Literariness8 January 2009 at 3:19 AM | Posted in News | 3 Comments
Philosophers get away with answering the question “What is philosophy?” with the serious answer “Philosophy is what philosophers do.” Similarly, literary theorists define literariness as “what makes literature literature.” The term is usually attributed to the Russian Formalists, who were early 20th century critics, but the concept can be traced all the way back to Aristotle and even to the earlier Chinese literary theorists. Like all ideas, literariness has had its share of detractors, the most common insisting that it does not exist, i.e., that there is nothing particularly unique about literature. Some critics claim that everything written is literature (as in “Review of the Literature” in a scientific journal article). Some claim that even everything not written is literature (as in saying that we can read a silent film or read a person or read the traffic in a city). Some scientists have countered by experimentally proving that it exists (see, for example, Miall and Kuiken 1999). I welcome such empirical moves to defend the notion of literariness, but I prefer to take the logically circular route: literariness is what makes a literary text literary. You cannot argue against a circular definition because there is no way to break into the circle. It is like what the Structuralists used to say about language: take any dictionary of any language and you will realize that a dictionary is always self-referring (if you look up every word in any definition and follow it through every word defining it in turn, you will eventually end up with the original word being defined). What seems clear is that, if there is such a thing as literariness, it must have something to do with language, and if it has to do with language, then using a second language must have something to do with literariness.