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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

Literary Studies, Disciplinarity and Symbolic Anthropology

Rory Ryan

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1The call for papers states: "In literature, the whole notion of literary value and language has become problematized." In this paper, I will raise problems of value and disciplinarity in literary studies, following which, an attempt will be made to account for the domain of literary studies as an event under the anthropological gaze.


2By way of introduction, I move far away in space and time from late-twentieth-century literary studies... Existing remnant stone-age cultures indicate that Palaeolithic epistemologies were driven by conformity to a single system of explanation. The phenomenal world was consistently read and interpreted as a series of effects produced by and subject to immaterial intentional entities-gods and ancestors of varying degrees of power and benevolence/malevolence. The validity and authority of any explanation of phenomena depended on the degree to which it deferred to (paid homage to) the central system of understanding, resulting in a high degree of sacralization of the social order (see Durkheim, 1893). In a discussion of Durkheim, Mary Douglas offers the following succinct explanation:

Durkheim saw that all religious beliefs are pulled this way and that in men's haggling and justifying of ways to live together. He could see that in all small, isolated tribal societies men create their entire knowledge of their universe in this manner. They covenant implicitly to breed a host of imaginary powers, all dangerous, to watch over their agreed morality and to punish defectors. But having tacitly colluded to set up their awesome cosmos, the initial convention is buried. Delusion is necessary. For unless the sacred beings are credited with autonomous existence, their coercive power is weakened and with it the fragile social agreement which gave them being. A good part of the human predicament is always to be unaware of the mind's own generative powers and to be limited by concepts of the mind's own fashioning. (Douglas, 1975, xiv)

3With the rise of cities, the civilisations of the Near East and Europe, as well as the increasingly sophisticated division of labour, studies of aspects of the phenomenal world (principally the body, nature and the stars) intensified until, during the past millenium, systems of explanation have emerged to rival the Traditional deistic system. Simply stated, events such as stomach pains, shooting stars, successful hunts, births and droughts could be shown, by revolutionary epistemologies, not to be the work of vengeful or beneficent supernatural beings, but to have persuasive explanations outside of the old religious order. The mechanisms of persuasion employed by these emergent epistemologies, called "sciences", invariably involved the employment of three cornerstones: namely, the communal designation of the appropriate field of objects for study, and the subsequent formulation of axioms and procedures governing investigation. The coming-to-be of the modern disciplines has been fiercely contested by the ancient singular deistic system, evident in the struggles, for example, between paleontology and religion (over control of the explanation of human origin), or between astronomy and astrology (over the explanation of the nature of celestial bodies), or between chemistry and alchemy (over the explanation of properties of matter), or even between medical science and witchcraft (over the explanation of illness). Consensually designated objects, axioms and procedures – these have been instrumental in the establishment of the modern sciences and disciplines as domains which do not defer to the old religious order. I now turn to the domain of literary studies, which has failed to (or chosen not to) offer strong claims to disciplinarity.

  • 1 Without wishing to create a falsely homogeneous category called "New Criticism", or to constrain r (...)

4First, objects. The existence of the term "literature" implies that all works designated as literary exist in the same conceptual class, and that the proper object of literary studies is the search for literariness inhering in literary objects. While there was, earlier this century, an effort to constitute a transcultural canon (by the New Critics1), this venture has been shown more recently to have been a culturally imperialistic gesture. This dismantling of the New Critical canon has been accompanied by fervent oppositional canon-making activities, resulting in a proliferation of canons. It is evident from these multiple, modern canons (and the vast number of revered texts which they contain) that all of the texts now designated as literary possess no necessary and sufficient properties in common, and that the notion of an essential and intrinsic realm of literariness is an unsupported contention. At best, literariness has been designated by means of the family resemblance or polythetic principle (see Needham, 1983, 37-65), whereby text A relates to text Β, Β relates to C and C relates to D. The elements in common between A and Β need not be the same as the elements in common between Β and C, and so on. The consequence of polythetic classification is that while both texts A and D are designated as literary, they may share no commonality whatsoever. This absence of commonality is compounded by the existence of rival canons. Demonstrable, objectively verifiable, universal and pancultural definitions of literariness have never consensually been established, and this is precisely to be expected. Cultures confer literariness, and cultures are by definition not other cultures. Revered texts are nothing more or less than cultural emblems, banners and totems. Pancultural literary value is at best a dream, at worst a covert act of imperialism.

