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Friday, July 29, 2005

Blog carves up tree


Thanks to my loyal readers (and my loyal opposition!), I have come to realize that my plan to become the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee in 2020 will be utterly derailed if I allow myself to appear as a total wuss.  And so I have taken matters into my own hands.  This morning, before driving Jamie to day camp—indeed, before breakfast—I rummaged around in the garage, found a nice sharp kaiser blade (some folks call it a sling blade, I call it a kaiser blade), and took apart that fallen limb, limb by limb.  You can’t see the full extent of my handiwork here; that would require an aerial photo, because the yard is now half-full of tree limbs, and it’s a big yard.  But I lopped off eight major subsidiary branches (by “major” I mean “greater than four inches in diameter,” for you accuracy hounds), dragged them to one end of the yard, and then sawed twice through the main branch where it was seven-eight inches in diameter, leaving a stem or a root or whatever you call it, ten inches thick and about nine feet long.

I would just like to see Jonah Goldberg or David Brooks try this shit.

Thank you to everyone who helped out with hilarious comments, handy tips, and scorching ridicule on Wednesday.  I am now ready to accept your nomination. 

I’ll be back with a breaking news story later on—I hear that Christian groups are planning to try to block John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court—but in the meantime, here’s a fun short poem from Cornelius Eady’s first book, Kartunes:


I will stop dreaming now
now that I’ve finally made it.
outside I can hear the wind
rustling through the leaves of trees.

I own those trees.

Posted by Michael on 07/29 at 09:34 AM
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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Anti-Theory Thursday, or Reasons to Believe

Guest post by John McGowan

“It struck me kind of funny, kind of funny suddenly,
At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.”
--Bruce Springsteen

I don’t know how coherent this is going to be, but I want to use this post to think out loud about a puzzle that the lit crit folks among you will recognize as occupying the same swamp as Stanley Fish’s claim that theory has no consequences.  I have never understood Fish’s claim—and that incomprehension is my inspiration for the musings that follow.

The problem with Fish, in my view, is that he never tells us what “theory” is.  Take Michael’s description of structuralism on Tuesday.  The structuralist identifies (or uncovers) a pattern (or structure) that underlies each particular utterance.  This identification is “theoretical,” presumably, because

a) it claims generality (individual utterances are particular, even singular, but the structure is behind every one of those particular instances and is the same in each case)

and b) it claims explanatory power (the structure explains how it is that individual utterances are meaningful). 

The strong claim would be: no structure, no meaning.  A theory of this sort is “transcendental” in the Kantian sense; it describes the necessary conditions for (in this case) uttering and interpreting meaningful utterances.  If the necessity claim is strong enough (i.e. this is the only way things are or could be), then theory has no consequences in a trivial way.  Practice did not change when Newton identified the “law” of gravity.  Stones still fell when dropped and people still had to exert force to get a burden up a hill.  But, of course, having formulated the law of gravity enabled new kinds of interventions in the world. 

Similarly, Jakobson’s identification of the six dimensions of meaning spurred new interpretations of familiar poems. We don’t even have to decide whether Jakobson got it “right” or not.  His theory works as a heuristic even if it doesn’t actually exhaust the full and necessary ways that an utterance can mean.  Despite humans’ best attempt to be “reality-based,” different ideational lenses and the different vocabularies in which they are expressed, “light up” (to use Charles Taylor’s useful phrase, loosely translated from Heidegger) different aspects, different potentialities, within a reality that, in its richness and multiplicity, exceeds any single description or account of it.  Reality, so far as we know thus far, is inexhaustible—just like we were always told Shakespeare is.

I take it that Fish is denying, as a good pragmatist should, the transcendental claims of a certain kind of theory.  But his claim shouldn’t be that such theory has no consequences, but that it attempts to provide more than it can deliver.  We are just not very likely to come up with a theory of everything, one account that comprehensively sets out the necessary conditions for all human practice. Such accounts tend to be reductionist or to have blind spots—flaws that do have consequences such as those we are currently witnessing in Iraq (an intervention guided by a simplistic theory of what threatens America and of what ailed Iraqi society and a reductionist understanding of what could cure it of its troubles).  Intellectual and real history keeps surprising us; fallibilism seems the more prudent course.

