A few days ago I sent out a broadcast email on the topic, Ring Form and the Importance of Description in Literary Studies. I had no idea what response I’d get, if any. One critic, Jeff Turpin, did respond, and I replied on-list. After thinking about it, though, I decided that I had more to say. And that response, in turn, grew and grew. So I’ve decided to turn it into a post.
Roll Your Own
Here’s a snippet from Jeff’s response – I hope you don’t mind, Jeff:
And at least for post-structuralists, the text is whatever you say it is, so there are potentially infinite descriptions. … even for literary Darwinists a good story is a cornucopia. In archeology, as above, an artifact description is well-defined, and very brief, and most of the descriptive units are inarguable. In Shakespeare studies, not so good.
I’d like to say a bit more about this. I think that your use of post-structuralists here is something of a straw man. Whatever various post-structuralists may seem to say in sound bite excerpts, they don’t really believe that anything goes, or no more so than many others in the profession.
In focusing on the indeterminacy of the meaning of the text they simply provided philosophical cover for what was and pretty much remains the profession’s default position, namely that any reading is legitimate (“roll your own”) providing some (half-way) plausible case is made for it. This has been legitimized by the bromide that the multiplicity of readings testifies to the “richness” of the text–a cliché that was firmly in place before the French stormed ashore in Baltimore in the fall of 1966. The reader response theorists, of course, provided a somewhat different cover but still, in the larger context of the profession’s basic practice, that’s what it is, intellectual cover for what people were in fact doing.
Second, as I’ve said before, these arguments are about meaning, not about form. And the description of form is where I’m pitching my tent. That’s not really been done on a systematic basis. To be sure, the Russian Formalists WERE very much interested in form – it is to them we owe the now commonplace distinction between story, the temporal ordering of events in a narrative, and plot, the order in which events are introduced into a narrative. But what has been called formalism in Anglo-American criticism did not take the analysis and description of form as a central concern. Rather, it used the idea of form as a way of arguing for the autonomy of the text, thus making biographical and historical arguments irrelevant. (I suspect, incidentally, that once that had happened, deconstruction was inevitable, but that’s a different argument. Still, see this old post that Daniel Green contributed to The Valve.)
The kind of systematic formal analysis I’m proposing simply hasn’t been tried. And that, in part, is also why, as you say “definitively describing a new insect is a lot easier than definitively describing Hamlet.” Insects are very complicated creatures, with an almost unbounded number of properties. One way to deal with such a problem is to compare instances with one another. Taken individually each is very complicated, but in comparison with one another, they are alike in some ways, different in others. Why not start your description with the most striking of these similarities and differences?
That’s what biologists have been doing for a long time, the intellectual tradition stretches back several centuries. The biologist thus has well-established rules of thumb for doing this. The rules of thumb in literary description aren’t so well established nor are they given much use. That’s why describing a new insect is easier than describing Hamlet, not because insects are simpler creatures than Shakespeare’s text.
The fact is, quite independently of me, the profession IS showing signs of interest in description. The most obvious interest is focused on the “big data” work of digital humanists and Franco Moretti’s so-called “distant” reading. Here we’re looking at large collections of texts and searching for patterns in them, which is quite different from the “close” description of individual texts I’ve been talking about.
But even here, matters are not so simple. In a recent pamphlet from his Literary Lab Moretti himself looks at individual texts in some detail, Network Theory, Plot Analysis, which does focus on individual texts in some detail. It features extensive work on Hamlet, with 31 out of a total of 55 figures, and somewhat less work on a variety of other texts including two other Shakespeare plays (King Lear, Macbeth), Our Mutual Friend (10 figures), and The Story of the Stone (a Chinese text, 10 figures).
Or, consider a recent issue of Representations, a journal that was more or less founded as the “house organ” of new historicist criticism, a prominent line of post-structuralist thinking. The Fall 2009 issue was devoted to “Surface Reading”. Here’s the abstract of the introduction: Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, Surface Reading: An Introduction:
In the text-based disciplines, psychoanalysis and Marxism have had a major influence on how we read, and this has been expressed most consistently in the practice of symptomatic reading, a mode of interpretation that assumes that a text's truest meaning lies in what it does not say, describes textual surfaces as superfluous, and seeks to unmask hidden meanings. For symptomatic readers, texts possess meanings that are veiled, latent, all but absent if it were not for their irrepressible and recurring symptoms. Noting the recent trend away from ideological demystification, this essay proposes various modes of “surface reading” that together strive to accurately depict the truth to which a text bears witness. Surface reading broadens the scope of critique to include the kinds of interpretive activity that seek to understand the complexity of literary surfaces–surfaces that have been rendered invisible by symptomatic reading.
They’re still interested in meaning, not form. But they’re looking at the “surface”, which is where I’m looking. These critics may or may not be up to doing the kind of work I’ve been doing on center point construction, but I find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t be interested in what I’ve discovered about two politically charged texts, Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now. Conceptually, they’re halfway there, and that was four years ago. Where are they now?
From Attitudes to Institutions
No, while I certainly expect lots of objections to the project I’m proposing, and at least some of those objections will be pro forma refusals rather than invitations to dialog, I don’t expect that post-structuralists will be more likely than any other group of critics to object. I think the main problem is that we as a profession do not have strong traditions of cooperative collaborative work, for that’s what this project will require. Description isn’t rocket science, but it is exacting, time-consuming, and it can be difficult.
We’re going to have to do a lot of it, so much that we won’t have the time to “roll our own” each time we write an article or a monograph. We’re going to have to trust the descriptive work of other critics and we’re going to have to collaborate with others in producing these descriptions. That’s going to be hard.
And the difficulty is not simply one of individual attitudes and working style. It’s institutional as well. People are going to have to be able to accrue professional credit for undertaking descriptive work. Getting that to happen will be difficult.
Indeed, I think the institutional problems are worse than the conceptual ones. What we need is a few billionaires who want to fund an alternative professional world for 21st Century humanities scholars.