Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The incorporeal invisible

I just attended the last of this year's Gauss Seminars in Criticism, where Eleanor Kaufman was giving a amazing series of lectures on "The Incorporeal in French Phenomenology." Her task was to think the being of objects or things, but without projecting thought or intention upon the thing (to speak loosely). In other words, she wanted to think being without thought as it takes place in objects, in the sense that being has always (especially in Heidegger, though he also does the most to expose this dependence and criticize it) been what thought can grasp, despite the fact that there were many objects having their being (like the whole cosmos) before thought. In doing so, she returns to the phenomenology of Sartre, in an amazing work of recuperation that sees his phenomenological experiments--especially his work of constructing unbelievably brilliant examples, which rightly are famous--as different at times from his existential philosophy.
She also handily opposes Sartre to Merleau-Ponty, and teases her idea of what thing-being is from this resistance of Sartre to Merleau-Pontian concepts, specifically, the flesh. The being of objects does not participate in the flesh. However, interestingly, it has its being in a way that is very like the Merleau-Pontean chiasmus, as sketched in The Visible and the Invisible: that is, the reversibility of the visible. Kaufman reads, I think, the chiasmus, which is invisible, into Sartre--though in such a way that its ties to Merleau-Ponty are cut because we enter such a different conceptual framework, and are therefore able to be developed in interesting ways that Merleau-Ponty wouldn't be able to think.
One of these ways is towards the incorporeal in Deleuze: Sartre thinks the incorporeal, in other words. This I think is interesting, though, for what it says about Merleau-Ponty: that if thought through correctly, and perhaps a little more rigorously than Merleau-Ponty himself was able to think about it (though it seems that right before his death he was working in this area) the invisible, as it functions in the chaismus, is incorporeal. And this is entirely what I tried to say, in a long paper put up below in several posts called "Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Depth and the Body," that Derrida saw in Merleau-Ponty a while ago: that the invisible exists in two registers, one which has it participate in the flesh insofar as it resists the fleshly, one which is completely other to the flesh. Derrida pulls the second, which is more incorporeal, out of the first, and I think this is an invaluable move, one which would further allow us to follow Kaufman's amazing analysis as it proceeds.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Literary perception

It is part of the aim of linguistic studies to improve both literary perception and the techniques of describing what is perceived. I have an uneasy sense that of late they are being more successful in this last.
-I.A. Richards, "Variant Readings and Misreadings," in So Much Nearer: Essays Towards a World English

