Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Coleridge and theory

I know it is common for the literary theorist to look for precursors to literary theory. And I usually am one to hesitate before doing so: I don't like to call Plato a literary theorist, because, quite frankly, I'm still not sure whether we can even call him a philosopher of art. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we recognize how what Coleridge does--particularly in the Biographia Literaria--resembles literary theory. Not because this shows theory as such has been around for a while, but only because it shows that what Coleridge expressly does not do might have some affinity with what theory opposes.

For what Coleridge does not do is what he says Wordsworth does in the "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads and in his remarks on literature generally.

Recall that the Biographia begins with an account of Coleridge's life, and how his literary opinions are generally shaped, with a view to making some remarks about the proper place of meter in poetry and poetic diction in specific passages of poetry--remarks that indeed challenge, and attempt to correct, Wordsworth's views, through a distinction between fancy and imagination. But in order to do this, Coleridge must take a detour into the history of philosophy, looking particularly at 17th and 18th century theories of associationism, and overthrowing them using the idealism of Kant. Why? Because,

it was Mr. Wordsworth's purpose to consider the influences of fancy and imagination as they are manifested in poetry, and from the different effects to conclude their diversity in kind; while it is my object to investigate the seminal principle, and then from the kind to deduce the degree. My friend has drawn a masterly sketch of the branches with their poetic fruitage. I wish to add the trunk, and even the roots as far as they lift themselves above ground, and are visible to the naked eye of our common consciousness.
-Biographia Literaria, IV.

In other words, the general task is to come to similar conclusions to Wordsworth's about the role of art in general, conclusions which rely upon and effectively bring about a distinction between something like fancy and something like imagination. Coleridge will do this, though by searching for principles and making this distinction explicit.

For Wordsworth, it is sufficient to look at poetic effects, and "conclude their diversity in kind:" that is, it is enough to categorize poetic activity based on his immediate perception of poetic effects into two general spheres. The result of this is that he makes a distinction but does not bring it to the fore. In other words, Wordsworth can be talking about something like fancy and something like imagination, but no one would really know: the opinions are grounded in the particular standpoint he has towards the poems and poetry, which is ultimately individual, subjective. Thus the source for what he has to say about the nature of poetry in general does not come from any argument: very much like Shelley in his Defense, statements like "The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure" are not based on any logic which can be reasoned out by another reader--we have to either accept them or reject them.

Coleridge, on the other hand, will talk about these poetic effects as resulting from various principles or reasons. The fancy and the imagination are these reasons, roughly put--this is why the distinction is so crucial. Like Edward Young's "originality," they are concepts that do not merely gather together poetic effects, or express a view upon poetry, but try to reveal poetry's origin in something we can all reason out. To this extent, they are not in any particular poem or prose work--this is why people (especially not schooled in the 18th century, which develops, step by step until German Romanticism, precisely this sort of critical concept) have such a tough time with them. Fancy, then, remains something more like an explanatory hypothesis than even a category of poetic effect (one can see that what Coleridge then is criticizing in Wordworth is precisely what ties him to an increasingly antiquated notion of rhetoric--that is, the notion of figural language as the production of effects).

So here is the first similarity between Coleridge and literary theorists: they both make the manifestation of some critical concept in a particular text unnecessary. Or, to put it the other way around, they do not look at poetry, say, for what is manifested in it--they don't make their points by grouping together certain aspects of the text which manifest themselves.

We just said that fancy and imagination are more explanatory hypotheses than terms used to point to what the text manifests. At the same time, they still more than merely hypotheses: they are derived from general philosophical principles--Coleridge eventually grounds it in metaphysics. Thus we can't say that the principles try to explain an aesthetic object, say. In other words, we might expect that outlining principles about an artistic object (poetry) would confine the principles themselves to the sphere delimited by the scope of their object, which here would be art--this is what it means for Coleridge's principles to be considered as explanatory hypotheses. But we must reject even this: Coleridge is not doing aesthetics, but is bringing metaphysics to bear upon texts.