5Second, axioms. Is there, in literary studies, a set of stable theoretical postulates equivalent to the laws of motion or the algorithms of mathematics, one which lays an incontrovertible foundation upon which literary-critical investigative work builds? At these fundamental levels, there is dispute concerning the function of literature, the status of literary statements, the principles of interpretation and the aims of analysis. Guy and Small offer the following observation:

We have referred already to the plurality of theories which currently exists in English studies. This situation has come about because explanatory paradigms developed in other disciplines have not been used sequentially in English. Although paradigms have been appropriated over a period of twenty years or so, their introduction into the discipline has led to a simple accumulation of theories rather than to the supersession of one by another. Few literary critics have questioned such a situation, fewer still seem aware that it might produce difficulties. (1993, 28)

6The endorsement of pluralism in literary-theoretical axiom formation (in the 1970s and 1980s) was, in its exuberant celebration of diversity, unmindful of the inevitable consequence that consensual axioms (and thus disciplinarity) would, from then on, be only a dim possibility. By priding itself on its abilities to critique false authorities, literary studies has possibly debased the notion of authority to its own detriment.

7Third, procedures. Rule-governance in interpretation has strenuously been opposed in literary studies, evident in the widespread hostility to the New Critical attempt to institute objective procedures in literary criticism. The aftermath of the New Critical era constituted not simply a rebuttal of New Critical proposals concerning the best ways of doing things, but a rebuttal of the very notion of rule-governance in literary studies, which was seen to be an appalling infringement of the individual rights of the literary scholar (rather than as a way of getting on with business in an orderly fashion). The ever burgeoning number and increasing diversity of positions in literary studies, with regard to the constitution of literariness, axioms and critical procedures, has created a place of heterogeneity to the extent that, now, in the last years of the millenium, nervous attention is increasingly given to whether a centre called "literary studies" exists at all. Stanley Fish reminds us that:

a practice only acquires identity by not being other practices, by representing itself as not doing everything, but as doing one thing in such a way as to have a society habitually look for its specific performance. When the hard outlines of a practice are blurred by a map that brings into relief its affiliations, borrowings, lendings, and overlappings with other practices, those affiliations, rather than anything specific to the practice, are what become visible. (1996, 169)


8In this second part of my article, I address the questions, "If literary studies can be shown not to be a discipline, can it continue to operate as a distinct discursive site?", and "Does disciplinarity matter?" Gerald Graff plays Don Quixote in the current drama, by trying to disarm the problem of disciplinarity with gallant intentions and insufficient weaponry. Let us listen to his exhortations:

A conversational structure would enable us to affirm a plurality of differences but to go beyond a merely vapid pluralistic celebration of difference as such. In fact, the more diversified and conflicted the domains of English, the humanities, and the universities become, the more the model of conversation becomes the only feasible means of achieving conceptual coherence and representational clarity. If we can create a coherent conversation, we should no longer have to ask whether there is a discipline in this department. (1996, 27)

9Graff articulates his position in another way:

To those who know the intellectual code, traditional humanists and poststructuralist theorists seem so far apart as to be living on separate planets. But for many students, the traditional conservative and the radical theorist seem far more similar to one another than they seem to themselves, their parents, their friends. The very issues that make it possible for the traditional and the theorist to dislike one another create a bond that separates them from those students. (1996, 22)

10Graff will have us believe that a site for staging conversations or conflicts will provide some sort of centre which, if not satisfying the criteria of disciplinarity, will nevertheless constitute a place for literary studies, in the same way that a particular pub may be identified as the spot where two rival gangs choose to meet for the purposes of mutual destruction. In this instance, one may observe that while the two gangs do not get on, they choose a specific site in which to do so.

  • 2 Graffs amusing discussion in "How to Save Dover Beach" is pertinent here. See Graff, 1992, 37-63.

