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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Literary Studies, Hermeneutic Insiders and Naturalist Outsiders

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/12/10 at 03:00 PM

I began my second post at The Valve by looking at Jonathan Culler’s 1975 Structuralist Poetics. However much Culler was influenced by structuralism and semiotics, he also read his Chomsky – I’m thinking of linguistics, of course, not the politics (though he may have read that as well). We all read Chomsky in the 60s and early 70s, some of us more, some less, but we were all aware of the linguistics. Thus Culler’s first chapter is entitled “The Linguistic Foundation.” It ends with the assertion: “Linguistics is not hermeneutic. It does not discover what a sequence means or produce a new interpretation of it but tries to determine the nature of the system underlying the event” (p. 31). I think that Culler is correct in that. I also believe that the attempt to go beyond, or to sidestep, hermeneutics has flat-out failed, though much has been said about various systems underlying literary events. It never really got off the ground.

That, however, is the project I’ve been pursuing in one way or another for, well, since before I read Culler. I think such a project is necessary, and I remain optimistic about its possibility. The key is to focus on form, not meaning. Don’t ignore meaning, but bracket it. Form’s the key to a literary study that’s not hermeneutic.

But I’m not going to argue that here. I just want to get that idea before you as context for a passage from an old paper of mine. This passage is at the end of an article which I packaged as a “structuralist” reading (and it was, in a way) of “Kubla Khan.” (Note that the guy who wrote that piece hadn’t read my recent piece asserting that worrying about whether or not literary study is scientific is a waste of time.) Here’s the final two paragraphs of the article:

These questions are different from those generally asked by literary critics. They are not interpretive questions. The analytic method illustrated above does not yield a statement of the form: hence the meaning of text X is proposition Y. Rather it yields a description of the path in semantic space that generates the object text. There is nothing new in the idea that structuralist analysis is nonhermeneutic. But there is an aspect of this shift from hermeneutics that hasn’t received sufficient theoretical attention.

The hermeneutic critic is, ultimately, asking: What is the meaning of life? What is man’s place in the scheme of things? What does this text tell us of that scheme? These are not properly scientific questions and we should not expect a science of man to answer them. But that science must answer closely related questions: What is the nature of the human mind such that it continually inquires into its own nature, into its place in the world? What is the nature of a poem such that it stills, for the moment, such questioning? A science that fails to address such questions may indeed be a science, but it will not be profoundly of man.

The polarity, perhaps, is drawn too sharply, and too simply. But I think it nonetheless a useful and valid distinction.

I’ve devoted most of my intellectual effort to the non-hermeneutic end of the polarity. When I think about the future of the discipline, that’s what I’m thinking about. I think those concluding questions are good ones, and I’ve thought about them a great deal and perhaps even have something to say about them. I don’t think we’ve got answers to them. We need not wait on them, however, as there is plenty of work to be done along the way, texts to analyze and describe, models to build and test.

I’ve devoted less time to the hermeneutic end of the polarity, to the meaning of things, and so I have less to say about that aspect of the future of the discipline. But I think this is where we get calls for evaluation, whether aesthetic or ethical. This is what the general public most seeks in literature and this is why literature has a place in the college curriculum. And this, perhaps, is what is most threatened by the managerial and technocratic university.

Let me add a corollary to the polarity. The non-hermeneutic critic takes up a stance outside literary culture and observes, describes, analyzes, and, ultimately, explains literary culture as a phenomenon of the natural world – which, after all, it is. This is the stance of the Martian anthropologist. Let us, at least for the moment, say that this is the stance of a naturalist. In contrast, the hermeneutic critic is not at all outside literary culture; the hermeneutic critic functions as an insider.

Now comes the tricky part. The naturalist stance affords, but does not guarantee, the possibility of objective knowledge about literary culture. But that objectivity comes with a price: You cannot maintain or change literary culture from the outside, you cannot participate in it. This, perhaps, is why the naturalist stance has so often been decried as reductive and deadening. Such criticism, it seems to me, is beside the point. Beyond this, I note that the naturalist stance does allow one to explain why and how literary culture is essential to the health of a society. One can affirm this from within literary culture too, but not in the same terms, not with a claim to objective knowledge.

