Friday, April 24, 2009

Rhetoric as a second linguistics

From the point of view of linguistics, there is nothing in discourse that is not to be found in the sentence: "The sentence," writes Martinet, "is the smallest segment that is perfectly and wholly representative of discourse." Hence there can be no question of linguistics setting itself an object superior to the sentence, since beyond the sentence are only more sentences--having described the flower, the botanist is not to get involved in describing the bouquet.

And yet it is evident that discourse itself (as a set of sentences) is organized and that, through its organization, it can be seen as the message of another language, one operating at a higher level than the language of the linguists. Discourse has its units, its rules, its "grammar:" beyond the sentence, and though consisting solely of sentences, it must naturally form the object of a second linguistics. For a long time indeed, such a linguistics of discourse bore a glorious name, that of Rhetoric. As a result of a complex historical movement, however, in which Rhetoric went over to belles-lettres and the latter was divorced from the study of language, it has recently become necessary to take up the problem afresh.

-"Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives," in Image-Music-Text, 82-3

This--an essay one can't reread enough--I think says more perspicuously and less equivocally what Paul de Man tried to get at, though perhaps de Man had his own way of recognizing other functions of this second linguistics which escape Barthes. Nevertheleless, is this not what de Man perhaps should have said when talking about rhetoric (and rhetorical tropes)? Wouldn't that (and the analytical tools necessary to put it in this way) have been more helpful? It's a crazy question, I know, but in studying these rhetorical structures, and in fact calling for a resurgence in rhetorical attention as well as instruction (which de Man did), putting it the right way is the most crucial thing. For instance, de Man would never make that nod to "transitions" between the sentence and what lies beyond it that for Barthes here "goes without saying:" de Man would emphasize how this "beyond" is a nearly absolute gap. And that seems to me to imply a whole different way of going about analyzing rhetoric--one which is much more likely to be irresponsible. (Derrida, for his part, would show that the beyond is absolute only as a form of being nearly-absolute, as a form of absoluteness which we are always unsure is absolute, which brings him actually closer to Barthes than de Man, I think: the failure of the gap to be absolute precisely means that we have a responsibility to find, locate, theorize, play with the "transitions.")

The emergence of narrative

Addison's "Adventures of a Shilling" is part of a sub-genre of stories that were extremely popular in the 18th century that we now call it- or thing-narratives: tales of a thing (here a coin), told from the perspective of that thing. A more modern example--though without a voice given to the thing itself is the soap in Blooms's pocket in Ulysses (except in Circe, if I remember right, when nearly everything gets a voice).

What is amazing to me about these stories is the emergence within them of narrative as plot: that is, the emergence of a linkage (which is metonymic or combinatory, to use formalism's terms) of discreet events that are never quite reducible to those events (and their narration) themselves. This is because plot is all about the flow of the events, so to speak, and the horizons of anticipation and retrospection that this flow engenders.

Austen brings about this flow of plot on the other end of the 18th century, in one of her most entertaining bits of juvenaila, "The Beautiful Cassandra:" a whole book of twelve chapters that fits on one page. I'll put it the first seven chapters here just so you can see what is going on:

Chapter the First
CASSANDRA was the Daughter & the only Daughter of a celebrated Millener in Bond Street. Her father was of noble Birth, being the near relation of the Dutchess of ——'s Butler.

Chapter the 2d
WHEN Cassandra had attained her 16th year, she was lovely & amiable, & chancing to fall in love with an elegant Bonnet her Mother had just compleated, bespoke by the Countess of ——, she placed it on her gentle Head & walked from her Mother's shop to make her Fortune.

Chapter the 3d
THE first person she met, was the Viscount of ——, a young Man, no less celebrated for his Accomplishments & Virtues, than for his Elegance & Beauty. She curtseyed & walked on.

Chapter the 4th
SHE then proceeded to a Pastry-cook's, where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.

Chapter the 5th
SHE next ascended a Hackney Coach & ordered it to Hampstead, where she was no sooner arrived than she ordered the Coachman to turn round & drive her back again.

Chapter the 6th
BEING returned to the same spot of the same Street she had set out from, the Coachman demanded his Pay.

Chapter the 7th
SHE searched her pockets over again & again; but every search was unsuccessfull. No money could she find. The man grew peremptory. She placed her bonnet on his head & ran away...


...you get the idea. This is a virtuoso performance (and a hilarious one at that) of what I'm getting at: Austen understands that the linkage of narrated events is so able to be carried by a larger structure that she is able to put whole chapter breaks between the telling of these events-- an act which, by the way, completely grasps the function of chapters as merely larger divisions or markers of those divisions already between narrated events in the novels.

But back to Addison. We can in fact put what we're getting at (and what Austen here understands) the other way around--and this is what these thing-narratives like Addison's do the best: what emerges in them is a way of manipulating the short sentences, the short narrated events, in terms of a larger arc. The trust Addison puts in these larger shifts makes him write small sentences that just document the exchanges of the shilling (much like how Austen is able to write little pointless circular events like that in chapter five of Austen's novel).

So at a certain point in the "Adventures," here is what we're getting:

I was sent to the apothecary's shop for a pint of sack. The apothecary gave me to an herb-woman, the herb-woman to a butcher, the butcher to a brewer, and the brewer to his wife, who made a present of me to a nonconformist preacher.

