I was looking through the most recent volume of NLH and came across an essay that had description in the title, not once, but twice. Asked I of myself: Is this article going to talk about describing literary texts or is it going to do the usual and talk about how literary texts use description? The latter of course.
The problem seems to be that literary critics are interested in meaning and, in pursuit of that interest, see literary texts as commentary on the world. Their interpretive job, then, is to examine what texts have to say about the world. They are interested in the texts as such only to the text that this or that textual feature tells us something about what the text says about the world. Irony, for example, is a mode of textual being, but if we fail to note the textual indices of irony, we will fail in understanding how the text relates to the world.
But still, you’d think that a discipline that talks so much about form and formalism would be more interested in examining form. No such luck. In its blindness to the texts themselves, these critics of description betray their allegiance to one of the foundational conceits of modern interpretive criticism, that (interpretive) reading is but (ordinary) reading (for comprehension).
In any event, here’s the article I’d found:
Heather Houser, Shimmering Description and Descriptive Criticism, New Literary History, Volume 51, Number 1, Winter 2020, pp. 1-22
Abstract: What can studying novelistic description teach us about the allure of modes of reading falling within the descriptive turn, specifically, surface reading, new materialist ecocriticism, and computational analysis? This article's analysis of the paradoxes of description—specifically, its ability to evoke while revoking—in McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985), Sinha's Animal's People (2007), and Smith's White Teeth (2000) explains an apparent tension between data and materiality in these trending literary critical approaches. It details the evoke-revoke paradox of description and offers it as an analytic for understanding the ontological status of the reader and more-than-human things in methods captured by the descriptive turn. Ultimately, it shows how literary form and critical practices together give us traction on the demands fiction makes on readers and how the ascendancy of Web 2.0 mirrors those demands through its pull between materiality and data.
Ah, so now it’s “the descriptive turn.” It’s an identifiable movement within the literary academy. Let’s take a quick look at some passages in the article.
From p. 2:
I open with three contemporary authors rather than with the traditional ABCs of description studies—Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert—because they demonstrate that what is paradigmatic of description also constrains it. McCarthy, Sinha, and Smith offer compelling tutor texts because they all take a maximalist approach to detailing their fictional worlds, to the point of inviting accusations of excess.
See, a movement: “the ABCs of description studies.” Later on the page:
Detailing the constraints, even failings, of description is not new to thought on the device. Georg Lukács’s “Narrate or Describe?” (1936) has attained its outsized status in description theory for its vehement condemnation of the latter act. His censure is overt; he deals blows such as “the descriptive method lacks humanity. Its transformation of men into still lives is only the artistic manifestation of its inhumanity.”
I must confess I’ve never read Lukács. I’ve known about him since my undergraduate years and have his slender volume theorizing the novel. But every time I open it I loose interest.
So sue me.
Moving on (p. 3):
Coming at description decades later and from a poetic perspective, Mark Doty could not contrast Lukács more sharply. “Description is a mode of thinking,” he proclaims. Through the device the world’s “contradictory dynamics” take form in the crucible of individual creativity. Description can hardly be mere not only because it is a conduit to perception and thought but also because it shows the imprint of how “we feel impressed upon by things” (AD 9).
If description is indeed a mode of thinking, which it is, why not put it systematically to use in investigating literary texts as texts? Or have these critics willing to take Fish’s Jurassic Era verdict at face value and regard critic’s claims about doing description as a way to evade the problematics of interpretation? [On Fish, see my 2018 post, The Problematic of Description.]
And so forth and so on.