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Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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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

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Autonomous Aesthetic: A Graduate Syllabus in Literary Theory

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/19/07 at 05:34 PM

Cross-posted at Cognitive Approaches to Literature.

John Holbo’s recent post on Mark Bauerlein’s proposed antidote for leftist politics in the Theory curriculum got me thinking about the question of how, given a free hand, I’d teach literary theory. In the spirit of a thought experiment I’ve put together a syllabus for a graduate course in literary theory, that is, the theory of literature.

On the one hand, I want to demonstrate that one could teach a course in literary theory that pretty much avoids High Theory and yet is intellectually contemporary rather than an exercise in nostalgia. If I myself have pursued these ideas, however, it has not been out of any desire to avoid Theory as though it were a disease (and, of course, it is very proud of the fact that it is grounded in dis-ease) but simply because these are the ideas that have interested me. They are compelling on their own terms and not simply as an alternative to something else.

As a way of setting an overall objective for such a course, a pole star if you will, I offer a passage from a very political High Theorist, the late Edward Said. This passage is from one of his last essays, “Globalizing Literary Study,” published in 2001 in PMLA. He says:

I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernical transformation in the common understanding of it.

I too believe that “an autonomous aesthetic realm exists,” and that one can conceptualize it without having to ignore either the human mind, nor society, nor their joint interaction through and embedding in history. The objective of this course in literary theory, then, is to begin understanding how literature partakes of this aesthetic autonomy while being embedded in the contingencies of history.

First I list the proposed texts, in the order that I would use them, and then I explain why.

David Herman. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Claude Lévi-Strauss. “The Story of Asdiwal,” in Structural Anthropology II. Basic Books, 1976, pp. 146-197.

Reuven Tsur. Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. North-Holland, 1992.

William Benzon. Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. Basic Books, 2001.

Dan Sperber. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Blackwell, 1996.

Franco Moretti. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso, 2005.

Alistair Fowler. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Harvard University Press, 1982.

I chose to start with David Herman’s Story Logic because it makes an important intellectual connection, between the structuralist thought of the 70s and 80s and the cognitive sciences. I think it essential that students be introduced to the newer psychologies - as I’ve taken to calling them - and that they see a connection between them and structuralism, which has largely been abandoned outside narratology. As far as I can tell from a quick blitz - I’ve not really read the book - Herman does that. When students have worked through this book, they will have lots of conceptual tools for examining narratives on both micro and macro scales.

Yet the book has one obvious deficiency in that it is, from my point of view, too grounded in narratology. Narratology owes more to Vladimir Propp and his progeny than it does to Lévi-Strauss. As far as I can tell, Lévi-Strauss’s work has been given only superficial consideration in the literary academy - nature-culture, continuous-discontinuous, binary oppositions, that sort of thing along with his mistaken notion that his account of myth is but another myth. Herman has only one reference to Lévi-Strauss, and that is to his early (and classic) paper on “The Structuralist Study of Myth.” That’s a neat little paper, but very schematic, and not characteristic of his later work. Rather than have students slog through The Raw and the Cooked, I’d have them read “The Story of Asdiwal.” That will give them a better sense of his “paradigmatic” approach to myth (as opposed to Propp’s “syntagmatic” approach). Just how one might extend that to standard literary materials, that’s for class discussion and exploration.

Then we move on to Reuven Tsur’s Cognitive Poetics (which is, alas, out of print - but this is a thought experiment, so that’s OK). Tsur was trained by New Critics and found his way to gestalt psychology. Cognitive Poetics is the rich result and contains a wealth of strategies and tactics for analyzing and describing poetry. While Tsur’s psychology does intersect with some of the cognitive science employed by Herman (e.g. on scripts and schemas), he covers a lot of material that Herman does not. In part that is because poetry and narrative present different analytic problems and opportunities (e.g. the sonic properties of verse). But, as I’ve indicated, Tsur’s psychology ultimately is grounded in the work of the gestaltists, who were most influential in the early and middle of the last century. At the same time, their style of thinking is consistent with contemporary work in the complex dynamics of the nervous system. It is thus another useful addition to the student’s conceptual repertoire.

