Thursday, December 17, 2015

Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri

I of course, am the Martian, a conceit I’ll explain in due course.

I took a course in modern poetry with Charlie Altieri in the fall of 1974, my second year at SUNY Buffalo. I don’t know why I signed up for Charlie’s course, probably for the exposure. I’d come to Buffalo for a very specific purpose and with only a weak background in English and American literature. I picked my courses in part to remedy that.

That same semester I was also studying with David Hays in linguistics. On the one hand I was enrolled in a course, Linguistics as a Focus of Intellectual Integration, in which we read books by William Powers (control theory and psychology), Talcott Parsons (sociology), Northrup Frye (literary criticism), Ernst Gombrich (art history), Gregory Bateson (systems, mind, ecology), and most likely someone else. But Hays, a computational linguist, was also tutoring me in his semantic model.

I used that semantic model to examine some passages from William Carlos Williams, Patterson, Book V, and submitted that (rather long) paper to both Altieri and Hays. That’s the kind of place Buffalo was in those days. Here’s one of the many diagrams from that paper:


Looking at it now I’m appalled at how sloppy it is. But I’m sure I was proud of it at the time, and even thought it a bit stylish. I’d bought a set of technical fountain pens (Rapidograph) just so I could draw such diagrams. These days I’d use the computer, probably Omnigraffle, to draw something that complex.

I remember Charlie making two verbal comments to me about it (above and beyond what he wrote in the margins): 1) that I was using literature as a vehicle for elaborating other interests, and 2) like I. A. Richards I had moved beyond literature to a more general interest in language and the mind. The second was flattering, but I bridled at the first, though it was true. However, it is by no means clear, then or now, in just what the proper study of literature consists.

Anyhow, here’s an open letter to Charlie. Why Charlie? That I studied with him at a critical point in my career is sufficient reason. But there is one other thing: Charlie takes a philosophical approach and is conversant in both Continental and Anglo-American idioms. Despite a spate of dumb remarks from prominent physicists, philosophy remains intellectually necessary.

I start by recounting, for the 4th time I believe [1], my early intellectual history. After that I talk about my analytic work on ring-composition and then on to other things.

* * * * *

Hi Charlie,

I’ve been looking at some of the stuff on your website and notice that you’ve taken to posing as an old scholar reflecting on the profession. That’s a pose I know well, and have explored it myself in this and that, except that here and now I’m pretending to be a Martian. It’s a metaphor of course, but not, as I’ll explain, a mere metaphor. And like you I’m suspicious about the “materialist” allegories that have come to dominate the field, though I’m not so bothered by the erasure of authors – but that particular issue would take me a bit far afield.

From Johns Hopkins to Buffalo

I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about the profession, by which I mean academic literary criticism, and wondering about its future. On the one hand I’m amazed at the variety of work done in the name of (academic) literary criticism. I certainly can’t get a grip on the full range. Can anyone? Someone who’s chaired a large and diverse department, or served as editor for a generalist journal, they’d have seen a wide range of work parade before them over the years. But really grasp it all?

Moreover I look at the discipline as an outsider. I’m an outsider in the sense that I don’t hold an academic appointment and haven’t had one since I failed to make tenure at RPI back in 1985. But I’m hardly the only capable scholar – or whatever it is that I am – to operate outside the academy. I’m an outsider in a deeper and more fundamental sense and have been, I realize in retrospect, ever since I completed my MA degree at Hopkins in 1972, ever since I wrote that MA thesis on “Kubla Khan”.

That is to say, I was an intellectual outsider when I arrived at Buffalo in the fall of 1973 for the purpose of getting the credential, the PhD, that is the all but necessary requirement for an academic post. At that time it was obvious that my MA thesis was a very unusual piece of work. I had a sense that, though it was my work – I’d written the thing, hadn't I? – I didn’t really know what I’d done. For knowledge is ineluctably social – there are no private languages – and it wasn’t at all clear just which intellectual community could accommodate that work.

It was quite unlike anything that had been written about “Kubla Khan”. And while it had obvious antecedents in structuralism and in linguistics, in various respects it was quite different from what Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and others had done with poetry. What was it, a duck or a swan? Who knew how to answer the question?