The speed with which the shilling is able to tell of what happened to her/him--through the use of small, quick sentences, is a function of the burden of the storytelling being shifted to the larger connective (i.e. plotty) structures. They're a blast to read for this reason. Why? To lay it all out would be more than I can really do right now, but it involves how this larger plot-structure allows a personal (singular) set of adventures to emerge, which in turn allows narrative capability to be lent to things that aren't normally allowed to enter into narrative. In short, it would involve explaining how this emergence of narrative into plot allows the whole story to be told from the perspective of the shilling, and perhaps on a larger level how--instead of seeing plot emerge as a function of narrative, as we've been outlining here--how the narrative is really a function of something like plot, how narrative emerges from plot. But since I don't know how to express this well, I'll just let the shilling speak:

I was born (says he) on the side of a mountain, near a little village of Peru, and made a voyage to England in an ingot, under the convoy of Sir Francis Drake. I was, soon after my arrival, taken out of my Indian habit, refined, naturalized, and put into the British mode, with the face of Queen Elizabeth on one side, and the arms of the country on the other. Being thus equipped, I found in me a wonderful inclination to ramble, and visit all parts of the new world into which I was brought. The people very much favoured my natural disposition, and shifted me so fast from hand to hand, that before I was five years old, I had travelled into almost every corner of the nation. But in the beginning of my sixth year, to my unspeakable grief, I fell into the hands of a miserable old fellow, who clapped me into an iron I chest, where I found five hundred more of my own quality who lay under the same confinement. The only relief we had, was to be taken out and counted over in the fresh air every morning and evening. After an imprisonment of several years, we heard somebody knocking at our chest, and breaking it open with a hammer. This we found was the old man's heir, who, as his father lay a dying, was so good as to come to our release : he separated us that very day. What was the fate of my companions I know not: as for myself, I was sent to the apothecary's shop for a pint of sack. The apothecary gave me to an herb-woman, the herb-woman to a butcher, the butcher to a brewer, and the brewer to his wife, who made a present of me to a nonconformist preacher. After this manner I made my way merrily through the world; for, as I told you before, we shillings love nothing so much as travelling. I sometimes fetched in a shoulder of mutton, sometimes a play-book, and often had the satisfaction to treat a Templar at a twelvepenny ordinary, or carry him, with three friends, to Westminster Hall...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Franco Moretti and close reading

An attempt at a paper. Here is the introduction, which discusses Franco Moretti and the merits of what he's up to. I'm concerned not with distant reading itself (which I think has amazing potential), but how we get to distant reading from close reading:

Franco Moretti’s recent work is motivated by astonishment at the “minimal fraction of the literary field we work on” (Graphs, Maps, Trees, 3) He considers the field minimal because the actual amount of literary works produced in a span of time often dwarfs even the most expansive canon of that period that we indeed study (one of his favorite observations is that even a canon of two hundred nineteenth century novels would be still “less then one percent” of what was then produced ("Slaughterhouse of Literature")). Even more importantly, the literary field is minimal in that the distribution of these works as well as the forms that they use and modify continually overflows the national and linguistic borders within which our research moves. He therefore argues—most forcefully in Graphs, Maps, Trees—that literary critics should practice the study of these distributions of (world) literature as systems, as wholes, since “a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases” (GMT, 3) This means working off of models (like graphs or maps), produced by collaborative efforts at gathering and processing data, in dozens of languages, about when and where formal innovation occurs. In short, literary criticism should be brought closer to something like a sociology of literary forms.

Now, even if we do not agree with these conclusions, Moretti’s work perhaps has an effect over which we should linger. Flipping through journals, we begin to notice that we see only large blocks of text—no tables or charts, let alone graphs, maps, or trees. Opening up newly published studies, we find four or five chapters considering one or two literary figures, each investigated one by one—cases indeed stitched together. Walking through the literary criticism section in the library, we notice that few books have their spines lettered with more than one name—direct collaboration is relegated to the “acknowledgements.” In short, Moretti’s work starts to reveal that some of the least methodologically informed aspects of our criticism might indeed be methodologically determined. The infrequency with which we use quantitative data, the case by case basis of argument, and the lack of collaborative research are exposed as three very prevalent assumptions about how we should work—namely, that we should talk about the qualities internal to literature, do so by investigating singular cases of literary activity, and express our findings as a solitary critical consciousness—that we thought were just the form our critical work usually takes.

This is to say Moretti perhaps calls into question our way of working more than he gives us any new, feasible program for a sociologically based literary criticism (though he and other literary sociologists are making more and more visible the benefits and perhaps even the feasibility of adopting such a program). After reading him, certain practices or methods which give our critical work its distinctive form and character are seen afresh as merely one set chosen out of the many it is possible to adopt. This is not only because Moretti has such a different way of working, but because what his way of working seeks to challenge is indeed our method, and not any existing program for or theory of literature. In fact, it seems as if one of the most important arguments underlying Moretti’s work is that the proliferation of such programs or theories in order to challenge other existing theories of literature might have preserved the unreflective use of these methods. If Paul de Man can point out the similarities of deconstruction to practical criticism in “The Return to Philology,” does this not precisely announce that theoretical revolutions, despite what they claim to change and indeed do change, may change very little in the realm of methodology? Recent efforts to account for literary theory’s “failures” over the last few decades—even recent efforts to “historicize” it—might then be seen as expressing more or less confusedly, more or less belligerently, this frustrating point that Moretti makes clear: theory as it has been practiced might not be focused on altering some basic aspects of how we work.

