Phenomenology and Criticism

By hichem aibout Sunday, March 13, 2011 0 comments
Phenomenology and Criticism. The philosophical perspective and
method called phenomenology was established by the German thinker
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Husserl set out to analyze human consciousness—
that is, to describe the concrete "Lebenswelt" (lived world) as experienced
independently of any prior suppositions, whether these suppositions
come from philosophy or from common sense. He proposes that consciousness
is a unified intentional act. By "intentional" he does not mean that it is
deliberately willed, but that it is always directed to an "object"; in other
words, to be conscious is always to be conscious of something. Husserl's claim
is that in this unitary act of consciousness, the thinking subject and the object
it "intends," or is aware of, are interinvolved and reciprocally implicative. In
order to free itself of prior conceptions, the phenomenological analysis of
consciousness begins with an "epoche" (suspension) of all presuppositions
about the nature of experience, and this suspension involves "bracketing"
(holding in abeyance) the question whether or not the object of consciousness
is real—that is, whether or not the object exists outside the consciousness
which "intends" it.
Phenomenology has had widespread philosophical influence since it was
put forward by Husserl in 1900 and later, and has been diversely developed by
Martin Heidegger in Germany and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in France. It has
greatly influenced Hans-Georg Gadamer and other theorists concerned with
analyzing the conscious activity of understanding language (see interpretation
and hermeneutics), and has, directly or indirectly, affected the way in which
many critics analyze the experience of literature.
In the 1930s the Polish theorist Roman Ingarden (1893-1970), who
wrote his books both in Polish and German, adapted the phenomenological
viewpoint and concepts to a formulation of the way we understand and respond
to a work of literature. In Ingarden's analysis, a literary work originates
in the intentional acts of consciousness of its author—"intentional" in the
phenomenological sense that the acts are directed toward an object. These
acts, as recorded in a text, make it possible for a reader to re-experience the
work in his or her own consciousness. The recorded text contains many elements
which are potential rather than fully realized, as well as many "places
of indeterminacy" in what it sets forth. An "active reading" responds to the
sequence of the printed words by a temporal process of consciousness which
"fills out" these potential and indeterminate aspects of the text, and in so
doing, in Ingarden's term, the reading concretizes the schematic literary
work. Such a reading is said to be "co-creative" with the conscious processes
recorded by the author, and to result in an actualized "aesthetic object"
within the reader's consciousness which does not depict a reality that exists
independently of the work, but instead constitutes a "quasi-reality"—that is
to say, its own fictional world. See Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art
(1931, trans. 1973), and The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art (1937, trans.
1973); also, the exposition in Eugene Falk, The Poetics of Roman Ingarden
(1981). For German critics strongly influenced by Ingarden, see Wolfgang Iser
under reader-response criticism, and Hans Robert Jauss under reception-theory.
The term phenomenological criticism is often applied specifically to
the theory and practice of the Geneva School of critics, most of whose members
taught at the University of Geneva, and all of whom were joined by
friendship, interinfluence, and their general approach to literature. The older
members of the Geneva School were Marcel Raymond and Albert Béguin;
later members were Jean Rousset, Jean-Pierre Richard, and, most prominently,
Georges Poulet. J. Hillis Miller, who for six years was a colleague of Poulet at
Johns Hopkins University, was in his earlier career (before turning to deconstructive
criticism) the leading American representative of the Geneva School
of criticism, and applied this critical mode to the analysis of a variety of American
and English authors.
