Author’s note

I have been thinking for a long time about writing a text, not a long one indeed, to summarize the main points of my research, thus showing its consistency and its potentials. For a number of reasons this idea was delayed until this very day; and even now I have just a part of it to offer, just a fragment.

This fragment is about the theory of literature. It originated from a few conversations with Richard Ambrosini on the book I published with Einaudi in 2006. I wrote the following text in the form of a self-presentation; I guess it can be seen as a ‘manifesto’, a concise manifesto on what the theory of literature is and on its ever growing importance in our times, ruled by anti-theory and retro-studiesas they are.

I hope that others will have a chance to share and build on the vision and the techniques that can be learnt from 20th-century classics; I simply tried to make those elements more accessible.

I dedicate these pages to Richard for triggering me to write them, and for being so generous to translate them into English for me.

Turin, October 15th 2009

*translation by Anna Belladelli

What the theory of Literature is.

Grounds and problems

(Che cos’è la teoria della letteratura. Fondamenti e problemi, 2006)

to Richard Ambrosini,
with friendship and gratitude

In the third book of the Harry Potter saga, Hermione Granger surprises her friends with the announcement that she has enrolled for the “Muggle Studies” course. Hermione knows perfectly well that the course in itself is not a particularly interesting, and certainly cannot compete with the “Defense Against the Dark Arts” or similar classes. Nobody would go to Hogwarts to study prevalently “Muggle Studies”! If she attends the course it is only because, overzealous as she is, she wants to have an as comprehensive a preparation as possible.

What are the choices, in Europe but probably also in the US, for a student who enrolls at college to study literature, hoping she will attend classes that, step by step, will bring her closer to the magic of literature? Wouldn’t it be disconcerting for her to realize that 90% of the courses on offer are an equivalent of Muggle Studies? In order not to miss that magic she will want to defend herself against the “Plain Arts”, because she knows that literature is a dense and complex language. “Plain poets don’t last” Eugenio Montale once said; or as Ezra Pound put it, “great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

But universities offer prevalently banalizing studies: there is the old literary criticism, which teaches how to paraphrase a text, that is how to isolate a synthesis of its meaning (in the case of poetry, by deciphering and eliminating those “ornaments”, the rhetorical figures, the uses of which students cannot understand), or that privileges biographical and historical-philological points of view, etc.; and then there’s the new literary criticism, that of cultural studies, which impoverishes and deforms the text by reducing it to its sexual, political, and racial components, unaware as it were that a literary text is only marginally a cultural object, let alone an ideological object.

What new and old criticisms have in common is a tendency to rarefaction. The tools they have at their disposal – when they do, and at best they are pretty scarce – are tools of rarefaction. And yet, one would think, understanding a text cannot mean impoverishing it: rather, it should lead to expanding it.

What is a literary text? The theory of literature – one of the great inventions of the twentieth century – has offered a series of answers, but, most importantly, has created a research program, which we have no right to ignore.

2. And yet, the theory of literature remains in minority – for a number of reasons. First and foremost because of its complexity; and because it has been buried beneath layer upon layer of stereotypes: psychoanalysis is supposedly dominated by phallocentrism and phallogocentrism; structuralism is the study of structures – supposedly reproducible patterns and skeletons – and is chained to binarism; Heidegger is not the greatest twentieth-century philosopher but an illegible, obscure author with ambiguous ties to Nazism; and so on and so forth. An important author had a major role in spreading these stereotypes, Jacques Derrida, who enjoyed a vast success in American academia. It was unfortunate that it was a particular Derrida who imposed himself to the world’s attention, the thinker at his most factious and schematic: one only has to think of that anti-Lacanian book of howlers, Le facteur de la vérité.

By clearing away the stereotypes of anti-theory, Bottiroli’s book tries to recover the problems, the concepts, and the analytical tools built with great care by the great twentieth-century authors: Saussure, Sklovskij, Barthes, Bachtin, Freud, Lacan, Heidegger and a few others.

