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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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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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Monday, January 14, 2008

In Response to Stanley Fish’s 2nd Post on Justifying the Humanities

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/14/08 at 07:27 AM

Below the fold, my comments on Fish’s new column on the humanities, available here (and footnoted by our own Bill Benzon here). I also submitted the comment directly to the Times. Thanks to tomemos for the initial link.

Dr. Fish,

You begin and end your post with expressions of bare aesthetic delight; in the process, you shortchange your own reading of Herbert. By explaining part of the sense of these lines, you have provided us with a persuasive account of the ironic thought of one particularly eloquent and perceptive religious thinker.

It is not the case that any reader could easily do the same, given these lines, in part because most readers will not be prepared to split “sunbeam” in two. Perhaps you are not personally religious after Herbert’s fashion; nonetheless, you are demonstrating the kind of density and complexity that a thought can possess. In this respect, all thoughts are like jokes: if Herbert had not managed to fuse the sacrifice on the cross and the sun’s beam together into one word, the effect would be lost, but the effect is also lost if the reader does not see the doubleness at work.

Thus, Herbert is an exemplary figure stylistically. By reading him, even as secular scholars, we gain an understanding of how to fashion our own thinking in similarly complex and evocative ways. But his content matters also. I am interested in Herbert’s religious sentiments because I’m interested in the possibilities of religious feeling and Christian presentations of agency: my motive is simply a better understanding of some of my fellow human beings. This has pragmatic uses, of course. It also has invisible effects: it fosters goodwill, reveals unexpected common ground, and, reflexively, makes the reader a more sensitive and curious audience for what other people say about themselves and the world.

If by “critical thinking” one means merely the capacity for analysis, and the willingness to analyze something independently, then it is true that other venues besides the academy produce critical thinking. Nonetheless, skills specific to the interpretation and production of texts differ in enormous ways from the skills specific to the analysis of sports events. Otherwise, every head coach would also be a Cicero.

This variance obtains with each of the spurious alternatives you present to us here. Talk radio, while marginally interactive (since one caller at a time can speak to the host), imposes such limits on the level of the conversation that I’m frankly amazed you would compare it to a college seminar. Political analysis is rarely interactive at all: just watching a pundit talk does not produce skilled, independent political thought. Churches are not necessarily places where critical thinking is encouraged; even when they are, it is not hard to see the value of separate, secular institutions of research and learning. Is it really necessary to point out how spiritual reflection differs from writing an essay, and even from writing a poem about spirituality?

The way you describe the research interests of scholars in the humanities makes those interests sound hermetic, but that is only because you have deliberately chosen to provide inadequate accounts. We are surrounded by iconography, political satire, astrological divination, and romantic accounts of imaginative activity (such as one finds in the enduringly popular film The Neverending Story). Anyone interested in the meaning of the culture of the present day benefits hugely from scholarly research on the history of culture.

Two final points. First, it is strange for you to insist on the relevance of your own experience in humanities departments, as you did in your previous post, while dismissing the profound experiences others have had.

Second, it is nonsense to talk about the effects of books without paying attention to the ways in which books circulate through the world. Students encounter certain books for the first time by enrolling in classes in the humanities; the opportunity for them to have a strong experience of certain texts is created by institutions of learning. It is not only a question of syllabi; it is a question of the conversations students have with each other and their instructors. Books take effect in the world because of the networks, including the institutional academic networks, we have created in support of them. 


I don’t think that Fish was claiming pure aesthetic delight in Herbert, nor was he writing that anyone could do the same analysis as he did.  He wrote about it that:

“If I had to say, I’d say that I do it because I get something like an athletic satisfaction from the experience of trying to figure out how a remarkable verbal feat has been achieved.”

Fish is describing a skill.  As with any skill, some people are better at it than others, and exercising it can often be its own reward.

You write:
“I am interested in Herbert’s religious sentiments because I’m interested in the possibilities of religious feeling and Christian presentations of agency: my motive is simply a better understanding of some of my fellow human beings. This has pragmatic uses, of course.”

But I think that you’re poaching on sociology or psychology here.  If you are really interested in a better understanding of human beings, why not turn to a science?  That’s what science does, after all, with a record of achievement that is be no means perfect or unquestioned but that quite outstrips the humanities.

I’m personally in favor of a straightforward humanistic defense of the humanities.  People are interesting to people, and anything that people do is interesting, so of course we should have people study the arts.  But really, a sociological, psychological, historical, or even (sigh) a theological approach would probably do better with learning “the possibilities of religious feeling and Christian presentations of agency” than one of studying this kind of Christian poetry.  Of course some of these other approaches are part of the humanities, but this example concerns literary interpretation.  There’s a tendency to overjustify that I think that Fish rightly attacks (although I disagree with much of the other material in his essay).

By on 01/14/08 at 09:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As human knowledge expands and evolves, certain perspectives fall out of favour, get superceded, get eliminated.

The way science beat back theology from discussions of the real world is one example of this.  Analytical philosophy’s gradual scientification is another.

The 1990’s were an interesting period as they effectively saw the humanities go through a period of intense cultural imperialism.  There was no topic that a humanities scholar could not have “input” on.  The most public example of this were the so-called science wars where humanities scholars applied their skills to actual scientific thought and were met with… well… mockery.

One of the downsides of that expansion is that a quite hermetic and closed academic world was suddenly thrown open to people from other areas and backgrounds.  The skills were exposed.  The theoretical and methodological axioms laid bare.

Joseph’s reaction to the editorial shows that when it comes to people skipping across disciplines, humanities scholars “don’t like it up em” as Corporal Jones used to say.

Humanities journals once criticised the non-feminist symbolism of biology and physics, now non-humanities people ask what exactly the point is in continuing to pay for people to read Hamlet.  Or poetry.

As Rich points out, a lot of the stuff that used to be part of the humanities can now be handled more interestingly as part of the social sciences.

I just think that this is part of the continual process of meta academia or the popular philosophy of education.  It’s a marketplace of ideas but there’s also a market for what kind of marketplace we should have.

I think Fish’s view is an interesting and valid one and it’s the kind of thinking that should be encouraged frankly.

What IS the point of a humanities education?

By Jonathan M on 01/14/08 at 09:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Kugelmass, #53 in the comment list, which is now 258 comments long.

By Bill Benzon on 01/14/08 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why doesn’t Fish just invoke Kant (the humanities as ends not means) and be done with it?

Soylent Green as written by Kant: insert exclamation here.

My fear is that Fish’s appeal to pleasure will conjure up the disciplined, pleasure-hating brigades. Physics and astronomy and business courses, they will say (and I’m NOT wading into the Times comments thread to check: high-rent Youtube commenters no doubt), that these disciplines concern things OUT THERE; they are not merely subjective; they are accessible to all (potentially); whereas the humanities are only (and here they would mean ‘merely’) things of the body, or perhaps bodies coming into contact with one another, merely erotic, ultimately no more accessible to others than sexual pleasure. Hence they deserve scorn from properly disciplined subjects. Of course the p. d. s. wouldn’t put it this way, but that’s likely what’s going on.

I realize that Fish would welcome the position of Head Lemming, but I’d rather not follow him over the cliff. Why not discover the pleasures of other disciplines too? Why leave only the humanities queer?

By Karl Steel on 01/15/08 at 10:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, I don’t think that Fish is really making a straightforward appeal to pleasure.  I’d like his piece better if he was.

