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Ideologies of (and in) interpretations and interpretive

communities
G. C. Klmn

Copyright 2000 G. C. Klmn

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Contents
Introduction ..................................................................................................................................................... 1
Some questions ................................................................................................................................................ 2
1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts........................................................... 3
1.1. The Vicissitudes of Taking the Floor...................................................................................................... 4
1.2. The Inherent Uncertainties Of The Theory ............................................................................................. 4
1.3. New Vision, From Other Angles ............................................................................................................ 4
1.4. A Self-Destructing Theory? ................................................................................................................... 5
1.5. A First Glance at the Relation Between Speech Act Theory and Literary Studies .................................... 6
1.5.1. Theoretical Considerations of the Connection .................................................................................. 6
1.6. Approaches to the Meaning of the Literary Text..................................................................................... 7
1.6.1. Textual Approaches ........................................................................................................................ 9
1.6.1.1. The Performative Analysis........................................................................................................ 9
1.6.1.2. The Theory of the Indicating Devices ........................................................................................ 9
1.6.2. Intentionalism ............................................................................................................................... 11
1.6.3. Contextualism................................................................................................................................... 11
1.7. Further Consequences: Reactions to the Principles of Structuralism...................................................... 15
2. Speech Acts and Interpretation ................................................................................................................... 17
Bridging the Gap: Introduction ................................................................................................................... 17
Criticism and Interpretation: Preliminary Remarks...................................................................................... 17
2.1. Comparative criticism .......................................................................................................................... 17
2.1.1. Some Theses ................................................................................................................................. 17
2.1.2. Some Antitheses............................................................................................................................ 18
2.1.2. Criticism as compared to other linguistic activities......................................................................... 19
2.1.2.1. Criticism as a Genre ............................................................................................................... 19
2.1.2.2. Criticism and Truth or Expression........................................................................................... 19
2.1.2.3. Criticism as a Speech Act: Hancher ........................................................................................ 20
3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation.................................................................................. 22
3.1. Introduction ......................................................................................................................................... 22
3.2. Criticism and interpretation, cont'd....................................................................................................... 23
3.3. Criticism and interpretation .................................................................................................................. 25
3.4. Accepted and refused: the legitimacy of interpretations ........................................................................ 25
3.5. What If Not Interpretation?.................................................................................................................. 27
4. Digressions ................................................................................................................................................ 30
4.1. Digression 1: Cult and Criticism .......................................................................................................... 30
4.1.1. anecdotic digression ...................................................................................................................... 32
4.2. Digression 2: Canons and Criticism ..................................................................................................... 33
5. Against criticism/interpretation ................................................................................................................... 35
6. Some Aspects of Canonical Research ......................................................................................................... 38
6.1. Canonized interpretations..................................................................................................................... 42
7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities .................................................................................... 46
7.1. Interpretive communities ..................................................................................................................... 46
0. Introduction ........................................................................................................................................ 46
1. Community......................................................................................................................................... 46
2. Interpretive ......................................................................................................................................... 47
3. Interpretive communities..................................................................................................................... 48
4. Further Problems ................................................................................................................................ 49
5. To the point ........................................................................................................................................ 50
6. Notes on the History of the category.................................................................................................... 51
7. On the Foundation of Interpretive Communities .................................................................................. 52
8. History ............................................................................................................................................... 54
9. The Limits of Interpretive Communities.............................................................................................. 56
10. Inconclusion ..................................................................................................................................... 58
8. Interpretation and professionalism .............................................................................................................. 60
8.0. Preliminary Remarks ........................................................................................................................... 60
8.1. Methodological Considerations............................................................................................................ 61
8.1.1. Obstacles of Inquiries into the Problem of Professionalism ............................................................ 61
8.1.2. Some Approaches to Literary Professionalism ............................................................................... 61
8.1.3. Notes on Institutions ..................................................................................................................... 64

8.1.4. To the History of Professionalism.................................................................................................. 66


8.1.5. Professional Operations................................................................................................................. 66
9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons .............................................................................................. 68
9.0. Introduction ......................................................................................................................................... 68
9.1. Canon: "Texts" or "Langue"................................................................................................................. 68
9.2. Canon: Functional Approaches ............................................................................................................ 71
9.3. Canon and the Politics of Interpretation ................................................................................................ 74
9.3.1. Canonical Criticism....................................................................................................................... 74
9.3.2. Digression: Visions of Canon ........................................................................................................ 79
9.4. But Are there Canons at All? Or, The Good Advices of the Savant ....................................................... 81
9.3.2. No More Canons........................................................................................................................... 83
9.4. More Canons ....................................................................................................................................... 85
9.5. Whose canon? ..................................................................................................................................... 88
9.5.1. Digression: The Provincial Nature of the "Theories" of the "Canon" .............................................. 88
10. Professional communities (in Hungarian).................................................................................................. 90
11. Canonized interpretations ......................................................................................................................... 98
12. Literariness of Theory............................................................................................................................. 101
13. Practice .................................................................................................................................................. 106
13.1. Do Contemporary Theories Help in the Practice of Interpretation?.................................................... 106
13.2. canons and Writing literary history: Lajos Kassk as Pusztaszabolcs (In Hungarian)......................... 110
13.3. Ways of representing discontinuous memories ................................................................................. 114
14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism? .......................................................................... 118
Introduction ............................................................................................................................................. 118
14.1. A Way Out, a Digression, or a Way Back? ....................................................................................... 118
14.1.1. Systems in Other Frameworks ................................................................................................... 120
14.1.1.1. Some Examples .................................................................................................................. 120
14.1.1.2. Fokkema ............................................................................................................................ 121
14.1.1.3. System vs network.............................................................................................................. 123
14.1.1.4. System vs Field .................................................................................................................. 123
References ................................................................................................................................................... 125

Introduction

Introduction
The present study was largely triggered by a number of phenomena (conservativism, antiprofessionalism, uncertainty about the position of the criticism and the canon, the slowness of the
changes in the canon, the old fashioned and inflexible institutions, etc.) present in the cultural life I
am most familiar with. If one is not satisfied with the state and processes of the literary life around her
or him (and who of us will claim that she or he is?), it seems to be a sound reaction to look around and
try at least to give a good description (which is not at all as an innocent activity as it may seem) of
what is wrong and, meanwhile, try and find appropriate means for that description. My own cultural
background, however, has soon forced me to realize that although it may well be true all what has
been told about the definitive authority and power of those in the academe, about the interpretive
strategies forced upon the lay by the mandarins of the universities, about the canon changes motivated
by the naked interests of some mighty and influential people-in-culture, it is far from being universal:
it must be taken very cautiously and with several reservations in several parts of the world. In this
sense, literary theoretical speculations, or whatever you call it, is language- (or culture-)bound,
provincial or parochial, if you wish; literary scholars coming from different cultures may tell each
other extremely interesting but not necessarily relevant or applicable things. I do not know whether
one should strive for universality: would that be an universal demand? Anyway, the best I can do here
is to admit that I am not really familiar with the special American problems (because they are special)
and my knowledge of the Asian or African areas is less than negligible. Nonetheless, I hope that my
special point of view (because this, too, is special) may offer some insights.

Some questions

Some questions
Who are we, smart and well informed professional readers of literature? On what grounds do
we exclude other people from our guild of those interpreting literary works? And when do we say,
This is an interpretation? And when do we speak of interpretation at all? When is interpretation an
interpretation? When do we use the term "interpretive community"? And is there non-interpretation at
all?
These are some of my main questions in the studies which follow; the reader is kindly warned
not to expect any definitive answers, rather, she or he is invited to participate in elaborating on the
problems to be exposed.
The current handbooks and renowned studies of hermeneutics, text interpretation, and general
studies in literary understanding, present in an appealing amount and quality on the marketplace of
literature, pose, instead, questions of the following sorts: How does a work mean? How can we read
this meaning? How do we understand and how do we explain? What foundations may our
interpretations have? My questions, as can be seen, differ from these inasmuch as I would focus on
the first person plural. Keeping in mind the extraordinary explanatory force of the concepts of horizon
and tradition or heritage, which gained an outstanding place after Gadamer's work, I turn towards an
approach which is more sociological or, if you wish, more down-to-earth in nature. There is an
increasing interest towards quasi-sociological issues of literary interpretation: the ways people
interpret literature; the system and rules of the operation of interpretive communities; the rise of
professional interpretation; the institution, legitimation, power and politics of interpretation; canon
formation as a means or as an indicator of the communities; etc. But what I am aiming at is still not an
account of the individual interpretations or a review of interpretations belonging to specific,
sociologically describable strata - although there are some excellent analyses of this sort. I repeat,
however, that I wish to break with the generality of we, and I formulate questions which, I hope, refer
to the operations of the interpreting we, whatever and whenever it may be.
In what follows, as usual in our profession, I will go back to and rely upon some ideas of my
earlier works which remained implicit or were left touched upon only superficially there.1 When the
present work first took a faint shape, my first book, entitled Literature as Speech Act: A Chapter in
the History of Literary Theory, had been more or less finished and published soon after. Nevertheless,
the contours of the studies to follow it were not at all clear; quite a number of problems arose there,
and it was not evident which of them should be pursued. I am still not sure if these contours are now
more clear-cut.
First I will remind the reader the problems raised by putting criticism into a speech act
theoretical framework (regarding criticism as a special, explicit verbal expression of understanding).
Then I will try to defend the thesis that interpretive communities are themselves products of
interpretive communities. After providing a bit more detailed description of the concepts of
interpretive community and institutional control influencing that interpretive community - and to this
problem belongs the relationship of the cult and the institutes of interpretation - , in connection with
the cult, canons must be touched upon. Finally, there is a chapter on the systematic study of literature
a (perhaps simplified) version of which is used throughout these essays and which may prove to be
useful in further inquiries.

I have two sources: one of them is my longer study on the connection of speech act theory and literary studies
(1990), where the problem of interpretation as a speech act was but a short passage. My second source is my
essay on interpretive communities (1992).

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts


If one attempts at consequently thinking over the theoretical considerations characterized by the
work of Austin and Searle and speech act theory in general, but certainly extending these names and
this school, she or he must see that it is inevitable to arrive to theses which will be, in every important
point, in opposition to the theses described above. Let me shortly refer to these contradictions.
The input data of the Structuralism are facts deprived of their contexts, independent of any
conventions; in our case, they are texts; in contrst, it was the first finding of the theory of speech acts
that it was utterance which had to be examined, rather than the text, and to this belonged the entire
situation in which the utterance occurred. Hence, the facts/texts do not have their meaning in and by
themselves (as Structuralism supposed), but they gain it: the illocutionary force of an utterance (which
is not the same as its meaning) is warranted, for some positions, by the intention of the speaker or, for
some others, the interpretation of the receiver. Thus, meaning is not something which could be
directly read on the text, what must be taken into consideration is (depending on the theoretical
position) either the intention of the producer (to which conference may be made through conventions
and which is itself determined by conventions) or the virtual interpretation (which is conventional
activity and is directed towards the exploration of the conventions governing the text). No meaning
can be described without interpretation any meaning is in itself interpretation, and the text itself is
also, as it stands, interpreted, it exists only as such, as interpreted.
And if the text exist only as intended or as interpreted, but in any case: only in the framework
of (intended or interpreted) conventions, then one must be extremely cautious in respect to the its
structure and its objective markers. Intercultural inquiries warn us that facts and markers which may
seem to be entirely objective in a given culture, people living in another culture will simply not take
heed of, realize or even perceive. Text, then, must be seen in its communicative function; and the
communicative process is always sociallly and historically concrete, the text cannot be dismembered
from this. It is not a question of whether it is allowed or whether it is fair to dismember it,
whether there is a (methodological) spot in doing so it is that no interpretation is possible stepping
out of this process, since interpretation itself is part of that process. Of this seemingly purely
theoretical conclusion, there may follow some consequences on the practical fields of literary
studies such as criticism, literary historiography and literary pedagogy.
The literary studies conceived in the new spirit opposing the literary Structuralism, will not
divide, it will not regard as dividable, interpretation from description, evaluation from description.
Since text itself is already always interpreted, it would not even be possible: description is in itself a
sort of perception or conception of the text. The objective markers seem to be objective only within a
certain culture (and a certain interval of time), their description is, from the very outset, within an
interpretative framework - their description, that is, is an interpretation. And the language of the
interpretation cannot be value-free: this meta-language cannot be isolated from the natural language,
whereas this latter is always dependent upon beliefs, prejudices, (false) consciousnesses, social
formations, and, in this respect, is always saturated with values.
The concept of the context should naturally be handled quite differently by this study of
literature. Ultimately, the meaning of a text is but its context so the most radical formulation goes,
taking context in its wides sense possible. But even if one takes other formulations, it is clear that the
relation of text/represented reality (that is, that of sign/denotatum) is just one aspect of the text/context
system, not necessarily the most central one, and since the object of the inquiry is not the mere sign
(text) any more, but the process of communication, it is not a question whether relation falling
outside the text, such as channel, code, sender, receiver (in the Jakobsonian senses) or the working
or functioning of the text in these relations can be subjected to inquiry.
Differentiations between normality and abnormality, everyday and poetic language, literal and
metaphorical meaning will loose, after a thorough following through the consequences of speech act
theory, their absolute validity; all one can speak of is different language games, literal language and
normality can be interpreted only within these frameworks. It is not the language (or the structure,

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

then, which is marked in literature, but it is the language game, the literary use of language, the
literary communication process which differs from other types of communication.

1.1. The Vicissitudes of Taking the Floor


The logical possibilities, sketched above, of taking the floor by the new (or let us put it this
way: other) view of literature, which has been confronted with the orthodox Structuralism, were far
from being all and fully realized in this period of the history of literary studies. Just as the paradigm
changes in general take place with a number of contradictions, retreats and quick and sudden
impulses, the historical path of change in view now under investigation has also been much more
crooked and lumpy than it could have been predicted by logic.

1.2. The Inherent Uncertainties Of The Theory


First of all it must be mentioned that Austin's theory, which has not been created as a theory in
the traditional sense of the word (that is, in Structuralist or Logical Positivist sense, or in any sense of
modern philosophy of science), is loaded by contradictions in a number of issues. The thesis of
parasitical speech acts, for instance (of which see some more later), reiterates the dichotomous
oppositions of everyday/poetic or literal/metaphorical etc. proposed by classical Structuralism.
The contradictions are even more serious in Searle's book (1969). Searle's doubtful
achievement, that is, that speech acts can be divided into illocutionary force and propositional content,
has already been mentioned (see ch. 1.2.1., above, and 1.3.4.2., below).
Not only did these contradictions remained supressed and unnoticed in the theory of speech acts
but it did not become clear either that the virtual program underlying its main thess is fundamentally
opposed to the program of classical Structuralism and, hence, these theses should be presented
accordingly. To put it more simply, the theory of speech acts did not realize its own novelty, and,
consequently, it lacked all the fury and militant spirit frequently characterizing the newly emerging
and offensive trends and schools. That the theory reflects a surprisingly or at least hitherto scarcely
foregrounded vision of language and that all the results achieved by the studies developing within the
framework of the Structuralism can be understood and assessed adequately only in this light, did not
become conscious for those working in this theory. Generative grammar, from the moment it
appeared on the scene, has refused any other possible linguistics, and has been searching for its own
precedessors, ancestors in the history of linguistic theory (cf. eg. Chomsky 1967a). This scholarly
attitude, it seems, falls far from the representatives of the theory of speech acts. (On this, see also
1.2.4.3.)
And even if it sometimes happens that those writing about or working in the theory of speech
acts realize the novelty and significance of the theory, then it is often the case that some of its partial
elements are shown up as a sort of manifesto, with a theatrical gesture, without fulfilling, however,
the promise of drawing the due consequences. Searle himself, too, can be found guilty in this charge:
while flourishing the banner of Austin, he adopts a number of the theses of Structuralism so that he
does not realize the need to change them. Literature on the theory offers quite a lot of examples for
such an attitude as well as for the unconsiderate metaphorizing of the theory (Martland 1970;
Matthews 1978; Atkins 1983: 10; etc.).

1.3. New Vision, From Other Angles


It belongs to the history of the vicissitudes of the new pattern, and I can only give a brief sketch
of the issue, that in a number of territories of the humanities it was in the middle of the twentieth
century, between the fifties to the beginning of the seventies, that the time was ripe for changes to
take place in disciplines tortured by chronic crises. In this renewal, sociology, ethnography,
anthropology and philosophy was affected as well as literary studies. A source of the renewal was, as
was indicated, the British Line: that is, Wittgenstein and his followers, the analytical philosophy
and the Oxford philosophers who asked the old questions of understanding, human mind and language

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

in a radically new way. Another source might have been the Continental (especially German)
philosophy (and philosophy of science, sociology, cultural criticism, etc.) which had, as of the sixties,
wider and wider scope of influence. The theory of speech acts is from the kennel of the Oxford school
of philosophy, and it has always emphasized this family relation, while neglecting, in general, the
Continental considerations displaying high family resemblances to its own ideas. (Simply speaking,
representatives of speech act theoretical school just ignored any contribution to their ideas coming
from the other side of the Channel.) Hermeneutics, however, which got a new impetus after
Gadamer's 1960 book, has relatively quickly find its way to the English-American tradition,
moreover, some representatives of the aesthetics of reception (Iser, Jauss), as well as the theory of
society connected to Max Weber and the Frankfurt School (Habermas), regularly refers, as of the
seventies, to the theory of speech acts. The connections are complex: as I. and W. Kummer puts it
(1976: 84), the theory of speech acts is connected to the empirical study of literature, to Marxist
theory of economy and psychology, etc. via the theory of action. Fowler (1979: 188) asserts that there
is a likeness between the Rezeptionsaesthetik of the Konstanz School and Fish's approach
concentrating on the communication. Schmidt (1978: 48 49), horeover, draws a wider circle when he
opposes approaches preoccupied with structure (see ch. 1.4.1.) and those dealing with the process of
communication, the latter comprising Sve, Vygotskij and Leontev, the representatives of
ethnomethodology, etc.
All this implies that the new pattern emerges in several places and simultaneously, and,
moreover, that it does not become always clear which partial theory plays what role in stretching out
or dissolving the older pattern of thought, the older conceptual frames. The literary studies following
the lead of the Wittgensteinian idea of language games will conclude in results quite similar to some
conceptions of literature relying on the theory of speech acts (even though these latter may not refer to
Wittgenstein at all), and these latter are sometimes parallel with literary interpretations born in the
spirit of hermeneutics or theory of reception which, in turn, ignore both Austin's and Wittgenstein's
theories. Moreover, each of the traditons approach the problem formulated in its specific way in terms
of its specific bias, thus, the theorists themselves are unable (and unwilling) to connect their own
modes of problematizing to any other theory. To the very same results where the literary studies
exploiting the theory of speech acts have, in its best achievements, arrived, can be reached also from
elsewhere, therefore, it is not at all certain that what is needed for the renewal of the theory of
literature is just the theory of speech acts. The theory of speech acts can be an example of the taking
of the floor by the new patterns of thought, and, thus, one specific form of this renewal, but is not, in
itself, the incarnation of the new views.

1.4. A Self-Destructing Theory?


One may label the theory of speech acts, but especially the theories of understanding, meaning,
literature, and communication founded on its basis, as a kind of self-destructing theory, even if this
formulation seems to be incurably metaphorical.
The first to realize that one of the theory's, perhaps very remote, implications might have been
dangerous for the theory itself must have been Fish (1980a: 197 245); if all one can speak of is nonhierarchized language games, if the distinction of the normal is always an arbitrary act, if the
explanation is not unfolded out of the work, but it is through explanation that the work is created,
then it is true for any scientific or explanatory apparatus that it is just one of the stories. What this
theory emphasizes is that none of the theories is better, smarter or more beautiful than any other one,
and that the choice among theories is a matter of conventions; thus, they theory itself is just one
among the theories, it is no more true than the theories asserting the opposite theses. The solution
for this dilemma (a bit transformed and maybe sharpened here) seems to be found by Fish later
(1980b, 1980c, 1980d), in the category of interpretive communities.
Another manifestation of self-destruction is that thinking over the theoretical implications of
Austin's and Searle's work and drawing their conclusions will threat one or another of the very theses

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

of these theories.2 Just think of the inherent contradictions emerging from the inner uncertainties (see
ch. 1.2.4.1.). Moreover: the grammatical theory which admits and assimilates the Austinian idea that
linguistic utterance must be viewed in its entire process of communication, and thus reaches the
conclusion that there can be no clear distinction made between purely linguistic and non-linguistic
competence (or, less radically, that there is no sharp borderline between the two), may gradually cease
to be a linguistic theory proper since it must integrate into the linguistic description each and every
factor of communication, the whole field of pragmatics. Likewise, a theory of literature must become
a theory of social structures, communication, and science, as well as an anthropology, a hermeneutics
and a psychology. The individual human disciplines destruct their own independence.3

1.5. A First Glance at the Relation Between Speech Act Theory and Literary Studies
1.5.1. Theoretical Considerations of the Connection
In the theory of the speech acts, neither in Austin's nor in Searle's formulation, there is no
predetermined place for any theory of literature.
This simple statement has to be underlined very emphatically, because the question it answers
is a remarkable one. It is quite natural that similar kinds of questions may be asked in connection with
every trend, school, system of thoughts, and they are in fact are posed. Logical Positivism, for
instance, which can be connected in several respects to Structuralism, did not leave, in the system of
the science determined it determined, no place for any metaphysics, thus, aesthetics got excluded
and it is a question whether a Logical Positivist literary studies can be conceived at all. In this case,
what one must face is the strict form of the lack of place; Logical Positivism has explicitly excluded
some fields of inquiry from the scope of science.
According to a possible conception, the theory of speech act is no more than a sub-theory of
linguistics, which may serve to help in answering some particular questions of linguistics. If it is so
and, to be sure, it is also the case , then the theory of speech acts conceived in this sense will not,
naturally, delimit or pick out any literary studies, moreover, it will not even remotely imply any
considerations for literary studies. For one would not say, for instance, that the theory of functional
sentence perspective is in close connection with any theory of literature. If one regards speech act
theory as a sub-theory of this level, then the most one can state is that some concrete approaches
offered by the theory can be transferred to the analysis of literary works, and that the literary text
just as any other text can be analyzed by making use of these instruments. Then either they prove to
be of revealing power, or not.
But one could also consider the theory proposed by Austin and his followers by speculating that
it can be put in the same row where, say, the generative grammar stands. That is, the theory of speech
acts can be regarded as a theory which determines a general framework for the study of language.
There has been experiments to create a generative theory of literature, on the model of generative
grammar which shows, among others, that in this conception the linguistic theory is not simply
something applied, but is serves as a model for the theory of literature , thus, it can be supposed that

For me, it is a very sympathetic conception of the theory for which irony and scepticism is an inherent part of
this theory itself. In connection with Austin's classification of speech acts, Rosaldo (1982: 23) asserts that
Austin's doubts concern the execution of classification with a definitive force of any form of any action or any
doing things with words ...<...to check...>..., and, thus, Austin remains, in his spirit, much closer to the (more
or less) Marxist statement that the forms of action cannot be classified absolutely but rather they can be analysed
against the background of social-economic contexts in which the actions are performed" <...to check...>. (See
also Ferrara, in note 24.) Felman, in her book (1980), also points out the fundamental role of doubt and ironical
self-contradiction in Austin's lectures.
3

The literature on this issue focuses primarily on the sociological connections (e.g. Streeck 1975), warning that
the sociological implications and perspectives of the Austinian theory have not yet been, with very few
exceptions, exploited (Rosaldo 1982: 230-231).

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

on the model of the theory which is confronted with the generative model, but is its equal and having
a similar scope, there can be constructed a speech act theoretical theory of literature. It must be seen,
of course, that the difference is significant: the theory of speech acts did not develop a system of
concepts and methodology of analysis which is operative and can be continually verified or modified
via the practice of analysis, whereas the generative theory did, or at least made its best to do so.
Nevertheless, if the theory of speech acts is a theory of language (and not just an ad hoc method of
analysis forged to solve some particular problems), then it may give some points of reference to the
theory of literature.
And, lastly, an even more daring interpretation of the theory of speech acts is the one which
does not regard Austin's theory merely as a linguistic theory, but also as a theory of cognition,
meaning and understanding. This conception starts from the further implications of the speech act
theory and connects them with similar consequences of other theories. It is clear that from the speech
act theory itself no new system of the philosophy of science or guidelines of a new generally
scientific paradigm can be developed. The theory of speech acts may fit into the framework of a
paradigm, but itself is not a direct creator of that paradigm. Anyway, if one puts the theory of speech
acts into such a large context just as the generative grammar has always been striving to indicate the
paradigm it has been part of , then one can say that this paradigm must have its own theory of
literature as well.

1.6. Approaches to the Meaning of the Literary Text


The definitions of literature, approaches to the genre theory, etc. which made use of the theory
of speech acts do not necessarily transcend the point where the theory of speech acts, taken as a purely
linguistic theory (and not, say a theory of language or of meaning, etc.), is adopted in order to help in
solving a particular problem. Thus, the theory of literature surrounding the problem to be solved
remains entirely unchanged, the replies given to a question of a part of the field will call forth the
transformation of the whole theory.
When the student of literature believes that she or he will find a solution to, say, the definition
of the concept of literauture, then it is hard to imagine that she or he can render the theory itself
independent of the theory of speech acts. That is, if she or he regards the literary work of art as an
utterance and, moreover, an act, a speech act, then this will imply to take a spet, at least, from the
Structuralist insistence on text towards a version of communication oriented theories - the question is,
however, if the theoretician realizes the necessity of such a step. Jonathan Culler, as early as in 1973,
proposed that
"the special illocutionary actions of the poetic and novelistic conception should be identified
and described, since these have their own constitutive conditions ... Austin's theory offers an analogy,
with the help of which critics may think about the various conditions of the literary discourse but
which is unable to be applied directly." <...to check...> (1973: 360)
Let us now suppose that per analogiam of the theory of speech acts, it is possible to construct a
new theory of literature. We have nothing to lose with this supposition, but we may gain a good
perspective on the problems a theory like this must be confronted. Now if the linguistics of the speech
acts has as its most principal question, What warrants the meaning of an utterance?, then a theory of
literature will certainly pose a similar question. This question could be confrontably fitted into the
framework of Structuralism (although it seems that Structuralism would hold the following question
more important and more fundamental: What is the structure of the utterance like and in what respect
does it differ from the structure of another utterance?). The theory of speech acts assumes, however,
that by our utterances we always do something; an utterance has always an illocutionary force. Hence,
this would be a question specifically tailored for this theory: What warrants the illocutionary force of
an utterance?
As far as the literary theoretical reformulation of these two questions is concerned, there are no
particular difficulties here.

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

The first question would run, What warrants the meaning of a literary work? Why does the
literary work (text) mean what it does? By this reformulation, we did not get an inch closer to the
problem itself, naturally; the word meaning is just as obscure as it was in the question of the
linguist. Seemingly, there are two tasks to overcome: we should circumscribe what meaning means,
and then associate it somehow with the text (utterance). However, I suspect,these two tasks are one
and the same: what is at stake is always the meaning of something (moreover, the meaning of
something for somebody).
The replies which can be given to the second question, as I will try to demonstrate, are very
similar to the answers to the first question. The question itself, however, is much more difficult to
interpret within the theory of literature. Let us see. Just as linguistics assigns (among others)
illocutionary aspect to the utterances, so a theory of literature must also assume that there is a
special illocution of the literary text corresponding to this or that illocutions of the everyday texts.
Just as in everyday communication one may assert, ask, threat or command by her or his utterances,
so in the literary communication one does something by the texts. Just as for the understanding of any
text it belongs to (moreover, is a prerequisite for) the understanding of a literary text that it should
indicate what it wishes the reader should do. Thus, speaking of the literary illocution of literature,
it is not a simple analogy but the extrapolation of the term illocution (perhaps unjustifiedly) well
beyond the unit of sentence: to the text. Supposing that there is such a thing as literary illocution,
the question could be reformulated as follows: What warants the literary illocution of a literary text?
Or, else: By what do we understand something as literature which we understand as literature? This
formulation suggests that the reply to be given may bring us closer to the solution of the problem of
literariness.4
I am reluctant and perhaps unable to outlien the borders between the first and the second
questions, that is, to clarify the extremely complex relationship between meaning an illocution. I think
it is much more important to sketch the possible answers to the questions above; it well may be that
there will be a sort of mixure there as far as the illocution and meaning are concerned, but I do not
believe it to be a serious danger.
Here I must remind the reader, again, to the debates about the literary work taken as a speech
act. The problem, of course, is more far-reaching. If one does not acknowledge the validity of a
linguistic approach to the literature (or art), then the speech act model of the theory of meaning will be
seen as inherently weak (Margolis 1974: 131-132). Thus, the question is not only whether the
literary work is a speech act but also whether a speech act theoretical theory of meaning is possible.
Whence, then, the illocution of the literary text?
In what follows, I will list four conceivable replies. I will call the first two (1.4.1.1. and
1.4.1.2.) as textual approaches: the other two (1.4.2. and 1.4.3.), communication oriented approaches.
The former two search for the element which will warrant the specific illocution and/or meaning of
the text in the text (utterance) itself; for them, the illocution is inherent in the text. The latter two
positions sees the guarantee of the illocution (meaning) either in the intention of the source of the text
(author, writer, speaker), or in the surroundings, reception, communication of the utterance. For one
of them, it is intended or intentional, for the other, it is attributed or assigned. These, communication
oriented, positions can be regarded as theories of meaning, or, at least, there is a core of a theory of
meaning within them, while the textual approaches remain of restricted validity.

Searle (1980: 17) ues a sharply critical tone towards conceptions regarding poems or novels as separate
illocutionary acts of their own right. That's crazy, the distinguished philosopher comments. The issue,
however, is somewht more complex, I believe.

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

1.6.1. Textual Approaches


1.6.1.1. The Performative Analysis
The method of the performative analysis, which is associated primarily to Ross's work (1970) is
destined to illuminate the following problem: how is it possible that when a sentence is uttered which
does not contain any performative verb (like I swear that... or I state that...) the listener will
nonetheless know what the illocutionary act performed by the sentence was? This phenomenon did
not escape Austin's attention either (1962b: 16). The point, then, would be that one should
hypothesize the existence of a performative verb in the deep structure (as conceived within the
framework of the generative grammar) of the utterance. As Lyons writes (1977: 781), there was no
convincing syntactic argument hitherto presented in defence of the performative analysis; and Kiefer
(1975: 378) asserts that for this analysis, no semantic argument has been given.
What the performative analysis suggests to the theory of literature is that the literary illocution
is, in a way or another, hidden in the deep structure of the literary text. Obviously, what is in question
is not a performative verb; scarcely could we find a verb which could indicate that the text subsequent
to it is to be taken as literature. There were only some attempts at proving that performative analysis
can be employed in literary theory; one of them is Suhor's study (1975), the other being Tanaka's
article in which the author, without any argumentation, declares Ross's hypothesis to be important and
interesting from the point of view of the literary theory.
Kuroda's study deserves some attention (1976). He, on his part, accepts Ross's theory (1976:
108). The narrator theory of the narrative can be interpreted just by the performative analysis (111).
There is a similar idea in a study by M.-L. Ryan (1981b: 521): the narrator theory of nobody
speaks is incompatible with either performative analysis or Grice's theory of meaning. For Ryan
(1981a: 139), there are syntactic argument for the acceptance of Ross's analysis. Ron (1981: 30)
argues that the mimetic reader is, as it were, forced to create, during her or his participation in the
mimetic language game, a higher performative verb. Baron, in his informative essay (1975),
maintains the hypothesis of the performative analysis contrary to all arguments against it, but every
now and then he refers to the context; he assumes some half a dozen performative to be deleted in the
deep structure of the literary text without offering any syntactic argument for it whatsoever. Levin
(1977: 116) speculates that behind every literary work there is a higher sentence. For Levin, the
verb imagine is performative; this is hardly defendable. And I also could mention Van Dijk's book
(1972), in which the author raises then refuses the possibility of the literary theoretical employment of
the performative hypothesis (143-154). Later on, though, he introduces the Narr pragmatic operator,
which is a performative symbol, and which gives the special rules of the narrative (1972: 289).
It is obvious that those followers of the performative analysis who seek for help in references to
the context, will get involved into a self-contradiction.

1.6.1.2. The Theory of the Indicating Devices


If one can say that the text can be analyzed from the angle of the inherent characteristics of the
sign (text), then, in this division, there is syntax on the one side and semantics and pragmatics on the
other. Syntax, traditionally, is the hinting field of the Structuralist approach, thus, there is something
controversial in the fact that a theory with the ambition of undoing the Structuralism, namely, speech
act theory, is used in order to give account of the syntactic charactristics, inherent traits of text. The
performative analysis was just this kind of syntactic attempt; the other reply, which does not have too
serious theoretical concern either but may seem convincing, starts also from the syntax of the text.
It may have been Searle himself the first to mention (1969: 30) that the illocutionary force
indicating devices can also warrant the illocutionary force of an utterance. This idea precedes, at
least logically, that of the performative analysis (though Lyons's bibliography shows that
simultaneously with the first publication of Searle's book there has been propositions to adopt the

10

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

performative hypothesis), the performative analysis attempting to give an explanation to the very
phenomenon which cannot be clarified by the illocutionary force indicating devices. These devices
are of syntactical (that is, not semantical) nature: among them figures the word order, the accnt,
intonation and pitch, punctuation, the mode of the verb and, naturally, the most important and most
unmistakable, the performative verbs (Searle 1969: 30). Thus, these devices may guide the readerlistener as to the illocutionary force of the utterance. The circle of the devices is relatively restricted,
and there is but a few among them, apart from performative verbs, which could give a guarantee for
the illocutionary force. Moreover, performative verbs themselves need to be interpreted; they do not,
in themselves, mark out definitely the illocution of an utterance, since the sentence I ask you to shut
the door is not only a request but can be a threat as well. It may also be added that Searle, though
hesitatingly, raises the idea of deep structural analysis: (ibid.).
It may cause problems to locate the point where these indicating devices are to be gound. Their
description, says Fotion (1975: 230-1) may not be successful until one insists on staying within the
single speech act since speech situation the preceding and following utterances may modify the
illocution so much that one will find the device itself just in these utterances, that is, separated from
the speech act under examination. The more serious difficulties start when one considers the purely
syntactic nature of these indicators. For Searle himself could not possibly deny that mimics or
gestures will certainly belong to the field of pragmatics and, thus, he would certainly refer them to the
context. I doubt, however, that a sharp borderline could be drawn between our competences making
possible to realize syntactical features and those enabling us to understand contextual traits; it seems
that syntactical indicating devices of illocutionary force can not be separated from the pragmaticcontextual indicating devices of illocutionary force, and, thus, the whole idea can be formulated
within the framework of contextual theories.
The idea of the illocutionary force indicating devices can be applied to the literary texts the
following way: there are segments of a text which conventionally unambiguously (or less
unambiguously) indicate that the text count as literature. Obviously, among these devices the
performative verb will not figure (there is no sentence like I hereby literature that...) - though, as
Bruss (1977: 29) notes, the performative use of verbs like tells, creates, describes etc. can be
studied within the text (but not as a verb determining the illocution of the text). Mapping and
describing the remaining syntactical indicating devices, from the rhyme to alliteration and text
coherence, has been an ambition of the Structuralists in literary studies. (Of this, see, e. g., the
bibliography of Wienold 1978.)
If one could succeed in establishing the concept of literary illocution within a Structuralist
framework, that is, if one succeeded in pointing out a set of syntactic features warranting the
literariness of any text, then a theory turning from the syntax to the pragmatics would loose all of its
significance whatsoever. The Structuralist experiment turned out to be, however, a fiasco; to use the
witty simile of Kiparsky (1973: 179), numismatics will never be able to define money.5
Beardsley (1973: 37-38), for instance, speaks of the special nature of the semantic tension,
assigning, however, only a subordinate role to these traits, asserting that their mere existence is due to
the illocution (more precisely, the lack of illocution). The approach is the reverse, but basically starts
from the same stance in Olsen's (1978: 5) and Smith's (1971: 271) work. For Olsen, the reader must
realize some characteristics of the texture and the structure in order to be able to receive the text as a
literary text; and in Smith's more cautious formulation, there may be, though there not necessarily are,
qualites which will indicate the fictitious nature of the utterance for the reader.

The issue of literariness, however, has not ceased to interest the literary scholars; witness Milot and Roy, ed.
1991.

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1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

1.6.2. Intentionalism
There is a rather sharp borderline between intentionalism and the two approaches sketched
above. Firstly because this is not simply an ad hoc explanatory guess but a theory of meaning which
has contributed to the literature of linguistics and philosophy with a number of valuable and
interesting works (see, e. g., Aschenbrenner 1950; Strawson 1964; Lewis 1969; Schiffer 1972; the
works of Grice; Searle 1983; etc.). Second, while performative analysis and the conceptions relying
on the illocutionary force indicating devices may be regarded as approaches centering around the text
(or sign), intentionalism focuses instead to the communication process, and this is in harmony with
the suggestions of the speech act theory.
Intentionalism is an object, in its own right, of linguistic, philosophical and literary theoretical
studies; here it will be discussed only in so far as it receives a speech act theoretical formulation, since
it is evident that quite a number of ways may lead to this position. It is also a question to be
considered seriously whether the theory of speech act will not make the way for or even prescribe an
intentionalist theory of meaning. In the formulation of Austin and especially in that of Searle the
theory is based, in a very high degree, on the intention of the utterer; it seems, then, to be a necessary
outcome that of those connecting speech act theory with the theory of literature, many will vote for
the position of intentionalism. The question may be answere dpositively: yes, it is possible that
following the traces of Austin and Searle one will arrive to an intentionalist theory of meaning. But
one must immediately add that the theory of speech act offers further conclusions as well, so that a
contextualist approach will seem to be at least as justified as this one.
In a very simplified manner, we could say that intentionalism emphasizes one end of the
process of the communication and make this the guarantee of the meaning and the literary illocution.
One will not, naturally, find this formulation anywhere in the studies devoted to the issue, since the
range of the intentionalist replies given to the question of the meaning and illocution of the text is
very wide. Simplifying the problem, again, the range starts somewhere at the position according to
which it is exclusively the intention of the speaker/author/utterer on which the meaning and illocution
of the text depends; and it ends somewhere at the speculation that authorial intention is no more than a
product of the reconstruction of the receiver (which is very close to the contextualist position).
Quentin Skinner, a follower of a version of intentionalism himself, in his study in 1972 makes
very subtle and interesting distinctions between the ways and modes of relating intention and meaning
(especially the meaning of the literary work). It may be useful to remind the reader Skinner's wellfounded and essential distinctions, even if they will not be made use of in the followings. For Skinner,
then, the introduction of the concept of intention may be criticized from several angles.
Intention, of course, is not simply negated by those voting for a contextualist position.
Beardsley, for instance, a long avowed critic of intentionalism, refers to the detached, non-natural
nature of the literary text, as opposed to living context; the former does not allow inference to
intentions.

1.6.3. Contextualism
The other theory of meaning which attempts at replying on a general level the questions
formulated earlier is called contextualism, conventionalism or institutionalism. One could speak,
instead of conventionalism, of contextualism, as M. Szegedy-Maszk writes (1979: 15). For the
contextualist conception, the illocutionary force of an utterance or a text is guaranteed by the context.
Thus, the literary nature of a text, its literary illocution is also endorsed by the context, and,
according to the most versions of contextualism, the meaning of a text is, too, dependent on the
context. Either context influences meaning, or context is meaning itself - there is a wide range of
views between these two formulations.
The use of the term contextualism (as opposed to conventionalism or institutionalism) can be
justified by the fact that for this theory the decisive element is the environment of the text (or its

12

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

reception as its environment). Though this environment may happen to be the system of institutions
surrounding and mediating the text, or the convention according to which the text is understood may
be central, but in both cases one necessarily confronted with the issue of context. Text is institutional it is surrounded by institutions, its coming into being, its existence and its reception is determined and
warranted by institutions. At the same time, the text is also conventional: its creation as well as its
reception can take place only against the background of conventions. But the institutions as well as
conventions can be perceived as cases of context present in the receiver's mind, thus, of the three
terms, contextualism seems to be the most comprehensive one.
Actually, it may be a bit too general. The first task of a contextualist theory should be to
articulate in way or another the concept of the context itself, to make assertions of the nature of the
context. It should answer the following questions: I what dimensions is context to be conceived of?
Where is the context?
First, let me give a short review of how, in what ways a small portion of the literature on the
issue has used the term context.6
A group of the authors does not strive at a definition, leaves the term, naively or deliberately,
blurred, global, general, total. One of the reasons for this may be that the principles of
contextualism are being formulated as against a strictly text-centered position, and the attitude of
confrontation is more important than elaboration itself. The more important case, however, is when
the authors themselves reflect upon this obscure use of the term, or when it is evident from the context
of the study that context is understood together with all its determinations and aspects just what
exactly these aspects are is not elaborated upon. One will encounter such general, almost inexplicit
interpretations very often.
To this group belongs, for instance, T. Cohen (1975: 680); for him, the illocutionary force of an
utterance is delimited by the properties of the utterance itself, but the fixing of the illocution remains
to other element of the speech situation. N. and A. Kasher (1976: 79) argue that understanding a poem
is the creation of an appropriate utterance context. It is the context which is the central issue of
poetics, since there are two ways in which a text can be no-standard: either there is something
wrong with the text itself, or the relation of the text to its context is not standard. This latter is the
case of the interpretation of the poem. Unfortunately, however, the authors do not offer any more
elaborated explanation of their concept of context.
Iser (1975: 9) mentions the full range of context, but, apart from extratextuality (21), he, too,
permits a too wide space for the interpretation of the context. But it belongs to Iser's conception that
he does not take text/context relation only from one aspect (say, from that of the authorial intention or
that of the relation of text and its surrounding text), but, instead, regards it as a relevant component of
meaning from all possible angle.
Similarly, there is a systematic indeterminacy in Olsen's (1978) and Fish's (1973b, 1978)
remarks. Here, context is to mean whatever makes meaning possible, whatever creates or warrants it
(see also Ducrot 1973: 132-133). A total concept of context is found in Pride (1976), for whom
context, despite all its totality, is not an abstract entity, neither a sort of practical seasoning which can
simply be spread on any raw meaning whatsoever to make a text with digestible meaning. His demand
to concretize and interpret the context, that it should not be regarded in its abstract generality but in
the process of reception and interpretation, leads us to the systematizing approaches.7
6

Coulter remarks, 'Context' is surely one of the most widely used (and widely abused) terms of art in the
humanities and social sciences. Its problematics are ancient. Garfinkel and Sacks (1990: 66) observe that the
Dissoi Logoi, a fragment of text from approximately 300 B.C., concerns itself with the sentence "I am an
initiate" because it prsents readers/herarers with a difficulty. (Coulter 1994: 689)
7

Coulter (Coulter 1994: 689-690) warns that the concept of context may become mistified, if it is taken - notably
by "the deconstructionist, post-structuralist and related forms of logophobia within literary criticism and the
social sciences" - as "an interpretive 'free space' of infinite plasticity"; Coulter argues that 'context' is an

13

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

From the point of view of the history of linguistics, R. Lakoff's study on context (1972) is of
primary importance; there explodes, as it were, all the discontent with the narrow-mindedness of the
generative and transformative grammar to which I have referred earlier. Though Lakoff mentions
(926) that the aspect proposed by her is not new, namely, to take into account the contextual factors,
but it is her aim to revive this demand. For this, no systematic theory is construed, just a list of
examples is provided which is enough to illustrate that to deal with the linguistic facts honestly and
exactly is possible only if context is taken into consideration.
If we say that there is a method in the use of the word context, then one of the principal
cornerstones of this system must certainly be the very popular use introduced by Jakobson:
I have to repeat: a theory of meaning, either it refers to any natural language utterance or to
texts formulated within the literary communication, which regards meaning as something that can be
ecamined only in relation to the context, must have some clear conception of what this context is. The
studies produced in this direction have tried to articulate the context but the main deficiency of some
of them has been that they have not been able to get rid of the identification of reference or denoting
and meaning. And this position is in contrdiction both with the suggestions or implications of the
theory of speech acts and, in a broader sense, with the principles of contextualism as far as it is
conceived as a counterpart (or party) of intentionalism, as one of the communication-oriented theories
of meaning.
I believe it makes sense to start from the concept of context for which context is a set of signs;
context is only something that the interpreter takes as a sign, what counts for her or him as a sign,
what is, then, interpreted by her or by him. The context of a text is whatever guarantees the meaning
of the text for the interpreter. Saying that everything is text and also that context is made of signs,
then, of course, the thesis that enything received is a text is unaboidable. This may seem to be too farfetched, but maybe it is not entirely useless. Then relating a text to a context, their mutual
correference is a process taking place between text and text.
From this it follows that a text, for the position of the contextualism, does not mean by itself,
it does not have a meaning (it does not possess it), but meaning is transferred to it, it is the
interpreter who assigns it to the text. This assignment must have its own rules, thus, it cannot be
sufficient - although, no doubt, it is sympathetic - to define the context as an entire environment, as
whatever there is; this everything can be articulated, just because there are always certain aspects
of this everything which take part in the creation of meaning. Of course, any of such articulation tobe
drawn can be redrawn ad made more sophisticated an detailed. By these refinements or corrections
one is still moving in the field of theory, and this is not really fortunate. The real refinement is
implicit in applications, in concrete, if you like, sociological, studies of understanding.
In my earlier studies (1979b, 1984), I made a difference between the following context of a
text: syntagmatic and paradigmatic context; textual and non-textual (homologous and heterologous)
context; context within and without the text (intratextual and extratextual context); speaker's (writer's)
and receiver's (reader's) context. The first difference, that between paradimatic and syntagmatic
context, follows the distinction made by Saussure, Hjelmslev and Barthes. It is, in fact, the difference
between the virtual relation of substitution and the actual contingency relation. A relation
between a text and another text besides it can be regarded as a syntagmatic relation, while the
relation between a text and another text in the background (generic forerunners or contemporaries,
texts of similar type but not besides the text, etc.) can be a paradigmatic one. To differentiate
between textual and non-textual contexts is a step which presupposes that there may be difference
between a text and a text according to the type of the sign; that is, that inside as well as outside the
text htere may be texts whose type (to use this loose term again) is not the same as those of the text.
There are quite clear cases: drawing in the (linguistic) text (from Sterne to Esterhazy), creates an
opposition within the text between visual and linguistic sign; a poem of Donne as opposed to another
ordinary word with a decipherable grammar whose parameters preclude its positioning within an open,
hermeneutic vortex. (Coulter 1994: 689-690)

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1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

poem of Donne, on the other hand, can be regarded as a relation of the text with another text outside
it, but homologuous with it. To decide what will count as homologous, what will constitute the same
type and what not, may, certainly, be rather intuitive; and intuition cannot be excluded from the
following (third) pair of oppositions either, that is, from that of intratextual and extratextual contexts.
Though no problems will be solved by it at all, still one is tempted to give the elegant definition that
the series of signs located within the boundaries of the text is the intratextual context of the text,
whereas anything else whatsoever belongs to the extratextual context. The fourth difference may be
established between the context as taken from the point of view of the speaker (producer) and that of
the hearer (receiver); this difference may be important whenever the question is the intention oriented
anture of the interpretation. The receiver may always make an attempt to (re)construct authorial
intentions, but she or he may also choose to ignore them. Finally, the fifth pair of differences was
invented in order to express, hopefully, that meaning can be influenced by effects of several
levels.There are factors like noise in the channel, the gestures of the speaker, the momentary state of
the receiver's mind or soul, or the texts directly following or preceding the text, instructions for use,
title, foreword, afterword, etc. On the other hand, there are the social-historical conditions and
circumstances, the system of habits of the society, its culture, the conventions of creation (production)
and reception, etc. Between these two types of contexts one will necessarily feel some kind of
difference, although faint are the chances that exact formulae will ever fix the rules of use of these
categories, namely, those of direct and indirect context.
The differentiations, the dimensions are evidently mutually crossing; thus, the ones in one pair
will not characterize simultaneously the context that is, for instance, a context of a text cannot be
simultaneously textual and non-textual, intratextual and extratextual, etc.). But if one scrutinizes the
nature of the oppositions, it will soon turn out that, to our greatest sorrow, very few will survive the
analysis.
If we mean it, for instance, that context is always in the receiver's (interpreter's) mind, that
context is only according to what the receiver will read and interpret the text, then it is a question
whether there is a context at all which is not there, which is not present besides the text in the
receiver's mind; that is, whether the paradigmatic context of a text is not besides the text in the
receiver's mind just as the contexts called above syntagmatic? One may well feel that there must be a
difference between the tradition or descendence of a text and its textual environment; and scarcely can
one call the existence of paradigms into doubt; the difference between paradigmatic and syntagmatic
contexts, however, cannot be explained away that simply by using the categories of presence and
background. (For the background is present.)
There may also be serious problems with the differentiation between textual and non-textual
contexts. Where is the boundary? Are two poems by Donne written in the same language? And what
about a poem by Donne and another by Pope? Do a work of literature and the dust cover text of the
same work (or a criticism on it, or a television version of it, or its loud recitation) use the same
language? How far is an image in the text a visual sign and, thus, the text belonging to another text
type? Is it still visual in Apollinaire's Fountain, but it is not visual any more in a text with a strange
tabulation or set with several fonts? Is it visual in Mallarm?
Third: what is in the text and what is outside it? How should one locate the paradigm itself?
The language? Are they within the text?
The four pair of categories gives rise to well known issues since it seems the context of the
speaker (sender, producer) and that of the receiver (interpreter) are simply not on the same level:
whereas our own context as receivers is always available, at hand, within reach, the context of the
author is always necessarily a (re)construction, a product of the receiver's activity.
Finally, in the case of the fifth opposition, it must be repeated that there is but a trifling chance
to provide exact definitions ever. It is a question whether this difference can be theoretically founded.
In spite of all appearences, there is some use in constructing, on the bases described above, then
smashing into pieces a system of context dissection. This operation, may it seem a play for play's

15

1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

sake, will confront us with the problems of the theoretizing about context and, thus, one may arrive at
important conclusions. First of all, it follows that one must face the issues of the whereabouts the
ontological status of the context. I, for one, believe the problem could be solved by regarding
context only as part of the receiver's mind, and take as a context of a text only what contributes to the
meaning of the text (in any sense of meaning whatsoever). But meaning is carried, just because of
this, not by the text, but is produced or created by the receiver.
A contextualism formulated this or a similar way may then have close connections to
philosophical problems which seemed to be too remote, and which has haunted epistemology at least
since Dilthey's time. The line can be drawn from Weber (1904: 41) and from the Lukcs of the
History and Class Consciousness (1923: 210-221) to Gramsci (1928: 204) and Habermas (1968). The
issue is the possibility of objectivity, that is the possibility of the independence of object and
knowledge or cognition. And the reply can be connected, again, to the hermeneutics represented,
among others, by Gadamer: understanding and cognition are embedded in a situation, thus, the
relativity of the objectivity of the thing understood or cognized is emphatic. It is the contexts which
have been socially and historically developed and continually developing and which are in the mind
receiving the text that determine and even make possible the specific understanding, the
understanding-just-this-way of the text. Thus, the contextualist theory of meaning does not suppose an
empty consciousness, furnished with some elementary conventions, but the entirety of linguistic
and non-linguistic conventions, textual and non-textual contexts. Conversely, it acknowledges the text
only as a text constituted within this mind, as something used. In what follows, I will explore some
of the consequences of such a position.