This is the second similarity: theory resists confining itself to aesthetics, or a philosophical discourse upon art. It might seem like an obvious point, but it frustrates people constantly. For now the theoretical notion, like the Coleridgian notion of fancy or imagination, has no where to go: barred from resting in the realm of notions that group together textual effects or the manifestation of art, it also cannot become a general statement about the nature of art, which would account for the manifestations in another direction.

Thus Coleridge, like theorists, engages in philosophical activity but does not turn this activity into a set of statements about art. The extended passages on associationism and the grounding of the imagination and fancy in metaphysics indeed try to get at the "seminal principle," but the principle is ultimately a metaphysical notion with theological and ethical implications.

It may sound like there is also a problem emerging: by what right do philosophical (or semi-philosophical) statements come to bear directly upon poetry? It seems as if there is a shortcut here from one discourse to another, while the discourse proper to the consideration of literature (looking at what the text manifests) is done away with or at least set aside. Coleridge and theorists would reply--this is exactly the point. For what both oppose is stability we grant to the way poetry manifests itself, and on the other hand the stability we grant to the nature of art: the instability on the one side undoes the stability of the other.

Monday, July 27, 2009

...has perhaps always had...

The last sentence is excellently put:

Discourses on painting are perhaps destined to reproduce the limit which constitutes them, whatever they do and whatever they say: there is for them an inside and an outside of the work as soon as there is work. A series of oppositions comes in the train of this one, which, incidentally, is not necessarily primary (for it belongs to a system whose edging itself reintroduces the problem). And there the trait is always determined as an opposition-slash.

But what happens before the difference becomes opposition in the trait, or without its doing so? And what if there were not even a becoming here? For becoming has perhaps always had as its concept this determination of difference as opposition.
-The Truth in Painting, 11

Saturday, July 25, 2009

As a mechanism

Sarrasine interrupts La Zambinella’s confession that she is a castrato:

“I can give you no hope,” she said. “Cease to speak thus to me, for they would make fool of you. It is impossible for me to shut the door of the theatre to you; but if you love me, or if you are wise, you will come there no more. Listen, monsieur…” she said in a low voice.
“Oh, be still!” said the impassioned artist. “Obstacles make my love more ardent.”
-Balzac, Sarrasine

Barthes comments:

If we have a realistic view of character, if we believe that Sarrasine has a life off the page, we will look for motives for this interruption (enthusiasm, unconscious denial of the truth, etc.). If we have a realistic view of discourse, if we consider the story being told as a mechanism which must function until the end [my italics], we will say that since the law of narrative decrees that it continue, it was necessary that the word castrato not be spoken.

We have all felt this at some point. Characters act improbably because of narrative requirements. But rather than cynically turn our gaze to the writer, and just say that this problem stems from the requirements of composition, the structuralist allows the literary system to absorb the problem, folding the contradiction back into its text—the “common sentence.” Thus Barthes goes on to say say that these two views “support each other:

A common sentence is produced which unexpectedly contains elements of various languages [my italics]: Sarrasine is impassioned because the discourse must not end; the discourse can continue because Sarrasine, impassioned, talks without listening… From a critical point of view, therefore, it is as wrong to suppress the as it is to take him off the page in order to turn him into a psychological character (endowed with possible motives): the character and the discourse are each other’s accomplices.

But is particularly structuralist is that this text is still an effect of discourse (this, by the way, is what distinguishes Derrida's text from Barthes). In other words, critical analysis is always on the side of discourse:

Such is discourse: if it creates characters, it is not to make them play among themselves before us but to play with them, to obtain from them a complicity which assures the uninterrupted exchange of the codes: the characters are types of discourse and, conversely, the discourse is a character like the others.

Discourse wins, despite the reciprocity. Otherwise characters would play among themselves, in an imaginary literary world. The mechanism keeps working, and as it absorbs contradictions it also absorbs the “realistic view of character.” And rightly so, though this announces a limit to structuralism of sorts: we can’t look at character as some sort of motivated, coherent subject. Why? Because this completely fails to grasp the literary system as literary—that is, fictional. Furthermore, it does not allow us to distinguish basic functions: for example, there is a distinct difference between the improbable act of a character due to the needs of the story, and an improbable act of a character that actively delays the unfolding of a story. The first is what is under discussion here, as we consider the literary system “which must function until the end.” The second forms a subset of the first: it is precisely an effect of this functioning, which Barthes rightly calls a unit of the hermeneutic code. (It is notable that “end” in Barthes statement then does not mean merely a temporal end: it is—in accordance with structuralist notions of finitude—a spatial limit. Schlovsky, for example, cannot distinguish between the two.)

