Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Description as Redesign: Carving Nature at the Joints

In reply to my open letter Willard McCarty made an observation I want to look at: “So an act of description is creative, or more accurately, an act of redesign under constraints which are very difficult to be exact about but which are hard as rocks.” To which I replied: “’Redesign’ – yes. After all, we ARE trying to figure out the design. We're attempting to reverse engineer it. And it is exacting, but the constraints are not obvious.”

Still, we need to be careful. To be sure, in my experience, description is not easy, not obvious, and, I suppose, creative. I’m not following a set of explicit guidelines; there are things I look for, but it’s not the sort of thing I could reduce to a checklist and then give it to anyone who can read.

But also, the “creativity” of literary criticism has been much extoled in the mainstream literature and I’m a bit wary of that. For that’s what underwrites the multiplicity of often-incompatible interpretations for any given text. That’s fine for interpretation, but not so good for description. I want mutual compatibility of descriptions.

Turkeys, for example, are fairly complex objects and any given turkey will admit of many descriptions, all true and mutually consistent. But a turkey cannot have both two legs and only one, the other having been lost in an accident) – well, yes, turkeys exist in time and a description that’s apt at one moment may contradict one that’s apt at some other moment; that’s no problem.

But then McCarty re-characterizes description as qualification as redesign. And I like that, comparing it to reverse engineering – which I may say more about in another post. And that led me to that old cliché about carving Nature at its joints. We owe that one to Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates has likened a well-formed speech to an animal with its various appropriately arranged parts and is now examining two different speeches on love (265e-266a):
... we are not to attempt to hack off parts like a clumsy butcher, but to take example from our two recent speeches. The single general form which they postulated was irrationality; next on the analogy of a single natural body with its pairs of like-named members, right arm or leg, as we say, and left, they conceived of madness as a single objective form existing in human beings. Wherefore the first speech divided off a part on the left, and continued to make divisions ...
The vehicle of Plato’s simile, butchering, is worth thinking about. When you carve meat, you want to do so cleanly. You don’t want bones to stick out, which means you’ve got to cut right into the joint, not to either side of it.

The problem, though, is you can’t see the joint when it is covered with muscle and skin. It’s hidden and its location is not apparent on the carcass’s surface. That’s where the comparison gets its power.

And so it is with describing texts. The “joints” are not apparent in the surface. It takes skill to find them.

And what of the computational mindset that I regard as essential to literary criticism (see, for example, Computational Thinking and the Digital Critic: Part 1, Four Good Books)? That’s what tells you where the joints are, or at least gives you clues. As I’ve argued in my long paper on literary morphology, literary form is computational form. Ultimately we want to understand how those computational processes work. To do that we must begin by identifying their traces in the text.

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