At other times, however, Fish seems to associate theory with an even stronger claim.  He talks of theory’s pretensions to regulate or even generate practice.  In this case, to use structuralism as our example once more, the structure doesn’t simply provide the conditions of meaning, it actually produces meaning.  And it is true that Levi-Strauss seems, at times, to approach this kind of claim.  It would require, of course, the full-scale death of the author to insist that utterances are generated by the structure and not by the speaker.  But, as we know, in its heady heyday structuralism was willing to kill off the speaker and/or writer.  That heyday was short-lived, however, and Fish is attacking a straw man if he thinks “theory” always aims to establish a force behind practice that is doing all the heavy lifting.  And if such a theory had no consequences, it would be because it was false, not because of something peculiar about the relationship between theory and practice, something many of us had missed before enlightenment came in the form of Stanley Fish.

My conundrum comes onto stage if we understand “theory” in yet another way (and this one also seems to be lurking in Fish at times).  Let’s take practice as “first-order” beliefs, desires, and actions, and associate “theory” with second-order reflection on those immediacies.  We desire, believe, and do a lot of things without articulating for ourselves or for others our reasons for those desires, beliefs, and actions—or even explicitly describing the content of those desires, beliefs, and actions. Does self-consciousness or reflection upon these immediacies have a revisionary effect?  Again, leave aside whether reflection’s descriptions accurately capture what is really going on in those immediacies.  Just consider whether the act of describing what we are doing and our reasons for doing it will have the effect—rather like Heisenberg’s observer—of altering the thing so described or justified.  Anyone who has seen a teenager on stage would side with the common-sense supposition that self-consciousness does have effects.  Certainly, the classical pragmatists believed that we begin in habit, but that habits are modified by the give-and-take with others who ask us to justify our actions, to explain ourselves, as well as by our own constant judging of ourselves vis-à-vis others who act and believe differently.  Under the plural conditions of modern societies, in which we constantly confront others who are different from ourselves, it is very hard to maintain habits unconsciously.  The possibility of doing and believing differently is always there in front of us, and self-consciousness, reflection, and explicit justification as a response to those differences are just about inevitable. 

Whether such self-consciousness is what “theory” means is neither here nor there.  I am not trying to legislate how we use the word.  I am, instead, trying to think about how certain intellectual efforts that are at least one step removed from immediate practice might influence subsequent practices.  I am, as is obvious by now, inclined to follow contemporary pragmatist Robert Brandom’s contention that it is in the “asking for and giving of reasons” that characterizes social life under pluralist conditions that we partake in such intellectual efforts—and that they do have effects.  Our self-understandings and our beliefs about appropriate actions and desires change under the pressure of having to account for ourselves.

But—here comes the puzzle—maybe that pragmatist view is way too optimistic.  Because it turns out that it is devilishly difficult to specify the connection between the second-order reflections and the first-order beliefs.  The example that really troubles me comes from moral philosophy.  That philosophy has been engaged, for quite some time now, in exploring what it calls “meta-ethics”—the large-scale claims that are trotted out as providing the reasons, the basis, for individual moral judgments.  There are various contenders in the field, but two of the most often discussed are Kantian deontology and Millian utilitarianism.  To which I will add, for the purposes of this explication, a theological (sometimes called “divine command”) meta-ethics. 

The problem arises because the meta-ethical positions radically underdetermine actual moral judgments.  Take capital punishment, for instance.  Is it justified or not?  The utilitarian might say that sacrificing one murderer’s life to prevent a future loss of many lives justifies capital punishment insofar as it has a deterrent effect on future would-be murderers.  Then it becomes a simple empirical question.  If capital punishment has the desired deterrent effect, then we should execute murderers.  (As a side-note: the entrenchment of belief often defies even overwhelming empirical evidence.  That Texas’s murder rate remains higher than Vermont’s and that we don’t know of a single instance of a person who moved from Texas to Vermont to commit murder without risking capital punishment has not stopped death penalty advocates from still making deterrence arguments.) But the utilitarian can reason in an entirely different fashion, working from the desire of victims—and of an outraged society—to see justice done, and their settled feeling that anything short of a death for a death leaves the accounts unbalanced.  The happiness (satisfaction) of the greatest number can justify putting the murderer to death.

Similarly, Kantian deontology would seem to rule out capital punishment in its insistence that we should never use another human being as a means, rather than an end.  Human life, in the Kantian scheme, seems to be sacred.  But a different reading—and one that Kant himself offers—takes capital punishment as justified because it is an instance of the condemned criminal legislating his demise himself in recognition of his violation of the law.  We honor the criminal’s autonomy by bestowing on him the penalty he deserves.

