Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Word Illusion in Literary Criticism

We all know that each word has a spelling, a pronunciation, and one or more meanings. Different words may have the same meaning. Spellings and pronunciations are physical things, but meanings are not. Meanings are elusive.

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.

On learning the distinction between form and content

It is one thing to be told, and to believe, that words have form, spelling and/or pronunciation, and meaning. That is simple. But how you think about language and texts depends on the conceptual equipment you have for dealing with meaning.

I don’t recall whether or not the distinction between form and content was even mentioned in literature courses I took in my freshman year at college. But in my sophomore year I read Roland Barthes’ Elements of Semiology. There I learned that the sign consisted of a signifier (form) and signified (content). I found the difference between (external) thing, or referent, and (internal) signified difficult to grasp.

Here is how Barthes talked of the signified:

II.2.1. Nature of the signified: In linguistics, the nature of the signified has given rise to discussions which have centred chiefly on its degree of ‘reality’; all agree, however, on emphasising the fact that the signified is not ‘a thing’ but a mental representation of the ‘thing’. We have seen that in the definition of the sign by Wallon, this representative character was a relevant feature of the sign and the symbol (as opposed to the index and the signal). Saussure himself has clearly marked the mental nature of the signified by calling it a concept: the signified of the word ox is not the animal ox, but its mental image (this will prove important in the subsequent discussion on the nature of the sign). These discussions, however, still bear the stamp of psychologism, so the analysis of the Stoics will perhaps be thought preferable. They carefully distinguished the phantasia logiki (the mental representation), the tinganon (the real thing) and the lekton (the utterable). The signified is neither the phantasia nor the tinganon but rather the lekton; being neither an act of consciousness, nor a real thing, it can be defined only within the signifying process, in a quasi-tautological way: it is this 'something' which is meant by the person who uses the sign. In this way we are back again to a purely functional definition: the signified is one of the two relata of the sign; the only difference which opposes it to the signified is that the latter is a mediator.

Notice that Barthes begins by noting that the nature of this signified, whatever it is, is problematic. It is at least clear that the signified is to be distinguished from the thing, the referent. Beyond that, alas, I find it opaque. I have no idea what I would have made of it back then.

I am quite sure, however, that I had a rather clear sense of the distinction between signifier and thing, or reference, six years later in my second year of graduate school, when I’d undertaken the study of computational semantics with David Hays. Hays had worked out a complete linguistic system, which he’d sketched out in an unpublished book entitled Mechanisms of Language, from phonetics and phonology, though morphology and syntax, to semantics and discourse. He used diagrams, network diagrams, to indicate this system. In those diagrams semantic objects where clearly distinct from syntactic and morphological ones. There could be no doubt that signifiers (morphological objects) are distinctly different from signifieds (semantic objects), and that all those linguistic objects are distinct from the various things, referents, language can be used to talk about. Those diagrams made these matters very clear.

I have no recollection of what I made of the distinction between signifier and thing between my sophomore year and graduate school. In the second half of that period, however, I did read about semantics in the nascent cognitive sciences and that must have given me some way of dealing with that distinction. But the discipline of literary criticism never made it beyond that obscure paragraph by Barthes, that and others like it. Yes, literary critics certainly understand that there is a distinction between, say, the concept of an apple, which is in one’s head, and a physical apple out there in the world. But that understanding doesn’t give you much to work with when dealing with more complicated cases, and every literary text is a more complicated case.

The critics and the text

In the late 1930s and on into the 1950s a group of critics known as the New Critics argued that literary texts were autonomous. By that they meant that you need not, indeed you should not, refer either to socio-historical context or to the author’s life in interpreting a literary work. What made texts autonomous? Their form. How did form do that? I do not at this point know what the New Critics thought about that, but I’m sure they had reasons and those reasons no doubt became more sophisticated as literary criticism grew in philosophical sophistication after World War II.

Beyond the general idea of interpretation the New Critics had little intellectual equipment for dealing with meaning, the world of signifiers, of verbal content. That meant that in practice critics could wander far and wide as long as they avoided attempting to ground their interpretations in the author’s life and/or historical context. They were interpreting ‘universal’ meanings.

One was free to track down influences in earlier texts that the author might have read. Even if an author hadn’t read them, there were there floating around in the tradition. These influences ranged all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. Biblical and classical references and symbols gave one leeway to traipse far and wide in discovering meanings somehow IN the text, in the text in the sense that they aren’t in the biographical and historical details of the author’s life and times. Beyond that, Freud and Jung afforded the critic other means of interpretation. Such ‘depth’ criticism certainly wasn’t authorized by the New Critics, but it did afford ways of interpreting texts that avoided context and biography, and so of finding meanings IN the texts.

It was fascinating stuff. I do remember, if only vaguely, that, as I read such criticism, I was puzzled about just how and in what sense these meanings were actually there in the text. I certainly didn’t think of them when I read the text. In what sense does one have to know such things in order properly to have read the text?

