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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Since I introduced terms from Susanne Langer's symbolism-theory in this essay, I've decided that I ought to provide more detail about said theory, particularly because PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY, the 1942 Langer work from which I derived the terms "discursive" and "presentational," doesn't deal with narrative fiction in great detail. In addition, I should make clear that Langer does not ever use "presentational symbolism" as a way of describing certain "faits accomplis" within the sphere of narrative fiction. HOwever, I think that my own narratological formulation follows from her association of the presentational mode with the sort of free association found in naive folklore throughout Chapter 7. However, for a firmer grasp of what Langer means by her "non-discursive" mode, one turns to the opening sentence of Chapter 6:

If language is born, indeed, from the profoundly symbolific character of the human mind, we may not be surprised to find that this mind operates with symbols far below the level of speech.

Throughout the book Langer amasses numerous examples to demonstrate the operation of this mental capacity, and Chapter 6 places special emphasis upon the role played by mental images in the evolution of man's more elementary forms of expressivity into the more articulated forms of religion and (eventually) literature.

[Images] are not only capable of connoting the things from which our sense-experience originally derived them... they also have an inalienable tendency to 'mean' things that have only a logical analogy to their primary meanings.-- Langer, NEW KEY, p. 145.

(Parenthetically I must note that Langer, following Kant and Cassirer, does not deny that all sensation begins with experience. This position may mitigate any accusations of Platonic Idealism that the words "inalienable tendency" may conjure in some people's minds-- or not, as it may be.)

Langer goes on to say that "the first thing we do with images is to envisage a story," whether in personal reverie about things that did or could actually happen ("we see with the mind's eye the shoes we should like to buy, and the transaction of buying them"), or in more abstract and communally-supported conceptualizations dealing with symbolized concepts ("Life and life-giving, death and the dead, are the great themes of primitive religion"-- p. 150).

Fortunately primitive culture seems not to have had many Harvey Pekars in its midst, continually kvetching about their shoes or their lost glasses or whatever. Thus we know primitive culture from humanity's exploration of more transpersonal themes, which have come down to us largely in terms of religious conception, whose origins Langer views as ritualistic in nature. Langer imagines that the first gropings toward ritualism would have been "purely self-expressive, an unconscious issue of feelings into shouting or prancing." However:

"...as soon as an expressive act is performed without inner momentary compulsion it is no longer self-expressive; it is expressive in the logical sense. It is not a sign of the emotion it conveys, but a symbol of it... When an action acquires such a meaning it becomes a gesture."-- p. 152.

As noted above, Langer does not deal with the construction of literature to any great extent in NEW KEY, and she does not use the term "gesture" much beyond this illustration. However, I conceive that her use of "gesture" in terms of ritual may be profitably compared to Vladimir Propp's use of the term "function" in his folklore studies. Like Levi-Strauss, Propp attempted to present his readers with a detailed morphology of the stories told by diverse pre-industrial cultures, and like Levi-Strauss Propp has been accused of being too rigidly schematic; of not having sufficient appreciation for the expressive power of any given story-function. The idea that an image or a complex of images might communicate expressive power as its primary motive suggests some interesting avenues that I'll explore more fully in Part 2.

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