Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature

Here's another collection of posts, this time on description. You can download the PDF HERE. The abstract and an introduction are below.
Abstract: This is a series of notes in which I argue that better descriptive methods are a necessary precondition for more sophisticated and objective literary criticism. Description, though it does not give unmediated access to texts, requires methods for objectifying texts, methods which must be discovered in the doing. By way of comparison I discuss the role of description in biology and I discuss the use of images and diagrams as descriptive devices. Lévi-Strauss on myth and Franco Moretti on distant reading, though quite different, are up to the same thing: objectification.

Introduction: Description Dawns on Me

Ever since my undergraduate days I have considered myself to be a theorist; I want to know how things work; I want to explain them. It is only in the past fifteen years or so that I have realized the importance of description in my work, and yet it has been important from the beginning.

My Master’s Thesis on “Kubla Khan” was fundamentally an act of description. But I didn’t see it that way, nor could I have done so. Description simply wasn’t high on the intellectual agenda back in those days, the late 60s and early 70s.

But theory was. As I explain in the post, Into Lévi-Strauss and Out Through “Kubla Khan”, I started out with the intention of cobbling together bits and pieces of semiotics, phenomenology, developmental psychology, linguistics, and whatnot to create the kind of theory that poem required. I ended up describing structural patterns in the poem unlike any I’d seen other critics describe, not only in that poem, but in ANY poem. But then “Kubla Khan” is a poem like no other, no?

In the Fall of 1973 I set off to graduate school in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo where I studied cognitive theory with David Hays in the Linguistics Department. I wrote papers on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Wuthering Heights, and “The Cat and the Moon,” all of which had strong descriptive elements, though it was always theory that was uppermost in my mind, except for my paper on “The Cat and the Moon,” which was heavily descriptive.

The Coming of Cognitivism

It wasn’t until long after I’d left graduate school and published a number of papers on a variety of topics that I came to focus on the descriptive aspect of my work in literary criticism. This happened in the mid-1990s when I noticed that: A) literary critics were at long last beginning to turn to the cognitive sciences, but that B) they knew nothing of the work I’d done and published during the 1970s and 1980s, and C) the work that they were doing was nothing like what I’d done.

Well, “nothing like” is perhaps too strong. But it was very different. For one thing, their taste in cognitive theory was different, drawing on more recent ideas. The thing about these ideas is that, for better or worse, they seemed to have lost the computational inspiration and aura of “first-generation” cognitive science.

What struck me with particular force, however, was that these critics seemed to be looking at texts in much the same way as standard-issue critics, whether traditional of post-structuralist. Like those critics they wanted to explicate the meanings of texts. Where the older critics used Continental philosophy, some flavor of Marxism, some version of psychoanalysis, and so forth, to crank out interpretations, these newer cognitive critics would use cognitive metaphor theory or conceptual blending to crank out the interpretation.

More importantly, however, is the fact that, like other critics, these cognitive critics had little interest in formal patterns–so-called formalist criticism was never about analyzing form–and seemed oblivious to or uninterested in the kinds of details I’d picked out in my descriptive work. The more I thought about it, the more THAT difference seemed crucial. In the case of “Kubla Khan,” it was those bits of descriptive detail, and the patterns they formed, that forced me to abandon extant critical approaches and to investigate the cognitive sciences. The same was true of my other work. Whatever theory I may have cobbled together along the way, that was motivated by some descriptive pattern that I found within a single text or that emerged through the close comparison of several texts (e.g. The Winter’s Tale with Pandosto).

Thinking Description

And so I began thinking about description. Some of my thinking was around and about a particular passage by Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class? p. 353), a passage I examine in The Problematic of Description (below). Fish claimed, in effect, that some critics would disavow interpretation in favor of (mere) description, but that this stance was an intellectual con job. Those descriptions are as bound up in presuppositions as any interpretive method.


And that question is both rhetorical and real. One of the things I’ve been seeking through description is objectivity. But if description is theory-bound as well, then how can it be objective?

