Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beyond interpretation

In short, it would be possible to demonstrate that, given its premises, the New Criticism was necessarily an interpretive criticism. But in fact it is scarcely necessary to make out such a case, for the most important and insidious legacy of the New Criticism is the widespread and unquestioning acceptance of the notion that the critic's job is to interpret literary works. Indeed, fulfillment of the interpretive task has come to be the touchstone by which other kinds of critical writing are judged, and reviewers inevitably ask of any work of literary theory, linguistic analysis, or historical scholarship, whether it actually assists us in our understanding of particular works. In this critical climate it is therefore important, if only as a means of loosening the grip which interpretation has on critical consciousness, to take up a tendentious position and to maintain that, while the experience of literature may be an experience of interpreting works, in fact the interpretation of individual works is only tangentially related to the understanding of literature. To engage in the study of literature is not to produce yet another interpretation of King Lear but to advance one's understanding of the conventions and operations of an institution, a mode of discourse.
-Johnathan Culler, "Beyond Interpretation," in The Pursuit of Signs, originally published around 1976.

"Insidious" is a bit much, though the saturation accurately (though not wholly) described here somewhat merits it. Whether this is due solely to New Criticism (an abstraction of some kind--it would be nice to know what, more specifically, Culler means by this) is also a question. And the last point, in its tired tone regarding "another interpretation" is a bit suspect. But the point concerning what the study of literature entails holds up. I would put it more modestly (that is, without suggesting what, instead of interpretation, this study actually is (for Culler, the "understanding of the conventions..." etc.))--like this: the study of literature is not necessarily the production of interpretation. There is something beyond, or, better, beside interpretation: namely, a whole array of other modes of study. That is, if necessity has to enter in anywhere, it is more likely the study of literature is necessarily not limited to interpretation.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Barthes, the syntagmatic

The syntagm presents itself in the form of a 'chain' (the flow of speech, for example). Now as we have seen [earlier in the Elements], meaning can arise only from an articulation, that is, from a simultaneous division fo the signifying layer,and the signified mass: language is, as it were, that which divides reality [...]. Any syntagm therefore gives rise to an analytic problem: for it is at the same time continuous and yet cannot be the vehicle of a meaning unless it is articulated. How can we divide the syntagm? This problem arises again with every system of signs: in the articulated language, there have been innumerable discussions on the nature [...] of the word, and for certain semiological systems, we can here foresee important difficulties. [That is, the problem is not just in linguistics--it also has pertinence for semiology.] True, there are rudimentary systems of strongly discontinuous signs, such as those of the Highway Code, which, for reasons of saftey, must be radically different from each other in order to be immediately perceived; but the iconic syntagms, which are founded on a more or less analogical representation of a real scene, are infinitely more difficult to divide, and this is probably the reason for which these systems are almost always duplicated by articulated speech (such as the caption of a photograph) which endows them with the discontinuous aspect which they do not have.
-Elements of Semiology, III.2.2

For some reason this is a clearer explanation to me of why photographs need captions than all the others I hear (regarding that famous thesis people attribute to Barthes, citing his essays on photography). Barthes then says the following about the syntagm--a very concise and provocative formulation:

In spite of these difficulties, the division of the syntagm is a fundamental operation, since it must yield the paradigmatic units of the system: it is in fact the very definition of the syntagm, to be made of a substance which must be carved up.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Hegel and aesthetics

I'm starting off my study for field examinations this summer (which you all will have the benefit of witnessing, as I post some of my notes) with a little remark on Hegel. He says the following at the very beginning of his introduction to his lectures on the aesthetic:

The name "aesthetic " in its natural sense is not quite appropriate to this subject. "Aesthetic" means more precisely the science of sensation or feeling. Thus understood, it arose as a new science, or rather as something that was to become a branch of philosophy for the first time, in the school of Wolff, at the epoch when works of art were being considered in Germany in the light of the feelings which they were supposed to evoke — feelings of pleasure, admiration, fear, pity, etc. The name was so inappropriate, or, strictly speaking, so superficial, that for this reason it was attempted to form other names, e.g. "kallistic." But this name, again, was unsatisfactory, for the science to be designated does not treat of beauty in general, but merely of artistic beauty. We shall, therefore, permit the name aesthetic to stand, because it is nothing but a name, and so is indifferent to us, and, moreover, has up to a certain point passed into common language. As a name, therefore, it may be retained. The proper expression, however, for our science is the "philosophy of art," or, more definitely, the "philosophy of fine art."
-Introduction to Lectures on the Aesthetic, Bosanquet's (actually very nice) translation.

