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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

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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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

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/19/07 at 04:48 PM

Last Friday I went to hear Steven Pinker speak about his new book, The Stuff of Thought. On the way home I began thinking about that talk and about his recent essay-review of The Literary Animal (PDF). In that review he expressed deep skepticism about various suggestions that have been made about how and why the arts are biologically adaptive. He pointed out that such an account “can’t be a kind of psychology; it must be a kind of engineering - an attempt to lay down the design specs of a system that can accomplish a goal (specifically, a subgoal of reproduction) in a particular world (specifically, the ancestral environment)” (170). It seemed to me that his talk contained the seeds of just such an account of literature, though he doesn’t appear to have had that in mind.

I decided to write him a note and email it to him. As I began to think about it, however, the note, like Topsy, just grew and grew. I then decided it made more sense to publish it as an open letter. 

* * * * *

Dear Steven,

First, I’d like to reiterate how much I enjoyed your talk at Barnes and Noble last Friday. I must confess, however, that I suspect that you wrote The Stuff of Thought primarily so you had good reason to tour around saying those seven words - and their many variants and synonyms - in public places surrounded by mixed company.

More seriously, as I was riding the subway home, I began to think that, between the cuss-words portion of your talk and the last, on language and social relations, you had the seeds of an account of why we tell stories. Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures. The purpose of those stories is to create mutual knowledge of fundamental matters that are otherwise difficult to talk about, either because they are taboo - as in the excretory, sexual, and sacred things you talked about - or because they are difficult to verbalize under any circumstances. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, as that’s not how my thinking began.

I began by wondering whether or not a story told in a public setting - similar to your talk, for example - constitutes shared knowledge or mutual knowledge. It is certainly shared knowledge, as everyone present now knows the story. But does that, in itself, make it mutual in your sense? As I understand it, where knowledge is held mutually among people, not only is the knowledge shared but, additionally, everyone knows that everyone else knows.

Most of your specific examples concerned dyadic interactions where one party is addressing the other on a matter of some delicacy and so needs a way to save face if they’ve misjudged the addressee. Hence the driver who offers a bribe, not by baldly saying “will you let me off for $50” but by suggesting he’d like to take care of the fine “here, rather than having to go to the trouble of writing a check.”

The story-telling situation - or play-going or even movie-going - is a bit different. People in the audience aren’t engaged in a personal interaction with the story-teller. During the story they may give indications of interest, boredom, disgust, amusement, or whatever, and the story-teller will pick up on those and allow his performance to be shaped by them, but that’s not personally directed. Nor do audience members interact directly with one another either, at least not very extensively. For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I’m not sure this is sufficient for mutuality. Shared, certainly, but . . . Imagine that the story is told so very well that, when it is over, the audience breaks out in applause. Now, now, we’ve got mutual information, for that applause is an explicit signal originating with audience members and, by convention, indicates approval.

Consider another of your examples, the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes. I’m imagining that in one case his announcement is greeted with raised eyes and utter silence while in another it is greeted with murmurs and whispers quickly building to applause, foot shuffling, milling about and calls to action. In the first case everyone has the option of saying that they didn’t hear the boy, they weren’t paying attention, my head was in the sand, la la la la I don’t hear you. The shared knowledge has not yet been converted into mutual knowledge. In the other case, however, I’d say that the murmers and the milling are signs of mutual knowledge; people are acknowledging to their neighbors that they heard the boy and that he’s right, the emperor has no clothes.

* * * * *

Back to story telling. Obviously this analysis will not work for written texts, which are typically consumed in private. Hence I want to set those many cases aside for the moment and continue with oral story telling. Let us assume that my analysis is, if not obviously correct - it certainly lacks detail, at least worth further consideration. So what? Here we have the other aspect of my proposal, that the important stories tell of secret things. Rather than attempting a general argument, I want to offer some example stories from the Winnebago trickster cycle as recounted by Paul Radin (The Trickster, 1956).

Note: the next few paragraphs are from an old paper of mine on the evolution of narrative form.

The trickster cycle has many episodes and not all episodes are told in each telling, nor are all episodes present in all cultural groups.  Indeed, Radin asserts that the trickster

is admittedly the oldest of all figures in American Indian mythology, probably in all mythologies.  It is not accidental that he is so frequently connected with what was regarded in all American Indian cosmologies as the oldest of all natural phenomena, rock and sun.  Thus he was a figure that could not be forgotten, one that had to be recognized by all aboriginal theological systematizers. [1956:  164]

Among the Winnebago the trickster stories are sacred, with trickster being presented as the giver of culture.  The story can be narrated only by those who have a right to do so, and only under the proper conditions.

