Literature: Posts

Author Interview: Derek Attridge

We caught up with Derek Attridge to discuss his book, The Singularity of Literature. Read on for our exclusive interview with Derek.

Derek Attridge’s boyhood in South Africa was marked by a growing awareness of the injustices of apartheid. He left the country for England in 1966, after obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg; scholarships enabled him to complete a further BA and a PhD at Cambridge University. His thesis was published as his first book, Well-weighed Syllables: Elizabethan Verse in Classical Metres, in 1974.

He moved from Cambridge to Oxford in 1971, to become a Research Lecturer at Christ Church, followed by a Lectureship in the English Department at Southampton University. While there he published The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982) and Post-structuralist Joyce (edited with Daniel Ferrer, 1984). His interest in literary theory and contemporary French philosophy was shared with several colleagues at Southampton, notably Maud Ellmann, Robert Young, and Isobel Armstrong. This group organised a series of conferences which helped to introduce post-structuralism to the United Kingdom, and one of these led to the volume Post-structuralism and the Question of History, which Attridgeco-edited with Geoffrey Bennington and Robert Young (1987).

In 1984, he accepted a Chair in the Department of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde, and took over over the Headship of the department from Colin MacCabe in 1985. With MacCabe, Nigel Fabb and Alan Durant, he organised a conference on “The Linguistics of Writing”, which led to a co-edited book with the same title in 1987. While at Strathclyde Attridge completed Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce (1988).

Attridge moved to Rutgers University in the USA in 1988, where he was Professor of English until 1998, and then Distinguished Visiting Professor for another eight years. He began to teach and research South African literature, editing, with Rosemary Jolly, Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy 1970-1995 (1998). He collaborated with Jacques Derrida on Acts of Literature, a selection of Derrida’s texts on literary works, and continued to work on poetic metre, publishing Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction in 1995. He was selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993-4 and received the first Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Prize in 1999.

In 1998 Attridge was awarded a five-year Leverhulme Research Professorship, and accepted a Chair at the University of York, where, after 2003, he taught for thirteen years (including three years as Head of Department). During this period, he published Joyce Effects: On Language, Theory, and History (2000), The Singularity of Literature (2004, awarded the European Society for Studies in English prize),and J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (2004), How to Read Joyce (2007), Reading and Responsibility: Deconstruction’s Traces (2010), Moving Words: Forms of English Poetry (2013), and The Work of Literature (2015). He collaborated with Thomas Carper on Meter and Meaning: An Introduction to Rhythm in Poetry (2003), with Henry Staten on The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (2015), and with David Jonathan Bayot on Derek Attridge in Conversation (2015). His latest book is Zoë Wicomb and the Translocal: Scotland and South Africa (2017), and he is completing The Performance of Poetry: Homer to Shakespeare.

Attridge has held visiting professorships in a number of universities, including the University of Orléans, the University of Sassari (Sardinia), and the University of Paris Diderot, and visiting research fellowships at the University of Cape Town, the National Humanities Center (USA), the Camargo Foundation (France), the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (South Africa), the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy), and All Souls and St Catherine’s Colleges, Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2007. He continues to live in York in his retirement.

In the Preface to the Routledge Classics edition of The Singularity of Literature you write that at the heart of the book “is an awareness that creativity is a phenomenon that is finally beyond the reach of introspection”. What do you mean by this and how does it relate to literature? What is the ‘singularity’ of literature?

In spite of all the advances of psychology and cognitive science, and the theorising of many centuries, just how works of art come into being remains a mystery. This is something that writers and other artists have been aware of since at least in the eighth century BC; the figure of the Muse, depicted by Hesiod and repeated by numerous poets after him, is one way in which this mysteriousness has been communicated down the ages, and it would be possible to cite numerous comments by artists on their inability to say how a particular work of theirs came into existence. 

It’s important to state at the outset that I use the term ‘literature’ evaluatively. Many fictional texts are not the product of this kind of creativity; they are written very consciously in accordance with existing formulae. The same is true from the point of view of the reader: not every novel, poem, or play produces the effects that characterise the literary work (though there are other kinds of reward to be obtained from non-literary works). And I stress that a literary work is not an object but an event: something that happens when you read a text as literature (since you can read it in many other ways as well, often at the same time). What this means is that the classification of a text as ‘literary’ isn’t a stable matter: a text can provide excitement for one generation and be dull for the next, or fail to find the right audience for centuries after its publication.

So literature – or art in general – is ‘singular’ in the sense that it’s a major part of our lives and yet one that we can’t fully explain. (I should add that my focus is on Western art; other traditions may or may not have the same features.) But I use the term in another, related, sense: each text that operates as a literary work is singular, in the sense of being different from every other literary work. If what we’re reading feels much the same as other things we’ve read, it’s not coming over as literature: the literary work has its own distinctive quality (though we might find it difficult to put our finger on exactly what it is). The entire oeuvre of an original writer is also a singular body of works.

