Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Poverty of Conceptual Blending for Literary Analysis

Not so long ago I critiqued Lakoff and Turner’s analysis of “To a Solitary Disciple” in terms of conceptual metaphor. I now want to do the same for conceptual metaphor’s intellectual descendent, conceptual blending. My basic problem is one that Tony Jackson voiced over a decade ago, “Issues and Problems in the Blending of Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Psychology, and Literary Study”, Poetics Today (23:1 Spring 2002 pp. 161-179).

Thus (p. 173): “Too often it seems that the vocabulary of cognitive rhetoric is simply being plugged into the interpretation.” And later (p. 174)”
But the key consideration must be whether or not the new perspective actually causes specifiable elements to show up differently than before. I would argue that so far blending theory has failed to do this. Again, the cognitive understanding of blending may have led to a useful method of unpacking metaphor, but it does not really reveal much that would not be revealed by a fine-tuned rhetorical analysis.
In a word, old wine in new bottles.

And that, I fear, is much of its appeal. Critics who long for pre-structuralist innocence can have it while at the same time appearing to take a Great Critical Leap Forward through the simple expedient of adopting some new terms under which to practice good old New Critical close reading.

But enough snark. Before looking at a relatively recent article by Turner, however, I want to present a simple example of blending.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Here’s Shakespeare’s well known Sonnet 129, “Th expence of Spirit.”
Th' expence of Spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjurd, murdrous, blouddy full of blame,
Savage, extreame, rude, cruell, not to trust,
Injoy'd no sooner but dispised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swollowed bayt,
On purpose layd to make the taker mad.
Made In pursut and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest, to have extreame,
A blisse in proofe and provd and very wo,
Before a joy proposd behind a dreame,
       All this the world well knowes yet none knowes well,
       To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
One might well see a blend, or is it a metaphor? in the opening lines where there is a play on faculty psychology and sexual intercourse. In this blend the ejaculation of semen during sex runs parallel to the loss of Rational Spirits which, in depriving the individual of reasoned control over one’s actions, is responsible for the headlong drive toward sexual intercourse by any means necessary. But that’s not what interests me.

The poem posits a sequence of actions – lust in action – that we can schematize thus:
1. Desire: see and pursue a sexual object.
2. Consummate: have sex with sexual object.
3. Shame and Guilt: afterward, feel guilty and ashamed.
The poem moves back and forth through those three stations – one might even be tempted to see a bit of iconism in the repeated thrusting about in such limited quarters – for three quatrains and then steps back from it all for the final, more meditative, couplet.

In lines seven and eight Shakespeare introduces an analogy to a specific form of animal hunting. It has four steps, thus:
0. Agent lays poisoned bait to trap animal.
1. Desire: animal sees bait.
2. Consume: animal consumes bait.
3. Mad: animal goes mad.
Since lust in action is LIKE THAT we have to align the two sequences. But how can we do that when the lust sequence has three members while the animal madness sequence has four. What happens with the extra member?

That’s where blending comes in. The idea is to align the two sequences and to induce something in the lust sequence that corresponds to that initial act in the animal madness sequence, thus:
0. ??
1. Desire: see and pursue a sexual object.
2. Consummate: have sex with sexual object.
3. Shame and Guilt: afterward, feel guilty and ashamed.
What goes in that first slot? That is, what agent plays the role with respect to the lust sequence that the hunter plays in the animal madness sequence? Shakespeare certainly doesn’t give us one in the poem, at least not explicitly. But if we had to guess, what would that agent be?

It seems to me that that agent would have to be divine. The final couplet tells us that this is how the world is, that we can know we’re trapped, and that knowledge will not itself release us from the trap. Note that that couplet, while not naming a creator, does name both heaven and hell.

When I first published on this poem back in 1976 I argued that the sonnet was arguing the Fortunate Fall, the Christian doctrine that by falling into sin and then overcoming sin through Christian faith, humankind could rise to a higher estate than we would have had if we’d never fallen in the first place. Milton’s Paradise Lost is of course, the great poetic statement of that idea.

I don’t know whether or not, or in what terms, I’d repeat that argument if I were to undertake a new analysis of the poem. But I do believe that the above analysis indicates the conceptual crux of the poem. And, were I to reargue it, I would start out (in my thinking) with the notion that the blend between the two sequences, lust and hunter-induced animal madness, “opens up” a new “slot” in the lust sequence. The concluding couplet somehow fits into that slot. And what makes it fit is the communal affirmation in the couplet: Yes, we’re stuck in this mess. We’all ALL stuck, TOGETHER. What I’m not at all sure about is the terms in which I’d argue the italicized statements.