Richards here, at a large conference at Indiana in 1958 (attended by behavioral scientists like John B. Carroll, linguists like Roman Jakobson, and literary critics like René Wellek) on style, is in many ways lamenting the failures of a movement he started. In a post last week or so I said that one of the things Richards did that was so remarkable was give tools to literary study. Names like "vehicle" and "tenor" are the "techniques of describing" that he here thinks can actually be a detriment to the cultivation and education of that other thing, that thing for which he originally developed those tools, "literary perception." In other words, Richards' approach to literature produced so much by finally allowing specific tools to be created for the literary critic, that these tools overtook the aim that governed the approach in the first place. We are able to describe literature, but unless this increases literary perception, the tools are pointless.
The question is, of course, what exactly does Richards mean by "literary perception?" Roughly, summing up the concerns of The Meaning of Meaning, Principles of Literary Criticism, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, How to Read a Page, So Much Nearer, and other works which, once actually read (by which I mean, actually picked up and looked at, instead of dismissed as a part of that ugly New Critical heritage we have not yet managed to kill off) will over and over again make this point clearly, literary perception is the ability to understand what a highly complicated (i.e. literary) statement is communicating, and, indeed, the different ways in which it possibly could be successful (or not) in this communication. And it is an ability in the sense that it is what remains necessary to achieve this understanding quite quickly, almost as soon as one really perceives and grasps how the statement is physically made up--the shapes of words on the page and/or their sound, for example. The process of studying language and its structures in literary criticism is first and foremost to cultivate--and to allow others to cultivate--a practical ability in negotiating not only just what, but also how a statement means. Without the cultivation of this ability or perception, the descriptive tools that allow us to talk about this perception and guide it along lose their purpose--or rather gain a purpose that is different.
Now, what is slowly being made clear in the above is that there are two ways to conceive this literary ability or perception. First and foremost, there is a conception that is narrow and remains close to what I have just described as Richards' notion of it: it is indeed a lot like perceiving the object one will become aware of, like one perceives a forest or rocks or the kitchen table, only it usually takes the form of text on a page or screen, and words in the ear or coming out of a speaker. It is an ability that is more constitutive of experience in general, in the way that becoming numb in the hand will take away something about our experience of the kitchen table (in that we cannot feel it). And then there is a conception that conceives this ability as a sort of skill: this, I'll claim, is closer to the rest of the New Critics' notion (starting with Empson) as they appropriated or worked off of Richards' work, and, as we'll see, in many ways informs certain notions of the role of criticism even to this day. Ability as skill: this is an ability that is not so related to experience in general, but is like a certain dexterity when presented with a certain problem. It is something that does not bear upon the experience of something in the first place, but in fact prepares one for the experience outside of that experience. It is an ability that can be practiced, not in every instance with the new influx of experience, but can be separated off and engaged in while one is not directly experiencing. As such, it transcends any particular experience, or does not remain an immediate response to that experience. It has its being beyond experience, and therefore remains more like a set of knowledge about how to use certain tools when confronted with a particular type of experience.
Literary perception on the one hand as awareness, as the condition of an experience or as a sense, as perception proper, and on the other hand, literary perception as a skill, as a separate talent, as a virtuosity: it is obvious the extraction of the latter sense of "perception" from the former produces more and more description through technique. In other words, thinking of literary perception as skill allows the proliferation of techniques of description and the cultivation of an ability to use these techniques, but severs its connection to literary perception as the thing that makes these techniques possible and which itself needs to be cultivated. This, I'll claim, is the full import of what Richards is saying above.
However, thinking of literary perception as skill does (as we said anything which used description at the expense of literary perception itself would) gain a different purpose, or refigure the original purpose, in the sense that it opens up an opportunity for something else. Literary perception, when understood as a skill, becomes less and less about understanding a statement that is communicated, and more about understanding a statement that is written in a book, or is, in short, a literary object.
In other words, Richards has a theory of literary perception that remains highly based on a notion of communication. But exposing this dependence of Richards upon communication also shows us that communication is precisely what allows him to keep literary perception away from being a sort of special skill in deciphering a literary object. Why? Because--if I can speak so broadly and loosely--understanding communication is based not on recognizing form, but on clarifying syntax and rhetoric.
I'll try and bring out what I mean. Coming to a statement with a an increased skill in being able to deal with statements of that type--in short, the skill-model of literary perception--turns that statement precisely into what can be unlocked by means of those skills. At a certain point, it matters less what the statement is saying than that it is of the type that the virtuoso can deal with--i.e. that it has a certain form. On the other hand, coming to the statement so as to become aware of it--coming to it in a way that tries to understand the statement in terms of what and how it can mean, why it orders itself in these particular units of meaning and, more importantly, what the result is of that order in how much awareness it produces--this does not make the statement a reflection of any preexisting ability. The statement is made clearer and clearer in the moment through repeated attempts to become aware of it and make it mean, and this makes it depend less on what recognizable type of statement it is--since once it is recognized (or is near enough to recognition), it is understood.
The difference in the resulting forms of cultivation--i.e. in what the aim of cultivation becomes--is very clear. In the case of literary perception as skill, one mainly thinks in terms of inculcating more and more background: the problem is one of amassing tools that can be deployed strategically when the time is right. In Richards' model of literary perception (perception as awareness) one is focused on how the forms of this perception will modify the statement, rather than unlock it. (In a way Richards' model is precisely the process of critically accounting for the skill-model.) But the point is that here the focus will be on the processes of clarifying as intrinsic to the act of perception and awareness, or, better, on trying to develop skills that will allow that clarifying act through repetition happen more smoothly.
The downside of the latter model is indeed that it is so focused on communication, and resists gaps in communication that might only be able to be picked up through recognizing form (or formlessness). But it strikes me that the state of literary studies has so conceived of the cultivation of its literary perception in terms of skill that it has forgotten, often, how to understand and especially to teach communication (in literature and in general: obviously here there is an argument for composition being a major part of literary study here, though I hope that it is clear composition might not just be a detour from that study but would enrich it by tempering efforts to reduce its object, as I'll point out in a moment). In forgetting how to understand literature as communication, its object has become more and more restricted, precisely as the amount of communication has grown unbelievably and the demands for effective communication are very clearly higher than ever. The relation between literature and the demands of communication becomes hazy at best, and this can be seen merely by looking at who actually teaches the analyzing and composition of statements (not professors of literature, as Gerald Graff in the summer of last year pointed out well in an MLA presidential column). Moving back to the communications model (and this was done quite well through linguistics and semiotics, which I think produced one of the most successful subfields of, indeed, literary study, narratology) while still preserving some of the results of the skill-model, might be profitable. But I do think that this has to happen at the expense of a notion of cultivation which does place the emphasis upon skill as opposed to awareness: while this allows authority to be established, it reifies our object--in short, it keeps people out of a process that has to internally be amenable to expansion--in fact, extraordinarily so. Skill, remember, can be precisely the result of a cultivation of perception in Richards' sense, as well. In fact this might be the only way that one gains skill in the first place (so say those who think in terms of skill: practice and knowledge is what is necessary). So I'm not arguing against skill (or the study of form or indeed the study of literature that is most object-like): I'm just trying with Richards to displace its primacy. Skill as a result of a cultivated ability to engage in clarification: this might bring literary studies towards at least apprehending its unreflective dependence upon the skill-model itself. We are perhaps still too suspicious of literature as communication, in other words: we might no longer be able to get away with thinking it (and Richards' conceptions of it), in whatever form this still happens, as wholly naive.

Friday, March 27, 2009

That interesting patience

A return to some statements in a post from last summer, "The Untimely Geoffrey Hartman," in light of the fact that I had the opportunity to see Professor Hartman today give a wonderful talk:

I wouldn't say ... that what has kept Hartman so fresh is that he resists, on the one hand, lending a sort of authority to interpretation (once it is interpreted, the text is killed off, closed, not needed to be opened again), and, on the other, lending a sort of [absolute] authority to the interpreter [my statements are as good as the text's] ... I fear even this ... does not do justice to the the way Hartman is indeed other to his times. I find his continual freshness, rather, in the interesting patience one encounters in Hartman's writings, which does not have the anxious tone of a critic in this sort of double bind. To me, it seems to come from an unbelievable confidence that a responsiveness to history can produce. I mean history in its hugest, almost inhuman sense...