But if what Moretti challenges is first and foremost our way of working, making visible our reliance on a distinct methodology, how are we to characterize that methodology? We hinted at some of its features above (it perhaps involves interrogating, individually and on a case by case basis, the qualities internal to literature, as opposed to working cooperatively on large fields of data with models). But can we say more definitively what that methodology is that we just assume to be the typical form statements about literature take? Moretti’s use of the term “distant reading” to characterize his own way of working with models and systems makes it clear: in his view our methodology is just the opposite, whatever theoretical approach we may adopt. In other words, close reading, for Moretti, is that way of working which most governs our practice of criticism.

Now, we are immediately tempted to challenge this. Surely there are other ways of working with literature: literary history, for example, might deploy different methods. But I would like to entertain Moretti’s notion that most forms of literary study in America (at least) do rely upon close reading as the way to work, for perhaps—despite the inaccuracies of his generalization—he is getting at something we critics are only beginning grapple with: namely, the tenaciousness of close reading, our dependence upon it and fondness for it despite significant changes in our notions of what literary study should be since it began to be practiced. To get a sense of this tenaciousness, we might merely observe how for so many years and even now, in our everyday speech and even in our critical discussions calling someone’s critical endeavor “a close reading” remains, without exception, a way to compliment or ratify that person’s work. Conversely, we might note that (especially for those still following Derrida) saying “you have not read this closely” remains a way for us to delegitimize what another is claiming about some literary activity. Reading Moretti, we might be surprised that these two little words could ever be used in a disparaging manner—to indicate a lack of rigor. This, however, is only one minor sign of the unremitting, unquestioning faith in close reading’s methodological efficacy which may pervasively govern widely differing critical practices—to which Moretti, I think, seems acutely attuned.

It remains all the more unfortunate, then, that he is not more specific about what, exactly, close reading itself involves. “At bottom,” he says in “Conjectures On World Literature,” “it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously—whereas what we really need is a little pact with the devil: we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.” This is about as specific as he gets: a potshot on the way to a call for something, indeed in some cases anything, different. But Moretti is not specific because he does not need to be specific: as far as he is concerned, close reading can remain a label for the effects of our current methodological dependencies, whatever they involve: the effects being the numerous ways we are denied access to the wide distribution of world literature that “distant reading” considers fundamental—that 99.5% of nineteenth century novels mentioned earlier, and the 99.5% of other fields. But insofar as the use of the term “close reading” carries for us the sense that it does accurately describe something more involved, and remains tenacious precisely because of what it involves—as I, and many of the people who have responded to Moretti’s work, think it does—Moretti fails to make available any more precise knowledge of how specific aspects of how we work lead to these effects or consequences. In doing so, he also fails to capitalize upon one of the most promising aspects of his project, which I have in the preceding tried to outline: for if Moretti can defamiliarize our ways of working, or can show us that our ways of working entail certain methodological decisions, he does not show us any way to alter these decisions. We may not work as collaboratively as we need to be working, for instance, but what in close reading specifically brings about the exclusion of cooperation? “It’s a theological exercise,” only hints at what we need to make explicit in order to responsibly bring about some real change...

Here is the point at which I would say that this is not entirely his fault: indeed, we all think we know generally what close reading entails. But it isn't clear that certain aspects might even be "distant" in the precise sense that Moretti uses that term. I found that many of I.A. Richards' practices in close reading function this way, at the same time as they consolidate a vision of what close reading is and should be that gets taken up by subsequent critics. However, even this vision is not merely homogeneous: significantly, it is internally torn between an analysis of communication and an analysis of the literary, which other critics will emphasize remains irreducible to the communicative.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"The critical and momentous shift:" theory, resistance

Diana Fuss in a recent article, "Teaching Theory" (in The Minnesota Review, 71-2). She talks of Paul de Man's "The Resistance to Theory:" how for de Man theory is resistance--both to other theories and to its own possibility (it is a practice raising questions about itself, resisting itself)--and how the resistance to theory (rejecting it) is itself theory. In short, as she affirms from experience teaching theory to students, "the best way to lessen students' immediate opposition to theory was to show how their concerns were themselves resolutely theoretical" (180). Thus, "ironically, de Man became useful as a strategy to mitigate student resistances rather than to cultivate them." ...a sentence, I'll note, that says more accurately what people I think are saying when they talk about the "failures of theory." She continues, "De Man's 'The Resistance to Theory' became the most effective weapon in my own theoretical arsenal for resisting the students' resistances" (181). And this leads her to what I think is an important passage, outlining a future for theory--one that overcomes, by acknowledging and learning from, the "failures" of theory:

There is no question that de Man was onto something. The best I have read, taught, and perhaps have written over the years is theory unafraid to resist itself, to challenge its own assumptions. Yet, my thoughts on how to theorize have changed dramatically since I became a professor, largely because of my experience teaching theory to undergraduate and graduate students. I no longer think that resistance exhausts all the many possibilities and practices of theory. If I have a new theory of theory, it is far less resistance and much more persistence. My new credo, forged in the crucible of the classroom, sees invention where I once saw only subversion. It embraces theorization over theory, an intellectual labor that goes beyond uncovering and resisting dangerous old ideas in favor of venturing and testing responsible new ones. (181)

"While resistance makes good politics, it does not always make effective pedagogy," she continues, and perhaps gets in the way of what, theoretically, needs to happen most: "Every theory classroom needs eventually to make the critical and momentous shift from talking about theory to finally doing it; only then, in my experience, does theory really begin to happen" (181).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dick Minim

I reread today Johnson's amazing satire of critics, the hilarious narrative of Dick Minim in Idler 60. I forgot that Johnson ridicules what I think we all hate (or should hate) about reading poetry but still succumb to even today: the tendency to not only find the sound echoing the sense, but also the deeper tendency to see the lines as celebrating (as it were) the fact of their own composition--which makes them precisely about what the critic with his "skill" can make evident for you. In other words, Johnson shows us the way critics can read for their own self-aggrandizement by passing this off as precisely the "meaning" of the lines:

...He [Minim] is the great investigator of hidden beauties, and is particularly delighted when he finds "the sound an echo to the sense." He has read all our poets with particular attention to this delicacy of versification, and wonders at the supineness with which their works have been hitherto perused, so that no man has found the sound of a drum in this distich,

When pulpit, drum ecclesiastic,
Was beat with fist instead of a stick;


and that the wonderful lines upon honour and a bubble have hitherto passed without notice,

Honour is like the glassy bubble,
Which costs philosophers such trouble,
Where one part crack'd, the whole does fly,
And wits are crack'd to find out why.


In these verses, says Minim, we have two striking accommodations of the sound to the sense. It is impossible to utter the two lines emphatically without an act like that which they describe; bubble and trouble causing a momentary inflation of the cheeks by the retention of the breath, which is afterwards forcibly emitted, as in the practice of blowing bubbles. But the greatest excellence is in the third line, which is crack'd in the middle to express a crack, and then shivers into monosyllables. Yet has this diamond lain neglected with common stones, and among the innumerable admirers of Hudibras the observation of this superlative passage has been reserved for the sagacity of Minim.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Raymond Williams on "Sesame Street"

Certain forms have evolved within the conventions of current television programming. In American television, with its extraordinarily short units and as it were involuntary sequences, mainly determined by commercials, there have been such interesting innovations as Laugh In, Sesame Street and The Electric Company. The comic effects of fast-moving disconnection, using many of the local techniques of commercials and trailers, made Laugh In in its early years a fascinating example of an effective form created out of a deformation. In Britain, in a different way, Monty Python's Flying Circus developed new kinds of visual joke out of standard television conventions, by simply altering the tone and perspective. Sesame Street is perhaps a different case. It has been said that it uses the techniques of commercials for education. Yet this is a doubtful description. Many of the technical possibilities for mobility of every kind were were first exploited, at a popular level, for commercials, and have no necessary connection with that kind of simplified selling. Some of the best mobility of Sesame Street and The Electric Company is a way not only of responding to a highly mobile society but of responding in some depth, since the central continuities, within the fast-moving sequences, relate not only to planned teaching but to a kind of eager openness, a sympathetic curiosity, which is perhaps a truer social use of some of the intrinsic properties of television than any of the more fixed and confirming social forms.
-Television, 74-5.

All I can say is that this is the most proper viewpoint from which to analyze this show. Despite its age (1974) the analysis still seems more relevant now than the recent discussions we have seen in the news of the show (since its first couple of years recently got released on DVD)... and I am generally one to think that more familiarity with a medium or emerging form produces better consciousness of it...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Impossible words

I am finding it almost impossible to use the following words, which get bandied about in discussions of literature continually, with any control--that is, with any sense of what they mean as opposed to what they don't mean:

theory
methodology
critical
reading
form
figure
trope
practice
discourse
narrative
irony
rhetoric
metaphor
feeling
style

I could go on, but these are the big ones. "Theory" has to be the worst by far. Every sentence I write about "theory" I immediately regret, because I know the term can mean basically anything. Everyone will not only hear it differently, but also be equally in the dark as to what it means: the word survives by not being questioned. How we can talk at all with all these placeholders seems to me amazing. No wonder people like to talk about meter and octets and sestets on the one hand, or political tracts and historical documents on the other: these things are definite, and actually refer to something.

My feeling is that de Man had a lot to do with the expansion of these terms in recent decades into things that practically don't signify at all. If you look at his use of irony, you are led to ask, how can the term exclude anything? "The Return to Philology" is perhaps the most equivocal use of "philology," and with that, "reading," that I can think of. But the New Critics also introduced these things: "irony" there also can signify "tension" of any kind. "Metaphor" is also particularly bad (when Richards used this term, on the other hand, he meant something extremely precise about it: whenever it was used on a larger level than that of a particular syntactic operation in a sentence--I am avoiding the words "rhetorical" and "figure" here--it referred to a particular linguistic structure of cognition).