To this point we’ve been thinking of texts as products of minds. But human minds are not, in fact, Cartesian isolates. Minds interact with and develop through other minds. Minds exist in society. Of course, there is a great deal of Theory that deals with the social context, but much of this is of the politicized sort that Bauerlein finds discomfiting. In any event, there are other ways of thinking about society and history.

What we need is a way of thinking about human minds as fundamentally and irreducibly social and intersubjective. For that reason I have put my music book, Beethoven’s Anvil, on the syllabus. In chapters 2, 3 and 4 I propose such an account with respect to music by using the neuro-dynamics of Walter Freeman. Later in the book I talk about the origins of music and its circulation and development in culture though history. I believe that the arguments I made with respect to music can be extended to literature as well, though I don’t think the extension is trivial. That is something that could be contemplated and discussed in class.

Then I introduce Dan Sperber’s “epidemiological” approach to culture in his short collection of essays, Explaining Culture. Sperber is one among various thinkers who have been exploring Darwinian approaches to culture. Much of this work has been prompted by Richard Dawkins’ notion of the meme - cultural analogue to the biological gene - and most of this work is somewhere between superficial and silly. Sperber’s work is better.

From Sperber’s elegant volume, we move to Franco Moretti’s, Graphs, Maps, Trees - which has received a thorough discussion at The Valve. At this point we are far removed from the detailed particularity of individual texts and are, instead, looking at some of the larger movements in the sphere of literary culture. Morretti is tracing patterns that emerge from the epidemiological dynamics Sperber has characterized.

I conclude with the most traditional book on the syllabus, Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature. Given what has been covered earlier in the course, the idea is to read Fowler’s book through the conceptual material we’ve been through earlier. What I’ve got in mind is some notion of genre as the “interface” between the literary mind and society. Just what would come of reading Fowler through these other materials, that I do not know. I’d have to teach the course to come to grips with that question.


Comments

Very interesting ... though I might quibble and re-title the course more along the lines of Cognitive Science and Theories of Literature. There isn’t anything here on theorizing literary language, or genre, for example. (Not that I’m up-to-date on these areas at all, but I remember reading all those essays on defamiliarization, and irony, and metaphor vs. metonymy in the Richter theory anthology, and _The Rhetoric of Fiction_.)

But I would think another direction besides how literature is comprehended by the reader would be how it gets produced, and circulated, and labeled. Are there any recent good studies theorizing the publishing industry and marketing, or would they all be more like case studies of criticism?

By Sisyphus on 07/19/07 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thought-provoking syllabus.

A naive, but genuine, question: do you find that linking literary analysis and the “newer psychologies” inhibits class discussion, because there is this positivistic trump card? I mean, I would feel just as uncomfortable classifying narratives according to some kind of cog-sci-authorised taxonomy as I would declaring that Hamlet reduces to the Oedipus complex. In both cases, the idea of an “autonomous aesthetic realm” seems under threat.

Sisyphus, what about Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art (although yes, like Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism it is strictly speaking a context-specific case study.)

By on 07/20/07 at 04:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sisyphus:

There isn’t anything here on theorizing literary language, or genre, for example.

The Fowler book is entirely about genre and Tsur deals with some of the standard literary language material - defamiliarization (he talks of deautomatization), metaphor & metonymy. But I could, for example, through in Jakobson’s 1960 essay on “Linguistics and Poetics.”

As for the publishing industry, I’m not sure, though this is something that does interest me. On my shelf I’ve got a 1997 book by one Albert N. Greco entitled The Book Publishing Industry, which is about the contemporary business. I’ve only glanced at it, and it seems oriented toward a business readership. It’s got lots of information about how the industry works, but it’s not going to tell you about book publishing in the 18th century, for example. There’s certainly more material like this around.

There’s a diverse literature on the film industry, which would get at issues similar to those involved in publishing. I’ve found Arthur De Vany’s Hollywood Economics to be quite good, though it’s rather technical (I’ve reviewed it on Amazon). A chapter from this book (most of it was written as a set of stand-alone papers) would fit in with the second half of the course, perhaps paired with Moretti. R. H. Coase on “The Nature of the Firm” and “Industrial Organization: A Proposal for Research” (from his The Firm, the Market, and the Law) would be useful as well; this is microeconomics and not specific to publishing at all or the culture/media industries. It’s useful for thinking about how such a thing as the publishing industry is possible and why it has the structure it does.

