Monday, November 21, 2011

Breakdown of the Humanities

A few days ago, I listened to a lecture on "Against Theory," the notorious 1982 paper by Knapp and Michaels. The lecture was informative and interesting. Of special note was the end, when the lecturer, Paul Fry, did his best to rescue the discipline from the paper's clutches. At the end of the lecture, though, I found myself asking what exactly was the discipline that Prof. Fry saved; what are its boundaries, what is its proper study? No doubt my questions could have been answered more thoroughly and conventionally had I listened to the first lecture in Prof. Fry's series. But I am an impatient man, disinclined to trust conventional academic wisdom (concerning the humanities in particular), and given to hair-splitting. I decided, then, to try and sort out for myself, with recourse only to memory and etymology, as many of the different branches of studies of literature and language that I could. What follows are the conclusions I came to that afternoon. They should not, by any means, be taken as academically official definitions. They are only convenient aids to my own thinking.

The first task to be set was to try and come up with a tentatively positive definition of literary theory. Obviously, rearranging the words and saying "a theory of literature" would not do. There are many ways to view literature; which most properly applies to literary theory? I thought of some of the other titles or subjects of Prof. Fry's series of lectures: the hermeneutic circle, deconstructionism, New Criticism, linguistics, Russian formalism, the anxiety of influence, queer theory, Lacanian analysis, post-colonialism, gender theory, even neopragmatism. So many different ways of approaching the subject of literature, but what did these approaches all have in common? All of them, it seemed to me, wanted to take literature as a whole as its subject. What they were after was a framework that could be applied to all forms of literature that are manifest in the world. In addition, there seemed to be an emphasis on the writer himself and the influences at work on him: the state of his mind, his gender, his orientation, his place in the world. Combining those two, I arrived at a starting definition: literary theory is the study of how texts come to be, and the study of the forces at work behind them, vis-à-vis the personal state of the writer, and the formal demands of the medium.

This may not appear to be a very helpful definition. After all, such phrases as "the forces at work behind them" and "the formal demands of the medium" are rather vague. Nonetheless, I found that this way of saying allowed me to make some crucial distinctions. The first distinction that I made was between literary theory and literary criticism. Often we see these two terms used interchangeably; and though they are closely allied, there is a crucial difference between the two. The word "criticism" comes from the Greek verb "krino," which means "to judge, distinguish, or pick out for oneself." If we follow the word carefully, we may say that the task of criticism is to be able to make distinctions between good and bad writing, and explain those distinctions. It is this sense that Yvor Winters, one of the greatest critics of the 20th century, had in mind when he reviewed C.S. Lewis's volume for the Oxford History of English Literature: "It is [Lewis's] critical mind that bothers me. It is my own conviction that one cannot write the history of poetry unless one can find the best poems. ...Lewis cannot find the poems" (The Function of Criticism). Taken together, the two sentences are the most concise statement about what it means to be a literary critic that I know.

One implication of Winters's claim is that there are value judgments involved in satisfactory criticism. This is the fundamental difference between theory and criticism. Strictly speaking, literary theory is concerned with literature as it comes to be and the principles which underlie its formation. We might say that in the study of literary theory, we are concerned with literature as a phenomenon. What this means is that literary theory is purely a descriptive discipline. As literary theorists, we should not restrict ourselves to inquiring about how only good books or great books are produced. The notions advanced should (ideally) apply to Moby-Dick, La Chanson de Roland, and Twilight. Whether or not we should put Twilight on par with the other two is fundamentally a matter for criticism.

One other way of distinguishing the two occurred to me as well. The critic is concerned with what happens once the text is produced--how we should judge it based on our reading. The theorist is concerned with what happens as the text is produced--what goes into the writing of it. Theory treats of the "before," criticism of the "after." Rather fancifully, I drew up this triple analogy between agent and discipline: author is to text is to reader as theory is to literature is to criticism.

