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Simple Forms and Speech Genres

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Organizer: Chris Chiasson

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Literariness is a notoriously tricky and/or pointless (elitist, etc.) concept for the study of literature. And yet, it seems difficult to do without entirely. In their different ways, André Jolles, in his Simple Forms (1927), and Mikhail Bakhtin, in most of his major works but especially his late essay on Speech Genres, pursued an understanding of literariness based on everyday language usage. The theories and theorists are so disparate, however, that they are rarely thought of together: Bakhtin, after all, is one of the great theorists of the novel, and Jolles is interested in a morphology of forms of literature too humble to have an author. This seminar would like to stage a conversation between them, possibly with the help of other theories of narrative or genre, in order to see whether and how their approaches might illuminate or help each other. Possible topics and questions might include but are not limited to:
- Alternative theorizations of some of Jolles' simple forms, such as Sigmund Freud on the joke, Claudia Schittek on the riddle, or Max Lüthi on the fairy tale
- The boundaries between simple forms and their more elaborate cousins, such as the fairy tale and the art fairy tale or novella; or the saying and the aphorism
- Relatedly, how are simple forms reframed, complicated, and/or parodied in the construction of larger literary works, and is Bakhtin's account of the workings of heteroglossia adequate to describe these processes?
- Alternative theorizations of the development and relation of simple forms, such as Vladimir Propp's account of myth and fairy tale
- The proposal of new simple forms or speech genres. Some models might include: Patricia Meyer Spacks on gossip, Peter Brooks on confession, Giorgio Agamben on the oath, Frauke Berndt on the curse, or Fritz Breithaupt on excuses. Examples from non-European literatures are most welcome.
- The use of "simple forms" in the construction of microhistories in the spirit of Robert Darnton and Carlo Ginzburg or in the exploration of popular culture as in Peter Burke
- Competing taxonomies of literary genres, such as Tzvetan Todorov's in The Fantastic
- Marxian theorizations of the connection between everyday and literary language
- Can we envision simple forms and/or speech genres as particular kinds of speech acts, broadly speaking? (J.L. Austin, Shoshana Felman, J. Hillis Miller, Toril Moi)

Abstracts should be 250-300 words. Please send any questions to Chris Chiasson ( 

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