Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Scholarly experience

Bourdieu is making the following case for "the indispensable creativity of empirical research," which (and I couldn't have put it better) is the fact that "when we act without entirely knowing what we are doing, we make it possible to discover in what we have done something of which we were previously unaware" (Homo Academicus, 7--in this he might agree with Deleuze). He then says this, which I think is just so excellent:

Far from being, as certain "initiatory" representatives of the "epistemological break" would have us believe, a sort of simultaneously inaugural and terminal act [my italics, mj], the renunciation of first-hand intuition is the end product of a long dialectical process [again mine, mj] in which intuition, formulated in an empirical operation, analyzes and verifies or falsifies itself, engendering new hypotheses, gradually more firmly based, which will be transcended in their turn, thanks to the problems, failures, and expectations which they bring to light.

-Homo Academicus, 7

But then, in a footnote to this sentence, he talks of the activity of managing of this process introducing a difference between scholarly and ordinary experience--which just takes the cake:

I cannot regret strongly enough not having kept a research diary which would have shown, better than any declaration, the role of empirical work in the progressive accomplishment of the break with first-hand experience. But a reading of the list of sources used (see appendix 1 [which is not just extensive, but also highly organized]) should at least give an idea of the work of controlled recollection which is the motivating difference between ordinary experience and scholarly experience.
-Homo Academicus, 280

This work is also what precisely makes scholarly experience necessary to analyze qua different.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Theory, pedagogy, de Man

Why do we keep returning to Paul de Man for definitions of theory? "The Resistance to Theory," is, no doubt, an excellent essay, and contains many concise formulations--the resistance to theory is itself theoretical, etc. etc. But where precisely does the concise statement pass over into an imperative to revisit what is concisely said? And can such a statement, if it has the power to convert itself in this way, ever really be about what is concisely said--that is, the referent of the statement--as opposed to the fact that it is de Man who is saying it? From what I can see in the writings on de Man, people hesitate over precisely this issue: the answer is no, insofar as the statement is really about de Man himself, and his ability to pronounce upon theory; the answer is yes, insofar as the implications of how de Man puts the statement are immense and indeed, in themselves, provocative. It is evident though that each of these answers presupposes the other. Nevertheless, the distinction is handy for people, because it allows them to take up the first answer and analyze it somewhat critically under the title of pedagogy: in other words, viewing de Man's statements on theory as never quite about the subject under consideration gives theory itself a new subject to consider, theoretical pedagogy or the teaching of theory. This particular strain in de Man, then, is seen as precisely his pedagogical aspect (John Guillory, for example, despite what his mode of analysis entails, sees it as precisely this). It is de Man's teaching that we see in such formulations, and therefore (to bring it all back to our initial question) we return to such concise statements because they are products of the problems involved in the transmission of theory or theory's continuity over time--the survival of theory being precisely that which is involved in any consideration of theory's role. If I am wondering what theory is, I am also considering what it has been, and de Man's formulations are (in this view) precisely what theory has been, since they are made not only to sum up what theory is but send it as such into the future, my present. In such statements we feel we are not only looking at what theory was, but at how it was transmitted.

But the question then is, why is pedagogy here being reduced to a form of speaking--the concise formulation that demands revisiting (in other words, something like, but not necessarily the same thing as, the aporism)? In considering how de Man speaks, we have precisely made pedagogy and transmission account wholly for the form of the statement that de Man is uttering--when it could just as well be the case that such a statement has nothing to do with transmission, or at least would only be one element in everything pedagogy involves. The teaching of theory has nothing to do, perhaps, with this sort of concision, this sort of way of talking. This is still a bit unclear in my mind, and will become clearer as I read de Man in the coming weeks, but I might summarize (and not teach) my thoughts in the following way: because a statement also involves the conditions of its utterance does not mean it transfers along anything--anything more, that is, than we are willing to read into it, and which (disturbingly) in this case is the entire discourse of theory.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reading for exams

As you read this, my cohort in the English department prepares for general field examinations! A few of us are discussing what we are reading here on our blog. Stop by and enjoy. (I, by the way, am specializing in 18th Century Literature, as well as in Literary Theory and the traditions of Literary Criticism.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Heidegger on information

Language, which speaks by saying, is concerned that our speech, heeding the unspoken, corresponds to what language says. Hence silence too, which one would dearly like to subtend to speech as its origin [as was suggested in Being and Time], is already a corresponding. Silence [indeed] corresponds to the noiseless ringing of a stillness, the stillness of the saying that enowns and shows. The saying that rests on enowning is, as showing, the ownmost mode of enowning. Enowning is telling [sagend]. Accordingly, language speaks after the manner of the given mode in which enowning reveals itself as such or withdraws. A thinking that thinks back to enowning can just barely surmise it, and yet can already experience it in the essence of modern technics, an essence given in the still odd-sounding name en-framing [Ge-Stell]. The enframing, because it sets upon human beings--that is, challenges them--to order everything that comes to presence into a technical inventory, unfolds essentially after the mode of enowning; at the same time, it distorts enowning, inasmuch as all ordering sees itself committed to calculative thinking and so speaks the language of enframing. Speech [thus] is challenged to correspond to the ubiquitous orderability of what is present.

Speech, when posed in this fashion, becomes information. It informs itself concerning itself, in order to establish securely, by means of information theories, its own procedure.
-"The Way to Language," in Basic Writings, 420-21, translated by David Farrell Krell (modified).

Heidegger on the transformation of language

In order to think back to the essence of language, in order to reiterate what is its own, we need a transformation of language, a transformation we can neither compel nor concoct. The transformation does not result from the fabrication of neologisms and novel phrases. The transformation touches on our relation to language. That relation is determined in accordance with the sending that determines whether and in what way we are embraced in propriation by the essence of language, which is the original pronouncement of propriation. For propriation--owning, holding, keeping to itself--is the relation of all relations.
-"The Way to Language," in Basic Writings, 424-5

Um dem Sprachwesen nachzudenken, ihm das Seine nachzusagen, braucht es einen Wandel der Sprache, den wir weder erzwingen noch erfinden konnen. Der Wandel ergibt sich nicht durch die Beschaffung neu gebildeter Worter und Wortreihen. Der Wandel rührt an unser Verhaltnis zur Sprache. Dieses bestimmt sich nach dem Geschick, ob und wie wir vom Sprachwesen als der Ur-Kunde des Ereignisses in dieses einbehalten werden. Denn das Ereignis ist, eignend-haltend-ansichhaltend, das Verhaltnis aller Verhaltnisse.