When I arrived at Buffalo I was apprehensive about whether I’d be able to do the work I wanted to do, not that I had any clear idea of what that was. All I knew is that I wanted to somehow make sense of the structure I’d found in that poem. So I showed the thesis around, to Mac Hammond, my advisor, to Al Cook who was, well, Al Cook, and in my second year, to you. Everyone accepted it as well, I don’t know what, but it was in some way accepted. And, with the help of another graduate student, Ralph Henry Reese, who’d worked with David Hays, I managed to find my way to the Linguistics Department where I joined Hays’s research group in computational linguistics.

Back then, the world seemed wide open – “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us” – and who knew how the discipline would develop. It was worth a shot.

So, I'd come to Buffalo to write a dissertation on “Kubla Khan”, a dissertation that would somehow explain that structure. That’s why I studied with Hays. While it wasn’t at all obvious that his cognitive model would provide the means to explain that structure, I didn’t see anything else that held more promise. As it turned out, however, I didn’t do a dissertation on “Kubla Khan” because I couldn’t see how to get some kind of explanation for that form out of that model. In effect, the model had integrity sufficient to resist what I willed of it. But I did base my dissertation on the model, and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 was my central example. I published a preliminary version of that work in the Centennial Issue of MLN in 1976 – an obvious form of communal acceptance of unorthodox thought.

In a very specific sense, my dissertation was a failure. I had a specific goal in mind – explain the form of “Kubla Khan” – and I couldn’t accomplish it. Almost four decades later I still can’t see my way to that explanation. As far as I can tell, that’s going to require an account of the mind that we do not yet have in hand, nor in foreseeable prospect.

Yet I certainly didn’t experience my time at Buffalo as a failure. On the contrary, it was a tremendous intellectual experience and the department was extraordinarily generous in allowing me to undertake that work. It's like this: If you set out to hitch a ride from New York City to, say, Los Angeles, and don't make it, well then your hitchhike adventure is a failure. But if you end up on Mars instead of San Francisco, just what kind of failure is that? Yeah, you’re lost. Really really lost. But you’re lost on Mars and you can still breathe! How cool is that?!

Except, as I’ve already indicated, I was already headed to Mars when I arrived at Buffalo. It’s the work on “Kubla Khan” that did it. The fact is by the time I’d finished my senior year at Hopkins I’d arrived at a near-professional level of competence in interpreting texts. I’d already written a short paper about “Kubla Khan” in Earl Wasserman’s course on Romantic Lit; that’s how I became interested in the poem. Later that semester – spring of’69 – I wrote a phenomenological paper on Wordsworth that earned a complement wonderful compliment from Wasserman: “a mature contemplation of the poem” (though I forget which poem it was).

It all unraveled when I began work in earnest on “Kubla Khan”. Well, “unraveled” may not be the word. But it just didn’t work, that phenomenology plus structuralism plus whatever else, tracking the strands of semantic association through the poem forced me along paths that simply would not converge. And so I ended up with an elaborate description, but no interpretation, no “reading”.

While I could speak (some version of) literary criticism with native fluency, I ended up looking for a different intellectual language. I’d become a Martian.

And when I look at literary studies from my Martian perspective, I see all kinds of possibilities. But the profession seems bent on slow suicide.

The analytic description of literary form

One might think that I would have welcomed the work in cognitive criticism that had become increasingly visible in the mid-1990s. And, yes, for awhile I was optimistic. But the optimism didn’t last. It’s not simply that no one knew of the work I’d done in the 1970s, but that this newer work took a view of cognitive science I found to be superficial, something on which I’ve recently written at length [2]. In particular, it failed to come to grips with the idea of computation, which is what drove cognitive science in all of its forms. It was in the course of thinking about this newer work that I realized that my work on “Kubla Khan” is more directly relevant to the future of the discipline than the cognitive science I did at Buffalo—that same cognitive science that’s deeper than current literary cognitivism.

Sorting this out is not easy. What it comes down to is this: I plunged into cognitive science because I had a very specific problem in practical criticism I wanted to solve: What motivated the structure of “Kubla Khan”? Cognitive criticism, however, has not been motivated by practical problems. It’s been motivated by skepticism about Theory–which I share–and by the fact that all this newer psychology is interesting–which it is. I failed in a specific way and have, in time, learned something through that failure. These cognitive critics do not, as far as I can tell, have any specific goals and so they cannot fail. They just accumulate ideas and insights. Will they add up to anything?

