Session One, part 7 – The Peculiar Subject Matter of Theory and Greek Poiesis

So we’ve seen that the spheres of Language, Art, and Representation are rich, enigmatic, and complex. They are “inter-subjective” realities: that is, they exist in the shared communal consciousness of particular human speech communities and they draw their identity and being from the enabling constructs that have been formed in the perceptual consciousness of their human observers. But what about this little area on the blackboard that I have filled in with chalk, this single area simultaneously belonging to all three spheres? This space wherein we find the subject matter of the ancient discipline of literary theory?


Well, our own peculiar subject matter, our mysterious “something,” is going to be a kind of thing that is made out of language, as we’ve seen (and through a very complicated language-act indeed). But it also belongs in the realm of art, and even the highly anti-formalistic kind of music that the theorist Gilles Deleuse wants to adopt, for example, is itself incredibly subtly formalized at the very frontiers of the perceptible. And finally, I think you would agree that our mysterious something involves the endlessly intriguing phenomenon that we have called representation. Insofar as it uses language it has to involve linguistic representation, for language functions through representation or mimesis. But language includes all of our linguistic and cultural conditionings and the entire world around us insofar as it is shaped and opened up for us by our languages.


And so, by being also representation (in its own right), our something will not only be capable of drawing upon all of the resources of linguistic representation already in the language, but of “re-presenting” it as well – reflecting it back to us through new (re)interpretive formalizations, as well…. And because it is not only art and so can use the representational resources of art, but isalso a representation in its own right, it will also at its best be capable of functioning as a re-presentation to us of the art we already have, just as Rap has been a re-presentation to a new generation of what Rock ‘n Roll was to a previous generation, and Rock itself was a re-presentation of the traditions of jazz and folk music and so on….




And so at last, we have truly arrived, now, at the mysterious something that is peculiarly our own. We know that our theorizing of it is going to dwell at the intersection of mysteries, because we will have to theorize about language and art and representation, just in order to get at it. But notice, please, that as of yet, I have not introduced even one single particular literary theory, have I? And I don’t intend to, not today. First, I want to give you a set of questions that will prod you to think through and write out your own assumptions about our subject matter. I want you to bring your responses to our next session, when we’ll be considering the fascinating issue of “theory” and “metatheory,” based on your responses. We’ll also approach our first historical formal theories, those of Plato and Aristotle, in Session Two. And we’ll consider in our next session that even though we haven’t discussed a single formal theory yet, we have been using theories. The space between you and me in this classroom has been thick with theories, because first of all, if we hadn’t shared a communal “working theory” of what it is that we are talking about, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about it at all. Okay? And furthermore, I have been employing my own theorizing to guide me in talking about it, and you have (each of you) been using your theorizing (formal or informal) up to this point in time to interpret what I have been saying. The space between us has been thick with a dynamic interplay and dialectic of theories!




Furthermore, as we enter the historical sequence of theories, we will enter ever more deeply into the dialectic of theory, because each new theorist is always in dialectical conversation with those who have gone before. Perhaps more explicitly than any other discipline, and any other branch of philosophy, literary theory is intrinsically self-reflexive, and that means it is intrinsically historical. I could not teach you theory without teaching the history of theory, nor could we consider the history of theory without doing theory. And if you asked me, why are we only looking at Western texts and writers, I would have to answer: “Because literary theory, as we have it today, is Western literary theory.” To work in this way of knowing, to engage in this discipline, is to be initiated into these particular Western texts and this particular Western tradition of thought.




I don’t worry too much about not teaching any non-Western theory, for two reasons. First, because we cannot know if there is such a thing as non-Western literary theory, until we know how non-Western traditions identify our mysterious something, or if they do, and only informants from within those traditions can tell us that – a most fascinating conversation to be sure. And secondly, because the self-reflexive history of Western literary theory is the story of the Western mind’s intimate struggle with itself, and the Western mind has now become a legacy and a burden for the entire global community. So we may as well try to understand it. We’ll find it isn’t necessary to leave the Western tradition to find the “other,” because so many of its others lie repressed within it, holding up its extraordinary and frequently very costly psychic structures.




So, for the rest of this session, before you have examined and written out your own working theories, let’s simply try to figure out what we – for the purposes of this course – are going to call or “name” this mystery that is peculiarly our own, the subject matter that literary theory deals with, or attempts to think, as it bring together the other larger mysteries of language, art, and mimesis, so evocative and so intrinsic to being human, into one intensively mysterious and self-reflexive place. I can’t keep saying “this mysterious something” or “the subject matter we are attempting to theorize.” It’s too much of a mouthful. No, I need to be able to gesture deftly in the direction of this subject matter [laughing], and without presupposing its nature, if possible. I am raising this question precisely because the rather strange fact is that, in modern English, we don’t have a convenient term ready to hand.




