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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
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the Diaries of Franz Kafka
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What Now?
William Gibson

About Bill Benzon

Bill Benzon is an independent scholar who has been working and publishing on the 'newer psychologies' and culture for three decades. He is also a trumpeter who has opened for Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, and Al Grey.

More Bio:

I was educated in the heart of Theory country, but turned away from it. I did my undergraduate and master’s work at Johns Hopkins in the late 60s and early 70s and then went off to SUNY Buffalo for my Ph. D. I was OK with the notion that, for example, Western metaphysics was in trouble, but I didn’t think that Derrida & Co. knew what to do about it. Plus I just didn’t like that intellectual style. I liked the quasi-mechanistic style of linguistics, and I liked developmental psychology, and Karl Pribram had just written a fascinating article on neural holography in Scientific American.

So, when I was in Buffalo I hung out in the Linguistics Dept. with one David Hays and went deep into cognitive science, ending up writing a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory.” I figured cognitive science was up and coming and I would be the literary point man for it. And perhaps I was, but no one was listening back then.

Email Address: bbenzon@mindspring.com
Website: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/


Posts by Bill Benzon

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Contra Snow White: Cartoon Dialectics

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/11/06 at 04:56 PM

With a nod to Adam Roberts . . .

I suppose that Walt Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the best-known movie version of that story. For all I know it may be the best-known version of that story, period. But it’s not the only animated version of the story that’s been made. I know of at least two others.

The first is older than Disney’s and was made by the Fleischer brothers. It’s a Betty Boop cartoon that’s built around Cab Calloway’s rendition of “St. James Infirmary.” Not only do we hear Calloway’s vocal, but his body movement has been rotoscoped onto Koko the Clown, who does the on-screen singing. It runs a bit over seven minutes long (the sound is set rather low at the source so turn it up on your machine):

Continue reading "Contra Snow White: Cartoon Dialectics"

Powers of Ten

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/11/06 at 12:22 PM

This has nothing to do with literature, but a lot to do with general knowledge and, dare I say it, coolness. I’ve know about this little video for years, and I own the book derived from it, But this is the first time I’ve seen the video, crude though the online version may be. 

This was made by Charles and Ray Eames, the same folks who brought you the Eames chair and many other design marvels.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Kiddie Lit

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/08/06 at 10:07 PM

Two or three years ago I read Kiddie Lit:  The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark. I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, graphic novels, and cartoons.

Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, American) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children’s literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either).  Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children’s books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

Continue reading "Kiddie Lit"

Sunday, June 04, 2006

World Building: Hayao Miyazaki

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/04/06 at 04:15 PM

I’m vaguely and generally interested in the ontology, if you will, of fictional worlds. Not ontology in any direct philosophical sense, where one worries about the nature of ultimate reality and the relationship between fictions and the real world. Rather, more in the sense that ontology has come to have in cognitive science and computer science: What kinds of things exist in the world, what are its laws?

Realistic fiction offers an ontology that is (supposed to be) congruent with the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, mind, and society. I supposed I ought to add the caveat “as they are locally understood,” but I wish to bracket that for awhile. Yes, it’s a necessary qualification. But I’m in a down and dirty intellectual mood at the moment and so can’t yet be bothered with cultural complications.

But not all fiction is realistic. Much fiction contains beings and events that defy various laws of mundane reality. Though it is easy and convenient to think of mundane reality as a baseline condition and other realities as elaborations upon or deviations from such reality, I suspect that any dispassionate survey of fiction in all its forms will lead us to the conclusion that the realistic is but one mode among many, adopted at certain times and places under certain circumstances. Something like that.

To focus this discussion I am going to concentrate on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And, truth be told, I would be perfectly happy to confine the discussion to those films as I find them exceedingly rich. I started thinking about this problem while asking a very specific question about one of those films, Porco Rosso:  Why a pig? Early in my foray into anime I read a paragraph about this film that said that, except for the fact that the protagonist is a pig, it is more realistic than most of Miyazaki’s films. By contrast, the line on Spirited Away, which won the 2002 Academic Award for best animated film, is that it is fantasy gone riot. So there you have it, from almost realistic to fantasy squared.

