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  • Narratology, Obsolescent Paradigms, and "Scientific" Poetics; or Whatever Happened to PTL?

The crossing of the lines of structuralism and poststructuralism in 1976—the one ascendant, the other dependent—can be marked by two events: the publication of the English translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology and the appearance of Vol. I, No. 1 of PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature. It was under the embrace and blessing of PTL1 that the new poetics was to flourish and ascend to its confirmation as a science among sciences. In this way the heretofore undisciplined, idiosyncratic, subjective, and naively theoretical study of literature could finally achieve respectability. The call for a "poetics" of literature in the initial volume of PTL was a call for the systemic study of literature and brought with it a highly traditional distinction, proclaimed in the initial essay by Benjamin Hrushovski, editor of the journal:

As in any science, it is necessary to distinguish between a theoretical and a descriptive branch of poetics. Theoretical Poetics involves a theoretical activity, the construction of a system built according to the logic of a question or a set of questions. On the other hand, Descriptive Poetics is a scholarly activity involving an exhaustive study of the literary aspects of certain specific works of literature. [End Page 545]

Hrushovski's initial taxonomic gesture elaborates itself through an aggressively proliferating dyadic configuration that seeks to encompass the actual and potential universe of literary discourse. His rhetoric reveals a certain kind of thrust, a kind of intense and transparent circularity that places a high and ambiguous value upon terms like "theoretical," "descriptive," "exhaustive" and that also presumes that the purely "literary" aspects of "literature" were already known or about to be "known." Such rhetorical strategies clearly reflect a dependence upon the eschatology of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philosophies of science.

Thus it makes little difference whether the call for a poetics comes from Benjamin Hrushovski, Northrop Frye, or Tzvetan Todorov—all are calling for a "scientific" hegemony in literary theory. The so-called "scientific model" for literary studies represented an attempt to translate certain notions developed from sentence-based linguistics into something that might become a poetics. My concern is not so much with the past, present, or future state of sentence-based linguistics, but rather with the implications of an approach to the study of literature that sought to create a discipline, an area of scientific study, a new poetics by a wholesale borrowing of a modeling system developed by sentence linguistics; it assumed that sentence linguistics was a science, that its strategies were transposable, and that such a borrowing was the best and possibly only hope for a poetics, which meant, of course, a scientific poetics. Although the topography of the new "scientific" poetics included many domains, none illustrates more effectively the problematics and pretensions of the new poetics than does the principality of narratology, which will serve for the moment as a point of focus for a critique of strategies and foundational assumptions of a "scientific" poetics, which still appear in more guarded versions within the contemporary scene of literary theory and criticism. The very naming of the proposed discipline suggests its pretensions to an alliance with such prestigious disciplines as biology, physiology, and cardiology, forgetting in the moment of naming the existence of numerology, phrenology, and astrology—and totally unaware of the lurking shadows of grammatology.

The fate of "narratology" is bound not only to the fate of the linguistics of the sentence, and its presumptive foundations in phonology, but also to the transportability of the assumptions, conventions, and strategies of sentence-based linguistics to the study of narrative. Whatever may be the case with the metaphysics of sentence-based linguistics and the attempts to "control" contextualizing extensions into text and discourse linguistics, the metaphysics of narratology was—in nearly all its formalized guises as it attempted to follow sentence linguistics through its broadening enclosures (text and discourse)—rooted in an obsolescent phenomenology and positivism, acting thus continually to reprocess [End Page 546] nineteenth-century visions of determinism, empiricism, cause, unity, reason, logic, and closure. Narratology thus sought to remain...


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