1.7. Further Consequences: Reactions to the Principles of Structuralism


Connecting speech act theory and literary theory may be an example of a turn in literary
theoretical thinking due to the fact that some fundamental theses of the Structuralism have lost of their
credit, or at least have been seriously challenged, thus, literary theory sought for a non-literary
theoretical trend which, in the field of linguistics, has also served as a reaction given to the
Structuralism. It would be hard to tell for how long the Structuralism has been in crisis: it has been
and always is in crisis, or never has been and is not; it flourishes today, and there were always
problems with it. But when the theory of the speech acts and the philosophical problems of everyday
language came into the fore, when they became known and popular, it offered an assistance for all
those who saw Structuralism with a critical eye.
All that the speech act theoretical approach to literature can be regarded as is an example of a
new, ever developing (and perhaps again and again dissolving) vision, and it is even doubtful whether
it has replaced or is to replace, in any sense, the old one. An example, though, is interesting not only
insofar as its history can be explored or as its present state can be given account of, but also as an
impetus to draw conclusions concerning the whole.
Earlier, when some principles of the Structuralism were sketched, it was presupposed that
Structuralism is more or less unified, thus, its principles are to be understood more or less generally.
Now, when it comes to the antipodal approach, some restrictions must be made, and, accordingly, a
short digression is needed.
In grouping the theories of the literary meaning, two clusters of approaches were distinguished,
the first putting its emphasis on the text while the second, on the communication. As it could be seen,
the latter group, that is, approaches centering around communication, is somewhat more promising,
all the more that the theories of meaning centered around the text seem to reproduce, although in
another theoretical framework, the solutions of the Structuralism. To make a choice between
intentionalism and contextualism is a more complicated business, and perhaps in part it is a question
of conviction and belief. This choice, at the same time, is also a matter of convention and it has to be
regarded, in a number of theoretical contexts and periods, as a dilemma (from the explanation of the
holy texts to the controversy between psychologism and impressionalism). No need, I thing, to make a

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1. The Possible Theoretical Consequences of the Theory of Speech Acts

compromise; although some formulations of intentionalism may point towards contextualism, and the
theory of meaning based on intention can scarcely deny the decisive role of context (in any sense of
the word), while contextualism cannot exclude a well circumscribed and restricted introduction of the
intention to its account, there are, still, much more arguments for contextualism. It is not necessary,
then, to attempt at some mixing of the two views of meaning.
It remains, nontheless, a question which of the two views is suggested more forcefully by the
theory of speech acts which serves as a starting point here. Olsen (1973), for instance, confronts
generative grammar with intentionalism, and, once he has put it this way, intentionalism is
unequivocally a consequence of the theory of speech acts; Hirsch (1975a: 574-577) tells the same
story quite differently. But turning from the examples to the entirety of the vision, it may seem that
approaches related in this or that way to the theory of speech acts or those parallel with it point
towards contextualism (for instance, the theory of reception, the empirical studies of literature and
their companies). I repeat, however, that it is a matter of decision. As Hermern puts it, the
intentionalist as well as the non-intentionalist position relies upon a theory of ideological function
(1975: 81). None of them is arbitrary, just the fundamental problems are not empirical; they are
connected to normative issues.
It may be raised, and justly, that on this point the literary and linguistic concepts of meaning are
sharply devided. It may be argued that a difference between literary and everyday communication lies
in that the latter demands not only an activity on the part of the receiver, a (re)construction of the
context and of the intention, but also a co-operation of the parties involved; accordingly, participation
in the everyday communication processes does not open a wide field for the display of the virtues in
interpretation, neither does it challenge interpretatory skills. Maybe the case is different in interpreting
literary texts, but intentionalism is still a tenable position for, a possible argument would follow,
everyday communication is taken as an unmarked standard case.
Contrary to this, I would put my argument as follows: why should not one, even as if an
experimental idea, take the literary (more complex) communication as the paradigmatic case, and
all the rest as just a simplified, reduced, marginal cases. That is, one could try to regard literary
communication as the starting point for and standard point of reference of the theory of meaning; the
basis of meaning being its creation by the receivers (audience, interpreters, readers), and everything
else (thus, the intention of the other) depending on this. From this aspect it does not count whether
(and when) the receiver is sensitive, for instance, for the ambiguities.

17

2. Speech Acts and Interpretation

2. Speech Acts and Interpretation


Bridging the Gap: Introduction
The theory of speech acts has had some influence on literary theory, and it is also evident that a
literary theory must give account of interpretation; and this would perhaps lead us to the concept of
criticism as well as interpretive communities. But I would like to make the short story long, and will
proceed by sketching first the ways the theory of speech acts could, and sometimes in fact did,
influence literary theory in these specific issues, and then, second, show that a new conception of
literary theory will inevitably face these questions and possibly force new replies.
Similarly to its role played in the theory of literature, speech act theory has two ways of
penetrating into the (special) theory of criticism or interpretation. One is direct application: one can
consider how the concepts developed within this pragmatic theory of language can be projected onto
the realm of critical discourse. However, an extension of the model would be to rely on the most
general findings of speech act theory and its relatives, when one may suggest ways the plurality of
interpretations should be handled, the institutional character of the interpretation (or criticism) be
described, its place in the system of literary communication be established, and so on.
In what follows, I will proceed by giving a short account of the applications; then - and this is
the more important division of the essays - try to draw the more general conclusions springing from
the extension model.

Criticism and Interpretation: Preliminary Remarks


Speaking of interpretation, it is hardly avoidable to say some words on the interrelation of
interpretation and criticism. I will do this by way of shortly examining two approaches to criticism,
one more traditional and another in the vein of pragmatics, and then searching for the links between
the two concepts in question, criticism and interpretation.

2.1. Comparative criticism


2.1.1. Some Theses
"Seeking comparisons between texts, over national frontiers", goes the traditional definition of
the task of comparative literature. Comparing Heine to Petfi, studying international phenomena like
Postmodern, exploring the reception/translation of Baudelaire in early 20th century Hungary are
topics which fairly well fit into the tradition of comparative literature.
Comparing literary texts almost amounts to comparative criticism proper. For it seems to be a
too hastily accepted assumption that what we have and what we study are texts; literary studies are
never simply about texts as such. We always face texts with their entire context, we face them in a
tradition (that is, which we are parts of), and even the act of understanding them presupposes a
number of "non-textual" sorts of knowledge. I admit, however, that there is a difference (at least, a
gradual one) between the study of literature and that of criticism, inasmuch as the latter aims at
treating the explicit and often institutionally sanctioned reports of understanding (or interpreting)
literary works.
A well known, established and widely employed method of analyzing critical texts is
comparative criticism.
Let me make some distinctions in order to illuminate, a bit, what we are actually studying. One
may take into account the following differentiations:
1. A study of criticism as seen in the context of criticism; differences between critical texts
(their function, structure, reception, etc.) and cultures making use of these texts must be taken account
of.

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2. Speech Acts and Interpretation

2. Criticism within the system of (speech) genres. What sort of linguistic activity is criticism?
Comparing criticism to curse, loge, etc.
3. Criticism within the system of the single language community (on a national level): as
opposed to other products/activities of other interpretative communities. Comparing criticism to
laymen's caf chats, opinions, to literary history etc.
We can also pose the problem of difference between ideological/political activities and critical
ones. Judgements of literary critical and political/ideological sort may be completely intermingled.
Now if we are to study interpretations or critical activities of different language communities,
we may rely on various traditional approaches. We may choose to study critical texts either (a) crossculturally, or (b) intra-culturally; either (c) on a diachronic or (d) on a synchronic level. This inquiry
presupposes a kind of map of the realm of critical texts. Thus, distinctions can be made along the
dimensions of (the list is random and not exhaustive) channel (oral vs written), origin and implied
readership (e. g., academic vs popular), reference (comprehensive literary histories vs short review
articles), style and structure, possible (reconstructed) intention ("autotelic" vs "purely referential"),
political function (extension of the administrative power or just one voice among the equals), and so
on.
Moreover, special attention can be paid to "borderline cases" of criticism, such as fictitious
criticism, on non-existing or lost works (Borges); meaningful or significant absence of critical
reactions; self-criticism (Cernisevkij); idiosyncrasies of structure or genre; anonymity; etc. The status
and relation of texts around criticism proper must also be examined. Leaflet information, postscripts,
advertisements, author's comments and the like may also be taken into account. Partly because they
themselves may serve as parts of the literary process, and partly because as subjects of metacritical
studies (comparative or not), they are sometimes ignored, sometimes taken very seriously. This may
have a historical/cultural/social regularity.
Explicitly or tacitly, we rely on a knowledge of this map when we set to compare critical
activities/critical texts of two language communities. We then should be aware what sort of criticism
we compare to what, and, if we deal with, say, the whole critical discourse of an age or a country, we
must be aware of the inherent diversity of its manifestations. We also must know according to what
standards the comparison is made; and, of course, which strategies of the tradition of Comparative
Literature are adopted.

2.1.2. Some Antitheses


One of the most fundamental questions that a comparative critical inquiry will never pose is
what criticism is. Up to this point, we have tacitly presupposed something we could unequivocally
call criticism. That is, speaking of comparative criticism or of comparing texts we the question of
their identity remained unasked. What is criticism anyway? Is there something we can call
"criticism"?
Although it might be quite understandable and even legitimate to avoid this issue, just as
literary historians rarely, if ever, inquire into the suspicious term "literature", it may also lead to some
confusions. The historian of literature, whatever it may be, has at her or his disposal the compass or
authority of tradition which will pick out for her or him a certain body of texts called "literature"; this
is not the case, however, in the case of comparative criticism. On the diachronic level, it may be
highly doubtful, for instance, whether random reflections on literary works in the Middle Ages or
before can be counted as genuine critical texts; on the synchronic, what will constitute the field of
critical discourse. The similarity/identity (or difference) of critical or interpretive texts, then, can be
formulated on different levels. It may be in terms of history, of sociology; but it also can be of a
textual sort. Besides (I'd prefer to say: above) them, there is the functional/receptional identity or
difference.

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2. Speech Acts and Interpretation

Another problem we must face here is embodied in the expressions "THE national criticism"
and "THE other national criticism". Is there a national unity? The answer, almost a priori, is negative.
Not only do one have to take into account the historical dimension, but, clearly, there are strata within
a corpus of critical activities of a given moment: there are subgenres of criticism, and there are
different aims, means and audiences of the groups of critical texts. All in all, a comparative critical
method can have the chance to be successful only if it strives at comprehensively situating both the
texts (or acts) it examines and the context they function.
All these considerations may lead the comparatist of criticism to reflect on the specific text (or
rather, specific communication) she or he is supposed to deal with as well as on the variety of
positions held by this text (or communication) within specific cultures, groups, communities.

2.1.2. Criticism as compared to other linguistic activities


2.1.2.1. Criticism as a Genre
If there is a comparative criticism, if we can and do compare critical texts, the same question
arises as in the case of genres. Are there transcendental or ideal genres which the national phenomena
are merely emanations of? Can we speak of criticism as a Platonic sort of ideal object? Are the
conventions and conditions of criticism universal?
Asserting may be an universal speech act, if it can be proved (or cannot be falsified) that there
are, for people everywhere in the world, things that these people take as facts and these people speak
of them (or believe or intend to speak of them, or receive some sentences as being about them, etc.). A
speech act may be universal if (and inasmuch as) the institution behind it is universal. Curse or
excommunication is "catholic", because there is the canonical institution of the church behind it.

2.1.2.2. Criticism and Truth or Expression


Just as the theory of speech acts has pointed out that reference, for instance, is not an inherent
property of the sign but an action which is made with the sign, by the user of that sign, and,
consequently, this is a problem for a pragmatic, rather than semantic, theory, the idea has also been
raised that evaluating expressions, moreover, evaluative texts, are not by themselves, "the way they
are", evaluative ones, but are used to evaluate, they are what they are by virtue of their use. This
conception is in harmony with Wittgenstein's definition of meaning as use (1953: 556); but, on the
other hand, it supposes that the rules of use are really rules, and both he who evaluates and the
receiver must be aware of them so that the act of evaluation could be successful.
To this line of argument pertains also the question of truth value of critical statements. The idea
that the statements of philosophy, aesthetics, and, consequently, literary criticism and literary theory,
are "expressive", "pseudo-descriptive", "emotive" expressions, and, thus, cannot be assessed in the
same way as those of "real" sciences, dates back at least as far as to the Positivists. This problem has
also haunted philosophers of language (see e.g. Cooper 1973: 54-62). Now Austin's conception that
truth value cannot be assigned to even any "normal" descriptive statement (1961b, 1962b) may imply
a seemingly very evident solution. Why not classify evaluating expressions and the like among the
group of performative utterances? Some have adopted this position (see e. g. Matthews 1977: 5, 1978:
110-111). But as Tormey (1971) has noted, in his criticism of Carnap, expressive and performative
utterances should not be confused.
To draw the distinction between emotive/expressive and factual/descriptive, then to identify
this distinction with that of between performative and constative, and classify critical judgements and
evaluations to the former categories is a nonsense. Not only because this operation will not provide us
any illuminating theory about the differentia specifica of criticism, but also because it overlooks the
second (and more important) theory of Austin, which overrides his first, more elementary, one on
utterances as acts; that is, that performatives are just a special case within a more general framework,
where each and every utterance counts as an action. Second, to state that certain utterances are a

20

2. Speech Acts and Interpretation

priori expressive (or descriptive or whatever) is to ignore the principal suggestion of the theory itself,
that is, that no utterance can be interpreted independent of the way it is used. Thus, what we need in
trying to delimit our field is evidently not the sort of conception I referred to above. (I could also add
that the problem of referentiality ("about-ness") or autotelicity of critical discourse, in this
perspective, does not seem to be too interesting. The question is how these texts are taken, what are
they taken as.)
Evaluation, judgement or criticism, if defined as such by a special use of language (including
institutions and contexts), can be taken as language uses. Thus, Beardsley (1970: 65) regards criticism
as a special speech act among the actions performed by (or in) language.
Among the studies preceding Searle's influential book (1969), Morris Weitz's book on Hamlet
should be mentioned (1964), in which the author, referring to Austin and Wittgenstein, refuses the
conception of language presupposing the referential nature of language (and, thus, critical language),
and, accordingly, ordering critical utterances in the dimensions of true and false. For Weitz (1964:
219-226), language is not a mirror of the world, but an instrument to transform it, and the theory of
literature is not to assess the truth of the criticism but rather to focus its attention on the peculiarities,
ways of use, functions of language of criticism.8 Later, in 1970, Beardsley said that the work of the
critic, judgement or assessment is also an act: it is, just as any illocutionary act, differentiated by the
set of conditions (65). Critical judgement is classified in Austin's "verdictives" (they are a class of the
performatives in Austin's book, cf. Austin 1969b: 153-155), but, contrary to Austin, Beardsley
suppose that truth and falsity are valid parameters in their case.

2.1.2.3. Criticism as a Speech Act: Hancher


Now we could ask, What institution must be behind criticism? If criticism is a speech act (or
can be taken as something similar to it), there must be a cross-cultural institution, to the extent that
this speech act exists in more than one culture/language. On the other hand we could ask, What sort of
speech act is a critical text? what are the characteristics of critical texts in terms of speech genres?
As to the latter questions, we speak of critical remarks, criticism, critical attitude when one says
something unfavorable, wrong, pejorative about something. But this sort of approach does not really
help. We know that there are quite a lot of other things a text (critic) does in a critical text. Just to list
some: narrating (literary historical texts), describing, prophecizing (mainly in evaluating
contemporary works), asking questions, giving orders and advices (normative criticism), repeating of
something said, and a number of other actions.
As to the question of institutions behind criticism, we could reply with the magic word of
literature. And we have it everywhere. Hence, it can be expected that criticism will prove to be an
universal genre. But is it?
The first interesting attempt at defining interpretation as a speech act was certainly Hancher's
article (1981). Hancher starts from the various speech act classifications, and tries to find a place in
these taxonomies (notably that of Austin) for the verb "interpret". He underlines the inherent "noneasiness" or "expertise" condition involved in the term, and, accordingly, he proposes contrasts like
"diagnose", "analyze" (verdictives), "veto" (exercitive) and "affirm" or "state" (expositives). No
satisfactory solution is found when he turns to Searle's classification, either. Finally, he interprets
interpretation as "brokerage or mediation: its business is to bring about a meeting of minds, and when
that business is done a celebration is in order" (1981: 278).
It must be noted that what Hancher speaks of is not criticism proper. For Hancher,
interpretation is a "discourse genre" which "in aesthetics [is] usually considered to be a subgenre of
'criticism'" (1981: 265).

Earlier, Aschenbrenner (1950: 234 ff.) had warned that language should not be taken as an instrument merely
given and always at hand.

21

2. Speech Acts and Interpretation

One could argue, however, that criticism is a subgenre of interpretation, the latter being an
activity of an extremely large scale, present in every understanding, perception or description. There
is, of course, an element of interpretation in every instance of criticism; but we interpret (if not works
of art, but the texts of everyday speech exchange or even the text of the world) in all sorts of contexts
quite different from that of the Artworld. Thus, at least, some corrections are needed if we are to take
into serious consideration Hancher's ideas.
On the other hand, it is a question if we have to take them to seriously at all. I tend to accept
interpretations of speech act theory like those of Felman (1980) and Rosaldo (1982) which emphasize
the element of irony in Austin's theory. That is, I am not entirely convinced that the speech act
classifications we are presented either by Austin or by his followers are to be taken as final, universal
and self-sufficient taxonomies. Rather, they are tools of an inquiry which will transcend the task of
putting verbs into boxes; or, even, they may be exciting games by which we sharpen our knowledge
of our own language use. But what Hancher's study proves is just that these games may yield a very
interesting moral and they are by no means aimless. It is, roughly, that interpretation (and, mutatis
mutandis, criticism) is an activity which must have a place in the (social) system of all other activities;
and, thus, to contrast this activity to all sorts of other activities may be illuminating.

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

22

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation


3.1. Introduction
The problem with Hancher's paper is not, as Fish once warned, that speech act theory is
metaphorized here, but rather that it is not metaphorized enough. That is, that Hancher (and a number
of other authors, Hancher being one of the best among them) tends to take speech act theory on face
value, as it were, and is reluctant to regard it as an instructive but not directly translatable model. It is
not the question of application and extension any more; extension can still be very close, too close to
the "original", and it may affect unfortunately the possible outcome.
Moreover, there are quite a number of theoretical problems which the literary theories wishing
to adopt speech act theory did not face. First of all, it has been supposed (and, in fact, supposed also
throughout in the pages above) that a speech act has a lot in common with a written text, that a text,
or, more precisely, a literary work of art can be approached by querying its illocutionary force. It is
suggested, then, that the difference between oral and written communication is just a matter of
medium.
Literary theory warns us, however, that the speech/writing identification is not that simple.
Peter Docherty, to name just one (and trickishly avoiding the problematic raised by Derrida), writes: a
written text, although significant, is no more a speech-act than is any kind of non-verbalised historical
activity, like shaking hands, striking an adversary or eating. (Docherty 1987: 15)
Moreover,
The illusion is that the poet 'speaks' to us, but simply through a medium which veils her or his
intention. This medium is taken to be language itself, irrespective of the various technological
mediations of that language. The text becomes not even a substitute or parallel for a speech-act, but
becomes theoretically accepted as itself constitutive of a speech-act: it is as if books, like humans,
really did 'say' things. (Docherty 1987: 15-16)
(Compare Docherty's point to Barbara Herrnstein Smith's distinction between natural narrative
and literary communication.)
Bourdieu's criticism, from quite another angle, points out that although the speech act theory
tries to give account of the power/domination/role relations governing linguistic behavior, it repeats
the attempt of structuralist linguistics at striving to the position of dominating science; instead of
explaining phenomena from the operation and praxis of the society (its institutions, conventions, roles
and power), it arrives there through the description of linguistic phenomena.9
There are a number of insights remaining, even if one has to discard with an unconditional and
enthusiastic reliance on speech act theory. The theory - if it is a theory - was based on the
understanding that utterances cannot be described in isolation, they are parts of a communicative
process, they have a context, and every utterance should be given account of as an act, both on the
part of the speaker/writer, and on the part of the listener/reader. These elements of the theory, along
with the arguments for the role of authorial intention, penetrated very soon into literary theoretical
speculations. From that time on, some aspects of Structuralism became apparently contradictory to the
new trend. Structuralism excludes as many aspects of the context as it can; since a proliferation of
9

One could note, however, that while blaming linguistics for being a dominating science, Bourdieu does not give
account of sociology as apparently dominating his linguistics, just the way as linguistics dominated a number of
other sciences. And Samuel Weber's reflections (1987) are also to the point: "What is increasingly being
questioned today, perhaps more than at any time since the age of the Enlightenment, is the notion of intellectual
and scientific autonomy. The autonomy of a scientific discipline, as traditionally understood - a tradition that
still dominates vast areas of academic activity and of its institutions - presupposes a field that is self-contained,
subject to its own laws, to principles or rules that are in essence independent of all that surrounds them, of all
they are not." (Weber 1987: x) But, as Weber argues, the idea of the autonomy is not eternal and today seems to
less and less central.

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3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

contexts would contradict to its text-centered nature. What remains, then, is the represented world, the
world which is denoted by the text, and some, very few, aspects which Structuralists take as
inseparable from the text itself. And this trend is a good case in point because it is connected to
linguistics: just as Structuralism in literature was originally influenced by Saussurean and Structuralist
linguistics. So what point of connection can be seen between speech act theoretical linguistics and
literary studies?

3.2. Criticism and interpretation, cont'd


However unsatisfied one might be left after Hancher's analysis, it is evidently worth while to
have a look at the issue of how the words "interpretation" or "criticism" is used. This could be a
Wittgensteinian (or ordinary language philosophical) analysis of interpretation: far from being the
only solution, it can be illuminating concerning some characteristics of the use of these words.
There is an analysis of similar kind in Schmidt (1983). For him, the word "interpretation" has
four senses (that is, four uses), one being the term used in everyday speech, the second in the domain
of the artistic production, the third a technical term, in logic, for instance, while the fourth is the
interpretation in the literary studies. Within this last instance, difference can be established between
description, explanation and evaluation.
Now as we experience day by day, the word "interpretation" used to assume more or less two,
distinct, meanings, depending on whether it is used as a devaluation of the activity in question or, on
the contrary, as an appreciation of a special gift or skill. Thus, in the latter case, the following
sentences are very likely to be heard:
(1a) "He does not interpret, just describes."
(1b) "He is not able to interpret."
(1c) "He is not able to give a coherent interpretation."
We could, however, create another series of sentences:
(2a) "I told him that what he said was an interpretation and then he insulted me."
(2b) "This is only an interpretation of the facts."
Or let us run through another interesting linguistic phenomena, an exciting asymmetry. Let us
examine the following pairs of expressions:
(3) not understanding - not interpretation
(4) misunderstanding - misinterpretation
(5) understanding - interpretation
How far does the structure of these three pairs of expressions resemble each other? In the
second pair, the two nouns seem to mean the same. In the last, "understanding" is a condition of
"interpretation"; whereas in the first pair two very distinct concepts seem to be juxtaposed. Why is
this conceptual asymmetry? When stating that an I interpreter does not interpret t text, we seem to
state at the same time that she or he does not understand it, and vice versa; however, if she or he
understands the text, she or he does not necessarily interpret it. Understanding is a necessary but not
sufficient condition of interpretation; not-understanding is a sufficient but not necessary condition of
not-interpretation.
In sentences (2a) and (2b) - as it is presupposed in the sentences themselves, perhaps not in the
fairest way - , "interpretation" is an activity of a very low prestige. It is a sort of distortion, a
digression, a trap or a misrepresentation. In sentences (1a, 1b, 1c), however, it is something assuming
the mastering of some special skills. It is trade, a profession, an expertise or an aim to be achieved.
Thus, interpretation can be a denunciation as well as it can imply a positive value judgement.

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3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

No wonder that in the literature on literature (in fact, in the literature on any interpretation
whatsoever), it is the second sort of usage which is dominant: while it may very often happen on the
political scene as well as in everyday discourse that interpretation has a low prestige, professionals in
the humanities assign a certain inherent value to this activity. Thus, just to give some examples,
Sagoff contrasts interpretation to description by asserting that the former is oriented towards
"interesting" and possibly more hidden relations:
Notice that interpretation, insofar as it can be said to differ from a description, tends to go
outside entrenched reference classes in order to focus attention on aesthetically interesting relations
between the objects and others with which it is not usually associated. (1978: 83-93)
There is also a certain oddity in the use of the word "criticism". Most frequently, it is used to
refer to an act of dismissal, admonishment, denunciation, objection. If somebody is "critical" towards
a behavior, event, text, then she or he is not likely to be too sympathetic with it, to say the least. Not to
speak of the expressions like "critical position" or "critical state", which are used when the position or
state do not bid any fair.
The adjective "reputed", "putative", and even "recognized" also carry negative connotations. In
the wine industry, a "reputed" pint is only one-twelfth of a gallon, whereas an "imperial" pint is oneeighth of a gallon. A "putative" marriage is a formalized marriage rendered invalid because of
impediments like consanguinity. It is notable that to "recognize" a state is not commonly to judge it
excellent as a state. It is rather to acknowledge, sometimes reluctantly, its status as a state, a decision
frequently prompted by influential acknowledgements from other members of the international
community. (Rodden 1989: 56)
And is each and any text reflecting on another text a piece of criticism? Or should this term be
reserved for a very limited body of writing? Olsen, for instance, differentiates between "atheoretical"
and "theoretical" criticism:
The theoretical concept of criticism has greater extension than the atheoretical concept. The
concept permits no logical distinction of the sort Wellek argues for observing between literary theory
and literary criticism. Any writing about a literary work, if it is to count as criticism, will be an
extension of theory, will be theory in practice. This does not make the theoretical concept of criticism
radically different from the atheoretical concept, since, as Wellek suggested, the distinction was not
consistently observed before the arrival of the theoretical concept of criticism, nor is it consistently
observed today by those who practice atheoretical criticism. (Olsen 1992: 85-86)
However, theoretical criticism is exposed to (for Olsen, harmful) modifications, which turn it
"radically different from the atheoretical concept": one is to blur the distinction between literature and
criticism, to render the critical depending on pun and rhetorical satisfaction, the other being "the
ambition to be text-theories rather than just theories of literature", and introducing any text
whatsoever into the discourse of criticism (86-87). These "extensions" mean, according to Olsen, that
... there are no standards in critical argument and no criterion of good argument other than
the ability to please or convince (ibid.)
and that criticism loses its norms and its normativity; thus,
The theoretical concept of criticism is thus not merely normative but also revolutionary. It is
not aimed at explaining present practice but at changing it. The real issue which this concept raises is
therefore not theoretical but political. (Olsen 1992: 89-90)
From quite a different point of view, Glowinski (1990) ponders whether an excessive use of
intertextual moments will not lead to the dissolution of criticism; this sort of criticism gives up much
of its task of informing the reader, thus the very function of the critical text is in danger. His
conclusion, however, is that

25

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

Intertextuality does not become here the opposite of metatextuality, on the contrary, being
based on the dialogue of two (or more) languages, it absorbs elements of metatextuality and, in
consequence, the fundamental critical functions are preserved. (205)
Political interpretation, Gates suggests, tends to confuse "what a text could mean (the
possibilities of its signification, the "modalities of the production of meaning", as de Man has it)" and
"what a text does mean (the issue of its actual political effectivity)". The danger is, then, that starting
from the former serious insinuations follow as far the latter is concerned: without any actual
sociological examination, consequences are drawn from this ambiguity. (Gates 1990c/1992: 183)
This, instead of being a politics of interpretation, is a politics of interpreters, Gates comments.
(Though one should wonder if there is a politics of interpretation at all without a politics of
interpreters.)
One may wonder, what is at stake in the fierce debates in what Olsen seems to participate in,
about the theoretical or atheoretical nature of criticism, about existence or abolishment of the canon?
Does it really count? Does it not, instead, count as? That is, once a text is taken to be critical, and then
it is taken to be theoretically important, who cares if it is theoretically founded or not?

3.3. Criticism and interpretation


Criticism, of course, is not simply equal with interpretation. It can be defined as a professional
interpretation, practiced by a special interpretive community, which has all kinds of institutions at its
disposal; to these institutions, in turn, the power of issuing critical texts is socially conferred. This
definition, then, will include university teaching (and other didactic kinds of critical activities),
explanatory as well as artistic criticism, but will exclude literary critical remarks of people arguing in
a bus or students' homeworks. (Of the nature of interpretive communities see more in ch. 3.)
However, a broader definition cannot be excluded. A comparative critical study on how people
in the streets of Budapest and Moscow react to a specific literary work is quite a sound project. Since
there seems to be a continuity between professional and lay interpretive communities, a study like this
may naturally refer to professional critical attitudes.
For sake of simplicity, we could say that a critical text is a critical text if and when it is seen (if
it is regarded or if it counts) as such. And if criticism is a speech act, at least it can be taken as one,
then it becomes what it is by its interpretation, in the mind of the receiver, just as any other verbal
utterance. Interpretation, then, must be interpreted (just as any speech act is what it is only for an
interpreter), that is, an interpretation is an interpretation if and when it is seen (if it is regarded or if it
counts) as such. If we accept that what we take as facts are products of historically specific
interpretive communities, then is it not the case that any boundary of any interpretive community is
just a function of another interpretive community interpreting it? An interpretive community and its
boundary is, thus, never given but created; created not by its members but by other interpretive
communities surrounding and judging it.
Having said this, there may be dark clouds of doubt gathering beyond the idea of fixed and
sanctioned status of criticism as opposed to that of interpretation. And then the community (is this a
community?) evaluating, interpreting and conferring the status of "interpretation" must be given
account of, as well as the whole institution standing behind these acts and the system in which this
institution operates.

3.4. Accepted and refused: the legitimacy of interpretations


Why does an interpreter interpret a text one way and another interpret it another way? Why
does a number of interpretations by the laity seem for the professional interpreters so down to earth?
Why is the dominance of certain conventions (e. g., the central role of the referential aspect of the
text) characteristic of the reception of our days?

26

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

Interpretations configure texts and contexts according to various conventions, and this implies
the existence of various strata of interpretation (reception). These interpretive strategies along with
interpretive communities change historically, their types are historical types.10
Here I could mention Fish's well known example on the Eskimo interpretation (that is, Norman
Holland's example of the Eskimo reading of "A Rose for Emily", in Fish 1980: 346-347): according to
Fish, these, "highly idiosyncratic", interpretations may create a tradition or a tradition developing later
may, retrospectively, make them valid or acceptable.11 Another example could be Kermode's
quotation of Wimsatt (1977: 156). It is about a student who, in his paper, gave a very special
interpretation of a poem of Pope's, making use of a word which was the same as another in another
poem (that is, they were homonyms.) Thus, in the first phase the status of literature/interpretation is
conferred to the text by a body of authorities; while in the second phase an institutional control of (the
same?) body is in operation, that of treated by Kermode (this one is a good work/interpretation while
that one is not appropriate).
These examples may not be convincing, the first being an imaginary one while the second
interpretation is a product of a novice, an uninitiated layman. The problem itself, however, is a real
one. Think of the following cases.
1) Several years ago in a study published in a Hungarian literary journal somebody has
suggested that a main female character in the first great Hungarian drama, Katona's Ban Bnk, fainted
in one of the scenes because of a blood pressure problem due to her sexual excitement, that is, her
abdominal hyperaemia. Of course, every professional mocked and laughed at this interpretation,
maybe it was according to the intentions of the interpreter himself.
2) In the interpretation of a number of outstanding works, the relationship of the text with other
(previously written) texts plays an important role. Thus, a famous monologue of Ban Bnk has been
interpreted in the light of a monologue by Kotzebue, which, it is argued, is the source text of the
former or at least they closely resemble to each other. The same has been said of a famous 18th
century Hungarian poem (by Batsnyi) and, in a somewhat modified form, of Madch's drama, The
Tragedy of Man, just to name some Hungarian examples.
3) The speculations about the sex of the addressee of at least some of Shakespeare's sonnets are
well known; that is, it has been argued that they were in fact written for a man.
Let me comment briefly on these interpretations.
The first one seems to be obviously absurd. Even if it is not absurd physiologically, it is very
far-fetched. But it must be asked, is not our opinion on this interpretation a product of the context of
interpretation of the great national drama? Is not it the case that the accepted field of interpretations
excludes not only sexuality, but even any sort of physical and carnal moment? Would not the situation
change, were there a tradition of psychoanalytic or pan-sexual interpretation of Classical Hungarian
dramas?
As to the second case, the interpretations mentioned imply that these great works will preserve
their canonic place in spite of the doubts concerning their originality. Thus, these interpretations have
never served to undermine the work's value and place in the tradition. Moreover, the problem of
originality is not at all fundamental (and it was not in the contemporary reception) in the case of
earlier works (we could draw the line here, at least in the Hungarian literature, somewhere at the
Enlightenment). There is a change in the evaluation of repetition or imitation as well. In the Age of
Intertextuality, where we live now, the incommensurability or incomparability of the work is not an
exclusive value aspect any more. It is so to such an extent that the professional interpreter finds a lot
10
11

There is a witty but ahistorical typology in Lotman's study (1970: 49-50).

Fish's theory of interpretation, with its inherently indeterminate nature, has been qualified as "truly
postmodern" (Kutnik 1990: 132), and related to Michael Polanyi's theory on the nonrational nature of
methodological commitment (ibid., 133), as well as to the role of the observer in modern physics.

27

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

of pleasure in seeking quotations, allusions, parallelisms, or even plagiarism. In the system of


conventions of the intertextual interpretation, there is no repetition; nothing can be the same as it was
in its earlier form, thus, the very simple borrowing of texts will change the interpretation of that text.
Today, we find nothing interesting in the third case, even if some students (the uninitiated)
chuckle for a while on interpretations like this. But I am sure that these interpretations, when they
originally appeared on the scene, were astonishing, scandalous, if not ridiculous. The reverse case
may be illustrated by the Christian interpretation of Virgil's Fourth Eclogue which may seem to be
surprising now.
What is the moral of all this? For the time being, let me simply say that the judgment of the
validity of interpretations is a matter of tradition and convention (this is only a provisional
formulation!), and, thus, the development, atrophy, heyday and death of interpretive communities
depend also on the tradition and convention, and, ultimately, on their evaluation, assessment,
judgment.
Earlier I have touched upon the issue of interpretive communities. The question is: is not the
assignment of the activity of interpretation a judgment itself, a judgment made from the specific point
of view of a specific interpretive community? Opinions of this sort include that of Jay F. Rosenberg's,
who argues that whenever we say that somebody understands something, we do not describe an
attribute or an activity but assign him/her a certain position in the system of rights and
responsibilities; "understanding ... belong[s] in this way to the ethics" (41). "'Understanding' will be
something like 'authority'" (ibid.). "For understanding is not, in this way, a phenomenon to be
exhibited but a status to be awarded" (43), and, to be sure, by the judgment of a normative
community. Thus, mapping and judging interpretations and interpretive communities is itself made
from the angle of an interpretive community.

3.5. What If Not Interpretation?


Another, very important, issue raised by the concept of interpretation as a status conferred to
some activities is the position of those activities which do not deserve this status. That is, if an activity
is not interpretation, what can it be? If and when a legitimizing community states that I interpreter
does not in fact interpret t text, what status can it confer to I's activity?
If we withdraw the qualification of interpretation from an activity, what qualification can it be
conferred to it instead?
In what follows, I would like to prove that confronting interpretation with other activities, in a
purely logical way, is unfounded and is not tenable. The only consequence of this argument, however,
is that this confrontation must be put in another framework. In a bumptious philosophical way I could
say that the distinction is not ontological, but epistemological in kind; or that it has practical, rather
than theoretical, foundations.
Now what is interpretation confronted with - let us see some possible variants. We will
certainly call interpretations the works of literary history, textbooks and monographs of literary
periods or figures. But what about popular summaries of certain - mostly dramatic and narrative literary works? These are written for didactic purposes, to remind the student to the plots of some
important works. Most probably, we would not call them interpretations. Let us now turn to this case.
(It is interesting, by the way, that non-narrative and non-dramatic works are never summarized this
way: as if lyrical poetry could be only analyzed - thus, interpreted - and could not be "told".)
Synopses, recapitulations and "contents descriptions" are not, for the professional interpreter,
interpretations neither as far as their function nor as far as their institutional context are concerned,
even if they are based on the text and its understanding (of some sort). What makes the professional
interpreter worry is not the didactic function in itself, since their texts often serve as "initiation" to the
knowledge of the text and as an example for other professionals or would-be professionals. But in our
culture, according to the accepted (professional) conventions, the plot of the narrative and dramatic

28

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

texts is just one of the strata of a literary work, and it is regarded as the most transparent and obvious
which, as it were, does not demand interpretation. The situation radically changes if the plot of a text
with less transparent plot stratum is recapitulated or if a plot is recapitulated differently from they way
they should be according to the accepted conventions.
Interpretation can further be confronted with, one could argue, the text itself, the not-yetinterpreted literary work. This argument deserves further examination.
But the most evident reply to the question put in the beginning of this chapter is the magic
word, description. That is, if a text is made on/about a text, and if it is not an interpretation, then it is a
description of that text.
This reply, however, is severely problematic. For it is questionable if description and
interpretation can be sharply confronted. The strict confrontation of description and interpretation
(proposed, by the way, also by authors in the speech act theoretical tradition, see Matthews 1977) can
be called into question. And if we take into account the historically-socially preformed nature of
perception, the institutional nature of facts, the conventionalized character of description, the
categorical distinction is apparently not tenable any more.
If there are no "brute facts" and "data", if perception in itself takes place according to
historically specific conventions, if it is theoretically impossible to examine "just the text", purely, in
itself, since it is always confronted with contexts, according to certain conventions, and the text itself
is institutionally determined, then, in this sense, there is innocent description. Every description will
comprise a kind of interpretation. Things are always understood in a way (in Wittgenstein's words,
seen-as) and not simply perceived. The difference between description and interpretation,
understanding and interpretation lies not in what it has been defined by Structuralism; moreover, since
there is no meaning without a subject, and this understanding--interpreting--describing subject will
always have value preferences, understanding itself will embody (mostly tacit and non-conscious)
value choices. Evaluation may be suppressed, may remain implicit, it may seem to be undiscoverable
or missing, but in principle it cannot be detached from description itself. Thus, there is a sharp
demarcation line between humanities and natural sciences, or we could suppose that natural sciences
work just the same way as evaluating and interpreting humanities do, thus turning the Structuralists'
conception of science upside down.
On this point it may seem, and rightly, that the following concepts became rather intermingled:
meaning, understanding, description, interpretation, evaluation. This "confusion" is due to my
intention not to distinguish these concepts but rather to strengthen their mutual relationships.
For me, interpretation is a verbal activity by which the receiver gives account of the process of
his/her understanding of the text, or makes the conventions and contexts used in the understanding of
that text. This activity is, of course, different from that of understanding inasmuch as this latter does
not presuppose any explicitness. As a control of understanding, it cannot be expected that the receiver
should also give an interpretation (cf. Ziff 1972). Although the difference between understanding and
interpretation lies in explicitness, its quality, form, or accepted character will not belong to the
distinctive feature; that is, a "primitive", "down to earth", "unacceptable" interpretation is an
interpretation anyway, and, on the other hand, interpreting these ways is understanding anyway.
"Professional" and "lay" interpretation can be distinguished, and there are conventions and institutions
which will establish this distinction. But in both cases there are interpretations, and these
interpretations will be, at the same time, understandings. Although we say sometimes that an
interpreter did not understand a text, but it is hard to imagine that somebody did not understand a text,
that he did not understand-it-as. The subject is there in every perception, with its contexts and
conventions, and, thus, every perceived thing (as if in itself) is interpreted. Is it then not illogical to
say that a text (either linguistic, or the text of the world) is not understood? We could say, likewise,
that there is only misunderstanding, because there is no "pure", "intact" thing or text, it exists only as
interpreted. There can be a distinction made between "professional" and "lay" interpretations, and
there are conventions and institutions which will establish this distinction. But in both cases we speak

29

3. Interpretive community as a product of interpretation

of interpretation, and interpretation is, itself, an understanding. Although we may say that the
interpreter failed to understand this or that text, it is hard to imagine, however, than one will not
understand a text, not understand-it-in-a-way. One may even raise the question whether it is not
theoretically excluded to not-understand a text (either a linguistic text or a text of the world); any
conceiving contains already the subject, with its context and conventions, and, thus, every conceived
thing is, by the very act of conceiving it, interpreted. Likewise one could say that there can be only
misunderstanding; for there is no "pure", "intact" thing or text, it exists only in an interpreted way.
Now if we make the distinction between description and interpretation on the grounds that the
former is a mere representation of the data, a text by which the characteristic traits of the thing
described can be intersubjectively communicated, just the way they are in reality, then the first
question to be put is, What place does understanding have in this dichotomy. Can we describe without
understanding? But does not understanding surpass far beyond the point a description should reach?
For understanding is conventional anyway and always makes use of things (texts) exterior to the thing
(text) itself.
As to the objectivity of understanding and interpretation, they have only historical objectivity
because the subject itself, his conventions, his mental contexts are historically objective. Thus, this
objectivity is always relative. The objectivity of an interpretation is always a function of an
interpretive community, that is, whether that interpretive community judging the interpretation shares
the conventions and contexts of the interpretation.
Let us go back to the question: what else can a text on/about a text be (or: the interaction with
the text) than an interpretation? It seems that the paradox that no understanding is possible (and, thus,
every interpretation is illusory or misunderstanding) is surpassed by the paradox that only
understanding is possible, and everything is interpretation. As a consequence of the foregoing, we
would be forced to say that description is also interpretation, the work itself exists only as something
interpreted, and, hence, everything is interpretation, there is nothing outside interpretation. But we
know very well that this is not quite so.
Since it is hardly questionable that interpretation and description as well as interpretation and
the text interpreted or to be interpreted is, in our culture, distinguished: there are tacit and unconscious
conventions of what we regard as a description, what as a text, and what as an interpretation. Certain
texts will be interpreted as descriptions while others as interpretations; certain features or markers will
conventionally be regarded as generic features of the genres of descriptions, while others as those of
the genre of interpretation. That is, when we state that everything is interpretation, we overlook the
fact that the system of conventions of the literary communication determines also the conditions of
interpretation. Something is literature only if it is received by the receiver (who is endowed with
specific conventions) in a specific context. Thus, we must turn back to the thesis we have begun with,
namely that interpretation is what is taken as such. Referring to the distinction between brute and
institutional facts, there are brute facts, but they are institutionally brute.
The motives behind the decision of what counts as an interpretation include considerations of
prestige and those of function. A text like 100 Famous Novels are far below the level a professional
would consider as prestigious. For him, then, it is not more than a description. On the other hand, he
may consider this book as filling a function absolutely different from that of an interpretation. A
literary scholar of orthodox Structuralist obsessions may consider his texts (activities) as being much
more than interpretations; for him, his "descriptions" or "analyses" are beyond what he despisedly
calls "interpretations". For a professional of the Conservative anti-Structuralist trend, however, these
texts will count as down to earth technical approaches which do not deserve the term interpretation.

30

4. Digressions

4. Digressions
4.1. Digression 1: Cult and Criticism
I have started to argue that "understanding" just as "interpretation" may be a status conferred to
those who (according to certain criteria) deserve it; but who can dispense the qualification of
"understanding" and to whom? What system of institutions stands behind the act of judging
something as interpretation? Who can safeguard the legitimacy of those legitimizing and how? In the
name of what will this institutionality operate?
The excellent book of Pter Dvidhzi (1990) is about the Shakespeare cult in Hungary. One of
its main points is the analogy, metaphor or even identification the author creates between the religious
cult and the cult of The Bard. Dvidhzi shows that between the semi-god and the laity admiring Him,
there is the layer of the priests which takes care of the maintenance, the forms and, last but not least,
the participants of the cult.
Mediation of literature, in this sense, is a cultic activity, as the expression "mission" suggests.
The similarity of cult and criticism was treated earlier by Kermode, in connection, again, with
Shakespeare (1977: 159).12
Is this an extreme case? It well may be that Shakespeare's often ridiculous cult imitating the
practice of a religion cannot be generalized for the whole process of literature. But let us apply, to this
extreme case, the old Structuralist principle that the existence of an over-differentiated paradigm
implies the existence of latent cases in the other paradigms.13 (Or, that the human anatomy is a key to
the anatomy of the ape.) That is, if we regard Shakespeare's cult as an articulated, developed form of
the latent system of institutions of literature, some fundamental traits of the process of literature, then
it must be asked if this specificity will not figure in a hidden or rudimentary form in all lesser cults in
literature and, hence, in all mediations of literature.
(It must be noted here that speaking of "development" or articulation or over-differentiation
does not imply teleology. Not only because "underdeveloped", "rudimentary" or "degenerated" forms
can as well be regarded as "more intact" or "purer" ones and, thus, more developed; and not only
because to speak of chronological order is clearly absurd; but also because the very word
"development", here again, would imply some sort of emendation, teleological change, and I am not
the least convinced that this would be the case, just as, of course, I am not convinced of the contrary.)
Critic as he who preserves or maintains a cult; what does this imply as regard
understanding/interpretation as an assigned activity?
In this context, then, the priest can be regarded as making decisions of who will be able to
interpret the holy texts, who will belong to the laity, who will be the heretics and who will belong to
the clergy. There are a number of co-existing cults, which are not at all mutually exclusive. Each may
admit that the other is a cult in its own right, and they can fight together to defend the institution of
the cult as a whole. A priest will not necessarily deny that the other religion or cult is a religion or a
cult, but he will of course announce the superiority of his own religion. Thus, there is a pluralism of
cults. There is even a cult, the cult of relativism, for which it is sufficient to become an accepted
member of the clergy, that is, to be endowed with the status of the interpreter, and no other
qualifications are needed. ("Every interpretation is acceptable, in principle, there is no difference
between interpretation and interpretation".) Those who promote a specific cult are aware of the fact
that the cults are similar in structure and in the principal elements (each of them is a cult), thus,

12

As Parrinder reminds us, "The qualities that literary texts and the institutions of literary study may be felt to
'share with the sacred' (Kermode Forms of Attention 1985a: 62) have been a consistent theme of Kermode's
writing in the last fifteen years, if not earlier." (Parrinder 1991: 59)
13

Cf. Bloomfield,

4. Digressions

31

attacks against cults as such can be repelled. This is a fundamental interest of every maintainer of the
cult.14
Now as far as the judgment of the interpretation is concerned, the following has to be taken into
account: the responsible quarters of the initiated will make a decision on
(1) who does not understand
(1a) who does not interpret
(2) who gives a (possible) interpretation
(on these three questions yes/no answers are given)
(3) who interprets correctly, better, worse, etc.
(here there are gradients).
As I have mentioned, this is a characteristic process of status conferring: first (1a-2) the
question is the merit of the status, then (3), within the merited status, value judgments are made.15
There may be serious doubts how far the parallel between priest and interpreter or priest and
critic can be maintained as valid. What is the status of this connection, anyway? Is this a metaphor or
is there a concrete historical foundation for it or does it reflect some structural similarities? For
Lambropoulos, for instance, there is a theory of "transposition of theological concerns into secular
principles", "stressing continuity"; and, opposed to this, there is the "reoccupation thesis" which
maintains that there is no continuity, rather, worldliness is "the characteristic feature of the modern
age without its having to be the result of secularizations" (Blumenberg 1983: 75), and,
Thus the priesthood of all believers becomes a community of interpreters. (Lambropoulos
1993: 116)
There is a certain basis for the analogy, no doubt;
The devoutness and intensity of modern exegesis, the revelatory style in which its results are
presented, and the institution's obsessive and monotonous return to a core of texts which might seem
scarcely in need of further elucidation - these are all features which invite the scriptural analogy.
(Parrinder 1991: 65-66)
Moreover, Parrinder adds, even the anti-canonical stand of some recent trends tends to erect a
new canonicity and demand a reverence which takes one back to the same analogy. However,
... the scriptural analogy is only an analogy: and, in some respects, a mystifying one.
(Parrinder 1991: 65-66)
The parallel between the priest and the critic should not be stretched too far; although it may
seem to be an interesting explanatory idea, there are quite a lot of issues to be confronted with. Where
does the priest yield its authority from? What is the way of getting into the circle of the priests? Is

14

The issue is far more complicated if we take into account Bourdieu's distinction: ... the mediaeval tradition
contrasted the lector, who comments on an already-established discourse, with the auctor who produces new
discourse. The distinction is equivalent, in the division of intellectual labor, of the distinction between prophet
and priest in the division of religious labour: the prophet is an auctor who is the son of his works, who has no
legitimacy, no auctoricas, other than his person (his charisma) and his practice as an auctor of his auctoritas; on
the other hand, the priest is a lector, and holds a legitimacy which is delegated to him by the body of lectores, by
the Church, and which is based in the final analysis on the auctoritasof the original auctor, to whom the lectores
at least pretend to refer. (Bourdieu 1981/1987/1990: 94-95)
15

The idea that understanding or, by extension, interpretation is something like an authority inasmuch as it is a
status conferred to somebody by a judgment of a community, resembles some conceptions of literature itself.
George Dickie, as well as Arthur Danto, formulated the condition of being a work of art as being accepted by
the Artworld as such, or, being assigned the status of a work of art.

32

4. Digressions

excommunication possible? These questions may illuminate the fact that although cult offers an
attractive analogy, it also leads to new, difficult questions on several points. Besides, authority as a
genus proximum forces the analyst to look for an analogy on the field of other authorities. Such an
authority would be, say, the law (the judge, the interpreter of law, etc.); on this, some interesting hints
can be found in Hancher's study. But one could also think of the policeman.
The authority of the priest, of the policeman or the judge is different from that of the
interpreter, among others, in that the former have the means to sanction whereas the latter does not. In
the connection with sanctioning, it is an important difference that the former may exclude some of
themselves, whereas in the society of the latter, there is no evident way to do so. For the former, there
are institutionalized procedures to nominate, inaugurate, install or canonize, whereas the latter simply
does not need such sorts of procedures (and, to be sure, there are not any). The education and training
of the former is regulated by strict rules and guidelines, whereas anybody of us is free to become an
interpreter, without any formal training. Most American studies on this subject emphasize the
importance of going through some preestablished institutional stairs, but in most of the European
cultures this does not seem to be as salient and decisive procedure, it is not a necessary condition and
by no means a sufficient one.

