Saturday, December 18, 2010


If I'm reading Paul Fry correctly (a questionable assumption), his emphasis on "the ostensive moment" in literature tends toward the aestheticism camp of literary theory. Why? Despite a well-argued attempt in chapter 3 to differentiate his position from historic theories which essentialize "what literature is," he is largely talking about a particular quality that separates literature from other forms of writing, i.e. he identifies an attribute of literature common to all forms of writing that we (or someone else) might identify as being of a literary character.

My own interest in literary theory is entirely practical: I read and write poetry, and I'm interested in discussions about particular qualities of literature that create a discernable effect on me as a reader such that I might have a greater awareness of these qualities when I'm struggling to write. Why? Because writing, more often than not, is a struggle, and a writer needs to have a large palette of technical skills, aesthetic awareness, and socio-intellectual savvy, if he or she is to take full advantage of whatever it is that appears in the early drafts of a poetic text.

From this perspective, "the ostensive moment" strikes me as a largely aesthetic attribute of literature (i.e. as a literary effect, it is experiential as opposed to strictly meaningful) that also raises questions as to why this effect occurs in the first place. And, from what little reading I've been able to do in Fry's book, it strikes me that his argument ventures into a structural analysis of literature, identifying and exploring the effect of literary ostension while simultaneously addressing potential post-structural critiques of essentialism.

Did I mention earlier that Google Books limited the number of pages I could access in this book? Meaning, even with pages available, it cut me off in the middle of the third chapter where Fry anticipates (and addresses) anti-essentialist critiques. Still, there is plenty of extremely dense material to digest, particularly in terms of my own desire to think about and understand the effect of "the ostensive moment" as an experiential attribute of literature. And I am willing to set aside post-structural arguments of social/ideological determinations of "what literature is" in order to appreciate that there are indeed aesthetic characteristics of language as it is practiced in the human activity of "literature."

Which (in my limited understanding of Wittgenstein) indicates that there are language-games afoot, and that these language-games indicate an activity-specific type of meaning that arises from (and is, perhaps, intrinsic to) the human practice of language as literature. But, as I've already opposed "experience" and "meaning" in my consideration of "the ostensive moment," what I'm talking about now (tangentially) is not the effect of ostension but rather what related matters in the discussion mean to me as a writer.

Despite Fry's emphasis on literary ostension as effecting a pre-conceptual moment in the apprehension of a text, it seems to me that in his own text he is also writing about what this all means in terms of our appreciation of literature in general. In other words, he is writing about how literature is to be understood. Or why "literature" values (even canonizes) certain types of writing while purposefully ignoring others.

Now, here's my tangent: what I think many writers encounter in the literary world is that their type of writing is frequently (to a greater or lesser extent) ignored. Or they might think it is being ignored by the socially structured hierarchy of "literature" to which they are attempting to add their own contribution. Granted, there can be many purely technical reasons why such work is being ignored (e.g. the writer is a crummy writer) but there also exist limiting, institutionalized criteria of aesthetic taste. And these criteria, to a degree, determine what type of writing merits the institutional stamp of literary approval.

Where am I going with this? To the idea that even though "the ostensive moment" may play a distinctive, even characteristic, role in a literary work per se, "literature" as an actively evolving social construct involves quite a bit more than the text itself. Which is to say, aesthetics may be essential to literature, but not all aesthetic forms are equally appreciated in the hierarchical world of "literature."

Eventually I want to examine "literature" from the perspective of Pierre Bourdieu, but I think there are a number of threads in Paul Fry's theory I want to explore first. Hell, I might even read the whole book one day soon - because I just got paid for a small writing job and can now (maybe) afford it.

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