Thus, character is a tying together of various strands of the text, even if viewing them as personalities is somewhat legitimate. Because the looking at the text qua text can absorb this psychologistic view, however, as far as structuralism is concerned, there is no question who is ultimately the authority: the psychologistic view has no comparable ability to explain the textual phenomena except by evading the matter and cynically going to the author or denying fictionality. Barthes can sum up the structuralist view of character quite simply as follows:

When identical semes traverse the same proper name several times and appear to settle upon it, a character is created. Thus, the character is a product of combination: the combination is relatively stable (denoted by the recurrence of the semes) and more or less complex (involving more or less congruent, more or less contradictory figures); this complexity determines the character’s “personality,” which is just as much a combination as the odor of a dish or the bouquet of a wine. The proper name... referring in fact to a body… draws the semic configuration into an evolving (biographical) tense.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Yet one cannot...

What's often disturbing about Derrida is that, even within all the play, he still remains so very intuitive, simple, basic in his concerns. The following is a good example, in that the task is not abstract, but almost commonsense:

How can one assume a responsibility [...]? One can vary or deconstruct all the predicates of responsibility in general, yet one cannot completely reduce the delay: an event, a law, a call, an other are already there; others are there--for whom and before whom one must answer. However "free" it is supposed to be, the response inaugurates nothing if it does not come after.
-"Désistance" in Psyche II.

Where do this "yet one cannot," and this "supposed to be" come from? What is disturbing is that it is left so cryptic, so undertheorized, while at the same time it appears so obvious, so commonsense, like it comes from experience. In fact, it appears essentially commonsensical, commonsensical for a vital reason--this is what makes it disturbing, because it provokes one to think that any effort to further specify will actually require making explicit what is most obvious (which is most commonsense, most widely-experienced, most prejudicial) and thereby undo the effort to specify (to make clearer, bring into the light) as such.

And unless one understands that this, too, is what Derrida intends, one begins to misread him. Intends--and yet one cannot say that this intention is not supposed to be anything other than something that plays.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ideology of the novel

I'd like to make a distinction that is very hard to actually draw, but which might make discussions of the novel, like Ian Watt's famous The Rise of the Novel, a little bit clearer. It would be a distinction between the novel and the ideology of the novel, such that I could say Watt's critical study has sometimes the novel, and sometimes the ideology of the novel as its object.

Take the following instance: early in the book Watt looks for features of the novel that would distinguish it from earlier narratives, and has the absolutely brilliant idea that one can see some of these features in the naming of characters. The names are less significant, allegorical, or just more contemporary: they are not names taken from the classical tradition, as in the Renaissance (though I'm sure this isn't entirely correct: Watt doesn't represent the era well), but rather names taken from the street outside. In other words, the fact we can hear Tristram's name as odd precisely shows the reversal that has gone on. What is prized is now the particular name, the singular and unique, over the general type-name. But he then oddly says that Fielding reverses this trend: his characters, like Allworthy and Square, are too significant. As he says:

Fielding had his eye as much on the general type as on the particular individual. This however, does not controvert the present argument, for it will surely be generally agreed that Fielding's practice in the naming, and indeed in the whole portrayal of his characters, is a departure from the usual tratment in the novel.
-The Rise of the Novel, 20.

He then goes on to say the following concerning this:

Although this custom [of using the particular, the ordinary name] was not always followed by some of the later eighteenth-century novelists... it was later established as part of the tradition of the form; and, as Henry James pointed out with respect to Trollope's fecund cleric Mr. Quiverful, the novelist can only break with the tradition at the cost of destroying the reader's belief in the literal reality of the character concerned.
-The Rise of the Novel, 20-21.

