Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What’s a Global Reading for, Anyhow?

Let me continue my interrogation – as the kids call it these days – of Lakoff and Turner on “To a Solitary Disciple.” As interrogations are aggressive proceedings, I will, in that spirit, offer a suggestion about their global reading that is perhaps somewhat different from what they intended. My suggestion takes the form of an analogy, to a building, say a cathedral, and the materials of which it is constructed.

The first six pages of their reading consist of “local” readings, discussions of specific metaphors that occur in the text. Think of these as analogous to stone blocks, wooden planks, metal fittings, pieces of stained glass, and so forth, the materials from which the cathedral is constructed. But a cathedral is not just a pile of such things. A cathedral is a carefully designed structure that is built from those things.

What are the design principles and construction techniques? That is why Lakoff and Turner have produced a global reading, to answer that question. Now, they don’t say that’s what they’re doing, and their global reading is not a good substitute for design principles, but then, I said the analogy was an aggressive one. But I want to save that discussion for later. Let’s take a look at some of their local metaphor mappings.

Seeing is Touching, Form is Motion

Here’s an example, More Than Cool Reason (pp. 141-142):
Consider “the sky / is smooth / as a turquoise.” How can something we see but not touch be smooth? How does smoothness apply to vision? There is a basic metaphor that SEEING IS TOUCHING, where the eyes are understood as limbs that reach out and perceive what they touch, as in “Her eyes picked out every detail of the pattern,” “He couldn’t take his eyes off of her,” “He ran his eyes over the page, “ “Their eyes me,” and “His eyes traced the outline of the steeple.” When we run our fingers across something smooth like a turquoise, nothing interrupts the continuous motion. Similarly, when we scan a perfectly empty, clear blue sky, there is nothing to stop our gaze, no clouds, no birds, no variation in visual texture. The metaphor of seeing-as-touching maps the uninterrupted tactile texture of the smooth stone onto the uninterrupted visual texture of the sky.
That works. But note what’s going on. It’s not clear to me that, at this point, we’ve got anything more than a broad generalization, with “seeing is touching” being a phrase that captures that generalization. We don’t yet have a mechanism. What I’d really like to know just how the mind/brain does this but then, I’m sure, so would Lakoff and Turner.

Here’s another of their examples; this is of the FORM IS MOTION metaphor mapping (p. 142):
Another line that might not at first be taken as metaphoric is “how the dark / converging lines / of the steeple / meet at the pinnacle–.” It is common to speak of lines “converging” or “meeting,” as if they were moving. We say that “the road runs on for a bit and then splits,” “the path stretches along the shore of the lake,” “the fence dips and rises in parallel with the terrain.” Such language is based on a common way of understanding static shapes metaphorically in terms of a motion tracing that shape.
Like the previous example, this one is local and tied to specific passages in the text, as are all the examples in the opening part of the chapter (up to the top of p. 146). But these cases are the blocks, beams, and metal fittings of the poem. We want to know why it was built and on what design principles. As Lakoff and Turner tell us, these building materials (p. 146):

function in the service of a larger purpose. The poem, after all, is more than just instructions for looking at a church in early morning. The poem as a whole can be read as giving larger and more general instructions. Those who read the poem in this way may, of course, differ on just what larger and more general instructions the poem is suggesting.

Well, then, just which of these sets of more general instructions gives us the design of the poem? And that, I suppose, amounts to asking which instructions the poet, William Carlos Williams, had in mind.

Lakoff and Turner make no effort to argue that their reading is the one that Williams had in mind, nor do they even make an effort to argue that, of the available readings, there’s is the best one – they don’t even mention other readings (if there are any in the literature, I don’t know). They simply present their reading as one among the possible readings.

Nor do they address the questions I’m about to ask: If more than one reading is legitimately possible, then how can any one of these readings be the blueprint for the poem as a whole? Are they implying that given, say, five identical piles of materials and five different sets of blueprints, the resulting completed structures will be (superficially) the same? If not, what ARE they implying?

