While non-specialists might find this to be a relatively tough text, it was quite okay for the audience for which it was meant. As an all-comer platform, Intervention is obliged to publish it as it was delivered. If it makes a few readers to go searching for the meaning of the worlds they might find strange, the point about the media as teacher would have been made. So, read on!
By Prof Ibrahim Bello-Kano
Modern literary studies, at least since the rise of Structuralism in the late 1960s, and now the development of Post-structuralism, can no longer be conducted in the old, pre-theoretical procedures based on “intuition”. Of course the Formalists were the first to break with intuitive and metaphysical method inherited from classical times and the historicist methods of E. M. W. Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture (1943) for which the literary work is a window into a supposedly autonomous Real or History, or the history of ideas, and literary interpretation is used to gain an unmediated access (at least in theoretical terms) to underline a stable, coherent, and collective world picture of a community or period or society reproduced in that period’s or that society’s mainstream literary texts. Now, of course, modern, post-metaphysical literary theories refuse, on the whole, a rigid or un-theorized distinction between “author” and “text”, “reader” and “text”, “literature” and “history”, or between “text” and “context”.
One reason for this shift (perspectival and, probably, paradigmatic) is that research in literary studies requires a clear and rigorous understanding of literary theory. From Formalism and Structuralism to Deconstruction and Post-colonial theory (especially in its “classical” variety in the work of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak), literary interpretation is usually based on a small sample ( a literary text, a reading formation or inter-textual relations), and in which the findings are expected to be more or less specific to a context (contextualization) and, therefore, not universally generalisable (namely non-specific generalization or the prediction of a definite outcome).
That is why what we call “interpretation” in literary studies proceeds, and has to proceed, in the form of “words”, which in, practice function, or act, as (observation) “concepts”. Thus research or investigation in literary studies involves, and inescapably issues within, a conceptual field, or, in other words, the deployment of a knowledge-generation mechanisms and a specific approach to knowledge-production in which the researcher is part of, or is implicated in, the process she studies, what is sometimes called the “face to-face interaction” between the researcher and the subject of research.
That is why the object of study, say a novel or a poem, or even a play-text, requires a sense of method, a method appropriate to an open object (the reality-concept of the open context which literary texts are because, as Derrida remarks, there is no text before or outside reading. Thus literary study and, the use of interpretive procedures, have to be based on explanatory, interpretative, non-predictive, and, largely, subjective (i.e. personal experience, perception, perspective, self-understanding, behaviour, the insider point of view. In literary studies, for example, the researcher or interpreter seeks multiplicity and variability (patterns); generally uses the inductive method; is herself an instrument in the research process (also called “empathetic understanding”); and hopes to provide, at the end of the research, a grounded theory (based on a descriptive-analytical approach).
What all this implies is that research in literary studies necessitates the adoption and the grounding of an analytical heuristic mechanism, and a sense of conceptual limits and boundaries within the field of literary-critical field. In sum, the researcher has to be guided by the principles, concepts, strategies, and tactics that literary theorists deploy in practical or critical interpretation of literary works, texts, or phenomena (such as reading formations or genre discrimination) because it is these conceptual resources that form the basis for interpretation and analysis.
The preceding discussion should underline the point that research in literary studies is conceptual. We can also say that it is the very conceptuality of the interpretive process that drives the research process. Now what is research? Briefly, it is any form of organized study, or any form of methodical investigation, into a subject that is intended to discover facts, to establish or revise a theory, or to develop a plan of action based on the facts discovered, or to uncover the relationship between two or more entities or objects. In this case, any systematic enquiry, or any process used or deployed to study an object or a subject matter or a field of effects would involve using formal or specified methods. This si why research or interpretation in literary studies commits the researcher or the interpreter to a view or understanding of her activity as a form of methodological enquiry in which the enquirer or the investigator (in effect the researcher) uses systematic ways or procedures in order to enquire into a subject matter, or carry out research into a subject or a field of enquiry.
Thus before a literary research process can take off, or even become possible, it must be “thought” or “imagined” or both at once. But to think and imagine the object of the field of effects, one has to see the “research” or the interpretive act as a concepts or a set of concepts. That is why “interpretation” and “concept” are intractably linked because neither is possible without the other. This is chiefly why research into a literary problematic requires the use of concepts; otherwise the subject of the research may not be accurately studied.
