In terms of defining literature, what the heck is ‘it’ anyway?(From what I gather, it’s certainly not San Francisco’s Original Ice Cream Treat.) Raymond Williams’ use of the term ‘it’ in reference to literature, complete with single quotes for emphasis on pages 1568 and 1573 of the excerpt from Marxism and Literature, seems quite relevant to his argument that ‘it’ has been rendered inatimate rather than a living, breathing organism.
As Williams explains, literature’s broad beginnings in the 14th Century referred to both the ability and act of reading. Since then, the meaning has been hacked, chiseled and vastly narrowed through time. By the 19th Century “literature” pertains to the highly specialized reading and printing of the social elite. Reducing literature to “formal composition within the social and formal properties of language” (1568), is the utmost abstraction.
William’s certainly pooh-poohs this constraint. To be specialized in such an ideological way leaves little room for outside criticism. Who could do it? Never the elite! In doing so, they would destroy the very structure which allows their exclusive access. Thus “criticism” as the practice of faultfinding devolved into the “exercise of ‘taste’, ‘sensibility’ and ‘discrimination.'” (1570) By noting this abuse of categorization and abstraction, and abstraction’s power to distill literature into sterility, Williams believes ‘it’ becomes less than a living, breathing thing.
Marxist criticism stretched the concept of tradition, giving literature to all people by including pop culture. Then there was the reconstitution of bourgeois social practice. Without challenging the practice in it’s own right, social history was widened to include “conceptions of ‘the people’, ‘the language’, and ‘the nation’.” (1573)?
So what was born from Marxist criticism? Ray thinks that democratization or putting literature in the hands of “the people” again brought it to life in new ways. Everything from the State of the Union to smilies on the Internet have become forms of literature. No longer limited to print, technology has been an historical development that, once again, helped to shift?literature’s meaning back to something full of life as an ever growing and changing entity.
TANGENT: When I think reconstitution, bourgeois social practice or otherwise, I think?orange juice. To my spoiled ass it doesn’t taste as good as fresh squeezed, it’s cheaper and widely available, but it does make me ask questions like, “How do they take water out? And how does it get back in? What makes it taste different afterward? What’s the point?” …And then I drink it anyway because it’s the new technology in orange juice and it satisfies my thirst.
AS FOR DELEUZU AND GUATTARI’S RHIZOMES
I am all about these little tubers. I love to plant peonies, ferns, and dahlias and have suffered invasions from hostile bamboo. When peonies eventually grow beyond their boundaries, I dig them up, divide their carpeting mass of bulbous material, and replant the smaller hunks in new places. This is not always an easy task as the mass can be a mess. This system is not as cut and dried as that of a tree, which is what makes it so relavent.
We’re taught early on about seeds and trees. Roots grow down. Shoots grow up. End of story. As Deleuze and Guattari point out, there are limitations when applying this cliche to the analysis of literature. Rhizomes are not limited to this up and down movement. They grow up, down, left, right and on every possible diagonal. One bulbous center produces willy nilly outcrops of root strands and shoots that criss-cross and jut out at random. Choas, yes. Still, the central orb is important to the theory as it ” is by no means an average; on the contrary, it is where things pick up speed” (1609). The tree analogy provides no pulpy center, no central and multiple plateaus. A tree just doesn’t cut it.
Clearly, the rhizome analogy makes far more sense when applied to the ways in which literature can be approached. The multitudinous lines of study stemming from one body (wO- “without organs”) of work is, quite possibly, infinite.