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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

BEYOND HERMENEUTICS?

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.



FRYE, HARTMAN, AND THE BUFFISTAS

Just what is the relationship between critic and text? What is the relationship between the critic’s commentary on the text and the text itself? What are we trying to achieve through criticism?

And so forth.

Let’s consider a passage from the “Polemical Introduction” to Northrup Frye’s well-known Anatomy of Criticism (pp. 27-28):

The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospels, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature. Otherwise the reading will not be a genuine literary experience, but a mere reflection of critical conventions, memories, and prejudices. The presence of incommunicable experienced in center of criticism will always keep criticism as art, as long as the critic recognized that criticism comes out of it but cannot be built on it.

Thus, for Frye, there was a clear distinction between simple reading and interpretive or critical reading. Yet he would not have penned those words if that distinction was not already so problematic that it had to be asserted at some length in his polemical introduction.

A page later Frye reiterates the need for that polemical introduction when he says (p. 29) “The strong emotional repugnance felt by many critics toward any form of schematism in poetics is again the result of a failure to distinguish criticism as a body of knowledge from the direct experience of literature, where every act is unique, and classification has no place.” That is to say, Frye is making the distinction because he wants to anatomize literature itself - not criticism as his book title says - and he is guarding against those who claim that such activity destroys literature. It doesn’t destroy literature, Frye says, because the experience of literature is one thing, while thinking about literature, classifying its forms and techniques, analyzing its themes, and delineating its styles, is quite something else again.

This seems obvious enough to me and I am willing, at least for the moment, to take it a face value.  Now I want to consider a remark by Geoffrey Hartman. These remarks are from an essay on “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” that I recently published in PSYART.

In the title essay from The Fate of Reading (1975) Hartman is grappling with the fact that, no matter how intensely critics are oriented toward the texts of which they write, that very act of writing requires distance from those texts. One cannot write about the text if and while one is immersed in reading it. Complaining that contemporary theorists-mostly French or under French influence-have come to privilege such writing over reading, Hartman asks (p. 272):  "To what can we turn now to restore reading, or that conscious and scrupulous form of it we call literary criticism?" [emphasis mine, WLB].

Hartman then observes that "modern ‘rithmatics’-semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism-are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing." I believe that Hartman is correct and that his list of modern "rithmatics" should be extended to include the newer psychologies. These psychologies are not going to restore the critic to that intimacy with the text which Hartman so earnestly desires. That is a loss. But the loss is not so much that of textual communion, but of the well-intentioned rhetorical stance that such textual communion is the proper and possible end of literary criticism.

That communion has always been a mirage, an impossible dream. One can always commune with a text simply by reading it without attempting to figure out what it really means. But the moment one attempts to explicate that text, one is playing a different game, located in a different psycho-cultural space.

How’d we get from Frye’s insistence distance to Hartmann’s nostalgic desire to eliminate distance? I don’t think that Hartmann is, in any deep way, any closer to the texts than Frye is, but they think about that relationship in different ways. Why?

By way of comparison, let’s consider fan commentary. The Phoenix is devoted to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (BTVS) and related programs. I don’t know where it stands in the array of online Buffy sites, it just happens to be the Buffy site I know about. I lurked among these folks when they were chatting at Salon’s Table Talk. When TT went pay-to-post these Buffistas decamped, first for World Crossing, and then for their own site (hence its name). There is, of course a lot of chatting about Buffy episodes, but also other Josh Whedon programs, and they also write, post, and discuss fan fiction. While many of them are fairly sophisticated - and some would seem to have some cultural studies and/or lit crit in their background - and they are quite serious in their devotion to all things Buffy, this is a fan site. It is not academic. Any learning on display, is displayed lightly.

These folks do not ponder their relationship with the Buffy textsin the manner of Frye and Hartmann. I’m sure they recognize some difference between watching Buffy and commenting on the show - though many of them have posted short comments (“Ohmyghod! I can’t believe they just did that,” “More kissage!”) to the web in the course of watching a show - and I rather doubt that many of them would think of chatting with one another as a way to restore some primal relationship with the show. They’re just sharing their love of BTVS with friends and comrades.

