Friday, October 28, 2016

How Do We Understand Literary Criticism?

This is a follow-up to Monday’s post, Once More, Why is Literary Form All But Invisible to Literary Criticism? (With a little help from Foucault). For, despite its name, the post really was about how we understand literary criticism. How could that be? you ask. Simple, the mechanism – there’s that word – is such that form is irrelevant or distracting. Certain schools of criticism invoked form as an isolating device, but they weren’t actually interested in describing it.

I note that I’m just making this up. I like it, but it’s very crude. I want to think about it.

Schemas, Assimilation and Accommodation

So, how is it that we understand anything? Piaget talks of intellectual growth as an interplay of assimilation and accommodation. He imagines the mind as being populated with schemas, so:
A schema refers to both mental and physical actions in understanding and knowing. In cognitive development theory, a schema includes both a category of knowledge and the process of obtaining that knowledge. The process by which new information is taken into the previously existing schema is known as assimilation. Alteration of existing schemas or ideas as a result of new knowledge is known as accommodation. Therefore the main difference between assimilation and accommodation is that in assimilation, the new idea fits in with the already existing ideas while, in accommodation, the new idea changes the already existing ideas.
I would further add that he thought of play as involving a priority of assimilation over accommodation. Let us think of literature as a kind of play.

We may then ask of literature itself, what is the body of schemas to which we assimilate literary texts? Whatever the answer to that might be, I assert that we assimilate literary criticism to the same body of schemes. And that is why it has been so easy for literary critics to elide the difference between ordinary reading, which every literate person does, and interpretive critical reading, which is confined to professional literary critics and, of course, their students – though most of those students (think of the undergraduates) do not go on to become professionals.

I will further assert that in order for the detailed description of the form of individual works, their morphology, to become a routine and foundational practice, critics must learn to assimilate their understanding of texts to a different base of schemas. In fact, such description is the way to establish that different base of schemes.

Schema Bases, Primary and Secondary (Round Earth)

By the primary schema base I mean first of all the body of schemas that begins developing at birth. This is the schema base in which, among other things, we will ‘lay down’ our personal history. This schema base is grounded in direct experience, though not necessarily confined to it.

For the purposes of this post I will simply assert that we understand literary texts by assimilating them to our primary schema base. We understand the actions of fictional beings by assimilating them to actions we have seen and experienced ourselves. Of course, when we encounter imaginary acts that are unlike those we’ve seen and done ourselves, we may well accommodate ourselves to them if they are, shall we say, within range. But assimilation prevails.

Given that we have dreams and that we learn things through talking with others, we must accommodate these within the prime base. Dreams we experience directly, of course, but they are in a realm different from day-to-day life. We experience conversation directly, as well, but we do not necessarily have direct experience of the contents of conversation. We may, we may not; it depends on who we’re talking with and what we’re talking about.

I want to note that, but I want to set it aside for them moment. I want to develop the notion of a secondary base. And then best way to do that is through an example. How is it that we know the earth is round? That knowledge, I assert, rests on a secondary base.

It is easy enough to see that an orange is round, or a basketball. That the sun and the moon are round, that too is obvious. But it is only quite recently in human history that anyone has had direct perceptual evidence that the earth is round. Astronauts in low orbit around the earth can see the earth’s curvature and astronauts further out, going to and from the moon, or standing on the moon at looking at earth, can see the earth as a whole. Photographs have been taken and we’ve all seen them.

The ancient Greeks had figured out that the earth is round, and they didn’t have such perceptual evidence. How did they do it? Here’s the opening paragraph of Wikipedia’s article, Spherical Earth:
The earliest reliably documented mention of the spherical Earth concept dates from around the 6th century BC when it appeared in ancient Greek philosophy but remained a matter of speculation until the 3rd century BC, when Hellenistic astronomy established the spherical shape of the Earth as a physical given. The paradigm was gradually adopted throughout the Old World during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. A practical demonstration of Earth's sphericity was achieved by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano's expedition's circumnavigation (1519−1522).
First comes speculation, then establishment a couple centuries later, and finally practical demonstration well over a millennium and a half after that.