I submit that they aren’t implying anything. They simply don’t see the problem. They’ve got their materials on the one hand, the local metaphor mappings, and they’ve got a “global” reading on the other. That’s what we had back in 1965, a year before the French landed in Baltimore and literary criticism went to hell in a deconstructive hand basket. So to speak – at least that’s one version of the story (which I recount in Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker).

Back then we accounted for textual design by saying that texts had meanings, and those meanings are what motivates the features of the text. The fact that critics could never agree on that meaning was indeed troublesome, but as a practical matter any reading was OK as long as someone could put up an argument on its behalf. That’s not a very principled way to do things, mind you, but it’s how things actually worked and continue to work today. Except that today we no longer worry about the presence of multiple readings. Those epistemological worries are gone. Critics just “do their own thing” – as the kids used to say – according to whatever set of conventions they’ve adopted.

Thus, despite all their fancy new cognitive tools, Lakoff and Turner are doing literary criticism as it was done in the old days. They don’t, in fact, have a clue about how materials are combined into wholes. Well, not quite. They DO have one clue.

Iconic Mapping?

Their clue is form, which IS a very good clue, one I’ve argued for at some length in Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. They approach their consideration of form by observing that the poem begins with a series of sentences of the form “Rather X than Y” (pp. 155 ff.). The first three strophes begin with “Rather X” and the first two provide the concluding and contrasting “than Y.” The third does not. What is worse, it overflows (their word, and a good one) and careens into the rather different 4th strophe. Thus:
12 Rather grasp
13 how the dark
14 converging lines
15 of the steeple
16 meet at the pinnacle--
17 perceive how
18 its little ornament
19 tries to stop them--

20 See how it fails!
21 See how the converging lines
22 of the hexagonal spire
23 escape upward--
24 receeding, dividing!
25 --sepals
26 that guard and contain
27 the flower!
They observe that the transition from 3rd to 4th strophe is the midpoint of the poem (which is 42 lines long) and begin moving into a virtuoso bit of reading with which to begin closing out the chapter. They propose to map the structure of this sentence to the image of escape – the failure of the converging lines to be contained by the top ornament – contained within it (pp. 155-56):
The mapping between the structure of this sentence and the structure of the image of escape is an image-mapping based on the metaphor FORM IS MOTION. Sentences and clauses are forms. By FORM IS MOTION, these sentences and clauses are understood as moving, as when we say “This sentence runs on too long,” “This paragraph flows nicely,” “That paragraph stops abruptly,” and so on...

The image of the steeple also has a form, which is understood metaphorically as the same motion: the linear form is a linear motion which normally stops where the lines meet, but in this case it does not. The lines go on. Though the form of the sentence and the form of the steeple are two very different kinds of form, we can understand them them metaphorically as motions having the same overall shape.
Which they then go on to elaborate, thus (p. 156):
The image-mapping between the sentence and the image that it conveys is as follows: the linear form of the “rather” clause maps onto the linear form of the steeple lines; the metaphorical linear motion of the steeple clause maps onto the metaphorical linear motion of the steeple lines; the expected metaphorical stoppage of the “rather” clause at the “than” clause maps onto the the expected metaphorical stoppage for the steeple lines at the ornament where they meet…”
And so on for a couple more clauses. The upshot they declare this mapping to be “iconic”, with the structure of the poem – or at least of this one sentence in the poem – matching the image of the steeple.

I rather imagine that, as they wrote that, they were contemplating a (real or only imaginary) diagram that might look something like this (where the numbers are line numbers in the poem):

The slanted lines, of course, are the point of the steeple. We read this diagram starting from the lower left with the first line of the poem. Line by line we move up the steeple until we reach the pinnacle and WHAM! we conclude the 3rd strophe, move through the 4th – which lingers at the top with the sepals and the spire – and start back down the steeple in the 5th strophe.

Do I believe that? I don’t know.

Is this what is Really Going On in the poem, or is it something that Lakoff and Turner have put there by virture of their particular view of things? That is the big argument we had back in the later 1960s and on into the 1970s and it was never really resolved. Deconstruction put it on the shelf and that was that.

