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Edward Larrissy. Blake and Modern Literature

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Edward LARRISSY. Blake and Modern Literature. Palgrave MacMillan, 2006, 188 pp., €47.95, ISBN 1-4039-4176-9.

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1How could one define a good volume of theory? Ask half a dozen colleagues the same question, and you’ll get half a dozen different answers (even if you choose your colleagues from within your own special field and school of thought). Some might require ground-breaking new work, others might look for solutions to traditional problems, others still would be content simply to read a study that asked the right questions, and some wouldn’t be satisfied without a bit of agôn, without some violent exchange.

2This little volume edited by Stein Haugom Olsen and Anders Pettersson is a good book of theory according to any one of these definitions, the only problem being, perhaps, its allegiance to the notion of definition itself. For the main goal of these studies is indeed the question of the definition of literature, and some of us have begun wonder if the question is still worth raising. Yet since several of the articles included here make an analogous point, the volume does indeed have something for everyone, that is, something even for those like myself who are convinced that the notion of “literariness” is a dead-end. One of the odd features of the collection is thus that there seems to be quite a difference between the positions of the two editors, Olsen being convinced of the possibility of formulating a useful definition of literature, and Anders Pettersson concluding that such a definition would be of no use to theory.

3One might think that a potential tension between the two editors would lead to a confusing introduction, but such is not the case. Olsen and Pettersson carry out their task quite well. True, there are one or two confusions. For example, the authors begin by announcing that they will list six different concepts of literature that have existed over the course of the 20th century, but in fact two of the concepts or definitions involved are not really definitions of literature. Most definitions of literature have tried in some way to capture the essence of “literariness” – to capture what is specifically literary. When Olsen and Petersson come to poststructuralism, they are right to say that followers of this school “removed any principled distinction between literary works and other genres of texts” (2). But then they should go on to say that such theorists were thus not interested in defining literature. It is not that there are six (or seven or n35) different answers to the same question. Rather, there is in fact a group of people who, for various reasons, have lost interest in defining literature in any technical way.

4This loss of interest in such definitions is often inspired by different versions of the “institutional theory” of art. Such theories tend to diminish the number of concrete things the critic or theorist can say about the work of art, and thus tend to imply some form of relativism. The art theorist can analyse how the institution functions, but his task is not to define the work of art nor in any way legislate as to its essential forms of value. It is perhaps for this reason that Olsen, in his own contribution, tries to argue against George Dickie, showing (for example) that Dickie’s version of the institutional theory cannot explain why a work is art. This is meant to be a debilitating defect, but the institutionalist could retort that such explanations are sociological and ideological, rather than philosophical or “æsthetic”. The point might be that there is never a single substantial answer to this question, even though there may be a single pragmatic answer to it. In other words, the institutionalist might argue that art theory can explain how art functions and perhaps link these practices to abstract questions on the nature of value. But (he might claim) it is not the business of the theorist to “explain why a work is art” if this means making a personal value-judgment.

5Another way out of the relativism involves showing that art is based on some set of rules. Olsen summarizes a number of useful but ultimately debatable arguments on the role of rules in reading. He claims (22) that reading literature involves a process of initiation to the “constitutive rules” of the practice (in John Searle’s sense of the term). But the institutionalist could reply that if there are constitutive rules of art, then they are empty or tautological, i.e. maxims such as “Pay attention here to what is aesthetically interesting.” There is indeed a heavy use of tautology in the more optimistic or positivistic articles of the volume. Both Olsen and Paisley Livingston underline the “æsthetic nature” of the literary work or the “æsthetic response” that it provokes – but can such remarks really be fleshed out in a useful way?