Now the Greeks, as usual, did not have this difficulty. Going back to Homer and long before, they had had a word for what we wish to theorize and they called it poiesis. [She writes on the board.] The word poiesis is an action noun, because of this suffix –sis, which you see right here, indicating action, or more precisely, indicating a conceptual noun referring to an activity. And for the Greeks, activity was always purposive. Any activity worth mentioning was by definition an activity aimed at achieving certain formal ends. It had a goal or telos – it was “teleological,” which means “directed toward an end.” [writing on the board] Even Nature, or what the Greeks called physis – from which we get our “physics” – was viewed as purposive activity. Nature or phy-sis – and notice that active –sis ending, which mimesis also has – is for the Greek mind that dynamic force that produces the various kinds of beings, which is why her medieval English name would be “Mistress Kynde,” or “the Mother of all the Kinds (of Things).” By the way, physis comes from a verb meaning “to manifest,” “to appear,” or “to grow into being,” so that for the Greeks, physis was the purposive activity whereby the kinds of beings manifested themselves as the kinds of things they are – but this is not “by the way,” is it?




Poiesis, on the other hand, comes from the verb poieo, which means “to make.” The verb was used for any kind of making, so long as it was the making of a kind of thing. As I’ve said, all activities worth mentioning were purposive activities for the Greeks, and therefore making was always the making of a kind of thing, and that Form-al “kindness” gave the act of making it, its formal structure. Odysseus building his raft to escape from the island of Calypso is “making,” but he isn’t just making a particular raft, which is how we English-speakers would construe it. No, and this is crucial for understanding Greek thought, he was employing a formal skill or “power” (ergon) of raft-building in order (granted) to make an individual, particular raft. Knowing, as Aristotle most clearly states it, is addressed to the being of things as formal kinds of things, not as concrete individual things.


And one of the reasons this is so important is that it means for the Greeks that making is always a formal activity, and the formal principles that govern each kind of making depend upon the formal principles of the kind of thing which results, and the kind of thing which results is also intrinsically formally connected with its purpose or telos. Odysseus possesses the formal art of raft-building, in addition to the disciplined skills of athletic prowess and the science of military strategy and the craft of cunning words. “Many-skilled Odysseus” is one of this great hero’s epic epithets, and everywhere in Homer we see the formalizing lucidity of the Greek mind at work and its eager appreciation of every kind of art and craft and science. All of these arts are –ikes, for this is the suffix the Greeks used to indicate a formal skill or power. In Plato’s Ion, our first text in literary theory, we are going to see that even washer women possess their -ike, because they know best how to go about producing clean garments.




In other words, every activity – whether human or natural – is a formalized activity, because it is formally aimed at producing its kind of thing, so that the form of that thing guided everything connected with it. And the one who possesses the ike of any kind of thing knows about all of the activities associated with it. So the Greek word for literary theory is of course poietike, which means the –ike that deals with poiesis. But what does poiesis mean, with its active ending? It means two things that are inseparably connected: the purposeful activity the “poet” engages in when producing a poiesis and the formally designed poiesis that is produced. In Aristotle’s Poetics, you will always have to look at context to determine whether he is referring to the artistic process, or to the formal artistic structuring that results from the process (that the formal process has aimed to produce).


In either case, Aristotle is not talking about particular concrete “facts,” i.e. individual or particular tragic plays, except as they may serve to illustrate a formal principle. No, Aristotle is talking about the formal principles that constitute the kind of coherence that is poiesis – and he specifically points out that the elegant formality belonging to this kind of thing has nothing whatever to do with whether it happens to be composed in verse. A treatise on natural history composed in verse is still a treatise on natural history and not a poiesis! Now if in Greek one wished instead to refer to a particular work of art, as a “made-thing,” with the emphasis not on its dynamic formal structuring per se, but rather on its status as a recipient of the action of another, then the word to use was poiema, with the passive suffix –ma added this time. This is the word the apostle Paul chose when he wrote to the church at Ephesus to say, “for we are God’s workmanship – God’s poiema – created in Christ Jesus towards (the telos of) good works.”




The point I am straining to make here is that the radically new vision of the “arts” and “sciences” could be theorized by Plato and Aristotle only because when the Greeks looked at the world, they saw that kinds of things existed there. Without the presence of the elegant formalities of being in the world around (and within) their communities, coming to know would be an impossibility for the human mind, or so the Greeks emphasized. In the next session I will be assisting you to enter into this Greek thought-world, so that you can use its formal principles when you are reading and interpreting Plato’s Ion. But right here I must emphasize that because of this, Western liberal education came into being as a plurality of formal disciplines, each devoted to coming to know its own kind of thing. Each art and each science, then, would require its own methods and its own kinds of validity testing. The standards and goals of one way of knowing could not be transposed onto another way of knowing, because it was the kindness of the kind of thing we seek to come to know, that must always determine those aspects for its own disciplinary community.


And therefore, if poietike was to be accepted by Plato or Aristotle as one of the genuine “arts and sciences” that could form free citizens and shape them into responsible actors in the public life of their commonwealth, then poietike could do that only by elegantly formalizing the kind of thing called poiesis. And that is precisely why you are going to watch as Socrates latches onto an expert in Homeric poetry, in Plato’s early dialogue Ion, in order to find out whether Ion really possesses what he claims to possess, poietike, or a genuine “art of poetry.”