The early speculation seems to have come from long-distance travelers. Confirmation came with mathematics:
Eratosthenes, a Greek astronomer from Hellenistic Libya (276–194 BC), estimated Earth's circumference around 240 BC. He had heard that in Syene the Sun was directly overhead at the summer solstice whereas in Alexandria it still cast a shadow. Using the differing angles the shadows made as the basis of his trigonometric calculations he estimated a circumference of around 250,000 stades. The length of a ‘stade’ is not precisely known, but Eratosthenes's figure only has an error of around five to fifteen percent.
Let us say that mathematics provided a secondary schema base. The sphericity of the earth was established by assimilating direct experience, observations about the angles of shadows, to this secondary base.

It is not obvious to me just how to formulate this. But the truths of Greek mathematics, or any mathematics, are not established by direct experience of the world. They are established by abstract reasoning with a tightly specified conceptual world. When we take direct observations of whatever kind and link them to objects in this secondary world of mathematics (though measurement in this case), any conclusions reached depend on that secondary world, and not on experience alone.

If you trust the mathematicians (by which, in this context, I mean anyone making use of mathematics), however, you can accept their truths without yourself having to work through them using those schemas in the secondary base. We can think of this as an extension of the process by which we accept assertions made by others about their direct experience. That is, others have experiences which we ourselves could have if we were there; but they can tell us about those experiences and we can accept them as true – if we trust them. If we trust a mathematician, then we can accept their assertions based on secondary schemas, even though we do not ourselves have those secondary schemas.

Reading Literature

Literary texts, for the most part, are written in ordinary language. That is, they are not written in the technical language of mathematics or of any technical discipline, though such ideas may be used to the extent that they have entered into common knowledge of the world. We understand literary texts by assimilating them to our common language of the world.

And so it is with literary criticism, or at least it was until after World War II. Interpretive criticism started out using the discourse of educated people, that is, people with college educations. But as it has developed it has adopted various specialized intellectual languages, but not, so far, mathematized languages. Freudian psychology, Lacanian psychology, Continental philosophy, Foucauldian genealogy, none of these are mathematized discourses ¬– though Lacan liked to pretend.

Lévi-Strauss, however, took things to the edge, with his tabular displays and his quasi-formal schematizations. When Geoffrey Hartman observed “modern ‘rithmatics’—semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism—are not the solution” (The Fate of Reading, p. 272) he was warning against a discourse that threated to take literary criticism beyond the primary base. And notice the term he used, ‘rithmatic, mathematics. He was worried about a mode of thought that requires reference to a secondary base.

Now, while mathematics is itself a secondary schema base, I do not believe that mathematics is the only means of establishing a secondary base. Natural history did so by treating flora and fauna as an order among themselves, as we saw in my earlier post when we looked at Foucault. I believe that literary criticism can do so by focusing on the description of literary form.

That is, to understand literary form and how it works, we have to treat it as a world unto itself, with its own ‘laws’ and protocols. Poetics and narratology seek to do that. But they have never been more than secondary occupations within literary criticism. Nor has it been clear just how to establish them in their own terms; that is, it has never been clear just what those terms should be. All that’s clear, as Hartman noted, is that interpretive criticism, aka reading, cannot assimilate them.

Three final notes. First, the world contains stories and texts. Stories and texts often appear as (secondary) objects within literary texts. That has consequences for criticism too.

Second, it is because we assimilate literary texts, imaginary experiences, to the primary schema base, that the fictional nature of literature is so problematic. If we assimilate events in the real world and imaginary events to the same schema bases, aren’t we in danger of deep confusion? Yes.

Third, I have pointed out that literary criticism is a discursive activity – hardly a novel observation. It doesn’t use diagrams or numbers, except in minor ways. We can now see that this follows from the fact that literary criticism is understood with reference to the primary schema base.

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