Jacques Derrida: What is Literature?

The French philosopher interrogates what we mean when we say 'literature'
Jacques Derrida
Over at Thinking Blue Guitars, Dan Hartley examines an interview with Jacques Derrida, and asks just what the French philosopher means when he speaks of 'literarity'. Or, what defines a literary work? Is it an exclusive essence that graces a limited number of texts, or something more subjective, defined by the tastes of wider culture? In Hartley's view, Derrida provides a highly nuanced response:
The tightrope Derrida is walking here is terrifyingly thin. On the one side, there is the gulf of full-blown literary essentialism, whereby certain texts are deemed Literary simply because they are Literature. (This is the conservative conception of Literature that goes along with the canon and a whole host of reactionary paraphernalia). On the other side, there is the abyss of pragmatism, whereby a certain text is only literary because a specific conjunction of material practices and institutions have deemed it to be so. (This is usually the radical conception of Literature, one to which Terry Eagleton subscribes more or less readily, and to which I have myself been warily partial up to now). If you fall into the essentialist gulf, you end up some sort of authoritarian typologist, guarding the boundaries of Literature against the riff-raff of pop culture and the surly brows of philosophy. But if you tumble into the abyss of pragmatism, you risk missing the subtleties of the subjective and objective constitutions of literature. [Read the article]

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