I would rather replace "confidence" in the next to last sentence here, now, with something like "determinedness:" I am talking about his tone, though, and this does not mean that Hartman himself is either confident or determined--indeed, his points are highly speculative and highly eccentric. On this note I'll put in here a passage from his memoirs:

I tend to prefer instances of eccentric interpretation to the task of chastening these by criteria of correctness. It is not so much a libertarian attitude that motivates me as the pleasure of allowing texts to lead my thoughts, and to work them through collectively in class. When deciding among interpretive choice, I abandon the rejected or marginal ones only reluctantly.
-A Scholar's Tale: The Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe

But because he is so aware of eccentricity, of the pleasure of the marginal or half-thought, because he senses it to well, this makes him weigh the cost of this speculation all the more, continually, and makes his tone one that conveys each step involves an immense process of selection, of weighing one's words, of pushing forward, indeed, in the way I describe below--that is, in a way that is beyond the perceivable limit of historicity's (and not just history's) presence:

Open up 1980's Criticism in the Wilderness, and you will find issues there that, of course, are not perennially relevant, but come just about as close to this as possible--precisely because they are so much of their time. Hartman has a knack for what will be of interest in a situation, because he is always attentive to the duration, the historicity, of any event, and sees criticism as the attempt to interpret only beyond this horizon, this perceivable limit of historicity's presence. Interpretation beyond experience: this is what he praises in Derrida in Saving the Text, and (in an earlier text) this is why he sees it as so urgent (and so nearly impossible) to move "beyond formalism." What is "The Voice of the Shuttle" but an attempt at this impossible phenomenology? As he says in "Criticism, Indeterminacy, Irony:" "The seduction of understanding through a fiction should provoke something more active than bemusement or suspended disbelief: it should provoke me to break, however provisionally, the very frame of meaning I bring to the text."

I should also note that this untimeliness or timelines of Hartman is precisely what brings him into the extremely difficult act of recording and theorizing testimony--and into asserting vigorously testimony's relevance and the need for greater concentration upon its immense challenges.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Saying X rather than Y

This is why I like I.A. Richards: the way he is so attentive to the psychology of communication, or rather how the necessities of communication require certain things from one's psychology.
More fundamentally, it is his attentiveness to particular openings in the process of communication for reform, for precision, when that space is currently in complete disarray--precisely because we do not see how communication bears upon psychology, and posit ourselves as very in control of an internal situation that is already much more external, out in the world and negotiating its demands. Watch him explain the following diagram and you'll get what I mean.

S = Selection
E = Encoding
T = Transmission

R = Reception
D = Decoding
DV = Development


Richards explains this in the following way:

Let me stress first the cyclic mutual dependence, the complexity of feed forward and feedback between S, E, and T.
What is selected is commonly selected in order to be encoded and transmitted. One selection is, indeed, only doubtfully distinguishable from another, except through some encodement. Hence the old question: How do I know what I mean till I see what I say? This encodement need not be what is transmitted. Many people, in writing and in speaking, use, here and there at least, private codings, ellipses, substitutes, schemata, which would be useless to others; they compose in these, translating thence into public language for transmission. Most people recognize the process describable as "making up one's mind to say X rather than Y--without either X or Y as yet being put into words." (We may, of course, differ deeply on what account we would prefer to give of this process.) The point here, however, is that priority of X over Y may be, among other things, determined by encodement problems that have not yet explicitly arisen.

Richards, in other words, doesn't necessarily use the diagram to explain communication. He does this, but also in order to poke holes in the account--eventually he will argue we need more names for "encoding," which is not just one particular activity. Or perhaps it is better to explain what Richard does as poking holes in what the diagram says but using it still, nevertheless, to try and say something about communication. He uses the useful elements, but subordinates the use to a critical activity--without getting rid of the usefulness.
In this case, he is able to pull out an entire space of problems between selection and encoding, and by the time he is done, one both has a great sense of the particular phenomenon he is getting at here--the transition between the two stages--and think that we need a lot of reform of that area. We need some way to deal with "encodement problems that have not explicitly arisen"--that is, we need to make them more explicit. We get, then, a sense of the immensity of the problem and the need for reform, but at the same time, because we see the problem so precisely (it is the problem of trying, in the process of saying X rather than Y, to see whether X or Y can be put better in words, or rather of putting something in words precisely because putting something else in words might be too hard), we feel that we really can carry out that reform--that we have many, many tools to deal with it.


In the following I am looking at Justice Scalia's remarks in a supreme court decision from 2000, Dickerson v. United States, and their implied sense of what the Miranda v. Arizona majority is up to--specifically, his sense of what Miranda wanted to keep out of the courts, the self-exposure in confession. In this, I don't seek to defend Scalia's remarks so much as use them as a description: I don't think Miranda is hostile to confession, but perhaps only, rightly, to the impulse to confess which is somewhat different and does not necessarily imply guilt. I don't think Scalia, moreover, is really defending some notion of this human tendency (in the oppressive atmosphere of the police station) for self-exposure from the Miranda court. He's rather just opposing what Miranda rightly defends: a very clear process of taking-up the suspect into a system that "can and will use" anything this suspect says against her:

Scalia in his dissent in Dickerson is making a case that goes back to Harlan’s and Clark’s dissents in Miranda v. Arizona, that basically says a totality of the circumstances test is enough to govern the admissibility of statements produced by interrogation; and that what Miranda’s majority does by pushing so hard on the 5th Amendment’s bar on self-incrimination is install, though the notion that warnings are required to guarantee freedom from self-incrimination, certain unrealistic standards of voluntariness for these statements (“‘voluntariness’ in a utopian sense,” says Harlan). Scalia, right before the passage I want to consider, accordingly claims that,

there is simply no basis in reason for concluding that a response to the very first question asked, by a suspect who already knows all of his rights described in the Miranda warning, is anything other than a volitional act (p.5).

