Cheryl Williams on Aristotle's _Poetics_

In the Poetics Aristotle's foremost concern is to make the study of art a scientific endeavor. Using an empirical method, he begins with specific prescribed principles and then evaluates a work based on its adherence to those rules. Aristotle's theory is grounded in his belief that a work of art should be an independent and unified entity. This unity is achieved through the work's organizing principle, which for Aristotle is plot. Plot gives a work its cohesiveness, its completeness, and its integrity. It thus becomes a self-contained entity.

The Russian Formalists share Aristotle's concern for an "objective" study of literature. For them a "science of literature" means among other things, a separation between literature and other disciplines such as history, philosophy, and psychology. It also entails a rejection of "subjective aestheticism," and an embrace of a scientific method which stresses "facts," "evidence," and "concreteness." For both Aristotle and Eichenbaum, the most logical way to ensure that literature is study as a science is to foreground linguistic as its methodology. At first appearance, this looks to be a promising technique. However, closer analysis reveals that their rush to see language as purely scientific (ignoring its social aspects) leads to significant flaws in their theories.

The basis for Eichenbaum's formalism is his attempt to separate literature from the realm of experience. Therefore, he views the experience (of the world, of "reality") as distinct from language. Experience is set up as being subjective, relative, individualistic, and historically specific. Language, on the other hand, is not rooted in reality even though it may be used to describe it. Here it seems as if Eichenbaum might acknowledge the social nature of language. But he does not as he discusses at great length the "independent value of (poetic) words." In other words, he intends to free poetics from subjectivism and aestheticism by distinguishing poetic language from other kinds of language. In his desire to set up boundaries between "literary" and "nonliterary" language, he fails to see the ways in which all language is influence by history and ideology.

While Aristotle stresses a work's formal structure as the context for meaning, there are times when non-formal, social considerations creep into his analysis. For instance, his conception of tragedy appears to be grounded in social relations. So even though Aristotle continuously emphasizes that "tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life" (VI. 9), he locates the tragic hero in specific sets of social relations: he must not be too virtuous or too evil but he must be of a higher social standing than the audience; the tragic incident must occur between "those who are near or dear to one another."

In his attempt to render the study of literature scientific, Aristotle naturalizes experience in ways that make it appear universal, timeless, and hence organic. He states that poetry springs from two causes, "each of them lying deep in our nature": the instinct of imitation and the instinct of harmony and rhythm. This theory he says is verified by "facts of experience." This notion that something natural provides the raw material for (and ultimately determines) something that is so obviously social and ideological as poetry (and language) is the main flaw of Aristotle's thinking. By privileging experience as a reliable and (scientific) means of knowing, Aristotle doesn't recognize what Althusser does-that experience is a product of ideology.

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