A willingness to use terminology: is that too much to ask for? Maybe it is all those hours spent in philosophy classrooms coming back, but why this reluctance to have a somewhat standardized vocabulary? Narratology had one and the results are amazing, given the immense complexity of the object. Actual standardization is probably not possible--and actually it is, I think, a merit specific to the literature department that it is able to get by and resist this standardization: it is amazing (as I said above) in this sense as well, because it reveals a will to talk that is powerful and productive. But some willingness to stop and consider the vagueness involved might be handy--that's all I'm saying. In other words, after a sentence is uttered involving the word "theory," it would be nice to hear more often the question: "Wait. What do you mean exactly by 'theory?'" This is of course something people say a lot, but writing some papers lately brought it home to me.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Reading in Slow Motion"

Here is my (lengthy) summary of and commentary on an essay the great literary critic Reuben Brower wrote, called "Reading in Slow Motion" ("slow motion" is what he uses to replace the "close" in "close reading"). The essay (collected in In Defense of Reading, Dutton: 1963) tries to outline a famous course that he taught at Harvard in the 50's, called HUM 6 (famously mentioned in Paul de Man's essay, "The Return to Philology"). Enjoy:

The question Brower tries to answer (though it is not his question: it gets put to him in a conference and he takes it up somewhat reluctantly, thinking it is badly formulated) is how to instill in undergraduates a “lifetime reading habit.” He begins his response (tweaking the terms of the question) by saying that if reading “is to do us any good, it must be fun” (4). Therefore “active ‘amusement’ is the reading habit I am concerned with here and more especially with the role played by the teacher of literature in encouraging students to acquire it” (4). In other words, he will not be answering how to instill just any “lifetime reading habit,” but a habit of engaging actively with books and getting amusement from reading.

“How will the teacher go about reaching this noble aim? By a method that might be described as ‘slow motion,’ by slowing down the process of reading to observe what is happening, in order to attend very closely to their words, their uses, and their meanings. Since poetry is literature in its essential and purest form—the mode of writing in which we find at the same time the most varied uses of language and the highest degree of order,” what Brower will in The Fields of Light call “imaginative organization,” “—the first aim of the teacher of literature will be to make his students better readers of poetry. He will try by every means in his power to bring out the complete and agile response to words that is demanded by a good poem” (4-5).

He then proposes to describe a course that will do this: Literature X, i.e. HUM 6—though it is always a question of how much of the actual class is reflected here. “The most distinctive feature of the kind of literature course I am about to describe is that the teacher does have some ‘holds,’ some ways of reading that he is willing to demonstrate and that his students can imitate. In this respect ‘Literature X,’ as I shall call it, differs from the old-time appreciation course in which the teacher mounted the platform and sang a rhapsody which he alone was capable of understanding and which the student memorized, with the usual inaccuracies, for the coming examination” (5).

But first, why slow reading? “The sheer mass of printed material to which we are exposed… [And] if by temperament or principle we resist the distracting appeals of the press and other media, we must nevertheless read a great deal as we run if we are to perform our tasks as citizens and wage earners” (5). Furthermore, “most if not all of the writers of the past… have assumed reading aloud and a relatively slow rate of intellectual digestion. Literature of the first order calls for lively reading; we must almost act it out as if we were taking parts in a play.” (5-6).

And we do not get any Latin or Greek. Instruction in the classics may have had disadvantages compared with the direct method of today, “but as a basic preparation for the study of literature it can hardly be surpassed.” Translation in particular “required close attention to the printed word… the closest scrutiny of meanings and forms of expression in both the ancient and the modern language.” Therefore, “one purpose of a course in slow reading is to offer a larger number of present-day undergraduates an equivalent for the older classical training in interpretation of texts” (6).

On this note, citing Coleridge on his infamous instructor in Latin versemaking (the Reverend James Bowyer) Reuben Brower notes, “The Reverend James Bowyer and not Coleridge, it appears, was the original New Critic, which is to say that much New Criticism is old criticism writ large.” Similarly, translation suggests “that teaching of reading is necessarily teaching of writing. The student cannot show his teacher or himself that he has had an important and relevant literary experience except in writing or in speaking that is as disciplined as good writing” (7). We will come back to this last point soon.

What is clear already, though, is that Literature X demands some changes in pedagogy, for the goal is “to get the student to a point where he can learn form himself.” First, this “requires… a redefinition of a ‘lecture.’ It asks the teacher to share his ignorance with his students as well as his knowledge… What is wanted is the ‘nonlecture,’ to Borrow E.E. Cumming’s happy term, an action performed by the teacher but clearly directed to the next performance of the student” (8). Ways, not formulas, are what are to be given, and this forward-looking instruction is insisted upon throughout (see below). Indeed, this forward-looking aspect is the reason for the writing requirements and their particular structure, which (I promise) we’ll get to. Also Brower picks this up in The Fields of Light: the readings there are to change how we interpret the next thing we read—that is, change our reading habits—not primarily to change the established readings of the texts under consideration.

