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18 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (2)

After rebutting Jakobson's attempt to encompass poetics in linguistics, Culler moves on, in chapter 4, to "Greimas and Structural Semantics". Greimas, whose work I don't know at all, apparently tried to account for poetic effects by the organisation of semantic elements within a work. The difficulty in this seems to me to be very much the same as in computer translation: semantic units aren't as neatly fixed as would be necessary to make this possible. One example is the word "colourful", which means something quite different when applied to a painting and to a person. Even if you add a note to your dictionary that gives a different meaning in different semantic contexts (eg colourful: when describing a painting, bright, using many colours; when describing a person, lively, eccentric) you still can't account for all usages. (What if we said, for example, that "The Mona Lisa has a colourful background"?) The situation is worse in literary language, where metaphors continually develop.

Also, in jokes for example, the same semantic features are repeated but with different meanings, so how can we know what element is important?

The chapter ends with this thought:
linguistic analysis [...] does not in itself serve as a method of literary analysis. The reason is simply that both author and reader bring to the text more than a knowledge of language, and this additional experience - expectations about the forms of literary organization, implicit models of literary structures, practice in forming and testing hypotheses about literary works - is what guides one in the the perception and construction of relevant patterns. (p 95)

Chapter 5, "Linguistic Metaphors in Criticism", is the last of the part of the book dealing with the background. In it, Culler looks at two other approaches. The first, typified by Barthes' Sur Racine takes a set of works and attempts to identify a structuralist code of meaning. In Racine, this means that there is, for example, a contrast between three spatial areas: the chamber, the anti-chamber, and the world outside. I found Sur Racine a fantastically useful work in appreciating Racine, but Culler argues that it falls short of actually getting to grips with the plays themselves. His argument isn't wholly spelled out; I think he also recognises the brilliance of the book.

The second approach takes the "work itself as the investigation of a semiological system and attempts to formulate more explicitly the insights it provides" (p 103 - 4). Barthes is again an example: his work on Loyola is concerned with showing Loyola as explaining the semiology of devotion. Similarly, Deleuze and Genette read Proust as a kind of dictionary of social intercourse. A refinement of the second approach is to see works as a commentary on language itself, and Stephen Heath's work of Finnegans Wake is the example.

Culler ends this chapter similarly to the previous one:
Linguistics does not [...] provide a method for the interpretation of literary works. (p109)

In Chapter 6, "Literary Competence", Culler begins the reply, proposing a theory of poetics, which while structural in form is concerned with literary effects. This first chapter says that accomplished readers of literary texts bring to their reader a skill in identifying literary structures and patterns. At its simplest, this would include knowing that Blake's Sunflower is not just about a flower in a garden in Lambeth. Going on, the competence would include an awareness that it's significant that three lines out of eight begin with the word "Where". This must imply that there are some kind of poetic signifiers, and I presume the rest of the book will deal with this. What's already clear, though, is that the method focuses on the reader: readers have more scope than writers to examine the implicit side of what they are doing; and the aim of the endeavour of this book is to bring some of those implicit activities into the foreground.

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