Geneva critics regard each work of literature as a fictional world that is
created out of the Lebenswelt of its author and embodies the author's unique
mode of consciousness. In its approach to literature as primarily subjective,
this criticism is opposed to the objective approach of formalism, both in its
European variety and in American New Criticism. Its roots instead go back
through the nineteenth century to that type of romantic expressive criticism
which regarded a literary work as the revelation of the personality of its author,
and also proposed that the awareness of this personality is the chief aim
and value of reading literature. (As early as 1778, for example, the German
critic Johann Gottfried Herder wrote: "This living reading, this divination into
the soul of the author, is the sole mode of reading, and the most profound
means of self-development.") In the course of time, however, Geneva critics
assimilated a number of the concepts and methods of Husserl, Heidegger, and
other phenomenologists. In the view of the Geneva critics the "cogito," or
distinctive formations of consciousness, of the author—related to, but not
identical with, the author's "empirical," or biographical, self—pervades a
work of literature, manifesting itself as the subjective correlate of the "contents"
of the work; that is, of the objects, characters, imagery, and style in
which the author's personal mode of awareness and feeling imaginatively
projects itself. (For a related critical concept see voice; refer also to objective and
subjective.) By "bracketing" their personal prepossessions and particularities,
the readers of a literary work make themselves purely and passively receptive,
and so are capable of achieving participation, or even identity, with the immanent
consciousness of its author. Their undertaking to read a work so as to
experience the mode of consciousness of its author, and then to reproject this
consciousness in their own critical writing about that work, underlies the frequent
application to the Geneva School of the term critics of consciousness
and the description of their aim in a critical reading of works of literature as
"consciousness of the consciousness of another." As Georges Poulet put it in
"Phenomenology of Reading" (1969): "When I read as I ought.. . with the
total commitment required of any reader," then "I am thinking the thoughts
of another. . . . But I think it as my very own. . . . My consciousness behaves
as though it were the consciousness of another." (It should be noted that
whereas the philosopher Husserl's aim in phenomenology was to describe the
essential features of consciousness which are common to all human beings,
the Geneva critics' quite different aim is to identify—and also to identify oneself
with—the unique consciousness of each individual author.)
Within this framework, critics of consciousness differ in the extent to
which they attend to specific elements in the "external" contents, formal
structure, and style of a text, on their way toward isolating its author's "interior"
mode of consciousness. A conspicuous tendency of most of these critics is
to put together widely separated passages within a single work, on the principle,
as J. Hillis Miller says in his book Charles Dickens, that since all these passages
"reveal the persistence of certain obsessions, problems, and attitudes,"
the critic may, by analyzing them, "glimpse the original unity of a creative
mind." Furthermore the critics of consciousness often treat a single work not
as an individual entity, but as part of the collective body of an author's writings,
in order, as Miller said of Dickens, "to identify what persists through all
the swarming multiplicity of his novels as a view of the world which is unique
and the same." Georges Poulet has also undertaken, in a number of books, to
tell the history of the varying imaginative treatments of the topic of time
throughout the course of Western literature, regarding these treatments as correlative
with diverse modes of lived experience. In these histories Poulet sets
out to identify "for each epoch a consciousness common to all contemporary
minds"; he claims, however, that within this shared period-consciousness, the
consciousness of each author also manifests its uniqueness. The influence of
the criticism of consciousness reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s, then
gave way to the explicitly opposed critical modes of structuralism and deconstruction.
Many of its concepts and procedures, however, survive in some forms
of reader-response criticism and reception-aesthetic.
Robert R. Magliola, Phenomenology and Literature (1977), deals with various
types of phenomenological poetics and criticism in the context of an exposition
of Husserl, Heidegger, and other phenomenological philosophers.
Brief introductions to the Geneva School of criticism are Georges Poulet,
"Phenomenology of Reading," New Literary History 1 (1969-70), and J. Hillis
Miller, "The Geneva School. . . , " in Modern French Criticism, ed. J. K. Simon
(1972). In "Geneva or Paris? The Recent Work of Georges Poulet," University of
Toronto Quarterly 39 (1970), Miller indicates his own transition from the criticism
of consciousness to the very different critical mode of deconstruction. A
detailed study of the Geneva School is Sarah Lawall's Critics of Consciousness:
The Existential Structures of Literature (1968); see also Michael Murray, Modern
Critical Theory: A Phenomenological Introduction (1976). Among the writings Geneva critics and other critics of consciousness available in English are
Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time (1949), The Interior Distance (1952), The Metamorphoses of the Circle (1961); Jean Starobinski, The Invention of Liberty,
1700-1789 (1964); Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist: Texts and Reading,
ed. Mary M. Jones (1991); J. Hillis Miller, Charles Dickens: The World of Novels (1959), The Disappearance of God (1963), and Poets of Reality (1965).
Other critical works influenced by phenomenology are Paul Brodtkorb, Ishmael's
White World: A Phenomenological Reading of Moby Dick (1965); David
Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (1973); and Bruce Johnson,
True Conespondence: A Phenomenology of Thomas Hardy's Novels

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