Literary Universals Project - LitUP
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Facolty of Letters and Philosophy
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What are Literary Universals?

What are Literary Universals?

Patrick Hogan


For any given domain (e.g., narrative), universals are features (properties, relations, structures) of works in that domain that recur across genetically and areally unrelated traditions with greater frequency than would be predicted by chance. Genetically unrelated traditions are distinct in origin (e.g., Greek and Chinese traditions are genetically unrelated; Greek and Latin traditions are not). Areally unrelated traditions have not influenced each other, at least not with respect to the feature under consideration.

If a particular feature is found in every tradition, then it is called an “absolute” universal. Otherwise it is called “statistical.” When statistical universals cluster together in correlational patterns, then they are called “typological.” For example, oral traditions share certain features distinct from those shared by written traditions. Universals of oral composition and universals of written literature thus constitute typological universals. (For a discussion of the basic principles of universals, see Comrie or Croft.)

Other varieties of universal may be distinguished as well. Hogan (“Possibility”) has argued that some universals are “indexical” in that they make variable reference to particular conditions of each instantiation. For example, it may be a universal that readers are inclined to identify with characters with whom they share some important category (e.g., religion, nationality, or sex). Clearly, this universal would vary for each instantiation because different people would be inclined to identify with different characters depending on their own religion, nationality, and so on. Hogan further argues that the existence of indexical universals indicates that one common view of universals is mistaken. People commonly believe that the existence of universals entails general agreement on which works are great and which works are not. The existence of indexical universals, however, predicts at least some disagreement in matters of taste.

Hogan’s response to this misconception is relevant to a broader issue in the humanities, where universalism has often been criticized on political grounds. In connection with this, Lalita Pandit has drawn a distinction between “hegemonic” or “imperialistic” and “empathic” universals (“Caste”). Hegemonic universals are a variety of what Appiah calls “pseudouniversals” (58). According to Pandit, hegemonic pseudouniversals involve an attempt to impose one’s own image on everyone else. In contrast, empathic universals begin with the assumption that all humans share the same sort of experiential subjectivity and proceed, not by imposing an image, but by seeking to uncover and articulate what is common in that subjectivity and its various products.

The post-colonial theorist, Ashis Nandy, has formulated a similar division between “homogenized” universalism, which denies the value of cultural particularity, and “distinctive civilizational” universalism, which connects universals with their cultural particularizations, affirming the value of both the universal and particular components of cultural practices (see Nandy x-xi). This is related to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s assertions of what Hogan calls “particularist universalism” (Colonialism xvii; see Ngũgĩ 26), which is to say, the insistence that universals appear only in particular forms in particular cultures and thus that affirming a universal should never be a matter of denying or devaluing cultural particularity. (On other political and ethical aspects of universalism, see Hogan “Literary” and Colonialism 303-16.)

In keeping with this, it is important to emphasize that universals are not themselves normative (though they may concern norms, insofar as certain sorts of normative judgment are universal). Again, humanists have often objected to the study of universals on the grounds that it involved the imposition of local preferences on the entire world. There is a normative use of the word “universal” for which that is the case. Thus some writers may claim that Shakespeare is more “universal” than Kālidāsa or Zeami. However, in the present context, it makes no sense to claim that a particular author or tradition is “more universal” in this sense, just as it makes no sense to claim that one language (or one sentence) is “more universal” than another. This has not prevented cultural conservatives, such as Steven Pinker (see Blank 409), from invoking universality in the cognitive sense as a defense of American cultural domination throughout the world. Whatever one thinks of Pinker’s claims, it is important to distinguish very carefully between the normative use of “universal” (roughly, “appealing across cultures”) and the empirical use, defined above. Only the latter is relevant to a research program in literary universals.