John Attridge:

The question is real, but I don’t have an answer because I’ve not been academically employed for quite awhile. Is your problem, for example, that you’re made uncomfortable by taxonomies in general, or just “cog-sci-authorized” taxonomies?

By Bill Benzon on 07/20/07 at 05:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess yes, taxonomy is not the funnest of teaching strategies, but my particular problem with a narratology grounded in cognitive science, at least in a classroom situation, is it would seem to leave little room for divergent opinions. With narratology tout court, the hypotheses are made on the basis of texts, which are also what you are discussing in class, so there is room for debate. I can disagree with Genette, and say that there is such a thing as narrative without a narrator, and argue my point from what the class is studying anyway, i.e., literature. But if the narratology is supported by a heteronomous authority, a whole other kind of evidence, then there is less that can be disputed on the spot, in the classroom. Still, that is no reason why Herman’s approach can’t be canvassed, I suppose.

By on 07/20/07 at 05:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Fowler book is entirely about genre and Tsur deals with some of the standard literary language material - defamiliarization (he talks of deautomatization), metaphor & metonymy. But I could, for example, through in Jakobson’s 1960 essay on “Linguistics and Poetics.”

Oops. My bad. But yes, I was thinking about the Jakobson and Schlovsky etc.

And yes, the Greco sounds like the direction I was fumbling in. But you’re right --- how texts circulated in the Renaissance vs. the 18th C vs. today would be so historically different that it would be incredibly hard to theorize. But maybe reading something about how texts from all those periods circulate _today_ would be interesting. I recently read something theorizing the anthology and the explosion in anthologies today, but I don’t remember where.

John Attridge --- I took a narrative theory class where we read quite a bit of cognitive theory --- it was about film though, not books --- and we had some very lively discussions over it. I don’t know that anybody was converted necessarily, but we certainly were able to bounce Genette and S/Z and the “top down, bottom up processing” all off against each other productively. At the very least, we could argue the level of what was _useful_ to apply to literature, regardless of what had been physiologically proved.

By Sisyphus on 07/20/07 at 10:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I appreciate Bill’s speculative syllabus, but if we replaced the Tsur, Benzon, and Sperber cog-sci-based readings with Lacanian psychoanalytic readings, we’d see just how one-sided it might seem.

Instead of Sperber—or alongside him, excerpted—why not a respected anthropologist like Clifford Geertz or Victor Turner?

Instead of Benzon on intersubjectivity, why not Bakhtin or GH Mead? 

In each case, then, students would be exposed to a different, though plausible, theory of the topic at hand (culture, socially-symbolic systems)—as well as readings that are necessary to understand a good deal of past criticism.

I believe the syllabus also needs someone like Burke or Jameson—a theory of how narrative forms reflect social realities.

I’d also add something like Louise Rosenblatt’s *Literature as Exploration* or IA Richards, so that students read studies of how readers tend to respond to certain literary prompts—empirical work, but work that doesn’t posit some overarching theory of psychological activity.

Finally, students need to read Barthes.  Need I say more?

By on 07/21/07 at 09:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther – I’m certainly not claiming that syllabus is complete or representative of literary theory as a whole. It is not. I do claim that it covers a usefully wide range of topics, that it provides a wide range of ideas and conceptual tools, and that it doesn’t carry the political freight that so bothers Bauerlein.

It is by no means obvious to me that, in that syllabus, I am positing “some overarching theory of psychological activity.” But, whatever it is that I’m posting, I think you’d be hard put to find such an overarching theory in those texts. Cognitive science is, at best, a loose grab-bag of themes, models, ideas, and so forth, and it has substantial disagreements and divisions within it and philosophical alliances with both analytic and Continental traditions. The cognitively oriented books on that syllabus—Herman, Tsur, Sperber, and Benzon—do not represent a single school of thought. When you add the other readings into the mix I dare say that that syllabus is intellectually quite diverse, certainly comparable to theory courses already being taught, though the mix is somewhat different.

As for supplementing that list in various ways, “yes” in principle. However, as it stands, it is already a pretty brutal one semester course. From my point of view, the lack of psychoanalytic thought is the most serious deficiency, though I’d not call on Lacanian thought to fill in the gap. I don’t know what I’d use.

