Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Autonomous Aesthetic: A Graduate Syllabus in Naturalist Literary Criticism

I'd originally posted this at The Valve in July of 2007 under a slightly different title: The Autonomous Aesthetic: A Graduate Syllabus in Literary Theory. Now that I have clearly distinguished between naturalist and ethnical criticism, and provided a rationale for the distinction, it seems best to restrict the title of this syllabus to naturalist criticism, for that IS its scope. Beyond that, the syllabus holds up pretty well. I've added Brian Boyd's book, On the Origin of Stories, which makes a bear of a course even worse, but the first half has a lot of useful psychology in it, making it a valuable supplement to me, Tsur, and Herman.

Note that I'd originally republished this in October of 2013. I'm bumping it to the top in the context of my open letter to Hillis Miller. Finally, if this post at all interests you, I urge you to go over to The Valve (link above) and read the discussion we had there. It's quite good. For on thing, there's some commentary on the notion of an autonomous aesthetic, and that's something I've been thinking about steadily for awhile. I came up in my letter to Miller, where it referenced my working paper on Matthew Jocker's
Macroanalysis.
John Holbo's recent post on Mark Bauerlein's proposed antidote for leftist politics in the Theory curriculum got me thinking about the question of how, given a free hand, I'd teach literary theory. In the spirit of a thought experiment I've put together a syllabus for a graduate course in literary theory, that is, the theory of literature.

On the one hand, I want to demonstrate that one could teach a course in literary theory that pretty much avoids High Theory and yet is intellectually contemporary rather than an exercise in nostalgia. If I myself have pursued these ideas, however, it has not been out of any desire to avoid Theory as though it were a disease (and, of course, it is very proud of the fact that it is grounded in dis-ease) but simply because these are the ideas that have interested me. They are compelling on their own terms and not simply as an alternative to something else.

As a way of setting an overall objective for such a course, a pole star if you will, I offer a passage from a very political High Theorist, the late Edward Said. This passage is from one of his last essays, “Globalizing Literary Study,” published in 2001 in PMLA. He says:
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 Copernical transformation in the common understanding of it.
I too believe that “an autonomous aesthetic realm exists,” and that one can conceptualize it without having to ignore either the human mind, nor society, nor their joint interaction through and embedding in history. The objective of this course in literary theory, then, is to begin understanding how literature partakes of this aesthetic autonomy while being embedded in the contingencies of history.

First I list the proposed texts, in the order that I would use them, and then I explain why.
David Herman. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Claude Lévi-Strauss. “The Story of Asdiwal,” in Structural Anthropology II. Basic Books, 1976, pp. 146-197.

Reuven Tsur. Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. North-Holland, 1992.

William Benzon. Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. Basic Books, 2001.
Brian Boyd. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Harvard 2009.  My review is HERE.
Dan Sperber. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Blackwell, 1996.

Franco Moretti. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. Verso, 2005.

Alistair Fowler. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Harvard University Press, 1982.
I chose to start with David Herman's Story Logic because it makes an important intellectual connection, between the structuralist thought of the 70s and 80s and the cognitive sciences. I think it essential that students be introduced to the newer psychologies - as I've taken to calling them - and that they see a connection between them and structuralism, which has largely been abandoned outside narratology. As far as I can tell from a quick blitz - I've not really read the book - Herman does that. When students have worked through this book, they will have lots of conceptual tools for examining narratives on both micro and macro scales.

Yet the book has one obvious deficiency in that it is, from my point of view, too grounded in narratology. Narratology owes more to Vladimir Propp and his progeny than it does to Lévi-Strauss. As far as I can tell, Lévi-Strauss's work has been given only superficial consideration in the literary academy - nature-culture, continuous-discontinuous, binary oppositions, that sort of thing along with his mistaken notion that his account of myth is but another myth. Herman has only one reference to Lévi-Strauss, and that is to his early (and classic) paper on “The Structuralist Study of Myth.” That's a neat little paper, but very schematic, and not characteristic of his later work. Rather than have students slog through The Raw and the Cooked, I'd have them read “The Story of Asdiwal.” That will give them a better sense of his “paradigmatic” approach to myth (as opposed to Propp's “syntagmatic” approach). Just how one might extend that to standard literary materials, that's for class discussion and exploration.

Then we move on to Reuven Tsur's Cognitive Poetics (which is, alas, out of print - but this is a thought experiment, so that's OK). Tsur was trained by New Critics and found his way to gestalt psychology. Cognitive Poetics is the rich result and contains a wealth of strategies and tactics for analyzing and describing poetry. While Tsur's psychology does intersect with some of the cognitive science employed by Herman (e.g. on scripts and schemas), he covers a lot of material that Herman does not. In part that is because poetry and narrative present different analytic problems and opportunities (e.g. the sonic properties of verse). But, as I've indicated, Tsur's psychology ultimately is grounded in the work of the gestaltists, who were most influential in the early and middle of the last century. At the same time, their style of thinking is consistent with contemporary work in the complex dynamics of the nervous system. It is thus another useful addition to the student's conceptual repertoire.

To this point we've been thinking of texts as products of minds. But human minds are not, in fact, Cartesian isolates. Minds interact with and develop through other minds. Minds exist in society. Of course, there is a great deal of Theory that deals with the social context, but much of this is of the politicized sort that Bauerlein finds discomfiting. In any event, there are other ways of thinking about society and history.

What we need is a way of thinking about human minds as fundamentally and irreducibly social and intersubjective. For that reason I have put my music book, Beethoven's Anvil, on the syllabus. In chapters 2, 3 and 4 I propose such an account with respect to music by using the neuro-dynamics of Walter Freeman. Later in the book I talk about the origins of music and its circulation and development in culture though history. I believe that the arguments I made with respect to music can be extended to literature as well, though I don't think the extension is trivial. That is something that could be contemplated and discussed in class.

Then I introduce Dan Sperber's “epidemiological” approach to culture in his short collection of essays, Explaining Culture. Sperber is one among various thinkers who have been exploring Darwinian approaches to culture. Much of this work has been prompted by Richard Dawkins' notion of the meme - cultural analogue to the biological gene - and most of this work is somewhere between superficial and silly. Sperber's work is better.

From Sperber's elegant volume, we move to Franco Moretti's, Graphs, Maps, Trees - which has received a thorough discussion at The Valve. At this point we are far removed from the detailed particularity of individual texts and are, instead, looking at some of the larger movements in the sphere of literary culture. Morretti is tracing patterns that emerge from the epidemiological dynamics Sperber has characterized.

I conclude with the most traditional book on the syllabus, Alastair Fowler's Kinds of Literature. Given what has been covered earlier in the course, the idea is to read Fowler's book through the conceptual material we've been through earlier. What I've got in mind is some notion of genre as the “interface” between the literary mind and society. Just what would come of reading Fowler through these other materials, that I do not know. I'd have to teach the course to come to grips with that question.

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