-"Der Weg zur Sprache," in Unterwegs zur Sprache (Gesamtausgabe 12), 255-6

Look at the German, which is much clearer. For essential reasons, however, this lack of clarity isn't really the fault of David Farrell Krell--from whose version of "Der Weg zur Sprache" I quote. The 1959 lecture is too condensed, too compact, and at the same time too lacking in concision, in the controlled, step by step unfolding of thought that Heidegger elsewhere deploys. The lack of clarity, in other words, is there no matter what you really do to it. And this is for equally essential reasons: the essay is not so much an effort to be clear about what constitutes language as one of the most concentrated attempts to bring about the "transformation" (der Wandel) of language that Heidegger here talks about.

I say "most," only because this is the task behind many of Heidegger's other writings. The task in many of them is never really an exposition of what the thing under consideration (here, one would be tempted to say language) should act and function like, or, even more prevalent in most philosophical writings, how the thing poses a particular type of problem. Rather, Heidegger's aim (this is the most modest way of putting it, for it isn't simply an aim or goal) remains a transformation of our language--that is, if one understands language here properly. By this I mean that the transformation (der Wandel) of our language is not just some transposition (eine Verlagerung) or substitution of equally valid or even clearer language, a mere displacement--indeed it "does not result from the fabrication of neologisms and novel phrases," ergibt sich nicht durch die Beschaffung neu gebildeter Worter und Wortreihen. Transforming our language is not stating the problem in different and perhaps better ways, displacing it--which might suffice for most philosophers (and indeed rightly so: I'd consider that as my goal, certainly). Rather, transforming our language is... something that occurs in the light of what is brought to language in this lecture (and many other ventures of Heidegger) concerning language. In other words, transforming out language is something that this lecture itself takes as its theme, and in doing so (in fact, insofar as it takes this as its theme) also attempts to bring the transformation about.

So, what is brought to language concerning (another inadequate word) language? Speaking much too loosely, that language allows the proper in general (again, too loose, too generic) to be brought to light. This means, then, that the transformation in language is what allows us to hear (in language) that our language allows the proper in general into language. Or, to put it differently, to displace it (again, that's a task more than sufficient for me) the transformation in language is the process of understanding and responding to how, through language itself, the language that we have used and are using not only allows things to be designated (sign as reference), but also brings them and ourselves into relation to what, with respect to each, remains proper (sign as showing--and remains is a word I use carefully: it means that what remains proper is not simply proper).

I won't get into what all that means: I'm not trying to talk about how propriation works with repect to language, but merely am trying to hint at all that is involved in what Heidegger here brings to language. I want instead to focus on the following: if this sort of transformation what Heidegger does not only in most of his work--as I'm proposing--but also most concentratedly here, in "The Way to Language," how does he do it?

Here he allows you to hear a "formula" (eine Formel), a phrase, properly. That phrase outlines the task (Heidegger calls it the "risk") of the essay, or as I said the theme that it must also bring about--the results of which we have just outlined. This phrase, in other words, remains the "guideline" (der Leitfaden) on the way to language (398). And it is, quite simply, "To bring language to language as language," die Sprache als die Sprache zur Sprache bringen.

One could then say that this phrase begins to be heard differently (that is, not yet properly), through the use of different ways of talking about language. Heidegger makes several journeys into other thinkers of language, including Humboldt and Aristotle, citing also medieval thought. What is talked about then becomes differentiated from what is not talked about, for example in the following, which constitutes a small but interesting point Heidegger makes about counting:

In the essence of language a multiplicity of elements and relations shows itself. We enumerated these, but did not put them in proper sequence. In running through them--which is to say, in original counting, which is not a reckoning in numbers--a certain coherence announced itself. Counting is a recounting. It previews the unifying power in cohesion, but cannot yet bring it to the fore.
-"The Way to Language," 407

Im Sprachwesen zeigt sich eine Mannigfaltigkeit von Elementen und Bezügen. Sie wurden aufgezählt und gleichwohl nieht aneinandergereiht. Im Durchgehen, d. h. im ursprünglichen Zählen, das noch nicht mit Zahlen rechnet, ergab sich die Bekundung eines Zusammengehörens. Das Zählen ist ein Erzählen, das auf das Einigende im Zusammengehören vorblickt und es gleichwohl nieht zum Vorschein bringen kann.
-"Der Weg zur Sprache," 240

"Reckoning in numbers," mit Zahlen rechnet, parrots a common conception of counting. The alternative, "recounting," Erzählen (also telling, relating), states this conception differently, to the extent that you cannot even say that it is an identical conception. And any reader of Heidegger will tell you that this second alternative, in all its simplicity ("counting is a recounting," das Zählen is ein Erzählen, compared to "a reckoning in numbers," mit Zählen rechnet), will be the one which is kept, which is pursued.

The possibility opens, however, of claiming that this is merely a sort of rhetorical operation, indeed with much attention to the work of metaphor. The complexity of the first conception, together with the simplicity of the second, does more than just specify a difference between thoughts: it also shows that one sentence has a certain attitude towards counting and, behind it, language in general--an attitude that needlessly complicates it. How? Metaphor comes in, in that Heidegger understands not only the thought underlying what the first sentence says, but also the vehicle (as we like to call it) from which reckoning is derived: recounting, recalling, which itself involves seeing (previewing, bringing to the fore). In other words, one might say that this is the key operation that allows Heidegger to make us hear something differently: people complain that Heidegger is too complex and gnomic, which means usually that he speaks too metaphorically about the issue, but what Heidegger is doing is actually showing you that, on the contrary, the rest of philosophy is only a set of different, less simple, metaphors.

So eventually in the course of thinking language, in the middle of the essay we begin to hear not only certain references to reckoning differently, but also hear our phrase differently. Indeed, we hear it not as "bring language to language as language," but as "bring the essence of language as the saying to the resounding word" (as this is translated).

So at a certain point Heidegger says the following:

Such way-making brings language (the essence of language) as language (the saying) to language (to the resounding word). Our talk concerning the way to language no longer means exclusively or even preeminently the course of our thought on the trail of language. While under way, the way to language has transformed itself. It has transposed itself from being some deed of ours to the propriated essence of language.
-"The Way to Language," 418-9

Die Be-wegung bringt die Sprache (das Sprachwesen) als die Sprache (die Sage) zur Sprache (zum verlautenden Wort). Die Rede vom Weg zur Sprache meint jetzt nicht mehr nur und nicht mehr im Vorrang den Gang unseres Denkens, das der Sprache nachsinnt. Der Weg zur Sprache hat sich unterwegs gewandelt. Er hat sich aus unserem Tun in das ereignete Sprachwesen verlagert.