As far as I can tell (see his quote in my first comment) the pleasure he’s talking about is a very specific one, the pleasure of doing a skill well.  Mark Twain, somewhere, wrote about how exercising a skill was one of the best pleasures or something.  But in that sense the sciences are no different.  When you look at a radio-astronomy set of observations of an interstellar cloud and successfully (or so you guess) pick out the areas of star formation, the pleasure is no different than the pleasure in reading Herbert’s poetry and successfully (or so you guess) picking out what he means by “sunbeam”.

So Fish’s argument doesn’t seem to me to be about any pleasure specific to literary texts.  Much less something that takes literary texts to stand in for all of the humanities.  Rather he seems to be defending a sort of pleasure common to all of academia.  The pleasure of disciplined investigation, perhaps?  I think that it’s possible to make a humanistic defense, as above, that more or less covers this, but it would cover the sciences as well as the humanities, and not speak to whatever special characteristics the humanities have.

By on 01/15/08 at 12:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I agree with you that one could take Fish’s almost Hemingway-ish defense of performing skillfully (or gracefully) and tie it in to a defense of the humanities.  I don’t think it’s a problem that the sciences and humanities are each grounded in the same human impulses: (1) our tendency toward reflection; (2) our love of a good performance.  The hard and human sciences are different professionally, different methodological, but at some radical level, each speaks to the same latent impulses.  Which is no doubt why someone like Plato or Aristotle didn’t draw lines between asking questions about matter and asking questions about society and asking questions about drama.  It’s the “asking questions” part that each saw as fundamental.

What’s difficult is that literary studies involves asking questions about other ways in which humans ask questions.  A story or poem is a way of wondering about the world.  A reading of a story or poem is way of wondering about wondering about the world.  Hard science doesn’t involve this meta-level.  Wondering in the sciences is wondering about things as dead matter.  Once science begins to wonder about wonder, it approaches philosophy. 

(This does back to my position all the way back when I first started haunting The Valve: literary scholarship is literature by other means.  That is to say, each equals wondering about the human, the world, the gods, the rocks, the sky.)

By on 01/15/08 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I just find it amusing that someone can spend his entire life studying and teaching literature, (even achieving a certain fame or notoriety for doing so), and still not evince the slightest understanding of what literature is “about” or “for”. So we’re to be caught stuck between the reifications of scientistic objectivism and the meaningless loop-de-loops of literary technicians. I’d thought that Gadamer had provided a long time ago a cogent account of the pitfalls of modelling the humanities on the natural scientific conception of method and of the “justification” of the humanities in terms of the legitimate scope of interpretive understanding.

By on 01/15/08 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

346 comments to Fish2. I note that Rohan Maitzen mentioned Hard Times in a comment on JK’s first post. Here’s comment 346, by Tom:

I am reminded of Gradgrind, in Dickens’ HARD TIMES. “Girl number 20. What is a horse?” Sissy Jupe is held up to scorn for answering in terms of beauty.

We can’t talk about utility and beauty in the same breath, and have never been able to. So?

By Bill Benzon on 01/15/08 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Humanties: tough to get work when you spendlots of time w9th this stuff unless you go on to become a lawyer, an academic (like Fish), or sork for CIA, NSA.Got a Ph..D but as mommy says: but my son is not a REAL doctor. Fish can enjoy and appreciate for he made a fine living with the humanities background...but for others?

By fred lapides on 01/15/08 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies for not responding to these comments sooner; I’m recovering from a rather miserable illness.

Rich, there really is a blurred line in Fish’s two posts between aesthetic pleasure on the one hand, and the craftsman’s pleasure on the other. He’s not only talking about one or the other.

I’m all for Fish getting pleasure out of the work of literary criticism. I’m also in favor of a watch repairman enjoying his work—nonetheless watches have a use, and it’s good for us when they’re in working order. Having extracted the kernel of meaning from Herbert’s poem, and having enjoyed doing so, Fish has no idea what to do with what he’s found. He seems to believe that the communication has no value if his religious views aren’t in line with Herbert’s.

Let me frame the question a bit differently: why is it, when people want to express themselves, that they frequently don’t write books of psychology and sociology? Because poems, novels, and the like have expressive possibilities that scientific monographs do not. These expressions are not merely interesting; they are sources of knowledge, and one could not have comparable experiences via any other discipline. That is, if there are times when nothing other than a work of imaginative literature will suffice to write, then obviously there are times when that is the only thing it will suffice to read and discuss.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 06:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One last addition: as psychological subjects, human beings produce symptoms, complexes, and kinds of relation to psychological norms. As sociological subjects, human beings produce cultures, sub-cultures, practices, and communities. As literary subjects, human beings produce texts.

Each set of products is interesting, at least to me; each is distinguishable from the others; none must reduce down to the pleasure of identifying and mapping disciplinary phenomena, though for the specialist that pleasure may be paramount.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 06:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, your comment is hilarious, and insightful about the paradigm of shameful pleasure in literary studies.

John, cheers.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 06:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I wholeheartedly agree about “literature by other means.” Your comment reminded me of Heidegger’s orientation towards the “fourfold,” which he named as the earth, the sky, human beings, and the divine.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment


I am not being made uncomfortable by the rude questions of someone unfamiliar with the discipline; I am frustrated by the patronizing way that Fish seeks to cater to the worst impulses in his audience while claiming the authority of an insider. He is acting in a fashion analogous to the homeless person who carries a sign reading “PLEASE GIVE MONEY SO I CAN GET DRUNK.”

Humanities journals once criticised the non-feminist symbolism of biology and physics, now non-humanities people ask what exactly the point is in continuing to pay for people to read Hamlet.  Or poetry.

Not that this is your own inclination, but at its most extreme, the “need-to-know” approach to education creates dangerously permanent social divisions, impoverishes existence for many, and, under the false heading of utility, follows the instructions of capital to the letter.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 06:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Let me frame the question a bit differently: why is it, when people want to express themselves, that they frequently don’t write books of psychology and sociology? Because poems, novels, and the like have expressive possibilities that scientific monographs do not. These expressions are not merely interesting; they are sources of knowledge, and one could not have comparable experiences via any other discipline. “

This seems to me to run aground on the shoals of authorial intention.  When someone writes an aesthetically interesting text, they generally can’t control how it will be received.  So their expression can’t be a source of knowledge in the sense that they had knowledge and communicated it to someone else.  Their expression can be a source of aesthetic experience, but that’s not knowledge, except under what I take perhaps incorrectly to be a rather mystical-Platonic understanding of knowledge.

By on 01/17/08 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph - I agree with you about pandering to his audience (a large chunk of whom are probably of the “why should we finance intellectual curiosity?” Reaganite brigade), but surely the tone is just fair turn about?  through-out the 90’s, a particularly vocal section of the humanities chucked terms like “sexist” and “racist” at anything not within the humanities.

Rich - I think you’re being overly polite :-)

By Jonathan M on 01/17/08 at 10:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich writes: “So their expression [literary works, etc.] can’t be a source of knowledge in the sense that they had knowledge and communicated it to someone else.”

I’m not talking here about the transmission of knowledge; for example, I don’t believe that Herbert knows something about God which he then communicates to me the way someone might teach me algebra. I’m talking instead about learning how Herbert understands the world, given the peculiar nature and requirements of the literary. Psychology and sociology are interested in similar problems, but human nature discloses itself to them differently.