In other words, if the suspect is made aware of everything that a Miranda warning is supposed to give the suspect through a process based on the totality of the circumstances test (here, in Dickerson, through a process outlined in Congressional legislation—§3501), though not in the form of a warning, the requirement of voluntariness would be satisfied without warnings coming into play. But what is betrayed by Scalia’s way of putting this is the faith that Scalia has in the suspect’s ability to resist what the Miranda majority deemed coercive. So if the suspect is made aware of his rights without an explicit warning, for Scalia this is all that is really needed to prevent the suspect from being coerced. What the suspect “already knows” has that sort of force, or rather that sort of integrity. Thus if the suspect is subsequently persuaded by the police to give up her right to remain silent, then just as their prior resistance was voluntary or uncoerced—that is, was a decision based on what they already knew—so too their giving into this persuasion is voluntary:

Nonthreatening attempts to persuade the suspect to reconsider that initial decision [to remain silent] are not, without more, enough to render a change of heart the product of anything other than the suspect’s free will (p. 6).

This leads Scalia to make the point that I want to emphasize:

Thus, what is most remarkable about the Miranda decision […] is its palpable hostility toward the act of confession per se, rather than toward what the Constitution abhors, compelled confession. (p. 6).

Scalia then significantly quotes from United States v. Washington (1977), which says:

Far from being prohibited by the Constitution, admissions of guilt by wrongdoers, if not coerced, are inherently desirable (qtd. on p. 6).

What Scalia offers us here is an interesting reading of Miranda’s decision. To him, the majority in Miranda thought that without a warning, the suspect would not be able to act volitionally on the basis of a knowledge of their rights. It conceived volition, moreover, as something that would not tend to give into persuasion by the police without giving up its voluntariness, or turn into an act under compulsion. And this means that it did not think this moment of giving up something, of admission of something, of confession to something could be made on the basis of that knowledge of one’s rights. The Miranda decision thinks that acts of confession come from somewhere else than where knowledge and volition based on knowledge reside, as Scalia conceives both these terms, and that entering this area is unacceptable for the law, as it is used in the hands of the police. In other words, Scalia concludes that court there was deliberating about whether statements coming out of that particular area are precisely things that the Constitution (and I’d add the law more generally) should consider “inherently desirable.” The “hostility to confession per se” that Scalia finds in the Miranda decision is really an answer of no to that question: the law should not find that area desirable, or itself be compelled towards practices that produce statements out of that area. Statements can come out of that area, yes. But it is not the ultimate aim of the law to be drawn there.
Following Scalia’s remarks, I might sketch out a reason why: because this area, as it is conceived by the Miranda decision, is one where what the individual has to admit is outed in such a way that it places the burden of this exposure, not on the law and its procedures, but upon that individual herself through an initiative to confess. In other words Miranda found distasteful one possible effect of legal procedure as it bears upon an individual: that it out what an individual has to say in such a way that it places the burden of this revelation, not through a process of establishing guilt systematically and through arguments that do not require the initiative of the suspect, but upon precisely that initiative—upon that “decision” based on what the subject, in Scalia’s words, “already knows.”
This, it seems, is the function of the Miranda warning, over and above any process of just making the subject aware of her rights: to eliminate the need for any initiative of the suspect in the process of producing statements that hover around the area of (but do not solely concern) their possible guilt. Knowledge of one’s rights should be so clear that it should eliminate all resistance to interrogation in the first place by, essentially, never letting interrogation touch the space in which the individual might feel certain statements should be, or will be, exposed. Doing so will keep the suspect away from a certain process of statement production—confession—that revolves around an initiative, or a will to speak—or, to put it in opposite terms, a capitulation of their will to resistance through silence. Again, at the same time, this keeps the law from becoming dependent upon this self-exposing (if not self-incriminating) behavior of the suspect, and keeps it within a process of exposure that is systematic and not confined, as it were, to the initiative of the suspect.
So legal procedure as a tool for individual’s self-exposure, as opposed to a tool for establishing guilt systematically and through arguments that do not require the initiative of the suspect—this is the sort of dystopic vision that the Miranda decision (in Scalia's view--and he thinks this is unfortunate while I think it is correct) sees on the horizon, and wants to avoid.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The theory ceiling