-"Der Weg zur Sprache," 250

The formula that acted as a guideline now is different. In fact, it is not only different--Heidegger also says that it is proper. In this respect, it is not merely a metaphorical operation, as we said someone could claim. But how can Heidegger say this? How is the new way of hearing this phrase not only different but also more proper? The last sentence offers a hint, if we recall the distinction between transformation and transposition: rhetoric would be a mere transposition, a different ordering of the words. A transformation, which does not just differentiate, but allows access to the proper, is accomplished when this transposition occurs by the language itself: indeed, as Heidegger says, "it has transposed itself," er hat sich verlagert.

So the issue is not whether Heidegger actually used any rhetoric or not, or indeed differentiated anything or not, since these operations are in fact not opposed to allowing the sentence to be heard properly, not opposed to transformation. The issue, instead, is how can we be sure that the phrase "has transposed itself," thereby transforming itself: how the rhetoric, in other words, is also derived from transformation. This is what Heidegger then pursues--and I will let him speak for himself: I have only been trying to get us to this general point. The formula has transposed itself, he says,

except that the transformation of the way to language looks likes a transposition that has just now been effected only for us, only with respect to us. In truth, the way to language has its sole place always already in the essence of language itself. However, this suggests at the same time that the way to language as we first intended it is not superfluous; it is simply that it becomes possible and necessary only by virtue of the way proper, the way-making movement of propriation and usage. Because the essence of language, as the saying that shows, rests on the propriation that delivers us human beings over to releasement towards unconstrained hearing, the saying's way-making movement toward speech first opens up the path on which we can follow the trail of the proper way to language.

Allein, die Wandlung des Weges zur Sprache sieht nur für uns in der Rücksicht auf uns wie eine jetzt erst erfolgte Verlagerung aus. In Wahrheit hat der Weg zur Sprache schon immer seine einzige Ortschaft im Sprachwesen selbst. Dies heiBt jedoch zugleich: Der zunachst gemeinte Weg zur Sprache wird nicht hinfallig, sondern erst durch den eigentlichen Weg, die er-eignend-brauchende Be-wegung, moglich und notig. Weil namlich das Sprachwesen als die zeigende Sage im Ereignis beruht, das uns Menschen der Gelassenheit zum freien Horen iibereignet, offnet die Be-wegung der Sage zum Sprechen uns erst die pfade, auf denen wir dem eigentlichen Weg zur Sprache nachsinnen.

[He then doubles back to explain this.]

Our path's formula--to bring language as language to language--no longer merely encapsulates a directive for us who ponder over language. Rather, it betells the forma, the configuration of the well-enjoined structure within which the essence of language, which rests on propriation, makes its way.

If we do not think about it, but merely string along with the string of words, then the formula expresses a weft of relations in which language simply entangles itself. It seems as though every attempt to represent language needs the learned knack of dialectic in order to master the tangle. However, such a procedure, which the formula formidably provokes, bypasses the possibility that by remaining on the trail--that is to say, by letting ourselves be guided expressly into the way-making movement--we may yet catch a glimpse of the essence of language in all its simplicity, instead of wanting to represent language.

What looks more like a tangle than a weft loosens when viewed in terms of the way-making movement. It resolves into the liberating motion that the way-making movement exhibits when propriated in the saying. It unbinds the saying for speech.
-"The Way to Language," 418-9.

Die Wegformel: die Sprache als die Sprache zur Sprache bringen, enthalt nicht mehr nur eine Anweisung für uns, die wir die Sprache bedenken, sondern sie sagt die forma, die Gestalt des Gefüges, worin das im Ereignis beruhende Sprachwesen sich be-wegt.

Unbedacht, nur nach dem bloßen Wortlaut angehort, spricht die Formel ein Geflecht von Beziehungen aus, in das sich die Sprache verwickelt. Es scheint, als bedürfe jeder Versuch; die Sprache vorzustellen, der dialektischen Kunstgriffe, um diese Verwickelung zu meistern. Ein solches Verfahren, zu dem die Formel formlich reizt, versaumt jedoch die Moglichkeit, sinnend, d. h. in die Be-wegung sich eigens einlassend, das Einfache des Sprachwesens zu erblicken, statt die Sprache vorsteIlen zu wollen.

Was wie ein wirres Geflecht aussieht, lost sich, aus der Be-wegung erblickt, in das Befreiende, das die in der Sage ereignete Be-wegung erbringt. Sie entbindet die Sage zum Sprechen.

-"Der Weg zur Sprache," 250-1

Thursday, June 18, 2009


...To the extent that post-structuralism has been a French phenomenon, it has taken place in a context where the contributions of structuralist thought were already accepted as solid achievements, which could then be used, taken apart, opened up, in the movement beyond, whereas the current popularity of some forms of post-structuralism in this country seems at times to be without context, indeed simply the indulgence, under a new guise, of the traditional American penchant for exegesis and interpretation. Relatively few American critics appear to have absorbed the lessons of a structuralist poetics. Some of them have simply performed a shortcut back to interpretation, now flying post-structuralist banners.
-Peter Brooks, in his 1981 introduction to Tzvetan Todorov's Introduction to Poetics

One could take this excellent statement farther and argue, as I often do, that there was no such thing as post-structuralism. But again this presupposes getting your contexts right, i.e. reading (and understanding) enough.

Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year

Daniel Defoe (c.1659-1731)
A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

I very much enjoyed reading A Journal of the Plague Year for exams, mostly because of its expansiveness. This is an odd word that we sometimes use to describe the experience of the later, well-developed historical novel—War and Peace, say (we might also say it of Antony and Cleopatra, but I think for different and precisely non-novelistic reasons: there it is usually an issue of what the story demands of the dramatic production). But it is not entirely inappropriate here, I think: what we have is a thorough, if not well-ordered, wide ranging historical account, which achieves something in its scope.

I say that it is not well ordered, because, well, it isn’t: the book follows the general course of the plague through the year (though, while the beginnings are somewhat looked into, there is virtually no account of 1666—it is very much about the plague year, 1665), but is studded with various anticipations and retrospections which make it really a mix of individual little scenes, generally attempted to be juxtaposed (that’s probably the best way to put it) in chronological order. This isn’t very annoying to me, as it is for other scholars, from what I saw of the criticism. This is because I don’t really take the novel to be narrator-driven, as many others try to do. H.F., the saddler who gives us his account—made up out of his private journal from that year as well as historical material that he has in front of him—doesn’t really hold the story together, but merely acts as a sort of point of view or frame for the story.

