Cultural Theorists: Issues at Stake

Jean-François Lyotard

Postmodern Theorists: Jean-Francois Lyotard

Philip Holden, Department of English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore

As with Baudrillard, I will here concentrate upon only a small aspect of his work which relates to the concerns of CCLA01. For Lyotard, a "crisis of narratives" has occurred in developed societies because of transformations which began in the late nineteenth century. Because of these changes, we live not in a modern world, with a belief in the grand narrative of human progress, but in the radical uncertainty of the postmodern condition

I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse . . . making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Reason, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth...

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements--narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these . . . . There are many different language games--a heterogeneity of elements. They only give rise to institutions in patches--local determinism.

In Singapore, what narratives do you think might be coming to an end? What still persist, in apparent contradiction of Lyotard's ideas?



Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition.Tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984

Jean Baudrillard

Postmodern Theorists: Jean Baudrillard

Philip Holden, Department of English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore

Baudrillard is perhaps one of the most infamous of postmodern theorists, known for his view that we live in a world surrounded by "models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal." In this hyperreality, signs not longer refer to referents: rather, they are simulacra, referring to other signs "in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference":

So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. The latter starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent . . . . Conversely, simulation starts from the utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum.

This would be the successive phases of the image:

  • it is the reflection of a basic reality
  • it masks and perverts a basic reality
  • it masks the absence of a basic reality
  • it bears no relation whatsoever to any reality whatever; it is its own pure simulacrum.

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate true from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.

Baudrillard's rather cryptic here, but his notion of the "hyperreal" clearly has resonance in the age of virtual reality, when w can assume any identity we want on IRC. When Keanu Reeves, as Neo, is asked out by a group of partygoers early in the film The Matrix he is holding Baudrillard's book Simulacra and Simulation in his hand. One way to illustrate the four phases of the image might be to think of blue jeans. Jeans were originally working mens' clothes, which explains the rivets, the patch pockets on the back, and so on. They thus reflected a basic reality. When rock and roll stars began wearing blue jeans in the 1950s this would represent the masking and perverting of a previous reality. As we move into the 1960s jeans become flared, or have flowers embroidered on them: jeans are even pre-washed or stonewashed, masking the fact that their real functionality no longer exists. Finally, in the 1990s and the new millennium, jeans for us signify casualness--we know we can wear denim on casual Saturdays, and patch pockets still look more casual than fully integrated ones. Jeans, however, are just signifiers of casualness, without any connection to "reality" itself.



Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation.Tr.Sheila Faria Grazier. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994

Vladimir Propp

Vladimir Propp's Functions of Narrative

Philip Holden, Department of English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore

Valdimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale is an analysis of Russian folk stories, many of which have similarities to Western European fairy stories.. Propp's thesis is that all the folk tales he studies share elements of structure which can be reduced to 31 "functions." These functions, Propp feels, are the most fundamental elements of the tale. While individual tales may omit any number of functions, the functions which are present will always occur in the specified sequence: Function 5 will always precede Function 22, for instance, despite the fact that any number of intervening functions may be missing.

While Propp himself made no larger claims for his work, many scholars from the 1960s onwards have noted that the functions, with a little creative adaptation, seem to work well in describing a variety of narratives--novels, films, soap operas, and non-fictional accounts such as biographies and accounts of scientific discovery.

Propp argues that each folk tale begins with an initial situation, in which members of the family and the hero are introduced to the reader or listener. The narrative then consists of the following functions:

1 Abstentation. One member of family absents himself or herself
2 Interdiction. An interdiction is addressed to the Hero--a command, request, suggestion, etc.
3 Violation. The interdiction is violated. At this point a new personage, the Villain, enters the stoty.
4 Reconnaissance. The Villain makes an attempt to gather information.
5 Delivery. The Villain receives information about his or her Victim.
6 Trickery. The Villain attempts to deceive his Victim.
7 Complicity. The Victim submits to this deception.
8a Villainy. The Villain causes harm or injury to a member of a family. This function is exceptionally important, since by means of it the actual movement of the tale is created.
8b Lack. Some tales may initiate complication through lack or insufficiency rather than villainy .The family may desire something or lack something
9 Mediation. Misfortune or Lack is made known; the Hero is approached, requested or commanded. He or she is allowed to go or dispatched.
10 Counteraction. The Hero agrees to take action to counter the misfortune or lack.
11 Departure. The Hero leaves home.
12 First Donor Function. The Hero is tested, interrogated, attacked, which prepares for his or her receipt of a magical agent or helper from a Donor
13 Hero's Reaction. The Hero reacts to the actions of the future Donor
14 Receipt of Agent. Hero acquires use of magical agent or helper
15 Guidance. Hero is led or guided to the object of search
16 Struggle. Vilain and Hero engage in direct combat
17 Marking. The hero is branded or marked.
18 Victory. The Villain is defeated.
19 Liquidation. The misfortune or lack is now liquidated.
20 Return. The Hero returns.
21 Pursuit. The Hero is pursued.
22 Rescue. The Hero is rescued from pursuit. Many narratives end here, or preceding elements of the narrative may be repeated.
23 Unrecognized arrival. Hero arrives, unrecognized, home or elsewhere.
24 Unfounded Claims. A False Hero presents unfounded claims.
25 Difficult Task. A difficult task is presented to the Hero.
26 Solution. Task is solved.
27 Recognition. Hero is recognized.
28 Exposure. False Hero or Villain exposed.
29 Transfiguration. Hero given new appearance.
30 Punishment. Villain is punished.
31 Wedding. Hero is married and/or ascends the throne.