We only need look to Pope John Paul and Antonin Scalia to see how adherents to the same theological faith can come to different conclusions about the permissibility of capital punishment.  For the late Pope, only God had the right to bestow life or death.  For Scalia, God has designated his authority to the social order, but not to individuals; that is why the law can take life, but no citizen can. 

In short, the actual position one takes seems independent of the meta-ethics to which one appeals to articulate the reasons for taking that position.  The evidence rather strongly suggests that we have strong intuitive or immediate feelings about what is right and what is wrong—and we then construct intellectual justifications for those intuitions after the fact.  William James adopts this position in some places, notably in this passage from the closing pages of Varieties of Religious Experience.

“I need not discredit philosophy by laborious criticism of its arguments.  It will suffice if I show as a matter of history it fails to prove its pretension to be ‘objectively’ convincing.  In fact it does so fail.  I believe that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any other of the wider affairs of life, in which our passions or our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand.  It finds arguments for our convictions, for it has to find them.  It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it, and lends it words and plausibility.  It hardly ever engenders it; it cannot now secure it.”

For James, pace Springsteen, it is neither surprising nor “funny” that we find reasons to believe.  We always already have beliefs (a fundamental pragmatist assertion found also in Peirce and Wittgenstein) and the reasons are formulated later on in order to rationalize (in a sense of that term that bears a family resemblance to Freud’s use of it) those beliefs to one’s self and others.  If this is Fish’s position, then he is offering a theory (a general account) that asserts that our second-order reflections and articulated reasons exist to rationalize our settled beliefs and practices—and thus cannot change those beliefs and practices because they, not the reflections, are the motor driving the whole operation.  This appears to me a highly pessimistic conclusion because it not only renders beliefs highly resistant to change but it also shrouds their formation in obscurity.  Something happened to give us this belief (this “passion or mystical intuition” in the passage from James); something equally mysterious, equally beyond our power to summon or influence, will have to happen if our belief is to change.  All of our self-consciousness, all of our reflections, all of our philosophical sophistication and elaborate meta-ethics, are froth on the ocean of our already settled convictions. 

I suspect that the fault here lies in the all-or-nothing position assumed by James and Fish.  We need a more dialectical understanding of the interaction between first-order beliefs and second-order reflections.  But we also need a much more concrete and convincing model of how that dialectic works, of how a meta-ethics actually does shape convictions.  Because what we have at the moment is the lazy assumption that being a Christian is a vital fact about and a real influence on one’s moral beliefs and actions without any evidence that such is the case since Christians run the full gamut from pacifists to holy crusaders, from socialists to laissez-faire capitalists.  The simple assertion that our individual judgments about specific moral issues just follow logically from our meta-ethical convictions simply doesn’t account for the fact that two people who agree in their meta-ethics will disagree in their judgments.

I want to conclude inconclusively by noting one counter-example and one alternative to what looks like fatalism about our beliefs and practices.  The counter-example is the rule of law.  Think of the notion that every accused should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and is entitled not just to his day in court but to a defense attorney.  Such an arrangement—the alienation of direct retribution and punishment from those harmed to the state and the establishment of a delaying process that renders what to the victim seems like obvious wrong a dubious matter to be investigated—could never be a first-order intuition or passion.  It is an arrangement that deliberately sets out to confound our immediate reactions.  Yet this principle of delay, examination, and impersonal justice manages to become a deeply held conviction for many, although hardly all.  Practices suggested by reflection may not be entirely without resources in a contest with immediate intuitions. (This counter-example probably speaks more directly to Fish’s “there’s no such thing as principle” argument than to his “theory has no consequences” argument.  I don’t know for sure, however, because while those two arguments are obviously related to one another, I can’t figure out what’s the relevant difference—if there is one—between a “principle” and a “theory” in Fish’s work.  Only if there is a relevant difference would we be dealing with two arguments, not just one argument phrased in two different ways.)

Pragmatism also offers an alternative to reflection for the revision of belief: experience.  Novelties in the world and unexpected consequences that follow from acting on one’s beliefs can lead one to reconsider her convictions.  Pragmatism suggests holding one’s beliefs a tad lightly (fallibilism) and highly values the flexibility to abandon them when events suggest their inadequacy.  As I have already suggested, pragmatism holds that any belief is likely to be partial in every sense of that word, so we should expect to find the world and events constantly outstripping what we were prepared to have occur.