To elaborate: H.F. has three narrator-functions. The first is to generally relay already-known information, to assemble already-processed information on the plague, such as the mortality bills of each parish, or government decrees (more on this in a bit). The second function is to testify to the stories related about the plague, to act as an eyewitness (again more on this, for it isn’t your typical eyewitness, but a cynical realist). The third is to situate the telling of the story on a particular level that will give you a very definite, but also very specific, view of the plague. None of these really hold the story together as a really tight act of narration, however: the narrative functions remain functions, and aren’t synthesized (or synthesized in the same way) as they are in, say, Robinson Crusoe.

Let’s see how. First, there is relaying or relation of things like the Orders of the Lord Mayor at the beginning of the novel:

That to every infected house there be appointed two watchmen, one for every day, and the other for the night; and that these watchmen have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses whereof they have the charge, upon pain of severe punishment. And the said watchmen to do such further offices as the sick house shall need and require: and if the watchman be sent upon any business, to lock up the house and take the key with him; and the watchman by day to attend until ten of the clock at night, and the watchman by night until six in the morning (p.45 of the Signet Classic Edition, 1960).

This goes on for several pages. The interesting thing about this, though, is that the orders are not there to produce verisimilitude: as would be the case in a later work of realism, perhaps, the suspension of the tale to include such a document does not give us any reality effect: we are just left more informed. This is to say that, here, at least, Defoe isn’t engaging in any realism. I have my doubts about applying this term to Defoe in the first place (and about applying it in general, thanks to Jakobson’s famous essay on the topic, which I recently read), but here at least we can categorically state it doesn’t apply. And this is not because of the cited material here, but because the requirements for its effect are not there: there is not a surrounding density of fiction that would set off these orders and make them yield reality. At the very most, they pad the text. And they bring up a larger question: can we really consider this work a novel? Is it not just the relation of information like this? In other words, contrary to what we might suppose, doesn’t the fiction in this text interrupt the quotation and the relation of facts?

This brings us to the second function, which would refute this supposition: indeed, because the fictional parts serve as testimony, they tone down the informative function of the account and ends up turning it back into a novel—fiction, in other words, and not information, remains the base line for the account. This is so even though the testimony could not be real (or not entirely real—Defoe did live through the plague, though he was only five). Why? Because the constant acts of witnessing thicken the events related, give them a bit of depth and, through fictionalizing them, give us a greater sense of their contours. In other words, there is present a narrating-function of asserting this indeed happened (which need not mean that this indeed is real).

However, the interesting thing is how the H.F. does this: it will be precisely through doubting the story that he might relate. So he tells the story of the person cured by swimming across the Thames:

I heard of one infected creature who, running out of his bed in his shirt in the anguish and agony of his swellings, of which he had three upon him, got his shoes on and went to put on his coat; but the nurse resisting, and snatching the coat from him, he threw her down, ran over her, ran downstairs and into the street, directly to the Thames in his shirt; the nurse running after him, and calling to the watch to stop him; but the watchman, frighted at the man, and afraid to touch him, let him go on; upon which he ran down to the Stillyard stairs, threw away his shirt, and plunged into the Thames, and, being a good swimmer, swam quite over the river; and the tide being coming in, as they call it (that is, running westward) he reached the land not till he came about the Falcon stairs, where landing, and finding no people there, it being in the night, he ran about the streets there, naked as he was, for a good while, when, it being by that time high water, he takes the river again, and swam back to the Stillyard, landed, ran up the streets again to his own house, knocking at the door, went up the stairs and into his bed again; and that this terrible experiment cured him of the plague, that is to say, that the violent motion of his arms and legs stretched the parts where the swellings he had upon him were, that is to say, under his arms and his groin, and caused them to ripen and break; and that the cold of the water abated the fever in his blood.

I have only to add that I do not relate this any more than some of the other, as a fact within my own knowledge, so as that I can vouch the truth of them, and especially that of the man being cured by the extravagant adventure, which I confess I do not think very possible; but it may serve to confirm the many desperate things which the distressed people falling into deliriums, and what we call light-headedness, were frequently run upon at that time, and how infinitely more such there would have been if such people had not been confined by the shutting up of houses; and this I take to be the best, if not the only good thing which was performed by that severe method (161-2).

This is a typical instance: H.F. hears something and relates it (indeed little of the novel is his own personal story—if anything we want to know more about what being an alderman involved, say: but this desire only gives the narrator more authority to talk about others, in a way). But his skepticism, his doubt, his need to say how likely the story is true or false, serves to actually testify, to bear witness to the possible reality of the thing, as is the case here, where this maneuver is the most condensed: the very unlikelihood of the story testifies to the very reality of one of its details—namely, the fact that some those with the plague would start off running through the streets, and thus that it was necessary to confine people in their houses (the biggest issue of the text, for reasons to which we will return).

Another aspect of this function can be found in the skepticism H.F. has towards that which he himself actually sees (in other words, it need not be only his skepticism with regard to other stories). Take the long account of the astronomers and quacks at the beginning of the tale, who came out at the beginning of the plague with all sorts of predictions and remedies for the poor—capitalizing on the situation, in other words, to take advantage of people’s superstitions. H.F. laments all this, and yet he relates it: it is precisely through his disappointed attitude at the poor, who are suckered into the magic, that he allows us to see that it did happen (which is again different than, this is real). It is a sort of cold attention to irony, a sort of cynicism that we see—indeed you can see it here in this passage too, where it in fact becomes a tool to move the discourse along (it introduces another paragraph):

The ministers, to do them justice, and preachers of most sorts that were serious and understanding persons, thundered against these and other wicked practices, and exposed the folly as well as the wickedness of them together, and the most sober and judicious people despised and abhorred them. But it was impossible to make any impression upon the middling people and the working labouring poor. Their fears were predominant over all their passions, and they threw away their money in a most distracted manner upon those whimsies. Maid-servants especially, and men-servants, were the chief of their customers, and their question generally was, after the first demand of 'Will there be a plague?' I say, the next question was, 'Oh, sir I for the Lord's sake, what will become of me? Will my mistress keep me, or will she turn me off? Will she stay here, or will she go into the country? And if she goes into the country, will she take me with her, or leave me here to be starved and undone?' And the like of menservants.

The truth is, the case of poor servants was very dismal, as I shall have occasion to mention again by-and-by, for it was apparent a prodigious number of them would be turned away, and it was so. And of them abundance perished, and particularly of those that these false prophets had flattered with hopes that they should be continued in their services, and carried with their masters and mistresses into the country; and had not public charity provided for these poor creatures, whose number was exceeding great and in all cases of this nature must be so, they would have been in the worst condition of any people in the city (35-6).