But the practical problem that had been pushing me, that was a discovery. I’d discovered something remarkable about a well-known canonical text. But also something that’s rather pedestrian in kind. How can something be both remarkable and pedestrian?

The “Kubla Khan” work was, to a first approximation, not so different from handbook accounts of sonnet form: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, octave and sestet, a turn at the sestet, one rhyme scheme for Petrarchan sonnet, a different scheme for an Elizabethan sonnet, and so on. We’ve known that for centuries and 10s of thousands of sonnets have been written. That is, what I’d discovered about “Kubla Khan” was an elaborate set of formal features, most of them obvious in retrospect. But as far as I can tell “Kubla Khan” is a one-off creation; there are no other poems quite like it in English or any other language. The kubla is not a recognized poetic form.

It is in THAT sense that my discovery was pedestrian in kind. Just a bunch of formal features. What made it remarkable is that no one else had noticed those formal features despite all the attention given to this poem.

What generalizations can you draw from a sophisticated descriptive analysis of an oddball poem, even a great oddball poem? The generalization I in fact drew was as much about the profession as about literature. The profession, for all its intellectual sophistication, its skepticism and canniness, was missing something fundamental: we didn’t have descriptive control over the texts we studied. That seems rather a rash conclusion to draw from a single case, but remember the times: Western metaphysics was in flames and who knew what the future held? Sure, that conclusion was rash, but I remain convinced that it is correct.

But that’s not really the point. Has the profession neglected the systematic study of the formal features of literary texts? Yes. But so what? That’s the issue. Is this a serious matter or not? I think it is serious, but I don’t know of any direct way of arguing the point.

Ring Composition

But what I can do is offer a suite of other cases, all sharing formal features with “Kubla Khan”, but otherwise quite different texts. I certainly can’t discuss all of them in this note, but I can list them and offer a comment or two about each.

Let’s start with “Kubla Khan” [3]. This diagram is an overview of just some of the features I identified about the poem’s formal structure:

KK basics

The poem consists of two movements, the first of 36 lines, and the second of 18 lines. Each of those movements has three components; the middle of those in turn has three components; and the middle of that, again, has three components (note: I haven’t carried the diagram to that level of depth). So, each of the two movements has a central section that is symmetrically flanked by preceding and following sections. In the central section the rhyme scheme becomes decoupled from the syntactic scheme (called desynchronization in the diagram).

I count that as three features:
1) There is a structural center. While it is near the physical center (as measured by, in this case, line count), the centrality is a function of its relationship with other structural units.

2) Symmetry: the units before and after the structural center have a symmetrical relationship with one another and the center. I will be distinguishing between strong and weak symmetry below though for the sake of just getting through the list, I won’t say much about the distinction.

3) Decoupling: The language stream is simultaneously structured in several different ways. This parallel organization can, however, become decoupled.
Those are the features that I’m going to track in a variety of texts.

One more thing: In 2001 I published a book on music (Beethoven’s Anvil). Mary Douglas, the anthropologist, was kind enough to blurb the book for me and I entered into email correspondence with her after the book came out. She got me interested in ring-composition, something known to biblical scholars, classicists, and folklorists, but not much studied by other literary critics. Ring composition, briefly:

A B C … X … C’ B’ A’

Prompted by Douglas I began noting examples in contemporary texts (including films). Except for “The Cat and the Moon”, all of the examples below came during of after my correspondence with her.

The order of listing will be somewhat idiosyncratic, but then the collection itself is idiosyncratic.

The Cat and the Moon, William Butler Yeats: lyric: structural center, weak symmetry, decoupling (I discovered this in your course, Charlie, but never really did anything with it).
A New Dance Turn: "The Cat and the Moon" All up in One Another, URL:

Metropolis, Osamu Tezuka: manga (Japanese graphic novel): structural center, strong symmetry. Tezuka’s Metropolis: A Modern Japanese Fable about Art and the Cosmos, formal publication [4], URL:

Nutcracker Suite, episode in Disney’s Fantasia: film: structural center, strong symmetry.
Walt Disney’s Fantasia: The Cosmos and the Mind in Two Hours, pp. 19-24, URL:

Sorcerer’s Apprentice, episode in Disney’s Fantasia: film: structural center, strong symmetry.
Walt Disney’s Fantasia: The Cosmos and the Mind in Two Hours, pp. 24-, URL:

