Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory
EN3000 – Fall/Winter 2011/2012 – Nemanja Protic
Lecture 2 – Sept 15
- What does it mean to be modern and how is modernity organized in terms of
theories (concepts) and practices (ways of living)?
- What does it mean to be postmodern and how is postmodernity organized in
those same terms?
- Are we, today, modern? Are we postmodern? Or is there a third option?
- More specifically, how are categories and concepts such as truth, history,
subjectivity, and ideology utilised in a construction of praxis in the modern and
Praxis (as per Calvin O. Schrag)
“Praxis… [is located] between the theoretical and the practical as they are
generally understood, and particularly as they are understood in modern philosophy.
Praxis as the manner in which we are engaged in the world and with others has its own
insight or understanding prior to any explicit formulation of that understanding… Of
course, it must be understood that praxis, as I understand it, is always entwined with
The Modern Era
- Rebellion against traditional forms of authority such as the Church and the
Monarchy, and an attempt to establish the autonomy of the individual’s capability
- Rise of democratic political forms, based on the autonomy of the individual.
- This democracy is often described as ‘liberal’ – concerned with rights of
individuals – and as closely related to capitalist economic forms and commerce
epitomised by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of machine production.
- Modern thought, furthermore, builds on this faith in reason and human autonomy,
and leads to a proliferation of subjectivist and individualistic ways of
conceptualising the world.
Modernity: Liberalism vs. Democracy
- Modernity is a concept that embodies cultural aspects of the modern era such as
the rebellion against traditional authority and faith in reason and autonomy of the
individual; these are concretely expressed in liberal-democratic political forms.
- The conflict at the heart of the dominant Western political form, liberal
o Liberalism vs. Democracy, or
o Autonomy vs. Rule of the majority
- Fareed Zakaria’s ‘The Rise of the Illiberal Democracy’: ‘Constitutional Liberalism
is about the limitation of power, democracy about its accumulation and use.’ Modernity vs. Modernization
- Modernization is the process of technological development based on forms of
capitalist production and on the system of free markets concretely expressed by
various technological advances, urbanisation and labour relations.
- The conflict at the heart of the Modern Era:
o Modernity vs. Modernization
o Belief in equality vs. unequal distribution of wealth.
- Methodologically speaking, how are theories and concepts developed by various
thinkers throughout the modern period related dialogically?
- Methodological corollary: We must avoid the tendency to see development as
progress – as linear teleological movement form a lower to a higher stage.
Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975)
- Born in Orel, Russia in 1895.
- Died in Moscow, USSR in 1975.
- Critic of Russian Formalists.
- Associated, in his private life, with the Russia Orthodox Church. Exiled to Siberia
(sentence commuted to internal exile in Kazakhstan) in 1929.
- ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics’ (1929).
- ‘Rabelais and His World’ (1940, 1965).
- Key features of his work are interdisciplinary and a dedication to man as a
concrete historical subject: ‘It is only on a concrete historical subject that a
theoretical problem can be solved.’
Bakhtin on Russian Formalism (via Todorov)
“The main reproach he directs against them…has two parts: the Formalists are
wrong to isolate the study of literature from that of art in general, in other words, from
aesthetics, and, ultimately, from philosophy; their positivistic refusal to examine their
own foundations does not make them immune to aesthetics or philosophy; it merely
leaves them in the shadows. Bakhtin will take it upon himself therefore to formulate their
implicit ideology, which he identifies as ‘aesthetics of the materials.’ For the Formalists,
it is the materials (in literature: language) that wholly determine artistic forms. Such an
approach… necessarily leads to the valorization of empty and dead forms, to the
separation of form and content.’ (37)
Russian Formalism (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)
“A school of literary theory and analysis that emerged in Russia around 1915,
devoting itself to the study of literariness, i.e. the sum of ‘devices’ that distinguish literary
language from ordinary language. In reaction against the vagueness of previous literary
theories, it attempted a scientific description of literature (especially poetry) as a special
use of language with observable features. This meant deliberately disregarding the
contents of literary works… Along with ‘literariness’, the most important concept of the
school was that of defamiliarization: instead of seeing literature as a ‘reflection’ of the
world, Victor Shklovsky and his Formalist followers saw it as a linguistic dislocation, or a
‘making strange’… Rediscovered in the West in the 1960s, the work of the Russian Formalists has had an important influence on structuralist theories of literature, and on
some of the more recent varieties of Marxist literary criticism.”
Bakhtin’s Criticism of Russian Formalists
- Objective empiricism – reducing the text to its materiality.
- Subjective empiricism – dissolving the text into the psychic state felt by those
who produce or perceive the text.
- Bakhtin: “The scholar latches on these two aspects, afraid of going beyond them
in any way, habitually convinced that only metaphysical or mystical substances
are to be found beyond. But such attempts to treat purely empirically the
aesthetic object have always failed and… are methodologically altogether
illegitimate… There is no reason to be afraid of the fact that the aesthetic object
cannot be found in either psychical phenomena or in the material work; in no
manner does it then become a mystical or metaphysical substance. The… world
of action, of ethical existence is in the same situation. Where is the State? In the
psyche? In physico-mathematical space? On the paper of constitutional
documents? Where is the law? Nonetheless, we have a relationship to the State
and to law, which we fully assume; more even: these values gives meaning and
order to empirical material as well as to our psyche, by allowing us to overcome
its pure subjectivity.”
Why Bakhtin? And Why Now (Then)?
- Late 1960s USSR: De-Stalinization
o Stalin dies on March 5, 1953.
o The Soviet leadership denounces Stalin’s use of terror and eases
repressive controls over party and society.
o Nikita Khrushchev initiates ‘The Thaw’ – “A complex shift in political,
cultural and economic life in the Soviet Union. That included some
openness and contact with other nations and new social and economic
policies with more emphasis on commodity goods, allowing living
standards to rise dramatically while maintaining high levels of economic
growth. Censorship was relaxed as well.” (Wikipedia).
o The trends of this period lead directly to Mikhail Gorbachev’s political and
social reforms of the USSR called perestroika and glasnost, which initiate
further restructuring of the political and economic systems and which free
public access to information after decades of heavy government
The Text and the Social
“The [written] work cannot be understood outside the entity in ‘literature’. But this
latter entity, taken as a whole, as well as its elements… cannot be understood outside
the entity ‘ideological life.’ This entity in turn cannot be studied… outside the unitary
socio-economic laws.” – Bakhtin
Dialogic (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms) “Characteri