If you want to participate in literary culture, you must do so from within that culture, either as a writer, a reader, or as a critic who has given up the possibility of objective knowledge. The insider stance is necessarily subjective. And here comes more trickiness. Subjectivity has come to imply idiosyncratic variability from one person (that is, one subject) to another. Hence, goes the further implication, there is no reasoning about subjective matters, no possibility of discourse. This is wrong.

Idiosyncratic variability does not seem to me a necessary concomitant of subjectivity. Color, for example, is subjective (see this old post); but, so for as we know, it does not vary idiosyncratically from one individual to another, though there is some variation (e.g. red-green blindness). That some phenomenon is subjective implies only that it exists within a subject, in some interaction between the subject and the external world or in some process entirely internal to the subject.

Subjectivity always leaves open the possibility of intersubjective agreement. Subjects can negotiate the meaning and significance of things that they share. Thus they can negotiate the meanings of literary texts, and they can use literary texts in negotiating the meaning and significance of general life experiences. Such negotiations are the stuff of culture. That is how values and norms are passed from one generation to another, and that is how new values and norms are adopted to suit the needs of a changing society. It is this possibility, even necessity, of change that is often threatening and has led to hysterical denunciations of the humanities, mostly recently, the so-called culture wars.

The critic who is concerned with aesthetic or ethnical issues can negotiate them with other critics and with readers. The teacher can help students learn to negotiate such matters with with and among themselves. Thus I return to my Kenneth Burke passage, the one from “Literature as Equipment for Living” in The Philosophy of Literary Form (p. 298):

. . . surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living.  One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

That, in somewhat militaristic terms, is a brief for the intersubjective stance of the hermeneutic critic.

Given this distinction, then, between the hermeneutic critic who works inside literary culture and the naturalist critic who examines literary culture from the outside, one might wonder: What, in general, is the relationship between the two? In general, I do not know. I observe, however, that it is perfectly possible for a given critic to work as an outsider on one project and an insider on another. Therefore I see no reason why the two stances cannot co-exist within the same discipline.


The problem with an “objective” naturalistic account of literature: not only are literary works not naturally existing objects and can there be societies with little, if any, literary culture,- (Just attend a convention of economists! Snark.),- but it would be lacking any criterion to identify specifically literary works, the literariness of literature, in contradistinction to other discourses or cultural artefacts. Of course, you are implicitly smuggling in a “hermeneutic” criterion in focusing on “form”, which might go some way toward addressing the appeal of the meaningless meaning to be found in literary works, but also just reiterates a fairly traditional/conventional formalist-aesthetist approach to literature, as opposed to more forceful hermeneutic approaches which eschew an arbitrary, rather short-circuited cleavage between form and content is considering the “material”. I, of course, have my own pet notions in these matters, deriving from Hegelian-Marxist and hermeneutic-phenomenological lines, but rather than bloviating further, just how would you address that criterial question in identifying the “object domain” to which your potential claims would attach?

By on 04/12/10 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Frankly, I’m not much interested in “criterial” questions and I think their importance is over-rated. I’m interested in culture. Whether people write tell stories in live performance, write them in one-off manuscripts, set them in type, etc. That’s all fine with me. I’ll study it.

Nor am I much interested in the “literariness” of literature. If the natives make some sort of distinction between literary and non-literary texts, that interests me. And I’ll try to understand how they make the distinction and what’s at stake for them. But I’m not going to try to make a “better” distinction than they make.

As for “more forceful hermeneutic approaches which eschew an arbitrary, rather short-circuited cleavage between form and content,” what I care about is what you do with texts, not how you theorize what it is you think you are doing. I’ve got a very seat of the pants notion of these things. Take a look around the corner at what I’ve done with “The Cat and the Moon.” I don’t recall actually making an explicit distinction between form and content in doing that work, but I suppose I might venture one in retrospect. For example, I look at how lines are grouped into “rhyme frames” and how they’re grouped into sentences. That’s formal. But it hardly exhausts the formal elements of that poem. What I’d say beyond that point, well, I’d have to wade into it to find out. That’s more than causal observation in a comment.

