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EMERGENT ISSUES IN LITERARY STUDIES IN THE 21ST CENTURY

August 11, 2011

James, Brown Chigozie
Department of English and Literary Studies,
University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Since the beginning of the century, literary studies have being a contention in itself. This order has followed from one literary convention to another but not without much controversies along the line. The changes that have occurred in the study of Literature since the beginning of the century cannot be over emphasised and that is what this research is out to address, especially the main issues in literary studies in the 21st century.
The history of literary studies is taken up mainly with literary studies succeeding one another, most with a root in philosophy. Theory according to Akwanya is what ensures that there is discipline and economy in Literary Studies ( Language and Habits of Thought:293)
The first step towards the approach into the commencement in the changes literature in its totality can be traced back to Horace even though it “is often claimed to be Aristotelian” ( Akwanya)
This is what gave birth to what has been called The Horatian-Humanist Tradition. This tradition is search of the authorial intention a literary work. The Horatian text is an instruction manual. From antiquity ( the GreekPeriod ), there has being a change, a propagation of theory upon theory up to the present time. The Humanist approach to a literary theory gain prominence in the Neo-Classical period, the 19th century though it has its root in Horace. The Humanists were concern with the intention of the author. Their orientation is towards the organisation and preserving of human society. With the Renaissance, a literary text or object ceased to command attention by its very being and internal structure as an aesthetic object or due to the pleasure. The central issue in every literary work shifted to the didactic (moral) function, mainly to what the author meant to inculcate through the work. Schwarz, (quoted in Akwanya, Discourse Analysis and Dramatic Literature:142) is of the opinion that for the text not to develop into an aesthetic object, “ the author must exercise control and close supervision over the work as it grows”. He continues that the characters in a literary work should be treated as metaphors, if not we risk “blurring more than necessary the distinction between aart and life” (78). Though the Humanist theory can be traced to Horace, it can be said that the English Neo-Classicists clinging to it could be for nothing but expediency. With the church in antipathy with the literature and theatre, it could be saidthat the literary texts produced were done so to conform with the morality of the period and this among other reasons account for the morality plays. The Neo-Classicists Humanist’s especially the likes of Matthew Arnold established that literature has a role in maintaining humane values which Akwanya termed as “ a role which was especially needful in the age of rapid industrial and technological progress” (294).the sole aim of literature to the Humanists is the inculcation and “ maintaining of humane values”. Humanism again according to Akwanya“never showed what force it was that assigned this role to literature, whether God, or nature” or “the universal world-spirit” according to Hegel. The destination for literature was the humanism society and nothing more.
Starting from the 20th century, rapid changes begin to occur in literature. This century heralds the emergence of literary theories and with this it becomes possible to resume the task of “identifying the literary object, in preserving, and in handling it” (293-294). On a new platform, since up to this time, tradition had played the dominant role. New theories that deviate from the Horatian-Humanist tradition emerged to focus on the text itself, the structures and not the authorial intention again. The question now is what the new theories set out to achieve. Attention was diverted from the author’s intentions, what he sets out to achieve to the text itself. The text becomes the central issue and for a start we shall consider structuralism.
Structuralism in literature studies is concerned with the conditions of the possibility of meaning in the work. The analysis of a literary work from the angle of structuralisms is broken down into minimal elements called “functions and indices”. Without both there is nothing like narrative. Structuralism investigates the self-generation of the text by the movement of the functional units. This theory was majorly championed by Roland Barthes, in what he calls narratology, where the text is accounted for entirely as a linguistic process with a hierarchical framework of inclusion and a constituent structure. With this, everything in the text including the characterare reduced to linguistic meanings. The attention of the text shifts from the text itself to the reader. The structuralists believed that the reader is privileged at the expense of the author. Literature according to Barthes “ is simply a language, a system of signs. Its being is not in its message, but in this ‘system’ “. Rather than interpreting the meaning or value of a work, attention is paid to the structures that produce meaning. The functionality of the author is thereby disregarded, language and structures, not the consciousness of the author or the verbal acts that emanates from its generate meaning. Others, like Jonathan Culler, stressed that “ the text is a kind of formless space whose shape is imposed by structured modes of reading”. The operative force becomes intertextuality. This sets the ground for the rapid changes that occurred in the 20th century.
As a result of the short comings of structuralism, a new theory in the name of post-structuralism arose. The post-structuralists notably Roland Barthes believes that the author has no control what ever over the work. He believes in the death of the author as he illustrated in his book with the same title The Death of the Author. Post- structuralism followed philosophical thought in their account of language. The language of the text is not made used of, it is universally the ordinary form of consciousness. Meaning becomes the determination of the reader, not the retrieving by the reader what has been put there by the author. Post-structuralism as we know grew as a response to structuralism’s perceived assumption that its own system of analysis was essentialist. Post-structuralists hold that even in an examination of underlying structures,there is an atom of biases themselves, based on the conditioning of the examiner.
