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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

How To Do Things With Things

Posted by John Holbo on 10/02/07 at 10:03 AM

In contemporary Anglo-American philosophy (analytic philosophy, let’s call it), there’s a fairly thick literature on ‘functions’ - not in the mathematical sense (though they’ve got that, too, if you want it); in the ordinary artifact/organism sense. Eyes have functions. Screwdrivers have functions.

If you care to introduce yourself to the discussion, you might start with this Peter Godfrey-Smith paper, “Functions: Consensus Without Unity” (PDF) [no subscription needed]. He talks about two major, competing models. There are so-called ‘Wright functions’. Roughly:

The function of X is Z means

(a) X is there because it does Z,
(b) Z is a consequence (or result) of X’s being there.

The first condition says this thing is a screwdriver not just in virtue of its suitability for driving screws but in virtue of its having been made to be suitable . It’s supposed to be a screwdriver. The second line says that (at least sometimes, potentially) the thing actually works.

This is blessedly simple and, Godfrey-Smith notes, Larry Wright’s original 1973 paper came as a breath of fresh air - thank goodness I’m not telling you about all that thick, Hempelian stuff clogging the pipes in the 1960’s. (Yuck.)

Of course, then things get complicated again. Pesky counter-examples. Fixes. Some elegance is lost.

The alternative is so-called ‘Cummins functions’. Godfrey-Smith: “On Cummins analysis, functions are not effects which explain why something is there, but effects which contribute to the explanation of more complex capacities and dispositions of a containing system.”

Intuitively, Cummins is the Wimsatt and Beardsley of the function literature. You aren’t peeking behind the curtain to see whether some maker meant this wheel to turn that gear. “Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work.” Whereas Wright is the Knapp and Michaels. As Godfrey-Smith emphasizes, Wright is very concerned to mark the function/accident distinction. So, for example, a Wordsworth poem washed up on the beach, randomly - through some bizarre confluence of tide and erosion - does not have the function of being a poem, because the fact that it can perform that function is not why it is there. Cummins, by contrast, would be happy to say it is a functional poem. (I think.)

There’s a lot of ink spilled over ‘meaning’ by literary theorists (you noticed that, too?) There isn’t much discussion of ‘function’ (in the relevant sense). But, actually, there is a pretty obvious reason why ‘function’ would be the preferable point of focus. It’s more neutral. It is hardly obvious that every bit of a poem that does something has to mean something. Meter doesn’t mean anything. (Not obviously.) But it contributes to the workings of the work. (If you are inclined to insist it ‘means’, probably all you really mean is that it ‘does’. It is important.) “A poem should not mean but be” is somewhat overwrought, in a well-wrought urnish way; but ‘a poem should not mean, but do’ would be much better.

Has any literary theorist really written about ‘functions’, in this sense? (Maybe the fact that it is mostly of interest to philosophers of biology has caused it to be overlooked, as a topic. But it’s a pretty damn big topic, really.) You might think it’s just an invitation to have exactly all the same damn arguments all over again, with ‘function’ just put every damn place that ‘meaning’ once appeared. But actually I think that would not quite be it. I think it would clarify a number of things.

UPDATE: Clearly, this post is intolerably unclear in one regard. I ran together two questions: 1) Have any theorists talked about the function of literature? - or given functional analyses of anything? - obviously a rip-roaring ‘yes!’ to that question. 2) Have any theorists theorized what it is to have a function, rather than no function, or an infinite number of functions? That’s the one that, at least maybe, literary theorists haven’t addressed. (Thank you for your patience with my unclear formulations.)


Comments

It is hardly obvious that every bit of a poem that does something has to mean something. Meter doesn’t mean anything. (Not obviously.) But it contributes to the workings of the work. (If you are inclined to insist it ‘means’, probably all you really mean is that it ‘does’. It is important.) “A poem should not mean but be” is somewhat overwrought, in a well-wrought urnish way; but ‘a poem should not mean, but do’ would be much better.

Well, John, perhaps you need to start reading around in the stuff I’ve been publishing about literature for the last thirty years. I’m very much interested in what literature does and how it does it, what the pieces do, and how they do it. It’s difficult and tricky stuff.

For a crude global take on what works of literature do, you might start with my recent open letter to Pinker, and his reply (which I’ve entered into the comments section). Here the issue is whether or not literature, as a whole, is biologically adaptive (that is to say, has a functional role in our biological nature). Pinker has been saying “no” for a decade and others, in response, have been saying “yes.” It looks like I may have gotten to him. In any event, you should also look into the Darwinian lit crit literature for stabs at a functional account of literature.