Continue reading "World Building: Hayao Miyazaki"

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/24/06 at 03:12 PM

As my review makes clear, I hold Moretti’s work in high regard; I like it and I want to see more like it. Beyond that, I too believe that we need to bracket the search for meaning and put it on the shelf. I do not, however, believe that requires us to shift our attention away from the scrupulous examination of individual texts. I have argued that point in a series of posts on this site and, more importantly, I have shown how to do it in a small body of critical studies written and published over a period of three decades.

That leaves me with one major issue: How do we bridge the yawning chasm between the phenomena Moretti examines and the particularity of individual texts and individual acts of reading, apprehension, and discussion? I certainly do not have an answer to that question, nor do I think anyone does. But I would like to have a little fun playing around in that chasm and thereby indicate something of what can be done. My objective is to convince you that that "space" is not a chasm at all, but "fertile ground" containing gardens "bright with sinuous rills" interspersed among "forests ancient as the hills."

I take as one starting point Steven Johnson’s remark that "a systemic theory has to work at all the relevant scales." I’ve done most of my work at the scale appropriate for an individual reading a single text. To get from that scale to Moretti’s we need to consider many readers reading many texts over the course of years, decades, and centuries. That is to say, the phenomena Moretti examines are summary measures of the activities of a population of individuals over decades-long periods of time. As my other starting point I have Sean Mcann’s wonder over Moretti’s "stunner of a line" about deducing operative forces from an object’s form.

I’ve chosen "Kubla Khan" as my example. I have two reasons for doing so. On the one hand I am familiar with the poem and have a reasonable grasp of its form. Beyond my work, there is the rather different but complementary work of Reuven Tsur and some unpublished analytical work by Richard Cureton. On the other hand, the poem is about, among other things, a place called Xanadu, and that word, that meme if you will, is rather wide-spread. If you google the term you get roughly 2,000,000 hits – I’ve gotten as few as 1.6M and on one occasion I got 7M; I have no idea what accounts for that upper figure. That’s the Xanadu cultural system, or rather, a highly distributed manifestation of the Xanadu cultural system. With 2M hits, it’s on the world-wide scale at which Moretti is operating.

Continue reading "One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text"

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Maps, Iconic and Abstract

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/14/06 at 01:39 PM

Though I am rather interested in maps, I admit to being a bit puzzled by the maps chapter of Moretti’s book. Part of my problem is that I am comfortable, not only with the iconic maps of physical space that Moretti uses, but with the notion of a cognitive map as used by psychologists and neuroscientists, and with abstract maps of conceptual spaces used by cognitive and computer scientists. I have given considerable thought to the use of those abstract maps of conceptual spaces in the study of (literary) textual semantics. Moretti is not doing that sort of thing in this chapter, which is fine. My problem is that I don’t quite see how to relate what he has done with iconic maps to thinking that I - and others - have done in terms of abstract conceptual maps.

I say this, not as a criticism of his chapter, but as a statement of my difficulty in engaging with that chapter. This document is a set of comments around and about that, but arriving at no particular conclusion. It is an essay into possible sites of exploration.

Continue reading "Maps, Iconic and Abstract"

Monday, January 02, 2006

Memoirs of a Geisha

Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/02/06 at 05:37 PM

I want to take a break from theorizing and engage in a bit of practical criticism. I went to see Memoires of a Geisha with mixed expectations: gorgeous, but flawed plot. My expectations were met. While I was having doubts during the film itself, after thinking about it I concluded that there was something about the whole setup that seemed like high-class mud-wrestling. In ordinary mud-wrestling—so I’m told—bikini-clad women wrestle in a pool of mud for the entertainment of patrons at the bar. Here the women were dressed in gorgeous silks and, while there was some physical combat between them, the fighting was mostly over power and position in the geisha world. Some of the sets were gorgeous as well—though I don’t know this for sure, it looks like some of the scenes may have been shot in the Japanese garden at Huntington Gardens in LA.

Has anyone here seen the film? Do my remarks make any sense? That is, do they answer to anything you saw/sensed in the film?

