So, patterns. Some patterns operate on the time and scale of sensory perception; we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste things in the course of everyday life. But other patterns require more time and deliberation. That our solar system consists of planets and asteroids in transit about the sun is a pattern, but it’s not one given in sensory perception. Rather, it’s one that can be inscribed on a surface (where on can see it at human scale) and that emerged through thousands upon thousands of observations made by hundreds of individuals conversing over the course of centuries.
Literary texts (and films) are a bit like that. They are devices for capturing patterns of (mostly, generally) human life. Depending on the text, the reading may take only minutes or hours, perhaps over the course of days, but the writing likely took longer. Each text rests on a history of texts from which it draws and against which it reacts, and a body of texts requires a community to keep it in circulation.
Lifeways and Literature
Susan Langer (Feeling and Form) would say that these textual patterns embody virtual experience. Wayne Booth (The Company We Keep) talks of literature as a way of “trying out” modes of life, while more recently, Keith Oatley (Such Stuff as Dreams) writes of literary experience as simulation. We can say that these patterns are meant to be taken up by one’s whole psyche, one’s whole being – even that they are meant to facilitate unity of being.
Kenneth Burke writes of this in “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Finally, it is not, after all, as though life happens OVER THERE, while literature takes place in a separate space IN HERE such that literature is completely external to life. It’s not that simple. Literature takes place in and reacts on life.
Provisionally, we can say that a text represents certain states of affairs in the world; call that content. Texts use various devices to organize their contents; call that form. In Oatley’s terms the content is the world simulated while the form is the “machinery” used to run the simulation.
In critical practice, distinguishing form and content can be difficult. Ordinary literary criticism, mainstream literary criticism, is focused on interpretation. As far as I can tell, that seems to be an exercise in re-stating the lifeways captured in a text in a different kind of language. Such interpretations are always partial; they always leave some aspects of a text untouched. And while hermeneutic criticism takes note of textual devices, of formal matters, that is not its focus. It attends to form as a way of explicating meaning, of retracing the lifeways originally traced in the text.
I would further say that such criticism strives to keep in touch with the “ordinary” practice of reading and “taking up” literature. Hence it is common to talk of an interpretation as a reading of the text. The introduction of technical and quasi-technical concepts and vocabulary tends to get in the way of such reading and hence is problematic. On the one hand we hear calls for critics to drop the scientism, as this is thought to be, and write in ordinary language. On the other hand, critics themselves feel and express anxiety about their activity, thinking of it as somehow parasitic on primary texts and not an activity unto itself–I’m thinking here of the anxieties Geoffrey Hartman expresses in The Fate of Reading.
But it can be parasitic only if it is (seen as) doing the same thing as literature; it the aim is to do something different, well then, it’s no longer parasitic. Biology, for example, needs living things as its objects of investigation; but no one would think of biology as parasitic upon life. And so literary criticism needs texts as objects of investigation. It is only to the extent that criticism aims, not at the texts, but through the texts to life itself, that it can be parasitic.
Insofar as possible, I want to separate the investigation of form from the investigation of content and, further, to focus on form. I’m not interested in what a text means; I’m not primarily concerned about what it exhibits about human lifeways. I want to examine how the exhibit is structured, how the simulation is run.
When I write of the importance of description, I’m mean the description of formal patterns. Until we know what those patterns are, we cannot hope to understand the mechanisms behind them. As a practical matter, our sense of what to look for may be informed by our intuitions, and even models, of those mechanisms. But the emphasis is on describing the form.
In my own work ring-form or center point construction has emerged as a central concern – I suspect that is because its linear symmetry works against, cuts across, the cumulative effects of textual progression, but that’s a digression. In all those texts – “Kubla Khan”, Heart of Darkness, Metropolis, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Gojira, etc. – the formal pattern is cleanly separable from the context. Their subject matter is quite different but, to a first approximation, their form is the same.
How does that form work? The form is a pattern that we, as critics, see in the text. What mechanisms are responsible for that pattern? Obviously we cannot even begin to answer the question until we’ve described the pattern.
I am tempted to assert that, in the long run, we can treat such patterns as real only if we can find a mechanism to explain them. Yet I don’t quite believe that. It is because I believe the patterns are real that I search for mechanisms that explain them.
An Ethical Imperative
Finally, while the goal of naturalist criticism is not interpretive, much less ethical, there is an ethical dimension to the activity itself. Let us once again consider Edward Said’s lament (“Globalizing Literary Study,” PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 1, 2001, pp. 64-68):
I myself have no doubt, for instance, that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify. Questions and doubts about all these other relations have eroded the formerly perdurable national and aesthetic frameworks, limits, and boundaries almost completely. The notion neither of author, nor of work, nor of nation is as dependable as it once was, and for that matter the role of imagination, which used to be a central one, along with that of identity has undergone a Copernican transformation in the common understanding of it.
If there is any hope of recovering a robust sense of that autonomous aesthetic realm, it is though an understanding of the devices of literary form.
The content of literary works is tied to and anchored in “history, politics, social structures, and the like.” But the way the context is captured and presented is anchored in the inherent powers of the human mind. The formal patterns of texts are the traces of those powers. It follows that the way to understand those powers is to understand literary form.
The formalists WERE right in believing that form conferred (a degree of) autonomy on texts. But they were wrong in thinking that that autonomy applied to the meaning in a way that lifted it outside of history. The achievements of form are more limited. Form confers upon the reader the power of using literature to establish a critical distance from his/her historical moment and thereby to resist it, to work against it. The reader does this, not by apprehending a pre-existing eternal meaning, but by giving an order to his/her experience that it does not have in the context of daily life. What the reader then does with that order, that is his/her free choice, as free as any choice we have.
I conclude by observing that, to the extent that a robust understanding of literary form needs to be based on an appropriate idea of computation, the ethical imperative behind a naturalist criticism is compatible, if not inherent in, digital criticism.