For a more refined take on the problem, take a look at my essay on literary form, where I begin recasting form in computational terms. Thus, I suggest: “Our task as literary critics in the age of the cognitive and neurosciences is to not explicate what individual texts mean, but to understand how they shape the experience of reading. That requires, among other things, that we undertake an examination of form with the ultimate goal of understanding how the formal properties of literary works are apprehended by the brain.”

By Bill Benzon on 10/02/07 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In contemporary Anglo-American philosophy (analytic philosophy, let’s call it)....

Ha! I’ve got Holbo on the run. Is he or isn’t he an analytic philosopher? If he is, why is he afraid to say so? If not, what is he?

Victory will inevitably be mine.

By John Emerson on 10/02/07 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Has any literary theorist really written about ‘functions’, in this sense?

Wouldn’t the long Marxist tradition, with its investment in ideology and mystification and contradiction etc, fall under the rubric of function. Not when analyzing the content necessarily, but when working on what it is that literature does to its reader, the formal properties etc.

To think of a work as either mystifying or enlightening through estrangement etc is to think of it in terms of function, not meaning, right?

By CR on 10/02/07 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Millikan reference hints at why Wright-style functions might be problematic for poetic effects: you include things you don’t want if you don’t make reference to a lineage of replicated tokens, which doesn’t square very well with innovation. (Or maybe you don’t need this with literature, since it undeniably *is* designed.)

(I guess establishing such lineages is part of what some types of criticism might attempt, but still for Millikan’s story you need to be able to say “this structure/pattern/whatever was reused because --causal because-- it gives rise to this effect”, which gets you back where you started.)

Disclaimer: I know pretty much nothing about literary theory. I do happen to be attending a course Ruth Millikan is teaching, but that’s fairly new ground for me too. Take with grain of salt, &c.

By Tikitu on 10/02/07 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can’t think of anything off the top of my head that systematically “theorises” the functions of or the functional aspect of literature, but that’s probably because I usually don’t have the stamina for systematic discussions of anything. Sociology would have a lot to say about the function of literature, but not in the sense that I think you’re talking about, John: i.e. the specific “literary” functions (as distinct from, say, the civilising or nation-building functions) of literary texts.

My guess is that what you’re after is most likely to be found on the “Anglo-American” side of the Great Philosophy Divide. By the same token, the idea that literature might be explored in relation to the question of function is pretty much taken for granted on the “Continental” side of the GPD. E.g.

We will never ask what a book means, as signifier or signified; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities, in which other multiplicities its own are inserted and metamorphised. (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus)

Literarity is not a natural essence, an intrinsic property of the text. It is the correlative of an intentional relation to the text, an intentional relation which integrates in itself, as a component or an intentional layer, the more or less implicit consciousness of rules which are conventional or institutional — social, in any case. Of course, this does not mean that literarity is merely projective or subjective — in the sense of the empirical subjectivity or caprice of each reader. The literary character of the text is inscribed on the side of intentional object, in its noematic structure, on could say, and not only on the subjective side of the noetic act. There are “in” the text features which call for the literary reading and recall the convention, institution, or history of literature. This noematic structure is included (as “nonreal”, in Husserl’s terms) in subjectivity, but a subjectivity which is non-empirical and linked to an intersubjective and transcendental community.... Without suspending the transcendent reading, but by changing one’s attitude with regard to the text, one can always reinscribe in a literary space any statement — a newspaper article, a scientific theorem, a snatch of conversation. There is therefore a literary functioning and a literary intentionality, an experience rather than an essence of literature (natural or historical). The essence of literature, if we hold to this word, is produced as a set of objective rules in an original history of the “acts” of inscription and reading. (Derrida, Acts of Literature)

(BTW, I cite these passages, John, not to trumpet the “superiority” of “Continental” philosophy, but only because you’ve been showing some interest in reading those pieces of writing, from that side of the GPD, that touches on issues you’re interested in.)

Foucault is another obvious example, e.g. his stuff on the “author-function”. He, of course, is less interested in the specific “literary functions” of literary texts than in thinking about the institutions “outside” the literary text that function with the text and enable it to function as literature. But both the passages above show, I think, that Derrida and D&G are very much interested in underscoring the relations of exteriority that enable literature (or, indeed, something else) to function as literature (or, indeed, as something else).

By on 10/02/07 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Emerson, you’ve got the phraseology wrong. It goes: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the analytic philosophy party?”

Thanks Bill, I will give a look.

CR, I should have been clearer. I don’t mean to hint that no one has ever theorized about the function of literature, or given broadly functional explanations of its role, so forth. (Obviously anyone who has ever talked about the social role of literature has done that. And so lots have done it, well or badly.)

My question comes in sort of a half (or whole) step down, analytically.

What do we mean by ‘function’?

In virtue of what does an eye or a screwdriver have a function (rather than no function, two functions, or an infinite number of functions)?

