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The need to develop a pragmatics of literature.

Sell, Roger D. 2000. Literature as Communication. Amsterdam : John Benjamins. 352 p. Prys: NLG75.00. ISBN 90-2725097-9.

"In practice, one of the most valuable services performed by literary critics has been that of mediation", reads the opening sentence of Roger D. Sells Literature as Communication. Sell, who teaches in the English Department at the Abo Akademi University in Finland, and who is known as the editor of the influential Literary Pragmatics (Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 1986), starts off by arguing that the role of literature has been reduced to that of a facilitator of meaning explicating the text to the reader, as opposed to a more poststructuralist look at literary criticism as a separate genre. In his book Sell proposes a new way of looking at literary writing and reading as forms of interpersonal activity as a form of communication. He proposes communicative pragmatics as a bridge between the tensions offered by postmodernism and new criticism.

At the outset Sell makes its quite clear that literary writing and reading are seen as uses of language capable of bringing about a change in the status quo. Triangular communicative situations are taken as a point of departure, whereby the triangle consists of two parties, which could be two halves of one entity, in communication about some third entity. This view of communication as bi-directional within a given situation that is basically triangular, is borrowed from Hans-Georg Gadamer. Communication is seen as a semiotic process leading to a "mental readjustment" of the entity perceived. The view of communicators as jointly negotiating within a basically triangular situation is crucial, writes Sell. He perceives a vascillation between, on the one hand, the idea that "if the context of reading dominates, the author may be deemed irrelevant, and not be read at all, or may acquire relevance only by being forced into an inappropriate mould" (143) and the idea, on the other hand, that "if the context of writing takes the overhand, the result is an arid historical and/or cultural purism, which may deny the validity of the current reader's own responses altogether, and deny, too, the very possibility of communication across lines of difference" (143). Reading is therefore, Sell argues, by necessity a meeting of two minds, whereby the readers' grasp of the author's words within the context of writing is constantly affected by their sense of themselves and their own current context of reading, and vice versa. Hence the need for a historical, yet non-historicist literary pragmatics which is a matter of both the situationalities and the idiosyncracies of literary experience (157), whereby criticism is seen as having a mediating role.

Sell considers the current distinction between literary scholarship and linguistics artificial and thus sees a need to develop pragmatics of literature, whereby literature is seen within the framework of a general theory of communication. His book should be seen as an attempt to explore aspects of writing and reading within actual politics that were earlier ignored. In literary pragmatics prominence is given to historical positionality of all readers, including literary scholars and critics. Sell sers out to synthesize the two disciplines, being aware of the danger of oversimplification from a linguistic point of view because it is unclear how texts or an author or periods are mediated in their entirety. He sees a need for a general communicative theory that is historical without being historicist.

The book starts off with a discussion of literary tensions within the literary culture of the present, where difference of situationality of both sender and receiver are stressed. Sell argues that in postmodernism any sense of a common human nature has been seriously destabilised. To use his shorthand: there are centrifugal (domestic) vs. centripetal (foreign) forces at work, but a balance must be achieved between the two.

In his book Sell advocates a careful negotiation of differences, in the form of positive mediation, being self-conscious, fair-minded and future-oriented. The sameness-that-is-difference of the human condition is what underwrites our aptitude for interpersonal communication. Coming to terms with those who are not ourself, we gain a clearer idea of where we stand in the world, and become conscious of our own situationalities, that is, we begin developing a strong sense of ourselves as seen from the outside, as somebody else's other.

The purpose of positive mediation, Sell argues, between different situationalities is being self-critical in that the self and the other are brought into full relationship. Sell thus proposes a historical, yet non-historicist theory of literary pragmatics. The basic matters of situationality and psychological disposition are the most important pragmatic factors. Literature is seen as non-essentialist, and views both writing and reading as at once historically positioned, voluntaristic and interpersonal.

Sell pleads for a restoration of the author-reader relationship, one-to-one, with all of its collective implications as a way of opening up rather than the restrictive paradigm of contemporary thinking in which, he says, the individual is assimilated into a sociocultural transformation transferring agency from real readers and writers to pure abstractions, which has given way to rhetoric of blame, reducing the potentialities of an extension of self-hood.

Literary interaction is explained by stressing that human beings are very strongly social characters. Sell's ultimate goal is that of a mediating criticism which has become on integral part of multicultural social practice, a practice that could even change the readers' own life-world. The advantage of this theory of literature as communication is in Sell's view that it recognizes that individual readers are not always bound by the norms of communal readerships, as they as readers can distinguish themselves from their own community (157) and are capable of empathising with sociohistorical formations which are alien to them. Communication in the form of literary interaction is thus seen as a dynamic process mediating between writers and readers belonging to different historical periods or social groupings; fundamentally it is a continuous dialogue between outside and inside (265), in which the last world will never be spoken.

Sell's book should be of interest to anyone interested in a more historical interdisciplinary pragmatic linguistic approach to literary criticism. It also comes with a handy glossary offering linguists and literary scholars information about each others' field of expertise.

Loes Nas

(Dept. of English, University of the Western Cape)
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Title Annotation:Literature as Communication
Author:Nas, Loes
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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