Thursday, October 15, 2015

Description 3: The Primacy of Visualization

I've uploaded another working paper, my third on description. Links:

Abstract, Contents, and Introduction below.

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Abstract: Describing literary texts requires a mode of thought distinct from the discursive interpretation of them. It is a mode of thought in which various visual devices are central. These devices include: tables, trees and mental spaces, directed graphs and “sketchpads”. Visualization facilitates the objectification of literary form and objectification is necessary for objectivity. With objectivity comes the possibility of cumulative knowledge.
Introduction: How Many Legs Has a Centipede? 2
On the Methodological Centrality of Diagrams 6
Description as Redesign: Carving Nature at the Joints 19
Pattern: Ramsay on Shakespeare, and Beyond 21
In Search of Literary Form 29
Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism 34
Introduction: How Many Legs Has a Centipede?

I don’t know just when I began thinking about the need to theorize description as a distinctive aspect of critical methodology, but let’s say it was a decade ago. Nothing much depends on when it was, for I’m not making an argument in which the magnitude of the time between then and now is a factor. Rather, I only wish to make the point that it’s taken me awhile, and a lot of thinking, to arrive at an idea that now seems obvious: the description of literary texts is a distinct mode of thought that often has a strong visual component. Ever since my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s I’ve been making tables and diagrams in my attempts to understand texts, but it’s only fairly recently that I’ve arrived at some understanding of why that is so.

This working paper is my third collection of posts on description. The first one, Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature, dealt with description and the trope of distance, looked at Lévi-Strauss and Moretti, talked of visualizing abstract phenomena, and concluded with a brief for the general intellectual importance of descriptive work on literary texts. The second paper, Description 2: The Primacy of the Text, was more concerned with the practical description of a variety of texts and included descriptive tables for two manga (Tezuka’s Metropolis and Lost World) and two films (Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, and Mamru Oshii’s Innocence). This paper is centered on visualization as a mode of thought necessary to describing literary texts.

Stanley Fish and It’s All Interpretation

When I began thinking about description I started by stalking Stanley Fish. In the penultimate chapter of Is There a Text in This Class? Stanley Fish takes up Stephen Booth on Shakespeare’s sonnets, noting that Booth disavows any interpretive aims but declares that he intends simply to describe the sonnets. Fish observes (p. 353):
The basic gesture, then, is to disavow interpretation in favor of simply presenting the text; but it is actually a gesture in which one set of interpretive principles is replaced by another that happens to claim for itself the virtue of not being an interpretation at all. The claim, however, is an impossible one since in order “simply to present” the text, one must at the very least describe it . . . and description can occur only within a stipulative understanding of what there is to be described, an understanding that will produce the object of its attention.
That is to say, Booth, among others Fish discusses, seems to be claiming that description is not a starting point, but the end point. And further, that description gives one unmediated access to the text, something we know, in fact, to be impossible. There is no description without (logically prior) interpretive activity of some sort. Literary texts, whatever they are, are exceedingly complex. Just what we describe, and how we describe it, these are not simple matters.

The first issue is easy. Description is not and end point. It’s a starting point, but sometimes we may not be able to get beyond that starting point. There are times when We have to rest content with having described a pattern – a theme I take up in my discussion of David Ramsay’s work in “Pattern: Ramsay on Shakespeare and Beyond”.

The second point was more troublesome, as I was after objectivity and to some ways of thinking that requires or implies unmediated access to the world. Fortunately Michael Bérubé has a reply to this aspect of Fish’s attack. He makes a valuable point in the course of defending Wolfgang Iser “There is Nothing Inside the Text, or, Why No One’s Heard of Wolfgang Iser”, Postmodern Sophistry: Stanley Fish and the Critical Enterprise, edited by Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham (SUNY, 2004), pp. 11-26.):
... It would have been possible, in other words, to contest Fish’s reading of Iser not by stubbornly insisting on the determinacy of the determinate, and not, good Lord, by insisting on two separate varieties of determinacy and assigning “interpretation” to one of them, but by acknowledging that all forms of reading are interpretive but that some involve the kind of low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts we engage in whenever we interpret the letter “e” as the letter “e,” and some involve the kind of high level, exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations involved whenever someone publishes something like S/Z – or Surprised by Sin. (And, of course, that there are any number of “interpretations” that fall between these extremes, and that the status of each of them is – what else? – both open to and dependent on interpretation.)
Yes, it is necessary to “interpret” the text to arrive at descriptions of formal features. But those interpretations are much closer to Bérubé’s “low-level, relatively uncontestable cognitive acts” than to the “high level, exceptionally specific and complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations” that are the norm in hermeneutic criticism as it has been practiced since the end of World War II.

That doesn’t get us all we need, but it’s a start. We also need visualizations of various sorts. What I didn’t quite realize until recently is that description is a distinct mode of thinking and, in the case of describing texts, it is a mode of thinking that requires diagrams. Interpretation, in the strong sense of those “complex textual manipulations, transformations and reconfigurations” is a purely discursive activity. When you interpret a text, you do your thinking in prose. When you describe a text’s formal features you need other modes of thinking, modes grounded in counting and in making diagrams. That’s what this working paper is about.

Description, in this sense, goes beyond interpretation. And it lays the foundations for explanation. How do we explain the formal features of texts? We don’t know how to do that. That I’m afraid requires a psychology that we don’t yet have. But we’re not going to be able to create that psychology without having a rich library of well-descripted texts. The descriptions set the stage for explanation.