6Livingston is thus another author who is convinced that literature can be defined, an author convinced that the theorist can grasp the “specific nature of aesthetic experience” (39). The institutionalist, or the pragmatist, or the proceduralist (and some of the other contributors fall into these categories) would probably argue that the “specific nature of aesthetic experience” can perhaps be referred to pragmatically, without there being one specific content to this experience. This is perhaps what the institutional theory is all about – all about, that is, refraining from making specific comments and sticking to abstract analysis of a form of life in the Wittgensteinian sense. Livingston’s goal, however, is to formulate a “belletristic” definition of literature: “Whenever a writer’s primary intention relative to some work is that of creating something that it will be intrinsically valuable to contemplate… then the resultant work is literary on this belletristic account” (46). To be fair, Livingston spends much time intelligently working out all of the concepts implied in this statement (such as that of intrinsic value). But one still may come away from the article with a feeling that certain statements remain unenlightening if not fully tautological.

7One of the qualities of this volume comes from the fact that the different authors interact directly. Bo Petersson develops some of the ideas presented by Anders Pettersson in his attack on the excesses of poststructuralism, and, in the final study, Søren Kjørop links two of the articles to the æsthetics of Baumgarten. Some of this intertextuality is polemical, which is quite invigorating. Lars-Olof Åhlberg’s contribution is curious in its desire to embrace both sides of the debate. He points out quite perceptively that the various institutional theories (Dickie or Danto) were largely inspired by the visual arts rather than literature (where fewer revolutions have occurred). But then, rather surprisingly, after apparently supporting what he calls a “procedural” approach (57) to art, he goes on to insist that a true definition of literature must be “evaluative”: “if literary criticism cannot avoid making value-judgments nor can literary theory.” “The current rhetoric against values and value judgment,” writes Åhlberg, “cannot change the fact that theories are evaluated in terms of their consistency, explanatory value, fruitfulness, originality, elegance, or, radical potential… not only literature, but also theories of literature are themselves subject to… evaluation” (73). Everything under the sun is “subject to evaluation” – but that doesn’t mean that all definitions and all theories are in themselves value-judgments, or that art is to be defined in terms of value. Indeed, the emphasis on value doesn’t fit the “procedural” approach, which as a theory should be interested in the nature of an activity rather than its outcome. A mistrial is still a kind of trial, a bad play is still a play, and one cannot turn one into the other simply because its performance is somehow infelicitous.

8But why complain? A volume such as this one makes the reviewer’s work easy for him, since the other articles can be pilfered for some potent remarks. Torsten Pettersson provides the pluralism that will make many a reader happy. He points out that “all traditional definitions [of literature]can easily be undermined” (82) and claims that “the consistent failure of attempts to define literature in terms of one key property indicates that texts are not literary by virtue of one quality alone.” “Instead,” he argues, “literariness… consists of various texts linked to conventions of  reading” (83). He believes not in any essence of literature, but rather a “network of literariness” (84). His own form of pluralism does not prevent him from listing what he sees as three important (but in no way necessary or sufficient) components of literature: “expressiveness, representativity, and form” (85). To take only the first, “a literary work is seen as the result of a creative process which reflects the artistic persona and aspirations of the author” (Here the institutionalist-pluralist might want to object: “Surely this is not a component of the work, but of the practice itself, and to that extent is it not a necessary component of all art?”)

9Perhaps the best formulation of a solid, unruffled pluralism comes from the co-editor, Anders Petersson. He boldly states: “…those who wish to define ‘literature’ almost invariably commit a certain fallacy which I will call the unified-concept mistake. They suppose that there is a common concept of literature, one that we all share, more or less, and that this concept is of theoretical importance and in need of analytical definition.” For Pettersson, we “certainly do share a concept of literature, more or less, but that is the everyday concept, which may be practically useful for our orientation in reality but lacks theoretical importance” (115). Petersson goes on to argue that trying to provide a single essentialistic definition of literature “would be a little like presenting an exact definition of baldness” (115).

10How indeed would one define baldness? Scientists, indefatigable in their efforts to provide objective criteria (that politicians later put to ill use), may one day identify that particular DNA sequence that leads to loss of hair. But who will define the boundary between a mere “thinning at the top” and outright baldness? Such questions of volume are ultimately questions of value, and the value of this volume is that it makes the reader quite aware of how value both stimulates and corrupts our definitions of literature.

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Pascal CAILLET, « Edward Larrissy. Blake and Modern Literature », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 6, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 22 janvier 2018. URL :

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