(What Herbert does do, which Fish underrates, is communicate to me a certain amount of knowledge about how to write. Sure, not all literary critics are capable of producing literature, but all writers have their influences, and even more prosaic work usually bears the imprint of one’s reading.)

As a complement to this point, it’s worth noting that psychologists usually do think of art as falling under their purview, yet are usually not very subtle or tolerant critics, unless they’ve had a lot of separate experience with the arts. Freud’s readings of literature tend to be eccentrically interesting with respect to specific works (Shakespeare, Sophocles), bad with respect to the meaning and function of literature generally. Other psychologists, such as the excellent writer Peter D. Kramer, are awful: Byron was depressive, it turns out.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 05:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Are you thinking of Emily Martin here? Because, as somebody who was assigned to teach her, I can say that I also did not love her. I found her persuasive but peripheral.

In the abstract, there’s little to say about accusations of racism, sexism, and opprobrity. Sometimes they’re unjustified, sometimes not. We tend to resent Foucault for his Madness and Civilization, crying out that real people with real mental health problems need real treatment, while simultaneously cherishing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It avails us little to be so prickly.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/17/08 at 05:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, all writers face the problem of transmission.  That’s Derrida’s Big Point: the writer cannot control the way her meaning is received.  Writing continues to be after the writer is dead, after the writer’s world is dead.

But that doesn’t mean that a novelist does not transmit her knowledge.  I think the difference is that a novelist is transmitting a certain kind of knowledge that is difficult to translate into simple, discursive prose, into a chunkable message. 

I just finished reading Chekhov’s *The Cherry Orchard* for the first time, and upon completing it, I found myself stunned.  I couldn’t articulate Chekhov’s message.  He seemed to be saying something about the passing of the landed gentry, the rise of the middle class and serf, the end of one period, the beginning of another.  But I couldn’t say whether Chekhov liked this or not.

Then I remembered the obvious: that’s not the point.  Chekhov had communicated perfectly, but what he was communicating was exactly what I imagined as I read the play.  He was communicating those relationships, those feelings, those conflicts, that humor, that image, etc., and all together it adds up to a complex map of a certain way of thinking and feeling about a moment in time. 

One time, a writer friend told me that dolphins communicate in sound-pictures, almost like sonar.  The sounds they make are representations that they adapted by making sounds to fit a certain state of their environment: “Tasty food nearby” or “Watch out: nasty giant squid” or “Hey, look at that cool tortoise.” One squeak or set of squeaks transmits an entire snapshot of the recently past environment. 

That’s the way art transmits knowledge.  One burst of sound that tells us the state of the world, the state of a soul.

By on 01/17/08 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph: “I’m not talking here about the transmission of knowledge; for example, I don’t believe that Herbert knows something about God which he then communicates to me the way someone might teach me algebra. I’m talking instead about learning how Herbert understands the world, given the peculiar nature and requirements of the literary.”

But as a reader, you can’t be sure that you’re learning how Herbert understands the world.  As with what Luther refers to as Derrida’s Big Point above, Herbert no longer comes into it. Luther writes, using The Cherry Orchard as an example: “He was communicating those relationships, those feelings, those conflicts, that humor, that image, etc., and all together it adds up to a complex map of a certain way of thinking and feeling about a moment in time.” But maybe not.  Maybe the map that Chekhov thought he was communicating was nothing like the impression that Luther got.

So, if we have to look as this scientistically—and, because we’re arguing about knowledge of other people, or people in general, we sort of do—then literary works are at best not knowledge, but data.  The scientist, wanting to learn how stars form, looks at data about interstellar clouds; the academic humanist, wanting to know about people, looks at literary texts.  But the knowledge proper that each communicates is supposed to be in a different kind of text, the academic publication, in which the specialized terminology used is supposed to clarify the meaning communicated so that ideally there is only one knowledgeable interpretation of what the writer wrote.

But I liked the previous posts in this series on the work of the humanities better, in which literary texts were not held up as knowledge, but as sources for creative self-definition.  Luther wrote about the burst of sound that tells us the state of a soul, but really I think that the burst of sound tells us something not about its originator, but about its hearer.

By on 01/18/08 at 08:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Rich, then communication can *never* occur.  We can never be sure that what a speaker means by “This strawberry is sweet” means the same thing I mean when I say, “This strawberry is sweet.”

This is the whole “private language” dilemma.  Two people might agree that a sweater is “blue,” but what one sees as blue the other sees as what the other would really call red. 

So we can never be sure that we’ve fully communicated.  Even if I perform a speech act like, “Drop and give me fifty push-ups,” and the person drops and gives me fifty push-ups, he might have understood my comment as meaning, “Monkeys are flaying my grandmom” and he just happened to do what I wanted him to do because he thinks that push-ups will stop monkeys from flaying grandmothers.

So we’re back to Derrida: meaning becomes indeterminate because language doesn’t possess the Presence or Idea or Spirit that would make it stable or perfect communication.  Or we say that meaning is not indeterminate—it’s authorial intention—and then we admit that all interpretations are more or less guesses.

But none of these problems are specific to art.  It’s just the nature of communication in signs.

By on 01/18/08 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, but Luther, in face-to-face communication we can go back and forth until mutual satisfaction is reached. Does that mean that a “perfect” understanding has been reached. No, probably not. But it’ll do.

One problem with these sorts of arguments is that they’re qualitative and so tend to drive to extremes. If communication isn’t absolutely perfect, then it might as well be gibberish. It’s hard to make “good enough” into an intelligible and credible position.
But “good enough” is really all we need.

BTW, I’m perfectly happy that texts “get away” from authors as soon as they’re published. Wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Authors aren’t in the perfection business. They’re in the good-enough business.

By Bill Benzon on 01/18/08 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have to agree with Bill this time.  I don’t think we can say that communication never occurs just because communication is imperfect.  The point is, though, in this example, that academic publications are ideally supposed to be written towards the communicative values rather than the expressive ones.  The purpose of the abstract of one’s academic publication is to give people a brief and clear idea of what exactly your publication is supposed to be saying.  If people in your field have a high degree of misunderstanding or of variant reading of your abstract, then something is wrong.

Literary texts, on the other hand, are supposed to leave room for contribution by the reader.  Chekhov isn’t supposed to be presenting a snapshot of his world with maximum clarity, as if he wrote down a neat list of his thoughts about the passing of the landed gentry and so on.  The contribution and involvement of the reader is what makes the literary work “timeless” rather than a historical/biographical summary of the author’s time. 

Clearly these are both extreme positions, and there are other cases in the middle.  But I think they suffice as an illustration of why I can disagree with Joseph’s formulation of literary texts leading to knowledge about people without saying that communication never occurs.  Literary texts are a form of text that are not designed for clarity or for communication.

By on 01/18/08 at 01:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Fish concedes “aesthetic wonderment” as a goal for academic humanities (and not merely--since he has conveniently limited the domain in his second post--to humanities in general). The question is whether that wonderment can be elevating in some other sense. Does it develop the character, for instance (and not just analytical thinking)? Is it a spiritual outlet for secularists? Is it therapeutic? Does it lead, as Faulkner claimed in his Nobel acceptance speech, to greater compassion and openness to the world (via contact and identification with very different kinds of minds and personae)?

