Can there be literature that is not an expression of code?

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In his doctoral thesis The Didactic Demons of Drama: Moral Instruction on Magic in the Plays of Greene and Gryphius, which I will discuss in more detail when I've finished it, Richard Janzen explains the theoretical framework for his comparison of Greene's play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589) and Andreas Gryphius's play Cardenio und Celinde (1649) by quoting Stephen Greenblatt's well-known basis for analyzing literature:

"Literature three interlocking ways: as a manifestation of the concrete behaviour of its particular author, as itself an expression of the codes by which expression is shaped, and as a reflection upon these codes" (quoted from Janzen, 10)

This is a quite reasonable statement and certainly allows for insightful interpretations of texts. If we think about it in a modern-day context or a personal context the author, let's say you or me, has certain experiences and exposure that are reflected in the composed work. Yet the basis for expressing those experiences and exposure, say in literature, is based on certain codes. If we assume that each literary work appears in the society in which that language is spoken, then there are certain rules or codes for expressing yourself. As I discussed yesterday in terms of English sentence structure, this might be the subject-verb-object or subject-predicate requirement for American novels, but codes extend far beyond grammar, including practice, permissible representation or even the awareness of an experience (e.g. an American might be aware of something that a German or Russian does not perceive). Finally, the author can accept, criticize, analyze, distance him- or herself from these codes.

My question, the title of this post, is whether it is possible to create literature that is an expression of code. First it will be necessary to define code. By adapting the definition from The Free Dictionary to a literary context, we could define a code as a system of words and rules used to transmit a message. For transmission to succeed, the author of the work must know the codes of his or her audience, and the audience must understand the system employed by the author.

For the most part, this reciprocal realtionship means it is only possible to produce literature that is no an expression of code if there is no audience for it. An example of this might be a work like Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. He may or may not have a system, but no audience recognizes it without undue effort.

Nonetheless, I can think of two possibilities for creating a work of literature that is no an expression of code: 1) a work whose code seems to be one audience, but is in fact another; 2) a work whose code seems to be one code, but is in fact another.

The first could be a story primarily written in one language, but not addressed to and not capable of being understood by that target audience. The author of such a work would have to live between two different cultures, thereby having experiences that will not be recognized by the seeming audience, but would be by the real niche. I have translators in mind as the authors in this case.

The second case could very well be a transposition. This would be an instance where the entire work seems to be about the given signifieds, but is in fact referring to a different work of art in a different time. The audience thinks they are reading a contemporary work with an author telling a modern-day story, but in fact they are reading a derivative. To some extent, at least with respect to codes, this type of narrative is similar to an allegory.

Henry Whittlesey


Janzen, Richard. The Didactic Demons of Drama. 1980

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