Theory is often referred to as an abstract discourse that aspires to elevate certain points dealing with art to a philosophical status of sorts. Anti-theory people often complain that theorists depart from the specificity of the artistic--in my case, the literary--object and the rules of critical analysis that are developed to deal with that particular object. So Judith Butler, we might say, is not such a good reader of literary texts, even though she has invaluable philosophical points to make, because she departs from the specificity of the literary object to try and use statements about it as a jumping off point for larger issues.
But perhaps theory doesn't function this way. What if, in fact, theory were more like a discourse that precisely prevents certain statements about literature or art in general from immediately, without any check, expanding themselves into philosophical reflections? What if theory actually tempers and refines statements about literature, and in fact is a constant process of laying down boundaries for a properly literary-critical analysis of literature?
I say this because I find it is often the case that New Critical (and, currently, formalist) statements about texts, which often have such an unbelievably specific notion of the literary object, often go crazy when they expand themselves into generalizations or more wide-ranging reflections. Part of what theory does is take over that process of generalization and allow it to become a complex field of debate in and of itself.
No doubt this often tempers statements about the general value or merit of a text: a New Critic might often generalize by saying that a particular text shows universal principles of the human mind, say, that it is important, nay imperative, for a humanist education to draw attention to. Theory would oppose this humanism by showing these merits are quite questionable.
But rather than see it as a process of drawing these humanist evaluations into question (which is a more pertinent way of characterizing theory when theory is seriously trying to take over--i.e. in the past), couldn't theory precisely be the process of opening up a certain area in which the operation of generalization from a text, which underlies this humanist universalizing, would be able to be articulated and refined?
Indeed, now we might have other, more accurate ways of trying to make this generalization more refined: sociological analysis is one of them (you can talk about a text as it fits into an actual market or into a practice). But I think it is useful at this juncture to think of theory as precisely operating in this area where (to put it in a different way) the micro meets the macro. In other words, theory is like a process establishing a ceiling, an upper limit, for the wild generalizations about a particular literary object, that, when reached, provokes the statement to begin to justify itself in a different way--a way that does not deal as directly with the literary object but with a sphere of more general concerns that approaches the philosphical arena. We can also reconsider it positively (that is, besides its work as a limit) as a certain vocabulary that proliferates in order to expand and give coherence to this more general zone--and not as a sort of uselessly and aggressively unspecific pseudo-philosophy: a view of theory that, I think, only produces more bad and overgeneral theory, because it instills a notion that theory's job is not to be specific at all, when it is, in my view precisely an attempt to be specific about the general.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Evaluating literature

I was in a great class a couple weeks ago (Peter Brooks' wonderful seminar Reading Law Reading) with Robert Post of Yale Law School, and we were talking about the the First Amendment and the current legal test for obscenity. Built into the test is a certain provision that basically allows expert testimony as to whether something under consideration for obscenity is politically, socially, or artistically valuable: if, say, an offensive work of art is determined to be valuable in one of these ways, this will factor in any determination as to its being deemed obscene. Post moved past the considerations of social value and went straight towards the odd question of artistic value, rightly posing to us the question of what, as literary critics, we might have to say if we were there testifying as experts on a piece of writing. Does the writing have literary value? What would we say? He came to the dismal conclusion that as it stands, we wouldn't be able to say much. This was both a failure of literary studies for him and a failure of the law for asking this particular question to critics in this particular (perhaps outdated) way. For him, it presupposes a set of Leavises out there, when we have a conception of literature that has moved far away from that.
Alexander Nehamas, who was there in the seminar, rightly rejoined that this was a bit of a mischaracterization of Leavis: Leavis--I'll expand on his point here--by no means was trying to make literature something that could just either have value or not--which is how the test seems to characterize literary evaluation--but trying, primarily to rescue value from scientificity (in a specific sense: scientificity as having the qualities of pure positivistic empiricism), from having a particular type of value that he saw as pernicious. But just because a value is not as determinable as a sort of scientifically or pseudo-scientifically determined value doesn't mean that it is a sort of value that would be inherent to the work of art, or be commensurate with some sort of essential literariness, which is what Post seems to want us to give the court. The fact is that Leavis was just as firm a disbeliever in the "phantom aesthetic state" and claims of essential literariness as was I.A. Richards--his theories indeed would not be possible without this disbelief. Terry Eagleton, for one, completely mischaracterizes this in his "study" (it's more like popular fiction) Literary Theory, and is largely responsible for this particular misunderstanding of Leavis (though Leavis' virulence as a critic didn't help this either: sometimes people can't distinguish a very intense statement of support for a work or a very intense castigation from some positing of an essence).
But all that aside, the point is that Leavis too is part of a tradition in literary studies that precisely keeps at bay the question of whether something is literary or not by studying other things about this object--and this is the deeper thing that Post was rightly getting at. The problem for me is when this movement away from some notion of the essence of the literary object is confused with a movement towards scientificity or towards theory, and away from something like appreciation. For inevitbly the task of evaluating literature gets aligned with the latter task: evaluation is something more appreciative. For me, personally, I don't find literary study scientific enough (in a broad sense, which is not necessarily positivistic empiricism): perhaps in no other field in the humanities would we be as concerned with appreciation as we are in literature. Perhaps art, but not history, say, or even studies in film, and definitely not architecture. That's a broad statement, but the point is less about other fields than it is about literature, where we are still very much concerned with an idea of our object as something that is resistant to determination, and that promotes a an almost completely indeterminate act of "appreciation." So the more and more we lock down this object, the more and more we see literature as a determined cultural object, with both external and intrinsic patterns that can and should be specified and not just consumed--the more and more we do this the more and more we can actually then allow the work to cultivate students, and, through teaching, actually control appreciation, or reduce it to a mere effect of that much more important thing, learning.
Personally, I also think seeing the literary object as something more scientifically able to be determined (which doesn't always mean empirically studied, remember--something like sociology, in my view, scientifically studies its objects without being as dependent upon the empirical, and the best aspects of psychology do something similar) would allow us to provide an answer to the test: not necessarily through a scientific analysis, but in the same way that a sociologist would be able to say, yes, this has value because it is something we could study as significant to a society, or a political scientist could say, yes, this is a politically significant document that not only has immediate effects but is part of a larger discourse that, through our studies, we have seen to be important and pervasive in some way. But this all in a way only extends the problem that I pointed to: that we characterize this study of the determinateness of the literary object as scientificity (this determinateness--as you'll see--is really what I'm advocating when I say that we aren't scientific enough: it is what resides in scientificity and is the best part of all science), and then see this scientificity as opposed to appreciation--and see the history of the discipline as beginning in appreciation and moving towards this scientificity. Not only is this wrong because it overlooks the (to me, blech, disgusting) aestheticism that still escapes this movement (which produces little cliques not over theoretical issues but over personal quirks and sensibilities that inform one's study of literature because the literature merely reflects these quirks, as Evan pointed out commenting on a previous post of mine), but it is wrong because it conceives of the sort of determinateness that comes with a statement about a literary object with something like a buzzkill. Saying something definite about literature cuts away at something else in the work, which is usually (but I'd say, mistakenly) conceived of as affective, personal, private (or belonging to a select group), or what have you. But definiteness doesn't have to work that way, and therefore scientificity does not even have to be opposed to appreciation in the first place. Once this is admitted, evaluation can operate on both sides. The progression of literary studies then, would not be a movement away from appreciation and evaluation, but a movement of varying degrees of specification and definiteness, and evaluation in all sorts of ways.
The only thing is that statements about literature must then be definite: they cannot appeal to something vague, or whenever they do, this vagueness must be systematized--preferably be something able to be diagrammed or modeled, though that is asking a lot, perhaps (this is what I particularly like about Franco Moretti--though I could also say the same about I.A. Richards, both of whom are often ostracized as "scientific:" he understands that it is not so much graphs or models that are important for literature, but that what we say about literature must be clear and definite enough to be represented otherwise, in a diagram). I don't know if this would produce better answers to the question Post put to us (remember, part of the problem is that the law poses the question funnily--and not just to us, but to other experts too), but I do think that it would remove the notion that evaluation is saying something significant and rich about the significant and rich work of literature, when it is often more of an effort of saying something definite and clear about a work of literature that fits into complex systems of discourse, more of which is being studied every day. In other words, it would basically do away with evaluation in its still (still!) current sense, and place it alongside the other functions of the study of literature that we deal with--it would no longer be something like an ultimate question, but a product or effect of the study of literature. As this effect, it would be then be something quite easy to determine for a lawyer if questioned, not something highly complex requiring tortuous and confusing justifications. At the same time, neither would it be a simple yes or no: it would still be the product of an analysis that fits the object (or fails to fit it) into a system that isn't essentially one way or another way, but is constantly at work, functioning in all sorts of ways.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tenor, vehicle, transference