Here's what I would say: what we have here is a description of the ideology of the novel more than the novel. For it seems to me that the novelist can precisely break with the tradition here of "realistic" names and not destroy the reader's belief in the literal reality of the character. That is, the notion of "the reader's belief in the reality of the tale" is precisely something which the ideology of the novel seeks to make prominent, in the sense that it seeks to make it work in only one way--according to the economy described here, any departure from mimesis is rendered "unreal," or "non-literal." It seems that the novel itself is an object that admits of both possibilities: a departure from mimesis can be literal or non-literal. This is the case because the novel is fictional, or a function of fiction, before it is mimetic.

In short, certain descriptions of the novel actually describe what the novel wants us to think about its structure. (I'll write more on this in a bit.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Back to the Stone Age

This article in the Chronicle is why people who do not understand literary theory need to shut up about it--or rather start actually reading it and thinking about it. Mark Edmunson launches a very practically, pragmatically oriented, but somewhat uninformed and unclear attack against "readings:"

If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx's, Freud's, Foucault's, Derrida's, or whoever's — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we'd declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we'd give readings a rest.
-The Chronicle Review, Volume 55, Issue 33, Page B6 (all further quotes are from here).

Indeed, we're talking about readings in general here, not just theory (he says that his objection is not with theoretical texts per se). But theory ends up as the only real site that Edmunson attacks, since it is one of the only sites that explicitly does use an analytical vocabulary. And that this focusing in on theory takes place is entirely appropriate: what Edmunson is objecting to is the fact that theory has an impact on reading, as it very much does. But if he really understood why theory came to prominence, why it is so useful and illuminating, he would understand that the ties between theory and reading are precisely what any intelligent theoretical activity begins with and aims to interrogate. Indeed, its as if he couldn't believe that theory actually would have had some impact on reading--as if it were merely the activity of critics thinking they are philosophers, outlining abstract system of ideas standing apart from how they change our view of particular texts.

I'll put it in a different way. Theoretical readings aren't to be done away with, despite Edmunson's recommendation, because what Edmunson actually considers a reading is something so dumb that, well, only dumb students would ever actually produce a reading of this sort:

When you launch, say, a Marxist reading of William Blake, you effectively use Marx as a tool of analysis and judgment. To the degree that Blake anticipates Marx, Blake is prescient and to be praised.

What he's describing we well know--it is the sort of thing that overzealous and indeed stupid people did in the late 70's and early 80's as they were learning from the likes of de Man, and then a generation later in the early 90's when they were learning from de Manian students who became professors (I use de Man merely as an example). Insofar as the task is to somewhat lessen the frequency of this type of activity, I'm all for it. But what is more important is that what Edmunson is really describing is not an activity anyone really frequently engages in. It is, rather, an effect. In other words, these readings are not produced by "applying" Derrida or Marx to a text at all. They are produced as a consequence of a certain student or professor not understanding that "application" is the wrong application of literary theory (again that it is just the outlining of a system apart from being concerned with reading).

But, then again (I'll entertain the thought that this sort of misunderstanding and stupidity could be useful), why exactly would this be wrong at all in the first place? If we're really against readings, doesn't the proliferation of a set of non-interpretive, less (in his language) judgmental activity such as the mere application of a theorist to a text actually further our cause? Of course the real problem is that this activity (supposing, just on a practical level, that it can seriously be sustained by anyone with any real intelligence) is still interpretive, is still judgmental--it isn't as non-interpretive and theoretical as it claims to be. And perhaps even actual theoretical readings (not the stupid ones) are subject to this same problem, despite the fact that they are designed to challenge this, to move beyond interpretation.

But Edmunson, though he intuitively understands this problem, precisely looks past it (no doubt because it would involve actually beginning to understand that literary theory's concern is primarily reading) because he says that what's wrong about this reading is that it just isn't interpretive enough, judgmental enough. Besides collapsing together stupid theory (which we can't take seriously) and actual theory, this returns us back to square one, where reading is conceived as close reading, as letting the text itself speak, as touching the text itself or being immanent to it, as witnessing (or being) the text's self-consciousness in something like "a Blakean reading of Blake:"

The problem with the Marxist reading of Blake is that it robs us of some splendid opportunities. We never take the time to arrive at a Blakean reading of Blake, and we never get to ask whether Blake's vision might be true — by which I mean, following William James, whether it's good in the way of belief.

