Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Me, Joseph Carroll, and the Search for Precision in Literary Criticism

I’ve been thinking a lot about Joseph Carroll recently and have been drafting material for posts that I may or may not put online [1]. It’s hard, very hard. And if I post them, it’s likely to be brutal in stretches, long stretches, for we are very different thinkers.

But we do share a motivation. Here’s a passage from Graphing Jane Austen [2], a recent book he co-authored with three other scholars (pp. 61-62):
It is the author who stipulates the features of characters and situations, describes a setting, delineates a sequence of actions, and orchestrates the whole to produce a continuous sequence of recognitions and emotional responses that vary little from reader to reader. If the reader is competent, the reader registers precisely what is in the text, just as an observer; if he or she is alert, registers precisely the physical features and expressive character of some actual person.
Forget about the author. That’s a matter on which we disagree quite a bit. To a first approximation, I think they’re (methodologically) useless; he thinks they’re (theoretically) the whole ball of wax.

It’s the second sentence that interests me. One word in particular: “precisely”. He thinks there is something precise about literary texts and so do I. He things it’s meaning that is precise. I think that centering one’s desire for precision on meaning is hopeless, and so I abandoned that quest some time ago. I’m centering my desire for precision on form [3].

To say much more than this would require entering into a conversation that will be long and difficult. I can’t do that now. Still, the conviction that there is something very precise about literary texts and literary phenomena, that is not a trivial matter. On the contrary, it’s at the heart of how literature is central to culture and society, to human life.

* * * * *

[1] I’ve had a bit to say about Darwinian literary criticism, and have gathered those posts into a working paper: On the Poverty of Literary Darwinism (2015) 45 pp., URL: https://www.academia.edu/15853288/On_the_Poverty_of_Literary_Darwinism

[2] Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall, John Johnson, Daniel Kruger. Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. FWIW this book is Carroll’s most significant contribution to literary criticism to date. Why? Because it is empirical, though it is by no means the first empirical study of literature. There is a long history of that. Given that it is empirical, it gives us a new kind insight into a significant body of texts. Though I’ve not taken the time to study it carefully, it seems to me that there is solid work here, work that can and should be built upon. FWIW this book is Carroll’s most significant contribution to literary criticism to date. Why? Because it is empirical, though it is by no means the first empirical study of literature. There is a long history of that. Given that it is empirical, it gives us a new kind insight into a significant body of texts. Though I’ve not taken the time to study it carefully, it seems to me that there is solid work here, work that can and should be built upon.

[3] My central, and rather long, statement on the matter: 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. http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/l_benzon-literary_morphology_nine_propositions_in

No comments:

Post a Comment