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Questions concerning the definition and nature of the term “literature” have yielded a wide range of responses through various approaches within academic scholarship. While some scholars attempt to arrive at a definition by exploring specific genres, such as scriptural narrative, elegy, song, sermon, meditation, ode, allegory, or novel, others examine the notion of the “literary” as a particular quality that can be located in various forms of discourse and communication as well as in creative and artistic production (Hernadi, 1978; Scarry, 1988; Widdowson, 1999). Yet, despite the often divergent ideas concerning what constitutes literature, an emphasis on language, as that which is spoken, written, and also read, emerges as a common thread that runs throughout much of the scholarly discourse (Hernadi, 1978; Scarry, 1988; Brooks, 1993; Widdowson, 1999).

Some scholars note that this concern with language, a symbolic, discursive system of representation, places literature at an apparent distance from the material body. Paul Brooks (1993) asserts that embodiment often presents “a fall from language,” such that bodily drives and sensations–pain or pleasure, for instance–assert their force in ways that are understood to be outside language. Nevertheless, for Brooks, Roland Barthes’ (1974) work on narrative text and literature offers an important caveat to the seemingly distant relationship between literature and the body. Here, Barthes points out that symbolism, a central aspect of the structure and meaning of literature, is always already derived from and occupied by the human body (Barthes, 1974). Riffing on Barthes, Brooks considers the propensity among infants to orient themselves in the world by attempting to rediscover their own bodily organs in every object; he concludes that not only is there a close relationship between symbolism and the body, but the relationship is also dependent in nature: bodily parts and sensations are the primary source and foundation to all symbolism, including language (Brooks, 1993). Thus, he argues, in its use and creation of symbols, literature is ever engaged in pointing back to its source, the material body (Brooks, 1993). Still, while convinced of the close relationship between literature/language and the body, Elaine Scarry argues that the relationship is constituted by a more complex interaction. There are times when language is highly referential to the material body and other times when language makes very little reference to anything beyond itself; the degree to which language refers to the material world is determined by those who employ it (Scarry, 1988). In this way, language maintains a type of “referential freedom and fluidity” (Scarry, 1988).

Scholars of materialist criticism, such as Scarry, contend that embodiment offers a significant perspective from which to consider literature and language. Considering the material body in the context of literature provides a sense of “weightiness” and linguistic consequence to literature and language (Scarry, 1988). Such considerations also work to interrogate assumptions about the lack of the material world in language. That is, examining literature through the lens of embodiment reveals the ways in which language often refers back to the material world even when material referents are not readily apparent (Scarry, 1988). For example, bodies missing from a landscape are still present in that they contribute to the sense of dread and fear evoked by a stark terrain (Scarry, 1988). On the other hand, literature also offers a rich source from which to consider issues of embodiment. Depictions and representations of the body in literature inform how particular material bodies are conceived and understood. Scholars on race, gender and sexuality turn to representations of material bodies in literature to both challenge and reclaim understandings of embodied experiences in the material world (Henderson 2002; Romero Ruiz 2012).

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Richard Miller, trans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

In this seminal work on semiotic theory, Barthes puts forth a structuralist analysis of Honore de Balzac’s short story, Sarrasine. Barthes critically dissects the text of the story, indicating how different codes of meaning and connotation function.

Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Brooks argues that modern narrative is primarily concerned with the body: getting the body into writing and, conversely, getting writing onto the body in an effort to make the material body into a signifying body. Bringing together psychoanalysis, narrative and film studies, as well as feminist theory, Brooks explores the work of a range of writers and artists, from the 18th century to the contemporary moment.

Hernadi, Paul, ed. What is Literature? Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

This edited volume contains a collection of seventeen essays wherein scholars attempt to get at the meaning, purpose and historical underpinnings of the question, “What is literature?” The essays also explore the processes and principles that inform the formation of a literary canon and what counts as “literature”.

Romero Ruiz, Maria Isabel, ed. Women’s Identities and Bodies in Colonial and Postcolonial History and Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

This volume aims to interrogate and reconstruct women’s identities through examining representations of their bodies in literature and historical accounts. Through considering female bodies as maternal bodies, sexual bodies, migrant and hybrid bodies, and as repositories of history and memory, the volume seeks to reclaim colonial and postcolonial women’s bodies from troubling stereotypes concerning their bodies and identities.

Scarry, Elaine, ed. Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

In this edited volume, Scarry and other scholars layout a “materialist conception of language” wherein they use the body as a reference point in which to consider language’s ability to refer to the material world. A range of texts and topics are explored, such as rape narratives in the Old Testament book of Judges and the aesthetic nature of United States citizenship policies reflected in 1920s literature.

Widdowson, Peter. Literature. London: Routledge, 1999.

Widdowson provides an overview of literature as a cultural and canonic concept. In addition to exploring the history of considerations concerning what constitutes the literature and the “literary,” Widdowson also examines the theoretical issues that are work in current conceptions of the terms.