Hegel does not like the name "aesthetic." It is insufficient, ungenügend. Yet he preserves it since it is "nothing but a name, and so is indifferent"--or, since indifferent is a significant "technical" word for Hegel, and he does not use it here, the name is therefore no matter, all the same, gleichgültig--"to us." And, as if that weren't enough, we can keep it since it "has passed into common language," die gemeine Sprache.

He then notes, as if in passing, the more appropriate word for this; he suggests, almost casually, another name. The proper word is not "aesthetics" but "'philosophy of art," or "philosophy of fine art." And in this apparently minor gesture we find he announces that his study of art, his science of it, is differentiated from all others: the new name, as it were, signals how we will approach things, as unsere, our, Wissenschaft, our science deserves this other name. In this little name game is, then, there is a certain oblique attempt of Hegel to differentiate his treatment of a common subject matter--which is nothing less than the philosophic, scientific consideration of that subject matter, the demonstration of the actuality of the idea through and by its spiritual development in this area.

My point? Hegel wants to preserve the old name as if it is of no consequence--which is why he obliquely introduces his new name. Why? Because of what the old name designates: the science of sensuous feeling. The new name can supervene upon the province of what the old name designates, the sensuous, but it only supervenes: in other words, the aesthetic (qua science of the sensuous) appropriately considered is going to be designated by the new name, which, significantly, does not refer to the sensuous but to spirit (Geist, which is not only not sensuous, but also not supersensuous--i.e. it exceeds the opposition sensuous/non-sensuous, which is defectively conceived). And in this gesture, I'm claiming, we can already see what is at work in Hegel's consideration of the aesthetic which will follow: on the one hand he will derive the specificity of art from its sensuousness--the way it embodies the spiritual in the sensuous, in fact representing it there--but on the other saying that art is never purely reducible to this sensuous work. The study of art, then, is on the one hand the study only of sensuous embodiment, and on the other is only a philosophic study (science) of spirit.

Why does this matter? Simply because it begins to show Hegel's unique position with respect to the aesthetic: he is remarkably rebellious against any notion that art should be studied based upon how it presents itself to our direct sensuous intuition. In that respect, he carves out an area for the study of art that is completely anti-aesthetic. At the same time, this is accomplished precisely by making intuition itself non-sensuous, spiritual: at no point is there any break with the notion that art is not able to be intuited. Thus Hegel can say that art, like all things of this world, demonstrates its actuality precisely through its manifestation, through its ability to be intuited, if we consider manifestation or intuition rightly--that is, otherwise than as the grasping of an appearance that is distinct from the subject, that is a sensuous object opposed to a non-sensuous subjective spirit. In other words, as in work or labor (the birth of objective spirit), but explicitly, sensuousness itself is shown to be a function of the non-sensuous, such that it (the sensuousness) can no longer be considered the realm of manifestation and intuition. Art, more than work, is in fact precisely the sphere where we are taught explicitly to consider manifestation rightly, where manifestation and intuition are most explicitly shown to be spiritual as much as they are sensuous (since the former is the truth of the latter).

The anti-aesthetic is then pulled back into a process of demonstrating the truth of the aesthetic, and thereby remaining, just as the old name can be unproblematically preserved, still akin to aesthetics.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Problems in legal reading

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) is a frustrating decision for many of its readers, not merely because of its outcome. The interpretive method it uses to understand the Second Amendment seems to various people in various disciplines as whimsical, self-contradictory, or altogether misguided. Thus the historian Jack Rakove sees the decision as pseudo-historiography written to justify ideology. Thus the legal scholar Reva Siegel continually tries, in vain, to compare Justice Scalia’s majority opinion here with his previous remarks on interpretation, claiming that he reads the amendment in a way that precisely admits of decision-making influenced by the “culture war” which he denounced in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and which, in his earlier lecture, “Common Law Courts in a Civil Law System,” he advocated a method of reading (textualism, and in lieu of that, originalism) precisely in order to avoid. Thus the literary critic Stanley Fish feels that the decision exhibits too much faith in intentionalism—the notion that the Amendment must be understood in terms of what the framers, or anyone else, actually intended it to mean. In short, the decision’s interpretation of the Second Amendment seems to many as lacking in methodological coherence.