We don’t have to provide a complete answer to these questions to know that something is wrong with Fish’s argument. He may limit its domain to academia, but there is a bridge between academia and the rest of the world--the classroom. Academics are not teaching students to be academic assembly line workers. They are teaching them to be interpreters--and ought not conflate academic interpretation with interpretation in general. There are many wonderful essays that not only are interpretations of other works, but are great works on their own merits; most academic papers do not fit this bill. But more important for most are their private interpretations--of themselves and the world, by way of mimetic works. Are we really to believe that becoming better interpreters of stories and their characters has nothing to do with being a better interpreter of one’s own character, one’s own story?

Yet fish wants to identify interpretation with one activity--with the kind of interpretation that is often (though not always) motivated by academic publish-or-perish careerism: the jargon laden mediocre crap that we all know--and Fish should know--is the greater part of academic writing. And I mean by jargon, obscurity included to give the illusion of profundity in interpretations that are not actually profound.

Hence there really is no justification for what many Humanities departments do--which is give refuge to bad teachers who really would rather avoid the classroom and the “humane” part of their work so that they can indulge their escapist, obsessive tinkering with trivialities. The only genuine justification for humanities departments is their teaching (and not their often pseudo-scientific research): and good teaching ought to be able to produce some aesthetic wonderment, better interpreters, and (sometimes, but not as accidentally as Fish claims) better people.

By on 01/18/08 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree: the imperfection of communication doesn’t reduce all meaning to gibberish.  It simply means that speech and writing pose similar problems: the problems of other minds.

Likewise, then, I don’t think that art cannot communicate.  A reader may never “fully” experience perfect communication, but I do think most readers take away fairly similar stuff from most texts.  There might be 10,000 essays on *Hamlet*, but they are all in agreement far more than disagreement with each other’s readings. 

As with any other communicative act, interpretation is normative.

By on 01/18/08 at 02:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From Ellen Spolsky’s “Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory As a Species of Post-Structuralism” (2002 Poetics Today 23 (1), p. 52):

...the gap between the signifier and the signified is no tragedy; it builds in the flexibility to allow the system to meet the challenge of new contexts and to use old words in new combinations and with new meanings. It is true that deviations from conventional or expected uses are risky. Attempts to communicate might fail or might not succeed unless buttressed with other communications—facial or hand gestures, pictures, paraphrases, and wordy explanations. And even then they might fail. But the prospect of never being able to adapt the representational system to new contexts is worse from the point of view of species survival. Thus one could hypothesize that the human representational system evolved in response to a tension between two needs, the need for good enough (reliable enough) representation and the need for a flexible representational system.

By Bill Benzon on 01/18/08 at 03:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LB: “Likewise, then, I don’t think that art cannot communicate.”

All right, we’ve successfully rejected both the “communication does not exist” and “art can not communicate” extremes.  But there is still a lot of room for central tendencies between those.  I’d say that communication is the primary purpose of most non-literary text, and that communication is not the primary purpose of most literary text.

That last is a bit complex, of course.  In fact the literary writer may be using all sorts of craft to produce a particular effect, without letting the naive reader realize that this is being done.  Joseph, somewhere in these threads, refers to something like this: literary texts as knowledge about technique.  But again, I don’t think that’s really what is meant by communication of knowledge.  If you study a particular painting, you may be able to prove that the artist who painted it worked with a camera obscura, and this may important knowledge about artist techniques of that time.  But the painting doesn’t communicate “Look, I used a camera obscura!” even if its effect relies on some kind of accurate perspective that would be impossible without one.

By on 01/18/08 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, you might want to take a look at my long open letter to Steven Pinker in which I take his ideas about indirect communication (from his current book) and refit them to cover literature. His reply indicates some measure of agreement. You can find the exchange here:


By Bill Benzon on 01/18/08 at 04:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment


“Data” is exactly the right word for the way I was describing some of the information encoded in texts.

If you personally like to emphasize the function of art as a means of self-definition, or perhaps to ascribe that function to culture more generally, you’ll be very much in the right. The interaction between texts and selves doesn’t make them uncommunicative. Defining yourself through acts of writing makes little sense without an audience. Furthermore, a novel like Hard Times or Bleak House isn’t only an effort at self-definition. It’s also a contextualized social critique; or, to use Luther’s gentler vocabulary, a picture of the state of things.

There is agreement between texts; while the literary form of the play enables Chekhov to avoid being didactic about the social changes in Russia, his text is meaningful because it is congruent in both form and content with all sorts of other texts, including other plays and historical records of change in Russia. In other words, I can still be interested in how a text “understands” the world without needing the author to confirm my reading. This gets back to some earlier discussions of intentionality from “The Haunting Wordsworth” and the discussions of good faith in blogging.

Likewise, while there’s no absolute link between blog texts and people, I’m sure that most of us here can feel continuities that point to some person, out there in objective reality, who we have never seen. Luther sounds reasonably like Luther, Rich like Rich, me like me, and so forth.

For an artist, looking at a painting absolutely does have an element of wondering about craft; I’m teaching Alberti’s “On Painting” right now, and Alberti moves effortlessly back and forth between the analysis of finished products and the study of prerequisite techniques.

One of the peculiar features of text is that the technique is immanently present on the page: by reading Hemingway, we see everything about how he did it, and we potentially gain by his influence. (Or turn out unpunctuated crap.)

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/18/08 at 05:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I love your definition of jargon; it’s very helpful.

But look, mediocrity is everywhere, particularly when it comes to works of the imagination (and I would include criticism in that category). While I am personally frustrated with certain parts of postmodern theory, mostly you are talking about chaff that we’ll never be able to avoid; it is a by-product of a wonderfully large humanities industry, and the price we pay for works of criticism (such as, say, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World) that permanently enrich our world.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/18/08 at 05:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So would it help with some of the perplexities here about communication, meaning, interpretation, and cognition, to define what literature is “about” and “for”? Literature, in the modern sense, as a fictive or imaginative discourse, “creative writing”, as differentiated out and established since the 17th century, is a formal-rational discourse, just as are the natural sciences, law, historiography, economics, etc. A formal rational discourse abstracts out certain aspects of the full and concrete experience of the world,- (it matters little that the “full and concrete experience of the world” is itself a myth, since it’s the necessary counterweight to the abstractions of formal-rational discourse),- and recombines them in a projective-constructive delineation of an object-domain, in terms of which the “data” of experience is examined and developed in a way pre-compatiblized with its requirements. So, for example, initially, physics concerns the motions and collisions of bodies in space, chemistry concerns the properties and reactivities of combinations of substances, law concerns the field of social actions with respect to their legitimacy or sanctionability, etc. So what is the object-domain of literature? It is the modal-relational dimension of meaning-constitution that underlies the very possibility of ordinary communicative interaction in the life-world, let alone the modes of formal-rational discourse that are abstracted and projected out of it. Language/meaning is always a relation to an other, even before it is “meaning”, before it functions and denotes. In other words, human relatedness and even embodied, fleshly human contact is a component of the constitution of meaning, of the meaningfulness of meaning, from the get-go. And the experience of situated human relatedness to the world is always mediated by the modal relation to the other(s). Literature, in other words, “thematizes” the modal relation to the other, which underlies all human linguistic communication, including formal-rational discourse, but equally disappears from its establishment and registration. It is the Levinasian saying that always gets converted into the said and must always be unsaid and resayed to be heard. In the alternative vocabulary of Analytic philosophy, literary discourse functions by suspending the illocutionary force of utterances, in favor of allowing the “play” of such forces. In other words, what literature allows is the play of both modalizations and modes of discourse. Literature mixes “things” up, providing a counter-weight to the value of things and the transcendence of experience, always particular and contextual, into “certain” knowledge. That is partly why it is so hard to define what literature is “about” and “for”. The modal relation to the others is at once “essential” and disappearing. One of the functionless functions of literature is as a perennial satire on the mutually reifying, mutually uncomprehending relations between everyday communicative interactions in the life-world, operating under the rigidifying pressures of need and functional necessity, which otherness always sets up and disappears from, and the pretensions of formal-rational discourses, which would purport to regulate them.

