The Protoliterary: Steps toward an Anthropology of Culture

The Protoliterary: Steps toward an Anthropology of Culture

The Protoliterary: Steps toward an Anthropology of Culture

The Protoliterary: Steps toward an Anthropology of Culture

Excerpt

Theories and criticisms of the arts, and of literature in particular, have been flourishing for a long time. This will continue, for reasons that are not, as Beckett might have said, unknown, but that are not entirely clear, either. What is clear is that literature needs exegesis, commentary, and interpretation. The “fabrications” literature “verbalizes can be processed only by way of cognitive frames of reference” and the techniques developed for such a purpose. A kind of identity or intimate symbiosis between literature and writing (and, since the eighteenth century, print) has indeed normally been taken for granted. But the appearance of a symbiosis between literature and writing is a relatively recent phenomenon. And although theory and criticism may have flourished because of this symbiosis, their supposed mode of existence as secondary arts, doubtful variants of science, parasitic enterprises with respect to both the arts proper and to ideological commitments of diverse sorts, may well be equally recent. The presumed link between literature and writing has occluded a larger and broader link—between literature and performance in general, and therefore between literature and more comprehensive, anthropological modes of analyzing and understanding it.

Aristotle, in his Poetics, held that the written play, and not its performance, constituted the essential mode of theatrical being. It is doubtful, however, what kind of theater Aristotle knew from his own experience. It is also unclear what effect the discourse of philosophy had upon conceptions of art. Plato still played with the implications of orality and writing, questions of relative authority and power among them. The academy and, to a minimal extent, even the later institution of the university may have cultivated philosophy as the performance of a life form, a community of experience. With Aristotle (who was still of course also a teacher), however, philosophy seems definitively to have been committed to a hegemony of writing and reading. If philosophy is still and also . . .

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