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  • Self-Reference:Theory and Didactics between Language and Literature
  • Svend Erik Larsen (bio)

Semiotics of Self-Reference

Literary metafiction constitutes the extreme case of self-referential texts. Therefore we can either discard it as generally irrelevant for the understanding of the cultural functions of texts, or use it as a point of departure for the formulation of both general and basic aspects of such functions. The position taken in this essay will opt for the last possibility, although I know full well that already the term "metafiction" itself inevitably triggers a variety of skeptical reactions. Does it not just refer to some author's self-centered ruminations in the ivory tower? Or a topic for the nerds of literary studies with a taste for theoretical acrobatics? If so, in both cases following metafictional inclinations results in complete isolation from both the context of literature and its readers.

However, one may also adopt the opposite position. The metafictional features of literature constitute one of the means by which literature reaches out to its context and also engages its readers. And critical endeavors are not necessarily devoid of anything but their own concepts. They may instead pave the way for methodological and didactic considerations that ultimately make difficult literature more accessible as a cultural phenomenon. Rather than dwelling upon subtle theoretical differences in the definition of what metafiction is, I will therefore engage in a methodological approach: what kind of questions can we put to the texts, and what kind of answers can we reasonably come up with when using metafiction in a methodological and didactic framework?

I shall begin by proposing a set of definitions broader than metafiction that will allow me to zoom in on it as a relevant methodological concept that opens for didactic reflections. The notion of metalevel will constitute my starting point. In its broadest sense, a metalevel indicates a position outside a given field of objects or meanings and in relation to it. But rather than relating [End Page 13] to the content of the field in question, the metalevel is supposed to serve as a platform enabling us to observe and evaluate basic principles and function of the field. This is the role of, for example, the theory of science or of epistemology in relation to the particular knowledge of various sciences. We may call it an epistemological metalevel.

In a more restricted sense, a metalevel comprises a level in relation to a given sign system — rather than to a given field of objects — from which we can observe and evaluate the basic principles defining the function, range and validity of the sign system. This is the role of, for example, musicology in relationto the acoustic arts, art criticism in relation to the visual arts, medicine in relation to bodily symptoms. We may call it an inter-semiotic metalevel.

Finally, in its most restricted sense, a metalevel points toward a level inside a given sign system from which we can refer to this sign system itself,but not in relation to a given field of objects or in relation to another sign system. We may call this level an intra-semiotic metalevel. In this context, language is a unique system, which in this capacity shapes literature as a particular linguistic phenomenon. Only inside the semiotic system of language can the intra-semiotic metalevel have two different functions:

The first function is as a science of language, linguistics, which is itself a verbal sign system. In verbal scientific descriptions and arguments we may scrutinize the natural or everyday language as a medium, that is, its basic linguistic structures and principles, without taking into consideration its content, which it may share with other media. Texts and pictures may refer to the same phenomenon even if such references do not overlap completely. All other sciences differ from linguistics in this respect, because they cannot deal scientifically with their non-verbal objects through the same non-verbal medium as that which makes up the object, but need the support of a linguistic metalevel or at least of signs that are linguistically anchored. Even mathematics or other strictly formal sign systems are based on natural languages. We may refer to...


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