There are two main points the author makes in the book which are crucially important in view of his attempt to salvage the theory of literature’s research program.:

  • A literary text – as all great twentieth-century theoreticians agree – is the combination of an artifact and a virtual object. It should not be analyzed therefore by using the “form-content” pair privileged by old literary criticism and more recently brought back into service, although in a new guise, by cultural studies;

  • The engine of the mysterious dynamism we encounter in a literary text is conflict: this is the lesson to be found in Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s conflictual aesthetics, in Bakhtin (as becomes clear once we interpret him according to the non-coincidence principle), and in psychoanalysis (viewed as a theory of the divided subject, and therefore of the divided language).

3. We are used to believe that in the twentieth century there has been a “linguistic turn” (as Richard Rorty famously put it). This is only partly true. The linguistic turn went only half the way, which is why the old mental habits could so easily return to dominate the scene without too much of an effort, only hiding behind the mask of new ideologies.

This is why, as this book argues, it is so important to make explicit how the great conquests of literary theory need to be linked together: the questions raised by language to desire and identity (which is why psychoanalysis is so crucial), as well as to knowledge and truth (thus the need to read Heidegger and, in a new and original way, his concept of truth as aletheia).

Chapter after chapter, readers will be shown how to get rid of the tenacious banalizations that turn out to be as many obstacles in their approach to a great literary text. The most obvious communication model (Jakobson’s) as wells as the vehicular conception of the text (according to which it carries meaning like a car carries a passenger) are the first obstacles that need to be removed, at the beginning of a process that will lead to seeing the literary text as a hybrid and conflictual engine, whose mechanisms we start understanding only once we apply the tools devised by literary theory. Given this perspective, the theory of literature works out many problems which philosophy has traditionally seen as pertaining to the field of aesthetics.

4. While the present book sets out to find an answer to the question “What is the theory of literature?”, it also attempts – through an original intercrossing through different theories – to confront the question “What is literature” – which ultimately means, also: “Why do we love it, or, rather, should love it?”.

To which last, the answer is that there are two reasons:

- first, the incredible complexity and malleability of literary language. Those who are unable to perceive this infinite mobility of resources, who cannot see literature as language, are denied the ability to savor its pleasures. On the contrary, they will be disappointed by literature. And this because they are like someone who wants to swim while remaining on land, rejecting the possibilities – support, dynamism, unforeseeable oscillations, the fluidity, etc. – offered by the liquid element;

- second, literature’s relationship with knowledge. Literature enacts our emotions and probes our mind; the possibilities for knowledge which literature offers are infinitely superior to those offered by the vast majority of books on psychology and sociology. Each great work of art is – to use Nietzsche’s expression – an experiment with truth.

But the truth of literature does not mirror single historical contexts. And it doesn’t because the meaning of an authentic work of art does not belong to the original context of production but spans all ages. As Bakhtin put it, authentic works of art live in the “large time,” that is they expand through the ages and the interpretations. And this is not only a thesis of Bakhtin’s: it is one of the points in which all important twentieth-century theories converge.

It is worth pondering then on the absurdity – no other word will do – of a contextualizing approach to a work of art (be it an historical, sociological, cultural, or biographical approach), which rather than limiting itself to furnishing preliminary information pretends to assess and circumscribe the work’s meaning. Contextualists (this is how we will call them, even though they have recently been labeled cultural theorists, postcolonial critics, etc.) would like to enclose within their original historic-cultural contexts not only mediocre works of art but also those works that are like machines built to span the ages, to break the limiting and suffocating boundaries of their own times.1

Contextualists believe that all works of art are like nails that having fallen out of a wall must be hammered back into the same hole, or like loosened screws that must be tightened so that they stay in their place. Again: nothing could be more absurd! And yet, a contextualist mentality continues to dominate academia; continues to impede the knowledge of literature, and the knowledge made possible by literature.