The Blenderbot Speaks

Now let’s look at a relatively recent article by Mark Turner, Compression and representation, Language and Literature Vol 15(1): 17–27 DOI: 10.1177/0963947006060550. After a page and a half or so in which he lays out some terms Turner gives us an example (p. 18):
Consider Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem, ‘Il Pleut’ [It’s Raining; English translation HERE], an example of how an outer-space relation of representation can be compressed. In it, the lines of poetry fall downward at a slant across the page, in a way that we take as a visual representation of rainfall. The visual image of rain, the representational sketch of that visual image, and the verbal expression are mentally blended. The result is emergent structure: a sketch that can be read; writing that provides a visual representation of rain. Perceiving the view of the rain can be blended with perceiving the writing. Moreover, the reader of the text can be blended with the viewer of the rain. The sound of the rain falling can be blended with the voice of the poem. And so on through a range of evocative potential blendings.
It is not obvious to me that anything particularly interesting is happening in this paragraph after the second sentence, the one where Turner tells as that the poem lays on the page like streaks of falling rain.

To take a particularly puzzling example, just what does it mean to say, “the reader of the text can be blended with the viewer of the rain”? Does it mean anything more than that the reader of the poem ipso facto “identifies with” or “assumes the voice of” the poet who speaks the poem? If, in contrast, Turner meant that the reader and the viewer simultaneously entered Star Trekkian transporters which then beamed them to the same spot at the same time so that their bodily tissues were co-mingled when they materialized, well, that would be strange and disgusting, but it would also be interesting. As it is all Turner seems to have on offer is a tautological restatement of a standard rhetorical feature of lyric poetry. The language of blending simply doesn’t tell us anything about that rhetoric that we don’t already know; hence, old wine in new bottles.

Turner goes on to inform us, “The sound of the rain falling can be blended with the voice of the poem.” What sound? Is it actually raining, or are we just to imagine it, and the same with the voice of the poem? Imagine you’re sitting in the park, reading the poem aloud while it’s raining. Is that what Turner has in mind? And just what it is that somehow emerges from this blend other than poem itself? If it were the idea of talking rain – something that could easily be presented in a cartoon or even a live-action film – that would be interesting. But that doesn’t seem to be what Turner is up to.

Turner’s talk of “emergent structure” strikes me as being heavy-handed. It’s right there on the page, letters streaking down like rain. The visual form is that of streaks of rain. The mind doesn’t have to do much of anything for that notion to “emerge.” You note the poem’s name and identify it with the visual form. Done.

Let’s be clear, Turner doesn’t discuss what the poem says. But that’s not what I’m complaining out. For his purposes in this article he’s not interested in what the poem says. He’s interested in the fact that a poem about rain also has a visual form that is rainlike. That’s what he’s commenting on. And his comments on that simply aren’t interesting. You don’t need the theory of conceptual blending to say what he said. It seems to me that Turner set his Blendspeak Generator on automatic and let it run out the paragraph.

And then it ran on through several more elaborate examples. Next there is a reprise of “To a Solitary Disciple.” He took the metaphor analysis that he and Lakoff had done of the poem’s iconic form and restated it in terms of blending. But the restatement doesn’t make the analysis any more convincing (see my critique HERE) and, no matter what terms you use, metaphor or blend, these cognitive terms don’t really afford deeper insight.

Turner then goes on to examine Frédéric Mistral’s 1858 Mireille, a Walt Disney cartoon in which Goofy learns to ski, and another Disney cartoon, “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.” That one won an Academy Award, but Turner gets no award for this presentation of blending. It’s all old wine in new bottles.

The basic idea of conceptual blending is interesting and important; it is most interesting when deployed on limited examples that are explicated in detail. You find such examples in the early work – the monk on the mountain, the two ships racing a century apart, the Grim Reaper, and others – but the cookie cutter exposition in this article cheapens and deflates the concept. Without the details there’s nothing there.

Not with a Bang but a Wimper

I don’t recall whether or not Turner has delivered any sermons against the evils of cookie-cutter postmodern deconstructive Theory but I do know that cognitive poetics is being presented as an alternative to such Theory. Well, the analysis in this article and others like it is every bit as reductive and formulaic as anything coming from the Houses of Theory.

And THAT’s what I find most bothersome about this enterprise. The core idea is one thing. That’s certainly a contribution. But to then spread it over everything in such a cheap way, that reduces it to a mere Theory of Everything, a Key to All Mythologies. Those are a dime a dozen and are the antithesis of genuine intellectual work. Why spend so much time diluting and destroying what took so much effort to create?

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