It should be noted that formalism in the early 20th century gave rise to other theories. “Its major aim is to wrest literature from the grip of convention, where it was held as a handy tool” ( Akwanya, 204). Under formalism, the account offered in regard to writing is that it is an active process of estranging and making difficult everyday language. Formalism principle is based on the principle that the raw materials of literature are words. The formalists believe that literature builds up a tradition, and it is the tradition itself that gives the impetus to literary change. For this reason, Neil Sammels opined that:
Literature is compulsively deforming: to write is not accept and depict what is, but to deform it. Once the literary work no longer admits the nature and extend of the deformation it enacts and offers itself as a transparent window…,it becomes itself the object of criticism….thus a literary history is the struggle of literature to retain consciousness of self…
The formalists, moreover, bring out that literature seduces, in so far that the deformations it enacts may in time begins to be seen as how things really are.
The changes do not stop as no theory or criticism is self- sufficient in itself. This insufficiency gives rise to other theories like modernism for example. Modernism as a literary theory gained prominence in the mid-twentieth century when the rave of the moment was to break from tradition. For Holman, modernism is applied to writing marked by a strong conscious break with traditional forms and techniques of expression. It employs a distinctive kind of imagination, one that insists on having its meaning within itself. In modernism, there is no corporate existence but individual existence. There is autonomy of art in terms of art in terms of poetry, music, painting to mention but a few which implies that the text has an independence existence thus making it self-sufficient. Modernist literature tends to revolve around the themes of individualism, the randomness of life, mistrust of institutions (government, religion, state, family etc.) and the disbelief in any absolute truth, and to involve in a literary structure that departs form conventionality and realism. This is the typical scenario we have in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Stephen in order to find himself, who he really is in the society, rejects the authority of the church, his family and subsequently his country, Ireland.
As we have known, the insufficiency or the short comings of these theories always give rise to newer ones. The 21st century arrived with its theories following it. This century encapsulates the world literature produced within the year 200 to date. This century witnessed the re-visitation of the ancient tradition or what we would call “ going back to the pat”. One of the products of the re-visitation is ecocriticism.
Ecocricism is the study of literature and the environment from an interdisplinary point of view just as feminist criticism examines language and literature form a gender conscious perspective, ecocriticism takes on earth centred approach to literary criticism. Ecocritics and theorists ask question like the following: how is nature represented in this sonnet? What role does the physical setting play in the plot of this novel? How can we characterise nature writing as a genre?. Despite the broad scope of enquiry and disparate levels of sophistication, all ecological critics share the fundamental premise that human culture is connected to the physical world, affecting it and affected by it. Ecocriticism takes as its subject the interconnections between nature and culture, specifically the cultural artefacts of languages and literature. It is further characterised by distinguishing it from other critical approaches.
Thus, the theory posits that every literary work does not bear its mind on the author but on the text as well and the environment. Since imagination goes with thought, thought cannot be separated from the environment as the environment has a way of influencing the thought of the author.
Apart from the aforementioned, the 21st century witnessed also what is called transparency in literary language. Literary language is becoming more transparent to other disciplines.
Lastly, magical realism is not to be left out. This is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. One of the main features of magical realism is hybridity. Magical realism plot lines characteristically employ multiple planes of reality. Apart from this, there is the authorial reticence i.e the “…deliberate withholding of information and explanations about the disconcerting fictitious world”. The narrator does not provide explanation about the accuracy or credibility of events describe or views expressed by characters in the. One of the example of the texts that explores this phenomenon is Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
In conclusion, there is what ensures that there is discipline and economy in literary studies. With the 21st century not being more than a decade old mow, the changes that are yet to come are inestimable.

Works cited
Akwanya,A.N. Languge and Habits of Thought. Enugu: New Generation
Books,1999-2005.
__________ Discourse Analysis and Dramatic Literature. Enugu: Acena
Publishers, 1998-2004.
Barthes,Roland. Image-Music-Test. London: Fontana Books, 1997.
Cheryll, Glotfelty and Harold, Fromm. The Ecocriticism Reader. Georgia:
University of Georgia Press,1996.
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics.1975
Greig, E.Henderson and Brown, Christopher.Glossary of Literary Theory.
Available at http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/glossary/structuralsm.htm/
Magical Realism-english.emory.edu/Bahri/magical realism.htm/
Magical Realism.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/magic_ realism
Sammels, Miel Tom Stoppard. The Artist as a Critic.London: Macmillan, 1988.
Schwarz, Daniel R.The Case for a Humanistic/ Poetics. London:
Macmillan,1990.
The Questions posed by Ecocritism. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng385/ecocrit.htm

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