The Pastoral Symphony, episode in Disney’s Fantasia: film: structural center, strong symmetry.
Disney’s Pastoral Symphony: An Anatomy of Domestic Life, Some Working Notes, URL:

Fantasia, Walt Disney: structural center, weak symmetry.
Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind (Revised), URL:

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad: novella: structural center, weak symmetry.
Heart of Darkness: Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis on Several Scales, pp. 13-18, 26-29,  URL:

Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola: film: structural center, weak symmetry. The film is loosely based on Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness.
Myth: From Lévi-Strauss and Douglas to Conrad and Coppola, URL:évi-Strauss_and_Douglas_to_Conrad_and_Coppola

Gojira, Ishirō Honda: Japanese film: structural center, weak symmetry. Note: An Americanized version appeared under the title, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, with footage cut from the film, new footage added, and somewhat reordered. The net result is that the ring-composition of the original was destroyed.
The Gojira Papers, pp. 14-17, URL:

Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino: film: structural center, strong symmetry.
Pulp Fiction as Ring From, URL:

To a Solitary Disciple, William Carlos Williams: lyric: structural center: weak symmetry.
The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science, pp. 29-35,  URL:

Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Barack Obama: sermon: structural center, strong symmetry. Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney: Technics of Power and Grace, pp. 9-11, URL:

The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost: lyric: structural center, strong symmetry, decoupling.
Roads Not Taken: A Study in Poetic Mechanism,  URL:

The Meaning of the Digital Humanities, Alan Liu: scholarly article: structural center, strong symmetry.
Remarks on Alan Liu and the Digital Humanities, A Working Paper, pp. 14-17, URL:

Of these 14 works only six are verbal texts; one is a graphic novel; and the rest (8) are films. This reflects my general range of interests these days. Of the verbal texts, four are standard literary texts (three poems and a novella); one is a sermon; and one is a theoretical article on literary criticism. Of the films, three are episodes in a larger film (Fantasia) and one of them (Apocalypse Now) is based on the novella (Heart of Darkness).

In each of these cases I’ve got the same problem I originally had with “Kubla Khan”. I don’t know how to explain the order. Mary Douglas thought the order was conscious and deliberate. I don’t. Alan Liu has told me (in personal correspondence) that he wasn’t aware of the structure I found in his text; he just did what felt right. I think that’s what’s going on in all of these cases. In the case of Apocalypse Now I’ve had some correspondence with Walter Murch, who did sound design for the film and quite a bit of editing as well. He tells me that the scene I’d identified as the structural center – the murder of the occupants of a sampan – is something he suggested to Coppola and wrote during a hiatus in filming.

But the fact that I can’t explain how this ordering arose doesn’t bother me. Not any more – I’ve gotten somewhat used to life on Mars. Finding such order is an interesting and often challenging task. While there are some cases where I began working on the text with the thought of finding ring-composition (Metropolis is the best example), in most cases the ring-form is something I discovered after doing a fair amount of descriptive work on the text. I wasn’t looking for it, but, as I’m aware of the form, I can recognize it when I see it.

This descriptive work often involves the use of analytical tables where I’ll list episodes in order along with brief descriptions. The table for Metropolis was four pages long; the one for Gojira took six pages. The table for Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy was nine pages long and included the whole text [5]. Those tables are long enough that just getting an overall perspective on them takes a bit of time and hair-pulling.

The obvious thing to do is to compare these texts and see what light they shed on one another and on the formal features they share. I’ve done a bit of that already in a working paper [6] that examines “Kubla Khan”, Metropolis, Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now, using criteria for ring-composition that Mary Douglas set forth in her 2003 Terry Lectures [7]. There’s more comparative work I could do, but at the moment I’m more interested in finding other examples – I’m currently working on a film, Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, that’s a strong candidate – and pursuing other interests, such as cultural evolution.

Before moving on to epistemology, though, I want to say a few words about Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. It took the form of a sermon in the black vernacular tradition. Such texts aren’t created for silent reading while seated in a comfortable armchair. They are created for delivery before a congregation that will respond, verbally and visually, to the unfolding sermon. In one of your articles – The Sensuous Dimension of Literary Experience [8] – you talk of the final speech in The Tempest, the farewell to the audience [p. 93]:
Or, better, finally the audience gets to see that its applause is not mere empty ritual. Applause becomes overtly the confirmation of social bonds and a release from the anxieties that characterize performance—the actor must despair unless there is this show of what seems hearty affirmation. And while the applause the actor projects in fact is his due by mere convention, this way of asking for it elicits awareness of how important those conventions are to seal the performance as mutually satisfying.
Well, that’s what sermons are about, “the confirmation of social bonds”. That’s what congregations are, communities.

