Skip to Content

Realism as Theory II: Existence and Epistemology

«Back To Seminars

Organizer: Michael Weinman

Contact the Seminar Organizers

This seminar — the continuation of and companion seminar to “Realism as Theory I: Form and Phenomenon” — focuses on how realist literature both mediates and produces knowledge about both the natural and created or social world.   For evident reasons, work on “theory” has long been dominated by a focus on Romanticism. This focus is no doubt historically justified, insofar as the contemporary idea of “theory” — as a specifically un- or anti-systematic mode of philosophizing, a philosophizing alive to the sensual particularity of both its objects and its own methods — is itself a product of Romantic and proto-Romantic thought. “Theory,” as it is understood today, arguably first emerges as Romantic literary criticism, the examination of literary language and literary representation themselves, in all their specificity, as a vehicle for universal truth. In contrast to this deep intertwining of Romantic literature and theory, literary realism has usually been assumed to constitute a retreat from theory’s aims, concerned mainly with the “objective” representation of people and phenomena. Critical treatments of literary realism have thus tended to proceed through the lenses of historicism, naturalist psychologism, and social and political critique. Despite recent critical interventions, and all talk of “reality effects” notwithstanding, realism is still often paradoxically presented as both philosophically naïve and ideologically compromised: an ostensibly epistemologically and ontologically neutral view of the world in which philosophical depth and linguistic complexity take a back seat to concerns of character, narrative, theme, and milieu. In short, realism is presumed to comprise the other of the two poles between which “theory” is situated: the interest in concrete reality and sense phenomena, not only outside of abstract knowledge, but also any aesthetic mediation. Such a view of an epistemologically and ontologically neutral representation of reality, however, is one already solicited by works of realist literature themselves. The aim of this panel is thus to examine the theoretical force of realist literature, not as a naïvely pragmatic representation to be critiqued from the outside, but rather as a mode of inherent theoretical inquiry and self-reflexive aesthetic speculation in its own right — even when hidden behind a screen of its own posited self-evidence. We invite papers on works of literary realism from all language traditions, as well as work on historical and contemporary theories of literary realism, with an emphasis on the philosophical content and formal problematics of a literature whose speculative features and inherent theoretical potential remain under-recognized.

«Back To Seminars