Behind all this is the issue that you imply with the phrase, “readings that are necessary to understand a good deal of past criticism.” This is a real issue, though it’s not quite clear to me what kind of an issue it is. I think much earlier criticism can be picked up simply by reading the criticism; but certainly not all of it. Nor is it necessary for any student to have facility with ALL types of previous criticism.

This issue – continuity with the old while accommodating the new – is hardly an issue that has arisen anew in the face of my syllabus. For a long time literary studies has drawn on a wide range of auxiliary disciplines. No one scholar could know all of them nor anyone department accommodate all of them – though SUNY Buffalo made a good run on it in the late 60s through the 70s. Individuals and departments have to pick and choose what’s important to their work. One size does not fit all.

* * * * *

Sisyphus – I should say that the Greco is a rather nuts and bolts book, long on numbers and case studies, short on theory (and not even within hailing distince of Theory). You might want to go to the library and leaf through Ginsburgh and Throsby, eds., Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture, Volume 1. I’ve not seen it, but the TOC is interesting and De Vany has a chapter on the movie industry. I suspect, however, that it is likely to be filled with often technical economics.

As for how texts have circulated at different times and places, the institutional mechanisms will differ, but the fundamental economic constraints are likely to be pretty much the same. The Wikipedia has a useful little article on the economics of the arts and lists these characteristics of cultural industries:

Some artwork is not reproducible, but there are many cultural goods whose value does not depend on the individual copy. Books, recordings, movies get some of their value from the existence of many copies of the original. These are the products of cultural industries. These markets are characterized by:

• Uncertainty on value. The demand for a good (success) is hard to predict. This is a characteristic of an experience good.
• Infinite variety. You can differentiate between products, eg. a car, on basis of its characteristics. Many products allow classification on a relatively small number of such characteristics. Cultural goods, however, have a very high number of them, which, on top of that, often are subjective. This makes them hard to compare.
• High concentration in traded products. A major part of sales is in best-sellers or block-busters.
• Short life cycle. Most items are sold shortly after introduction.
• High fixed cost. There is high cost before introduction. Making a movie is much more expensive than producing another copy.

The upshot of these factors is that most individual titles do not even break even much less turn a profit. But there’s no way to predict which titles will do well.

I suspect that most of these factors are in play whenever and wherever cultural goods are sold. What’s going to differ is the specific instutional mechanisms that deal with this very volatile mode of production. When, where, and why did publishing houses and agents come to intermediate between authors and printers? What about the role of lending libraries? And so forth.

* * * * *

John Attridge – I’ve been doing more thinking on your query about aesthetic autonomy. I don’t think the issue is one of what a given critic is free to dispute about this or that text. That’s irrelevant.

It seems to me that, were I actually to teach such a course, that I would have to raise the issue of aesthetic autonmy in the opening class and then revisit it periodically. The central question would be just what could one mean by the phrase, “autonomous aesthetic realm”? Said’s essay is rather short and pretty much takes the phrase at face value, though he assumes a certain intellectual background that includes such thinkers as Auerbach, Frye, Burke, Wellek and, perhaps most importantly, Adorno. To the extent that he locates the idea in previous thinkers, Said associates it with Adorno – I wouldn’t know, as I gave up on Adorno after reading an egregiously bad essay he wrote on jazz. So, I’d supplement the above reading list with Said’s little essay and with an appropriate Adorno excerpt, and then we’re off and running.

By Bill Benzon on 07/21/07 at 12:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I didn’t mean that the syllabus as a whole posited some holistic psychological framework, but rather that of the three cog-sci-based texts works on culture from the perspective of a holistic psychological framework. 

Also, even if they disagree on specifics, the syllabus privileges the psychological study of culture over other approaches.  It would be like replacing those cog-sci works with Freud, Lacan, and Abraham: three psychoanalysts who don’t agree.  A theory course shouldn’t give half of its attention to one general approach.

By on 07/21/07 at 09:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, the easy way to deal with your objection is to make a distinction between a general “first” course in literary theory and more specialized courses. My proposed course would be one of the latter. Such a distinction is rather common, though, when I think about Buffalo when I was there, I don’t think we had a general theory course, but we certainly had a pile of specialized ones.

