Carl Silvio

Date of Graduation


Document Type



Recent decades have witnessed series of debates over the nature of the texts studied by literary studies. Some argue that the literary text is first and foremost defined by its aesthetic value, while others claim that the discipline should regard its object as a social document which reveals information about the society that produced it and exerts an ideological effect upon its cultural context. These debates, between what are usually termed “traditional” and “cultural studies” approaches to literature reveal a central contradiction that has divided the discourse of aesthetic value since its formulation in the Eighteenth century. The question of whether an artistic phenomenon should be valued for its transcendent qualities, for its lack of a clear use value, or for the cultural work which it does—as a means of ideological critique or as vehicle that transmits certain cultural values—has, historically, proven to be irresolvable. This central division within aesthetic discourse, however, does not stand as an obstacle which must be resolved by literary studies. Rather, the paradox arising from this division operates as a central organizational feature within the discipline itself. Because, at its moment of inception, literary studies used aesthetic value as its foundational rationale, its object of study came to embody contradictions similar to those within aesthetic discourse. The literary text must, on the one hand, transcend the idea of use value while, on the other, exhibit some, in Kant's terms “purposefulness.” Attempts to analyze such a contradictory object necessitate a certain type of critical language, a language characterized by a high degree of vagueness and imprecision in its vocabulary. The use of such language allows objects of study possessing too much social use value to be described as either social documents or transcendent art objects. Likewise, texts which seem to possess almost no use value can appear to have a useful purpose or intent. The paradox at the heart of aesthetic discourse thus allows an almost endless variety of texts to be studied by literary studies.