Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Harman on Literary Criticism, Curious

Graham Harman, The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism, New Literary History, 43, 2 (2012) pp. 183-208.
Graham Harman’s recent intervention, to use the local term of art, into literary criticism is both useful and, well, curious.

What makes is useful for me, as someone who is in the lit crit game, albeit at the periphery, is his outsider’s synoptic take on the last six decades of play. Following a quick review of speculative realism Harman has pungent sections devoted to the New Criticism, New Historicism, and Deconstruction. That seems right to me. That is to say, now that Harman has written it up so elegantly and succinctly—in eleven pages—it’s clear to me that those ARE the conceptual foci around which the discipline has organized its peregrinations over the last 60 years.

To be sure, that’s not all that’s gone on. He misses the various reader-oriented criticisms and the manifold identity-based criticisms (feminist, African-American, post-colonial, and so forth) that have been and are being deployed. But those criticisms don’t propose any core conception of the literary text and the critic’s job that isn’t there in the Big Three Harman has isolated. And, as a practical matter, those criticisms have depended on both deconstructive and new historicist insights. So Harman is right to side-line them.

That’s the useful part of his easy, in fact, the bulk of it. The curious part comes in the conclusion, where Harman offers a suggestion for what criticism should do in light of object-oriented ontology.

Let’s set that up by first looking at a paragraph at the end of his discussion of the New Criticism, just before he launches into deconstruction (p. 195):
Cleanth Brooks severed literary texts from the world but turned their interiors into contextual houses of mirrors where everything reflects everything else. By contrast, the New Historicism tacitly dissolves literary works into a house of mirrors that is now ubiquitous and is held to define the whole of reality. Object-oriented philosophy, however, simply rejects the house of mirrors. Objects may change rapidly; they may be perceived differently by different observers; they remain opaque to all the efforts of knowledge to master them. But the very condition of all change, perspectivism, and opacity is that objects have a definite character that can change, be perceived, and resist.
Yes, I agree, texts have a definite character. The question is whether or not we can frame a criticism that allows us to construct definite, even objective, knowledge of those characters. As far as I can tell, the profession pretty much gave up on that three decades ago. 

It’s not clear to me that Harman has anything to offer here except, perhaps, for a different philosophical take on why such knowledge is beyond reach (p. 200):
As we have seen, the autonomy and integrity of the object in no way implies the autonomy and integrity of our access to the object. The literary text runs deeper than any coherent meaning, and outruns the intentions of author and reader alike. 
Yes, the text is as “deep” as that, we all know (except for the literary Darwinists and a few others), and I agree. Its meaning really does “outruns the intentions of author and reader alike.”

And so I’ve argued, most systematically in Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, that by conceiving of literary form as computational form, we can frame a criticism around the analysis and description of formal elements of the text. For, despite sporadic interest in form, we have no criticism that has made form its central pursuit. So-called formalist criticism (e.g. the New Criticism) has rarely been interested in analyzing literary form. Rather it has mostly used the idea of form as a conceptual device to isolate the text from the world, leading to the problems that Harman has neatly characterized in his essay.

But this post isn’t about what I think literary criticism should be doing, it’s about what Harman suggests on behalf of object-oriented ontology. So let’s get to it. Here’s his suggestion (pp. 201-202):
In short, we cannot identify the literary work with the exact current form it happens to have. And while many of the literary methods recommended by object-oriented criticism might already exist, here I would like to propose one that has probably never been tried on as vast a scale as I would recommend. Namely, the critic might try to show how each text resists internal holism by attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens. Instead of just writing about Moby-Dick, why not try shortening it to various degrees in order to discover the point at which it ceases to sound like Moby-Dick? Why not imagine it lengthened even further, or told by a third-person narrator rather than by Ishmael, or involving a cruise in the opposite direction around the globe? Why not consider a scenario under which Pride and Prejudice were set in upscale Parisian neighborhoods rather than rural England—could such a text plausibly still be Pride and Prejudice? Why not imagine that a letter by Shelley was actually written by Nietzsche, and consider the resulting consequences and lack of consequences?
Just how does Harman think this will go as an actual boots-on-the-ground rubber-meets-the-road critical practice? Someone is going to have to produce these modified texts and someone is going to have to consider the effects. Who?

The person who makes the modifications would, presumably, do so with deliberate intention. Would we therefore entrust that person with the job of figuring out whether or not that intention was achieved? Would we be surprised if he or she concluded that the modified texts produced the intended result? I think not.

