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Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Nilli Diengott


The first systematic discussion of the art of poetry, understood in the broad sense of literature, was Aristotle's treatise Poetics, which served as a model for discussions of literary works for hundreds of years in terms of both its organizing assumptions and the issues it raises. The Aristotelian model of poetics deals not so much with specific individual texts but with their general categories or underlying principles and therefore with virtual productions as well as already existing ones. Aristotle exemplifies the principles or categories with specific tragedies, but this is the sole purpose specific works serve. This method lays the groundwork for a distinction between a poetics—a general study of the principles of literature—and interpretation, the explanation or elucidation of single works.

The governing principle in such a model is its rational, systematic approach to its subject, whether poetry, tragedy, or epic. An important underlying assumption in such a poetics is that the object under discussion can be described by a language that is distinct from it—that is, a metalanguage that is cognitive in that it yields knowledge about its object. In this respect, poetics may be considered scientific, as it is based on the idea that each genre is defined by specific characteristics that distinguish it from others. Thus, poetry or tragedy can be described in a logical, systematic manner. The Aristotelian model of poetics is generally concerned with a relation between parts and wholes, such as tragedy and its six parts: plot, character, thought, diction, song, and spectacle. Each part is discussed in relation to other parts and to the whole. These parts are arranged hierarchically in order of decreasing importance: plot (mythos) dominates, while spectacle (opsis) is the lowest; character (ethos) occupies a lower position than plot. This model is also teleological, since it considers the parts‐whole complex as serving the specific purpose of catharsis.

Aristotle's model has been influential not only in outlining and exemplifying a method of constructing a poetics but also in the problems it poses. The question of mimesis (imitation), which attempts to explain the relation of the created object such as (the literary work) to reality, has vexed all discussions of literature and art in general as it attempts to define the natures of imitation, artifact, and reality. Another question is the relation of poetry (literature) to history and the degree of truth imparted by each, which anticipates modern discussions of fictionality.

The Aristotelian model does not set down explicitly prescriptive rules, but in the very fact, for example, that Aristotle prefers one type of tragedy—the complex—a normative element is introduced. The normative attitude is evident, for example, in neoclassical poetics, which emphasized the prescriptive aspects (the insistence on the unity of action, time, and place; the rejection of the mixture of genres). In some modern poetics, the normative aspect appears implicitly (e.g., the rather long‐lived normative poetics of post‐Jamesian critics of narrative fiction and their insistent preference for “showing” over “telling”).

The most important flourishing of poetics—understood as the science or scientific study of literature—occurs in the twentieth century under the impetus of developments in modern, especially Saussurean, linguistics. Philosophy in general and philosophy of language in particular have also influenced modern developments in poetics. Until the early 1970s, poetics established itself as the dominant research avenue in literary studies through different schools, particularly Russian formalism, the Prague Linguistic Circle, French structuralism, Northrop Frye's work, and, to a limited extent, New Criticism (Wellek and Warren, 1966; Beardsley, 1958; Wimsatt, 1970). From the 1970s onward, doubts were raised concerning the very possibility or necessity of a science of literature, and a new set of problems emerged.

The first stage in modern poetics is associated explicitly with a theory of literature understood as a field or discipline with its own methods, definitions, and taxonomies. It aims at a systematic, rational account, constituting a body of knowledge and aspiring to methods and results that are verifiable, improvable, subject to debate, and, if necessary, replaceable. Despite the differences among them, all the above‐mentioned schools believe that literature or the language of literature or literariness constitutes a distinct object of study, to be described systematically in order to distinguish it from adjacent fields. The purpose of the science of literature is to yield knowledge that is generalized and systematized about the “rules,” “principles,” and “laws” underlying the phenomenon called literature. These schools develop distinct metalanguages with which to describe the object, with their focus always on its distinctive features or qualities. All these schools adopt an “intrinsic” approach, using or constructing a metalanguage that describes the text not by means of history, psychology, philosophy, or other “extrinsic” fields but by means of categories belonging to literature. The literary text is considered to be self‐reflexive—that is, directed at itself, serving no outside purpose; its language is dominated by the poetic function rather than the referential; the text is autonomous, divorced both from its author and from its audience. The point is always to highlight the fact that literature or the language of literature is distinct from both ordinary and scientific language.

Within modern poetics, the genre that comes into prominence is narrative. A new metalanguage about fictional narrative describes them by means of distinctions between story and discourse (or equivalent terms such as fabula and suzhet). The first term in each pair designates the narrated events reconstructed chronologically together with their participants but abstracted from their disposition in the text. The second term in each pair designates the events as actually disposed in the text. Modern poetics develops different typologies of narrators and draws important distinctions between narration, which deals with the aspect of telling in narrative, and focalization, which deals with the perspective from which events are seen. It attempts to study narrative and its underlying rules or generating principles.

The different schools emphasize the distinction between poetics and interpretation, of which poetics is or should be free. This idea originated in the assumption that poetic taxonomies, descriptions, and theories are semantically neutral. While interpretation is concerned with the meaning of the single text, poetics is meant to be a meaning‐neutral study of principles, rules, and laws.

In the tradition of poetics derived from Aristotle, mimesis or representation occupies a central position in discussions of literary works and art in general; in modern poetics, fictionality—which has to do with the question of the relation, if any, between the words in the text and their referent objects in nonlinguistic reality—has become central. Questions about the truth value of fictional statements become of central concern in light of developments in philosophy, linguistics, and philosophy of language.