And singularity in this sense is not something fixed and unchanging; on the contrary, a literary work is singular only because it is constantly open to new ways of reading and new cultural contexts. It is singular differently each time. Think of how many different ways A Midsummer Night’s Dream, say,has been staged: thousands of different versions of the play, yet each one recognisably the same play. If the literary work was not open in this way it would simply become unreadable and die.

A central aim of your book is to bring the ideas of invention and singularity in literature to bear on the ideas of ‘alterity’ or ‘otherness’. Why is this and what is the concept of alterity about?

What I tried to do was understand what the distinctively ‘literary’ experience is. What is it that we enjoy, that we find moving or exhilarating, in the event of the literary work? Clearly, many of the things that we get out of literary works we can get out of other kinds of text: we can gain information about the past, for instance, or insights into the author’s biography, or lessons for living, or knowledge about other cultures, or interesting theoretical ideas. All of these we could get from other genres: history, biography, sermons, philosophy, journalism and so on. I’m interested in what literature provides that these other kinds of writing don’t. Nor is it a matter of the ‘beauty’ of the work: we find beauty as much in nature as we do in art.

If what is distinctive about literature is an aspect of the event of reading, it must be a special kind of experience – just as the creation of a literary work is a special kind of experience. The work is something that happens to the creator just as much as the creator brings it about; and reading in a literary manner is also both active and passive. We may not be able to explain this experience fully, but the many attempts to describe it suggest that it’s an experience of being taken into new mental and emotional territory. Words like ‘surprise’ and ‘wonder’ occur frequently in accounts of the reading of a great work of literature. We are shown the world in a different light from the one we’re used to; our habitual ways of feeling and thinking are given an unexpected twist; an inchoate feeling is crystallised or a vague hunch is given precision and vividness.

The terminology I use to discuss this feature of literature is taken from philosophical studies – in particular, from the thought of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida – in which such experiences are described as exposures to the ‘other’. The other is that which lies outside my habitual frames of reference, that which I have never encountered before and that requires me to adjust my normal modes of thinking in order to acknowledge it. The usefulness of the term lies in its non-specificity: there are innumerable ‘others’ – the other, in fact, is always singular. In the thinking of Levinas the other is usually a person, but for Derrida it is a broader idea, encompassing beings other than humans, cultural entities like language, and ideas.

Another word for otherness is ‘alterity’ (from the Latin alter, ‘the other’). I argue that the characteristic literary experience (and in fact the experience of any successful work of art) is an experience of alterity. What I gain from reading a work of literature is not something I take away from it when I have finished reading it, like a piece of information (that would be the result of treating the work as something other than literature), but it’s something that happens to me during the reading. It may have a profound effect on me, leaving me a different person, or it may only be a transient effect, to be felt again on re-reading.

Why do you argue that the ‘other’ is not a person but a ‘relation’?

Another reason why I like the term ‘other’ is that it presupposes a relationship: that which is other to me may be entirely familiar to someone else. So when I experience otherness in reading a poem, that otherness is a product of the relation between me and what the poem brings to me – something that the world of my familiar understanding had excluded. This is why it’s possible for the literary experience to be simultaneously ‘How surprising!’ and ‘How right!’: the work enables us to acknowledge what we have hitherto been unable to acknowledge. 

(You sometimes hear philosophers talking about ‘the absolute other’, which would be an other that had no relation to anyone – another name for God, perhaps – but to me that’s a contradiction in terms. An absolute other would be wholly unperceivable.)

Early in the book you argue that that literature, in contrast to other kinds of writing ‘solves no problems and saves no souls’, but is nevertheless ‘effective’. What do you mean by this claim?

I am certain that the writing and reading of literature in a culture is a good thing (and the same is true of the creation and reception of other kinds of art as well). This is in part because artworks can be powerful educative forces: the fact that we enjoy literature, for instance, means that it can be used to inculcate knowledge and modify behaviour (though it can do this for ill as well as for good). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist are famous examples. But in doing so, as I’ve suggested, it’s not acting as literature; literary pleasure is being harnessed for other purposes. The specifically literary effect of a work is unpredictable – if it were predictable, it would not be exposure to otherness but something we knew already. And since this effect is unpredictable, we can’t say ahead of time what good (or bad) it will do. This makes literature very weak as a social and political force; the literary effect can’t be harnessed for a cause.

However, it’s this very openness to alterity that constitutes the effectiveness of literature. By encouraging a readiness to be changed through an encounter with what had been denied or excluded, by fostering hospitality to the new and the different, literature plays an important part in sustaining the health of a society. Of course, literary texts can be read in a thoughtless or mechanical way, and we can impose our own values onto what we read, but in so doing we’re not treating them as literature. A society that promotes this kind of reading is likely to be one that is ossified and authoritarian.

