Saturday, September 22, 2012

Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism

I wish to offer another adjustment to my ongoing discussion of literature, criticism, and pluralism. I begin by discussing unity of being in two senses. In one sense it is a psychological concept; it is about how one feels when giving oneself over to the Literary Realm. In another sense it is broadly about one’s way of life, about the world at large.

From there I go on to discuss ethical criticism, offer some touchstone passages from Kenneth Burke, Wayne Booth, and Keith Oatley, and conclude by revising the diagram with which I ended Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism 3: The Reality of Fictional Objects.

Unity of Being

In real time, unity of being is, well, unity of being. I don’t mean to be perverse, but I don’t know of any general term, though perhaps Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow will do, or the phrase “being in the moment.” As far as I know flow always happens spontaneously in that we cannot flip the mind’s flow switch at will—I rather doubt there’s such a thing as a flow-switch, rather it’s a matter of balance. But we can do things that will increase the likelihood that the mind will flip into flow.

One of those things is to read, in the basic ordinary sense of the word, a literary text. Or listen to a story, watch a play or movie. Whatever. In this sense, unity of being is psychological, it happens in the mind/brain in real time.

But unity of being, I believe, is also a reasonable way to talk about how individuals and peoples live their lives in the large, from years to decades to centuries. One wants everything one does, 24/7/365, to fall into a coherent pattern. A pattern more or less attributed to the nature of the world. To the extent that one cannot achieve unity of being one feels, well, perhaps alienated is the most general concept for it. In that literary texts are (always) about the world, they point toward unity of being in the large.

As far as I know there is no one way of life that yields unity of being in the large nor is there one way of organizing texts that yields it in the small. In the large it is a matter of how one chooses to live, where that one can be an individual or a group. In the small it is a matter of craft and one’s knowledge of its ways and means.

Individuals may have to learn to read a text so that things flow, and learning requires change. Whether or not things flow depends on how well the text is suited to existing mental structures and processes, which are the joint products of the mind’s innate capacities of cultural shaping to date. On the matter of cultural shaping I favor the analogy of a game, such as chess. Biology provides the board, the pieces, and the basic rules. But it is culture that provides the tactics and strategies for playing the game.

Biology constrains what culture can do, but there is no reason to believe that the constraints are so tight as to permit only one “ideal” way of life. Human history has yielded many ways of life, some no doubt more satisfying than others, but there is no a priori or transcendental reason to declare one of them to be the best, much less the ideal. Each of us lives the lifeway into which we were born and which we can shape or abandon as opportunity presents and as we choose.

None of it is set in stone. The genome, after all, is not made of stone. Nor is the synaptic net. All is fluid, albeit at different time scales. The genes flow on a time scale of generations while the synapses on a timescale of hours and days.

Ethical Criticism

The object of an ethical criticism is to guide individuals and groups in using literary texts to negotiate their ways towards unity of being. In the small, individuals can choose texts suited to them and they can change themselves so that they can more readily flow though this or that text. In the large, groups adopt texts as canonical according to their lifeway preferences. Is this way one we can and want to live?

In complex societies groups can form around texts which individuals cherish. Individuals who see one another cherishing the same texts realize they have THAT in common and may choose to identify themselves with that, whatever it is, and to act in the large society from that position.

And so we have identity politics.

In small more homogeneous societies, such choices may not be available, and the illusion of cultural universality will be stronger. Large complex societies have been around for 1000s of years but in the contemporary world almost all societies have access to a wide range of cultural materials. Individuals can see other lifeways, and even try them on through various cultural texts, literary, musical, visual, kinesthetic, or otherwise.

The ethical critic, whether formally trained or not—are we not all ethical critics in some measure?—thinks and feels her way through the available possibilities and seeks out more as needed.


In the large these ideas about ethical criticism are not new. I leave it to others to trace them back to The Venerable Ancients. I’ll have to make do with relatively contemporary thinkers.

Consider Kenneth Burke’s essay on “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973, first reprinted in 1941, originally written in the 1930s). Using words and phrases from 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.”
Through the symbols and strategies of shared stories, members of a culture articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world.