Because poetics is understood as a theory of literature, it is to some degree affected by the late 1970s' and early 1980s' debates over theory in literary circles; however, theory in this context has a different meaning. Since the 1970s, the term poetics has been broadened to mean “theory of” in general. For example, in titles such as “The Idea of Authorship in America: Democratic Poetics from Franklin to Melville” and “The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital” the use of poetics is so generalized and expanded that it has little to do with poetics as the science of literature.

This kind of theory develops in North America but under strong Continental influence. Perhaps its coming into prominence is due to the untenableness in poetics, especially of the structuralist kind, of the claim that poetics is meaning neutral and can be totally divorced from interpretation. This new theory, by contrast, is concerned with the question of interpretation—its validity, norms, and authority. The debates within this school of theory are conducted on a philosophical rather than a literary level. The debate centered originally on the questions of whether there is a way to validate one interpretation over another (the author's meaning, the text's meaning, communities of interpretation) and how it would be determined, but in its latest stage it has taken a strong philosophical turn with its most extreme exponents (e.g., Fish, 1980) claiming that interpretation is always the first step, that no description of a text can precede interpretation, that there are no facts to be described since interpretation is always there. Ultimately, such a position denies any possibility of grounding any theory altogether.

The concern with theory in general is part of the poststructuralist stage in literary studies, a stage influenced by developments in philosophical discussions of language, particularly Derridean ones, and their dissemination through the school known as deconstruction. The discussion over theory and its place in literary study has brought about a significant change in emphasis in theoretical discussions of literature.

Poststructuralist schools (a label that covers diverse groups such as psychoanalytic, semiotic, feminist, Marxist, and new historicist criticism) focus on language in texts of all kinds, not just literary ones, in order to expose or demystify its workings. This takes various forms according to the particular school: a Marxist looks at the workings of ideology; a feminist at those of patriarchy and gender; a new historicist at those of culture; and a psychoanalytic critic at those of the unconscious. In this respect, the “linguistic turn” initiated by Saussurean linguistics is still in effect. However, this stage of theory overturns the underlying assumptions that held true for both the Aristotelian and modern models of poetics. The belief in the specificity of “literature” or “literariness” is denied. Literary language is not different from ordinary language or scientific language; in fact, it has nothing to distinguish it, except that it best exemplifies, through its tropological (figurative) elements, how language serves to undermine its own workings, to work against itself. In fact, according to this view, poetics (which Aristotle distinguishes from rhetoric, the art of persuasion) seems subsumed under rhetoric and its tropological figures of speech.

Since in this view all language is basically similar to literary language, all language is “creative,” and the distinction between an object language and a metalanguage is undermined as well. “Literature” and “criticism,” traditionally distinguished from each other, are considered to be equally creative. The idea of a scientific, systematic study of literature is put in doubt by the notion that “objective,” universalizing, categorizing language is a fallacy, since all language is situated in specific cultural and temporal spaces. Language must be analyzed for its ideological underpinnings (whether of class, gender, or race), those mystifying practices that generate the perceived inevitability or “natural” status of universalizing terms (e.g., the use of man to include both men and women). The literary text is considered just another cultural text among many, and the methods of analysis shift away from a scientific inquiry into the literary system and toward an interpretation of texts using what under scientific poetics are extrinsic or extraliterary methods. (The distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic is also undermined, since literature is no longer considered a distinct object.)

If both the Aristotelian and the modern model of poetics see the text or system as a coherent whole—a separate, distinct object—poststructuralist theory turns everything (even whole cultures) into texts and uses methods borrowed from different fields of study in its discussions. While the older poetics insisted on a boundary between disciplines, poststructuralist theory is interdisciplinary, with no specific methods, categories, or descriptions that distinguish literary study. Literature is thus considered part of cultural studies. The relation of literature to history (first introduced by Aristotle with regard to the question of truth) is reexamined relative to the ways in which history is seen as only another fictionalized, tropological narrative, not very different from literature, or as a means of showing how historical accounts contain the ideological mystifications found in literary texts of the same period.

Modern poetics assumes that there is such an object as literature and accepts, usually without much debate, the works that constitute literature—the canon. The current stage of poststructuralist theory is preoccupied by the whole question of the canon, along with a general questioning and reevaluation of all aspects of literary studies. Questions of canon formation, attempts to account for inclusions and exclusions, and to broaden the canon through historical research, and the question of values in regard to canonical texts are facets of a renewed preoccupation with literary values and values in general. This area is one more area of dispute between those who believe values have an objective status and reside in the text and those who believe values are contingent on historical, cultural, gendered, racial, or class circumstances and on the power of institutions.

A long tradition of poetics as a science of literature, which Aristotle's theoretical, generalized approach gave impetus to and which continued through the 1970s, has perhaps come to an end. Poetics in the scientific sense seems, for the time being, to have been pushed to the background. Its successor, poststructuralist theory, is concerned with issues, methods, interpretations, and analyses that are interdisciplinary and that see literature and literary studies not as a distinct bounded discipline but as part of a broad cultural and historical text.


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                    Wellek, R., and A. Warren. Theory of Literature. 3d ed. London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.Find this resource:

                      Wimsatt, W. K., Jr., ed. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. London: Methuen, 1970.Find this resource:

                        —Nilli Diengott