Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure

Back in August of 2011 I published a relatively short document outlining my sense of where literary studies should go. I’ve now revised that document, retaining the four-part structure of my assessment, but somewhat revising my sense of what those four parts are. Then I talked of 1) description, 2) the newer psychologies, 3) object-oriented ontology, and 4) digital humanities. I’ve retained 1 and 4, but 2 and 3 have become naturalist criticism and ethical criticism, respectively. This change, of course, reflects the work I’ve recently done on a pluralist metaphysics.

This revision has the merit, I believe, of being a bit closer to what is actually happening in literary studies as naturalist criticism isn’t so restrictive a rubric as the newer psychologies and ethical criticism isn’t nearly so restrictive as object-oriented ontology. But the emphasis remains as it was then:

The primary texts constitute the treasure we study. Full and accurate descriptions of those texts are the key to that treasure. Everything else is built on those descriptions.

1) Description: We need to develop richer descriptions of the texts we study. I’ve blogged about this here and there, and I note that some folks at Arcade seem to be thinking about these lines. But mostly what I’ve been doing is working at honing my descriptive skills, with texts and with films. The postscript about a handbook for Heart of Darkness is as close as I’ve come to an explicit justification for description, though my recent post, Corpus Linguistics, Literary Studies, and Description, hints at what a fuller argument might entail.

2) Naturalist Criticism: By which I mean a criticism that treats literature as a thing of the world like other things of the world, rocks and trees and galaxies and other worlds, for that matter, tidewater pools. Naturalist criticism draws on the newer psychologies, cognitive science, neuropsychology, and evolutionary psychology, but isn’t necessarily limited to them. I take this to be background knowledge, knowledge about the human mind. The first half of Brian Boyd’s On the Evolution of Stories is exemplary in this regard (though his practical criticis in the second half is weak). Supplement it with material on the computational aspect of cognition and you have a reasonable synoptic précis of early 21st Century psychology. Naturalist criticism also draws on the nascent study of human cultural evolution and compatible views on human society in history.

The key characteristic of naturalist criticism is that the search for textual meaning is bracketed, as in Franco Moretti’s “distant” reading. The chief challenge is to devise descriptive methods that admit of close and detailed analysis while still keeping meaning at a distance. I have some remarks about that in my post, Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti.

3) Ethical Criticism: I mean “ethical” in the broadest sense, from ethos as invoking a way of life. Ethical criticism in this broad sense embraces both the aesthetics of the text itself and the ethics implied by the life represented or evoked within the text. Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction can stand as a rich and full account of and justification for ethical criticism. As Booth notes, most criticism today is ethical in this broad sense, even though the evaluative dimension of ethics has apparently been jettisoned. The various political and identity criticisms are all assertions about how life ought to be lived and how various texts support or undermine that life way.

Ethical criticism requires argumentation about textual meaning. It is an effort to show how the meaning of a text either supports the desired ethos or undermines it; as such it is an effort to summon the text in the living of one’s life. Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism is my central statement on the subject.

4) Digital Humanities: The digital humanities can provide: 1) New tools for the description of literary phenomena, whether, e.g. through statistical studies of individual texts, or though ‘distant reading’ (in Franco Moretti’s phrase) of large numbers of texts over large periods of time and geographical extent. 2) Tools for richly presenting and annotating primary texts, organizing handbook material, and integrating them with the larger literature around those texts. 3) Ultimately the digital humanities may provide explanatory models, simulations, of how the mind encounters texts. In this function the digital humanities would converge with the newer psychologies.

Consider that last to be my particular hobbyhorse. I enjoy riding it, but I am not urging you to do so, at least not at the moment. If you are curious, see Computational Linguistics and the Humanist, which I co-authored with the late David Hays, one of the founders of computational linguistics and, as such, one of the founders of computer science.

On the first, new tools for describing literary phenomena, “description” is the operative term. These techniques ARE descriptive, but not in an obvious or transparent way. I have argued that they will occasion a discussion of description within the profession in a recent post, Corpus Linguistics, Literary Studies, and Description. I discuss a particular example in  Literary History,the Future: Kemp Malone, Corpus Linguistics, Digital Archaeology, and Cultural Evolution.

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In what sense is this version closer to what is actually happening in literary studies? For one thing, as I indicated at the start, the notion of ethical criticism isn’t nearly so restrictive as object-oriented ontology, which is still relatively unknown and unused within the literary academy. As for ethical criticism, it’s not simply that the idea is less restrictive but, as Wayne Booth indicated in The Company We Keep, much or most of our critical work IS ethical criticism.

One dynamic I thus see working in the profession is the differentiation between ethical and naturalist criticism. Franco Moretti’s “distant” reading is a move toward naturalist criticism, as is the emergency of cognitive and so-called Darwinian criticism, though Darwinian criticism often has a strong ethical undercurrent. The descriptive nature of corpus linguistics gives it more of a naturalist cast and, indeed, one hears pleas, e.g. from Alan Liu, that it come to grips with critical theory. That discussion, when it happens, will help to distinguish between naturalist and ethical criticism even as it also brings greater sophistication to our descriptive work.

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