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THE PRIMACY OF THE LINGUISTIC MEDIUM / Cleanth Brooks IN MY TWO previous lectures, I have been talking about what happens to our conception of literature if we allow biography and history to encroach on its just domains, or if we allow a preoccupation with what various readers make of it to determine its meaning and value. I believe, however, that the most destructive encroachment of all comes from the overweening claims made by some of the new experts in linguistics. It would be wrong-headed, of course, to oppose the study of language as such, but I am not alone in being concerned about the impact of some developments in the linguistic theories which have recently been offered by people whose primary interest seems to lie not in literature but in philosophy. I have in mind here the structuralists and the deconstructionists. Naturally, I have no pithy, simple definition of "structuralism" to offer you, but I can offer a sketch of some of its aims. Structuralism, as we know, originated in a concern for the structure of language, but soon extended its analysis to take in myths and the social organizations of primitive societies; its debt is anthropological as well as linguistic, and structuralist analysis can be applied to all sorts of human activities, for structuralism holds that all patterns of social behavior are "codes" having the characteristics of a language. I, however, shall be concerned here primarily with the impact of structuralism on literature. Since the structuralist regards literature as a part of language, and since he holds that language is by its very nature an arbitrary system—and therefore committed to no reference to reality—literature has for the structuralist no cognitive value. "Poetry and literature," as René Wellek has put it, ". . . have disappeared. There remains only a disembodied methodology ·" Other critics have made similar observations, some arguing that the structuralist literary critic is much more interested in his method—in his analytic tools—than he is in any given literary work. Michael Lane, for example, who edited Introduction to Structuralism, acknowledges that "much that is exciting and illuminating [has been] written about the tools of structuralist criticism," but regrets that there has been "so little application of these tools to classic literature." Lane made these remarks some thirteen years ago, but the actual fruits of structuralist literary criticism still seem meager. Lane goes on to make another point: the artistic value of a work is also of relatively little importance to the structuralist, for "there is no a priori reason to believe that the system of signs in Superman is any less coherent than that in King Lear. The Missouri Review · 293 Values"—including literary values—"are a function of ideologies, not methods." I will also mention deconstructionism here, if only for the sake of Jacques Derrida, the contemporary French critic who has probably made the most powerful impact on current American criticism. Deconstructionism, we understand, is an outgrowth of structuralism, but whereas structuralism attempts to reveal the deep structure that underlies the surface meanings of any literary construct, deconstruction, using a more radical analysis, deconstructs that very structure, revealing its lack of any relation to anything beyond itself. But upon one point both structuralism and deconstruction come to the same conclusion: namely, that literature is a self-enclosed system, referring to nothing outside and beyond itself. The consequences of any such conception of literature seem to me to be devastating to any concept of its humanistic value. Wellek, too, calls into question the applicability of any merely linguistic model "to the totality of literature." Granting that the linguistic element is obviously very important in literature, he nevertheless insists that linguistics is far from constituting the whole of Uterary study. He points out that Motifs, themes, images, symbols, plots, and compositional schemes, genre patterns, character and hero types, as well as qualities such as the tragic or the comic, the sublime or the grotesque, can be and have been discussed fruitfully with only a minimal or no regard to their Unguistic formulations. The mere fact that the great poets and writers—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare , Goethe, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky—have exercised enormous influence often in poor and loose...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 193-208
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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