Roger D. Sell Discusses the Reissue of Literary Pragmatics

| 14 December 2015 | Roger D. Sell

This blog was first posted on the homepage of Taylor & Francis Group. As the title says, it was occasioned by the republication of the edited volume Literary Pragmatics in the Routledge Revivals series. Literary Pragmtics was first published in 1991 and reissued in 2014. The volume was edited by Roger D. Sell.

Over the past twelve or fifteen years I’ve heard from lots of people trying to find a copy of Literary Pragmatics. This has confirmed my sense that some of the book’s papers have become classics, and that as a whole it is now a suggestive landmark. At first I think it mainly aroused the curiosity of linguists. But as its instigator and editor, I certainly had interests not only in linguistics but also in literature – I am a literary scholar by training. With time, its interdisciplinary scope is becoming more widely recognized and understood.

Not that it pretends to have all the answers. The reason why the thirteen contributors converged on Åbo Akademi University for a symposium was that they wanted to discuss what the study of literary pragmatics would actually consist of. They came up with several suggestions, some of which were complementary, but some of which were rather contradictory. A dialog was opened up which still continues.

Back then, pragmatics was the newest main branch of linguistics – the Journal of Pragmatics had not been set up until 1971. But there was already general agreement that pragmatics had to do with relationships between language and the different contexts in which it is used. Some scholars were emphasizing how context of use can affect meanings, as in the difference between “Could you open a window?” as used by a teacher in a stuffy classroom, and as used by a doctor examining a patient with a hand injury. Others, without necessarily questioning such semantic concerns, were pointing out that our choice of words is strongly linked to interpersonal considerations, as when we gauge an appropriate degree of politeness vis à vis particular addressees in particular circumstances, or make working assumptions about what our addressees already know or think or feel.

One disciplinary anomaly was that pragmaticians, though so centrally concerned with actual contexts of use, were still just as universalist in their approaches as most other twentieth-century linguists, almost as if the workings of politeness, for instance, had remained unchanged since the beginnings of human time. The Journal of Historical Pragmatics was not set up until 2000, and was arguably the first scholarly-institutional marriage between post-Saussurian linguistics and the comparative philology in which Saussure had himself been trained. Even so, several of the papers in Literary Pragmatics clearly anticipated that development.

Another disciplinary limitation was that most pragmatic analysis had been done on spoken language use, considerably less on written use, and none at all on literary activity. True, attention had been paid to the pragmatics of conversations between characters in a number of plays and novels, but not to the pragmatics of what goes on between dramatists, novelists or poets and those fellow-human beings who respond to their texts.

This seemed especially worthy of research at a time when so much literary criticism simply lacked the human touch. Modernist literary formalism was still widely influential, with many critics continuing to think of literature as an aesthetic heterocosm fundamentally separate from the worlds of nature and human relations, and condemning any discussion of a literary writer’s intentions, or of a reader’s affective responses, as fallacious. Postmodernist deconstruction sometimes seemed to be confirming this, apparently intimating that a writer’s meaning was in any case never determinate, but that language itself gave rise to an unstoppable stream of semiosis. Nor were the various kinds of ideological and historicist criticism so very much better. On the contrary, the deterministic element in their reaction against formalist aestheticism could be quite unmistakable, the basic implication being that it was not human individuals who wrote and responded to literary texts but entire societies, cultures, or structures of belief.

Against this background, each and every contribution to Literary Pragmatics took on its own significance. Since then, literary pragmaticists have not let the grass grow under their feet, some of them (myself included) now arguing for a fully blown account of literature as one among other forms of genuine communication. Even today, however, Literary Pragmatics is oftentimes the place to start. It has papers on:- interpretability in general and literary interpretability in particular (Nils Erik Enkvist); cross-cultural perceptions of literature (Richard J. Watts); a relevance theory perspective (Adrian Pilkington); indirect discourse (Meir Sternberg); poems as text and discourse (Peter Verdonk); understanding metaphor (Gerard Steen); how to define literature (Willie van Peer); two-way pragmatics from the world to the text and back (Ziva Ben-Porat); free and latent semantic energy (Claes Schaar); textualization (Balz Engler); circumstances of publication (Jerome J. McGann); the politeness of literary texts (Roger D. Sell); and drama as communication (Ernest W.B. Hess-Lüttich).

As for the contradictions to emerge, two of them remain especially thought-provoking. For one thing, some contributors seek to rehabilitate a formalist sense of literature as “special” or “separate”, while others are trying to historicize literature and make it part of “the real world”. Secondly, the contributors seeking to historicize literature do so either by emphasizing the impact of sociocultural factors, or by tracing a co-adaptational interplay between society or culture and the initiatives of human individuals.

One last recommendation. None of the papers is theoretical in a merely abstract way. There is a constant hermeneutic circling between theory and a wide range detailed examples. So all of it is very readable!

Comments: rsell(a)abo.fi

Tags: literary pragmatics, literary theory, literary criticism, re-humanizing literature, literary formalism, historicist criticism


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