Description, of course, has been kicking around for awhile. It’s part of a critical quartet articulated by Monroe Beardsley in the 1950s: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Stanley Fish took it to task in Is There a Text in This Class? where he castigates Steven Booth for asserting that he was but describing Shakespeare’s sonnets (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.
And that’s where things have pretty much rested until recently.
In 2010 Heather Love published an essay that got a fair amount of buzz, Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn (New Literary History, 41, No. 2, 371-391). After citing Bruno Latour on the importance of description, Love takes a look at Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but NOT to describe features of Morrison’s text. Rather, she’s interested in Morrison’s use of description IN her text. If Latour describes the phenomena that interest him, why doesn't Love do the same? Why does she displace her descriptive desire into Morrison's text?
More recently Sharon Marcus discusses description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation in the course of analyzing Auerbach’s method in Mimesis in Modern Language Quarterly. She notes (p. 298):
For the past several decades, the most celebrated literary critics have tended to value interpretation, connotation, and the figurative over description, denotation, and the literal, arguing that the latter set of terms names operations that are impossible to carry out. Literary critics often rally around the preferred terms by casting them as methodological underdogs in need of defense against an allegedly dominant empiricist positivism that no longer prevails even in the sciences.
She goes on to show the Auerbach makes frequent use of description while distinguishing it from interpretation (308) and to argue that we value Auerbach because of his use of description (309).
And now Marcus has conspired with Heather Love and Stephen Best to edit an issue of Representations (Summer 2016) devoted to description. What next?
Summer 2016 • Number 135
SPECIAL ISSUE: Description Across Disciplines
Edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best
LIZA JOHNSON – Observable Behavior 1–10, page 22
KATHLEEN STEWART – The Point of Precision, page 31
LORRAINE DASTON – Cloud Physiognomy, page 45
JOANNA STALNAKER – Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature, page 72
GEORGINA KLEEGE – Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications, page 89
CANNON SCHMITT – Interpret or Describe? page 102
JILL MORAWSKI – Description in the Psychological Sciences, page 119
MICHAEL FRIED – No Problem, page 140