By on 01/19/08 at 02:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought the above comment required translation from German.  Here’s what I got.  I think it brings out the underlying clarity of John’s words:

“over” it would in such a way help here with some the confusion over communication, meaning, interpretation and recognizing to define which literature and “for” is? “creative letter”, as and since that 17 differentiated literature, in the modern direction, like fictitious or fantasy-rich statement, out. Century manufactured, is a formal-rational statement, straight like the natural sciences, the law, the historiography, the national economy, the etc.. A formal rational statement extracts from certain aspects of of the full and concrete experience of the world, - (it makes, there it for little out, which is the “full and concrete experience of the world” even a myth the necessary counterweight to abstractions of the formal-rational statement is), - and is connected it in a project-iv-constructional design of an article area again, into expressed the “data” from the experience to be examined and developed in a way with its requirements pre compatiblized. So e.g. first physics concerns the movements and the collisions of the bodies in the area, chemistry concerns the characteristics and reactivities of the combinations of the substances, law concerns catches from social activities regarding its legitimacy or sanctionability, etc.. Like that which is the article the subject of the literature? It is the Modalverwandtschaftsmass of the meaning condition, which in the life world, let alone the modes of the formal-rational statement is the basis for the possibility of the usual communicative interaction, which is extracted and projected from it. Language/meaning is always a relation even to other one, before it is “meaning”, works before it and designation. That is, human is even more represented to the meaning relatedness and, fleshly human contact a component of the condition of the meaning, meaningfulness, by receiving going. And the experience of the set up human relatedness to the world is always obtained by the modale relation to OTHER (s). Literature, i.e., “thematizes” the modale relation on the other hand, which is the basis for all human linguistic communication, including formal-rational statement, but disappears evenly from its mechanism and from adjustment. It is the Levinasian Saying, keeps always converted into the mentioned and unsaid must and resayed be always heard. In the alternative vocabulary of analytic philosophy, literary statement works, by shifting illocutionary the strength of expressions, in favor of permitting the “play” of such forces. That is, which literature admits, is the play of modalizations and of modes of the statement. Literature mixes “things” above and places always certainly a counterweight to the value of things and to transcendence of the experience to the order, and context, into “certain” knowledge. “over” that partly is, why it is so hard to define which literature is and “for”. The modale relation to the others is immediately “substantial” and disappears. One functionless of the functions of the literature is as steady satire on reifying mutually and mutually uncomprehending to relations between daily communicative interactions in the life world and functioned under rigidifying the pressure of the necessity and the function necessity, to which other its one always sets up and disappears of, and which requirements of the formal-rational statements, which would maintain, to adjust it.

By on 01/19/08 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment


You’re right--great things go on within academia as well and better and worse work is inevitable in any field. My more relevant (and temperate) objection is to what seems to be Fish’s a) narrow conception of interpretation as scholarship b) justification of humanities departments strictly in terms of scholarship and the training of scholars (excluding the kind of teaching that enriches the lives of students who might go on to do other things, including writing great non-academic essays about literature or developing interpretations that change the way they live their lives.).


By on 01/19/08 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Geez, Luther, thanks for that steaming pile of bad faith!

But there are, in fact, lots of obtusenesses, confusions, and outright cliche’s at work in this thread and elsewhere. Let’s examine some of them, shall we? To start with, there’s Fish’s original, sollipsistic claim that literature is “justified” by the pleasure it gives (him), whether through the “pleasures of the text” or through the technicity of their skillful analysis. But are literary works really pleasurable? Aren’t they just as well astringent and difficult? Granted the ancient trope of the blessedness or bliss of theoria, or, in more modern terms, the pleasure derived as a by-product from exercising one’s thinking muscles, does that really account for the distinct status of literary works, for what distinguishes them from other types of works and what is operative in the motive-force of their production/creation? Rather doesn’t that fail to account for the compelling interest, even fascination, that literary works exert over their readers? And if “pleasure” is the only “justification”, then the flattering of our vanities is the only “point” of literature. But that is precisely the hallmark of bad literature and bad reading. (Fish is captive of the very ideology he sneers at, since the other side of the demand for utilitarian “values” is that they be measured as hedonic),

And then there’s that old saw that literature is of merely aesthetic value. In the first place, “aesthetics” tends to valorize a sheerly formalistic and subjectivistic approach to literature, as if the works themselves had no independent existence and source. And were to be gathered together and subsumed under their “appreciation”. But does that, again, account for why literary works might exert a compelling “force”, and exhaust the interest that we might take in them? Does “beauty”, in its sheer superfluousness to utility, and in its ornamental value to utilitarian purposes, really account for literary “values”? Does it account for why, inspite of their fictiveness, both as something false and as something made, literature might produce the effects of “truth”? Would you care to produce an aesthetic reading of Kafka, granted the “tightness’ of the writing?

And then there’s the tergivisations, evident here, about literature as “communication”. But what does literature as such communicate? Nothing. At least, if one means some message or propositional content. In fact, the constative elements of literary works are deliberate fakes, and it’s no accident that one of the primary literary modes is irony. My severe abstraction was that the functionless function of literary works was to body forth and “contain” otherness, the modal-relational dimension of meaning-constitution that is always “there”, but also always disappearing, beyond reach, unobjectifiable, invisible. That literature excavates the “infrastructure” of relations behind and underlying the human relation to the world and others in it, that mediate it, and also that conditions experience of it, was meant to bring out why literature does not “communicate”. Because what it communicates only indirectly is what underlies, renders possible, ordinary communication, those networks of assignments and references that constitute the stuff of life, including the formal-rational objectifications that would purport to regulate it. And that begins to get at why literature seems at once fuller, more vital, and more authentic than the actual “things” of ordinary life, and emptier, less substantial, and more elusive.

Nor is literature reducible to “expression”. What does it express? The intentions of the author, the sentiments of the same, emotional tones, feelings, or attitudes? Literature does not express, but rather invokes.

Nor does literature make us more “human”. As an invocation of the modal relation to the other, in which we are impalpably, but inevitably situated, it brings out the strangeness of the human relation to the world and to others. Still less does it foster identifications with others, but rather it breaks them, since others are, er, other. One thing Fish is right about is the alleged transformative effects of literature, which remain confined to the transmutations of literary works themselves. Literature does not make us better or more successful human beings. Rather, at best, it renders us more cognizant of our failings. The prospect of human transformation depends on real “work” of human relationships and their conditions. What literature might intimate to us is how misguided we are about the stakes that may be involved.

Which brings up all those tergiversations about the status of literature as “knowledge”, as if cognition were by definition the sole or supreme criterion of evaluation. And it also brings up the key “fact” to be explained about literature: namely, that literary works pre-eminently both invite and frustrate interpretation. The ambiguous or polysemous quality of literary works, which at once requires interpretation and renders interpretive efforts inexhaustible, (the greater the work, the more inexhaustible), disqualifies them from cognitive status. (Which goes to why we need literary critics, what their function is). Literature is anti-knowledge, or rather counter-knowledge. The processes of reflection that it sets in chain, (so different from the conceptual/objectifiying reflection typical of philosophy), bring to light what knowledge is worth in the course of our lives, a knowledge of what the various discourses of knowledge impose upon us, whether truly or falsely. Would it be too much to call such a yield self-knowledge?