I.A. Richards on psychoanalysis:

A "command of metaphor"--a command of the interpretation of metaphors--can go deeper still into the control of the world that we make for ourselves to live in. The psycho-analysts have shown us with their discussions of "transference"--another name for metaphor--how constantly modes of regarding, of loving, of acting, that have developed with one set of things or people, are shifted to another. They have shown us chiefly the pathology of these transferences, cases where the vehicle--the borrowed attitude, the parental fixation, say--tyrannizes over the new situation, the tenor, and behavior is inappropriate. The victim is unable to see the new person except in terms of the old passion and its accidents. He reads the situation only in terms of the figure, the archetypal image, the vehicle. But in healthy growth, tenor and vehicle--the new human relationship and the family constellation--co-operate freely; and the resultant behavior derives in due measure from both. Thus in happy living the same patterns are exemplified and the same risks of error are avoided as in tactful and discerning reading.
-The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 135-6

This interesting reflection, made way before there were Lacanians (Richards delivered these lectures in 1936 at Bryn Mawr, pictured above), is made really specific and useful through the use of the tenor/vehicle distinction which Richards introduces earlier in the lecture.
This distinction, one of those many unbelievably handy tools that Richards in particular and the New Critics in general gave us, runs like so: metaphor is often described as the comparison (roughly speaking) of two things, one through the other (or, as we also often say, by substituting itself for the other). But we can specify those things, the one and the other--through which the one is compared. Tenor is the original thing (the one) which, through the introduction of another (the other) thing, the vehicle, gets related to that new other thing in a meaningful way. In other words, the vehicle is that which modifies the tenor and in doing so establishes a relation which is meaningful (it creates a new meaning) and is called metaphor (the new meaning is metaphoric). So in the old lines Johnson quotes,

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great exemplar as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full.

The flow of the mind of the person to whom the poem is addressed ("thee") is the tenor--it is the original thing, the one thing--and the river (or "stream") is the vehicle--it is the other thing through which the original gets compared (cf. Philosophy of Rhetoric, 120-121).
The tenor and vehicle, insofar as they share some commonality or resemblence, can be said to have a ground, and it is in the shifting of this ground (by the transfer between tenor and vehicle) that is effected by the establishing (through the introduction of the vehicle) of a relationship. Meaning is the effect of this shift, and metaphoric meaning can only be said to take place when both tenor and vehicle are present. In other words, if either tenor and vehicle are not there, or if one can't establish where both are taking place, then there is no metaphor, and there is no metaphoric meaning being produced.
Thus in the above, what happens is that there is an overemphasis upon one of the two aspects of the metaphor, preventing the copresence of tenor and vehicle, and thus no understanding of the shift happening in the metaphor, or an adequate ability to engage in healthy transference.
I don't think I've brought this all out adequately insofar as it bears on the amazing quote above. But part of this is that the remark on psychoanalysis occurs close to the end of a huge, huge effort of Richards which is not easy to reconstitute. But this gets at a problem concerning Richards in general: his sensibility is so subtle, and his conception of the function of literature so refined and, while not abstract in the least, is so hard to easily capture--in fact, precisely because he sees literature and language working so dynamically, and at the same time in such a determinable and determinate way (not unlike Nietzsche, whose forces are dynamic and at the same time very specifiable if one has the right way to get at them)--that it isn't easy to really summarize a point of his without reference to the real intuitive sense of language that he gives you. This is part of the reason why he in particular, as well as the New Critics I think in general, are so maligned now, or at least have largely been forgotten: the sense of the work of literary language is more intuitive than able to be expressed, and unless one really spends time with them, anything they say can be easily and pointlessly dismissed. The best refutation of the New Critics in my mind is Raymond Williams', but this is only because literature for Williams is almost equally complex and subtle and dynamic--in other words he has such a rich and comparably acute sense of what it is. In other words, New Criticism is first and foremost a practice before it is a theory, and so dismissing it as a theory (or even theoretically summarizing it) is doomed to have too shallow a conception of what the New Criticism is doing. This doesn't mean New Criticism isn't profoundly wrong in certain respects, but merely that it has to be addressed as a practice, as a sort of vague sense of what literature is doing and how to address it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Clarity in law

