Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bodies of Literary Knowledge: The texts themselves and commentary on them

This post is an elaboration I made on a comment in my session on my open letter to Steven Pinker.
From my point of view it is all but perceptually obvious that one can comment on literary texts in a way intended to advance, or critique, the (ethical) project embodied in the text or one can take up a position outside that (ethical) project and comment on the text as a phenomenon in the world, perhaps as from the point of view of a Martian ethologist. One can imagine that ethologist is merely curious about what Earthlings are up to, or perhaps the ethologist is thinking of Martian expeditions to Earth for purposes of trade or conquest. Whatever the purpose, that ethologist no more has trouble objectifying our literary works than Lévi-Strauss had trouble objectifying the myths of South American tribespeople.

The distinction between criticism and scholarship seems obvious and secure enough. But that, I suspect, is because scholarship typically works at some “distance” from the text – to use the standard trope in these matters, that of distance. But if one proposes a mode of commentary that is both “close” to the text and disinterested in the text’s (ethical) project, then things get difficult.

So let’s forget about literature for a moment and think about language and linguistics. Linguistics has become a fairly technical discipline in the last half century. Becoming fluent in any of the versions of contemporary linguistics is not easy. But it isn’t required in order to speak or write in an intelligible way. Just as you don’t need to know physics and engineering to drive a car, so you don’t need to know linguistics in order to speak and write. And if you want to improve your speaking and writing, the best thing to do is practice using good models and, of course, find a tutor. But that tutor is not going to lecture you on phrase structure grammar, dependency theory, functional grammar, construction grammar, stratificational grammar or any of the other contemporary forms of syntactic theory. Those forms of grammar are about language in the way that thermodynamics is about what happens in an automobile engine. But a thorough knowledge of thermodynamics is not going to improve your driving and a mastery of the minimalist program in generative grammar is not going to improve your prose.

THAT’s the distinction I want to make for literature. There’s an extensive body of models and theories about the mind, and a bit about culture, that didn’t exist 40 years ago and that’s what I have in mind when I talk about knowing how the mind works and how culture works. I don’t see that understanding, in effect, the thermodynamics of the mind is going to be of much use in teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Prelude, Faust, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, and so forth.

Now let’s push things one step farther. Driving a car is one thing. Being able to do engine repair is another. And understanding the physics and chemistry of combustion and energy conversion and transfer, that’s still a third thing. These bodies of knowledge are related in that they have to do with automobiles. But they don’t imply one another.

What I think needs to be done with literary criticism is in effect to differentiate between auto mechanics and repair in its various disciplines the study of the scientific and engineering principle behind automobile function and design. If we think of literary auto mechanics no so much as servicing the text but as servicing the reader, then I think the analogy has some small value. For that implies that literary engineering and physics is the study of the mind under the influence of literature, whether it is the mind of a reader or a writer is a secondary matter.

The people who read novels, poems, and attend plays without benefit of interpretive criticism are surely “getting something out” of the experience; and whatever it is, it’s all that anyone got out of the experience before the middle of the last century. The men who taught me literature as an undergraduate didn’t learn interpretive criticism from their teachers. They picked it up on the side and made it up.

And what they made up seems to be sometimes like auto repair and sometimes like physics. I am suggesting that we declare a distinction – elsewhere I’ve called it a distinction between ethical criticism and naturalist criticism – and see where that leads us. Or, a better formulation, see where that allows us to go.

It seems to me that those interpretive methods are rubbing up against their limits. In my own case, at the same time I was studying literature and its criticism, I was also studying psycholinguistics, developmental psychology, primate ethology, and bits of this and that. And traditional interpretive criticism didn’t and really hasn’t yet made contact with those disciplines, which I one of the things I’ve been up to. In retrospect, (now) traditional criticism seems a bit, just a bit, like auto repair and what I think needs to be done seems a bit, no more, like physics and chemistry. They are separate bodies of knowledge appropriate for different purposes.


  1. Yes they are... but the problem is that as an undergraduate you've got to learn to drive the car, repair it while you're driving, and study the laws of physics behind the whole thing, all at once... It's quite a feat, and no wonder things get a bit tangled up.

  2. Driving an repairing are fine as a program for undergraduates. But I'd like to see more research devoted to physics and engineering rather than conflating them with advanced auto repair.