The poor were idiots, but, the truth is (it did happen that), they had a hard time too… The general stupidity that he sees around him, and this tone that is not so much superior but attentive to their true interests, which they perhaps do not see (we will find that this characterizes the administrative point of view of the story)—all this makes us not believe that the account is more real, but that the account is accurate and that it relates something that did occur—that did occur to individuals who often act oddly. In other words, this cynicism with respect to the poor more generally but also to the dismal nature of the events as a whole, shows that the account is of actual people, as they are likely to behave (stupidly--and this is a cultural code), rather than, say, a collection of spectacles from the plague.

For this, I believe, is perhaps the greatest danger of the account: that we think, upon reading it, that it is just a collection of horrifying spectacles. And it is this, certainly: Defoe knows that people watch NASCAR for the wrecks, as it were. But this morbid fascination is diffused through a sort of wryness, which replaces horror with likelihood. Witness, for example, the end of the Journal, which is in the process of relating how people were too quick to conclude that the plague had receded when the numbers of the dead began to drop—thus prolonging the plague a into 1666, even though it was indeed on its way out:

But I should be counted censorious, and perhaps unjust, if I should enter into the unpleasing work of reflecting, whatever cause there was for it, upon the unthankfulness and return of all manner of wickedness among us, which I was so much an eye-witness of myself. I shall conclude the account of this calamitous year therefore with a coarse but sincere stanza of my own, which I placed at the end of my ordinary memorandums the same year they were written:—

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty-five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive! (240).

Tonally, this is generally like the rest of the work: it proceeds with caution in order to remain optimistic, and thereby generally testifies to something like we survived (indeed, I survived, or rather an I survived, and that's the subtitle of the work)—which is nothing other than this happened. One could say that this is the “reality” effect more generalized (it surpasses the level of the insignificant detail and becomes an attitude of the narrator): but the issue involved is not reality; it is history, it is experience. One gets the sense that what Defoe is up to is just trying to unearth the past—in general: this means making it more vivid, though not necessarily real. The point is that he make people aware of the plague over the distance of time (precisely because he might have been writing this as propaganda during the plague scares of 1721), not to live in another time. Thus the sort of distance, the lack of reality, even through the sort of proliferation of information.

This brings us to the final point, which is the most vague, and is probably the most questionable: I said that the narration situates things on a particular level, by which I mean the account gives you a sort of way to enter the events which is very specific—that is not entirely that which another account of things would have—even though it itself doesn’t really need to cohere as the account of one particular person as opposed to another. We get H.F.’s point of view, but we are left with the sense that another could give us an equally good point of view on things. What is so interesting and specific about H.F.’s point of view, however, is that it is one that erases precisely this possibility: it is the view of a potential administrator, someone who can observe all walks of life with ease. It is an ambulatory point of view, that of a walker in the city: notice how necessary it is that he remain mobile, how the worst affliction in the whole novel is being shut in one’s house for two weeks straight during the height of the infection in H.F.’s parish. This is not because what needs to be related has to be first-hand: again, we’re not testifying to the reality of the events, but only to their likelihood (and insofar as that is the case, an indirect experience, a story—like the longest one, of the baker, the sailor, and the carpenter, in which H.F. completely disappears and just narrates—is even better, since it can be doubted easier). Being inside is painful for H.F. because he cannot be where the plague is: he cannot witness it, track it, relate all of its effects—and thus he loses the capability to judge likelihood in the first place. Without that, the novel collapses. But this also reveals that what is more essential to the novel is that it cover the plague (as we now say that news “covers” something), that it spread with the plague in its account. I’m not trying to draw some conclusion that says writing is illness, or something like that. Rather, I’m trying to point out that what is essential for the account is not that it string itself along in time, and develop coherently, as would be the case for a typical narration, but that it rather spread out horizontally in order to encompass all aspects of its subject matter.

This last point, however, brings me back to my main take on the novel: with these three functions operating, there isn’t really any need for a coherent narrator, who will hold everything together. The text holds together, but because of the material involved and point of view we get: but that point of view is only one way of entering the events, I feel—it isn’t necessary for us to have it. This is because it does not have to be consistent, but, as we just said, that every level of the plague’s activity be represented in the book. The goal is to saturate, not to develop. In this respect, it is much more like a history than a historical novel.

Thus, I find it odd when people try to say that the text is jumbled: it can be, insofar as the narrator still gives us scenes and has a take on them. We see that, given its principle of organization, it is precisely what is necessary: we have to skip to all sorts of reflections on the high, low, middle people, to economic effects (how trade altered), to various places in the city and the plague’s activity there (how it started in the west, moving east), to the burial pits, to the ships on the river (all docked, floating with families sheltered in them), to how people in the country fared… all this has to be there, it has to be covered—and it does not matter so much what order that it gets covered in, so long as it is covered.

Thus, the point of view which I was talking about is very specific, however its breadth: what we need is the voice of someone who would plausibly relate all these things—not having much that is kept out of his view. A middling saddler does fine then. But at the same time, what we need more than the voice itself is the coverage of the plague. In many ways, we could say that H.F. is like a (television) reporter, the view always looking past the speaker with the mike into the background, into that area where we are on the scene (this also hints at something I’d venture: the novel is or seems more cinematic than linguistic, more pictorial, framed, than related, unfolded—we get scenes more than stories). I wouldn’t push that too far, though, because this need to saturate, to cover, characterizes governmental, bureaucratic, or administrative vision perhaps more than journalistic vision. And this makes sense, both on the level of the principle of the storytelling and its role as propaganda: in a lot of ways, Defoe’s Journal is saying, look at this from the government’s perspective, which has to deal with all of it, not just your puny little perspective upon it (thus the distaste for the poor, and, more than the poor, the crowd, the stupid populous mass, who doesn’t know what is right for it—something that runs throughout the novel). It is in that sense that the expansiveness of the story comes through: all the layers must be occupied by a vision, even if they can’t be completely, totally traversed—and indeed, where H.F. can’t get information (like the court, say), if he can only get a glimpse (as he does—he knows their location), this is enough (indeed, it makes things more plausible): the point is to show the multiplicity, the complexity involved in just how many sites this monstrous thing invades, rather than be confined to any one level.

This is why the story is also the story of a city (and tends to spatialize itself--a point implied in what's already been said): London is the hero of the Journal, some people say, more than any H.F. That might be true, but it is a hero if we mean by this merely that which needs to be depicted most often in the tale—that is, in the sense that the narrative isn’t one that really needs a hero in the first place, since it doesn’t develop anything but merely depicts all of its movements, all of its activities. London is the hero of the Journal, then, in the way that Baltimore is the hero of The Wire.

