Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism

When I set out to investigate Object-Oriented Ontology a year and a half ago I had several things vaguely in mind: 1) the possibility that Continental philosophy was waking up from its dogmatic dreams of dalliance and devastation, 2) some help in conceptualizing graffiti as a manifestation of the spirit of the place, and 3) some help in framing some questions about literature and literary criticism. Let’s set the first two aside and take up the third.

I take the following three propositions to be true:
1) The meaning of literary texts is indeterminate.
2) There is, however, something quite precise about texts; I take that to be form.
3) The form of texts can be effectively described in that, presupposing agreement on method, different can come to agreement about formal attributes of a text.
As a practical matter, literary criticism has taken the first as a truism. Every critic gets to “roll their own” meaning for a text; all that one has to do is provide a reasonable justification within some accepted interpretive scheme. Beyond this tacit and informal practice, some critics have explicitly argued for indeterminate meaning while others have argued for determinate meaning, often making the author the source of that meaning.

OOO as Interpretive Scheme

Object-oriented ontology can easily serve as an interpretive scheme, providing of course, that it can justify itself as a philosophical regime. That is, primary justification comes in basic philosophical terms, not in the application to literature. From my point of view, this is neither here nor there. The addition of one more interpretive engine to the critic’s tool kit is of relatively little consequence if, like me, you want to do something other than, beyond, reading texts.

Harman, however, has made some remarks that point toward the possibility of non-reductive readings, readings that don’t bypass the “surface” of the text in haste to find the “hidden” meanings, which I’ve discussed in Explicating Literature in Light of Object-Oriented Ontology. But those remarks are only pointers. It’s not clear to me how they might open up into full-blown explications. And, in any event, an explication is, in the end, an explication is a reading, and I’m chasing different unicorns.

Nor, it seems to me, does OOO have anything special to say about textual indeterminacy. Levi Bryant, to be sure, has declared that texts are factories, in a usage from Deleuze and Guattari. As far as I can tell, Bryant has nothing particularly interesting to say about how it is that texts do this, just that they obviously do so. All Bryant has to offer is old wine in new bottles or, as Terrence Blake puts is, tautological reformulation.

Rationalizing Objectification and Description

The fact is, what I was really looking for is a way to talk about my own ongoing critical practice, perhaps even a way to rationalize that practice as a method. As a practical matter I DO believe there is something quite precise (the second of my three proposition above) about literary texts, and that is their form (third proposition), as I argue in Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form.

But how do I explain that to scholars whose training ignores form in favor of meaning and precision in favor of indeterminacy? I figured that, as OOO has roots in that same intellectual tradition, the one that did most of the heavy lifting in rationalizing indeterminacy and in suppressing interest in form, perhaps it might be the best place to look for resources for countering the critical moves engendered by French Theory. After all, OOO aims to supplant those philosophical schemes driving French Theory in the American academy, no?

Alas, no.

Yes, it aims to supplant deconstruction and its successors but, no, it does not seem to have any conceptual equipment for talking about literary form and descriptive method. At least it hasn’t yet developed any such equipment. Nor am I holding my breath.

For the practice that I’d like to rationalize depends on objectifying the text. Description is, in effect, a way of objectifying the text. Or, rather more awkwardly, it is the way you identify those features of the text that can be objectified. Those are formal features, but not meanings.

Alas, though OOO is about objects, objectification runs against its spirit. Though I don’t have citations immediately at hand, OOOists have explicitly asserted that, in talking about objects, they do not mean to objectify anything, rather the contrary. For objectification surely implies some kind of “fixing in place,” some kind of finitude. And that’s what OOOists want to deny or evade. They’re more interested in the fact of “withdrawal” than in whatever one can make contact with. Where I see literary form as a finite “boundary” on an infinite “landscape” of meaning, they see nothing at all.

They simply want to wander in the landscape and extol its virtues. Thus they’ve adopted rhetorical strategies that treat all objects as subjects though, as I’ve suggested in a post on OOO rhetoric, at the expense of a profusion of utterly trivial subjects.

In short, from my point of view, OOO would seem to be little more than another form of French theory. But it IS THAT, a little more. A that little is a “flat” ontology in which all objects are on an equal footing. To be sure, Harman has a two-level ontology, real and sensual objects, and Morton follows him in this. But that bit of stratification does not affect my argument.

A Note on Construction and Notation

Or rather, my construction, that’s what it is, a construction. I am referring, of course, to the ontological pluralism I outlined in From Objects to Pluralism. In that post I suggested that one could take Harman’s ontology and, by observing recurrent and stable patterns of inter-object relations, construct Realms of Being. In such a construction one could, in effect, treat sensual objects as “labels” on relations between real objects.