The basic action of the story is simple.  Trickster, the tribal chief, is preparing for war.  This preparation violates tribal tradition, for the tribal chief is not permitted to go to war.  While there is no explicit retribution for this, no character who says something like, “Because you have failed to observe the proper rituals, you are going to be punished,” the preparations fail and Trickster ends up in the wilderness, completely stripped of culture.  He then undergoes a series of adventures in which, in effect, he learns how to operate his body and his culture.  These episodes are a catalog of behavioral modes, with hunger and sexuality being prominent. For example, there is one incident (Episodes 12, 13, and 14) where Trickster learns that his anus is part of his body.  He had killed some ducks and started roasting them overnight.  When he went to sleep, he instructed his anus to ward off any intruders.  Some foxes came and his anus did the best it could, but the foxes ignored the flatulence and ate the ducks anyhow.  So, to punish his anus he burns it with a piece of burning wood.  Naturally he feels pain.  Only then does he realize that his anus is a part of himself.

In another Episode (number 15) Trickster learns about erections:

On Trickster proceeded.  As he walked along, he came to a lovely piece of land.  There he sat down and soon fell asleep.  After a while he woke up and found himself lying on his back without a blanket.  He looked up above him and saw to his astonishment something floating there.  “Aha, aha!  The chiefs have unfurled their banner!  The people must be having a great feast for this is always the case when the chief’s banner is unfurled.” With this he sat up and then first realized that his blanket was gone.  It was his blanket he saw floating up above.  His penis had become stiff and the blanket had been forced up.  “That’s always happening to me,” he said.  “My younger brother, you will loose the blanket, so bring it back.” Thus he spoke to his penis.  Then he took hold of it and, as he handled it, it got softer and the blanket finally fell down.  Then he coiled up his penis and put it in a box.  And only when he came to the end of his penis did he find his blanket.  The box with the penis he carried on his back.

Notice that trickster’s penis is, at this point, quite long, and that he carries it in a box.  These things will change later on.  In Episode 38 Trickster hears a voice taunting him about the way he is carrying his genitals in a box.  Trickster discovers that the voice is coming from a hollow tree.  He probes the tree with his penis, trying to reach the source of the voice, but to no avail.  Finally he withdraws his penis and finds that all but a small piece is gone.  In the next episode (39) Trickster kicks the log to pieces and discovers the chipmunk who’d been doing all this mischief.  Trickster takes the pieces of his penis and uses them to make things of use to humans, including potatoes, turnips, artichokes, ground-beans, and rice.  Finally, Trickster leaves the box behind and goes on with his penis now appropriately attached to his body.

Then there is the incident (Episodes 23, 24, 25) in which Trickster hears plant bulbs asserting that anyone who eats them will defecate.  Trickster wonders “Why does this person talk in such a fashion?” and, when he finally spots the bulbs, promptly eats one, fully confident that he will not defecate.  He is, of course, proven wrong.  At first he only breaks wind, gradually, and then building up to the point where he is being tossed into the air.  Still, this is not defecation.  But then defecation starts, gradually at first, but building up to the point where Trickster’s excrement covered the ground to the top the tree Trickster had climbed.  He fell off and got lost running around in his excrement, bumping into tree after tree until he finally found a body of water and jumped in, finally escaping from his excrement.

Why tell such silly stories? As you know, one popular way of accounting for the existence of our narrative capacity is by reference to its practical utility. You’ve advanced two versions of this idea in your recent review of The Literary Animal. While I don’t doubt that telling stories can have practical utility, I do find it difficult to see practical utility in these Trickster tales. Do people really need a story to warn them that, if they stick a piece of burning wood up their rectum it’s going to hurt? I don’t think so.

Beyond the mere telling of such tall tales, why make a big production of the telling by declaring such stories sacred and thus restricting their telling to certain special circumstances “designed” to maximize mutual information?

To be honest, while I have a sense of an answer to this question, I’ve not found a formulation that I find deeply satisfying. My guess is that that proper formulation will be about how human culture gets engineered into a brain in part by repurposing (often ancient) structures and circuits that evolved for different purposes. The best I can do now is to point out that these trickster tales are replete with episodes around and about those bodily functions that are at once necessary to life and deeply anxiety provoking. These episodes are about things we don’t talk about, at least not in polite company. The effect of telling such stories in the most public of circumstances is to allow the community to affirm those (animal) aspects of our nature and, in so doing, to “inscribe” them in cultural practice. In this way we lay claim to our animal heritage and hold ourselves superior to it at the same time.

