Academic journal article Style

Lateral Reflexivity: Levels, Versions, and the Logic of Paraphrase [1]

Academic journal article Style

Lateral Reflexivity: Levels, Versions, and the Logic of Paraphrase [1]

Article excerpt

Narratology was born along with the rise of self-reflexivity in modernist and postmodernist fiction. Thus, when he sought to justify the application of Saussurean language theory to narrative discourse in his "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives," published in 1966, Roland Barthes argued that "literature, particularly today, make[s] a language of the very conditions for language." "Language never ceases to accompany [literary] discourse," wrote Barthes, "holding up to it the mirror of its own structure" (85). For the Russian Formalists a hallmark of literariness, reflexivity in literary discourse became, in turn, a structuralist desideratum. By deautomatizing the experience of stories--by exposing the conventions that prompt readers to interpret certain modes of discourse as narrative--contemporary writing enables the analyst to map narrative structures more explicitly and exhaustively than ever before (cf. Lodge 24). Narratology and narrative experimentation go, in this sense, hand-in-hand. Both work to displace the myth that certain stories are simply-unanalyzably--good or bad; both promote, instead, reasoned analysis of storytelling as the strategic manipulation of symbols arranged in time. In what Barthes described as a broadly structuralist activity that spanned poets as well as poeticians, both analysts and artists focused attention on the basic units, combinatorial mechanisms, and communicative functions of narratives. As a result, stories could be viewed as the product of core cognitive principles--fundamental dispositions and capabilities--at work in all our speech, thought, and behavior.

So far, so good. Yet to these methodological assumptions Barthes added another, much more difficult to justify and deleterious, I would argue, in its consequences. The additional assumption is that today's literature is not merely reflexive but metalinguistic, in the technical sense of that term. Thus, in "Literature and Metalanguage," included in his Critical Essays of 1964, Barthes drew on modern logic's distinction between metalanguages and object-languages to contextualize (post)modernist reflexivity and--by extension--the new science of narrative that it had made possible. Echoing arguments that were published the same year in his book Elements of Semiology (89-94), Barthes noted that

The [object-language] is the very matter subject to logical investigation; metalanguage is the necessarily artificial language in which we conduct this investigation. Thus [...] I can express in a symbolic language (metalanguage) the relations, the structure of a real language [i.e., object-language]. (97)

By the same token, says Barthes, although at one time "literature never reflected upon itself" and "never divided itself into an object at once scrutinizing and scrutinized," more recently, through the efforts of stylistic innovators such as Flaubert, Mallarme, Proust, and Robbe-Grillet, literary discourse has by degrees assumed an essentially metalinguistic function (97). It has itself begun to ask the question: "What is literature?" (98). Barthes's argumentation here travels down a slippery slope. On the basis of the claim that artists have started to write literature that is in some sense reflexively about literature, Barthes then makes the further claim that today's literary language is in fact a language about language--a metalanguage in terms of which other, older literary discourse is describable as an object-language (98). Given the conditions that have to be met for a language to qualify as a metalanguage, however, this second claim is much stronger than the first. It is not, I submit, a defensible c laim. And, as part of the genealogy of the meta- metaphor in recent critico-theoretical discourse, Barthes's running together of the reflexive with the metalinguistic helped create a whole way of seeing that now needs to be reexamined and recontextualized.

This way of seeing produced in its turn a way of talking about texts in terms of layers and levels, the higher and the lower, the embedding and the embedded, the frame and the slot within the frame. …

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