Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Deep Surface, Description, and the Emptiness of Theory

This is an edited version of an email I sent to Tim Morton. I’ve been thinking of working it up into a formal post, just a quick one. But I know what happens when I think those thoughts. The quick post takes longer and longer to write and sometimes never even gets done. So I decided not to do that this time. Here it is, with a few omissions and additions. But it’s still pretty raw.
The attached post (about The Greatest Man in Siam) is an example of what I consider to be as important a kind of work a critic can do. NOT the MOST important work, but AS IMPORTTANT as anything else.

It's more or less straight-up descriptive work on a minute-long sequence in a cartoon (with most of the work on the last 20 seconds of that sequence). That I'm describing a pop-culture cartoon is secondary to the fact that I'm describing the work. We need more descriptive work. Detailed, painstaking, and accurate description.

I've concluded that, at this point in the unfolding of our disciplines, getting better descriptive control over the artifacts we study is critical. If we don't do that, then the theories don't much matter: psychoanalytic, phenomenological, neuro, cognitive, evo, deconstructive, eco, object-oriented ontology, even good old New Critical. If we don't learn to pay more attention to the sensuous surface of these works, the theorizing will simply collapse as so many grand words, glass shards, burnt twigs, shattered bones, empty exoskeletons. We know how to theorize. But we don't know how to touch and see and hear and describe what we sense.

If we're to remake our disciplines at whatever professional level we want, the remaking's got to encompass richer description. And if we want to address ourselves to a general public, well, then we've got to share our appreciation of the sensuous surface of art. Why? Because that's where the depths are, in the sensuous surface. No top, no bottom, just the sensuous thing itself. Nowhere to hide.

Alack and alas! this modest little post offers no deep insight into the problems of Humankind in the Universe, and that tells against it in a theory-infested intellectual climate where everyone goes for the Big Insight every time out. But that’s the way it is. It’s my belief that the patient accumulation of 100s and 1000s of such descriptive efforts will, in time, afford insights that never could have been had without the descriptions. If Darwin hadn’t had the benefit of 300 years of descriptive natural history he’d never have been able to spot and theorize evolution.

Now, getting back to your current hobbyhorse, I'd figure that object-oriented ontology might have a way to mount an argument on this issue, no?

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