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  • Is Literature Self-Referential?
  • Eric Miller


Is literary language necessarily self-referential? And does this put paradox at the heart of literature? For at least two decades now, affirmative answers to both questions have been articles of faith among critics in the structuralist and poststructuralist mainstream. Literature’s ineluctable paradoxicality attracts us so because a paradox suggests that there are limits to human rationality, and thus strikes a blow for literature and against science. Paradox ensures literature its own special realm, safe from the culturally imperialistic inroads of science’s orderly, rational-empirical constructions. Literature thus gets to be seen as “bigger” than reason, because only literature can live with paradox, and thus only literature reveals those “deeper” truths of contradiction-ridden human existence, whereas science can never penetrate beyond rational manipulations of phenomenal surfaces. Indeed, for anyone who holds all human existence to be fundamentally paradoxical, this special capacity makes literature the only genuine, demystified species of human knowledge. In the war between C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures, a war humanists are now losing badly, we like to regard paradox as our ultimate weapon.

Belief in the paradoxicality of literature may also be found among the New Critics, 1 and in fact goes back at least to the Romantics, 2 but they did not derive this belief from a necessary self-referentiality of literary language. This newer way of deriving paradox appears to offer several competitive advantages. Self-reference seems to be the ultimate version of “art for art’s sake”: if all literary language is necessarily self-referential, then literature must be something totally self-contained, and is thus legitimized solely in and through itself. In addition, deriving [End Page 475] literature’s paradoxicality from self-reference seems to ground it in the same conceptual realm as mathematical logic, and thus tempts us to claim for literature a “rigor” normally conceded only to logic, mathematics, and theoretical physics. Self-referentiality would thus seem both to protect literature’s autonomy and to raise its cultural status into the company of mathematics and science.

But it is a trap. For behind this new strategy lurks a capitulation to the underlying conceptual scheme of natural science, and literature thus comes to be conceived, in effect, as a science. Self-reference is, after all, still a kind of reference; paradox is still a kind of truth-relational construction;—and truth-relations built around reference constitute the correspondence theory of truth. From such a foundational commitment to reference and correspondence-truth, flows the rest of the scientific worldview: the dualism of referring expression and referent, word and object, sentence and fact, theory and data, language and world, culture and nature. The presentation of literature as a quasi-negation of this ontology changes nothing. The dualism of reference still functions as literature’s conceptual starting point, as its arche. We only appear to be defining a peculiar and radically distinct sphere for literature when we insist on its self-referentiality, on the (recursive) identity, for it, of referring expression and referent. For, this is still to treat the conceptual distinction between the two as foundational, and literature thereby tacitly assimilates science’s fundamental categorial division: the referential language-world duality of correspondence truth. Indeed, literature thus comes to live even more completely in the margins of science: it will have no essence of its own; it will differ at most in being a photo-negative image of science’s positiv(istic) project. In Snow’s war, self-reference is a Trojan horse.

With self-reference as the essence of literature, we are thus staking our reputations on literature’s being a special field of formalizable “knowledge about . . .,” rather than, say, a quality or kind or realm of possible experience—which is to adopt science’s understanding of what is important. Matters are only made worse by that other attempt to define literary studies as a negation of the theory-data dualism of natural science: the poststructuralist denial of the distinction between criticism and literature. For the institutional need professional critics have to be seen as a discipline with a method and a subject, as a form of “knowledge about,” hardly disappears with...