With that distinction made to my satisfaction, I went back to work on my original definition. I still wanted to hold to the notion that literary theory examined the "forces" (for lack of a better term, but this is a blog post) at stake, but I wondered what those "forces" would be. The first one that I thought of was beauty. Surely beauty would be at work in some way as a work of literature came to be; do we not often speak of prose styles or poetic diction as beautiful? After some brief reflection, I did not think that was the case, for two reasons. First, I remembered the titles of Prof. Fry's lectures once more; none of them seemed to have much regard for beauty, and the lecture on Knapp and Michaels had not one word devoted to it. If what Prof. Fry was teaching was literary theory, then beauty was not in it. Second, I thought once more about literature as a phenomenon. We may say that a phenomenon is beautiful, but that is once again a value judgment, and so we are back to the problem of literary theory vs. literary criticism, only this time with a different criterion. Literary theory does not have traffic with beauty. That opened the question of what discipline has beauty as its subject. The answer, it seemed to me, was in aesthetics. Accordingly, I defined aesthetics as rational inquiry into the principles of beauty, giving an account of what is beautiful and why. I emphasize the rationality to distinguish aesthetics from aestheticism. One is an important and under-explored science; the other is poorly digested Edgar Allan Poe.

Incidentally, it is such a small step from literary criticism to aesthetics that we may call the former a sub-discipline of the latter. If we wish to say so, however, we must accept one premise: that good literature is beautiful.

Next, it seemed a good idea to distinguish literary theory from the sciences involving language. The phenomenon of literature refers most simply to texts, not language. Though texts are a vehicle for language, and texts cannot be formed without language, I had set myself the parameters of wanting to see how discrete I could make each subject--in this case, seeing if I would empty the term literary theory of its meaning if I were to distinguish it from the science of language. But here a new problem raised itself; what is the science of language properly called? Linguistics was one that many people nowadays would put forth. Yet fifty years ago, many people might used that definition for philology. Add to that the new developments in the discipline of hermeneutics, and I was quite puzzled. I now had three subjects I needed to separate from each other, and from literary theory to boot. How could all three of these be the science of language?

Language, I reasoned naively, was the use of signs (words) to communicate meaning. There were more subtleties, I knew, but this gave me enough room to make distinctions. If I wished to study language, I could go about it three ways: by studying the symbols and the human capacity for it, by studying the meaning of meaning and problems of interpreting the signs, or by studying the connection between the two, that is to say, how man interprets the signs.

Thus I formulated the definitions accordingly. Linguistics is the study of what a language is in itself, as well as man's capacity for it. In other words, its subject is what constitutes language, and how man constitutes it. Even more fancifully, it is the study of logos in man; one might say that the favorite Bible verse is John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word."

Since language in man involves the use of signs and symbols, we may also consider linguistics a more restricted form of semiotics--the study of what signs and symbols are. Perhaps we could say that linguistics is the common ground between semiotics and anthropology; it is the study of uniquely human signs.

The linguist is preoccupied with the Word in general. But we, as humans, do not stop with the universal Word; we communicate not by language in general, but by language in particular, by individual words with meaning. Now the meanings of words are not as fixed as we might like them to be, but are modified over time. Hence, it seems fitting to assign a study to this problem of determining what words mean in different contexts or time periods. This accorded with one definition of philology which I recalled: the study of the meanings of words as they change over time and are recorded in texts.

I had reasoned (simply put) that linguistics was the study of words and philology was the study of words with meaning. Could we have a study of meaning in and of itself as well? It seemed to me that we could; this would be the study of interpretation. Its fundamental questions would be about what the meaning of "meaning" is, what happens when we interpret something, is it possible to interpret something correctly, and so on. I decided this was the province of hermeneutics, the study of interpreting language. In short, I delineated the three sciences of language thus: linguistics is the study of words and man's capacity for them, hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of words, and philology is the meeting ground between the two.
So much for them.

Next, I decided to make one final foray and fit the classical trivium into this ramshackle schema. Grammar seemed to share some common ground with linguistics in that both were concerned with principles of language. But whereas linguistics is concerned with man and language in the abstract, grammar is concerned with language in the concrete. That is to say, grammar is concerned with the elements of language, and how they fit together. Grammar deals with conjunctions, declensions, the proper placement of parts of speech, and making the language fit together properly.

