Friday, October 29, 2010

Criticism and critique

You might have caught me defending critique against the anti-critical trend of certain work in the humanities, but I think I've figured out why I've been doing it, and why it has never quite felt genuine on my part: I've been defending critique because it's often tied up with criticism, as if it implied the latter. I was worried, in other words, by a sort of guilt-by-association sort of thing, which could be used to accuse literature departments especially of screwing up the humanities in over the last few decades. And I've seen it happen, so it's not a baseless fear.

And critique certainly still is an important thing to engage in, just as critical theory (with which I should have more closely identified it) is, in the sort of watered down form that I have been comfortable defending: as, essentially, politicization.

But even so watered down what's important to note is that critique isn't the only form of politicization: critical theory is so annoying, and so doomed, precisely because it acts as if this is the case (much, much more than the Marxism whose place it usurped), and thus even reduces politics itself to a form of critique. And once you note this, you begin to recognize that if that's true of politicizing things, it's certainly true of criticism: critique, in other words, has really quite little to do with criticism, and we've been tricked somehow into thinking that the two are really more related than they are.

It's the calculated vagueness of the "critical" in the appellation "critical theory" that did this: this, in other words, is the source of the association that somehow entailed the guilt. But once you see that at the very best the vagueness only works one way (criticism might build up into something that implies a definite critique, but a critique can never really work itself out through criticism of the literary type), you don't have to defend anything about critique if you don't want to--as a literary critic. This is really only what's implied, I realized, by my splitting off literary theory from critical theory--something I've engaged in quite happily.

So I think I'm going to be less hedgy about bashing critique in the future: certainly the critical stance is the source of a whole host of problems described very clearly by Latour, not the least of which is the very sad separation of literary criticism from criticism of something having to do with the real world, the world science also describes. That is, the idea that criticism is critique or vice versa actually reinforces the separation of reality from the literature we deal with, so that we ourselves actually start to marginalize literature by saying we are dealing with lies about the world, things that can only, with a little help from us, critique the hard reality that only science can give us (John Guillory has described how this works quite well). But fictions are not lies; they don't lie about reality.

The thing to be asserted, though, if the guilt-by-association ever pops up, is the following:

Literature departments were really, really interested in moving beyond interpretation after the 60's, because they were really, really interested in moving beyond formalism (literary formalism, that is, or the sort of view of the artwork as a self-enclosed form, with clean divisions between it and the reader, and society, and history, and implies that all you can do with a work of literature is just fix the meanings of its words). This, initially, is why they turned to the people in France and Germany with the weird philosophies. What they both had in common was this anti-interpretive move.

If anything, it implied an anti-critical (in the sense of critique) gesture on the part of the literary critics, since formalism had gotten so rigid (that is, had gotten so much justification) because of Kant's third critique (the big deal literary critics made about the sublime, in the 70s and 80s, was precisely because it was the moment when Kant seemed to open up to work against his own intense formalism). And indeed it met up with an anti-critical (in the sense of critique) impulse going on especially in France then. This is just what allowed literary critics eventually to jump the gap and claim that they were also doing critique (that, and of course the huge interest in allowing criticism to address pressing social issues--issues, which, however, and as feminism in particular showed, you didn't absolutely need critique to address through criticism).

You'd think, of course, that two anti-critical stances meeting up would indeed make literary critics claim they were precisely not engaged in critique. But the problem was that the philosophers who they read (Derrida and Foucault especially) were coming at the anti-critical stance precisely from a philosophical point of view, and derived their anti-interpretive perspective from that. The problem was that the stress began to fall on resisting critique by resisting interpretation, and as more interesting things (things now that don't really look very different from interpretation) could be done instead of interpretation in both philosophy and in literature, we forgot that it was critique that also needed to be resisted.

Still, people think that our insistence upon "the world is a text" or theses like that mean that literary critics wanted to make everything into interpretation, but we were better (and worse) readers of philosophy than that. We were arguing against interpretation, alongside the philosophers, with the aim of opposing critique: the whole notion of textuality is what we might call a interpretation-resistant, and supposedly critique-resistant ontology.