Let’s say that their discourse, any and all of it, is part of the general socio-cultural system through which expressive works like BTVS, but also Shakespeare and Austen and Murasaki and Tezuka, make their way in the world. What about the discourse of academic literary critics? Is commentary on Shakespeare a part of the Shakespeare system or does it stand above and apart from it? What about commentary on, say, Salmon Rushdie? What is the relationship between these questions - stated in terms of socio-cultural systems - and the questions of Frye and Hartmann, stated in terms of the relationship between the individual critic-reader and the text? What does this have to do with hermenuetics and non-hermeneutics?


Comments

Before someone else gets it, it’s “Joss.” Cf. “An Encounter.”

There’s also a substantial amount of academic criticism devoted to Buffy. There are several books, an on-line journal, and an annual conference, I believe.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 12/12/05 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For something that starts out with a remark referring to “Chomskyan linguistics”, the remainder of the post has very little to do with anything I could possibly relate to what I know as the linguistics highly influenced by Chomsky, and I spend a lot of time on that stuff!

I’m not accusing the author of anything here: it sounds like the book by Culler being discussed is...taking the ideas of linguistics as a science very much out of what they were intended to investigate.

By Mandos on 12/12/05 at 11:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Culler’s chapter starts out with a general characterization of structuralism as an intellectual movement, referring to Jean Piaget’s little voume on structuralism, and then moves to Saussure and Levi-Strauss and sticks with Saussure and closely related work. But there is some mention of Chomsky in this chapter, and later in the book, especially in a chapter where Culler develops a notion of literary competence intended to parallel Chomsky notion of linguistic competence, in opposition to performance.

Why would Culler even bother with Chomsky? Because the ideas where very much in the air at the time, because literature is, after all, constituted by language, and thus one might hope for some help from linguistics. Alas, the linguistic cavalry never arrived.

Culler has nothing to say about Chomsky’s technical proposals about syntax, which is OK, because they don ‘t get you very far in literary matters. What he’s interested in is the general idea of a system, one that governs language and thought but that “escape the subject” (p. 29), that is, are unconscious.

By Bill Benzon on 12/13/05 at 07:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Why would Culler even bother with Chomsky? Because the ideas where very much in the air at the time, because literature is, after all, constituted by language, and thus one might hope for some help from linguistics. Alas, the linguistic cavalry never arrived.

So to me his logic sounds like this, given this presentation:

1. Language has a notion of competence.
2. Literature is constituted by language.
3. ?
4. Literary competence!

If so, no wonder the cavalry never arrived.  What Chomsky always meant by “language” is quite different from what one means by language WRT literature.  Chomsky et al. don’t *ever* mean “communication” by “language”, which is probably closer to what it means in literature.

In fact, the conclusion that Chomsky presently draws from his own work is that “communication” is a secondary or epiphenomenal function of language. ie, If there’s a “literary” subsystem of the mind, it’s probably has no resemblance to the organization of the Chomsky-linguistic component.

By Mandos on 12/13/05 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

More or less—& I don’t think Culler understood Chomsky very deeply—but things were different back then and we were looking for tools.

You have George Lakoff taking what Valdimir Propp did with the analysis of fairy tales, and attempting to formalize it in imitation of Chomsky’s syntactic formalisms, and coming up with the notion of a story grammar.* The notion of story grammar has since taken a life of its own and, while largely abandoned by linguistics, AI folks, and literary critics, seems to have found a home for itself in primary and secondary eduction (just google the term & you’ll see what I mean). Other folks attempted to develop text grammars: what are the features of all and only well-formed texts?

For literature, all that’s a dead end. I don’t expect that particular calvary ever to arrive.

*George Lakoff, “Structural Complexity in Fairy Tales,” The Study of Man 1 (1972): 128-50.

By Bill Benzon on 12/13/05 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Whoops, that’s “cavalry” not “calvary.”

By Bill Benzon on 12/13/05 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s the exact slip made by one the bad guys at the end of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy just before archangels come in and trash the place.

By on 12/13/05 at 01:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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