Or you could look at my post on ring-forms in Fantasia. Those ring-forms are formal elements. But I identified them in part by paying attention to content; I couldn’t have identified them any other way.

It’s one thing to assert a distinction between form and content, it’s quite another to specify a priori how that distinction is to be made for any given type of work. I don’t see how to do that and certainly don’t claim to know how to do it.

What I’m interested in is getting people to analyze and describe “literary” works and to agree on those descriptions. I want to push the “zone of agreement” as far as possible. We’re going to get further by thinking of form than by thinking of meaning. Nor is it obvious to me that the form/content distinction is the same as the form/meaning distinction.

yadda yadda . . .

By Bill Benzon on 04/12/10 at 10:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I just don’t think it’s possible to get out of the hermeneutic circle, by pulling oneself up by one’s pony-tail or whatnot, (and, following on Gadamer, I don’t think that literature or the “humanities” in general benefits by imitating the methodologism of natural sciences, but rather have their own “justification” and different forms of methodical, rational study).

But in Western modernity, at least, “we” mean by “literature” a distinctly fictive or, at least, imaginative form of discourse, which contrasts with other forms of discourse, which assert abstactly veridical cognitive claims. I would see literature as itself a form of formal rational discourse, such as science, law, etc. with its own distinct “object domain”. But what is that domain? I would see it as the modal-relational dimension of meaning-constitution, invoked in any relation to the other, that underlies both ordinary everyday communicative interaction and formalized domains of discourse, but which perforce disappears into the content of what is said. In other words, human relatedness and contact is part of the meaningfulness of “meaning”, and the relation to the other mediates needs, desires and orientations in a way which is peculiarly difficult to get at. The Analytics would call this “illocutionary force”, though with the implication that it should be recuperated in terms of logico-semantic meaning, “propositional content”, whereas it is rather a non-semantic, but unavoidable dimension of meaning-constitution. Hence, literary works suspend the direct “force” of their statements/sentences in order to allow for a “play” of various “illocutions” or modalizations, mixing them up to various effects, while also mixing up various other forms of discourse and informal social intercourse. The functionless “function” of literature is then to body forth and “contain” otherness, which is essential to our meaningful orientation in the world, but otherwise perpetually escapes us in our grasping after the content of what is said. Literature is “about” what we always miss, yet needfully presuppose in our attempts at meaning-interpretation in the world. And one of the guises that it tends to take is as a perennial satire on the mutually reifying mutual incomprehension between everyday communicative interaction in the life-world, subject to the rigidifying pressures of need and functional “necessity”, and the “authoritative” formal-rational discourses that would purport to regulate them.

So that emphatic “play” of modalizations is what I would offer as the criterion for the “literariness” of literary works, without any dogmatic canonical restrictions, since it could apply to minor or ancillary works, pre-modern or even archaic ritual or courtly instances, undiscovered “masterpieces”, or even the literary qualities of explicitly non-literary works. But it’s not what “we” do with literary works, nor a matter of positivistically noting customary practices. Rather it’s a question of what literary works do (to “us"): i.e. literary works have an independent transactional status, however set up by cultural-institutional apparatuses. One of the peculiarities of such works is that their reception requires a simultaneous maintenance and suspension of disbelief. How something so obviously fake can nonetheless exert such compelling “force” and seeming genuineness would be one of the tasks of criticism to explain, specifically and in general, and the extent to which any given work survives the “test” in terms of vague, disputable criteria like “plausibility” and “novelty” opens up an intrinsically evaluative dimension. But also literary works preeminently at once solicit and frustrate interpretation, are interpretively inexhaustible, the more so, the “greater” the work, since they are not “about” anything, convey no simple “message”, nor reduce to some set of propositional contents, (which is not to say that there are no “facts of the matter"). On close examination, they appear at once empty and meaningless, and fuller and more genuine than actual life, ( since they are effectively comprised of missed or lost encounters). So while certainly discussable, in terms of “factual” contents, formal features, detectable patterns, etc., they don’t necessarily tend toward consensual agreement, as if they were material objects, but rather are to be passed through: their transformative effects are as illusory as the works themselves, which is not the same as saying they have no contexts of application. And though, of course, literary works will contain formal devices and patterns, (likely many such patterns and their decompositions), those formal elements are drawn together by the “meaning” of the work. I agree with you that no neat distinction between form and content can be drawn a priori (or really at all) with respect to literary works, but then what I termed “the modal” is neither form, nor content. It “stretches” hermeneutical interpretation to and beyond its limits, without resolving or reducing into formalism or semiotics. What not the case is that, in the manner of the old “New Criticism”, literary works are objects to be determined by subjective perceptions of “form” in abstraction from worldly experience, history and any possible contexts of application. The task or vocation of kiterary criticism should be at minimum to explain why literature, what good are such works, what need have we for such a “thing”. I don’t think such formalism is up to that job.

