1. Historicising Literary Culture: Communication, Contingency, Contexture [chapter]

2020 Literary Culture in Early Modern England, 1630–1700  
Communication In order to understand early modern literary culture, we need to reconstruct the conditions of literary communication prior to the modern concept of literature as aesthetic (fictional) discourse. How did literature work? What were the functions of reading and writing in seventeenth-century England? My suggestion is to describe literary forms in relation to, and at times in conflict with, socio-cultural formations or arrangements in which these forms are negotiated, modified, and
more » ... ed, modified, and continued. The aesthetic, then, is not an independent realm that can be taken for granted or posited as given. If we want to come closer to an idea of what literary communication might mean, we will have to question and explore more closely the (historically specific) modes of access to (literary) texts. For a long time, this question of access was deemed unproblematic: either literature was mere appearance and had no genuine knowledge to offer, or it dealt in pseudo-statements with no truth value. As Sir Philip Sidney famously wrote in his Defence of Poesie in c. 1579: "Now, for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth" (Sidney 1973, 102). Literature as fictional discourse cannot lie, cannot not tell the truth, because telling the truth is not the point of fiction. Because literature makes no truth claims, it cannot be judged according to the "fact convention" (Schmidt 1982, 87) that dominates real-life communication. Literary language, in this view, would be a special kind of language, a purely fictional mode of utterance. In order to go beyond these conventional models, it is necessary to conceptualise and historicise the modes of access to literary texts. It may be useful to begin doing so in terms of a theory that does not conceive of media as message-bearers or carriers of information but as complex sensory arrangements that can trigger a range of experiences. These experiential effects are very difficult to rationalise or to describe either in a clear-cut definition of media or in traditional theories of aesthetics. They are more readily analysed in a communications-oriented approach. In Niklas Luhmann's systems theory, communication is a process that consists of three elements: 'information', 'utterance', and 'understanding'. Each of these operational units -(1) the possible intention of an origin, however inferred; (2) the verbal, material utterance, and (3) what a recipient takes the utterance to meancan then be thematised, marked or underscored in follow-up communications. Communication, according to this theory, always happens, and its initial intent (the 'information') can never determine or control its possible outcome (understanding, misunderstanding, response) (Wilden 1987). Other perspectives on the theory and history of discourse, though not sharing these theoretical
doi:10.1515/9783110691375-002 fatcat:arwgeybasjghrdojj2lr2vvfte