Literature in its Place

Literature in its Place by James Britton

James Britton’s Literature in its Place begins by invoking John Stuart Mill’s definition of imagination: “that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it were real, and to clothe it with feelings which, if it were indeed real, it would bring along with it.” Mill later glosses it as “the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another.” He might as easily have used Percy Shelley’s definition from Defence of Poetry, but the first chapter leans heavily on the anti-romantics, like Eliot, Pound, and Auden. I remember being struck, while reading Eliot’s critical articles on Shelley, that Eliot seemed to damn the qualities in Shelley that were distinctly apparent in his own poetry. In this context, Harold Bloom’s Oedipal hypotheses don’t seem too far off the mark. Similarly, Britton invokes the ghost of Shelley without ever mentioning his name.

Seen in such severely logical terms, I don’t think anyone could doubt that imagination is an essential element in the powers of perception and cerebration that characterize the human mentality, and not a special gift, bestowed only upon writers, painters, and other artists. And then, like so many of our abilities, we have to admit that it grows above all from use— from use in ever wider and more complicated areas of our concern. (vii)

Amen. I particularly like his nominalization cerebration. It is homophonic with celebration, and should be a synonym, at least when approached with the fervor of Shelley. Literature in its Place is a short little book, and I want to make some notes as I read through it. Britton makes an interesting case for the utility of imagination as a driving force for the foundation of identity, and the development of language skills. It starts, as many works on rhetoric do, with cognitive research regarding the acquisition of language by children.


7/6 Chap. 2 and 3
7/7 Chap. 4 and 5
7/8 Chap. 6 and 7

One of the most common observations by people I meet, regarding my personality, is: “You’re so creative.” I’m never sure what to say about that. I firmly believe that everyone is. They just don’t label it as such, and perhaps don’t flex it quite as often. I suspect there are cultural reasons why cerebration— for most people— is not equivocal with celebration. This isn’t the case when we are growing up.

Chapter One: The Anatomy of Human Experience— The Role of Inner Speech

After describing his morning routine, Britton reflects:

But look far enough into the past and it will be clear that the patterns were probably first recognized in other people and imitated— clumsily perhaps, playfully perhaps, certainly with deliberation. Experience grows for me as I take over these discovered behaviors, adapted to my biological self and the social environment which I operate.

“Recognizing,” “discovering,” “observing”— these indicate too passive a process for what appears in fact to take place. If we begin at the earliest stages of infancy, the active world starts to impinge on the infant as a kind of invitation to miming. (1)

This reminds me deeply of Richard Weaver’s thesis that all language is at its core metaphoric. We construct analogues in order to cognize the world around us. In the earliest stages of childhood, a time without words, imitation is gestural and pragmatic. We learn to point at what we want, and in reward it is given to us. But when we replace gestures with words, we make an incredible leap. Words, in the earliest moments of childhood generate response only through emotional intonation, rather than encoded meanings.

Britton’s point is wrapped around his observations that for children, the exploratory, meaning-making occasions are more often found in the context of make-believe rather than real-life pragmatic task-accomplishing situations. Language use may begin with pragmatic aims (milk!) but it evolves quickly into play, and play is where the core of metaphoric, language constitutive, learning takes place. This language activity, called spiels by Britton, is often dream-like, loose, and illogical. These rambling utterances do not constitute true monologic speech. They are however, performances, offered to admiring parents or any nearby audience. Britton connects them with a celebrative function, where language is really an end to itself rather than carrying cognitive meanings.

It seems to me that this temptation to play must reside in some sort of internal predisposition, rather than just an external performance-reward equivocation because play is an activity that seems to continue with or without an audience. Britton cites Vygotsky’s observations on make-believe “the child learns to act in a cognitive, rather than an externally visual realm, bur relying on internal tendencies and motives and not on incentives supplied by external things.” I’m not so sure that I agree with Vygotsky that “inner speech” is entirely linguistic because from what I remember growing up, I held pictures in my head more often than I held words. I suspect there is an inner visual realm, as well as an external one. I also take exception at a bit Britton quotes from Piaget claiming that make-believe is symbolic assimilation, “reintegrated in thought in the form of creative imagination.” Recent trends in brain research suggest that the ability to imagine rests in a different part of the brain than the ability to perceive, therefore assimilation seems to be a misdirected word, as does the concept that such creations are symbolic. I think that creations of the imagination are often analogous to the world and to apply the word symbol to all representations of the mind carries a rather nasty, linguistic reduction that need not apply.

Britton’s citation of Volosinov seems pertinent: “All referential contents produced in living speech are said or written with a specific evaluative accent. There is no such thing as a word without an evaluative accent.” Perhaps it’s just that I’m far too wrapped up in the literary definition of symbol— I despise that word with a passion.