Obama is an excellent orator, and his audience was primed and ready. He got his strongest response at the very end, of course, but the second strongest response came at the structural center. People clapped, shouted, stood up, and the organist and band provided punctuations as well. So that structural center is not a mere formal unit; it is a critical point in the ongoing affective response to Obama’s words.

Now, imagine that we have people watch a video of the sermon while wired up for brain imaging. We can have some folks in an fMRI machine, but hook others up to a 128 channel (or more for all I know) EEG machine. Now we are tracking people’s brain activity as they experience the sermon – such things are already being done, with film and with texts. Of course, we don’t need a formal analysis of the text to do that, but the formal analysis serves an important purpose.

Such data is noisy. But if we have independent evidence about the temporal structure of the sermon – which is what that formal analysis provides – then we can use that evidence to calibrate our data. This is particularly important if we want to undertake a sophisticated analysis of the temporal evolution of brain activity.

That formal analysis, in turn, is based on the meaning of Obama’s words. For example, I was tipped to the possibility of ring-composition when I noticed that the word “grace” was prominent in the second half, but didn’t even appear in the first. Other semantic clues had to do with Pinckney himself, the black church, and the nation. Those are among the features I based my analysis on. Yes, they’re about meaning, but I wasn’t trying to translate Obama’s words into some other discourse. I was just noting what he talked about and when he did it.

This is important. If that structural analysis is just some interpretative scheme imposed on the text by a critic, where a different critic would impose a different scheme and there’s no way to choose between them, if that’s the case, then the analysis is all-but useless in clarifying and extending the results of brain imaging. What reason do I have to believe that those formal features are really there? 
Note: Ring-composition isn't the only descriptive work I've been doing. But it is the largest bunch of texts I’ve worked on that share a limited set of structural motifs. That makes it my clearest case that we're missing something crucial.
Knowledge requires intersubjective agreement

At this point we’re right back at the issues that animated literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s. Does interpretation produce valid knowledge or not? As far as I can tell, that question was more or less dropped. Deconstruction provided philosophical cover for what the profession actually did, which was to honor any interpretation backed-up by a suitable rationale. Since then families of suitable rationales have been proposed and adopted. That’s where the profession is now, marking time with what we’ve got.

What struck me about the “Kubla Khan” work is how precise it was. It presented a highly differentiated picture of a text organized on a half-dozen levels in an exact way. But that organization is formal. It’s not about what the text means. I wasn’t interpreting the text into some other discourse, whether Christian humanism, or “structuralism, reader-response criticism, New Historicism, feminist criticism, deconstruction, cultural studies, ideology critique and so forth” – to use a list from Barbara Herrnstein Smith [9]. I was describing form.

And that’s where I’m pitching my tent. Interpretation is a different business. I believe it to be inherently imprecise or flexible. And that’s probably a feature, not a bug. But that’s not my topic.

My current view, then, is that the meaning of texts, as determined by this or that hermeneutic regime, is elastic (a word I prefer to “indeterminate”), but form is not. I’ve got a theoretical reason for believing that form is precise [10], but let’s set that aside.

My concern here is more practical: Given that literary form is precise, how do we determine what that form is? We describe it, compare descriptions with one another, and revise until we reach agreement. If I’m right in arguing that form is precise, then this kind of procedure will produce reasonable levels of agreement among scholars. If I’m wrong, then agreement will prove impossible.

I am of the view that the rock-bottom basic requirement for knowledge is intersubjective agreement. Depending how that agreement is reached, it may not be a sufficient condition, but it is always necessary. Let’s bracket the general issue of just what kinds of intersubjective agreement constitute knowledge. I note however that the various practices gathered under the general rubric of science are modes of securing the intersubjective agreement needed to constitute knowledge.

As far as I know there is no one such thing as scientific method – on this I think Feyerabend has proven right. Science has various methods. The practices that most interest me at the moment were essential to Darwin: the description and classification of flora and fauna. Reaching agreement on such matters was not a matter of hypothesis and falsification in Popper’s sense. It was a matter of observing agreement between descriptions and drawings, on the one hand, and specimens (examples of flora and fauna collected for museums, conservatories, and zoos) and of creatures in the wild.