The best way to ensure that we get this sort of nonlecture (at least it seems that this is what Brower is saying), is if the lecturer opens himself up to the fun we talked about earlier. This point makes “fun” and its status for Brower more precise as well: fun or amusement is good, but it should be an outgrowth of the wholeness and complexity of the literary object. Thus, he restates the problem: moments where we see the concentration and complexity in a literary object are “wonderful, but what can a teacher do to guide a student to discover them? He will of course start from his own excitement, and he will do everything he can to infect his students… But… he cannot hand over his feelings to his students; he cannot force them to be more sensitive than they are” (9). The students must feel for themselves, and be able to demonstrate it. Pointing to the meanings of the words under consideration allows this, for “while he and his students do not have a common nervous system, they do have the same printed page and they share the some knowledge of the English language” (9). Therefore “we might describe Literature X as a ‘mutual demonstration society’” (10).

In order to bring about this society (between students and students and teachers and students), the way students are tested must be through some sort of activity that demands this particular type of demonstration—not the memorization of material like the “old-time appreciation course.” So “after several classes of reading aloud and exploring connections… an exercise will be set” on a particular passage. Indeed, “Literature X as a whole will consist of a series of these exercise waves, with some more terrifying than others, the seventh and last coming when the students are given two or more weeks without classes in which to read new material—poems, plays, or novels—with no teacher to guide them” (10). These exercises will have “a very carefully planned series of questions. Beginning with queries on words and phrases, the exercise goes on to ask about relationships of various kinds, and it concludes with a question demanding a generalization about the work as a whole or about a type of literature or experience. An exercise on Othello might finally call for a statement about the nature of Othello’s tragedy and for a tentative definition of ‘tragic’ as used in Shakespearian drama. But the words ‘tragic’ or ‘tragedy’ will not necessarily appear in the directions; rather the students will be impelled to talk about these concepts because they are relevant” (10). This, then, is the cardinal rule (which we met with above): “No test or exercise or final examination asks the student to ‘give back’ the ‘material’ of the course. On the contrary, each stage of the work is planned with a view to how the student reads the next work, whether poem or play or novel” (15).

We might pause a moment and see that now that we have almost enough to reconstruct the general structure of the course. Between this some other information I've found, it looks like each week there is one lecture and two discussion sections, in, say, a 12 week semester. We have exercises in seven waves totaling, as he says later, “twenty to twenty-five” (17, “very few readers can handle more”): how this breaks down into what needs to be done for each week is confusing to me. It seems that there might be two essays a week, though how this would work in “waves” isn’t clear. Regardless, the exercises are directed, as we saw, and the questions increase in specificity as the course progresses. However, they never reach the level where they ask that jargon be repeated back, mostly because the questions have to change with the material under consideration: as we’ll see below, the course moves from poetry to drama to the novel, then even into the essay. About halfway through (he makes this clear later, 15) there can be an midterm exam which can function like a longer exercise (it can be, he says, perhaps on a longer work read outside class, which I think he mentions to ease the burden but also to encourage more reading). At some point the class breaks when it gets to the novel (say, Tom Jones), which will be read in full (“it takes time!” Brower insists, regarding, I think, both reading the novel and the process required to read the novel, or anything, right,14). It then meets again and continues until it gets to the final meetings, which return to something shorter. The final exercise though will be longer, requiring, I think, that a larger set of critical tools be brought to bear upon the text—namely, the entirety of those that the class has tried to teach the student (summary is thereby achieved in the student’s activity).

Now, one of the most important things, as I already mentioned, is that the class moves from poems to drama to a novel, as Brower makes explicit above and throughout the essay (he also does this in The Fields of Light). “In Literature X we shall start by reading poems, and start with no apparent method or at least with method well concealed. We begin, as Frost says, with delight, to end in wisdom. ‘What is it like,’ we say rather crudely, ‘to read this poem?’ ‘With what feeling are we left at its close?’ ‘What sort of person is speaking’ ‘What is he like, and where does he reveal himself most clearly?’ ‘In what line or phrase?’” (12). Then, introduce critical terms. “But our emphasis will always be on the term as a tool, as a device for calling attention to the poem and how it is made” (10-11). Rhythm and formal things may be brought in, but, like the other terms, only “to show how the poem ‘works’ and what it expresses” (13).

Then a play by Shakespeare, say, “so that students can see at once that the way in which they have read poems also works for a poetic drama and that there are some basic similarities between the structure of these different types of literature. They may see, for example, that the man speaking in a poem corresponds to the character in a play, that Shakespeare has his large metaphors just as Keats has his smaller ones” (13).

Then short stories, on our way to the novel. “The short story like the poem gives us literary experience in microcosm and makes it easier to see analogies between fiction and poetry, to see that a tale by Hawthorne is the unfolding of a single metaphorical vision, or that the narrator in a story by Joyce controls our sense of being within the child’s world, exiled from adult society” (13). When we hit the novel, which “demands a very different reading from a Shakespearean drama,” and I think represents the biggest challenge for Brower (perhaps because of his conception of language, which as he emphasizes is highly dramatic), by nevertheless “putting the same questions to both genres their likeness and their unlikeness can be defined, and the exact quality of a particular work can be discovered. The student will find, for example, that the ‘marshes’ and ‘mists’ of Great Expectations are nearer to the fixed symbols of allegory than to the fluid metaphors of Shakespeare. But he can also see that in a novel as in a poem the narrative voice is of immense importance” (13). These are pretty odd statements, I think, to make about a novel, but let’s push on.