Quibbles aside, the core thoughts of this chapter which attract me are that language use is accelerated quickly through internal rather than external interaction and that imagination has a constitutive function. These seem to be an important distinctions in order to battle the rising tide of social reductionism. We begin using language by playing make believe, not just in order to accomplish work. And that language use is still performative, and the desire to entertain and be entertained begins not long after we are born.

Chapter 2: A Note on Make-Believe and Mummery

Britton’s discussion evolves into a pointed observation: “I believe it is a part of the normal development that children enact narrative meanings before they are able to narrate” (13, my emphasis). Following this assertion, Britton teases a fine distinction between pre-language enactment and narrative speech. Routines, (like nursery rhymes) are used as a communicative tool. A child is unable to step outside a story to narrate it, though substitutions of real events are often appropriated into the structure of these story routines. In pre-language enactment (also shown by higher primates), there is differentiation between pragmatic communication and play, demonstrated by meta-signaling, a shift in gestural communication (largely facial expressions), to switch between modes. Britton’s focus is on the boundary zone in language acquisition, where words are just beginning to be used non-synpraxically (outside of immediate context). The ability to enact a story is developed before the ability to narrate. The key to narrative development, in Britton’s view, is propositional statements. The difficult distinction, as propositional statements begin to be used by children, is whether their referents are real or fantasy.

With the clear connection between dramatistic behavior and the development of narrative skills thus established, Britton then takes time to lament the lack of focus on dramatic activity in the US school system, and the lack of support for community theater. The social and educational role of theater is proposed as instrumental in adjusting thought patterns:

Poetic drama displays a protagonist’s potential to break free from the habitual thought and patterns of behavior and in doing so create in the collective audience a disposition to accept such, if only for the time being, as true to human nature. (19)

Acting things out as children may indicate potential life-long benefits.

Chapter 3: Heads or Tales

Returning to the evaluative function of language, Britton stresses its importance emphatically:

I believe it is essential to bear in mind that the evaluative function provides what amounts to a verdict on whether or not life is worth living for us. What is judged on any single occasion may be comparatively trivial, but in sum total such judgments may constitute a matter of life and death., and we underestimate their importance— to ourselves or to other people— if we fail to acknowledge this fact. (22)

The chapter title refers to two modes of language used to evaluate, headlines and stories. The distinction is hazy, because some narrative forms are subsumed into informative headlines, i.e., narrative accounts of processes described as “time-sequenced factual descriptions.” The truth-fiction boundary in stories is described as a “continuum rather than self-contained and distinct groups.” Similarly, the distinction between informative statements (heads) and stories (tales) is a continuum. The purpose of the chapter is to explore how they differ, and how they overlap.

Britton refers to Oliver Sacks’The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and delves directly into the subject of pathography, which I have explored in other readings. Pathography is, according to Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, a rapidly expanding genre of writing which bridges the gap between clinical case-histories (heads) and human experience (stories). Its function is messianic, to offer tales of redemption in the face of medical tragedy (my observations, not Britton’s). Britton comments on Sacks’ distinctive narrative style, and moves quickly on to Robert Coles’ The Call of Stories. (two more books to add to my reading list). I read and commented on Coles’ Doing Documentary Work a long time ago. Britton’s paraphrase of Coles’ position is apt: “telling the stories of our lives is always capable of conveying reality in a way that no theoretical formulation could match,” but goes on to cite Coles’ passing reference to the origin of the word theory, the root theamai, meaning “I behold.” Britton also theorizes that objective description or narration (heads) narrows, in effect closing down, potential for evaluation whereas storytelling opens up the possibilities of interpretation. (23-4).

One interesting thing about Britton’s writing style is that he uses a lot of “hedge words,” like “it seems” or “I believe.” This is unusual in academic writing. His writing style emphasizes his bias toward belief and feeling in persuasion, rather than evaluation based on “objective” evidence. However, it seems odd that even with Coles’ attempted recovery of the word theory that he would place stories in conflict with theories. In my opinion, theories are useless unless they can account for the nature of stories— and many attempts at this are in progress right now.

Britton goes on to describe some of the efforts at taxonomy, regarding story functions including work by William Labov, and his own delineations of transactional, expressive, and poetic writing. I internalized a great deal of his work in “The Spectator Role and the Beginning of Writing,” elaborating his schema in a post about triangles some time ago. One thing I had forgotten about, which I was reminded of in this chapter, was his connection of expressive writing with gossip. It’s a connection worth exploring. The bulk of the remainder of the chapter is dedicated to looking at narratives about school experiences, and what they say about the educational process.

The ultimate conclusion is that stories can cast a new light on the generalizations of theory, and that stories outlive theories as meaningful tools to evaluate potential courses of action.

