CRITICISM AND LITERATURE
QUESTIONS OF LANGUAGE
This study addresses itself to three related tasks. First, it sets out to introduce the work of the Russian Formalists, a group of literary theorists who made an extraordinarily vital and influential contribution to literary criticism during the decade or so after the October Revolution of 1917. Second, by arguing for a new interpretation of their work, it suggests that the Formalists should be viewed more seriously and sympathetically by Marxist critics than has hitherto been the case. Finally, as an undercurrent running beneath these concerns, it argues that many of the difficulties in which Marxist criticism currently finds itself can be traced to the fact that it has never clearly disentangled its concerns from those of traditional aesthetics. We hope, in part, to remedy this by proposing, on the basis of a critical re-examination of the work of the Formalists, a new set of concerns for Marxist criticism, a new concept of ‘literature’, which will shift it from the terrain of aesthetics to that of politics where it belongs.
Wide-ranging though these concerns are, they all revolve around the same set of questions: What is literature? By what methods should it be studied? Or, more radically: Is the category of ‘literature’ worth sustaining? If so, for what purposes? Much of our time will be taken up in reviewing some of the different ways in which these questions have been answered and in examining their implications for the ways in which literary criticism should be conceived and conducted.
We must therefore be clear about what is involved in questions of this nature. For they are not questions which might be resolved empirically by generalizing from the similarities which those texts customarily regarded as ‘works of literature’ seem to have in common. They are, rather, questions about language or, more specifically, about the specialized theoretical languages or discourses of literary criticism and the functioning of the key terms, especially the term ‘literature’, within such discourses. Some understanding of language and of its implications for the nature of the discourses of literary criticism is therefore called for if we are both to put and respond to such questions in the appropriate terms.
This is only apparently a digression. For linguistics, once a somewhat recondite area of inquiry, now occupies a central position within the social and cultural sciences. At the level of method, techniques of analysis deriving from Ferdinand de Saussure’s pioneering work on language have substantially influenced all areas of inquiry where the role of language and culture is seen to be central.1
Similarly, at a philosophical level, the widening influence of linguistics has produced a heightened awareness of the role played by language in the process of inquiry itself. Especially important here is the light linguistics has cast on the relationship between the specialized theoretical languages or discourses of the various sciences and the ‘objects’ of which they speak.
For the moment, it is the latter of these influences which concerns us. Baldly summarized, Saussure’s central perception was that language signifies reality by bestowing a particular, linguistically structured form of conceptual organization upon it. What the signifiers of language—the sound structures of speech and the notations by which these are represented in writing— signify, Saussure argued, are not real things or real relationships but the concepts of things, the concepts of relationships, each signifier deriving its meaning from its relationship to other signifiers within the system of relationships mapped out by language itself. The ‘objects’ of which language speaks are not ‘real objects’, external to language, but ‘conceptual objects’ located entirely within language. The word ‘ox’, according to Saussure’s famous example, signifies not a real ox but the concept of an ox, and it is able to do so by virtue of the relationships of similarity and difference which define its position in relation to the other signifiers comprising modern English. There is no intrinsic connection between the real ox and the word ‘ox’ by virtue of which the meaning of the latter is produced. The relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary: that is, it is a matter of convention.
This is not to deny that there exists a real world external to the signifying mantle which language casts upon it. But it is to maintain that our knowledge or appropriation of that world is always mediated through and influenced by the organizing structure which language inevitably places between it and ourselves. Oxen exist. No one is denying that. But the concept of an ‘ox’ as a particular type of domesticated quadruped belonging to the bovine species—a concept through which, in our culture, we appropriate the ‘real ox’—exists solely as part of a system of meaning that is produced and defined by the functioning of the word ‘ox’ within language.
The difficulty is that, although bestowing a signification, a particular conceptual organization on reality, language constantly generates the illusion that it reflects reality instead of signifying it. The organization of the relationships between objects in the world outside language appears to be the same as the organization of the relationships between the concepts of objects within language and, indeed, the latter appears to be the mere mirroring of the former.
QUESTIONS OF LITERATURE
What has been said about language in general applies just as much to the specialist languages or discourses of literary criticism. These, too, are significations of reality and not reflections of it: particular orderings of concepts within and by means of language which entirely determine the ways in which written texts are accessible to thought.
Thus, if we put the question: ‘What is literature?’ this can only mean: what concept does the term ‘literature’ signify? What function does it fulfil and what distinctions does it operate within language? Everything depends on the context within which the term is used. At the most general level, it simply denotes ‘that which is written’ and refers to all forms of writing, from belles lettres to graffiti. In a second and more restrictive usage, it refers to the concept of fictional, imaginative or creative writing, including both ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ genres, as distinct from, say, philosophical or scientific texts.
