saying nothing and everything at the same time, and this cannot be right.”
Gessen demonstrates an acute awareness of an aesthetic power that has seduced many, and which popular journalism seems completely unable to combat or even conceptualize. Quite literally, Trump’s grammar makes absolutely no sense on a synchronic level, but through his unfolding in real time of often contradictory speech acts, a certain ungrammatically no doubt emerges; a tension that clearly has aesthetic potency.
In The Art of the Novel, Kundera explains how the quest for certainty obscures and obfuscates the complexity of actual human encounters, and actually prevents us from getting to the ‘truth of things’:
“Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. Religions and ideologies are founded on this desire… they require that somebody be right: either Anna Karenina is the victim of a narrow minded tyrant, or Karenin is the victim of an immoral woman; either K. is an innocent man crushed by an unjust Court, or the Court represents divine justice and K. in guilty. This ‘either-or’ encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely in the absence of the Supreme Judge.” (1988, p. 7)
For Kundera, the novel form, as well as the ideal of democracy itself, is an imaginary paradise of individuals. “It is the territory where no one possesses the truth, neither Anna nor Karenin, but where everyone has the right to be understood, both Anna and Karenin” (Kundera, ibid.). Thus, the novelistic practice is a continually renewed process where people don’t have their emancipation asserted for them from the outside, but find it in the very annunciation of equality, as a new possibility in the aesthetic order, a state of things not yet realized, but that now seems somewhat possible. This paradise of individuals, as Richard Rorty has shown (1991, p. 66–82), is something of a regulative ideal. It is a utopia that tolerates the surprise of the literary, the essential openness and dynamism of interpretation, ambiguousness and indeterminacy; it rejects what Davidson calls ‘the dualism of scheme and content… the claim that philosophy [or science or religion] can make explicit a scheme, a permanent neutral matrix and possibilities, which lies in the background of all our inquiries and practices” (Davidson in Rorty, p. 14) [i].
It is in this utopia, this assemblage of imaginary worlds we call literature — worlds that still have ‘real’ causal significance, which affect our world in very direct ways — where we find a model of plurality that can breathe life into our own.
Calvino, I. (1988) Six Memos for the next Millennium, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Eco, U. (1979)The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts, Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Eco, U. (2000)Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, New York: Harcourt Brace.
Fry, P. (2012)Theory of Literature, New Haven: Yale UP.
Heidegger, M. (1971/2001). Poetry, Language, Thought,Albert Hofstadter (trans), New York: Harper & Row.
Jacobson, R. (1960) “Linguistics and Poetics”, in T. Sebeok, ed., Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, p. 370–71.
Ejxenbaum, B. (1971) “The Theory of the Formal Method”, in Ladislaw Metejka and Krystnyna Pomorska (eds.), Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Kundera, M. (1986) The Art of the Novel. New York: Grove.
Parry, D. (2015) Umberto Eco and the Echoes of Adamic Language. Zagadnienia Rodzajów Literackich, 58, 13–28.
Riffaterre, M. (1983) Text Production,New York: Columbia University Press.
Scholes, R. (1982) Semiotics and Interpretation, New Haven: Yale UP.
Rorty, R. (1991) Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers. Vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.