Well, everything is theory-bound, so what? And objectivity is something that must be constructed, through proper methods. Which are often difficult to build. It’s not enough to have a pure heart and good intentions.

The point I have been trying to articulate, in my mind and certainly in these various blog posts, is that descriptions ARE different from interpretations (as in academic literary criticism), certainly, but also from explanatory theories and models (as in the various sciences). And just as biologists have been able to build a considerable intellectual discipline on vast catalogues of descriptions that carve nature at its joints (to invoke a trope that goes back to Plato) it seems to me that literary critics are now in a position to do the same.

What I’d really like to see, of course, is literary critics rolling up their metaphorical sleeves and doing the descriptive work that needs to be done. I firmly believe that 100s of sound descriptive studies are there for the making. But I can’t explain to anyone how to do them. All I can do is point to particular examples here and there and say: More of that. We need more of those.

These posts aren’t like that. They aren’t examples of descriptive work. Rather, they are various essays into exploring the nature of description and of showing that, while it is not an act of unmediated apprehension of the world, it not an arbitrary and idiosyncratic imposition either.

The Posts

Let me provide a brief gloss for each post included in this document:

1. The Problematic of Description: Description is not simple and unmediated (Stanley Fish) but it can be grounded in “uncontestable cognitive acts” (Michael Bérubé). At this point in the development of academic literary criticism, those uncontestable cognitive acts can only be identified by communities of scholars working directly with texts. We do not yet have explicit descriptive methodologies which we can lay-out in handbooks.

2. Description and Distance at New Savanna: First I talk about description in biology at various scales, macro, meso, and micro (e.g. molecules), then I move on to literary texts, pointing out that grammars ARE descriptions. I conclude with short glosses on (and links to) five posts that aren’t included in this document.

3. Beyond Close Reading: In which I assert that what has been called close reading was never all that close and that the desire for a critical method that brings us closer to the text (in, e.g. Geoffrey Hartman) is a nostalgic longing, never to be fulfilled.

4. Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti: The trope of critical distance is misleading and not terribly useful. What Moretti is after is objectication (which is not the same as, but prior to, objectivity), which is not so different from what Lévi-Strauss was seeking in his impersonal myth systems. “Both stand at a distance from their texts, and both, I submit, seek to objectify their textual worlds by abstracting relations, forms, structures, and models from collections of texts.”

5. The Hermeneutics of Description: I look a two series of posts I’d done on two classic cartoon shots (Porky in Wackyland and The Greatest Man in Siam) and explain how my descriptive work on those cartoons developed over a series of posts. Early posts brought certain features into conceptual view. I then examined those features more closely in later posts and, in some cases, revised my initial descriptions.

6. Picturing the Phenomenon: What’s an Abstract Picture? I treat pictures as descriptions. First I examine an ordinary photograph (which I took myself). Then I look at Watson and Crick’s double helix model of the DNA molecule and I conclude with some charts I’ve done depicting aspects paragraph structure in The Heart of Darkness. None of these images give unmediated acess to the world, but each of them objectifies some little aspect of the world.

7. Some Varieties of Descriptive Experience: When Mark Twain describes “a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top”, that is one kind of description, and very different, e.g. Watson and Crick on the DNA molecule.

8. On Describing Clouds, It can be done: John Wilkins discusses how Luke Howard developed an intersubjectively sharable (objective?) scheme for classifying clouds. The scheme was based on empirical observation, not experimentation.

9. Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description
10. Description and the Teleome, Part 2: These two posts are directed at Mark Changizi, a theoretical psychologist. He argues that we can’t understand how the brain works until we understand what it does. “Teleome” is his word for “the ultimate catalog of an animal’s what-it-does-es”, the goals of its behavior. I suggest that literary texts, and works of art in general, engage a full range of perceptual, cognitive, and affective capacities in an integrated fashion and that the purpose of these objects, what they are designed to do, is to “couple” individuals together into a cultural community. Therefore “our best bet for understanding the mind in all its richness and complexity is through understanding artistic expression. And that understanding requires that we compile a body of rich descriptions of works of art.”

No comments:

Post a Comment