Of course, “lacking in methodological coherence” is a standard criticism by which legal opinions are often discredited: so Justice Stevens, in his dissent, calls the Court’s opinion a “strained and unpersuasive reading of the Amendment’s text” (at at 128 S.Ct. 2823). It is in this way, then, that the criticism of interpretive methodology functions as the other side of one’s having a different interpretation of the same text: instead of supplying one’s own interpretation, one can also criticize the way by which another interpretation proceeds. Usually, the two operations work in tandem in legal decisions, and this is considered all the reflection on interpretive method that the act of legal decision-making really needs: it is, at the very least, the most Stevens reflects upon it, since he then proceeds to use a method of analysis similar to Scalia’s in order to produce his own result—an act that has made commentators on the case criticize him just as much as Scalia (see the links above). It is in this way that legal thought about interpretive methodology is reappropriated into the redeployment of that same methodology, and (at the same time) radical critique of interpretive methodology (critique that would force the same to be different or at least account for difference) is excluded from the law as “legal scholarship” or “legal theory.” Thus serious, explicit thought about interpretive method may inform the law (and so may even make it into a legal brief or be cited in an opinion) but it does not bear upon the law’s operation. It is in fact so external that it even be seen as a matter of style, as is the case in Benjamin Cardozo’s famous essay “Law and Literature.” We can read this piece as recognizing methodology as the “form” of an argument that indeed makes it more or less forceful, but that does not accomplish much more than that mere aesthetic or informing function: just like a justice’s method of interpretation, style can tell us a lot about a justice (even about the essential tendencies of his thought), but it remains at bottom separable from the act of interpreting and constructing a decision.*

Given this general status of reflection on method within legal discourse, it is not surprising that many critiques of the Heller decision take up this scholarly role, confining themselves to commentaries upon method that do not take up the method as it is deployed in the decision itself. In other words, even excellent legal scholarship, like Siegel’s, must “look beyond” the methodology within the text itself in order to comment upon it and therefore reduplicate and reinstate the marginal status of radical methodological reflection vis-à-vis the act of constructing of legal opinions and law: as she says, her commentary “looks beyond the text of the Heller opinion itself to the decades of social movement conflict that preceded the decision” in order to “examine more closely the authority Heller exercises in enforcing the right to bear arms” (193). And while this may be warranted by the particular decision in question (Heller is notoriously suffused with modern history as much as it engages itself in the historical or pseudo-historical reconstruction of an 18th century episteme--just listen to the oral argument), literary scholars (and especially literary theorists) are much more willing to look inside the text of an interpretation for its interpretive assumptions, and therefore integrate methodological consideration within decisions about the justness of a reading. So where Siegel talks about “the authority Heller exercises,” a literary scholar would be quicker to say “the interpretive authority Heller exercises,” since authority (as far as the literary scholar is concerned) does not primarily come from outside the text.

Thus literary critics would not have to do as much work as Siegel and others in opposition to actual interpretation in order to establish that an interpretation has something about it which is methodologically suspect: actual interpretation and reflection on interpretive method go hand in hand. At the same time, though, literary scholars would be less willing to allow the knowledge about methodology that is made apparent be reappropriated back into the work of that methodology, taken up merely from a different angle. So just as there are more internal analyses of methodology as “readings” within literary criticism, there are more radical critiques of interpretive methodologies—critiques that do not as quickly lose their force as ad hominem attacks, as is the case with that of Stevens, mentioned above. The resulting view of methodology is one that sees it as less (externally) necessitated (as it appears to be in Siegel’s analysis**), on the one hand, and more able to be changed by a shift in its (internal) assumptions—in short, a view that sees method as more coextensive with decision-making (or evaluation in general) itself.