4.1.1. anecdotic digression


On October 29, 1991, in the Hungarian Parliament, an MP, pastor by profession, told that the
words in the Scripture to the effect that one must pardon seventy-seven times do in fact mean that one
must pardon any times, infinite times - we, experts, know that, he added. Following his words, there
was a grumbling and murmur in the House, and it was evident that the reference to expertise in this
context became a source of considerable consternation. Why?
Let us take another example, from the same circle again. Once upon a time, there was a major
conflict around the interpretation of a text and one of the parties debating over it asked a honorable
body to offer an authoritative interpretation. The interpretation was born and published, and both
parties started immediately to interpret it, implicitly (sometimes explicitly) indicating the fact which is
a commonplace in literary theoretical circles that interpretation, being a text itself, is always subject to
further interpretations.
Is a pastor, then, an expert, a professional interpreter of the Scripture? One may answer pat that
yes, if somebody, then it is a pastor dealing professionally with the mediation of the Scripture who
must display an expertise in the interpretation of the Bible, as well as one may answer pat that it is not
quite so, her or his expertise will not be acknowledged by anyone and unconditionally; for the
religious controversies for at least two thousand years have evolved around the interpretation of the
text in question, so that the "professional interpreter", the "expert" exists only relative to a certain
interpretation (belief, conviction).
The decisions of the Constitutional Court and the Body itself (this was the second example)
cannot be, however, relativized this way. The decisions made by this Court are unappealable, and thus
mean the highest, ultimate point of interpretation in law. In this field, then, there does exist an
authority which may present definitive interpretations and even if not everybody likes them, there can
be no debate about the expertise of this body.
There is no such authority in literary interpretation, and it is a question if there is any in the
interpretation of the Bible. That is, even if two interpretations are in conflict, there no way for the
parties to agree in appealing to a higher instance, whose expertise and, ultimately, opinion they will
admit and follow without reservations. As far as literature is concerned, here it is not an objective at
all to say any final and definitive on the text to be interpreted; hardly does anyone believe today that a
literary work of art could be once for all "solved", that an interpretation of eternal validity could be
produced of it, that the final word could be told about it.
In law, to the contrary, one has to suppose that there is a definitiveness of this sort (and eternity
will last, at least, until the Constitution is changed); it could not be tenable if the rules and regulations

33

4. Digressions

were the field of the invention of the interpreters of law, where judges and lawyers would entertain
themselves with bold acrobatic shows of the mind.
When trying to define what kind of a speech act interpretation is, one is always get caught in
the connection between law and literature. This is completely understandable: among our verbal
activities, it is those of legal nature that are best surrounded by the fortresses of explicit rules,
regulations, laws, institutions developed for centuries and showing a great durability. Anybody can
make a judgment on somebody, or judge somebody; but there is a judgment of a very peculiar status,
for which appropriate institutions, persons nominated through appropriate procedures, appropriately
chosen words are needed. In the case of interpreting a literary work, however, it seems that even if it
is just as open for anybody to execute, it is highly questionable whether the circle of those assuming a
distinguished authority can be delimited at all. "In spiritual matters", writes Hirsch, "there is no
papacy".
There are quite a number of works dealing with the differences between legal and literary
interpretation; the comparison is far from being a passing idea or an arbitrary one.16 It may be proved
illuminating partly from the point of view of the nature (and institutions, agents, procedures,
sanctions, etc.) of literary interpretation and partly from that of professionalism of which some more
words will be told in ch. 3.
To pursue the analogies, to the conception of cult/literature resembles the theory developed by
T. S. Kuhn, in connection with the concept of paradigm, of legitimating communities. For him, this
community, in the strict sense, is a group of experts and laymen, and as far as its real operation is
concerned it is the majority of the society. This theory can perhaps be decomposed, progressing from
the paradigm "downwards", to the theory, which also needs legitimation, and, further, to judgment
and the legitimation of he who judges. Since it is clear that not only a paradigm has to have
legitimation but the individual theories, may they be parts of the paradigm or not, need to be taken
seriously or to spread or to be measured in their relation to the paradigm. (In the literature we must
take into account the special situation that the interpretations are always challenged and called into
question; what is at stake is not a full blood theory of literature but individual interpretations of
literature (or of a literary work or of the history of literature). Legitimation, till now, proceeded from
the canonization of the individual interpretations towards the paradigm establishing these
interpretations. It is a question, of course, if there were or had been real paradigms in the study of
literature.)
But let us stick to cult as an analogy of authority. Cult will always product heresy or
irreligiousness. Now can there be an anti-cultic conception of literature? Can the priest or the layman
seriously make efforts to liquidate the distinction between the clergy and the laity, thus eliminating
mediation? Can the laity revolt against the role of the priests or can the priest revolt against his own
role?
There are a number of questions consequent of the foregoing. Can authority be given up? This,
there is no denying it, is an existential problem as well, since professionals live on interpreting, and
the lay accepts this activity (thus confirming it) and pays the professional for this activity. More
important than this, if giving up mediation and authority is theoretically possible. This would mean
not only the elimination of the exceptional place of interpretation but also the contestation of its
legitimation. In the following chapter I deal with the maintenance of the cult first, then I will go back
to the problems of giving up authority, eliminating mediation and arguing against interpretation.

4.2. Digression 2: Canons and Criticism


Cult, if we turn our attention not to the individual sects or sub-religions but rather to the whole
system of literature as a cult, has some sacred texts. The ensemble of these texts is called the canon.
16

Among the numerous contributions, see Jackson 1985 and Kramer 1991, both offering a huge number of
further readings.

34

4. Digressions

The question may be raised if it is not this canon itself which makes the priests survive (which, in
turn, take care of the canon, update and maintain it). But this is counter-intuitive. In "real" religions, it
is not the Bible which creates the clergy, it is available for everybody, priest or lay. Nevertheless, the
relationship of the priests and the canon should be examined. For interpretation of the text is, in every
religion, the task of the priests, and it is this clergy which prescribes the rules of interpretation for the
laity.
The priests watch over the canon jealously. Cannot then be a correspondence between the act of
judging something as an interpretation and the change in the canon? That is, is it not the case that an
activity will be judged as an interpretation if it gives rise to a change in the canon? There may be
evidence for this.
In principle, every interpretation brings about a change in the canon: it serves the inclusion of a
new work or it is a re-interpretation of an old work or it is an ejection of an older work from the
canon, or it is an establishing new interrelations among works comprised by the canon. But an
interpretation becomes interesting from the point of view of the canon when an extreme case of this
slight changes appears, an interpolation of a new (hitherto excluded) work into the canon or an
exclusion of an old (until then canonized) work. Equivalent with these operations is the radical
displacement within the canon; if, for instance, a modern work is interpreted with regard its relation to
Romanticism, or an older work is interpreted as a contemporary one.
A much more important aspect is the institutional control of the interpretation of the texts
included into the canon.17

17

The close connection between interpretation (ch. 2), canon (ch. 4) and the institutions (ch. 3. and 4) is also
present in Kermode's work. See, for instance, Parrinder's remark: "Interpretation is one of a triad of terms - the
others being the canon and the literary institution - which define the scope of the Kermodean scriptural analogy.
As a general rule, whenever he outlines the purpose and function of criticism he tacitly redefines criticism as
interpretation." (Parrinder 1991: 59)

35

5. Against criticism/interpretation

5. Against criticism/interpretation
As I have mentioned, religion will always produce irreligion, and there are anti-professionalist
conceptions as well as arguments against interpretation (these two are, of course, not the same).
Though more will be told about anti-professionalism in ch. 3, here I will say some words about these
notions. (It seems to be clear that the positions against interpretation are taken, in fact, against
professional interpretations; thus, although formulated in broader terms, they cover the "classical"
forms of anti-professionalism.)
A form of anti-interpretation theories can be related to the special position interpretation has
had in recent Western literary studies. Interpretation as the most important activity a student of
literature should pursue or as the only way to demonstrate what literary criticism is good for seems to
be dominant in the institutions of literary education in the Western part of the world. Hence, the
proliferation of interpretations and the boring series of re-interpretations and re-re-interpretations of
great works of art may worry those who are inclined to take a more theoretical stance for literary
studies. I think that in several parts of the world we are still before this turn. Although since the East
European new advent of Structuralist and Immanentist criticism there has been quite a number of
methods, ways, subjects and styles introduced into literary studies, interpretation still does not have a
central role in our profession everywhere. Thus, it may be a bit strange for some of us why some
outstanding figures of literary theory propose an abstinence of interpretation.
Culler (1976), for example, argues that a re-orientation is needed in the field of the
interpretation-centered literary studies. He urges, citing Hirsch, that criticism should no longer devote
itself to the goal of producing ever more interpretations.
In a somewhat similar vein, but far less convincingly, Gumbrecht (1989) states that "the
reasons which led to its (interpretation's) canonization as the "sacrament of philology" are no longer
existing" (377), and he is "advocating the elimination of "literary Interpretation" (as a device to
create/find truth) from the daily practice of the literary critic" (ibid.). Gumbrecht then gets entangled
in a somewhat confused argumentation suggesting that participation in the literary communication
which stimulates the readers' imagination is far more important and comprises far more of the
moment of truth than interpretation (383); moreover, he adds, the "Humanity in the present age [is]
over-spiritualized, and this should not be increased. All this should, then, lead to the literary critics'
"dramatic conversion" (385). Gumbrecht, however, does not insist on giving up the profession of
literary studies; but its objective should not be, he proposes, interpretation any more, the
"historiographic discourse" which is closely related to the history of mentality should be cultivated
instead.
F. T. C. Moore argues that just because symbols "are not a way of encoding any meaning, and
are therefore not able to be decoded", and "A symbol possessing meaning (which is not properly a
symbol) is transparent" (F. T. C. Moore 1981: 84-85), "any priesthood of exegetes" should be
rejected. "For exegesis is commonly more difficult to understand than the text which is being
interpreted. It is a practice as much in need of interpretation as the original symboilic product. Indeed,
it is itself a part of the symbolic phenomenon." (F. T. C. Moore 1981: 92) Thus, Moore launches an
attack on certain notion of professional authority in these activities. For it is not symbols themselves
that are authoritative; there is no key to their interpretation which could ever enable any proud
possessor of it to vouchsafe their real meaning. On the contrary, the exegetes we respect are precisely
those whose work has an intrinsic symbolic force, being an exercise in that same evocative field for
which the symbols under study provide an initial framework or structure. (F. T. C. Moore 1981: 92)
If it is true that interpretations are also and always, necessarily, subjects to interpretation, and,
thus, no final authority is available, there can be interpretations deliberately challenging and extorting
interpretation, being this action central to their program:
In what sense do modern ironists from Hasek to Derrida return us to theological possibilities?
Precisely because, by possibility and ellipsis they work from within rhetoric, not with any nostalgia

36

5. Against criticism/interpretation

for its restoration, but actively doubling their way into an alternative integrity stripped of the illusions
of power and metaphysics. As ironists they are, in an acute sense, interpreters and they prompt
interpretation. In other words, they provoke activity and disturb assumptions, and where interpretation
is made possible there also is realized the condition of impossibility for totalising a text. A text then is
freed to realise its textuality. The point in Derrida, of course, is analogous to Rousseau's political
thesis, that 'the flaws which make social institutions necessary are the same as make the abuse of them
unavoidable'. (Jasper 1993: 138)
Another argument against interpretation is directed against the (Romantic) theory of
congeniality, this latter supposing that it is the congenius of the critic mediating between the genius
and the barbaric mass. Let us free from this superfluous intruder, let us thus liberate the text from the
domination of the interpretation; and let us set the non-professional reader free from the terror of the
professional. Let him encounter the text the way he wishes, let him make with the text whatever he
desires, under no constraints.
Accordingly, S. J. Schmidt mentions that the text is detached from the audience, implying or
suggesting that there is (was) a golden age (or a present golden state, ideally) when the relation of the
text and its reader is immediate, direct, non-mediated. This conception suggests, as far as the role of
those mediating (the interpreters) is concerned, that the great work, sooner or later, is bound to meet,
to face its audience, contrary to any distracting manoeuvres of the evil clergy. For some time this bad
mediator may stand between the work and its reader but truth will win. And, as far as the canons are
concerned, this implies that there is a preestablished ideal canon which will find its way back to
itself.18
In opposition to this theory, I argue that we cannot do without interpretation and cannot help
having it: interpretation is inherent in the socialization process and the socialized self itself. Even if it
is true that we always interpret and everybody interprets, there may be certain distinguished
interpreters forming an institution or fitting into an institution. If we deny that all the texts wait for is
to be freed by an interpretation, and interpretation is but a mouthpiece of the text (Steinmetz 1983:
154, cited by Schmidt 1983), then we also have to call into question if there is a possibility, in theory,
to meet the uninterpreted, "pure", "brute" text at all. Socialization, if nothing else, will always remain
a mediator. The self, living in a society, will always learn the ways of recognizing, acquiring and,
finally, interpreting literary works.
Finally, I would like to mention the conceptions of emancipating interpretation (as against
directing it). To emancipate interpretation has most likely been an ambition of criticism ever since its
legitimacy (function, sense, usefulness, etc.) has been called into question. We are no worse than of
what we allegedly are parasites, we are woth as much, would a militant emancipator argue. The
parasite should not be subordinated. Thus, a version of the conception of emancipation is expressed
by transforming interpretations into literature; the desire is to confer the function of literature to the
criticism (interpretation). In this version, then, function serves as legitimation. This is, of course, a
very complex process, and there are several variants, versions and mutants of the "beautiful theories"
(ff. Bruss 198?) But one has to be cautious with the conceptions claiming to emancipate criticism, for
it may happen that falls into the common trap of emancipatory ideologies which can be illustrated by
the examples of the feather trader wishing to be a true-born aristocrat (snobs desperately longing for and, ultimately, purchasing - nobility) or of the black straightening her hair or lightening her face.
An argument for emancipation could be that interpretation does not merely mediate between
the audience and the work, the relation between it and the work is not that of a simple dependence; the
work is also dependent on other texts. It is not a simple interpolation either; if it were, in would be
possible in principle to eliminate the intruder, interpretation, and there could be a direct relation
created. Interpretation is a text creation just as the production of the literary work and both are parts of
18

This conception can also be seen in connection with anti-professionalism; of this, see some more in ch. 3.
Interpretation, according to this version of anti-professionalism, is something the everybody does, so that there
is no need for an institution of literary criticism.

37

5. Against criticism/interpretation

the one and the same process. Neither of them is subordinated to the other, they are functions of each
other.
Subordination may distort or block communication. If the interpreter admits that whatever there
is in a text is right, he gives up his own task. Real communication permits quarrel, denial, refusal,
correction, and not only appraisal or explanation. The interpreter must have the right to be subversive.
There is a very interesting and sympathetic element in the arguments against interpretation,
namely, the charge of smoothing over, of resolving the conflicts, of reconciliation, of eliminating the
"agonistic" aspect of literature.

38

6. Some Aspects of Canonical Research

6. Some Aspects of Canonical Research


The word research is often confronted with another term, theory. The common view is that
research is something like a real work, whereas theory is pure speculation; or, in a less rude way, that
no theory can exist without a practical background; that research provides practical data for any
further theoretization, theory can be built only on the basis of some practical research, and the main
task of any theory is to provide generalizations and abstractions starting from the previous practical
research.
Some elements of this opposition may be true, but here I would like to suggest, as is well
known since the fall of Positivism, that gathering data without any theoretical considerations is hardly
more than an illusion; that any research is preceded by some theoretical concepts, even if the
researcher herself is not aware of them; and that research always can be shown to be derived of some
presuppositions, concept and principles which may as well be labeled as theoretical constructs.
Thus, the word research in my title should not be taken as opposed to theory; to the contrary,
what I would like to suggest here is that any practical research in the concept of canon is more or less
hopeless unless we reach some better or worse delimited pre-understanding what the field we are to
study implies.
In fact, the very first steps in this field, the field of canon, will lead us astray (or will lead us
nowhere) if we ignore theoretical considerations. Suppose that we decide to measure canonicity on the
basis of a mediating institution, libraries or book publishing. Then a very obvious solution would be
to inquire into the data of circulation and publication; we would conclude that these numbers show
that a certain set of book titles belongs to the canon of the culture in question. Later on, we could
perhaps qualify this conclusion by pointing out that this set belongs, rather, to the register of
popularity, that is, that this canon is, rather, the canon of the masses, and not necessarily reflect the
high canon, that of the sophisticated, educated, well informed stratum of the society.
This example is, perhaps, a too primitive one, and, I hope, none of us has ever in mind to
conceive of her or his task in these terms. But it may shed some light on the problem in question. If
we start from the simple, monistic, singular concept of The Canon, we either end in a very dubious
and cheap result or we are forced to move on and refine, qualify, and modify that result.
Consequently, since there is a great need to study the phenomena connected to the canon, there is also
a prerequisite to start from a sensibly well circumscribed set of notions.
This clearing of the ground, this clarification of what we should do when we set to the task of
mapping the canon, cannot of course be done in a short paper like this. However, here I will try to
summarize the problems we have to face if we in fact start this research. I will deal with two issues,
though their separation may be a bit artificial: that of the canon itself, and the fields, institutions and
segments of the society where this canon is manifested.
First of all, let us see some possible conceptions of the canon. A fairly common view of the
canon is that it is a set or body of carefully selected texts, and that a main challenge for those
analyzing the (concept of the) canon should then be to explore what these texts are, and how this set
came (or is coming) into being. Furthermore, the causes how this given set evolved may be sought, it
can be asked what common features are to be found in these texts - that is, their contents, origin and
structure may be a subject of inquiry, but it is still always supposed that the thing in question is one
particular thing (or one particular circle of things), and, on the other hand, that what is in question is
things, products, text-objects. According to the conceptions centered around the outstanding Great
Works, the canon is made of ready-made products, a collection of samples, a sum of respectable texts
which count as cornerstones of our culture and of our tradition.
One could label this conception of the canon as the "canon-as-texts" vision; for the scholar
working on these tracks, it is quite satisfactory to realize what texts are exactly comprised in a given
canon, that is, what the privileged and distinguished texts of a period are, then look for proofs for this
intuition, and end in a list of works which she or he will then call the canon of this or that era or this

39

6. Some Aspects of Canonical Research

or that society, stratum, group, etc. It would not be fair to dismiss this line of inquiry too quickly. It
belongs to a certain Positivistic pattern of thought, insofar as it seeks data, orders them and then
draws, in a very strict logical framework, conclusions; meanwhile, it restricts itself to a controlled
body of evidence, without referring to anything outside them. This is a methodology which may and
in fact did have results interesting from any other, even anti-Positivistic, point of view. To say that it
is a prerequisite for any other inquiry is, of course, misleading since it presupposes a stage of study
when no preconceptions, prejudices, ideologies, theories, even concepts are involved; but it may be
acknowledged that a mapping of what has been regarded as a canon or what is regarded as having
been regarded as a canon may furnish raw material to analyze further; at least, what one can learn
from these reviews is a vision of the canon as produced by a professional, that is, a contribution to the
analysis of her or his view of literature.
However, it is not a notion really widely held, in its pure form. Even the most conservative,
scholastic formulations refer to something outside the texts in question, in fact, transcending them:
tradition, value, ethics, aesthetic quality, and the like, and these amount to a reference to a certain rule
beyond the objects. It is, to say the least, extremely difficult to differentiate between "textual" and
"linguistic" conceptions; or, to put it more sharply, "textual" delimitations imply (very often
explicitly) a rule governing the selection of the texts.
Thus, the other main conception (if it is really "other"), is the "canon-as-language" view of the
canon. It is, perhaps, not less problematic than the one treated above, just one has to face different
questions. It can perhaps be argued that the nature of the canon is that of the langue; it embodies or
manifests some common knowledge. Let us further suppose that there exists some "literary
competence" - a sort of knowledge enabling the speaker, the "native speaker" of a culture, to
recognize and repute literary texts as such. It is possible to state, then, that the canon, a selected set of
the great works, is part of this knowledge, and if this knowledge corresponds to the linguistic langue,
then canon must be part of the literary langue.
If it is so, then the canon does not belong to the sphere of realization or phenomena, but rather
to that of the system: in this respect, it is part of the langue. As far as this is the case, we cannot do
without a canon. It also belongs to that field inasmuch as its change is not a consequence of some
autonomous movement, but rather of external influences coming outside of the field of literature.
And one could also say that canonicity is a version of the range of interpretations; that is, canon
can be regarded as an entrenched or even institutionalized variety of the interpretation which is
canonical; what changes is a certain set of interpretive assumptions and, along with this change or
perhaps as a consequence of it, there is a also change in the texts picked out as valuable, as apt
subjects of analysis or education. Here we turn back to what has been said of the canon-as-texts
conception: the selection of texts worth studying, the body of literature to be interpreted is in itself a
result of (explicit or implicit) rules, theoretical considerations, value preferences which, in turn, can
be described as a system beyond or within the objects - which are, then, are not objects-in-themselves
any more but products of the subjectivity, formed and preformed by an interpretation.
The "canon-as-a-langue" conception is sometimes formed as against the conception of canon as
a list of texts canonical in their own right. What is opposed, then, is the idea that a text could be
canonical by its own inner quality. There may be another possible conception which deviates from the
(Structuralist) vision of langue/parole distinction: canon is neither a set of elements, nor an abstract
system, but a product of conventionalized acts whereas canon-formation is a performance of an act
with a special force. The act of creating the canon is originally and archetypically is the task of the
"priest", the professional interpreter of the Law.
The canon, whatever it may be, is certainly not something given, eternal, whose origin and
nature cannot be searched for. Even if they are not interested in the development or origin of a canon,
most studies agree that it can be traced back not only in time but also synchronically, to its
conception.

40

6. Some Aspects of Canonical Research

But who makes, changes and maintains the canon? The answer is, naturally, that it is the
function of some groups, who may be called professionals, or, "people-in-the-culture" "whose power
is gained by their control over literary institutions." (Shavit 1991: 232)
The least which can be said of the relation of the canons and the literary professionals, then, is
that quite a number of the activities of the professional interpreters of literature affects in one way or
another the literary canon. Professionals in the literary field are often characterized by their
preoccupation with the canon and, conversely, canon is almost exclusively approached as the
principal field of a specific group of people, the professionals of the literary field. It is one of the tasks
(activities) of the literary professionals is to create, maintain, change and reflect on canon. Here I
remind you that the important role played by the professionals in forming the canon (and, to be sure,
that of the canon in forming the status of the professionals), has just been illustrated by the
paradigmatic and, in fact, fundamental case of canonization, the delimitation of the texts which would
then belong to the Scripture, an act of highly professional nature and involving serious consequences
to several communities.
It seems to be reasonable to differentiate between the unconditional authority and the more
restricted and ephemeral power which the professionals of literary studies exert. Partly, of course, it is
only a matter of degree; but certainly, there are also similarities. Both presuppose institutions, power
and groups. Furthermore, there may be a hope that it can be specified exactly what groups and what
powers take part in the formation of the canon and how they do so.
The relation of professionals to canon is not only that it is the more or less institutionalized
group of people-in-culture in charge of maintaining and forming a distinguished class of text. It is also
this special class of text which offers them a basis of existence qua professionals. It is, then, a field of
operation for them as well as a field of reward.
However, even if the community of professionals seems to be decisive in the process of
forming the canon, it must be asked again and again, Is it just one single thing which is formed? Why
should we regard only a canon formed by the very special community of the professionals as the only
important factor? No doubt, it is the best documented and the best known canon (whatever the word
means); it is transferred to the new generations, it is taught in schools and respected the most, it
represents a set of texts and a set of conventions which is regarded as a prerequisite to call somebody
an educated person. However, it is clear that what and how people in fact read is far from being
identical with the canon the professionals (or a part of the professional community) regard as
canonical. For instance, the Great Works taught in schools must not be identical with those most
revered by the professionals; at least since the time of Romanticism, a section of the professionals has
represented a counter-canon, for which institutional education has appeared as a symbol of
conservativism, old-fashionedness. Although the curricula for school education is formed by
professionals in power, those not in power very often challenge this sort of canon. On the other hand,
it must be supposed that certain communities other than that of the professionals create their own
canon. Participants of the educational system (that is, pupils and teachers alike) do not regard the
obligatory readings as the most valuable works, and what and how they actually read most is quite
different from that canon.
The problem is, of course, that this canon is hidden, fragmentary, implicit, and it is extremely
hard to trace it. Synchronically, we are aware of its existence, but rarely do we care to describe it;
diachronically, we may rely on some data, mostly coming from professionals, but only very few direct
references. Another problem is whether how many non-professional canons (and, accordingly, how
many communities) should be taken into account. For it may be a bit misleading to speak of the nonprofessional canon as a whole; there may be several sub-communities, and, correspondingly, subcanons and counter-canons. Theoretical speculation, then, must circumscribe, prior to any research,
the possible range of canons which should be taken into account.
Needless to say, this range will differ according to cultures, historical periods, and perhaps even
by the nation in question. This would be the main issue of our colloquium. It may be speculated that a

41

6. Some Aspects of Canonical Research

small country (or a language of smaller diffusion) must insist in a much more rigid way to its sacred
texts and their sanctified (canonized) interpretation. On the other hand, a small country is much more
exposed to the influences coming from outside, especially if she has powerful and great nations in
her neighborhood. These hypotheses seem to be reasonable enough, and they are not mutually
exclusive. But how can we prove or disprove them?
This question will lead us to the second complex of issues, that is, to the question, What do we
actually do when we investigate canons? What sort of data, evidence, clues do expect to have? What
is the method of the canonical research?
First of all, what we hope to get is texts. (This fact will sooner or later raise the problem of
interpretation; but here I will put it aside.) I am not speaking about the Great Works included in the
canon, by no means. A text will not display any marker of being canonical, no matter how closely we
investigate it; canonicity is a matter of interpretations, institutions, communities, powers, traditions,
etc., but it is not a given characteristic of any piece of text whatsoever. The texts in question are,
instead, those surrounding the canonical texts; the documents of its reception, its interpretations, the
traces of its way to canonicity.
Thus, the first area could be which we could call interpretations. What I have in mind is all
sorts of interpretations: authors comments and diaries, literary criticism, school textbooks, school
papers, theater performances, prefaces and editorial comments, blurbs, advertisements, all sorts of
references.
But, second, these texts (canonical and metacanonical) appear somewhere, in certain contexts.
Thus, it is another obvious scope of research to map all the possible sources of these texts: what
journals, newspapers, textbooks, TV and radio channels, or what other forms of mediation could play
role in the circulation of a work and its interpretation? What did the elementary, secondary school and
university curricula look like? How and where were the teachers trained? What other forms of
forming opinion were available?
And this will lead us to a third area, those of institutions. The site where these texts appear all
belong to certain institutions: the system of education, the system of literary production, circulation
and reception, including literary schools, trends and groups, salons and movements; book publishing
industry, along with its participants (censors, editors, marketing personnel, etc.); the bookmarket; and
the libraries, readers clubs.
All these elements require a very thorough work, and we should always had in mind what has
been told about the concept of canon in general; that is, that there are always several canons, and that
a canon is not simply a set of texts. Thus, we have to proceed to a fourth area, that of assessing the
relevant conventions of interpretation, which seems to be an even more difficult task. It is not enough,
clearly, to map all the possible meta-canonical texts, their context and their institutions; we also have
to interpret the interpretations, evaluate the evaluations.
This is a rather delicate and difficult business. What we should do in canonical research is to
survey the language the meta-canonical texts use; their value preferences, their hidden presuppositions
in their interpretation, their political, ideological, or personal motives, and, of course, pick out those
which may possibly count in the reception history of the work in question. I am not speaking only of
literary criticism; a data like the most popular book in public libraries also needs careful investigation.
Probably not of the same nature as those dealing with critical texts, but the whole structure of, say,
acquisition of public libraries, loaning policies, their sections closed and open for the public should be
studied. Similarly, a curriculum as it stands cannot be regarded as a useful raw data for a canonical
investigation. It well may be that some works appear on some lists mere because for political reasons,
but in fact they are never taught. It is also possible that certain works are regarded as typical or highly
controversial, but never as canonical.
Thus, we must interpret the meta-canonical texts, their surrounding contexts and the institutions
which make use of them. Of course, we always have some intuition of what counts, in a given period

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and in a given culture, as canonical. Since we live in that culture (or in another, but we hope we know
enough of that culture), we know, one way or another, its tradition, its values, its conventions, as well
as its canon. However, it may happen that the temporal distance is too big and it turns out that what
we supposed the canon had been is somewhat different. It may turn out that there are other, less
known works belonging to that canon, which have dropped out of our tradition. Or it may happen that
the reasons of being canonical are absolutely different from what we supposed them to be. Literary
works of art may have somewhat different functions in different periods, still, they may preserve their
canonical position. It seems to especially true in cases of small literatures: poems or epic works
which used to serve the idea of nationality, or that of the fight against the alien invader, etc., are still
canonical, though their interpretation and perhaps evaluation is quite different than it had been.
Finally, my proposition, then, is very simple. I tried to convince you that we simply cannot
even try to make any canonical research unless we face some important questions. What are we
looking for? Is it one thing or more? Is it a set of texts or something more? Where should we look for
it? Only in reference books, textbooks and curricula? Or, rather, should we take into account all the
corresponding interpretations, along with the channels and institutions mediating the texts and metatexts to us? My conclusion is that all these questions must be answered. It well may be that my
answers are not too good, and I am sure that they are rather superficial. But the questions are there.

6.1. Canonized interpretations


I have tried to argue that a canon is not merely a set of texts but, rather, it is a range of socially
preferred interpretations of some texts. That is, what is taken as canonical is a text along with its
interpretation, and this interpretation is, accordingly, taken as a canonical one. As I argued, canon
can be regarded as an entrenched or even institutionalized variety of the interpretation which is
canonical; what changes is a certain set of interpretive assumptions and, along with this change or
perhaps as a consequence of it, there is a also change in the texts picked out as valuable, as apt
subjects of analysis or education.- If it is true, it can provide an explanation for the fact that new texts
can be incorporated into the canon, that is, a canon is not a fixed set of texts but a set which can be
extended, enriched, modified.
My hypothesis, then, is that a text is part of the canon together with its interpretation which will
make it possible that other texts, in some way or another resembling to that text, can be interpreted in
a much more smooth way, and thus incorporated into the canon.
A very clear example could be the case of patriotic poetry of the nineteenth century. The
followers of this trend will have much more chance to be parts of the canon than those ignoring or
turning against it. This maybe one of the reasons of epigonism. However, the issue must be much
more complicated than that. First of all, even if texts become canonical together with their
interpretation, it is not just any canonical text which will generate a set of canonical interpretations.
The interpretive tradition of Balzac will help in including minor Hungarian Realist writers into the
canon, but not necessarily vice versa; we often read second rate poetry along the conventions of
interpreting great, canonized poetry, however, it is not at all the case that we extend our
interpretations of the second rate poetry to the canonized one. That is, maybe there are levels of
canonicity, depending on the corresponding canonical interpretation.
Second, the history of canonical interpretive conventions is far from being the same history as
that of canonical texts. Canonical interpretations (or canons of interpretation) may prove to be much
more long lasting or conservative than the texts themselves they have been originally attached to. It
well may be that some texts are not read any more when their interpretations still influence the
interpretations of some later texts. Maybe sometimes there is an asymmetry of this kind. Then, it is a
question what makes interpretations survive while their corresponding texts fade away.
Third, it is a question what powers are behind these canonical interpretations backing and
changing them. Whereas we may have some hope to find the particular critics, interpreters and
institutions which are responsible for the canonization of the particular canonical texts, perhaps it is a

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more difficult endeavour to trace back the formation of a canonical interpretation. In my earlier paper
I have indicated that some texts may preserve their canonical position even if their interpretation is
somewhat modified. However, it is a question why and when some canonical interpretations,
canonized strategies of interpretation will preserve their status.
Canonical interpretations could be conceived of as higher or even as great narratives (to refer to
Lyotards term). They tell the way an encounter between the text and the reader should take place. A
canonical interpretation is a general scenario which has particular forms in a given case. Now let me
give you some examples. I will try to give a sketch of two canonized interpretations, or, rather, two
patterns of canonized interpretations. Either of them is connected to any specific literary text; rather,
both are related to a set of texts. The first example is the canonical reception of Realist narratives; the
second is the canonical position of folk art in high literature.
In the case of the Realist novel, the canonical interpretation (that is, the narrative describing or
rather prescribing the text/reader relation) goes something like this: the uninformed reader turns to the
text in order to gain information about the society (or the history of the society), to have an insight
into the hidden motives of the actors of the society (or history). The text, being a good, reliable,
canonical Realist text, fulfils these expectations, and, moreover, it offers some patterns of behavior or
role models. The role of the reader is to look through the text, the text is transparent for the reader. It
can either be exhausted, or at least its pool of meanings is rather restricted. It is, in Roland Barthess
words, readable.
Think of the reception of Realist works in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the
twentieth century. Reflection of the real life, giving account of the social layers, and unmasking the
hidden motives have long been the most important elements of the interpretation of Realist narratives.
What counted as the cornerstones of interpretation, then, were denotative and ideological functions of
the text (rather than, say, textual characteristics or intertextual relations). The novelists of the second
half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century were praised because of their ability to
show the true history or present of the society, because of their illustrative capacity, and because of
their reliance on the facts and reality. This pattern is somewhat modified throughout the ages: Realist
narrative was regarded as a modern chronicle, a reliable account of the present or the past, an
essentially objective form of literature (as opposed to the subjectivity of lyrical poetry). Narrative
literature is read, according to this interpretation, in order to have access to the facts of life, as well as
to draw some ethical conclusions from the lives of the people depicted in the narrative. A narrative
then can be included into the (Realist) canon if and only if it can be read/interpreted along these lines,
if it complies with the canonized interpretations of the Realist narrative.
Later, in the post-war Hungarian literary history writing for instance, Realism became a magic
label which served as a tool of legitimating Romantic or Classicist or whatever earlier text. Once the
traits (or traces) of Realism could be detected in a literary work, it deserved its position in the canon.
Following Engelss remarks on Balzac, Realists were regarded as inherently and perhaps
unconsciously revolutionaries. On the other hand, new works had to be read as Realist ones in order to
be in accordance with the ruling canon. There has also been a tendency that modern novels, those of
the twenties or the sixties, should be subsumed under the label of Realism: that is, partly at least, this
move was motivated by highly ideological, almost political considerations. If the literary historians,
the people who are in charge of the defence and maintenance of the canon, wish to include
outstanding works which otherwise would be left out, a label like Realism is pretty comfortable.
This picture may well seem to be a caricature, and I must admit that it is highly superficial and
sketchy. The point is that the vulnerability or fallibility of a great narrative like this, the historically
transitory character of a canonical interpretation becomes tangible only when a competing
interpretation emerges. For instance, the most canonical figure of Realist narrative, Balzac, whose
interpretation seemed to govern the guidelines of all other interpretations of the Realist novel, was
radically reinterpreted by Roland Barthes in his S/Z. One of the consequences of this reinterpretation
was that although Realism preserved its canonical position, the whole scenario of the desired

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interpretation was rewritten. Realist novel is not transparent any more, it has subtle textual structure,
and its representational nature is not at all the most important one. Consequently, the structure of the
canon is modified: perhaps some of the readable works will drop out, whereas some works (earlier
regarded as traditional Realist works) will prove to be writable.
Let me turn to my second example. In the last two centuries, and especially in some East and
Central European literatures, popular art became a major source of "high" or canonized literature.
More specifically, as of the age of Romanticism (and perhaps earlier) the importance of folk song and
folk tale in the literature became outstanding. That is, a specific interpretation of folk literature served
as a point of reference for some influential writers. One of these interpretations, or rather, a general
pattern of interpretation was to take folk literature as representing a counter-culture, as if folk songs or
folk tales expressed, fundamentally and essentially, a gesture of resistance.
So what is the canonical interpretation corresponding to the poetry of popular roots? What is
the scenario (or narrative) of the encounter of the text and its reader?
First of all, the reader must realize that what she or he faces has some intertextual relation to
what he believes is popular poetry. It is thus presupposed that the reader has at his or her disposal a
sort of repertoire of the popular culture: specific rhyme patterns, repetitions, parallelisms, meter,
thematic structure, genre rules, and the like. The reader must interpret this presence as a hallmark of
popularity. Moreover, he or she will suppose that since folk literature is, by its own, essentially, antitotalitarian, subversive, even it has a revolutionary character, the text referring back to this source will
also be, by its own nature, subversive.
Thus, for instance, not only one of the major Hungarian poets of the nineteenth century, Petofi
became an emblematic figure of the harmony of poetry and revolutionary thought, but, following the
scenario of his canonical interpretation, the literary reception of popular literature became an
expression of progressive and patriotic attitude. A slight reference to folk poetry rang the bell of
national resistance or solidarity with the poor.
This tradition of interpretation became canonical up to the twentieth century, maybe even until
our days. Turning to folk literature and entering into all sorts of intertextual relations with it was
perhaps not a sine qua non for canonicity, but it definitely made it easier for the text to be connected
to the great tradition, and, thus, become part of the canon.
To take an early example, a great Hungarian poet, Endre Ady, in one of his poems used some
lines taken from an old Hungarian folk song. The folk song, originally, was about a peacock, saying
that it will fly up to the roof of the county council, and the poor prisoners will be freed. For Ady, it
became a symbol of political freedom; in this interpretation (that is, in the poem which itself is an
interpretation of the original subtext of the folk song), he followed the tradition of regarding the poor
prisoner, the outlaw, even the bandit as an emblematic figure of freedom, something like cowboys for
North Americans, and, moreover, regarding folk ballads and folk songs as the most genuine
expressions of the peoples desire to live a free life. It is not accidental that this was one of the very
few poems of Ady which became famous in Hungary in the arrangement for choir by Kodaly.
Now Ady was not at all a follower of the popularistic trend; he was a Modern poet, and this
poem of his is more or less unique. There are very few references in his work to the folk poetry.
Nevertheless, his poem, along with Kodalys choir work, has a solid place in the canon because it
strengthens the canonical interpretation. Still, there may come another interpretation, a countercanonical one, which of those who made wide use of folk poetry may lead to the consequence that this
has much more structural, rhythmic or poetic character than ideological. Or there may be attempts to
show that this vision of folk poetry can be called into question, that folk poetry is not always and not
in itself subversive or anti-authoritarian. These reinterpretations would perhaps change, again, the
canonical scene, although the main figures and main works would preserve their position.
Finally, it is worth while to reflect on the fact the most obvious examples of canonized
interpretations are those of the nineteenth century and perhaps the Realism of the twentieth. That is,

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when one looks for well established and widely known conventions of reading, operations which
enable new works to take their place among the canonical works, it is never Avant-garde or
Modernism, not even the conventions of reading Medieval texts. So maybe there is a canonical
hierarchy even among the scenarios or narratives of interpretation. There may be a canon of canonical
interpretations, and some of these may probe to be more powerful than the others.

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

46

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities


In this chapter, two issues will be dealt with: first I sketch out the general conception of
interpretive communities, and then a particular (but not at all marginal) community, that of the literary
professionals will be treated. Both issues are vague and hitherto not too thoroughly explored; hence,
my account will be rather tentative.

7.1. Interpretive communities


0. Introduction
Some people claim that there are interpretive communities. Others claim to the contrary.
This fact in itself can be taken as an argument for interpretive communities.
But what is an interpretive community? Is it interpretive? Is it a community? How should we
interpret this concept? Where does it come from? And why?
In what follows, a general theory of interpretive communities, if any, will be addressed. The
issue is rather vague and hitherto not too thoroughly explored; hence, my account will be rather
tentative.

1. Community
Let us start with the second term of the expression. The word "community" in this context may
be misleading. If one looks for the keyword "community" in any recent library catalogue or
bibliographical database, most references will be to religious or social communities, covering a group
of people who either take part in the same religious cult, or a section of population living in the same
area or sharing the same working conditions. In another interpretation, community may mean a group
of people with the same or similar aim or aspiration, where the members are connected by some
personal relation (many or all of them know each other), interpersonal interaction, etc. Even if we
pretend that we do not know what an "interpretive community" should be, it is clear enough from the
outset that it may not fulfill these requirements.
The word "community", Linda Brodkey (1989: 36) argues, is loaded with a number of
sentiments:
as Williams's definition so starkly reminds us, community is also a word teetering on
sentimentality, a notion which, because it betrays no tensions, "no positive opposing or distinguishing
term", as he puts it, promises much by stipulating very little. (36)
It may be considered, then, whether "class" would not be a more apt expression, or, as Brodkey
proposes, the concept of network, with a clear distinction between exocentric and egocentric
networks:
Lomnitz, for instance, distinguishes between egocentric and exocentric economic networks. An
egocentric network, quite simply, would be "the set of individuals who maintain some reciprocal
exchange of goods and services with ego" (1977, p. 133). Hence, an analysis of an egocentric network
would map the dyadic reciprocal exchanges with nearly all the members of their network. Whereas an
individual is the focus of analysis in an egocentric network, the network itself would be the subject of
analysis in an exocentric network. Though perhaps less obvious than the shift in the locus of analysis,
from the individual to the group, is an equally and possibly even more important point, namely, that
exocentric networks are formed whenever a group has reason to believe that its wants will not be met
elsewhere. (Brodkey 1989: 38)
It can be argued that interpretive communities are closely related to the concept of class; not as
if any interpretive community could be unanimously correlated to a specific social class, but that it is
difficult to avoid to refer to classes if one is to give account of interpretive communities. The only
obstacle of the re-introduction of this concept is that it is suspiciously infected by Marxist

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

47

reminiscences, thus, its figuring in the discourse of literary studies is itself suspicious. As Mette Hjort
(1993) puts it,
The concept of class is by no means an unproblematic one, but it remains useful nonetheless,
given certain qualifications. While the term is typically associated with some brand of Marxism and
economic determinism, Jon Elster has persuasively argued that there is in fact no coherent doctrine of
class to be found in the writings of the German philosopher... I shall assume, with Elster and others,
that the notion of social class has a meaning independent of a commitment to Marxism. Unlike Elster,
I shall assume that rank, occupation, and attitudes are some of the defining elements of social class.
On my view, the idea of class is inseparable from that of class consciousness. Classes are sustained, at
least in part, by agents' identification with a social body by virtue of participation in shared practices
and traditions, knowledge of common attitudes, and so on. 'Class', then, is a social term bearing a
definite relation to the concepts of consensus and frames examined in the previous chapter. Very
generally, a social class helps to provide stable frames of interaction when membership is the object
of a genuine consensus among the agents involved, that is, when agents have a clear, accurate, and
mutually believed understanding of the nature of the social bond that is the basis of their solidarity. In
what follows, I shall use 'class' and 'social group' interchangeably and in the sense just evoked. (Hjort
1993: 116)
A community is, so to speak, never a community: the concept itself suggests a relation, a
difference.
A reasonable interpretation of the word's use would seem to imply two related suggestions: that
the members of a group of people (a) have something in common with each other, which (b)
distinguishes them in a significant way from the members of other putative groups. 'Community' thus
seems to imply simultaneously both similarity and difference. The word thus expresses a relational
idea: the opposition of one community to others or to other social entities. (Cohen 1985: 12).
Moreover,
...the use of the word is only occasioned by the desire or need to express such a distinction. It
seems appropriate, therefore, to focus our examination of the nature of community on the element
which embodies this sense of discrimination, namely, the boundary. (Cohen 1985: 12)

2. Interpretive
There are similar problems with the word "interpretive". Even if its accepted meaning can be
related to the term (that of interpretive community) we would wish to illuminate, it will turn out that
it is not quite as innocent as we hoped. Not just any reading, not just any appropriation of the text
whatsoever is called interpretation. "Interpretation", rather, is more often reserved for an activity
executed with a special sort of skill, and leading to a special, objectified result - executed, of course,
mostly by professionals of interpretation. To say of somebody that she or he interprets is to assess her
or his activity: interpretation is obviously above appropriation, reading, conceiving, understanding,
on the one hand (as far as skill and work invested are concerned), and recapitulation, repetition,
summarizing, and describing on the other (as far as the product realized is concerned). Now, keeping
all this in mind, would we be willing to call communities of people interpretive communities which
would not satisfy these expectations?
There are no remedies for the two above problems of terminological nature. In the present state
of the art, alas, there is no way to change the meaning of the words. Either one keeps on using the
term, acknowledging the serious defects of the words she or he uses, or one may chose to give up
employing them.
There are, however, problems which affect far more important issues. One of these is that of the
emergence of the concept of interpretive communities.

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7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

3. Interpretive communities
Why has this category been invented? The notion of interpretive communities was probably
born to help explain the similarities in different people's interpretations of (literary) texts; roughly, it
is supposed that these differences (at least to a certain extent) display some regularity, and therefore
presenting a kind of interpretation can be taken as corresponding to belonging to a specific kind of
community. It is the values, interpretations, and actions of that community which will determine,
more or less, the specific interpretation by a particular individual of that community.
These questions are more or less evident, and the field seems to be fairly well delimited. Still,
the literature on interpretive communities is astonishingly poor, almost non-existent. This absence is a
significant one and can be interpreted several ways. First, it may be supposed that the term itself is
relatively new and has not yet been able to find its way into the center of literary theoretical
discussion. Second, one may speculate that the phenomenon denoted by the term has been pretty well
described long ago by sociologists of literature, and it would not be either fair or wise on the part of
the literary theoretician to poke her or his nose into the sociologists' business. Third, an issue related
to the second, there may be some aversion to a notion which is not native to literary studies and
which, therefore, opens a hole through which another science can leak in, possibly to take the role of
the dominant science again. And fourth, any description of such a slippery, fuzzy and, by its nature,
ever-changing concept seems to be hopeless and useless.
Maybe these or some of these are the reasons why there are so few studies about interpretive
communities. And this will raise a problem.
There is a further problem, that of conception, which was not quite immaculate. Reference on
interpretive communities in the literary studies is not just a kind of scholarly trouvaille, it is also a
weapon: a confrontation with the New Criticism's way of thinking. As Goldstein puts it,
Blatantly violating the New Critics' infamous "affective fallacy" (what Stanley Fish calls "the
affective fallacy fallacy"), Tony Bennett, David Bleich, Stanley Fish, Norman Holland, Wolfgang
Iser, and Jane Tompkins argue that the reader's interpretive activity represents his interests, his
discoveries, or his community, not the formal text of the author's intention. Although these critics do
not repudiate traditional criticism to the same extent, they all assume that diverse readers produce
different kinds of interpretations because reading illuminates the self, the community, or the
subjectivity of the reader. (Goldstein 1990: 101)
Or, formulating it from another angle, to rely on the concept of interpretive communities
amounts to adopting a contextualist, rather than intentionalist, view of literary meaning. Fish's
conception on interpretive communities implies that meaning should not be sought "in the text itself",
but in the activity of the (group of) receiver(s) assigning meaning to the text. The identity and stability
of the meaning is dependent on the identity and stability of these groups; belonging to such a group, in
turn, is to assert the identity and stability of the meaning.
Adopting one or another concept of literary meaning is not an innocent act. It may have farreaching political, ideological and, naturally, literary theoretical consequences. For Goldstein, for
instance, preserving the notion of authorial and textual meaning will classify the theorist as
conservative, while liberals are characterized by their insistence on interpretive communities, and
radicals by their attack on the canon and institutions:
The extent to which these critics repudiate traditional approaches divides them into political
camps. Conservatives like Iser and Holland preserve textual forms and authorial truth, restrict the
expressive powers of literary language, and retain the referential accuracy of ordinary language. By
contrast, liberals like Fish and Bleich grant ordinary language a complexity and a subtlety of
expression matching that of literary language and situate the reader in communities regulating his or
her activity. Radicals like Tompkins and Bennett also emphasize the expressive power of ordinary
language and the interpretive community of the situated reader, but they go on to critique the canon
and other literary institutions and to defend the literary value of popular works or of ideological

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

49

critique. Although all of these critics construe interpretation as positive truth or ahistorical rationality,
the conservatives emphasize the reader's private self as though it enshrined the bourgeois distinction
of "I" and "You" or "Mine" and "Thine"; the liberals construe the reader as a social construct whose
institutional position regulates but does not determine his or her activity; and the radicals expose and
attack the institutional grounds of the ideological import of the reader's interpretative practices.
(Goldstein 1990: 101)
To anti-professionalism, anti-canonical positions and anti-institutionalism, we shall return later.
What Goldstein's remarks suggest is that the very notion of interpretive communities is ideologically
loaded and belongs to a certain tradition of interpretation - to an interpretive community, so to speak.
To make this concept operational, do we have to get rid of this background? Or do we have to be
submerged into (and be proud of) it?

4. Further Problems
The category, once conceived under such ideologically defiled circumstances, if only it would
be a sound one! But, alas, it is not. There is no a full-fledged definition anywhere, not a single
thorough study or historical survey. Brodkey, for instance, writes:
Having postulated the notion [of interpretive communities], Fish apparently feels no need to
locate an actual interpretive community or specify the "knowledge" that constitutes its shared
understandings. The difference to readers seems to me obvious. Fish's readers are enjoined to
contemplate the possibilities - to imagine themselves to be members of such a community and
consider the consequences to reading and readers. It is, in other words, a conversational gambit that
solicits only other in-kind theoretical contributions. Practical critics are put in the position of children
who overhear the "grown-ups" arguing. The arguments theorists conduct can be read and they can be
understood, but they cannot be entered and challenged by those who overhear, for such contributions
are illicit by definition and therefore "theoretically" uninteresting. (1989: 93)
What is missing, then, is not only the practical or empirical background; the test of the praxis is
excluded in advance and in principle. Brodkey contrasts this conception to those, similar, ideas put
forth by Hymes and other ethnographers, and adds:
Unlike Fish, who effectively excludes empirical research by speaking only of notions, Hymes
sees rational theory and empirical practice as mutually correcting statements. Hymes effectively limns
in his own work one of the most plausible, because least hegemonic, arguments for the value of
interdisciplinary studies on language. (1989: 93)
In the sociology of language, Hymes has introduced the concept of speech communities which
may be somewhat illuminating here.
For Hymes, a speech community is an extended metaphor intended to characterize writing as
well as speaking, if writing figures as part of the linguistic repertoire of a given community.
Furthermore, a speech community consists of all the people who could, in virtue of their knowledge,
communicate with one another. In order to distinguish between potential and actual communication,
Hymes suggests some other terms in Foundations in Sociolinguistics that research will need to specify
in the course of defining the use of language in a particular community:
A speech community is defined, then, tautologically but radically, as a community sharing
knowledge of rules for the conduct and interpretation of speech. Such sharing comprises knowledge
of at least one form of speech, and knowledge also of its patterns of use. Both conditions are
necessary. Since both kinds of knowledge can be shared apart from common membership in a
community, an adequate theory of language requires additional notions, such as language field,
speech field, and speech network, and requires the contribution of social science in characterizing
notions of community, and of membership in a community. (Hymes 1974, 51.).
(Brodkey 1989: 17-18)

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7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

In Brodkey's interpretation, Hymes uses the terms "language field" and "speech field" in the
sense that they refer to "what people know about language and its uses" (19), whereas speech network
is the term "to describe how and where people put their knowledge to use" (ibid.), that is, the actual
community or practice. This concept may then be related to various communities of (literary)
interpretation.
This issue, however, is highly complex. To take only a few questions: is it the case that a
language will necessarily determine a specific culture? If so, where are the boundaries of a language,
synchronically and diachronically? If not, can it be the case that people speaking different languages
but living in similar conditions and under similar social circumstances will have similar
interpretations of the same text (be it verbal or other)?

