We can frame the problematic of description with a remark David Bordwell made while discussing the state of film criticism. Following Monroe Beardsley, he divides the critic’s activities into four categories, description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. He then characterizes reviews, critical essays, and academic articles with respect to those four categories of activity. All of them employ description. Beyond that, the sense of his usage is that description is the most primitive of elementary of these activities.
In Bordwell’s recasting:
Critics describe artworks. Film critics summarize plots, describe scenes, characterize performances or music or visual style. These descriptions are seldom simply neutral summaries. They’re usually perspective-driven, aiding a larger point that the critic wants to make. A description can be coldly objective or warmly partisan.
The question I want to pose is whether or not neutral, if you will, objective, description is possible. While the issue interests me in its full generality, I’ve been particularly concerned about the descriptive characterization of literary texts. In the extreme, of course, we have that sort of postmodernism that tends to insist the text itself is just a bunch of marks on a surface and it’s all interpretation from there.
For those interested in, say, machine vision, that in itself is a practical, and difficult problem. It is one thing to train a computer to recognize mechanically printed text; that is now routine business. But computer recognition of handwriting is still a difficult problem. That is to say, in that particular intellectual context, merely recognizing the words on the page (or, for that matter, speech sounds in the air) is a deep and challenging problem. It is by no means obvious, however, that such an attitude is reasonable for the general practice of literary criticism. Is it possible to characterize plot structures and semantic structures in a way that is neutral and objective?
Therein lies the problem. In the penultimate chapter of Is There a Text in This Class? Stanley Fish takes up Stephen Booth’s work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, noting that Booth disavows any interpretive aims but declares that he intends simply to describe the sonnets. Fish observes (p. 353):
The basic gesture, then, is to disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text; but it is actually a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all. The claim, however, is an impossible one since in order “simply to present” the text, one must at the very least describe it . . . and description can occur only within a stipulative understanding of what there is to be described, an understanding that will produce the object of its attention.
That is to say, Booth, among others Fish discusses, seems to be claiming that description is not a starting point, but the end point. And further, that it has unmediated access to the text, something we know, in fact, to be impossible. There is no description without (logically prior) interpretive activity of some sort. Literary texts, whatever they are, are exceedingly complex. Just what we describe, and how we describe it, these are not simple matters.
We must realize, however, that there is interpretation and there is interpretation. It is disingenuous of Fish to pretend that all interpretive acts are equally problematic. Michael Bérubé makes this point in “There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser”, Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise, edited by Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham (SUNY, 2004), pp. 11-26.
... It would have been possible, in other words, to contest Fish’s reading of Iser not by stubbornly insisting on the determinacy of the determinate, and not, good Lord, by insisting on two separate varieties of determinacy and assigning “interpretation” to one of them, but by acknowledging that all forms of reading are interpretive but that some involve the kind of low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts we engage in whenever we interpret the letter “e” as the letter “e,” and some involve the kind of high level, exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved whenever someone publishes something like S/Z – or Surprised by Sin. (And, of course, that there are any number of “interpretations” that fall between these extremes, and that the status of each of them is – what else? – both open to and dependent on interpretation.)
That’s what I’m looking for, “uncontestable cognitive acts.” Whether or not they’re low level, that’s another matter. What’s important is that Bérubé bounds them by contrasting them (différance at work) with the “exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved whenever someone publishes” professional interpretive criticism.
That’s the problematic of description, to forge a methodology from those uncontestable cognitive acts even if we have to consult new sources of disciplinary inspiration to do so.
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I have long since made peace with the idea the meaning is irreducibly subjective not so much in the sense that it is idiosyncratically variable among persons–that may be true, but it’s secondary–but in the primary sense that meaning exists only IN the minds of subjects. Hermeneutic procedures always transform and translate meaning into other terms, terms which are themselves subjective.
But it is far from obvious that hermeneutic translation of meaning is the only sophisticated analytical instrument we have. I believe, for example, that in his work on myth in Mythologies, Levi-Strauss pointed the way to non-translational analytic strategies (cf. Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti) and I believe that I’ve demonstrated such strategies in my work on “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and in other work as well. What I have taken to calling naturalist criticism can only be built on a foundation of descriptive work.
But I have also concluded that, as much as I’d like to write a set of general recipes for the neutral objective description of literary texts, that that is not possible at this time, not for me and not, I suspect, for anyone else.
The reason for that is that such recipes can only be written as generalizations over a large corpus of existing analytic and descriptive work. Given such a corpus, then, yes, we can generalize over it and use those generalizations in guiding further descriptive work. We simply don’t have such a corpus, not for the deeper and more complex issues that we need to tackle.
So then, how do we arrive at such a corpus and how do we know that the descriptions it contains ARE IN FACT neutral and objective? What tests or measures can we apply to them so as to ascertain their objectivity?
If I knew THAT, I’d tell you. THAT’s what I don’t know. Does this mean that we’re going to go around the circle again?
Not quite. We arrive at such a corpus by doing the work. A bunch of critics has to undertake the job of describing tests and submitting that work to their peers, that is, to one another. Not to the deconstructive postmodern historicists; they’ll never certify anything as neutral and objective. It’s not in their intellectual constitution. No, the seekers of neutral description will have to trust in one another.
And THAT, I believe, WILL work. It won’t be easy. But it’s possible.
How, you ask, does this differ from Fish’s concept of the interpretive community?
By three decades and by intention. We’re not seeking the same goals.
On the first point, we’ve seen Fish’s intellectual program, and those of his peers, ossify and collapse, or nearly so. That generation of concepts has all but run its course. Moreover, we’ve got new intellectual tools in neighboring disciplines, the newer psychologies (cognitive, neuro, and evolutionary) and corpus linguistics.
On the second point, we’re not seeking translational interpretation. We’re after different fish. What I’ve learned from my own work is that those different fish ARE out there. But only a community can identify them. Individuals can catch them, but the group must certify their identity.
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On naturalist criticism, my central methodological statement is, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. For a more philosophical treatment see Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World.