If I am correct in suspecting that this really is what is going on then we may be on the way to an engineering analysis of the biological adaptiveness of fiction. If so, it is an account that resonates with Brian Boyd’s contribution to The Literary Animal. The shared attention for which he argues is necessary for the creation of mutual information.

Now, how does this work in literate cultures, where many of the most important stories are consumed in private? In the first place, while private consumption is common, it’s not all there is. People read stories aloud to family and friends, and perhaps more. I know that there’s been a great deal of scholarship on the history of reading, but I don’t know that literature at all. I’d be interested in knowing about public or quasi-public reading in pre-modern civilizations where books were hand-made, and thus rare and precious.

Reading aside, such civilizations have religious ceremony and they have the theatre - think of the ancient Greeks. Or, for that matter, think of Elizabethan England, which also had the benefit of printed books. Those books, however, would still have been relatively expensive and rare. Anyone could go to the theatre and apparently they all did it. As far as my analysis goes, theatrical performance is pretty much the same as oral story telling:  a large group of people see and hear the story in one another’s presence and signal their mutual awareness through applause or rude noises as appropriate.

By the time books become relatively cheap we have significant numbers of people writing letters to one another, meeting in reading groups, attending public performances by noted authors, we have reviews and, eventually, high school and university courses in literature. Thus we have a rich collection of individual practices and social institutions that, in various ways, ensures the mutuality of important stories though large segments of the population.

As these institutions have emerged, so has a sense of the literary tradition, now often referred to by an ecclesiastical term, the canon. In the 19th century, in the Ango-American West, the canon was written in Greek and Latin. Contemporary English-language fiction was considered too vulgar to thus be preserved and maintained. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, however, that changed, and vernacular literature was admitted into the university. The objective was to broaden the minds of the young and preserve Western tradition by teaching the best of Western literature. Those are the texts containing the “sacred” knowledge we must hold mutually in order to preserve and extend our civilization.

That’s pretty much the situation we have today. One of the central missions of college and university literature departments is the preservation of a certain body of mutual knowledge. [I note in passing that the other central mission of these departments is more mundane: writing instruction.] That’s the purpose of the undergraduate curriculum. Graduate education and research support that mission.

* * * * *

Now let us return to the idea that literary stories are, in effect, indirect speech writ large. As you noted, the hidden meanings in indirect speech are not, in fact, very well hidden. Thus everyone knows that, when a man invites a woman to see his etchings, he’s propositioning her. Note that there was, however, a time in everyone’s life when he or she had to be told the meaning of that line or had somehow to figure it out.

Literary texts are rather more complex than the phrases of indirect social speech and, accordingly, the hidden meanings are much less obvious - that’s the assumption on which the modern practice of academic literary criticism rests. The job of the literary critic, then, is to undertake the arduous task of discerning the hidden meanings of these difficult and important texts. Once revealed, the critic conveys these hidden meanings to students and colleagues and thus earns those meanings some small place in our mutual knowledge of canonical texts.

Conversely, the academic study of literature, or of the arts in general, has not been conceived as a psycho-ethnography of expressive culture in the advanced civilizations housing university departments of literature. If that had been the case, popular culture would be given extensive coverage simply because it is there and important to many people, more important than the high-culture canon. There are no Martian ethnologists in literature departments.

Literary interpretation as such is a relatively new form of intellectual specialization. It’s my impression that it didn’t become central to the literary academy until the second or third quarter of the twentieth century. Once that had happened there were many who objected to it on the grounds that interpretation somehow got in the way of true feeling and-or somehow demeaned literature. Thus when Northrup Fry published his Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, he wrote a preface in which he distinguished between the simple reading of texts and the act of commenting on those texts, arguing that, as they were two different activities, the second could not possibly harm or interfere with the first (go here for more discussion of this point).

At the same time many academic critics couldn’t help but notice that critical disagreements about meaning were rife. Some were happy to take this as evidence of the richness of the texts, while others found it disturbing, fearing that it indicated some flaw in their critical methods. Some proposed that this divergence reflected different interests, the old story of the blind men and the elephant. Others pointed out, however, that Larry, Moe and Curly seemed to be investigating the same part of the elephant and were unable to figure out whether or not it was a telephone pole, a powder keg, or a barrel full of monkeys.

