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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

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Style Matters

Posted by Bill Benzon on 03/17/10 at 12:01 PM

Intellectual style, that is.

When, some 35 years ago, I turned toward the cognitive sciences and away from structuralism & post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the rest, the turn was driven as much by intellectual style as by epistemological conviction. No, I didn’t have much affection for the predicate calculus, which I learned in a course in symbolic logic (it fulfilled my math requirement), but I did like the intellectual style I found in linguistics books, the sense of rigor and explicit order. I also liked the diagrams. A lot.

There were large sections in my dissertation—Cognitive Science and Literary Theory—where the major burden of the argument was in the diagrams. I’d work out the diagrams first and then write prose commentary on them. That modus operandi pleases me a great deal. In the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil, which had some diagrams, but not many, I refer to my thinking in that book as speculative engineering. I like that term: speculative engineering.

There are other intellectual styles, obviously. Some very different from my diagrammatic and speculative engineering style.

Take New Historicism for instance. I’ve not read much in that vein, but I’ve read some, and some of that I’ve found quite interesting and delightful. If New Historicism is, as I’ve been told, the closest thing literary studies currently has to a dominant methodological practice, I can’t help but thinking that is as much about intellectual style as about epistemological conviction.

It is, or can be, a very writerly style. One gathers a pile of stories, vignettes, and passages from various writers, literary and not, and arranges them more according to rhythm, surprise, and repose than for logical progression and finality — though such matters come into play as well. It is a style that can be a bit like literature itself, at least prose fiction, though one can sneak in some lyrical passages here and there, and maybe even a bit of insistent rhythm.

* * * * *

I’ve got two suspicions about style matters:

1.) In anyone’s intellectual ecology, style preferences are deeper and have more inertia than explicit epistemological beliefs.

2.) Some of the pigheadedness that often crops up in discussions about humanities vs. science is grounded in stylistic preference that gets rationalized as epistemological belief.


Get a bunch of philosophers in a pub and listen to them argue.  They’ll argue back and forth quoting people and presenting arguments but eventually this will stop and the “I’m not sure that that’s intuitive"-ing will start.

I would say not that style is important to the humanities, I would say that all humanities scholarship and theory is devoted to post-hoc justification of stylistic preferences.

By Jonathan M on 03/17/10 at 12:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As far as I can see the New Historicism pretty much amounts to the rediscovery of the essay.That doesn’t mean that other literary or philosophical movements can’t be defined by their main ideas,however. One can probably point to a characteristic Marxist style, for example, but Marxism has tenets, too, as do many other systems of thought.

By Jim Harrison on 03/17/10 at 02:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I think you’ve nailed a major factor in my attitude toward humanities scholarship.  Issues like tone, style, “worldview” or mindset, etc. play a huge role in what criticism I find interesting and in what criticism I used to write when I used to write it. 

I remember loving the oracular, gnostic atmosphere of Bloom’s early work; the twists and turns of Derrida; the Aristotelian (sp?) categorizing and defining of Frye’s *Anatomy of Criticism*; the fragmentary genius of Norman O. Brown; the passion of Charles Olson’s essays on poetics.

And it’s one of the issues I face when I teach high school English.  It’s a prep school, so the students write largely analytical essays on literature.  But the problem is that, while I want formal writing from them, I don’t want toneless, bloodless writing either.  But too often students adopt what they consider “the academic voice” when they write, and it’s mindnumbing to read.

One approach I’ve discovered that is beginning to solve this is to teach them that their introductions might begin in the first-person, almost like New Historicism.  Rather than begin with some lame quotation or definition or generalization, their essays might, I say, begin by putting the reader in the a-ha moment when you as a reader first noticed the problem or asked the question that the essay investigates.

This little infusion of narrative and voice into the intro spills out into the entire essay.  So I get essays that begin with something like:

“When I first read Book 5 of *The Odyssey*, I was stunned to learn that Odysseus, the great hero discussed throughout the first four books, has spent seven years sitting on a rock, gazing out to sea, paralyzed.  Why, I wondered, did he not think to build a boat before Kalypso tells him to do so?”

