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Systems Theory in the Study of Literature and Culture


University of Alberta;

(See also Siegfried J. Schmidt, Itamar Even-Zohar, Pierre Bourdieu in many aspects, Niklas Luhmann, Robert Estivals, Steven Totosy de Zepetnek in Comparative Literature, and others) >


In modern times, systems theory has been a tool of study in various fields, starting with Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory (1968), including the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Of course, conceptually and historically, in the history of the study of literature in the West, the incipient notion of system in its varied forms and concepts can be traced to such as Goethe's idea of “Weltliteratur.”

However, the view of literature as an interrelated field of parts where parts are considered the various national literatures, and within these further parts are the different genres, later evolved into the idea that these literatures should also be studied in a certain manner, that is, with precise methodology and this view found outlet and theoretical and methodological building in several Western countries (Germany, France, etc.).

Hence, we may speak of the systemic approach to literature in two related ways. *One is the idea of “Weltliteratur,” or General (World) Literature. Here, more recently the use of systems theory has been developed theoretically and in application within the discipline of Comparative Literature. *The other area of theoretical development is with reference to the study of literature in a general context, that is, the notion of a certain manner of conducting literary analysis, i.e., with the systemic approach where the focus is on precise methodology and a contextual view of the literary text and what surrounds the text and/or a literary problem.

While literary study in general and in a world wide context shows limited advances in the use of systems theory, it is the discipline of Comparative Literature that has shown implicitly and explicitly that it can provide the appropriate intellectual tools (epistemology) and methodology (borrowed from a number of approaches) for such a point of view in the study of literature.

(For a selected bibliography of Systemic and Empirical approaches and their applications in the study of literature, see Steven T�t�sy de Zepetnek, “A Selected Bibliography of Works in The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture.” The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture as Theory and Application. Ed. Steven Totosy de Zepetnek and Irene Sywenky. Edmonton: U of Alberta, Research Institute for Comparative Literature, 1997a. 575-90. Also in[[|(approve sites)]]) >

1) Steven Totosy de Zepetnek's new book, _Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application_ (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998), deals with theory and application of systemic and empirical approaches to literature and culture. The book's first chapter (theory) and its works cited are available in Alex Riegler's Radical Constructivism web site at <>(approve sites)

2) Steven Totosy de Zepetnek's article, “From Comparative Literature toward Comparative Cultural Studies,” deals with the theory and application of the systemic and empirical approach to literature and culture he developed in his earlier books and articles. The article is available in the online journal, _CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture: A WWWeb? Journal_ at

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