Thursday, September 10, 2015

Some Notes on Ethical Criticism, with Commentary on J. Hillis Miller and Charlie Altieri

Most of my work in literary studies, whether focused on the analysis of texts or on theory and method, has been concerned with achieving objective knowledge. It has long been clear to me that that excludes much of what literary critics do. Moreover it seems to me that many critics are motivated to study literature precisely because they seek a kind of knowledge that is not, in principle, objective.

What, then, of this other knowledge and this other quest? Is it simply to be discarded as, well, um, err, superstition or some such, comparable to astrology or alchemy? I think not.

For one thing, while my work has come to focus on the possibility of objective knowledge, that is not what I was after when I first became interested in literary study as an undergraduate. Nor, for that matter, does it exhaust my interest in literary study. That Other, whatever it is, still draws me. It’s just not the center of my attention.

That Other I will call ethical criticism, while the search for objective knowledge of literary phenomena, that I am calling naturalist criticism. I’ve thought a great deal about naturalist criticism and have well articulated thoughts about it. My thinking about ethical criticism is more primitive.

The Interpretive Matrix

While interpretation has been the name of the critical game for the last half century or more, it seems to me that the work done under the aegis of interpretation sometimes leans toward naturalist criticism and is at other times ethical in force. I think that, going forward, the profession has to distinguish the two. That is to say, I regard interpretation (as it was taught to me) as the matrix from which both naturalist and ethical criticism are emerging.

Just as the distinction between the color blue and the color green is not a sharp one, so the distinction between naturalist and ethical criticism is not sharp. Yet, even as there are colors that could be green or blue, there are also colors that are unambiguously one or the other. So, I suspect, it is with literary investigations. Some will be clearly either naturalist or ethical in kind, but some will partake of both. These distinctions will have to worked out in practice.

In the post that follows I begin by offering a few words in definition of ethical criticism. Then I offer light commentary on two articles by somewhat different critics, Charles Altieri and J. Hillis Miller. I have chosen these two because 1) they ARE different; 2) I have studied with both of them. The second qualification is, in a sense, irrelevant, a matter of mere personal history. But there are so very many critics I could have chosen that the personal connection is something I can invoke in making this choice. Though I’ve not seen either man in decades, I nonetheless have a sense of the mind beyond the words. I conclude by considering the necessity of ethical criticism in this, the 21st Century, CE.

Why ‘Ethical’?

When I talk of ethical criticism I don’t mean it in the narrow sense of moralizing, though I have no reason to exclude that either. I’m thinking of it in the sense of ethos, a way of life. Ethical criticism is concerned with how we live, now and in the future.

Ethical criticism necessarily encompasses aesthetics. Put a bit crudely, it is ethics when lived out in the world, it is aesthetics when expressed in a text. Our response to a text is a matter of aesthetics, but the projection of that response onto the world engages ethics.

As one touchstone text I offer this passage from J. Hillis Miller ([1] p. 63):
We need to make every effort to defend, in changed circumstances, the tradition that makes the humanities in the university the place especially charged with the combination of Bildung and Wissenschaft, ethical education and pure knowledge.
As another touchstone, here is Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). After quoting from a Chekov story (“Home”) he observes (p. 484):
We all have “this foolish habit,” [liking stories] and we all are by nature caught in the ambiguities that trouble the prosecutor. Yet we are all equipped, by a nature (a “second nature”) that has created us out of story, with a rich experience in choosing which life stories, fictional or “real,” we will embrace wholeheartedly. Who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of criticism, whether by ourselves or by those who determine what stories will come our way – criticism wise or foolish, deliberate or spontaneous, conscious or unconscious: “You may enter; you must go away – and I will do my best to forget you.”

Each culture provides every member with an unlimited number of “natural” choices that seem to require no thought.
“But how” Booth asks (p. 484), “should we make those choices?” We take advantage of the fact that fiction is a “relatively cost-free offer of trial runs” – the psychologist Keith Oatley talks of simulation, literary experience simulates life [2]. Booth observes (p. 485):
If you try out a given mode of life in itself, you may, like Eve in the garden, discover too late that the one who offered it to you was Old Nick himself…. In a month of reading, I can try out more “lives” than I can test in a lifetime.
Ethical criticism aims to help us explore the implications of the simulations we read, or see in films, or even enact in video games.

