Saturday, August 15, 2015

In Search of Literary Form

Literature is not made out of consciousness, it’s made out of words.
– J. Hillis Miller

This post is a proper response to the essay by Sandra Macpherson that I mentioned in yesterday’s post, On the Matter of Form: Three Language Games. First comes a bit of personal intellectual history in which I sketch my own search for literary form. Then I discuss Macpherson’s article. After that I offer my little formalism, starting with a plea for description,and ending with a Latourian suggestion about the function of literary form. I conclude with some cursory remarks about history.

A Little Autobiography

I don’t know just when I figured out that it was form that most interested me about literature and, correlatively, that description is what we must first do in order to understand it. I’m quite sure that it was my encounter with “Kubla Khan” that sent me in that direction in the early 1970s [1], but I certainly wasn’t there when I was doing my Ph. D. at Buffalo in the middle and late 1970s. I thought of myself as a theoretician. Cognitive science was my favorite kind of theory and I was using it to investigate meaning.

I think I maintained that belief up into the mid-1990s when I discovered, after having explored visualization and cultural evolution for a good decade or so, that at long last other literary scholars were becoming interested in cognitive science. Alas, they knew nothing of my early work — though it had been published in places like MLN and Language and Style – and what they were doing was so very different from what I had done that it was by no means clear to me that this interest afforded me an opportunity to get back into the game.

Still, I decided to play along. And it was in that process that I figured out that it was literary form and its description that most interested me. Looking through my notes, I seem to have arrived at that position by the first year of the new millennium (at about the time my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, came out). It was also obvious to me that the literary cognitivists had nothing to say about form and no one of any critical persuasion was interested in description.

I published a long methodological and theoretical statement in 2006 in the form of an article (20,000 words and 11 diagrams), Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form [1], and then set out to theorize the practice of description.

Meanwhile I’d detected rumblings of interest in both formalism and ‘surface reading’ from somewhere within The Profession. Are they getting warm yet? I asked myself.

Alas, surface reading, whatever it is, still seems to be a search for meaning, though I guess the existence of skepticism about ‘symptomatic reading’ is a mark of progress. As for the emerging interest in formalism, some kind of formalism has been around for a long time, but it is almost never an interest in, you know, the actual shape of literary works.

And now Sandra MacPherson, who’s actually read that recent literature, tells me I’m right to be skeptical about this renewed interest in formalism. Moreover she doesn’t much like it. Here’s her article:
Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 385-405.
She says she's looking for “for a genuinely formalist critical practice, a little formalism that would turn one away from history without shame or apology” (p. 385). What does she mean by form? She means “nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes” (p. 390). This is promising.

In an ideal world we’d sit down together in a room with a whiteboard and begin chatting. This isn’t that world. We’re a third of a continent apart so there’s no whiteboard before us in the near future. I’ll do what I always do: blog it.

What MacPherson is Looking For

MacPherson spends her first three and a half pages expressing her frustration with the current thinking about form. And then she offers (p. 388):
When I pick up a book like Form and Forces: Designing Efficient, Expressive Structures—a book with chapters on “Designing a Series of Suspension Footbridges,” or “Designing a Fanlike Roof”—I understand that “form” is something like the shape of a structure, and also (given that this is a text in structural engineering) the structure of a shape. Form and Matter: Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics was harder going, but even here I could glean that a strain of neo-Aristotelian philosopher, dismayed by the dominance of physicalism (roughly, a materialism derived from physics rather than biology), wants to resurrect Aristotle’s hylomorphism (his account of substance as form inhering in matter) to insist that form—universal kinds determining of but not identical with the particulars that instantiate them—plays a significant role in the ontology of the material world.
I’m not so sure about neo-Artistotelianism, but engineering I like. My father was an engineer and I’ve been thinking of my own work as a kind of speculative engineering.

A bit later she says (p. 389):
For an artist, an engineer, a biologist, a linguist, a philosopher, form is shape—more precisely, the shape a kind of matter takes (marble, paint, bridges, letters, cells, wood). Literary critics come closest to such accounts when they deploy a morphological vocabulary…
And this leads her to an interesting discussion of Franco Moretti (Graphs, Maps, Trees) which leads her to ask (p. 390): “Why, when we have the semiotic square, do we need graphs, and maps, and especially, trees?” I can’t say that the semiotic square has ever excited me, but neither Moretti’s graphs nor his trees, at least in that book, have any direct bearing on the material shapes of literary works, though the maps get a bit closer to it.

She continues (p. 390):
I ask this question in all earnestness because I want to understand the role natural objects play in Moretti’s and other formalisms, hoping that the object will get me closer to the little formalism I seek—a formalism of metaphysical rather than historical materialism. Contemporary metaphysics, like contemporary literary theory (especially as marked by the cognitive turn), is dominated by the idea that reality is best explained in terms of human beings’ mental and linguistic operations.
It’s that last that interests me, for it mentions “the cognitive turn”, the one that I’ve found uninspiring despite my long-standing interest in cognitive science.

My particular flavor of cognitivism is based on the idea of computation and so I think of at least some mental and linguistic operations as a kind of computation. And real computation is a material process that is always working against physical limitations in the form of time and working space (memory). That’s a lesson taught to me by the late David Hays, one of the founders of computational linguistics. It’s a lesson the literary cognitivists have not learned, for their cognitivism is based on a cognitive science that has forgotten its computational roots.

Macpherson concludes her paragraph (p. 390):
The neo-Aristotelian whom I mentioned earlier is frustrated by the dominance of philosophy of mind over metaphysics, and her rallying cry is “No epistemology without ontology.” And I want to say three things along these lines: “No formalism without ontology”; “No genre without form”; and form as nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes.
I’m not quite sure what to make of her first thing; but I’m OK with her second and third.