Beyond that, are you asserting the general similarity between Herman, Tsur, and Benzon from having read them, or on the basis of my using the cog-sci label in each case? If the former, you need to say more, because I see them as very different books. If the latter, well, the lable is misleading, but there’s no good lable for them individually or collectively. All are fundamentally interdisciplinary and while each does deal with so-called cognitive science, it’s only part of the mix. In particular, my book ranges rather far afield from cognitive science; for one, it has serious discussion of the brain and nervous system (and is the only text in the syllabus that does so) and beyond that it deals with emotion, ritual, ecstasy, human origins, cultural difference, and history.

What Barthes do you think students need?

By Bill Benzon on 07/22/07 at 01:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As a “Special Topics in Literary Theory” course, your syllabus would be fabulous.  I just think that an intro to theory should do just that: introduce students to a wide variety of ways in which scholars have thought “meta” about literature.  And part of the mission of any “intro” course is to impart the cultural literacy necessary for further research in that area.  If a student leaves an intro to theory course without some idea of what Barthes or Derrida or Bakhtin was up to, it would be like leaving an Intro to Romantic Poetry course without having read any Keats or Byron or Shelley—even if you really want to teach a special seminar in Robert Burns and John Clare. 

For Barthes, I’d say either *Mythologies* or *The Lover’s Discourse*.

By on 07/22/07 at 09:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Now I think about it, I can well imagine the lively discussion mentioned by Sisyphus in connection with cog-sci, perhaps precisely connected with the question of what an autonomous aesthetic realm might be and whether or not hard science is an appropriate way of discussing it. Must have been the science phobia talking. Thanks for taking the time to think it through.

In passing: I would teach S/Z before either of those other Barthes books, particularly as far as lit students are concerned, partly because it’s just super, but partly because it is a handy landmark for talking about the transition from structuralist to (I guess) poststructuralist literary theories, localised within a single writer’s oeuvre.

By on 07/23/07 at 04:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John—We’re a looonnnng way from anything that could be called “hard” science.

On S/Z, it’s there, sitting on my self, but I’ve never read it except for a passage or two. Has anyone done something like it for other texts? If so, who and what texts? If not, why do you think this exercise has not been repeated? If it’s a reasonable and illuminating thing to do, why not do it with every text?

By Bill Benzon on 07/23/07 at 05:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill,

Were you at Buffalo back then?

By on 07/23/07 at 01:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark, I left Hopkins for Buffalo in the Fall of 73 just as John Barth made the reverse move. I got my degree in 78.

I was there during the waning of the glory years. It was one hell of a department and very kind with me given how deeply odd was my interest in cognitive science. They gave me a degree. Given the nature of academic institutions, I count that as an act of great generosity and I am grateful for it.

By Bill Benzon on 07/23/07 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

At the risk of swerving the discussion away from the post . . .

Your experience at Buffalo doesn’t surprise me, Bill. They were a free-wheeling crew who cared more about intellect than procedure. They brought in Foucault early on, and Donato, Girard, Riddel, Fletcher, Dryden, See, Bloch, Brown, Cook, Fiedler, Barth, Holland, Macdonald, Creeley, Carton . . . A group of independent minds who professed theory in a climate that disdained conformity and discipleship. It couldn’t last, and for people who were there the rest of their academic life on the institutional side was something of a comedown. Riddel once described a typical scene from 1966: Norman Holland walked by his office just back from a trip to Baltimore. He tossed an essay onto Riddel’s desk and said, “Here. Maybe you can understand this.” It was the draft of a talk entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”

By on 07/23/07 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

LOL

By Bill Benzon on 07/23/07 at 07:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther said: “As a ‘Special Topics in Literary Theory’ course, your syllabus would be fabulous.  I just think that an intro to theory should do just that: introduce students to a wide variety of ways in which scholars have thought “meta” about literature.”

I had the same confusion about what the course was supposed to do, which is why I suggested modifying the title. It’s not always made clear to grad students that a course will be a specialized and focused topic, and I think we tend to assume that our courses will provide some sort of elusive “coverage” and “mastery” and we think that we need to know everything and ‘Oh my god we will be tested on Everything That Ever Happened in Theory.’ But as long as you tell us --- perhaps in the first session when you explain the rationale of the course --- everything should be ok.