Let me conclude this section with my touchstone passage from Kenneth Burke in “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973, but originally collected in 1941 and published in the 30s). 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.”
Charlie Altieri on Appreciation

SubStance has devoted a special issue to the question, Does Literature Matter? (Volume 42, No. 2, 2013, Issue 131). Charles Altieri contributed “Appreciating Appreciation” [4]. Here’s how he opens his essay (p. 80):
This essay constitutes one aspect of an overall project to spell out the implications for the literary arts of Wittgenstein’s systematic distinction between acts of description that carry truth values and acts of expression that display states of mind and feeling but do not describe them. […] Expressions elicit or solicit attunement rather than propose representations of what we find in our words. So I will argue that the more we flesh out the content of typical expressive acts, the fuller and more intense are the demands for something like attitudes of appreciation as models of response to works of art.
Notice that distinction, acts of description and acts of expression. Literary texts, of course, are acts of expression. I have, however, been arguing that we can have (some kind of) objective knowledge about those expressive acts and that that objective knowledge must begin in acts of description, description of the formal properties of texts. Ethical criticism is concerned with somehow enhancing or clarifying the reader’s response to these expressive acts. Altieri talks of “attitudes of appreciation”.

He begins this next passage, still very early in the essay, by talking about interpretation (p. 81):
To find more practical general terms for our range of interpretive practices, I suggest we turn to a somewhat new version of the tripartite scheme of disciplines distinguishing pursuits of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Where science was, I would put the domain of description. Descriptions aim at truth values because they are measured by their power to refer to observable entities and to place them in explanatory frameworks.
OK. I have no problems with this. When I am advocating description of the formal properties of texts I do not regard that as an end in itself. I am certainly interested in explaining those properties. Where I differ with the cognitive and evolutionary critics [5] is that I insist on the importance of description whereas they, in effect, want to move directly to explanation without proper description. I do believe that these newer psychologies are essential to explaining literary phenomena, but that they do not have OTS (off the shelf) explanations ready and waiting.

Altieri continues (81):
Second, there is the domain of policy, that invokes something like Aristotle’s practical reason or Kant’s prudence. […] the basic aim of policy discourse is to provide and to test effective rationales for taking action. […] Policy is the art of making judgments about the welfare of social units. Finally, there is the large domain of expressive activity. Expressive activity invites attention to human subjectivity in its modes of display. Display consists of actions that strive to be recognized in their particularity rather than in their argumentative capacity to solicit a place in what seems backed by laws and regularities. Recognition of expressive particularity requires audiences willing and capable of fleshing out the possible significance of these actions by developing appropriate responses that engage and respect that particularity.
It seems to me that a lot of politically engaged literary criticism is attempting to, would like to, enter the policy arena. I understand the temptation, but I think that Altieri is right in distinguishing the demands of policy from those of expression.

But what, concretely, does Altieri mean by asserting that audiences must develop appropriate responses? Is that something they learn from reading criticism? I do think people learn how to respond to expressive acts. They learn from their peers and they learn from (journalistic) reviews. I certainly do, and have done so all my life. We attune (to use Altieri’s word) our perceptions on the basis of what we learn from others.

Does Altieri see the academic (ethical) critic in the same role? If so, just how is the academic critic going to make contact with audiences outside the academy? Given the existence of the internet it is really quite easy for academic critics to address a general audience, and some work very hard at doing so, but as far as I know, this activity does not yet count for much within the academy. You don’t get tenure points for writing a general audience blog. Any academic critic seriously interested in ethical criticism has to figure out a way to reach a non-professional audience. Otherwise that critic is just preening and posturing.

A bit later (pp. 82-83):
While there are many disciplines that can address the content of texts, only traditional training in literary criticism affords the resources for both describing the specific decisions of the writers that go into making a certain kind of object and for evaluating these decisions. Without an emphasis on the particularity imaginations can compose, we have no way to argue that we possess a distinctive way of developing more subtle and supple readers of an increasingly intricate social world.

It is by no means necessary to honor this training, but there is a significant cost if most critics turn away from what they are uniquely positioned to address. My criticisms then position me squarely within calls for renewed attention to the aesthetic dimension of literary experience.
I note that later [pp. 88-90] Altieri will illustrate what he means by commenting on two short poems by Yeats. In particular – I’m now mounting my hobby horse – he comments on their formal features.

And yet most literary critics are blind to particularities of literary form even as some of them invoke it for this or that purpose. Traditional training in literary criticism apparently DOES NOT attune critics to perhaps the most specifically literary features of literary texts [6]. I note further that while I tend to situate my call for formal analysis in the context of naturalist criticism, where I view it as the (necessary) basis for further investigation, description is fundamental to appreciation as well. How can you guide others in appreciation if you cannot even point to what they are supposed to appreciate?