The thesis is then an answer to their question, which I now care about because they’ve made it personal and interesting to me.  It’s also *their* thesis, their own answer to a question they actually wondered about. 

Ultimately, I wish I had more examples for my students of clearly-written, thesis-driven critical essays that still have a sense of voice and tone.  The brief essays in the new Marcus/Sollors Literary History of American Literature have been my best resource.  I wish there was something similar written on British lit and world lit!

By on 03/17/10 at 09:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’ve certainly got it right so far as I’m concerned, but then I’m a stubborn formalist who’s always been willing to sacrifice a grade or an argument for the sake of a pleasing phrase or a novel structure.

But I almost always begin my structures with a “problem to be solved,” I was also a math major, I’m also (more successfully) a software engineer, and I also believe in the importance of attending to evidence. So one thing that’s interesting about my (and your, and Luther’s—and Roubaud’s and Nabokov’s and so on’s) aestheticism is how unconflicted we feel compared to how much conflict received wisdom would predict.

A few years ago when I first got the idea of writing a long essay on truth-in-citations and a longer essay on ethical criticism, I thought I’d finish the loose trilogy with a long essay on the role of beauty in math and science, but now I wonder if I’ll live so long.

By Ray Davis on 03/18/10 at 09:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The thing is, Ray, a lot of those diagrams I referred to are directed graphs representing semantic structures (such as the third diagram here). Those same structures can easily be represented as a set of logical propositions, but I can’t work with them in that way. I need to see diagrams, and I’m often quite particular about just how I draw the diagrams. The visual layout is important to my thought process.

ADDENDUM: And, you know, I’m rather skeptical about much of the work that’s been done in the name of cognitive criticism or cognitive rhetoric. It seems to me that those critics have missed the point of cognitivism, which is computation. And those diagrams that I so love are “about” computation. That is to say, the cognitive criticism I find wanting has no room for diagrammatic elegance. That’s one thing, the visual elegance. But, when this translates to “epistimontology” they become interpreted as mechanisms, which means that those literary cognitivists lack any sense of mechanism. Without that sense of mechanism, what’s the point of going cognitive?

By Bill Benzon on 03/18/10 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was also a math major

What was your focus?

By on 03/20/10 at 01:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill: Interesting. For me the point of computational-connectivist literature is as liberatory limit-case thought-experiments—“see how much can be done from so little”—much as some rare and scrupulous economists have described their own mathematical models. For modeling lived experience, I’m more convinced by the researchers who stress our gooiness, seepiness, and stickiness.

But then I’m as verbally driven as you seem to be visually driven: words or intuited verbal intonations or structures often precede and prompt my thought (such as it is). In support of your thesis, at my dayjob even my architectural and workflow “diagrams” look more like a page of open field verse, and sure enough my signature software development skill lies not in remarkably efficient use of the hardware nor in gorgeous presentation but in improved “user interaction,” the sort of solitaire-dialogue one conducts with an inanimate object.

Of course, someone in a different discipline (Freudian or Lacanian analysis, say, or a pharmaceutics marketer) might come up with a very different explain-all origin for such differences.

Jake: Some niche of number theory, I think, I haven’t looked at my thesis since 1982. Geometry, calculus, and topology meant nothing to me—from early on, I was all about non-visualizable abstractions.

By Ray Davis on 03/20/10 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Likewise, Ray, interesting. In particular your notion of the value of “computational-connectivist literature is as liberatory limit-case thought-experiments.” That has certainly been the case for. My dissertation had a lot of stuff in it and lead up to an analysis of the semantic structure of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. Not only was the analysis itself bristling with diagrams, but those diagrams built on arguments and conventions established in earlier chapters. But I’ve never done another piece of work like that. I have, at various time, put in considerable work on the semantic model (and associated psychology) and, of course, I’ve continued to work on literature and even analyzed a text or two. But, for various reasons (shear complexity is one of them) I’ve never done another piece of work like that.

So, here’s my problem: How can I argue for the importance of cognitive science to literary criticism and, in particular, the importance of working with semantic models at that level of specificity, if I’ve only done one full-dress piece of analytic work using such a model? It’s clear to me that doing that work put me into a new conceptual universe and that’s why it’s important.

