Sunday, December 8, 2013

Center Point Construction: Description and Objectivity

No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement.

—Bruno Latour

...we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher...
– Plato

This post follows upon my earlier post, Center Point Construction: Coleridge, Tezuka, Conrad, and Coppola, and presupposed knowledge of it. I want to discuss the method I employed in making that argument and, in particular, I want to argue that it is possible for the profession to obtain objective knowledge of such matters.

I am aware, of course, that objectivity has taken a beating in the past few decades. Nonetheless I persist. I do not think that objectivity is a matter of unmediated access to the world. That doesn’t exist. Nor do I think that a pure heart and a clean mind are adequate to the job.

Rather objectivity is a matter of proper method, of construction or, to use a word from Latour, of composition. Our picture of the objective world is one we compose. And I offer ring form as one of those conceptual objects that we can compose in an objective manner.

The simplest form of objectivity is simple intersubjective agreement. It was when critics discovered that they could not attain intersubjective agreement on matters of interpretation, of meaning, that we began to question our activity, to theorize the discipline. My suggestion is that we bracket meaning and concentrate on describing form. There is where we can attain intersubjective agreement.

That is what I did in arguing about center point construction in “Kubla Khan”, Tezuka’s Metropolis, Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now. I note that in talking of description I am not asserting that description, unlike interpretation, is in some mysterious way, unmediated. Description requires its terminology, such as ring form or center point construction, such as center loading, and so forth. But that terminology is about form, not meaning. These statements are descriptive, not because they are unmediated, but, in effect, because that is all that they do: describe. One would, of course, like to know how it is that the mind constructs such things, and why the mind takes pleasure in them. Description will not provide answers to those questions. But I see little hope of constructing answers if we do not start with good descriptions.


Before getting down to it, though, I want to show that I really mean it when I say that I am not presupposing that description is equivalent to having unmediated access to our object texts. Let’s sharpen our knives on Stanley fish.

In the penultimate chapter of Is There a Text in This Class? Fish takes up Stephen Booth 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 he 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.)
It is those low-level and mid-level interpretive opportunities that interest me. That is where I wish to pitch the tent of naturalist criticism.


Consider the emblems that I’ve identified in each of the four example texts. I have to understand them, in some nontrivial sense, in order reason about them. I am aware that they have meanings, but I am not trying to ferret out any “hidden” meanings that may lurking about in the dark; I do not treat these emblems as symbols that have some other meaning – though readers may well do something very like that when reading the texts. I am not trying to second-guess readers.

Let’s examine each of the emblems in turn.

In “Kubla Khan” the emblem is a line: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.” On the evidence within the poem alone one might want to treat that as a symbol of poetry. If one knows other poems by Coleridge, and knows something of his writing about poetry, that interpretation becomes more compelling. But that’s NOT what I’m doing when I argue that it is an emblem.

My argument depends on the ordinary meanings of those words and their relationships with the other words in the poem, again, in their ordinary meanings (allowing for the fact that “shadow” could have meant “reflection” to Coleridge and that “dome” could have meant domicile in addition to a hemispherical structure). “Sunny” is derived from “sun” and the sun is a source of light and heat. Ice is cold, and that puts it is semantic opposition to heat. Ice is also the solid form of water and both are different kinds of thing from light. Kubla created that sunny dome by an act of will; we’re told that in the beginning of the poem. Xanadu also has caves in which there is an underground river, brought into being by a fountain. Fountains and rivers are constituted by water, kissing cousin to the ice in the cavern, which we assume is the same as the one mentioned earlier in the poem.

Linkages such as those, plus the placement of those other items throughout the previous lines of the poem, that’s what I use in arguing that that line functions as an emblem. Plus, of course, the fact that it is repeated almost exactly – “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” – later in the poem. Nowhere am I translating those words into terms from another conceptual register.

The argument is thus a formal argument that depends, however, on what the words mean. It is thus different from a formal argument that depends on how the worlds sound – though my whole account of the poem includes arguments about sound as well.

So it is with the Michi and The Angel of Rome in Metropolis. There is much in that text one might want to explicate, to interpret, to translate into other terms. The fact that the plot depends on mysterious rays, omothenium rays, that have strange effects on living things, that is surely resonant in a country that had recently had two cities destroyed by atomic bombs. Michi’s viability depended on those rays. Why? Because Michi is an artificial being. That is worth thinking about, as is the fact that Michi is different from robots, and the fact that Michi is leading a rebellion of robots against humans. But none of that has any bearing on the arguments I used to establish that statue as an emblem for the Michi and his / her (remember, Michi is bi-gendered) story.

We know that Michi was modeled on the fictive Angel of Rome. When Michi fights against Kenichi she is in female form and is wearing a dress like that worn in the statue. As Michi’s dissolving into organic goo in the hospital, Kenichi places the statue, in which she was modeled, in the hospital room so that Michi’s classmates can bid farewell to something they can recognize as Michi. THAT’s what gives the statue emblematic status, that network of semantic and perceptual (visual appearance) relationships.

