Thursday, June 7, 2012

Critical Strategies 1: Stories as Equipment for Living

Whatever else I may be thinking about, I’m always thinking about literature and literary criticism. Over the years a passage from Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form, has been a touchstone. Burke starts out talking about proverbs and how we can use them to structure and make sense of our lives.

Let us consider a simple proverb (my example, not Burke’s): A stitch in time saves nine. The proverb directly implies a story about, say, a garment where a seam has come loose. If one gives the seam a stitch now, the garment will be strong, sturdy and wearable. If not, the seam will continue to unravel until the garment is unwearable, at which point it will be more difficult to repair (nine stitches instead of one), if it can be repaired at all.

It’s a story of preventive maintenance, one that can be applied to automobiles and computers, but also to human relationships. What’s important in making such extensions is the overall pattern, not the specific entities and actions involved. If you apply the proverb to automobile maintenance, the stitch in time might become an oil change and the nine stitches saved becomes a costly transmission repair. When applied to a human relationship the stitch in time might be an apology and the nine stitches saved might be a law suit.

In this view the proverb doesn’t have one true meaning. It has a pattern, and that pattern can function in a wide range of situations. Burke gives a number of example proverbs, arranged under various headings: consolation, vengeance, and foretelling. Having thus reminded us of the usefulness of proverbs, Burke then asks (296): “Why not extend such analysis of proverbs to encompass the whole field of literature?” Indeed, why not?

After a bit more chat, and after consulting several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one’s campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Stories, poem, and plays, of course, are likely to be more complex than proverbs. That is, the patterns they contain are more complex—more actors and objects, more actions—but still, the patterns can be teased apart from the specific actors in them and thus applied to the reader’s own life. And that is the point, the patterns can be differentiated from their particular embodiments.

And so Burke gives an appropriately literary example (p. 300):
Anyhow, the main point is this: A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to “need a word for it” and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary (or, in the case of purely derivative artists, the addition of a subsidiary meaning to a world already given by some originating artist). As for Madame Bovary, the French critic Jules de Gaultier proposed to add it to our formal dictionary by coining the word “Bovarysme” and writing a whole book to saw what he meant by it.
To the extent that these stories are shared, members of a society can articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world.

Burke concludes his essay with a suggestion for a criticism that would “seek to codify the various strategies which artists have developed with relation to the naming of situations.” However interesting such a criticism might be, I’m interested in something else. I’m interested in the operation of pattern matching, which is my term, not Burke’s. But it’s hardly my term in any exclusive way; on the contrary, it’s wide-spread in the cognitive sciences.

What interests me is the notion that literary criticism too is an act of pattern-matching. But where Burkean patter-matching, if you will, involves matching a pattern in the text to events in one’s life, critical pattern-matching involves matching a pattern in the text to a pattern in some body of interpretive tropes and schemes.

That is, I believe, more or less what David Bordwell has argued at some length in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard 1989), an argument that is readily recast to account for the interpretation of literary texts. Rather than see oneself as a Charles Bovary, or as his wife, or as some other character in that story, one sees those characters is acting in a rather more abstract story involving, say, class consciousness in a commodified bourgeois world, or parent and child in a family romance, or perhaps simply as signifiers endlessly seeking signifieds in a funhouse—whatever the theory provides.

The possibilities for such abstract pattern-matching are endless. And it is pointless to attempt to adjudicate among them beyond checking to see that there is a reasonable match between the text and the theoretical entities. The critic, presumably, believes that his or her theoretical apparatus is true of the world. If the critic is wrong about that, then readings based on that apparatus fall with the apparatus. Nor is it obvious to me that a given apparatus can support only one reading, that is, only one pattern match can be found between text and apparatus. When both are rich and complex no doubt multiple matches can be found – as has indeed been the case.

Thus, for those seeking undisputable truth, pattern matching between text and apparatus is a weak method. But it’s what there is. Interpretive reading, textual explication, is not science. It is, as the critical vernacular has it, a species of reading.

And perhaps therein lies one prop to justify the continuity of usage between ordinary reading and the creating of schooled critics. Both are based on pattern-matching. The only difference is that the critic is matching too some explicit theory that is not entailed in ordinary reading.

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Two earlier posts on pattern matching; the first is more playful, the second more formal:

A post on reading, that is, the elision of the distinction between ordinary reading and explicit explication:

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