What is the essence of literature

At the limits of literature

How edge shapes help define the center

by Peter Paul Schnierer

Plays without actors, novels that the reader has to put together from a slip of paper, virtual poems that are never printed. For some these literary phenomena are impertinent nonsense, for others vanishing points of modernity or allegories of human existence. In any case, they are suitable for starting an argument about what can be called "literature".

 
Unsuitable for the sofa: screenshot from hyperroman
Do you like reading novels? Big books, preferably with an exciting plot and lively characters? Then B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates maybe better to keep your hands off: The "novel" was published in 1969 as a box containing 27 unsorted chapters. Or do you prefer poetry? How about Robert Kendall's Penetration, a rhetorically more traditional poem that can only be read on the Internet because it only exists as an unprintable program and which is different every time you read it? Or maybe a nice evening at the theater? Samuel Beckett's Breath - no text, total playing time around 30 seconds - would leave you plenty of time to visit the restaurant afterwards ...

All of these are examples of literary phenomena with which one can quickly start a dispute in philological seminars: about genre boundaries, about unreasonable demands, about literature. Can you really still speak of a play, a drama, when nobody speaks there anymore? Of course, there are pantomimes, but are their performances still the subject of literary studies, which need a text that they can communicate about? Incidentally, Beckett has built such debates in advance: In Breath there are no actors either, just a single inhalation and exhalation from the tape, supplemented by a birth scream. Is that impertinent nonsense, a vanishing point of modernity or an allegory of human existence?

Breath is an extreme isolated case, comparable to the monochrome canvases of Yves Klein or John Cage's toneless piano piece, but you can't ignore it if you really want to come to an understanding about the essence of literature. The text, what is written, has a key role to play here: one can argue that stage directions already constitute a text, and it is stable. But it is not in Kendall's poem: As a hypertext, it is set up depending on the clicks of the mouse by the readers, and the program probably also has random number generators. Even this "presumably" costs the literary scholar to overcome: How can we scientifically grasp something of which we can neither uncover the mechanisms without the help of the author nor agree on a binding text? The author has seen more than once that students spoke of text details that were unknown to him. What would be unprofessional and embarrassing in the Shakespeare course is inevitable in hypertext seminars: finding surprises in the wording.

Incidentally, it should be noted that completely new forms of "instruction" must be found in teaching: It can always be that the students have seen more and more important things than the lecturers who unsuspectingly loops in it. Curious coalitions often arise here: the more experienced and well-read teachers are not always the ones with the broader term for literature, but conversely, it is not always the young, adventurous students who feel most at home at the limits of literature. Because it is a characteristic of many literary marginal forms that they are uncomfortable and not only offer resistance to stereotypical browsing on the sofa when you first have to put the book together.

In doing so, you end up on - theoretically - familiar territory: Unfamiliar technologies are a somewhat new phenomenon; unusual techniques are not. You can recognize literature by the fact that it creates work for the reader. What can be read without concentration may be useful for conveying information like a travel brochure, or for returning to familiar worlds like a romance novel with aristocratic staff. But good literature begins when you encounter something new: new ideas, new images and new forms. Bertolt Brecht called this alienation effect and wanted to see it used politically, but first and foremost alienation, alienation, is a visual aid that enables us to perceive new and better because we are forced to take a closer look.

Is graffiti literature?

But the questions that a morphology of the literary boundary forms can raise are still conflicting and of general interest far beyond the seminars of the Anglists, the Germanists, the Romanists and Slavists: Is graffiti literature? Can you say that rap and hiphop are the most widely received, and therefore most important, forms of poetry in the early 21st century? What about the seriousness of those who deal with comic strips? Such questions arise again and again in literary and columnist debates and polarize quickly and reliably. However, there is still no systematic attempt to map these literary forms and, to a certain extent, to pace the boundaries of the literary, even to search the debates about individual questions for their common structures and to systematize them.