Whereas grammar is concerned with the form of the sentence, dialectic's main concern is with the content of the sentence. Dialectic (or logic) is the science of constructing a sound and coherent argument. In other words, in dialectic, one must fit ideas together properly. Rhetoric is the combination of the two: combining the elements of a language to communicate ideas in the most effective manner, or the proper fitting of words to ideas.

At this point, I thought I had weeded away all the negative space surrounding literary theory and was ready to say what it was positively. Then I thought of another text which I had previously assumed was the foundation of literary theory: Poetics. Here was one last distinction I had to make, because poetics had also been a distinct branch of literary study. Could I distinguish poetics from literary theory?

After trying to recall bits and pieces of Aristotle, I thought that a distinction could be made. In the Poetics, Aristotle gives distinguishes tragedy from epic and comedy, defines tragedy, and examines each of its main aspects in detail. In other words, he was trying to classify pieces of writing, say clearly what their elements are, and explain how they fit together. This is different from criticism, aesthetics, linguistics, philology, hermeneutics, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Poetics is the study of what makes different classes or genres of writing what they are: what makes a poem, drama, or novel, what effects each achieve, and how each of their component parts fit together. Poetics is the study of a composition of a work of literature qua work of literature.

Literary theory, by contrast, definitely included the writer in its study, at least if such topics as postcolonialism, queer theory, and gender theory were able to come into play. Accordingly, I revised my definition of literary theory to the following: literary theory is the study of what assumptions and preconceived notions exist in the writer or his environment so that the writer produces a text. To go further, I consider literary theory the humanistic equivalent of the philosophy of science, and I would love it if the subject were known from now on as "the philosophy of literature."

Two final notes. The first is that these distinctions I made are seldom strictly carried out in the real world, even by thinkers whom I respect. There is good reason for this; many of these subjects as defined have much common ground; linguistics, philology, and hermeneutics in particular. It is almost impossible to separate the study of the meanings of words from the study of meaning per se. Also, it is easy to blend literary theory and criticism, since the contemporary writer and the contemporary reader have the same environment. But, even though these distinctions may only exist in speech, I found them helpful if only to try and establish some order for myself, as an aspiring humanist, over the ill-defined mess that "the humanities" is rapidly turning into.

The second is that I recognize I did stop short in my distinction-making: one discipline which I have thus far left undefined is philosophy. I did not hope to come up with a definitive definition to that subject in this blog post, and I do not think I am able now. Yet I would throw this out as a beginning to further discussion: philosophy is the study of giving accounts.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Satire I

Several years ago, as an academic assignment, I wrote an ill-fated paper on the question: What is Satire? The paper was
ill-fated largely because I took several falsehoods as given, the most notable of which was the notion that satire was
necessarily humorous. I no longer stand by this notion. Rather, I wish to develop a new take on satire. I have in mind
the following works:

  1. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, from The Canterbury Tales
  2. Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote

I do not claim that the definition of Satire I offer is final or complete. Rather, I intend this
as an experiment. I begin with the example of Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales.
The tale is a version of the fable of the cock and the fox, present in the fables of Aesop. For
the benefit of those who have not read this tale, I will briefly summarize it.

Chanticleer is reluctant to jump off his perch onto the ground due to a dream he had last night. His favorite hen, Pertolete, questions his manliness. Chanticleer’s response is to offer various learned reasons why he would be wise not to jump off the perch but in the end, he relents and jumps off the perch. The fox captures him and runs off with him. The widow’s dogs run after the fox. Chanticleer suggests that the Fox tell his pursuers to give up the chase. As the fox opens his mouth to taunt them allowing Chanticleer to break free.

The Nun’s Priests tale, available in both Middle and Modern English here ; is a mock epic. The narrative is not entirely faithful to the fable of "the Cock and the Fox"; but the resemblance is obvious. It is with the relationship of the tale and the fable that I wish to begin. The setting in which the tale takes place is an odd one. Animals live like animals and yet are capable not only of speech but of learning. Chanticleer is knowledgeable of both classical and medieval literature. It seems to me that bringing the fable into this environment necessarily changes it. Satire then is a literary environment that necessarily takes something else whether it be a narrative or simply an idea as to how the world works and changes it in such a way to reveal its presumptions.

