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Respones to Reading

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years ago

Omer (11/30/05):

"The Contextuality of Literature"


Michael Riffaterre's argues, in “On the Complementarity of Comparative Literature and Culture Studies,” against the “The Bernheimer Report”'s ambivalence about using the term “literature” to describe what comparative literists study. This argument rests on his definition of literature as that which has no context, but this definition is problematic in that it presupposes that aesthetic worth alone exists without context, which is a false presupposition.


Riffaterre's argument for the use of the term “literature” rests on a vision of literature as that which is not a thing. Literature, he claims, is the only thing that is “pure representation” (73), ie: representation devoid of all objects . Literature, in fact, is complemented by being (73). It is that which is not an existing entity, and thus it alone has the power to emulate everything. Therefore, to claim that “literature” is not an appropriate term is to claim that comparative literature is no longer involved in the task of representing, and to claim that comparative literature should not use the term “literature” is to claim that representation is unimportant, even though literature both encompasses and raises questions about everything simply by representing it differently through changes in genre and convention (73).


Riffaterre's claim that literature is “pure representation” is based on his previous definition of literature as that which is without context. Riffaterre claims that readers often recognize the literary aspect of a work of history or philosophy (70) or, in other words, start treating a non-literary work as literature. Riffaterre describes the change that occurs in a text to be a “twofold denial of its contextuality” (70). First, the reader ignores the intention of the author (to avoid the intentional fallacy); second, the reader denies the importance of the cognitive argument of the text and instead “makes a value judgment based on the text's aesthetic features” (71). In other words, when we start treating a text as literary, it loses all of its context, yet retains its aesthetic worth. This definition leads directly to the claim that literature is pure representation (it is that which exists outside of context, outside of every other being). It also means that the aesthetic worth of something exists outside of its context. When we remove all context from a thing (turn it into literature), its aesthetic worth remains.


To claim that aesthetic worth remains outside of context is false because we do not, in fact, judge aesthetic worth outside of any context. To use an example of Riffaterre's (72), I may be able to discover that both Emily Dickinson's poems and popular tales share a similar structure, that of a fable, but I can only make the comparison between Emily Dickinson's poetry and the structure of a fable in the first place from the context of my understanding of what the structure of a fable is. (If I have never read any fables before, it is dubious to claim that I, as if by magic, can tell you whether this poem I just read has the structure of a fable.) A fable, therefore, is a contextual concept. It does not exist in space opposite of all being. It is something that exists because there are stories in the world that share the same structure. If these material things did not, and only one of Emily Dickinson's poems had this structure, I might claim that it has a unique structure, but I could not judge its aesthetic worth on how closely it followed the structure of something called “a fable” that I have never before read. Therefore, aesthetic worth is contextual.


One might object that deciding the worth of something based on how well its structure conforms to a fable is not to decide the worth of its literariness because there is something non-contextual in every work and that non-contextual element is the literary aspect of it. This non-contextual thing may well exist, and we could call it literature, but this thing is not what we mean right now when we talk about comparative literature. In comparative literature, we do compare the structures of different texts, and as a culture, we do discuss their worth in terms of other works. (Animal Farm, for example, is “comparable to Voltaire and Swift,” according to The New York Times.) So, to claim that there is something in every work that exists outside of context is not to talk about literature as we, in fact, mean it. Literature (as we mean it) is necessarily contextual, and so the move to compare things other than literature (discourse, culture, etc.) is a move away from literature (a move to other contexts), such that it is not absurd to call the discipline that has made this move something other than “literature.”

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