After the Subversive Paradigm: Notes Toward a Communicative Theory of Literary Discourse

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I propose that the currently dominant paradigm of literary inquiry—the subversive paradigm of, for instance, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism—is beginning to break up. This is because it originates as a subversive response to the project of state sponsorship of cultural development in the postwar era, and depends on a politics of interest that results in persistent normative deficits. But what sort of epistemology might respond today to cultural concerns raised by globalisation in a way that is able to reflexively justify its ethical stance? To respond, I turn to recent efforts to reconstruct the aesthetic theory of the second generation of the Frankfurt School, especially in the work of Habermas and Wellmer. In Habermas, aesthetics is marginalised by the predominance of theoretico-practical concerns, where the centrality of an argumentative model of communicative rationality sidelines the world-disclosing function of language. Additionally, an expressive conception of aesthetics implies that literary works make no discursive contribution to the public sphere. However, Pieter Duvenage and Lambert Zuidervaart have returned to the original Habermasian insight into the importance of the republic of letters for the public sphere. They combine a theory of discursive language with a theory of world disclosure, to propose a reconstruction of communicative aesthetics. Yet Duvenage and Zuidervaart’s proposals do not amount to an interpretive methodology. Secondly, the promised link between aesthetics and ethics appears on the horizon of this project but remains unformulated within it. To rectify this gap I turn in the final section of the paper to explore the potential of Bakhtin’s dialogism for communicative aesthetics. I ask whether—once we take Wellmer’s reconstruction of speech act theory into account and we therefore reject Habermas’s strict separation between validity claims—a Bakhtinian approach cannot link together discursive language, world disclosure and engagement with the public sphere.


Keywords: Literary Theory, Habermas, Bakhtin, Discourse Ethics, Communicative Aesthetics
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr. Geoffrey Michael Boucher

Lecturer in Literary Studies, Faculty of Arts, Deakin University
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Geoff Boucher completed his dissertation, on postmarxian discourse theory in 2003. He works as Lecturer in Literary Studies at Deakin University and teaches in the psychoanalytic studies programme.

Ref: H08P0145