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Toward a Theory of Description

Toward a Theory of Description

(p.35) Chapter One Toward a Theory of Description
Strange Likeness
Dora Zhang
University of Chicago Press

This chapter begins by reassessing the place of description in novel theory, returning to Georg Lukács’s influential argument that naturalism's prioritization of descriptive details led to mortification and the leveling of narrative significance, which arrested historical dynamism and reflected the growth of reification under capitalism. Lukács’s critique is juxtaposed against Jacques Rancière’s recent account of modern fiction, in which the rise of description in European fiction after Flaubert results in a leveling of narrative hierarchy that led to a new kind of literary democracy. After reappraising the classic narrate/describe binary, the second part of the chapter then moves beyond it, thinking about description outside the bounds solely of narrativity. This entails first of all showing that the scale of description (at micro versus macro levels) alters its centrality, and that our inherited ideas about the category relies on a particular spatial, totalized understanding of novelistic form. Other signal categories in relation to which description is reconsidered include temporality, affective intensity, and proportion. Finally, the chapter’s concluding section looks at recent debates about critical reading practices in literary studies and asks what might be gained by reading for description.

Keywords:   Georg Lukács, Jacques Rancière, novel theory, novel form, reading methods, description

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