On the other hand, I would have no interest in how literary works are “computed”, as opposed to the results: how they “work” and the “work” they do (on us). But then I think brains are basically analog pattern-recognition devices and hence pattern-seeking. The appeal of patterns, ("harmony"), and their “play” is obvious, but then worldly experience is not just a matter of orderly patterns, and there is something more that we seek in coming-to-terms with it. The again, what I term the “modal-relational” is, in fact, primarily transmitted through the analog register.

By on 04/13/10 at 01:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In your last paragraph you imply that there is some opposition between “computing” and “analog” pattern recognition. Not so. Back when I first started reading about computing every basic discussion started out by distinguishing between analog and digital computation. Somehow the analog side of that discussion simply disappeared, I forget when, but let’s say it happened about the time PCs began spreading out in the mid 80s. So now “computing” tends to mean “digital computation.” But analog computing hasn’t disappeared from the world. And pattern recognition is pattern recognition and it’s a central topic of classical computational linguistics. See the article David Hays and I wrote on Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process, where we discuss the relationship between propositional and pattern-recognition modes of thought.

The task or vocation of literary criticism should be at minimum to explain why literature, what good are such works, what need have we for such a “thing”. I don’t think such formalism is up to that job.

On the topics in the first sentence, try my post, Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker, where I offer an hypothesis on those questions. Then there’s Emotion Recollected in Tranquility, which is another take on the subject. On “formalism,” the formalism that’s not up to the job is not, I repeat, IS NOT, the formalism I espouse. I explain that in this post, and in this long methodological and programmatic article.

As for all the rest, what do you do when you work with texts? Your prose gives me no idea about that; for all I know you don’t work with texts at all, you just philosophize. In any event, if you really want to convince me that I’m wrong wrong wrong, you have to do it by looking at my practical criticism and demonstrating, point by point, why there’s little or nothing there and, hence, why there’s nothing to be gained by doing more of it.

By Bill Benzon on 04/13/10 at 07:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon comments “Idiosyncratic variability does not seem to me a necessary concomitant of subjectivity.” Indeed. Far from suffering from boundless horizons, it seems to me that literature and other cultural systems are absolutely defined by a drastic limitation of variability. Which is a good thing, since lost in the immensity of the combinatorics, we’d never find the other, much less relate meaningfully with one another even in enmity—no reading circles in Borges library. Rather than opening up the text (to use an expression of the rabbis), hermeneutics endlessly attempts to close it. I agree with Benzon that a science of the “nature of the system underlying the event” is possible. To judge by the history of formalism and structuralism, however, the project isn’t very commercial once the novelty wears off.

By Jim Harrison on 04/13/10 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rather than opening up the text (to use an expression of the rabbis), hermeneutics endlessly attempts to close it.

Which is to say, that hermeneutics isn’t very effective in the closing. Nor should it be. I’m fine with multiplicity of interpretations. But we should expect the process that generates this multiplicity to understand how the underlying texts involve, as you say, “a drastic limitation of variability.” If you want to understand that, then you have to examine its mechanisms from outside the system itself. The interpretive critic, by the very nature of interpretive activity, is unable to do that.