The novel brings us into history, reminding us “the meaning of the work in itself changes when we view it in relation to the other works and to the social situation in which it first appeared” (14). Brower then says that “Literature X will move on in its later phases to some experiments in historical interpretation, “historical” being used here to include the relation of a work to its time, especially to more or less contemporary works, and to literary tradition.” By this he means something like the following: “If we return to Othello or Coriolanus after reading the Illiad and after gaining some familiarity with the heroic tradition in the Renaissance epic and drama, we find that both plays are richer in their meaning. We see in Coriolanus what happens when an Achilles enters the Roman forum…” (14). Indeed, another interesting interpretation of how to integrate history. However, it is not, for Brower, amenable to a Great Books course (see below: Gerald Graff in Professing Literature outlines the debates that were going around in the 50’s about that, specifically at Harvard).

For the point about bringing in history is to keep the students away from the bad historical formulas that (Brower seems to think) often emerge in intellectual history and rely on some “abstracted idea” that gets developed over time. So in the 18th century there is “goodness” and “prudence” and “benevolence,” and all the thought of that time (including literature) would be the development of those notions. But the class avoids seeing these things as ideas that have force outside of their representation. So the class might move into “a series of readings in Chesterfield, Hume, and Dr. Johnson,” and “then be asked to define and place the moral attitudes expressed in Tom Jones, through comparing them with similar attitudes expressed in these eighteenth century moralists… [The students’] earlier practice in interpretation would protect them from reducing the experience of the novel to the abstracted idea.” Thus, the class would turn after the novel perhaps to the essay, and “undergraduates could be given some practice… in writing intellectual history” (14-15).

And at the end we would return to poetry, with the purposes I described above, but the emphasis here on writing brings us back finally to the exercises. Brower strongly believes that there is a “value for close reading” in the “practice in equally close writing” (16). “The student who looks at poems as carefully as we have suggested will understand that poetry begins in grammar and that to express a just appreciation of a poem demands fine control of grammar on the part of its appreciator” (16). The emphasis on exercise and in particular on the types of questions asked in the exercises—resistant as they are to any formula—is meant to show that the production of writing for the student is, institutionally, more valuable than getting the right answers. In other words, it is meant as direct opposition to fill-in-the-bubble tests, or even examinations which merely require that something be read to “fill in a gap” in knowledge (16). They require, therefore, intense critical commentary on the part of the people in charge of the discussion section. This is not only because grading the exercises is more laborious, but because the comments are in fact the most intimate and productive tool for furthering the development of the student’s reading and writing abilities. On this point, Brower thinks that the writing is even more important than the section meetings and the discussion there. Why? “The most valuable discussion a teacher can give is a comment surely directed to an individual written performance” (17). He continues: “A teacher who is not bewildered and dulled by reading too many papers on the same topic [that is, one that gives questions that call for individual and nuanced response, not calling for formulas] will be able to judge the student’s present achievement in relation to what he has done in the past. He can also help him keep track of his development and show him where he is going, and when he has failed, show him how to build on an earlier successful performance” (17). If I seem to stress this point, it is because Brower does. Witness the following, which I think I am getting embroidered on a jacket or something to wear around campus: “The marker of an English paper… becomes the higher literary conscience, the intellectual guardian angel of his students” (18).

Brower says this because he believes that the importance of writing for the reading of literature also marks out a place for English in the humanities and in the university more generally. It also does this in opposition to the claim that this place is secured by the reading Great Books: “There is a danger, which is increased by the large amounts of reading assigned in Great Books courses, that rich and special experiences will be too readily reduced to crude examples of a historic idea or moral principle” (18, see above). “Though reductions may be necessary and useful for certain purposes, we must not let students make them too soon or too easily… The undergraduate who masters the trick too early and too well may in the process suffer real damage. He may have acquired the dubious art of reading carelessly, of making the reduction before reading” (18). This type of reduction, though, extends all over the university. “Hence the special function of the teacher of literature, which is not to be confused with that of the historian or moral philosopher” Brower says, because this function is both slow reading and careful writing as the outgrowth of this reading, which is required for good (nonreductive) thought in these other disciplines (18-19). “A course in interpretation is a course in definition by context, in seeing how words are given rich and precise meaning through their interrelations with other words,” as he puts it earlier in the essay. “The student who acquires this habit of definition will be a better reader of philosophy or law or any other type of specialized discourse, and he may learn something about the art of writing, of how to control context in order to express oneself” (11). And I’ll close with how he sees his Literature X, insofar as it is able to actually make the student acquire this habit, as a revival of certain specific functions of a humanist education and the humanities more generally, from a site already within the humanities (a point which also reaches back to what we saw him say earlier on the Latin and Greek): “It is pertinent to recall the historic definition of the Humanities as it stands in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Learning or literature concerned with human culture, as grammar, rhetoric, poetry’… I suspect that some of the more enthusiastic general educators may be surprised by the words that follow ‘human culture:’ ‘as grammar, rhetoric, poetry’… The disciplines name are the ones that the teacher of literature has a special responsibility to impart” (19).