5. To the point
No doubt, the idea of interpretive communities is, or should be, central in various branches and
schools of literary studies. Its application may shed light on a number of problems, as well as provide
a common ground to handle seemingly different issues. For instance, instead of asking why
Shakespeare is great, we can turn our attention to the conditions of calling him great (cf. Bleich
1978:165). By this shift, we can find explanations to some phenomena of the history of reception.
Instead of inquiries of similarities (or contrasts) of, say, German and English Romantic poetry, one
could ask about the conventions of regarding texts as similar ones, or of classifying them as Romantic
poetry, or one could wish to find the interpretive strategies underlying such a comparison. Not only
does a history of criticism have to give account of the various and successive interpretive
communities of an age, diachronically or synchronically, but literary debates or conflicts of
interpretations simply cannot be understood without some description of the interpretive communities
involved. Think of the fierce debates in East Europe in the last decades about the "intelligibility" or
"popularity" of art, especially modern literature. The ideological doctrine that literature should be
something that normal ordinary people will understand presupposed a completely homogeneous
reading public. Though some borderlines were posited to be inside this community, along the lines of
social stratification, deviations from the hypothesized ideal unity counted as marginal cases of
literature and of reception. Clearly, a theory of interpretive communities may help to illuminate the
absurdity of such a dogma.
Moreover, in the cases of international comparisons it must be asked whether the comparison is
made between interpretive communities and if so, what their relation is. Is this a starting point or a
result? Can we speak of corresponding interpretive communities at all? Or are they the same? Can
they be compared? Against the background of the system of culture and society, do they have similar
functions?
Furthermore, the concept may have a theoretical foundation in pragmatic theories of literature,
including the approaches based on speech act theory; one could even say that such a theory will
inevitably lead to a version of interpretive communities. As it is clearly seen in the case of one of the
pet subjects of speech act theorists, irony - which is, by the way, a favorite of the literary theoretician,
too - , even if differences in interpretation can be ascribed to contextual factors in the traditional sense
of the word, there is always room to allow other factors into the picture, such as those of social and
educational background, gender, historical experiences, and the like. It may be speculated that these
elements contribute to creating certain, albeit perhaps ephemeral, groups, for whose members a
certain interpretation is more obvious than another. Any pragmatics-oriented linguistics must take into
account such differences and must find one ordering principle or another. Speech act theory, in
particular, having roots in common with or resembling the Wittgensteinian concept of language
games, has to take into consideration that not only do we participate in and contribute to different
speech situations, but several such situations necessarily remain beyond our reach; we are accustomed
to some and do not know the rules of plenty.

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6. Notes on the History of the category


The concept of interpretive communities has a long tradition and a broad context, however
strange it may sound after complaining about the lack of serious and thorough inquiries into the
concept itself. Either implicitly and naively, or in a refined theoretical manner, the concept shows up
in the sociology of reading, in traditional approaches to reception and influence as well as in empirical
literary studies, in Rezeptionssthetik or in other reader-centered versions of literary criticism. The
sociology of knowledge deals with the ways people (professional interpreters among them) interpret
their world (at least in some interpretations: see Hekman 1986); that is, this discipline is specifically
designed to study different interpretations and the corresponding (scholarly or other) communities.
As far as the tradition of the concept is concerned, Stanley Fish, in his celebrated work whereby
the concept itself gained much of its popularity, makes very few references. He invokes three names:
those of Jonathan Culler (and his concept of literary competence), Harvey Sacks (in connection with
the institutional nature of perception) and, without indicating any direct connection, T. S. Kuhn (and
his concept of paradigm). Let us glance first through these hints and see whether they in fact
constitute points of reference.
Culler's well known chapter on literary competence (1975) has much to do with the problem of
interpretive communities addressed by Fish. Not only does Culler urge "to think of literature as an
institution composed of a variety of interpretive operations", but he also calls the attention to "change
in modes of reading". Since, for Culler, "[t]he critic would not write unless he thought he had
something new to say about a text, yet he assumes that his reading is not a random and idiosyncratic
phenomenon" (124), there must exist something in common in these interpretations; hence, Culler's
argument in fact can be extended to imply a conjecture concerning groups of interpreters, or
communities of interpretation.
There has been, to be sure, quite a number of reactions on and criticisms of Culler's concept. To
quote just one, Lord (1981: 147) warns that
All we can be sure of is that literary competence theory lags so far behind its model as hardly to
constitute a theory at all. And in the meantime Generative Grammatical theory itself, for both
empirical and theoretical reasons, has undergone profound modification, which must leave any
metaphor borrowed from a relatively early version of it high and dry.
Culler himself has formulated some possible problems and expressed his own reservations
(122, n31), which, for Lord (ibid., 147, 148) amounts to a destruction of the whole argument.
However, I believe, one should not take Culler's analogy at face value; instaed, it may serve as
a useful metaphor, or at least an analogy which, though seemingly and in its terminology remains
within the constraints of generative grammar, reaches far beyond it and may be instructive in a
pragmatic approach to literature. It is the social acquisition of the literary communication what Culler
alludes to; no doubt, literary competence (if any) cannot be innate (as linguistic-grammatical
competence is for Chomsky). Hence, Culler's hypothesis refers to the fact that in most cultures most
people master the skill of recognizing a poem or a tale, and they know what it counts as and how to
react to it; and, of course, there must be more sophisticated and complex rules, some of which
certainly acquired only by an erudite minority, professionals. Again, what is at stake here is the
conventional and rule-governed nature of the literary communication, and perhaps the plurality of (the
knowledge of) these rules. And this may lead one to derive that there can be groups of people who
share some common principles or rules of literary communication.
Fish's reference to Harvey Sacks (1974) and ethnomethodology is, again, appropriate, although
very little effort has been made to study literary interpretation through an ethnomethodological
framework. As far as Kuhn is concerned, one may remember his famous passages (1962) about
scientific communities; it would have been much better if Fish had referred to this notion instead of
that of paradigm. The relation between Kuhnian paradigms and the interpretive communities seems to
be far more complex. The classical elaboration of the problem of interpretive communities is to be

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found in Kuhn's work; his scientific communities or the legitimating communities can be brought into
correspondence, roughly, with specific interpretive communities. For him, this community is, sensu
strictu, "a group of laymen and experts", but as far as its real operation is concerned, it is the
"majority of the society". Kuhn's idea has been taken over by many others; empirical literary studies,
for instance, would wish to describe the main principles and rules of the specific scientific
communities.
Let us go back to see what Stanley Fish has to say about our problem. He proposes that "the
meanings [the self] confers on texts are not its own but have their source in the interpretive
community (or communities) of which it is a function". These meanings, thus, "will always be social
or institutional" (335). Agreement, then,
"rather than being a proof of the stability of objects, is a testimony to the power of an
interpretive community to constitute the objects upon which its members (also and simultaneously
constituted) can then agree" (338).
Fish's idea of the interpretive communities, then, is in harmony with the contextualist
conception of meaning, inasmuch as it holds that meanings are not to be sought for "in the text itself"
but, rather, in the activity of their assignment and in the reader (or group of readers) who performs
this action. The identity and stability of the meaning is due to the identity and stability of these
groups, and to belong to such a group, in turn, consists in sharing the identity and stability of these
meanings. It also supposes that there is a sort of communication within the group, and its members
must somehow be aware that they are in the same group, that they in fact share certain interpretations.
As to the relationship between individual interpretation and community, Fish's formulation sounds
much more convincing than Bleich's: "it is interpretative communities, rather than either the text or
the reader, that produce meanings" (14). But it is not clear if an interpretive community corresponds
to one single interpretive strategy (or vice versa).

7. On the Foundation of Interpretive Communities


Samuel Weber accuses Fish, the most successful propagator of the term of interpretive
communities, of leaving the notion of interpretive communities just as unexplained and given as
Searle's distinction of regulative and constative rules, a distinction furiously debated by Fish himself
(Weber 1990: 54-55) In Weber's account, Fish's criticism of Searle's dichotomy of constitutive and
regulative rules ends in a desire "to reestablish the borders of language, to emplace it and
institutionalize it" (Weber 1990: 54-55), thus,
the notion of community of interpretation is no less equivocal, no less enigmatic, no less faulted
than that of constitutive rule: what it leaves unthought and indeed seeks to conjure away is quite
simply that "interpretation", like "community["], goes on, because they are steeped in language and
because language, as a medium of articulation, is never entirely unifiable or totalizable. The
interpretive community is subject to the same kinds of dislocation or incorporation as are Searle's
constitutive rules. If the community of interpretation is said to be the source and addressee of "its"
interpretations, it becomes itself utterly uninterpretable, indeterminate, an abstract name or claim of
the Will to Interpret, the Will to Power, the Will to Will. But the notion of community is meaningless
if it is not related to that which is not itself: both to other communities, and above all, to that which is
not a community. To attempt to define the community strictly in terms of itself, of what its members
have in common - shared sets of assumptions, etc., - is to condemn oneself to solipsism. By taking the
unifying moment of the community simply for granted, Fish's theory of the community of
interpretation amounts to little more than an attempt to titillate a startled profession with a
domesticated, communitarian version of the Will to Power. (Weber 1990: 54-55)
Speaking of communities, one has to ask: what is not a community? For Weber, the notion of
interpretive communities, if and when formulated in "immanentist terms", as, for instance, in Royce
(1913), inevitably leads to circularity. Since the community presupposes a loyalty on the part of its

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individual members, there must be a force which creates this loyalty itself, and this can be, for Royce,
conceived of only in terms of a magic grace, which constitutes, then, the origin of the community:
Only some miracle of grace (as it would seem) can initiate the new life, either in the individuals
who are to love communities, or in the communities that are to be worthy of their love. (Royce 1913:
130, quoted in Weber 1990: 56)
Royce then goes on to argue that such a step presupposes a sort of leader;
The founding "act" of the community is thus a "speech act", a "declaration", that proclaims the
reality of the community which it, literally, first "calls" into existence. Royce insists that "only the
voice of a living individual leader" can call the community of interpretation into being, but also, that it
can only do this insofar as it speaks in the name of another, whose absent spirit resounds in the voice
of the founder. The community can thus be called into being because it has always already existed in
spirit, in whose name the founder declares its reality. (Weber 1990: 56)
The founding of a community - whether of interpretation or other - can thus only be conceived
in regard to a transcendence, that is: to an exteriority that remains its innermost basis of "cohesion".
The gap between inner and outer is bridged by a voice speaking in terms of a name that in turn is
invoked to guarantee the unity of what is separate: Father and Son. That such separateness should
nevertheless be one is what makes an appeal to the theological dimension indispensable, in
hermeneutics no less than in social theory. That is why the community of interpretation, despite its
ostensibly secular character, must remain an ontotheological category, even and perhaps especially
where it shows itself incapable of thinking its origins as those of a transcendent speech act: speaking
in the name of another (one). (Weber 1990: 57)
Thus, in order to create an interpretive community, the presence of some transcendental power
is inevitable. Weber implies, then, that the fanatically anti-fundationalist Fish, once his line of thought
is followed up to its consequences, will land on the firmest fundament.
There is a great deal which should be taken seriously in Weber's criticism on Fish; in fact, most
of his charges may prove to be well-founded. But I strongly disagree with Weber's arguments against
Fish or Royce, though I admit that he is right.
In my view, the strictly logical ad absurdum argumentation which Weber uses can be
legitimately used against Fish, just as it could be turned against Wittgenstein's concept of "form of
life" as a foundation of agreement (what, Weber could ask, is the foundation of this "found of life"?);
for me, however, the question is what Weber is up to. What if he triumphs in demonstrating that no
community of interpretation is possible, that it is theoretically excluded that any such group could be
formed? Is it not itself a sort of query for foundations, a form of fundamentalism or substantialism?
Far from comparing Fish to Wittgenstein, one may pose the same question as Edwards does:
The question is: What sort of explanation of agreement do we expect? What sort of answer to
the question of authority will count as an answer? ... It is perfectly correct that human agreement agreement in judgments, not just in definitions (sec. 242 [in Philosophical Investigations]) - is
fundamental to authoritative discrimination between truth and falsity, but we forget that such
agreement, understood as voluntary human action, is not itself centered and primordial. It too depends
upon something else, what Wittgenstein calls here agreement in "form of life". Our agreement with
one another is not finally voluntary, or self-given; it is the natural result of a whole range of facts over
which we have no control, those "extremely general facts of nature" that constitute the "scene for our
language-game". It is agreement understood as a brute congruence, not as deliberate identity of
affirmation. Agreement there is, to be sure, and that agreement is, as the conventionalist maintains,
fundamental to any of our claims of authority; but pace the conventionalist, that agreement is
ultimately not to be explained by anything that can be represented, pictured, as a metaphysical center
from which everything else flows, like a god or a self or a constitutional convention of selves.
Congruence has no center from which it springs; it is coincidence of outline, nothing more. (Edwards
1990: 229, 230-231)

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

54

Weber, then, seems to use a sort of logic which is not in harmony with his own views. Is it
really fair to contrast Fish's notion of interpretive communities with that of Royce, referring to a
special case of interpretive communities, those of religion - that is, rather, to religious communities?
One may have serious doubts since the latter is dependent, in the first place, on the judgment of the
participants, on their self-determination and self-definition, whereas the interpretive communities Fish
seems to talk about is much more construed, as it were, from outside, by the very interpretation of
those outside the interpretive community. Moreover, it is very hard to find self-defining interpretive
communities in the field of literature (except some specific cases of literary or critical movements)
when an interpretive community strove for defining itself.

8. History
And there are other problems.
If intellectuals, men and women of letters can be called a group or community of interpretation
(which is, of course, subdivided into a number of smaller groups), then what constitutes such a group
is a question, clearly, of historical nature. For instance, at the birth of literary life in France, the main
organizing element was protectionism:
... protection functioned as the basic principle of literary life. Its presence everywhere in the
reports makes another phenomenon, the literary marketplace, look conspicuous by its absence
(Darnton 1984: 168).
The concept of the interpretive communities can be evoked with reference to their situation;
moreover (and consequently) to the history of this situation. If one decides to handle this notion not as
an abstraction, as a tool or guideline to help in analysis, but as something designing a concrete entity,
this step is more or less inevitable. Samuel Weber, for instance, formulates one of the problems of the
interpretive communities the following way:
If critics are worried today, it is because the "institution" or "community of interpretation" to
which Fish so strongly appeals is no longer simply a unified, undivided community, "within" which
the diversity of individual interpretations take (their) place. Rather, what bothers critics and what
renders literary studies often an inhospitable place to live and work, is the fact that there is no longer a
generally held "set of institutional assumptions", since all such sets have themselves become "the
objects of dispute". ... precisely the more interesting and profound controversies currently animating
and disrupting the "institution" of literary studies cannot be reduced to such shared assumptions; such
debates tend to put into question just what "communication" or "understanding" have traditionally
been held to mean (Weber 1984/1987: 36).
One of the key expressions here is "no longer" and another is perhaps "traditionally". Weber
contrasts here "today" with another stretch of time, left unspecified, where something was present that
is now declared to be missing from our times.
A historical opposition can, theoretically, have two forms, depending on the values attributed to
the two periods to be contrasted: either it may suggest a line of development, a progress which, in
turn, presupposes a certain aim (and thus, teleology); or it may imply a vision of decline, an elegiac
view of history. Although Weber does not seem to take any firm stance in this issue, as far as the
value of either period is concerned ("today" and the time passed), one is tempted to think that
interpretation was at that time somewhat less risky and more simple a business, and there was even a
hope for agreement or harmony. Weber's position, then, is closer to a nostalgic sigh of ubi sunt.
Blau, referring to Hanna Arendt's hommage to Walter Benjamin, poses the question:
How does the past adhere, whether as nightmare, illusion, or tradition? That determines the way
we think about community, or even whether we can think about it at all, since community is a
question of what is commonly remembered and adhered to, or thought of as better forgotten, or
forgotten however it is thought - which is the implication of our semiotics about the illusoriness of the
past, inseparable from the slippage of language. Arendt concedes the importance of language in this

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

55

respect but has her doubts about the extent of linguistic corrosion: "Any period to which its own past
has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of
language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for
all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence - that is, at the
bottom of the sea - for as long as we use the word 'politics'." The semioticians are absolutely right in
attacking language as the bulwark behind which the past hides. All problems are, in the final analysis,
linguistic problems, but the problem with the semioticians is that "they simply do not know the
implications of what they are saying" (intro., Illuminations 49) (Blau 1990: 21).
It is the vision of an original unity of the community, lost and regained, that informs Blau's
theory of (theatrical) audience; for him, by the mere fact of participating in the audience of the
performance (or, one could speculate, in the readership of the literary text), a sort of community is
formed.
The very nature of theater reminds us somehow of the original unity even as it implicates us in
the common experience of fracture, which produces both what is time-serving and divisive in theater
and what is self-serving and subversive in desire. (Blau 1990: 10)
And, later, he adds:
Today - returning to commerce if not fatuity - the spectacle has greater resources, since it is,
even beyond its technology, the consuming form that the commodity system takes, the definition of
our social space. It does with a dividend of alienation, far more efficiently, what the theater has
always done: it brings us together as alienated. (ibid., 124)
But if one thinks that it is not justified, or, at least, is somewhat suspicious, the only alternative
would be either a teleological position celebrating the status quo, or a complete refusal of the model. I
do not think that this problem could be solved here and now, if it can be solved at all; but one should
bear in mind that speaking of the historicity of interpretive communities, this dilemma must be faced.
Has there ever been one single community which, by now, is broken into pieces? Or have there
always been communities, in the plural? Will there ever be one single community? And do we want it
to be?
Returning now to the original question of the history of interpretive communities, one may ask:
what is in the background, or, better, within the causes of the emergence of the concept of interpretive
communities? Instead of sticking to the perspective of the history of the literary studies, one may wish
to turn to an important set of arguments provided by Lambropoulos (1993); clearly, this development
is not merely a move by the theorists of literature but expresses a deep concern about the institutions
of literature. In fact, as Lambropoulos writes, it is an offspring of a crisis: it compensates "for the loss
of the public cultural sphere", it creates a harmony ("bourgeois harmony," to be exact) and serves as a
remedy for the sense of guilt. It is in connection with "the disappearance of the general cultivated
public (and the emergence of the educated masses)"; in this field, what is left for the theorist and for
the artist (as well as for the conscious, educated receiver) is the text and its reading.
After the public covenant of interpretation collapsed, only the contract of "sitting around"
common texts, only the consensus of commentary and the standpoint of redemption can provide
mediation, a sense of order, the possibility of community - a "textual community" (Brian Stock). If
that is achieved, if people consent to study (as opposed to, say, demonstrate) together, then above this
community of interpreters descends the mystery of (no longer just shared but) interrelated texts, and
finally the one revealed text, the canonic book... (Lambropoulos 1993: 87-88)
The emergence of interpretive communities is in fact paralleled by that of the institution of
criticism in the Enlightenment, as a distinct and autonomous activity with a special function. The
function of the critical activity was, first of all, to constitute "a literary-bourgeois public sphere", and
The new community of interpreters was supposed to be constituted by faith in the individual,
the (self)creator, and the omnipotence of reason (Bromwich 1989). The institutions of criticism

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supporting the public function of art promulgated enlightenment of judgment as the civil Reformation.
(Lambropoulos 1993: 129-130)
The development of the concept or at least the sensitivity to the problem of interpretive
communities is in close connection with the Romantic idea of Volk, the "natural", "given" and
"unified" group of people, the foundation of the valid interpretation. Moreover, it had the political
message of anti-capitalism, an opposition of the fragmented, alienated, specialized and inhuman state
of the modern world. Thus, it blurs any "unnatural" boundaries, forced upon the society.
As an aesthetic concept, the folk represented an ideal community based on the primordial
identity of nature and culture, morality and creativity. "The concept of the folk expressed a political,
antimodernist desire for national harmony, because the idea was intended to overcome the
boundaries of class with the help of a utopian preview of an intact community [Gemeinschaft]
composed of a synthetic union of citizens, who could communicate with one another and understand
each other, not just superficially through the medium of the state but in an unmediated fashion
through the system of common language [Umgangsprache] [Manfred Frank] ... In the discourse of
Romanticism 'the people' or 'folk' is primarily a historical category; the concept refers to a time that
predated the 'fragmentation' brought on by modernization" [Schulte-Sasse]. (Lambropoulos 1993:
135-136]
For Lambropoulos, as of the eighteenth century, the emerging "independent community of
interpreters read in a secular manner", but
the civil liberation of interpretation, however, did not mean the loss of its theological heritage,
which was now refunctioned differently.
Thus, the concepts hitherto made use of "in alien realms of metaphysics, and especially
theology" found their way to the theory of arts, they were, as it were, imported, but not invented. (M.
H. Abrams, quoted in Lambropoulos 1993: 117).

9. The Limits of Interpretive Communities


Strangely enough, neither Fish nor Bleich seem to be too concerned about defining or
describing the borderlines of interpretive communities. Bleich (1978) is not detailed or explicit on this
point. He assumes, for instance, that a distinction can be made between the interpretive community of
the author and that of the reader (1978: 162). Then he goes on to say that "undergraduate English
majors in a university, people under twenty-two, United States citizens, and the like" could constitute
groupings within a community. Elsewhere he mentions "the authority of communal and societal
motives" as "expressed by almost all university curriculums" as opposed to "the minorities who have
different conceptions" (1978: 265). He takes every common knowledge (and, thus, every
conversation) as a ground for a new community (1978: 294, 296); but it is not quite clear if a
conversation necessarily leads to the establishment of a new community or just allows the possibility
of entering it. For Bleich, "isolation from a community" will make interpretation impossible (1978:
296). One must be careful here: interpretation without a community is impossible not because
interpretation must have a "negotiative value". It is impossible because any interpretation logically
presupposes an interpretive community, as far as it presupposes a language, a dialect, a culture, an
educational background, other texts. Moreover, the need of interpretation is imposed upon those
interpreting by a specific social environment; and, lastly, whether the act in question is taken as,
considered to be, an interpretation depends on the judgment of a community.
The first substantial attempt at drawing a map of interpretive communities might have been the
paragraphs in Schauber and Spolsky's book (1986). Although their definitions are in fact convincing,
the problem needs further clarification, since the example they offer is a very limited, specific
interpretive community (of those New York critics who wrote of one of Hemingway's novels in
1941). A wider spectrum of communities including, for instance, non-professional interpreters may
pose new questions.

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What sort of delimitations do we get if we turn to a famous locus classicus, that of Stanley
Fish? He does not even aim at articulating the notion of interpretive community. "Interpretive
strategies", "different points of view", and "systems of intelligibility" are mentioned, but, evidently,
this would not suffice.
But since there are more than one interpretive communities, it is unavoidable to try to give
account of their limits. To be sure, communities are what they are by virtue of their boundaries:
By definition, the boundary marks the beginning and end of a community. But why is such
marking necessary? The simple answer is that the boundary encapsulates the identity of the
community and, like the identity of an individual, is called into being by the exigencies of social
interaction. Communities are marked because communities interact in some way or other with entities
from which they are, or wish to be, distinguished... (Cohen 1985: 12)
Moreover, as Fish suggests, "There are subcommunities..., and within any community the
boundaries of the acceptable are continually being redrawn" (343). It therefore will not be satisfactory
to establish the interpretive communities themselves, it will also be necessary to inquire into their
inner structure, and to the "redrawing" procedure, that is, their historical changes.
Speculation about boundaries of interpretive communities will first naturally lead us to the
conclusion that since no interpretation is identical to another and since we have no given parameters
for the comparison of two interpretations, each single interpretation constitutes a community. The
question underlying this negativistic argument would be, If two interpretations differ, does it imply
that they belong to two, separate, interpretive communities? I do not think there is a theoretical
answer to this question; all we can do is to show that, in practice, references to interpretive
communities will work. I can agree with your interpretation, and, thus, form a community of some
sort with you; I may be convinced that I am in an interpretive community other than yours (either if
you are native speaker of English or a Hungarian blacksmith); and I can show you the similarities of
argumentations in two groups of critics. This "atomic" theory of interpretive communities is in
harmony with the conviction, formulated almost exclusively in a negative way, that we can say
absolutely anything we like; if no interpretation can be "better" and "worse" than any other, if they are
incommensurable, there is no way to exclude any of them. But in practice (again) we do not say just
anything. Our interpretations comply with some hidden or tacit norms, and even highly idiosyncratic
interpretations (see Holland's example of the Eskimo reading of "A Rose for Emily", in Fish 1980:
346-347) have the possibility of establishing a tradition. And, moreover, weird interpretations are
produced against the background of a "canon of acceptability", which, in turn, negatively determines
what you can say.
Much more important than this fruitless search of the minimum of an interpretive community is
to find the place where there must be a borderline between interpretive communities. A point like this
is language. If we take the connection between language and culture seriously, we have to say that
interpretations in different languages must represent different interpretive communities.
Another, very important cut seems to exist between professional reading and lay interpretation.
This latter group can be characterized, very roughly, by its lack of institutions, channels of articulating
interpretive strategies, conventions and value systems. From a professional point of view (and who on
earth would care about non-professional interpretive communities if not professionals?) it is a
complete mess, a jungle, where you may find some crocks of old interpretive traditions or skeletons of
interpretive strategies. For some professionals, the conceptions and conventions of lay interpretations
are simple-minded, primitive, superficial. However, these embody or express a certain attitude
towards texts, and are part of our culture; any of them may serve as a basis for a later interpretive
tradition just as it is itself part of a tradition.
What subcommunities are there within a "national" or a "professional/ignorant" community? In
some cases the answer is obvious. The "actual social existence" of professional communities could be
described (see Kermode 1983: 168-169, Fish 1985). Within a given professional community you will
find groups of all sorts of obsessions: Marxists and Catholics and Conservatives and

7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

58

Deconstructionists and Feminists. The laity, on the other hand, is not structured this way. (That is, it is
structured, but probably not this way.) Then there is the problem of being a member of a community.
Does a reader belong to a specific interpretive community, or is there only a relative stability?
Clearly, if one is a non-professional, one may become a professional, but not vica versa, and one
cannot be in both communities at the same time. However, one can be in more than one
subcommunity: one can adopt quite different interpretive strategies on different occasions. As
Brodkey writes,
It is important to remember that the Academy contains many communities ... And in principle
as well as practice, many in the academic community hold simultaneous memberships in a number of
these communities, not to mention in communities outside the academy. (Brodkey 1987: 7)
Or, elsewhere:
... academics usually know, or soon learn, the rules of several communities in the Academy
and, of course, know those of several others outside the Academy as well. Within the academic
community itself, however, are topics so specialized that only a few in the community actually read
and write on them. Indeed, as becomes increasingly evident in these essays and studies on academic
writers and written discourse, some of the controversy over interdisciplinary studies turns on whether
or not an individual sees the academic community as a single speech field, equally available to all
who read and write academic prose, or as many speech fields, in which case the academic community
would be a collectivity of speech fields, subject to the usual problems of prestige extant when more
than one "dialect" is spoken by a people. (18-19)
As to the professional/non-professional dimension, the borderline between them may be blurred
and, in some cultures, may be of secondary importance. In some societies, confronting public and
academic criticism, if intelligible, is hardly understandable. The layer or community roughly
corresponding to the American "public" layer may be extremely thin, if any. In any case, professional
interpreters are characterized by their ambition to strengthen the borderline between themselves and
those out of the guild, as well as by their eagerness to be familiar not only with as many interpretive
strategies as they can but also they know or pretend to know the practice of the lay - but not vice
versa, i. e., it is supposed that the lay will not know more than their own strategy, not to speak of that
of the professionals.

10. Inconclusion
Many questions remain and will be left open. The borderlines of the interpretive communities
can be drawn (if they can be drawn) only by concrete, empirical inquiries - it is a big question, though,
whether what we got as a result of these inquiries will correspond to the theoretical concept of the
interpretive communities. Moreover, an inquiry will necessarily use points of views, indeed, it cannot
help interpreting its data, having presuppositions and methods - that is, it will be an interpretive
community to judge what will count as an interpretive community. But is it not always the case? Is it
not the case that any boundary of any interpretive community is just a function of another interpretive
community interpreting it? Is this boundary given or, rather, created, constructed? And in what degree
is it created by the members of the interpretive community and in what extent is it made by those
surrounding, judging and interpreting the community?
As a closure, let me turn to the rather sceptic words of Alexander Nehamas, which I partly
share.
We still do not know what constitutes an interpretive community, what qualifies to be a
member of such a group, to how many such communities a single person can belong, how much
disagreement a community can tolerate without breaking down. It seems obvious that the answers to
these questions must be specific, historical, and institutional; we cannot expect a general theory of
how such groups are formed, maintained, and dissolved (1985: 85-86).

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7. Criticism in the system of interpretive communities

The demand of case by case empirical investigations is sound; but I think that without a
hypothesis or at least a faint idea of what we are aiming at these investigations will not surpass the
moor of boring empirical descriptions.

8. Interpretation and professionalism

60

8. Interpretation and professionalism


8.0. Preliminary Remarks
Those dealing with literary theory seldom deal with the theory of literature.
This grammatical difference may be too delicate to see its validity for the first glimpse. So let
us see the following sentences:
-- Those dealing with interpretation seldom deal with the interpretation.
-- Those dealing with growing pigeons seldom deal with the growing of pigeons.
The sentence referring to interpretation may be less true than that about the pigeon-growing.
When interpreting literary works, we often feel inevitable to reflect on our own activity, thus, we do,
in fact, frequently deal with the activity of the interpretation itself, we reflect upon what we are doing
when we interpret; the pigeon-grower, however, (at least that is how I imagine) is not really engaged
in dealing with the sense, limits, legitimacy or essence of his or her activity.
Even if it is true - although evidently it is not always true and not for each and any theoretician
of literature - that those dealing with literary theory seldom deal with the theory of literature,
substituting the term "interpretation" in this sentence the validity of this statement is somewhat more
dubious. To the act of interpretation - because of its tradition, but perhaps of several other reasons - a
self-reflection of this or that sort used to be associated. Of this or that sort, I said, because it is worth
examining what the extension and depth of this self-reflection is. What questions are asked by the
interpreters of literature themselves in connection with interpretation?
At least three dimensions of queries should be taken into account.
1. The problem of the object interpreted. What do we interpret? What is a text? What is
literature? What institution is the thing we interpret a part of? Do we give account of ourselves or of
the object? To interpret? What?
2. The problem of interpretation as a method, action, text. What are we allowed to do in our
interpretation? Until when is it an interpretation, from when is it an evaluation, misinterpretation,
when is it not-yet-interpretation (just description, understanding)? When are we faithful to the text
interpreted and is it a requirement to be faithful to it? To interpret? How?
3. The problem of the interpreting subject. What kind of consciousness is involved in the
encounter with the text? What is the status of the interpreter vis-a-vis the text? What emotions,
prejudices, presuppositions, knowledge and beliefs are in operation in the interpretation? To interpret?
Who?
This last bunch of questions is what is in the core of the following pages. This is a group of
questions which is usually kept unasked by the interpreters themselves, and they concern their own
institutional status. Although the institutions of literature has long been one of the favorite topics of
the theory, the questions concerning the theory itself as (part of the) institution are carefully avoided:
that is, what is missing from the present discourse is not the problem of the institution of
interpretation, but that of the community (community? society? mafia? camp? gang?) of the
interpreters, that of the interpreting subject as part of the system of institutions.
In the literature on the issues of society and literature, one often finds treatments of the
problems of professional interpretation and its social environment, of the moral responsibility of the
interpreter, of her or his involvement in political (and gender) problematic. Even a superficial view on
this literature may give the impression to the European (or perhaps non-American) reader that the
American approach is based on radically different issues than her or his own. The specialization (or
specialization to the extremes), the mass production of the universities, the multiplicity of the
competing trends of literary interpretation (fashions and outdating quickly, and, in this connection, the
questions of scholarly career) seem to be of vital importance there. And it is not a completely

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unbroken soil, since it has been a topic, in very different ways, of some representatives of aesthetics,
sociology or literary analysis. Just think of Lukcs or Adorno or even the debates about intellectuals
and intelligentsia in the sociological and political science literature which may be of some instruction
from the present special point of view.
Thus, it may be of some worth reflecting upon who the subject of the interpretation is, whether
we have something sensible to say about this subject and whether it makes at all sense to pose
questions concerning this subject. What I would like to do here is to formulate some of these
questions, though hardly will I reply them.

8.1. Methodological Considerations


8.1.1. Obstacles of Inquiries into the Problem of Professionalism
Earlier, there was a short list of the reasons why interpretive communities were not in the
foreground of the literary studies: it was speculated that the term was relatively new, that the
phenomenon had been described long ago by sociologists of literature, that a notion coming from a
different field of study raised suspicion, and that it seemed hopeless to handle such a blurred concept.
The same can be said of the concept of professions, and to these considerations one more can be
added. It well may be the case that, though the professionals are supposed to be and, in fact, are selfconscious, they reflect upon their own activity and even introduce this reflection to their discourse
itself, there is a tacit limit concerning the details they are willing to go into; it is not in their interest to
fully explore and then expose the motives and underlying principles of their activities. As Bourdieu
(1989: 27) writes,
I think that intellectuals have vested interests in relating intellectual products directly to social
positions. It is for them a manner of putting aside, or obfuscating, their specific interests as members
of a field. It is a manner of appearing uninvolved and neutral.
As I have mentioned, one of the special features of the interpretive community of the
professionals is to permanently create counter-communities within themselves; this is not, as
Bourdieu asserts, paralleled by a reflection upon own their own status, legitimacy and interests:
Thus intellectuals fight about everything, but there are things about which they do not fight:
unconsciously, there are limits to the struggles within the field, limits which are related to the fact that
they share a common interest in being intellectuals: 'ils ne veulent pas scrier la branche sur laquelle ils
sont assis'. But as soon as you show how their specific interest limits them, people say you are antiintellectualist. (Bourdieu 1989: 31)
Moreover, although it is not at all clear where the borderline between the "academic" and
"literary" fields should be drawn,
The literary field is, among all the fields of cultural production, one of the least
institutionalized. The academic field is much more institutionalized than the literary field (Bourdieu
1989: 36).
Thus, whether a certain activity belongs to the academic or rather to the literary field may be
always subject to discussion, and it is always a question whether what one attempts at describing is in
fact part of the field of literature.

8.1.2. Some Approaches to Literary Professionalism


In most books and publications under the head of professionalism, one finds treatises on the
"three exemplary professions ... the physician, the lawyer, and the teacher (or professor)." Although
the latter could sometimes be related to our field of interest, literature, the fact is that there is not been
too much said about the professional actors of this area. It is a question to be considered later why this
happens to be the case.

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8. Interpretation and professionalism

There are some exceptions. Curiously enough, the research on the professionalization of the
writer (and, to be sure, the development of the institutions of the literary marketplace) have long been
topics in the historical sociology of literature (though not, or rarely, of the synchronic approaches). To
name just two of the recent publications, one could mention the excellent investigation report of
Robert Darnton (1984), on the files of the Paris police inspector Joseph d'Hmery, who shadowed the
intellectuals and literary figures of Paris between 1748 and 1753; relying on his data, Darnton draws
very interesting conclusions about the social, economic and cultural status of these early
professionals. Another important work in a similar vein is the book of Alain Viala (1985), and, earlier,
there has been a valuable work done in the field of the American history of literary professionalization
by Charvat (1968).19
Although our interest here is professional interpretation, and not professional writing, and,
moreover, the structure and nature, of professionalism in literary interpretation, it is worth mentioning
that inquiries into the profession of writing literature and to the history of this profession might be
relevant in this context. Charvat, for instance, points out that it was not earlier than the 19th century
that producing literary texts became a profession of its own right:
The profession of authorship in the United States began in the 1820's when Washington Irving
and James Fenimore Cooper discovered that they could turn out regularly books which readers were
willing to buy regularly. In England authorship had become a profession earlier, sometime between
1805 and 1820, when a few astute and daring publishers of London and Edinburgh had found that the
poetry and fiction of Byron, Scott, and some of their contemporaries constituted valuable commercial
property. (Charvat 1968c: 29)
Elsewhere, he names another aspect of the process of the emergence of professionalism in
literature, viz. the author's proper name on the title page:
[Joel Barlow's] willingness to put his name on the title pages of his books, instead of resorting
to the traditional anonymity of the gentleman author, and his early and unique determination to make
literary work a way of life - independent of any established professions - were sure signs that he did
not share all the patrician conceptions of the status and function of the writer. (Charvat 1968b: 10)
This step, however, will not, in itself, establish the professional status of the author. It must be
accepted as such, it must be acknowledged by a readership and legitimized by a literary and social
system. As Charvat comments,
As a professional poet he [Joel Barlow] had failed because social conditions and the book trade
were not ready for him. (Charvat 1968b: 11)
But, he adds, maybe it was because of "the quality of his work - in his lack of some great
private source of creative power" (ibid.). Appreciation of originality, creativity, novelty, however, is
again a question of the literary system which may or may not foster these values. Consequently,
qualities of the text (as perceived by the contemporary participants of the literary system) and the
position of the text in the system as well as the roles created by the system are very closely
interconnected. It is impossible to assume a novel role, however deliberately and forcefully one
aspires to do so, if the participants of the system fail to assign her or him that very role (for instance,
in lack of some quality in another participant, i. e., the text).20

19

An overview of the professional writer in seventeenth century England, the conditions, social and cultural
circumstances of the emerging literary profession is Miller (1959).
20

"Whether poetry of any quality is popular at all in a given society depends on the status of poetry in that
society, and upon the media available for its distribution. The Elizabethan, says the historian of the literary
profession in that period, loved poetry but despised the poet who was in any way dependent on his craft.
Probably the same can be said of Balow's period. In the years 1780-1810 the status of poetry was high. It was an
accepted form of political, religious, moral, and satirical discourse. College students were required to write it
regularly, and they vied for the honor of producing commencement poems, which they almost invariably

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8. Interpretation and professionalism

And there is another trail of inquiry. Long before Bourdieu's important work, Logan Wilson
(1942/1976) mapped the whole American university structure and infrastructure in order to situate the
professional in that system. Wilson offers a great amount of deep insights into the operation of that
system, and many of his statements and speculations and intuitions must be of great help in describing
the specific professional within the field of literary studies.
Wilson's (and many other's) work, describing the institutional conditions of being a
professional, the institutions of the professionals, the rules and ethics of professionalism as it appears
within the framework of established institutions, is a hard pursuit and has a pretty long tradition. The
starting point is to take certain sanctioned and/or official positions, jobs, functions and their
environments and the to examine the role (motives, rewards, sanctions, practices and aims) of the
actors corresponding them. It is a very fruitful and promising starting point, but it is - historically as
well as synchronically - no more than that.
It must be noted, for instance, that this group, and perhaps a number of other professional
groups, can be contrasted with the "archetypical" groups of professionals, those of the doctors,
lawyers, managers, and the like. Although with the emergence of "natural medicine" and related Far
Eastern and exotic healing practices the traditional concept of professional medicine is being shaken,
if not dissolved, it is still very clear in most European cultures that a doctor must have a special
training made in special (and well described) schools, and that she or he must be part of certain
institutions (a hospital, a clinic, a university) and must be registered in a special list of the
professionals. The same applies to the lawyers, and even an electrician is supposed to have the proper
training and practice, if you do not expect a relatively cheap but unreliable and perhaps dangerous
service. Moreover, these professionals are supposed to live exclusively on their profession. In the case
of the professionals in literature, however, it is doubtful if such rules can be formulated; it might be
very misleading if one tried to bind this (or rather: these) profession(s) to a specific institution (in the
sense that a medical school, a law school or a hospital and a lawyer's office are institutions). And, to
be sure, not at all every literary professional lives by his pen.
Not only in the advent of professional writers was it a problem "how to name them"; there are
always legendary writers who refuse to take part in the accepted and traditional course of events
which allegedly characterize any writer of good standing, they may even decide to publish almost
nothing, there are always provocative gestures challenging the established setting of the literary field.
(And there may be others who comply with each and every rule of the field and are still not regarded,
by many, as writers - though it may be objected that sociologically or professionally they are in fact
writers, even if their - literary, aesthetic - stance is doubtful.) There are, to be sure, institutions which
may (or even must) be taken into account: Academies (in the Renaissance tradition, that is, groups of
creative artists), unions, associations, registers of publishing houses and literary magazines, and the
like. In a historical study, all these are inevitable and precious documents. But they are far not enough
to establish the position of a professional writer within the literary field of an age. As Darnton
remarks, for instance, even though
The dignity of men of letters and the sanctity of their calling had already emerged as a leitmotiv
in the works of the philosophes, but no such theme can be found in d'Hmery's reports. Although the
police recognized a writer when they saw one and sorted him out from other Frenchmen by giving
him a place in Hmery's files, they did not speak of him as if he had a profession or a distinct position
in society. He might be a gentleman, a priest, a lawyer, or a lackey. But he did not possess a quality
or condition that set him apart from nonwriters. (1984: 172)
Writing, then, was not a full-fledged profession for a long time; and the very fact that the
emerging profession received a strict secret police control indicates that it has not been the

published afterward. .... Perhaps because poetic form and language at the end of the eighteenth century was
completely standardized - a shell into which any literate person could pour his thoughts - few persons would pay
for contemporary verse. Editors would not. Publishers would not." (Charvat 1968b: 11-12)

8. Interpretation and professionalism

64

paradigmatic case of institutionalization, to say the least; rather, these people were regarded as risky,
ungraspably suspicious figures.
And later, even today, the continuing challenge of the rigid institutions is a characteristic of the
literary life itself - or one could say, it belongs to the very nature of the intelligentsia, literary or other.
It could be argued that the professional critic or interpreter or treacher of literature is different in many
respects, and this is certainly so; but the case of the critics is even more complicated.
It is striking, for instance, that most American studies concentrate on the education,
professional training and academic affiliation of the people in the group one might call "literary
professionals". It is evident, however, that no training in itself is enough to establish one's career as a
professional critic; it may be enough to enhance for her or him to get a university position,
There is, again, always a possible approach relying on the very texts professionals produce.
This sort of path is followed, for instance, not only by the good old stylistic approaches to the features
of "essay" or "study" or "teratise", but by more recent inquiries into "Academic Writing as a Social
Practice" (Brodkey 1987). For this view, "academic" writers are parts of a community just as poets are
(3), and they comply with certain rules of a "conversation" (among themselves and with their
audience) (4). It is required, then, to describe this specific system of rules, in terms of culture and
community:
I find it useful to treat culture and community as contingent terms of analysis. I use the term
culture when referring to what the members of a group know, or could learn, about language
conventions. This kind of cultural knowledge would of course include the psychological as well as
social information that is frequently compiled by rhetorics and style manuals. I reserve the term
community, however, to speak of cultural practices, in this instance to talk about what academic
writers and readers do with their knowledge. In this book, Academy is seen as a culture and the
academic community as a specific group within that culture whose members organize their
professional lives around reading, writing, and publishing academic prose. (Brodkey 1987: 7)

8.1.3. Notes on Institutions


But what should that mysterious jolly joker word, institution, mean? It seems that in a number
of its uses, it refers I to something reified, objectified "thing"; the term is too frequently employed in
this meaning. Or, to be more exact (although the great variety of meanings assigned to this word is
impossible to map here), the word "institution" is used in two senses in most of the literature I have
run through: (1) for the educational system, universities, publishing houses, etc. (cf., e.g. Goldstein
1990: 9-10), referring to an already formed, clear-cut, maybe changing object; one is always tempted
to think of buildings, administrators and paper-work. Or (2) as a decorative word (for instance,
Goldstein 1990: 28: "institutional critique of established approaches", meaning a critique which is
directed against certain approaches having a firm institutional background in the universities, etc.).
Is institution a dangerous word? Well, words are never dangerous; but they may well disorient
the attention, hide what should be exposed. This word, as Bourdieu argues, may serve to draw a static,
fixed image of a dynamic process, to formulate the change in terms of a nature morte. The process of
instituting an institution is thus described, at most, as a smooth substitution of one institution with
another:
After Manet, everybody has the possibility of opening in a little shop and organizing an
exhibition in the Quartier Latin. So, 'anomie', in the sense of the time, becomes institutionalized. But
using the concept of institution, however, you miss that and you are thus in danger of overlooking one
and the most distinctive properties of the fields of art, literature, science, and so on. (Bourdieu 1989:
36)
Similarly, Weber quotes Lourau (1970: 137), the word "institution"
has been increasingly used to designate what I and others before me have called the instituted
(l'institu), the established order, the already existing norms, the state of fact thereby being

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confounded with the state of right (l'tat de droit). By contrast, the instituting aspect (l'instituant) ...
has been increasingly obscured. The political implication of the sociological theories appears clearly
here. By emptying the concept of institution of one of its primordial components (that of instituting, in
the sense of founding, creating, breaking with an old order and creating a new one), sociology has
finally come to identify the institution with the status quo. (Weber 1987: xv)
All this may seem to be too obscure, even a bit schngeistlich; what on earth are we supposed
to do if we want to describe a socially sanctioned state of affairs which came into existence by
legislation or strong traditions and customs? Is there an alternative? Godzich, for one, suggests that
there is:
We tend to think of institutions as apparatuses, that is, as constituted bodies with their internal
procedures and delimited field of intervention. But an institution is first and foremost a guiding idea,
the idea of some determined goal to be reached for the common weal; it is this goal that is sought
according to prescribed behavior and by the application of set procedures. The idea itself is adopted
by a group of individuals who become its public possessors and implementers. This group then
becomes the institution as a result of the combining of the guiding idea with the set of procedures. The
members of the group are shaped by the guiding idea they seek to implement and the procedures they
apply; they adopt common behavior, develop similar attitudes, all of which tend to unify them into a
determinate and identifiable group and give the institution its distinct unity. (Godzich 1987: 156)
Accordingly, social movements, aspirations and ideas of certain groups, and the very concrete
and specific steps taken by the people within the group, their not-yet-sanctioned forms of behavior,
will be prior to any institution which then may provide them legitimacy.
An institution, then, is a social crucible, and it may be something as traditional as a church or as
contemporary as a mode of watching television. The role of the guiding idea is all important,
however, for without it we have forms of social behavior like all others rather than an institution. The
guiding idea is precisely what seeks to avoid the blind path taking that so interested de Man in the
arrival at insight. In short, the insightful path is turned into a beaten one, with the subsequent
development procedures within and by the institution being akin to road improvement. The
trailblazing, or, in Sam Weber's terminology, the instituting, becomes a moment of odd standing in
the now constituted institution. Its necessity is acknowledged, for without it the institution would not
exist, but it no longer really matters except insofar as the marking out of the line that brought point of
departure and point of arrival together is concerned. In other words, the instituting moment, which
endows the entire institution with signification and meaning, is held within the institution as both
proper to it and yet alien: it is its other, valued to be sure yet curiously irrelevant to immediate
concerns. (Godzich 1987: 156)
Such a conception of institution, then, will not ignore a number of elements some of which fall
outside the traditional concept of institution. It is in this sense that, for instance, Jacques Dubois
employs the term: for him, the three strata of institualization of literature comprises the great modes of
organization, the system of norms and values, providing the socialization of the individual, and the
power (state power, notably) corresponding to what is privileged as an institution (1978: 32-34). This
stratification may be refined, denied, or modified, but certainly it is this sense of institution which
offers a deeper insight into the field of literature.
And, one might add, just as Fish has said thet we are never in no-situation, we are never outside
the institutions, and we always have to judge them as seen from an institutional environment. As
Spivak puts it, she learned from Foucault that
I don't think there is a noninstitutional environment. I think the institution, whichever institution
you are isolating for the moment, does not exist in isolation, so that what you actually are obliged to
look at is more and more framing. (Spivak 1984/1990: 158)

8. Interpretation and professionalism

66

Or, to quote another formulation,


But history and its institutions are not just something we study, they're also something we live,
and live through. And how effective and how durable our interventions in contemporary cultural
politics will be depends upon our ability to mobilize the institutions that buttress and reproduce that
culture. The choice is not between institutions and no institutions. The choice is always: What kind of
institutions shall there be? Fearing that our strategies will become institutions, we could seclude
ourselves from the real world and keep our hands clean, free from the taint of history. But that is to
pay obeisance to the status quo, to the entrenched arsenal of sexual and racial authority, to say that
they shouldn't change, become something other, and, let's hope, better than they are now. (Gates
1990b/1992: 34-35)

8.1.4. To the History of Professionalism


Professionalism is, of course, a historical category. No professionalism can exist without
established institutions (whatever it may mean) which determine its existence and even render it
possible. This is not at all new: as early as in 191??, Edward Sapir wrote,
... there would be no such individual as a musician except in so far as there are such groups as
conservatories, historically determined lines of musicians and musical critics, dancing, singing and
playing associations of varying degrees of formal organization and many other types of groups whose
prior definition is needed to make the term musician actual.
This would suggest, as the example of Charvat, Viala and Darnton shows, that there are quite a
number of interesting questions concerning the development of this category (and, to be sure, the
system of literary institutions which is a prerequisite of the unfolding of the literary professional). The
close interconnection, or, rather, mutual dependence of institutions and professionals is evident; for
instance, Talcott Parsons has also speculated that
The professional type is the institutional framework in which many of our most important
social functions are carried on, notably the pursuit of science and liberal learning and its practical
application in medicine, technology, law and teaching. This depends on an institutional structure of
maintenance of which is not an automatic consequence of belief in the importance of the functions as
such, but involves a complex balance of diverse social forces. (Talcott Parsons, "The Professions and
Social Structure," Essays in Sociological Theory (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1949), 199.
characterized: 1. "the systematic codification of a body of knowledge held to be relatively
autonomous and self-contained"; 2. this knowledge "is held to have universal validity within the
confines of the specific field", and 3. professionalism claims to be disinterested, reflecting and
fulfilling social, rather than material or economic needs (Weber 1990: 45). These points, for Weber,
help in illuminating the special position attributed to the human intelligentsia ("the professors", in
Weber's text), since
The professor has never been considered a full-fledged professional, not because of an excess
of (private) interest, but rather because of a lack of public interest. (Weber 1990: 46)

8.1.5. Professional Operations


Now what exactly are the ways the guild of professional interpreters of literature, critics for
short, work? Instead of giving a detailed and systematic account, just let me list some of the features.
First of all, what a professional does with a literary text always a prestigious activity, as
contrasted with those of the lay. Criticism may have a prestigious meaning.
As I tried to show in Chapter 2, the words "criticism" as well as "interpretation" carry some
prestige; it might be said that in some cultures these are activities (or texts) demanding (or
embodying) a certain skill and expertise. In the discourses where they are contrasted to "description",
for instance, they receive a much higher prestige. It is this prestige which, for Olsen, some writers

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8. Interpretation and professionalism

would wish to attain, even if what they produce differ significantly from the accepted idea of
criticism:
by calling this new concept 'criticism', its proponents attempt to secure it the sort of role and
prestige which the familiar concept has, though it has a completely different content and a different
function from the familiar concept. (Olsen 1992: 88)
Now this behavior, whether Olsen's evaluation is correct or whatever one thinks about it, is a
typical professional move. Partly, at least, what counts as a product of the professional group will be
decided by the group itself; it is criticism, if the group succeeds in convincing its consumers that what
is offered is a piece of criticism proper. As Messer-Dawidow comments,
In The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis, Magali Sarfatti Larson points out that
professions have become special, valued, and monopolistic occupations because professionals can
control their ideologies, training, and markets. They gain professional autonomy because they are
"allowed to define the very standards by which [their] superior competence is judged." (1988: 70)
On the other hand, as I have argued both in Chapter 2 (in connection with historical
experiences, and the like. It may be speculated that these contribute to form certain, albeit perhaps
ephemeral, groups, the members of which a certain interpretation is more obvious than another. Any
pragmatics oriented linguistics must take into account such differences and must find an ordering
principle or another. Speech act theory, in particular, with its roots common with, or resembling to,
the Wittgensteinian concept of language games, is to take into consideration that not only do we
participate in and contribute to different speech situations, but several of such situations necessarily
remain out of our reach; we are accustomed to some and do not know the rules of plenty.