Burke wasn’t necessarily talking about formal criticism. But Wayne Booth certainly is in The Company We Keep (1988). Near the end, after discussing the Chekov story, ”Home,” Booth says (p. 484):
... we all are equipped, by a nature (a “second nature”) that has created us out of story, with a rich experience in choosing which life stories, fictional or “real,” we will embrace wholeheartedly. Who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of criticism, whether by ourselves or by those who determine what stories will come our way—criticism wise or foolish, deliberate or spontaneous, conscious or unconscious.
A bit later (p. 485):
If you try out a given mode of life in itself, you may, like Eve in the garden, discover too late that the one who offered it to you was Old Nick himself. Though tryings-out in narrative present all the dangers of we have stressed throughout, they offer both a relative freedom from consequence and, in their sheer multiplicity, a rich supply of anecdotes. In a month of reading, I can try out more “lives” than I can test in a lifetime.
Still more recently, Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist, has made trying-out (considered as simulation) the center of Such Stuff as Dreams (2011) his review and synthesis of experimental work on the psychology of fiction. His final chapter is entitled “Talking About Fiction: Interpretation in Conversation,” conversation that may or may not be informed by academic literary criticism depending on the backgrounds of the conversationalists. In an especially suggestive paragraph he observes (p. 178)
that even books we have read and films we have see are retained only as fragments. Therefore we tend to discuss—can only discuss—small parts...When we discuss those parts of books and films that we noticed and remember, they can be augmented by the different parts noticed and remembered by people with whom we have the discussion. Thereby we can put fragments together, to make the books and films more whole...And when we discuss books of fiction, not only do we exchange our impressions of fragments we have read with the impressions of fragments in the inner libraries of other people, but we re-introduce this material—fiction—about what people are up to in the social world, back into the social world of conversation and relationship.
Oatley devotes part of the chapter to reading groups, noting that “the whole activity of interpretation has moved from departments of literature to reading groups” (p. 185).

Are such reading groups a new social formation? It’s not that discussion of fiction is at all a new activity, it is not; but that, artistic salons aside, informal groups meeting regularly to discuss fiction, that’s new. And it is an arena of interpretive and evaluative activity.

In Pluralist Context

With the preceding discussion in mind I want to suggest that, as naturalist criticism begins to take root in the academy and expands and becomes more sophisticated, hermeneutic criticism will evolve into ethical criticism.

Back in the days when interpretation, more often than not, was considered to be the aim of criticism, it was also assumed that determinate meanings were available through interpretation, providing, of course, the proper methods were followed. Interpretations stood on the authority of the texts themselves, not merely that of the critic, who was but a voice for the text. It was also assumed that academic criticism was to be confined to a small group of canonical texts deemed to embody universal truths. Those assumptions have fallen through. Determinate meaning is gone and popular culture has worked its way into the academy.

In the emerging academic context mere interpretation is no longer a credible focal point of academic criticism. Critics can no longer pretend to be conduits for the meaning of canonical texts. That’s gone.

Of course, canonical authority never resided in the texts anyhow. Not directly. The authority always resided in the groups which made various texts canonical. The Ancient Regime of 50 years ago kept that process hidden. We cannot.

We have no choice but to openly admit that we are mere mortals seeking ways to live better lives in one another’s company. In this contexts critics become more like coaches and interpretations can openly serve the ethical purpose they’ve always in fact served. I thus suggest a simple revision to the final diagram from Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism 3: The Reality of Fictional Objects. The Realm of Hermeneutic Criticism becomes The Realm of Ethical Criticism.

ethical crit

The ethical critic has the full resources of naturalist criticism available to her. And the naturalist critic can, among other things, study the process by which people come use texts to negotiate their lives with one another. But the actual work of moving ahead must reside, as always, with the people who do the moving.

ADDENDUM: I discuss Burke more extensively, and some others as well, in an earlier post, Critical Strategies 1: Stories as Equipment for Living.  See also Critical Strategies 2: Explanations, Intentions and Beyond


  1. Are such reading groups a new social formation?

    No. Oral story telling in my neck of the woods shows a distinct relationship in places with written texts would appear to start happening (or picking up speed) from the 1880s onward with reading clubs etc and a drive towards full literacy (although again that's early here pre- dating the enlightenment), although the relationship between written and spoken is certainly far older but at that time the mass of society including the elite was illiterate and the written word was spoken publicly rather than consumed internally in private.

    Demonstrates the power of language, the ability towards ongoing cognitive operations long after the original event or object that provoked attention is gone and it allows folk who were not at the event to also exert an influence and this is certainly the case with traditional forms of storytelling as if the performer strays from peoples internal representation of how such things should be presented with an external unfamiliar object they will interject without hesitation.

    Oral storytelling often ebbs and flows between individual performance and chorus in a range of surprising ways in small scale rural society. Problem is you never capture it fully under lab conditions or in recordings, its the increasingly rare moments when you catch it live and in the flesh, in its social and group context with every member playing their particular part and place within the group that the full dynamic unfolds.

    1. Oral story-telling is a whole different dynamic, given that the story itself in influenced by audience interaction. But just what kind of focused conversation happens afterward? If any.

      As for general discussions about texts, there's also discussions of sacred texts (when they aren't usurped by a priesthood claiming exclusive rights of interpretation). Bible study groups must be pretty old.

  2. p.s no I don't think such meetings or discussions between folk about texts or fragments of text embedded in other things is new I think its rather old.