It's as if theory, hell, the last 40 or even 50 years in literary criticism, never happened. But let's be a little more gracious than Edmunson and not be so quick to condemn. For Edmunson is indeed speaking somewhat from a practical perspective: when you teach an author, of course you have to outline the basic aspects of the author's beliefs or the worldview that determines them--though indeed I'd actually say the strength of literary criticism, what produces the validity of its results, is that you don't have to do that, or only have to do that to a certain degree. Regardless, though, even if you have to outline the beliefs that inform an author's work, this by no means implies that you should make getting at those beliefs the only proper task of reading--to the extent that you "frame a reading that the author would approve:"

I've said that the teacher's job is to offer a Blakean reading of Blake, or an Eliotic reading of Eliot, and that's a remark that can't help but raise questions. The standard for the kind of interpretation I have in mind is actually rather straightforward. When a teacher admires an author enough to teach his work, then it stands to reason that the teacher's initial objective ought to be framing a reading that the author would approve.

This just seems to actually advocate more readings--many many more of them, the old interpretive activity that literary theory quite rightly questions, because this activity wants to make literary criticism into an act of subjective judgment, held by all-knowing masters and passed down as such (without significant question, or even development) to disciple-consumers, not thinkers ("The best purpose of all art is to inspire, said Emerson, and that seems right to me"). That is, it is an activity that militates against any reliable mode of establishing valid results that our discipline achieves and has achieved and that literary theory, to a large extent (along with literary history), keeps alive. It is the criticism of critics who (quite mistakenly) think they are artists:

This kind of criticism is itself something of an art, not a science. You cannot tell that you have compounded a valid reading of Dickens any more than that you have compounded a valid novel or a valid play. When others find your Dickensian endorsement of Dickens to be of use to them, humanly, intellectually, spiritually, then your endorsement is a success. The desire to turn the art of reading into a science is part of what draws the profession to the application of sterile concepts.

This is the language of the Science vs. Poetry debates around Cambridge in the 1910's (that is, in case it hasn't sunk in, almost a hundred years ago) and is so self-evidently wrongheaded that I don't really know whether I should dignify it by outlining all it involves. Suffice it to say that the whole opposition is mistaken: it takes the one thing that reading does actually involve at the professional (i.e. academic and critical) level, which is skill, or technique, or method, and then turns it into something that is either more (science) or less (art) able to establish "objectively valid" results (where "objectivity" is understood to be something not even a scientist would say she establishes). One thing is clear, however, and that is those who say reading produces validity in different, less "objective" forms (i.e. those who think they are advocating reading as "art") need to hold on to precisely the "objective validity" of this opposition (indeed, who really is advocating this Scientific Criticism that is so very objective?). And insofar as this is the case, they sometimes get quite a dangerous anti-intellectual attitude, which indeed produces anti-professional results (remember this article started as a recommendation to "the members of my profession"): because they would rather mischaracterize the situation and fight the old battles to forward their agenda (whose point still escapes me), they hold up work at better outlining what this skill actually involves, or what forms of validity (objective or not) skillful reading actually produces.

I'll just conclude in saying that what Edmunson deplores, any literary theorist would deplore as well. And insofar as what Edmunson says is coming from a pragmatic, teaching perspective, well, I think that's a little bit more justified--to the extent that the classroom is a place where the professor challenges her or his undergraduates to think in a new way (perhaps, one week, a Dickensian way) and encounters resistance. But even here we should recognize two things. First, in considering this pragmatic sphere, we have now left the sphere where this is a critique of theoretical readings, and perhaps have left the sphere where this is a critique of reading (as opposed to a critique of a type of teaching) altogether. Second, this sort of Devil's advocate activity is actually at most only one way to teach, or one pragmatic device in the arsenal of good teaching. So, ultimately, none of this really holds up and I'm at a loss as to what Edmunson really wants us to do except to return, via some sort of new aestheticism, or an "art" of criticism based primarily on subjective judgment, to the literary-critical Stone Age.