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

68

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons


9.0. Introduction
In this section, I would like to put the following questions: 1. What is a canon? (What is the
common vision of the canon? How is it characterized by some recent contributions to the theory of
literature? What are the common elements of this characterization?) 2. Is this description satisfactory?
How can it be challenged? How can it be amended? 3. Is there a canon at all? What are the arguments
of those stating that no canon exists? What does it mean to say that there are no canons? That it has
never existed? That it does not exist any more? That it should not exist? 4. What does it mean to state
that the strength of canon-building is fading, or that the canon is on the way of decline? 5. And again,
What is a canon? Does it have a character of the parole or else that of the langue?
What is all this fuss about canons, canonicity, canonicalness?
While the most fundamental issues of the very concept of the canon remain unexplained and
even unasked (deliberately, one may suspect), there is an ever growing interest in, and, accordingly,
output of scholarly works investigating into, the nature and history of the phenomenon called the
canon together with its (are they really "its"?) political implications. This trend would deserve, in
itself, some attention; and it is worth studying all the more that the controversial concept of canon is at
stake, which, one hopes, may receive a bit more illumination through these debates.
In what follows, two relatively simple points will be made. First, that there are several sorts of
approaches to, and descriptions of, the canon, ranging from dispassionate accounts of canon-as-a-text
or canon-as-a-language to the militant engagement in the canonical war; and, second, that it is
doubtful whether there is such a single thing as the canon, whether canon is in the singular. Though
no particular novelty may there be in these arguments, put together, they may lead us to a somewhat
more fruitful mess than we are enjoying now.

9.1. Canon: "Texts" or "Langue"


A fairly common view of the canon is that it is a set or body of carefully selected texts, and that
a main challenge for those analyzing the (concept of the) canon should then be to explore what these
texts are, and how this set came (or is coming) into being. Furthermore, the causes how this given set
evolved may be sought, it can be asked what common features are to be found in these texts - that is,
their contents, origin and structure may be a subject of inquiry, but it is still always supposed that the
thing in question is one particular thing (or one particular circle of things), and, on the other hand,
that what is in question is things, products, text-objects. According to the conceptions centered around
the outstanding Great Works, the canon is made of readymade products, a collection of samples, a
sum of respectable texts which count as cornerstones of our culture and our tradition.
Canon is, of course, a limited body of literary texts; but does it mean that any limited body of
literary texts amounts to a canon? Ranging from the exclusive group of carefully selected texts to
several wider circles, the width depending on the generosity of the conception (and, of course, of the
interpretive community behind it), there has been quite a number of attempts at delimiting the
extension of the canon. One could label this conception of the canon as the "canon-as-texts" vision;
for the scholar working on these tracks, it is quite satisfactory to realize what texts are exactly
comprised in a given canon, that is, what are the privileged and distinguished texts of a period, then
look for proofs for this intuition, and end in a list of works calling it the canon of this or that era or
this or that society, stratum, group, etc. It would not be fair to dismiss this line of inquiry too quickly.
It belongs to a certain Positivistic pattern of thought, insofar as it seeks data, orders them and then
draws, in a very strict logical framework, conclusions; meanwhile, it restricts itself to a controlled
body of evidence, without referring to anything outside them. This is a methodology which may and
in fact did have results interesting from any other, even anti-Positivistic, point of view. To say, as the
arrier-garde of the trend used to, that it is a prerequisite for any other inquiry is, of course, misleading
since it presupposes a stage of study when no preconceptions, prejudices, ideologies, theories, even

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concepts are involved; but it may be acknowledged that a mapping of what has been regarded as a
canon or what is regarded as having been regarded as a canon may furnish raw material to analyze
further; at least, what one can learn from these reviews is a vision of the canon as produced by a
professional, that is, a contribution to the analysis of her or his view of literature.
However, this is not a conception to be taken into consideration too seriously; and not because
it is flawed or outdated but because it is not a notion really widely held, in its pure form. Even the
most conservative, scholastic formulations refer to something outside the texts in question, in fact,
transcending them: tradition, value, ethics, aesthetic quality, and the like, and these amount, may one
like these expressions or not, to a reference to a certain rule beyond the objects. It is, to say the least,
extremely difficult to differentiate between "textual" and "linguistic" conceptions; or, to put it more
sharply, "textual" delimitations imply (very often explicitly) a rule governing the selection of the
texts.
Thus, the other main conception (if it is really "other"), the "canon-as-language" view of the
canon. It is, perhaps, not less problematic than the one treated above, just one has to face different
questions. It may be supposed that it is the nature of story which organizes, governs or conceives the
canon: thus, for Kenner,
... a canon is not a list but a narrative of some intricacy, depending on places and times and
opportunities. Any list - a mere curriculum - is shorthand for that. (Kenner 1984: 373)
He then confers that any absence from the canon can be explained by the "story" organizing the
canon.
This is a highly inspiring and fruitful conception, but maybe one could say something more
general; for instance, it can perhaps be argued that the nature of the canon is that of the langue; it
embodies or manifests some common knowledge. Let us further suppose that there exists something
which Culler and others call "literary competence" - a sort of knowledge enabling the speaker, the
"native speaker" of a culture, to recognize and repute literary texts as such. Is it not possible to state,
then, that the canon, a selected set of the great works, is part of this knowledge, and if this knowledge
corresponds to the linguistic langue, then canon must be part of the literary langue - even if its
position in the hierarchy is not on the same level as that of conventions, rules of genre, linguistic and
other rules, since it is a kind of set of examples, a paradigm, and not the condition of the production?
If it is so, then the canon does not belong to the sphere of realisation or phenomena, but rather
to that of the system: in this respect, it is part of the langue. As far as this is the case, we cannot do
without a canon. It also belongs to that field inasmuch as its change is not a consequence of some
autonomous movement, but rather of external influences coming outside of the field of literature.
There may be arguments for this conception. It is clear, for instance, that a child knows quite a
lot about how a tale or a well-formed story should look like even before she or he has appropriated a
considerable amount of texts: the very structure and language of the genre is acquired at a very early
stage of literary socialisation.21
As is well known, there have been, since the Russian Formalists, attempts at matching the
textual and rule conceptions of the canon. In the interpretation of a recent follower of this trend,
Itamar Even-Zohar, canonized meant for Shklovskij those literary norms and works (i.e., both models
and texts) which are accepted as legitimate by the dominant circles within a culture and whose
conspicuous products are preserved by the community to become part of its historical heritage. (1990:
15)
There has been reservations about Shklovskij's distinction of canonized and non-canonized (see
Steiner 19..: 56-57), and perhaps Tynjanov's solution which allows a greater role for extra-artistic
21

Perhaps it is not entirely justified to call such a kind of knowledge "canonical" but, as Bruner writes,"Fouryears-olds may not know much about the culture, but they know what's canonical and are eager to provide a tale
to account for what is not." (Bruner 1990: 82-83)

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phenomena is more plausible (ibid., 57); it seems, then, that one of the fundamental questions is how
far non-literature is "allowed to enter" the sphere of literature: if we take into account only the rjads of
literature, literary systems, then the problems of the canon change will remain unsolved. Shklovskij
hesitates to accept this version, for him, the sphere of art and that of everyday life [byt] is forever and
impassibly separated.
However, it may be argued that the Russian Formalists' approach opens the way for a
functional, systemic (rather than structural) view of the canon, since
Canonicity is thus no inherent feature of textual activities on any level: it is no euphemism for
"good" versus "bad" literature. The fact that certain features tend, in certain periods, to cluster around
certain statuses does not mean that these features are "essentially" pertinent to some status. (EvenZohar 1979/1990: 15)
Above and besides conceptions of the textual or linguistic nature of the canon, there may be yet
another one which would hold that what is in fact canonical is the theory itself. It can be taken as a
(perhaps, extreme) form of canon-as-language conceptions: instead of relying on the (supposed)
underlying common properties of the texts in question, it refers, instead, to their reception. In a weak
sense, this is quite evident: there are theories which are more established, are accepted in a given
period as the valid (perhaps the only valid) approaches to works.22 In a more general sense, one could
say that it is an entrenched or even institutionalized variety of the interpretation which is canonical;
what changes is a certain set of interpretive assumptions and, along with this change or perhaps as a
consequence of it, there is a also change in the texts picked out as valuable, as apt subjects of analysis
or education.23
Here we turn back to what has been said of the canon-as-texts conception: already the selection
of texts worth studying, the body of literature to be interpreted is a result of (explicit or implicit) rules,
theoretical considerations, value preferences which, in turn, can be described as a system beyond or
within the objects - which are, then, are not objects-in-themselves any more but products of the
subjectivity, formed and preformed by an interpretation.
And there are some other conceptions: besides the use of the word canon which designates a
more or less well defined set of the Great Books or some hidden literary system of rules of these texts,
there are other uses of the word situating it, rather, into the field of concepts of rule, prescription,
sample, example. It is in this sense that the word canon is sometimes used, for instance, in the
hermeneutics; Emilio Betti (1992: 8), to take an example, calls the "criteria and guidelines to be
followed" canons.
These different views must warn us that the Russian Formalists' concept of canon, with its
quasi-langue nature, is, in fact, a strange mixture composed partly by the two conceptions referred to
above - which include system of rules, literary and interpretive rules -, and partly by the conception of
canon as a venerable set of sacred texts which should be a legacy to be preserved and bequeathed.
Thus, in Shklovskij's and Co.'s conception texts and systems of rules are intermingled - but it is not at
all certain that this would be problematic (at least in itself), one may even give a rational and
defendable explanation to this idea.
But is the concept of canon-as-a-langue, in the sense of compatible with the original concept of
the canon?
22

Lambropoulos argues that Auerbach's Mimesis "By adopting the worldview and reenacting in an intensely
dramatic fashion the method of its model, ... attempts to achieve the same canonical status in the field of literary
studies." (Lambropoulos 1993: 7-8)

23

A similar view is implied by Lotman's typology of the possible situations of authors and readers (Lotman
1973b [1970]: 54-55). As another approach, see Lauter's remark: "As New Critical methodology became
academic orthodoxy, the question of which texts were worthy of interpretation - that is, the question of the
canon - receded ever further towards the margins of legitimacy and the virtues of irony, complexity and tension
emerged as gospel." (Lauter 1991: 137)

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Linguists have long ago established that during language acquisition it is not words and even
less sentences what one learns but rules - partly full-blood grammatical rules and partly rules of the
use, i.e., pragmatic rules. One does have, of course, to know the words but it is not the knowledge of
the words which amounts to the knowledge of a language. In the sense of the foregoing, canon can
hardly, if at all, be connected to the Saussurean concept of langue, since diachrony, which Saussure
aimed at excluding, will necessarily leak back. Moreover, if the concepts of canon treated above are
produced by the desire to grasp in a synchronic section the knowledge of what great works or what literary competence is the prerequisite of the participation in the literary system of a given age, then it is
evident that the system will really uncover its peculiarities when shifted, displaced: the changes of the
canon (in whatever sense one takes it) will be highly informative.
If the canon were part of the langue, then to the literary competence a knowledge of this canon
would indispensably belong, and then, metaphorically speaking, one could not speak the language of
literature not only unless one knows the system of rules but also without a knowledge of this sample,
this body of examples. But then we have to face quite a number of other problems. Is this langue
homogeneous? Is there a homogeneity of language at all or there is always a heterogeneity, dialects, a
loose aggregate of more or less different language games?
Nowadays it is almost natural to reply immediately, yes, to hypostatize a unified and eternal
canon is but an illusion. Thus, we arrive to the banal and foreseeable generality that there are more
canons in the sense of langue; and here is one of the reasons why many do not believe in canons at all.
When do we say that two languages are identical? Can to speakers of two languages understand each
other? If so, are these two languages different at all, are they not identical? Is it not the cornerstone of
the definition of language? Does each and every language assume another "literary competence" of its
own? If so, is canon or the knowledge of canon part of it? As many canons, as many languages? Or
more? Less? Is the canon productive in the sense that it is able, possibly without difficulties and
without a sensible transformation of the canon, to incorporate into the "current" canon new works or
old works which has hitherto been regarded as non-canonical?
In sum, although the langue conception of the canon seems to be more appropriate for a
description of the phenomena in question than the text conception, it does not give account of (and
perhaps it does not even have the aim of describing) the changes of the canon and its place in the
literary system. One may wish to turn, instead, to more ambitious and more comprehensive
conceptions (which are, of course, not necessarily "better" but have a different object).

9.2. Canon: Functional Approaches


The "canon-as-a-langue" conception is sometimes formed as against the conception of canon as
a list of texts canonical in their own right. What is opposed, then, is the idea that a text could be
canonical by its own inner quality. Speaking of Josiah's act of canonization (2 Kings 22: 8 - 23: 3),
Bruns points out the performative aspect of this act:
[Josiah's] recognition is the decisive thing. Naturally we would like to know what it is in the
text that causes Josiah to respond so decisively ... but, strictly speaking, it does not matter. The power
of the text is not intrinsic to it. On the contrary, the text draws its power from the situation in which it
makes its unexpected appearance, because this is a situation which belongs to a definite history and
which is structured by this history to receive just this text as it will no other. This is a text which
(whatever it says) speaks to the situation at hand. (Bruns 1984: 68-69)
This will suggest, then, another possible conception which deviates from the (Structuralist)
vision of langue/parole distinction: canon is neither a set of elements, nor an abstract system, but a
product of conventionalized acts whereas canon-formation is a performance24 of an act with a special
24

The emphasis on the performative nature on the canon formation is perhaps grounded on the pretty current
(mis)interpretation of Austin which holds that what constitutes the theory of speech acts is the distinction
between performatives and constatives, instead of Austin's suggestion that that this dichotomy is doomed to

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force. It is worth quoting what Bruns has got to say about this act: there we can find several important
moments. Referring to Nehemiah 8:2-4, Bruns reminds his readers that Hilkiah figures also in 2 Kings
22:8, thus, his name "is an allegory of priestly power" (1984: 81). His act implies, moreover, that the
act of creating the canon is originally and archetypically is the task of the "priest", the professional
interpreter of the Law. "One senses that the occasion would be incomplete, and the status of the Torah
less than certain, without him" (ibid.).
The lesson of Hilkiah is that canon is not a literary category but a category of power; or, in
Blenkinsopp's words, "what we call a 'canon' is not intelligible only in the context of conflicting
claims to control the redemptive media and, in particular, to mediate and interpret authoritatively the
common tradition" (p. 96). One can see how the canonization of Books of the Prophets would
naturally follow the promulgation of the Pentateuch, since the process of turning prophecy into a text
would only be complete when fugitive texts become bound to the Torah as an integral part of its
canonical domain. Henceforward, when the prophet speaks, it will only be to disclose a written Torah
(ibid.).
The canon, whatever it may be, is certainly not something given, eternal, whose origin and
nature cannot be searched for. Even if they are not interested in the development or origin of a canon,
most studies agree that it can be traced back not only in time but also synchronically, to its
conception:
... literary canonicity, as any other literary position, is a result of an accountable process which
consists of literary-political operations. (Shavit 1991: 232)
But who makes, changes and maintains the canon? The answer is, naturally, that it is the
function of some groups, who may be called professionals, or, "people-in-the-culture" (or "Hilkiahs"):
... literary canonicity is determined by a distinct group of people-in-the-culture, whose power is
gained by their control over literary institutions. (Shavit 1991: 232)
The least which can be said of the relation of the canons and the literary professionals, then, is
that quite a number of the activities of the professional interpreters of literature affects in one way or
another the literary canon. Professionals in the literary field are often characterized by their
preoccupation with the canon and, conversely, canon is almost exclusively approached as the
principal field of a specific group of people, the professionals of the literary field. It is one of the tasks
(activities) of the literary professionals is to create, maintain, change and reflect on canon. To
illustrate the important role played by the professionals in forming the canon (and, to be sure, that of
the canon in forming the status of the professionals), it is enough to remind the reader that the
paradigmatic and, in fact, fundamental case of canonization was the delimitation of the texts which
would then belong to the Scripture, an act of highly professional nature and involving serious consequences to several communities.
A text, after all, is canonical, not in virtue of being final and correct and part of an official
library, but because it becomes binding upon a group of people. The whole point of canonization is to
underwrite the authority of a text, not merely with respect to its origin as against competitors in the
field - this, technically, would simply be a question of authenticity - but with respect to the present
and future in which it will reign or govern as a binding text. The distinction between canonical and
noncanonical is thus not just a distinction between authentic and inauthentic texts - that is, it is not
reducible to the usual oppositions between the inspired and the mundane, the true and the apocryphal,
the sacred and the profane, and so on. On the contrary, it is a distinction between texts that are
forceful in a given situation and those which are not. From a hermeneutical standpoint, in which the
relation of a text to a situation is always of primary interest, the theme of canonization is power.
(Bruns 1984: 67)
collapse; for even if no performative utterance can be constative, any constative utterance is just as much
performative as any full-fledged performative - namely, it amounts to an execution of a constative act, that is, a
performance of it. Constating is performing the act of constating.

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Bruns's approach also implies that this sort of canonization (The Canonization, one could say)
can be distinguished from the act of, say, including a writer (besides or instead of another one) into an
anthology of national poetry. Here one must face a problem somewhat similar to the analogy of the
priest and the critic. Is it just an analogy? Or something more? May we hope to get more insight to the
structure of the literary canon once we study that of The Canon? In any case, it seems to be reasonable
to differentiate between the unconditional authority of what Bruns is writing about and the more
restricted and ephemeral power which the professionals of literary studies exert. Partly, of course, it is
only a matter of degree (that is, the consequences in the latter case are not at all as far-reaching as in
the former and the power invested into and wielded by it are far more reduced); but certainly, there
are also similarities. Both operations presuppose institutions, power and groups:
the formation of canons is a measure of the strength of institutions devoted to the study of art.
(Hallberg 1984: 1)
Furthermore, there may be a hope that it can be specified exactly what groups and what powers
take part in the formation of the canon and how they do so:
... gaining a position at the center ... often results in becoming canonized. I postulate that
literary canonicity, as any other literary position, is a result of an accountable process which consists
of literary-political operations. (Shavit 1991: 232)
As Shavit adds (ibid.), it is not as given and smooth as it may seem; there are quite a number of
positions, to be sure, atheoretical or antitheoretical or just naive views, which simply disregard this
aspect of the canon and its formation.
In passing I would like to remark that although such a postulation might sound trivial, it is not
widely accepted by scholars of literature who still stick to the naive belief in the existence of 'poetic
justice' as far as attribution of literary values is concerned. I contend however, that literary canonicity
is determined by a distinct group of people-in-the-culture, whose power is gained by their control over
literary institutions. I have chosen to deal with the center because the most significant operations of
the literary institutions take place at the center (cf. Bourdieu), unlike the most significant textual
operations which in my view and contrary to what is usually assumed take place at the periphery.
(Shavit 1991: 232)
But the relation of professionals to canon is not only that it is the more or less institutionalized
group of people-in-culture who is in charge of maintaining and forming a distinguished class of text.
It is also this special class of text which offers them a basis of existence qua professionals. It is, then,
a field of operation for them as well as a field of reward.
If a distinction can be made between participation in a system as opposed to observing (and
describing) it, about which there may be serious doubts, then this is a good point in case where these
two roles meet, divide or intermingle. The situation is, briefly, that professionals of the literary field
or system set out to describe a phenomenon of their field; to describe the canon in its function is
("clearly") a professional activity. But, doing so, they must refer to their own position, not because
some obscure methodological considerations prescribe for them to do so but because the role they
play is included in the very subject of the inquiry. Moreover, the output of their observation, even if it
is conceived of as a purely scholarly product (by an "observer", for the "observers"), is bound to land
in a context where it will be part of the literary system itself, it will be treated as a proposal for
forming or re-forming the canon, as a strategic action of its own right.
Accordingly, after realizing their own role in this situation, a growing number of reflections on
the canon tend to give up the pretension of innocence and impartiality; and, accordingly, a remote
shade seems to cast over the bright, objective, and ("clearly") observational descriptions of the canon
in a textual or langue-conceptional vein. They do not attempt at including the role of the users
(professionals: critics, literary historians, teachers; or the lay: readers at large) into their model of the
canon; but is it not included?

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Perhaps crossing the dimensions of participation in and observation of the system, a dichotomic
opposition of Schmidt's, is Bourdieu's distinction between "objectivism" and the "theory of practice as
practice". The former "constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up
a 'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object of principles of his relation to the
object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and if all the interactions within were
purely symbolic exchanges. This viewpoint is the one taken from high positions in the social
structure, from which the social world is seen as a representation (as the word is used in idealist
philosophy, but also as in painting) or a performance (in the theatrical or musical sense), and practices
are seen as no more than the acting-out of roles, the playing of scores or the implementation of plans."
The latter approach, that of "the theory of practice as practice", however, "insists, contrary to
positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded, and,
contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this construction is the system of structured,
structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in practice and is always oriented towards
practical functions." ... One has to escape from the realism of the structure, to which objectivism, a
necessary stage in breaking with primary experience and constructing the objective relationships,
necessarily leads when it hypostatizes these relations by treating them as realities already constituted
outside the history of the group - without falling back into subjectivism, which is quite incapable of
giving an account of the necessity of the social world. To do this, one has to return to practice, the site
of dialectic of the opus operandum and the modus operandi; of the obejctified products and the
incorporated products of historical practice; of structures and habitus. (Bourdieu 1980/1990: 52)
Let us turn, then, to two type of texts; first to texts which openly announce that they are parts of
the system they examine and that this examination counts as a move in the game; and second, to texts
which start from a well established "observational" stance and arrive to a gesture of "participation",
where transgressions of the borderline between "observation" and "participation" are made highly
visible. Can we, this way, get closer to the concept of the canon?

9.3. Canon and the Politics of Interpretation


9.3.1. Canonical Criticism
It seems to be a sound assumption, though it must be very seriously and cautiously revised, that
if the prevailing canon reflects or expresses power relations, then one's adherence or a certain canon
as well as her or his relation to that canon (conservativism, revolutionary attitude, cautious
modification, etc.) will amount to taking a political stance, or at least will be connected to the "politics
of interpretation". It is quite natural, then, that a number of speculations on the nature of the canon
nowadays concentrate on the issue of the particular community forming and/or making use of the
specific canons, and some even try to characterize these communities accordingly.
A good illustration could be to take some paragraphs written by Paul Lauter (1991b). Contrary
to its ambitious title, Lauter's book (1991a) contains essays and lectures concentrating primarily on
contradictions and issues of the American academic and university life; it reviews several aspects of
the canon-formation and university education in the United States, and informs its readers about some
vital institutional problems of the field. It does not pretend to be an dispassionate by-stander: it is on
the "left" side of the debates. In one of the studies, Lauter establishes a distinction between two sorts
of criticisms:
The two forms of literary study I wish to distinguish here are, first, the various formalist or
speculative criticisms, heavily indebted to Continental philosophy, deeply concerned with questions
of epistemology, and practiced primarily as a set of graduate institutions in the United States, France,
and elsewhere on the European continent; and, second, what I shall term "canonical" criticism,
focused on how we construct our syllabi and anthologies, on the roots of our systems of valuation, and
on how we decide what is important for us to teach and for our students to learn, or at least to read.

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... I think that this distinction ... is the most recent version of an old contention between what
might be called aesthetic (formalist, interpretive) and moral and thus evaluative or what I will call
"canonical" approaches to texts. ... I believe that the understanding the history of these differing forms
of literary study in the past three decades is crucial to perceiving where literary study is now and
where one might want it to go. (Lauter 1991b: 134-135)
There are several interesting points in this section. First of all, note that when Lauter sets out to
characterize the second type of critical activity, he starts to use personal pronouns, whereas in the case
of the first ("formalist") criticism, a passive construction is dominant ("practiced primarily as a set of
graduate institutions"). Note also that the word "institution" appears here, and it is tacitly confronted
to the "us" and the "students" of the "canonical" criticism. This suggests an opposition between an ahuman, alienated, "institutional" operation and an organic, human, non-institutionalized activity.
Second, note the pretty loose formulation, "elsewhere on the European continent". It is hard (or,
rather, it is not hard at all) to imagine what a professor in Konstanz, Moscow or Prague has got to say
about such a generalization. What Lauter labels as "formalist" criticism, if and when it was really
institutionalized and put into the center of education, has quite different functions, significances and
extensions depending on the various cultural and social-political settings. Third, it is undeniable that
Lauter's distinction is not a pure scientific observation, neither is it an innocent hypothesis, but clearly
made from a point of view which happens to coincide with his second class of criticism, that of
"canonical" sort. Hence, one had better not to expect an impartial description, rather, a pamphlet
and/or an apology. And, fourth, the repeated reference to the political or ideological indifference of
the "formalists" is astonishingly unfounded, at least as far as he European scene is concerned.25
Let us now see the further characterization of the opposing trends:
What I am calling aesthetic or formalist criticism began in our time by viewing literature as in
some sense a special kind of discourse, composed by specially talented individuals called poets (and,
more recently, theorists), and offering unique forms of knowledge or experience, interpreted by
specially-sensitized individuals called critics, whose job it was, among other things, to distinguish
poetic discourse from that of science or journalism or rhetoric (propaganda). It has ended by absorbing into this segregated aesthetic domain every kind of text. The other, moral or canonical
criticism, has seen literature as one among many forms of discourse whose objective is to move,
enlighten or, perhaps, to mystify human beings. The first maintains that while we might, in Emerson's
language, be "richer" for the poet's knowledge, poetic expression involves no necessary extension into
the world, that indeed, literature has no designs on our conduct, that a poem, to take this position to its
familiar New Critical extreme, "should not mean but be". The other, the moral view, emphasizes the
impact of literary works on how we conduct our lives, how we live within, extend or restrict, and
develop the communities that give our lives meaning. Literary commentators, in the aesthetic vision,
have constituted a kind of priesthood of the craft, performing a task of formal analysis given sanction
by the special importance of poetry itself or by the notion that text alone in some sense "real". The
moral practitioner emerges rather more as a teacher, the value of her or his pedagogy affirmed, if at
all, by its social consequences. The universe of aesthetic discourse, at least as it largely has come to be
defined by academic critics and by poets like Wallace Stevens as well, is thus distinct, removed, even
self-enclosed - a singular place where initiates speak mainly to one another in special languages and
discuss texts in hermeneutical modes whose authenticity seems measured by their density. (135-136)

25

Not quite unlike Humpty Dumpty, Lauter loads a lot of meaning onto the words he chooses to use: "In using
the words "formalist" and "aesthetic" to name these varied styles of criticism, I wish to point to their pervasive
effort to separate literary texts (whatever might be meant by "literary") as well as critical acts from history, to
their tendency to ignore the particular roles their work is playing in educational institutions and in society, and
to their consequent tendency to turn the domain of literature, again in Lentricchia's words, into a "vast, enclosed
textual and semantic preserve". "Formalists" suggest that the whole enterprise of literary theorizing subsists
behind dense academic walls, where de Man speaks only to Heidegger, and Heidegger speaks only to God."
(138)

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9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

What we have here is a set of oppositions. For Lauter, it is the "canonical" criticism which is
closely connected to the real world, whereas it is beyond the interest of the "speculative" or
"formalist" criticism to be aware of the world surrounding the text. Accordingly, "formalists" do not
really care what the canon is and how it should be changed or formed, they deal with given, ready,
sanctified texts; they consequently nolens volens maintain the status quo. "Canonical" critics, on the
other hand, are conscious of their historical and social position and strive to make their knowledge
public, not only to describe and employ the canon but, ultimately, "open it up". On the one hand, then,
there is the (passive) Guard, who is, in fact, a prisoner of what she or he watches - and, on the other,
the (active) thief, who is subversive and free (mind that her or his God is Hermes).26
But, we are told, this opposition is historical in nature; that is, Lauter will not state that it is a
sort of perpetual, eternal dichotomy. But will he not?
Nor has aestheticism always faced inward. Indeed, more than once historically - in Shelley, for
example, or in Wilde - aestheticism emerged as a revolutionary thrust against prior moralizing styles.
But in our time aesthetic or formalist criticism seems to me to have embodied not only many of the
virtues of speculative thought first demonstrated by Plato but all the limiting features of Plato's
Academy as well... (136)
Shelley's and Wilde's souls are, then, saved, hallelujah, but how on earth do they get here? Are
they formalist critics? Is it not the case that Lauter, contrary to all his devotions to the historical
aspect, turns (out) to be a-historical? If he is to seriously consider the revolutionary nature of what he
calls aestheticism, formalism or , he should simply review what Russian Formalism, the Slavic or
New Criticism has done with their respective prevailing canons; or how the French Structuralists were
related to the Avant-Garde or to their own contemporaries. This, no doubt, would dangerously blur his
distinction.
And is it not completely mistaken, one may wonder, to assess the political or social import of a
(literary) theory simply on the grounds what that theory has got to say about political or social issues?
The most engag theoretization on gender, minority or socio-political issues in literature can be (and,
in fact, is) in certain cultures (and periods) dead letters, pure and fruitless speculation. On the other
hand, the most "formalist" sort of theory can gain a subversive, revolutionary power, even if it does
not have any ambition to change the world. And in these functions it is, at most, just one element what
the theory (or theorist) aims at. Like any text, the theory is also dependent on its context of reception.
Let us see another aspect of the same issue. A recent trend against theory can be regarded, as is
perceived by Wlad Godzich, as an anti-professional or even anti-intellectual attack:
For some time now, increasingly frequent, and strident, predictions of the end of theory have
been made and greeted, predictably, with glee among those who saw the theoretical onslaught of
recent years as one more plague that a merciless god was visiting upon them. They drew solace from
what may well be manifesto of this tendency, Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp's tract,
"Against Theory" (Critical Inquiry 8, 4 [summer 1982]: 723-42), in which a call for "an end to
theory" was issued and theoreticians were lambasted for being at best no more than apologists for
their own practices and at worst power-hungry academics posing as adjudicators of the claims made
by others while studiously avoiding the production of any work that could be used to indict their own
views. The antitheorists, as they have become known, are particularly virulent against what they view
as the social and political disengagement of much recent theory, by which, it generally turns out, they
mean . (Godzich 1987: 153)
It would mean, then, that theory (or just this very theory) is closely connected to
professionalism, power, the politics of a-politics, and anti-theorists can fight to get out of this magic
circle by turning back to politics. Godzich is highly skeptical towards such a position; he attempts to
26

The question may also be raised whether Lauter's distinction is not something similar to what Bourdieu (1989)
has got to say about "internal" and "external" reading, with the (essential) difference that for Bourdieu either
approaches are, in themselves, deficient and the distinction itself is dangerous.

77

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

defend deconstructionists and other theorists recently accused by "antitheorists" for being apolitical
and a product of the "power-hungry academics":
These charges are not new, nor do they appear subject to modification even in the face of such
empirical evidence as the remarkable consistency of Derrida's political position during France's
rightward swing or his personal and intellectual involvement in the antiapartheid movement where he
has been joined by precious few of those who thunder against deconstruction's apoliticism. (Godzich
1987: 154)
The presupposition behind this plea is quite similar to that sketched above, in connection with
Lauter: that a theory (or theorist) with a clear political stance cannot and should not be regarded as
abstract, alienated or functionless. But Godzich arguments for deconstruction is not convincing any
more than those of Lauter's against formalism; however respectful Derrida's political position is, it has
nothing to do with the position of his theory in this or that culture. Whereas it may be the case that
Derrida (whatever it is) is seen in some circles as a champion of progressive thought, other circles
may react quite the contrary.27
After refusing New Criticism, which he regards as elitist and ahistorical, Lauter also dismisses
deconstruction, its circular and intricate discussion of texts which does not lead anywhere.
But do they arm - or disarm - intellectuals for combat in an increasingly dangerous world? It is
not my observation that the spread of poststructuralist theory has spurred academics into progressive
activity, on campus or off. On the contrary, it seems to have provided them with a textual umbrella to
keep them wet in these dry times. (Lauter 144)
On the other hand, there are the "conservative" critics of deconstructionism (and, in fact, of a
number of other related trends) who claim that this type of criticism is not criticism proper at all;
Olsen, for instance, argues that there have always been two types of criticism. One is atheoretical:
A piece of criticism is atheoretical if the validity of its arguments and methods is not
guaranteed by a set of theoretical premises and it does not make use of a set of theoretical concepts to
formulate its arguments or conclusions. ... (Olsen 1992: 82)
To this category belong, among a lot of others, the New Criticism.
The assimilation of literature and criticism has two consequences. Firstly, literature is denied, at
least in part, the cultural prestige which it has traditionally held among its audience.... Secondly, the
assimilation of criticism to literature leads to an emphasis on the rhetorical nature of criticism. And
this emphasis has encouraged two attitudes to criticism, the attitude that criticism is a play and the
attitude that criticism is a persuasion. The former has manifested itself in witty verbal displays with a
form completely different from the standard forms of critical argument ... The latter is an attitude
which governs the apprehension of all criticism. Both attitudes move the focus away from criticism as
analysis and have insidious consequences for the standards of argument in criticism. (Olsen 1992: 8687)

27

To insist that a re-making of the canon or a destruction or a transformation of it a a political action, and that it
has far-reaching social, political and ethical consequences is just another formulation of the fact that canon is
always political at the heart: it embodies ideologies, mediates values, suggests interpretations and world views,
draws the contours of a vision of history, and so on. From the other side of the process, this has been finely
described by Gates: "On the right hand, we face [when forming the Black canon] the outraged reactions of those
custodians of Western culture who protest that the canon, that transparent decanter of Western values, may
become - breathe the word - politicized. But the only way to answer the charge of "politics" is with an emphatic
tu quouque. That people can maintain a straight face while they protest the irruption of politics into something
that has always been political from the beginning - well, it says something about how remarkably successful
official literary histories have been in presenting themselves as natural and neutral objects, untained by worldly
interests." (Gates 1990b/1992: 33)

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No doubt, Olsen and others may have a point in objecting the "rhetorical" nature of these
discourses. The point, however, is not that rhetoric is something that one should discard, a superfluous
decorum or a deceitful supplement standing for something more essential; for, as Jaspers put it,
Of course, just as there is traditional argument against rhetoric, there are also the standard
defences, usually stemming from Aristotle. But as rhetoric increasingly returns to some agenda of
discipline after discipline and scholars are encouraged to reflect upon the rhetorical nature of their
writing, the suspicion grows that Milton was right to fear Satanic rhetoric, and that caution should be
exercised. ... It was a point made by I. A. Richards, that questions of value and meaning are finally
rhetorical, and that, as Isocrates observes, good discourse is discourse that works. The consequences
are not pleasant to contemplate... (Jasper 1993: 105)
But one cannot help finding a number of declarations coming from these circles not only
rhetorical but pretentious, thus, funny. When well established and probably well paid professionals do
not cease to refer and appeal to the revolutionary, subversive character of writing, there something
more than ironical in it. See, for instance, some excerpts from Jasper's book:
What is needed is a more daring and a more radical concept of textuality which will overturn
our expectations and securities... (Jasper 1993: 105)
The act of interpretation lies at the heart of every theology, unsettled, unsettling and provoking,
always resisting metaphysical illusion. Its compatibility with the systematic tendency of totalisation is
not merely political or moral, but ontological. (Jasper 1993: 139)
Back to Lauter. In his vision, the canonical or moral critic appears as somebody who is always
to ready to open up the canon, to transform it, who chooses the narrow path; Lauter suggests, though
implicitly, that it is not in the interest of this critic to stabilize the canon, as if she or he would be in
favor, rather, a continuous re-opening it up. However, it may be asked whether this very critic is not
in badly need of a counter-power, a conservativism within or without, relative to which she or he can
exert her or his opening activity. And it is also a question whether her or his subversive power is not
also a sort of power; as Hallberg puts it,
A canon is commonly seen as what other people, once powerful, have made and what should
now be opened up, demystified, or eliminated altogether. Rarely does one hear a critic, especially a
professor, confess to dreams of potency, perhaps because now that canons are recognized as the
expression of social and political power, intellectuals are, by virtue of a consensus as to their
adversarial role, almost required to view these aspirations skeptically. (Hallberg 1984: 1)
Transforming or loosening or radically changing a canon is an act relying on the very same
concept that is fostered by those whose interest lies in conserving the canon. That is, canon should be
changed (or it should be maintained, for that matter), because it has a leading role in the mediation of
values. As Gates writes,
... the right ... is exemplarily aware of the role of education in the reproduction of values. We
must engage in this sort of canon deformation precisely because Mr. Bennett is correct: the teaching
of literature is the teaching of values: not inherently, no, but contingently, yes; it is - it has become the teaching of an aesthetic and political order ... (Gates 1990b/1992: 35)
The fight for a new canon, for the transformation or revolution of the old one may, eventually,
be successful. It seems, though, that this success, being a kernel of a new stability, troubles the
proponents of the transformation. Gates quotes Cynthia Ozick who "once chastized feminists by
warning that strategies become institutions. But", Gates adds,
isn't that really another way of warning that their strategies, heaven forfend, may succeed? Here
we approach the scruples of those on the cultural left, who worry about, well, the price of success.
"Who's co-opting whom?" might be their slogan. To them, the very idea of the canon is hierarchical,
patriarchal, and otherwise politically suspect. They'd like us to disavow it altogether. (Gates
1990b/1992: 34)

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Another inherent contradiction in the transformative gestures is the maintenance of some


essential elements of the old canon. Thus, as Godzich argues, even if there is a certain division of
labor where "academic departments ... hold on to previously elaborated canons of text that mus be
taught if for no other reason than to maintain the institutional identity of their department", and "these
canons are challenged, especially by feminist critics", this challenge takes place, however, "within
previously defined national boundaries, somehow intimating that, whatever the status of gender, it
either comes after nationhood ... or significantly altered by it" (Godzich 1988: 20).
Lauter's position, however, is that "the issue of the canon ... has always arisen from efforts to
redress social wrongs" (ibid. 145), and the debate itself "deeply affects the ways people conceive,
regulate, and change their lives". It gives it, then, a perpetual character along with (political) efforts to
remedy the society's illnesses. Since "Standards of value tend to be self-perpetuating: We are taught to
seek works that illustrate the qualities we value; we learn to value the qualities that characterize such
works" (ibid., 148), this vicious circle can be broken only be an intervention by the canonical critics.
It is their duty to enlighten critics, who "did not come to understand canons, or even the processes by
which they are established, reproduced, or altered, until some of us set about efforts to change them"
(ibid., 149). Ultimately, the canonical critics engage power, but it will not corrupt them; "for it is
precisely in the effort to effect change that one discovers how power is organized, and how it is
expressed in particular institutional forms and social priorities" (ibid.)
Where does, one may ask, these incredible capacities of the canonical critics emanate from?
Not only do they know better what the canon should be, but neither are they infected by the power - a
miracle, indeed. And how is it conceivable at all that these people, having been brought up in a
conservative institutional environment and having been educated, accordingly, under strict syllabi
conforming to a conservative canon, still preserved their ability to see through the veils and to take
decisive steps against their forming powers?
All in all, as a continuation or, indeed, perpetuation of the work of canon re-formation, Lauter
indicates two, interconnected, means: one is practiced by, for instance, Barbara Herrnstein Smith and
her Contingencies of Value and Jane Tompkins and her Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of
American Fiction, 1790-1860; these amount to a start "to deconstruct the underlying assumptions of
received systems of evaluation" (ibid., 148). The other way is the everyday engagement in struggles to
reshape local syllabi, course requirements, reading lists, national examinations, requisites for graduate
school admissions, and the like. Canons do not, after all, exist in the sky; rather, they are made
manifest in particular social and educational practices (ibid., 149).
There is, of course, a considerable gap between these two fields of activity; Lauter consents that
"Canons and curricula are by no means identical; curricula (whatever one might have meant by that
word) were probably irrelevant to the establishment of biblical canons" (ibid), still, he holds that
today, given the power of academic institutions to shape cultural priorities, institutional forms
like curricula are central to the maintenance or modification of canons, not only in literary study but
throughout the educational system (ibid).
Though Lauter situates himself in a position which would allow, in principle, a good outlook to
the functioning of the canon, and although it is his objective to describe this position itself, he misses
several points as far as the very concept of the canon is concerned. While he is in, he cannot get
above; that is, struggling for and against the canon (the canon, mind you) seems to block his
assessment of other (above all, non-professional) positions as well as his elaboration of the concept of
the canon. In this view, canon is monolithic and is dominated by one single group (or by the struggle
of two groups, almost equal in power).

9.3.2. Digression: Visions of Canon


The description of the (building of the) canon in terms of power, subordination, even
oppression, elite, interest and pressure groups, etc. has a vision of a worldwide conspirational
maneuver in its background. It suggests that 1. the action of those involved in building the canon is

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(more or less) intentional and teleological; 2. there is a clear distinction between those in power (and
therefore capable of changing the canon) and the manipulated lay; 3. that the changes or moves can be
calculated in advance, given the relevant data on the participants; and 4. that these changes and moves
have a more or less direct and unavoidable consequence, there is some deterministic, even fatal,
connection between the (canonical) deeds of those in power and the whole system of interpretations
and institutions of literature.28
I would not say that the vision drafted above is "not true" or "valid" or that it does not "reflect
the reality" or that it is not "appropriate" (although I do have very serious reservations, as is evident
from the previous part). But is it really the best way to describe the phenomenon in question?
Certainly, it is better than saying that canon is given from Above, or that it is based on consensus
(whatever it may be) or than to sink deep into the details of how a specific canon in a specific age was
established for a specific purpose. But is it not too simple? Can we just borrow some schemata of
social sciences and apply them directly to the process of building of a canon?
And another question concerns the causes of the emergence of such a vision - why is it so
widespread, what aim does it fulfill, why and for whom is it favorable to represent it this way?
These questions are far from being rhetorical, so one may run the risk of giving some possible
answers, at least. Clearly, this vision of the canon embodies a sort of personification, inasmuch as it
supposes that the communities, or rather, the groups in question posit objectives and act accordingly,
being a homogeneous whole, furthermore, that this action is rational; it ignores the complex
relationship between the intelligentsia (intellectuals) and economic or political power varying from
time to time and from society to society in a considerable degree; it restricts the whole field where
canon is situated into a space of clear-cut powers and counter-powers; and it overlooks, consequently,
the complexity and "fuzzy" nature of the literary system. Based upon this conception, it would be, in
fact, almost impossible to explain how radical changes in the canon are possible even when the power
relations are not (yet) changed, and, conversely, how canon may not change even when there is a
fundamental change in the power relations. Thus, it affirms a very close and deterministic connection
between two systems, and tends to disregard all other participating systems. As Hallberg hints,
... we should recognize that ... there is a danger of academic critics overestimating their own
importance and autonomy in the process of canon-formation and wrongly thinking that they can
choose to dispense with canons. (Hallberg 1984: 2)
It is also quite clear that these conceptions take institutions in their reified, objectified sense;
they use the term too frequently in this meaning. For them, the educational system, notably the
universities, and perhaps the critical journals and the book market, is more or less equal to the
institutions of literature. It also may be raised whether these conceptions do not defend, even if
involuntarily, the idea of one single canon. After all, what seems to be at stake here is the canon, its
formation by the powerful group;
If canon is taken as something formed and taught in the universities, there is a way in which it
can be made more open and reflect a plurality of value choices and cultures. As Lauter writes,
canonical criticism as it emerged two decades ago was at heart an effort to open up literary study and
to reconstruct it on new, more inclusive bases. (1991: 145)

28

Bates suggests that the vision of canon as a direct derivative of power structures along with the canon-as-a-setof-texts conception is misleading. "People often like to represent the high canonical texts as the reading matter
of the power elite. ... I suppose the literary canon is, in no very grand sense, the commonplace book of our
shared culture, in which we have written down the texts and titles that we want to remember, that had some
special meaning for us. How else did those of us who teach literature fall in love with our subject than through
our own commonplace books, in which we inscribed, secretly and privately, as we might do in a diary, those
passages of books that named for us what we had for so long deeply felt, but could not say?" (Bates
1990b/1992: 20, 21)

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

81

Thus,
Beginning around 1966, texts previously ignored in syllabi and anthologies began to be read in
(and sometimes out of) the classroom. (147)
Or, to put it more concretely,
the teaching of literature is the teaching of values, the teaching of an aesthetic and political
order, in which none of the members of the black community, the minority community, or the
women's community were ever able to discover the reflection or representation of their images or to
hear the resonances of their cultural voices (Gates 1988: 24).
If canon is decided, or at least formed, or at least partly formed in classrooms, or at least
university curricula, then it seems to be a sound perception that
curricula, reading lists, degree requirements, standardized tests, and anthologies institutionalize
ideas about what is important, whose experiences and artistic expressions are to be valued. (Lauter
1991: 145)
Based on this idea, most of what has been written on canon and canon formation is centered
around the concepts of the institutions of education, as if it were the sole or at least most important
mediator of values, texts and culture in general. However, as Lauter himself observes,
Yet it is not at all clear that this revolution in literary sensibility reaches far beyond the college's
gates. Certainly, it does not extend into the legislative halls, where public budgets are determined, or
into most newspaper editorial rooms and TV studios, where public opinions are shaped. These are
sources of power that cultural workers cannot ignore. (1991: 150)

9.4. But Are there Canons at All? Or, The Good Advices of the Savant
From the arguments above, it may seem to follow that we should abandon the concept of the
canon altogether: if the canonical conception of the canon is just as ideological and oppressive as any
canon, why should we adopt this notion at all?
There are at least three possible answers to the question above. The first would be that there are
no canons (and there are some varieties: there should not be; could not be; unfortunately, aren't;
fortunately, aren't; etc.) Second, that there is a canon. And third, that there are only canons. Let me
run through these possible reactions.
There are quite a number of anti-canonical positions (that is, positions challenging the existence
or the importance of canons and canon-formation). A version of these is described, in a not quite
dispassionate way, by Olsen:
For the new concept of criticism goes together with an attack on the notion of a literary canon,
on the notion of a body of paradigmatic works embodying and defining the value of the literary
institution. As so many other moves in modern critical theory, this attack seems at best confused, at
worst dishonest. With regard to criticism, the move is apparently made to enhance the value of
criticism by assimilating it to something that traditionally is valued more highly than criticism.
However, if the attack is meant to destroy the notion of 'a canon of great cultural monuments', [note
10: The expression is from Jonathan Culler, 'The Humanities Tomorrow', in Jonathan Culler, Framing
the Sign (Oxford 1988), p. 42.] then there is no point in linking criticism to what is to be destroyed.
(Olsen 1992: 86)
As contrasted to the ideas that there is no need for any canon whatsoever, there is a position of
the canon in the contemporary critical discourse, which maintains that there is "a lack of clarity about
the composition of the canon and even about the necessity of having canon at all." (Fokkema 1991:
366-367), and, moreover, the complaint is formulated (if it a complaint) that there is a "weakness" "of
the canon-formation system". This weakness is then diagnosed the following way:

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9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

Firstly, to the extent that canon-formation is part of the literary system, agents participating in
the selectionof texts for the canon seem to be uncertain about the role of the esthetic convention when
dealing with texts which belong to or are added to the canon. Empirical research should confirm
whether this is the case indeed; it should also establish to what extent teachers of literature in
secondary schools are familiar with the consequences of the esthetic convention - whether, for
instance, teachers are aware of the fact that literature often deals with things which are not discussed
in scientific and other expository texts, because they are considered taboo, or regarded as too complex
for scientific analysis, or thought to belong to the realm of norms and conventions and whether
teachers see that literature, apart from its esthetic potentiality, is capable of transmitting specific
knowledge concerning psychological experiences and social behavior which many readers might have
been inclined to reject if it had not been conveyed by artistic means. (Fokkema 1991: 367)
Apart from the astonishing vision of literature as a means of transmission of "things" which are
disregarded or excluded from science, Fokkema seems to suggest that there is a certain convention,
the "esthetic convention", which should be a basis of any literary canon whatsoever; that it is the
uncertainty about or lack of familiarity of the convention which is responsible for the weakening of
the canon.
Secondly, agents in a position to design and teach the canon seem to have no clear idea about
what function canon-formation might have. (1991: 367)
For Fokkema, this function would include "the building of consensus", "the coordination of
social behavior", and "problem solving, both in the psychological and the social field" (ibid.)
Thirdly, the most crucial weakness of the canon-formationsystem is the apparent ignorance of
the process of how a selection of texts becomes a literary canon in secondary education. The various
agents participating in canon-formation may have vague ideas about who else plays a role in
establishing the canon, but apparently it is unclear in what respect and to what degree the critics the
academic experts, the teachers in secondary schools, the pedagogues, the institutional boards, the
ministry of education, the publishers, and the booksellers contribute to the final, or temporarily
definitive decision. It would be interesting to know which beliefs are held by the various groups of
agentsabout their own role and the role of the others in finalizing the canon of the day. (1991: 367368)
Here, Fokkema refers to the consciousness of the agents of the literary system, to the
knowledge of those participating in the literary process. Partly, at least, he implies that a factor of the
problem is that these agents do not know what they are doing, and, implicitly, that a more conscious
attitude would help in redeeming the situation.
What we are presented, then, is an appeal to common effort of those whose interests lie in
creating the one and single canon to persuade all other participants to (1) accept the one and only rule
of esthetic conventions, (2) understand their own interest in canon-formation, and (3) realize their
own position and that of others in the process of canon-formation.
We may wonder why all this passion. Who cares about the weakening of the canon and whose
interest is it to do something about it? One may even speculate, perhaps in a bit candid and malicious
way, what the opposite of the "weakness" of the canon should then be. Would it consist of a
strengthening of norms, even forcing them to the literary system, including its various institutions?
Would it be a sort of authoritarian move? Would it also include a suppression of the alternative
canons so that they do not disturb the one to be strengthened? Fokkema seems to realize this danger of
his argumentation and steps back from this perhaps inevitable consequence:
If canons provide matrixes of relevant questions and possible answers, the logical conclusion is
that their composition is temporal and contingent. It is unlikely that there will be one canon for all
educational levels and all kinds of schools. But it is equally unlikely that the present vacuum in
canon-formationwill be maintained for long, with the disheartening possibility of interference of
commercially motivated publishers. It is to be expected that neighboring countries in the European

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

83

Community will call this vacuum another Dutch disease (indeed, the disease is less apparent in
Flanders). (1991: 368)
The issue at stake, then, is the "interference of commercially motivated publishers" who do not
act, presumably, on the basis of "esthetic conventions"; and the casual reference to the European
Community can be taken as a sophisticated allusion to the intrusive, imperialist canon of other
countries, other cultures.29
Fokkema's argumentation, therefore, can be reduced into the well known dilemma of the liberal
intellectuals: if it is a principle that a free flow must be allowed not only for speech but for any other
activity in the cultural sphere, that state interference as well as any other pressure, political or other, is
undesirable, how can we enforce the ideals of humanism or whatever we call it, in the form of
"esthetic conventions" or whatever. One should not capitulate, should not let the terrain be occupied
either by those whose only interest is in commerce or to other national cultures.
Motivated by the conviction that "pure" theoretical speculation may be either turned into or, at
least, may be made use of in practice, there are some
A move on the part of the theoretician to sell her or his product. To convince another
Interpretive community that there is some use in what this interpretive community is producing;
pedagogy (--> turning especially to pedagogues!)
reflects the preferences of the interpretive community of the literary theoretician and not
necessarily those of the "target" interpretive community, thus: pressure, the desire to elicit appropriate
reactions, to produce a comparable system of values, etc. in the name of science.
Difference between Lauter and Fokkema?
Fokkema and Schmidt may have a much better chance in arriving the awareness of the complex
plural system of the canons than Lauter does; not necessarily because the latter are more "scientific"
but because their approach starts (logically, at least) from the review of the roles in the literary
system, from the very acknowledgement that the struggle on the (battle)field consists of several
(partly overlapping) camps and a number of minor fights over different objects.

