Saturday, August 27, 2016

Yet Another Brief for Description (and Form)

These remarks are prompted by Ted Underwood’s tweets from the other day:
Those tweets triggered my own long-standing puzzlement over why literary criticism has neglected the close and attentive description of literary form.

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Let’s go to the text Underwood is referencing (see the link in his first tweet), Sharon Marcus, “Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of Scale” (Modern Language Quarterly 77.3, 2016, 297-319). She uses description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation as her analytic categories (304). And, while her discussion tends to circle around a ‘dialectic’ of description and interpretation, she also emphasizes Auerbach’s use of evaluative language: “Mimesis may owe its lasting allure to Auerbach’s complex relationship to the language of value” (300). And then (301):
Certain adjectives have consistently positive or negative valences in Mimesis: rich, wide, full, strong, broad, and deep are always terms of praise, while thin, narrow, and shallow always have negative connotations. Tellingly, Auerbach’s values are themselves related to scale; his epithets suggest that he prefers what is large and dense to what is small and empty, the river to the rivulet.
Such evaluative terms link Auerbach’s criticism to the existential concerns that, in the conventional view (which I do not intend to contest), motivates our interest in literature in the first place. Those concerns are ethical and aesthetic, but, as Marcus notes, such evaluative matters where bracketed out of professional consideration back in the 1960s though they have returned in the form of critique (306). Auerbach was writing before that dispensation took hold and so was free to use evaluative language to link his discussion, both at the micro-scale of individual passages and the macro-scale of Western literary history, to his (and our) life in the here and now.

Distant reading, however, is fundamentally descriptive in character, as Underwood notes. Moreover, as Franco Moretti has asserted in interviews and publications, he pursues distant reading because he seeks explanations, not interpretations. That is, he sees an opposition between interpretation and description. And this is where things begin to get interesting, because I suspect that Underwood would prefer not to see things that way and Marcus seems to be resisting as well. That is, they would prefer to see them working in concert rather than opposition.

But look at what Marcus says about explanation (305-306):
Explanation designates the operation by which literary critics assign causality, though explanation can also signify description and interpretation, as when we “explain” a poem. Literary critics tend to downplay causality — “why?” is not our favorite question — and usually refer the sources of a text’s meaning or form to disciplines other than literary criticism, such as history, biography, economics, philosophy, or neuroscience. Thus scholars often relate specific features of literary works to general phenomena such as modernity, capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, or the structure of our brains. But because explanation is an undervalued operation in literary criticism, one seen to depend on the kind of literalism that leads many critics to reject description as impossible, the exact nature of the link between general phenomena and specific works often remains nebulous. Literary critics are more likely to posit the relationship between the realist novel and capitalism as one of homology, analogy, or shared commitments (to, say, individualism) than they are to trace a clear line from one as cause to the other as effect.
In practice, literary critics neglect precisely what Moretti seeks, explanation. When Marcus asserts the literary critics like to talk of “homology, analogy, or shared commitments,” she is in effect saying that they talk of interpretation.

That is, in terms of actual practice if not in abstract methodological terms, interpretation and explanation are, as Moretti sees, alternative forms of causal explanation. “Classically,” if I may, the cause of a text is the author; the classical critic seeks the author’s intention as the source of a text’s meaning. Why is the text what it is? How did it come into being? The author did it. Post-classically, the author got bracketed out in favor of social, semiotic, and psychological forces operating through the author. It is those forces that bring the text into existence and are the source of its meaning. The post-classical critic then smuggles evaluation in by way of critique, thereby completing the circuit and linking criticism to those existential concerns – what is the good? how do I live? – that motivate literature itself.

This is a nice trick, and it is “sold” by the ruse of calling interpretation “reading,” thus making it appear to be continuous with the ordinary activity of reading as practiced by those very many readers who have never taken any courses in literary criticism (or have forgotten them long ago) much less become proficient in one or more of the various schools of interpretation and critique. Interpretive proficiency does not come “naturally” in the way that learning to speak does. It requires years of practice and tutelage at an advanced level.

