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Period Style from Structuralism to Chaos Theory Patrick Brady M ODERN THEORETICAL THINKING has been introduced into period style research through a series of attempts to improve and refine the methods of approach to the analysis and interpre­ tation of the Rococo. We may sum up this development of a theorybased period style theory in four waves: (1) comparative aesthetics— stress on starting from the plastic arts and therefore on criteria rather than dates (against the monolithic fallacy), and recourse to Wittgenstein (1964-1972); (2) structuralism in its various modes (1972-1976); (3) semiotics (1976, 1987); and (4) catastrophe theory (1977), adumbrating chaos theory (1989 on). Comparative aesthetics and the New Historicism: Stressing aesthetic criteria, holism, complexity and subjectivity.—As a first step, it was recognized that, if comparative aesthetics (of which period style con­ stitutes the historical dimension) were to be recognized as useful and valid, it would not be acceptable to have a term like “ rococo” mean one thing in the plastic arts and another in literature—which is the net result when literary scholars do not derive their criteria from the domain in which the term was originally coined, usually the plastic arts. Conse­ quently, a careful and painstaking study was made of the rococo style in furniture and interior decoration, with a view to extracting criteria capable of being extrapolated into other domains, such as architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and literature.1 In spite of the apparent belief on the part of some scholars, from Clifton Cherpack to John Steadman,2that the challenges inherent in the use of the period style perspective could be met merely by a demand for more empiricism, it was realized by others that more empirical observa­ tions would merely result in more empirical information, and that this process was irrelevant to the said challenges because it had nothing to do with the holistic organization and interpretation of all this data. Holistic concepts like period style concepts need their own method of approach, for which empiricism constitutes merely a handmaiden (much as philoso­ phy was to theology in the Middle Ages). The first error rejected was thus the fallacy of radical atomism: the idea that atomistic empiricism could suffice to make holistic interpretation more rigorous and effective.3 Vol. XXXIII, No. 3 105 L ’E s pr it C r éa te u r However, according to this new thinking, it was also no longer satis­ factory to label the whole of the eighteenth century “ the Age of Rococo,” and to conclude that everything in that period was inspired and colored by a monolithic Zeitgeist of some sort. There was, on the contrary, a move towards a more rigorous observation and interpreta­ tion of historical information, which resulted in a less rigid and mono­ lithic use of the holism natural to period style research. It was, in fact, virtually axiomatic that at any given time there were several different style tendencies coexisting, so that the mere fact that La Vie de Marianne and Candide were both published in the eighteenth century did not make them both exempla of the same style. If we base our observations not on the often gratuitous combinations of historical dates but rather on the closely observed aesthetic characteristics of each work, even Candide (1759) and La Nouvelle Hiloise (1961) can easily be seen to belong to vastly different stylistic currents, as may two novels published in the very same year—e.g., Manon Lescaut and La Vie de Marianne, Part One (1731). Thus the shift from dates to criteria represented a rejection of the monolithic fallacy of an all-embracing Zeitgeist. The recognition of the fallacy of radical atomism was thus now offset by a recognition of the fallacy of radical holism (ibid.). Finally, the application of Wittgenstein’s idea of “ family resem­ blances” to period style terms and concepts by Morris Weitz was shown to be abusive, in that Wittgenstein never applied this idea diachronically (i.e., historically), as Weitz did, but only synchronically. Thus the “ irreducible vagueness” attributed to period style terms and concepts by Weitz, who sees their meaning vary wildly down through the ages (but defends this variation), does not really exist. What...


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