11However, this conflictual model, itself a sadly pathetic substitute for disciplinarity, does not adequately account for activity in literary studies. For dispute to occur, there must be something over which to fight, whether a bone or a piece of territory. At first glance, we do (in literary studies) fight over the meaning of The Winter's Tale or Ulysses, do we not?2 Not so. Literature has become literatures. The demise of the tight authority of the New Critical canon has resulted in the creation of multiple canons, each in turn generating axioms and procedures specific to the proper veneration of these canons. The splintering of canons, axioms and methods, in the past two decades, has created entirely separate enclaves of commonality and activity within the former singularity of literary studies, a state of affairs in which it is neither fruitful nor interesting to stage conflicts with other enclaves. Different literary objects, axioms, procedures and agendas have produced different languages, perhaps like Noah's ark, in which the elephants have only each other to talk to, because the tigers and slugs speak only tiger and slug respectively. The multitude of positions in literary studies has made internecine strife obsolete. Each position is a well-defended city-state going about its own business within its own territory, worshipping its own icons in its own ways for its own purposes, through the medium of its own journals and conferences. Under scrutiny, the alleged commonalities between all the city states within the former kingdom of literary studies may amount to nothing more substantial or significant than the mutual physical proximity which results from individuals being hired to teach in the same institutional department. The commonality may consist only of shared letterheads, tearooms and toilets. The players do not all obsessively try to occupy a single space, but instead range widely over numerous discursive sites, disciplines, intellectual problems, ethical and social issues of their own choosing, never getting close enough to other roaming players employed in the same institutional department for a territorial fight to occur. To Graff's call for "a generalized language for staging conflicts in ways that increase rather than lessen institutional visibility" (1989, 263), the players to whom he appeals will no doubt not bother to respond at all. Each city-state within literary studies is at present self-sustaining, in that it creates a market and an intellectual machinery. Why would a Foucauldian analyst of the Gothic novel, a French feminist analyst of postcolonial Indian women's writing, a Wittgensteinian analyst of naming techniques in Dickens, a Gramscian analyst of late capitalist literary production, a close reader of Eliot's Four Quartets and a researcher into the status of prosody in late medieval lyrics, all choose to leave the relative security and productivity of their own canons, axioms and procedures only in order to stage a conflict over who most rightfully has a claim to the entire kingdom of literary studies? Territorial fragmentation in the domain of literary studies has, in the short term, created an era of peace and prosperity, only because the discursive centre is no longer deemed a prize important enough over which to engage in conflict. In the longer term, once it becomes generally and institutionally known that the disciplinary centre of literary studies has irrevocably disintegrated, institutional readjustments might well occur which acknowledge this disintegration, and which thus disperse the fragments of literary studies to neighbour-disciplines such as history, sociology, cultural studies, literacy studies (and so on), thus effectively terminating the institutional terrain of literary studies. Briefly, short-term gains might be won at the cost of longer-term disaster. James Raymond offers a bleak prospect:

Of course there is no discipline in the English department. It is a collection of disparate activities with multiple objects of inquiry, vaguely articulated methodologies, and diverse notions of truth. Whatever arrangement exists among its competing scholarly, artistic, and pedagogical interests is a marriage of inconvenience, grounded not on any passion or admiration that would justify the union but on habit, historical accident, economic dependency, and perhaps anxiety about what people would think if we went our separate ways and whether we would actually survive. (1996,1)

  • 3 See Court, 1992.

12It is at this point that the entire matter of the status of literary studies may be investigated at a more fundamental level, employing a perspective outside of the boundaries of literary studies in order to view its totality within cultural production and social life. One understands, from the above discussion, that the ever-increasing non-congruence between the splinter groups of the intellectually fictional, but institutionally real, discipline of literary studies is potentially dangerous for the continued existence of the site. However, during the history of institutionalized literary studies, spanning at least two centuries3, the moments at which the domain has been a disciplinary singularity are few. While the present degree of fragmentation is cause for concern, one must bear in mind that a weak participation in the requirements of disciplinarity has been the norm, not the exception, in literary studies. Why, then, has it continued to flourish, to occupy privileged cultural-intellectual-institutional space? In The Future of Literary Studies, H. V. Gumbrecht (1995, 508) asks:

Is it not astonishing that governments, taxpayers, and parents have consistently financed academic disciplines whose functions are anything but obvious, even to their practitioners?


13In this third part of my essay, I examine literary studies as a strong instance of symbolic behaviour, following Melford Spiro:

If symbolic behaviour is even half as important as Freud, for example, suggested, symbolic anthropology is the custodian of the richest of all the mines which are worked by the science of man. (1969, 214)

14To reiterate the opening contention of this article, the modern disciplines have split off from the sacralized core of human meaning and value by developing new forms of authority. This sacralized core, however, remains powerfully central in giving content to cultural concepts of the beautiful, the true and the just, forming a structure of invisible imperatives which Ino Rossi (1974) calls the "cultural unconscious", Richard Shweder calls the "cultural frame" (Shweder & Le Vine, 1984, 27-66) and Pierre Bourdieu refers to as the "doxa", or "the class of that which is taken for granted" (1977, 169). Ludwig Fleck adds:

The individual within the collective is never, or hardly ever, conscious of the prevailing thought style which almost always exerts an absolutely compulsive force upon his thinking, and with which it is not possible to be at variance. (1935,41)