One of the central claims of The Singularity of Literature is that ‘Literature may be a cultural product, but it is never simply contained by a culture’. What do you mean by this and how do literary works speak across different time periods and cultures? Connected to this, you argue that the concept of an ‘idioculture’ is fundamental to the creative process. What is an idioculture and what is its role in literary creation?

The literary work is the product of a particular culture – the writer has only the resources of his or her culture at the time of writing from which to create the work – but unlike other kinds of cultural product, it harnesses ways of thinking and feeling that the culture has excluded. (It may do this by exploiting the contradictions in the cultural fabric.) A successful work is therefore not only a cultural product, but an event that changes the culture by introducing foreign material into it.

Literature’s ability to speak across time periods and cultures is linked to the questions of singularity and otherness: because the singular work is not fixed but is open to reading in new contexts it can flourish in places and times very different from the ones it was produced in. And this is because it was never wholly contained by that culture in the first place. Often an inventive literary work will be said to be ‘ahead of its time’, as if it was able to foresee the cultures in the future that would be able to do it justice (though it is likely to have played a part itself in bringing about that future).

I invented the term ‘idioculture’ because I wanted a word to use for the individual subject that avoided the sense of a separate, self-contained entity and stressed instead the way in which any of us is a composite of ideas, ways of feeling, prejudices, expectations, habits of thought, etc., that we have absorbed from our culture, or from a number of cultures. (The model I was drawing on was the sociolinguistic term ‘idiolect’, which is the particular variety of a language that an individual speaker uses.) In this way, I’m able to suggest both that every individual is singular but that that singularity is no more than a particular conjunction of cultural materials, not a hard core of unique being. A critic’s reading of a literary work, if it is open to the work’s singularity and alterity, is inevitably ‘subjective’, but it’s important to recognise that the subjectivity in question is the product of a much broader cultural environment and therefore part of a shared outlook – unless the critic is so idiosyncratic in his or her responses that no-one recognises them. This is why dialogue is crucial to the practice of literary criticism: one is constantly testing one’s responses against those of other readers.


You oppose the idea of ‘an instrumental attitude to literature’. What is such an attitude and why do you oppose it?

If you approach a work of literature with a particular aim in mind – to examine it for gender bias, to understand the author’s psychological development, to gain information about a historical period, and so on – you are not treating it as literature but as something else. Much literary criticism does this, and it has considerable value when it’s done well – but its value is not as a response to literature. Since it’s likely that the author wrote the work to evoke a literary response, not to expose his or her gender bias or psychological make-up, nor to provide evidence for future historians, a reader or critic who accepts some responsibility towards the creative act will approach the text non-instrumentally, that is, with an openness to whatever surprises it may spring, whatever new horizons it may broach.

You note in the book that literature participates in the telling of truths but at the same time is very sceptical of the idea of ‘truth’. Could you unpack this idea for us? If we are living in a period when the concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ are under attack is there a place for literary truth?

‘Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth’, wrote Sir Philip Sidney in the 1580s. Sidney recognised that there was something askew in taking a fictional work to task for not telling the truth; the true/false distinction seems irrelevant to literature. But there are many kinds of truth, of course, and it’s important to disaggregate them. 

Philosophers like to think in terms of ‘propositional truth’: a statement that ‘x is y’ can be true or false, but a word, or a concept, or a story can be neither. And while literary works may contain many propositional statements, the nature of those statements is different from those made in other contexts: they are the utterances of a fictional speaker, and the reader will treat them as such, and not as direct assertions being made by the author. If they come across as such, as they sometimes do, for instance, in George Eliot’s novels, the work is momentarily operating as something other than literature – though we have to be on the lookout for irony, as in the famous opening propositional statement of Pride and Prejudice.

So the distinction between truth and falsehood can play an important part in literature, but not in the same way as in, say, philosophy or history. If we go back to the key idea that the literary work is an event, we can see why this is so: ideas of truth and falsehood may feature in a novel’s plot or the delineation of a character, but they remain aspects of the happening of the work. Detective fiction is centrally concerned with truth in this way. A poem – Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, for instance – may explore the nature of truth, and the poem may succeed in altering the reader’s sense of what truth is, but it will not have done this by means of any direct propositions. Literature that investigates the way truth and claims to truth operate is something we badly need at this moment, as you suggest.