As a final remark, I think much of the phobia directed toward the status of literature from a “scientific’ and utilitarian point-of-view amounts to the taboo upon rhetoric. If literature were recognized as the modern, textually platformed, (since there is otherwise no other forum for its effectiveness in modernity), version of the ancient and honorable vocation of rhetoric, then that recognition allows professors of literature to relax and no longer compensate for their alleged illegitimacy, since there is no possibility of rhetoric ever being stripped from the affairs of human life, in favor of triumphant and unvarnished “truth”.

By on 01/20/08 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Thanks for wrapping up the thread with that superb jargon-laden parody of condescending literary pretension. “Tergivisations”, “trope”, “modal relation to the other”: lol!

But somehow I feel compelled to respond even to this absurd persona: despite his tone, he seems to be right that pleasure and aesthetic value don’t explain why we read: after all, a summer day is far more beautiful and pleasurable than a comparison to a summer day, unless there’s some greater significance to the comparison.

But if literature “communicates indirectly,” as your persona admits, it still communicates. The “‘infrastructure’ of relations” is significant stuff, isn’t it? Of course, readers aren’t looking for works ruined by ham-handed “propositional content” or messages that have been tacked on--I think we’d all agree with that.

And then it seems hard to “invoke"--but I think your persona means “evoke"--without expressing.

And how could litearture “break” identifications with others if there weren’t identifications to begin with? If you can read about Pierre lolling on his couch at the beginning of War and Peace and not imagine doing the same--then more power to you; you must be engaged in a more vigorous form of reading. But if you do imagine yourself having the emotions or being engaged in the activities of characters or people, then you have identified with them. The barrier for identification is very low--except for psychopaths. In fact, identification is critical to social communication--woops, I didn’t mean to imply there was such a thing!--er, I mean rather, “recognition of the other.” We can leave open the question of whether all of this might make us more compassionate, humane, or “human”; suffice it to say that claiming that literature “renders us more cognizant of our failings” concedes the point--at least according to a very ancient tradition that knowledge of such failings is the only sort of real improvement, not to mention knowledge, that we can have as human beings. No one has claimed that such improvements might make us more “successful” in the real world.

Finally, in the last two paragraphs your persona admits the importance of literature--via rhetoric--both to self-knowledge and to the “affairs of human life”; these are claims that don’t seem to be consistent with many of the preceding points. But they are claims with which I--and I suspect many others--agree.


By on 01/20/08 at 12:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment


To begin with, you write as though from an enormous height, surveying the idiocies of the clichéd conversation taking place far below. Such a pose is usually a rhetorical failure, as it is here; we are all replying to you under the distinct impression that you think we’re morons.

Wes is right: your distinction between communication and invocation is obscure. Supplying “invoke” with a private theoretical meaning wouldn’t be much of a solution, either.

It is dogmatic and ideological to separate self-knowlege from knowledge, likewise to assume that every ethical project (e.g. the formation of a conscience, the relation to another) must be stated as a pure negative in order to be legitimate: knowledge of our failings, revelation of distance from an other.

In general, if one refuses to be immediately gored on the horns of this or that paradoxical simultaneity, your two comments emphasize (along the lines of Derrida and de Man) the anarchic or disruptive quality of the literary. Certainly, that is one way literature can function.

However, I think it is necessary at this juncture to point out the leveling nature of these unsubstantiated claims: for something supposedly so elusive and unsettling, every book ever written is portrayed here as utterly alike in undifferentiated negativity.

Still less does it foster identifications with others, but rather it breaks them, since others are, er, other.

I want to end with that statement: literature does something since the Other is what she is. But how do we know the nature of otherness? On the authority of Emmanuel Levinas? We cannot hope to become knowledgeable about literature simply by subordinating it to a set of theoretical absolutes.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/22/08 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph Kugelmass:

Nonsense. I am not pontificating from some “enormous height”, nor indulging in any high-rise thinking. I have my feet planted firmly in the ground, at street level. My 1/19 comment intervened after some extended back and forth as to whether literature does or does not “communicate” and whether it allows for an identification of its meanings, (and, course, we must be scrupulously moderate at all costs and avoid any extremes). It might have been a bit compressed, as fitting an extended idea into a single paragraph, but it was not at all obscure, and took some care to define its terms. (In particular, “modal-relational” was directly explained as roughly the same as “illocutionary force” in speech act theory, which should be familiar. And as to formal-rational discourses within the differentiated structures of modernity, which was also explained, doesn’t anybody here remember Max Weber anymore?) Luther Blisset’s response was nothing more than a sneering piece of Anglo-phobic bigotry, as if German = obscurantist, and as if I, like some addle-brained Moliere character, mistook myself for speaking English, when I was speaking German all along. I did begin to draft a reply to Wes, but I gave it up, both because of the dead thread issue, and because he was smug, superficial and careless. (, “trope” and “tegiviersation” are dictionary words; “modal-relational” is the only thing that could be termed jargon, except that it was already clearly explained). At any rate, my intervention here was apposite in addressing that stutter-step of why literature both does and doesn’t seem to communicate, why it is ambiguous, at once inviting, requiring and frustrating definitive interpretation, and why it seems at once of compelling interest and circularly “pointless”. (I might further add that since modern literature is a textual medium, in which both author and reader are absent, and must “inscribe” themselves somehow “there”, it is inherently a disrupted mode of “communication”). And if you don’t think there has been any obtuseness on this thread, just re-read the first two comments on this thread, which mirror Fish’s “provocation”, which Fish himself is in agreement with, whether ironically or not, since he reduces the matter of literature to a mere matter of academic-technocratic professionalism.

The language is always in one way or another a relation to an other qua other and that communication occurs across relationships, which can never themselves quite be “communicated”, converted or retrieved into a propositional content, since they already are or underlie the communication, (and, at any rate, are mostly marked in the analog stream of communication, in what linguists call ‘paralanguage”), what I’ve termed “the modal relational dimension of meaning-constitution” is an original and authentic philosophical discovery from the mid-20th century, occurring at two places, Wittgenstein’s PI, and in Levinas’ post-phenomenological meditations, (wherein it inverts the notion of phenomenological intentionality). By “philosophical discovery” I mean something “essential” to the structure and understanding of Being that always is “there”, and was, is and ever will be so, but was never explicitly recognized before, brought into thematic or conceptual awareness, even if it is not of the nature of a theme or a concept. Wittgenstein maintains his earlier distinction between what can be said and what can not be said, but only shown in PI, (which accounts, in part, for the peculiar and indirect structure of the work), and, in that respect, agrees with the distinction Levinas makes between the saying and the said. (It was Austin who named what W. uncovered “illocutionary force”, since he basically lifted his speech act theory from W., though at the cost of some “depth” and intrication with other issues. Lacan’s version is that every statement is really two, one spoken, the other unspoken, but I think that’s a misprision, since there is really one utterance only analytically distinguishable into the components or dimensions of illocutionary force and propositional content, which misprision leads on to his lunatic and damaging scientism). At any rate, I am simply leveraging the notion of “the modal-relation dimension of meaning constitution” into a second-order theory of literary discourse, in terms of its distinctive features, in contrast to other forms of formal-rational discourse, which, yes, is intended to be realistic and empirically and descriptively adequate, recognizable, and answers to what literature is “about”, “for” and “does”. That the modal-relational is at once the “object-domain” and the mode of operation of literary discourse and works provides a quasi-formal account that serves as a criterion to specify the literariness of literary discourse, of all genres, styles, or periods, including minor and ancillary works, the retrieval of neglected “masterpieces” and the literary qualities of non-literary works. In fact, if I were to cite a single instance of my basic thesis that the functionless “function” of literary works is to body forth and “contain” the otherness that is always “there”, but never graspable, it would be Dante’s “Comedy”, which no one reads anymore for the Thomist doctrine, even if one does need to dig into the hierarchalizations of allegorical correspondances. On the other hand, I have never seen the point of first-order literary theory, nor understood why one would need a theory, let alone Theory, to read and interpret literary works. Gadamer already had it down: hermeneutic practice is prior to hermeneutic theory, and the latter only serves to explicitate or elucidate the most general features of the former.