On the face of it that sounds bizarre and backwards, but it's because interpretation for philosophers meant something that was an offshoot of phenomenology: hermeneutics in a Heideggerian and Gadamer-like sense. Paul de Man got this exactly, if he also in the process made it all too simple and thus, ultimately, extremely confusing: he called what you interpreted precisely what was phenomenal, and the goal always when doing literary criticism was to avoid that like hell, and to get to the non-phenomenal, what you couldn't see at first glance as it were (this is why irony and allegory were so important for him). This was the text, or the writing, or, in a different sort of framework, the discourse, and what you did when you did criticism was no longer interpretation but reading (the text didn't have to be non- but only anti-phenomenal, and there were squabbles, rightly, over this, which were much more illuminating philosophically than the philosophy that was done with these figures, and still was until just recently (after a flock of students of comparative literature actually moved over to philosophy)).

But you see what's involved even in "getting" this: the philosophers have a context in which interpretation is a genuine phenomenological issue in a truly phenomenological sense, and so are able to directly (or at least more directly) relate that to the issue of critique. For us, the phenomenon is precisely a matter of practical criticism. Interpretation, in other words, even when understood as a phenomenological issue is going to be a matter of dealing with words rather than the world (by this I don't mean to suggest that words don't deal with reality any less than what philosophers deal with), and so can't be related philosophically to opposing critique except by a sort of very indirect route, which can't be made into a direct one except by evading all sorts of issues and just acting like it is. Some of the structuralists in France and Paul Ricoeur were able to travel it, though they even didn't really do it because they relied on Saussure's theory of the sign to pull it off (there's a big difference, from literary critical perspective, between signs and words).

But that's what people did. And because they did that, they could strangely circle round and engage in what was essentially critique. The issue here then becomes one of the influence of cultural critique on literary studies, which had already somewhat related critique with interpretation. Drop the interpretive element, and you can have few scruples about what you're doing.

You see that from a philosophical perspective especially you have two sorts of frameworks in play in literary studies, one critical and the other anti-critical. What's particularly fascinating for the literary critic, for whom the issue of avoiding interpretation will always be more important (and so justified their simultaneous use), is that the stress on cultural critique actually made us forget that we wanted to avoid interpretation as well! Suddenly all our "symptomatic" criticism looks eerily like the thing that we wanted to avoid in the first place, and caused all this mess to begin with.

That narrative should make things clearer: what it shows most concretely, though, is that criticism and critique are two different things, and it's wrong to blame us as if we all thought they were. What it really teaches you too is the getting beyond critique, actually doing it, doesn't necessarily mean getting beyond criticism or even getting beyond interpretation: you have to develop alternatives to interpretation, which is what we've been doing in our criticism. That is, you can't act as if criticism is the thing that's been holding you back from reality, unless you're going to equate cultural critique and the backsliding into interpretation which I just described that seems to come with it (which is a pretty detailed process I need to much time to outline right now), with all literary criticism.

If you're set on making the equation, you're much better off equating what you're calling criticism with critical theory, which has little to do with criticism and everything to do with critique. But even then you should also remember (I hope this isn't too confusing, I've tried to be as straightforward as I can) that philosophers and indeed people all sorts of other disciplines do a lot more interpretation in general than people who write literary criticism right now, even if they don't do critique, because while they've been bringing us past critique's great divide, we've been busy developing a criticism full of alternatives to interpretation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Understanding one's friends

Irony in this subdued sense, as a generous scepticism which can believe at once that people are and are not guilty, is a very normal and essential method; Portia's song is not more inconsistent than the sorrow of Helen that she has brought death to so many brave men, and the pride with which she is first found making tapestries of them; than the courage of Achilles, which none will question, 'in his impregnable armour with his invulnerable skin underneath it'; than the sleepers in Gethsemane, who, St. Luke says, were sleeping for sorrow; than the way Thesée (in Racine), by the use of a deity, at once kills and does not kill Hippolyte. This sort of contradiction is at once understood in literature, because the process of understanding one's friends must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been in some way prepared to have done either; whichever they did, they will have still lingering in their minds the way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind.
-Seven Types of Ambiguity, 44

