Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World

The following post is an introduction to a collection of posts I've written over the past several months: Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World. I've placed the collection in a PDF which you may download from my SSRN page, HERE.
Abstract: At the most abstract philosophical level the cosmos is best conceptualized as containing various Realms of Being interacting with one another. Each Realm contains a broad class of objects sharing the same general body of processes and laws. In such a conception the human world consists of many different Realms of Being, with more emerging as human cultures become more sophisticated and internally differentiated. Common Sense knowledge forms one Realm while Literary experience is another. Being immersed in a literary work is not at all the same as going about one's daily life. Formal Literary Criticism is yet another Realm, distinct from both Common Sense and Literary Experience. Literary Criticism is in the process of differentiating into two different Realms, that of Ethical Criticism, concerned with matters of value, and that of Naturalist Criticism, concerned with the objective study of psychological, social, and historical processes.

Introduction: Toward Naturalist and Ethical Criticisms

When I began nosing about object-oriented ontology (OOO) a year and a half ago I had several things in mind. On the one hand I was simply curious, especially since OOO seemed to be a science-friendly brand of post-post-structuralist Continental philosophy. But, and more specifically, I was also looking for a way of explaining my own work in naturalist criticism to scholars and for a way to supplement that work with a way of approaching ethical and aesthetic issues.

Why would I think OOO could fulfill those two functions? It’s that object thing. My own work for the last four (!) ecades has centered on the need to develop methods for objectifying literary texts and processes, chiefly through description and the newer psychologies, psychologies ultimately informed by and driven by the notion of computation. I figured that a philosophy of objects might have something to say about objectification, perhaps even a way of justifying the ways of objectification to humanists. If so, then perhaps this philosophy of objects would also provide me with an ethics and an aesthetics. For it’s long been clear that neither ethics nor aesthetics are objective in nature.

Things did and did not work out that way. It turns out that the objects of object-oriented criticism are more like subjects, which is not quite what I was looking for. So I had to do a bit of inventing. But I like the invention. So far.

From OOO to Pluralism

The first piece in this collection, The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure, A Program for Literary Studies, was written with my original hopes for OOO in mind. I imagined literary studies in this, the 21st Century, CE, as having four components: 1) description, 2) the newer psychologies, 3) object-oriented ontology, and 4) digital humanities. I’ve changed that piece for this collection. I’ve placed pluralist ontology in the third slot instead of object-oriented ontology.

What happened?

Well, as I said, OOO’s objects are rather more like subjects than plain old objectified objects. Moreover, as I worked my way though a few object-oriented texts by writing a blither of blog posts about them, I bumped into, of all people, Paul Feyerabend. Not the man, of course, as he’s dead. But his ideas. I’d encountered them before, not the full-on assault of Against Method (which I have yet to read, though I'm working on Conquest of Abundance, which is more directly relevant to pluralism) but bits of pieces here and there. Now I encountered them at Terence Blake’s Agent Swarm blog. And Blake’s all about pluralism.


Latour’d talked of pluralism, too, and he’s something of a patron saint in the church of OOO. He’s also been working on this notion that there are different modes of existence.

I’d long had pluralist notions, some of which I’d revived in the course of my triple-O blogging, e.g. Fecundity and Implementation in a Complex Universe: Or, Compositionism in the Pluriverse. As for modes of existence, something like that had been on my mind ever since I’d read Charles Tart on state-specific sciences, not to mention the vast literature on altered states of consciousness which I’d read through back in the 60s and 70s.

Could I refit OOO along pluralist lines? Yes I can. Or I can try. Only time and criticism will tell whether or not my initial efforts will bear viable fruit.

Realms of Criticism

The key post is From Objects to Pluralism; that’s where I lay out the basic scheme. What I do is say, IF the world consists of objects, THEN we can arrange those objects into Realms of Being. The multiplicity of those Realms of Being gives us pluralism. There is one world, but it contains multitudes of Realms in which objects exist, and not. The three pieces on Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism, plus Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism, then lay out the implications of that pluralism for literary study.

In brief, and crudely, let’s begin with this diagram:


For the purposes of this introduction, but not otherwise, think of these Realms of Being, a term of art I develop in From Objects to Pluralism, as bodies of knowledge, experience and practice. That will do for the human world, which is where literary study takes place, but not otherwise. The universe certainly holds Realms that have nothing whatever to do with us. Nothing.

The Literary Realm is where we are, our minds/souls/psyches, while immersed in reading a literary text (or watching a play, film, whatever). We live much of our lives in the Common Sense Realm, and can converse about more or less anything in that realm, including our excursions into Literary Realm, hence the double-headed arrow connecting the two. We can also discuss quantum mechanics or DNA as well, but only superficially. The moment we start hammering on the details we enter into the specialized Realms of Quantum Physics and Molecular Biology.