*“The argument put strongly is not the same as the argument put feebly any more than the ‘tasteless tepid pudding’ is the same as the pudding served to us in triumph with all the glory of the lambent flame. The strength that is born of form and the feebleness that is born of the lack of form are in truth qualities of the substance. They are tokens of the thing’s identity. They make it what it is.” I use the term “aesthetic” in the sense in which Paul de Man will deploy it. There is a sense in which the persuasive force of an argument will precisely undo the aesthetic status Cardozo grants methodological consideration—that is, when persuasion is considered as rhetoric.

**Originalism there is seen as a mode of reading which is negotiating massive political and social demands. It there functions as a “jurisprudential vehicle” for the New Right, and in Heller in particular it functions to expand (not limit, as it ostensibly claims for its goal) certain political aims by interpreting them “as the Constitution” (241-2).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The resistance to theory

If theory is not understood also as a practice, it will often make the mistake of confusing itself with knowledge, and will then cease to be theory. In other words, theory, unless it is understood as a set of ways of talking that prepares for purely theoretical engagement, becomes philosophy--and poor philosophy at that. Unless theory is understood sometimes as the effort needed in order to get to theory proper, then when we theorize, we are not doing theory--we're doing, instead, something like metaphysics.

This is the main reason why Paul de Man says that the resistance to theory is itself theory (in "The Resistance to Theory"). Indeed, his formula here also means that if you are opposing theory, the only way you can oppose it is by theorizing--but to lay too much stress on this misses his point. The point is that the purely theoretical, no longer muddied up by the effort to try and actually do theory, is not theory. The effort to become theoretical, or the effort needed to theorize, which itself comes from outside theory proper and from the domain of reading (in de Man's understanding of that word)--this effort that is an effect of some resistance to pure theory, is indeed theory.

One can see how right de Man is in looking at crappy theoretical work. People just start pronouncing upon things, working out their structure in accordance to certain conceptions justified by their favorite theoreticians. Theory has stopped working here, precisely because there is no problem of how, on a practical level, to go about theorizing. In other words, the real force of de Man's statement comes from seeing it as exclusionary, as a limit upon what can legitimately be called theory: theory that does not resist theorizing (or encounter the problem of how in practice to go about its business) is not theory. The resistance to theory is theory: "the language it speaks is self-resistance" ("The Resistance to Theory").

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Prior to a hermeneutics and a history

Literature, instead of being taught only as a historical and humanistic subject, should be taught as a rhetoric and a poetics prior to being taught as a hermeneutics and a history.
-Paul de Man, "The Return to Philology"

The power of this formulation comes right from the "prior to," and the fact that both "hermeneutics and history" are thereby conceived as something that "rhetoric and poetics" can actually (perhaps) do without. De Man makes us think not only of undoing the humanist function of the aesthetic object, which makes us "move so easily from literature to its apparent," but superficial, de Man would say, "prolongations in the spheres of self-knowledge, religion, and of politics"--in short that makes us fall prey to ideology in de Man's sense of the term (that which lets us think reference can be grasped precisely by referential means, in short that can allow us to turn literature into a grammar which can then be hermeneutically or historically decoded). He begins to show us that rhetoric, say, is not beholden to its hermeneutical basis except as a possible auxiliary function of its own (perhaps sovereign) operation. In other words, he begins to show us that rhetorical and poetic analysis can be "an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning [the analysis] produce[s]" (i.e. it can be what he calls a philology, which is what he is defining in this quote right here: and thus we can now understand his extremely equivocal phrasing--the return to rhetoric [to study that proceeds by anti-hermeneutic means] is a return to philology [to the generation of results, of ends that are anti-hermeneutic]). This is not only powerful but radical--and should serve as some check on my dismissals of de Man in my last post. But this way of putting it also comes with increasing dangers--with a vagueness in its radicality.

