In the course of thinking about my recent rejection at New Literary History I found myself, once again, rethinking the evolution of the profession as I’ve seen it from the 1960s to the present. In fact, that rejection has led me, once again, to rethink that history and to change some of my ideas, particularly about the significance of the 1970s.
“NATURALIST” criticism, NOT “cognitive” NOT “Darwinian” – A Quasi-Manifesto
March 31, 2010 (originally at The Valve)
I declare my commitment to ‘naturalist’ literary criticism, thereby denying ‘cognitive criticism,’ with which I had associated myself for years, and ‘Darwinian criticism,’ with which I had never associated myself. Takes the form of a loose dialog.
Lévi-Strauss and Myth: Some Informal Notes
(May 5, 2014)
(January 30, 2015)
(August 24, 2015)
(September 16, 2015)
1) Reading: The distinction between ordinary reading, which everyone does, and interpretive reading, the province of literary critics, is elided. Critics “read” texts and so create “readings”.2) The Text: The distinction between the text as physical object (marks on pages, pages bound into books) and whatever it means and whatever it represents is elided. This is the world in which there is nothing outside the text.3) “Form” becomes either a synonym for genre – tragedies and sonnets are forms – or a philosophical declaration of textual autonomy. The purpose of that declaration is to enable a critical practice that focuses exclusively on “the text” as its object so the critic can then “read” it. Thus “close reading” rarely involves sustained attention to a text’s form.4) Characters are People: We of course know that fictional characters are just that, fictions. But more is at stake than that simple acknowledgment.5) Theory as Critique: Over time the theory of literature morphed into critical theory, which in turn became Theory, though the capitalization of the initial “t” is optional.
(November 2, 2015)
(December 17, 2915)
Transition! The 1970s in Literary Criticism
During the 1970s academic literary criticism experienced a centrifugal motion away from poetics and a centripetal motion toward interpretation. The centrifugal motion sought “to define the conditions of meaning” (in a phrase of Jonathan Culler’s) and looked at structuralism, semiotics, linguistics and even the nascent cognitive sciences, but was quickly abandoned. The centripetal motion elided the distinction between reading, in the ordinary sense, and reading, as a kind of written discourse explicating texts. It came to dominate critical discourse.
An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism
(February 19, 2017)
Literary critics are interested in meaning (interpretation) but when linguistics, such as Haj Ross, look at literature, they’re interested in structure and mechanism (poetics). Shakespeare presents a particular problem because his plays exist in several versions, with Hamlet as an extreme case (3 somewhat different versions). The critic doesn’t know where to look for the “true” meaning. Where linguists to concern themselves with such things (which they mostly don’t), they’d be happy to deal with each of version separately. Undergraduate instruction in literature is properly concerned with meaning. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has become a staple because of its focus on race and colonialism, which was critiqued by Chinua Achebe in 1975 and the ensuing controversy and illustrates the problematic nature of meaning. And yet, when examined at arm’s length, the text exhibits symmetrical patterning (ring composition) and fractal patterning. Such duality, if you will, calls for two complementary critical approaches. Ethical criticism addresses meaning (interpretation) and naturalist criticism addresses structure and mechanism (poetics).
(February 28, 2017)
To J. Hillis Miller, 2019: On the State of Literary Criticism
(September 28, 2019)
(Oct 17, 2015)
Things change, but sometimes they don’t: On the difference between learning about and living through [revising your priors and the way of the world]
July 26, 2020
First example, the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989 and how that affect my sense of possibility.
Then my intellectual life, from “Kubla Khan” (1st rupture), to Sonnet 129 (2nd rupture), to the mid-90s discovery that literary scholars had become interested in cognitive science (albeit in ‘lite’ version)(3rd rupture). That third rupture forced me to rethink my intellectual history and brought me to the realization that it was form that held my attention.
Then some examples from visual culture, Zen and the Art of Macintosh, the visual nature of the world of computing, and then graffiti.
Why, in the course of an intellectual life, can it take years to see the obvious?
September 22, 2020
Discusses “Kubla Khan” and literary form, then brain-to-brain thought transmission.
Horgan’s The End of Science, a reconsideration, Part 4: “Meat that thinks,” my personal quest
April 18, 2021
This is from a series of posts about John Horgan’s The End of Science. I talk about my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins, move through “Kubla Khan” to graduate school and computational linguistics and then on to the brain and eventually correspondence with Walter Freeman. And other matters.
The Word Illusion in Literary Criticism
May 18, 2021
“When I refer to the word illusion I mean to indicate difficulties that some specialized disciplines encounter when dealing with word meanings. The illusory quality results from the mistaken idea/intuition that, because you know what words mean, what this that or the other word means, you are in a position, in effect, to think about the semantic underpinnings of meaning. This post is about problems that literary criticism has as a consequence of the word illusion.”
This is perhaps the key issue in why literary critics were unable move beyond interpretation to analysis and description.
The changing terms of my Socratic bargain with the American Academy [and the larger search for truth]
June 19, 2021
This contains a detailed account of how I finally broke from institutionalized literary criticism in 2010. Of course, I’d been out of the academy since 1985, but I still held myself loyal to from my stance as an independent scholar. But in 2010 I gave up even that. I would no longer regard a favorable judgment from the academy as something to aspire to. In particular, I link to and quote from a “letter of resignation” I posted to the CogLas listserve on July 14, 2010.
A perverse sense of intellectual honor is driving humanities scholars to disciplinary seppuku: Some personal reflections on the book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age
June 21, 2021
In the course of a review-essay about a book, Permanent Crisis, I talk a bit about my intellectual history and how Plato’s dialog, The Crito, helped me understand and revise my relationship with the academy.
The failure of structuralism and linguistics: Why did academic literary criticism turn its back on intellectual opportunity in the mid-1970s? [and why did I ignore the profession?]
June 23, 2021
This is the definitive version, so far, of the story of how I went one way during the 1970s and the profession when another. The profession decided to stay with interpretation while I decided to move on to computational semantics, model building, and, ultimately, the analysis and description of form. I note as well that things were wide open in the 1960s and 1970s in a way they are not now. Back then anything seemed possible. Now, nothing makes sense.