Sunday, May 30, 2021

“NATURALIST” criticism, NOT “cognitive” NOT “Darwinian” – A Quasi-Manifesto

Time to once again bump this to the top of the queue. 

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Reposted from The Valve, 31 March 2010, this is an informal manifesto for whatever it is I'm up to, and why I'm come to think of it as naturalist criticism. I could link a lot more into this piece now, especially my recent work on ring composition and digital humanities, but I won't. It's a decent map to my work in literature, a place-holder until I have time to do something a bit more formal.

You mean a quasifesto?

Shoo, get out . . .

Fact is, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d never have thought of myself as being in the business of bringing cognitive science to literary criticism much less represented myself to the world in that way. But I didn’t (know) and I did (represent), so now I seem stuck with the moniker. I’d like to shake if off.

When I finally decided to publish a programmatic and methodological statement, “Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form,” I adopted naturalism as a label. Fact is, I’d just as soon not think of it as anything but the study of literature. But we live in an age of intellectual brands, so I chose “naturalism” as mine.

Yes, I know that “the natural” is somewhat problematic, but you’ll just have to get past that. No label is perfect and I’m not about to coin a new term. Assuming you can struggle past the word, what does naturalism suggest to you? To me the term conjures up a slightly eccentric investigator wandering about the world examining flora and fauna, writing up notes, taking photos, making drawings, and perhaps even collecting specimens. That feels right to me, except that I’m nosing about poems, plays, novels, films, and other miscellaneous things. Beyond that I’d like the term to suggest some sense of literature as thoroughly in and a part of the world. There’s only one world and literature exists in it.

Beyond that, what does the term suggest? . . . Nothing, that’s what I’d like it to suggest, nothing. But whatever this naturalist criticism is or might become, that it has some kind of name suggests that it’s probably not myth criticism, New Criticism, Marxist criticism, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, archetypal, phenomenological, reader response, or any of the other existing critical brands.

What do the terms “cognitive criticism” or “cognitive rhetoric” suggest? Like many of those other labels, they suggest some body of supplementary knowledge and practice that one brings to the study of literature. Just exactly what the supplementary body is, that may not be terribly clear. But that doesn’t matter. The terms emphasize and draw your attention to the supplement. The same with “Darwinian literary criticism,” only vaguer. The only thing that’s clear about that label is a towering intellectual figure whose work had nothing to do with the study of literature.

None of this should be taken to imply that I’ve lost interest in the newer psychologies, as I like to call them. I haven’t. I believe that future literary studies must take them into account, and other theories, concepts and models as well. I just don’t want to stick those names in my brand label.

Anything else?

Yes, I put the study of form at the center of the enterprise.

So why not label yourself a formalist?

Because that’s already of term of art, and it’s too strongly identified with approaches that treat the text as an autonomous object more or less independent of reader, author, and the larger world. For that matter, many formalist critics are more interested in textual autonomy than in systematically analyzing and describing the manifold formal aspects of literary texts. In the end, they’re as greedy after meaning as most other critics are.

OK, so what do you have in mind with this naturalist criticism that emphasizes form?

Good question. And I’m afraid my best answer is a bit embarrassing. I figure the best way to scope out any literary program is to look at practical criticism. What does it do with an actual text, in some length and detail. And the best examples I know are, umm, err, from my own work. And that, as I said, is embarrassing. I’d rather point out someone else’s work.

Really? There’s nothing else? Your work is de novo, so to speak?

Well, everyone has precursors and models. I was certainly influenced by the structuralists, Roman Jakobson, Edmund Leach, Jean Piaget, and Lévi-Strauss above all. For that matter I should probably know narratology better than I do. And I’ve enjoyed the detailed analytic work that David Bordwell’s posted on his blog, though I’ve not gotten around to reading any of his books except Making Meaning, which is an analysis and critique poststructuralist film criticism. If more people analyzed literary texts like Bordwell analyzes film, that would be good.
[More specifically, check out, e.g. Bordwell’s post on “Tell, don’t show,” or this post on “Kurosawa’s early spring,” other posts tagged as “Film technique,” and this essay, “Anatomy of the Action Picture.”]
OK OK, I get the idea. I’m skeptical, but go on. What’s your best analytic work?

I suppose my recent essays on “Kubla Khan,” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” but they’re a bit of a slog, long and detailed, and lots of diagrams. I like this old piece on Sir Gawin and the Green Knight too, and this Shakespeare piece, which looks at three plays, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale and even uses evolutionary psychology.

Perhaps the best place to start would my recent post: Two Rings in Fantasia: Nutcracker and Apprentice. It focuses on form and it’s got some nice screen shots too. It’s relatively short and pretty much free of abstract critical apparatus, though there’s an addendum that heads off into the abstractosphere. Yeah, it’s about film, not literature, but that’s a secondary issue that has no bearing on my main point.

As the title suggests, I consider two episodes in Disney’s Fantasia, the Nutcracker Suite and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. There are three things going on in that post: 1) the analysis and description of so-called ring forms in the two episodes, which is my main focus, 2) a brief characterization of the spatial worlds in the two episodes, and 3) some informal remarks on what those episodes might mean.

A ring form is a text in which episodes mirror one another around a central point or episode, thus: A, B, C . . . C’, B’, A’. One of these episodes has a conventional narrative (Sorcerer’s) while the other does not. But both are rings. Pending strong arguments to the contrary, I regard that as a fact about them. The ring structure really is there; it’s not something I’m reading into the episodes. The core work in the post is to report the relatively straight-forward analytical work needed to establish ring structure as a descriptive fact.

In the course of looking at the ring structure I also offer some remarks on the structure of the visual worlds in the two episodes and how the virtual camera moves through them. This plays no role in my argument about ring structure, but it is a formal feature of the episodes and is important in the larger scope of the hole film. Each of the eight episodes has a different theme and subject matter, and each has a different animation style. Somewhere “between” the style and the subject matter you have visual space and movement through it.

Finally, I offer some interpretive comments, some observations about what these episodes might mean. In the case of Nutcracker those suggestions lean toward the Freudian, though I suppose some might argue it has no meaning at all, that it’s just a bunch of pretty pictures set to music. Sorcerer’s is a different case, because here we have a actual story. I suppose I could’ve gone Freudian and worked on Father and Son, but I got stuck on all those industrious brooms parading across the screen and ended up giving a nod toward the Marxists.

Well, OK, OK. I’ve read the paper and it’s a nice piece of work.

Thank you.

But I don’t see anything new in kind.

Well, yes, I didn’t invent anything, but . . . .

Anyone could do it. It’s well within range of a good undergraduate . . .

And did you notice it’s not jam-packed with a lot of conceptual apparatus?

That’s what I mean, it’s almost as if anyone could do it.

Well, I rather doubt that. You do have to have a “feel” for the job, and that takes time and experience. You have to work with texts (or films) to learn how to work with them. You can’t get it by reading books and articles. But the absence of a lot of apparatus, that’s a feature, not a bug. In any event the thing to notice is that formal analysis and description is at the center of the piece.

But that’s not a central focus of practical criticism in the discipline as it is currently practiced. Nor does it seem to be on radar screen for the cognitivists and the Darwinians. They still treat meaning as the main event.

But “naturalist” doesn’t really suggest the study of form either, does it?

Well, you can’t expect a label to do all the work. Come to think of it, I suppose the best thing to do is to think of literary morphology as a subdiscipline of naturalist criticism.

And, say, cognitive rhetoric or literary Darwinism as different schools of naturalist thought about literature?

Yeah, I guess that’s how it is. But . . .

. . . getting back to the Fantasia episodes, my description of ring structures is by no means a complete account of formal structures — as if I had any sense of what completeness might mean. Independent of my remarks on implied space and camera movement, each of the components I’ve identified in the ring structures has internal structure to be analyzed and described. If you’re curious about what might be done, take a look at those papers on “Kubla Khan,” or “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,”

Or consider what one might do with a text like Tristram Shandy. Narratologists use it as a paradigm example of the distinction between story, the intrinsic order of events among themselves, and plot, the order in which events enter the narrative text. While these two orders are often the same, in Tristram Shandy, as we all know, the plotting of the narrative works against the intrinsic ordering of events in the story. What about working out the relationship between story and plot for the whole novel, all nine books? Make one list of all the events as they occur in the novel and another list of them in their intrinsic order. Now establish a mapping between the two lists, analyze, and report the results.

You’re kidding.

No I’m not.

That’s a lot of work, and for what?

I know it’s a lot of work. And I don’t know what’ll turn up. We’ve got to do the work first. It’s called investigation, exploration. A little trip into the unknown.

Well, at least, as I think about it, you don’t need a lot of theory gear to do this. It’ll be a lot of tedious nit-picky work, just managing those lists will be a pain. But it should be straightforward. Hmmm . . .

That’s right, to get started, a lot of work, but not much conceptual apparatus. Just some curiosity, a feel for the material, and some time, patience, and energy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if things started to get a little tricky as work moved along. Then it might be necessary to bring in some apparatus, or invent it.

Of course, not all texts would be as troublesome as TS. Maybe it’d be best to start with something simpler.

Sure, by all means. For example, David Herman did this sort of thing for a movie, The Sweet Hereafter, in Story Logic. The idea there was to show that, in some cases, the intrinsic ordering of events isn’t fully specified. And someone did a bit of that in an older essay on Wuthering Heights . . . I forget the names of author and essay and, alas, my copy is in storage in the moment. While the story is, for the most part, told in straight-forward chronological order, as you’ll remember, it’s told through a complex double narration that does obscure some things. So the author made a chronological list of story events and, next each to entry, indicated which chapter narrated the event.