There is another sense in which the idea of truth often comes up in discussions of literature: a work may be said to be ‘true to life’ or to ‘ring true’. Verisimilitude is a feature of certain genres, such as realist fiction, and we can enjoy the sense that the words we are reading capture with great accuracy something about the world we know. It’s important to note, though, that this is a product of the work’s form, the exact words chosen by the author, and that the pleasure we get is not from being made to see or hear or smell the world being represented – we don’t need literature for that, since we have the world and our senses themselves – but from the way the words chosen by the author operate. As with all successful writing, this pleasure includes admiration for the author, even if we don’t know who he or she is. (I call this aspect of the work ‘authoredness’: the awareness that the words we are reading originate in the inventive activity of a writer or group of writers.)

Even in a work of fantasy, in which we don’t recognise the world being portrayed, we may feel that a truth about human psychology or the fate of the planet or the importance of art is being articulated. Once again, it’s in the articulation of these ideas that the literary effect lies; often, if we try to summarise them in propositional statements they turn out to be banal.

You acknowledge that the idea of the imagination plays a fundamental role in literature, in writers such as Blake and Coleridge, yet you are wary of over-emphasising the subjective, psychological nature of human experience, the very conscious experience that some might argue lies at the heart of literary creativity. Why?

I am wary of the term ‘imagination’ because it carries a lot of baggage with it. It has associations with dreams (Freud linked it to day-dreaming), with fantasy and unreality, and with a fundamentally Romantic conception of psychology. I prefer the notion of ‘inventiveness’, which can be used equally of artistic and practical creativity, and does not have these associations. But of course imagination has been a very important term for a number of Romantic and post-Romantic writers, to some degree replacing the older concept of the Muse, and as long as it is used with an awareness of this historical context I have no objection to it.

I’ve touched on my hesitation about the ‘psychological nature of human experience’ in talking about my use of the term ‘idioculture’. It’s true that a great deal of my argument invokes psychological phenomena: I talk freely about pleasure and tension and surprise. However, I don’t want my account of literature to be taken as a psychological theory, as if it could be tested by experimental studies of subjects reading literary works. It attempts to probe a deeper, structural relation between writer or reader and text. It asks questions like, ‘What has to happen for a work of genuinely innovative art to appear in a culture?’ and ‘What can underlie the differences between the experience of literature and other cultural experiences?’

The novelist JM Coetzee occupies a significant place in the background to The Singularity of Literature. What is it about his work that you regard as important?

This question demands a book-length answer, and I have tried to give such an answer in the book I wrote in conjunction with The Singularity of Literature, J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event. In fact, as I explain in the Preface to the former book, the two works were originally planned as one, until it became clear that the readings of Coetzee’s novels and the attempt to theorise what I was finding were too different to sit easily between the covers of a single book. Briefly: not only did Coetzee’s novels themselves provoke reflection on the nature of literature and the role of alterity, inventiveness and singularity, but many of them had as themes the encounter with otherness and the question of openness and hospitality (including the hospitality to the other required of the artist). Moreover, Coetzee’s accounts of the creative labours of the writer, given in interviews and essays, were extremely helpful to me in articulating these ideas.

The emotions play a fundamental role in the work of philosophers who have written about literature, especially Martha Nussbaum. Yet the terms ‘emotion’ and ‘emotions’ do not appear in the index of The Singularity of Literature. Do you think there a place for the emotions in literary theory and criticism and if so, what is your view of their role?

Perhaps this omission was because of my aforementioned wariness about the psychology of reading! I certainly believe that the emotions are important in the reading of literature, and have a chapter on the subject of affect in the sequel to The Singularity of Literature published in 2015, The Work of Literature. However, I would differ from Martha Nussbaum in the way I see the emotions operating in literature: to me the interesting thing is the distinctiveness of the affective response we have to the work of art and the emotional lives of fictional characters when these are compared to our emotional involvement with the world outside art. Nussbaum seems to believe that there is an unproblematic continuity between the emotions depicted in fiction and the reader’s responses. 

My argument here is connection to the question of truth in literature: I ask, ‘How do we respond emotionally to the representation of an event that we know did not happen?’ And the answer is related to another topic I have touched on briefly and that is central to my thinking: literary form, which I understand in the broadest sense: choice of words, use of metaphor, arrangement of sounds and rhythms, exploitation of genre, organization of syntax, deployment of voice, etc. The successful work of literature is one in which form operates to create the effects I’ve been talking of, including emotional effects. Emotion in the real world is raw; the emotions produced by the literary work are shaped, and become part of the unfolding event of the work, with its tensions, surprises, and satisfactions.

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About the book

The Singularity of Literature

The Singularity of Literature

by Derek Attridge

Derek Attridge provides a rich new vocabulary for literature, rethinking such terms as "invention," "singularity," "otherness," "alterity," "performance" and "form." He returns literature to the realm of ethics, and argues for the ethical importance of literature, demonstrating how a new understanding of the literary might be put to work in a "responsible," creative mode of reading.

Format – 2017-04-27