We see a weaker version of this same pattern in Don Quixote. In this particular case, Don Quixote believes himself to be a knight-errant. While those around him mock him, the reader cannot help but wish that Don Quixote were a knight-errant largely because the reader wishes to be a knight-errant as well. It is important to notice here that this drawing in of the reader, common to all of literature takes on a particular form both in Don Quixote and the“Nun’s Priest’s Tale”. It seems to me that the drawing in effect of literature inevitably has something to do with the human tendency to develop affections for those near at hand, especially in unusual situations. This is somewhat stronger in narratives written in the first person or limited omniscient since the solipsism of the reader merges with that of the literary subject. In the satirical environment though, the reader’s sense of self overlaps with the subject’s sense of the same. This is related to but not the same as their solipsism.

The phrase “sense of self” requires a bit more explication. There are several aspects to it. Permit me a short psychological digression. Firstly we have the ego. The ego is, of course, an abstraction. All the same, it is an abstraction with which we all have first person experience insofar as it is the abstraction that is personal experience. The ego is arrogant in the etymological sense of the term. Something so simple can only understand itself as something more than self-hood by arrogating other ideas to itself, among them status and the sense of right and wrong. The up shot of this is that even the ego’s sense of right and wrong revolves around itself and therefore, from an egocentric (or purely solipsistic) point of view, other subjects deserve certain treatment precisely to the extent that they are like the ego.

Therefore, the sense of self contains the sense of right and wrong as well as the sense of self-importance. Thus, in satire, the afinity the reader naturally develops for the main character ends up taking on a special significance. The pretentions that the satirical environment so mocks are those ideas which the protagonist’s ego has arrogated and also those that the reader’s ego arrogates sympathetically but also autonomously. On the other hand, the reader has the advantage of dramatic irony. In spite of the sympathy the reader feels for the protagonist, the reader still has a sufficiently broad view of the narrative to realize the gap between the protagonist’s view of his relationship to the world and the actuality of that relationship.

It is precisely this tension that teaches the reader. The reader learns from Satire when he realizes that he is laughing at himself. Both the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and Don Quixote mock our more monumental aspirations. Indeed, most men most of the time simply live and do what they do in order to live. In this sense, our daily activities are no different from those of barnyard animals and it is intriguing how little the imposition of human intellect changes the barnyard animals; the only obvious addition is the sense of pride, the aspiration to the monumental.

Now, we turn to the writer or narrator. My conflation of these two is an evasion. I do not wish to attempt the elucidation of this distinction here though comments on the matter are welcome. Precisely because the composition of Satire requires omniscience with respect to the protagnist’s ego, the soul and therefore the ego of the writer aspires to a more universal understanding. This appeal to our sense of the absurd at the expense of a character to whom we have affinity then allows the ego of both the writer and the reader to arrogate to itself omniscient and thus, in a way, universal understanding. The difficulty is universal understanding is necessarily abstract. It achieves its universality merely by defining its universe. It then treats “different” as “same” and turns “same” into “equal”. Then the ego uses the powers of abstraction it derives from being such a thing itself to gain a kind this omnisicience and thus its pride causes it to arrogate this universe to itself. Then, the ego retreats into its own pride and loses its sense of its own lowliness. The wise reader of Satire, if such a man exists, realizes this danger and is humbled by his pride. All the same, it remains true that Satire requires the channeling of the diabolical and is the most arrogant of all literary arts. This makes it extremely dangerous when effective and also extremely ineffective as a partisan weapon. A well written satire will not puncture the pretensions of “them” but not “us”. The arrogance of Satire forces to to mock all men or else collapse under its own grand pretensions.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Suspension of Judgment

Yes, my first post has come months after the blog has started, and given the lateness of the hour, it will be a short one. To those seeking a reason why, I direct you to Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 35, and the following sentence from an essay in Albert Camus's Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: "It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time."

