Roger Sell's LITERATURE AS COMMUNICATION
Review of Literature as Communication: The Foundations of Mediating Criticism, ed. Roger D. Sell (Pragmatics and Beyond: New Series, 78). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2000. 384 p.
Published in Spanish in Miscelánea: A Journal of English and American Studies 25 (Language and Linguistics Issue, 2002). 183-88.
Roger Sell, professor at Åbo Akademi ("Åbo" is Turku, in Finland) is well known in the field of pragmalinguistics, above all as the editor of a volume on Literary Pragmatics and as the advocate of applying to the analysis of literary communication an extended version of the politeness theory developed in linguistic pragmatics. Literature as Communication is not a collection of previous papers, but a systematic exposition and development of the theory advocated by Sell. As such, it constitutes a milestone in his intellectual career, and a first-rank intervention in the fields of literary pragmatics and critical theory—fields that he intends to redefine and merge. It presents itself as a fundamentally humanist project, a defense of the present and future validity of the central ideals of the Enlightenment (expert knowledge, tolerance, rational arbitration, individual responsibility, an ethics of cooperation), against certain currents of postmodern thought which proclaim, prematurely, the defunction of the Enlightenment project and of its conceptual arsenal.
The book argues the need for a theory of literary criticism understood as mediation: a mediation between author and reader, or a mediation between different ages, readings, and cultural contexts. This is a crucial function of literary criticism, and Sell argues that it has been neglected by the literary theory of the last decades of the twentieth century—if not always by the actual practice of critics. The purpose of this book is to provide a theoretical foundation, now lacking, for criticism understood as mediation. In order to do that, Sell, expounds in his introduction the main lines of such a theory within the context of contemporary literary studies, taking into account the interdisciplinary role such a theory would play, its function in the current postmodern cultural scape, and more specifically its relationship with literary pragmatics, rightly understood.
The justification for the need of this theory is argued through the critical panorama presented in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2, "A-Historical De-Humanization", revises the insufficient theoretical bases of the linguistic and literary formalisms, and of the modernist aesthetics associated to them (structural linguistics, speech act theory, New Criticism, literary structuralism). They share a common weakness—the dehumanization attending the lack of historical consciousness. Sell also criticises the formalist heritage of the early approaches to literary pragmatics, and his critique lays down the foundations of a wider conception of the pragmatics of literature, one which is closer to the critical practice of humanism. A reading of Sell's discussion is especially recommended for those who understand literary pragmatics in a restricted way as (for instance) the analysis of speech acts exchanged between the characters of a work. Sell proposes a pragmatics which governs all the levels of analysis in a text, all the way from the represented world, through the fictionally constructed voices, up to the communicative interaction between authors and readers. In this sense he goes far beyond the conceptions by Fish, Ohmann, Pratt or Petrey, not to mention Austin or Searle. It is a proposal for a pragmatic analysis comparable to the one I put forward in my book on narrative theory (1998).
Chapter 3 of Literature as Communication, "The Historical Human", revises the insufficiencies of post-structuralist criticism and linguistics. It ends with a critique of post-modernist stagnation, and advocates a "historical but non-historicist" pragmatics. Chapter 4, "Literature as Communication", expounds some of the basic concepts of such a pragmatics, including: a recognition of the interactional dimensions of the literary phenomenon; an awareness that the actual readings of a work must not be confused with the implied reading, or with the ideal context of reading invoked by the text—instead, those readings perform a multiplicity of functions in a multiplicity of contexts. This pragmatics must also be grounded on a conception of social experience, and within it, of literary interaction, as a process of co-adaptation, based on a flexible and protean conception of the self, and on a projective but not rigidly deterministic use of the subject positions or communicational roles proposed by the text—in particular the textual subject known as implied reader. One of the critical vices most eloquently denounced by Sell is, as a matter of fact, the "presupposition of a unitary context", that is, the reduction of a text's multiple possible contexts of reception to just one, the one presupposed by the critic.
Crucial, too, in Sell's theory —and in this respect is reminds of, and complements, T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis— is the self's imaginative projection towards the other: a temporary or conditional projection, but one which may lead to a redefinition of the self which engages in it. All of this leads, in Chapter 5, "Interactive Consequences", to rethink the role of other well-known critical processes and concepts, such as the problematics of the hermeneutic circle, of the ethics of reading, the role of generic conventions, the problem of the interference of biographical elements in the aesthetic reading of a text, the theory of linguistic (and non-linguistic) politeness applied to literature, and the issue of the historical distance between text and reader. Sell has something of value to contribute to all of these issues, and quite often his treatment of a given question, beginning in a disconcerting or apparently irrelevant way, turns out to be in the end straight-on accurate, illuminating, and immensely entertaining to read.
The final chapter (6, "Mediating Criticism), goes on to deal directly with the mediating function of criticism and the role of critical conflicts as understood by Sell, and identifies a tradition of mediating criticism with outstanding figures such as C. S. Lewis or T. S. Eliot. As a matter of fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way in which Sell comments on the precursors and precedents of his project of mediating criticism, and integrates them withing a global perspective: there we find Keats and his 'negative capability', we pass through Bakthin's dialogism, up to Gerald Graff and his project of including the teaching of critical conflicts in the literary curriculum, or Gadamer's hermeneutics with his notion of the fusion of horizons. Moreover, his approach recovers, besides the above-mentioned humanistic tradition, certain aspects of a number of "old-fashioned" critical perspectives, such as the New Criticism—thus the interest in the aesthetics of form, a value neglected by what Sell names 'Barthesian' criticism, or, more accurately, (post-)structuralist and political-cultural criticism). But apart from his strictures, and the limitations he denounces, Sell also finds many things of value in this complex of criticized critical approaches, thus doing justice to his own mediating theory.
Working in the field of narratology as a communicative phenomenon, I have found in Roger Sell's book a perspective I share to a great extent, one which fosters a radical integration (not a superficial one, as found in many stylistic approaches) of analytical perspectives coming from the field of linguistics and of literary studies, within the framework of a more organic cultural semiotics, one which is fully capable of apreciating the advances in textual analysis made by literary theorists and literary critics. Sell integrates these within a global communicative conception, and remains aware of their relative shortcomings. I see much common ground between my own conception and Sell's approach, and in his book I find more throroughly thought-out and better expressed many perceptions and notions that suggested themselves in my own work in this area. From this common ground that I wish now to expound some methodological points concerning the overall project or some specific issues.
Regarding the project's dimension as a semiotic of literature, it is difficult to dissent from Sell's proposals. They provide a highly suggestive continuity with recent work in pragmalinguistics placing emphasis on interaction (for instance, Jenny Thomas's Meaning in Interaction or Michael Hoey's Textual interaction) and with the integrational analysis developed by Michael Toolan in Total Speech. As a matter of fact, Sell goes far beyond the analytic proposals of many linguists who have been theorizing on textual communication—precisely insofar as he is attentive to the historical and cultural context and to the reception of texts, and insofar as he integrates the critical and theoretical debate on literature within the frame of a pragmalinguistic proposal. In this sense, Literature as Communication deals with textual communication at a level of complexity and subtlety far beyond the scope of books on textual linguistics such as Hoey's.
The weaker side of Sell's proposal would be, at any rate, the extent to which this project of communicational analysis of literature and criticism would require as well, in the last analysis, a specific critical praxis, a mediating critical practice which, by definition, will be most satisfactory for those interlocutors which are not caught in a phase of severe conflict. Mediating critics will find a receptive audience among detached observers. Of course I don't want to rule out the possibility that a critical mediation which is more theoretically self-aware may be more effective in preventing extreme positions or in opening up a ground for dialogue for radically opposed militant stances. But a literary pragmatics must also recognize that the conflict of interpretations has an element of irreducibility, a meaning-generating one, precisely in to the extent that the diversity of critical contexts can never be reduced to a single one—here one could almost accuse Sell of proposing as a remedy the same vice he is at pains to denounce in the book, the fallacy of the unitary context (in this case the context of the critically mediating act). But this would not do justice to the prudence, incisiveness and moderation of Sell's proposals, which really must be read directly, and not through a review, in order to get a full appreciation of their value. The objection remains, nonetheless, that althoug some uses of literature will benefit from a critical mediation, others benefit from the existence of open conflict, and will refuse any mediation—especially a well-argued one.