Holding beliefs lightly also means we might be able to think of our beliefs more as projective, as trying to shape the future to our needs and purposes, than as reflective of an already settled reality that we either get right or get wrong.  James always emphasized that pragmatism was more oriented toward the future, toward what we could possibly achieve, than toward the past, toward determinative antecedents.  This attitude is summed up neatly in the following dialogue from Nicholas Mosley’s novel Inventing God (London: Secker & Warburg, 2003):

“Did he believe that or did he just say it?
“He believed it in the way that he said one should believe things.”
“Which was what?”
“Try it and see.”

Posted by John McGowan on 07/28 at 10:30 AM
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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Adventures in masculinity

This morning Janet greeted me with some bad news: “There’s a big branch down in our backyard,” she said.  “We’ll have to buzzsaw it and bring it around front for pickup.”

“Why don’t we just haul it around front without doing any ‘buzzsawing’?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, pointing out the window and directing my attention to a “branch” the size of a small tree in itself, about forty feet long, with many subsidiary branches and a trunk the circumference of my chest. 

“Holy Jesus,” I said.  “Hey, are you sure it’s our branch?  I think the last four inches of that thing are actually in our neighbor’s yard.”

“Jerk,” Janet replied.

We’ve had a couple of severe summer storms lately, and we have an old tree out back that’s about sixty feet tall and six thousand years old, but I’ve never seen anything like this.  And I’ve never used a chainsaw, either.  I pointed this out to Janet, who, I fear, occasionally forgets that she is married to me and lapses into thinking she is married to one of her three sisters’ husbands/ boyfriends, all of whom Fix Things (and one of whom not only Fixes Things but plays a world-class sax).  This is not a coincidence; it is an integral part of the Lyon Family Plan.  I recall very well the day in 1985 when I filled out the paperwork that would grant Lyon Family permission for me to marry Janet; when I got to question four, What form of manual dexterity or mechanical skill will you bring to the family? I wrote, “typing speed greater than 90 wpm.” Her parents and siblings laughed long and hard at this, before modulating subtly into mockery and derision.

Anyway, back to the branch.  “How about we call a tree service?” I asked.

“How about you don’t be such a big baby?” Janet shot back.

So off we went to United Rental, where the Real Men who know how to operate chainsaws showed me how to step on the handle, open the choke, pull the whatsis and turn ‘er over.  I was advised on how to cut according to the direction the branch will fall when severed, and I was shown the “safety shield” that I could tip forward with my left hand if the need arose.  “Now, when you’re working with thick branches,” the Real Man said, “the chain will stick now and then.  When that happens you need to glorf den thrabel noz kerwinder flix. . . .” Actually, I’m not sure what the hell he said after that, because the minute I heard that the chain saw could jam in the wood and would need to be glorfed etc., I remembered the size of that branch and decided I was calling a tree service.  But I didn’t admit that to the folks at United Rental.

On the short ride home, Janet could tell that I’d made up my mind to keep all my fingers for typing.  “We could give it a try, at least,” she said.

“Yes, and we could have the treat of having our department head announce in September that I have resigned the Care of Magical Creatures post in order to spend more time with my remaining limbs.” I did, however, walk over to the fallen branch, chainsaw in hand, prepared to attempt cutting a few smaller branches as warmups, when Janet thankfully called the whole thing off on the perfectly reasonable grounds that if we couldn’t get through the big stuff, we wouldn’t be able to carry the wood out to the front.  Now, only one question remained: how long should I keep the chainsaw in order to pretend that I’d actually used it?

Two hours, I decided.  Total cost of the day’s exercise in humiliation, fifty dollars.

So don’t let the brand-new beard and the weekend hockey career fool you.  I am useless when it comes to behemoth fallen branches, except perhaps if you need someone to write about them (someone who can type really fast!).  Fallen branches, broken furniture, electrical mishaps, mechanical failures—don’t even bother calling me.  I am a total wuss. 

But I am developing a whole new school of criticism and interpretation around this total wussness.  I will call it “wuss theory.”

Speaking of which, I have an essay on summer leisure and summer anxiety in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education.  But I see that it’s for subscribers only—and I wonder just how many Chronicle subscribers know how to operate chainsaws.

UPDATE:  The essay is now free!  free! Apparently the Chronicle editors chainsawed it loose from the “premium” site.