When Darwin began investigating the biological world he had at his disposal three centuries of descriptive and classificatory work on flora and fauna. He was willing to treat that work as objective knowledge – did he have any alternative? – and he was correct in doing so. There was no fancy-ass experimental method here. Do the descriptive notes and the drawings agree with specimens and creatures in the wild? That’s what people had to agree on. And they were able to do so. We call that knowledge objective because the procedures involved, description and drawing, objectified the phenomena in question.

It is my contention that, in a roughly similar fashion, literary critics can arrive at objective knowledge about the formal characteristics of literary texts, but not about their meaning. Note that “objective knowledge” is two words. (1) Objectification is achieved through a certain kind of description. (2) To become objective knowledge intersubjective agreement must be forged.

As for description, in the case of “Kubla Khan” I drew diagrams and I counted things. In one way or another I’ve done those things – counting and visualization – for every one of the cases listed in the previous section. In some cases the counting was of the most elementary kind (the three episodes of Fantasia), but in another case, Heart of Darkness, I (my computer) counted the number of words in every paragraph of the text and visualized the result:

HD whole envelope

Each bar in the graph represents a paragraph in the text. The length of a bar is proportional to the number of words in the paragraph. The bars are arranged in order from first paragraph to last, left to right. The link in the previous section has quite a bit to say about that longest paragraph, the structural center, and how it functions in the text.

But I digress.

My point is simply that the description of formal features is not only verbal description. You have to do something else; you count and you visualize. I don’t want to discuss those matters here beyond what I’ve already said, but I’ve got quite a bit to way about them [11]. The upshot of all this is that I believe we can achieve objective knowledge about the formal features of texts through direct intersubjective agreement.

We don’t need (pseudo)scientific procedures, hypothesis-and-test, whatever. We just need a means by which descriptions can be offered to, vetted by, and certified by some intellectual community. Above and beyond intellectual willingness, that raises institutional issues, which I’ve thought about, but I’ve got nothing substantive to offer at the moment.

Description is one part of the program, and it pertains to only to form. Meaning is something else, but I've set that aside. If we get form under control, meaning will take care of itself. No, it’s not automatic. But once people see that form is tractable, that realization is likely to change how the profession works with meaning.

Nor do I want to imply that analytic description is the only route to objective knowledge of literary phenomena. There has been a lot of scientific work on literary response and the like. That’s important, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about form. Description gives us form, and form will then inform – I couldn’t resist – that other work.

So what about cognitive science?

What about all that cognitive science in my dissertation, what about those diagrams I drew for Patterson V? What’s important to the practical program I advocate is a certain sensibility, one which I think of as a computational sensibility – for reasons I articulate in my major methodological and theoretical statement, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form [10].  I probably didn’t have it when I began my work on “Kubla Khan”, but I had it by the time I’d finished the thesis. From that I conclude that all the cognitive science I subsequently learned is not essential to that sensibility. So where did that sensibility come from?

My best guess is that it involved two factors: 1) a general awareness of and interest in computation, and 2) practical experience in dealing with literary texts. Those two things are easily acquired. I had both by the time I began work on the poem. What’s tricky is the application of the first to the second. That’s what I somehow managed to do in the course of going over that poem over and over again. However that happened, it couldn’t have had anything to do with having mastered a detailed and sophisticated computational model for natural language semantics because I did that after, not before, working on “Kubla Khan”.

Working with Hays’s cognitive model, which become somewhat elaborated and more sophisticated subsequent to the work I did with you, gave me a very strong sense of construction. The mind is constructed, and certain constructions are preconditions of other constructions. Think of building things with tinker toys or building blocks. It’s like that, only more abstract.

And I carry that sense of “constructedness” (Latour talks of composition) with me when I do my descriptive work. But I can’t see that the kinds of constructions I developed for Patterson V or for The Expense of Spirit are things that literary critics need to know as a prerequisite to the job of descriptive analysis of form. As background knowledge (perhaps acquired in undergraduate study), sure, it would be nice; but I don't think it is necessary.

