The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature

Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek

Systems Theory in the Study of Literature and Culture: In the last two decades and with increasing vitality and production, European and North American scholars of literature have subscribed to the application of systems theory in the study of literature.

In the study of literature, the origins of the systemic approach can be traced to Structuralism, the Sociology of Literature, and Russian Formalism. Structuralism (definition here) in particular has influenced via Saussure and the Russian Formalists a variety of disciplines such as philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and sociology with proponents such as Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Lyotard, Foucault, Goldmann, Bourdieu, Barthes, etc.

The specific relationship between Structuralism and the systemic approaches in general is often not clear. However, Structuralism via the Russian Formalists and the Prague School has been a confessed departure for Itamar Even-Zohar's Polysystem Theory. In the development of Siegfried J. Schmidt's Empirische Literaturwissenschaft (empirical science of literature), Jacques Dubois's l'institution littéraire, and other systemic approaches such as the champ littéraire concept of Pierre Bourdieu, Niklas Luhmann's literature as system theory as applied for the study of literature, or the école bibliologique and système de l'écrit of Robert Estivals this is much more indirect, and other disciplines, such as the Sociology of Literature and theories of Communication and Media Studies (see here Niklas Luhmann's system theory applied to literature), predominate as conceptual sources.

In Philosophy (Constructivism and Radical Constructivism) too, there is increasing discussion about the notion of system. It should be noted here that in the designation of the Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture, "systemic" does not mean "systematic" and "empirical" does not mean >"empiricist," "positivist," or "neopositivist" in any context of "empiricism."

On the current landscape of systemic theories applied in the study of literature, although borrowing from a range of disciplines such as >mathematics, biology, and physics, and other theories from the Humanities and the Social Sciences, as well as other frameworks for the study of literature, emanate mainly from Sociology -- in particular Niklas Luhmann (1970-95) and Talcott Parsons - the Sociology of Literature and theories of Communication.

It should be noted that the systemic approach to literature, in general, refers to a micro structure although it could also be understood in the context of literature as a macro structure.

In order to offer a working taxonomy of the notion "literature as system," I will introduce brief definitions by Even-Zohar and Schmidt. Even-Zohar writes that "If by `system' one is prepared to understand both the idea of a closed set-of-relations, in which the members receive their values through their respective oppositions, and the idea of an open structure consisting of several such concurrent nets-of-relations, then the term "system" is >appropriate and quite adequate" (Polysystem Studies Special Issue Poetics >Today 11.1 (1990): 12).

This definition is, then, consolidated by Even-Zohar to "the network of relations that is hypothesized to obtain between a number of activities called `literary,' and consequently these activities themselves observed via that network," and "the complex of activities, or any section thereof, for which systemic relations can be hypothesized to support the option of considering them `literary'" (ibid. 28).

Schmidt has developed -- via a more closely scientific base extended from philosophy (Constructivism and Radical Constructivism) mathematics, biology, and general systems theory -- an even more carefully delineated description of the literary system within the pre-postulates of literary communication and social interaction: "As a system of communicative interaction, literary communication must meet the conditions for systems: it must be delimited by a relatively stable borderline between it and other systems; it must manifest an internal structure; and it must be accepted by society and fulfill a social function not fulfilled by any other system. The delimiting borderline is provided by the aesthetic convention. The structure of the system is determined by the distribution of the roles of action stabilized in social expectations: producer, mediator, receiver, and post-processor" (Foundation for the Empirical Study of Literature: The Components of a Basic Theory. Trans. Robert de Beaugrande. Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1982. 74).

In general literary study, scholars apply one or the other systemic approach: Schmidt's approach in the German-language area, Even-Zohar's in Israel mainly but also elsewhere, Bourdieu's in France, Germany, and in the United States, Dubois' in France, Belgium, and Quebec, Estivals' in France and in East Central Europe, Luhmann's in Germany.

In the discipline of Comparative Literature - a discipline where the systemic approach shows particular promise - there are scholars who applied in various ways and perhaps in a more rigorous manner systems theory and developed its application theoretically and methodologically.

In the English taxonomical designation of Schmidt's framework, because in English-language literary studies the terms "empirical" and "science" have negative connotative associations, the term "science" from the more usual designation of Empirical Science of Literature has been first replaced with theory, as in the Empirical Theory of Literature). In keeping with a "scientific" approach, the objective of precise taxonomy in the systemic study of literature is paid close attention to.

Most recently, the designation, The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature has been accepted by Schmidt and his colleagues at the University of Siegen and by 1995 the designation has been expanded to include Culture, thus responding to Schmidt's contention that literature ought to be studied in a context of social communicative ineraction and the media, that is, culture.

Many of these discussions -- which eventually find their way into published works -- occur at the seminars of the Siegen University Institute for Empirical Literature and Media Research (LUMIS) and at the biannual conferences and annual executive meetings of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL;

IGEL was founded by Siegfried J. Schmidt in 1987 at the first international conference of the Society at Siegen University. Subsequent presidents of the Society were Elrud Ibsch [Amsterdam, 1987-1989], Arthur Graesser [Memphis, 1989-92], László Halász [Budapest, 1992-94], Steven Tötösy [Alberta, 1994-96], and current President is Els Andringa [Utrecht, 1996-98]).

(For a selected bibliography of Systemic and Empirical approaches and their applications in the study of literature, see Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, "A Selected Bibliography of Works in The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture." The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture as Theory and Application. Ed. Steven Totosy de Zepetnek and Irene Sywenky. Edmonton: U of Alberta, Research Institute for Comparative Literature, 1997a. 575-90. Also in http://www.ualberta.ca/ARTS/ricl.html) >>


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