One standard litcrit story starts by pointing out that the text, after all, is just a bunch of ink splotches on the page. They don’t mean anything until a mind reads them, so meaning results from the interaction between mind and text. Prior to the emergence of the cognitive sciences (particularly the computational models) we had no explicit way of thinking about that process. It was all some kind of voodoo; even in reader response criticism, what the reader is doing is some kind of mystical magical voodoo, there is no model. Now we have explicit models that at least get us started. I think its important to know that those models exist, not merely in the sense that you’ve read about such things and believe that, yes, they do exist, but that you actually have some nontrivial knowledge of those models yourself. You can’t get that from reading Dan Dennett, nor even from reading the books he’s read. You actually have to work with those models yourself.

By Bill Benzon on 03/20/10 at 02:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Mystical magical voodoo”?  Really?

I find that it’s not all that hard for a reader to reflect on how her *mind* worked when reading a poem.  Working with high school students has made this even clearer.  When they write explications, it’s pretty clear who has read the poem once or twice and who has read it time and time again. 

Which is to say that while I admittedly haven’t read a ton of cognitive-science-type lit crit, I haven’t been all that surprised about the insights in what I *have* read.  Knowing what the brain does when reading a poem doesn’t really get us any closer to what the poem means or what effects it achieves.  Instead, it all seems to tell us about the brain, not the poem; it’s psychology or physiology, not literary criticism. 

I also wonder about the assumption behind these models that we all read the same way.  I was amazed when a 16 year old told me she understood a Donne poem and wrote it about it so well because she read it backwards a few times (not word for word backwards, but sentence by sentence backwards).

By on 03/20/10 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Knowing what the brain does when reading a poem doesn’t really get us any closer to what the poem means or what effects it achieves.

If you want to get “closer” to “what the poem means,” then read the poem, read it again, read it aloud, sing it. But writing about the poem is just writing about the poem. Whatever satisfaction you get from that writing has more to do with the writing and its conventions than it does the poem.

. . . that we all read the same way.

If find it unfortunate that long-established critical parlance uses the same word, “read,” to designate both mere reading and some fairly elaborate thought process that often, though not always, results in a secondary text that comments on the primary text that you’re “reading.” Interestingly enough, it also designates what an actor does when he performs a role on the stage. The actor may well undertake an elaborate preparation process prior to public performance, a process necessary to the reading, but the reading itself uses just the words in the text. Any secondary and tertiary texts that turned up in the preparation process have disappeared.

By Bill Benzon on 03/21/10 at 08:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill writes, “Whatever satisfaction you get from that writing has more to do with the writing and its conventions than it does the poem.”

I don’t quite know what that means.  Are you saying that secondary criticism about poetry contains no truths about poetry?  Which is to say, only cog-sci readings of how we read can tell us something about poetry? 

And as someone interested only in high literature, I sort of don’t care about how the brain parses language.  I only care about strong readings (in the Bloomian sense) of strong literature.  And those readings cannot be charted cognitively.

By on 03/21/10 at 02:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you saying that secondary criticism about poetry contains no truths about poetry?

Secondary criticism contains many propositions about poetry, some true, some even trivially true (e.g. line 3 of poem X ends in word Y). As for “strong” readings, the set of strong readings for a given poem may not be mutually compatible, some readings may contradict others. Which of them is true? None of them? One of them? All of them? Is truth irrelevant to such readings?

By Bill Benzon on 03/21/10 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’d say that plausibility is more relevant to literary criticism than truth.  Truth in interpretation would require mind-reading, and even cognitive science cannot do that, yet. 

I’d even say that there’s a certain degree of existential perspectivism in lit crit, which is to say that the thread a reader chooses to tug on is ultimately shaped by personal concerns.  This doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it means that a reader who chooses to examine *The Odyssey* from the perspective of character development is basically reading a very different poem than the reader who approaches the poem from the perspective of mystery religion.  Those two issues are intimately interconnected, but a reader will generally privilege one or the other.  Their interpretations may then differ, but that’s because the poem is itself a multiverse.

By on 03/21/10 at 07:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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