Function is a normative notion. How does the normativity get in? In biology, in virtue of what is a leg ‘for’ walking. (Even deformed legs are ‘for’ walking, even if they can’t walk. You want to explain how something is a leg by establishing its membership in a larger class, some of whose members can perform the function.) Biologists are obviously especially interested in figuring out why it makes sense for them to have such teleological language. I don’t think that Marx, for example, ever dealt with this very basic question, though he wrote a lot so I could be proven wrong. Marx traded, rather, in arguments that things have rather DIFFERENT functions than people tend to suppose. That presupposes a notion of function, in general. Rather than constituting an account of what it is to have a function. Also, ‘ideology, mysticism and contradiction’ seem to me to move us back into the ‘meaning’ arena. (Theory of hidden meaning is still theory of meaning.)

Tikitu, thanks for commenting. Interesting to get a Millikan student showing up so promptly. I’ve been reading a lot of her stuff and I’m pretty impressed. Millikan would definitely be on the Wright side, of course. Which I tend to think is the right side. I think my attempt to extend her sort of ‘proper function’ analysis to literature would, to some degree, be friendly critique of her position. Because it will work up to a point - and clear up a few things - but not be entirely satisfactory.

I should do a follow-up post in which I indicate in what way ‘function’ analysis might clear up issues of ‘meaning’ analysis. That will make my focus clearer.

rob, thanks for the examples. That’s useful, actually. But I would say the same thing to you that I said to CR. I should have been clearer. I’m aware that lots of people have talked about the function of literature. But not many have talked about the conditions of possibility of having a function. (Analogously, there was a time when lots of literary critics were trying to say what the meaning of work x was, but not many people were yet trying to theory of meaning.) It seems to me that Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida and Foucault are helping themselves to a roughly intuitive sense of function (something that ‘does something’). They aren’t examining the notion of function, per se. But I could be wrong about that. But the bit you quote seems to me to confirm me in my suspicion.

It was misleading of me to run three points together: everyone thinks theory of literature should be theory of literary meaning; no one theorizes the function of literature; no one theorizes what it is to have a function (rather than no function).

I am mostly focusing on number three, but I rather sloppily sounded as though I was talking about all three. (I only meant to bring in 1 & 2 as supporting cast, in effect.)

By John Holbo on 10/02/07 at 10:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to complete that last thought: I specifically didn’t mean my ‘no one talks about this stuff’ claim to cover 1 & 2. It definitely doesn’t cover 2. It only roughly covers 1. There are lots of examples of people saying ‘we should resist having to talk about everything in terms of meaning’, although there are fewer examples of people successfully resisting. (Derrida is a good example of resisting, but not successfully, I would think.)

By John Holbo on 10/02/07 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In film theory, David Bordwell precisely uses the term “function” (rather than “mean") to discuss how formal elements of film work to tell a story. When I teach film to undergrads I find it particularly useful to talk about how elements “function,” instead of “mean.” Mostly because “mean” tends to equated by students--and alas many scholars--with symbolic and/or metaphorical interpretations. Symbolism is only one of numerous ways film elements can function (and not the most prevelant by any stretch).

By on 10/02/07 at 10:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, Bordwell is a good example. Also, there is our old buddy Scott McCloud and Understanding Comics. Lots of function talk in there.

By Bill Benzon on 10/02/07 at 11:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I agree that Wright is right as far as (call them for simplicity) poetic effects go. (And as far as I can see, grain of salt, &c.) And the more I think about it the less I think you need the Millikan lineages.

What you need instead is to clarify the “because” of “X is there because it does Z”. I’m having trouble coming up with a rocks-in-the-stream counterexample, because whatever “because” you choose has to at least acknowledge the deliberate placement of X by an author. It’s hard to see how an author could participate in a loop like the rocks, that is definitely causal but not intentional.

As far as I can see this is a good thing, since (as I said) Millikan’s story doesn’t deal very smoothly with innovation. (At least, not with wide-spread and large-scale innovation—this isn’t supposed to turn up in biology, I guess you’ll know better than I if it really appears in literature.)

Interesting to get a Millikan student showing up so promptly.

Pure chance—she’s not usually even on my continent. And I stop by here pretty rarely, it’s a nice combination of coincidences.


I think my attempt to extend her sort of ‘proper function’ analysis to literature would, to some degree, be friendly critique of her position. Because it will work up to a point - and clear up a few things - but not be entirely satisfactory.

I should do a follow-up post in which I indicate in what way ‘function’ analysis might clear up issues of ‘meaning’ analysis. That will make my focus clearer.

I’d be interested to see both those.

By Tikitu on 10/03/07 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmm… Another lost post.

Let’s see if the second try works:

I’m aware that lots of people have talked about the function of literature. But not many have talked about the conditions of possibility of having a function.... It seems to me that Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida and Foucault are helping themselves to a roughly intuitive sense of function (something that ‘does something’). They aren’t examining the notion of function, per se.

