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.

1 comment:

  1. So if philosophy is the study of giving accounts, which we can take for granted at this juncture if only to explore it later, then philosophy is, for the Moderns as well, the necessary base science, since all disciplines of science are the giving of an account.

    Non-sequiter: should literary theory truly be known as the 'philosophy of literature' or more the 'psychology of literature' or even the 'sociology of literature'? (Perhaps, in fairness, a blending of the last two, since it is often concerned with authors generally in a time period or a school of writing, and often concerned rather with a particular author.

    In my last sentence above, I may in fact be conflating sciences into a large mess, thus being counterproductive. However, on the assumption that my faulty memory has not betrayed me on this point, perhaps, in my admittedly neophytic understanding of literary theory, we have three disciplines, each in progressive subordination to its antecedent; one, the study of how cultural phenomena influence the production of literature through their effects on the author; two, a delineation and description of those influences; and three, the taxonomy of particular authors.