The sort of viewpoint involved is indeed similar to that show: what matters less is that things remain continuous (although The Wire masterfully weaves things together, rather than just accumulates them) than that everything be depicted, everything be represented, and we get some larger sense of the totality, of the scale of what is involved. So again, we can say that it is doesn’t cohere, as the critics do, but that poorly understands the multiplicity of the functions of narration—especially as they are present in the early stages of the novel’s development, in which Defoe is working.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Barthesian activity, part 2

Who other than Barthes would have said the following about the novelistic?

…the novelistic is neither the false nor the sentimental; it is merely the circulatory space of subtle, flexible desires; within the very artifice of a “sociality” whose opacity is miraculously reduced, it is the web of amorous relations (“To the Seminar,” an excellent text).

That is, who would have said “‘sociality’ whose opacity is miraculously reduced?” This is a way of conveying that what Lukács calls the “world of convention” (Theory of the Novel) in the novel is porous, indeed “circulatory,” “flexible.” But this is inverted unexpectedly and shown in terms of its thickness, its opacity, which is accordingly “reduced.” Barthes can not only effortlessly accomplish such an inversion: he can make it stick (like the referent, like the “real”) by getting it right, by saying the consistent thing, what accords, what would seemingly succeed or follow. This is what I was getting at in talking about activity and its tendency to frustrate the paradigmatic (to “outplay” it, as Barthes says in The Neutral), by tending to be more dynamic, more syntagmatic: activity is la succession réglée d'un certain nombre d'opérations. To put it bluntly, Barthes’s use of metaphor here (and nearly everywhere else) tends to be more metonymic than we might expect (though it is not reducible to this second, opposing, paradigmatic or metaphorical term). One can wonder, however (and Barthes himself wondered this), just how long this succession can go on.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Barthesian activity

How many people would have written “the structuralist activity,” as Roland Barthes did? That structuralism is an activity, as “la succession réglée d'un certain nombre d'opérations,” rather than a methodology, a school, or a vocabulary (the alternatives that famous essay entertains), or something else altogether, is by no means obvious. But it is typical of Barthes, who sees things in the light of their capability to become, like écrire itself (“To Write, an Intransitive Verb?”), less merely active, or simply opposed to passivity, even as they become more intransitive, richer, more forceful. It also frustrates those who would like to see activity described in the more definite (more active, yet less neutral) terms of practice.

For prior to having any particular object in mind, before narrative, before photographs, before myths, Barthes concerns himself with activities, and insofar as he does so what matters less is who performs them or what their effects are. The important thing is not to get the real object, but to get at its activity—which means adding intellect to the object, if I can use an intelligent phrase with which Barthes describes structuralism itself (and I think I can, not because Barthes himself is a structuralist, but because he himself shares in the structuralist activity: of fabricating a functionally analogous world, reflecting and creating all at once—which is by no means a great description of structuralism).

The consequence of this, which should be noted by those privileging practice, is that practice thereby becomes rare (“the rarest text,” in “To the Seminar”), recovers its difference. At the same time, an activity without a real object, without actors or effects, with rare (here, not rarefied, but also seldom) forays into practice, has to be questionable for us: it is, at the very least, vague, and no doubt leads another camp to savor the Barthesian activity precisely in that aspect which allows it to pose as, to play as practice.

But we find already that this skepticism, as well as this enthusiasm, is a bit misplaced: both miss what is crucial, namely what we can call, with Peter Brooks, the “fluid and dynamic” aspect of the activity. It comes from the neutrality we talked about earlier, and how this neutrality, this undoing of activity needs to be described as a “regulated succession:” it is that activity, considered as a succession, as sequence, as closer to syntagm than paradigm (even though it attempts to remain irreducible to either), which makes up the Barthesian activity.

I'll elaborate upon this in another, more thorough post on S/Z.

My new typewriter

A big package came in the mail today: the Olivetti Lettera 35 typewriter (from 1972, I think, so its a new old typewriter I guess) that I purchased on eBay a few weeks ago. Fed up with certain aspects of word processing, I thought I needed a change. Or, at least, any other option than the one that I have taken for granted all my life: interestingly, I am of a generation of people who have probably always composed either on hand or on the computer, in a word processor. I'm old enough to remember the problems of using old word processing programs on an Apple IIe, but still, there has never been a time when I thought that a line I had typed couldn't be delved back into, fiddled around with, and changed quite unproblematically--that is, I have never related to the words as real (or more real than virtual) elements in the world, as is the case with the typewriter. This produces an interesting writing habit: the sentence is no longer the unit in which I write. I'm trying to regain that ability, but in the meantime, it's in short syntagms (which reduce even to the length of words, nay, word-endings or prefixes, and which can be added to, expanded, with parentheticals like this one) or that I compose--and I suspect that this is the case for other people in my generation as well. (It is interesting, in the light of this, to see linguists in the 40's to the 60's talk abotut the general soverignity of the sentence, and the concomitant need to get beyond it to analyze larger and smaller discursive units: in a way, this is precisely what happened, not only through theory, but technology, which, if my situation is is typical, itself decomposed that sentence). The flip side of this is the oft-celebrated fact that word processing lets your words keep up with your thoughts. But does having this sort of immanence actually mean more controlled writing? In my case, probably not. With that in mind, I'm experimenting--the typewriter was cheap, anyway.

We have a reliance on the non-progressive, virtual space in which we write that is, in the typewriter, completely done away with. Composition is linear (more on the level of the line, with its hard carriage returns at the end of each one), irreversible, and therefore (I hope) tends to make one gather coherence at the level of the sentence, or at least in the clause, rather than in the individual element.

Interestingly, if one were to show all the marks I made while writing a page, trying to correct while moving on (and this is excepting line spacing, which varies considerably), there would be one mark I couldn't show, which actually reveals that the virtuality of the word-processing space is limited: say I wrote the word involved , and I started out writing by accident inc... Because the c gets, perhaps, only lightly pressed as I realize I make a mistake (this is another feature of the typewriter: you have to really punch the keys for God's sake in order to write--you gotta mean what you say in a way--and oddly you have to "peck" a lot more) I might still save the word back and write over it unproblematically with a v, to make the proper word involved. In other words, if the word processor is a space (if it is more spatial in the sense that interactive space, space that spreads and alters, is linked to its inherent virtuality), interestingly at the point where it would require a mere doubling of that space (which should just be another additional virtuality) the word processor fails, and is exposed as more of a surface than the sheet of paper in the typewriter.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Methodology of literary study and literary theory

Can we extract, from a multifarious set of discourses, a literary critical methodology, or a methodology of literary study, and oppose this to literary theory?

