Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Words as Instruments: Some Passages from Paleopoetics

I recently hosted a “session” at that centered on my open letter to Steven Pinker. One Christopher Collins made some interesting remarks, so I went to his page to see what he’d uploaded. I found a pre-publication version of the opening chapter of his Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination (Columbia University Press, 2013), “The Idea of Paleopoetics”. Reading through that I came upon this passage roughly halfway through:
My own attention, as I recounted in my preface, has continued to be focused on the verbal work of art, not as an object of hermeneutical analysis, but rather as an instrument of poetic action. The purpose of poetics, as I see it, is to study how that instrument is made and how the mind employs it, whether the verbal artifact is mediated by performers or by a written text. This experience, after all, is causally and, therefore, logically prior to literary interpretation, which can never be more insightful than the poetic action of reading that precedes it.
That is certainly consistent with my current view of things. Getting at that experience, however, is difficult. Collins continues:
We should expect no less of literary interpretation than of travel writing, a genre that presupposes a real trip to, and real perceptions of, some real place. Being prior to hermeneutics, poetics cannot use hermeneutics as its disciplinary foundation, much less use hermeneutical practice to justify its own existence. It must build instead upon disciplines that are situated prior to itself, beginning with rhetoric, then, going backwards, linguistics, cognitive science, psychology, semiotics, and evolutionary biology.
Right, poetics is prior to hermeneutics, though I’m not sure that I agree with Collins has ordered those other disciplines. It’s not so much that I propose another ordering but simply that I’m not sure how far we can get using such labels which are, after all, somewhat arbitrary with respect to the structure of the world. I my current view, poetics begins with description, and description is no simple matter, a topic that has taken up a number of posts and working papers.

A bit later Collins offers: “At this point I can venture an anticipatory definition of the verbal artifact as an instrument that the brain uses to play visual mental images.” I like his sense that the verbal artifact is an instrument, and that one uses that instrument to manipulate and organize other mental phenomena. Here are the final two paragraphs of the chapter:
Cognitive poetics, as I envisage it, is the study of verbal artifacts as made tools. When we engage these tools and they shift their status from that of objects to that of instruments, they reveal their rhetorical affordances. Since this engagement activates the words, transforming them into the simulations of perceptions, memories, thoughts, and emotions, the verbal artifact is a cognitive tool that can only be understood in reference to the cognitive actions it facilitates.

Can there be a cognitive hermeneutics? Not if by “cognitive” we mean those processes associated with perception, imagination, memory, and other essentially nonverbal representations and certainly not if we engage them as instruments. If a verbal artifact is, by definition, a cognitive tool, it cannot be understood apart from the cognitive processes that activate it and in turn are activated by it. It follows that it ceases to be a tool when it assumes the status of an object, which is precisely how hermeneutics must engage it. The only justification for hermeneutics, after all, is the breakdown of a communicative tool. Let me be clear: hermeneutic theory and the practice of literary interpretation have legitimate functions to perform, but these functions can be termed “cognitive” only in the narrowest definition of that word. As for cognitive poetics, it cannot incorporate hermeneutic aims and perspectives without delegitimizing its own discipline. To assume that it, or any other poetics, must justify its existence by supplementing the work of interpretation is to transpose those two activities and, as Thoreau once wisely remarked, “The cart before the horse is neither beautiful nor useful.”
As I’ve not read the rest of the book it’s not clear to me just kind of practical criticism emerges from Collins’ account, nor even, for that matter, that the purpose of the book is to sketch out such a practical criticism. The purpose seems rather to sketch out, in a general way, the preverbal material which is being manipulated by the “verbal artifacts as made tools”.

Collins is certainly correct in asserting that much of what’s going on in literature is presymbolic and so cannot, in principle, be converted into propositional form (via interpretation). To use that old cliché of the iceberg, the linguistic part of literature is the 10% that’s floating on the surface and it’s floated there by the presymbolic 90% that’s under the water.

When I talk of mutual knowledge in the story-telling situation (a notion I adapted from Pinker), I’m asserting mutuality, not merely for the 10% that’s in the story-teller’s words, but for the 90% that’s not visible. THAT’s what’s being aligned throughout the group, all that unconscious-preconscious stuff. Of course, much of that is palpable through postures, gestures, and various expressive noises and utterances. And there is the timing of it all. There’s a line of research in speech communication that indicates that speakers and hearers share the same temporal framework (in much the way that musicians share the same temporal framework when playing together). That temporal framework places major constraints on neuro-mental activity and so is crucial to the mutuality of the experience.

Given all this, what are the implications for practical criticism? That’s a tricky question. Like you I’ve not been impressed by the practical criticism offered by either the cognitive critics or the evolutionary critics. I don’t think you get criticism from theories. I think you get it from noticing patterns. So, as I’ve indicated above, I’ve pretty much thrown my lot into more refined descriptions of texts.

It seems to me that the paradoxical effect of “close reading” has been to move our attention away from the text and focus it on the activity of interpreting whatever patterns we find there. So the search for “meaning” in texts has led to discourses in which we justify and elaborate various hermeneutic systems to the point where we leave the texts behind. How do we train ourselves once again to examine the texts and perhaps be content with reporting the patterns we find?

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