The theory of criticism as mediation is useful insofar as it emphasizes a very important function performed by criticism. But there are other functions which must not be neglected, and which might be obscured if we lay emphasis on mediation. Thus, criticism also involves the understanding or explanation of literary phenomena, and quite frequently, in offering an explanation (based on arguments from psychology, semiology, sociology, etc.) it must go beyond the author's intentional project, and beyond a mediating labour. I don't think that in this case there is an avoidance of the interactional-communicational function of criticism; only, that interaction also takes place in a multiplicity of contexts, not just in the communicative context between the author and the reader. In academic criticism, for instance, there is a foremost emphasis on the communicational interaction between critics on the basis of the work, and in that context the author-reader interaction, which appears in this book as the most prominent one, may be overshadowed or may be presupposed as an object of analysis. Also, the emphasis Sell lays on understanding may on occasion apper to be excessively intentionalist—let me hasten to say that I do not mean that intentionalism should be discarded, only excessively schematic intentionalisms, those which ignore the many possible levels of intentionality (implicit intentions, unconscious intentions, ideologically framed intentions, etc.) and the role of critical interpretation in the generation of sense, among other ways by givin an explicit formulation to implicit intentional phenomena. The humanist tradition Sell is working on here might be further enriched with notions of intention modified by (post-)structuralism and by psychoanalysis, and this need not involve a neglect of the communicational dimension of interpretation.
There are some other instances in which Sell might be charged with an excess of simplification, due in the last instance to polemical aims somewhat alien to the mediating impulse which animates his book. Thus, for instance, when he offers a version of Kantian aesthetics which ignores the role of ethical considerations in the Kantian theory of art. (That is, according to Kantian aesthetics, not everything in art is purely aesthetic, although the purely aesthetic element isolated by Kant is the most characteristic contribution of the Critique of Judgement, and is unduly extended by some of his followers to the whole of artistic experience). The New Critics as described by Sell are, again, excessively aestheticist, a characterization which certainly cannot be sustained through an examination of the critical practice of Yvor Winters, but neither by that of R. P. Blackmur, Richards or Wimsatt, and really by none of the actual practices of individual and relevant New Critics, quite apart from the abstract New Critics used as a putching-ball in many handbooks on criticism. I do not find satisfactory, either, the small critical recognition given by sell to Wayne C. Booth. Booth's importance as a theoretical ground for a perspective such as Sell's is so great that it is tempting to diagnose the few or disdainful references to him as a instance of the 'anxiety of influence'. Perhaps any argumentation involves a certain degree of simplification of the other's position, and Sell does not completely escape that dynamics, for all his advocacy of mediating criticism or his attempts to carry it out in practice. At any rate, I suggest that any reader who enjoys reading Literature as Communication should also turn to Booth's Critical Understanding.
In spite of many commentaries of specific literary and critical texts, the picture of mediating criticism in action, intervening in actual conflicts of interpretation, remains somewhat hazy in this book. This is an approach that Sell has developed at greater length in another volume which, as he announces in Literature and Communication, is animated by the same project, and has already been published (Mediating Criticism: Literary Education Humanized). My review of this second volume is forthcoming in the journal Language and Literature.
Literature as Communication is rounded off with a glossary of critical terms defined from this perspective, a bibliography, and indexes of names and subjects which make the book quite user-friendly. I warmly recommend it to students and scholars working on literary theory, literary pragmatics of critical stylistics. The book radiates with good-will and common sense to such a degree that these démodé virtues, together with a slight tendency to repetitiousness, might give it a slightly decaffeinated flavour, were it not for the unflinching accuracy of Sell's views on a multiplicity of phenomena and attitudes in criticism, that we have often seen but understand here for the first time, within a much comprehensive theoretical context. This understanding is also a special kind of pleasure, something this volume argues and exemplifies in a masterful way. Another favourable review of the same can be read in Language and Literature (Briffa 2002).
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BRIFFA, Charles. 2002. Review of Roger Sell's Literature as Communication: The Foundations of Mediating Criticism. Language and Literature 11.2 (May): 189-91.
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_____. 2003. Rev. of Mediating Criticism: Literary Education Humanized. By Roger Sell. Language and Literature 12.3: 283-85 http://ssrn.com/abstract=1629849
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_____. 2000. Literature as Communication: The Foundations of Mediating Criticism. (Pragmatics & Beyond New Series, 78). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
_____. 2001. Mediating Criticism: Literary Education Humanized. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
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