Rendering an interpretation requires more than “reading” texts in the ordinary sense of the term. One starts with ordinary reading and then one steps back and enters into critical mode, where one access the tools and concepts of literary criticism. From within critical mode one also re-reads (primary) texts, looking for passages to summarize or to quote. The best critics, however, manage to make interpretation seem continuous with reading (in the ordinary sense), perhaps even a necessary form of reading. How do they do this, given the frequent use of a specialized vocabulary that proclaims the difference between the interpretive and the primary text? Marcus notes (299): “Literary critics tend to value in scholarship what they value in literature itself: wit, ambiguity, connotation, vivacity, figurative language, resistance, transgression, and self-reflexivity about the ways that language and consciousness shape perception and expression.” They use aesthetic devices, hence Underwood’s characterization of the problem with distant reading as being aesthetic.

On the one hand, this is a con job. Interpretation really isn’t reading in the ordinary sense. It’s a relatively new intellectual activity that became routine in the academy only after World War II. That is to say, Western literary culture managed to survive and thrive for three millennia without the ineluctable benefits of explicit written interpretation. But it isn’t a malicious con job, for the critics must con themselves before conning anyone else, and it’s in service of a good cause, the advancement of humankind.

But this benign con game that is academic literary criticism is in trouble. On the one hand we’re going in search of “surface reading” (the 2009 Representations special issue, “The Way We Read Now”), “minimal interpretation” (Attridge and Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, 2015) and now description (with its own issue of Representations, Summer 2016, No. 135). Other groups of critics have been raiding the newer psychologies, giving us cognitive rhetoric, neuro-poetics, literary Darwinism and such. And we have the rise of computational criticism, aka “distant reading,” which moreover seems to be fundamentally positivistic (a curious term of art in lit crit), bringing it under suspicion in some quarters of being a neoliberal con job.

At the same time we have a resurgence of interest in form, of all things, which has received its own special issues: Representations, “On Form, A 25th Anniversary Collection,” Fall 2008; and ELH, “Essays from the English Institute 2013”, Summer 2015. And yet, as Sandra Macpherson has argued in her contribution to the ELH issue, “A Little Formalism” (385-405) we don’t yet have a conception that’s of much use in practical criticism, as opposed to theoretical peregrinations. She’s looking for a conception of “form as nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes” (390). And, thorough-going materialists that so many of us have become, we can’t manage to cough up a material conception of form.

I believe that computation can give us such a conception, that is, a conception that both takes the physical text seriously as a conceptual object and links it to conception of process, as computation. That, however, is a large argument, and not one I want to summarize here, though, if you are curious, you can find a full dress treatment here:
“Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form,” PSYART: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005,
Rather, I simply want to point out that description is an issue at the micro scale of texts taken one at a time, as it is with distant reading applied to a corpus of texts.

Whatever form is, it resists translation into interpretive terms. As Derek Attridge remarks in The Singularity of Literature (2004, p. 108):
…it is difficult to verbalize a positive response to the formal features of a work without using some version of the scheme whereby sound echoes sense, form enacts meaning. But unless we can rescue literary discourse from these oppositions, form will continue to be treated as something of an embarrassment to be encountered, and if possible evaded, on the way to a consideration of semantic, and thus historical, political, and ideological, concerns.
It’s better to avoid the embarrassment, and so we neglect form in practical criticism.

Form is something that requires explanation, not interpretation. Again, I refer you to “Literary Morphology” for a full discussion, or see my two papers on Coleridge for both formal analysis and at least the beginnings of explanatory models:
Talking with Nature in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004, download at:

“Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003,
In this case explanation is in terms of psychological and even neural mechanisms. Those terms are quite different from those employed in literary criticism, even when that criticism calls itself Theory. From Theory’s point of view the newer psychologies look like positivism, the horror! the horror! From their point of view, Theory looks like obfuscatory nonsense, the horror! the horror! Horror is not a very hospitable meeting ground.

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Where are we? It looks like we’ve got interpretation and evaluation (either explicit or covert) on the one hand and description and explanation on the other. These are two modes of thought. And both oppositions are operative at micro and macro scales of application.

I suppose that one can talk of some dialectical synthesis in the abstract. But I hold out little hope for such talk. Rather, I think we should respect these two modes and recognize that each is valid. Description and explanation are central to naturalist criticism while interpretation and evaluation are central to ethical criticism. Both are necessary activities. Their proper relationship is yet to be negotiated.

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