Josh Robinson teaches modern and contemporary critical theory in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. Most recently, he is author of Adorno’s Poetics of Form, which appeared last year in SUNY’s Contemporary Continental Philosophy series: https://www.sunypress.edu/p-6556-adornos-poetics-of-form.aspx
"Crisis in Theory: Beyond the Representational Paradigm"
This paper aspires to offer a critical account of a set of assumptions that are widespread in literary and critical theory, both in its historical emergence (as seen primarily through its institutional histories) and in several more recent developments (including the various ‘turns’ that arise from time to time). My focus is on what I term the representational paradigm: in its simplest and broadest formulation, the assumption, explicit or otherwise, within literary studies that works of literature matter insofar as they are representative; that what matters about literary works is their representative character.
This paradigm persists in multiple, not always interdependent (or even necessarily compatible) manifestations, which include: an analytical focus on events represented within works of literature (what might be called a focus on content at the expense of form); a set of analytical procedures that rely on an implicit theory of allegory, whereby readings are produced that see elements of a work as representing elements outside it; attempts to reconfigure the canon and/or redesign our curricula, such that the works and authors within it are more representative of global society. I outline a tentative taxonomy of these different versions of representationalism, and relate them to a set of shared democratic assumptions about political representation – assumptions which have a tendency to place themselves beyond scrutiny. I argue that while the democratic aspirations expressed at least in progressive versions of the representational paradigm constitute a commendable alternative to the (not only cultural) conservatism of the tendencies against which they are, in many respects, a reaction, these underlying assumptions ultimately overlook or even limit the potential of literature’s ways of thinking to contribute to a transformation of our understanding of the political. I thus set out some of the ways in which criticism and theory might move beyond the representational paradigm.
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