Sunday, September 20, 2015

Literary Form, the Mind, and Computation: A Brief Note (Boiling It Down)

They’re intimately related. To a first approximation, the form of a literary work reflects the full economy of mental faculties working together, cooperatively and in conflict, to produce the work. It is NOT the result of some literary module that is but one mental faculty among 10s and 100s even 1000s. That form is to be understood computationally because computation is the only kind of (physical) process that organizes all those resources (‘emergently’, natch).

* * * * *

I’ve been thinking about the deficiencies, the absences, of the newer psychologies for literary study, and the corresponding poverty of abundance (so much to read! so much to do!) that shows up in the literary schools incorporating them (cognitive criticism, literary Darwinism). I’ve used the metaphor of a building, a cathedral to indicate the problem. As literary critics, we have to understanding the design of the whole cathedral and how the components function to support and realize the design. But the newer psychologies study only components, and the materials and processes for understanding them. They give us no ‘purchase’ on the whole.

Hence the paradox of poverty amid abundance. Through these newer psychologies these critics bring a whole lotta’ stuff to the table: abundance. But not what we need: poverty.

And then there’s psychoanalysis, which I’ve defended. It’s been used extensively in literary criticism, and successfully too. Psychoanalysis is, I submit, about the whole mind. And that’s why it’s been useful to literary critics. Psychoanalysis deals in fantasy, dreams, and stories, the stuff of which literature is made. It is thus commensurate with literature/literary criticism.

Psychoanalysis has pleasure and anxiety in opposition (note: anxiety, not pain). In Beethoven’s Anvil I argued that pleasure and anxiety are whole brain processes. Music dispels anxiety. So does literature.

* * * * *

Literary form is about dispelling anxiety by bringing the brain’s capacities into harmony. There can be no grammar of literary forms in the sense that there can be a grammar of language. Language is only a single, albeit complex, capacity. Literature is something else.

We can see literature’s emergent economy by comparing Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with his “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” “Lime-Tree Bower” is a simple narrative about an afternoon’s experience. Its versification is simple. “Kubla Khan” is not a narrative, and doesn’t cohere in such a straight-forward way. It needs its complex versification – multiple meters, elaborate rhyme – to hold it together in the mind.

That’s the economy of one literary mind. I sketch it out in a working paper: STC, Poetic Form, and a Glimpse of the Mind. No grammar. Just the mind.

And its in the form that the mind is most directly manifest. It’s the form the mind regulates. And that form is computational in kind.

But what does that mean, computational? Explain that and we’re home free. Well, not free, as the intellectual expense will have been high. But we’ll be in a position to begin understanding how literature works (in) the mind.

It’s computation that weighs and balances the competing interests imperatives mental faculties. Only a metaphor at this point. But it’s the right metaphor. When the result is right – satisficing? – it feels good (like sugar and spice, now).

Jakobson’s poetic function? Is that it? For his poetic function is one of the most obscure notions that’s every strayed into literary theory: the projection of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination.

What does that mean? Is that what literary form is about? Is that what literary computation is attempting?

Questions, questions.

No comments:

Post a Comment