Here Altieri begins to specify what appreciative criticism involves (p. 86):
Given these calls, I propose the figure of the appreciator as providing a worthy counterpart to the figure of the knower – the one quasi-superhero seeking to flesh out the power of particulars to engage attention, the other to account for what general factors allow the particular what significance it has. The figure of the appreciator develops how we might respond to the sense of particularity achieved by a particular state of expression in a given context. […] And, even more important, appreciation invites second order reflections on the person one can become as we participate in such sympathies and such judgments. It dramatizes for us how much of our energies are repressed when we confine ourselves to practical judgments and when we ignore the challenge of having to align our wills with what we have come to know.

I can best make clear what appreciation involves by spelling out what I see as its four basic features. Obviously we have to specify what is involved in our appreciative sense of the particular object to which we respond. And we have to develop what occurs in us in that activity of responding. Then the final two features involve the possible implications of such practices–at one pole by elaborating a possible sociality involved in our wanting to share how appreciation constructs its objects, and at the other pole by examining how acts of appreciation might matter in the realm of politics.
Later on he notes, “Appreciation may involve a good deal of interpretive activity” (p. 90). I mention this primarily to recall the connection between interpretation and ethical criticism that I made in my introduction.

At this point we are about two-thirds of the way through Altieri’s essay, but I’ll leave that last third to you, noting only that Altieri argues that “appreciation has civilizing force, and hence for me political force, because it tries to resist the destructive dynamics of resentment” (p. 93). That’s worth thinking about.

J. Hillis Miller on the Imaginary

Perhaps by way of compensation most of my quotations from J. Hillis Miller’s contribution to that SubStance issue, “Literature Matters Today” will come from the end of his article. Whereas Altieri addressed himself to commentary on literature, Miller is more directly concerned with literature itself.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this statement (p. 15):
Why, I continued to wonder, should it matter to me whether I read and understand this poem or not? I wanted to figure out answers to these questions, to account for the poem in the way astrophysicists account for data from outer space. Decades after my shift from physics to literature, I wrote an essay trying, belatedly, to answer those questions I had about “Tears, Idle Tears” (Miller, “Temporal Topographies”). What was wrongheaded about my original project took me some years to discover. I am still discovering—still trying to come to terms with the irreconcilability of hermeneutics and poetics, meaning and the way meaning is expressed (de Man 87-8). A shorthand description of my mistake would be to say that data from the stars and the linguistic “matter” that makes up poems require fundamentally different methodologies of “accounting for.”
A plausible reading is that the contrast Miller makes between hermeneutics and poetics, which is a common one, tends toward (but is not quite the same as) the contrast I’ve been making between ethnical criticism (hermeneutics) and naturalist criticism (poetics). Only I don’t regard the poetics project as mistaken. But, yes, it does require “fundamentally different methodologies of ‘accounting for.’” The larger point is that the profession has been struggling with this problematic for decades and has, on the whole and for various reasons, come down on the side of hermeneutics.

Miller continues (p. 15-16):
We are in the long drawn-out twilight of the epoch of print literature, an epoch that began less than four centuries ago and could end without bringing about the death of civilization. Though of course literary works are still widely read all over the world, in different degrees in different places, literature matters less and less to many people, including highly educated ones. The double role of allowing the pleasures of entering imaginary worlds and of learning about the real world and how to behave in it are more and more shifting to new technological devices of telecommunication: films, video games, television shows, popular music, Facebook, and so on. I include television news broadcasts as forms of the imaginary. The ability or the need to create imaginary worlds out of words on printed pages is less and less an important part of most people’s lives. Probably people are becoming less and less adept at doing it. Why go to all the bother to read that extremely difficult novel, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, when you can so much more easily watch the splendid BBC television version?
The important point is simply that Miller acknowledges the emergence of these newer media and he has elsewhere stated the importance of studying them [8], though he little more than implies that in this essay. This essay and this issue of SubStance, after all, is about literature, old-fashioned print culture.

Here Miller makes a claim that strikes at the heart of ethical criticism (p. 19):
I have elsewhere argued for an anachronistic reading of older literary works. I mean by “anachronistic” a reading of literature in the context of our situation today, not by way of some attempt to put oneself back inside the mind-frame of a Renaissance man or woman in order to read Shakespeare, or of a middle-class Victorian to read Dickens or George Eliot (“Anachronistic”). The concept of a uniform period mind-set, as in The Victorian Frame of Mind (Houghton) or The Elizabethan World Picture (Tillyard), is in any case extremely problematic. Victorian and Elizabethan frames of mind, the evidence shows, were quite heterogeneous. Even if a uniform period mindset existed, why would identifying oneself with it be an attractive thing to try to do, except for literary historians, those putatively impersonal and objective scholars? Why pretend we are still Victorians or Elizabethans? The answer, I suppose, is to that it will make us better readers of Middlemarch or of Tennyson’s The Princess, but despite historical footnotes, literary works create their appropriate frames of mind in their readers—a different one for each text. In place of the virtues claimed for the so-called “historical imagination,” I argue that literature matters most for us if it is read for today, and read “rhetorically,” as training in ways to spot lies, ideological distortions, and hidden political agendas such as surround us on all sides in the media these days.
I agree with his skepticism about our ability to take ourselves back into the past by immersing ourselves in old texts and their associated contextual lore and I agree that the (ethical) critic should read those texts for what they can tell us today. It is not that we shouldn’t make the gesture to travel back in time, we should, but we must recognize that we can do so only in brackets, as it were, while the contemporary readers of those texts read them without brackets. Those brackets keep us anchored in the present.