I think we can, though I'm still just working out this idea--in other words, though what we extract can only, as of yet, be a theory (a literary theory) of this study of method. However, we should have no qualms about this: it is precisely the job of literary theory to theorize about such things (things that may oppose it), since theory itself is nothing that should be overcome, over with, etc., however tired we become of it. Perhaps, indeed, it is nothing that can be overcome (and that's a theory right there, Paul de Man's). Literary theory (we may elaborate on de Man's thesis) speculates on its demise, constantly being hindered by the possibility that this demise is impossible.

What, though, would we now extract? In other words, what do we mean by "methodology?" The particular practices, attitudes, moves, approaches of literary study at particular moments in its history, as well as at particular sites in the wide spread of its deployment. In short, it would be the formalization of the way in which we usually talk about certain ways to study literature, just before we begin trying to ask ourselves what these ways of study presuppose about the literary object or the task of criticism: we might say Geoffrey Hartman in Wordsworth's Poetry is very sensitive to the historical import of a psychology, for example, and that Walter Benjamin in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels was obviously under the pressures of writing something that could be academically accepted. These are ways of talking about how studies of literature work that are as of yet impressionistic, aesthetic, biographical, or organized around a sort of study of influences or crude history of ideas. But what is in question in them are ways a study of literature actually proceeds, its texture, its general approach, its particular form of responsiveness. What makes them particularly special, however, is that what is accounted for is not a general set of formal presuppositions, but (almost like a stylistics, but concerned also with function and aim) a discrete set of critical operations: transitions, modes of citation, the structuring of a study, its local strategies, its momentary deployments of rhetoric (which may indeed be material, everyday practices, actions outside of the text proper). When we talk about the toning down of Benjamin's aphoristic tendencies in the light of how he was trying to submit Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels as his Habilitationschrift (that is, as George Steiner nicely talks about him in his introduction to the Verso edition) this is oddly particular: it is a statement indifferent to the limits of Benjamin's way of working, but sketches the positive features of that way in terms of practical (that is, limited) limits. It is focused on method.

I need a better example, but for now I can also give some depth to the notion of a literary critical methodology by putting it in relation to literary theory--which is not necessarily always implied in this way of talking, but, unopposed by any other way of talking about these phenomena, these practices, continually exerts pressure upon this area of discourse and lifts it into the sphere of theory (in short, colonizes it). A methodologist would get at all those things a theorist talks about and then turns into a theory: a set of general, almost a priori theses about the role of literature and the role of literary study, which must be overcome or opposed by another theory, another set of theses. In Paul de Man's terms, methodology would be somewhat like the study of reading (de Man would just say, reading itself--that is what makes him a theorist and not a methodologist), which is something prior to theory but which also, at times, interrupts theory. And indeed, here too is a good example of precisely what I mean: what we are doing here is not only outlining what methodology is, but actually defining the procedures of literary theory as a counterexample. In doing this, what we construct, following but also revising de Man, is a description of the method of literary theory: it is characterized here--I claim--by an operation of generalizing, or perhaps overgeneralizing (that is, by totalizing). I do this, I construct this description, before I call it into question, and insofar as I am doing this, my gaze is on theory as method, as a general practical approach with specific ramifications (I can think of specific texts where this generalization is most clear--indeed, in very crucial sites in de Man's work, but to get into this would take us too far astray) and, most of all, specific moves or functions (as an aside, one of my points here is that the increasing use of this word "move," the surprising extent of its acceptance, can be traced to an attempt to get at this level of method, particularly with respect to theoretical arguments, and I think is proof we're already talking on a methodological level--and that talking on a theoretical level about these things is inadequate). In short, I'm not focused here on theory as theory, but theory as a method.

The task somewhat defined, we encounter objections. First, the object of such a methodology would not be literature, but literary study. So what is the pertinence of such a discourse for the study of literature specifically? What distinguishes it from institutional history?

This objection presupposes that the study of literature is itself not a particularly remarkable discourse, as if its remarkable thickness (its proliferation) were merely the excrescence, the remainder of a more primary sphere of artistic production (as if it were merely "secondary texts" compared to "primary texts"). I would reply as follows. While I think it has the sort of analytical function that is similar to that of science, in that it possesses an object and studies that object--and indeed I believe it should retain that function, that homology to science, rather than proceed as if it did not establish knowledge, as if it itself were art--the study of literature has a specificity that increases the more and more it becomes distinct from the consumption of texts and indeed, the mere interpretation of them. In short, it can less and less be defined in terms of its object. (And as we can see from recent histories of science, we find that this does not mean the study of literature is therefore different from science, as if science had a clear object and literary studies, or the humanities more generally, did not: indeed, precisely like certain sciences, it cannot be defined merely in terms of its object.) Because on the one hand the study of literature at least since the advent of theory establishes this distinction more concretely (in short, because we are working to define ourselves less by our object), and on the other because literary study, or the type of study that we now call the study of literature--perhaps including aspects of rhetoric, exegesis, or the study of language generally--has a long history of refusing to simply perform either of these functions (that is, because literary study was never defined by its object in the first place), this specificity is quite high. It seems clear then that a certain distinctiveness which demands its own type of study would inhere in the practice of criticism; a literary critical methodology would be that type of study.

We run the risk in claiming this, however, that we might just be entrenching more and more the notion that literary study is just the study of a literary object. That is, another objection to our rebuttal lies in wait: we could only give some specificity to the study of literature itself at this point in our analysis of it, when the literary study is indeed extremely confident that it has an object. We would then be taking the existence of the object for granted, and would merely create a new object existing beside it (the object would be the analysis of the first object). In short, we cannot just posit that the existence of a certain specificity of literary study merits treating it as an autonomous sphere. We cannot confuse specificity with autonomy (it might indeed be the case that with greater specificity there is less autonomy when it comes to literary study). We cannot shirk from the task of actually establishing its relationship to literature, thereby making literary critical methodology somehow pertinent to literature itself.

I get into this confusing territory here because many of the attempts to talk about the way the study of literature proceeds--in other words, attempts to talk about its method--refuse to do this. Two discourses are set up: that of literature, and that of literary study, both having very clear (though very, very different) institutional ties. (Very bad) Marxist criticism and Foucauldian criticism sometimes do this: the assumption is that you can have, say, a depiction of the institutions of power within a novel, or, still staying within the realm of the literary, a certain circulation of a literary document in the marketplace, while you also have a certain set of critics who, years later, have ties to the university and circulate their studies of literature in that (separate) institution. The lines are not always so clear, however, and more of these Marxist and Foucauldian studies assume the existence of two discourses without actually stating anything about them: they are implied in certain gestures (again we see the benefit of looking at method) whose purpose is to call into question the position from which a critic is speaking of a particular work. In short, rather than clearly establishing the relationship of two different discourses to each other, it is more advantageous for a particular type of criticism (and again, it is usually naive, or very bad) to say that they are in fact totally related at particular times, and then at other times say that they are different, incommensurate.