As for my use of “invocation”, there are perhaps three kinds of accounts of language and meaning: the logico-semantic account of denotation and reference, seeking too secure cognitive functions, though tending to run aground on issues of sense and reference; the evocative account, most common in German traditions, as with Benjamin’s early theological account and Heidegger’s phenomenological account of language as ontological disclosure, in which language functions to call things and their meanings forth, express, and even “create” them; and the invocative account, which I’m highlighting and insisting on here, in which language functions to sustain the relations between self and other which form and orient the self, embeds it in the world and articulates human needs and desires in the context of human relatedness. (Levinas actually gets being-in-the-world down to brass tacks much better than Heidegger, I think). Obviously, all three accounts have their strengths and weaknesses, such that they are less separate accounts than different dimensions of the issues involved in language and meaning. I have been insisting that literature bears fundamental reference to the human relation to and experience of the world, as mediated by relations to others and really embedded, but in such a way that experience is not transcended into the conceptual terms which secure knowledge, (since concepts are already restrictions and decontextualizations of meanings). But it so refers not by calling forth and expressing that relation and experience, but rather by calling us out, drawing and distending the self toward encountering its otherness, which is the same thing we encounter in ordinary social life anyway, though usually in highly defended forms. Literature does not edify, console, redeem, or heal, so much as provide a release, however temporary or fragmentary, from our defendedness, and it is what is opened up in that releasement, the insights or awarenesses recontextualizing our situatedness in the world, through the byways of the work, that constitutes the value of literature. The question was how do literary works mean, and the answer, almost redundant, is that they mean modally. (If you ask a “how” question, you get a “how” answer). The modal is what constitutes the distinctiveness of literary discourse/works, (though it is implicitly pervasive in social life), and effects the pull or the draw that they exert. They mean, but not as one would will or wish them to mean, which calls out the work of interpretation and effectuates the transformations of “perceptions” and perspectives that the work yields. (Similarly, creative authors tend to write out of a compulsion or need, a mixture of depressive and reparative impulses, which is not voluntary and which they do not fully control, for all that they intensely rework their material: a work that evinces too much authorial control is liable to feel manupulative and fail). So, you see, I did mean “invoke”, and Wes had no basis for changing it to “evoke”, which would be another account entirely, and, no, I was not speaking any “private language”, since there is no such thing anyway.

My account of literature insists emphatically on its worldliness, though, as a formal rational discourse, it is based on a kind of abstraction from the world, and the proverbial gap between literature and life can not be undone, which would merely collapse the “force” of literary discourse. I don’t know what Derrida has to do with anything here, since I have emphasized a reference to experience, whereas, if I understand him, (which I don’t think I do), one of his basic claims is that experience is inacessible, since it is always covered over with and even (pre)-determined by the differential play of signs. I’m not particularly interested pursuing a semiotic account of meaning, (since I’ve never understood how it accounts for how meaning means), and I’m not contesting semantic meaning, but only pointing out and insisting on a different kind or dimension of meaning. Similarly, there is no night in which all the cows are black here, only an abstract generalization about the vast terrain of literary discourse. I’m not denying the distinctions between works, genres, styles, etc., nor dictating exactly how all literary works are to be read, except to note that each individual work “dictates” its own criteria of evaluation, is its own “norm”, as one would expect if, indeed, it operates through the multivalencies of the modal. And literary works are “negative” simply by virtue of the fact that they are fictive or imaginative, not just “false”, but unreal. In fact, the reading or reception of literary works is rather paradoxical because it is plainly based simultaneously on the assumption and the suspension of disbelief. It is foolishness to derive affirmative beliefs from literary works, even though their “convincingness” is, in any number of ways, the prime criterion for their evaluation. My account is, of course, anti-Romantic. It also departs from traditional humanistic conceptions of Bildung, of literature as a resource for the cultivation or fashioning of the self, which remains too self-referential. (It also rejects art-for-art’s-sake aestheticism, the notion of the “autonomy” of the work, though not its existence separate from both readers and authors, the idea that literary works are concerned solely with their own literary status, and that they operate entirely self-referentially, and, needless to say, po-mo ludism, which thinks that, since works put things into “play”, they are not thereby ‘serious”). What literary works do serve as a repository of is all those motifs, meanings, or possibilities that are split off from ordinary communication and rendered inexpressible or unrealizable by the functionalized disciplining of social relations. Literature is a realm of impossible possibilities, of unlived life, which tends to result in a dual consciousness, at once reflective of and complicit in the status quo, and critical of it. In its apparent gratuitousness, its lack of “necessity”, it registers the unackowledged costs and sufferings of social life, of which its utilitarian hedonism, with its relentless functionalism and productivism as the universal “imperative”, remains determinedly oblivious.

Much of your denunciation seems to be bound up with a desire to assert a cognitive status for literature, “It is dogmatic and ideological to separate self-knowlege from knowledge, likewise to assume that every ethical project (e.g. the formation of a conscience, the relation to another) must be stated as a pure negative in order to be legitimate…”, and “literature does something since the Other is what she is. But how do we know the nature of otherness?” You are free, of course, to argue such a case, but I’m arguing otherwise, and these citations strike me as full of misunderstandings. Some might claim that that literary works offer a “truer”, more intimate and exacting account of the affairs of life than just the facts: what leads on to a murder, what are the consequences of adultery, what inspires a sacrifice, and so on. And, indeed, in the aftermath of working through- (I won’t say assimilating)- a literary work, we are left with intricate skeins of implications that entice one’s reflections, but the upshot concerns, not the particularities of fictive events, but something of broader resonance, something like the peculiar relation between fate and foreknowledge, as Melville somewhere put it. But we precisely do not know our fates, and on the other side of fate and in its fractures lies the other. Insofar as literature fosters such reflections on the courses of our fates, it is a nonknowledge, an unknowing, (but not “Platonic mysticism”). (I won’t go into Adorno’s tortuous elaborations of the cognitive status of works of art and their “truth content”, except to note that they are not quite what they seem). To be sure, there are cognitive components to literary works, and the reader brings to them both his/her understanding of language and general and perhaps specialized knowledge of the world. But cognitive concepts tend to function “deviantly” in literary works,- ( one doesn’t learn scientific, musical, or legal theory from them)-, and take on metaphorical resonance, and “factual” details are usually the sort of background that we scarcely notice, but which suddenly and contingently take on odd conjunctions of “significance”. Just as ethical norms have factual conditions of application, without ethics being cognitive, (since justice is an other normative dimension than truth), so the cognitive components of literature do not account for its meaning and how it means. And ethics always occurs in the meantime, with anurgency for which knowledge would be too late; so, too, do literary works refer to what can not be captured and mastered by knowledge. The other is neither reducible to a mere particular instance, nor identifiable and objectifiable through subsumption into a concept. The irreducible and acategorical particularity of the other is a source of intentionality that is never manifested in the expressions or products of that intentionality; the other is neither an alter-ego, nor an object of knowledge, but rather an exposure that can only be related to. (It is a misprision, a solecism even, to speak of the “nature” of the other, which, after all, might be very much like one’s own “nature”, since the other is that which, who, is incarnate in his/her “nature”. Nor is the other distant- Levinas speaks in terms of “proximity”,- but simply utterly separate.) But, in the end, the desire to accord literature a cognitive status, to cognitivize it, is not just a mere academic foible, but in line with common Western prejudices, which, as presumptive heirs to classical metaphysics, assume that knowledge is the supreme justification of existence, such that everything must be cognitivized, subjected to the mastery of knowledge, and human beings are to be regarded solely as bearers of knowledge, “rational animals”. But to regard humans only in terms of their capacity for knowledge is to presume that they are only recognizable as such, rather than as suffering, vulnerable beings who at the same time are open to others and the world and capable of initiative. And, of course, it is to subject them to the class hierarchy of knowers. (You knew the ghost of Marx was hiding in there somewhere, eh?) To reduce human beings solely to the terms of knowledge, whether as subjects or as objects, is already to do them an injustice.

