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  • The Protoliterary: Steps toward an Anthropology of Culture
  • Gary Lease
K. Ludwig Pfeiffer , The Protoliterary: Steps toward an Anthropology of Culture. Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press, 2002. xv + 402 pp.

K. Ludwig Pfeiffer's study is a strong response to hasty indictments of literary analysis frequently heard at what appears to be the end of the era of deconstruction; it directs practitioners (as well as the general reader) towards a viable alternative setting for both literature and the humanities in general. By linking the development of the novel, theory, performative discourse, and multiple media with anthropological models of the novel and the world of sport, he has located a number of blind spots in contemporary literary studies.

While the actual materials used in the text are not new—in the sense that they have not, until now, remained unknown—the use to which Pfeiffer puts his chosen data and materials is quite original. These sources take on strikingly new aspects because they are framed by the notion of the "protoliterary." Applied from the vantage point of anthropological theory and practice, this concept posits a basic psycho-cultural need for a discourse in which experience and its urgency, indeed the very "toughness" of facts, can be coupled with the manifold desires and appeals of what has, for some time and in various ways, been called the imaginary; here Pfeiffer is referring chiefly to Lacan. The author's main point is that while the protoliterary is often exemplified by what is termed literature (especially fiction), the institutionalized art of literature may not always be the best place for its performance or enactment. Following Hegel, Pfeiffer argues that institutionalized literature, through its very capacity of dealing (verbally) with everything, may often lose the power to deal very strongly with anything. In this book, therefore, the protoliterary becomes an identifying marker, or rather an instrument for searching out specific textual forms—those textual locations in which a sense of being intimately in touch with factual experience is prominent, or else those in which performatively powerful aesthetic appeals, in particular regarding the human body, are attractively and, to a limited extent, meaningfully worked out.

Pfeiffer's central argument is that the need for forms of protoliterary discourse is articulated in writers as widely different as the ancient Greek tragedians, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, and authors of detective novels; this need is satisfied in various ways in so-called "documentary" [End Page 207] literature (for example, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood). At the same time, the protoliterary also functions as a common denominator in many versions of aesthetic theory, even in those often seen as conflicting with each other, such as the pragmatic and the dialectic theories of art. Indeed, Pfeiffer would like to reactivate that kind of aesthetic thought in order not to fall prey to some of today's numerous media theories.

Pfeiffer's method of analysis follows directly from his theoretical and conceptual choices. He is not looking for yet another conceptual variety of fictionality. Rather, in order to provide examples of the shapes that the protoliterary may take, he has combined sources and at times given his materials quite novel twists, in a manner calculated in part to amaze, in part to provoke colleagues and fellow travelers. This holds particularly for his different examples of the way in which protoliterary discourse is interested in powerful modes of performance based on the human body, primarily the body techniques found in operatic singing and in body semiotics evolved by film (for instance, in Hammet's/ Ford's The Maltese Falcon). Apart from the theoretical re-examination and re-direction of aesthetic theory, this study also concentrates on the relations (often studied in the perspective of "intermediality") between discourse (whether ordinary literary or protoliterary discourse) and the variously powerful or weakened forms of theatricality in spoken theater (see, for instance, the role of theater in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister), in opera and in Japanese theatrical forms—or in sport. Pfeiffer treats these as very different but analogous (body) techniques that can help one escape the representational dilemmas that have plagued the institutionalized forms of both literature and the theater.

In my judgment...


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pp. 207-210
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