Yes, because literary criticism is oriented toward the interpretation of meaning, and form cannot, in general be “cashed out” in terms of meaning. But why is literary criticism oriented toward this ‘meaning’ in the first place? That’s what we need to know.
And the answer is that “meaning” is couched in terms more or less commensurate with life those we (that is, literary critics) use to understand life itself (how we live). Such a simple thing, you might say, Well duh! It’s the old gestalt switch:
All along I’d been looking at it as a duck, but now I can see it as a rabbit. Same stuff, different organization.
The reset came when I decided to examine some passages from Foucault’s The Order of Things that I’d long ago noted, but hadn’t read in years. The passages are in the chapter “Classifying,” which concerns the emergence of natural history in the Early Modern Era (aka Renaissance); a couple of centuries later, of course, natural history evolves into biology.
You see why this is relevant, don’t you? In talking about the need to describe literary form I make a comparison to biology. Biology is built on the meticulous description of life forms and their ways of life. Similarly, my argument goes, we need meticulous descriptions of literary texts. So, why not take a look at how morphological description emerged in intellectual history? That’s what Foucault is going in this chapter.
This is the first passage I spotted when I opened the book – well, I didn’t exactly open a codex, rather I scanned through a PDF (The Order of Things, p. 142-43):
The documents of this new history are not other words, texts or records, but unencumbered spaces in which things are juxtaposed: herbariums, collections, gardens; the locus of this history is a non-temporal rectangle in which, stripped of all commentary, of all enveloping language, creatures present themselves one beside another, their surfaces visible, grouped according to their common features, and thus already virtually analysed, and bearers of nothing but their own individual names. It is often said that the establishment of botanical gardens and zoological collections expressed a new curiosity about exotic plants and animals. In fact, these had already claimed men’s interest for a long while. What had changed was the space in which it was possible to see them and from which it was possible to describe them. To the Renaissance, the strangeness of animals was a spectacle: it was featured in fairs, in tournaments, in fictitious or real combats, in reconstitutions of legends in which the bestiary displayed its ageless fables. The natural history room and the garden, as created in the Classical period, replace the circular procession of the ‘show’ with the arrangement of things in a ‘table’.
That’s it, said I to myself, context! The context has to change. It is only when plants and animals are removed from on-going life and considered only in relation to one another that their forms, and their differences, can become salient. The same is true of texts. We must remove them from life so that they can come into their own as objects for examination. Meaning, after all, is always meaning for life.
That’s why critics talk about texts in the same terms they use to talk about life. That’s why Theory grounds itself in general philosophical and quasi-philosophical texts, texts created to understand life and the world in general, but not literature in particular. That’s why critics talk about fictional characters as though they were just like real live people – when they’re not; they’re puppets.
But wait! you’re thinking, didn’t the New Critics insist on treating texts as autonomous? Isn’t that what they wanted from the idea of form, that it authorize the notion of textual autonomy? Well, um, er, yes, but… It’s tricky, and requires a bit more conceptual apparatus than I want to gin-up at the moment. But I’ll offer an observation or two.
Textual autonomy means removing the text from authorial biographical history and from history in general, but not from the ongoing business of life. The idea is that the meanings of texts are somehow outside of historical context, approaching the status of universal truths or, at least, of ever-recurring problematics. So the texts aren’t being removed from the business of life. Rather they are being purified from contingencies so as to live in essentials.
Let’s return to Foucault, to an earlier passage (p. 141):
When Jonston wrote his Natural history of quadrupeds , did he know any more about them than Aldrovandi did, a half-century earlier? Not a great deal more, the historians assure us. But that is not the question. Or, if we must pose it in these terms, then we must reply that Jonston knew a great deal less than Aldrovandi. The latter, in the case of each animal he examined, offered the reader, and on the same level, a description of its anatomy and of the methods of capturing it; its allegorical uses and mode of generation; its habitat and legendary mansions; its food and the best ways of cooking its flesh. Jonston subdivides his chapter on the horse under twelve headings: name, anatomical parts, habitat, ages, generation, voice, movements, sympathy and antipathy, uses, medicinal uses. None of this was omitted by Aldrovandi, and he gives us a great deal more besides. The essential difference lies in what is missing in Jonston. The whole of animal semantics has disappeared, like a dead and useless limb.
One might say that the difference between Jonston and Aldrovandi is one of purification or purging, though those words are tricky. But let’s let them stand for the moment. I’m just making things up right now. Things will settle out in time.
It’s not that Jonston had powers of observation and interest that were superior to Aldrovandi. Rather, his interests were different and so he used those powers differently. Similarly, the descriptive practice I’ve been proposing doesn’t require mysterious new powers of observation. But it does require a new disposition of attention and a redirection of will: attend to form and describe it!
The distinction between naturalist and ethical criticism looms large in my thinking. From the point of view of naturalist criticism that seems like something of a purging or purification; things that are important to the ethical critic have become forbidden. But from a slightly different point of view it is a matter of differentiation. Literary criticism has been mostly an ethical endeavor that has had, however, to present itself as, if not a naturalist enterprise, as a value-free and disinterested humanistic enterprise when it is not, in fact, either. I am proposing a differentiation, with the description of form as the differentiating activity.
Literary form is the activity of the human mind, the mind unencumbered with the call of practical necessity. It is clear that the act of description take epistemological priority. But it is also clear that, just as morphological description in natural history has been the foundation for studying the mechanisms and processes of life, so morphological description in literature – and the other arts – is foundational to understanding the mechanisms and processes of the mind.
Finally, Foucault was describing a period in European thought when it was passing from one episteme to another. Is that what's now happening, in literary criticism but likely everywhere else? In this interpretation of our situation all of literary criticism from the Russian formalists and I. A. Richards up through the poststructuralists and postmodernists belongs to one episteme. Current interests in surface reading and description are tentative moves to a new episteme.
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That’s it for now. I want to let this settle out. But I’ll continue this line of reasoning and connect it with other concerns.