Hogan, Patrick Colm. "Literary Universals." Poetics Today 18 (1997): 223-249. Summary Universalism is usually "denounced as a tool of oppression" (224) when it is mentioned by humanities scholars. However, Hogan draws upon Lalita Pandit's distinction (1995: 207) between "hegemonic" and "empathic" universals to defend the overall concept. The former, which he refuses to call universals at all, refers to the imposition of one set of interests on everyone, which promotes domination. The latter is based on a notion of shared subjectivity, and gives all subjects in question equal consideration, making it a far more useful and accurate term. If anything, this will lead to the discovery of cross-cultural elements that oppose, rather than support, ethnocentrism and racism. Defining universals further, Hogan suggests that not all individual works need to display universals: universals can be considered such if found in "distinct bodies of literature that do not share a common ancestor having that property or relation" (228). Also, not even all traditions need to show a given relation for them to be granted universal status. An absolute universal occurs in all traditions, while a statistical universal occurs more frequently than chance would predict (228). With regard to literature, a theory of universals "would include a repertoire of techniques available to authors" (229), like alliteration and foreshadowing, which can be organized into schemata like the poem, or more narrowly, the sonnet. In addition to specific techniques, broader thematic and narrative forms must be considered. All literate cultures tell tales, for example, of conflict in the areas of love and political power (231). The broadest structure is verbal art, which occurs in all societies (230).The most general universals seem mundane to us because of constant exposure, but Hogan asserts that it is important to overcome habituation to understand how surprising all universals really are. Hogan suggests that more specific literary elements can often be explained by the abstract universal in which they nest. For example, the use of a nightingale to signify love would not be a universal, but the broader tendency to use birds as symbols of romantic love might be, and this might be further explained by the universal tendency to associate positive emotions with an upward direction (233). At the highest level, Hogan believes that literary universals "should indicate what is at the origin of the development of literature" (233), underlining the connection between a theory of universals and an evolutionary account of literature. Statistical universals can be worked into implicational universals by imposing certain conditions, in the form of "if p, then q" (234). This strives to bring the frequency closer to one, the absolute value, indicating the presence of the element in all traditions. The idea of indexical universals serves to further specify the criteria for universality; these universals are "defined by reference to the particulars in which they are instantiated" (236), like sex, race, and religion. Such universals apply to individuals from given subgroups, but not to those outside. An explanatory research program should attempt to derive general principles of commonality from series of universal formal devices; these could be called "secondary principles" (237), which would explain the primary devices. An example of such a secondary principle is the general cognitive mechanism of encoding. We only perceive certain aspects and relations during any sensory experience, and these become encoded (239). When applied to syllabic onsets, this explains alliteration; when applied to speech rhythm, metre; and so on. Of course, as Hogan reminds us, devices like alliteration and rhyme "reach a sort of ceiling, after which they detract from aesthetic effect" (240); more is not always better. Aspects we tend not to notice, like the number of speech sounds, do not become encoded, and so do not manifest themselves as formal devices. A further example of a potential secondary principle manifests itself in the investigation of typical line lengths in poetry, which fall between five and nine words in a wide range of traditions (241). This is explained in part by the structure of rehearsal memory, which usually holds from five to nine chunks of information at a time. Exceptions abound, but this relation guides the search, and in attempting to explain the exceptions, the theory will change and perhaps be entirely replaced as more empirical work is completed (244). Critique It appears that the ultimate goal of the empirical study and theory of literary universals is providing an answer to the question why it is that all societies have verbal art. Or, in Hogan's words: "the specifically literary universals should indicate what is at the origin of the development of literature, what defines the human urge to make and experience verbal art" (234). Unfortunately, the matter rests here, for Hogan does not make an attempt to formulate even a tentative, provisional answer to this question. In that sense, Dissanayake's (1999) and Miall's (2001) studies seem to be more "universalistic" than Hogan's work. Also, even though the interdisciplinary character of the "ongoing, broadly collaborative research program" (236) is emphasized several times, apart from cognitive psychology (244), none of the potential collaborative partners, for instance, evolutionary psychology and the empirical study of literature, are spelled out. Furthermore, empirical studies of literature could have provided actual empirical evidence for claims such as that tale telling is done "at least in part for aesthetic enjoyment, itself based on identification, the patterned variation of emotional intensity, etc" (231). It appears that Hogan tries to characterize universalism above all as the opposite of normative absolutism, that is, he tries to purge the universal project from ideological motivations. Consequently, he draws a distinction between "universals bearing on aesthetic experience and those bearing on aesthetic evaluation outside of aesthetic experience (e.g., concerning canonization and dominant ideology)" (236). Not only does this division rule out the possibility of a connection between aesthetic experience and canonization, but it also excludes the possibility of ideological works being experienced aesthetically, as may be the case with, for instance, Italian fascist futurism and Leni Riefenstahl's work. This second scenario links in with findings of a study by Klemenz-Belgardt (1981) that Hogan refers to when explaining indexical universals. The results of this study emphasize the connection between preference and identification (236). It could very well be that ideological art which is connected to personal preferences is experienced in an aesthetic and intense way. The correlation between the maximization of unobtrusive patterning and the relationships among rehearsal memory, line length, and aesthetic experience is an interesting example of what Hogan has in mind with the descriptive and explanatory study of a theory of literary universals. It appears that the success of literary universals pivots above all on the number of individual languages, literary works, and literary procedures studied. However, Hogan's argument for the universal that the line length of poetry tends to fall between five and nine words lacks this firm quantitative basis, for even though different literary works of several cultures are mentioned, the extent to which the list of The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, Aeneid, Odyssey, Songs of Innocence, and Phèdre (241) can be regarded as a representative overview of European poetry over a period of more than two-and-a-half-thousand years can be questioned. Furthermore, Phèdre appears to be an exception in French poetry, for, even though "French lines tend to be unusually long" (241), i.e., more than nine words, the first twenty lines of Racine's work have fewer than nine words. Thus, an exception is presented as, first, being representative of French poetry, and, second, as proof for a universal that concerns all (European) poetry. Perhaps in this case the fact that French poetry deviates from a universal could provide insight into cultural distinctions. For Hogan, however, exceptions are above all indications that the universal should be adjusted, and not so much starting-points for cultural definitions, for this may derail in normative absolutism. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between normative absolutism and the study and explanation of (local) exceptions that seem to resist universals. Finally, despite the admirable objective of the study of literary universals, its implications seem to be somewhat overestimated when Hogan argues that "if we fail to recognize that allusion is a universal technique, we will not look for allusions in particular works" (227). The same claim is made with regard to symbolism. However, allusion and symbolism can be easily studied without necessarily considering them to be universals. Taking the possibility into account that there may be allusions present within a literary work is something that has been done for hundreds of years, without ever thinking of the presence of allusions as a literary universal. References
Dissanayake, Ellen. "'Making Special': An Undescribed Human Universal and the Core of a Behavior of Art." Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Eds. Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner. Lexington, Kentucky: ICUS, 1999. 27-46.
Klemenz-Belgardt, Edith. "American Research on Response to Literature: The Empirical Studies." Poetics 10 (1981): 357-80.
Miall, David S. "An Evolutionary Framework for Literary Reading." The Psychology and Sociology of Literature: In Honour of Elrud Ibsch. Eds. Gerard Steen and Dick Schram. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001. 407-419.
Pandit, Lalita. "Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Radindranath Tagore's Gora." Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. 207-233.
Document created April 24th 2005