How? Let's return to the ideological function that I just outlined. For de Man, we move much too quickly between literature to "apparent prolongations in the spheres of self-knowledge, of religion, and of politics" because we precisely make literature into what, through a decoding, just is a set of statements about these three (or more) spheres. This, in his eyes, is precisely the aesthetic ideology: the function of the aesthetic object is to deproblematize precisely this move from what the object is doing to its effects in these spheres (which are the spheres of humanism). Conceiving the work as aesthetic means only to conceive it itself as a prolongation of these spheres (and thus as humanist). You can see even more visibly de Man's desire to expose this as ideology, and oppose it systematically with rhetorical analysis, in his outlining of a literature course (Literature Z) in a fascinating memo from 1975: courses as they have traditionally been taught see

...literature as a succession of periods and movements that can be articulated as an historical narrative. With regard to individual works, the conception is essentiall paraphrastic and thematic, the assumption being that literature can be reduced to a set of statements which, taken together, lead to a better understanding of human existence. Literary studies then become, on the one hand, a branch of the history of culture and, on the other hand, a branch of existential and anthropological philosophy in its individual as well as its more collective aspects.
-"Proposal for Literature Z"

For de Man this is extremely debatable, however nice it is. For what is clear is that all this relies upon a process of exposing the prolongations that are supposedly already there: i.e. a hermeneutics and historical analysis. We find the meaning that is already there. De Man simply asks us to think about whether we can be sure meaning is there or not--and this is enough to begin to dispel the ideology: "the anthropological function of literature cannot be examined with any rigor before its epistemological or verbal status has been understood," he continues, which means that we have to think about what the thing is that we so quickly conceive of as a prolongation of our self-knowledge. Is it really such a thing that we can interpret unproblematically? That we can decode? Hermeneutics and history work in tandem with and ideology of aesthetics to shut down this avenue of inquiry. In this respect what they do is--as he says--actually veil the literariness of literature and prevent its reading.

These last phrases--which are more than polemical (I'd say they are equivocal, nominalist, and dangerous)--are taken from his other most concentrated engagement with these questions, "The Resistance to Theory." This is where the more precise language about reference that I use above is brought in (it is also present in Allegories of Reading): in short it is not only literariness that gets seen as a prolongation of effects of humanist self-knowledge, etc. but the workings of language itself (thus the grammar, the meaning that it is turned into is a humanist grammar, a grammar of these spheres). But let's stay with the danger (and witness de Man outlining these more precise effects of grammar etc.) in that essay:

To stress the by no means self-evident necessity of reading implies at least two things. First of all, it implies that literature is not a transparent message in which it can be taken for granted that the distinction between the message and the means of communication is clearly established. Second, and more problematically, it implies that the grammatical decoding of a text leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means, however extensively conceived. The extension of grammar to include para-figural dimensions is in fact the most remarkable and debatable strategy of contemporary semiology, especially in the study of syntagmatic and narrative structures. The codification of contextual elements well beyond the syntactical limits of the sentence [see Barthes S/Z and my last post] leads to the systematic study of metaphrastic dimensions and has considerably refined and expanded the knowledge of textual codes. It is equally clear, however, that this extension is always strategically directed towards the replacement of rhetorical figures by grammatical codes. The tendency to replace a rhetorical by grammatical terminology [...] is part of an explicit program, a program that is entirely admirable in its intent since it tends towards the mastering and clarification of meaning. The replacement of a hermeneutic by a semiotic model, of interpretation by decoding, would represent, in view of the baffling historical instability of textual meanings (including, of course, those of canonical texts) a considerable progress. Much of the hesitation associated with "reading" could thus be dispelled.
The argument can be made, however, that no grammatical decoding, however refined, could claim to reach the determining figural dimensions of a text...

-"The Resistance to Theory"

You see, this last move is what is crucial: de Man then expands what remains his question--whether literature is something that can be decoded--into a conclusion. Literature is, indeed, something that cannot be decoded. Look again at all the limits being set up: "no grammatical decoding, however refined, could claim to reach..."; "a text leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means, however extensively conceived." How can he be sure of this? In the same process what he does is actually define terms like "reading" to apply only to modes of analysis that conclude, like he does, that there just are spheres that can't be reached by grammar. This is how, in the above, he is able to dismiss semiology, which, as Barthes was so good at doing, precisely is trying to responsibly (clearly) get at the aspects of meaning that lie beyond what can be easily decoded. In S/Z codes don't, as de Man here puts it, strictly decode: they arrange themselves into a structure which we are, at the end of the day, quite unsure what to do with. And this to me seems quite resistant to a hermeneutic model, and can't just be dismissed as grammar by another means--as de Man does above.