9.3.2. No More Canons


The issue of weakening of the canon can be also seen in the context of the dissolution or
corruption or disappearance of interpretive communities.30 According to this vision, the communities
29

Bates quotes the "distinguished anthropologist" Arjun Appadurai: "for the polities of smaller scale, there is
always a fear of cultural absorption by polities of a larger scale, especially those that are nearby. One man's
imagined community is another man's political prison." (quoted in Gates 1990c/1992: 191)
30

A case in point is Olsen's description of the "crisis narrative": "Once upon a time there was a canon of great
cultural monuments, a consensus about what should be taught, and about how it should be taught, and there was
a group of teachers dedicated to the transmission of the values embodied in these monuments. The attitudes
embodied both in the monuments and in the transmitted values, defined bourgeois culture and were based on
'certain certainties', i.e., the belief in a stable external reality which could provide a standard of thought, a stable
personal identity and a personality which could be educated and formed through the reading of literature.
Literature itself was conceived of as coherent and unified, giving to its subject a satisfying wholeness which
reality was unable to provide, and as presenting serious and important themes which were defined through the
reader's literary experience. Then came structuralism and established that there was no stable reality and no
stable personal identity, that both these were products of language, and in so far as they were felt to have an
existence, were simply fictions. Post-structuralism took this 'insight' further and established that all texts were
not only internally contradictory, but that this internal contradiction which prevented the texts from meaning
anything, could itself be interpreted to mean that the text in which they occurred had no meaning. Literary study
as it had been practised up to the arrival of the new 'insights' is therefore no longer viable and there is therefore a
crisis in the humanities where the old bourgeois institutions and values are in their death-throes and the new
brave critical movements are ready to carry on." (Olsen 1992: 90-91)

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9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

of interpretation, once flourishing and established, strongholds of the sensus communis and supporters
of the individual as part and parcel of her or his community, have weakened and, accordingly, their
distinguished set of texts is also on the way of melting away. Perhaps a heroic effort to recover this set
along with the rules to be followed when interpreting it could help in rehabilitating these
communities.
This somewhat Romantic view is challenged by the positions which admit that the decline and
perhaps even the fall of the canons has come but avoid to take either nostalgic or militant-Messianistic
stance. There are no longer canons, so what? Maybe there is no need for any canon. Moreover: maybe
there are no canons at all, it does not make any sense - these are fairly common reactions when the
issue of canonicity is raised. Surprising it may seem, it also figures in an argument by Stanley Fish:
A nagyobb s kisebb m vek canonja mr nem ll rgztetten a helyn. Voltakppen soha nem is
llt, leszmtva egy, a trtnelem ltal folyamatosan meghazudtolt feltevst; most mr nem ttelezik
fel mg the canon tnyt sem; j kihvsok bukkannak fel nap mint nap, s olyan ortodoxsz vlnak,
mint az az ortodoxia, amit bevdolnak.31
Underlying this statement, the following line of argumentation can be reconstructed. A canon is
not a fact, not something given, not a fixed list, but a top-list developed by interpretive communities mostly by that of the professionals - which is supported by those in power, through their channels and
means of force, universally accepted in the various institutions of the operation of the literature, thus
in fact, by this very act, creating an appearance of consensus; the canon is nothing more than a sort of
mythology, achieving the illusion of unchangeability and eternal validity by the more or less refined
apparatus of the power. But to this idea of the canon belongs, according to Fish, a constant destruction
and reconstruction of the canon, this act, among others, providing the legitimacy of this very
interpretive community. Therefore the time will come - and, for Fish, it has already come in America
- when there will be no more canons, any attack against the canon becoming just as ritualistic and
conventional as the reverence of the canon once has been.
In a somewhat similar vein, Mihly Szegedy-Maszk wrote:
Genres, ultimately, can be regarded as social institutions, dependent on other social institutions.
Education, secondary literature and even book publishing may influence our decision of how a text
should be approached. It is very likely that in defining the genres we should avoid the illusions of
"existing forever", "birth of the genre" and "closed canon" ("corpus clos").32
Szegedy-Maszk's concern is understandable: he warns us that it would be a mistake to regard
the canon as a corpus of texts which is once-for-all delimited and determined, existing independent of
space and time - the canon, that is, changes, and the causes, factors and results of this change should
be taken into account (in the field of genre theory, for instance).
So far so good, let us take them into account - but the question raised in connection with Fish
remains the same: does this possible (moreover, necessary) position entitle us to call into question the
very existence of the canon? If the canon constantly changes and scarcely can we hope to say
something stable and ultimate about it, then it does not even exist?
Canon is, of course, not a perpetual object: it is very much historical, so much so that it is very
misleading to speak of "canons" in connection with ages which did not have literature as an institution
- or at least it always should be noted that another concept of canon (just as another concept of
literature) is employed there. Canon is a historical product:
In 1600 there was no canon, literary history not yet having been invented. Nor, save in theater
circles, was Will Shakespeare even so much as a celebrity. (Kenner 1984: 364)

31

Stanley Fish: No bias, no merit In: S. Fish, Doing what comes naturally. 178.

32

Szegedy-Maszk Mihly, 137. Here he refers to Lejeune 1975: 313, 317, 325.

85

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

This is not to deny that there were famous books, renowned texts, outstanding writers, popular
theaters but since the whole system of literature (and, within this system, the institution of literature)
was fundamentally different from what we experience in the last hundred or so years, it may be a
dangerous retrospection to speak of canon in the same sense as we employ the word now. It is even
more visible if we turn to the example of music:
... fundamental change ... took place during this [nineteenth century] period in the nature of the
Western art-music tradition, or, more precisely, in the way this tradition changed. In previous
centuries the repertory consisted of music of the present generation and one or two preceding
generations; it was continuously turning over... Under such conditions of evanescence the idea of a
canon is scarcely thinkable.
After around 1800 or 1820, however, when new music entered the repertory, old music did not
always drop out. Beethoven and Rossini were added to, not replaced. Increasingly the repertory
assumed a historical dimension: music assumed a history. There were even conscious efforts to extend
the repertory back into the evanesced past. (Kerman 1984: 180-181)
The question arises, cannot this description be reversed? That is, if it is true that canons came
into existence in a relatively late point of time, and if its birth is connected to the historical
consciousness, the rise of literary history (or, for that matter, history of music), is it not then this
particular concept of history that anti-canonical trends fight against? The concept of literary history
(and history in general) became, in the last decades, at least, highly problematic: progress, humanism,
teleology, and their relatives are now suspicious, and this tendency is paralleled by a disbelief in
canons. Is it not the case that attacks on the concept of canon are in fact directed against the concept
of history behind it?

9.4. More Canons


Until now, quite a number of interesting and important questions have not been formulated on
these pages; now it seems to be due time to pose them, just because there is something sensibly
missing from the conception of "canon as repertoire" as well as from the conceptions of the canon as a
set of texts or even as a langue.
For one is tempted to ask the old questions which sometimes may be boring but one cannot
help taking them into account: Are the great works or, in general, any text, great for, of, or by
themselves, or, in general, are they for, of, or by themselves? This is a fundamental question if one
attempts to give account of the canon taken in the sense of holy or sacred texts. If canon were some
hidden system of rules, a hidden langue, then should one suppose that it has an objective existence,
independent of any reception and interpretation? Is it not the interpretation which should serve as a
starting point?
These questions are also about the identity of the canon; do we refer to the same identical canon
if there may be two, radically or just partially different interpretation can be given of it? Hardly can it
be questionable whether it is the same canonical Petfi vagy kanonikus Ady szerepel-e Horvth Jnos
s Lukcs Gyrgy vagy Kassk Lajos s Rvai Jzsef "repertorjban"; But it can be seen not only in
cases of whole oeuvres but, using the Russian Formalists' term, also in those of "devices" [prijom]
that if and when they submerge and/or triumphantly re-occur in the canon, they are not the same any
more: just because they exist only as interpreted. And precisely this new interpretation makes it possible that they disappear or re-emerge.33

33

As Beardsley refers to a related phenomenon, "It is also possible - and this possibility we see quite vividly
realized in our time - that rival sets of conventions may be developed and may vie each other within a cultural
context, so that different interpretations of a poem result from applying them. If this situation becomes settled,
we may be moved to relativize our interpretations to the critical system we choose to apply" (Beardsley
1980/1986: 189) He adds, however, that such conflicts can be resolved by a "further inquiry into the nature of

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

86

By the way but not the least ultimately, these doubts and questions may orient one to see that
the individual texts of the canon (if it is a canon-of-texts) or some clusters of rules (if one regards the
canon as a system) will gain their meaning and signification by their relation to the canon as a whole.
From which it follows that the canon itself means something: this is far from being evident, if one
insists on, for example, the Classical Saussurean conception on the arbitrariness and random change
of the rules. The canon, let me put it such an aphoristic way, is itself an interpretation. And if one
believes somewhat in the conceptions of language which emphasize the unity of language and world
view, that is, that the language by which one grasps the so-called world itself does not innocently
reflects it but creates (in a weaker formulation: also creates) it, then the system of rules we use in our
acquisition or appropriation of literature and in our participation in the literary system, will
fundamentally determine how we see literature and how we will interpret it. And this will be true not
only in cases when whet is in question is systems of rules but also in cases of sacred texts.
But interpretations are many; are canons?
It may seem, then, that a common effort on the part of the professionals who are in charge of
the maintenance and formation of the canon and the lay who nevertheless has a word in deciding what
will count as accepted may lead to the relative and temporary fixation of the canon. But so many
groups and institutions are involved in this activity that it seems to be highly improbable that they
would ever succeed. Do they? Does the canon, even if for one or two moments, come into existence?
The answer is negative and positive. It would be impossible to find any moment in the last
centuries of the history of literatures written in European languages when there was one single canon
valid or compulsory for a whole society; but yes, people do not hesitate to speak about canons, and
there has always been a list of texts which became the basis of the mediation of culture, which had to
be known and respected, which was the fundamental of the system of education.
The efforts to create a unity in the canon is doomed to fail.
It would be tempting to explain this failure in terms of interests: one could say, for instance,
that just as it is an "interest" of the professional interpretive community to produce novel
interpretations and to form new and new subcommunities within the group, it is their "interest" to
create counter-canons and challenge the existing ones.
How many canons are there, then?
The term canon, in its musical sense, has always referred to a polyphonic work. It is the very
essence of the (musical) canons to have an ordered polyphonic fabric, produced by the subsequent
occurrence of the voices. The history of the connection of the word canon's two senses must be a very
adventurous historical process, no wonder, then, that in the sense we nowadays use the word in
literary studies, the qualities of pluralism, polyphony, multiplicity, orderedness, sequentiality and
purposefulness hardly if ever come into one's mind.
For the canon suggests just the fixedness, the measure which is given, slowly changing, if at all,
having authority and striving for monopoly, the set of great works regarded by responsible quarters.
The canon is, in this sense, unisonous.
At this point, the reader is kindly asked to regard most what has been said above as misleading,
suspicious, or outspokenly false. For it is quite clear that the whole issue of canonicity should be rethought in terms of multi-canonicity, that is, one of the fundamental and tacit theses of the present
paper, namely, that the word canon is to be put in singular, must be reviewed.
No doubt, the reader is stopped right here for the sake of mean rhetoric: it should have been the
starting point of this study that it does not make sense to speak of one single canon. Speech act theory
should not be taken too seriously, but once we do so (i.e., take it not-that-seriously), it may provide
each system", from the observation point of a third one, that is, by a gesture of unification of the competing
systems (or, in this case, canons).

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

87

some further consequences. What speech act theory teaches us first is that there are several language
uses. Second, that meaning is not something given but rather something taken, not out there but in
here, not an object, but a property assigned, conferred to the utterance. (Therefore, the two really
important words in Searle's book are counts as.) Following this line of argumentation, we have
speculated that the findings of speech act theory may find their place in literary studies by pushing the
latter to a position close to reader response criticism, or Rezeptionsaesthetik, or subjective criticism.
Then, this sort of literary studies must hold that a literary work of art is what it is by virtue of an act
conferring a special meaning, structure and status to it; further, that interpreting a literary work of art
is not an act which has objective and once and for ever describable features but rather it is a
judgement conferred to an act; and even further, that the interpretive community interpreting that
literary work of art is itself a product of interpretation, that is, its boundaries is also defined (if
definition is a good expression here at all) by an act of interpretation. It is just a logical step ahead to
say that a canon is not given, but exists only through and by an interpretation, and, accordingly, one
should always take into account a multiplicity of canons.34
Or, even if one does not follow that line of argumentation, the well known example of the word
"literature" can be evoked: here, and it is a commonplace, it is just a matter of looseness and laziness
to subsume so many different and changing phenomena under one single word, and upon some
reflection one concludes that there are much more (concepts of) literature(s) than your philosophy can
ever dream of.
The same holds for the canon(s).
We cannot define the canon. We cannot define it any more than we could define literature or
interpretive community. Moreover, it seems that any approximate and crude definition will be one
relative to the interpretive communities. It seems to be a fair assumption that there is never only one
and single canon in a given period and in a given language community; canons vary according to
different groups with different backgrounds, inclinations and obsessions, different value preferences,
interests and power. Thus, it is not only a gross generalization to speak of the canon, which would be
a serious but pardonable methodological flaw, but simply senseless.
The demand for transformation, deformation or opening up the canon may lead to the discovery
that the idea of one single canon is not tenable any more:
The return of "the" canon represents the return of an order in which my people were subjugated,
the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented, and the unrepresentable. I, for one, ain't going to back
there, and I am willing to fight anyone who tries to drag us all back there into that medieval nevernever land. (Gates 1988: 24)
But this, of course, implies that however open or deformed a canon is, it can never be "the"
single one. Curiously enough, the text quoted above insists on the idea of an "integration":
There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa), so that
a thoroughly integrated canon of American literature is not only politically sound but intellectually
sound as well. (Gates 1988: 25)
And, what then? Why should we define it?
But the vision of one single canon developed as a result of the united effort of all the forces
involved in the literary system is in fact an illusion, and one always have to take into account more
than one canons. From a certain distance, naturally, the one fostered by the most powerful
professionals will seem to be the only one; the case may even be that besides this, central, canon,
there only exist some fragmented, confused, contradictory canons, without any clear support by a
specific group of the society. The question, then, arises:

34

On the act of creating a canon, on the "performative" character and conferred nature of canonicity, see the
refences to Bruns, above.

88

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

9.5. Whose canon?


If, as it was suggested above, canon is closely connected to the notion of literary history or
tradition, then the formation and maintenance of the canon is the work of those who regard this
history and this tradition something to be preserved or created.
The idea that canons are not exclusively sets of text but, rather, sets of (interpretive) rules with
corresponding texts-as-examples

9.5.1. Digression: The Provincial Nature of the "Theories" of the "Canon"


To inquire into the nature of canons would demand a hard empirical work. This must have been
the insight which led several theoreticians and historians of literature, especially in the United States,
to scrutiny what is thought to be the most apparent institutional manifestation of the canon formation,
the university curricula. If one runs through the titles of the articles published in the last decade on the
canon (e.g., the MLA CD-ROM Bibliography), it is clearly seen that for quite a number of students of
literature it is the only way to get closer to the core of the problem. It suggests, then, that what one has
to take into account is the university (and it is pretty hard to find comments on secondary or
elementary school materials); the history and the present state of the curricula; the names and works
figuring in course description; and the like.
Very simply and even disrespectfully, the American approach and its material is so special,
individual, particular that one might call it provincial or "ethnic" or representing a curious, but
negligible minority. If an European or Asian student of literature tries to apply its terms, concepts and
guidelines to her or his culture, she or he may easily be lost in the vain search of analogies, or, what is
even worse, in simply imitating her or his Big American Brother.
This, in itself, may well be a highly superficial and prejudiced opinion, but there may be
arguments to fortify it. One has to ask, and, hopefully, reply, the following questions: First of all,
granted, the examination of the institutions of the transmittance of the canon should, no doubt, be
central to any inquiry into canon formation - but what are these institutions? And how should they be
explored?
Is the canon, then, unisonous? Yes; and no. It must be, by definition (if any), unisonous; but the
very opposite is also true because there exist a number of canons side by side, sometimes peacefully,
sometimes not so peacefully. That is to say, the coexistence or coordination of canons will still
produce, one way or another, a polyphony. One of the big questions in these cases will be, of course,
that of alternatives or choice and freedom: are we perpetually locked into a language? Into an
interpretive community? Into an interpretive strategy? Into a canon? The replies and reactions will
certainly differ strongly. The canons may radically change within a short time, the choice among
canons may seem, perhaps for this very reason, more easy, more simple. What is doubtful, however,
is the possibility to avoid choosing. Our freedom does not extend to this point.
There are several canons; this is not to say that what we used the call the canon does not exist.
It does, very much so: it is the central canon, it is a canon which has succeeded to gain a central
position in a literary field. "Central" is not, of course, a timeless and absolute category - a central
position is not actually central, not even a position backed by a majority (of the reading public, of the
most sophisticated elite, etc). Central is, rather, the topmost, or the more powerful. Not because there
would be an inherent power in that position, but because it is most powerfully supported by those
having the capacity to develop, further, maintain or destruct a central canon.
The central canon supposes, naturally enough, the existence of at least one other canon.
Practically, there are several of them. And they may display various "behaviors" (that is, there are
various strategies of handling them). These are always relative to the central canon.
On the very last pages of his excellent book Attridge raises the possibility of reversing the
canon, namely, to find a central place for Finnegans Wake there and regard the rest of literature as
marginal as compared to that position:

89

9. The professionals' field of operation: Canons

The exercise of making the Wake a central and not a digressive text in our literary culture can
be at present only a hypothetical one, but this is exactly its value, and the value of similar attempts to
think against the grain of the instituted canon. Within the powerful processes of ideological
inculcation such thinking can create a space where it might be possible to reassess the function and
character of the literary and its potential importance for us as members of an always changing, always
changeable society. (Attridge 1988: 237)
But is it really hypothetical? It is, if one supposes that there is one canon and that a canon is
always those of (and in) power. However, once the "exercise" Attridge suggests is taken seriously,
then in some minds, in some circles, in some groups Joyce's work is central in the canon - that is, a
canon is instituted, certainly very much different from "the" canon, but a canon of its own right. Once
one attempts at replacing an existing canon, she or he must have (and in fact has) in mind an
alternative one.
[E]ach individual has also his personal canon, of works he happens to know and value. (A.
Fowler 1982: 214)
In a sense, there is only one canon. Since most interpretive communities, with the notable
exception of that of the professionals, neither define nor regard themselves as interpretive
communities, their canons are not at all institutionalized, sanctioned, circumscribed, written. These
canons are, rather, sets of interpretive practices, rather than named books: they operate like sets of
rules, if you wish, like languages. Their borderlines are blurred and it is not always well predictable
what texts they will accommodate and what they will refuse. As opposed to them, there is the well
elaborated, institutionalized, sanctioned, circumscribed and frequently written canon (which is not
necessarily identical with those of the professionals, but certainly professionals take a great part in
forming it). This "official literary canon", as Fowler writes, is usually spoken of as quite stable, if not
"totally coherent". And the idea of canon certainly implies a collection of works enjoying exclusive
completeness (at least for a time). (A. Fowler 1982: 214)
In a sense, there are no canons. "The canon", the product of those in power (in education, in
literary institutions, in book market, in the media, in economy in general, etc.), is always under attack,
is always challenged and subverted. What is offered, instead, more often than not, is not a full-grown
list of texts, but another strategy to read the texts, or an incomplete list which suggests a new set of
rules reading them, etc.

10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

90

10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)


0. Az rtelmez i kzssgek problmja35 (ltk, id -, trbeli s szocilis kiterjedsk) tbb
vtizede jelen van az irodalomelmleti diskurzusban.36 A diskurzus szempontjbl ennek a problmakomplexumnak nem a megoldsa, megvlaszolsa a lnyeges (ha ez egyltaln lehetsges volna),
hanem sokkal inkbb jelenlte; az, hogy thatja a diskurzus egy rszt, hogy jra meg jra
tfogalmazdik, lebontdik s megint felpl, flretolhat s minduntalan visszafurakszik, az egyes
elmleti iskolk knytelenek vele (elutast vagy problematizl, megkerl vagy szembenz ,
talakt vagy meg rz ) viszonyba lpni. Anlkl, hogy ezt a jelenltet az elmleti diskurzusban
tlbecslnnk, lthat, hogy legalbb a diskurzus bizonyos rszeiben szmos krds az rtelmez i
kzssgek terminusaiban fogalmazdik t (vagyis: fogalmazdik jra, s ezzel ms krdss is vlik),
hagyomnyos problmk tfordtsnak vlik el segt jv vagy terepv, az interpretcitl a
befogadson keresztl az irodalomtrtneti folyamatokig s az irodalom trsadalmi
begyazottsgnak vizsglatig.
Magnak az irodalomelmleti diskurzusnak a m kdse hozza magval, hogy brmilyen vlasz,
amit az rtelmez i kzssgek felvetette szmtalan krdsre adni lehet, rgtn cfolatot, de legalbbis
j krdst, ktsgeket hv el . Ahogyan a professzionlis irodalomrtelmez kzssgekre jellemz az,
hogy az adott rtelmezst mindig kihvsnak, az j rtelmezs meghaladand el zmnynek
tekintik, s gy az igen, de... fordulata, az jdonsg, az eltrs, a folytonos mdosts az uralkod
szerkezete az interpretcinak gy szmos elmleti krds is llandan lezratlan marad, talakul,
tovbbi krdseket nemz/szl, tovbbi rtelmezseket knyszert ki. Ha lehet klnbsgeket tenni, az
rtelmez i kzssgek krdse nagyon ilyen.
Taln azrt, mert tlsgosan mlyen rinti az irodalomelmleti diskurzust magt.
Ez termszetesen olyasfajta megszemlyests, amelyt l tartzkodni kellene. A diskurzus
lelkifurdalsrl vagy rintettsgr l beszlni minimum metaforikus. Kicsit pontosabban fogalmazva a
kvetkez t lehetne mondani: az rtelmez i kzssgek krdse visszavonatkoztathat, visszavetthet
arra a diskurzusra magra, amelyben megfogalmazdik. Amikor az irodalomelmleti diskurzusban az
rtelmez i kzssgr l beszlnk, akkor magunkrl beszlnk: arrl, hogy a diskurzus, amelyben
megszlalsunk elhangzik, (hogyan) artikulldik. Ebben a dolgozatban ppen azt prblom majd
feszegetni, hogy vajon mennyiben tekinthet egysges kzssgnek az irodalomelmlet
m vel inek kzssge (az idz jelek megannyi krdsre utalnak), s hogy az irodalomelmlet
m velse mennyiben globlis vagy univerzlis, s mennyiben loklis tevkenysg.
1. Mindenekel tt tisztzand az, hogy mit is rtsnk ebben a kontextusban irodalomelmleten.
Ha ezt a terminust nagyon komolyan vesszk, akkor egyltaln nem vilgos, hogy mit tallunk az
irodalomelmlet cmkje alatt, s tallunk-e valamit egyltaln. Tapasztaljuk, hogy azok a szvegek,
amelyeket a kznapi szhasznlatban irodalomelmleteknek neveznk, nagyon gyakran egyltaln
nem irodalomelmletek; sttuszuk viszont mgiscsak klnbzik az rtelmezsekt l, gy, hogy
klnbsg mgis mindig ttetik, brmilyen gyans alapokon is. Olyan szvegek soroldnak ebbe a
krbe, amelyek jcskn klnbznek egymstl szerkezetkben s hagyomnyos besorolsukban; s
az utbbi vtizedben az irodalom, a filozfia s az irodalomelmlet krvonalai minduntalan
elmosdni ltszanak, s folytonos a ksztets, hogy valamelyes rendet teremtsenek e szvegek
kategorizlsban.37
Termszetesen mgiscsak tudjuk, hogy mi az irodalomelmlet, hiszen kultrnkban
megtanultuk, hogy nagyjbl mit kell rtennk ezen a szn. Mr az oktats sorn is szerepet jtszanak
35

Igazn nem szernytelensgb l, csupn mert viszonylag friss sszefoglalrl van sz (a korbbi szakirodalom
legalbb rszleges trgyalsval), hivatkoznk sajt rsomra: Mi a baj az rtelmez i kzssgekkel? In: Te
rongyos (elm)let! Budapest: Balassi, 1998, 135-165.
36

Ez a kifejezs nem affle dekrumknt szerepel itt: szndkosan nem az irodalomelmlet szt hasznlom.
Ennek magyarzatt l. ks bb.

37

L. Bhm Gbor tanulmnyt ebben a ktetben.

91

10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

bizonyos elmleti megfontolsok az irodalom-olvass konvenciinak elsajttsban s


tudatostsban: a dikokat felszltjk arra, hogy ne kizrlag az letrajzi adatokra hagyatkozzanak,
hogy rveljenek, s ne pusztn rzseiket fejezzk ki, hogy vegyenek figyelembe bizonyos
grammatikai, stilisztikai s retorikai jellegzetessgeket is (mind az rtelmezett szvegben, mind sajt
rtelmezsk megformlsakor). s ppgy, ahogyan az rtelmezs dcsr leges kategria, az
elmletnek s a filozfinak is magas a presztzse. Ha valaki elmlettel foglalkozik, az tbbet tud (s
jobban tudja azt), mint azok a szegny rdgk, akik a gyakorlat mezejn munklkodnak. S mi tbb,
az elmlet mintha mind id belileg, mind pedig az elismertsg skljn prioritst lvezne a gyakorlati
rtelmezshez kpest. Az elmlet tanulmnyozsa, tantsa vagy zse tbbnyire sokkalta
lnyegesebb, komolyabb s embert prblbb tevkenysgnek tetszik, mint a szvegekkel val
foglalatoskods.
Mindezek a megkzeltsek azonban megmaradnak rszint a szvegtpus problmjnak a
szintjn (hogy tudniillik elklnthet -e sajtos szvegknt az irodalomelmleti szveg, avagy
egybeolvad, sszekavarodik ms szvegekkel), rszint pedig a mr irodalomelmletiknt ttelezett
szvegek hasznlatnak szociolgijnl, jelesen a megtls krdsnl. Az els kevsb fontos, s t,
flrevezet szempont lehet, a msodik nagyon rdekes; de csakis mr azutn, hogy tisztztuk: az
irodalomelmleti tevkenysg nem a szvegeken mint olyanokon, magn a szvegen mlik,
hanem sajtosan kezelt szvegegyttesr l s sajtos trsadalmi rszvtelr l van sz, amelyet bzvst
illethetnk a diskurzus szval.
Ha meg kellene vlaszolni azt a krdst, hogy trtnetileg hogyan hatrolnnk be az
irodalomelmletet; hov tennnk a kezdett (ha a vgrl nem is kell mg beszlnnk, br ki tudja?),
hamarosan csapdba kerlhetnk. Ha azt vlaszoljuk, hogy az irodalom mai rtelemben vett
intzmnynek megjelense eltt aligha lehetett olya n irodalomelmlet, amelyet ma is ekknt
olvashatunk; teht minden bizonnyal a renesznsz krl kell keresni az elmlet els megjelenst. Br
szmos rv szlna amellett is, hogy a romantika korszakt jelljk meg effle pontknt, mgsem
szvesen tekintennk a romantika eltti elmleti reflexikat affle vletlenszer, esetleges,
elhanyagolhat fejlemnyeknek. Csakhogy nyilvnval, hogy szmos elfeltevst kellene tisztznunk
ahhoz, hogy belemenjnk effle trtneti krdsekbe. Aristoteles nyugodtan olvashat
irodalomelmletknt, ahogyan az kor s a kzpkor szmos ms szerzje is; az egszen ms krds,
hogy a korban hogyan olvastk ket (s megint ms, hogy minek voltak sznva). Szvegek vannak (ha
vannak), s (fleg!) elmleti diskurzus van, amely magval grget, bekebelez, elmletknt tesz
hozzfrhetv s elmletknt olvas bizonyos szvegeket. Olyan, hogy elmlet nincs. Elmletknt
olvasunk bizonyos szvegeket, ekknt rtelmezzk ket, ekknt hagyomnyozzuk ket.

2. Az irodalomelmlet diskurzusknt trtn meghatrozsa azonban rgtn megkveteli ppen


a trtneti s trsadalmi szitulst. Az el bbit l most eltekintve, csak egy-kt ideill szt az
irodalomelmleti diskurzus trsadalmi elhelyezkedsr l. Az irodalomelmleti diskurzus rsztvev i
termszetesen azt mmelik, hogy tudomnyos diskurzusban vesznek rszt: az gynevezett
irodalomelmleti szvegek olvasstl azt remljk, hogy olyan megllaptsokat tallunk majd
bennk, amelyek brmely olyan korra, nemzetre vagy terletre, brmely meghatrozott szvegre
alkalmazhatk lesznek majd, amit csak tanulmnyozunk. Azrt van szksgnk elmletre, mert azt
remljk t le, hogy vizsgldsunk szmra keretet fog nyjtani; el rja majd okfejtsnk logikjt,
azokat a mdszereket, amelyekhez legitim mdon fordulhatunk, s azokat a konklzikat amelyekre
elfogadhat mdon juthatunk. Azt remljk, hogy az elmlet tl van id n s tren, hogy olyan logikt
s mdszert kzvett, amely tlhalad a kultrkon. Soha nem beszlnk spanyol, amerikai vagy
magyar irodalomelmletr l; csak azt mondjuk, hogy irodalomelmlet Spanyolorszgban, Amerikban
vagy Magyarorszgon. Az irodalomelmlet minden egyes irodalomrtelmezs sarokkvnek szmt.
Msrszt az irodalomelmleti diskurzus gyakorta ms diskurzusok (az rtelmez , a kritikai, a
gyakorlati irodalmi diskurzusok) anya- vagy apa-diskurzusnak tekint dik. J plda lehet e helyen a
dekonstrukci. Tbb mint tizent vvel ezel tt Jonathan Culler rta le a dekonstrukci atyinak s

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10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

kvet inek helyzett;38 eszerint azokat, akik a dekonstrukci autoritatv, tekintlyes, megalapozinak
nyomban dolgoznak, minduntalan az a vd ri, hogy elkerlhetetlenl eltorztjk, feloldjk vagy
egyszer en csak utnozzk az eredeti szvegek legbensejben megbv eszmket. Culler ezzel
szemben azzal rvel, hogy a dekonstrukci ppen a kzpont/perifria dichotmit s ezzel egytt az
originalits, eredetisg, forrs, szrmazs fogalmt szeretn megkerlni, kijtszani, lebontani. gy
azutn azok a brlatok, amelyek az eredetit szeretnk vdelmezi ismtlseikkel, utnzsaikkal vagy
eltorztsaikkal szemben, egyrtelm en ellentmondanak ppen a dekonstrukci elgondolsainak.
Ha a dekonstrukci ktsgbe vonja az gynevezett elmlet els bbsgt (vagy
magasabbrend sgt, vagy kzponti szerept) az gynevezett gyakorlathoz (az rtelmezshez) kpest,
s t mg ezt a kett ssget magt is megkrd jelezi, akkor ezt a gondolatmenetet taln ms elmletekre
s gyakorlatokra is kiterjeszthetjk. Mirt is tekintennk brmely iskola elmlett gy, mint ami az
els , els dleges, eredeti s dnt megfogalmazsa annak, amit az iskola az irodalomrl, a befogadsrl,
az irodalmi m szerkezetr l (s gy tovbb) gondol? Tnyleg az elmlet volna az, ami szmunkra az
irodalom termszetr l, folyamatairl s kontextusairl a legalaposabb s legkidolgozottabb
ismereteket adhatja? Nem illetheti-e ktely azt, hogy az elmletnek mint kzponti s mag-szer
dolognak, mint gykrnek vagy eredetnek a felfogsa megfelel volna?
Az irodalomelmleti diskurzus e kt fontos vonsa teht a tudomnyos diskurzusra
visszavezethet (avagy azt imitl, annak szerkezett tvev ) univerzalits, valamint a (gyakorlattal
szembeni) els dlegessg eszmje. Mg az utbbit sikerrel vonta ktsgbe a dekonstrukci, addig az
el bbi rintetlennek tetszik az alapos kritikai megvitatstl. Az, hogy az elmlet maga is korltozott,
helyi jelent sg , esetleg ppen rtelmez i kzssgekhez kttt volna, nem klnsebben elterjedt
vlekeds.39 Holott hrom rv is volna arra, hogy fellvizsglatra kerljn az irodalomelmleti
diskurzus univerzalitsnak ignye. Az elmleti diskurzus univerzalitsnak eszmje hrom terleten
kezdhet ki. El szr is, a vlemnyek klmja mostanban ppen kedvezne annak, hogy a globalits
eszmje helyett a lokalits kerljn a kzppontba. Kzhely, hogy a nagy elbeszlsek kora lejrt,
s hogy az egyetemlegesen rvnyes tudomnyos mdszertannal kapcsolatban rgta szmos ktely
fogalmazdik meg.40 Msodszor, szmolnunk kell azzal, hogy az irodalomelmleti diskurzus maga is
nyelvhez kttt; ahogyan a hermeneutikai tapasztalat kzege a nyelv41, a hermeneutikai tapasztalat
megbeszls is az. Nem arrl van sz, hogy a nyelvi hatrok tjrhatatlanok volnnak, de
megvannak: szre kell vennnk, hogy ott vannak, s hogy tlpjk ket, hogy fordtst vgznk, ahol az
38

Jonathan Culler: Dekonstrukci. Ford. Mdos Magdolna. Bp., Osiris, 1998, 327. skk. o.

39

Nem szmtva ide a feminista vagy a fekete irodalomelmlet szszlit. Nagy krds azonban, hogy ezek a
megkzeltsek valban elmletek-e, brmilyen rtkes szempontokkal gazdagtjk is irodalomrtsnket.
Azok, amennyiben sszetev i az irodalomelmleti diskurzunak, s nem azok a sz tudomnyelmleti rtelmben.
Nem azok, amennyiben nyltan ideologikus megfontolsok vezrlik ket; de mirt ne lennnek azok, ha
megmutathat, hogy az sszes tbbi elmlet sem mentes az ideologikus, s t politikai megfontolstl? Egybknt
l. Henry Louis Gates szellemes megjegyzst: Simone de Beauvoir wrote that one is not born a woman; no,
and one is not born a Negro; but then, as Donna Harraway has pointed out, one isn't even born an organism.
Lord knows that black art has been attacked for well over a century as being not universal, though no one ever
says quite what this might mean. If this means an attack against self-identification, then I must confess that I am
opposed to universality. (The Master's Pieces: On Canon Formation and the African-American Tradition. In
Henry Loius Gates Jr., Loose Canons. Notes on the Culture Wars. New York Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992, 36.
40

E ponton meglehet sen fonk dolog volna szakirodalomra hivatkozni, s t a dolgozat egszt a szakirodalomtl
val tartzkods jellemzi. (Br persze mgis hivatkozni kell egy szvegre: Jean-Francois Lyotard: A
posztmodern llapot. In: Jrgen Habermas, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Richard Rorty: A posztmodern llapot. Bp.,
SzzadvgGond, 1993, 7-145. o.) Ugyanis az egyik problma ppen az, hogy mennyire hivatkozhatunk nagy
s ltalnosan rvnyes szvegekre, hogy mennyire vessk al magunkat ez esetben pldul a nagy
elbeszlsek megsz nsr l szl nagy elbeszlsnek, hogy ha minden irodalomelmleti diskurzus korltozott,
helyi, muland, akkor lehetnek-e mintk, paradigmk, apk/anyk stb. Hogy behdolunk-e a kategrik s
fogalmak imperializmusnak, avagy felszabadtkknt fogadjuk-e ket. A szakirodalom felems hasznlata
ebben a dolgozatban ezt a bizonytalansgot tkrzi.
41

L. persze Hans-Georg Gadamer: Igazsg s mdszer. Bp., Gondolat, 1984, 269 skk. o.

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10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

ekvivalencia mindig csak ltszlagos lehet. Harmadszor: amikor az irodalomelmleti diskurzus olyan
krdseket tesz fl, amelyek az irodalmi folyamatok trsadalmi m kdst rintik, amikor teht azzal
a trsadalommal kell a maga mdjn szmot vetnie, amelyben maga is funkcionl (s ez nem affle
marginlis, sz ken szakmai feladat, hanem nagyon is mindennapos), akkor elkerlhetetlen, hogy ne
pusztn megfigyel je legyen az ideolginak, hanem maga is mr mindig titatdott az
ideolgikkal. Ahogyan artikullja a krltte lev (az irodalomelmleti diskurzust krnyez ) vilgot,
az mr maga is valamely (ha tetszik, ideologikus) nz ponttl fgg, ennyiben korltozott s ideiglenes.
A kvetkez kben az utbbi kt megfontolsrl ejtnk nhny szt: teht a nyelvisgr l s az
ideologikussgrl.
3. A nyelvhez ktttsg kt pldja az etimologizls s a szjtk.
Az irodalomelmleti diskurzusban a megnevezs sosem semleges: nem a tudomnyos
terminolgia tiszta szavait, hanem trtnetileg terhelt, jelentseket mozgst szavakat hasznlunk.
Segt-e valamit, ha etimologizlunk? Szmt-e, ha visszavezetjk a szt rg elfelejtett, eltemetett
jelentseihez, ha megkeressk az eredeti rtelmet, ha a sz csaldjt kutatjuk megvilgtja-e ez azt
a helyzetet, amelyben a sz ma megjelenik?42 A politikusoktl a filozfusokig, az gyvdekt l az
irodalomelmlet m vel iig elterjedt nzet, hogy ha a hasznlt sz mell etimolgiai tmutatst is
adunk, akkor a sz sokat visszanyer elsllyedt jelentseib l s konnotciibl: gy tr vissza, hogy
ezek a jelent sgek gazdagtjk s meger stik. gy is lehet vlekedni, hogy az etimologizls rvilgt
a jelenlegi jelentsre, knnyebben megragadhatv, esetleg egyrtelm v teszi. Msok viszont gy
rvelnek, hogy az etimologizls szmos rdekes mellkjelentst hoz a felsznre, gymlcsz
spekulciknak nyit teret, s kapcsold fogalmak egsz hljt trja fl.
Lehetnk szkeptikusak az effle llspontokkal kapcsolatban, mindenesetre ezek maguk is
ktsgbe vonjk, minthogy klcsnsen ki is zrjk egymst. Vagy forduljunk-. (vissza) a
(termszet)tudomnyok jl bevlt kritriumaihoz, s ragaszkodjunk-e a rgztett, kvzi-terminusjelleg szavakhoz, amelyeknek jelentse vltoz(tat)hatatlan, s amelyeknek semmifle kapcsolatuk
nincsen mindennapi nyelv-bli homonmikhoz? Nem volna-e ez kiss tlhaladott llspont, ppen a
humn tudomnyok terletn? S tnyleg nyernnk-e vele? Kt vlasztsunk lehet, attl fgg en, hogy
mit gondolunk a tudomnyrl, tudomnyossgrl, tudomnyos diskurzusrl. Vagy visszautastjuk az
etimologizlst mint metateoretikus tevkenysget (mg persze meg rizhetjk az t megillet helyet a
nyelvszetben vagy az eszmetrtnetben), vagy pedig elfogadjuk mint a fogalomelemzs legitim
mdszert. Az el bbi llspont ahhoz a nzethez kt dik, hogy a tudomnyban hasznlt (!) nyelvnek
semmi kze az elemzs trgyhoz, s klnsen ha olyan sszetett s kifinomult dologgal
foglalkozunk, mint amilyen az irodalom, nincs rtelme magukon az elmleti fogalmakon (azok nyelvi
megalkotottsgn vagy trtnetn) tpel dni, s t az effle spekulci kifejezetten flrevezet lehet. Az
egyik sz ppoly j, mint a msik. Trtnetk kvl esik az irodalomelmlet voltakppeni hatkrn
(s kvl is kell tartani). Az utbbi llspont azt sugallja, hogy az irodalommal val foglalatoskods
annak rsze, amit Schmidt irodalom-rendszernek nevez, kzvett , meggy z funkcija van, rszvtel
az irodalmi kommunikciban, s gy nem szabadulhat ,meg a retoriktl, s t, olykor a lehet
legkzelebb kell kerlnie sajt trgyhoz. Az el bbi llspont szerint az irodalomelmletnek az
egyetemlegessgre kell trnie; az utbbi szerint ez hi trekvs. Ezek az llspontok taln vgletesek,
s biztos, hogy szmtalan rnyalat ltezik.
Tlsgosan is kzenfekv plda volna Derrida differancija43, amely magyarra nyilvnvalan
nem ltethet t hosszas magyarzatok nlkl; angolul (s az jlatin nyelveken) mg taln rthet , de
ezek a nyelvek elenysz kisebbsgben vannak a vilgon beszlt nyelvek kztt. Vagy pldaknt

42

Heidegger, persze. De l. pl. Hans-Georg Gadamer: Hermeneutika. In: Csiks Ella, Lakatos Lszl, szerk.
Filozfiai hermeneutika. Bp., Filozfiai Figyel , 11-28; s Karl-Otto Apel: A hermeneutika filozfiai
radikalizlsa Heideggernl s a nyelv rtelemkritriumnak krdse. Uo., 189-245.
43

Jacques Derrida: Az el-klnbz ds. In: Bacs Bla, szerk. Szveg s interpretci. Bp., Cserpfalvi, .n. 4363.

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10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

hozhatnnk Thomas Docherty kivl knyvnek44 bevezet jt, ahol a szerz gy vezeti be a
tekintly/autorits/szerz sg s az olvass kategriit, hogy az olvass (reading) sz angol,
kzpangol stb. jelentsvltozsait veszi szemgyre. Az angol olvass vajon ms, mint a magyar, a
hindi, a szuahli? Nyilvn igen. Nyilvn nem. Nagy krds, hogy segt-e, szmt-e ennek az (lltlag)
kultrkon tvel tevkenysgnek a megkzeltsben a nagyon is nyelvhez s kultrhoz kttt
magyarzat.
A differancia nemcsak visszavezet az etimolgihoz, hanem egyttal szjtk is. A
dekonstrukci csak nyilvnvalv, felt n v teszi, s nem egyszer tematizlja azt, ami sokszor (ha nem
mindig is) jelen volt a f knt filozfiai diskurzusokban: a tbbjelents , a flrertst kihv, az
asszocicikat el csalogat szavakat s megfogalmazsokat. Ha az etimolgia mg legitim eljrsnak
lczhatja magt, s krl van bstyzva a nyelvszet, filolgia, gondolkodstrtnet gynevezett
tnyeivel, akkor a szjtk nyltan vllalja a botrnyt. Olyan terletr l kerl a (tudomnyos)
diskurzusba, amely maga a tudomnytalansg, a mindennapisg, az irracionalits.
A szjtk olyan kellemetlen tnyez , amelyet ki kell rekeszteni a komoly diskurzusbl,
nyelvi anomlia, amelyet a gyermeki, a jtkos, az irodalmi birodalmba val visszaszortssal kell
ellen rzs alatt tartani.45
Ha az irodalmi terletr l az irodalomrl szl diskurzus terletre tved a szjtk, akkor
hatrt srt. A szjtk ttri a rszvtel s a megfigyels kztti falat. Olyasmit visz az
irodalomelmleti diskurzusba, ami csak az irodalom mezejn engedlyezett. sszemossa a
diskurzusokat. Vannak ezrt kritikusok, akik kifejezetten veszedelmesnek tartjk ezt a jelensget.
Stein Haughom Olsen szerint pldul kros az irodalom s a kritika kztti hatrok megsrtse,
ilyenkor a kritika a szjtkon s a retorikai tetszsen fog mlni, s gy aztn
... nincs tbb mrce a kritikai rvelsben, s nincs ms kritriuma a j rvnek, mint a tetszsre
s a meggy zsre val kpessg.46
Ebb l pedig az kvetkezik, hogy a kritika elmleti koncepcija nem pusztn normatv, hanem
forradalmi. Nem a jelen gyakorlat magyarzatt t zi ki clul, hanem megvltoztatst. Az igazi krds,
amelyet ez a koncepci felvet, ezrt nem elmleti, hanem politikai.47
Hogy a szjtk az irodalomelmleti diskurzusban nemcsak affle sznez elem, hanem
komolyabb jelent sge van, azt a msik oldalon llk is meger stik:
A szjtknak azrt van ekkora hatalma, mert alaknzza azt az alapzatot, amelyen a nyelv
kommunikatv hatkonysgrl alkotott elkpzelseink nyugszanak: Saussure megfogalmazsban,
hogy minden jell nek megfelel egy t le elvlaszthatatlan jellt, s a kett egymstl klcsnsen
annyira fgg, mint egy paprlap kt oldala. Amennyiben a termszetes vagy mestersges nyelv
nem tudja sszehozni az egyedi jell t az egyedi jelentettel, akkor lltlag nyelvknt is kudarcot vall.
A szjtk lehet sge esend sgnk jegye gy tetszik, nyelvnket, mint ltnk minden ms
aspektust is, megrinti a tkletlensg.48
A szjtk teht krdsess teszi a hasznlt (tudomnyos) nyelv tisztasgt, a diskurzusterletek elhatrolst, a mrct, a komolysgot s t, magt a mdszert is. A szjtk egyedi, alkalmi,

44

Thomas Docherty: On Modern Authority. The Theory and Condition of Writing 1500 to the Present Day.
Sussex: The Harvester Press, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
45

Derek Attridge, Peculiar Language. Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce. Methuen:
London, 1988, 189.
46

Stein Haughom Olsen: Critical Theory and Atheoretical Criticism. In Jeanette Emt, Gran Hermern, eds.
Understanding the Arts. Contemporary Scandinavian Aesthetics. [Studies in Aesthetics 3.] Lund: Lund
University Press, 1992, 90.
47

Uo., 89-90.

48

Attridge, uo.

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10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

nem ltalnosthat, s nem kvethet : nem mdszeres, nem rendszeres. Radsul bezr egy nyelvbe,
mert fordthatatlan. Nem tr univerzalitsra, s t, kizrja (legtbbszr) mr a msik nyelvet is.
Lehet azt mondani, hogy csak jabb fejlemnyr l, s az id ben sem el re, sem htra nem vonhat
le bel le kvetkeztets: nem volt mindig gy, s nem is lesz. (Ml divat.) Csakhogy a krds az, nem
a nyelvnek (az irodalomelmleti diskurzus nyelvnek is) inherens sajtossgrl van-e sz. (Ez ellen
joggal berzenkedhetnk.) Vagy: nem olyan jelensgr l van-e sz, amely br vletlenszer en,
alkalmilag, taln tudattalanul, semmikppen sem programatikusan, mgis: sokszor thatotta az
irodalomelmlet diskurzust? Amely mindig is lehetetlenn tette (de legalbbis neheztette) az
univerzalits ignynek rvnyre juttatst?
Az grt kt plda mellett itt van, radsknt, egy harmadik. Az irodalomelmleti diskurzus
nyelvhez-ktttsge csakgy, mint kultrba-gyazottsga, az irodalmi s az irodalomelmleti kztti
folytonos hatrtlpse megnyilvnulhat abban is, amit az irodalomelmleti diskurzus
intertextualitsnak nevezhetnk. Michal Glowinski pldul azon tpreng, vajon az intertextulis
mozzanatok (tlzott) hasznlata nem vezet-e a kritika felbomlasztshoz. Vgkvetkeztetse mgis
az, hogy
Az intertextualits itt nem vlik a metatextualits ellenttv, pp ellenkez leg, minthogy kt
(vagy tbb) nyelv dialgusra pl, magba szvja a metatextualits elemeit, s ennek
kvetkezmnyekppen meg rz dnek az alapvet kritikai funkcik.49
Az az etimologizlsban, a szjtkban s az intertextualitsban kzs vons a
viszonylagossg: a terminus jelentse id t l s trt l fgg en alakul, a kontextusok vltozsa
megmutatja a sz elmozdul jelentst, a szveg ms szvegekhez kpest j jelentsekkel telt dik.
Amikor az irodalomelmleti diskurzus ezekre hagyatkozik, akkor (mg ha beszl i nem is
tudatostjk ezt) lemond az rkrvny sgr l, a mdszeressgr l, az egyetemessgr l. Megmutatja,
hogy attl a nyelvt l fgg, amelyet hasznl, s nem is akarja ezt a fggst felszmolni.
6. Amikor olyan irodalomelmleti krdsek fogalmazdnak meg, amelyek az irodalom
trsadalmi begyazottsgt, a hatalmi s alrendeltsgi viszonyokat, a befogads s az alkots
trtneti-trsadalmi meghatrozottsgt rintik, akkor vlik egszen kzzelfoghatv, hogy maga az
irodalomelmleti diskurzus is rszese annak, amir l beszl. Ekkor vlik egyrtelm v, hogy a
rszvtel s a vizsglat (vagy megfigyels) klnvlasztsa50 csakis (jindulattal:) mestersges,
ideiglenes, feltteles s hipotetikus lehet, vagy (rosszindulattal:) hamis s flrevezet . S. J. Schmidt
empirikus irodalomtudomnyban a tudomnyos tevkenysg lesen elvlik a rendszer jtkaiban
val puszta rszvtelt l (s implicit mdon ez utbbi ezrt valamelyest alacsonyabb pozciba kerl).
Schmidt felfogsa szerint vilgos klnbsget kell tenni a diskurzusok univerzuma kztt, s nem kell
felemelni az egyiket a msikhoz: az elmleti vagy tudomnyos diskurzus nem vegytend ssze a
gyakorlati vagy rsztvev vagy rtelmez diskurzussal, az irodalom rendszert meg kell klnbztetni
az irodalom tanulmnyozsnak rendszert l, hiszen ez utbbi az irodalomtudomny
(Literaturwissenschaft) rsze. gy a szerepek egyfajta demokratikus s axiolgiailag semleges
jrafelosztsa jtszdik le: az elmletmentes olvass s rtelmezs rme, lvezete, erotikus jellege
kap hangslyt, s ekknt kirekeszt dik az okoskods, a logikus rvels, az okfejts rviden: a
tudomnyos diskurzus terletr l. Csakhogy az irodalmi let gyakorlata (az irodalom-rendszer,
ahogyan Schmidt nevezi) s az irodalomelmlet mezeje nem fggetlenthet egymstl. Nem csak
arrl van sz, hogy az irodalmi m vek szmos esetben befolysoljk az irodalomelmlet-alkotst, az
irodalomelmlet m velst, hanem arrl is, hogy az irodalmi m vek rtelmezse szmos tletet adhat
az irodalomelmletnek magnak is, s t, bizonyos esetekben ppen az irodalmi m rtelmezs az
elmletek kialakulsnak blcs je. Msfel l az elmletek tbb csatornn keresztl is
49

Glowinski, Michal: Intertextuality in Critical Discourse. In E. de Haard, T. Langerak, W. G. Weststeijn, eds.