At this point she enters into a long discussion centered on Roland Barthes, a thinker who, for better or worse, never much interested me (the horror! the horror!), and works her way to object-oriented ontology, chiefly Graham Harmon, Timothy Morton, and fellow traveler Jane Bennett. As New Savanna readers know, I did quite a dance with OOO a couple of years ago, not so much because I needed it for myself, but because I thought perhaps an interest in objects would be congenial to an interest in form and description and so I could employ OOO as a discourse to present my ideas to literary critics. Alas, not really, which is more or less where Macpherson ends up as well. That is, it doesn’t seem fertile ground in which to cultivate her little formalism.

My Little Formalism

Whether or not my formalist enterprise would interest Macpherson, I don’t know. What makes this tricky is that my approach is grounded in the analysis and description of texts. That’s how I’d arrived at my interest in form, through practical critical work. Although I can make abstract statements about form ¬– the literary morphology article is full of them ¬– I don’t see that they add up to a theory of literary form. When we’ve got, say, a hundred such analytic descriptions, we can look them over and think about constructing a theory about what’s going on.

Along those lines perhaps she should some of my work on ring-composition [3], as that covers a variety of different kinds of texts and links to older literatures. If that’s what we’re going to do, then she should read Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles, and take a look at her account of Tristram Shandy. I think there are problems with Douglas’ account, but don’t know Tristram Shandy well enough ¬– it’s been years since I’ve read it – to argue the point. Macpherson is an 18th Century specialist and so is better qualified to dig in. Moreover, because of the book’s extreme disjunction between story and plot, it is important in the history of formalist thought.

Or, since President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney exhibits ring-composition, we could start there [4]. I suppose one could quibble about whether or not a sermon is a literary text, but that’s not a quibble worth entertaining. More importantly, because we’ve got a video recording of that performance, we know how it affected the audience and so can correlate that response with the formal features of Obama’s text.

And if Macpherson is still looking for theory, in addition to practice, well I can offer a little of that as well. There’s a lot there in that morphology piece, but that’s not what I have in mind just now. I’m thinking of an investigator a bit closer to her current thinking: Bruno Latour [5].

Early in Reassembling the Social Latour distinguishes between intermediaries and mediators (p. 39):
An intermediary, in my vocabulary, is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. . . . Mediators, on the other hand . . . transform, translate, distort, and modify meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry.
Given that distinction I suggest that we treat the ‘form’ of a text as an intermediary while it is the ‘content’ that is a mediator.

When academic literary criticism embarked on the (long-lived and now suffering) interpretive turn after World War II, it for the most part concentrated on the content of a text, its meaning, and has pretty much ignored more than cursory attention to form. Formalism, especially in its New Critical variety, has mostly been a philosophical justification for treating texts as autonomous objects of inquiry. I’m suggesting that we bracket the search for meaning, at least for awhile, or that we treat it as a different kind of inquiry, one that is primarily ethical in its commitments (in the sense of Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, 1988). Let us turn to the description of form as a central professional activity.

Obviously, there’s a lot to be discussed, more than I can stuff into a blog post, more than I could stuff into a book. So I won’t bother to make the attempt beyond offering three observations:
1) In thus focusing on form in this Latourian way, I am treating texts as material objects, extended in time, that play a central role in the dynamics of social groups, which I discuss in an open letter to Steven Pinker [6]. This is entirely consistent with the computational perspective I offer in the morphology paper [2].

2) If you’re wondering how to distinguish between form and content, don’t. That is, we don’t need to lock down an account of that distinction in order to proceed. It will emerge in the course of investigation.

3) Finally, at this point as I’ve already indicated, analysis and description of texts has to be our primary mode of investigation. Biology was built on several centuries of careful descriptive work. Earlier generations of literary scholars labored to create good editions of texts. Now let’s continue that labor by giving those texts proper analytic descriptions.
Coda: What, Then, of History?

An intense interest and extensive work on morphology has not prevented biology from being a historical discipline. In fact, it is through centuries of naturalistic description of organisms and ways of life that biologists accumulated the conceptual materials on which the primary historical principle of biology rests, Darwin’s account of evolution by natural selection. Why should things be any different for the study of literature?

What I’m suggesting is that it is only when we are possession of a robust body of descriptive work focused on form that we will arrive at a robust historical understanding of literature. One criticism that has been made of historicism is that it tends to isolate literary works in discrete time slots that don’t interact with one another. Such historicist criticism lacks the means of explaining and exploring how it is that we can understand texts originating in another episteme from our own. The formalist criticism I am proposing would give us tools we need to think about that.

The formalism I’m advocating, then, does not constitute an abandonment of history. On the contrary, it seeks to discover history by providing a way of investigating how texts provide a means of discovering one another.


[1] I discuss that early work in a series of reflections on Lévi-Strauss. In particular, see the fourth section of Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification Computation and Cognition (2015) 30 pp.

[2] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. August 2005, Article 060608.

[3] Here’s a working paper that discusses much of my work on ring composition: Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology (2014) 59 pp.

You should also look at blog posts tagged “ring-form”, where I have a fair amount of material, especially descriptive work, not in the working paper, URL:

[4] I have two working papers. One is a multifaceted discussion: Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney: Technics of Power and Grace (2015) 42 pp.

The other a table I used in analyzing the sermon: President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Analytic and Descriptive Tables (2015) 14 pp.

[5] Reading Latour: Reassembling the Social (2011) 61 pp.

[6] An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism (2015) 20 pp.

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