The term "graffiti" just used is controversial; some simply say "wall graffiti". This already says a lot about the dispute over spontaneous, aphoristic inscriptions in public space. They exist in the area of ​​tension between poetry and damage to property, between the private and public spheres, between authorship and anonymity, but also between writing and images. They are exemplary for many such boundary phenomena. Here researchers can emphasize parallels and point out related argumentation patterns, but also clarify developments in the history of literature. Rap is for some the poetically compact form of expression of the postmodern metropolises and for others it is little or no veiled pornography. Both views can be substantiated with a variety of examples; and neither is "right" or "wrong"; but anyone who knows the tradition of the blues texts of the 20th century judges differently than someone who knows nothing of the oral traditions of African-Americans. And whoever remembers the last public book burnings in Germany - we're talking about the stake of comics in the 1950s - will not simply dismiss this form of literature as picture stories for lazy children, but at least accept its disturbing potential.

In all of these cases, literary studies have a socially important task: to develop and provide materials in order to enrich and objectify the public discussion. Once you have recognized that some comics have been approaching the novel since the 1980s, telling complex graphic novels and, on top of that, dealing with their own artistry in the best postmodern way, you will hardly be able to talk about children's stuff. Of course, this does not mean that such works cannot be pretentious, awkward or boring. But judging this is as much a task for the reader as it is for science. Or to put it another way: we have to resist the temptation to write poetics in the spirit of the 18th century, to write about the "right" way of writing, spraying, rapping: "That's how you should do it, otherwise you don't belong." It is not about a prescriptive, but rather a descriptive approach: Up to this point we have underpinned a consensus, from then on it becomes controversial, interesting, open for everyone.

Temptation, however, is too appealing to be or should be resisted entirely, and that is the urge to speculate. Literary history is reactive, and literary studies, at least everything except pure theoretical work, is also: someone writes something, and we explain, interpret, locate it. In the borderlines of literature, in the field of experimental texts, the question of the next surprise arises: What comes after the play as a video installation, the hologram poem, the collectively written novel on the Internet?

Much, especially the various electronically supported experiments of our time, may not be able to steer the literature on new paths in the long term. Is the Breathing Wall project trend-setting? It shows the reader screen texts that are made available depending on the intensity of the body's breathing, measured by a corresponding probe. Even the blogosphere, the autobiographical scrub that proliferates day after day on the Internet, will - for reasons of size - hardly ever be recorded in literary studies. But that is not necessary either, because the research projects in Heidelberg that deal primarily with English-language borderline forms of literature do not want to archive, but rather to show structures, functions and aesthetic possibilities: how many sub-forms of the crossword puzzle or role-play there are is fewer interesting than the question of whether such everyday and unusual phenomena can be dealt with through literary studies.

The tension between the new, experimental and marginal on the one hand and the canonical and traditional on the other characterizes the work of many new Heidelberg philologists. Where else are there so many who first call themselves "philologists" and only then as literary scholars? Where else can corpus and computer linguists speak so excitingly with old-school hermeneuts? In the institute that the author naturally knows best, namely the English-language one, he produces works on late medieval court poetry and feminist web pamphlets, the language change in Scottish comics and anti-monarchist leaflets, on American transcendental philosophy and gay plays that go beyond any performance convention - often supervised by the same researchers and always in dialogue with colleagues. It's nice to be able to work there, especially since our interests necessarily converge. Regardless of the ideological or scientifically pre-colored direction from which one measures the border marks of literature: Again and again the defining, reassuring look has to go back to the center, in order to safeguard the existence of what is literary. Seen in this light, literary studies, even with the most modern provenance, are returning to their traditional subject, to texts of undoubted literary quality. The unorthodox stabilizes the canon that literary theory has long regarded as the embodiment, even petrification of the conservative. Edge forms always force a definition of the center, i.e. an understanding of what literature "in the narrower sense" actually is - and that is a core task of literary studies.

Prof. Dr. Peter Paul Schnierer has held the Chair of English Studies: Literary Studies in Heidelberg since 2002. Before that he taught at the universities of Vienna, Tübingen, Maryland, Flagstaff, Buckingham and Greenwich. In addition to literary boundary forms, his research interests include contemporary drama, Irish literature and the literature of the Renaissance. His last book publication is "De-demonization and demonization: Studies on the representation and functional history of the diabolical in English literature since the Renaissance" (2005).

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