Response to discussion of Jakobson

I thought the excerpt from Jakobson’s work helped us see the application of structuralism (or structuralist concepts) to the understanding of literary criticism as a field of academic study. Exploring the way that binary oppositions work in language, including the metaphoric and metonymic “poles” he identifies in figurative representation, set us up for an interesting critique of [some approaches to] interpretation of literary works. I did find, as I think was the consensus of our group as well, that Jakobson’s “diagnosis” of literary study as somewhat unbalanced and ill-equipped to adequately understand less overtly poetic/metaphoric language was more applicable to the New Criticism that was dominant in the discipline at the time. The New Historicist approach defies Jakobson’s suggestion of a “contiguity disorder” in literary criticism, focusing much attention on contiguous phenomena in the cultural, historical context in which a piece was written (or read). Psychoanalytic criticism also negotiates contiguity, or metonymic construction, in considering the psychological process and its effects on language production and reception. Certainly criticism that employs any form of identity theory (race, gender, etc.) includes a component of contiguity and associative relationships rather than simply metaphoric ones. The pendulum has moved since 1956.

I think it will be interesting to trace the way that structuralism has informed our approach to these newer interpretive strategies. The idea that there are stable structures (binaries, polar oppositions) underlying the unstable ones like cultural construction, identity, hierarchies, etc., is an appealing idea. (Markedness, for example, is the pot I never take off my mental stove.) I haven’t decided whether I find the idea so appealing because it offers an intellectual foothold, or simply out of wishful thinking.

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