Monday, October 11, 2010

A Naïve Reading of Naïve Reading

Robert Pippin in The New York Times, “In Defense of Naïve Reading.” He notes that “it is still the teaching of literature that generates the most academic, and especially non-academic, discussion.” Part of his discussion notes that the teaching of vernacular literature in higher education is relatively new and that, consequently, “we have not yet settled on the right or commonly agreed upon way to go about it.” And so:
Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of “research.” By and large they were produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them. But just as clearly, the teaching of literature in universities ─ especially after the 19th-century research model of Humboldt University of Berlin was widely copied ─ needed a justification consistent with the aims of that academic setting: that fact alone has always shaped the way vernacular literature has been taught.
That is to say, in most times and places literary culture got along just fine without the benefits of learned study and commentary on the texts, though I will note that, in contrast, religious texts have attracted enormous bodies of learned commentary, elaboration, and exegesis.

Getting back to Pippin’s argument, the proper academic study of literature required a means of creating and transmitting knowledge and encouraged collaboration with other disciplines. At the same time it also required a way of evaluating student performance: “Students’ papers must be graded and no faculty member wants to face the inevitable ‘that’s just your opinion’ unarmed, as it were.”

Pippin goes on to note that, in the first place:
Literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language.
This is, of course, a traditional and venerable observation, often invoked in arguments against academic criticism or, indeed, criticism of any kind whatsoever. Pippin also suggests that
such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge . . . is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy.
He rightly observes that this is a controversial claim, but I’m willing to grant it. For example, current arguments about whether or not literature (or the arts more generally) are biologically adaptive speak to this point. As far as I can tell, such arguments are about naïve reading, though they don’t use that term. They do not say that the value of literature requires explicit interpretation. And a good thing that they don’t, because, as we know, explicit interpretive activity is relatively new in human history. Homer's audience, and Dante's and Shakespeare's and Austen's, and so forth, they're all naïve in Pippin's sense. And if one doesn’t like these arguments – I certainly have doubts about them myself – other arguments are available (I’ve made some myself). Biological adaptiveness is by no means the only theoretical approach.

Pippin then goes on to grant that, of course, “we certainly need a theory about how artistic works mean anything at all, why or in what sense, reading a novel, say, is different from reading a detailed case history.” And so forth. In this I, of course, concur. My suspicion about Pippin, given what else he has to say, is that he doesn’t have any particular suggestions about how we ought to go about this, how we can improve current thinking on such matters. Maybe he thinks we have such matters well in hand (if so, I disagree); maybe he doesn't. There's no way to tell from what he's written here.

But he does go on to observe that, while there is developing interest in using neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to such ends, “such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.” He doesn’t even so much as hint at the possibility that the problem is not inherent in neuroscience or evolutionary psychology, or, for that matter, the cognitive sciences more broadly considered, but simply in what has been most readily done to date. He doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that good use can in fact be made of these newer psychologies. On that point, of course, I believe he is wrong. I’ve argued the matter informally here, in this “quasifesto” for a naturalist criticism, and more formally in this long programmatic article on literary morphology and this somewhat shorter piece on cultural evolution and the human sciences.

Which is to say, he offers no positive program beyond advocating “naïve” reading. What does he think should be taught in undergraduate literature courses? Is he simply saying, drop the ‘Theory’ and do what they did in the golden days of yesteryear? If not that, then what? Surely he isn’t suggesting what one might call The New Naïveté, for, if he is, what’s to distinguish it from the Old Naïveté? Wouldn’t those distinguishing marks constitute some kind of theory, and wouldn’t that theory need justification and elaboration? And wouldn’t that, in turn, end up, in effect, reprising the last 50 years in literary criticism? And what about the research program? I don’t see that naïve reading has any, not as Pippin describes it.

He wants us to stop doing something – though just what isn’t entirely clear – and do more of something that’s been going on all along. By all means, naïve reading, yes. People do it all the time. It goes on in reading groups, off-line and on-line. It’s all over the blogosphere. And I’m sure the non-academic literary blogosphere thanks Pippin for his endorsement.

But really, I’m afraid this academic mandarin, this Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago, this panjandrum supreme, has no clothes. It would be naïve to think otherwise.


  1. I’m not happy about “naïve readings.” Above all, what’s naïve about them? Not much. So we understand that the word “naïve” means untutored, uneducated, untrained, non-academic, incapable-of-making-subtle-distinctions, and unaware-of-complexities-beyond-the-naïve-reader’s-little-mind. Well, phooey on that. All those are pure egotism and holier-than-thou intellectual superiority over the plebes, gammas, and other low-lifes.

    And likely to be wrong, too. Once a young acolyte asked the guru about elephants. “Ah,” murmured the guru, “elephants… dharma… the mind of Buddha… imperfection… the realms of lower spirituality to which karma tosses one… formlessness unimpeded… flight… darkness of the soul…” and on and on and on for another hour.