Friday, October 1, 2010


I've grown much more comfortable with Empson. I've always been amazed at his work (and his poetry, for that matter, of which I always want to read more), and liked it a lot, but have also been a little hedgy about his larger views of things mostly because I see him so pigeonholed in theoretical circles, and these views so distorted in relation to Richards especially:

[For Richards,] poetic language is purely affective and, therefore, can never lead to cognition, since it has no verifiable referential value in reference to an external object. [... (Nothing in this last statement is true, by the way--MJ) ...] The route may be different, but the starting point is the same as Roland Barthes. [...] By bringing down poetic language to the level of the language of communication, and in its steadfast refusal to grant aesthetic experience any difference from other human experiences, [Richards' view] is opposed to any attempt to confer upon poetry an excessively exalted function, while still preserving for it the freshness and originality of invention.

But what happens when one studies poetry a little closer following these instructions? A surprising answer is to be found in the work of William Empson, a brilliant student of Richards. [Empson says what] metaphor does is [...] instead of setting up an adequation between two experiences and thereby fixing the mind on the repose of an established equation, it deploys the initial experience into an infinity of associated experiences that spring from it. In the manner of a vibration spreading in infinitude from its center, metaphor is endowed with the capacity to situate the experience at the heart of a universe that it generates. [...] Far from referring to an object that would be its cause, the poetic sign sets in motion an imaging activity that refers to no object in particular. The "meaning" of the metaphor is that it does not "mean" in any definite manner.

[It is an "ambiguity," of course...]

In the seventh and last type of ambiguity [that Empson classifies in Seven Types], the form blows up under our very eyes. This occurs when the text implies not merely distinct significations but significations that, against the will of their author, are mutually exclusive. And here Empson's advance beyond the teachings of his master becomes apparent. For under the outward appearance of a simple list classifying randome examples, chapter seven develops a thought Richards never wanted to consider: true poetic ambiguity proceeds from the deep division of Being itself, and poetry does no more than state and repeat this division. Richards did recognize the existence of conflicts, but he invoked Coleridge, not without some simplification, to the appeal to the reassuring notion of art as the reconciliation of opposites. Empson's less serene mind is not content with this formula.

-Paul de Man, "The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism," 233-237 in Blindness and Insight.

I quote so much from de Man's bizarrely skewed introduction to the American formalist tradition for people on the Continent, not at all in order to imply that everyone (or even anyone) thinks about Empson along these lines. In fact, most people who appreciate him (like those who appreciate Barthes) really don't distort him at all, because Empson works so intuitively. But when it comes time to express themselves more abstractly about this appreciation, it usually is with some hesitation or at the expense of Richards that they do so. This is fine, actually, because they also understand Richards practically, and have a sense of the unwieldiness of his system (along with a sense that it's benefits are not chiefly in removing reference--which it does not do in Richards--or dethroning poetry, which could only really be the concerns of a de Man). And most of the time, this ends up only in a comment about the brilliance and general rightness of his larger views on his subject matter: Elizabethan drama, or Milton--or Pastoral, which de Man notably has to completely dismiss as unimportant or inessential, even "deceitful":

What is the pastoral convention, then, if not the eternal separation between the mind that distinguishes, negates, legislates, and the originary simplicity of the natural? [...]There is no doubt that the pastoral theme is, in fact, the only poetic theme, that it is poetry itself. Under the deceitful title of a genre study, Empson has actually written an ontology of the poetic, but wrapped it, as is his wont, in some extraneous matter that may well conceal the essential.
-"The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism," 239.

Someone, somewhere, is still thinking that this is a brilliant "reading" of Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral, precisely because it has such astounding antipathy towards what is actually meaningful for a real literary critic: if you can regard what Empson says about pastoral as a genre as "extraneous matter," you really have to have given up on "the poetic" (and poetry) a long time ago. Empson in that book actually articulates what his "versions" (something already more subtle than the caricature of "genre" into which de Man collapses them, the better to make his misreading convincing--it's the same move he makes everywhere) have to do with the possibility and future of poetry.