It’s in this context that some turned to Europe for help. And so, in due course, the French landed in Baltimore in the Fall of 1966 at a conference on Les Langages Critiques et les Sciences de l’Homme. The conference was organized by two young comp. lit. professors at Johns Hopkins, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, and was designed to promote consilience among the sciences of man. To be sure, the word “consilience” wasn’t used back then, but that’s what the effort was about. Among others, the conference featured Georges Poulet, Tzvetan Todorov, Roland “death of the author” Barthes, Jacques Lacan the Obscure, and the Archdeacon of Deconstruction, the Dynamo of Academic Disaster, Jacques Derrida. For many of us, it was the most exciting thing going in the humanities.

Thus I can’t help but smile when, in your advice to the Darwinian literati, you urge critics to offer “a more explicit rationale for what literary criticism is for, and why we attach so much importance to it - the kind of justification that many humanities scholars find philistine and demeaning, but that scientists are forced to muster every time they write a grant proposal” (175). We’ve been there before and, in some sense, have never left. What you see as the politicized and sclerotic state of a very visible segment of the profession - a criticism that resonates with more than a few Valvologists - is, in part, the result a 40-year old effort at disciplinary self-criticism and re-construction.

What guarantee do we have that a new round of criticism and reconstruction will have a happier outcome? There is, of course, no guarantee. But, it would certainly help if the profession were to take the advice you offer the literary Darwinists, that they should consult “the other sciences of human nature: artificial intelligence on the nature of intelligent systems, cognitive science on visual imagery and theory of mind, linguistics on the use of language to narrate plots and control readers’ attention,” (175) and so on. That advice entails institutional problems.

Superficial knowledge of those matters is readily at hand in a wide range of excellent popular accounts, including yours. But you cannot rebuild the study of literature on the basis of those popular accounts, plus cognitive metaphor theory, some conceptual blending, some Theory of Mind, and a dash of mirror neurons. Those are decent entry points, but, as you know, one needs to become comfortable with at least some of the technical literature and, in particular, one needs to become comfortable with the idea of computation in some significant form - a matter I’ve argued at some length. The last could take various forms - a modest proficiency in computer programming, an upper level course or two in linguistics, or mathematical logic, or knowledge representation - but whatever the specific form, it’s not likely to fit readily into the schedule of an early or mid-career scholar. And what literature graduate program is going to encourage their graduate students to take strange courses in other departments that will allow those students to write a dissertation that is likely to be very obscure to the extant literary faculty?

I won’t belabor these institutional issues any more as I’m sure you’re familiar with them. But there is another, closely related, issue. To see what it is let us, once again, cycle back to indirect speech.

* * * * *

Your purpose in writing about indirect speech and featuring it in your presentation is not to decode those hidden meanings. As you’ve said, they’re pretty transparent. Rather, you want to explain why indirect speech happens and how it works. That is a completely different activity. On the one hand, there must be many people who a very good at using indirect speech but who would find your explanations difficult or even impossible to understand. By the same token, there are some people who have no trouble understanding your explanations, but who are not very skilled in the use of indirect speech.

We can make a parallel distinction with respect to talk about literary texts. It is one thing to decode a particular text, to offer an interpretation, a “reading” at that term is used in literary criticism. It is rather a different thing to explain the perceptual, cognitive, syntactic, semantic, and affective mechanisms that are brought into play through reading that that text. Jonathan Culler made such a distinction in his Chomsky-inflected 1975 Structuralist Poetics, but it didn’t stick, not with him, nor with others (for more, again see this and also this). Part of the reason for that is that, it is one thing to make such a distinction as an abstract principle, it is another to sustain it in intellectual practice. Back then the intellectual means for understanding literary mechanism and process just barely existed; the situation is better now, but we’ve still got a long way to go. So, sustaining such a distinction has proven difficult on that score.

But it’s difficult on another score as well, and I think this one is more consequential. As I have argued above, the institutional purpose of lit. crit. is to preserve a canonical body of texts. The process of offering interpretations of those texts has become part of the preservation process. The various “meanings” that critics have discovered are an aspect of what’s being preserved - cf. rabbinical commentary on the Torah. But accounting for of how texts work, that is quite different, just as an account of the mechanisms of indirect speech is different from the speech itself.

We’re right back where Northrup Frye was, defending academic criticism from those who believed it somehow harmful to literature. Now we’re defending the study of literary mechanisms from those who think that such inquiry threatens and demeans literature. You can say “why, that’s crazy!” and I’d agree with you. But that craziness is out there and it keeps many of my colleagues from even considering new ways of working. Nor is this superstitious belief something that’s confined to demodern postanalytic psychoconstructionism. Critics who have resisted those intellectual movements are, if anything, even more likely to resist the newer human sciences. Above all else, the mysteries must be preserved.

This is quite different from the institutional difficulties in the way of learning the conceptual tools from which such methods could be constructed. The institutional issues are a matter of time and resources. But if the time and resources suddenly appeared, this other problem remains: most critics do not want to objectify literary texts, processes, and mechanisms. They do not want to create objective knowledge about literature. It is not that they don’t want to understand how literature works. Rather, they have set terms and conditions on such understanding so as to have the effect of making objective knowledge impossible (for examples, see passages by Adler and Gross and by Jackson quoted here).

* * * * *

At this point I fear that, while I have more to say, I’m exhausted. As I’ve said before, I enjoyed your talk, and I’m enjoying The Stuff of Language. I’m sorry to end on such a negative note. To the extent that it is simply a matter of ideas and hard work, I am confident that we can establish new disciplines of literary study. My doubts are about the capacity of the current academy to permit and nourish such activity, not about the activity itself.


Bill Benzon


On group reading (not just recitation) in antiquity: see, for a start, W. A. Johnson “Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity” American Journal of Philology 121 (2000) 593-627.  (http://www.jstor.org/view/00029475/ap050484/05a00080/0)

By on 09/21/07 at 08:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

From Steve Pinker:

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your penetrating and insightful comments. I learned a lot from them. I wish I had the time and concentration now to respond in depth, but I can offer a few reactions (which you’re free to post on your blog).

First, I’m grateful for the central insight of your letter that mutual knowledge might be a critical ingredient of explanations of why our species enjoys fiction. You’re right that I did not mention this in either of my discussions of fiction (my review of the The Literary Animal, and the discussion in How the Mind Works), nor in The Stuff of Thought, where I argued for the importance of mutual knowledge in explaining indirect speech. It’s an idea well worth pursuing. When people read or listen to a story that they have reason to believe is widely available in their culture, they are gaining mutual knowledge about the content of the story and the intent of the writer or narrator for it to be told. I suspect that this is true even in the circumstances you worry about, namely when the reading or telling is private; the implicit knowledge that other people are hearing or reading the story, or could hear and read the story at any time, is sufficient for the psychology of mutual knowledge to kick in. (That’s why it’s far more painful to read criticism of oneself in a newspaper than in a personal letter, even if both are read in private.) It explains why fiction is given so much importance in so many cultures – why myths and legends bind a people together, and Salman Rushdie can be given a death sentence about a make-believe story, and why there can be canon wars and culture wars over what one might think is a minor part of the college curriculum.

I agree with you that there is a lot be explored here. and I also despair over whether this will happen in universities, for exactly the reasons you mention. Jerry Fodor, my former MIT colleague, whom I criticize in The Stuff of Thought but who is often quite wise, once said that “the best interdisciplinary collaborations are the ones that go on inside a single head.”

In your discussion you alternate between discussing indirect speech and mutual knowledge, but note that they are in tension – I suggest that indirect speech is used in order to prevent shared individual knowledge from becoming mutual knowledge. This may be why so often in repressive regimes, criticisms of the rulers made in allegory or other veiled forms are tolerated far more than outright criticism (though there may be a continuum, in which the more transparent allegories come close to becoming mutual knowledge; indeed, I suspect that this threshold is where authorities begin to crack down). There’s lots to explore here, and I thank you for opening my eyes to this connection.


By Bill Benzon on 09/24/07 at 07:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As these institutions have emerged, so has a sense of the literary tradition, now often referred to by an ecclesiastical term, the canon. In the 19th century, in the Ango-American West, the canon was written in Greek and Latin. Contemporary English-language fiction was considered too vulgar to thus be preserved and maintained. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, however, that changed, and vernacular literature was admitted into the university. The objective was to broaden the minds of the young and preserve Western tradition by teaching the best of Western literature. Those are the texts containing the “sacred” knowledge we must hold mutually in order to preserve and extend our civilization.

By Ilan on 06/16/10 at 01:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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