The Realm of Literary Criticism is where we enact written commentary on literary texts, whether journalistic reviews, belletristic essays, or academic articles, monographs, and books. It draws on, has access to, the Common Sense and Literary Realms, but is not actually in them. Concepts and ideas from the Lit Crit Realm may end up in the Common Sense Realm, hence the red arrow.

Now consider this slightly more complex diagram:


The Lit Crit Realm has now become the Academic Lit Crit Realm and we’ve got another Realm, that of Hermeneutic Engines, my generic term for the various bodies of specialized knowledge academic literary critics have employed in producing readings of texts. I’m guestimating that the process that led from the situation depicted in the first diagram to that depicted in this second diagram started in, say, the 19th century and was mature by the middle of the 20th, though more bodies of specialized knowledge continue to be recruited in the role of Hermeneutic Engine. It is now senescent, but more of that later.

The gap between meanings, as explicated in the Literary Realm, and the works themselves, as experienced in the Literary Realm, is the gap between those two Realms. While the readings are ABOUT literary texts and so the meanings are are attributed to those texts, the terms of those meanings are not the same as, nor even commensurate with, those existing in the Literary Realm. Hence the multiplicity of meanings attributed to any given text. Some may be more plausible than others, but there’s no one meaning that is THE meaning. As David Bordwell has argued at some length in Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989), those meanings are secondary constructions. Bordwell himself advocates abandoning the search for meanings and regrouping around the construction of a poetics, a suggestion to which I am sympathetic.

Here’s where I think we’re going as we move through our current senescence:

ethical crit

Notice the proliferation of Realms, all of which I explain in subsequent sections of this document. The important point is that the Realm of Academic Lit Crit differentiates into two different Realms, that of Ethical Criticism and that of Naturalist Criticism. That is to say, they are very different creatures, very. Not to be confused with one another.

According to Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988), ethical criticism (which includes aesthetics in his terminology) was split off from Academic Lit Crit during the rise of the New Criticism. It was well in place by the time Northrup Fry wrote his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), in which ethical criticism was dismissed as “one more document in the history of taste” (p. 25). But it returned with a vengeance in the 70s and 80s, albeit in disguise, as various political and identity criticisms. I sketch out my version of ethical criticism in Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism.

Naturalist criticism is what will happen as two emerging developments mature. The first is the so-called “descriptive turn,” which can be seen, for example, in a recent discussion of close reading at Stanford’s Arcade blog and in posts by Eileen Joy at In the Middle: Disintgegrating Allure: A Call for a New Commentariat, and The Descriptive Turn: Scales of Reading (Joy presenting an essay by Julie Orlemanski). I have a great deal to say about description, both later in this document, and in some of the pieces I’ve listed in Appendix 2: Further Reading. My point is that description is a way of objectifying a work, a first “laying of hands” on it. That’s how we grasp it and bring it to view for further scrutiny. But, alas, proper description is not at all obvious—it took the biologists, for example, some decades to work out proper descriptive terms and methods for life forms (see Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing, 2006)—and we’ve got quite a bit of work to do in order to gain descriptive control over our materials.

The other development is the emergence of interest in cognitive science, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, which I group together as the newer psychologies. At the moment these psychologies are mostly being used as hermeneutic engines but then, at the moment, literary critics have not, for the most part, come to grips with the computational core of these newer psychologies. Without the computational core the newer psychologies lack explicit mechanisms for perception, feeling, thinking, communicating and acting. Without the computational core, there’s no THERE there.

That, however, is a long discussion, one that will take the profession decades to work through. Suffice it to say that some thinkers have been there—e.g. Jerry Hobbs, a linguist, in Literature and Cognition (1990), Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (1991), and others. Again, I have quite a bit to say about this in various documents in Appendix 2: Selected Readings. In particular, there is Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics, in which I outline a computational model for the semantics underlying Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 and Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, which is my central theoretical and methodological statement to date.

* * * * *

Finally, and returning where this particular journey began, we have Graham Harman’s recent essay on literary criticism, The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object Oriented Literary Criticism, which he published in New Literary History. After a review of three critical movements, New Criticism, New Historicism, and Deconstruction, Harman offers a few suggestions about a counter-factual criticism based on object-oriented criticism. I argue in my critique, which I’ve place in Appendix 1: Harman on Literary Criticism, that those suggestions collapse into the actual processes of literary culture. I find it interesting, and curious, that neither Harman nor the editors of NLH seemed to have noticed that.

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