In short the risk, the danger, is in this: de Man conceives rhetoric, and the reading of rhetoric as only operating in those spheres that a hermeneutics or a history, which see the text as a grammar, cannot penetrate. But this definition is only a negative one. As soon as this "cannot" becomes positive, what he is doing is actually acting as if he is sure about the content of this rhetorical sphere, of this indeterminacy--and it is on this basis that he can dismiss something like semiology. For if "a text leaves a residue of indetermination" how can de Man be so sure that this indetermination "has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means, however extensively conceived?" Frankly, there is no way to make this sentence make sense. We just cannot be sure that the indetermination will not be resolved precisely by grammatical means if the indetrmination is indeed indeterminate (this is where Derrida and de Man part ways, in my book).

But the point then is that de Man outlines a principle of resistance to hermeneutics that has, really, no basis. He outlines how the aesthetic ideology is complicit with hermenetutics, but then gives you an alternative that only consists in asserting that hermeneutics "misses the literariness of the literary"--which I think means nothing. It means nothing not because this literariness is beyond or anti-hermeneutics--i.e. because the project of finding a mode of analysis that is not hermeneutic is bunk (I think it remains, still, perhaps the greatest task we have to undertake). It means nothing because de Man is still too sure of what the this literariness looks like: in short, because it is merely defined negatively as the anti-hermeneutic, as rhetoric.

So what we get is a powerful formulation, which envisions a space for us beyond a hermeneutics and a history. But it gives us nothing to work off of except our own hatred for hermeneutics and history. This is what is dangerous about de Man. It seems, in my view, much better to go the route of semiology that he precisely outlines here--the grammatization of the rhetorical. For I do think that while de Man is very sensitive to the problems of making the rhetorical grammatical, he himself also ends up doing the same thing in being so confident about what the rhetorical consists of (it is precisely what cannot, cannot, no no no, ever, be reduced to grammar--and this extends into his allegorical readings, though to prove that takes another post). And at the same time, this hatred manifests itself through the equivocation of terms like "reading" and "literariness," which suddenly are terms that function only negatively and in order to castigate other critics: you must not miss the literariness, you are missing it, you are not reading, no no no--I on the other hand do understand it, I read, etc. In short, he gives us something extremely valuable, but he also--by the way he puts it--trains a lot of critics to be only good at shutting down other readings without any reasons for doing so. And this is extremely dangerous.

But I don't want to end just by condemning de Man. I just think his target is wrong: the grammatization of rhetoric is not the threat. The threat is in not seeing the necessity of rhetorical reading in the first place as an alternative to hermeneutics--in being subject to the aesthetic ideology, in his words. Insofar as he makes this clear to us--and he does I think in saying that literature should be taught "as a rhetoric and a poetics prior to being taught as a hermeneutics and a history"--what he is doing is crucial.

(A postscript: what I find dangerous is quite clear--he provides a critical vocabulary that allows others to take it up for, basically, evil ends--and I'm not the first to say this about de Man. But perhaps this position can be countered. Perhaps what de Man is doing in "training a lot of critics to be only good at shutting down other readings" is precisely a less responsible, but somewhat excusable version of something I have argued elsewhere. Actually echoing de Man [in "The Return to Philology" but also elsewhere], I say that theory displaces the evaluative function one found in literary criticism or in the humanities education prior to [and as a concern throughout] the New Criticism and the institution [beginning] of our profession. If we take this notion up, we might see de Man teaching us how to shut down readings in order to teach us to be theoretical in one specific sense--to articulate evaluations in terms that are theoretical and concerned more with the possibilities of their own utterance. I still say this is a very, very dubious way of going about this--at what point do we stop and just say that behind the theory is really just a power-grab? But at another level we can't just say de Man was completely ignorant of the fact that each one of his terms actually was formed to produce the capability of this bad use. I think, in the end, that both things are true: he was quite aware he was disseminating things that could be used maliciously, perhaps more easily than they could be used correctly, but that he also believed perversely that this would change the face of literature, in the long run, for the better--that is, even if it came at any cost...)