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Knowing through feeling: the aesthetic structure of a novel and the iconic experience of reading

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Abstract

Following the strong program in cultural sociology, I propose a “literary turn” to recognize literary texts “as relatively autonomous cultural entities” with their own agency. This article is part of a larger project connecting cultural sociology with the sociology of literature and literary theory to develop a strong program in the sociology of literature. Instead of approaching literary fiction as an object of analysis, sociology and literature can contribute to social knowledge in a symmetrical way, where fiction is not devalued vis-à-vis social scientific inquiry. Just the opposite: recognizing the specificities of literary communication, we can access textures of social life that are only hardly graspable by sociology. A crucial step is to examine how social knowledge comes into existence when reading a fictional text. Embracing the structural aesthetics of Roman Jakobson and Jan Mukařovský, I modify the concept of iconicity to capture the iconic experience of reading through which literature mediates social experience that is iconic of broader social phenomena. I demonstrate my approach by analyzing the Czech novel Bliss was it in Bohemia by Michal Viewegh (Bliss was it in Bohemia, Jantar Publishing, London, 1992). Building on social aesthetics, I discuss implications of my model for sociological theory, textual representation, and sociological explanation in general.

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Notes

  1. Lewis Coser’s (1963) Introductory Reader being a classic example; see also a more recent reader by Edling and Rydgren (2010).

  2. Perhaps paradoxically, Latour brought the idea of “non-human actors” as a basis for the Actor-Network Theory from literary science. Now is the time for this concept to return where it once originated.

  3. Founded in 1926, the Prague Linguistic Circle was an association of linguists theoretically based on, and critically reflecting upon, Saussurean structuralism and Russian formalism.

  4. The so-called normalization in Czechoslovakia refers to a period between the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The term originally comes from the official document published by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia reporting on the events of Prague Spring and the post-1968 as “consolidation” and “normalization” (ÚV KSČ 1970, pp. 127, 135) as of returning the country to the “normal” state of issues before 1968. In the non-official discourse, the expression was often understood in an ironic way, pointing out that “[n]ormalization was anything but normal” (Vaněk and Mücke 2016, p. 12).

  5. Meaning reconstruction, this term promoted by the Communist Party’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev refers to the political reformation taking place in the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s.

  6. Whereas Iser (1972) refers to the “aesthetic experience” only in relation to the experience of reading, Alexander (2008b) understands “iconic experience” as a sensuous experience of any aesthetic surface. Thus, I conceive the aesthetic experience as a subset of iconic experience.

  7. For Alexander (2015, p. 5), the claim that “surface and depth combine arbitrarily” is also of high political and ideological importance as it supports the idea of the “emancipating power of culture” (Alexander 2011, p. 92). “The conflation of surface and depth is … dangerous” because iconicity “makes meaning seem natural, as if it grows out of appearance, as if the meaning can only be that appearance” (Alexander 2015, p. 5). Admitting that surface and depth were not connected arbitrarily would make ideological space for conservative and essentialist thinking.

  8. To be precise, Jakobson also introduced the so-called artifice, which stands for “imputed similarity” (Waugh 1980, p. 71): non-arbitrary connections between parallelisms, repetitions, and equivalencies, which are made “artificially”—typically in poetry.

  9. “’Why do you always say Joan and Margery, yet never Margery and Joan? Do you prefer Joan to her twin sister?’ ‘Not at all, it just sounds smoother.’” The “smooth sound,” explains Jakobson (1960, p. 357), comes from the fact that “the precedence of the shorter names suits the speaker … as a well-ordered shape of the message.” Another example is a word choice: We say “horrible Harry”—and “not dreadful, terrible, frightful, disgusting”—because of the poetic device of paronomasia, that is, a grouping of words that sound similar but have different meanings (Jakobson 1960, p. 357).

  10. A well-known linguistic example comes from the 1951 political campaign of Dwight Eisenhower, playing a pun on his nickname. The success of using this linguistic principle was repeated in a 1992 popular commercial “Be Like Mike” featuring American basketball player Michael Jordan.

  11. Binder (2018, p. 404) understands Peirceian “interpretants” as the “act of articulation” that stands for an “idea produced in the mind” by the Saussurean signifier.