15This thought style operates as the symbolic, deeply hidden aspect of the social contract, filtering all phenomenal experience through a network of deep-structure moral and aesthetic norms, to which I have come to refer as the realm beyond question. In everyday life, culturally-conditioned statements such as "This painting is beautiful", "Polygamy is immoral" and "Murder should be punishable by death", may achieve the status of natural observations, truths-in-themselves. The category of nature (the human construction, and not the physical entities of flora and fauna) is appended to the category of god as a second source of authority. If that which a culture deems undesirable cannot be shown to be ungodly, then it can usually be shown to be unnatural. These two categories, invested entirely with culturallyspecific meaning, are subsequently granted independent existence, so as to place their authority beyond human invention and thus beyond dispute. While these repositories of deep-cultural norms, totems and taboos are intended to appear fixed, eternal, indisputable – the ultimate arbiters of the material and immaterial realms – they are renegotiated as cultures undergo deep-structural changes. Victor Turner observes three crucial features of the mechanisms operative when the non-negotiable is negotiated in culture. First, the process occurs most appropriately in the symbolic realm:

A community of human beings sharing a tradition of ideas and customs may bend existentially back upon itself and survey its extant condition not solely in cognitive terms but also by means of tropes, metaphors, metonyms, and symbolic configurations. (1985, 124)

16Second, the notion of liminality is employed by Turner to describe the cultural space which is "betwixt and between" regular cultural spaces:

Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. (1977, 95)

17The realm beyond question is by definition beyond the transient world of ceaseless change and, consequently, the process whereby it too changes must be constituted outside of normal life, bracketed off beyond the smooth operation of daily life. Third, such bracketing can be described as occurring in the subjunctive mood, and art, for Turner, exists in the subjunctive (1977, vii), an assemblage of hypotheses and proposals which live an "as if" existence, absented from the continuous, unreflective enactment of cultural meanings and norms. The ontological status of fictional entities has long perplexed philosophers; literary characters and events can never invade the phenomenal world, however strong the suspension of our disbelief. Thus, the world of art (particularly that which is designated literary art) is a safely distinct realm, a time beyond time and a place beyond space in which all possibilities become legitimate. Literature as liminality can be both curatorial and revolutionary, tradition-supporting and tradition-subverting. In literature and literary studies, we can bring the "world beyond question" into question without simultaneously disrupting deep-structure cultural business-as-usual. The world of make-believe can function as the symbolic terrain in which we may reaffirm, or dare to tinker with, the machinery of cultural meaning and value, that which Roy Wagner refers to as the "dialectic of invention and convention" (1981, 55). By these means we can try on new versions of the good, the beautiful, the true and the just without any obligation to buy into them. Anthropology has paid much attention to mythological and religious narratives in its investigation of symbolic operations; the realm of the literary has yet to receive sustained attention as the site within which the secular sacred is reinforced or reinvented. Canon-making is, in these terms, one of the ways of enshrining value, encoding the normative ends-in-themselves, thus (by sleight of hand) establishing the self-evidence or transcendent correctness of the categories of goodness, beauty and justice in a specific society. The symbolic realm – and not the police – may be the most successful means of upholding the social contract. The role of literature (and thus, those who tend the literary shrine – critics and analysts) cannot be underestimated in the maintenance of cultural specificity and social order, and in effecting relatively structured alterations to the realm beyond question by means of the subjunctive mood. According to Wagner:

Our novels, plays and movies place familiar relationships (like "love", "parenthood", "tolerance", "democracy") in exotic, historical, dangerous, or futuristic situations, both to control those situations and to make them meaningful and to recharge the relationships themselves. (1981, 59)

18Wagner's list of relationships – love, parenthood, tolerance and democracy – consists of primary social arrangements functioning to preserve and promote the bonds of the social contract. The greater the degree to which they can be perceived as self-evidently valuable ends-in-themselves, the greater the degree of social cohesiveness and equanimity. The symbolic, a collective representation, consolidates social order. Turner proposes:

A single symbol, in fact, represents many things at the same time: it is multivocal not univocal. Its referents are not all of the same logical order but are drawn from many domains of social experience and ethical evaluation. (1977, 52)

19Having proposed that systems of morality, truth, beauty and justice are the four cornerstones of the symbolic order, what remains is the elucidation of precisely how the literary participates in the maintenance of the symbolic. This occurs in two fundamental ways.

  • 4 The simulacral function of literature is not always uncontested. One of the common impulses of muc (...)