The essay in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death that follows the one I just quoted is a remarkable piece entitled "Reflections on the Guillotine." Written in 1957, when the guillotine was still used in France, it is the most lucid critique of the death penalty that I have yet found, and I am in agreement with almost all of the entire essay. There is one page, though, in which I differ from Camus. He writes, "Today when such vile death is administered on the sly, what is the meaning of this torture?...The science that serves to kill so many could at least serve to kill decently. An anesthetic that would allow the condemned man to slip from sleep to death (which would be left within his reach for at least a day so that he could use it freely and would be administered to him in another form if he were unwilling or weak of will) would assure his elimination, if you insist, but would put a little decency into what is at present but a sordid and obscene exhibition." I am not sure what Camus would have thought of lethal injection as it is currently practiced (Camus died in 1960; lethal injection was first used in the U.S. in 1982), but it seems as though he was anticipating it here.

This appears to be a reasonable proposition, that a man sentenced to death should be allowed to die calmly and painlessly, like Socrates. Camus is absolutely right that the death should be painless; prolonging the moment of death in pain would be unnecessarily cruel. Whether it should be calm is another question.

There are many reasons offered for supporting the death penalty; common ones include it acts as a deterrent, it prevents the criminal from repeating his crime and better ensures public safety, it has Biblical precedents, and it satisfies a sense of justice and outrage at an atrocious crime. Camus directly or indirectly addresses all of these. Deterrent? Capital punishment is not guaranteed to put the fear of God into potential murderers; this assertion is not borne out by statistics. Biblical precedent? As in most discussions involving Sacred Scripture, you can pick texts to support what you please; the Bible is often inventively and creatively fudged around. Sequestering criminals from society? This is a stronger reason than the previous ones. In fact, it may be the most valid reason of them all; yet it still will not do. A maximum security prison will remove the criminal from society almost as thoroughly as death. And then there's the satisfaction of justice...

To begin, that depends on what sort of justice we have in mind. To put a man to death for murder presupposes a standard of exact retributive justice: a life for a life. As Camus points out, however, this is also the language of retaliation and revenge. In this case, it is the language of bloodlust. A man is condemned to death because others want to see him die. This, I think, is the reason capital punishment persists. Statistics, the Bible, and poor facilities are not reasons strong enough. If we are going to support capital punishment honestly, we fall back on a reason which we would prefer not to articulate. We would not like to think that bloodlust enters into judicial pronouncements, yet there is an element of it present.

If we are going to be honest in our pronouncements, let us also be honest in our methods of bearing them out. If the public wants bloodlust, let us give it to them, as it is what they want. This is not done. Lethal injection, as it is currently practiced, takes place behind closed doors with relatively few witnesses present. It is quiet, orderly, and sanitized. By this process, execution is made to look comparatively pleasant--if one gets a chance to look at it. But if the public wants satisfaction for an atrocity, let it have a corresponding, reciprocal atrocity for all to see. This was done in the past with nooses, guillotines, and firing squads.

Let us see the moment of execution, but let's also be humane. I stand by the former point: the moment of death should be instantaneous and leave no room for extended suffering. This was one reason for switching to lethal injection, but the other three methods mentioned above work just as well. The guillotine was designed to be a more humane method of execution, so that the dying man would feel little more than "a slight sensation of coldness on his neck." The firing squad brings death even faster. Lastly, if done properly, hanging breaks the neck instantly. Lethal injection has not been shown to be less painful than any of these, save perhaps the guillotine. It may look less painful; for some, that is enough.

Of course, there will always be botched executions regardless of the method. But if it does not decrease the pain, there is no reason to use a "sanitized" method of execution instead of one more grotesque. All lethal injection does for us as a public is make us feel better about putting criminals to death. It is secret and orderly, so we do not have to see it or think about it too hard, and we can have our sense of vengeance gratified at the same time. All the benefits of vengeance without the scruples of conscience or the burden of responsibility. If we are to face the problem of the death penalty squarely, we cannot have this situation persist. As I see it, there are two options. The first and best is to abolish capital punishment altogether. But if we must have it, let's not kid ourselves about what we're doing; rather, let's erect a gallows and return to public hanging.