Irrealism (the arts)

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Irrealism is a term that has been used by various writers in the fields of philosophy, literature, and art to denote specific modes of unreality and/or the problems in concretely defining reality. While in philosophy the term specifically refers to a position put forward by the American philosopher Nelson Goodman, in literature and art it refers to a variety of writers and movements. If the term has nonetheless retained a certain consistency in its use across these fields and would-be movements, it perhaps reflects the word’s position in general English usage: though the standard dictionary definition of irreal gives it the same meaning as unreal, irreal is very rarely used in comparison with unreal. Thus, it has generally been used to describe something which, while unreal, is so in a very specific or unusual fashion, usually one emphasizing not just the "not real," but some form of estrangement from our generally accepted sense of reality.


Irrealism in Literature

In literature, the term irrealism was first used extensively in the United States in the 1970s to describe the post-realist "new fiction" of writers such as Donald Barthelme or John Barth. More generally, it described the notion that all forms of writing could only "offer particular versions of reality rather than actual descriptions of it," and that a story need not offer a clear resolution at its end. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, cites in this context the work of Barthelme and its "seemingly limitless ability to manipulate [literary] techniques as modes of apprehension [which] apprehend nothing."[1] Though Barth, in a 1974 interview, stated, "irrealism—not antirealism or unrealism, but irrealism—is all that I would confidently predict is likely to characterize the prose fiction of the 1970s," [2] this did not prove to be the case. Instead writing in the United States quickly returned to its realist orthodoxy and the term irrealism fell into disuse.

In recent years, however, the term has been revived in an attempt to describe and categorize, in literary and philosophical terms, how it is that the work of an irrealist writer differs from the work of writers in other, non-realistic genres (e.g., the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez) and what the significance of this difference is. This can be seen in Dean Swinford's essay Defining irrealism: scientific development and allegorical possibility.[1] Approaching the issue from a structuralist and narratological point of view, he has defined irrealism as a "peculiar mode of postmodern allegory" that has resulted from modernity’s fragmentation and dismantling of the well-ordered and coherent medieval system of symbol and allegory. Thus a lion, when presented in a given context in medieval literature, could only be interpreted in a single, approved way. Contemporary literary theory, however, denies the attribution of such fixed meanings. According to Swinford, this change can be attributed in part to the fact that "science and technical culture have changed perceptions of the natural world, have significantly changed the natural world itself, thereby altering the vocabulary of symbols applicable to epistemological and allegorical attempts to understand it." Thus irreal works such as Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics and Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones can be seen as an attempt to find a new allegorical language to explain our changed perceptions of the world that have been brought about by our scientific and technical culture, especially concepts such as quantum physics or the theory of relativity. "The Irrealist work, then, operates within a given system," writes Swinford, "and attests to its plausibility, despite the fact that this system, and the world it represents, is often a mutation, an aberration."

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