Is There a Work in This Classroom? Interpretations, Textual Readings, and American Fiction

By Swirski, Peter | International Fiction Review, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Is There a Work in This Classroom? Interpretations, Textual Readings, and American Fiction


Swirski, Peter, International Fiction Review


If you suggest some fresh and more ingenious reason for doubting that the author meant what he said, or that what he said had any truth content of the remotest kind, you win ten points by the rules of the modern critical game; you lose ten points if you suggest he said it because he meant it, and twenty if you suggest he said it because it was true.

--George Watson, Times Literary Supplement

The problem of interpretation, central to literary theory and critical practice, is one of the most difficult on anybody's research agenda. As if to illustrate the point, much like professional politicians, philosophers and literary scholars who write on interpretation appear to agree only to disagree. While there have always existed schools of interpretation, today's proliferation of positions, oppositions, suppositions, presuppositions, and propositions on the matter seems to flow from the centrality of the notion of text in critical theory and practice, and the corresponding marginalization of the concept of work. Arguing for a categorical distinction between texts and works, this paper points to an alternative to such textualism professed most frequently, though not exclusively, by scholars of poststructuralist persuasion. With this goal in mind, it discusses in turn the aesthetic distinction between works and texts, the role of intentions in interpretation, the distinction between work interpretations and textual readings, and the role of cognition in literary research.

From Text to Work. What is a work of art? Is it identical with its structure (text)? If not, what is the relationship between the work and its structure? What elements other than textual may be constitutive of an artwork's identity? What is the interpretive relevance, if any, of the artist's intentions in the creation of the work? The merit of various theories of interpretation can be gauged roughly by their success in handling these questions while adhering to commonsensical critical intuitions and common critical practice.

Elsewhere I have defended at length the view that a work of art is an aesthetic structure executed by the artist in a particular art-historical context. (1) While not highly regarded in literary theory, this view has traditionally underwritten our interpretive and critical practice, becoming in recent years the subject of intense study by philosophers in analytic aesthetics. (2) One thing that this new aesthetic paradigm makes clear is that works of art, and thus works of literature, are not equivalent to their structures (or texts) when considered from the point of view of identity. Building on this interdisciplinary research, I would like to focus on the interpretive aspects of this work-text nonequivalence.

A good way to start may be to examine what features of a work of art are relevant to its aesthetic appreciation. Despite conclusive refutations (see below), a sizeable body of criticism continues to profess that, interpretively speaking, a work of art is equivalent to its structure. On this view a work of art, together with all its aesthetic and artistic features, is not distinct from the physical entity (the text) that we get at by means of purely sensory perception. I will apply the label of "aesthetic structuralism" to this family of views that holds that the evidence for interpretation rests solely on the evidence of the senses. For the aesthetic structuralist, even though artworks may indeed have features other than directly perceptible ones, which can even be of considerable historical or biographical interest, such properties have no bearing on these works' aesthetic or artistic properties. Such aesthetic or artistic properties are judged to be independent, for example, of the work's history of creation, including the significant subset of this history bracketed off by the artist's executive intentions. The inclusion of work-related facts, whether culled from the artist's life or from the history of the work's composition, would on such a view take us outside the perceived "art-ifact," contrary to the structuralist sine qua non. …

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