Traditionally, the term poetics has been interpreted as an inquiry into the laws and principles that underlie a verbal work of art and has often carried normative and prescriptive connotations. It first appears in the form of systematic inquiry around 350 BC in Aristotle’s work Poetics and has since exercised enormous influence on attempts to define the structural and functional principles of works of art predominantly, but not exclusively, in the verbal medium. Some slippage is evident as early as the first chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics where Aristotle discusses dance and music in terms of mimesis alongside poetry proper.
This tradition of analyzing the mechanics of the work of art has persisted into the twentieth century in the work of the Russian Formalists, New Criticism, and structuralism until challenged by post-structuralist approaches to language where writing becomes an all-pervasive metaphor not structured by distinctions (literary vs. non-literary, ordinary vs. poetic use of language) which poetics as a science takes for granted. Any discussion of the term poetics will also have to come to terms with the question of intermediality–that is, with the relationship between the different media and genres in a diachronic and synchronic manner. Technological advances in the last two hundred years have called into question the primacy of the written medium and have gradually brought to the fore not only the problem of the interaction between the different media (novel, photography, radio, film, typewriter, phonograph, computer) but also of their influence on the human sensorium leading, in some accounts, to a re-evaluation of the concept of the subject. This development reflects a shift from the study of specifically poetic features (How does a work of art mean?) or from the hermeneutic question (“What does a work of art mean?”) to an investigation of the roles that different media play in modern societies as well an investigation of the technologies that make meaning possible, which could lead potentially to a reconceptualization of the field of the human sciences. Thus, while for a literary historian the word medium would most likely be associated with the concept of genre, for media theorists, language itself will become just one of the possible forms of data storage and transmission.
Aristotle’s Poetics is the work of a philosopher of which only a small fragment has survived. It is important to remember that Aristotle’s interests were much wider than defining the “art of poetry” and that in his Poetics he employs a methodology similar to that of many of his other treatises. Here he classifies and defines some of the major genres in Ancient Greece while implicitly opposing Plato’s general denigration of poetry (poiesis). The results are neither representative nor conclusive, they are rather analytical and open ended. According to Aristotle, all three genres–epic, drama, and dithyrambic poetry–are defined by mimesis, but the type of mimesis varies in each of them. Thus Chapter I, in accordance with its stated purpose of beginning with first principles, introduces the fundamental concept of mimesis common to all the arts in the following way:” epic and tragic poetry, as well as comedy and dithyramb (and most music for the pipe or lyre), are all, taken as a whole, kinds of mimesis. But they differ from one another in three respects: namely in the media or the objects or the mode of mimesis” (31). Mimesis, then, can vary with respect to the media (language, rhythm, melody), or the object (people superior of inferior to us) and, finally, the mode (narrative or dramatic impersonation and their alternations). This statement has led Stephen Halliwell to speculate that Aristotle’s Poetics contains the germ of a theory of intermediality (“Introduction,” The Poetics of Aristotle, XII).
After it was revived in the sixteenth century by European humanists, Aristotle’s Poetics exercised wide-ranging influence, appearing in questions formulated by French and English Renaissance and neoclassical drama criticism as well as in the criticism of the German Romantics. One of the central problems that Aristotle discussed at some length was that of plot or, as he puts it, “the unity of plot required for the successful poetic composition” (31). Aristotle’s centrality of plot became a key concern for French neoclassical drama. From there many of his tenets found their way to German aesthetic theory through Lessing’s reaction against the excesses of French neoclassical drama and his defense of English playwrights and their artistic freedom vis-a-vis the formal strictures found in the plays of Corneille and Racine in his Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767). Even though he does not use the term poetics in Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Lessing (1729-1781) examined the limitations of the semiotic natures of poetry and painting arguing against their indiscriminate mixing–poetry is best suited for representing actions in time while painting–actions in space. Lessing’s concern with the purity of the medium was also an attempt to analyze the semiotic specificity of two different media–poetry and painting, an approach that will be revived by Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) in his essay “Toward a Newer Laocoon” (1940). It has become a critical commonplace that German aesthetic theory under the Romantics developed Lessing’s critical insight and imposed a new regime of creativity embodied in the figure of the romantic genius which militated against an objective explication of laws inherent in the work of art and thus against the spirit of poetics. The Romantics were deeply concerned with the relationship between form and content particularly in the works of Schiller and the Schlegel brothers, and with morphology in the case of Goethe, but postulated feeling, the imagination, and genius as superior to form and rationality.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century Ferdinand Brunetiere (1849-1906) and Aleksandr Veselovsky (1838-1906) articulated biologically-motivated and historical forms of poetics respectively, while indebted to Aristotle’s comments on evolution in literature. The idea that genres evolve was found in Aristotle’s Poetics; in Chapter 3 of Poetics Aristotle discusses the development of poetic forms from more simplistic to more elaborate narratives and in Chapter 12 he argues for the advantages of tragedy over epic poetry because the former can present events in a more efficient way. In a manner typical of nineteenth century historicism, Brunetiere and Veselovsky attempted to correlate formal features of the work with social conditions. In the twentieth century, Russian Formalism, the Prague Linguistic Circle, and New Criticism, as well as structuralism after WWII, have continued the tradition of elaborating principles that account for the coherence and specifically literary quality of a work of art. Certain formalist tendencies were visible in the discipline of art history, particularly in the works of Alois Riegl (1858-1905), and Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945) whose diachronic formalist approach proved immensely influential. Almost concurrently, however, the dichotomy of form and content was opposed by Martin Heidegger who, in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” articulated ontological and phenomenological views of technology and art that argued for openness in the act of interpretation as an encounter between art and Dasein, not predicated on formal features. Heidegger’s challenge to the formalist approach as a study of principles inherent in the work of art made possible much of poststructuralist thought.
