2.4 Are definitions a form of productive containment?


Previous positing in this thread: On Definitions (3)

some thoughts on the previous with a special focus on “fiction” (and on “literature” as the prominent present rivalling category — a category we constantly fail to define).

  1. The word “definition” promises to set borders to something that is otherwise (so the word’s implication) running at large. The definition offers to define and confine an object (do we define a thing? a word? a concept?) so that we can then begin to handle it.
  2. Should it be necessary to define “fiction” and individual “fictions” in that case? Any look into early 18th-century term catalogues (cataloguies of the book trade) will give us the feeling that our modern societies were well advised to arrive at better definitions. We solved problems where we stopped selling fictions indiscriminately among factual histories. The category of “literature” offers its services here. To say what “literature” really is, turns out, however, to be immensely difficult; and the the problem created with the general term is only multiplied throughout its subdivisions of individual “literary genres” — they are all extremely difficult to define.
  3. Early 18th-century observers read fiction in the field of “histories” (so the third posting in this thread. Shall we assume that 18th-century people were unable to separate between fact and fiction? (And are me much advanced if we still fail to give a good definition?) Historians of the period defended the precarious insertion of fiction in the wider sphere of histories. The insertion was interesting since it allowed to “unmask” and “dicredit” fictional productions as blatant distortions of historical facts, as lies, as fantasies bred out by deluded authors who would seduce their readers to all sins imaginable.
  4. The tremendous difficulties to define an object — such as “art”, “literature”, the “novel” — can be seen as a failure. The problem can alternatively be interpreted as proof of the intrinsic virtue of the object we are trying to define: it seems far too complex to be fully comprehended. A third reading will be that the effective containment does not lie in the definition itself. It is performed by those who offer their services as definers. The definition that is not reached creates a continuous discourse. It creates a continuous awareness of the problem, a continuous attempt to come to terms with the precarious quality at stake. We installed something institutions that offer the ongoing controversy needed to effectively separate the spheres, continuous debates rather than worthless one-sentence-solutions.
  5. Our containment policy is — in the case of “literature”, “art”, the “novel”… — productive: To discredit fiction (as flawed history) was a form of restrictive containment. To praise “successful”, “effective”, and “good” fictions as highest achievements of human creativity, as the essence of good literature, is by comparison a step from restriction to a production that needs to be evaluated.
  6. We might say, that the increase in the fictional production which we observe in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries is critically balanced by growing and increasingly unsuccessful debates we have established and institutionalised in order to appreciate and define this production. We eventually spread the problem of definition into the classrooms of our school systems and turned it into an activity of compulsory education. The continuous debate of good definitions could be their very containment in our modern societies.

a first graph to substantiate this point — a statistic of the rise of prose fiction in the course of the 18th century produced with ESTC-data:


The safe containment is likely to have had another dimension: it advertised what it put on a critical display; it became interesting to sell fictions as fictions and to label them accordingly. We see the terms “novel” and “romance” rise at the end of the 18th century. Titles that were labelled as fiction could expect to be appreciated as “literature” in the new sense of the word — as fictions that wanted to be defined, interpreted and appreciated accdordingly.



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