What is Literary Theory

Grounds and Problems

Einaudi, Torino 2006, (pp. V-XIX e 3-472)


Literary theory is an invention of the XX century. It is a research space where vision becomes entwined with technique: this is what distinguishes literary theory from aesthetics and literary criticism.

This hybridization between concepts and analysis techniques has had a radical effect on changing the way we read and interpret literary texts: but for how many of us? The difficulties involved in approaching complex matters, and in mastering a range of tools of which there are more and more all the time has often provided us with an excuse for going back to our old habits of mind (together with ideological motivations and disguises’); and this is in any case an obstacle for those who really wish to visit the building blocks of theory.

Instead of offering vague and essentially useless sintheses this book provides a real introduction. It describes the theories as “perspectives”, showing how problems arise and which questions and concepts are essential: it teaches us to look at literature through the eyes of the classics (from Šklovskij to Barthes, and from Bachtin to Lacan, etc.); examples are provided together with the conceptual explanation, so that we can clearly see how theory “works”. By means of language which is both rigorous but accessible, this book provides the reader with powerful analytical tools and the opportunity to develop new interpretative skills.



Ferdinand de Saussure

  1. Three sources of theory: Saussure, Freud, Heidegger – The “Course in General Linguistics”
  2. What is a sign? Arbitrariness as convention
  3. Systemic arbitrariness – “The language is the domain of articulations” – The double flux schema
  4. The identity of a sign is its value - Metaphors in Saussure
  5. In language there are only differences
  6. The identity of sign and the “reality” of system – Language is a virtual system – The distinction between language and speaking (langue and parole).
  7. Against language as contract and language as instrument
  8. Semiology, a new science – Why sign is not ‘theological’ (Derrida’s misunderstanding)
  9. Declining viewpoints after Saussure: the semiotic triangle and the sign as double entity (unity of concept and sound-image)
  10. Short synthesis – Distinctions and bifurcations in Saussure
  11. Syncronic and diachronic
  12. Paradigmatic and syntagmatic: a banal distinction? Why bad examples are to be avoided

The Birth of Literary Theory. Questions asked by Russian Formalism

  1. A thorny problem: the relation between Formalism and Structuralism – What is Russian Formalism - The rejection of “form / content”
  2. The “specificity” of literature: literariness - The problem of definitions – Why “literariness” is not a property
  3. Is the question “what is?” necessary? – Answers in form of metaphor – Jakobson’s oil and the move of the knight
  4. Autonomy of literature – How is literary text made? How does it work? - The methodological supremacy of the second question
  5. Literary language, everyday language
  6. What were the objections to the “formal method”? - Šklovski: literary text and its background – One instance: is “I promessi sposi” a novel ? – The metaphor of the “machine”
  7. Šklovskij and Aristotelian tradition – Art as device - Agnition and identity (one instance: Oedipus in myth and folklore, and then in Sophocles ) - From devices to laws
  8. Are there laws in literature ? The debate in Russian Formalism - Tortuous streets: the principle of retardation – A complicated plan in “Huckleberry Finn”.
  9. Laws in conflict - Gradation (Šklovskij) – Necessity without universality – A digression: Freud and the laws of dream – Again the specificity of literary time - Unlikelihoods in Shakespeare’s Othello
  10. Šklovskij: the “soul” in devices - Art as de-familiarization
  11. Propp: the metaphor of organism – Morphology of the Folktale – Functions and compositional scheme
  12. Methodological problems – Socratic abstraction and saussurian abstraction
  13. Tynjanov and Jakobson towards structuralism – The system : relational identity and functional identity – “The history of systems is in turn a system itself”: reconciliation of synchronic and diachronic – Tynjanov: two types of functions – Conflict in System.

The structuralists. There is a logic in literature

  1. Was the Formalists’ form already a structure? Divergent answers - The debate in structuralism. Two swings in direction: ontological and methodological; grammatical and transformational – A minimal definition of structure: its defects - The Prague Linguistic Circle and the Theses of ‘ 29: diachronic structuralism.
  2. The concept of “function” in structuralism - Its ambiguity: logical meaning and instrumental meaning – The principle of immanency and the autonomy of literary language – Mukařovský: structuralism between immanent analysis and extra-literary motivations
  3. Mukařovský. A definition of literary text: artifact and aesthetic object - A work of art is not constant greatness - Chaplin’s performance: one instance of analysis - Structure as meddling and conflict
  4. Jakobson – The model of communication and poetic function – The principle of equivalence: projection of the axis of selection into the axis of combination - Parallelisms and irony in Shakespeare’ Julius Caesar
  5. Barthes. How a structuralist works – Vision and tecnique - Structure as simulacrum - Operations of cutting and (reordering) – One example: Racine’s “Phaedra” – “To tell or not to tell: this is the problem”
  6. Barthes, “...“ (Critique et vérité) - A disease of the language: asimbolism – The asymbolic criticism after structuralism
  7. What is the logic of signifier: an introduction - Literature is language, and its logic is that of signifier – A concept of “logic” – Lévi-Strauss: myth is a group of transformations – The illustration of a technique: dismantlement of Oedipus’myth - The mistake of the code - No method without interpretation
  8. Lévi-Strauss versus Propp – The fallacy of common elements (or similarity) - Systemic abstraction and relevant oppositions – Character as a bundle of differential features
  9. Hjelmslev: the four-level model of sign – The forms of the content – Structural (or componential) semantics - A leap of complexity – Sign is a form and not a substance – Denotation and connotation
  10. “Grammatical” structuralism and the search for a deep matrix – Does logic dissolve time? – Greimas: “meaning is only accessible if well articulated” – Aristotle and the typology of oppositive relations – The square of opposition - The reduction of Aristotelian polysemy: what is uncanny in correlatives? - Conjunctive logic in literature and philosophy
  11. The polysemy of “versus” - The so-called “structuralist binarism” – Greimas and the semiotic square – The repression of correlatives – Criticism of the semiotic square - “Reciprocity” can be a vague notion – Correlatives as strategic relations
  12. The link between “signifier” and “logic”: a sophisticated elitist elaboration - Lacan: from Freud to Saussure, and back – Lacan: the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” - Differences between detectives – Thought styles in Poe’s tale – The Blindman, the Narcissist, the Strategist - Divided objects (Poe’s letter) and undivided objects (Tolkien’s rings) – Determinism of signifier
  13. Taking stock of structuralism ¬- Not structures but logic of structures – Is method indifferent towards object? - Egalitarianism, a childish disease – The search for differences: heterogeneous logics and criticism of “conveyed” (transported) semantics – What is literature: communication means or a place for the signifier? – Rigidity and flexibility in different versions of structuralism – An ambiguous term: post-structuralism