For a sensual object is but the “impression” (my term) of one real object on another. Sensual objects are thus utterly dependent on real objects and arise only when two or more real objects come into relationship with one another. So, let us take real objects A and B and indicate them in relation with one another:
Let us then use lower case letters to designate sensual objects, thus:
The sensual object, b, OF B is of course located in A and vice versa. The nature of those sensual objects surely depends on the nature of the relationship between A and B. With that in mind, why not treat them as a label on or attribute of that relationship, thus:
This is, of course, merely a matter of notation. But it shows how we can treat Harman’s sensual objects as aspects of the relations between real objects. That gives Harman a flat ontology of objects, plus their relations.

Plato, the Literary Text, and Distance

Notational details aside, what does ontological pluralism do for the literary text? In particular, how does it help rationalize a critical practice grounded in analysis and description as opposed or in addition to one based on interpretation?

That’s a tall order, more than I can handle in this or even a series of posts. What I want to do now is indicate a strategy.

* * * * *

Let’s begin with Plato, who famously regarded artists as a species of liars. Reality resided in the Ideal Forms. The phenomenal world consists of copies of the Forms. And that makes works of art but copies of copies. If literary texts are but copies of the Real, then that would seem to make criticism by a copy of a copy, and thus even further removed from reality that the texts themselves. This is not very promising.

Literary critics tend not to take Plato’s view of the matter, believing that, in some way or another, literary texts contain some kind of truth, and that criticism can reveal that truth. Nonetheless, Plato did set up a rhetoric of distance, and that rhetoric is central to our thinking about criticism. The critic searches for “hidden” meanings by undertaking a “close” reading of the text. Thus when Geoffrey Hartman wanted to argue against the “modern ‘rithmatics’—semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism” he argued that “they widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing” (The Fate of Reading, p. 272). In contrast, Franco Moretti has argued for “distant” reading.

In the sort of pluralism I’m advocating literary texts would exist in one Realm of Being (as I discussed in From Objects to Pluralism) while hermeneutic criticism would exist in a different Realm—call it the Hermeneutic Realm—perhaps to be subdivided into different realms for different interpretive systems, but that’s a secondary matter. Whatever the specific repertoire of interpretive tropes, hermeneutic criticism seeks to uncover hidden meanings by means of close reading. And those meanings are always projected onto some third Realm which we might call the Common Sense Realm.

In the pluralist scheme I propose, the indeterminacy of textual meaning is primarily a function of the relationship between the Literary Realm, the Rhetorical Realm, and the Common Sense Realm, but secondarily a function of the various different hermeneutic regimes. It is inherent in the notion of Realms of Being that the terms of one Realm are incommensurate with those of another. It doesn’t make any different what scheme you use to crank out interpretations, they will be incommensurate with the text.

Naturalist Criticism

But what else is there to do?

Create a new Realm; call it Naturalist Criticism.

How does one do that?

First, drop the attempt to project the meaning of the text onto the Common Sense Realm. Which is to say, stop searching for hidden meaning. Second, replace the Common Sense Realm with what I will temporarily call the Realm of the Computational Psychologies—though I don’t intend that as a real term. Third, drop the rhetoric of distance and replace it with one of description and objectification. That is, one is describing the text as something that results from the operation of psychological mechanisms—which, to use the term favored by Keith Oatley, Such Stuff as Dreams: A Psychology of Fiction (2011), simulate actions in the interpersonal world. What that means concretely can be seen in my analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, and in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”

Two points: First, by replacing the Common Sense Realm with Computational Psychologies one abandons the attempt to figure out what texts mean. Though these psychologies have quite a bit to say about semantics and cognition, I’m not interested in using them to ascertain the meaning of the text. Semantics in these systems is a dumb as rocks. It is computational. It is objectified.

Second, the purpose of replacing close reading with description is simply to treat the text as the product of or trace of a computational process. Description indexes the text, if you will, with respect to that underlying computational process rather than treating it as an assertion about the common sense world.

At this point, my proposed naturalist criticism mostly tap-dancing and hand-waving. Mostly, but not entirely. The analytical and descriptive work I’ve done on those poems is quite real, speculative, but substantial. The really tricky point, however, is this:

One can undertake the description without knowing, in any detail, the underlying mechanism. In fact, the process of description is necessary to gaining a deeper understanding of those mechanisms. Work in the newer psychologies over that past four or five decades has told us quite a bit mental processes.