What I’m suggesting is hardly new. But I think it needs to be done more thoroughly, and it needs to be done for every text of interest. Every one of them. And story/plot a ring structure are only two formal attributes to trace. There are lots of them.

OK OK OK. This is beginning to sound half-way interesting. It’s a lot of tedious work, and I haven’t got the faintest idea who’ll do it, but . . . if it gets done, and if the results are clean, we could compare these various textual morphologies, and we might actually start learning something new.

That’s the idea.

What about Moretti’s work, his distant reading?

Have you been reading “Literary Morphology” behind my back?


‘Cause I mention Moretti’s work in it. I like it, and it’s consistent with the naturalist perspective I take, and so is of other work, but I want to get back to form, not in the sense of genre type (such as Moretti uses in the “graphs” study of Graphs, Maps, Trees) but as the “structure” or “skeleton” of the work. In one those studies Moretti looked at the successions of genres in British novels. I envision similar studies, but based on much richer structural descriptions of the texts. That’s what we’ll need to validate speculations of the sort I’ve offered on increasing complexity and sophistication of narrative structure over the long term and how that effects cultural elaboration of the self, which is also implied by my recent posts on time’s arrow and the tension between egalitarian and hierarchical behavioral modes.

But it all comes back to form. In “Literary Morphology” I have two propositions about form:
3. Form: The form of a given work can be said to be a computational structure.

4. Sharability: That computational form is the same for all competent readers.
Forget the computational aspect for a moment. I want to think about the sharability. As proposition four says, the form is the same for all readers. The meaning is not going to be the same because that is highly dependent on their life experience. But the form is grounded, on the one hand, in the capabilities and constraints of the brain and nervous system and, on the other, in cultural conventions (most importantly, those of language itself) that are known to all members of a society. A text will not mean the same to all readers, but it will shape their experience in the same way.

W e l l, I’m skeptical. But OK. Now what about computation? And what the heck to you mean by computational form?

You know, one of the readers for “Literary Morphology” asked the same question. In fact, here’s exactly what one of the readers said:
The author needs to define "computational" before claiming that "computational form is the same for all competent readers."
That’s not an unreasonable request, but alas . . . Let me just make a few observations. First, I think it’s worth noting the notion of computation is under intense investigation these days. If some mathematicians and physicists can seriously propose that the universe is fundamentally computational, just what is computation? Computation isn’t just about numbers; it’s not just the arithmetic you learned in primary school. The discipline of computational linguistics certainly isn’t.

Second, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Claude Lévi-Strauss was pursuing some such line of thought in his later work on myth (which I discussed here and here), starting with The Raw and the Cooked. All those diagrams that look like mathematical expressions, but aren’t, and this mysterious notion of “transformations” that relate one myth to another, his gestures at mathematical proof in his analyses, these strike me as attempts to indicate some deep mechanism that we might as well think of as being computational.

Why computational?

What else do we have? At the moment I don’t see that we’ve got anything else, not if we want to push on. We’re looking for a process, something that unfolds in time. Well, computation is a process, it takes place step by step by step, each at a later moment in time than the previous one. As far as I know, computation is the only explicit process model we’ve got that can deal with language. It’s a useful way of thinking.

So, for me, part of the project of a naturalist criticism is to figure out how to apply the computational model to literature, or, for that matter, film. Those ring structures I was talking about in those two Fantasia episodes, I’m thinking of them as computational forms. I certainly don’t think of them as being the complete computational forms for those episodes, but they’re a part of the form.

And that’s more or less where I’m at on this. I can point to specific examples and say: that’s what I mean, that’s a computational form. And in at least one case, my early work on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, I went deeply enough into computational semantics that I could model the semantics independently of Shakespeare’s text. That allowed me to begin thinking of the text as a path through the semantic model, to think of the text, well, as computational form.

So, I guess then, that you’re one of those people who thinks of the brain as some kind of digital computer?

Not at all. But if we start down that road, we’re going to have to get into the distinction between digital and analog computing, and start worrying about neurodynamics, and, and . . . If you look at the paper David Hays and I did on metaphor, you’ll see that I’m not committed to thinking of the mind or brain or whatever it is as a digital computer.

So, just what DO you think?

It’s complicated, and you know, if I knew what I thought, I wouldn’t spend so much time writing new papers, typing notes into my computer, or putting posts on this blog. I’m working things out and looking for some help. That’s all.

Just a little help.

Hmmm . . . . Sounds to me like you need a whole lotta help. That's a lot of work you're talkin' about. A lot.

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