Sunday, January 14, 2018

Once more, and thinking of ring composition: Why aren’t literary critics interested in describing literary form?

I keep coming back to this question. Sometimes I think I’ve got an answer, but then, gradually, it goes away. I’m not quite sure what the question is.

If literary critics didn’t talk about form and if formalism weren’t a well recognized (family of) critical position(s), the answer would be simple. But that, I’m afraid, is not the case. Form and formalism are much discussed. And one of the big discussions revolves around the questions: What IS form, anyhow? There’s no consensus answer, not even close.

What brought the subject to mind just now is that I was thinking about ring composition, a particular kind of formal structure. I bring up ring composition because it’s not form-in-general. It’s a specific kind of form. And so is more tractable.

And what I’ve been thinking about that is that it has mostly been studied in oral culture, classical texts, the Bible, and in non-Western classical literatures (the Vedas, the Quran, etc.). And, as far as I can tell (from running searches on Google Scholar and, those discussions remain current, though it doesn’t seem to be a scholarly hot-bed. That is, it’s studied in literatures that AREN’T US.

But also, it really isn’t studied as one kind of form in the general world of literary forms. It seems to be this oddball kind of topic unto itself. Sometimes it’s approached through spatial metaphors, which I fear is a mistake. But sometimes it’s also discussed in relation to music – I recall seeing such an article.

Why isn’t the study of literary form as sophisticated as the study of musical form (at least I think it’s sophisticated)? Literary art, after all, is a temporal art, no? But it’s difficult to think of it that way, I suspect, because words have meaning and musical pitches don’t. Those meanings and their accumulation get in the way of focusing on the temporality.

On the whole, and at the moment – I’m making this up as I type it – I’m thinking that literary form is difficult to focus on. Ring form is studied in ‘remote’ literature precisely because they’re remote. That remoteness reduces the ‘pressure’ on meaning and allows the formal features to be treated more straightforwardly. What makes literary form difficult to focus on is the fact that, as physical objects, literary texts are strings. How do we think about the form of strings?

Where the elements on those strings are words and so have meaning, I suspect that, in the end, computation is the only way we’ve got for thinking about the form of strings of meaningful objects. I note that when I blundered into the form of “Kubla Khan”, my experience with computation played a role. I thought about computer programs and how the difference between, say, a comma and a semicolon was the difference between a program that ran and one that didn’t. Natural language isn’t so unforgiving. But form in natural language texts is broadly of a kind with form in computer language texts. Grouping of word forms matters.

I note that arriving at the form of “Kubla Khan” was not a straightforward process for me. On the one hand, I had no model. I wasn’t looking for form. I was looking for meaning. Once I’d blundered into the form, I didn’t know what to do with it. What I did was to go looking for the underlying mechanisms, which was as close as I could get to looking for meaning. I didn’t find them, though I certainly did find a fascinating intellectual world in computational semantics and such. Beyond that, it was a BIG DEAL for me, two decades later, to reflect back on it all and realize that what drove me was form, the formal features I’d identified in various texts.

That is, while I may have been following form for years, it took me a long time to consciously realize and focus on it. On the whole it seems to me that, as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, I had internalized a fairly standard litcrit mindset, on more or less oblivious to form. But I had internalized a bit of linguistics and perhaps a bit of computation as well, and those things came into confluence and collision in my study of “Kubla Khan”.

At the moment I’m of the opinion that there won’t be any serious study of literary form that doesn’t recognize computation as essential to language. By “serious” I mean analytic and descriptive. The descriptive work doesn’t have to start from scratch. Much existing work in poetics and narratology is relevant. What’s most important at this point, however, is the description of individual texts in varying levels of detail.

The concept of computation authorizes the study of form. Without that authorization there can be no such study [1]. It’s not simply a matter of authority, though it IS that as well. It’s about intellectual focus.

The ring composition literature is interesting and important, but it’s a fluke, a fortunate fluke.

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[1] See, for example, my recent post, Jakobson’s Poetic Function and Textual Closure, December 25, 2017,

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