Genres in Action: The Pragmatics of Literary Interpretation


  • Peter Swirski

    1. McGill University, Montreal, Canada
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      Peter Swirski, Born 1963. Ph.D. (McGill University). Lecturer in American and Contemporary Literature, Concordia University, Montreal. Recently published: The Lem Reader (forthcoming 1997) “Game Theory In the Third Pentagon: A Study in Strategy and Rationality.” (1996). “Edgar Allan Poe, Game Theory, and Literary Pragmatics” (forthcoming Summer 1996).


In my essay I argue for a rethinking of the concept of literary genre. I criticize the static, logico-empirical approach still favoured by structuralist scholars of various stripes. I make the case for, and describe a dynamic and pragmatic model of literary genre as part of an interactive process of literary interpretation. I also outline one promising way to formulate such a model, based on interdisciplinary work in philosophical pragmatics and game theory.

Specifically, I begin with a look of the concept of genre theory within Uri Margolin's tripartite system of deductive models in genre theory. I follow with a critique of the classical logic-based, nonpragmatic view of literary forms as well as their reliance on structuralist kernel primitives, both of which characterize most deductive models. Using Kendal Walton's classical thought-experiment from aesthetics, I argue against the persistent belief that literary forms are somehow empirically definable and immutable. On my view, aesthetic qualities of artworks are determined not just by purely structural (pictorial, textual, etc.) features, but by these features as seen through the work's category. In the remainder of my essay I develop an analytic model of genre-guided strategies of reception, employed cooperatively and reflexively (in the Gricean sense) by the author and the reader.