النظرية النقدية الحديثة وحقوق الإنسان / Modern Literary Theory and Human Rights


Sabry Hafez



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حافظ, صبري; Hafez, Sabry

Document Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

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[This paper challenges the common assumption that the attention which modern literary theory pays to the textual aspects of literature is achieved at the expense of humanistic and moral concerns. It starts by outlining how modern literary theory differs epistemologically from the traditional critical approaches to literature. Traditional critical theory was developed in the defense of poetry against Plato's accusations, real or imagined, and this informed both its critical practice and its concept of man. It established its epistemology on an aesthetic, moral, social, philosophical or scientific basis in a manner that encumbered literature with the concepts of man inherent in them. In contrast, modern literary theory started from a different premise: instead of seeking to justify literature and its moral relevance, it strove to identify its literariness and the dynamics of its structure by using the disciplines of semiotics and linguistics. It posited the text as an autonomous entity and a complete structure aware of its existence in a society of texts with which it conducts a profoundly intertextual dialogue. As an autonomous structure, the literary work is independent of other social or philosophical constructs and thus capable of conducting a meaningful dialogue with them. The paper elaborates the various conceptual frameworks of Russian formalism, intertextuality, structuralism and deconstruction in order to examine their implicit assumptions about man. It shows how the autonomous and dialogical nature of the literary work in its Bakhtinian sense are relevant to the concept of man inherent in modern literary theory. In its elaboration of this concept, the paper shows how it was developed in conflict with the hierarchical nature of traditional, ethical and philosophical values. It illustrates also the relevance of autonomy, self-regulation, free-play and fair representation inherent in many concepts of modern literary theory to the question of human rights. The question of human rights in modern literary theory is closely connected to its concept of the "subject"; the paper outlines Barthes' concept of the centrality of the human subject and Derrida's concept of différance and its impact on his understanding of the concept of the subject. With Derrida's différance, which means both difference and deferral, it became impossible to talk about the concept of the "subject" in isolation from that of the "other," whether one is dealing with the national aspects of the subject or with its gender issues. The deconstruction of the concept of the "subject" brings into the fore the omitted, marginalised and neglected aspects pertinent to its composition and accentuates both the processes of difference and deferral inherent in it. The representation of the subject implies its difference from, and indeed suppression of, the other. It also shows how Derrida's concept of différance dealt a devastating blow to the various philosophical absolutes and social hierarchies which controlled our thinking. The paper then examines the implications of these new critical and philosophical concepts for two different "others": the similar other within the culture (women) and the different other, the stranger/outsider to the dominant Western culture. It demonstrates how modern literary theory helped women to liberate themselves from cultural oppression by deconstructing patriarchal binary thinking and its inherent bias against women and so consolidate their human rights. It limits itself in this domain to a discussion of the contribution of French feminist literary theory, particularly the work of Hélèn Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Their work shows how the literary, philosophical and critical canon perpetuated patriarchy and oppressed women. As for the different other, the paper refers to the work of Edward Said in his deconstruction of Orientalism and its discourse which subjects the other to the demands, needs and visions of the Western "self" and sacrifices in the process his identity and human rights. It also studies the work of the African American critic Henry Louis Gates and shows how his attempt to develop a literary theory based on, and deriving its conceptual framework from, the literature of African and Afro-American writers played a significant role in liberating the African American, undermining their biased representation in the culture, and upholding their human rights.]

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