It was not until the appearance of the Russian Formalists that poetics returned, in Fredric Jameson’s words, “to the stubborn attachment to the intrinsically literary, [to the] stubborn refusal to be diverted from “the literary fact” to some other form of theorization” (43). One could trace similar developments in other countries (e.g. the morphological school in Germany between 1925 and 1955, the work of Eric Auerbach [1892-1957] and Leo Spitzer[1887-1960]) as Tzvetan Todorov (1939-) has argued, that made poetics an “autonomous theoretical discipline” (110). This autonomy, however, soon came under attack. In his book The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism Jameson attempts to historicize the preoccupation with language without grasping the full implications of the development of technology and its effect on the culture of print. The view that was slowly but surely being superseded was that of Roman Jakobson, as the main exponent of poetics in the US. In his “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” delivered at the 1958 conference held at Indiana University, Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) made his wager for the coupling of literary studies and poetics:” Because the main subject of poetics is the differentia specifica of verbal art in relation to other arts and in relation to other kinds of verbal behavior, poetics is entitled to the leading place in literary studies” (350). Jakobson’s work was challenged by Paul de Man in the 1960s who suggested that the linguistic underpinnings of Formalism gave away the specious scientific nature of the project. De Man articulated a view of literary criticism in his books Aesthetic Ideology (1996) and The Resistance to Theory (1986) that in many ways was instrumental in ousting narrowly linguistic approaches to the interpretation of literature and making way for his own rhetorical and deconstructive readings which emphasized the opacity of language.
It was in France, as a result of the insights developed by structuralism and post-structuralism, that the major inroads were made toward an engagement with the physicality of the media at our disposal. Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967) and Writing and Difference (1978) impugned the logocentric traditions which accorded pride of place to the question of meaning in the text and treated writing as a mere supplement. In Of Grammatology, drawing on the work of the French archaeologist Leroi-Gourhan, Derrida (1930-2004) exposes the aporetic nature of the anthropos which exteriorizes itself in its tools–an exteriorization which “at once and in the same movement constitutes and effaces so-called conscious subjectivity, its logos, and its theological attributes” (84). A contemporary account, that of Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and in The Gutenberg Galaxy, uses the metaphor of a global nervous system to describe the role that technology has come to play today (3). A further shift in critical attitudes has been made possible by the pioneering work of Friedrich Kittler whose Discourse Networks, 1800-1900 and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter demote the importance of reading literature as a hermeneutic experience and offer a genealogy of the constitution of discourse networks that privilege certain ways of processing and storing data. Recent edited collections, like that of Hans Gumbrecht and Ludwig Pfeiffer, titled Materialities of Communication (1994) also draw attention to the physical aspects of literary production. According to Kittler, “it is technologies like that of book printing, and the institutions coupled to it, such as literature and the university, […] which in the Europe of the age of Goethe became the condition of possibility for literary criticism”(Discourse Networks, 369). This claim has enormous implications not only for the study of literary criticism, as a more general category, but a fortiori for a discipline called poetics.
For most of its long history, the term poetics subsumed attempts to reveal the inner logic of a work of art in an examination of its formal and constituent features while inevitably raising problems of intention, meaning, and interpretation–a practice that Paul de Man criticized as riven with contradictions. With the advent of new technologies and an increasing differentiation of media, the medium of print has lost some of its status while other technologies vie for acceptance alongside it. Accordingly, in critical discourse, new media studies have gained ascendancy over poetics. Poetics, broadly understood, takes as its subject matter a hermeneutic process productive of meaning and responsive to communication, even where this process is intentionally made difficult for artistic purposes, a view that has been hotly contested as a result of the emergence of new technologies of inscription.
Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Translation and commentary by Stephen Halliwell. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Ducrot O.and Todorov,T. “Poétique” Dictionnaire encyclopŽdic des sciences du langage. Paris: Seuil, 1972. 106-112.
Halliwell, Stephen. “Introduction.” The Poetics of Aristotle: Translation and Commentary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. I-XXXII.
Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.” Style in Language. Edited by T.A. Sebeok. New York: Wiley, 1960. 350-377.
Jameson, Fredric. The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975.
Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks, 1800-1900. Translated by Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens. Foreword by David E. Wellbery. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.