In a strong version of What’s Really Going On in “To a Solitary Disciple”, I would expect that a technical account of the FORM IS MOTION (FIM) apparatus might include something like this:
In performing a poem, the FIM takes two arguments, an image schema and a frame “focused on” the linguistic apparatus. Given these two arguments, the FIM constructs a correspondence between the image schema and the frame. To perform the poem, the FIM scans the “inner eye” along the edge of the steeple schema; as it does so, corresponding elements in the language frame are activated. That activation is passed onto the LOD (language output device), which generates the actual words of the poem.
Even allowing for the fact that that’s somewhat parodic, it seems pretty flimsy. But I see no way of avoiding something like this if one wants to make a strong claim that the structure of the poem Really Is Like that image of the steeple that is also an element in the poem’s imagery. It seems to me that, in this particular case, FORM IS MOTION is serving as a proxy for some (neural?) apparatus that is so radically underspecified that invoking it has little or no explanatory value. This metaphor is disembodied and ungrounded.

And that’s where my thinking stood until I’d worked my way through two sentences in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. In that post I convinced myself that in at least one of those sentences Hemingway’s prose rhythm mirrored the rhythms of the cape-work he was describing in a prototypical bull fight. That’s a bit like what Lakoff and Turner are arguing for in Williams. In Hemingway’s case prose rhythm is being “mapped” onto the rhythm of cape passes in the bull ring. The Williams case is more complex in that poetic rhythm is being mapped onto a visual image. Musicians do that sort of thing all the time; the printed score of a musical piece is a static visual object, but the conventions of musical notation allow the musician to “map” that onto a flowing piece of music.

What certainly IS the case is that Williams was a poet and he had virtuoso command of language rhythms. It’s not clear to me whether the break between the 3rd and 4th strophe is the poem’s structural center, or whether we should regard the entire 4th strophe as the center, but Lakoff and Turner are certainly right in focussing on that break. There IS a temporal break at that point. And Williams IS describing a steeple at that point. I’d be disinclined to think that that conjunction is accidental.

Technical Mumbo-Jumbo

If that’s all they’re saying, then, yes, sure, fine. I’m with you. But I don’t know about this “mapping” talk. The term is mathematical and has a precise meaning in mathematics. The discussion of “To a Solitary Discipline” is not very precise. I ran into that problem in my original discussion of global the global reading, A Leak in Cool Reason, where I had to judge just how ‘tightly’ to read their assertion that the source domain is “the appearance of a particular church” and the target domain is “the essence of religion” (p. 148). Being in a polemical mood, I chose a tight reading and reduced their global reading to an absurdity. However, I felt a bit of remorse and so decided to supply a bit of my own quasi-technical equipment to give a bit more structure to their argument and I produced a more generous reading in A Leak in Cool Reason 2: Pattern Matching.

So, what do I do with “FORM IS MOTION” and this iconic reading? In the case of the Hemingway sentence the claim is only that the rhythm of the sentence matches the rhythm of the imaginary matador’s cape passes. There is no claim that the “motion” of the sentence somehow matches the visual appearnce of those passes. That’s a more elaborate claim, one that strikes me as being unnecessary. And that’s how I feel about the particular argument Lakoff and Turner are making: it’s unnecessarily elaborate (e.g. the long paragraph in the middle of page 156 where they attempt to specify the ‘mapping’ point for point).

That’s a rather vague argument, I know. But at this point it’s my vague sense that they don’t know quite what they’re talking about against their treatment of capitalized phrases (“FORM IS MOTION”) as inference rules in a formal system whose properties they never specify in any detail. There’s a term of art for that: scientism, which is a species of mumbo jumbo.

Have they observed something about “To a Solitary Disciple” that is interesting and deserves our most serious attention? Yes, no doubt about it. Do they offer a good account of the inner workings of the mechanism that produced that phenomenon? No, they haven’t.

The important point, the take-home lesson, is that they are talking about the poem’s form. That remains the same regardless of what reading you want to offer for the poem. That’s what we need to account for how the building materials, the local metaphor mappings, are assembled into a completed cathedral. The principles are formal ones.

But they’ve got to do more than tell us about the relation between poetic rhythm and the image of the steeple in the middle of the poem. They’ve also got to tell us how we get from the beginning of the poem to the end. Lakoff and Turner haven’t addressed that question.

We’ve got more work to do.

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