Literariness, debate March 9, 2007

Comments posted by DSM, March 11, 2007

1. Three components: foregrounding, defamiliarization, self-modifying. Are all these needed? must they come in this order? why would defamiliarizing lead to a shift in concepts?

-- in "What is literariness?" the process (all three components) is described as the progressive transformation of an affective theme - so for the process to get underway, foregrounding must evoke feeling. Our argument for the likelihood of this is the uncertainty shown by readers, suggesting the inadequacy of cognitive schemata for understanding, hence the resort to feeling. Thus the key to literariness would be feeling (but to note also the contrasts, conflicts, etc., of feeling in literary response).

-- foregrounding and defamiliarization can occur on their own - this is how many advertisements work

-- and self-modifying can occur in real-life situations; in such a context we may sometimes say it is like being in a dream, or in a movie.

2. The King Lear lobotomy: if everyone underwent this, then literature would cease to exist as an experience, so literariness would also disappear. There must be a competent linguistic basis for literary experience - and an intact frontal cortex!

3. Differing experiences of literariness, e.g., disliking Dickens. This doesn't seem to me to challenge the theory, providing some people enough of the time speak of the literary power of Dickens for them. Also, the fact that what was considered literary at one time is no longer (such as the novels of Mrs Henry Wood: considered important in her day). Either personally or culturally, the occasions for self-modifying experience will vary, and only for a relatively few writers will there be some universal value that will survive for a majority of readers over centuries.

4. Whether texts employed in empirical studies (such as Miall & Kuiken, 1994; Cupchik, et al., 1998) are untypical, being too high in foregrounded and other literary features, to represent literary reading in general. Are they too modernist? This is a reasonable point. Perhaps "The Trout" is the least overtly modernist text. But note that similar findings have been made with texts from China (18th and 20th C.) and Brazil (20th C.), with poetry from Romantic and Modernist periods; and the defamiliarizing component is replicated by neuropsychological studies (Hoorn, Auracher). So the findings look as if they warrant generalization.

5. Whether a computer could be programmed to produce text with foregrounded elements, e.g., take the restaurant script and introduce defamiliarizing variants. This seems unlikely to me, although computers have been taught to write short stories similar to those in newspapers or elementary fairy tales. Since the power of defamiliarization lies in its appeal to feeling, computers (which lack feeling) would have no basis for inserting meaningful stylistic changes into a text. The process would be very hit or miss, I think.

6. Question whether in empirical studies participants come from the same cultural background, hence have acquired the same interpretive conventions; this would call into question the "innateness" of literariness. A couple of responses to this: 1. that now, with universal literary education (in the West anyway) adult readers are bound to have picked up some sense of the relevant conventions for literary reading, even if this is something they rejected once they left school; this is why I turn to Rose's historical readers for evidence of how literariness is manifested in uneducated readers. 2. that conventions may not always appear to be what they are claimed, e.g., Rabinowitz in Before Reading: several of his major conventions (so called) can readily be explained by appeal to standard (and innate) psychological processes (e.g., Gestalt principles).

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Document created March 11th 2007