Posted by Michael on 07/27 at 03:56 PM
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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Theory Tuesday III

I learned over the weekend that the esteemed RJ Eskow has called me the Al Jackson Jr. of literary theory.  I am more honored and humbled than I can say, being a huge Al Jackson fan who still hasn’t quite mastered the Master’s playing on songs like Al Green’s “Still in Love With You.” But it raises the stakes considerably for Theory Tuesdays, which now, I suppose, are expected to be funky as well as informative.  Sad to say, I’m just not up to funky today.  Besides, we’re doing structuralism, which is damn near guaranteed to de-funkify any atmosphere.

The early returns on Theory Tuesdays appear to be a mixed bag.  The academics who read this blog tend to like these installments, even (or especially) when they take issue with them; everybody else seems willing (more or less) to wait them out in the hopes that someday this blog will be funny again.  I should explain that these posts were originally meant (for those of who you believe in “intentionality”) as an extended reply to the Theory’s Empire challenge: because I teach Intro to Graduate Study with the help of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (I’m not one of the editors, as John McGowan is, but I did provide a big long blurb on the back cover, so you might as well consider this blog Norton Central), a couple of photocopied essays, and guest appearances from my colleagues (who come in to describe the past twenty years of work in their various fields), I thought it might be a good idea to offer some of my course notes on this blog.

The course itself—which, before I arrived at Penn State, some students disliked so much they called it “boot camp”—is also a mixed bag.  (And that’s why the department head asked me to teach it:  I’m the Mixed Bag Guy.) The idea is to introduce first-year graduate students to the various workings of the profession, which means (a) research methods and materials, online resources, rare books, and the like; (b) learning about the recent histories of the various subfields, from medieval to postmodern; (c) acquiring the rudiments of what people call “theory”; and (d) learning how various conferences and scholarly journals work.  I decided to approach (c) not by instructing students on What’s Hot Now (which is, I fear, what theory-caricaturists tend to think) but by filling them in on the background that most theory-literate people take for granted.  I’ve never forgotten the graduate student who once complained to me that no one explained Mikhail Bakhtin to her when she was an undergraduate, but nonetheless a number of her professors in graduate school assumed that she would be familiar with Bakhtin.  “What, was I absent on Bakhtin Day?” she asked.  “I think a lot of people were absent that day,” I replied.  Besides, I think that in order to “get” Bakhtin, you need to go back and replay those early debates between formalism and Marxism, just as you need to go back and catch up on your ostranenie in order to get a handle on literature since the Romantics and theory since the Russian Formalists.

So today I’m going to say a few words about structuralism, staying with the Old School for now before moving to Raymond Williams next Tuesday and American cultural studies the week after that.  I know that Amardeep and Lance, last week, asked me to talk about rhetorical hermeneutics and intentionality instead, but I think John Holbo has that one covered for now.  But before I get to Roman Jakobson and (very briefly) Claude Lévi-Strauss, I want to bring up two side issues raised by the Valve crew.

The first one is minor: you would think, from reading the posts of the past month, that no one questioned people like Derrida until John Searle came along.  That sounds strange to me, because when I read the 1985 Against Theory volume inspired by Walter Benn Michaels’ and Steven Knapp’s bizarrely reductive argument for a form of intentionalism that even intentionalists don’t recognize, I came across Richard Rorty writing about how “Derrida looks bad whenever he attempts argument on his opponents’ turf; those are the passages in which he becomes a patsy for John Searle” (135).  I don’t know why this doesn’t count when Rorty says it, but it should.  Or is it that, for some people, Rorty is too identified with the Theory camp?  And likewise, I’ve gotten the impression once or twice that people imagine that all this Theory arrived to say nothing more complicated than “the sign is multivalent,” to which the Theory-detractors can, of course, reply, “yes, we knew that already.” Well, we knew that too, and we knew you knew it; even Robert Plant knew it, when he wrote, in On Certainty, “you know sometimes words have two meanings.” I’ll get back to this at the very end of this post, folks, but for now let it suffice to say that the devil is in the details: the real fun lies in finding out just how multivalent that sign can be, and what its multivalences can mean in various contexts.  The current anti-Theory camp is quite right not to call for a return to a prelapsarian past or a faux-naif future (this just in: sign not multivalent after all!).  But there’s more to theory than a little ambiguity here and a little undecidability there, and again, the important thing lies in learning how “multivalence” and “multiaccentuality” (V. N. Volosinov’s term, not mine) actually work.