Now what is a concept? First, concept is an idea, ideal, notion, argument, perception, design, and theory. A concept may also involve inference or “first principles” (intuition or common sense). Yet concepts may also be counter-intuitive, that is, undermine common sense and the “obvious”. A concept may also be something that is “thought” or “imagined” on the basis of an analytical process, namely or an abstract idea or notion that the researcher has thought up, or even any “image” of an object that the researcher would be able to visualize (as in symbolic thought where the sound of a running engine might imply in the mind of a perceiver the presence of a driver or the internal combustion engine, for example).
In general, then, a concept is a broad principle affecting perception and attitude to the object of study. For example, a concept may be a broad abstract idea or a guiding general principle which determines how a researcher has to conduct themselves or approach the object of enquiry, or how a researcher might, will, or could behave or perceive the object of enquiry— whether this be a line on a poem a reading formation of the African or a literary tradition, literary history, or another piece of writing or a manifestation of human thought or language as expressed in a literary context or symbolic representation of the Real.
On this view, a concept enables the “understanding”, or the “perception”, of an object-for-study; it allows, and makes possible, the most basic understanding of the object of study or investigation. Concepts also imply the unavoidable way of perceiving the object of study, and how the object must be perceived or investigated. In this sense, concepts are synonymous with, and are indispensable to, a method, plan, or design.
The preceding discussion suggests that “research” and “concept” are inseparable, and that, by implication, all research must involve the use of conceptual apparatuses such as ideas and notions and analytical argument (e.g. “reader”, “author”, “interpretation”, “the text”, “the author is less important than the text itself”, etc). That is why “literary-critical research” can be said to be necessarily and unavoidably “conceptual”.
Thus the indissoluble links between “research” and “concept” in literary study underline the necessary conceptuality of the research process. In a word, there can be no coherent research in literary studies without some commitment on the part of the researcher to some, or the use of, concepts, a set of abstract ideas or plans or a heuristic based on antecedently cognitive material or methodology— a more or less clear pre-figured ad pre-figuring perception of the object of thought, investigation, or study.
We could ask, at this point, what the objects of literary research are. First, in literary studies, the object of research or investigation may be varied and multifaceted. Indeed research in literary studies can take the form of the exploration of human subjectivity (characterization, character typology), forms of power, gender, mind, sexuality, the unconscious, “writing-about-writing”, textual and ideological systems, “the metaphysical grounds of authority” in interpretation, and the linguistic sign, or what Franz Stanzel (A Theory of Narrative, 1986) calls “the narrative situation”, among many other topics.
In addition, the object of literary research and investigation may take the form of, and may itself be an instance of, the deployment of a host of critical concerns such as the analysis of language, rhetoric, sign or ideological systems, systems of signification, the critique of cultural codes, historical or social conditions, and the analysis of many kinds of cultural forms, or of many forms of representation (textual, filmic, electronic, graphic), or discursive or reading formations.
Thus the research object in literary studies could be any kind of semantic production, or any kind of text, or any object, event, or action (narratives, films, advertisements, video games, musical scores, the internet, smoking, fashion, football) that is considered or interpreted as meaningful. Thus the object of literary research is any field or realm of meaning-making that requires “reading”, interpretation, elucidation, evaluation, or analysis. Indeed, the research field of literary studies is, simply, any object, event, or action that is interpreted as meaningful.
Any properly academic study in literary studies implies the presence of a “problem” which eventually develops, or is developed, as the puzzle (the enigma, the conundrum) that requires logical though or a comprehensible method in order to solve it. This puzzle is the research problem that is unsettling or posing a potentially uncertain outcome for the researcher. Usually, this “uncertainty” is also called the research problematic. For example, in any properly academic study, there is usually “a problem statement” that indicates that there is present in the formulation of the topic of the dissertation or treatise a conceptual situation that is, at conception, unsatisfactory and which also causes difficulties but which the researcher must attempt to solve or find a solution to through the very research process.
In the end, a conceptual framework undergirds every kind of research in literary studies. And without a conceptual framework, there could no “theoretical framework: Both dimensions of the analytical frame can be the set of conceptual strategies or the theoretical strategies and tactics that the researcher has to deploy in practical or critical interpretation of textual phenomena. At another, the theoretical-conceptual framework consists of the “talk about talk”, a kind of more or less complex discourse about discourse itself, or what Foucault would call “the conceptual field of effects”.
