The Threshold of Meaning
(Notes on Literary Phenomenological Archeology)
It seems easier to write on a given author than merely to focus on a certain problem. All the easier it is to write on a chosen problem as it occurs in the work of a given author. If we look at the majority of the literary studies and investigations, we won‟t be too much surprised to see how many of them are dedicated to the study of a single author. Of course, there are studies that deal with two or three or more authors at the same time, like Shakespeare and Montaigne, T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound, etc. But the principle remains in general the same. It is as if the author is still what guarantees the unity and comprehensibility of the investigated problem, and also what postulates the inducibility of a founding “logic”, on the basis of which the problem is posed. By this I do not mean that all such critical texts claim that the author guarantees the concrete meaning of his works. Now in the sphere of literary studies it is almost generally accepted that in a way the author should be dead, in other words that a certain interpretational procedure has become unavoidable. And yet the author still serves as an excuse when defining chosen problematic, she or he helps to explicate the limits of the field of research. I am not saying that it‟s illegitimate. What I am trying to say is that the presupposition of the given field guaranteed by an author functions as a non-questioned evidence, as if it was obvious why we make (or have to make) the presupposition.
One can easily object that in the analysis it will become clear whether or not the presupposition was legitimate. If a homogenous “logic” underlying the investigated problem is indeed found, then obviously the choice made when choosing the author as a guarantee of the field was correct. And it is quite often the case with the investigations concerned with a given author.
As I said, the author could have served as a formal reason (let say an “empty premise”) to disclose the unities in his works. But at a second step, these disclosed unities only confirm the legitimacy of the premise, in a way they fill its emptiness. The analyses, in this sense, are fulfillments. Thus in a retrospective way the discourse bearing on an author and his ideas is justified. We could even say more generally that not only the notion of the author works in this way but also the notions of literary trends, schools, worldviews, etc. As I will try to show, the retrospective justification, or what could be called retrospective fulfillment procedure is in a certain sense bound to succeed. It cannot make a mistake. (What is most curious is that it works even when the analyzed work was eventually found not to be by the presupposed author.)
Now, a different reading is also possible. A reading that would insist on the disintegration of the unities, on their decomposition. This type of reading (if it could be labeled indeed a “type”) is, as is well known, usually associated with what is called deconstruction. It shows that the unities are not naturally given, that they are historical constructs, and are therefore deconstructible. All this is probably all too well known. I only want to underline the significance of this reading. It does not only mean that different unities along with the ones already accepted, could also be constructed but that the very procedure by which we construct such a unity is a rather complicated process.
How can this procedure in its most universal aspect be elucidated?
Let us introduce two terms that could help us in the elucidation.
The first one is that of actualization. I believe that literary works are fields of potentiality, each one a singular or rather unique (since it is not opposed in any way to multiplicity or plurality) field. The actualization of this potentiality is what happens in a usual reading. It is in the actualization that the meaning of a work is not just grasped but created, or in other words the meaning is not pre-given or pre-determined and does not precede the actualization. Critics like Roman Ingarden (1973) and Wolfgang Iser (1978) have done much to clarify the actualization.
potentialities of the work and thus has the character of an outside action towards the work, which is why it can be analyzed only in a historical perspective. Ingarden‟s actualization concerns only the artistic side of the work itself, it has a descriptive character and represents the work as a static construction, guaranteeing its identity. The discrimination of these two potentialities, one related to the aesthetic side, and the other to the artistic, is delusive. There could be no actualization non-related to a historical horizon, so the idea that there is an identity of the literary work independent of all historical contexts should be abandoned. From this it follows that the potentiality of the literary work itself has to be conceived in a different way, a way that won‟t bind it to a static identity, or to an essence that lies there, waiting for no more than its realization by the reader. This is what I meant when I spoke of a certain non-pre-given-ness. In truth, it concerns not only the meaning but the very essence of the literary work.)
The actualization is done by the reader, it is a one-time act on his part by which he grasps the meaning of a work. The universal structure of this act is probably most well described in Wolfgang Iser‟s The Act of Reading (1978).