So, what do we do with the modified text? We could give it to ordinary readers and let them have at it. Then we have to figure out how that text affected them and whether or not that is any different from the effects of the original. That just amplifies the difficulties we already face in figuring out how texts affect real readers, a problem which some pretty sophisticated psychologies have been running at for awhile.

Alternatively, and far more likely, we’d modify the text and have other critics look at it. What are they likely to discover? Beyond simply describing the differences between the altered text and the original text how will they discuss whether or not the abridged or otherwise modified version of, say, Moby Dick is like the original? What is it that they might learn?

Frankly, it’s not at all obvious to me that Harman’s proposal is more than a recipe for thought experiments for it’s not obvious that we’ve got any critical methods that would turn up anything new if we tried this out for real. Still, if you want to think about it, it’s not as though something very like this hasn’t been going on for some time, and rather extensively at that.

For example, try googling “moby dick” abridged and see what you get. For one thing, you’ll find that abridged versions already exist and that there is some critical commentary on the modified versions as well. I’ve not actually trolled through any of those results, but I’m not at all surprised that they turned up. I’d expect similar results for other texts as well. After all, DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace made a fortune marketing abridged texts to middle America under the Reader’s Digest brand. And Classics Illustrated published, well, classics in comic-book form (they didn’t talk about graphic novels in those days).

If that’s too low rent, well, this guy named William Shakespeare dug all sorts of mouldy tales out of the cultural attic and put them on the Elizabethan stage. Thus Saxo Grammaticus’ Amleth became Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and you can find both texts in the Norton Critical Edition of the play. The two texts of Shakespeare’s reworking of King Lear are sufficiently different to have provoked a bit of critical commentary, thus Christie Carson observes:
I suggest, then, that there is strong evidence the changes between the Quarto and the Folio were made as a result of the audience response to the play during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The ending, in particular, is altered to change it from a scene of absolute despair to a scene of possible redemption and rebirth. Hope is reintroduced into the Folio ending of the play, something that makes this tragedy more poignant but also more bearable in its Folio form.
And then we have Nahum Tate’s infamous 1681 redaction of King Lear in which Cordelia and Edgar have a love affair, and both France and Lear’s Fool has been dropped. Maynard Mack, no object-oriented critic he, tells of
another episode in which King Lear, asleep in prison with his head in Cordelia’s lap, rouses as Edmund’s soldiers enter to hang Cordelia, and holds them at bay, killing two of them, till Edgar and Albany come to his rescue. Tate had an unerring eye for romantic melodrama, and his handling of his original points up very clearly for all who are willing to see them the melodramatic potentialities of the plot from which Shakespeare began. (Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Time, 1972).
I don’t know whether cultural history has yet produced the experiment Harman has proposed for Pride and Prejudice, but things equally, if not more, exotic have already been done. Thus Francis Ford Coppola reconceptualized Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a Vietnam-era war movie and gave us two versions of that movie, Apocalypse Now, and Apocalypse Now Redux. The Japanese manga artist Seiho Takizawa has reset Conrad’s story (under the same title) in World War II, again in Vietnam, but with the Japanese in the role of interlopers. And god only knows how many Western “classics” have appeared in manga versions of one sort or another.

What about Iliad and Odyssey, at the ancient core of the Western literary canon? Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960) is one of the great triumphs of straight ahead and untheorized scholarship and reasoning. By examining the formal features of the Homeric texts and comparing them with the formal features of 20th Century Yugoslavic oral epics Lord established that the Homeric tales must have come from an oral tradition.

Consequently there must have been a time when many Iliads and Odysseys trod the earth, one with the trumpeting thunder of a volcano, another with the grace of a gazelle, another with allure of jasmine, still others with the fitfulness of butterflies, and some nasty ones stinging like bees out of hell, not to mention those that are unable to figure out whether they’re quarks or galactic clusters. All, in some sense, telling one of those same two stories, one about the siege and sacking of Troy, and the other about a marvelous, if accidental, voyage of exploration.

What I’m suggesting, then, is that what Harman has proposed as an intervention from an avant-garde philosophical stance is little different from the ordinary workings of literary culture and, by implication, the critical disciplines that have arisen around it. Yes, literary texts, like all objects “have a definite character that can change, be perceived, and resist.” What else is new?

What else?



  1. I find it very hard to believe that objects/texts' character can change.

    Is that what we mean by point of view? that's then the projection of the object on the viewer nothing changes in the character of the object

    is that what we mean by breaking an object into two? then that's two different objects

    I think the whole idea is a sham and brings us back to animism belief in the life of inanimate things

    that's the relativistic attitude again

  2. Dan Green replies to Harman here:

    Harman replies to Green here: