Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Critical Strategies 2: Explanations, Intention and Beyond

When talking about what I’m up to as a literary critic I will often say: I’m not interested in what a text means, I want to explain how it works in the mind, or words to that effect. On one of those occasions a commenter at The Valve observed that, when literary critics provide a reading, an interpretation, for a text they ARE explaining the text. The meaning asserted in the reading IS the explanation.

“How could that be so?” I ask. “Because the text was written to convey THAT meaning”, goes the answer. “Once we know what the author intended, what more is there to know?”

The Intentional Framework Rules!

Crudely put, I believe that’s how academic literary criticism works, and in pretty much all its form, from the New Critics and their immediate predecessors right on up to, well, the present. All criticism is inscribed within this intentional framework:* to explain a text one explicates the intention animating it.

With exceptions of course. But I’m not so much interested in the exceptions as I am in a refinement or two pegged to that notion of the author.

One refinement is psychological. There is the unconscious, whether that of the classical depth psychologies (Freund and Jung) or of the newer cognitivists and neuralists. We are not consciously aware of the full scope of our intentional behavior. Literary critics are well aware of this and have developed critical approaches to ferreting out these so-called hidden meanings.

Whatever one may think of these methods—and the critics themselves are by no means in agreement over them—I don’t see that they pose any problem to intentional explanation. There is a being that intends something, even several somethings. The critic’s job is to figure out what those somethings are. Whether they’re conscious or unconscious is irrelevant, though it’s trickier to chase the unconscious ones to their lair. The intentional frame* can easily be extended to accommodate.

But what of the teller of tales in a traditional culture? The story teller isn’t the author of the tale, but only the custodian. Where’s the locus of intention in this case? Well, since the story isn’t being told by accident, but quite deliberately, the teller still intends the story in the usual way, or ways (conscious and unconscious), no? Yes, and we extend this by further arguing that the teller speaks on behalf of the group. We thus think of the group of loosely unitary social being and it is the group that authors the traditional text.

And that trick, I believe, is more or less how critics have squeezed non-individual actors into the intentional frame. The Marxist critic, the feminist critic, the post-colonial critic, and others, all talk of power relations in the body politic. The semiotic critic talks of relations and oppositions in the common code.

relations and codes are just modes, manifestations, facets of the larger social being. It is that being that speaks through the one who actually conveys the tale, whether that be the traditional teller of tales or the author of written texts. Once the literary critic has ferreted out the intent of these collective actors and explicated it in a reading, that critic has explained the text.

And that, crudely put, is how I think academic literary criticism works. This cartoon sketch leaves out much, of course. It’s not that simple, but I do think that cartoon captures the overall envelope, if you will, of the enterprise. The enterprise works within a framework of intentional explanation and within that framework one explains a text by clarifying its intention. It’s all a matter of reading, and reading is a process of taking up the intentions of another.

Intentions Aside

“But what”, you ask, “are YOU up to? You began by asserting that you’re not interested in saying what a text means, but in figuring out how it works. What kind of explanation are you looking for?”

A good question, a good question indeed. For I certainly don’t deny that tale tellers and authors have intentions. Nor do I deny that we can talk of social bodies has having intentions. In fact, in the early chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil I worked very hard on coming up with a scheme through which we can begin to understand social bodies at the neural level, as a collective neural system distributed across many physically separate bodies.

The accounts of social bodies used in literary criticism say nothing of nervous system. From my point of view they take too much for granted. I want to explain the very existence of social bodies and I believe that we have to look to the nervous system to do that.

From a certain point of view, that’s reductionist. But that’s not my intent. I don’t believe that the behavior of social bodies can be accounted for solely in terms of the behavior of individual neurons, no more than I believe that the properties of gothic cathedrals can be accounted for solely through reference to the properties of sandstone, mortar, and colored glass. Cathedrals are built of such things, among others, and social bodies are built of neurons, among others.

Or, think of language, which, after all, is what texts are built from. What linguists do is very different from what literary critics do—and the relationship between literary criticism and linguistics has been a troubled one. Well, what I’m up to is a bit closer to the linguistics camp, linguistics as extended by the newer psychologies.

I could go on and on attempting to explain what I’m up to—and I’ve done quite a bit of that on this blog and in more formal papers. But there’s no point in going further down that path, not here and now.

In the large, I don’t know what I’m up to, what I’m looking for. Whatever it is, it hasn’t been done. And I’m quite sure that it cannot be done from within the intentional frame. One must get outside that frame to do the work, whatever that work is. More to the point, there is an intellectual world outside that framework, and it is a rich and interesting one, well worth exploring.

* * * * *

* As I was thinking about these matters that phrase “the intentional stance” came to mind, a phrase I associate with Dan Dennett, whose work I only know casually. So I did a bit of googling and found, among other things, this discussion of Dennett on the intentional stance, as well as its sisters, the design stance and the physical stance. On the one hand, I’m reluctant to use Dennett’s terms and ideas based on a secondary exposition. Beyond that, and based on a quite look through that exposition, it’s not clear to me that we have quite the same thing in mind. So I’ve left his phrase alone and talk instead of an intentional frame rather than stance.

ADDENDUM: See also my earlier post, Critical Strategies 1: Stories as Equipment for Living.

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