Miller spends the last third of his essay explicating the imaginary as advanced “by two unlikely theoretical bedfellows, Maurice Blanchot and Wolfgang Iser” (p. 26). While there is a difference in their conceptions, a different “tone and valance” (p. 30), and that difference is important to Miller, it is not so important for my immediate purposes and so I will be content with a look at Miller’s remarks on Iser.

Explicating Iser (p. 26):
Iser contests the long tradition, with its many permutations going back to Aristotelian mimesis, defining the fictive more or less exclusively in terms of its oppositional or dialectical relation to the real. Iser asserts that a third term, “the imaginary,” must be invoked. The imaginary, he says, “is basically a featureless and inactive potential” (Iser xvii; not present in the German “Vorwort”) in human beings for dreams, “fantasies, projections, daydreams, and other reveries” (“Phantasmen, Projektionen und Tagträumen”) (English 3; German 21, henceforth E and G), as well as for activating fictions. The imaginary is, in a phrase not translated into the English version, “diffuse, formlos, unfixiert und ohne Objektreferenz” (G21): diffuse, formless, unfixed, and without objective reference. Iser’s imaginary must not be thought of as in any way a transcendent entity, a divine realm of potential forms. Iser’s thinking is resolutely a-religious, anti-idealist. The imaginary is an exclusively human potential.
The mavens of artificial intelligence (aka AI) talk of space. There is the decision space of a game such as chess. In the case of chess that space has the form of a tree where each branch point is a state in some chess game. The chess tree is finite in extent, but huge, so large that most of the nodes in that space have never been ‘visited’ in the course of any real chess game. There is nothing transcendental about the chess tree, any node is reachable, but its vastness gives it an unreal quality. It is full of potential, but unrealized, chess games.

Now, instead of chess, think of life. In the place of the rules of chess we have the things one, anyone, all of us, could possibly do. THAT implies a space, one hugely vaster than the chess space. That’s how I think of this imaginary that Miller is describing via Iser.

Miller continues (p. 27):
Literature “brackets” and “outstrips” reality by using elements from it to give form to the formless imaginary. That is its chief function. “Reality, then,” says Iser, “may be reproduced in a fictional text, but it is there in order to be outstripped, as is indicated by its being bracketed.” […] The “matrix” of the literary text is not the real and it is not fictive language, but “the multiplicitous availability of the imaginary” (“die multiple Verfuügbarket des Imaginaären”) (E 19; G 48).
The chess tree came into existence when the rules of the game were defined. It thus predates the playing of any actual game. When one plays a game one realizes, gives physical form to, a path in the chess tree. But the tree can never be exhausted. Now, generalize that to the (so-called) game of life. The tricky thing about that game is that we play it in many modes, including the real and the fictive. But the moment we cross the gap between the real and the fictive, the moment we open the novel and start reading, the imaginary reveals itself to us in that gap. Or so I understand.

Continuing on (p. 28):
Just what human good is achieved by the fictive? Why do human beings need fictions? Iser’s answer is unequivocal. Though the fictive may give us new critical perspectives on the real, and though it may also be a pleasure in itself, its most important function is to expand the number of “pragmatizations” of that basic human “plasticity” Iser calls “the imaginary.” That human beings are essentially to be defined by their plasticity is Iser’s fundamental anthropological assumption. […]

This gives one answer to the question of whether literature matters. We should read literature now and at any other time because doing so is the best form of limitless human self-cultivation. How should we read literature? By opening ourselves to the imaginary worlds literary works make available. For Iser the chief value of literature, the reason literature matters, is the pleasure of the fictive as a pragmatization of the imaginary. It has its source (“generative matrix”) in the imaginary, but enjoying it and being influenced by its perspectives on the real can become additional ends in themselves.
But just how does the ethical critic help us to understand, to see, this generative matrix? What does this imply as critical practice?