This is only to say that while the practical users of Empson know what he is up to, there is a theoretical context that takes advantage of this. So the (correct) championing of Empson gets slightly twisted into a ineffective attack of the formalist tradition (when Empson is actually a much more effective attacker than this), usually via a theoretical overemphasis on his types of "ambiguity." Empson is aligned with the close-readers, and then falls in slowly with the textualists, and then with the underminers of meaning. De Man here, as he always does, motivates all these unfortunate misapprehensions into a full-blown lie, and so I present it as a caricature, really, more than anything actually believed by anyone with any shred of practical knowledge about literary criticism and figures involved who is also interested in theory (no one except de Man really thinks Empson is a deconstructionist).

I also quote it because you can see some of the feelings that get used in this process: de Man (as John Guillory points out) was adept at collecting them and using them to cultivate resentment, so it's no surprise we find this work here. "Here Empson's advance beyond the teachings of his master becomes apparent," and Richard's apparent "appeal to the reassuring notion" are caricatures still, but unlike the actual theory they are a little closer to how we feel (they have to be, in order for them to shore up such a joke of a narrative), and are a little closer to what allows a theoretical pigeonholing of Empson and Richards to take place. The whole thing is not unlike Dryden and Pope, which is a notoriously one-sided comparison to begin with: the invocation of the master-student relationship ("master"! how overblown!) is serves this purpose most of the time.

But to the point: the key is "ambiguity," misunderstood by de Man as a non-referential play of language, stemming from a (de Man would put a "no doubt," or "necessarily" here) metonymic relationship between tenor and vehicle at the heart of metaphor. This is so off-the-wall that we just have to dismiss it to get anywhere: it patently ignores anything in the later work, and especially the doctrine of Mutual Metaphor, outlined in The Structure of Complex Words (a doctrine which actually makes allegory a species of metaphor, completely at cross-purposes with the anti-mimetic doctrine de Man is trying to push it towards). It also ignores anything hinting towards this doctrine in Seven Types itself (de Man calls everything but the seventh type of ambiguity "pseudo-types" of ambiguity, which should alert us that this claim itself is just an outright falsehood). But my point is that de Man is operating at the same sites that the theorizers of Empson's undermining of language do: the emphasis on ambiguity takes away from the bounds set to the ambiguity--not by the types themselves, but by the work of words, of language. This does not proceed in a Richards-like way, but--and here's my point--with an eye to what we do when we use language and begin to analyze it:

Much of out thinking has to be done in a summary practical way, trusting to a general sense of the whole situation in the background; we get a feeling that the rest of the situation is within call, so that we can concentrate our attention on one aspect, and this feeling is often trustworthy.

-The Structure of Complex Words, 1

This is an argument for the deeper consideration of the feelings themselves Complex Words will accomplish, and so the "often" is not meant to qualify the trustworthiness of the whole practical procedure. It is meant to stake out an area where we need closer attention to what we're doing beyond the practical, with a knowledge that "much of our thinking has to be done in a summary practical way." This general opinion of Empson is what the practical people appreciate in him, but which is hard itself to understand theoretically in an environment that likes to think generalization is impossible (and that also is willing to let such generalizations pass as "[for Richards] poetic language is purely affective," which is again a gross simplification and distortion of everything interesting and, wrong, yes, but also complex in Richards' understanding of poetry as "pseudo-statement"--I'll speak more of this next time, but now the name with its emphasis on "statement" should be enough to show you how stupid it is to equate Richards remarks with the "purely affective": indeed Empson in Complex Words shows how stupid it is himself, and how it ignores the real problems!). In the absence of this, we say the level at which Empson outlines the workings of language has to be undermining any generalization it could possibly make, and here we go wrong. I'll comment more on exactly what Empson is doing in another post. For now, I'll just leave this as an outline of where the problems in understanding him and his relation to Richards actually are.