20First, because it is a verbal medium, the content of the literary work presents a make-believe simulacrum, whereby one of the constituents of the literariness of the work is its successful accessing of a deep-structure social principle embedded within the simulacral social surface-event presented. It is the perceived capacity of a literary work to invoke depth-in-surface – to offer up structural principles for affirmation or negotiation – that is foregrounded when we agree that a work is "universal" as, for example, in the presentation of the themes of the restoration of the social order in Macbeth, of the correlation between truth and beauty in Ode on a Grecian Urn, of goodness being its own reward in Persuasion, of the perils of social intervention in Things Fall Apart, of the potential inhumanity of excessive aestheticism in The Portrait of a Lady, of the erosion of individual liberty in repressive systems in 1984, or even of the failure of the symbolic order in Waiting for Godot.4 Of course, claims to the universality of the content of a work designated as literary are always exaggerated, since such claims imply that all cultures share the deep-structure values of one's own culture. Nevertheless, when texts are deemed to resonate with truth across vast reaches of space and time, it is aspects of the symbolic order which they offer to us. Truths-in-themselves are shown to participate either more or less in the realm of truth-for-itself.

21Second, literature participates in the maintenance of the symbolic not in its content but in its forms. In this sense, texts are deemed to participate in the literary by way of the superordinate category of the aesthetic when they are shown to embody aesthetic ends-in-themselves such as complexity, rhythm, pattern, structural integrity, design, balance, harmony or any other highly symbolic capacity deemed aesthetically exalted by a specific culture. Core aesthetic principles such as balance and harmony have currency within the realms of art and truth simultaneously, thereby doubling their investiture in the realm beyond question. The literary serves as a strong site for increasing the sacralization of this network of symbols, in both its form and content, while offering subjunctive opportunities for the periodic overhaul of totemic structures. If the ultimate task of symbolic anthropology is to identify the principal symbols which drive the claims to self-evidence within the categories of beauty, justice, goodness and truth, then the category of the literary is a good place in which to start the investigation.


Works cited

Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Court, Franklin, 1992. Institutionalizing Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750-1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Douglas, Mary, 1975. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Durkheim, Emile [1893], 1984. The Division of Labour in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls. London: Macmillan.

Fish, Stanley, 1996. "Them We Burn: Violence and Conviction in the English Department." In Raymond, 1996, 160-173.

Fleck, Ludwig, 1935. The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Graff, Gerald, 1989. "The Future of Literary Theory in the Teaching of Literature." In Cohen, Ralph, ed., 1989, The Future of Literary Theory. New York: Routledge.

—, 1992. Beyond the Culture Wars. New York: Norton.

—, 1996. "Is There a Conversation in this Curriculum? Or, Coherence Without Disciplinarity." In Raymond, 1996, 11-28.

Gumbrecht, H. V., 1995. "The Future of Literary Studies." New Literary History 26 · 499-518.

Guy, Josephine M. and Ian Small, 1993. Politics and Value in English Studies: A Discipline in Crisis? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hartman, G. H., 1979. "A Short History of Practical Criticism", New Literary History 10: 495-509.

Jayne, E., 1977. "The Rise and Fall of New Criticism: Its Brief Dialectical History from I. A. Richards to Northrop Frye." American Studies 22: 107-122.

Krieger, M., 1956. The New Apologists for Poetry. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Needham, Rodney, 1983. Against the Tranquillity of Axioms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ransom, J. C., 1941. The New Criticism. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions.

Raymond, James C, ed., 1996. English as a Discipline. Or, Is There a Plot in this Play? Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Rossi, Ino, 1974. The Unconscious in Culture: The Structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss. New York: Dutton.

Shweder, Richard and R. A. Levine, 1984. Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self And Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spiro, Melford, 1969. "Discussion." In R. F. Spencer, ed. Forms of Symbolic Action. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Turner, Victor, 1977. The Ritual Process. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

—, 1985. On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Tucson: Arizona University Press.

Wagner, Roy, 1981. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1 Without wishing to create a falsely homogeneous category called "New Criticism", or to constrain revolutionary initiatives of I. A. Richards, I believe it is possible to identify a body of principles, suppositions, methods and revered objects associated with critics such as Cleanth Brooks, William Empson, Richards, R. P. Warren, J. C. Ransom and others. The phenomenon of New Criticism has been given much attention by a wide variety of critics and theorists. A few interesting accounts are to be found in Ransom 1941, Hartman 1979, Jayne 1977, Krieger 1956 and Wellek 1978.

2 Graffs amusing discussion in "How to Save Dover Beach" is pertinent here. See Graff, 1992, 37-63.

3 See Court, 1992.

4 The simulacral function of literature is not always uncontested. One of the common impulses of much that has been referred to as "postmodern fiction" has been the problematization of the status and function of the fictive. This is achieved by self-referentiality, a subversion of traditional narrative situation, the foregrounding of artifice and the disruption of generic expectations. A comprehensive investigation of the disruptive capacities and achievements of postmodern writing cannot be undertaken here.


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