According to its most distinctive usage within literary criticism, however, ‘literature’ denotes the concept of a special and privileged set of fictional, imaginative or creative forms of writing which, it is argued, exhibit certain specific properties that require special methods of analysis if they are to be properly understood. It is this concept of ‘literature’ that we find reflected in the concerns of aesthetics. I shall henceforward represent this concept as ‘literature’ throughout the remainder of this chapter. If literary criticism has to do with the elucidation and explanation of those specifically ‘literary’ qualities which are felt to distinguish a selected set of written texts within the field of imaginative writing in general, then clearly such a practice requires a legitimating ‘set of rules’, an aesthetic, which will propose criteria for distinguishing between the ‘literary’ and the ‘non-literary’ in this special sense.
When we speak of ‘literature’ in this way, we are not speaking of some objective and fixed body of written texts to which the word ‘literature’ is applied merely as a descriptive label. We are rather speaking of a concept—the concept of a circumscribed set of texts felt to be of special value—which exists and has meaning solely within the discourses of literary criticism. This is not to say that the actual texts to which this concept is applied—the commonly received ‘great tradition’, say—exist only within such discourses. What is in dispute is not the material existence of such texts but the contention that, in any part of their objective and material presence, they declare themselves to be ‘literature’. Written texts do not organize themselves into the ‘literary’ and the ‘nonliterary’. They are so organized only by the operations of criticism upon them. Far from reflecting a somehow natural or spontaneous system of relationships between written texts, literary criticism organizes those texts into a system of relationships which is the product of its own discourse and of the distinctions between the ‘literary’ and the ‘non-literary’ which it operates.
As we shall see, this contention is fully substantiated by the history of the term ‘literature’ which finally achieved the range of meaning discussed above only during the nineteenth century, side by side with the consolidation of literary criticism and aesthetics as autonomous and academically entrenched areas of inquiry. Meanwhile, it is important to note that the particular meaning attributed to the word ‘literature’ may vary to the extent that schools of literary criticism frequently differ with regard to their conceptions as to precisely what the distinguishing features of ‘literature’ are and, accordingly, the methods required to elucidate them. Thus it may be argued, as in idealist aesthetics, that a particular type of sensibility uniquely distinguishes the genuinely ‘literary’ text and that the discernment of this sensibility is achieved through empathy or intuition. Or it may be argued, as did the Russian Formalists, that the uniqueness of ‘literature’ consists in its tendency to ‘defamiliarize’ experience and that the true concern of literary scholarship should be to analyse the formal devices by means of which such an effect is achieved. Finally, this time in the camp of Marxism, it may be argued, as Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey and Terry Eagleton have done, that ‘literature’ is uniquely defined by its capacity to reveal or rupture from within the terms of seeing proposed by the categories of dominant ideologies. The concern of Marxist criticism, according to this definition of ‘literature’, thus becomes that of understanding the formal processes through which literary texts work upon and transform dominant ideological forms.
Different criticisms, then, propose different concepts of ‘literature’, although all agree that ‘literature’ is to be defined as, in one sense or another, a special type of writing which needs to be dealt with by a special level of theorizing. In so doing, they also produce their own concerns in relation to such ‘literary’ works: their own constructions of the essential tasks of criticism and of the means by which these should be pursued. Ultimately, the ‘literature’ with which different critical traditions deal is not the same ‘literature’. Even where there is broad agreement about precisely which texts are to be regarded as ‘literary’, these may be held to be ‘literary’ in quite different ways and may, accordingly, be approached and studied from quite different perspectives with often radically different aims in view.
It is tempting, faced with such competing definitions of ‘literature’ and of the critical task, to ask: ‘Which is correct?’ But, if what has been said so far holds true, there can be no way of answering this question. For there is no such ‘thing’ as literature, no body of written texts which self-evidently bear on their surface some immediately perceivable and indisputable literary essence which can be invoked as the arbiter of the relative merits of competing traditions of literary criticism.
In place of asking which is correct, then, we need to examine how these different concepts of ‘literature’ function within the critical discourses of which. they form a part and to assess them in terms of the lines of inquiry they open up. There is, however, from a Marxist perspective, a more primary set of questions that need to be asked: Does Marxism need a concept of ‘literature’ at all? Does it need an aesthetic? Can it have the one without the other?
It is to a preliminary consideration of these matters that we now turn. In doing so, however, it should be borne in mind that such questions are not resolvable with reference to what literature is but depend on what the term ‘literature’ signifies, or might be made to signify, as a term within Marxist theory.
QUESTIONS OF AESTHETICS
If the line of argument pursued so far gives rise to difficulties, this is in part because it runs contrary to the empiricist assumptions of the dominant forms of English and American criticism according to which written texts are held to sort themselves spontaneously into the ‘literary’ and the ‘non-literary’. Let me be clear, then, about what I am and am not saying. I am not maintaining that those texts which, by common agreement, are referred to as ‘literature’ do not exist. To the contrary, such texts have an objectively verifiable material presence as texts, and it is important not to lose sight of this. Nor am I maintaining that the particular types of writing associated with those texts display no special properties which would justify or make useful their designation as a distinctive set of texts within the sphere of imaginative writing in general. Indeed, this is the central point I wish to debate. What I am maintaining is that the designation of such texts as ‘literature’ is not a response to a property that is internal or natural to them but a signification that is bestowed on them from without by the practice of criticism.