I remember the frustrations of taking a class that was titled “Theory” and really should have been called “Three or Four Feminists Respond to One Essay by Lacan.” It was especially bad because there were people from many different departments and we never worked through the assumptions we had from our different disciplines.

And I believe the week we did S/Z we looked at it as the apogee, so to speak, of structuralism; it was _so_ exhaustive (though interesting!) that it called into question the very possibility and usefulness of a complete taxonomy of how all 5 codes worked and thus bled into poststructuralism.

By Sisyphus on 07/24/07 at 01:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d like to make a further remark about the title of my hypothetical course. I called it a course in “Literary Theory.” That’s ambiguous as between the theory of literature and the theory of criticism. It’s the theory of literature that interests me, not the theory of criticism.

To some extent this ambiguity seems inherent in the discipline. Frye published his 1957 anatomy as an Anatomy of Criticism; but I read it in the mid-60s as an anatomy of literature. Much of the theory that got cranked up in the late 60s and through the 70s was more about criticism than literature - though one can’t make a firm distinction. It was about what, if, and how the critic can know literature. When MLN celebrated its centennial in 1976, it do so under the rubric: Responsibilities of the Critic. Somehow and at some point, however, this focus on critical method took a narcissistic turn into an engaged criticism that was and is too full of the critic’s own struggles and anxieties. (For example, see my remarks about cultural critic George Lipsitz in my contribution to the Michaels symposium.) We have to get away from this self-indulgence. It’s time to recognize that it’s not about the critic, it’s about the literature, so pay attention.

As for the so-called “cognitive turn,” I wouldn’t label that course as being about cognitive criticism for the simple reason that, in the end, I am not a cognitive critic. Yes, I’ve read a great deal of cognitive science and, yes, I wrote a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory” that contains a good bit of technical cognitive science and, yes, I continue to cite the cognitive literature (as well as neuroscience and bit of this and that). But, by the mid-90s I’d come to believe that, as a source of new ideas and methods, cognitive science was well out of it innovation phase and deep into consolidation, and that those ideas won’t get you what you need to formulate either a theory of literature or a practical criticism. Further, as cognitive critics began to surface in the mid-90s (take this 1994 issue of the Stanford Humanities Review as a benchmark) they were doing work that was quite different from the work I’d done and of which, so far as I can tell, they had no knowledge. From my point of view this work missed the boat on the central driving force of the cognitive movement, which was the idea of computation.

What I’m left with now is the problem of conveying that “idea” to literary academics. I tend to think of it as “the spirit of cognitivism.” It’s not there is the cognitive metaphor literature, nor the conceptual blending literature, nor the theory of mind literature, nor the mirror neurons literature - all of which seem to be big among cognitive literary theorists these days. But, let us say that somehow this spirit manages to get over, with or without my help, what would that mean for literary studies?

It would probably mean different kinds of theories and models. But, at this point, that’s secondary. It would mean richer and more systematic analyses and descriptions of literary texts. And, once the discipline had accumulated a critical mass of such descriptive work, then we can build new theories of literature.

I think of that hypothetical syllabus as a promissory note on those theories and those two initial texts, the Herman and the Tsur, they’re full of strategies and tactics for textual analysis and description. They contain useful forays into cognitive science but I don’t think they quite catch what I’m calling the spirit of cognitivism. If that’s to get over in that course at all, it would be up to me to do it.

But I think I’d have a better chance with a different somewhat different course. This course would start with my recent program piece on “Literary Morphology" and then move on to the Herman and the Tsur. Most of the readings, however, would be literary texts and most of the course work would be that of analyzing them. I’d imagine a title like “Advanced Workshop in Literary Analysis from a Computational Perspective.”

Now, I don’t really like the word “computational” in there, for it implies that we’d be working with computers or computational linguistics or something of that ilk, but that’s not what we’d be doing - though anyone wanting to investigate that stuff would be free to do so. But I can’t think of any other word that’s any better. There isn’t any good word for what I’m up to. I suppose that means that I don’t know what I’m doing.

By Bill Benzon on 07/24/07 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sisyphus, if you amble around the corner at The Valve you’ll find a link to an online book on Victorian publishing in Miriam’s reply to my commment.

By Bill Benzon on 07/24/07 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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