Levinas did not concern himself much with literature. His meditations on the modal relation to the other serve to explicate the root, unexpungeable and irremissible, of the ethical and the innovative and transformative power of prophetic speech. But, of course, I am deploying him to suggest how literature, in its very “amorality”, relates indirectly to the ethical, without confusions or category mistakes. And, insofar as there is an ethical component to the political, and insofar as the political concerns the publicness of the world, to the political, as well. But the transformations that occur in literature are fictive and its criticisms are merely rhetorical. Literature does not change the world and is no substitute for the imperative urgency of the ethical and the real work of the political. There is no room in literature for more-radical-than-thou posturings which substitute an internecine literary politics for the real thing. (Since the modal reacts on attitudes, literary types have an irritating tendency to attitudinize, you know what I mean, like?) But in a world that recurrently goes wrong, literary reflection remains a refuge which can preserve the consciousness of that skew and the motive sources that resist it. Which is why it might amount to self-knowledge, without being knowledge. The ambiguous nature of literary discourse mirrors without resolving the conflicted and ambiguous relation between self and other, which, like that between good and evil themselves, can only be resolved by fateful decisions and commitments beyond the reach of formal-rational discourses. Note that I am making no claim for the primacy or the supreme value of literature; it’s precisely as something secondary and even derivative that it sustains its distinctive value.

I don’t get what point Wes thought he was making in citing Pierre at the beginning of W&P, (IIRC it actually begins in the midst of cocktail party chatter). Whatever the ciphers across the page that we might identify as characters and may or may not identify with, they gather together, evade us, transform and shape-shift across the page. In fact, in the conventions of 19th century realism, the protagonists are supposed to undergo some fundamental transformation or conversion, interacting with other opposing or foiling characters in the unfolding of the plot across the texture of the depicted world. But regardless of the edifying, harmonizing, or reconciling intention of the author, if one looks more closely, the destinies of the characters are somehow incomplete or thwarted, subjected to the ravages and resignations of fate, if they survive. The relevant contrast in W&P would be between the death of Prince Andei and the connubial happiness of Natasha and Pierre; of course, such losses can always be sublimed, consigned to the sacrificial nobility of the ideal. (The long epilogue, after the protracted gruesome description of the death of Madame Bovary, in which Charles, whose hat began the novel, slowly discovers the truth, is the travestying of such subliming). The idea that literature cultivates, enlarges and expands the circle of sympathy is so old-fashioned as to be virtually animistic, as if it could contact and conjure the spirit world. And though identifications may be empathic, allowing for the understanding of the feelings of others, they are also extensions of the self and ultimately constricting. To foster identifications is to confine them to the fixity of the given world. And the idea, common enough, if somewhat complacent, that empathy is the basis of all compassion, justice and goodness, precisely occludes the “force” of the other, which is “what” breaks through the smooth circles of the confirmations and certainties of the self and draws it out beyond itself into its exposure to the world. The peripety of ancient tragedy, which induces pity and terror, leading on to the cathartic purging that supposedly reconciles the spectator to the community of fate, (since we are still within the pagan mythos), is already a breaking of identifications. Literature unsettles the familiar assumptions of the human (and always has). The working through of the winding modalizations of the text does not occur through empathic identification, but through the critical inversion and exposure of the reading self. As a last example, “The Metamorphisis”, which is often considered Kafka’s most “aethetically” perfect work, but actually is typical of his method of reifying a metaphor and following out its implications with impeturbable naturalistic logic, derives much of its black comedy from how the initial shock in embedded in the trite, sentimental melodrama of Gregor Samsa, traveling salesman. In the end, the reader is left identifying neither with the pathos of Gregor, nor with his ingrate family, but confronting a kind of strange other-voicedness, (which is not that of the author Kafka, since one of his recurring motifs is the effacement of the artist in and through his very expression). In the end, literature is simply too unstable, variable, shape-shifting and reversible to lend itself to a “positive” program of sentiment, values or ideals.

Just to be clear and avoid running too far afoul of the reigning doxa here, I am not contesting the legitimacy of science and opposing literature as a superior “value” to it. But modern literature derives its relative necessity and “justification”, aside from anthropologically deep-seated needs for relatedness, as a counterweight to the proliferation of other formal-rational discourses in modern societies and the dominative impositions of their regulations upon social relations, as a limning of reifications that it nonetheless can not of itself undo. In this day, when an “Enlightenment” fundamentalist revivalism seeks to collapse the socio-cultural into the biological and reduce the cognitive to the functional, in all too elective affinity with neo-liberal economistic ideology, it is all too readily forgotten that literature has long since contributed its own line of critical development to the disenchantment of the world, as a reflexive, if illusory, critique of illusion.

By on 01/25/08 at 12:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In several parts of Asia, the classics are read for pleasure and for self-cultivation. “Pleasure” does not necessarily imply feeling good about reading, viewing, or listening to something; it may cover combinations of emotions, from awe to confusion to pride in gaining knowledge.

Self-cultivation may also imply something more than utility or financial value or being “human” but confronting complex issues or difficult questions. That is why the humanities or whatever it is called becomes an end in itself: after acquiring wealth and fulfilling various obligations and engaging in pastimes, it becomes an end in itself.

It is possible that similar views appear in some European countries, which might explain why large amounts are spent on museums, operas, public libraries, and so forth.

If such phenomena do not take place in a society, it is likely because the formal education that members of that society receive is insufficient such that an “intellectual culture” cannot thrive or the society is too poor to invest in the arts and other institutions. It will likely require more time before a society becomes wealthier or before the enjoyment of learning sinks in.

Finally, from what I know, there is nothing new in the idea of learning for its own sake as it was made by Socrates and Confucius a long time ago. And not surprisingly, various European and Asian cultures have been influenced by one of these two thinkers.

By on 01/26/08 at 02:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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