Friday, April 3, 2009

How meaning is read: I.A. Richards

Richards' first insight, which he worked out with Ogden in The Meaning of Meaning, is one we are familiar with now after we have fully appreciated Peirce and Saussure, though both these authors were not as well known in the circles Ogden and Richards were moving in at the time they formulated it: that a word does not get its meaning without its context. The context determines the meaning of the word.

Now, here is where Richards comes in and shows how we indeed can use a word and have words mean if only the context determines this meaning--a thought which is not at first clear if we think words simply mean by virtue of their own intrinsic power (this is what Ogden and Richards call "word magic"--essentially, it is seeing every word as a proper name). In short, we must understand what we mean by "context" correctly. Richards has many ways of ensuring that we do indeed understand this, and I'll employ one of the most precise: his discussion of these matters in Interpretatation in Teaching (p. viii-ix). There, Richards says there are two ways we can understand context. First, we can understand context as the other words that surround the word, so that we can say a word gets its meaning from other words. Richards calls this notion the "literary context," or the "setting" of the word. The other way we can understand context is as the event of the word's use: the word is used at a certain time and in a certain situation (because it has been used in a similar situation before), and this, not how it occurs in a book, say, makes up the context. Richards puts it well: "Thus a word's context, in this sense, is a certain recurrent pattern of past groups of events, and to say that its meaning depends on its context would be to point to the process by which it has acquired its meaning" (viii).

Richards calls this second form of context context proper: the context is a group of events, not the surrounding words. And he explicitly says that to understand the context of a word solely as its setting, or literary context or setting, would make his whole theory of meaning become nonsense. The word does not get its meaning from other words: it gets its meaning from its use in the past.

However, in every case the word (or sign in general, but I will stick to words or verbal signs) is never without a setting, or a literary context: the word's use in the past is always made up of its being surrounted by other words. "We always take a sign," or word, Richards says, "as being in some setting..., as part of an interconnected sign-field (normally, with verbal signs, a sentence...)" (viii). So in a way the word does get its meaning from other words, from the literary setting. But we can only say this if we remember that context (in its proper sense), however, always remains larger than mere setting, so we cannot reduce that the meaning of a word to other words alone. So while a word's meaning is indeed other words, it is not primarily other words: it is primarily the context, the use, which bears upon the setting and therefore the meaning.

But because context proper (as use) always occurs in a setting, or a surrounding set of words (a sign-field, as Richards calls it), failing to apprehend the setting can affect whether we understand the context or the use. It is in this way (and only in this way) that the setting controls the context proper: "Insufficient attention to the accompanying sign-field (the setting...) which controls the context (recurrent groups of events in the past) is a frequent cause of mistaken understanding" (viii).

Again, this is the only way. For the most important point here is that the context or use still is the ultimate thing determining the meaning. This is why just devoting more attention to the setting will not ensure that meaning is grasped: "No care, however great, in observing the setting will secure good interpretation if past experience has not provided the required originative context" (viii). In other words--and this should totally blow away anyone who associates Richards with the New Critics--close reading, insofar as it is understood as an intimate attention to the detail of a text, cannot, alone, produce any better understanding of meaning. This is because, so understood, it does not bring in context. In fact, paying attention to the setting often brings in the wrong contexts.

I personally think that close reading for Richards is understood differently for precisely this reason. Close reading for him is not greater care in observing the literary setting--and he calls it this I think precisely to counter the impression that reading or interpretation only occurs with literature, in little books, and not more widely, wherever there is communication. It is primarily the closer grasp of context, or rather, the alteration and modification of context so that it bears more closely upon the settings--it eliminates irrelevant contexts or uses which occur because of the "control" setting has over context in the sense we specified above. In other words, it makes uses more visible through the distortion of the literary setting.

A focusing, a narrowing down of the possible contexts is what allows for a more clearer apprehension of meaning through the setting, through other words--and this is what really constitutes close reading. And this is why classrooms in particular becomes so important: they can operate as very focused settings, settings that can narrow down the range of contexts. "The contexts which control meanings are always fluctuating with changes in the setting: the teacher's aim is to help them [the contexts] become as orderly, as supple, and as servicable as possible" (ix). They, the classrooms, and not the virtuosic skill of a particular mind--which allows it to have more and more attention, as the New Critics like Brooks will claim--constitute the real vehicle that produces close reading. And it is only the generation of more spaces, besides the classroom, where the type of narrowing down of context can take place that will produce better understandings of meaning.

G.E. Moore

A very nice recent lecture on G.E. Moore: G.E. Moore and Cambridge Philosophy. It's given by Thomas Baldwin, who edits Mind. Baldwin is very interested in something that has always fascinated me, and particularly fascinates me about Moore as I have been reading him occasionally over the past year: the effort of several thinkers at Cambridge after McTaggart to outline a version of experience that is roughly realist in a very--how to put it--odd manner. In other words, Moore in particular wants to show subjective idealism to be odd precisely by trying to show how it cannot account for the odd aspects of common perception--not by just asserting that it isn't dealing with normal or usual aspects of perception. This is what underlies Russell's thought too at a certain time, in his work on naming and knowledge by acquaintance versus knowledge by description. Thanks to Jethro for putting the link up.