The emblem in Heart of Darkness is, like that in “Kubla Khan”, a repeated phrase: “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—“ and “ My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.” The first version occurred at the beginning of the nexus paragraph, the one at the structural center of the text. That is a very prominent place in the text given the resonance that those terms will acquire as the nexus paragraph unfolds. The second version occurred later on, in the third chapter, as Kurtz is on the boat and lying in bed, dying.

Consider the range of items collected in these two occurrences: my ivory, my station, my river, my career, my ideas, and, above all, my Intended. Much of the story takes place on or near that river, the Congo. The boat is journeying to “his” station, to retrieve that ivory he’s been collecting on behalf of the company, “his” ivory. It’s the company that sent Marlow after him. And if his career was with the company, he embarked on it to raise the money needed to make him worth of his Intended, who was so taken with his ideas. It’s all there, the whole story, within a semantic link or two of words in those emblematic phrases. And, of course, Marlow’s final conversation was with that very Intended and it’s in the course of that conversation that we learn the linkage between her and his career, station, and ivory.

Spelling out these relationships doesn’t require us to explicate what Conrad might have intended in linking these things together. That those items are linked is important but we don’t have to explicate their collective linked meaning in order to follow its traces into the text. Again, our investigation is a formal one.

That brings us to Apocalypse Now, where the emblem is almost mute, almost, but not quite. It’s an image, or rather, a set of closely related images that connect the beginning and the end of the film. The film opens on a montage, with the first shot being of helicopters above a flaming jungle. Then we see Willard’s head, upside down. Later on that head appear amid flames, with the upright head of a giant statue of the Buddha:

Montage AN 9 Willard+stoneguy

In the final 10 minutes of the film Kurtz’s head will be added to the mix, and the Buddha’s head will end the film. Immediately before that, however, we have a shot where Willard’s head dissolves into the Buddha head while we hear Brando’s voice on the soundtrack: “The horror, the horror.” That’s the film right there, in 10 seconds. We have the two principle characters, one present in image the other in voice, and an impassive statue of a deity. We don’t even need to ask “Why that statue?”, much less answer the question, in order to establish the emblematic value of those 10 seconds of film.

Nowhere in these discussions has it been necessary to entertain the “exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved” in interpreting the text, in giving a reading of it. But, just how far could we go before we find ourselves in that conceptual minefield? Consider this question: Why do these texts have emblems?

In my work on Coleridge I compare “Kubla Khan” with a very different poem, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, one that doesn’t have an emblem. It is also narrative in kind whereas “Kubla Khan” is ontological in the sense that each major section is about a different mode of being, different kinds of objects and actions among them. Thus the emblem itself conjoins different kinds of being, light and water, heat and cold. Metropolis involves different kinds of being – humans, artificial beings, electromechanical robots – and a world gone out-of-joint in the presence of mysterious radiation. The emblem itself juxtaposes a statue with a living being, albeit an artificial one, Michi. Further, it is part of a trilogy – Lost World and Nextworld are the other two – which, as I have argued elsewhere*, all have strong ontological concerns as expressed through catalogues of different kinds of creatures, primordial scenes, evolutionary thematics, and anomalous behaviors caused by mysterious energy (Lost World) or radiation (Metropolis and Nextworld).

Are Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now ontological texts? I’ve not yet made that argument for either text and I don’t intend to make it here. I note, though, both texts are concerned about the relations between civilization and the primitive. Consider the emblems themselves. The items strung together in Heart of Darkness are of different kinds and, moreover, things of wide variety of kinds: concrete and abstract, living and inanimate. In the case of Apocalypse Now the emblem conjoins human beings with an inanimate object, a piece of carved stone, that represents a supernatural being, the Buddha. That smells like ontology to me.

But a real argument would cover the whole text – as my arguments about “Kubla Khan” and Metropolis do – would further have to be contrasted with other texts to establish that we are indeed dealing with texts all of which have ontology as a special focus. After all, all texts involve beings of different kinds and beings of particularly strange kinds have whole sections devoted to them – science fiction, fantasy, and horror – in the few remaining stores that sell books directly to physically present customers.

I think such an argument is worth exploring, though not here and now. But it is not at all obvious to me that such an argument would require those “exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations” that Bérubé mentioned. At the moment I think there’s a good chance that the argument could be made without having to root out hidden meanings.

But that’s a digression. Let’s return to the main line of argument.

The presence of an emblem is only part of my argument about the formal similarities of these otherwise very different texts. What about the various attributes of center point construction?

What about them? The story is pretty much the same. The most important feature is center loading. Each of these texts has a central section which is physically near the mid-point of the text, though not necessarily right there – as determined by word count, page count, or running time, which ever is appropriate. That is a purely formal matter and independent of meaning. It is also, of course, in itself inadequate.