I often read several reviews of films, especially ones I find problematic, in an effort to account for my impressions. I’m certainly not the only one who’s bothered by this film, though I’ve not seen anyone else compare it to mud wrestling. Here’s a URL to the IMDB entry; it has a bunch of links to reviews:


Friday, December 30, 2005

Production of Presence, A Sampling

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/30/05 at 10:31 AM

Lindsay Water’s Chronicle article got me interested in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. So I ordered it and it arrived yesterday. I’ve not yet read it in full, though it’s a short book. But I’ve blitzed through it looking for the “good parts.” In particular, I was looking to see whether or not a book with that title and subtitle would be talking about things I thought it s/would be talking about. I was not disappointed.

Here are some passages from the book, with page numbers in brackets following each passage. Note that, while I have a certain sympathy for Gumbrecht’s ideas - such as I apprehend them through a brief and cursory acquaintance - it would be a mistake to think that, in presenting these passages, I am prepared either to explicate or defend them.

* * * * *

Continue reading "Production of Presence, A Sampling"

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Beyond Reading

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/28/05 at 11:30 AM

First, a recap. On 12-12 I published a post, "From Frye to the Buffisstas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way," in which I invoked a distinction between criticism and reading that Frye made in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy. On 12-20 I published a post, "Learning to Read & the Need for Theory" in which I made a distinction between reading1 and reading2. Subsequent to that I realized that my distinction was, in fact, pretty much the same as Frye’s distinction, though I had thought of it in those terms when I made my 12-20 post.

There are, of course, differences. And perhaps the most important difference is a consequence of the half-century of intellectual work between then and now. Back then Frye was attempting make room for interpretive analysis as a legitimate academic activity. That is no longer necessary. I’m interested in making (more) room for a (not so) new type of literary analytic activity and so I want to distinguish this mode of reflection from what Frye called "talking world of criticism" and what I called reading2. I do not think of this mode of reflection as a variety of reading at all. And that’s the point, it’s not reading, it’s not interpretation. It’s something else.

What interests me is a certain (rather widespread, I believe) attitude about literary analysis and what it should be. I want to get at that, first by recounting some reviewer’s comments on an early essay of mine, and then by offering a small pile of quotations from Geoffrey Hartman back in the 1970s and from some more recent critics in this new millennium. Those recent passages are in response to a special issue of Poetics Today devoted to cognitive criticism.

Continue reading "Beyond Reading"

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Learning to Read & the Need for Theory

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/20/05 at 02:54 PM

One must learn to read. It doesn’t come “naturally”; it requires explicit instruction. In this context - that is, of this blog devoted to literary criticism and its vicissitudes - “reading” has a special sense beyond simply, well, reading a text. In its acquired sense, “to read” means something like “to provide commentary and analysis of a text in which its meaning is explicitly stated.” The assumption seems to be that there is a meaning - or many meanings - that are there, but not present in the “surface” of the text. They are “hidden” somewhere “deep inside” the text. Reading in this sense too must be learned; it is not “natural.” Let us call these reading1 and reading2 respectively.

Continue reading "Learning to Read & the Need for Theory"

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Perdita, with balls

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/15/05 at 05:14 PM

In this week’s (19 Dec, p. 27) The New Republic, Robert Brustein reviews a handfull of revivals, including one of The Winter’s Tale at the Brooklyn Academic of Music’s Harvey Theater. The staging is by Edward Hall and features an all-male cast. The following is the second, and last, paragraph in his review.

Continue reading "Perdita, with balls"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

De Man, Fish, and Simulation

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/14/05 at 11:51 AM

Though de Man was at Hopkins when I was there, I never studied with him, nor even read him. However, prompted by this and that, I decided to pick up Blindness and Insight and read around. The first (though not quite the only) essay I read is “Form and Intent in the American New Criticism.” Consider this passage (p. 25 in Blindness and Insight, 2nd Edition, Revised):

“Intent” is seen, by analogy with a physical model, as a transfer of a psychic or mental content that exists in the mind of the poet to the mind of a reader, somewhat as one would pour wine from a jar into a glass. A certain content has to be transferred elsewhere, and the energy necessary to effect the transfer has to come from an outside source called intention.