Pierre Bourdieu resolves these problems when it comes to the sphere of literature and literary criticism, and thereby comes the closest to performing the sort of study of critical method that we are advocating. At the heart of his project is an effort to show that the study of literature and the production of literature are two aspects of one process, which can also still be differentiated across a wide continuum in a nuanced way. In short, he makes the distinction we are making between literary production and the study of literature, but he also establishes a relationship between the two. In doing so, he also accomplishes what we seek to accomplish: the destruction of the notion that the study of literature is the same thing as the study of a literary object. He sees in this notion not only all that we have remarked above about the problems of supposing the literary study is a secondary text appended to a primary text (that is, unlike many theorists in the 70's/80's, he does not invert the old paradigm and assert that literary commentary may indeed be literature--cf. Geoffrey Hartman's famous essay, in Criticism in the Wilderness), but also sees a certain notion of art itself bound up with it. We can call it the aesthetic consideration of art, or, perhaps better, the Kantian notion: the literary critical act is, in this view, nothing more than a very sophisticated response to the work. Even when it tries to be rigorous, to be scientific, it comments upon literature as if it were an entity existing over against a subjectivity that experiences it: the task of the critic, then, is to be as true to the experience of the literature insofar as it corresponds to the nature of the text (to what is "in" it). Of course, you can deviate from this model, but still retain the aesthetic function, the Kantian standpoint: most notably, you can grant some autonomy to the act of responsiveness itself, and no longer demand that literary criticism concern itself with the amount of correspondence between what is said about a text and what is actually in it. But this approach may still reasonably suppose that literary criticism has a privileged view upon the object, for example, such that it can nevertheless still say things about what is actually present in a text. This is indeed reasonable, but it is also still Kantian, still aesthetic: as de Man puts it, it presupposes a type of phenomenality exists in the literary object which allows a critic (as opposed to someone else) to say such things, to suppose that, even if he is not concerned with how his statements correspond to the text, or whether they are true of it, might still actually say something about a text.

What Bourdieu does to rid us of this notion, of this function of criticism, is to situate it, as we said, on one and the same plane with literature itself. Literary criticism then can be seen as a particular activity that indeed has a relationship to literary production--the production of texts. But it is an activity that stands alongside other activities, like the process of book distribution, marketing, reviews, all of which now are seen as differentiated, distinct ways of handling (I emphasize this word, since it retains a nice Heideggerian valence) literary production, indeed as modes of production in their own right, as opposed to a homogeneous set of responses to the text. Institutions also are part of this network (as it were), but again exist only beside other practices of handling literature: they do not, as in Foucault, gain a sort of autonomy except insofar as they work against the other practices to achieve the effect of autonomy, the appearance of it (this is why Bourdieu's critiques of institutions are much more rigorous, something which the work of my buddy Evan, in a paper given at the UCLA Southland Graduate Student Conference recently made clear).

We can now return to the project of a methodology of literary study: Bourdieu resolves the problems that arise when one begins to posit some specificity to the literary critical task, when one begins to separate the study of literature apart from the production of literature itself, but it is not clear that positing such a separation would immediately restore the Kantian, aesthetic status of literary criticism. To put it a different way, Bourdieu's way of working is only perhaps one solution, not the solution to the Kantian problem. Indeed, once you begin to see the force of putting things on one plane, as it were, or seeing them (in his terminology) in terms of a field, it becomes hard to then study isolated elements of that field, in the way that we are proposing literary study should itself be studied in terms of its method. For it is (rightly) not obvious why you would then look at one point as opposed to another, or, better, without also considering all the others (you feel, again rightly, as if you are falling back into the old illusions). And while indeed I believe with Bourdieu that it makes little sense to see literary criticism without also looking at literary reviews, say (or at least looking at where it comes from--i.e. the academy), we might still be able to keep a focus on this area which would not immediately land us back into the old aesthetic problems, or for that matter unknowingly perpetuate them.

All this is to say that there are, I think, reasons for talking about literary study (and specifically its methods) apart from literature which, on the one hand, don't have to presume literary criticism is autonomous or, on the other, don't have to assume the totality of a field as the object proper to a study. We can have at the same time a wider and a narrower object. Part of this comes from a view of the way in which literary criticism proceeds that is very similar to Bourdieu's: a study of literary critical methodology would see literary criticism as a set of approaches, as a set of operations (some textual, some institutional, some habitual), which are not too distinct from the practices that he thinks ultimately make up the field (by inserting themselves in it). Thus our resistance to talking about certain aspects of literary study as theory is not entirely negative: it is grounded in a more positive account of activity that is basically that of Bourdieu's, which refuses to see them--as many theorists do--in the abstract realm of ideas, of competing thoughts.

There are other objections, I'm sure--particularly from those who might indeed defend this sphere of thought apart from action, who would like to see literary criticism not as a set of actions but as a form of thinking--but the one concerning the merits of treating literary criticism itself as the material for study is the most important, and I have treated it accordingly at length. What remains to be articulated is more of what such a study--such a methodology--would relate to literature itself if it is not entirely going to do so as Bourdieu says. For now, let us just say that without supposing literature is destined to be interpreted or studied critically (which is another way, as we saw, of conceiving literature and literary criticism aesthetically), the operations of literary criticism are indeed important in that they tend to bear also upon modes of reading, which are themselves essential--though not always--to literary production. I'd have to think more about what this means, and whether it isn't just putting everything in different (though no doubt, better) words. The fact that literary criticism also deals so much with language--both its nature and, more often, with its use--indeed brings its contributions to reading out of the sphere of mere reflections on consumption.

I do think though that formalizing the way we talk about the way literary study proceeds would, however, be highly profitable--it might have enough amazing results on its own. This, I'll maintain, would require us to talk about methods instead of theories, or at least begin to differentiate between the two more. On the other side of the spectrum, we would also have to differentiate more between basic activities in life (like Benjamin composing for the academy), and the specific practices that make up literary criticism: there are not styles of criticism, or greater or lesser sensitivities to texts, or unique approaches, but specific methods of literary criticism.

Monday, June 1, 2009


1) Lots of posts on Roland Barthes
2) Lots of posts on Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Roman Jakobson
3) Posts on Tom Jones
4) Studies for a paper on Paul de Man's readings of (and general use of) Heidegger
5) A better looking site (I've finally got Illustrator and Photoshop again)