Essay and Interdiscursivity, The: Knowledge between Singularity and sensus communis

TitleEssay and Interdiscursivity, The: Knowledge between Singularity and sensus communis
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsJuvan, Marko
Conference NameThe Essay and Singularity
Date Published10/2009
PublisherSlovenian Comparative Literature Association
Conference LocationLjubljana
Keywordsessay, interdiscursivity, journalism, sensus communis, singularity, topos, transversal knowledge
Marko Juvan
The Essay and Interdiscursivity: Knowledge between Singularity and sensus communis
Knowledge is becoming organized and systematized into disciplines; however, as Lukács and Adorno point out, at least since the disintegration of the ancient myth there has also been preserved a need for discourses that bridge the gap between established types of cultural practices. These languages distinguish themselves through transverse crossing of knowledge from various disciplines and through the testing of “specialized” generalizations in the complex “totality” of life experience and its linguistic diversity. The oldest among the transversal discourses is literature, and in the modern era this has been joined by the mass media. Literature and periodicals have confronted specialized knowledge systems and their self-regulation each in their own way through open semiosis of experience. Literature produces knowledge and renews it in the manner of singularity. According to Attridge and Clark, in literature an event of unique existential focalization is realized through poetic syntax; that is, an unrepeatable configuration of information that cannot be translated into any existing signifying system (philosophy, science, religion, politics, etc.). On the other hand, the print media are tending to a level of translatability, generality, and doxa such as are established by public opinion through generally accessible language. Both types of transversal knowledge – literary and media – are connected by a sensus communis in the logical and rhetorical sense of ‘generally known,’ ‘common sense,’ ‘that which is known or can be understood or experienced by everyone,’ and also in Kant’s sense of a “communal sense” (Gemeinsinn) as a necessary prerequisite for aesthetic judgment, for the judgment of taste. The etymology of the French word essai includes the well-known meaning ‘experiment, test,’ which declares a significantly provisional, empirical and experimental, skeptical, critical, and individual (singular) relationship to traditional knowledge. However, the word also includes the sense ‘tasting,’ which directs the essay into the semantic field of taste, and with this also evokes the sensory cognition implied in the concepts of the aesthetic and literature.

According to Foucault, the essays of Montaigne and Bacon (a typically modern genre founded on humanistic individualism) embody the shift from the medieval commenting relationship toward traditional knowledge to the empirical and critical relationship from which modern science developed on the basis of Cartesian notion of method. According to Good, the essay did not join the systematic, disciplinary self-regulation and progressism of science, but persisted in the singularity of literary works. The essay further interdiscursively confronted personal experience with various areas of discussion, and in writing it shaped a fragmentary, perspectivized, and aesthetic truth. Regardless of the literary singularity of the essay, one cannot overlook its reliance on the sensus communis. The essay developed from intertextual connection to the loci communes, from commentary on and use of ancient topics. Kant’s sensus communis is represented in the aesthetic relationship to knowledge: as a “semi-literary” genre, the essay moves between the “quasi-judgments” of literature (these serve the “disinterested” comprehension of the portrait of a fictitious person) and the verifiable judgments of nonfiction discourse. The essay absorbs the concepts of other disciplines and melds them into a promiscuous valence of the poetic word, which gives the impression of total life experience. The knowledge that the essay presents acquires an ambiguous status: verifiable propositions are captured in modality, through which the perspective of personal presence is revealed in aesthetic experience. However, the criterion of the truth of the aesthetically conveyed testimony is no longer its agreement with the facts, but the authenticity of the existence portrayed. The sensus communis in the essay also appears in the sense of ‘common sense,’ ‘general knowledge,’ and ‘that which is generally understood or comprehensible.’ Essayists have often tackled topics pertaining to general life and experientially accessible to everyone, and they have not been immune to stereotypes, prejudices, and conclusions based on common sense. The stereotype itself establishes a subject of experience, inasmuch as it is spontaneous and “pre-scientific.” Essayists rest on the loci communes of public discourse when they seek to engage the “general reader.” Since the eighteenth century, the essay has become established in newspapers, where it is identified with journalistic genres (e.g., the feature column or feuilleton) and has become vulnerable to the ideologies reproduced in them. The essay’s tension between the singularity of literarized existence and the ideologized knowledge of the (media) sensus communis is also shown in contemporary Slovenian texts of this genre (e.g., Rožanc and Jančar).

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