Now from all of this, we might suppose that we could simply use the English word “poetry” to refer to the subject matter of literary theory. But of course, in the modern centuries, the word poetry would come to refer only to works composed in verse. So much for Aristotle. In order to talk about our subject matter now, therefore, we would have to say “poetry and prose.” But this doesn’t quite work, because drama, for instance, isn’t usually included in either category. And if you’ve been impatiently wondering why we don’t just use the word “literature” – well, think about it. Anything made with words and sentences can be called literature, as when we talk about “the literature of silt deposits in delta regions.” So at this point we begin to get desperate, and we reach out wildly for adjectives to modify the word literature. So we say things like “imaginative literature” or “creative literature,” or I could even confess that I was once driven to the extremity of talking about “the literary work of art” – but only in the distant past! [laughing] Or perhaps we should live very dangerously, employing the theoretical f-word and saying “fictive literature”? But then what about creative nonfiction, a fruitful genre of “literature” these days?




So, in the end, here’s our taxonomical situation, as I see it, in North America today, as (mostly monolingual) speakers of English. We have a hodge-podge of genres – novels and short stories and epics and lyrics and plays and essays and so forth. Then we have a whole slew of genres such as romance novels and Westerns and pornography and fantasy novels and so on, whose status as “literature” is controversial. And we face all of these terminological difficulties, long before we ever get around to “deconstructing” the (supposed) boundaries between the “literary” and “non-literary.” For rigorous deconstructive analysis, after all, you have to have some formal structures being insisted upon, but in our case, it’s difficult to find any inkling of formal coherence to begin with.




. Furthermore, in regard to this vexed word literature, it’s really interesting that Derrida remarks that the “literature” he was talking about – when he said that all of his life’s work had been a response to “the question of literature” – he meant the category to exclude all classical Greco-European works of literary art, all of the older Western genres of epic and lyric and satire and romance and so on. Not that they are not worthy of great respect, he says, but they are not “literature.” For Derrida, then, “literature” begins in the modern centuries! (You’ll find this is in an interview in Acts of Literature, but do not look at it! At least not until after you have thought about the questions on the metatheory worksheet I’m passing out to you today, and after you have written out your own working assumptions about “literature” – or about whatever-it-is we are going to call it.) [worksheet provided at end of transcript.]




So I refuse to use the term literature for the purposes of theory. And I am seriously befuddled by the fact that here in North America as speakers of English, we don’t seem to care whether we have any formally coherent notion of our subject matter, as long as we have an institution called “literature,” with a documented history and publications and faculty members and graduate students and nice brick buildings on college campuses to house them in. We point to these facts and say, of course, “literature.” We are hopelessly literalistic! All we need are a few concrete physical objects and we think something “exists.” It’s plenty good enough for us…. So, I am going to propose another way to refer to our subject matter, one that resists our ingrained concretizing reflex, even if it sounds a little strange to you – and I’m going to use it for the rest of this course. I want to refer to our subject matter as “the literary thing.” Yes, you laugh! But it’s a great phrase, because it doesn’t determine in advance whether it is an “object” or a “quality” or an “effect in the reader” or a “self-expression” by the artist, or what have you….




Now this phrase comes very naturally to anyone who reads Greek. Greek philosophers used a construction in which they took the neuter demonstrative pronoun and the neuter form of any adjective – and I do mean any adjective – and put them together to refer to the formal character of the kind of thing designated by the adjective. This is how we get our philosophical expressions like “The Beautiful” and “The Good.” The Greek could just as well be translated as “the beautiful thing” or “the good thing,” or better, “the beautiful kind of thing” or “the good kind of thing.” And of course we are using “thing” in our translation not to refer to a particular concrete thing, the modern “thing” of choice, but to the kindness of a (kind of) thing, as when we say, “they are doing their thing.” Once again, with the Greeks, we are back to the kindness of things, which is to say we are also back to “naming” the kinds of things through dialectic, which is the basis of all Western thought until the scientific era.


And please, don’t ever let yourself think of this kindness as an “abstraction.” (Except when you’re dealing with Eighteenth-century neoclassical theory.) Better to think of it as white lightning. Kindness is the white lightning or the elegant formal “stuff” that is immanent to every particular thing, and transcends it also, and this stuff includes its design, its purpose, its materials, and how it comes into being as what it is, which are not formally separable from it, for human perception. (This four-fold formalistic account will be radically challenged by the necessarily anti-Aristotelian theorists of the new classical-scientific project, as we’ll see), but it is essential for thinking the Greco-European tradition.

[Please go to Session One, part 8 – A Sober Warning]

One thought on “Session One, part 7 – The Peculiar Subject Matter of Theory and Greek Poiesis

  1. breid

    I like this format, Janet. I reread this section over the weekend and I felt a lot less overwhelmed. Of course I’ve encountered this material before, but your explanation of the kind-ness of things is so eloquent; I think it’s the first time I’ve really understood it. As a poet, I found myself going to William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things”; and Sylvia Plath, who said, a bit less artfully (but archly), “I love the thinginess of things.”

    Where is Session One, part 8? And shouldn’t we have the worksheets so we can do our homework? Bethany

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