In each case the central section is also semantically central, as established by the kinds of reasoning I just demonstrated in arguing about the emblems for each text. One can establish central loading without having to find a hidden meaning. In the particular case of “Kubla Khan” the central sections of the two movements are also marked by a change in the relationship between rhyme and the grouping of discourse units into phrases and sentences. I’ve explained this in detail in “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind. Before and after the central sections rhyme and semantic/syntactic grouping are aligned. But they are not aligned in the center sections, where we find lines in different semantic/syntactic groups associated by being rhymed together.

And so it goes with the other features that Douglas identified: exposition or prologue, split into two halves, parallel sections (which doesn’t seem to be present), indicators to mark individual sections, and strong closure. It is because the sections do not seem to run in parallel in these texts that I have argued for center point construction – a category of my own devise, rather than the more formally constrained ring form.

Barring further argument then, I take it that in reasoning about these formal matters we can and must take meaning into consideration but not in a way that pitches us into the kinds of interpretive difficulties that became so problematic half a century ago. Note, however, that I have no interest in interdicting such interpretive work in any absolute sense. I only wish to bracket it. It is not appropriate to naturalist criticism, but it should be at the center of ethical criticism, which is a different and different kind of intellectual activity.


This brings us to comparison, which is also central to my method. It is worth repeating that it wasn’t until my correspondence with Mary Douglas prompted me to investigate Metropolis that I was able to look at “Kubla Khan” and separate two of its formal features – center point construction and the use of emblems – from the others. It was the act of comparison that brought those elements to the fore.

And so it has been with the other two texts I’ve been discussing here, and with several others not currently under consideration. I think of comparison as a way for the texts themselves to “speak”, to speak among themselves as it were. And that is what Lévi-Strauss was doing in Mythologies as he moved from one myth to another, always comparing them with respect to overall narrative arc and with particular respect to the attributes of particular actors or objects, actors or objects playing similar roles in the different myths.

As the texts speak among themselves we, as critics, must be prepared to listen. But we can listen in terms that are closely derived from the texts themselves or from disciplines that are neutrally about language, signs, or though – linguistics, semiotics, or cognitive psychology. It is not necessary to translate matters into the languages of psychoanalysis or Marxism or any other interpretive system.

In the overall process we can develop explicit criteria. That’s what Mary Douglas has done for us with respect to ring forms. Now, in using her criteria I didn’t take them at face value. I decided that one of them ¬– rings within rings – was unnecessary, and explained why. Not all of the remaining features were present in each of my four texts, or were present in reduced form. Again, I pointed that out.

As I’ve already noted, it is because one of the features – parallel sections – was not strongly present in any of my example texts that I decided to create a new category for texts that, on the whole, exhibit the features of ring form, but do not exhibit that one. That is, I treated her list, not as rigid template, but as a flexible guide – as she herself indicated (Thinking in Circles p. 35). I would expect further work to proceed on that basis. And not simply work on ring forms, which so far as I know, do not exhaust the literary formulary.

My point is simply that such descriptive analysis is possible, and that it is, in principle, possible for different scholars to come into agreement on these matters in a way that agreement is not, in principle, possible when interpreting texts. I don’t think such agreement will be automatic, or even easy. I only say that, with good will and hard work, it is possible.

That is all we need in order to proceed.

Addendum (12.9.13): I’m serious about the good will. Let’s turn, once again, to Stanley Fish. We’re looking at the penultime essay, “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?”, from Is There a Text in This Class? Fish is discussing Norman Holland’s Five Readers Reading and quotes from Holland’s text. Holland, you may recall, is a reader response critic and that book is a psychoanalytic study of the response of five readers to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” At one point Holland suggests that a reader who thinks that a certain passage was about an Eskimo wasn’t responding to the text at all but, rather was “only pursuing some mysterious inner exploration” (Holland p. 12). Fish responds (p. 346):
The Eskimo reading is unacceptable because there is at present no interpretive strategy for producing it, no way of “looking” or reading (and remember, all acts of looking or reading are “ways”) that would result in the emergence of obviously Eskimo readings. This does not mean, however, that no such strategy could ever come into play, and it is not difficult to imagine the circumstances under which it would establish itself. One such circumstance would be the discovery of a letter in which Faulkner confides that he has always believed himself to be an Eskimo changeling.
Fish then coughs up a parenthetical remark designed to render his supposition more plausible and then imagines the Faulkner industry setting the wheels in motion to grind out an Eskimo interpretation of the story.

Someone who is willing to entertain such fantasies is certainly capable of derailing any argument. I have no interest in including Stanley Fish in any discussion about the form of any text, including texts on which he is an expert. I figure that at any moment he’s capable of becoming a point-scoring debater and will then do whatever is necessary to put more points on the board. The original purpose of the discussion will, from then on, be irrelevant.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any reliable way to identify such spoilsports and thereby keep them from wrecking the discussion. That is the job of a community and its going to take awhile to establish appropriate, and largely tacit, norms.

* * * * *

*Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan. In Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog, eds. Mangatopia: Essays on Manga and Anime in the Modern World. Libraries Unlimited, 2011, pp. 37-51.

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