This much is what cognitive linguists would later identify as the conduit metaphor. The key text is Michael Reddy’s “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language” (in Andrew Ortony, ed. Metaphor and Thought, 2nd edition, pp. 164-201). Reddy’s article is based on 53 examples sentences. Here are the first three (p. 166):

(1) Try to get your thoughts across better

(2) None of Mary’s feelings came through to me with any clarity

(3) You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean

Reddy’s argument is that many of our statements about communication seemed to be based on the notion of sending something (the thought, idea, feeling) through a conduit, hence he calls it the conduit metaphor. He knows that communication doesn’t work that way, but that’s not is central issue. His central concern is to detail the way we use the conduit metaphor to structure our thinking about communication.

Continue reading "De Man, Fish, and Simulation"

Monday, December 12, 2005

From Frye to the Buffisstas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/12/05 at 12:13 PM


While Culler’s 1975 Structuralist Poetics was obviously influenced by structualism and semiotics, it was also influenced by Chomskyian linguistics. Thus the book’s first chapter is entitled “The Linguistic Foundation.” It ends with the assertion: “Linguistics is not hermeneutic. It does not discover what a sequence means or produce a new interpretation of it but tries to determine the nature of the system underlying the event” (p. 31). I think that Culler is correct, even if we allow for a linguistics with a robust semantics. It’s not clear that we have such a linguistics, but considerable work has been done on it since Culler wrote his book.

But, as the book was being published, structuralism was giving way to deconstruction and other post-structuralist methods. From my point of view, that is to say, in view of my particular intellectual interests, that was a choice in favor of continued hermeneutics and against the prospect of a non-hermenutic study of literature. That’s what I’ve been up to.

But it’s one thing to say that “linguistics is not hermeneutic,” it’s quite something else to understand what that means, what it entails as an intellectual practice. That’s not what I’m trying to do right here and now. Here and now I want to look at hermeneutics, perhaps so the space of a non-hermeneutic criticsm can emerge through opposition.

Continue reading "From Frye to the Buffisstas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way"

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Who Owns Shakespeare?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/06/05 at 09:35 PM

Prelude: Before getting down to business, I would like to thank John Holbo and his fellow Valvists (Valvologists? Valvolytes? Valvoholics?) for inviting me here for a run of guesting.

As some of you may know, I am an independent scholar. For the past three decades or so I have been working out how to use the newer psychologies - the cognitive sciences, neurosciences, primate ethology - in framing the study of culture, with literature being my main but not my only focus. I got interested in these psychologies as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins back in the middle and late 60s. I was there when the French landed, though I didn’t attend any of the sessions of the 1966 Structuralist symposium. I saw de Man in the halls, took a course with Hillis Miller, and took several courses and independent studies with Richard Macksey. But Chomsky and Piaget - and later Eric Lenneberg, Sydney Lamb, Karl Pribram, and ultimately David Hays - interested me more than Derrida or Lacan. So that’s what I studied.

One of my first articles was published in the Centennial Issue of MLN, dated October 1976. The issue was edited by Richard Macksey and reflected his sense of the lay of the critical land. Northrup Fry had the lead essay, with a reply by Samuel Weber. Other contributors include Edward Said, Walter Benn Michaels, Eugenio Donato, and Stanley Fish. I was thus in august company, and honored for it. But that elevation is not why I mention the issue.

I mention it because my essay, on “Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics,” was unlike any of the others. And yet Macksey thought it appropriate to a survey of the contemporary critical scene. Whatever it was that was going on back then, it had not ossified into what is now sometimes known as Theory. It was flexible enough to include hard-core cognitive science, which is what my essay was.

Obviously, my work did not catch on, nor, as far as I know, was there anything like it in literary circles at the time. The winds of critical interest and desire blew in different directions. It was to be two decades before literary critics would decided to give cognitive science a spin, and the cognitive science they’ve been spinning is, for better or worse, rather different than what I was doing back then.

My objective in these guest posts is not so much to make a direct case for what I did back then, or even for what I am doing now. That work must make its own case. Rather, I’m more interested in exploring how that work - then and now - fits in, where it lies in the disciplinary topography. To that end I have more or less planned out two commentaries that take observations by Northrup Frye, Geoffrey Hartmann, Paul de Man, and Stanley Fish as starting points.

Before I get around to either of those, however, I want to contemplate a question that ran up and bit me in the face a couple of weeks ago:

Who Owns Shakespeare?

Continue reading "Who Owns Shakespeare?"
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