What is reading and where’s the text?

One consequence of this methodology is was to elide the distinction between reading, as the word is ordinarily used, and reading, as critics offer and explicit written interpretation of the text. Reading is reading. They are the same thing, reading. I recall being puzzled about that elision as it happened. A study of topics in seven mainstream literary journals suggests that the elision happened in the 1960s and 1970s (see my post Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism).

Another consequence is that the concept of the text became deeply problematic. That a text is a string of signifiers, of word forms, is obvious, and trivial. This is an idea/observation of little use to a literary critic. The critic wants to know, what is this thing I am interpreting? It’s not those dumb symbols. It’s something they represent, evoke, constitute, but what?

In a well-known article, for example,  Roland Barthes’ tells us (“From Work to Text, in The Rustle of Language, 1986):

1. The text must not be understood as a computable object. It would be futile to attempt a material separation of works from texts. In particular, we must not permit ourselves to say: the work is classical, the text is avant-garde; there is no question of establishing a trophy in modernity's name and declaring certain literary productions in and out by reason of their chronological situation: there can be “Text” in a very old work, and many products of contemporary literature are not texts at all. The difference is as follows: the work is a fragment of substance, it occupies a portion of the spaces of books (for example, in a library). The Text is a methodological field. The opposition may recall (though not reproduce term for term) a distinction proposed by Lacan: “reality” is shown [se montre], the “real” is proved [se démontre]; in the same way, the work is seen (in bookstores, in card catalogues, on examination syllabuses), the text is demonstrated, is spoken according to certain rules (or against certain rules); the work is held in the hand, the text is held in language: it exists only when caught up in a discourse (or rather it is Text for the very reason that it knows itself to be so); the Text is not the decomposition of the work, it is the work which is the Text's imaginary tail. Or again: the Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production. It follows that the Text cannot stop (for example, at a library shelf); its constitutive moment is traversal (notably, it can traverse the work, several works).

Just what does that mean?

Note, however, that in the world I explored with David Hays the text really is a computable object, a concept which does not, however, diminish it. In that world, the text considered as a computable object, is a very rich a complex object. It is rich and complex because that world contains tools for constructing a rich and complex account of semantics.

Correlatively, the notion of form is as problematic as that of the text. Why? Because the New Critics and their heirs were never very interested in literary form as itself an object of analysis and description – though they did comment on such matters in poetry, where they are unavoidable. The idea of form provided philosophical cover for their declaration of textual autonomy. They were focused on meaning and so looked right through, as it were, the text’s formal features.

Thus the word illusion led literary critics to mystify the nature of the text, of form, and to conflate the acts of reading and interpretation. But – and this is important – without an explicit and tractable account of the world of signifieds, of meaning, it is not clear that critics could have done anything else, not if they wanted to study the meanings of literary texts. The current intellectual situation is quite different, but that’s well beyond the scope of a blog post.

Moving forward

Indeed, much of what I’ve written in New Savanna in the last decade about those current possibilities. Two somewhat different arenas have opened up.

At the level of the individual text, one can analyze and describe formal elements [1]. I suppose this possibility has always been there, but the existence of sophisticated approaches to computational semantics lends them a plausibility that they hadn’t had before. Not, mind you, that one can apply these semantic models to whole texts. I tried that and got as far as a Shakespeare sonnet, 129 [2]. But the existence of these models allows for the clear separation of signifier, linguistic content, from referent, ‘thing’ in the world and that separation “liberates” the text itself from the its interpretive subordination to the search for meaning.

At the level of a corpus of texts, we have a great and growing variety of work in computational criticism. The nature of these methods necessarily means that they are focused on the signifieds, the word forms, as that is all that is accessible to the computational techniques employed. It turns out that a sophisticated analysis of patterns of signifiers can be interpreted into the domain of meaning [3].

There is every hope that a revivified study of literary criticism can emerge from the shadow cast by the word illusion.


[1] For an explicit methodological justification of a computational approach to literary form, see my Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2006, Article 060608, https://www.academia.edu/235110/Literary_Morphology_Nine_Propositions_in_a_Naturalist_Theory_of_Form

In recent years I have chosen to focus on ring-forms as a specific kind of formal design. In particular, see my working paper, Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology, September 11, 2017, 71 pp. https://www.academia.edu/8529105/Ring_Composition_Some_Notes_on_a_Particular_Literary_Morphology

[2] William Benzon, Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics, MLN 91: 1976, 952-982, https://www.academia.edu/235111/Cognitive_Networks_and_Literary_Semantics

William Benzon, Lust in Action: An Abstraction, Language and Style 14, 1981, 251-270, https://www.academia.edu/7931834/Lust_in_Action_An_Abstraction

 [3] Perhaps my best systematic statement on this is From Canon/Archive to a REAL REVOLUTION in literary studies, Working Paper, December 21, 2017, 26 pp., https://www.academia.edu/35486902/From_Canon_Archive_to_a_REAL_REVOLUTION_in_literary_studies.

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