Chapter 4: Learning by Numbers

This chapter deals with some quantitative research on responses to poetry. Several interesting things are suggested by results of a project where different groups were asked to rate, by several factors, a set of poems containing rare works of great poetic merit that would not be familiar the scholars tested, combined with “false” poems created by Britton that though they followed often form, ultimately were incoherent. The empirical study was an attempt to test how people recognize and deal with poetry. Included in the study were science students, children, as well as literature students and professors. The results weren’t surprising to me, but they do provide confirmation of a few things that theory already suggests, as well as things that experience tells me are true.

First, the correlation between scholars as to what constitutes a “valuable” poem is not uniform. Only 26% of the “true” poems were universally rated highly, and 76% followed fairly predictable patterns of taste. This seems to confirm that what constitutes canonical poetry is subject to cultural vagaries, which is no big surprise. It is also not surprising that the scholars faired quite well at identifying the false poems, whereas the untrained people did not. Untrained people were quick to suspend judgment on poems they did not understand. All members of the sample groups preferred poems that were more emotionally restrained over those who were filled with passionate emotions.

However, the most striking results were among the untrained sample group (including non-literature students) when confronted some time later with the same poems. They scored higher (as far as sorting the true from the false poems) after having some time to reflect on the poems. Appreciation of poetry is a skill that is developed after much exposure, and importantly, temporal distance from the initial contact. This matches well with my own experience. Often, it takes months before I even get close to appreciating the nuances of something. I hate those survey courses that cram a bunch of stuff down your throat quickly, without the necessary time to reflect on what is really going on in a poem.

Chapter 5: Poetic Discourse: Can you hear what I mean?

Anyone who writes on literature has to approach the problem of defining it. Obviously, with the numeric evidence, there is no clear distinction possible. Britton brings in some interesting quotes; from Foucault: literature “leads language from grammar to the naked power of speech” and from Todorov: “A word’s meaning is the sum of possible relations between other words” (54). Curiously, he doesn’t cite Jakobson. However, he does bring in an excellent metaphor that I hadn’t considered before: the poem is a multimedia experience.

Poems have a visual effect, due to their typography and layout on the page. Each line represents a sort of “separable unit of meaning” (unless you’re reading Shelley, in my estimation). Poems are also auditory, closer to spoken discourse in that the interplay of intonation often comments on, or amplifies meaning. And they are also internal, dependent on the associations drawn from the life experience of the reader to fully form meanings. Britton argues that the enactment behavior developed by children is essential in the appreciation of poetry. We must act out the discourse of the poem, in all aspects, in order to fully appreciate it. To read a poem, in Britton’s view, is an experience which has much in common with being dropped into a 60s sort of happening, where you are bombarded by stimuli on all sides which must be sorted out. I like this view, a lot.

Britton cites Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch’s three distinctions in sign-carried meaning: indication, symbolization, and metaphor (61). Indication is strictly referential, Lockean language. The object indicated is the focus, and the sign that does the indicating is not of much interest and purely subsidiary. Britton uses a visual mapping (I love diagrams) of the indicative function in this way:


The i.i. denotes intrinsic interest, with the plus and minus symbols denoting presence or absence, the S subsidiary function, F focal function, and the straight arrow the direct relationship between them.

Symbolization, in this schema, is more complex. The example used is the national flag, rather than a linguistic one. The differences in intrinsic interest is marked— a flag, in itself is of little intrinsic interest and instead meaning must be constituted by secondary associations. The relationship is not direct, but recursive as indicated by the looped arrow:


Metaphor functions different than symbol due to the difference in intrinsic interest. Britton maps I.A. Richards terms for metaphoric function onto this chart, adding tenor (t) to the secondary function and vehicle (v) to the focal function resulting in an interesting slant on the problems of symbol and metaphor. Intrinsic interest isn’t a factor I’ve seen added in before.


“Intrinsic interest attaches both to the verbally formulated analogue of what is intended and to the unverbalized meaning,” and is dependent on the “coincidence of experience” between the sender and the receiver (62).

The remainder of the chapter, following the argument for the importance of commonality in the interpretation of metaphor, describes some of Britton’s own poems and the circumstances regarding their composition. While this might seem a bit pretentious and solipsistic, it is entertaining. Britton describes his process carefully, and personally I prefer writers who draw deeply from their own well of experience to test hypotheses regarding language functions. Empirical evidence, as noted in the previous chapter, only goes so far— and if a writer doesn’t know himself, who does he know?

