The Future of the Archetype (3/15/10; MLA special session, Jan 11-15 2011)

full name / name of organization: 
L. Michelle Baker
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The second decade of the twentieth century saw the publication of two landmark studies that were to change the approach of poets and scholars alike: Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1922). Both works collected and analyzed a series of legends from different cultures and emerged with a specific pattern of such a ubiquitous nature that it appeared to have the status of an archetype. Neither would be possible at the start of the twenty-first century.

Post-structuralism, both as a critical theory and as a philosophical model underlying postmodernism, has challenged the notion of patterns and archetypes, claiming that mythology and truth alike are concepts, like language, with unstable referents that possess meaning only insofar as they are grounded within a particular time and space. The archetype—always a mystical, nebulous concept—has thus been reduced to a fleeting fantasy, a form of wish fulfillment whereby philosophers and poets struggle to gain a foothold on the rolling pebbles of “truth.”

No matter what credence we may give to the tenets of modern literary theory, the fact remains that certain human experiences are universal, even if our response to them changes over time. Love, birth, and death have lost none of their emotional impact even if their anthropological roles have been radically altered. And a syntagmatic approach that focuses only on the structure of the narrative fails to account for the valuable insights that a transcendent survey could contribute. This special session wishes to explore the following topics in an effort to determine the validity and methodology of the paradigmatic approach to genre studies:

* If, as Jung argues, archetypes cannot be known nor can their origins be identified, of what value are they to the study of literature?

* Can literary patterns demonstrated to arise from real experience be classified as archetypal?

* In the absence of concrete evidence, can cultural diffusion truly account for similarities in myth and legend?

* Is any element of mysticism or intuition justified by the nature of a symbol designed to obfuscate truths that are too obvious or too painful to be uttered?

* To what extent should literary scholars account for an author’s belief in and inclusion of what he or she considers to be archetypes? How can these best be identified and traced?

Answers to these and other questions about the nature of the archetype and the value of it to literary studies should be submitted as 200 – 300 word abstracts with a brief (2-3 sentences) bio to Michelle Baker at no later than March 15, 2010. All presenters must be members of the Modern Language Association by April 7, 2010.

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