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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 15, issue 2 (June 2017) : 291-313
The Three Phases of the Linguistic Turn and Their Literary Manifestations

Nicholas Birns
Rubric A: History of Humanities
Rubric B: Twentieth-Century Literature



This essay argues that the linguistic turn in literary theory, often seen as just a declarative and, in the view of some, catastrophic veering into deconstruction, actually had three 20th-century phases. The first was associated with a reaction to Romantic linguistic excess and dominated the early part of the century, manifesting itself in the work and theories of Eliot, Hofmannsthal, and the logical positivists. The second phase was centered on semantics and was above all a reaction to what was seen as the misuse of language by midcentury totalitarian regimes in Europe. The New Criticism dominant in America during this era can be seen as part of this paradigm and therefore less oriented toward an aesthetic formalism than a defensive inoculation against linguistic abuse. The third phase is dominated by deconstruction and its promulgation of — following the earlier example of Roman Jakobson — a language radically independent of anterior reference and signification. Yet, paradoxically, the era, which was the ultimate unmooring of language from prudence and caution, also saw the elevation of a linguistic approach to all the disciplines, prompting speculation that perhaps the rhetoric of transgression concealed a reality of linguistic plenitude. In the twenty-first century, the epistemological primacy of language, though, seems to have yielded to empiricism and speculative ontology. Yet despite the new appeal of what Best and Marcus call “surface reading,” and though the linguistic turn cannot return as it was in the 20th century, its multiple legacies are important. 

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