I think one can get a weak sense of “constructedness” by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding a Comics, which is a book-length comic about comics. McCloud shows you how comics are constructed; the visualization is important – remember those tinker toys and building blocks. The experience of reading McCloud’s book is not as deep as what I learned by working with Hays for several years, but it’s deeper than anything I see in the post-1990 crop of literary cognitivism. I'm glad some critics are working seriously with these newer psychologies, but I'd be even happier if they also undertook the painstaking analytic description of the texts themselves.

It’s this sense of constructedness that literary study needs. Sure, we all know its all social construction; but that’s trivial and not terribly interesting, not at this point. And the notion of social construction doesn’t bring with it any sense of mechanism, of parts and wholes and of the roles components play in processes. Some of that was there in structuralism, at the juncture with linguistics. But that’s been lost. We must now reconstruct that, in new contexts, with new materials. We can start by playing close attention to the formal features of texts. That in itself will yield this intuitive sense of constructedness. Even as those features are things we must explain, they are also clues about the underlying mechanisms that produced them.

We’ve got to understand the clues before can infer – "reverse engineer" – what caused them.

* * * * *

And then there is this: How can literary critics have written so much about form and made it such a central concept, and yet be indifferent to its mechanisms and devices? What makes it so difficult to bracket meaning and pay attention to form? Why is it that every time a move is made “away” from the text for intellectual purposes, people see it as the destruction of all good things?

And what of ethical knowledge of literature [12], which I take in the broadest sense to include aesthetics? In the principle of the thing, I do not think such knowledge can be objective knowledge because it is not knowledge of objects. It is necessarily subjective. But not necessarily in the somewhat debased sense that “subjective” has come to have, where it tends toward the idiosyncratic and the individual. Subjective knowledge can be intersubjective as well. That’s what literature and the arts do for communities, create intersubjective focal points concerning subjective matters of ethos in the largest and deepest sense.

That’s something that needs to be theorized. But I’m not the one to do it. Still, I would suggest that it is the objective reality of literary form that allows for the creation intersubjective meaning.

With regards,

Bill Benzon


[1] The first time was while I was at Buffalo, in a paper I’ve since updated: William Benzon. Touchstones • Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life (2015, originally published in Paunch in 1975), URL:

The second time was in the fourth in a series of posts written after the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss in 2009: Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition. Working Paper. February 2015. 30 pp. URL:évi-Strauss_on_Myth_Objectification_Computation_and_Cognition

See particularly pp. 20-27.

The third time was in a critique of cognitive criticism William Benzon. On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form. Working Paper. September 2015. 73 pp. URL:

See particularly pp. 14-24.

[2] William Benzon. On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form. Working Paper. September 2015. 73 pp. URL:

[3] I’ve published two articles on “Kubla Khan”. The first is basically a highly edited and reframed version of my original 1972 M. A. Thesis. William Benzon. Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of “Kubla Khan.” Language and Style 18: 3 - 29, 1985. Online URL:

The second is more sophisticated and detailed and has speculations about underlying psychological and neural mechanisms. William Benzon. “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003. Online URL:

[4] William Benzon. Tezuka’s Metropolis: A Modern Japanese Fable about Art and the Cosmos. In Uta Klein, Katja Mellmann, Steffanie Metzger, eds. Heurisiken der Literaturwissenschaft: Disciplinexterne Perspektiven auf Literatur. mentis Verlag GmbH, 2006, pp. 527-545. Downloadable version URL:

[5] William Benzon. President Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, Analytic and Descriptive Tables. Working Paper, July 2015. 14 pp. URL:

[6] William Benzon. Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology. (2014) Working Paper. 71 pp. URL:

[7] Mary Douglas. Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition. Yale University Press, 2007.

[8] Charles Altieri. The Sensuous Dimension of Literary Experience: An Alternative to Materialist Theory. New Literary History, Volume 38, Number 1, Winter 2007, pp. 71-98.

[9] Barbara Herrnstein Smith. What Was “Close Reading”? A Century of Method in Literary Studies. Unpublished talk. May 6, 2015. URL:

[10] William Benzon. Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608. Downloadable version:

[11] On the need for visualization, see William Benzon, Description 3: The Primacy of Visualization (2015), Working Paper, 48 pp. URL:

On the limitations of discursive thought for literary study, see William Benzon, Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism (2015), Working Paper, 72 pp. URL:

[12] William Benzon, Some Notes on Ethical Criticism, with Commentary on J. Hillis Miller and Charlie Altieri, blog post, New Savanna, September 19, 2015, URL:

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