By Bill Benzon on 04/13/10 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As for “philosophizing”, ya, I’m not a literary critic or academic: that’s not my pay-grade. But I was simply attempting to give at a high level of generality an account of the literary “field”, merely as a second-or-third-order framing theory for the immense variety of things that might go on “in” there. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing to substitute, on a first-order level, for actually reading and interpreting specific literary works and no amount of “literary theory” can accomplish that task. (Hermeneutic practice is prior to and exceeds any theory on the matter, since ultimately it refers to matters of practical and not theoretical “reason"). The question then becomes what to do with such reading/interpretation, (whether 1 or 2, though I think I disagree that there is any sharp distinction to be made there), and what it amounts to. My rough answer is to “ground” the literary field in the “nature” of meaning generation, since, as language-bearing animals, we are oriented in the world through the unavoidable activity of meaning-interpretation, especially as it is distended, inflected, and mediated through relations with the other. (Outside of language, there is neither “Being”, nor the other, whereas “within” it, as we already are, they subtend meaning-generation and interpretive understanding). So the appeal of literature relates to the unavoidable seeking-for-meaning at the core of a kind of existential anthropology: as language-bearing animals, we are tellers of tall tales, and it is up to us to choose which are the more plausible or fruitful ones. Literature is a way of coping with existence in the world, so the upshot is that it is a worldly, not an intra-cranial, phenomenon. Of course, I could readily elaborate such a basis into a more extended framing, in accordance with my preferences of an historical sociology of literature along Marxian lines and an existential hermeneutics, as altered and distended through the Levinasian other, to provide an general account of at once the cultural-institutional apparatuses of literary “production” and of the worldly signifying potential of literary works, (i.e. without reducing one to the other), in terms of which various projects in literary studies could be formulated and “placed”. And I did suggest that literature in modernity, (since “literature” in the modern sense of the word has devolved and gathered since the 17th century), functions as a kind of counter-discourse, with its own forms of (largely non-veridical, non-cognitive} “rationality”, amidst the “advancing” rationalization processes of other formal-rational discourses in modern societies.

But then that’s my take on such matters, not at all yours, which doesn’t render you necessarily “wrong, wrong, wrong”. I did raise three points of criticism/argumentative objection though. One has to do with “naturalism”, though you aren’t really insistent on the matter. But, still, it’s not just an endless ocean-flow of undifferentiated “texts”, and some basic criterion for specifically differentiating the domain at issue is needed, else its not clear what, if anything, is being explained or explicated. (Though I’ll admit I don’t have the time of day for the likes of Pinker and ev psych, as a dubious project of stuffing the socio-cultural back into the pregivenness of the biological, which, aside from striking me as an extreme reification and scientistic superstition, has an elective affinity with neo-liberal economistic ideology, via its strict adaptionism and crude utilitarianism, while not even being good biology). The second objection has to do with the stance of a “Martian anthropologist” on roughly Wittgensteinian grounds: no matter how high you jack yourself up on your ultra-transcendental barber chair, you’ll never get to Mars. A pre-understanding is already implied by any further understanding and one can get “outside” of it and still maintain any explanatory coherence or relevance. The third objection was to the appeal to “form”,- (or is it really “structure"),- as an independent feature (or even generative) of literary works, as not “phenomenogically” adequate to the description/interpretation of their complexion. It gets at the meaningless and emptiness of such works, but not at the corresponding surplus of meaningfulness, nor the paradox of their convincing fakeness, which constitute much of the appeal and “lure” of such works. “Form”, however specified, in my view, is ingredient in the “meaning” of literary works, is part of what makes them meaningful and not abstractable from them, even if such “meaning”, as essentially as substitute for something else, is illusory. “Form”, in my book, just doesn’t usefully contrast with or substitute for “meaning”, just as one can’t really generate linguistic meaning from essentially meaningless elements that would “cause” it.