While this work certainly hasn’t gotten to the point where we can simply apply it to literary texts and crank out simulations one after the other is has reached the point where we can, with some confidence, posit this Realm of Computational Psychologies. That IS what much psychological investigation is about these days. Knowing that that Realm exists we can describe literary texts in terms that are commensurate with it. That is what I have been doing in much of my practical criticism and that is what I’ve set forth as a methodology in Literary Morphology.

Thus, on the one hand, hermeneutic criticisms posit a Hermeneutic Realm which projects texts in the Literary Realm onto activities and processes in the Common Sense Realm. By contrast, I propose a Realm of Naturalist Criticism which indexes texts in the Literary Realm to processes in a Computational Psychologies Realm. Note that I do not propose that the Hermeneutic Realm isn’t really Real, nor do I propose that we abandon it. I am proposing a new Realm of critical activity.

* * * * *

Um, err, isn’t that just a bit complicated, all those Realms of Being?

Yes, it’s a LOT complicated, not the least because the notion of Realms of Being is still a bit lean. But then, isn’t literature rather complicated?

Yes it is. But how can you think with all those loose ends flapping about?

Do I have any choice?

You can just abandon all this and . . .

And what? Return to the old ways, the ones that have either flat-out failed or that seem to be just cranking out reading after reading in an all-but mechanical way?

OK, but do you really believe this will work?

I neither believe nor disbelieve. I merely entertain.


  1. Very impressive synthesis. I wonder about your replacing of the common sense realm with the realm of computational psychology. This risks being a form of eliminativism, and I would argue that while counter-induction (exploring hypotheses or realms radically different from the common sense realm) is a fruitful move, requiring the abandonment of the search for common sense meaning is not necessary for your perspective. A second remark concerns incommensurability. It seems to me that despite being separate the realms are not hermetically sealed off (tough incommensurability) but allow interaction (Guattari's "transversality", porous incommensurability). Feyerabend came to think that incommensurability was a problem only for those who approached the realms by highlighting certain relatively stable structural features at thhe expense of the rest.You do allow such transversality in your model of naturalist criticism cross-referencing between the literary realm and the computational psychologies realm. Why not say that this is one transversal manoeuvre amongst many other possibilities?

  2. That’s a useful set of comments, Terry, and points the way to something more extensive than I can manage here. For one thing, my brain is still a bit fried from yesterday’s effort. Those complicated posts are exhausting.

    But I can make some quick remarks.

    I agree, the Realms are not hermetically sealed. In fact, they MUST interact. One thing that has occurred to me is that a Realm should be defined in terms of its felicity conditions (to use the term Latour borrowed from ordinary language philosophy), not in terms of its relations with other Realms. Any Realm is going to have relations with other realms, and perhaps many other realms. But what exists within the realm itself depends on the felicity conditions for that realm.

    As for replacing the Common Sense Realm with that of Computational Psychology, perhaps “replace” is not quite what I want. Here I’m particularly concerned about description, but not exclusively so. So, one of the felicity conditions for the Realm of Naturalist Criticism has to do with a certain kind of description. Descriptions meeting certain conditions will be admitted to this realm, but other descriptions will not. Of course, this realm will contain conceptual objects other than descriptions, but we can set that aside for the moment.

    Let us take, for example, Tristram Shandy. The Russian Formalists used that as a prime example in distinguishing between story and plot, where story has events in chronological order and plot is the order events are entered into the narrative. In many narratives, of course, plot order follows story order. But in Tristram Shady, plot order is very different from story order.

    One of the things I’d like to see is a Tristram Shandy Handbook in which the relationship between story and plot has been completely worked out. That’s a long book and I thinking that working out the relationship between plot and story is going to take a bit of work. Though I’ve not attempted that task, I’ve done enough work like it to suspect that it will be tricky going. But once it’s been done, it will be available to everyone.

    And the same thing needs to be done for every major and at least a few minor texts. (See my remarks toward a handbook for Heart of Darkness.) That will require a collective effort that will, in turn, require standards. Though I don’t think those standards can be defined proclaimed a priori from on high, I do think they can emerge from a collective effort to do that particular descriptive job (which is only one of many such tasks).

    That kind of description is one of the major tasks for Naturalist Criticism. It’s a job for specialists. This is not about interpreting the text in terms of hidden meanings. It’s important because it’s directly linked to the mental processes involved in reading the text, the mental processes being investigated in the computational psychologies. The felicity conditions for the description relate to those psychological mechanisms. In the case of plot and story, the matter of temporal ordering is readily intelligible in the Common Sense Realm, but I’m invoking it here because of its implications for computing.

    And so forth and so on. It’s complicated.