Semantic Analysis of Literary Texts. To Honour Jan van der Eng on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday.
Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990, 205
50

V. S. J. Schmidt:,, Elrud Ibsch:

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10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

visszakapcsoldnak az irodalmi letbe: az oktatst csakgy, mint a knonalkotst t- meg thatjk


bizonyos elmleti megfontolsok (amelyek viszont nem fggetlenek az ideolgiai vagy akr politikai
megfontolsoktl).
Ez azonban csak a problma egyik rsze vagyis inkbb egyik megfogalmazsa, ahogyan azt
az empirikus irodalomtudomny knlja.
Lssunk nhny kurrens tmt az irodalomelmlet mai terepr l. A kultrk klnbsgeit jl
mutatja a kvetkez eset. A nyugati szakirodalom (s f leg az amerikai) a 80-as s 90-es vekben tele
volt a tudomnyos let rsztvev inek meghatroz s nyomaszt tekintlyr l s hatalmrl folytatott
vitkkal, amelyekben megkrd jelezhetetlen el fltevs volt az, hogy az egyetemi let nagyhatalm
urai dnt befolyssal brnak az egsz kulturlis letre, de mg az egyes rtelmez i stratgik
alakulsra is.51 Ezzel sszefggsben ugyancsak komoly kzdelmek zajlottak a knonok dolga
krl52, a knon-vltozsokrl, amelyeket bizonyos hatalommal br s befolysos kultra-irnyt
csoport p re rdekei motivlnak. A knonok termszetnek vizsglata kemny empirikus munkt
ignyel. Bizonyra ez a felismers vezetett szmos teoretikust s irodalomtrtnszt klnsen az
Egyeslt llamokban arra, hogy alaposan megvizsgljk azt, amit a knonalakts legnyilvnvalbb
intzmnyes manifesztcijnak vlnek: az egyetemi tanterveket. Ha megnzzk azokat az rsokat
(pldul az MLA CD-ROM bibliogrfijban), amelyeket az utbbi vtizedben a knon krdsr l
kzztettek, vilgos, hogy az irodalmrok nagy rsze szmra az egyetlen tja annak, hogy kzel
kerljenek a knon-problma lnyeghez az, hogy tanterveket elemeznek. Ez azt is sugallja, hogy
csak az egyetemet kell figyelembe venni (aligha tallhatk rsok a kzpiskolkrl, nem is beszlve
az ltalnos iskolkrl), spedig a tanterv trtnett s jelen llapott; azokat a neveket s m veket,
amelyek megjelennek az ralersokban; s gy tovbb.
A knon problmi gyakorta specilis amerikai problmk, amelyeket ms kultrkbl rkez k
teljes mlysgkben nem ismerhetnek (hiszen specilisak), nem is szlva az eurpai elemz k szmra
vgkpp kevss ismert zsiai vagy afrikai kultrk specilis problmirl. Nagyon egyszer en s
tiszteletlenl fogalmazva: az amerikai megkzelts s anyaga annyira specilis, egyedi, partikulris,
hogy nevezhetnnk provincilisnak vagy etnikainak vagy furcsa, de elhanyagolhat kisebbsget
reprezentlnak is. Ha az eurpai vagy zsiai irodalmr megprblja az amerikai fogalmakat,
terminusokat, megkzeltsi mdokat alkalmazni sajt kultrjra, hamarosan beleveszhet az
analgik hibaval keressbe, vagy, ami mg rosszabb, egyszer en utnozni kezdi a Nagy Amerikai
Testvrt.
Mrpedig a knon-vltozsnak ez a felfogsa (vagy ez a jelensge) korntsem univerzlis
termszet . A vilg szmos szegletben bizonyra nagy vatossggal s szmos fenntartssal kellene
kezelni. Egyltaln nem biztos, hogy azok a kategrik, amelyekkel a modern nyugati trsadalom
szerkezete megnyugtatan lerhat (s amelyekkel ennlfogva a trsadalomban m kd intzmnyek,
gy az irodalmi folyamatok is, ezekkel elg sszer en megkzelthet k), brhol s brmikor rvnyesek
volnnak. Ha arra tesznk ksrletet, hogy e kategrikat generalizljuk (kiss ideologikusan
terheltebb megfogalmazssal: totalizljuk), akkor nem tesznk mst, mint a loklisat, a pillanatnyit
lltjuk paradigmatikus esetnek. Ebben az rtelemben az irodalomelmleti spekulcik (vagy
megltsok, gondolatmenetek, felismersek stb.) nyelv- vagy kultra-fgg ek; provincilisak, ha gy
tetszik. Azok az irodalmrok, akik klnbz kultrkbl rkeznek, rendkvl rdekes dolgokat
kzlhetnek ugyan egymssal, de nem felttlenl relevns vagy alkalmazhat dolgokat.53 S vajon kelle trekedni valamifle univerzalitsra? Van-e ennek rtelme, haszna, clja, perspektvja, egyltaln:
lehet sge? S nem volna-e ez maga is univerzlis kvetelmny, valamely id t l s trt l fggetlen
tudomnyelkpzels kvetkezmnye?
51

Err l l. pl. Fish s Bates vitjt a Helikon professzionalizmus-szmban (1992, 221-245).

52

Ennek friss magyar sszefoglalst l. Farkas Zsolt: Knonvita s kultrhbor az Amerikai Egyeslt
llamokban. In: Farkas Zsolt: Most akkor. Budapest, Filum Kiad, 1998, 5-37.
53

Egy kollgm a 70-es vekben egy ves sztndjat kapott, hogy Vietnamban kutathassa a vietnami
renesznszot. Vajon van-e ilyen? Garantlom, hogy megtallta.

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10. Professional communities (in Hungarian)

Az a helyzet persze, hogy az irodalomtrtneti s irodalomelmleti terminusok maguk is


tvtelek, msolatok, ismtlsek, csak pp vagy elhomlyosult mr az tvtel mozzanata, vagy ppen
pozitv el jelet kapott: ezzel emel dik be a nemzeti irodalom a vilgirodalomba.54 Amir l sz van,
mindennapos jelensg. Radsul nagy krds, hogy megszabadulhatunk-e az univerzalizmustl; nem
vlunk-e rabjaiv a partikularitsnak, a nacionalizmusnak, nem zrkzunk-e be, nem sajt
besz kltsgnket iedologizljuk-e meg.
S mi a helyzet az rtelmez i kzssgek fogalmval? Az a mks helyzet ll el , hogy maga az
rtelmez i kzssgek kategrija is rtelmez i kzssgek termke. Ha valamennyire is jogos az az
elkpzels, hogy az rtelmez i kzssgbe val besorols az a tulajdont tevkenysg, amikor egy
rtelmezs helyt egy bizonyos rtelmez i kzssgben rgztjk vagy egy rtelmez i stratgit egy
bizonyos rtelmez i kzssggel hozunk kapcsolatba maga is rtelmezs, s ennlfogva ugyancsak
rtelmez i kzssg fggvnye;55 ha teht azt llthatjuk, hogy az rtelmez i kzssgeket ms
rtelmez i kzssgek teremtik akkor joggal vethet fel az a krds is, hogy egyltaln az rtelmez i
kzssgek problmja nem valamely rtelmez i kzssg(ek)t l fgg-e. Hogyan is llthatnnk, hogy
univerzlis, trt l s id t l fggetlen krdsr l volna sz? Ahogyan azt mondhatjuk, hogy annak
megtlse: valamely rtelmezs egy bizonyos rtelmez i kzssg termke-e (s hogy melyik), maga
a kategria az rtelmez i kzssgek kategrija sem rkrvny s rgztett, hanem egy
bizonyos rtelmez i kzssgt l, a jelenkori eurpai s amerikai irodalomelmleti diskurzus
m kdst l fgg. A sensus communis kategrija akkor keletkezik (s klnsen: akkor vlik
fontoss), amikor problma lesz; a kzzls, az rthet sg, a kzrthet sg, az rtelmezs mdjainak
szttagoldsa trtnetileg lerhat (teht: tagolt, nem rk, nem vltozatlan) problmk.56

54

Megint nismtlsbe bocstkozom: A nemzeti irodalmat a vilgirodalom terminusai (m faji vagy korszakmeghatrozsai, iskolba-sorolsai, potikai szablyai stb.) szerint olvassunk, s gy tmpontokat kapunk a kis
np knonjnak kialaktshoz; voltakppen beleknyszerlnk abba, hogy a kis np korszakait, m fajait stb.
aszerint a knon szerint helyezzk el, ahogyan azt a vilgirodalom rtelmezsi stratgii szerint kell.
Megtalljuk a magunk manierizmust, rokokjt, szentimentalizmust, djt, j trgyiassgt, szrrealizmust,
szemlytelen lrjt: mindazon kategrikat, amelyek helyettnk rgtn rtelmezik is a knonba kerlend
m vek sort. Ha igaz az, hogy a knon mintegy elolvassa helyettnk a m vet, akkor az is elmondhat, hogy a kis
npek knonjai maguk is ms (vilgirodalmi) knonok olvasatai, vagy azokat is ezek a knonok alaktjk sajt
kpkre. Ez alkalmat adhat arra, hogy a kis npek irodalmnak hivatsos rsztvevi berzenkedjenek az effajta
imperializmus ellen; csakhogy a bezrkzson, az originalits vagy autogenezis bornrt hangslyozsn kvl
ennek nemigen van alternatvja. A kis npek knonjainak vizsglata. Nhny mdszertani megjegyzs.
Helikon 1998, el kszletben.
55
56

Ezt korbban is kifejtettem: Mi a baj az rtelmez i kzssgekkel? In: Te rongyos (elm)let!, 164-165. o

L. pl. Szabolcsi Bence: A zenei kznyelv problmi. Bp., Akadmiai, 1968; Nmeth Lajos: A m vszet
sorsfordulja. Bp., Gondolat, 1970 Nem teljes egyetrtssel, de a problma megfogalmazsa irnti ill
tisztelettel.

98

11.Canonized interpretations

11. Canonized interpretations


Now I would like to concentrate on one or two tentative sentences of an older study of mine. I
have tried to argue that a canon is not merely a set of texts but, rather, it is a range of socially
preferred interpretations of some texts. That is, what is taken as canonical is a text along with its
interpretation, and this interpretation is, accordingly, taken as a canonical one. As I argued, canon
can be regarded as an entrenched or even institutionalized variety of the interpretation which is
canonical; what changes is a certain set of interpretive assumptions and, along with this change or
perhaps as a consequence of it, there is a also change in the texts picked out as valuable, as apt
subjects of analysis or education. If it is true, it can provide an explanation for the fact that new
texts can be incorporated into the canon, that is, a canon is not a fixed set of texts but a set which can
be extended, enriched, modified.
My hypothesis, then, is that a text is part of the canon together with its interpretation which will
make it possible that other texts, in some way or another resembling to that text, can be interpreted in
a much more smooth way, and thus incorporated into the canon.
A very clear example could be the case of patriotic poetry of the nineteenth century. The
followers of this trend will have much more chance to be parts of the canon than those ignoring or
turning against it. This maybe one of the reasons of epigonism. However, the issue must be much
more complicated than that. First of all, even if texts become canonical together with their
interpretation, it is not just any canonical text which will generate a set of canonical interpretations.
The interpretive tradition of Balzac will help in including minor Hungarian Realist writers into the
canon, but not necessarily vice versa; we often read second rate poetry along the conventions of
interpreting great, canonized poetry, however, it is not at all the case that we extend our
interpretations of the second rate poetry to the canonized one. That is, maybe there are levels of
canonicity, depending on the corresponding canonical interpretation.
Second, the history of canonical interpretive conventions is far from being the same history as
that of canonical texts. Canonical interpretations (or canons of interpretation) may prove to be much
more long lasting or conservative than the texts themselves they have been originally attached to. It
well may be that some texts are not read any more when their interpretations still influence the
interpretations of some later texts. Maybe sometimes there is an asymmetry of this kind. Then, it is a
question what makes interpretations survive while their corresponding texts fade away.
Third, it is a question what powers are behind these canonical interpretations backing and
changing them. Whereas we may have some hope to find the particular critics, interpreters and
institutions which are responsible for the canonization of the particular canonical texts, perhaps it is a
more difficult endeavour to trace back the formation of a canonical interpretation. In my earlier paper
I have indicated that some texts may preserve their canonical position even if their interpretation is
somewhat modified. However, it is a question why and when some canonical interpretations,
canonized strategies of interpretation will preserve their status.
Canonical interpretations could be conceived of as higher or even as great narratives (to refer to
Lyotards term). They tell the way an encounter between the text and the reader should take place. A
canonical interpretation is a general scenario which has particular forms in a given case. Now let me
give you some examples. I will try to give a sketch of two canonized interpretations, or, rather, two
patterns of canonized interpretations. Either of them is connected to any specific literary text; rather,
both are related to a set of texts. The first example is the canonical reception of Realist narratives; the
second is the canonical position of folk art in high literature.
In the case of the Realist novel, the canonical interpretation (that is, the narrative describing or
rather prescribing the text/reader relation) goes something like this: the uninformed reader turns to the
text in order to gain information about the society (or the history of the society), to have an insight
into the hidden motives of the actors of the society (or history). The text, being a good, reliable,
canonical Realist text, fulfils these expectations, and, moreover, it offers some patterns of behavior or

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11.Canonized interpretations

role models. The role of the reader is to look through the text, the text is transparent for the reader. It
can either be exhausted, or at least its pool of meanings is rather restricted. It is, in Roland Barthess
words, readable.
Think of the reception of Realist works in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the
twentieth century. Reflection of the real life, giving account of the social layers, and unmasking the
hidden motives have long been the most important elements of the interpretation of Realist narratives.
What counted as the cornerstones of interpretation, then, were denotative and ideological functions of
the text (rather than, say, textual characteristics or intertextual relations). The novelists of the second
half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century were praised because of their ability to
show the true history or present of the society, because of their illustrative capacity, and because of
their reliance on the facts and reality. This pattern is somewhat modified throughout the ages: Realist
narrative was regarded as a modern chronicle, a reliable account of the present or the past, an
essentially objective form of literature (as opposed to the subjectivity of lyrical poetry). Narrative
literature is read, according to this interpretation, in order to have access to the facts of life, as well as
to draw some ethical conclusions from the lives of the people depicted in the narrative. A narrative
then can be included into the (Realist) canon if and only if it can be read/interpreted along these lines,
if it complies with the canonized interpretations of the Realist narrative.
Later, in the post-war Hungarian literary history writing for instance, Realism became a magic
label which served as a tool of legitimating Romantic or Classicist or whatever earlier text. Once the
traits (or traces) of Realism could be detected in a literary work, it deserved its position in the canon.
Following Engelss remarks on Balzac, Realists were regarded as inherently and perhaps
unconsciously revolutionaries. On the other hand, new works had to be read as Realist ones in order to
be in accordance with the ruling canon. There has also been a tendency that modern novels, those of
the twenties or the sixties, should be subsumed under the label of Realism: that is, partly at least, this
move was motivated by highly ideological, almost political considerations. If the literary historians,
the people who are in charge of the defence and maintenance of the canon, wish to include
outstanding works which otherwise would be left out, a label like Realism is pretty comfortable.
This picture may well seem to be a caricature, and I must admit that it is highly superficial and
sketchy. The point is that the vulnerability or fallibility of a great narrative like this, the historically
transitory character of a canonical interpretation becomes tangible only when a competing
interpretation emerges. For instance, the most canonical figure of Realist narrative, Balzac, whose
interpretation seemed to govern the guidelines of all other interpretations of the Realist novel, was
radically reinterpreted by Roland Barthes in his S/Z. One of the consequences of this reinterpretation
was that although Realism preserved its canonical position, the whole scenario of the desired
interpretation was rewritten. Realist novel is not transparent any more, it has subtle textual structure,
and its representational nature is not at all the most important one. Consequently, the structure of the
canon is modified: perhaps some of the readable works will drop out, whereas some works (earlier
regarded as traditional Realist works) will prove to be writable.
Let me turn to my second example. In the last two centuries, and especially in some East and
Central European literatures, popular art became a major source of "high" or canonized literature.
More specifically, as of the age of Romanticism (and perhaps earlier) the importance of folk song and
folk tale in the literature became outstanding. That is, a specific interpretation of folk literature served
as a point of reference for some influential writers. One of these interpretations, or rather, a general
pattern of interpretation was to take folk literature as representing a counter-culture, as if folk songs or
folk tales expressed, fundamentally and essentially, a gesture of resistance.
So what is the canonical interpretation corresponding to the poetry of popular roots? What is
the scenario (or narrative) of the encounter of the text and its reader?
First of all, the reader must realize that what she or he faces has some intertextual relation to
what he believes is popular poetry. It is thus presupposed that the reader has at his or her disposal a
sort of repertoire of the popular culture: specific rhyme patterns, repetitions, parallelisms, meter,

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11.Canonized interpretations

thematic structure, genre rules, and the like. The reader must interpret this presence as a hallmark of
popularity. Moreover, he or she will suppose that since folk literature is, by its own, essentially, antitotalitarian, subversive, even it has a revolutionary character, the text referring back to this source will
also be, by its own nature, subversive.
Thus, for instance, not only one of the major Hungarian poets of the nineteenth century, Petofi
became an emblematic figure of the harmony of poetry and revolutionary thought, but, following the
scenario of his canonical interpretation, the literary reception of popular literature became an
expression of progressive and patriotic attitude. A slight reference to folk poetry rang the bell of
national resistance or solidarity with the poor.
This tradition of interpretation became canonical up to the twentieth century, maybe even until
our days. Turning to folk literature and entering into all sorts of intertextual relations with it was
perhaps not a sine qua non for canonicity, but it definitely made it easier for the text to be connected
to the great tradition, and, thus, become part of the canon.
To take an early example, a great Hungarian poet, Endre Ady, in one of his poems used some
lines taken from an old Hungarian folk song. The folk song, originally, was about a peacock, saying
that it will fly up to the roof of the county council, and the poor prisoners will be freed. For Ady, it
became a symbol of political freedom; in this interpretation (that is, in the poem which itself is an
interpretation of the original subtext of the folk song), he followed the tradition of regarding the poor
prisoner, the outlaw, even the bandit as an emblematic figure of freedom, something like cowboys for
North Americans, and, moreover, regarding folk ballads and folk songs as the most genuine
expressions of the peoples desire to live a free life. It is not accidental that this was one of the very
few poems of Ady which became famous in Hungary in the arrangement for choir by Kodaly.
Now Ady was not at all a follower of the popularistic trend; he was a Modern poet, and this
poem of his is more or less unique. There are very few references in his work to the folk poetry.
Nevertheless, his poem, along with Kodalys choir work, has a solid place in the canon because it
strengthens the canonical interpretation. Still, there may come another interpretation, a countercanonical one, which of those who made wide use of folk poetry may lead to the consequence that this
has much more structural, rhythmic or poetic character than ideological. Or there may be attempts to
show that this vision of folk poetry can be called into question, that folk poetry is not always and not
in itself subversive or anti-authoritarian. These reinterpretations would perhaps change, again, the
canonical scene, although the main figures and main works would preserve their position.
Finally, it is worth while to reflect on the fact the most obvious examples of canonized
interpretations are those of the nineteenth century and perhaps the Realism of the twentieth. That is,
when one looks for well established and widely known conventions of reading, operations which
enable new works to take their place among the canonical works, it is never Avant-garde or
Modernism, not even the conventions of reading Medieval texts. So maybe there is a canonical
hierarchy even among the scenarios or narratives of interpretation. There may be a canon of canonical
interpretations, and some of these may probe to be more powerful than the others.

101

12. Literariness of Theory*

12. Literariness of Theory*


The title indicates a number of interesting approaches. One of them would certainly be to
regard literature as a theoretical sort of product: either as texts which embody a number of theoretical
ideas, or as a site of theory, inasmuch as reading is always theoretically loaded. Reading, which is a
prerequisite of literature, is never innocent (or, as it is often said, it is never a first reading);
furthermore, the reader, whatever naive he or she may be, always have some theories of what he or
she is up to with his or her reading activity. It may be a bit far fetched to call these often
subconscious, automatized, ideas a theory; any theoretician could easily reject such a use of the word.
Still, there is a theoretical possibility to find theories underlying readings.
On the other hand, theories themselves can be regarded as literary texts: do not take this
sentence too seriously, here I must make a number of qualifications. First of all, it is in clear in a
number of cases (though not necessarily all of them) what counts as a literary text and what as a
theoretical one. Usually, we have a rather firm set of conventions concerning the position of texts; we
know what discourse we are involved in, we know the tacit rules of understanding, whatever they may
be. Also, regarding theoretical texts as literary ones may have a number of motives: it may have its
roots in simple ignorance of the traditions of reading that text; it also may be a consequence of a
momentary mistake; it can be that the very point of the discourse in question tends to blur or
deconstruct the distinction; or it may be a deliberate effort on the part of the interpreter (either as part
of his or her irony, or as part of some demonstration) to show that just any text can be taken to be
whatever one wishes to.
An example of the last motive could be Berel Langs ironic speculation on the reading of the
telephone book, which is to suggest that this text is very close to what we would suppose to be a
literary text.57 Other examples are many, from Nietzsche to Derrida, where the status of the discourse
is either non-conventional, or it is exactly the status what is at stake, or where different reading
conventions can function simultaneously.58
Nevertheless, all I have said so far is bound to collapse or at least to be shaken. The very terms
literature and theory are hitherto taken as something granted, as a sort of essential to one or another
text, and it does not really help if we take them as characteristics of one or another discourse: the
essentialist or fundamentalist nature of the concepts themselves will probably survive. And perhaps
there is no way out of this situation: the best one can do is to admit (or pretend to accept) that there is
some sort of boundary between these texts or discourses or activities, and continue the argumentation
accordingly.
Do we read Umberto Ecos or David Lodges novels as being full of theoretical allusions and
even implications just because we happen to know that the biographical author is familiar, to say the
least, with the theories in question? Or are they theoretical as they are, in themselves? What is
Rousseaus mile? Is it philosophy (that is, theory), or a narrative? What is Borges, in a number of his
short stories? Does the story of Pierre Mnard have serious and interesting theoretical implications or is it our reading, the tradition of reading of Borges that makes him a quasi-theoretician? And what
about Swifts passage on the strange system of naming in Gulliver? It became, just as Lewis Carrolls
Alice, a favorite for the philosophers of language. Is it because it does contain something crucial
about theory, or is it the history of their interpretation, the tradition of understanding Swift or Carroll
that assigns to these texts or portions of text theoretical value? And what about the reflections on
literature and aesthetics by Flaubert in Bouvart et Pcuchet? Are Heideggers poems part of his
*

This work - my participation at the conference as well as my work in 1997-1999 - was supported by the
Research Support Scheme of the OSI/HESP, grant No. 1578/1977.
57

Berel Lang, Reading. In Berel Lang, Faces... and Other Ironies of Writing and Reading. Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1983, pp. 11-12.

58

Cf. also Malcolm Bowie, Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1987.

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12. Literariness of Theory*

philosophy, or are they just literary works? What about the ars poetici of thousands of writers for
thousands of years? I will leave these questions unanswered; all they serve is to indicate that we must
face a terrible difficult business, with a number of dead ends.
It was almost twenty years ago that Elizabeth Bruss has published her Beautiful Theories,59 a
seminal book concentrating to the theoretical/literary interface. Of course, I can neither substantially
modify nor even to summarize the main theses of the book. All I can do is to add some minor
contributions to the excellent insights of Brusss. As you will remember, her idea is that, I quote,
Following Derrida, we might say that theory is neither fact or fiction, neither the real not the
imaginary, but establishes a point where such dichotomies break down and an apparently exhaustive
taxonomy shows itself inadequate.60 Consequently, instead of - or at least besides - asking the
question of appropriateness or truth or validity of one theory or another, there is a possibility to
concentrate on how the theory is fabricated, the way it is presented, the textual, tropical or generic
nature of the theoretical text.
Without calling into question the extraordinary novelty of Brusss book, it must be noted that
the idea itself is neither a brand new one nor is it unique. On the one hand, there is a genre tradition,
that of the essay, which can traced back at least to the Romanticism or to Montaigne or perhaps even
to Plato, that of the theory formed artistically; and the very texts that Bruss chooses for analysis are,
so to speak, in the tradition of the essay: for instance, Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes or Harold
Bloom undoubtedly fall within this tradition. In some cases this tradition is even contaminated with
the conventions of scholarly journalism (without any negative overtone of the word): Barthes
Mythologies is a clear example. On the other hand, reading theoretical works as having at least a
touch of literature was, by the time Brusss volume was published, a well known, though far from
systematic, practice. In fact, Bruss himself refers to Cullers arguments defending Lvi-Strauss as
someone who made myths interesting61, or to Derrida or to Hayden White, and it is exactly these
ways of reading theories that trigger her own account. One could also add to her list the radical (and
very interesting) reading of Austin by Shoshana Felman, which pictures the Oxford philosopher of
language as an ironic writer, as a parallel of Moliere.62
In this paper, apart from listing all the difficulties we have to face and complaining about them,
I would wish to forward two theses: one is which I will not elaborate upon, although I am sure it
should be done (even if perhaps it cannot be done); and another, more simple one. The first thesis is
that there may be a systematic review of how a theoretical text is formed in order to be taken as a
more or less literary one; the second thesis is that we should turn to some extreme cases of
theoretical/literary relation in order to have a better insight to the problem itself.
As I indicated, the first thesis is a programmatic one, rather than something completed: it well
may be that one can single out some characteristic types of literalization (if that is a correct word) of
literary theory. I must tell you in advance that I will not be able to do that job; still, there may be a
well justified ambition to point out some literary characteristics that theoretical texts may have, to
present a sort of list and then make a more or less systematic typology. The idea rests on the
disqualified concept of the Russian Formalism of literariness (literaturnost): that is, it may be
supposed that certain characteristics of the text itself warrant a specific (literary) status of the text.63
Even though the hypothesis is admittedly false, that would not cause the main problem: it is always
very interesting to review the consequences of a misconceived starting point. But the closer one gets
59

Elisabeth Bruss, Beautiful Theories.

60

Bruss, pp. 490-1.

61

p. 46.

62

Shoshana Felman, Le scandale du corps parlant,Don Juan avec Austin, ou La sduction en deux langages.
Paris: Seuil, 1980. (The Literary Speech Act: Don Juan with Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1983.)
63

See e.g., Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism.

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12. Literariness of Theory*

to these issues, the less transparent they seem to be (as in the most cases it used to happen). For
instance, Hayden Whites tropical analysis of the of the narrative, including the historical narrative64,
is absolutely convincing; so that the inherent and necessarily metaphorical nature of literary
theoretical texts could be taken as one of the aspects of literariness, and should be added to our list.
Also, one should take into account that literary history is inevitably history, story, with characters,
motives, places, time and plot, perhaps climax and anti-climax. Literary history is telling a story of
how literature emerged, developed and perhaps disappeared: a typical story-telling situation.
However, it remains a question how far and what specific texts are regarded as theoretical
and/or historical: we often face histories which are generally classified as a non-literary texts, but
some histories, such as Tacitus, Livius or Gibbon are traditionally regarded as pieces of literature.
Also, it is a question whether theoretical texts should undergo a narrative analysis. The process of
reading or reception of the literary work is, of course, a temporal phenomenon, and temporality would
indicate the presence of at least a kernel of the narrative. But what about translation, then? It also has
its temporal aspects, as well as interpretation itself: does it really mean that speaking about literary
theory whatsoever we must always think in terms of narrative?
Theoretically, we could take into account several levels of literariness (a misleading concept, I
repeat). One could look for the metaphors of the text, the repetitions on different levels, the
parallelisms and the chiastic or mirror structures; the rhythm of the sentences (length, punctuation,
repetition of sentence structure); the position of the persona behind the text (singular or plural,
apostrophe, whether it turns to the reader or not, etc.); we could look for the traces of certain genres in
theoretical texts, starting from drama (dialog, as in Plato or Diderot) to lyrical poetry (as in Barthes or
perhaps Heidegger) to narrative (as in literary histories).
Of course, one can never find the gist of literariness: still, there may be a more or less
comfortable list of what literary means (priyom) are used by theoretical texts even when they
clearly remain on the side of theory. Moreover, a list like this list should be done - even if it cannot be
made, as I have indicated: because the very idea of describing a text, from a neutral, innocent, external
point of view seems to be doomed to failure. Just as we can never establish the literariness of a
literary text, just because we are always in a communicative situation with that text which preforms
our conception of that text, the same applies to any other text. All we can perhaps do is to give
account of our own conventions.
Nevertheless, it is a common experience of us all that some theoretical texts differ from some
other ones. Let me take two examples, two ends of the range, so to speak: one from the sixties,
another from the nineties. The first is Roland Barthess Systeme de la Mode,65 and the other is Henry
Louis Gates Jr.s first chapter of his Loose Canons.66 Now Barthes is, admittedly, one of those
theoreticians who always explore and transgress the boundaries, if any, between literary and
theoretical discourse. He is generally supposed to be, and rightly, I think, a full-fledged writer in the
same time as a real, genuine theoretician. This image of Barthes is much fainter when one turns to his
so-called Structuralist works: the lments de la smiologie, for instance, is never praised for its
literary potentials. It is not by chance that Bruss uses this work only as a meta-text in her book,
illuminating Barthess conception of writing. Similarly, she refers only once to the Systeme de la
Mode. Now if you read that rather early work carefully, you will find, on some quite hidden points,
very strange stylistic lapses (are they lapses?), some fractions or eruptions: there are, for instance,
evocations of the genre of the ode on some points, highly poetized and rhetorized paragraphs, asides
and repetitions. These may be taken simply as slips of the tongue, or as proofs of Barthes early
attraction to literary way of writing. But they may also raise the suspicions whether the rest of the

64

Hayden White, Metahistory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

65

Paris: Seuil, 1967.

66

Canon Confidential: A Sam Slide Caper. In: Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Loose Canons. Notes on the Culture
Wars. New York Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992,

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12. Literariness of Theory*

book is not rhetorized in a way or another: whether the very strict technical descriptions and
argumentations are not, in themselves, parodic or at least parts of a literary project. Seen from this
angle, it may become apparent that Barthes sentences are extremely long, and that he just loves
colons and semi-colons, by which he binds together several long and sarmentose sentences. He uses
catalogues, the text is full of aphorisms, and the terms written with capitals dangerously resemble to
the characters of a story.
We find a real story on the other extreme (or at least the other pole of the range), which would
be Henry Louis Gates Jr.s short story, Canon Confidential: A Sam Slide Caper. As some of you will
remember, it is a short detective story, with overt intertextual references to Raymond Chandler and
written completely complying to the conventions of what Chandlers prose has established, where the
fist person singular narrator, a private investigator, tries to find out what goes on in the tricky canon
business, and, in the end (like sometimes in Chandlers stories) he himself becomes very much
involved in the dirty practices of the canon people. This excellent piece can be taken as a reflection on
the status, nature and history of canon formation: it is, then, a theoretical work. But is it not a
theoretical work simply because we know that Gates is in the tricky literary theory business? The
setting, some characters, the story itself are clearly fictive; the narrator is evidently different from
what we believe Henry Louis Gates Jr. would be. (By the way, is Barthes narrator identical with the
biographical Roland Barthes? Is it theoretically possible? And if not, is it not another sign of the
inherent literariness - or at least fictitiousness of any theory, and, to be sure, of any writing?)
We could perhaps take Gatess funny story as nothing more than a funny story, a pastime
entertainment of an academic, an atelier text written in order to make the professionals laugh and to
make other professionals ridiculous. But is it not because we have some prejudices about what a
serious theoretician should do? And if so, how can we take theoretically seriously texts which have
been written by serious writers but definitely not theoreticians?
Let me finish by some university experiences of mine. Last year in Santiago de Compostela,
Djelal Kadir has asked us to have seminars or classes about the topic of the would-be conference,
Literatures of Theory, and he even sent us later the project of his own course. Now we are having this
conference and I must confess that we in Pcs did not have any seminar with that title or with that
topic. However, the issue seems to be a hot one. Although we did not have Literatures of Theory
course proper, our students have repeatedly raised issues directly related to this problem. Just to quote
some examples: One of our students has written a paper on the philosophical aspects of the poetry an
outstanding contemporary Hungarian poet. Another chose to analyze a turn of the century Hungarian
Positivistic literary history (which was very influential, even decades after its publication) to show
that not only is it full of metaphors and other tropes but it also can be read as a (literary) narrative. A
favorite topic of a third student of ours was the anecdotes of the New Historicist Greenblatt, which
can be taken part and parcel of Greenblatts theory as well as an element of literary communication.
There was a very interesting paper commenting on the impossible debate between Gadamer and
Derrida, and emphatically exploring the different stances that these two take towards writing, which
has its consequences in the literary nature of Derridas texts versus theoretical nature of those of
Gadamer. And in other courses the literary nature of theoretical texts has repeatedly been addressed.
Speaking of university education, to emphasize the literary nature of theoretical texts may have
some curious side-effects. Sometimes it leads the students just to give up any argumentation or logic
whatsoever (even if we know that argumentation and logic is highly questionable in literary studies),
and they choose to imitate the literary text in question or to write a literary paraphrase or to get as
close to the literary discourse as they can. It is, of course, a pretty common critical practice, literary
critics very often try to evoke the literary works they talk about by this sort of literary intertextuality
as Michal Glowinski labeled it. Subjective accounts of emotions or streams of thought provoked by
the literary text is a natural consequence of the literary theoretical thinking of our age. Also there may
be a sort of despair, a feel of loss of the firm basis of distinction between discourses: it is often asked
whether this or that type of text still counts as literary theoretical proper, if it is legitimate to play
aro2und literary texts or to let the free associations flow instead of strictly analyzing works of art, in a

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properly controlled way, pursuing, in this sense, normal, traditional literary studies. Too much
freedom may sometimes frighten the uninitiated. And perhaps not only them.

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13. Practice

13. Practice
13.1. Do Contemporary Theories Help in the Practice of Interpretation?
Although I will have some theses in this paper, most of my statements are formulated in a "yes
and no" manner. First, I do believe that literary interpretation and literary theory go hand in hand, that
there are several interesting connections between them, and that most theories have some theoretical
implications just as most literary interpretations can be processed in a theoretical framework. Still, I
will argue that their close and direct relation as well as their subordination or juxtaposition or
coexistence is not at all beyond doubt. Second, I will argue that what we call theories of literature are
quite often not theories at all; still, their status is clearly different from that of interpretation, so that a
distinction is always made, on whatever suspicious grounds. Third, I do believe that pursuing literary
theory is a very important activity, and, moreover, that theorizing is fun. However, I doubt if the
vision of theory as central and kernel, as origin or root is a valid one.
My title requires a number of clarifications. Not to mention the word "contemporary", theory
and interpretation are far from being evident; furthermore, the presupposition hidden behind the
sentence is that theories are in a way or another connected to the practice of interpretation even if they
do not help them.
First, then, let me reflect on the last element of this series, on interpretation as practice. We tend
to call interpretation texts about texts: a pretty vague circumscription, and it would perhaps be a bit
more precise if we formulated this in the following way: a text is taken as an interpretation of another
text if it can be given an interpretation (wow!) so that this text will count as a text about another one,
and, more specifically, if it refers to that text, describes it, evaluates it, or points out certain meanings
that it alleges to be parts of that text. I am fully aware that this definition is not at all satisfactory, apart
from being ugly and long. And, in fact, we really do not need any definition whatsoever. We will
usually recognize an interpretation when we see one.
It does not mean that we could not circumscribe any conventions of literary interpretation. For
instance, we could say that an interpretation should be about a certain text; that is, the receiver/reader
of the interpretation should assign the function or act of reference to the interpretation. Or we could
say that most interpretations have a moment of evaluation, besides description, that is, the reader will
probably interpret certain expressions or words or rhetorical structures as acts of evaluation.
Typically, these conventions are activated in some more or less institutionalized contexts. A piece of
criticism, say, in a newspaper or in a literary magazine will be taken as an interpretation of the work
indicated in the subtitle of the text since we have mastered the conventions of reading literary
criticism; we will also interpret a scholarly study in a scholarly journal as an interpretation; however,
we might be reluctant to call a parody or a transcription of a text an interpretation perhaps mainly
because they do not fit into the system of genres or sub-genres we accept as those of interpretation.
In an even more institutionalized context, we encounter interpretations in the classroom -either in oral or in written form. These interpretations can be taken as exercises, in Wittgenstein's
sense, if you like: they are produced primarily as examples of a particular language game or system of
rules, in order to comply with the university requirements, to demonstrate the ability on the part of the
student to form an interpretation in accordance with the guidelines on which the instruction is based.
That is, university students and even secondary school students are taught to make explicit their
understanding of the literary texts in a way that corresponds to certain conventions. Moreover, some
theoretical assumptions are made explicit during this process: students are asked not to rely
exclusively on biographical data, to argue instead of to express their feelings, to take into
consideration certain grammatical, stylistic and rhetorical characteristics.
Thus, the group of texts called interpretation comprises a number of texts with substantial
differences in their genres, levels, the groups supporting or receiving them, etc. Even what we call
critical practice is very much pluralistic in nature (we have professional, lay, educational, journalistic,
occasional interpretations, and we have reception as unreflected, unmediated interpretation). And, we

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must add, the word interpretation is often used as an inherently honorific term. A school paper, for
instance, which has no other ambition but to repeat the plot level of a certain narrative, is deprived of
the honor of being an interpretation; what we call descriptions or descriptive analyses of, say, a poem,
are often set in opposition with full fledged, genuine interpretations. Thus, interpretation in this strict
sense will not be applied either to tacit understanding, or to texts appealing to some discredited
conventions (such as retelling the plot or describing the meter of a poem).
Now, second, let's see theory. If we take this term very seriously, it is not at all clear what we
find under the label of literary theory. Let me list some so-called theories of our field. We have
Positivism and Geistesgeschichte, we have Formalism, Structuralism, and we have Deconstruction
and New Historicism, Post-Colonial studies and Feminism. Whenever philosophers of science speak
of theories, they have serious difficulties in finding a nest for literary theory, and, in general, for
theories of the humanities. In Logical Positivism, the first systematic attempt to formulate the rules of
scientific research, there is no place for any investigation of literature or of the arts. If literary studies
can be taken as a science, or if it has the ambition to become a science, it either fails or there must be
some particular rules and terms to satisfy the special needs of such a strange scientific enterprise.
Nevertheless, some theories of literature have got rather close to the idea of scientific theories,
or at least they succeeded in imitating the structure of a scientific theory. Think of Positivism and
Structuralism. In several respects, in most of their principles, they were absolutely opposed to each
other; still, both aimed at approaching the status of science, both wished to have very clear and
distinct rules, to define input and output data, and to have a transparent logic of processing them as
well as inferring from descriptions to theoretical statements. However, Positivism was full of vague
psychological speculations and obscure ideas of nationalism and spirit; and later Structuralism itself
has challenged its own theoretical foundations. In the last decades, Hermeneutics established itself as
a very special science, certainly not science in the Logical Positivist sense and perhaps not even in the
sense of later philosophies of science; and several representatives of Deconstruction have repeatedly
denied that Deconstruction should or would serve as a theory of any kind. Even if there are theories
which tend to advertise themselves as theories, this term could be taken as the term philosophy in
expressions like "the philosophy of this company" or "the philosophy of the government". No
philosopher would ever admit that these are real philosophies; so would we admit that the literary
theory of Feminism or Post-Colonial Studies is a real theory? I have no doubt that these trends will
substantially contribute to our understanding of certain texts, even that they provide points of view
that cannot be overlooked any more. But does it mean that they are theories?
Just as interpretation is a honorific term, philosophy and theory also have a very high prestige.
If you deal with theory, you will certainly know more and better than those poor devils working in the
field of practice. Moreover, theory seems to have a priority both temporally and on the scale of
prestige over practical interpretation. Theory first. You will not possibly know what you are doing
unless (or before) you have a theoretical background. Studying, teaching or pursuing theory is
commonly regarded as something much more substantial, serious and demanding activity than dealing
with texts. In this respect, literary interpretation is regarded as a more or less correct application of the
theories developed by wise people, and has no more role than a pawn in the game.
A good example is Deconstruction. More than fifteen years go, Jonathan Culler has described
the situation of the "fathers" and the "followers" of Deconstruction; according to this account, those
working along the lines of the authoritative founders of Deconstruction would inevitably distort,
dissolve or merely imitate the core ideas of the original texts. However, Culler argues, one of the main
targets of Deconstruction is precisely the dichotomy of center/periphery, the notion of originality or
source, etc. Thus, the criticism, which wishes to defend the original as opposed to its iterations,
imitations or distortions, is based on principles, which clearly contradict to those of Deconstruction.
This is an interesting case, maybe we could draw some conclusions from it. If Deconstruction
denies the primacy of so called theory to the so-called practice, or even it challenges this dichotomy
altogether, maybe this idea can be extrapolated to other theories and practices as well. Why would we

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take the theory of Structuralism or Formalism or Positivism or any other school as the first, initial,
original and decisive formulation of what this school think of literature, of reception, of the structure
of the literary work, and so on? Is it really the theory, which offers us the most thorough and elaborate
insight of the nature of literature, of its processes and contexts?
On the one hand, he answer is yes: in theoretical texts, we hope to find statements, which will
apply to whatever age or nation or region, or particular text we study. We need theory because we
hope it will give us the framework of our inquiry; it will prescribe the logic of our reasoning, the
methods we can legitimately use, and the conclusions we can plausibly draw. We hope that theory is
beyond time and space, it mediates a logic and a method which transcends cultures. We will never
speak of Spanish or American or Hungarian literary theory: we will only say literary theory in Spain,
in the USA or in Hungary. Literary theory is regarded as the cornerstone of each and every concrete
literary interpretation.
On the other hand the Deconstructionist attempt at blending text, interpretation and theory
reveals the relative nature of text types. Literary interpretations can and in fact do include theoretical
moments; even literary texts themselves (if they do exist in themselves, which is a question) may have
theoretical implications. Theories, on the other hand, will never lack interpretation; moreover, they
have their own rhetorical character, they even can be regarded as fictive constructs. So we could say
that there is no real difference between theory and practice, construction and application; the
difference may be of pragmatic nature, of course, but in no way of prestige, heuristic force or
scientific value.
So I managed to give a double answer again. Frankly, I think the second one is a bit more
convincing, though I do maintain that we cannot do without literary theory. But let us move on: who
cares about theory at all? Is it really an important issue? What about the actual connection between
theories and interpretations?
Although it is often supposed that interpretations can be labeled according to the theoretical
school they belong to, it remains a question whether interpretations have ever been followers of
theoretical insights. No doubt, certain theoretical schools had the ambition to assess or prove the
validity or usefulness of their methods or their theses by demonstrating that their application will
bring about interesting results. And, on the other hand, literary interpretation often gains its
legitimization from some theoretical positions. But do theories really matter? Even if one takes
theories as the sources or origins of the critical practice, what are the ways that theories must follow in
order to penetrate into critical practice? Here it must be noted that theories are spread in a rather
limited circle, that is, in a circle that is both sociologically delimited and culturally restricted. What
we are talking about is a very slow and complex process. Developments of interpretive practice, on
the other hand, gain theoretical interest in a capricious and random manner.
The dissemination of contemporary theories takes place in a very limited number of sites. There
are the specific loci of their occurrence, including institutions of (higher) education, literary life,
cultural policy, canonization (of both works and theoretical texts), and scholarly discourse. Theory is,
more or less, the business of the professionals. Whatever the lay, the uninitiated readers of literature
know (that is, consciously know) of literary theory is mediated by practical literary criticism. In the
last half century students in the secondary school are taught not to interpret literary works according
to the personal biography of the author, but rather with respect to the parallelisms, repetitions or
constructions of its structure, or if in the last decade or so they are taught to look for the inherent
contradictions, the lacunae, the self-reflection in the text; also, preferences of the cultural policy - and,
accordingly, tendencies of canonization - may reflect changes in the theoretical stance, for instance,
the modification of the concept of literary text of changes of the idea of entity, composition,
referentiality, and so on. All these developments can be taken as a follow-up of the literary theory of
the age. Still, it is highly illusory to presume that literary theory has a direct influence on these
changes, and even if it does, most often it is not reflected upon. Moreover, literary theory does not
necessarily have an independent way of it own: it is influenced by a number of other social

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subsystems, from literary reception to the system of other disciplines, from social needs to
psychological changes.
There is, of course, a strong trend to establish interpretation as a direct derivation of theoretical
dogmas. The idea of "scientific" interpretation, as first delineated by the Positivism, then mainly in
Structuralist schools, emphasized the priority of theoretical background, against which any practical
interpretation can and should be measured. The idea is that interpretation has a method, it has well
described aims and tools. One of the reactions to this conception is the idea of atheoretical or
antitheoretical literary studies. It would suggest that there is no method whatsoever in literary
interpretation: it is a pure participation in the literary process, an enjoyment of the literary
communication, and it is regarded as prior to any theoretical consideration. Thus, theory and
interpretation should be completely separated. Paradoxically, this reaction is characteristic both to
Impressionistic or essayistic trends, where theory gains a pretty low prestige, it is a superfluous,
luxury game of no value, and to S. J. Schmidt's empirical literary studies where scientific activity is
sharply divided from mere participation in the games of the system (and, implicitly, the latter is
placed in a somewhat lower position).
A clear distinction should be made between these reactions. Although both aims at a separation
of theory and interpretation, and both wishes to give a freedom to the latter, they are fundamentally
different. Anti-theoretical views revive the Romantic vision of the genius poet and the congenial
critic, where theory is only an intruder, and where poetic text is given primacy above all.
Interpretation of literature, for this view, must subordinate itself to the work, it must be dissolved and
it must give up its independence. Whereas in the conception of Schmidt, the universes of discourse
must be clearly distinguished: theoretical or scientific discourse should not be contaminated with
practical or participating or interpretive discourse, literary system should be distinguished from the
system of studying literature, the later belonging to that of literary studies (Literaturwissenschaft).
Although I would not argue for the close solidarity of theory and interpretation, I think both
views deserve thorough criticism. Whereas in the first case what is at stake is the emancipation of
critical activity, where the interpreter of literary work is elevated to the level of the Author or Creator,
and the scholar has no place in this sphere, in the second case a sort of democratic and axiologically
neutral redistribution of roles takes place. Thus, in the first case the issue is more or less a power
problem: the sensitive, reactive, congenial interpreter of literary works should be emancipated. In the
second case, however, by emphasizing the enjoyment, the pleasure of theory-free reading and
interpreting, the erotic nature of interpretation, it is excluded from the realm of reasoning, logical
argumentation, shortly: from scholarly discourse. However, the practice of literary life (literary
system, in Schmidt's words) and the field of literary theory are not independent. Not only in that
literary works will in several cases influence literary theory making, but also literary interpretation
gives several ideas to literary theory proper, and even in some cases it is the proper field of the early
development of theories. And also, theories have several channels of feedback into literary life; as I
have mentioned, education as well as canon-formation is sometimes informed by theoretical
considerations (which, in turn, are not independent of ideological or even political considerations).
Now let me end by discussing the two possible answers to the initial question and their
respective consequences or difficulties. So, again, do contemporary theories help in the practice of
interpretation?
Let's say first yes. We do in fact have some evidence that literary interpretations make wide use
of the assumptions and methods developed in the literary theories of their own age. It can be
demonstrated that a Positivist or a Structuralist literary interpretation is not at all independent of what
we call Positivist or Structuralist literary theory; or a literary interpretation written in the spirit of
Deconstruction will certainly use a number of categories, arguments or rhetorical figures taken from
other Deconstructionist texts (even if we would not call these texts theories). But if the answer is
positive, we have to face a number of difficulties. ***First of all, a theory is supposed to consist of a
series of highly generalized statements, whereas literary interpretation will have only occasional or

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rather implicit generalizations. Second, even their subject is different: theories are about the literary
work or the literary process or about creation or reception of the work; literary interpretations assume
a concept of the work, of the process, of its creation or reception, and are about a specific work or a
set of works. And third, if we put these considerations aside, there remains the problem that literary
interpretations very often lag behind or transcend their respective theories; they may suggest either
much more or less than explicit theories do. And, last, does practical interpretation have any
consequences for literary theory? If there is a close connection, it should have a reciprocal nature.
These are serious problems, and one may tend to conclude that the positive answer must be
abandoned. However, it can be argued that these are, so to speak, theoretical problems, which will be
mostly resolved in practice. As to generalization, there is a common sense understanding of how we
can draw general conclusions from a specific analysis; as to subject, all interpretations will in a way
or another touch upon the issues of the mode of existence of the literary work; as to discrepancies, it is
a problem only if we fix theory in the center, that is, only if it is supposed that any interpretation
should be measured against a specific theory; and as to reciprocity, there are several cases, from
Russian Formalism to Deconstruction or New Historicism when literary interpretation do in fact
precede literary theory formation.
But what if we say no? What if we deny that contemporary theories will be of any help for
literary interpretation? Does it mean that we do not need any literary theory any more, that
interpretation is quite enough? No, not at all. If the negative answer implied such a conclusion, that
would suggest a merely utilitarian conception of theory (that is, it would mean that a theory of
literature can be assessed or proved only by confronting it with literary practice, and, thus, the value
of the theory would solely depend on its usefulness); and that would also suggest an illusory
expectation, that is, a too heavy burden loaded on literary interpretation, namely, that each and every
theoretical problem should be confronted again and again in interpretations, which is clearly absurd.
However, I think that a carefully qualified negative answer might have justifiable consequences. It
may place theory and interpretation to their functionally due positions, even blur their sharp
borderlines, and offer some more freedom for both. I know that I could not do it here and now; but I
hope I could suggest some arguments for a faint and conditional NO.

13.2. canons and Writing literary history: Lajos Kassk as Pusztaszabolcs (In
Hungarian)
Nem is olyan rgen a BudapestPcs vonalon mg a gyorsvonat volt a leggyorsabb. Ahogyan
mig rejtly szmomra, hogy mirt kell mg az Intercitynek is Szentlrincen megllnia, sose rtettem
igazn, hogy annak idejn a gyorsvonat vajon mirt ppen Pusztaszabolcson s Srbogrdon
vesztegelt nhny drga percet. Csak arra tudtam gondolni, hogy valamely fontos vasti csompontok
ezek, hogy sokak tszllst knnytik meg, hogy esetleg az egyszer utas szmra ttekinthetetlen,
felfoghatatlan vagonrendezsi, tehertrakodsi s kikerlsi manverek helyszne ez a kt (hrom)
lloms. Mindenesetre az vilgos, hogy brmily kedvesek legyenek is e teleplsek az ott lakk
vagy brki ms szmra maga Pusztaszabolcs vagy Srbogrd mrete, fontossga, lakosainak szma
nem felttlenl indokolja, hogy kitntetett szerepe legyen a vasti kzlekeds hlzatban.
Amibl mindssze annyi volna a tanulsg, hogy az nmagban vett fontossg (ha van ilyen;
inkbb: a ms sszefggsbl vizsglt fontossg) nem felttlenl esik egybe a rendszerben elfoglalt
hely kitntetett szerepvel. Pusztaszabolcs mint vros, mint kulturlis, pnzgyi vagy gazdasgi
centrum taln nem nevezhet kiemelkednek, a vasti hlzatban azonban a jelek szerint igen fontos
funkcija van.
A nagysg, jelentsg, fontossg s a hlzatban (rendszerben) betlttt szerep klnbsgei
nem csak a vasti kzlekeds kontextusban rdekesek. Itt van pldul rgtn az irodalom. Ahol is
igen nehz s kockzatos mi tbb, eleve avulsra s revzira tltetett a nagysg brmifle
tulajdontsa; a ki a nagyobb klt/r? krdst legfljebb kvhzi asztalnl, szigoran a
nyilvnossg kizrsval szoks felvetni, a Kafka vagy Thomas Mann-tpus dilemmk eleve

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gyansak, ideolgiailag a kelletnl is jobban terheltek, s inkbb mint elg tartsan rghat
gumicsontok hasznlnak az irodalomtrtnszi fogazat lesen tartsra. Msrszt azonban
elkerlhetetlen, hogy az irodalomtrtnet folyamatrl valamilyen kpet kialaktsunk (mr ha
egyltaln rdekel ez a trtnet, s nem pusztn egyes m vek egymssal semmi mdon ssze nem
fgg halmazt akarjuk ltni); s ehhez szksg van bizonyos csompontokra, olyan helyekre, ahol
vltozsok elindulst lokalizlhatjuk, mindenkppen beszlnnk kell korszakokrl s
korszakfordulkrl, hagyomnyrl, avulsrl, forradalomrl s visszatrsrl, felforgatsrl s
megrzsrl. Amikor ekkppen adunk szmot az irodalmi folyamatrl, a szvegekrl, az irodalomrendszer trtnetrl, akkor mgiscsak kijellnk fontosabb s kevsb fontos alkotkat vagy
szvegeket. Akkor mgiscsak valamifle minstst vgznk, s ha nem is mondunk ki olyasmit, hogy
valamely r jobb volna, mint a msik azrt jelentsgrl, fontossgrl, rdekessgrl sz kell, hogy
essk.
Lehetsges viszont, hogy bizonyos alkotk, egsz letm vek a rendszer egsze szempontjbl
meghatroz jelentsg ek lehetnek, de mai befogadsunk (vagy akr a kortrsi befogads) szmra
nem knlnak elegend izgalmat; ha nem is olvashatatlanok, nem tudjuk ket maradktalanul lvezni.
Egyszer en szlva: nem elg jk (termszetesen mindig gy rtve: szmomra, a befogad szmra
nem azok), br fontossguk, jelentsgk ktsgbevonhatatlan. Valahogyan gy, ahogyan
Pusztaszabolcs, Srbogrd (vagy egy msik vonalrl: Rkosrendez) lehet a vasti (teher-)kzlekeds
szmra ltfontossg, de azrt egyiknk sem menne ezekre a helyekre vrost nzni, tzsdzni vagy
operba. Gondolom, kevesen szeretik ma Kassk Lajost; akik szeretik, taln azok is elismerik, hogy
mgsem akkora klt, mint mondjuk Ady vagy Jzsef Attila. Az viszont aligha lehet vitatott, hogy az
irodalomtrtnet folyamatban kulcsszerepet tlttt be, hogy hatsa nem volt ugyan ltvnyos, de
mgis ers volt, hogy nlkle aligha alakulhatott volna gy a magyar kltszet, ahogyan alakult.
Ha teht egymsra vonatkoztatjuk a kt rendszert, ha megprbljuk a jelentsget s a
kivlsgot, a fontossgot s az eszttikai lmnyt valahogyan megfeleltetni egymsnak, klns
elmozdulsokat s hinyokat ltunk. A fordtottja is knnyen elkpzelhet: irodalomtrtneti
rtelemben jelentktelennek tetsz alkotkat/szvegeket rendkvl nagy lvezettel olvasunk, a nagy
megjtk utnzi olykor csodkra kpesek. Per analogiam: nyilvn gynyr kis falvak,
m emlkekben gazdag, virgz kisteleplsek maradnak ki teljesen a vasti hlzatbl, vagy pp hogy
csak keresztlrobog rajtuk a vonat: azt a rendszert nem mindig rdeklik ms (kulturlis, gazdasgi,
pnzgyi) megfontolsok.
Tovbb bonyoldik a helyzet, ha a trsadalmi forradalmak s a nagy irodalmi vltozsok
sszefggseit vizsgljuk (s itt fel kell hagynom a vonatkzlekedsi metaforval, mert ebben mr
nemigen tudnm rtelmezni a kvetkezket). Egykoron szoks volt (s jobb hjn ma is gyakran
fordulnak ehhez az eljrshoz), hogy az irodalmi korszakfordulkat egyszer en azonostottk a nagy
trsadalmi vltozsokkal; jeles dtumokhoz ktttk az irodalomtrtnetnek (s ms m vszetek
trtnetnek) korszakvltsait, mintha pldul 1789, 1948, 1918-19 vagy 1945 ppgy valamifle
hatrvonalat jelentennek az irodalom (zene, kpzm vszet stb.) trtnetben, mint ahogyan
ktsgkvl fordulpontot jelentettek az egyes nemzetek politika-, trsadalom-, gazdasgtrtnetben.
Knyelmes s olcs megolds, de kr volna tl gyorsan megszabadulni tle. Nyilvn praktikus
megfontolsok is szerepet jtszanak az ilyen korszakolsban; knnyebb felidzni a dtumokat, nagy
trtnelmi esemnyekhez lehet ktni a kultra trtnetnek amgy elfoly, amorf, ktes krvonal
produktumait. De tudjuk, hogy az elgondols az alapban-felptmnyben val gondolkodst kveti,
amely meglehetsen ers s kzvetlen kapcsolatot ttelez fel a trsadalmi-gazdasgi-politikai
vltozsok s a szellemi let szfrja kztt. Mindenesetre kt okbl is rdemes jra meg jra
fellvizsglni az effle elkpzelseket: az egyik az, hogy maguk a dtumok is vltozhatnak, s ez az
alap trtnetnek revziirl tanskodik, amelyhez azutn igaztani kell a felptmny trtnetrl
szl elkpzelst, mrpedig rdekes krds az, hogy mitl s hogyan kvetkeznek be ezek a
korszakols-vltozsok. A msik ok pedig az, hogy gy rjhetnk, hol lg ki egyms all a kt
trtnet, a kt rendszer, hol vannak egymst fed vonalak vagy csompontok, s hol nincs semmifle
kapcsolat.

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Az irodalmi (potikai) forradalmak mrpedig nemigen szoktak egybeesni a trsadalmi


forradalmakkal. Ha valaha bizonyos nagy kltket a forradalmak viharmadarainak volt szoks
nevezni, akkor ez azt is sejttette, hogy a trsadalmi forradalom eltt jrtak; s mg ha minden
forradalom megtallta is a maga irodalmi elzmnyt, azok az rk/szvegek, amelyeket magbl
kitermelt, a felsznre dobott vagy favorizlt, a hatstrtnetbl gyakran kikoptak, nem bizonyultak
tartsnak, s mindenfle ms, sajnlatos esemny trtnt velk. Az is elg banlis tny, hogy bizonyos
kiemelked alkotk (akik teht akr az irodalomtrtnet rendszere szempontjbl kiemelkedek, vagy
akr a mai befogads szemszgbl szmtanak klnsen rtkesnek) gyakran egyltaln nem
hozhatk sszefggsbe semmifle trsadalmi mozgalommal vagy forradalommal. Balassit, aki nem
akrmit tett a magyar kltszet megjtsrt (mr ha egyltaln beszlhetnk Balassi eltti magyar
kltszetrl), aligha lehet felforgat trsadalmi mozgsokhoz ktni; ha lehettek is Csokonainak
kapcsolatai a magyar jakobinusokkal, forradalmr nem volt; Kafka meg, vagy Joyce... ugyan mr.
Bourdieu szerint a m vszet terletn zajl forradalom: az anmia intzmnyestse. Az, aki
forradalmat hajt vgre az irodalomban (vagy a zenben, vagy a kpzm vszetben), az a mez
szerkezetnek talaktsra tr, a mez nomost akarja megvltoztatni. Ekzben termszetesen
fggvnye ppen annak a meznek, amelyen is tevkenykedik, s annl nagyobb az eslye a sikerre,
a meznek minl tbb elemvel kpes szembenzni s szmolni. Az olyan (irodalmi) forradalmrok,
mint Flaubert, nagyon pontosan tudtk, hogy mi folyik krlttk; rzkenyen reagltak mindarra,
ami az irodalom mezejn trtnt; ismertk a terepet, hogy leszmolhassanak vele. A forradalom ppen
ezrt gyakran a fennll pardija, elmozdtsa, kifordtsa, meghazudtolsa, s egyben sszefoglalsa
is.
Egyltaln nem kell dogmatikus marxistaknt hinnnk az alap-felptmny-koncepciban
ahhoz, hogy belssuk: a trsadalmi vltozsok hatssal kell hogy legyenek pldul az irodalmi letre
is. Hogy ezttal S. J. Schmidt nzeteire hivatkozzam, az irodalom-rendszer bizony kapcsolatban ll a
trsadalom-rendszerrel, s egyes elemei az tfogbb rendszer vltozsait kvetik. Ha a cenzra
intzmnye megsz nik, akkor annak nem akrmilyen befolysa lehet az irodalom folyamataira. Ha az
llam tartja kzben a knyvpiacot, vagy ha az irodalomhoz kapcsold ismeretek oktatsa kizrlag
egyhzi kzben van, az meghatrozza az ilyen keretek kztt foly irodalmi letet is. Ezrt mindezen
felttelek mdosulsa gy vagy gy, elbb vagy utbb az irodalom-rendszerre, s aztn az irodalomrendszer termkre, az irodalmi szvegre is hatssal lesz.
Ha pedig most itt az ideje feltesszk azt az egyszer krdst, hogy vajon az 1988-1989-es
nagy magyarorszgi vltozsok mifle irodalmi-m vszeti forradalommal jrtak egytt, akkor a vlasz
elszrre mindenkppen a vllvonogatstl a hatrozott tagadsig terjed majd. Valban, nem
tapasztalhattuk, hogy a bourdieu-i rtelemben forradalmi vltozsok trtntek volna a magyar
irodalomban. Nincs sehol az a nagy m , az az ttekint-rendszerez-felforgat alkot, amely vagy aki
szembenzett volna mindazzal, ami eltte trtnt s ami krtte trtnik. Ennek a (taln nem is gy
tudatostott) ignynek adnak mindennapi kifejezst az irodalomkritika azon panaszai, amelyek a
korszak nagy regnyt vrjk; mintha ppen s kizrlag a regny volna kpes arra, hogy ezt az
trendez fellvizsglatot elvgezze.
Teht rgtn kt krds tehet fel ezekkel a vrakozsokkal kapcsolatban. Egyrszt, hogy van-e
tnyleg valami m fajilag inherens excellencija a regnynek; msrszt hogy vajon tnyleg ppen most
kellett-e eljnni annak az idnek, amely az eddigi potikai rend alapos s vgleges felforgatst hozza
magval. A vlasz termszetesen mindkt krdsre negatv; kiss ttova, de elg hatrozott nem. A
regny eltrbe lltsa nyilvn azzal fgg ssze, hogy az elbeszl m vek gyakran olvashatk gy,
mint amelyek valahogyan kzvetlenl referlnak a krlttnk lv, adott vilgra, s ekknt az
olvasi vrakozsok kztt fontos szerephez jut a trsadalom, a valsg megismerse sokkal
fontosabbhoz, mint esetleg a lra esetben. Ha nagy trsadalmi-politikai kataklizmn esnk tl, azt
remljk, hogy ezt valahogyan (trgyban, kzvetlen utalsok alakjban, esetleg mg durvbb
formban is) tkrzni fogja az elbeszl m . Hogy az a m faj, amely tipikusan trtnetet beszl el,
majd elmondja a mi trtnetnket, pontosabban: j trtnetet mond majd el, az eddigiekhez kpest
egszen ms szereplkkel, fordulatokkal s rtkrendekkel. Holott az irodalom forradalma ha

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szabad ezt a patetikus s tvolrl sem pontos kategrit hasznlni egyltaln nem ebbl ll. Esetleg
ppen abbl, hogy eleddig httrbe szorult m fajok bukkannak fel jra (ezt az orosz formalistk,
elssorban Tinyanov rta le rzkletesen), s azok, amelyektl oly sokat vrtunk volna, a httrbe
vagy a margra szorulnak. A trtnet msflesgnek pedig nem az az egyetlen megvalsulsi
lehetsge, hogy trgya (szerepli, fordulatai, rtkrendje) ms, hanem az is (vagy sokkal inkbb az),
hogy msknt monddik el.
Ami a forradalom idejt illeti, az, mint utaltam r, korntsem szksgszer en esik egybe a
trsadalmi-politikai forradalmakkal. St, legtbbszr megelzi ket (br ennek ellenre nem kell
hinnnk felszabadt, mozgst, forradalmast hatsban; ez olykor igaz lehet, mskor nem). A mi
esetnkre alkalmazva mindezt: vajon nem kpzelhet-e el, hogy a magyar irodalom nagy fordulata
korbban megtrtnt, mikor senki mg csak nem is lmodott a trsadalmi fordulatrl? Vajon nem gy
ll-e a helyzet, hogy az anmia intzmnyestse nem ppen 1988-89-ben, hanem valamikor azeltt
trtnt meg?
Bizonyos politikai vltozsok persze gykeres fordulatot hoztak az irodalom-rendszerben, s
ennek idejt nemigen lehet jval a fordulat eltt kijellni. A cenzra megsz nt, a knyvkiads
felszabadult, j lapok sokasga alakult, ugyanakkor a terjeszts gyenglkedni kezdett; az oktats
sokszn bb lett, magn-, alaptvnyi s egyhzi iskolk kezdtk meg m kdsket. Mindez bizonyra
mdostott a ksztermkek, a produktumok jellegn is (ha minsgn nem is felttlenl). Azok a
bizonyos asztalfikban aszald m vek, amelyekrl ksbb kiderlt, hogy nem sokan vannak s
jelentsgk nem sorsdnt, elkerlhettek, nyilvnossgot kaphattak; a termel (az r) a piacot
befolysol tnyezk kzl msra kezdett tekintettel lenni, mint a cenzrra; a fogyaszt (az
olvas) ugyancsak szabad piacon tallta magt, annak minden kaotikussgval egytt, de gy
szabadabban hozzfrhetett brmihez, ezrt olvassi szoksai, st olvassi konvencii is
megvltozhattak.
Mindez kzhely, jsgri kultrnyavalygsok s -lelkendezsek trgya. Itt mindssze annyi
rdekes belle, hogy szemmel lthat: az irodalom-rendszert krnyez s rszint meghatroz
trsadalmi-politikai rendszer gykeres vltozsai nem hoztak lnyeges fordulatot magnak az
irodalmi m nek a szerkezetben. Ahogyan 1848 vagy 1945 utn sem kezdtek hirtelen egszen msknt
rni vagy olvasni, ahogyan Kassk s Ady klti forradalma megelztt minden tbb-kevsb
tmenetinek bizonyul fordulatot, felttelezhet, hogy az 1988-89-es vltozsoknak egy korbbi
potikai talakuls feleltethet meg. S hogy vgre valami lltst is megkockztassak, gy hiszem,
hogy ez a vltozs az 1970-es vekben kvetkezett be; a kltszetben Tandori s Petri, a przban
Esterhzy s Ndas (esetleg kisebb rszben Konrd) fellpsvel.
Amikor ezt kimondom, nem az emltett szerzk politikai vagy ideolgiai olvasatt tartom szem
eltt, jllehet ezek valszn leg kikerlhetetlenek, kiirthatatlanul benne vannak az (s brki ms)
befogadsukban. Sokkal inkbb arra gondolok, hogy mr a hetvenes vektl (fleg a lrban) s a 80-as
vek elejn-kzepn (a przban) megtrtnt a mez pozciinak fellvizsglata, a leszmols az
addigi s ppen fennll konvencikkal, az r s az irodalmi m szmra kijellt hely elmozdtsa.
Mindezt akkoriban gy lehetett rzkelni, mint merszsget, a hatrok thgst, politikailag gyans
zelmekbe keveredst, formabontst, szabadossgot; radsul a szvegek, amelyekrl sz van,
valamennyien az adottal szemben, annak termszett alaposan kiismerve lptek fel gy, hogy annak
rvnyessgt, rkrvny sgt, nomost tettk krdsess.
Mindezen rk/szvegek taln ml epizdnak bizonyultak volna, ha felbukkansuk nem
igazoldik a hatstrtnetben. Esterhzy vagy Tandori rsmdja felszabadt erej nek (s j darabig
meghaladhatatlannak, legfeljebb imitlhatnak) bizonyult. Az jabb prza (s taln kevsb a lra)
mr ezeket az rsmdokat tekinti adottnak, fennllnak, s ezekkel szemben knytelen pozicionlni
nmagt, ezzel erstve meg sajt helyt is s az ers, nagy vltozsokat hoz szvegek helyt is az
irodalom rendszerben.
Kln krds, hogy azoknak az alkotknak a plyja, akiket az irodalomban vgbement
fordulat kpviselinek tartok, hogyan alakult akkor, amikor politikai fordulat kvetkezett be. Egyrszt

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114

lthat, hogy br respektusuk tbb-kevsb tretlen maradt, nem vltak (visszamenleg)


viharmadarakk, azaz alkalmatlannak bizonyultak arra, hogy a politikai-trsadalmi vltozsok
valamifle megtestestjeknt, jsaiknt vagy legadekvtabb kifejeziknt kanonizldjanak.
(Kanonizlsuk megtrtnt ugyan, de nem effle olvasat alapjn.) Msrszt jellegzetesnek ltom
Esterhzy fordulatt a publicisztika fel; mintha mindazon tllenne mr, amit a przban meg lehetett
tenni, s ezrt egy amgy is ersen emelkedben lev m faj jjlesztsnek egyik f alakja lesz; vagy
mintha szorosabban akarn rsmdjt (az rs forradalmt) az ppen zajl vltozsokhoz ktni, s ez
ppen az aktualitsokra gyorsan reagl, referencilis termszet m fajban valsulhatna meg.
Az irodalom magyarorszgi fordulata teht nem esik egybe a trsadalmi vltozsok
idpontjval. Nagy krds, hogy a fordulat legfontosabb alakjainak az irodalom trtnetben elfoglalt
fontos helye meg fog-e felelni (s mikor, kinek a szmra) az eszttikailag jelents szvegek
pozcijnak. Hogy mikor, melyikk lesz fontos jt, de ktsges rtk; csompont, de nem olyan
nagyon rdekes; Pusztaszabolcs.

13.3. Ways of representing discontinuous memories


Re-arranging the canonical order by breaking with classical literary historiography
Here my aim is to speculate on the interconnections of canonicity, continuity, and literary
historiography. My point is that there is a way of changing, more or less radically, the literary canon
which amounts to breaking with the vision of continuous literary history, that is, a revision of the
memory of the professional community that is supposed to be responsible for the creating of that
canon.
Traditional literary historiography can be characterized as serving the enforcement of the idea
of continuity: it implies a vision of literary history as a continuous narrative. It also tells the tale of
how the heroes of this story, the canonical figures/works, have gained their well-deserved positions.
The memory embodied in this narrative can be characterized as continuous: although there are,
inevitably, lacunae, oppressions, omissions, this memory is always eager to create the illusion of
wholeness, completeness and flawlessness. That is, it pretends that it works.
Now what we have witnessed for several decades is that besides this kind of (traditional)
writing of literary history, besides this linear and all encompassing memory, there have existed
several other ways of approaching literary history. Just to list some types of these modes:
- analysis of the single work of art, isolated from all its history and reception;
- connections between geographically or temporally very distant works or phenomena,
without any reference or even hint on influence, tradition or any connection whatsoever,
except for those constructed by the comparison itself;
- literary histories of forms, genres, modes of reception or agents of the literary
communication other than the author, where traditional concepts of work and author are
either excluded or remain in the background;
- or literary histories of non-linear temporality, roving here and there between periods and
centuries.
What is common in these efforts is the desire to rearrange the pattern of conventional literary
historiography, to shift its focus and, accordingly, to present another functioning of the memory
inherent in writing and understanding literary history. Some of these modes are now well-established,
and some of them can be easily associated with trends like Structuralism, systemic approaches to
literature, reception theory or Postmodernist eclecticism, whereas others remain in the rubric of
essayist or Impressionistic schools. What I would like to suggest here is that deviations from the
traditional, linear model of writing literary history (and, thus, forming a canon and representing a

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continuous memory) are signals of a desire to form a new canon (and, besides, may be signals of a
new thinking in writing literary history).67
It must be asked, What is the history of literature the history of? Whose story is told? Is it that
of the works, or of the creators of these works, or of the participants of the literary communication, or
of the literary communication itself? Or is it just the history of canonical works and participants?
Most often, we read accounts of literary history (and, by extension, any comments on literary
texts) as referring to something; that is, as texts of reference, just as we read newspapers, maps,
phonebooks, etc. Now the question is not whether they do in fact refer to something (we read them as
such, so it is not a reasonable issue), but what they refer to. If we ask, What are they the history of?, it
can be translated to the question, What is remembered and what is narrated?
Now let me reflect for a moment on the connection between narrative, memory and literary
history. Whether memory exist outside texts, without them or beyond them is an intricate question. So
let me suppose here that, at least according to a possible interpretation, memory is not only what is
remembered but it is always told or written, that is, whenever we speak of human memory it should
be understood as a textual/verbal construct.68 It can be, moreover, a sort of narrative, however
fragmentary, defective, transformed or punctual it may be. It has a temporality, space, characters,
causal relations.
We remember quite a lot of things, important and unimportant alike. The memories we tend to
talk or write about are, however, always important in one way or another. We have a point when we
present them, when we thematize them; our narrative will have an occasion, it will react to other
texts.69 If we use narrated memories as an analogy for literary historiography (and it well may be that
it is far more than an analogy I will come back to this soon), then an exemplary case is that of the
account of great events and participants of a national literature. A full-fledged, classical, conventional
literary history is something like an account of the main events and characters of one's personal life,
seen, of course, from a special angle. We emphasize some points and drop others; we try to invent a
temporal order and a course of events; we have our heroes as well as our villains; we hope to produce
the causes and consequences; like in narrative, like in memory.
Just as sometimes we may wish to fill all the gaps of our memory and try to recall the most
unimportant details in a minute way, some literary histories aim at giving an account of everything
that had happened; just think of Positivistic historiography. And just as some people tend to build her
or his memories/narratives around some great events and great people, there is a tendency in literary
historiography to concentrate on great works and great writers. Also, there is the element of forgetting
in both memory (or the narrative of that memory) and writing literary history: sometimes we forget
events or characters which later turn out to be of some importance, and literary historians leave
writers and works in the background, although later they may be shown to be decisive.
Still, there is something disturbing in the identification of memory and literary history. It
contains a sort of personification, which I would be reluctant to take for granted. Namely, the
communities or even the professionals who (among others) engage in producing and forming the
canon, are taken here as persons, with their own memories, with a past that they remember or not. It is
clear, however, that whereas a person has her or his memories in a spontaneous way, formed by her or
his subconscious, intellectual limits, age, and so on, a community (a nation, an interpretive
community, the professionals) do not have this sort of memory: what they have as memory and what
67

Canons are being formed either way, the difference being that a continuous, linear mode of representing
literary history will presumably result in a canon where eras, trends, schools, even works are temporally ordered
in a sequence, whereas the new modes may provide room for other types of constellation.
68

No doubt, visual, kinesic, olfactory, etc. memories are neither textual nor verbal. But they may be of not too
much relevance to literary historiography.
69

Just as in any instance of narration. See, e.g., M. L. Pratts account on Labov, or Bakhtins conception of
inherent intertextuality, etc.

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13. Practice

they present as such is always produced and reproduced, it is strongly influenced by political,
ideological, aesthetic factors, by the institutions and by the tradition. A subjective memory contains
things not remembered any more because of psychological reasons; we suppress or sublimate our bad
experiences, feelings or events of our lives which, if public, could be sanctioned. I would not assign
such a psychological mechanism to the working of the literary institutions. What takes place in the
field of literature is not really forgetting proper: the mechanisms governing "forgetting" in the
memory of the professionals are absolutely different. Personal memory and literary history are both
narratives; but they are formed by very different forces and according to very different conventions.
However, the new modes of literary historiography I have mentioned above can be paralleled
by the fact that subjective memories do not always and not exclusively follow the pattern of temporal
and spatial sequences, that sometimes they produce astonishing connections, there are daring and
distant links. In this respect, again, memory is a good analogy for the writing of literary history.
If it is supposed that the types of literary historiography sketched above can be confronted, and,
thus, we may call them two distinct and opposing types, then we might wish to label the first (linear,
classical, traditional) type as metonymic, whereas the latter (associative, non-conventional) type as
metaphoric. This may be both too rough and metaphorical, but the point is simply to show that while
the first narrative aims at filling the temporal gaps, and seeks to present the events and their characters
in their sequential order, as they follow one another, making use of the contiguity in time and space,
as well as relying on the causal relations between events, the second is more appealed by the
similarities, comparisons, associative relations.
It would be a gross simplification (and would not have any explanatory value) if one supposed
that new modes of literary histories are new simply because they are written according to some new
fashions, because their writers hope to gain some institutional power or intellectual prestige by
transforming the old models. These factors (fashion, power, prestige) may be relevant in some or most
cases; however, something specific to the field of literature must be underlying these changes. My
point is that an old story cannot be told in a new formulation, and, vice versa, a new formulation of
the story will produce new aspects, time order, even new characters.
Whereas classical literary historiography can be characterized by titles like ''Life and work
of...", new histories concentrate on what is not remembered, neither forgotten, but taken as the
presupposition, framework or condition of the "thing" remembered, i.e., the circumstances, the
conventions of the thing "happened", etc. This will also mean that they have quite a new conception
of the canon and canonical positions (of works and writers). Canon is not a list of works and writers.
As a (national) memory embodied, the metonymic, classical sort of history writing has been
predominant in literary history, education and it has greatly effected literary interpretation.
Interpretations of individual works and text-oriented approaches have been regarded as either
fragmentary, insufficient, incomplete manifestations of a (virtual) Great History, or even as perverted,
dangerous steps which may challenge the integrity of cultural memory. Thus, the critical trends since
Structuralism which tend to concentrate on texts and textual relations while putting aside the linear
chronology as well as the (pseudo-)causal narrative structure, can be regarded not simply as a
"methodological" turn but also as an attack on the traditional canon. By emphasizing the poetic and
textual interrelations, independent of any forged historical continuity, points of discontinuity are
underlined, the traditional, entrenched visions of national literary history are called into question, and
the old canon is redefined.
What is the position of the canon among these concepts? If I say if canon is conceived of as
a series of great works and/or their writers, then the great events and characters are to memory just as
great works and writers are to literary history. They are the cornerstones, compositional bases and
structuring principles of these narratives. However, canon can and I think should be taken not as a set
of elements but, rather, as these elements along with the conventions of their interpretation, their
intertextual connections, the conditions of their reading as canonical works or writers. Some people
even say that what is canonical can be taken as a special constellation of intertextuality. To use the

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analogy of the personal memory again: if somebody gives account of her or his great encounters with
outstanding people or of the events which changed her or his life, what is implied in the narrative is
not simply the fact that these people or events occurred, but rather that there is a hidden system of
preferences, value choices, attractions, intellectual decisions leading to the emphasis given to just
those people and events. Accordingly, a canon is also a set of conventions, even instructions of
interpretation: it is this set which make possible the incorporation of other, new, works and writers to
the established canon.
It is possible and nowadays, it seems, desirable to reflect on these conditions. Indeed, it
seems that this aspect of the canon is not only inherent part of the narrative, but also that we are
socialized to take it into account. As the psychologist Jerome Bruner puts it,
Four-years-olds may not know much about the culture, but they know what's canonical and are
eager to provide a tale to account for what is not. [Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge,
Mass. London: Harvard U P, 1990. pp. 82-83]
It implies that the canonicity of certain interpretive conventions (and not necessarily texts) is a
matter of the narrative told about them. They are as much part of the canon as the texts celebrated.
The question arises whether some of these new modes of literary historiography imply that the
literary work will loose its importance. Does it mean that we are not interested in the great work any
more? I have two remarks here. First of all, one of the challenges for the continuity-oriented literary
historiography is precisely the concentration on the single work, as if displaced from its context; it is
the Structuralist type of resistance to the history of Great Continuity. Second, it is highly questionable
whether what we as readers really face is the literary work of art. We often encounter fragments,
images and portions of the work itself, or allusions and references to it, well before we really read it.
And what we get is something marketed, mediated, pre-interpreted, and all these contextual factors of
its communication will highly determine our interpretation. Thus, worries for the Great Works are
based on an illusion.
Besides, discontinuous literary historiography may help a great deal in preserving cultural
memory. It can open the ways of interesting interpretations, its re-structuring the hitherto continuous,
linear memory can unfold new connections. And new ways of reading will be of an asset for any
literary history.
Let me conclude by summarizing my main points. I tried to argue that if the classical literary
historiography is based on continuity, and if there are other modes of writing literary history which
are based, rather, on either discontinuity or on association and comparison, then the first can be called
metonymic while the latter metaphoric. It is perfectly clear that in the latter class there are several
subclasses some of which are mutually exclusive. If you concentrate on the single work, excluding its
history, then you are committed to the idea of The Work; if you choose to focus on the literary
communication instead, it is difficult to pick out the author or the work as principal elements.
Anyway, all these orientations are common in refuting the older model, and turn to other modes of
operation of the memory: to the discontinuous and to the capricious associations.

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14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?


Introduction
In the previous chapters, I have been arguing that by taking a pragmatic aspect of literature as a
starting point, one may be lead to the inquiry of the specific communities among and by which
literature operates; that is, the examination of the literary communication must be extended to the
(institutional) conditions of that communication process, including the groups of people participating
in, creating and furthering this process.
This inquiry is perhaps neither inevitable nor necessary; one may quite well imagine other
tracks of thought, such as those focusing upon the ideologies involved in literary communication,
powers connected to it, or psychological problems arising related to it. If we take literature not as a
certain corpus of texts, but as a specific process of communication among a number of other ways of
communication, and if we suppose that there are a number of different processes of communication
with their own rules and conventions, and, further, if we admit that these "language games" rather
than the texts in question determine the meaning of a text, then we stay close enough to the stance
sketched in the first part of this book; that is, I believe that a speech act theoretical approach to
literature is, at least, not in contradiction with all these theses. However, what has been treated in the
second and third part is obviously beyond the scope of any theory of speech acts. It is high time, then,
to reflect upon our own tools and methods, that is, to try to elucidate what sort of framework should
be used in order to get as close as possible to a convincing depiction of these issues.

14.1. A Way Out, a Digression, or a Way Back?


But first let us turn back for a minute to the theory of speech acts. There have been quite a
number of objections leveled against speech act theory in general, and its application or extension to
the field of literature. Some of them have been mentioned, en passant, in the study above. Let us add
some more.
Speech act theory, and probably as any linguistic approach to fields other than language proper,
is seen by Bourdieu as a sort digression, a superfluous detour, since after it purpoterdly started from
what it regarded as purely linguistic facts and concluded that they embody social relations, it
desperately fights to find its way back to social reality while trying to preserve its "pure" linguistic
nature; that is, instead of realizing, from the outset, that language (more precisely, discourses) appears
on the social scene ("market", for Bourdieu) and is in every inch influenced or even determined by it,
linguists arrive, if at all, to this assumption as a conclusion.
Every speech act and, more generally, every action, is a conjuncture, an encounter between
independent causal series. On the one hand, there are the socially constructed dispositions of the
linguistic habitus, which imply a certain propensity to speak and to say determinate things (the
expressive interest) and a certain capacity to speak, which involves both the linguistic capacity to
generate and infinite number of grammatically correct discourses, and the social capacity to use this
competence adequately in a determinate situation. On the other hand, there are the structures of the
linguistic market, which impose themselves as a system of specific sanctions and censorships. ...This
simple model of linguistic production and circulation, as the relation between linguistic habitus and
the markets on which they offer their products, does not seek either to challenge or to replace a strictly
linguistic analysis of the code. But it does enable us to understand the errors and failures to which
linguistics succumbs when, relying on only one of the factors involved - a strictly linguistic
competence, abstractly defined, ignoring everything that it owes to the social conditions of its
production - it tries to give an adequate account of discourse in all its conjunctural singularity. In fact,
as long as they are unaware of the limits that constitute their science, linguists have no choice but to
search deaparetely in language, for something that is actually inscribed in the social relations within
which it functions, or to engage in a sociology without knowing it, that is, with the risk of

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14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

discovering, in grammar itself, something that their spontaneous sociology has unwittingly imported
into it. (Bourdieu 1982/1991b: 37-38)
This sort of criticism may suggest, then, that it is reasonable to turn to a system theory,
whatever it may be, or at least a study of communicative behavior, more particularly literary
communication, within the framework of linguistic, cultural, social systems.
However, it must be noted in advance that systems theory is not an absolute remedy for all the
limitations and weaknesses one had to face on this field. Systems theory, it seems, does not define its
own position in the system it examines, or if and when it does, it is that of the dispassionate,
indifferent professional. Moreover, it more often than not misses to clarify that the features assigned
to the system are in fact assigned or conferred to it, and not products of the thing itself. As Bourdieu
says,
Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a
'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object of principles of his relation to the object,
proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and if all the interactions within were purely
symbolic exchanges. This viewpoint is the one taken from high positions in the social structure, from
which the social world is seen as a representation (as the word is used in idealist philosophy, but also
as in painting) or a performance (in the theatrical or musical sense), and practices are seen as no more
than the acting-out of roles, the playing of scores or the implementation of plans. The theory of
practice as practice insists, contrary to positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are
constructed, not passively recorded, and, contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this
construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in
practice and is always oriented towards practical functions. (Bourdieu 1980/1990: 52)
Or, as Attridge says, in a critique directed precisely against Bourdieu and the sociology of
literature,
... such a study would necessarily be part of the struggle of interpretations which is itself part of
the wider political struggle, with its own conscious or unconscious goals and rules, and one would
never stop (one could never stop) offering readings of texts to be worked over, modified, or rejected,
in many places and at many times. (Attridge 1988: 15-16)
Or again, in connection with the function of criticism targeting the institute of education, viz.,
universities, Burt and Vanpe comments, empirical critique does not stand outside the conceptual
space of the university but always analyzes in the name of a model university whose concept it does
not question. (Burt and Vanpe 1990: 2)
There may be still another consideration which suggests that one should be cautious in turning,
as a final relief, to the concept of systems. Will not this step take one back to the good old
Structuralism, is there a difference wide and spectacular enough to identify the more promising path?
Or should one, rather, think in terms of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and regard systems theory as a
rich and inclusive aggregate of all sensible that has been told before? Or, simply: is it not a
resignation, a defeat, is it not just a new name for old ideas?
Partly, of course, these anxieties are well founded. No doubt, the prominent representatives of
what will be labelled below as systems theory, have been greatly formed, informed, transformed by
the ideas of the Structuralists and the Formalists.70

70

The continuity of Structuralism, or, better, a special interpretation of Structuralism and systems theoretical
approach is highlighted by a comment by Bourdieu: "The philosophical glosses which, for a time, surrounded
structuralism have neglected and concealed what really constituted its essential novelty - the introduction into
the social sciences of the structural method or, more simply, of the relational mode of thought which, by
breaking with the substantialist mode of thought, leads one to characterize each element by the relationships
which unite with all the others in a system and from which it derives its meaning and function." (Bourdieu
1980/1990: 4)

14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

120

14.1.1. Systems in Other Frameworks


It would be an impossible task to summarize here the origins, history and development of the
reflections on the theory of systems
Not only may there be worries, as I have indicated in the preceding part, that one might be lead
back to the old fashioned Structuralism, it is also a question whether Marxism and, in general, a broad
social approach to literature is not another word for systems theoretical approaches. Viehoff, for
instance, a representative of the empirical school of literary studies, refers to "The broader assumption
... an assumption that is amenable to empirical examination ... that the global values directing critical
discourse are the result of changes in social values." (Viehoff 1991: 247)
Among the proponents of systems theoretical approach, there may be serious contraditions. For
Fokkema, for instance, Luhmann, having been concerned only with speculation and
conceptualization, and "by disapproving of the distinction between the knowing subject and the
examined object, ... has blocked the road to empirical research" (Fokkema 1991: 364). Fokkema also
stresses the instrumental character of the system, as against Lumann's conception where it has, rather,
the character of a world view (ibid.)

14.1.1.1. Some Examples


Theoreticians of literature influenced (slightly or strongly) by the theory of speech acts have
also been among those who pointed out the importance of systems. Monroe Beardsley, for one, tends
to accept the perspective of "systems" or "wide ranges" of cultural products, as opposed to the
conception of individual, isolated works. He characterizes the view emphasizing the systemic nature
of culture the following way:
Culture, on this view, is essentially a complex of semiotic systems of communication, or at
least involves such systems as a necessary ingredient. Structuralists inquiring into what is signified by
paradigmatic choices in food and clothing, students of "vernacular architecture" articulating signals
sent by characteristic features of suburban houses (ranchlike shape, wide lawns, hitching posts to hold
mailboxes, etc.) and social psychologists interested in "body language" and its elements that convey
information even when the parties are hardly aware of what is going on - all these investigators see
their corner of culture in semiotic terms, like those who are concerned with more pervasive and
fundamental aspects of culture, such as political and economical institutions, religion, philosophy.
(Beardsley 1980/1986: 188)
Then he adds that the problem of relativity of interpretations must be seen from this angle:
The second view may serve to put the general issue over the relativity of artwork-interpretation
in the right perspective, by placing the emphasis where it belongs. Of course it may not close all the
interpretation gaps, so as to leave no room for any relativism. The operative conventions for
interpreting a poem may not, at a given time, be sufficient to rule out all alternative readings, leaving
some to choice. (In that case, since the choice would be, by hypothesis, ungrounded in the poem,
perhaps it is somewhat odd to call it interpreting; there is strictly nothing there for the interpretation to
reveal.) And there is always the possibility that other applicable conventions, less well known, can be
invoked (perhaps by extension from a related area) to make a reasoned decision, however diffident,
between the remaining possibilities. (1980/1986: 189)
Beardsley then refers to the problem of competing interpretations and the coresponding
"systems", and, implicitly, the connected problem of canons (ibid.). It is his contention that "further
inquiry into the nature of each system" may lead one to see the reasons of adopting or rejecting an
interpretation; that is, the problem of interpretive communities may be, if not solved, illuminated by
placing the whole problem into the context of systems.

14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

121

14.1.1.2. Fokkema
Perhaps it is not quite fair to criticize a short text, in fact, a text of a public lecture delivered on
a conference, in order to show how the same old problems arise, now in the framework of the systemtheoretical approach, that one encountered with in other approaches. Unlike most of Douwe
Fokkema's writings, this one offers quite a umber of lessons of this sort.
Fokkema, first, offers a short manifesto canvassing for the use of the notion of system; a
programmatic declaration of why systems theory should be used in literary studies:
In my opinion, the concept of system is a useful instrument both in acquiring knowledge and in
action: it is not a world view, as it tends to be in Luhmann's conception. In research about literary
communication, the notion of system has a heuristic function, and we continue to use it since it has
proven to be useful. Apparently, the notion of system serves as a model of certain aspects of reality; it
helps us to discover, describe and explain those aspects. If the knowledge obtained this way is also
profitable in action, it contributes, in the words of Von Glaserfeld (1985), to our viability. [Fokkema
1991: 364]
Besides, he assures his readers that this conception accommodates all the aspects hitherto
regarded as mutually exclusive:
Different from structuralist views, which made a strict separation between diachronic and
synchronic research (Saussure 1915), the notion of system is capable of accomodating both a given
status quo as well as movement, change, and process (Moisan 1987: 165). [Fokkema 1991: 364-365)
He then goes on confronting the Structuralist and the systemic approach, and concludes that
when it comes to studying the interaction of living human beings, it is systems theory rather
than structuralism which offers itself as an appropriate approach. [Fokkema 1991: 365]
Now what is a system theoretical approach to literature? What is, to begin with, a system?
According to Fokkema,
"the border line of a literary system (in modern times, and in the Western world) is determined
by the criterion whether or not the agents in literary communication are prepared to respect the
esthetic convention when dealing with texts."
And he continues by defining the "esthetic convention" as
"shared knowledge among a population, that the members of that population when they are
inclined to deal with a text in an esthetic way are capable of processing that text according to the
norms and interpretive rules valid for esthetic interaction; this means that they are prepared to exclude
direct references to an established model of reality as well as questions of immediate practical
relevance of that text (cf. Schmidt 1982: 51-52; 1989: 430; Fokkema 1989). [Fokkema 1991: 365]"
This definition is rather unsatisfactory, not only because it is slightly circular, but also because
it does not offer much more than the good old Kantian formula on beauty. One could ask in what
sense the word "knowledge" is used here - is it an aggregate of the things consciously stored in one's
mind, or is it a set of tacit conventions, or both, or something else? And why use the term
"population", a word applied nowhere else throughout his study, instead of, say, "interpretive
community" or "agents of the system"? And do the "population" taking part in "esthetic interaction"
really "exclude direct references to an established model of reality"? What is a "direct" reference (as
opposed to, perhaps, an indirect one)? How can one decide if there are "questions of immediate
practical relevance" present in a text? And are they necessarily and obligatorily excluded in an
"esthetic interaction"? It is not saying that Fokkema's definition (following, in fact, Schmidt's and
others line of argumentation) does not have a certain degree of validity. Of course it does.
Addressing the relation of the literary system to other systems (in fact, defining the functional
relation of the literary system), Fokkema writes:

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14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

A literary system has a functional relation with other social systems, including other cultural
and artistic systems. The literary system, for instance, has close relations with criticism - which even
may be considered part of the literary system - , the system of journalism and the educational
system.[Fokkema 1991: 365]
Naturally, Fokkema's ambition here is not to clarify the relation of criticism to the literary
system, still, his second sentence is more than embarrassing. Is, then, criticism a system? Is it cultural
or artistic or both? And what is Fokkema's answer to the question whether it is part of the literary
system?
Fokkema then sets out to sketch "the internal organizationof the literary system" which, for
him, "can be phrased in terms of acting roles (production, distribution, reception, text processing), or
in terms of conventions underlying these various roles" (Fokkema 1991: 365-366) - although it is not
obvious how the two phrasings could be differentiated. Canon-formation is not simply a subsystem or
internal differentiation ('Ausdifferenzierung') of the literary system but it has overlaps with the
educational system while it also affects the economic systemof the distribution of texts. It can be
called a hybrid of literary, educational and economic parentage. My definition of a literary canon is 'a
selection of well-known texts, which are considered valuable, are used in education, and serve as a
framework of reference for literary critics' (Fokkema1986: 246). This would imply that the boundary
of the system of canon-formationwould be determined by the criterion whether agents participating in
the literary system or interfering with it are setting aside certain texts as being of great literary value,
with the purpose of using these texts as treasure houses of guidelines for cultural behavior (Fokkema
1991: 366)
The account of the canon as a product of a closed system of producers of literary texts,
institutions of education, book market, consumers, and critics seems to reiterate the problem of the
relation between the model and practice, of which Bourdieu writes,
One of the practical contradictions of scientific analysis of a practical logic lies in the
paradoxical fact that the most coherent and also the most economical model, giving the simplest and
most economical account of the whole set of facts observed, is not the principle of practices hich
explains it better than any construct; or - which amounts to the same thing - that practice does not
imply - or rather excludes - mastery of the logic that is expressed within it. (Bourdieu 1980/1990: 11)
But a system is not just an ordered set of participants and actions; it is supposed to have a
function as well.
The functionof the canon-formation system is to satisfy a demand of literary criticism, which
cannot work on the basis of abstract norms alone. It also satisfies a need in educational policy at
school, only a selectionof works can be read and taught, and in order to prevent this selection from
being completely arbitrary, it is guided by certain norms. The canon should offer a matrix of relevant
questions and possible answers. It can be considered an instrument for problem solving. Perhaps
canon-formation should also satisfy the more general demand of the educated laymen in need of a
beacon in a largely secularized world. (Fokkema 1991: 366)
Canon-formation, then, serves the aims of the literary critics - but who is the actor in that
activity? Is it just a lapse that the subject is not clear in Fokkema's sentences? This whole functionbusiness does not seem to be that simple, anyway. For Viehoff, for instance, in the same volume,
The function of literary criticism is the orientation of the literary system towards goals; in
particular, it governs the process of literary communication by legitimizing and implementing
prevailing literary values. It is therefore correct to claim that there can be no criticism without
literature, but there can be no literature without criticism either (cf. Margolin 1983). Literary critics
cannot escape this interdependence when meeting the requirements of their role. (Viehoff 1991: 247)
Let us, again, turn to Fokkema's delimitation of the realm of literary system. He asserts that

14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

123

"the border line of a literary system (in modern times, and in the Western world) is determined
by the criterion whether or not the agents in literary communication are prepared to respect the
esthetic convention when dealing with texts." [Fokkema 1991: 365]

14.1.1.3. System vs network


Earlier, in connection with the communities of interpretation, it has been raised that the word
"community" is certainly misleading; even if one uses it as a technical term and ignores its traditional
meaning (which is, of course, is impossible to ignore), it would be useful to choose another term.
Brodkey, for instance, proposes to employ the word "network" instead:
... social network is sociology's attempt to substantiate empirically the sense of community. In
the literature on network analysis, a social network is consistently described in terms of observable
social practices. Perhaps then what is meant by community might be better understood as a social
network or, even more likely, as a collectivity of interdependent social networks.(1989: 36)
She then goes on explaining that
"A network is a group of people bound by their social circumstances" (ibid.), and introduces
Lomnitz's distinction between egocentric and exocentric networks, the former being closed and
offering reciprocal services, the latter subject of exterior influences, depending and competing with
other networks (36-38).
This idea is very impressing and it is hardly a question that networks (or communities, for that
matter) must be part of a description of a system. But since goods, services, money, rewards, objects,
or manipulations, maneuvers, control, frame, action and cognitions are pretty difficult to locate in the
network, system still remains an apt term to apply.

14.1.1.4. System vs Field


There are strong arguments, especially those forwarded by Bourdieu, to use the concept of
"field" instead that of "system":
In my view, there are in systems-theory a number of postulates about social reality that one
cannot accept, such as the hypothesis of a process of self-regulation, the idea of internal cohesion or
of common functions. All these organicist postulates are very dangerous. By using the notion of field,
I want to make explicit the fact that literary products may be systematic without being the products of
a system. ... In particular, the system may be the product of conflict and, using the notion of field, I
want to emphasize the fact that fields of cultural production are based on the acceptance of common
goals, of common stakes which make possible an agreement about points of disagreement. (Bourdieu
1989: 31)
Moreover, there are methodological considerations which may lead one to prefer the concept of
field:
What the concept of field suggests, then, is a general method, a general mode of generating
questions and building anwers. In every field that you study, you know that agents will look to
accumulate capital, that there will be struggles over the capital, but you do not know what specific
capital,71 how it is accumulated, where the 'banks' of capital are, and thus where boundaries of the
field lie. (Bourdieu 1989: 28)
Concentrating to the field, one may surpass the investigation of individual phenomena, the often hopeless and only locally interesting - research on institutions:
...the field is not a mere aggregation of points, it's not an additive entity. What is important in a
field is not the individual or the given institution: it is the space formed by objective relations between
71

For "The structure of the field, in my terms, is the structure of the distribution of the specific capital which is at
stake of the field" (Bourdieu 1989: 27-28).

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14. Unfinished Appendix: Systems: Back to Structuralism?

the positions occupied by individuals or institutions. The field is made up, not of personal,
interactional relationships, but of objective relationships, such as those of domination. (Bourdieu
1989: 35)
In the debate between Bourdieu and Schmidt, it seems evident that Schmidt insists on and will
continue to use the term system. Others agree that this is the right notion: "In research about literary
communication, the notion of system has a heuristic function, and we continue to use it since it has
proven to be useful. Apparently, the notion of system serves as a model of certain aspects of reality; it
helps us to discover, describe and explain those aspects. If the knowledge obtained this way is also
profitable in action, it contributes, in the words of Von Glaserfeld (1985), to our viability." (Fokkema
1991: 364)
Intuitively knowing, more or less, the world around us, the participants and (or) the main
factors and (or) institutions of the literary field can be quite easily be listed. These has been quite a lot
written about each of them, individually; but not about their constellations and relations.72
As to the participants of the system, roles which later on became autonomuous and distinct had
been, in earlier systems, intermingled and overlapping. Thus, in the 18th century, publishers, authors
and distributors could belong to the same group (as opposed to the consumers).73

72

For a partly subjective, but interesting account on the relation of the author and the publisher, see Unseld
1978/1980.
73

"Publishers rarely took the risk of manufacturing costs; the author paid, and the publisher served as his
distributor on a commission basis. The author was thus literally in the publishing business. But in the absence of
a predictable market, an efficient system of distribution, and the transportation necessary for a national market,
the author tried to avoid risk by finding his buyers before he published. Almost all literary works before 1800
were published by subscription ..." (Charvat 1968b: 8)

125

References

References
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