Function is a normative notion.... Marx traded ... in arguments that things have rather DIFFERENT functions than people tend to suppose. That presupposes a notion of function, in general. Rather than constituting an account of what it is to have a function.

Thanks for the clarification, John. I’ll be interested to see where you go with this. As a point about how Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida and Foucault (or DGDF, as I shall forever more refer to them) relate to or engage with the notion of “function”, you’re probably right to say that none of them examines the notion of function per se, in the sense of writing at length on concepts of function (although, one of the many things F historicises in The Order of Things is the human sciences’ adoption, from biology, of the notion of function).

By the same token, I don’t know that their occasional appeals to the term “function” amount to an intuitive sense of function — or if it’s an intuitive sense, that’s not the same as it being the classical sense of “function”. I’m quite happy with the sense of function as a “does something”, insofar as that seems to me to be the loosest sense one could give to the term without foregoing the idea of “function” in favour of “event”, i.e. function as a singularity, a singular functioning that happens in relation to or within a network of exteriorities. The latter would, on my reading, be closer to how DGDF imagine the notion of function, and precisely because they would hope to resist the normative and teleological implications of the classical concept of function. (Whether they succeed in resisting thus is, as you say, another matter.)

To put it another way, a certain form of sociology (now thoroughly problematised from within, but undoubtedly still very influential to the extent that it has helped define the terms by which we think about questions of function) has a certain understanding of the function of social institutions, where “function” effectively means “purpose” or “end” (i.e. of maintaining society). In other words, it’s a teleological understanding of the “function” of social institutions, and is, as you say, inherently normative, insofar as it must presuppose a specific conception of (ideal) society in order to distinguish between the functional and dysfunctional aspects of social interaction, etc., and indeed insofar as it presupposes that the maintenance of social structures, etc., is inherently good. This concept of function also sees functions as something like a property of the institution (or whatever) that is said to function or to have a function. So the function belongs to the entity as part of its identity, and is not dependent upon any relation of exteriority (notwithstanding the fact that the function can be conceived as such only on the basis of the entity’s presumed place within the whole; i.e. it is seen to function only in relation to a conception of the whole).

By the same, even in sociology — even in functionalist sociology — “function” is sometimes understood as “effect” or as “correlate”, and these terms seem to me to be far less restrictive than the idea of function as “purpose”. So, when I said above that I’m happy with the sense of function as “does something”, I’m thinking in the sense that that phrase might better accommodate the sense of “effect” and “correlate”, against the idea of “purpose”; i.e. they are non-teleological conceptions of function (up to a point, at any rate). More importantly, perhaps is the fact that those terms orient the sense of function towards exteriority; i.e. “effect” as something separate from the thing that seemingly functions, and “correlate” as casting function as a “functioning with”. (And here’s where my suspicions about how DGDF conceive of function and about the extent to which they conform with my take on function can be evidenced: note that D&G ask what a book “functions with”, D. explicitly refers to literarity as a “correlative”, and F. is all about the effects of discursive practices, etc.)

Sorry for so many words, which is all just me thinking out loud really. To get back to the specific matter at hand, I think if there’s a systematic discussion of what it means for something to have a function to be found, you’ll probably find it in sociology, and if you’re wanting to systematically explore the more specific question of what it means for literature to have a function, I reckon that would be a very interesting project.

By on 10/03/07 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Note: Somewhere in one of the essays in Is There A Text? Fish notes that eveyone who comes along the pike with a new interpretative approach claims that they’re not interpreting - like those other folks who get it wrong - that they’re beyond meaning and are simply describing what’s there. Now I don’t for a minute think Fish should be allowed to get away with asserting that he’s thereby dispatched all such claims forever and ever. Each such claim needs to be considered on its merits. But you might want to find that passage, John, and take it into account as you pursue the function line.

By Bill Benzon on 10/05/07 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Function of lit:  2 schools:

1) To entertain:  the moving parts work harmoniously to produce a unitary, integral whole (e.g., story).  The function of the work of lit is to be itself and in so being it produces an “aesthetic experience"/pleasure in the reader (Beardsley)

2) To enlighten:  the work of lit contains/conveys meaning, is analogous to a structural signifier, functions to ignite the interpretative sense in the reader.  Subspecies of 2) is the utilitarian ‘propagandize’

1) & 2) imply two separate theories of ‘function’ roughly consonant with two English verbs:  1) to be-the work (just) is and it either ‘works’ or it doesn’t of it own accord; 2) to have-the work has (meaning, no meaning) and it’s up to us to determine as much and use it as we will.  The two theories are incongruent and imply fundamentally opposed ontologies.

By on 10/05/07 at 03:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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