Come to think of it, this concept of the imaginary is a way to understand why Walt Disney’s Fantasia is such an important film. Yes, it’s a cartoon, and, yes, it’s Walt Disney, and, yes, there are stretches in it that have more cuteness than a barrel full of kittens, but just set that aside for a moment and think about what’s actually IN the film and how GORGEOUS so very much of it is. That two hours of film implies larger swatches of the cosmos than just about any other two hours of anything: the origins of life, the structure of the Milky Way, the procession of the seasons, the stations of domesticity, profound evil and torment, the abstract, pure sound in light, dinosaurs, tension between the human and the animal, fireflies, the deepest gothic forest, it’s all there in that film. And everything else is implied. [9]

I will give Miller the last words, his last in the essay (p. 31):
Literature matters because it serves three essential human functions: social critique, the pleasure of the text, and allowing a materialization of the imaginary or an endless approach to the unapproachable imaginary. Though human civilization would not come to an end if literature in the old-fashioned sense of printed books were to vanish in an age of what I call “prestidigitalization,” much would be lost that video games, films, television, and popular songs can hardly replace. That is so even though these new media are nevertheless alternative forms conjoining in their dispersal the real, the fictive, and the imaginary.
Why in the 21st Century?

Still, why ethical criticism? Why not let it drop from the academy and continue with naturalist criticism? A full argument is required, and I’m not prepared to offer it. But I have an observation or two.

While these two modes of intellectual work are differentiated by method, they are also differentiated by their attitudes toward/in time, which is a necessary consequence of their methodological differences. The naturalist critic is necessarily oriented toward the present and the past. One can only investigate existing texts and existing or past readers. One could in principle use computational models to test out underlying generative mechanisms for the imaginary, but this is only simulation. The REAL imaginary is, for now and for the foreseeable future, beyond any computation we can enact.

Only humans can read fictions and imagine and explore their implications. It’s not simply that, as Booth says, “In a month of reading, I can try out more ‘lives’ than I can test in a lifetime” [p. 485]. For each life we try out we can imagine two or three new directions into the imaginary, some of which we may explore while soaking in the bathtub, chatting with friends after dinner, or in our dreams.

This exploration is particularly important in our current world, where everything is changing, and rapidly. The future isn’t going to be like the past, nor even the present. The present isn’t like it was two weeks ago. Cultural pressures abound as more and more people with different lifeways mingle in cities and suburbs. The comfortable pieties of mid-20th century humanism are gone.

Though the word “multicultural” often functions as a code word for African-American in the United States, the reality many of us live is multi-cultural. How can we live among these different lifeways even as our degrading environment and global warming place more pressures on us?

We need guides into the intersection of the imaginary and the future. The function of ethical criticism is to help us connect existing fictions, whether from the present of the past, with opportunities into the future. To organize the chaos of the impending real by yoking fragments to the patterns inherent in fictive texts, that is the way to pull the real into the imaginary.

Can ethical critics learn to do this?


[1] I have a number of blog posts on ethical criticism. I have tagged them with “ethical criticism”, URL:

I first made the distinction while considering the work of Bruno Latour. Here’s that post: Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism, URL:

[2] J. Hillis Miller. My Fifty Years in the Profession. ADE Bulletin, No. 133, Winter 2003, 63-66.

[3] Keith Oatley. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Wiley, 2011. Comments at Goodreads:

[4] Charles F. Altieri. Appreciating Appreciation. SubStance, Volume 42, Number 2, 2013 (Issue 131), pp. 80-98.

[5] For some recent remarks on cognitive and evolutionary criticism see my series of posts, On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism:

I’ve gathered them together into a downloadable working paper, On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form, Download:

[6] See my recent post, In Search of Literary Form, where I discuss a recent article by Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 385-405. The post:

For a formal argument, see my long methodology paper, 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.

[7] J. Hillis Miller. Literature Matters Today. SubStance, Volume 42, Number 2, 2013 (Issue 131), pp. 12-32.

[8] See, for example, J. Hillis Miller. “My Fifty Years in the Profession” ADE Bulletin, No. 133, Winter 2003, pp. 63-66. Download (gated, alas):

[9] Here’s the blog post where I first made the argument, Disney’s Fantasia as Masterpiece, URL:

Here’s a post where I talk about how Disney implies the imaginary in the film (though I don’t use that term), Sampling the Space: Disney’s Fantasia, URL:

Here’s a working paper in which I comment on every episode in the film, intermixing extensive description with interpretation and a bit of evaluation, Walt Disney’s Fantasia: The Cosmos and the Mind in Two Hours, Download:

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