I have been thinking a lot about clarity as an aspect and alleged virtue of style--especially in literary criticism. The always amazingly clear words of Cardozo on the subject within the field of law (and specifically within the act of writing judicial opinions) might be relevant:

I suppose there can be little doubt that in matters of literary style the sovereign virtue for the judge is clearness. Judge Veeder in his interesting and scholarly essay, " A Century of Judicature," quotes the comment of Brougham upon the opinions of Lord Stowell: "If ever the praise of being luminous could be bestowed upon human compositions, it was upon his judgments." How shall his successors in the same or other courts attain that standard or approach it? There is an accuracy that defeats itself by the over-emphasis of details. I often say that one must permit oneself, and that quite advisedly and deliberately, a certain margin of mis-statement. Of course, one must take heed that the margin is not exceeded, just as the physician must be cautious in administering the poisonous ingredient which magnified will kill, but in tiny quantities will cure. On the other hand, the sentence may be so overloaded with all its possible qualifications that it will tumble down of its own weight. " To philosophize," says Holmes in one of his opinions - I am quoting him from uncertain and perhaps inaccurate recollection - "to philosophize is to generalize, but to generalize is to omit." The picture cannot be painted if the significant and the insignificant are given equal prominence. One must know how to select. All these generalities are as easy as they are obvious, but, alas! the application is an ordeal to try the souls of men. Write an opinion, and read it a few years later when it is dissected in the briefs of counsel. You will learn for the first time the limitations of the power of speech, or, if not those of speech in general, at all events your own. All sorts of gaps and obstacles and impediments will obtrude themselves before your gaze, as pitilessly manifest as the hazards on a golf course. Some-times you will know that the fault is truly yours, in which event you can only smite your breast, and pray for deliverance there-after. Sometimes you will feel that the fault is with counsel who have stupidly misread the obvious, in which event, though you rail against the bar and the imperfect medium of speech, you will be solaced, even in your chagrin, by a sense of injured innocence. Sometimes, though rarely, you will believe that the misreading is less stupid than malicious, in which event you will be wise to keep your feelings to yourself. One marvels sometimes at the ingenuity with which texts the most remote are made to serve the ends of argument or parable. But clearness, though the sovereign quality, is not the only one to be pursued, and even if it were, may be gained through many avenues of approach. The opinion will need persuasive force, or the impressive virtue of sincerity and fire, or the mnemonic power of alliteration and antithesis, or the terseness and tang of the proverb and the maxim. Neglect the help of these allies, and it may never win its way.
-Benjamin Cardozo, "Law and Literature"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


It strikes me, reading Habermas, that his achievement is (among many, many things) not so much the linkage of critical thought to empirical inquiry, nor the theorization of a rich notion of communication, but the recuperation of a field of rationality that remains less decidable than many thinkers (postmodern especially) would like to believe. Or rather, he understands that if you take their word for it, rationality (in its Enlightenment form) is so overarching, so massive in its effects, and so singularly responsible for the worst fictions about acting subjects and their world that one would think real discerning, responsible uses of it are few, or at least very hard to find--and affirms that this is the case. In other words, Habermas on a certain level restores meaning to reason by affirming what anti-Enlightenment thinkers say about reason: that a genuine use of it is very hard to find, even though it is everywhere. He then allows one to say that what we need is not to focus on how reason is ubiquitous and responsible for all atrocities, but on what a real genuinely responsible use of reason might actually look like.
It's not that we should brush off the effects of rationality. It's that, after reading something like Dialectic of Enlightenment, or Heidegger's accounts of reason, you lose all sense of the specificity of reason, and therefore any way (rational or irrational) of turning reason back towards the cultivation of a responsible function. As should be clear from my hesitant parenthesis here, this view also trades in a not unwarrented concern that any correction of reason will itself have to be rational--Freud in particular helped us see (and still helps us see) just how hard it is to think of something truly beyond reason, or that won't use reason against itself precisely in the effort to think reason's limits.
For me, Habermas gets a little too odd when he begins to say that the relative invisibility of genuine acts of reason means, not that they are rare, but that they are indeed everywhere: that certain aspects of practical action are themselves expressions of a certain form of rationality. This leads him to start to outline the amazing notions of the public sphere and discourse ethics. But I would rather he deemphasized the rationality of practical action and thought it more purely as mere action which may occasionally have a rational dimension. This would stay truer to the insight I'm outlining above: that reason is not as ubiquitous as we might think it is. This of course precisely means that reason isn't elevated into any particular good in itself, but that it remains just like any other specific (that is, not practical or pragmatic, as in Habermas) form of action that we engage in. It has its own specificity, and its own determinate or (at least) determinable force.
But in the end what we see is that there is a realm which thinking that is anti-Enlightenment and anti-reason overlooks when it understands rationality in its particular sense: the realm in which the extension of reason, its genuine deployment, remains undecidable as to its effects (Derrida, for his part, will theorize precisely this undecidability of reason, and it is in this that he is most powerful, I think--attempting as he is the project of Freud sketched above, but with greater rigor). In the anti-rationality model, it could either prop up various forms of technical and political domination, or it could allow liberation. What Habermas continually emphasizes (and Heidegger does this too, to his great merit, though with different motivations) is that the either/or here is way too rigid and is itself an effect of the ideology of those dominant forces, as well as the aspects of the liberatory forces which counter-productively rely on their opposition to the dominant. Rationality is only operative in the space at which it is extending itself or distributing itself further and further, such that it can be appropriated by both sides. This means that the use of reason isn't inherently, just because it is reason, going to fall into the hands of either. Again, I don't think that this space is as sustained in forms of practical and pragmatic action as Habermas does (I think it takes place in smaller spheres, like the classroom), but I do think he's right when he says that the cultivation of a sort of mastery of--or at bottom at least some ability to redirect--this space is what is crucial, and is what is left out in many accounts of reason. If one understands reason like Habermas does, one can begin to think about what its place should be--which is more than any mere denunciation of it (or an account of it that merely adds up to a denunciation of it) can really do.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The New Critics and feeling

While Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings is a truly, truly unbelievable and refreshing work, I'm disturbed a bit by the bashing that some the New Critics, and particularly Richards, take in the chapter on tone. Ngai wants to see tone as the following:

something much more holistic and explicitly affective than the narrow concept employed by Richards in Practical Criticism--namely, a speaker's attitude to his listener.
-Ugly Feelings, 41

She goes on to say that the New Critics following Richards on tone

notably muted, and in some cases took pains to avoid, the affective dimensions of the problem. This de-emotionalizing tendency is already apparent in the way Richards [in Practical Criticism] separates "Tone" from "Feeling."
-Ugly Feelings, 41

So the New Critics de-emotionalize tone. Okay, I'll bite. But it isn't clear that Ngai herself doesn't really get at tone either. She re-emotionalizes tone, perhaps, but in doing this is so much more concerned with things like mood and atmosphere that it isn't clear to me whether she is just making up something wholly new and just then calling it "tone." Making up something is okay, but I don't see why she would need to then act as if she is tying it back into a tradition of theorizing on tone, except to just bash away:

It should be clear that by "tone" I mean less the dramatic "attitude" adumbrated by the New Critics than a global and hyper-relational concept of feeling that encompasses attitude: a literary text's affective bearing, orientation, or "set toward" its audience and world. In other words I mean the formal aspect of a work that has made it possible for critics of all affiliations... to describe a work or class of works as "paranoid" [...] "euphoric" [...] or "melancholic."
-Ugly Feelings, 44-45

But I'll take what she's saying as if she is indeed picking a fight with Richards rather than just dealing with a straw man. In saying what she says about Richards, she acts as if an entire theory of communication (as it is represented in only one book--Practical Criticism--out of the many in which Richards elaborated and refined this theory) which is precisely constructed in order to account for affect in language would, by virtue of precisely this constructedness (the mere fact they tried to do it at all), exclude real affect. And while she has a very rich concept of what real affect is (though I'm not too sure what "global" and "hyper-relational" mean), it doesn't mean that Richards especially, and even some of the New Critics (as well as some of the philosophers she cites), haven't stumbled upon it before.
This however is the problem with studies giving pride of place to affect more generally: they merely invert the dominant paradigm, and in doing so, denigrate or keep virginal what they champion. Affect has to be overlooked in order to be celebrated. And while Ngai is better than everyone else who is concerned with the subject (by far), she here falls prey to this tendency. Obviously the New Critics didn't give pride of place to affect--I think that's true. But--like with Kant and Hegel and all the others she cites--that doesn't mean that they weren't some of the people that in fact were really trying to account for it and even combatting those (like scientists: see Richards' Science and Poetry and a lot of the work of Leavis) who denigrated it.
There is a weird progressivism at work here--which is otherwise generally merited because Ngai's work is really so new.
Even weirder is the picking of someone out of that tradition--Heidegger, whose theory of mood she champions--and using him as if he were more conscious than the rest of what real feeling is about. Frankly, it isn't really clear to me that Heidegger is the best choice, either. I think someone like Hume might actually be better. Heidegger's theory of mood is so emptied out of the ontic that mood merely stands in for facticity. And who is to say that facticity is the same thing as real feeling? Yet Ngai thinks with Heidegger that there's no incompatability between them--in fact, that facticity and feeling are more compatible than something like Richards' attitudes and feeling. Perhaps she's right on the first point (the compatibility): I doubt that she is on the second (the incompatibility of Richards' attitudes and feeling).
The bigger point, however, is this: why read Heidegger favorably and then turn on all the others? Why not read the others as favorably, and reconstitute a whole history of the theories of real feeling? It seems that Ngai has a pretty concrete sense of what real feeling is, and sees a lot of people excluding that over the years. Heidegger is more open to it. But who is to say that other thinkers of feeling and affect haven't just been mischaracterizing a little what Ngai is getting at--as Heidegger himself thought and in fact tried to demonstrate at length? Why assert that they have the entirely wrong phenomenon in view in the first place (and not just its ontic aspects)--as Ngai seems to do? It just seems like more bashing of the New Critics to me, combined with a sense that they in fact came a little too close to theorizing affect in literature in the way Ngai does. And it doesn't seem clear to me that a reconsideration of "tone"--as opposed to something else--is really what makes this possible.