I get the distinction between analog and digital processing and its complications. If you want to call analogy processing “computation” that’s fine by me, so long as the relevant differences are marked. But I don’t see what such “computation” adds to the understanding of literary works, as opposed to an explanation of the “faculties” we already have and bring to them, (just as the “mechanisms” of neural explanation don’t account for discrete thoughts). If you want to do neuro-ethology or paleo-anthropology, that’s fine, but I don’t understand what “work” they would be doing here and now, rather than being a uselessly spinning fifth wheel. Are you suggesting that there is a fixed set of Gestalten, more “objective” than the works themselves, which would account for their intelligibility or satisfactoriness? Then what of the “internal” transformations and shifting patterns of the works themselves and their “originality”? I don’t really see how this would do much better than the very old-fashioned notion of the genius as the unconscious child of nature, (whereas the author disappears into the work, and its the work itself which has independent, if reiterative, status, as a condition of its worldly accessibility and meaning). It’s easy to explain why, say, a perfect fifth is more readily attractive than a ninth, but that doesn’t explain the placement of the chords in a piece of music and all fifths would be perfectly boring.

Slightly OT, but I recently ran into a commenter on one of those threads about the reducibility of “mind” to causal brain processes, who then veered off from his apparently reductive view to announce it substantiated “moral anti-realism”, (another one of those topics for which universal consensus is so elusive). I snarked that that takes care of the other, or something to that effect. To which the reply came that he was denying the reality of “morality”, not the reality of other people: the implied proposition is that other people are just material objects with brains, a fine instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. I think we should just accept and recognize the elusiveness of consensus on matters of literary interpretation as just part of the phenomenon we’re dealing with, rather than substituting for the works themselves and their cultural contexts something that would be more objective and therefore presumptively real to secure consensus, regaardless of relevance. Literary works are by definition unreal, imaginary: it’s that insecurity, that “legitimate strangeness” that matters.

Part of the problem though might arise from what sort of paradigm cases one implicitly has in mind, (even if there are no paradigm cases, only sui genera). If rhymed-and-metered lyric poetry is held in view, then the formal features are part of the discipline by which the poem was created and by which it is read, so taking account of the “technical” details is very much to the point, though not per se the “meaning” to be construed. And lyric poetry is a hard case for any attempt at a social or worldly account of literary “meaning”, since the circuit of literary “communication” is or seems often to be confined to the doubleness of the poet’s own self in solipsistic abstraction from the world. Though it could be understood as a kind of offering. I tend to think about these issues in terms of the prose fiction of some of my favorites, such as Kafka and Faulkner, where, though one can not the craft or “techniques” of the work, it is too unruly to be fitted into some purely and merely formal pattern, all the while more-than-gesturing at worldly experience and meaning: such works are insistently opening to the world. But what counts as literature is itself an ever shifting historical boundary.

Lastly, since you cite Burke, whose “Rhetoric of Motives” is an influence on my thinking, it is the persuasive power of literary works that ultimately needs to be explained by whatever means, (though that always involves an evaluative component, however cynical the critic). And just as modern literature is heir to the ancient vocation of rhetoric, amounting to a textualized, hence displaced, disrupted, distantiated, and occluded form of rhetoric, so teachers and scholars of literature are not just experts in “close reading”, but modern versions of teachers of rhetoric, which doesn’t deserve its modern opprobrium on the part of logic. To be reductive, it was the invention of the printing press and the development of a market for circulating texts that gradually gave rise to the extensive elaboration of a modern literary culture. But even if the consecutive and consequential unfolding of a tradition of “high” culture has now collapsed and culture is no longer the quasi-organic outgrowth of transmitted tradition and historical experience, but now an industrially planned and produced commodity proliferating through “new media”, the anthropological underpinnings of literature in human need remain in force.

End of spiel.

By on 04/13/10 at 05:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Hermeneutic practice is prior to and exceeds any theory on the matter, since ultimately it refers to matters of practical and not theoretical “reason").

OK. But what about the naturalistic analytic and descriptive practice that I advocate? Is it not prior to theory as well?