    “Oh,” said the acolyte.

    “What moves you to ask?” the guru enquired.

    “Well,” the acolyte said, “there’s an elephant outside eating all your garden.”

    So who is naïve? And why?

    Tim Perper

  2. I'm not quite sure what you're responding to, Tim. Pippin supports what he calls "naive" reading, most likely naive reading by sophisticated readers as opposed to theory-laden reading by any readers. The final two paragraphs of Pippin's essay gives some sense of what he has in mind:

    If one wants to explain why Dr. Sloper in Henry James’s novel, “Washington Square,” seems so protective yet so cold about his daughter Catherine’s dalliance with a suitor, one has to begin by entertaining the good evidence provided in the novel ─ that he enjoys the power he has over her and wants to keep it; that he fears the loneliness that would result if she leaves; that he knows the suitor is a fortune hunter; that Catherine has become a kind of surrogate wife for him and he regards her as “his” in that sense; that he hates the youth of the suitor; that he hates his daughter for being less accomplished than he would have liked; and that only some of this is available to his awareness, even though all true and playing some role. And one would only be getting started in fashioning an account of what his various actions mean, what he intended, what others understood him to be doing, all before we could even begin looking for anything like “the adaptive fitness” of “what he does.”

    If being happy to remain engrossed in the richness of such interpretive possibilities is “naïve,” then so be it.

    He thinks that asking and answering such questions should be the standard practice in academic literary studies, as it was 40 years ago. Beyond that, I'm guessing that, for example, Roger Ebert's movie criticism is naive criticism as Pippin uses the term. As far as I can tell, Pippin's not saying or implying anything about "plebes, gammas, and other low-lifes."

    As for what I'm saying, to use Ebert as an example, there's more to studying film than what he does in his reviews and in the longer essays at his blog. And Ebert knows that perfectly well. He's a great admirer to the work of David Bordwell, for example. Bordwell doesn't do High Theory, just what he does do, well, it's all over his blog. Well, there's more to the study of literature than whatever it is that Pippin is calling "naive" reading.

  3. Interesting, but it's not what I hear Pippin saying.

    What he is describing in the paragraphs you quoted is anything but "naive." The moment he says "begin by entertaining the good evidence provided in the novel," he leaves the domains of naivete and starts an exegesis that depends on his reader knowing a lot about the conscious motivations of characters in novels. He also assumes that we recognize the reference to psychoanalytic interpretation in his comment about only "some of this" being "available" to Dr. Sloper's "awareness." So Pippin is hardly naive at all. In fact, he is a highly educated, very sophisticated intellectual deploying considerable explanatory power in his effort to extract and exhibit the "richness" of these "interpretive possibilities."

    If he thinks he'll fool me into accepting his description of Dr. Sloper as "naive," then hoo-hah is he ever wrong. You see, "naive reading" does exist. It occurs when a reader says, "Hey, this Sloper is the bad guy!" Such readings do NOT deploy psychoanalytic, evolutionary psychological, or even cognitive scientific reasonings to understand a story. Instead, the genuinely naive reader is swept away by the meanings and emotions of the tale, caught up in them, rooting for the good guys, booing the bad guys, and generally not giving a hoot for the intellectual apparatus Pippin uses and depends on. "Naive reading" is, in actuality, reading that is unmediated by the complexities of academic reasoning. Instead, it is immediate, quick, and enthusiastic, for or against, what the characters are doing.

    So, under his defense of "naivete," I hear Pippin saying that a "naive" reading -- of the "good" kind, meaning the kind he does -- is heavily informed by high-power intellectual machinery, which is emphatically not the kind of thing done by readers who say "Hey, this here Dr. Sloper is a bad guy!" But that is the sort of comment the plebes, gammas, and other unwashed citizenry make all the time.

    And until quite recently, they have been the audiences for the great writing of the past. They are Shakespeare's groundlings, the people who cheered and whooped it up when Henry V won, and who were afraid when the witches appeared in Macbeth. They are the readers -- many of them quite young -- who have in the past decade or so put graphic novels on the map of literature, and who, during the century before that, put movies on the map. They're the people who love Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and, before that, Buck Rogers, Captain Marvel, the Hulk, and Treasure Island.

    They're the ones who say, "Hey, there's an elephant out here eating the damn garden. Maybe we'd better tell the guru if we can get his attention for long enough."

    Maybe that's clearer?

  4. OK, Tim, gotcha. There's a number of things going on here. First of all, yes, you're right, whatever it is that Pippin is pushing, it's the work of intellectually sophisticated people. However it is that these people think about literature, it wasn't done by ANYONE before the 20th century, not even by, for example, Henry James, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who was born today), Alexander Pope, John Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer and so on back through Homer and into the dim dim past. It's a kind of intellectual and academic thinking that was invented in the second quarter of the last century.

