Saturday, December 23, 2017

Saturday Ramble: Ethical criticism and too much to do

“Deck the Halls with Double Joy” –



It’s early Saturday morning, December 23, 2017. In a couple of hours I head off to Philadelphia to spend the Christmas weekend with my sister. Monday, Christmas day, we’ll visit Longwood Gardens, a DuPont estate south of Philadelphia with magnificent grounds and a wonderful conservatory.

Lots to do. The Bergen Arches project is going to heat up in the new year. Who knows where that will lead.

And I’ve got a lot of writing to do, some in connection with the Arches project, but most in connection with my intellectual life. On high priority:
  • A working paper about the direction of cultural evolution and cultural evolution as force in history.
  • I want to say so more about the problematics of the text, about how standard lit crit bridges the gap between signifier and signified with intention, but that naturalist criticism has actual mechanisms on offer. And how the vague intentional text (what I’ve been calling the interpretable or hermeneutic text [1]) of standard lit crit leads to the transcendental critic who treats the world as a text. Not good.
  • What about ethical criticism? Just what does it do?
I’ve got some quick thoughts about ethical criticism.

First, a 21st century ethical criticism must discard that vague intentional text, the one with hidden meanings that must be closely read. It’s useless artifact serving no purpose but to prop up a now moribund conception of literary commentary.

Second, back in the mid-1950 when literary criticism explicitly disavowed, well, criticism, the cultural world was a different place. The literary academy was resting secure in the implicit assumption of nationalist criticism where the cultural valence of the nation, or each nation, was secure. That fell apart in the 1970s and 80s. Now we’ve got a proliferation of identity criticisms. That’s one thing an ethical criticism needs to deal with.

Third, consider this, the final paragraph of my first “Kubla Khan” essay [1]:
The hermeneutic critic is, ultimately, asking: What is the meaning of life? What is man’s place in the scheme of things? What does this text tell us of that scheme? These are not properly scientific questions and we should not expect a science of man to answer them. But that science must answer closely related questions: What is the nature of the human mind such that it continually inquires into its own nature, into its place in the world? What is the nature of a poem such that it stills, for the moment, such questioning? A science that fails to address such questions may indeed be a science, but it will not be profoundly of man.
For those initial questions I offer a substitute: What is it that makes human life problematic? Yes, life is often difficult and painful. But that in itself is not problematic. What makes life problematic? I’d suggest things like knowledge of death, the contradictory demands and challenges of a complex nervous system – that would, I suspect, include knowledge of death, and perhaps everything else as well. That is, that must be understood as a problem arising within the mechanisms of the brain. That’s a challenge for the behavioral sciences. And I think it’s approachable. But that’s a discussion for a different time and place.

The ethical critic is concerned with how one lives through those challenges. That is to say, how does a given text get from here to there? The ethnical critic isn’t trying to observe the text “from above” (transcendentally) but is registering how it feels to live in the text.

Wayne Booth speaks to that in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). After quoting from a Chekov story (“Home”) he observes (p. 484):
We all have “this foolish habit,” [liking stories] and we all are by nature caught in the ambiguities that trouble the prosecutor. Yet we are all equipped, by a nature (a “second nature”) that has created us out of story, with a rich experience in choosing which life stories, fictional or “real,” we will embrace wholeheartedly. Who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of criticism, whether by ourselves or by those who determine what stories will come our way – criticism wise or foolish, deliberate or spontaneous, conscious or unconscious: “You may enter; you must go away – and I will do my best to forget you.”

Each culture provides every member with an unlimited number of “natural” choices that seem to require no thought.
“But how” Booth asks (p. 484), “should we make those choices?” We take advantage of the fact that fiction is a “relatively cost-free offer of trial runs” – the psychologist Keith Oatley talks of simulation, literary experience simulates life [2]. Booth observes:
If you try out a given mode of life in itself, you may, like Eve in the garden, discover too late that the one who offered it to you was Old Nick himself…. In a month of reading, I can try out more “lives” than I can test in a lifetime.

Ethical criticism aims to help us explore the implications of the simulations we read, or see in films, or even enact in video games.
More later.

[1] From Canon/Archive to a REAL REVOLUTION in literary studies, Working Paper, December 21, 2017, 26 pp., https://www.academia.edu/35486902/From_Canon_Archive_to_a_REAL_REVOLUTION_in_literary_studies

[2] Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of "Kubla Khan", Language and Style, Vol. 8: 3-29, 1985., https://www.academia.edu/8155602/Articulate_Vision_A_Structuralist_Reading_of_Kubla_Khan_

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