- Kontroversen in der Literaturtheorie/Literaturtheorie in der Kontroverse
In 1965/66 the French literary historian and Racine expert Raymond Picard and Roland Barthes engaged in a major controversy about the aims and limits of interpretation. The title of Picard’s acerbic polemical pamphlet, which set the debate going, said it all: ‘Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture.’ Arguing from a traditional literary historian’s [End Page 339] perspective for the priority of an author’s original intention, Picard detected in Barthes’s 1963 study Sur Racine an excess of ‘self-centred shallowness’, ‘pretentiousness’, and ‘naivety’; his method – couched in a ‘pathological’ language – violated all rules of sound logic and rational deduction, and his arbitrary and hollow results bordered on nothing less than intellectual fraud. Harsh censure indeed. Barthes responded, among other things, in 1966 with Critique et Verité, claiming that interpretation is never objective and always ideological, there is never a methodological given but only a methodological choice, which depends crucially upon the language, or interpretive system, that we choose from the many possibilities at our disposal. It is less a question of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather one of coherence and applicability.
Carlos Spoerhase, one of the two editors of this volume, uses this debate in his introductory chapter as a case study to outline a ‘morphology of an epistemic genre’ (‘Formenlehre eines epistemischen Genres’), namely the genre of controversy. Following the co-editor Ralf Klausnitzer’s equally informative chapter on the reasons for and historical background to the multiplicity and variability of contemporary literary theories, Spoerhase surveys the modalities and patterns, the formations and configurations, and the attitudes and rituals that govern the culture of literary theoretical controversies. Based on an admirably broad array of recent scholarship in sociology, psychology and the history of science, and borrowing terms like ‘boundary work’ from these related disciplines’ meta-theories, Spoerhase posits that it is in particular the genre of controversy that moves ‘science’ forward and gets positions formulated and differentials articulated – let us recall here that the German word for literary criticism is Literaturwissenschaft, literally ‘the science of literature’.
One question that emerges from the introductory chapters by both Klausnitzer and Spoerhase is, curiously, whether most of our activity cannot but be defined as non-controversial, inasmuch as we as often as not speak primarily to those of our own conviction, or when we do engage with dissenting colleagues, we do so in language that avoids the appearance of controversy. Indeed, as Spoerhase is quick to point out (in my translation), ‘the disagreement (Dissens) how best to practise literary criticism methodologically does not always lead to confrontation; rather, the conflict between diverging literary theoretical concepts or methods frequently leads to an indifference with respect to methodological fundamentals’ – the German expression being eine grundlagentheoretische Gleichgültigkeit (66). What I like about this formulation is the ambiguity [End Page 340] of the German term Gleichgültigkeit, which can mean either indifference or apathy, but also, and I am not sure this was intended, literally ‘equal validity’ (Gleich-Gültigkeit), all three of which seem equally applicable. Indeed, as Klausnitzer underscores, the field of literary theory is distinct from the natural sciences less by virtue of the fact that we have a plurality of competing theories that can be defined either as indifferent or ignorant of one another, as peacefully co-existing and based on complementarity, or as fiercely competitive (22) – in the wake of Thomas S. Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend and others much the same could be argued, and has been argued, for the natural sciences; rather, any aspiration to ever conclusively verify or falsify any of the theories that define our field of literary studies seems utterly futile, if not beside the point. Whereas at some future point in time a natural scientific theory in currency today might find itself falsified (as we know ever since Popper they can never be verified once and for all), falsification is not what literary theoretical studies...