I think we should just accept and recognize the elusiveness of consensus on matters of literary interpretation as just part of the phenomenon we’re dealing with, . . .

I accept that, but I’m also arguing that we can do something other than interpret them, something other than attempt to ascertain their meaning. On the naturalist side I’m bracketing meaning, setting it aside. That’s not what I’m after.

. . . ultra-transcendental barber chair, you’ll never get to Mars.

But the Martian isn’t ultra-transcendental. He’s just not one of us.

. . . rather than substituting for the works themselves . . .

Well, there’s a standard critique of the hermeneutic enterprise that says it’s an attempt to let a reading be a proxy for the work itself, and that just won’t do.

. . . and their cultural contexts something that would be more objective and therefore presumptively real to secure consensus, regaardless of relevance.

How can you determine relevance a priori? Or is it that you are unwilling to grant naturalistic practice status prior to theory about it?

If rhymed-and-metered lyric poetry is held in view, then the formal features are part of the discipline by which the poem was created and by which it is read, so taking account of the “technical” details is very much to the point, though not per se the “meaning” to be construed.

But I’m not claiming that they are the “meaning.” I’m just saying that we need to take note of them. And not only of them.

I tend to think about these issues in terms of the prose fiction of some of my favorites, such as Kafka and Faulkner, where, though one can not [doubt?] the craft or “techniques” of the work, it is too unruly to be fitted into some purely and merely formal pattern, all the while more-than-gesturing at worldly experience and meaning . . .

Your phrase “too unruly to . . . merely formal pattern” suggests that you have a far more restricted notion of form than I do. Though I’ve read more than a little of both, I’ve not done any analytic work on either. Yet I assume that they are rich with formal patterning and that one can discover through careful analysis. The patterning may not be at all obvious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

By Bill Benzon on 04/13/10 at 06:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

More and more I’m convinced that the only issue I really care about concerning literature is one articulated so well by Albert Murray that I’ll just quote him here:

“Once upon a time there was someone who somehow did or did not achieve that favorable, no matter how delicate, balance between essential human values on the one hand and cosmic absurdity (as well as political outrage) on the other.” (pg 33. *The Hero and the Blues*)

By on 04/13/10 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have a recurring fantasy about what happens when the scientists finally decipher the language of the dolphins. The discovery excites everybody until they realize that all the dolphins ever talk about is fish. “Boy do I like fish. Do you wouldn’t happen to have some fish would you? “ And so forth, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The parallel with literature professors isn’t quite perfect. There’s an obvious reason why predatory sea creatures might obsess about their natural prey, but the fascinations of critics are less easy to explain. Coming back to this discussion after a two-day migraine, I find that the phrase “hermeneutic insiders” from the title of this thread explains a lot. Whatever else they do, literary studies create a series of exclusive communities whose most basic purpose (aside from tenure) is exclusivity itself. One is attracted to hermeneutic circles even though they revolve around nothing. They are magnets without cores, solenoids. The holy of holy of the elaborate temple of passwords that we all learned in grad school is perfectly empty. The ultimate referent isn’t even sex and death. From this sociological perspective, the problem for the naturalistic outsiders also mentioned in the title is not that understanding literature in a non-literary way is impossible. It isn’t like chewing your teeth or something else paradoxical. It simply has somewhat limited commercial possibilities since it amounts to interesting the dolphins in something besides fish. And there’s the further problem that it takes a considerable amount of discipline to maintain the requisite objectivity since it is exceedingly easy to romanticize the role of the outsider. I think Levi-Strauss had the right take on this: he was aware of the problem but gave himself permission to cheat and thus didn’t get neurotic about it. That’s why he is so much more fun to read than Culler—if the copyright hassles weren’t so daunting, I’d like to put together an anthology of Levi-Strauss’s greatest orbiter dicta.

There was a second sophistic. Maybe there can be a second structuralism. I like your project.

By Jim Harrison on 04/14/10 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . humanism, and humanitarianism, and liberation criticism (and more besides), liberatory critics . . .

All insiders in my terms. Which is fine.

By Bill Benzon on 04/14/10 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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