    So why would anyone call THAT naive? Because the literary thinkers of the last quarter of the century, the ones influenced by Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida and the rest, these guys and gals thought of the previous generation of literary thinkers, their teachers, as being, well, naive. And they used the word: "naive." By that they meant that their teachers and predecessors where somehow hornswoggled, bushwacked, and ambushed (not their terms of art) by the tricks of literary texts. But the new guys and gals, with their deep philosophical learning, were not about to be taken-in by those wiley texts. No siree.

    And so Pippin wants to roll-back the clock on these sophisticated new-fangled methodologies and go back to the old-time naivte. So what of the groundlings and the rest, the ones who yell at the characters on the screen, or cheer them on? What of them? Well, Pippen also said that literary works "also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge . . . is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such." I agree with him on that. And I suspect he's talking about your unmediated reading when he says that, though, of course, I don't really know.

    I think that Shakespeare's groundlings and the rest got that "kind of practical knowledge" in spades. And the kinds of remarks they make to one another — whoa, that dude's bad, that chick's hott!, she shouldn't have kissed him — are their way of sharing their experience, of verifying and validating it among themselves. I want to understand how that works, though I don't have any particularly good ideas on how to go about it. And I'm guessing that Pippin hasn't a clue.

  5. (Part 1) Yup, that's the kind of response I'm talking about. Not, perhaps, that I should use the word "response," since I'm not leaning on reader response theory here -- although its insights are useful because they can be used for understanding the kind of unmediated-by-academe reactions we're discussing.

    It also seems reasonable to me that Pippin wants to turn the clock back 20-40 years in favor of the sorts of academic critical style(s) he is calling "naive." Well, I think such a hope is "naive" -- meaning "hopelessly utopian" or "impossible." No one in academe is going seriously to try to revivify theories so recent. Maybe I'm being too cynical? Perhaps, but I don't see the modern trendy-chic fashionistas of criticism re-adopting such theories.

    I would however like to be equally "naive" myself. I very much want to see analyses, discussions, and theories about how "unmediated" reading occurs. As you know, I have been primarily interested in manga and anime, and with the question of how US, or at least anglophone, readers see and understand products of Japan's popular culture industries. For some time -- since the mid-80s more or less -- there has been the impression among manga and anime critics that anglophone readers were strongly attracted to manga and anime precisely for their Japanese origins and features. The same appears to be true of manga and anime translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Portuguese (especially Portuguese, since manga is very popular in Brazil). If we don't know very much about how anglophone readers understand and interpret manga, we know a lot less about how non-anglophone readers do so. And that sets aside the complex issues of how manga and anime are understood when they're translated into Chinese or Korean.

    The first response we might have to such questions might be to argue that these readers merely remove all the stuff they don't understand, and substitute their own (culturally familiar) readings in its place. But I don't think that happens. Instead, the reader encounters something unfamiliar and promptly decides that is just wonderful. A non-trivial example is the extensive presence in manga and anime of astronomically pretty girls armed to the teeth with swords, spears, guns, and other heavy artillery, all of which they are very quick to employ against Bad Guys of all sorts. As far as I can tell, readers do NOT elide such heroines -- instead, they adopt them very happily. Examples include Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell and Stand Alone Complex; Utena Tenjou from Revolutionary Girl Utena; Hikaru from Magic Knight Rayearth; and Sailor Moon herself, plus, I might add dozens more (one of my own favorites is the manga Murder Princess by Sekihiko Inui).

    Yet it is also true that such heroines resonate with non-Japanese traditions, or, if not traditions, then issues that pervade modernity worldwide. Then I agree strongly that there is extensive sharing, verification, and validation of reader experiences and preferences, even if those experiences have arisen in the Eurocentric west and not Japan. Not only are these chicks hot, but they're armed and dangerous, and we love them -- and want more of them. Lots more.

    [Continued below]

  6. [Part 2]

    Here's an example. Go to萌え萌え戦乙女事典-戦乙女事典制作委員会/dp/4861461391/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1287706969&sr=1-1

    and click on the last small image below the cover picture on the left -- it's of a woman in a red dress. A stunningly beautiful illustration pops up of Margaret of Anjou, in armor and a magnificent red dress, wearing a red rose and carrying a sword. She was a real woman, the Lancastrian Queen of England during the War of the Roses, but I somehow don't think the real Margaret looked like this woman. But no matter, none at all; we want her to look like that, so she does. So what if she's from Japan? Who cares?

    I suggest that a great deal more than mere "popularity" is involved here. But since, as you cogently point out, experts like Pippin don't seem to know too much about these issues, we don't have good ideas of what is involved.

  7. I don't really have much to add, Tim. Yes, what happens when expressive practices and artifacts move across cultural boundaries is not at all obvious. Presumably people in borrowing culture are looking for something that their native culture lacks. What they find in the Other culture, whatever it is, may not be quite with those Others put into it, but they don't elide it in favor of something homey and comfortable either. Because what's homey is no longer comfortable, not for them.