Note: I've pretty crudely insisted on a difference here between stupid theoretical reading and actual theoretical reading, and said that 1) we can't take the former seriously and that 2) the former isn't really frequently engaged in. This isn't exactly self-evident, so I'll explain myself. What I mean by this is that we can't take stupid theory seriously in terms of its validity--it is just immediately loses all its credibility, and anyone who is willing to entertain that credibility isn't being a responsible critic. Such tolerance might have flown in the age of "play," afte the 60's, and indeed when many were overzealous as I've said, but to say that this wasn't, precisely, stupid, and to actually engage in it now, is I think irresponsible and actually works to further discredit and kill off theory (you're basically just as good as its opponents--you are it's opponent). And to the second point, that it isn't really frequent, what I mean is that once we take theory seriously, and move in spheres where serious, valid things are discussed and determined, there just isn't much of the stupid theory around. However, Edmunson's article is no doubt about addressing the opposite possibility: that this sort of stupid theory is very, very frequent, especially in undergraduates and graduate students. It should be clear that what I've said doesn't discount this possibility at all--indeed I'd be willing just to say it is a fact from what I've seen (though I wouldn't presume to have as much experience as Edmunson). The point is just that this whole sphere of activity isn't the activity of theory--it is an effect, an effect of bad teaching. The whole task of Edmunson's article is to address this practical problem in the sphere of teaching--and as I've said, I think that this is absolutely key. But while he's got the location of the problem right, his solution isn't to actually produce better teachers of theory--that's my solution, and indeed the solution many theorists are advocating--but just to do away with the teaching of theory alltogether. To me this doesn't do away with theory, but just produces more crappy theorists. (Sadly, that would precisely serve Edmunson's "criticism as art" agenda.) And it involves the confusion of the activity with the effect: in short, the distinction between stupid theory (and I've called it that not only to condemn it, but to insist on how it is uneducated, untaught) and serious theory isn't drawn, and while the distinction isn't absolutely necessary (I've indicated a way in which tying them together would be extremely pertinent which Edmunson, because of his aestheticism, can't see), it is for seeing that the problem in teaching is not with theory per se, but with how the use of theory is taught--in short, how theory is handled. Where Edmunson throws in the towel and says that no matter how you teach it, it will be used stupidly, I'm saying that what we need to do is try and find out how exactly it gets used seriously and how you teach that--in short to make the classroom into a place where serious, valid things are determined. Nevertheless, I'm willing to concede that at some point, you have to do away with a certain approach, and I think what Edmunson is really saying is that this point is reached when the approach becomes unteachable. But--though I wouldn't be as overzealous as de Man and say that theory is eminently teachable (in any sense in which these words can retain any of their meaning)--I would indeed say that theory hasn't reached that point of unteachability yet. Indeed, I'd say that we need more teaching of theory, not less.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Heidegger and printing

An unbelievable moment in "On the Way to Language:" Heidegger's footnote saying his quotations from Humboldt,

derive from the anastatic reprint of von Humboldt's text, edited by E. Wasmuch. [Die folgenden Textstellen sind nach dem von E. Wasmuth herausgegebenen anastatischen Neudruck (Berlin 1955) angefuhrt.]

It is not insignificant that Heidegger quotes from a version that uses this method of printing, where the traces of the previous work are preserved on a zinc plate--and then these remnants or cinders used to print the new version. I'll quote the encyclopedia entry for a full definition of the process:

Anastatic printing is a mode of obtaining facsimile impressions of any printed page or engraving by transferring it to a plate of zinc, which, on being subjected to the action of an acid, is etched or eaten away with the exception of the parts covered with the ink, which parts, being thus protected from the action of the acid, are left in relief so that they can readily be printed from.

Not just a facimilie--but what survives after the remnants of the original are done away with in order to copy it. This, as the citational basis for Heidegger's nuanced and ambivalent (that is, careful) reading of Humboldt, which will condemn his reliance on Idealism's spirit, but also say that his formulations regarding the need for a transformation of language are exemplary. And all this having to do with Heidegger's position towards language, which says it involves (in his language) the tracing or outlining of the clearing of being in (the) saying... It isn't clear to me how exactly this all fits together, but it is certainly relevant somehow.