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21 January 2010

Structuralist Poetics (3)

So, on to Chapter 7, "Convention and Naturalization", which may be the most useful of the lot. Mainly the chapter is about vraisemblance, which is the term Culler settles on out of a number of choices. It refers to the way in which literary texts convince the reader of their reality. Here's the core:
One might distinguish five levels of vraisemblance, five ways in which a text may be brought into contact with and defined in relation to another text which helps to make it intelligible. First there is the socially given text, that which is taken as the 'real world'. Second, but in some cases difficult to distinguish from the first, is a general cultural text: shared knowledge which would be recognized by participants as part of culture and hence subject to correction or modification but which none the less serves as a kind of 'nature'. Third, there are the texts or conventions of a genre, a specifically literary and artificial vraisemblance. Fourth comes what might be called the natural attitude to the artificial, where the text explicitly cites and exposes vraisemblance of the third kind so as to reinforce its own authority. And finally, there is the complex vraisemblance of specific intertextualities, where one work takes another as its basis or point of departure and must be assimilated in relation to it. At each level there are ways in which the artifice of forms is motivated or justified by being given a meaning. (p 140)
Phew! That was a lot of typing, but it seems to me its the most explicit statement of the underlying approach (we'll see in a moment what happens when Culler tries to develop a poetics of the lyric). Let's look at each level in turn, as Culler does.

1. The first level is simply that the text has an apparent reality. So this is statements of fact: John sat at the table. In fact, Culler distances this a bit, saying that the text refers to the generally socially defined text. I'm not entirely happy about using the word 'text' so widely. There's also room for debate about whether any grammatical sentence has vraisemblance simply by virtue of being grammatical. The example here is the sentence 'John cut off his thought and fastened it to his tibia'. Because it's grammatically well-formed, it has a relation to socially accepted statements, but in a different way, surely, from one that is both well-formed and meaningful.

2. Cultural vraisemblance operates on the level of shared beliefs about people and things. Balzac is quoted a lot here. I suppose his notation of Nucingen's speech is an example; Balzac's audience shared the view that's how Germans speak. It's a huge concern in S/Z of course, and one of my concerns about that essay was that Barthes assumed agreement by his readers on several cultural beliefs - eg the Freudian view of castration.

3. The use of a particular genre enables the third level. Actually, the concept is wider than simply genre, and includes, for example, works by the same writer. An example here is the behaviour of Corneille's characters. They would never say "I'm fed up with all these problems and shall go and be a silversmith in a provincial town." (p145)

I'll add a thought here, that cultural vraisemblance can become genre-based. In Jane Austen's time, it was a culturally shared fact that Anne Elliot, for example, would not decide to get a job and support herself. Now, most readers accept it as one of the conventions of the genre, without having to understand the social constraints. (And here 'genre' might mean 'novels of Jane Austen', or 'early nineteenth century fiction' etc.)

4. The 'conventionally natural' is interesting, and I'm not sure how common. It occurs when the work foregrounds its own artificiality to gain authenticity. Examples are needed and given, but sticking with Jane Austen, in Northanger Abbey this kind of thing is going on all the time, with Austen pointing out how unlike a gothic novel her story is.

5. Culler simplifies this to 'Parody and irony', which might be an over-simplification. He also says it may be seen as "a local and specialized variant of the fourth [level]" (p152). In fact he develops the discussion so that irony, for example, can apply to any of the previous levels. In the discussion of Madame Bovary the point is made that Emma Bovary's thoughts and actions are ironised relentlessly. The discussion also argues that in irony you have to be able to hold both views in mind at the same time. I'll quote the example, in Culler's own translation:
[Emma] wanted to become a saint. She bought rosaries; she wore amulets; she wanted to have in her room, at the head of her bed, a reliquary set in emeralds, in order to kiss it every evening. (p 156)
You have to be able to sympathise with Emma's wish, while understand the ridiculous in it.

The chapter ends with a kind of apology, that this concentration on vraisemblance (also known as 'motivation', 'naturalization', 'recuperation' and maybe more) isn't popular with structuralists. Indeed, as Culler sets it out, it doesn't seem structural in the same way that theories of language are. In the next chapter, "Poetics of the Lyric", my initial view was that there actually isn't a structuralist poetics defined or described. But I'll read it again before I comment here.

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