Questions to ponder:

  • After reading through the list of functions, try them out on a popular narrative that you know well. Remember that Propp is interested in structure, not in details. Thus any group of people might potentially play the role of "family" in Propp's schema, and the technologically advanced weapons which James Bond always receives from Q before setting out on his adventures would be equivalent to the "magical agent or helper" of Function 14.
  • Compare these functions to Todorov's simplification of them ("The Principles of Narrative 29) into "five obligatory elements." In your opinion, which functions correspond to which elements?


Further Reading

In making the summary above I've consulted Bob Ashley's Reading Popular Narrative (London: Leicester UP, 1997) and Nick Lacey's Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), as well as Propp's own Morphology of the Folktale (translated by Laurence Scott. Austin: U of Texas P, [1968]).

Hans Robert Jauss

Hans Robert Jauss and Literary Horizons of Expectations

Philip Holden, Department of English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore

Jauss introduces the notion of horizon of expectations while discussing the importance of the historical background of a literary text. For Jauss, a frequently-neglected element of the meaning of any narrative is its audience, who already have experience in consuming other narratives:

A literary work, even if it seems new, does not appear as something absolutely new in an informational vacuum, but predisposes its readers to a very definite type of reception by textual strategies, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics or implicit allusions. It awakens memories of the familiar, stirs particular emotions in the reader and with its 'beginning' arouses expectations for the 'middle and end', which can then be continued intact, changed, re=oriented or even ironically fulfilled in the course of reading according to certain rules of the genre or type of text. . . . The new text evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and rules familiar from earlier texts, which are then varied, corrected, changed or just reproduced. Variation and correction determine the scope, alteration and reproduction of the borders and structure of the genre.

Proper study of any narrative, Jauss argues, thus involves a reconstruction of the horizon of expectations of its original audience. Narratives should not be seen as reflections of a historical moment, or imitations of "reality", but as actually intervening in historical struggle, and perhaps changing people's perceptions of the world in which they live:

The reconstruction of the horizon of expectations, on the basis of which a work in the past was created and received, enables us to find the questions to which the text originally answered and thereby to discover how the reader of that day viewed and understood the work. This approach . . . brings out the hermeneutic difference between past and present ways of understanding a work, points up the history of its reception . . . and thereby challenges as patronizing dogma the apparently self-evident dictum that . . . [a literary work] has objective meaning, determined once and or all and directly open to the interpreter at any time . . .

Thus a literary work with an unusual aesthetic form can shatter the expectations of its reader and at the same time confront him with a question which cannot be answered by religiously or publicly sanctioned models. . . . The literary work can also--and in the history of literature this possibility characterizes the most recent period of modernity--reverse the relationship of question and answer and in an artistic medium confront the reader with a new 'opaque' reality which can no longer be understood from the previous horizon of expectations.

Some questions to ponder:

  • In what ways might the idea of horizon of expectations be applied to genre?
  • Is it always necessary to know the historical context of a narrative in order to appreciate it?
  • What kinds of narratives would make reality 'opaque' to a reader? What kinds of narratives would be transparent, reinforcing 'religiously or publicly sanctioned models' and not encouraging critical thought or change? Can you think of concrete examples?


Further Reading

Jauss, Hans Robert. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception Trans. Timothy Bahti Minneapolis : U of Minnesota P, 1982.

--. "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory." Trans. Elizabeth Benzinger. Literature in the Modern World: Critical Essays and Documents. Ed. Dennis Walder. Oxford: Oxfror UP, 1990. 67-75