5. This is why Bottiroli’s book is aimed at the university – indeed, it augurs a less “Mugglish” university – but it is also dedicated to all cultivated readers who love literature and have perceived and intuited its enigmatic density.

6. There is one last point which is important to make in order to explain the aim of the book and its possible function: the relationship between the theory of literature – with its methodological instrumentation – and literary criticism.

As the old saying goes, bad money wards off good money; similarly, bad theory wards off theory as rigorous research. The problem is that bad theory also tends to suffocate good literary criticism, that is researches conducted by those scholars who rely on the “individual mix” they bring to their analysis of a text, a “mix” made of linguistic and philological competences, intuition, refinement, sensitivity, etc.

It has been a serious mistake to think that theory and methodology would have rendered intuition useless and superfluous – and therefore literary criticism intuitive. This is not the case; it would be like thinking that the naked eye has been made redundant by inventions like the microscope, the editing device or the zoom lens. Ideally, one should alternate the theoretical and literary-critical gazes, thus ensuring an exchange between perspectives. To a certain degree, the understanding of a text becomes possible only if one lets its meaning run in slow motion through the editing device (as Roland Barthes does in S/Z); but in confronting the literary-theoretical tradition we soon realize that as we move from the masters to the disciples (and at times even within the work of a master, as in the case of Greimas), methodology leads to heaviness and indeed pedantry. This is why it is necessary to return to the insights gained through the levity, the fluidity of a gaze that moves freely and with agility in the text, and that suddenly sees the revealing detail.

This book’s greatest hope is to make a contribution to such an alliance – that so far has never been achieved – as well as to the creation of a common working environment for scholars who rely on methodological apparatuses and scholars who rely on their “individual mix.” What they have in common, aside from the space reserved to intuition, is the perception of the complexities of the object of their analysis.

They have to face many adversaries. And it can be embarrassing, at times, to engage in polemical exchanges with a kind of ideologized criticism which evolves out of values with which ethically one fully agrees with (the defense of oppressed minorities, the rejection of eurocentrism, etc.). However, the question should be raised as to whether “ideological studies” (and cultural studies in general) aside from their noble and correct intentions, have not caused, and keep causing, a huge damage – which is also political, as it invests the causes they further. There is a point at which one should ask: is it credible that Power needs to worry about enemies who are intellectually poor?

In any case, the author of this book will never be able to side with those who prefer the poverty of ethics to the wealth of intelligence. And as to values, he has chosen long ago this thought of Pascal’s: “All our dignity consists then in thought . . . Let us endeavor then to think well; this is the principle of morality.”2

7. A final, non-superfluous remark. The return to language encouraged by this book does not in the least stand for a return to the past – which would be a self-referential structuralist conception, or the post-modern playfulness – but rather for a return to the future. Against this phase of regression, Giovanni Bottiroli proposes a strategic alliance between philosophy and literary studies, in particular as pertains the need to develop new linguistic and logical models. An alliance, this, which wants to leave behind the sterility to which deconstructionism has led us and intends to rethink the relationship between literature, theories of desire, and the problem of knowledge. The research guidelines outlined so far are the future of theory.


1 Beware! The ability to traverse different ages has nothing to do with the old notion of the universal value of art, and so on. This book does not follow old roads, and least of all that of “universal values.” The driving idea instead is that of flexibility. If they were not incredibly flexible devices, works of art would not be “transformed” and enriched by interpretation. Bottiroli’s book, therefore, draws inspiration from the idea of a flexible rationality. However, it does not advance this idea simply by suggesting it: he tries instead to elaborate it conceptually and to enunciate its logic. What emerges from this book is a seminal, strategic alliance between literary studies and philosophy – as foreshadowed by the work of certain key authors.

2 “Toute notre dignité consiste en la pensée … Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale” (B. Pascal, Pensées, 347 (ed. Brunschig).


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