Let us return now to our problem. I think we can schematize in a simplified way the procedure as follows. 1. First we have the reading, or the gaze of the reader discovering the underlying (homogenous) logic by actualizing the potentialities of the text. 2. Secondly, we have another act, accompanying the first, which idealizes the actualization. This means that the reader now constitutes his own reading as an independent ideality “abstracting” it from the text. (Yet as Husserl points out in “The Origin of Geometry”, the ideal objectivity created by literary language does not have the same status as the scientific ideal objectivity (Husserl 1989, 160). The ideal objects of literature are, so to speak, not ideal enough. Their ideality is due to the language used, but as objects they remain irreducibly singular.) Probably it won‟t be wrong if we say that by this idealization an institution/ establishment (Stiftung) is accomplished that permits the actualized meaning to be sedimented so that further actualizations can be based on it. 3. Finally, the idealizing act leads to a retrospective justification of a former idealization that made possible the first act of actualization. In fact, only now, retrospectively, this former idealization, preceding the actualization, can be grasped as an idealization at all. (But doesn‟t it mean that the very Ur-Stiftung is produced “backwardly” by some of the Nach-Stiftungen?)
Thus actually we have three acts that need not but could coincide temporally. The triple aspect introduces a particular circularity which should not mislead us. It is this circularity, not to be mistaken either with the hermeneutical, or with the vicious circle, that constitutes the background of the unities, as well as their infallible persuasiveness and legitimacy.
(Also, it won‟t be wrong to say that if we are not so easily mislead, it is perhaps mostly in virtue of the work done by deconstruction – though the meaning we put in this last word should be clarified.)
thresholds and on the other – the thresholds cannot but foreclose the potentiality with the actualizations that reduce it to an essence. There cannot be a literary potentiality without a threshold for many reasons, one of which is that without the threshold of meaning as an empty premise the reader will not suspend her or his usual frames of reference and will have no understanding of literature at all. (In this sense, perhaps the very notion of literature could be seen as such empty premise. Of course, in the case of literature this could hardly be seen because of the many Nach-Stiftungen that instituted conventions, etc.) But since the threshold is idealized retrospectively (this is the third stage described above), idealization veils its specific function, and thus the literary potentiality.
(A question appears therefore, a question concerning this potentiality – the singular potentiality of a literary work – and if it is at all thinkable. Is it possible for the gaze of the reader not to reduce it to his particular actualization? Is there a reading that will remain meaningful and yet will not idealize only its own stance? I can‟t answer these questions here, so I will only make an optimistic hint that the answer should be sought in the direction of a reading working by incompatible actualizations, opening by the problematic possibilities the open possibility of the work.)
In the above schematization many oversimplifications were made for the clarity of the structure. For example, it is well known that real readers do not differ that much in the way they view the literary works. It can be objected therefore that the actualizations do not depend so much on the concrete reader and the above scheme is wrong. It could be answered however that there are levels of actualizations and some of them, as we supposed, depend on others which have established idealities. The way we read Baudelaire‟s poems is not arbitrary; it does not depend only on the empty premise of an unknown name. Our regard is structured by some of the former institutions (Stiftungen). This comes down to say that there is never only one threshold of meaning. The different thresholds are often interdependent, sometimes participate in complex hierarchies, and are always subjected to a certain history. The complex of thresholds is what determines the individual regard.
while still being a form of concrete actualization, will stress the dissemination and the disparateness? Perhaps the answer lies in the very fact that the idealities are related to unities that not only put in order the work, but also put in order the world. (Maybe they make the world a world, of course, retrospectively.) Therefore the answers probably lies in the formula used in the beginning of this text: it is easier.
Fizer, John (1983), “ „Actualization‟ and „Concretization‟ as Heuristic Devices in the Study of Literary Art”, In Literary Criticism and Philosophy, Joseph Strelka (ed.), Yearbook of Comapartive Criticism, vol.X, University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, pp.65-77.
Husserl, Edmund (1970), The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, Edmund (1973), Experience and Judgment, trans. James S.Churchill & Karl Ameriks, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, Edmund (1989), “The Origin of Geometry”, trans. David Carr, In: Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl’s The Origin of geometry : An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 155-180.
Ingarden, Roman (1973), The Literary Work of Art. An Investigation on the borderlines of Ontology, Logic, and the Theory of Literature, trans. George Grabowicz, Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Iser, Wolfgang (1978), The Act of Reading. A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore and London: The