Why is this important? Partly because, within the practical conduct of many schools of criticism, the conceptual procedures whereby they construct their object—the concept of ‘literature’ with which they operate—are normally hidden from view. The criticism of F.R.Leavis is a case in point. In his essay ‘Literary Criticism and Philosophy’, he suggests that the appropriate questions for the critic to put to any given text are:
‘Where does this come? How does it stand in relation to…? How relatively important does it seem?’ And the organization into which it settles as a constituent in becoming ‘placed’ is an organization of similarly ‘placed’ things, things that have found their bearings with regard to one another, and not a theoretical system or system determined by abstract considerations.2
Here, the labour of criticism effaces itself completely as the organization into which the critic places the text is represented as being a direct reflection of the way in which those texts are ‘placed’ in relation to one another independently of his/her discourse. Such a criticism thus ‘naturalizes’ both itself and its object. Its object, those selected written texts which are conceived as ‘literature’, is represented as a pre-given world of similarly ‘placed’ things, whereas criticism, far from being an actively constructing discourse, represents itself as a simple mirroring of the real within language.
Speaking more positively, however, such considerations naturally raise questions with regard to the validity or usefulness of the category of ‘literature’. A certain degree of caution is advisable here. That the concept of ‘literature’ exists solely as a term within the discourses of criticism is no reason to dispense with it—all concepts only exist within specific discourses. But nor is this any reason to retain it. Rather than pre-empt the issue, we should examine how the concept has functioned within the history of criticism and assess its usefulness in terms of the types of approach to written texts which it permits and those which it prohibits. These sorts of questions are increasingly being raised by both Marxist and non-Marxist scholars, who feel that the historically relative way of viewing culture that is embodied in the concept of ‘literature’ is both unhelpful and outdated. Unhelpful, because from the point of view of historical studies it artificially separates the study of ‘literary’ texts from adjacent areas of cultural practice. Outdated, because it fails to do justice to the changing face of cultural practice induced by the reorganization of cultural production associated with the development of the mass media.
It was in this respect that we raised the question: Does Marxism need a concept of ‘literature’? To avoid misunderstanding, what is at issue here is not whether Marxists should concern themselves with the study of those texts conventionally designated as ‘literary’, but whether they should concern themselves with those texts within the framework of a theory of ‘literature’ as such. Marxists have always been concerned, and rightly, to calculate the political effects of such texts and to devise methods of analysis whereby their production—alongside that of other cultural forms— might be explained as part of a materialist theory of ideology. But it is not so clear that the treatment of such texts as ‘literary’, as a separated system of cultural practice, or the development of an associated aesthetic is necessary or even helpful to the development of such concerns. Indeed, as most aesthetic theories seek to establish the specific nature of the aesthetic mode as a universal and eternal form of cognition, there are good reasons for supposing that such a concern would not sit too comfortably with the essentially historical and materialist theoretical orientation of Marxism.
Yet the fact is that all of the major theoretical contributions to the history of Marxist criticism contain a theory of ‘literature’ and a legitimating conception of the specific nature of the aesthetic mode of appropriation of reality. Lukács, for example, distinguishes aesthetic from scientific knowledge by arguing that, in contradistinction to the conceptual abstractions of science, art constitutes an anthropomorphic form of cognition which ‘truthfully’ depicts reality with a vivid, human-centred poetic concreteness.3
Similarly, the ‘Althusserians’— Althusser himself, Macherey and Eagleton—have broached the question of the specificity of the aesthetic mode by construing it as a form of cognition that is mid-way between the ‘knowledge’ of science and the ‘misrecognition’ of reality said to be contained in ideology. Although there are real differences between these two positions, they share the same fundamental concerns: the distinguishing of the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic, of the ‘literary’ from the ‘nonliterary’. They both constitute ‘literature’ as a particular form of cognition which, if its specific nature is to be understood, requires the development of an autonomous level of theorizing within Marxism—a theory of ‘literature’ as a specialist sub-region within a general theory of ideology.
It is only recently that this assumption has been challenged. In their more recent work, Étienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey have argued that, in its attempts to produce an aesthetic, Marxism has responded not to its own theoretical and political needs but to the ideological demands placed on it by the need to compete with bourgeois criticism.4
The result, they allege, is that Marxist criticism has tended to proceed by bringing Marxist categories to bear upon a set of problems that was already given to it by the bourgeois critical tradition, instead of using Marxist categories to transcend those debates by producing a new set of problems, a new approach to written texts within which the question of the specific nature of ‘literature’ would be no longer visible as a problem or would at least be differently formulated.
Similar reservations have been expressed by Raymond Williams. In his two most recent works—Keywords (1976) and Marxism and Literature (1977)—Professor Williams has shown how, through a protracted process of development, the word ‘literature’ gradually assumed its current meaning. Whereas it had earlier been used to refer to all forms of learned or scholarly writing—including philosophy and history as well as fictional forms—‘literature’, as a term referring to a restricted and privileged set of fictional writing, came into accepted usage only during the nineteenth century. Prior to that there was, to put it bluntly, no ‘literature’ in the sense that we ...