Friday, August 30, 2013

From Frye to the Buffisstas, with a glance at hermeneutics along the way

This is another post from Ye Olde Valve, my second as I recall. I was still in my audition period, strutting my stuff so the Valvists could see whether they'd let me join their ranks. It appeared in early December of 2005.

Beyond Hermeneutics?

While Culler’s 1975 Structuralist Poetics was obviously influenced by structualism and semiotics, it was also influenced by Chomskyian linguistics. Thus the book’s first chapter is entitled “The Linguistic Foundation.” It ends with the assertion: “Linguistics is not hermeneutic. It does not discover what a sequence means or produce a new interpretation of it but tries to determine the nature of the system underlying the event” (p. 31). I think that Culler is correct, even if we allow for a linguistics with a robust semantics. It’s not clear that we have such a linguistics, but considerable work has been done on it since Culler wrote his book.

But, as the book was being published, structuralism was giving way to deconstruction and other post-structuralist methods. From my point of view, that is to say, in view of my particular intellectual interests, that was a choice in favor of continued hermeneutics and against the prospect of a non-hermenutic study of literature. That last is what I’ve been up to.

But it’s one thing to say that “linguistics is not hermeneutic,” it’s quite something else to understand what that means, what it entails as an intellectual practice. That’s not what I’m trying to do right here and now. Here and now I want to look at hermeneutics, perhaps so the space of a non-hermeneutic criticsm can emerge through opposition.

Frye, Hartman, and the Buffistas

Just what is the relationship between critic and text? What is the relationship between the critic’s commentary on the text and the text itself? What are we trying to achieve through criticism?

And so forth.

Let’s consider a passage from the “Polemical Introduction” to Northrup Frye’s well-known Anatomy of Criticism (pp. 27-28):
The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospels, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature. Otherwise the reading will not be a genuine literary experience, but a mere reflection of critical conventions, memories, and prejudices. The presence of incommunicable experienced in center of criticism will always keep criticism as art, as long as the critic recognized that criticism comes out of it but cannot be built on it.
Thus, for Frye, there was a clear distinction between simple reading and interpretive or critical reading. Yet he would not have penned those words if that distinction was not already so problematic that it had to be asserted at some length in his polemical introduction.

A page later Frye reiterates the need for that polemical introduction when he says (p. 29) “The strong emotional repugnance felt by many critics toward any form of schematism in poetics is again the result of a failure to distinguish criticism as a body of knowledge from the direct experience of literature, where every act is unique, and classification has no place.” That is to say, Frye is making the distinction because he wants to anatomize literature itself - not criticism as his book title says - and he is guarding against those who claim that such activity destroys literature. It doesn’t destroy literature, Frye says, because the experience of literature is one thing, while thinking about literature, classifying its forms and techniques, analyzing its themes, and delineating its styles, is quite something else again.

This seems obvious enough to me and I am willing, at least for the moment, to take it a face value. Now I want to consider a remark by Geoffrey Hartman. These remarks are from an essay on “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” that I recently published in PSYART.

In the title essay from The Fate of Reading (1975) Hartman is grappling with the fact that, no matter how intensely critics are oriented toward the texts of which they write, that very act of writing requires distance from those texts. One cannot write about the text if and while one is immersed in reading it. Complaining that contemporary theorists-mostly French or under French influence-have come to privilege such writing over reading, Hartman asks (p. 272): "To what can we turn now to restore reading, or that conscious and scrupulous form of it we call literary criticism?" [emphasis mine, WLB].

Hartman then observes that "modern ‘rithmatics’-semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism-are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing." I believe that Hartman is correct and that his list of modern "rithmatics" should be extended to include the newer psychologies. These psychologies are not going to restore the critic to that intimacy with the text which Hartman so earnestly desires. That is a loss. But the loss is not so much that of textual communion, but of the well-intentioned rhetorical stance that such textual communion is the proper and possible end of literary criticism.

That communion has always been a mirage, an impossible dream. One can always commune with a text simply by reading it without attempting to figure out what it really means. But the moment one attempts to explicate that text, one is playing a different game, located in a different psycho-cultural space.

How’d we get from Frye’s insistence distance to Hartmann’s nostalgic desire to eliminate distance? I don’t think that Hartmann is, in any deep way, any closer to the texts than Frye is, but they think about that relationship in different ways. Why?

By way of comparison, let’s consider fan commentary. The Phoenix is devoted to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (BTVS) and related programs. I don’t know where it stands in the array of online Buffy sites, it just happens to be the Buffy site I know about. I lurked among these folks when they were chatting at Salon’s Table Talk. When TT went pay-to-post these Buffistas decamped, first for World Crossing, and then for their own site (hence its name). There is, of course a lot of chatting about Buffy episodes, but also other Josh Whedon programs, and they also write, post, and discuss fan fiction. While many of them are fairly sophisticated - and some would seem to have some cultural studies and/or lit crit in their background - and they are quite serious in their devotion to all things Buffy, this is a fan site. It is not academic. Any learning on display, is displayed lightly.

These folks do not ponder their relationship with the Buffy texts in the manner of Frye and Hartmann. I’m sure they recognize some difference between watching Buffy and commenting on the show - though many of them have posted short comments (“Ohmyghod! I can’t believe they just did that,” “More kissage!”) to the web in the course of watching a show - and I rather doubt that many of them would think of chatting with one another as a way to restore some primal relationship with the show. They’re just sharing their love of BTVS with friends and comrades.

Let’s say that their discourse, any and all of it, is part of the general socio-cultural system through which expressive works like BTVS, but also Shakespeare and Austen and Murasaki and Tezuka, make their way in the world. What about the discourse of academic literary critics? Is commentary on Shakespeare a part of the Shakespeare system or does it stand above and apart from it? What about commentary on, say, Salmon Rushdie? What is the relationship between these questions - stated in terms of socio-cultural systems - and the questions of Frye and Hartmann, stated in terms of the relationship between the individual critic-reader and the text? What does this have to do with hermenuetics and non-hermeneutics?

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