Session One, part 1: The Arche For Theory

The Arche for Theory 

In today’s session, everything I am going to say will revolve around what must always be the arche – the “first principle” or “starting point” – of our approach to the ancient discipline of literary theory, because – as we will soon see in Plato’s Ion – literary theory began as a question, and so it remains.

Therefore, the arche for theory is simply this:  “literary theory dwells at the intersection of mysteries.” Why is this the case? Precisely because this discipline is the theorizing of something that is intensely mysterious and problematic – first for the extraordinarily lucid formalizing minds of the ancient Greeks, and then for all of their successors in the West. What we are asked to do by literary theory is to think rigorously about “something” that brings together in one place three great spheres or domains of human experience – and most likely the very ones with the greatest claims to being truly and justly famous in the long and glorious annals of mysteriousness…. [she is laughing] These larger domains are in themselves, as subjects of thought and inquiry, truly about as mysterious and intriguing as any you could ever find to investigate. Then we’re going to triple the intrigue.

I’m going to label our three larger domains for today as the sphere of Language, the sphere of Art, and the sphere of Representation (or Mimesis). I want us to look in turn at each domain, so I am now drawing for you on the blackboard three large circles, to help you visualize this…and I am trying to draw these circles so that they will intersect and arc out a common area, this one shared space in the center here, which I am now filling in with my piece of chalk. [sounds of tapping the board] This is the space in which the peculiar subject matter of literary theory is going to be found, a space that belongs to language, art, and representation all at once. We’ll take a look at each one of these domains, and especially at how distinctively characteristic of human beings each one is. Then we’ll turn to our own enigmatic “something,” the subject matter of our own historical discipline of literary theory.


First, though, I should mention one more thing about my arche for literary theory, this notion of “the intersection of mysteries.” By bringing together and hence “tripling,” so to speak, the problematic formalities that inhere within the domains of language, art, and representation – all of which involve how humans beings engage in communally perceiving their world – our own discipline becomes a highly focused tool for looking at what interests me the most: “epistemology,” or “the study of how humans beings come to know.” Let me repeat that: how do human beings come to know what they know? And furthermore, how do human beings determine that they do know what they know, when they think they do?         

Basically, these are the epistemological questions, and it is as an epistemological question that the question of literary theory first arises in the early West. As we will soon see, our discipline begins in Plato’s early dialogue Ion, when Socrates questions a successful literary expert as to whether he indeed possesses a legitimate way of knowing – or not. The Western vision of the arts and sciences begins with Plato and Aristotle in
Athens in the fourth century BCE, and it begins as a certain powerfully formalized understanding about how human beings come to know, which we’ll really start to engage in the next session, when I teach about “The Classical Greek Thought-world.”

After that, we’ll read Ion and then go on to see the same questions about “the lying poets” raised again in The Republic, and how Aristotle will respond in his Poetics with an explosive theory of poetry as a way of knowing that rewrites Platonic epistemology, while in the process opening up some new vistas into Plato’s own thought as well.

So I want you to understand from the very start that I intend to be taking you on a fresh re-turn to Plato and Aristotle, and to later figures, reflecting my own efforts to re-claim an origin or arche for the liberal arts and sciences that emerges in the earlier Western texts. Yet I will be doing this in the form of an introduction to the history of literary theory. Since some very sophisticated discourses are going on about epistemological issues in many academic fields today, especially in theory (if I may say so), perhaps it would seem that I should not be making my own case in the context of an introductory course! [laughing]

 On the contrary, however, this is the ideal setting. For one thing, literary theory is always returning to its origins among the Greeks to claim a fresh beginning, and so you may as well have a teacher who is doing it as she teaches. And that’s the other main point: teaching. The vision of the arts and sciences began with a martyred teacher, Socrates, and with a certain experience of what may arise between teachers and students when they devote themselves together to a formal pursuit of knowing a certain kind of thing.

I love what the physicist and historian of science Roland Omnes said about this in Quantum Philosophy, a book that breathes the spirit of Greek thought, though I am not persuaded by its final arguments. He shows that as the discipline of mathematics grew broader and more general, it simultaneously found that it needed to rethink the nature of its original axioms. The two operations were intrinsically formally linked. This is most certainly true of literary theory. Omnes also said that when teachers pursued this dual enterprise with their students, the endeavor could be confidently “left to the students” to carry on. The sequence from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle demonstrated this deep grace of theory, and from this existential wellspring we will see that the arts and sciences arise.

So in introducing you to the history of literary theory – or in giving you my own interpretative formalization of it, if you already know literary theory – I am given the opportunity to “start from the beginning” and to (re)construct for you and with you, from the ground up, the most “elementary” formal dynamics of the question. I’m not interested in giving you “knowledge” about this field, except insofar as that serves the higher end, which is “in-forming” you in this discipline, teaching you how to think it. This is the kind of teacher I have always been, attempting to crystallize certain issues at the deepest and in some sense the “simplest” level I could reach. Trying to think in essentia. How worthwhile my project has been, that must be judged by others, but I know that it makes me an effective teacher of theory, and so I gladly invite you to take this journey with me.

You may rest assured, in other words, that if you follow me through these session transcripts and engage in their various “thought experiments,” all dedicated to “restoring a lost breathing” of other Western thought-worlds than our own, then you will end up prepared to read and think theory on your own. And my emphasis on understanding Greek thought will serve you well, because the vocabulary you will be learning from their language is still the vocabulary of contemporary theory. Literary theory is a highly formalistic pursuit, because it deals with what Aristotle judged to be a “ more philosophical” way of thinking, the way of thinking and knowing that distinctively belongs to literary formalizations.

I want you to realize that you are working with a teacher who has always tried to grasp issues in terms of their deep structures. This has drawn me particularly to Greek philosophical formalism, to Saussure’s linguistic thinking of human sign systems, and to Continental theorists who engage both. There is also the deep-structure thinking found in the tradition of psycho-analysis, and others. In all of them, I am most interested in how human beings come to know, and the role of literary knowing in those processes. So I certainly appreciate the sophisticated conversations going on and I am constantly reading in them to inform my own project, but I still want to work on a more basic, even remedial level, if you will, to reformulate, possibly, the terms of the discussion. Aristotle might approve, I suppose, because everything I think about and teach has to do ultimately with what “Possibility” means for human knowing. 

Please continue to part 2, The Sphere of Language

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