More Adaptive Networks! A Summary of Polysystem Theory


All this talk about complexity and adaptive networks reminded me of my brief, but fruitful foray into the work of Itamar Even-Zohar, a cultural/literary theorist at Tel Aviv University who developed Polysystem Theory in order to deal with dynamics, diversity and change in cultures. In addition, following from the broad Polysystem Theory, Even-Zohar is also fairly well known for his work on “culture making” and cultural repertoires, two issues that have concerned him in the last decade. Much of Even-Zohar’s work (in English and Hebrew) can be found here on his website.

Polysystem Theory, as developed by Itamar Even-Zohar, emerged as a response to the overwhelming positivist discourses circulating during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead of a static, a-historical text-based approach to literature and culture, Even-Zohar posits a dynamic structuralism or put differently, a dynamic functionalism. This static approach is best exemplified by de Saussure wherein structuralism is a science that attempts to uncover all of the structures that underlies all of the things we do, think and even feel. Saussure then, proceeds with a synchronic study of language. As a brilliant procrastination strategy I spent a few hours yesterday and this morning re-reading and thinking through some of Even-Zohar’s essays, so here’ a bit of a summary/commentary of Polysystem Theory (most of the quotes are from Even-Zohar’s essay “Polysystem Theory.” I’m far too lazy to cite properly since I just cut and pasted the quotes I liked from his text–hey, it’s a blog after all!)

For Even-Zohar, I think there is a ‘good Saussure’ and a ‘bad Saussure’. The good element introduces the concept of the system into the discourse to replace the “mechanistic collection of data” while on the other hand, the bad ‘synchronic’ Saussure discovers “the function of elements, as well as the rules governing them…there is hardly any way to account for changes and variations.” Polysystem theory acknowledges the diachronic element and places it back into the functional [structural] approach to literature and culture.

There are two important implications that emerge from this move, for one, we may no longer identify diachronic elements as solely historical, so as Even-Zohar notes: “synchrony cannot and should not be equated with statics, since at any given moment, more than one diachronic set is operating on the synchronic axis.” This implies that a system is comprised of both synchrony and diachrony, yet on the other hand, when cut off from each other, they both constitute a system in themselves. From this premise, there is a second ramification: semiotic systems are inexorably heterogeneous and radically open structures. The polysystem then as Even-Zohar notes, is a “multiple system, a system of various systems which intersect with each other and partly overlap, using concurrently different options, yet functioning as one structured whole, whose members are independent.”

All in all, Polysystem Theory remains under the guise of a functional approach because it understands all semiotic events as inhering to one or multiple systems. As a result, a network of relations unfold, PST interrogates phenomena in light of both their functions and their interdependent relationships. The introduction of the potential that multiple diachronic elements may operate upon the synchronic axis follows the Russian Formalist theses on literary evolution, which, put bluntly, means that, contra de Saussure, the system is capable of evolving in time.

Finally, the polysystemic approach focuses not upon the final product of literary activity, but instead positions itself to interrogate the operative level-the ‘how’-both in structure and in time. So, following Russian Formalism, PST accentuates the formal features of the structure of the text itself by describing the differing mechanisms by which texts are organized and subsequently produce their distinguishing effects. Translated back into Even-Zohar’s language, PST looks at the dynamic relations that constitute the literary [poly]system. So, the very concept of systematicity does not preclude multiplicity, as long as the ‘system’ is always conceived as open and consisting of entangled webs of relations.

Even-Zohar follows Jakobson’s development of Saussure’s structural analysis of the various components of any act of communication. Jakobson grafts onto de Saussure’s synchronistic analysis a broader system assumed by any linguistic or semiological inquiry. Of course, the functions of addresser and addressee are rather obvious: any communicative act presupposes a speaker and a hearer, or a text and a reader. The other elements in Jakobson’s scheme-which revolve around the message sent from speaker to hearer- introduce his original and crucial set of set of distinctions. First, the context pertains to the range of communication where the ability to cite things and/or ideas in a shared world is presumed. The message encompasses the content [the what] which is being communicated, the contact is tied to the medium through which the addresser is connected with the addressee. The code is involved in the specific features of signification that Saussure tried to analyze according to the syntagmatic principles of signification. What Jakobson did was introduce the environment against which the very act of communication transpires, which was, before him, understood to be something that was outside of the system and functioned to restrict communication. This is to say that any study of communication now exceeds mere message, the social and contextual principles of the communicative locale are necessarily wrapped up into the scheme. Even-Zohar adopts this scheme with some changes in terminology:

It is therefore that the major difference perhaps lies in my introduction of the “institution” where Jakobson has “context”…a CONSUMER [addressee] may “consume a product produced by a PRODUCER [addresser], but in order for the product to be generated, a common REPERTOIRE must exist, whose usability is determined by some INSITUTION. A MARKET [contact] must exist where such a good can be transmitted. None of the factors enumerated can be described to function in isolation.

For Jakobson, context corresponds to any of the elements outside the communicative act that are referred to in the message, in other words, the referent. Institution, on the other hand, “consists of the aggregate of factors involved with the maintenance of literature as a socio-cultural activity.” Bluntly, institution refers to ‘actual’ entities like mass media, the university, government bodies and professional organizations. Even-Zohar displaces context in favor of institution in order to uncover the constraints of institutions on the nature of communication, which lies well beyond the scope of the Jakobson’s semiotic thinking. What this scheme does for Even-Zohar is introduce a way to look at the institutional guises of semiotic occurrences as well as offer a way to interrogate the mimetic or representational function of literature.

The crucial concept, repertoire, is the “aggregate of rules and materials which govern both the making and handling, or production and consumption of any given product.” So, repertoire functions on two levels, the level of the individual elements [repertoremes] and the level of models, which are the admixture of the repertoremes, rules and temporal associations that impose themselves upon the product. Again, here is a radicalization of Jakobson’s scheme; Even-Zohar adds the very materials themselves [whether models or repertoremes] to the codes [rules] for the production and consumption of any semiotic occurrence. Repertoires may be further divided into primary and secondary models or ‘pre-texts’. Here, primary connotes the uncomplicated information interior to the system. Examples such as stop signs, traffic lights etc. constitute this primary model of the sign. Secondary models are associated with the exterior, namely, the system’s locale. Poetry would be the penultimate example of this type of repertoire.

So, the cultural world of a society is a system controlled by a hegemonic group that determines the society’s identity, history and commonalty. It provides a canonical self and a counter image for everyone else in the society. The cultural framework from which texts are continually [re]written is a locale, intersection or confluence of variant discursive ‘worlds’ and not a permanent hierarchy of thought systems. Divisions irrupt between the different sets of codes or between these codes and the repertoire of the cultural association implanted in the language of the reader. This coheres with Even-Zohar’s concept of “stratified heterogeneity” where tensions interrupt at all levels of the polysystem, whether canonized and peripheral locales or functional and subterranean. Thus, the polysystem avoids entropy through this intersystemic [ex]change and conflict.

Whereas the traditional [uni]system theory writes off the periphery as extra-systemic, PST readjusts our attention to the peripherals and allows them to germinate intensity within one system and become the centers of other contiguous systems. This particular stratification of the polysystem ceaselessly redefines both the center and the periphery. There is then, a permanent revolution between a multiplicity of strata which constitutes the synchronic state of the system. Now, any victory of one strata over another records a modification on the diachronic axis. Here’s Even-Zohar again:

In this approach, then, “literature” cannot be conceived of as either a set of texts, an aggregate of texts [which seems to be a more advanced approach], or a repertoire. Texts and repertoire are only partial manifestations of literature, manifestations whose behavior cannot be explained by their own structure. It is on the level of the literary [poly]system that their behavior is explicable.

Literature, as a semiotic system, is a component of the larger [poly]system. The correlations between literature and language, society, philosophy, ideology etc., now understood as having a similar but genetically different appearance, may be observed based on their “transmissional devices”. Extra-literary phenomena relate to literature not by mere degrees, but instead as an interplay among systems determined by the logic of the culture to which they belong. So, the diachronic element that Even-Zohar grafts onto this scheme means that among all of the imposters that claim supremacy in the literary system, it is the one that coheres with the overall developmental tendencies of the cultural system as a whole which emerges as the “prize winner”, so to speak. Even though Polysystem Theory does not admit a strong ontology of texts and products, “the importance of a text for the PS is consequently determined only by the position it might have occupied in the process of model creation and/or retention…we are directed towards developing concepts of the literary repertory and model.”

This said, the ontological status of the literary system translates into a model that is either “self-regulated [autonomous] or “conditioned by other systems” [heteronomous]. So again, the genesis of literary phenomenon is no more than a cross-section of a multitude of impulses-whether biological, psychological, social, economic-and therefore in its mature complexity may full well prove to be random. Yet, the very truism that this structure of extra-literary elements is incorporated into the literary series can be explained in reference to the ongoing evolution of the literary system. So, in terms of the ontological status of the literary system, if we are to speak of it as autonomous, it may only be relatively autonomous and hence, subjected to the plural.

The literary significance of say, a device, is reclaimed from the context into which it is inaugurated; the material of any literary work is not to be determined by its supplementary elements, but by its locale in the literary construction. Conversions, or transfers, are processes linked to specific procedures imposed on the qualities involved. Conversions may be linked to transformation; these procedures are either the preconditions for transfer or the very result of transfers. Even-Zohar writes “Interference can be defined as a relationship between literatures, whereby a certain literature A [a source literature] may become a source of direct and indirect loans for another literature [a target literature].” This holds for both the text and models that dwell beneath it. The source literature in which new understandings are rooted pays little if any attention to the target literature or discourse that it is dislocating. Interference then, is always asymmetrical. Moreover, Even-Zohar’s seventh law of literary interference states that “interference occurs when a system is in need of items unavailable within itself.” Polystystem Theory interrogates the process of the continual dislocating of models within a conferred system, which of course acts as the catalyst for the system’s continual and potent reconstitution.

This continual displacement posits a dialectic between independent and dependent literary systems. The main condition for a literature to become dependent, for Even-Zohar, is that it is weak. Although not necessarily ensuing from political or economic impotence, for the most part dependence arises from material conditions that make possible interference through repression or by merit of its embedded locale [minority ‘French’ Canada interferes with the majority English speaking Canada, for instance]. If we radicalize this notion, it provides a ‘symptomatic reading’ which refers to lack or absence between the latent and manifest. Meaning is a function of the position of the elements of the mode of production. The structure is plural, temporalities multiple. So not unlike Althusser’s early brand of ‘structural Marxism’, the very idea of ‘system’ is still dependent upon Saussure’s model of the arbitrariness of the sign [with respect to the referent], the discursive realm and the interior logic of a self-enveloped, but now dynamic system. Knowledge is possible through the mediation of a body of concepts that work on an empirical principal matter. Along with a de-centering of any subject, this type of reading implies a concept of the productiveness of an absence: a structure is defined as the absent cause of its effects, like the signifier that goes beyond the signified, the structure reaches past its elements.

If we continue with this logic and recast it into Even-Zohar’s polysystem, what emerges most importantly, is that a usurped repertoire does not maintain the same performative functions as in the source literature. So, the newly appropriated repertoire attains value by merit of the domestic relationships and hierarchies that inhere within the [target] system. Thus, more radical than a plura-vocal conception and narrative structure, whose poetics have sufficiently been described by Bakhtin, Polystystem Theory puts us in a better position to reconcile surrogate histories and voices. There is no doubt that Even-Zohar may be accused of maintaining a somewhat dystopian vision, which simply appears as a “hyper-functionalism”. However, his work is premised on change, on the emergence of new terrain and on the diverse and changing strategies that distinct agents manipulate to maintain, convert, or exploit their reserves of [cultural] capital.

Moreover, this description of [cultural] polysystems in terms of a ceaseless and multivalent friction, as agents play the game of cultural distinction and capital accumulation in conditions which (if there is indeed an actual temporal delay built-in the notion of strategy as deferral a la Bourdieu) are always subtly different from the conditions under which agents’ systems or repertoires were formed. Yet, the expectations generated (and hindered) by this “hypostasis” of systems sets the stage for more generalized conflict.

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7 thoughts on “More Adaptive Networks! A Summary of Polysystem Theory

  1. a usurped repertoire does not maintain the same performative functions as in the source literature

    I think that’s what’s missing in Taylor’s argument – he basically takes the “repertoire” of say biology and simply links it to his own discussion by the word “isomorphic” without any real engagement…

    P.S. there should a t-shirt with a new slogan: How Adaptive and Complex Is Your Network?

  2. You put the words ‘transmissional devices’ into quotation marks, and I was wondering what you think this phrase (which Mr. Even-Zohar appears to have have invented) really means, more concretely. Can you rattle off some examples of what a transmissional device might be?

    Thank you for your entry, I enjoyed reading it.

  3. Thanks. I’d like to see more images such as what you’ve posted in the blog. Visualizing these concepts and ideas seems to be an important way of exploring and talking about them. A single image such as you’ve posted adds a great deal to the following discussion as it reinforces the pervasive complexity of all the interacting elements. One of the nodes could have a “You are here” which would situate us in such a way that we might say, “That’s why it’s hard to figure out.”

  4. thanx for the material.. i was not able to make out anything of this Zohar’s essey. this was in our syllebus. but now it seems to get easy

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