  12. Saussure was concerned with the langue/parole interaction in the present moment. Russian Formalists studied literary works as separate from their socio-historical background.

  13. Literary texts achieve independent “career outside its original context of production” (Santana-Acuña 2014, p. 98). This adds an important diachronic aspect to the interpretation of the text. Diverse interpretations influence each other between various interpretive communities.

  14. In 2002, around 200,000 copies per every published book by Viewegh were sold on average (Ciglerová and Viewegh 2002).

  15. Even authors who sell tens of thousands of copies of their novels must keep their other job (Hartman 2012).

  16. Seventeen novels, six collections of short stories, three autobiographical books, two collections of newspaper columns, and two collections of literary parodies.

  17. On the Czech book market, titles exceeding 10,000 sold copies are considered bestsellers. Very few of the most successful books cross the line of 100,000 sold copies.

  18. In the Czech literary sphere during communism, this idea was epitomized in conceiving the author as “conscience of the nation”; i.e., someone who provides the reader with a moral and ethical compass (Wachtel 2006, pp. 14–43).

  19. British translator of the novel David Short (2015, p. x) says that translating the title was a “HUGE problem,” so he finally resorted to paraphrasing Wordsworth’s poem “The French Revolution.” Even though the British title has a poetic quality, it does not, however, capture the original meaning.

  20. This title was used for a popular movie based on the novel.

  21. A more precise translation of the Czech original would be “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”, which is also more in line with the German original of the Communist Manifesto: “Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!”.

  22. Henceforth, the acronym “BB” refers to Viewegh (2015 [1992]).

  23. Out of 15 million citizens of Czechoslovakia, some 2 million were members of the Party.

  24. This thesis is based on the idea that the Communist Party did not have “total” control over the citizens, thus leaving some maneuvering space for people’s agency (Blaive 2017; Kolář and Pullmann 2016).

  25. Originally in Russian “zhit’ ne po lzhi,” the term was coined by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974.

  26. The notion of “living within the truth,” as vocally advocated by Havel, earned a prominent position among Czech dissidents. Most significantly, the idea was disseminated through unofficial (or “underground”) philosophy seminars promoting the phenomenology of philosopher Jan Patočka. The existentialist narrative, however, has a long history reaching back to the fifteenth century when the myth of Jan Hus has been established as a symbol of national martyrdom.

  27. All the ellipses (three dots) in quotations are mine. They are not part of the aesthetic devices used in the original text.

  28. Because there was a single ballot, the elections were not a matter of political choice but a manifestation of supporting the Party.

  29. Due to its phonetic features, the English translation “Sweetie” captures this meaning only partially.

  30. Before 1968, Kvido’s mother used to work as an actor in the National Theater.

  31. Šperk urges Kvido’s father to join his football team in order to be “visible” (BB 83) as in the sense of belonging to the socialist community.

  32. For the application of linguistics and semiotics in cultural sociology, see Binder (2018).

  33. According to Jakobson (1960, p. 358), the “empirical linguistic criterion of the poetic function” is that the “poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” That is, the way how words and sentences are combined (syntagmatic relation in linguistics) is more important than what words selected to convey the meaning (paradigmatic relation).

  34. Personal consultation with Radim Marada, August 2020.

  35. I am aware of the danger of conceptual confusion between two conceptualizations of “arbitrariness.” However, it should be clear that “arbitrariness” as a subjectively perceived quality of life during normalization refers to the phenomenological lifeworld, while “arbitrariness of the sign” stands for a conventional sign system derived from linguistics.

  36. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the anonymous reviewers of my manuscript for their suggestion to discuss social aesthetics, which I find immensely fruitful in comparison to my approach and to Reed’s (2011, p. 10) notion of “interpretive epistemic mode.”

  37. See also Felski’s (2008, p. 85) conception of literary mimesis as a “re-description,” “a chain of interpretive processes rather than … an imitation.”

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Acknowledgements

Many thanks to the Supper Club and the Center for Cultural Sociology of Migration at the Department of Sociology in Brno, where I could discuss and develop my model over the last years. This research was financially supported by a Specific research project at Masaryk University, Project Number MUNI/A/1475/2020.

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Váňa, J. Knowing through feeling: the aesthetic structure of a novel and the iconic experience of reading. Am J Cult Sociol 9, 211–241 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-021-00130-5

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