Chapter 6: Imagined Lives

This chapter opens with an extended reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, focusing on the variety of models for marriage offered through the voice of the characters. I identified with Britton’s digression midway, when he notes that most of his reading life has been focused on theoretical works on language, and further admits: “I have not been an eager reader of novels, reading for pleasure being more often in my case concerned with poetry, or, for a time with drama” (72). Middlemarch sits on my shelf, unread. I attribute it to a sort of time spent vs. benefit received equation. I find poetry is more rewarding for the time spent in reading and reflecting on it. I begin to suspect that it’s an attribute of theoretically minded people; they gravitate toward the depth presented in works of fewer words: density breeds density.

However, the charm of a complex novel is not to be underestimated. Britton notes that one of the defining features of novels is that they consistently thwart expectation. The novel raises expectations, and then fails to foreclose on them. Citing Saul Morson, Bakhtin’s attitude regarding the novel is described as “the best way to communicate a vision of people as freely responding to complex situations,” and further that the great realist novel represents “the supreme achievement of Western thought because the novel, more than any other literary or nonliterary form, respects the particularity of context, the eventness of events, and the uniqueness of personality” (78). Because novels focus on what cannot be transformed into generalities, they give a more realistic portrayal of life as we live it.

For Bakhtin, as for Morson himself, literature exists as a means of recording and contemplating whatever it is that makes our lives uniquely our own and unrepeatable, part of a network of relations that make up a society. (80)

Chapter 7: Literature in its Place

The concluding chapter, as most final chapters do, brings together the insights regarding childhood behavior and the integral role that literature can play in personality development. Revisiting the enactive role-playing of young children, Britton suggests that the way we respond to it is crucial, because it represents “a way of sharing their lifespace the role language plays in their early experience” (82). The imagined experience of a child, feeds directly into the imagined experiences represented by literature. Britton cites some memorable Vygotsky quotes on art:

Art is the organization of our future behavior. It is a requirement that may never be fulfilled but that forces us to strive beyond our life toward all that lies beyond it.

The form is not the shell which covers the substance On the contrary it is an active principle by which the material is processed and occasionally, overcome in its most involved, but also most elemental properties. (83)

Britton applauds Vygotsky’s conception that literary language represents “the merging of conscious and subconscious processes,” as a lively and dynamic connection. The work of art’s function, is literally to turn water into wine. Britton observes: “It is, I think, a mistaken pragmatism that underrates the effect of a dream or vision upon our sense of reality” (83). A work of literature embodies an evaluation of experience, not merely a record of the circumstances. I was reminded of a reproduction that hangs in my darkroom, of a photographic work by John Baldessari: “The artist is not merely the slavish announcer of a series of facts. . .”

Culture represents, in many ways, the aggregation of all these evaluative responses. Thus, though Britton doesn’t say it, I think that Shelley wasn’t so far off in proclaiming that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.” Accounting for those responses, for both Vygotsky and Britton, must tackle “the problem areas of emotion and imagination” (84). The place of literature is— much like the role-playing of a child— a place of rehearsal, of make-believe without action, where imagination is born.

The words we have used in speaking, in writing, in thinking about the world we live in, present an ordered awareness as close to the truth of our existence as we can master. Learning to use word meanings in ways current among adults in a society is a process that takes time — and may in fact never be satisfactorily achieved by many of its members. Progress depends on building stage by stage. (85)

Ultimately, Britton’s definition of literature rests on the role taken by the writer and the reader, the role of spectator to the events of the discourse. Not blind narration of facts, but evaluative utterances of value attached to those events. The spectator role is more fluid than that of an atrophied canon:

My argument here is that no such place-seeking or place-holding procedure need limit the movements of change open to spectator-role artifacts; we like what we like, and that may at one and the same time include a Shakespeare sonnet, a limerick, a current magazine story, a best-selling novel— meeting different aspects of our immediate concerns without setting up in competition. (86)

Britton considers Nancy McCracken’s work on gendered language, were the “masculine view” is taken as “machine-gun language” where being right is the most important thing, standing in distinct contrast with “feminine view” of language as “nurturer” holding values of “care, concern, and connection” (87). I resist such strict gender roles myself, though I must admit that the attitude of correctness is pervasive in academic discourse. I agree with McCracken’s declaration that there are other modes, “non-academic, but central modes, of Celebration, Lament, and Puzzlement” (88). These modes were emphasized by a precious few of my teachers, among them Dr. Yoder. However much I resist the labels involved— I can embrace, as Britton does, more feminine approaches to reading.

Those modes are exemplified in Britton’s closing conversation with one of his granddaughters, now 14, who was trying to make sense of a popular novel, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The girl’s response to these works of fiction was clearly a sort of “trying things on for size,” and she was quite puzzled with how nice all the sisters were to each other in the Austen novel.

In the end, Britton believes that we become ourselves by playing with different roles, in our imagination, taking in what we can identify with. Imagination, then— rather than being an esoteric skill— is what is truly forms human consciousness.