From Freud to Lacan

  1. The unconscious and the divided subject - Metapsychological point of view : topographical, dynamic, economic – One of Swann’s slips of the tongue – Semantic causality
  2. The hollywoodian unconscious –Hitchcock’s films, from “Spellbound” to “Marnie” – Traumas and phantasies - The autonomy of the psychic
  3. Narcissistic wounds - The fourth point of view: linguistic-logical – The unconscious as a way of thinking
  4. What is a dream made of ? How does it work? – Are free associations really free? Once more, the problem of determinism - Manifest content and latent dream-thoughts - Dream-work
  5. Dream language, from the verbal to the iconic: problems of translation – How to represent logical relations – The superior and inferior confusive - The logic of the kettle, from Irma’s dream to the Blues Brothers
  6. Condensation and displacement: the deformations of censorship - Symbolism
  7. The applications of the psychoanalytical method: first mistakes – The Oedipus complex – Sophocles : “Oedipus Rex”
  8. Beyond Freud – The riddles of “Oedipus Rex” - Hillman against literalism
  9. Interpretation is not a decodification –One instance: Melancholy I by Dürer – Freud and Michelangelo’s Moses –Interpretation never goes further than the surface
  10. Details and textual processes - Repression and the return of the repressed
  11. Art as a return of the repressed – The difference between literature and psychic compromise-formations – Symptom knows only two logics
  12. Symmetry and asymmetry in metaphors – Three regimes : confusive, separative, distinctive
  13. A short synthesis – Psychoanalytical interpretation is not metalanguage – Symmetric and asymmetric: a poor distinction - From divided subject to divided semantics
  14. Lacan: the unconscious is structured like a language – Theory of registers: imaginary, symbolic, real – The schema L - Mirror logic in “William Wilson”
  15. Difference between reality and real – The turning point in Seminar VII – Das Ding – Beyond the signifier
  16. Truth is not subordinate to reality – A non-stop war, within the Symbolic
  17. Freud: two different ideas of identity – Reality as a stern educator - Identity as identification – Confusive characters – Tonio Kröger
  18. Identification as metaphor – Theory on metaphor: Black and Jakobson – Psychoanalisis, linguistics, rhetorics: a new alliance

The principle of non-coincidence in Michail Bachtin

  1. The insipidities of dialogism ( and dialectics after Marx) – Coincidence and non-coincidence
  2. Dostoevskij as perspective – Self-consciousness as rebellion - The “cruel talent” of Dostoevskij
  3. The polyphonic novel - Activity and functions of the author – Polyphony is not simply multi-phony
  4. Translinguistic - The repeatable and the unique - Intertextuality
  5. The work of art and the great time – Typology of texts and dialogic relations
  6. Ideology – The debate on postmodernism – Stylization (pastiche) and parody - Difference between style and stylistic features
  7. Translinguistics and divided language - The Carnivalesque as language and logic of literature - From the paradigmatic axis to the “rain of styles”

Heidegger: The problem of interpretation and the truth of works of art

  1. An obscure thinker for an obscure verb - Logic of reciprocity (?) (Zusammengehörigkeit) – The ‘and’ of “Being and Time” - Revisiting the polysemy of language
  2. The distinction between Dasein and things that are “ready-to-hand” (Vorhandenheit) - Existence as possibility – The Heidegger’s modal perspective
  3. Existential analysis - “Being-in-the-world” and the problem of knowledge – The relationship subject/object and truth as “adaequatio”
  4. Realism and idealism – Hermeneutics – The difference between an object and a text – The understanding/interpretating circle
  5. From Heidegger to Nietzsche and back – “There are no facts but only interpretations” – The conflict between the active and the reactive - Energism and great style
  6. Heidegger; truth as “aletheia” – Dasein as opening (Erschlossenheit) and stylistic perspective: ‘real’ violins and violins by Picasso
  7. Language is not a tool – The principle of non-coincidence and the split in ways of thinking – The conflict in the hermeneutic circle
  8. The work of art –Once more the “and” of “Being and Time” – Art and truth – The struggle between World and Earth (articulation and density)
  9. The problem of interpretation: Nietzschean-Heideggerian criteria for XXI century – The criterion logical (modal) – The perspectivism – The semantic-factual split - The conflict between articulation and density
  10. From text to reader – The semiotics of isotopies - Derrida and the theory of writing – Deconstruction or overstructuralism? – How to saw off the branch on which one is not sitting (elimination of the syntagmatic axis) - Deconstructing Derrida – Two types of connessionism: dividing and undivided
  11. Preparation for reading Benjamin– The “Gnoseological Introduction” to “The Origin of German Tragic Drama” - “Can truth render justice to the beautiful?” – Benjamin’s platonism and the modal mixture of the work of art – Allegory as will and representation


General Index


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