A historical but non-determinist pragmatics of literary communication
Despite any appearances to the contrary, literary writing and reading are forms of communicative activity for which a human parity needs to obtain between the different participants. By the same token, literature can also bring about changes in the human world. Literary pragmatics is therefore continuous with the pragmatics of communication in general, and must be strongly historical in its orientation, even if this can never involve a rigid historical determinism. Although human identity is very much a matter of social formation, human beings do have a certain autonomy of imagination, intellect, temperament and choice. It is this relative autonomy which makes possible communication between different positionalities in the first place, and which also helps to explain the processes of personal and social change. When people really communicate, they meet each other half-way. Initiators of communication textualise a model of the communicative situation itself, for instance, and also make rhetorical concessions, which, as the mental distance between the context of sending and the context of receiving varies, can themselves vary in communicative effect. In responding to a communicative gesture, similarly, receivers are humanly obliged to make a hermeneutic effort, which, especially, but not only in the case of literary communication, may have to negotiate variations in text typology and politeness. The net effect of literature, like that of other uses of language, depends on who is processing it, and when and where and how. In principle, the effect can sometimes be deleterious. As always, human beings’ only moral defence lies in their own personal powers of judgement. Equally, some literary writings, like other actions, embody a kind of ethical beauty, not only as significant historical interventions in their own times and places, but also in terms of a continuing, yet quite distinct inspiration they can offer to human beings whose situationality is different. All genuine communication actually tends to override situational difference in the hope of closer communion. A historical pragmatics can itself facilitate rapprochement, by offering a theoretical basis for mediation between different viewpoints, and not least in the form of a mediating literary criticism. Here, though, there can be no suggestion of hegemony. Sociohistorical differences will never completely disappear. Nor will human behaviour ever become completely explicable. If it did, it would no longer be human in the sense understood by a non-determinist pragmatics.
Published online: 30 March 2001
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Gunilla Hermansson & Jens Lohfert Jørgensen
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