The wider point is that one cannot undertake research or critical interpretive activity in literary studies at the present time because of yet another reason: the “theoretical impulse” within modern literary studies. All the varieties of literary theory that are on offer in English literary studies share, despite their paradigmatic differences, a certain form of “the theoretical impulse” This is, in effect, an acute sense of belonging to an established “genre of writing” (theory) shared, for example, by all theories from Liberal Humanism and New Criticism to Structuralism and varieties of Feminist theory. The “theoretical impulse” is the capacity to use paradigms, concepts, and principles to “think” about the complexities of “thought”. For Fredric Jameson (Postmodernism, 1992: 392-93), the “theoretical impulse” is, in reality, a “theoretical aesthetic” which is organised around the counter-intuitive idea that statements about being need not be statements about truth, as “scientific” theories would have it. And this can be seen most powerfully in Formalism, New Criticism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, New Historicism, and varieties of post-structuralist textualisms in literary and cultural studies.
One needs to note, for example, Victor Shklovsly’s confident assertion of the uniqueness of “literary language” (literariness) which all formalists more or less share; or Edward Said’s discursive understanding of “Orientalist metaphysics” (which has influenced many a post-colonial theory); or Elaine Showalter’s assertion of a “female” tradition of writing and reception of literature (which is shared by all kinds of feminist theory); or even Jean Baudrillard’s work (Simulacra and Simulations, U of Michigan Press, 1981) which highlights the complex ways in which modern communication and media systems reduce “reality” to signs (called “simulation”, which Baudrillard calls the “the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as the reversion and death sentence of every reference” (“The Procession of Simulacra”. Global Literary Theory: An Anthology. Routledge, 2013: 219).
In the same manner, the “theoretical impulse” within literary theory also implies that all kinds of theory are, one way or another, a form of an enquiry into the concepts that a particular theory deploys in interpreting other theory-laden fields, from literary to cultural objects. A good example is New Historicism, whose leading practitioners, Gallagher and Greenblatt, prefer to see their task not as the “extraction of an abstract set of principles”, and still less as “the application of theoretical model” but rather as “an encounter with the singular, the specific, and the individual” (Practicing New Historicism, The Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001: 6). However, this is probably an illusion because the so-called the singular, the specific, or the unique are, in themselves, inevitably brought about by concepts, or at least are “thought” by thinking about first principles.
The theoretical impulse in Deconstruction takes a more radical turn in that it conceptualizes writing as not about “the world” but about “texts”, so that we cannot test the “accuracy” of texts by referring them to a “world” (a referent) outside of them. For Deconstruction, then, texts should be used to interpret other texts; that is, we should not refer the text to something which is not a text.
To conclude, research or critical interpretive activity within modern literary studies requires strong “second-order” judgements, that is, the inescapable process of the separation of subject and object, the standing back from the object of enquiry in order to form an analytical understanding of the object of study. That is chiefly why a theoretical or an analytical frame is indispensable in literary interpretation because literary critique or criticism operates by the use of pure reason, and by means of reflection on first principles and other a priori methods. And literary-critical research implies an open system (which undermines the possibility of the prediction of an outcome), it is the researcher’s framing (her creation of a coherent conceptual scheme) that ultimately makes possible the use of observation concepts in order to study textual phenomena (characters, narrative situations, narrative techniques, intersexual relations, etc) as conceptualized in experience (themselves based on a prior recognition of human behaviour or social processes). This is what makes literary critical research indubitably theory-laden. To do this coherently, the researcher needs to show familiarity with the theoretical literature, for that is the only way to contribute meaningfully and creatively, and with conceptual sophistication, to the continuing conversation in this area, in addition to the ability to identify the conceptual frame that guides one’s research if only to use it to illuminate (appraise, re-describe, or critique) the research area or topic. So, it’s analytically and programmatically incoherent for a researcher to think that they could proceed without a recognizable conceptual-theoretical framework, or could, in the alternative, proceed from instinct and intuition alone.
Indeed the theoretical framework is actually the conceptual grid that organizes the textual discussion of the primary material or the problem-field under study. To this extent, it should be lucid, relevant, and direct to the point. That is why, in literary studies at least, the researcher is, one way or another, required to show convincingly and unproblematically that they have mastered their chosen theory (i.e. the theory in all its different emphases and nuances, including the key theorists, and their programmatic differences), and that you can support and evaluate the theory for your research.
Prof Ibrahim Bello-Kano is reachable via firstname.lastname@example.org