A broadly related, but primarily cognitive (rather than politico-ethical) distinction was introduced by David Bordwell in his discussion of “contingent” universals (“Convention”). Bordwell’s main idea here is that some film practices (e.g., shot/reverse shot) may take a while to develop. But they are so close to our cognitive inclinations that, once they have arisen, they spread rapidly. Indeed, one could argue more generally that universals are not necessarily spontaneous. It may take many attempts by many individuals to produce the practice in question. However, given the nature of human cognition, along with common features of the environment, etc., all traditions will tend to develop the same practice or, in the case of typological universals, one of a few related practices. Once developed, the practice or practices could be widely acquired (within or across traditions) by exposure alone rather than explicit instruction. One might confine the use of the term “contingent” universals—or, better, “monogenetic universals” (universals with a single origin)--to universals that are discovered in one tradition only, or are discovered through the interaction of different traditions, but are then passed rapidly by exposure alone. The more general distinction here would be between “spontaneous” universals, that arise immediately, and “developed” universals, that are achieved only after a number of tries. Developed universals may be monogenetic or they may be polygenetic, which is to say, achieved by different traditions independently.

The idea of monogenetic universals returns us to the issue of areal contamination. It is important to raise a caution against discarding concerns of areal contamination too quickly. Monogenetic universals are of interest only if they indicate some universal property of human cognition, upbringing, social interaction, and so on. They are not of interest to a project in literary universals if they are primarily the product of historical particularities. If England governs two-thirds of the globe and establishes rules that put English literature in classrooms around the world, the presence of English literature in those classrooms is a “universal” only in a sense that makes no contribution to a research program in literary universals. Indeed, this is true even when there are no relevant laws or administrative policies, such as those governing education in a colony. It is true whenever one culture has particular power or prestige. Again, the obvious way of qualifying concerns about areal contamination is by reference to exposure rather than teaching. However, exposure may generate imitation for a wide range of reasons that are historically particular. The entire male population of the world may end up wearing two-piece suits. But that does not indicate that two-piece suits are a universal of dress in any way that would contribute to a research program in universals of personal life. The crucial distinction here is between relations that are hegemonic and relations that are not hegemonic. In any given case, one must decide carefully whether a given monogenetic universal is or is not likely to be the result of cultural hegemony. Though one might suspect that cultural hegemony is the reason for the dissemination of film techniques, Bordwell makes a convincing case that, at least in some instances, that is not the case. Rather, such universals as shot/reverse shot do tell us something about cognition and do contribute materially to a research program in literary universals.

Perhaps the opposite of “contingent” universals (which might never have arisen) are logical universals. These are universals that necessarily apply to all traditions for logical reasons. For example, the relations between temporal order in story and discourse (i.e., the story and the way the story is told) are necessarily synchronous or anachronous. In other words, the discourse either presents events in the same order as they occur in the story or it changes that order. Logical universals are important both in themselves, and in the way they allow us to isolate empirical universals. For example, random distribution would suggest that discourses should be anachronous fifty percent of the time. It seems, however, that they are far more commonly synchronous in every tradition. Without the initial, logical universal, we would not be able to recognize this distinct, empirical universal.

The preceding paragraphs include references to some common misconceptions about universals (e.g., that they imply universal evaluative judgments). It is important to clear up two other misconceptions. First, the existence of universals does not in any way entail direct, cross-cultural comprehensibility. The specification of a universal pattern is almost certain to involve many culturally specific features that may be entirely opaque to readers unfamiliar with that tradition (including people who happen to have been brought up in that tradition). Second, universals are not necessarily biologically innate. Universals are always the product of complex interactions among biology, the physical environment, childhood development, group dynamics, etc. For example, it seems very likely that, whenever adults try to raise children, certain things will happen (e.g., the adults will carry the children around). It seems very likely that whenever groups try to live in close proximity, certain practices will develop. These different aspects of child rearing or group organization are not innate. They are nonetheless universal. Recognizing this is particularly important in the development of a research program in literary universals. It is important that we not assume a biological origin for each particular universal, but that we look at all the factors that could account for the universal and propose the most parsimonious alternative (which is rarely just biological).


Last updated: Novembre 14, 2007