Description in Biology

This is not rocket science. It’s rather more like biology. The world of literature is like the biological world in that it consists of hundreds of thousands of complex objects widely varying in form.

And so, as I was dealing with Fish and the problematics of interpretation, I began thinking about biology, a discipline explicitly built on description. According to Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (2006 pp. 30 ff.), the work was prompted by a simple puzzle: Are the flora and fauna described by the ancients the same as those around and about us today? Similarly, how do we determine whether or not a specimen observed near Florence is the same kind of creature as one observed near Paris?

Naturalists approached those questions through techniques that included drawings and sample specimens in museum collections in addition to verbal description. That these techniques required decades of development implies that, however obvious physical description may seem to non-biologists, its methods and standards were not, in fact obvious. They had to be painstakingly developed (cf. Foucault, The Order of Things, pp. 132-145). But, given a commitment to the common cause, it proved possible to develop descriptive methods.

By the time Darwin started his researches he had access to the cumulative results of four centuries of painstaking descriptive work. That descriptive work served him in two ways. In the first place, it provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive the useful standards of description. Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.

And biological description is not confined to the world available to the naked eye. The creatures revealed by microscopes had to be described as well. And in the middle of the 20th century description entered the molecular world. After all, when Watson and Crick argued that the DNA molecule had the form of a double helix, was that not an act of description? In that case, description required elaborate and indirect observational apparatus – which I discuss briefly in “On the Methodological Centrality of Diagrams.”

Description was thus indispensable to biology. No description, no biology. Though discussions of scientific method accord more cachet to theory-testing, and devote more effort to debating it, description is no less necessary to objective knowledge. It sets the boundaries of the knowable. If we cannot describe a phenomenon – whether in words, images, or mathematical expressions – then we cannot investigate it, we cannot come to explain it.

Why don’t literary critics follow biology in grounding their work in detailed description of texts? Because they’re besotted with the pursuit of meaning – but that’s a rant for another time. Whatever the reason, literary criticism has not attended to its texts. Close reading is reading, it’s not description.

And that means that, for all the close reading we’ve done in the last three-quarters of a century, there’s a sense in which we don’t know what we’re talking about. We’ve been up close and blind.

It’s rather like an arthropodologist who doesn’t know whether or not centipedes have exactly 100 legs and whether they typically have more legs than millipedes have. Yes, there’s lots of legs propelling those creatures over the face of the earth. Maybe even lots and lots. Exactly 100 or exactly 1000? More, less, a range? But you know I haven’t counted up to 100 since I was ten years old on the school fieldtrip counting all those bottles of beer on the wall. Boring!

Counting the number of legs on an arthropod is not difficult. You do have to know how to count, and you have to be careful, as you don’t want to skip any or double-count any. It’s not rocket science. It’s not deep.

But it’s necessary. And it’s the foundation for the study of morphological variety. If you don’t have a grip on that, you’re never going to understand evolution. Without descriptive control over his materials, Darwin wouldn’t have been able to see the pattern that he explained by evolution. Without a rich collection of well-described texts, there will be no Darwinian figures in literary criticism.

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Only the first, third, and last of these posts are specifically about diagrams in describing literary texts. But the other two speak to the general issue of description.

On the Methodological Centrality of Diagrams: A general discussion of diagrams in (my) practical criticism, diagrams depicting form and diagrams depicting underlying conceptual structure. I set the stage by discussing the ambiguity of the concept of the text, which typically strays far and uncontrollably beyond mere ink splotches in a codex, and then follow with some observations on scientific description in biology, including molecular biology (Watson and Crick on DNA). Then I have a number of examples of literary form followed by conceptual structures and I conclude by arguing that diagrams help to objectify the phenomena of interest.

Description as Redesign: Carving Nature at the Joints: This is a short note to Willard McCarty who suggests that description is “an act of redesign under constraints”, with which I concur – redesign as reverse engineering.

Pattern: Ramsay on Shakespeare, and Beyond: Peter Ramsay has done some computational work on Shakespeare in which the computer created network diagrams of how each play moves from one scene to another. It turns out that if those diagrams are then presented to Baysian classification regime the computer can more or less group them into the standard genres. Ramsay is at a loss at how to explain that such bare bones information as the structure of scenes, absent any information about what happens in the scenes, can yield such results. I follow this with my work on Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale where I discover a pattern in the relationships between a configuration of characters in each play and the genre of the play. Just why that relationship exists, that I don’t (quite) know. I conclude that we must sometimes be content with finding patterns without necessarily being able to explain those patterns.

In Search of Literary Form: Sandra Mcpherson recently published an article in ELH in which she argued that, while there is currently a lot of interest in form, that interest doesn’t seem directed at actually characterizing the formal features of literary texts. I suggest that we can embed a descriptivist practice within a Latourian framework literary form is considered to be an intermediary, in Latour’s terms, rather than a mediator. Literary texts are thus hybrid objects in which mediating content is conveyed by intermediating form.

Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism: We return to objectification, then look at some ways of visualizing computational structures, and then consider examples of literary description of several types: counting and measuring, tables, trees and mental spaces, and “sketchpads”. I conclude that such description should be able to support agreement among critics and that that intersubjective agreement qualifies as objective knowledge. As such, it can accumulate from one critic to another, from one decade to another.

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