Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Is Harman a Platonist? More on his recommendations for literary criticism

Terence Blake has variously suggested that Harman is a transcendentalist, that those objects of never-ending withdrawal are, for all practical purposes, transcendental objects – see, for example, Paul Ennis’s Non-Laruellian Response to Levi Bryant (4), point 2. That criticism has seemed to me variously uncharitable or unnecessary. But I’m reconsidering.

When Harman’s talking about objects in general, or banging away on Heidegger’s hammer, that’s OK. Those oxen have been grazing the conceptual commons for eons and are general property. But when he talks about literary texts, well, I have a long-standing and fairly specific interest in that particular ox. It is not, of course, my ox exclusively. Not at all. But my years of study have given me a sense of ownership.

That’s MY ox that Harman is goring and I don’t like it.

* * * * *

The goring that’s put me over the threshold takes place in Harman’s response to Dan Green’s critique of Harman’s New Literary History piece (which I critiqued here). Harman is responding to Green’s critique of Harman’s “counter-factual literary criticism” (Harman’s phrase):
...I think the literary text is something deeper than its current holistic configuration in the form of how the author chose to publish it, or the best available scholarly version of a text available at any given moment, or whatever is usually taken to be the real text. ...

In other words, I think I’m giving an even stronger critique of authorial intention than is usually the case. Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place. Most of them should have written better texts. Just as social surroundings fail to exhaust a literary work, the exact written form of a literary work fails to exhaust the deeper spirit of that work. My article proposed the rudiments of some methods to get at that deeper spirit.
What is this unwritten text of which Harman speaks, the one that authors fail to shape properly? What is this deeper spirit he seeks? How does it differ from those Ideal Forms that Plato posited? Out there, in the Great Transcendental Beyond we have the Ideal Forms of the texts: Iliad, Pride and Prejudice, The Valley of the Dolls, they’re all there. And here, in the corporeal world, we have the impoverished husks that the authors and editors have managed to cobble together.

Part of the problem, I fear, has to do with the notion of the text. As I note at the beginning of my post, Texts, Traces, and Hyperobjects:
One of the strangest concepts to emerge out of the humanities in the last half century is that of the text. It started in the literary studies as, well, those marks on paper (or papyrus, or vellum, or, well, any surface that can be inscribed) that carry, say, a poem or a play or a story, you know, whatever literary texts convey. It became generalized to just about anything a critic wanted to interpret – paintings, movies, TV shows, songs and such most certainly, but also clothing and cars and packaged goods, and buildings and cities, current and not so current events (e.g. Fukishima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Alamogordo), and, well, history at whatever scale. All are texts, all can be interpreted, their meanings plumbed, and written into readings, become once again marks inscribed on surfaces.
In effect, the notion of the text has been extended to the point where it now, for all practical purposes, can be taken to mean “object” in the sense that Harman and others use the term. And Harman is certainly trading on that extended notion. Whatever he means by the literary text, he means more than the marks on the page.

And, of course, so do literary critics, even without the grand extension to Everything in the Universe and Beyond. As I go on to say concerning the text:
Certainly literary critics have meant the markings on the page, certainly them. But not only the marks. When critics have talked about ‘fidelity to the text’, they mean more than just those marks. For, without a reader, those marks are just marks, the trace of some physical process, but no more. But when apprehended by a reader, those marks set off something else. Whatever it is, that something else is also what critics aim at and reach for when they talk of ‘the text.’ Just what that something else is, well, that’s a muddle and a mystery.
Those marks on the page, the physical marks, they’re what we’ve obviously got before us. But they’re not what interests us. What interests us is Something Beyond. How we get at that something beyond, that’s the problem isn’t it?

Some critics (myself among them) have chosen the route of linguistics and the cognitive and neurosciences with, alas, indifferent results. We have yet to provide detailed accounts of how those signs are produced, understood, and disseminated in social groups. In the face of that indifference Harman is free to do what critics have always done—as though “always” is a long time, which it isn’t, only a matter of decades—and put whatever he pleases into the void that the text has become. What Harman puts there is not merely a ‘text’ that’s different, but one that’s “better.”

Why better, why not settle for different? Does he harbor the hope that, with one of his counter-factual moves, he might stumble onto one of those better versions and thus trump Tolstoy or Flaubert? Of course, Harman knows that no matter what he or any other OOO critic produces in the counter-factual garret, it’s not going to be the Real Text. For the Real Text is always receding from view and, always, I presume, Better.

As befits an Ideal Form.

* * * * *

By way of moving on, if not quite concluding, let’s take a look at ‘texts’ in oral cultures, that is ‘texts’ that aren’t written at all. The important stories, the myths and folk tales, are passed on from one person to another, and exactly so. But not in the sense of exactitude that prevails in literate cultures.

For without written texts, the notion of exact sameness, word for word, letter for letter, doesn’t exist. The different tellings, the different performances, will be different at the word level, and probably at the sentence and a higher levels of organization. What remains the same from one telling to the next is the set of characters and incidents.

Of course, we also have to take account of performance style. The best raconteurs don’t simply enunciate the words in near monotone. They act them out, sometimes supplying different voices for different characters (this, incidentally, is how Walt Disney conveyed his version of Snow White to his staff, he acted out the whole story in a four-hour meeting), and with appropriate gestures. So there’s a lot happening in a performance that simply doesn’t exist within out literate concept of the text.

Further, performances are group events. They’re interactive. The teller may be the one speaking, but he’s not speaking through a one-way mirror that allows the audience to see and hear him, but not vice versa. He sees and hears audience response and modulates the performance accordingly. When audience members look puzzled, the teller sees that, as he sees their smiles and frowns as well. He hears the groans and the giggles, the howls of imagined paint and the exclamations of surprise.

What happens to Harman’s hermeneutic or experimental practice in that situation? In that situation (systematic) variation is the only mode of existence ‘the text’ has. And then we have all that other stuff that’s there in the performance, that’s essential to it; that too must be included in ‘the text.’ All of that paralanguage, if you will, arises from interaction among members of the group and between the audience and the story-teller. So the performance proper is not something enacted by a lone author and then conveyed to a remote audience through a text. It’s a group activity.

And so is the story itself, that is, the story considered as a sequence of events enacted by a certain set of characters but that is not fixed to particular verbal forms. The teller does not make up his or her own stories. Rather, the teller simply passes on the stories as they are given in the culture, and the members of the audience expect to hear the familiar actions of familiar characters. Just how and where the stories started, that’s lost. For all practical purposes, they exist in and are created by the group, with certain members of the group taking on the special role of story-teller.

In THAT context the distinction between author and reader, and the interpretive problems that arise there from, they disappear. Neither the author nor the reader exist in that situation, not as we understand them. Nor does interpretation, which is a relatively new and specialized intellectual activity.

* * * * *

To the extent that Harman abandons interpretation as the central critical activity I’m with him. When he asserts that the written text exceeds its contexts while not being reducible to its specific verbal form, I’m with him. But when he starts talking about counter-factual criticism, he can have it.

I can see that it would be a pleasurable activity. But the pleasures belong mostly to the critic. Why should anyone else be interested in them?

As I remarked in my original commentary on Harman’s article, the critical procedures he mentions collapse into the processes of literary culture itself. So why not study those processes? To be blunt, Harman’s critical games strike me as self-indulgent activities that glorify the gamesman but are not going to yield any substantial knowledge of literature.

1 comment:

  1. That Harman sounds like some kind of Platonist was exactly my thought in reading his response to my post.