The second side issue is more important, and I think was best represented by Sean McCann’s complaint that some of the TE discussion was deflected onto the institutional status of theory rather than the merits of specific theories.  Sean acknowledges that this was understandable and not entirely regrettable, either; but I still think the complaint misrecognizes its occasion. TE’s publication is a response (as the editors say) not to theory but to its institutionalization in the form of the Norton, and it was meant to provide critiques of theories and theorists that the Norton does not.  In other words, the discussion was always already institutional, which is why I considered it entirely within bounds to point out (at the very outset, in response to Mark Bauerlein’s Butterflies and Wheels essay) that some of Theory got a free pass 20-30 years ago precisely because it seemed to be associated with the most exciting and prolific people in the humanities, whereas the anti-Theory crew seemed to be composed chiefly of cranks and curmudgeons.  Theory acquired some of its authority for institutional reasons, and Sean’s account of one of the consequences sounds about right to me: distinguishing theory-institutionalization from institutionalization in general, he writes,

this situation is particularly toxic in literary academia because of a historic professional self-image that cast literature as the anti-disciplinary discipline.  As a special kind of knowledge, or rather experience, literature was understood to rise above and cast into doubt the authority of other fields—especially mere “science.” To look back over the grand moments of Theory—in its Deconstructive, or New Historicist, or Cult Stud moments—is, I think, to see renewed and intensified versions of that attitude.  Not literature, but Theory now is the special kind of expertise that challenges all other expertise, the unique kind of training that subverts all other discipline.

Contrast this account of theory with Brad DeLong’s narrative of How He Came to Grips with Foucault: for DeLong, a Foucauldian account of the history of economics brought him to see some things and take issue with others.  And that’s all I would ever ask a theory to do, myself.  That’s all I ever ask students to ask for, too.

As for the ancillary complaint (John Ellis’s, I believe) that theory has encouraged a kind of amnesia about intellectual history: this strikes me as precisely the kind of complaint that has more bearing on the institutional setting of theory than on theory itself.  I mean, seriously, theory is responsible for quite a few revivals and recoveries here and there: the recent Spinoza boomlet is largely the doing of Gilles Deleuze, just as queer theory got some of us (belatedly) reading Sylvan Tompkins and Erving Goffman.  The posthumous, three-decades-delayed explosions of interest in the idiosyncratic-Marxist work of Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin?  Those, too, were brought to you by Theory Productions Worldwide.

All of which reminds me of how very fortunate I was to have, as a theory mentor and dissertation director, Michael Levenson.  At a time when the Theory Wings of some departments included a few poseurs and provocateurs and even flaneurs (!), Michael presented the theory division of the intellectual history of the twentieth century with real rigor—and without fanfare.  Virginia wasn’t a theory hotbed in those days; quite the contrary.  When that New York Times Magazine piece on the Yale critics appeared in 1986, all of us in Charlottesville said “grrrrrrr” (and not much more), because we’d had a thing about Yale ever since they beat us 23-21 in the 1983 Aporia Bowl on de Man’s last-second field goal.  Likewise, just down south of us, Duke was amassing a queer theory/ cultural studies team that would win three consecutive NCAA championships; they were building toward the glory years of Bobby Hurley, Eve Sedgwick, Stanley Fish, and Christian Laettner.  So dear old U.Va. sometimes behaved as if it had a kind of theory chip on its shoulder.  But not Michael: Michael was all theory all the time, with no time for institutional politics.  I don’t think I’ve acknowledged my debt to him sufficiently in print, so—as I’m about to repeat much of what he taught me about Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss, and what I teach my students—here’s to him.  Thanks, Michael.

The Jakobson excerpts in the Norton are short but sufficient to the purpose.  From “Linguistics and Poetics,” we have the six functions of language, and the famous formula (which I suggest my students tattoo onto their arms), “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” If you’ve got the formula, the six functions, the distinction between metaphor and metonymy (in “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances”), and the brief discussion of “Hiawatha” and “I Like Ike,” you’ve got your Jakobson-in-a-nutshell.  And if you have your Jakobson in a nutshell, you’ve got your structuralism in a nutshell; and (here’s the best thing) if you’ve got your structuralism in a nutshell, then you could be bounded in that nutshell and count yourself a king of infinite space, were it not that you would have bad post-structuralist dreams.  Because if there’s one thing you can’t say about structuralism, you can’t charge it with being insufficiently ambitious.

OK, explanations are in order.  Let’s take the six functions of language first.  Every message has six components: an addresser and an addressee, of course; a context, a message, a contact, and a code.  The context is the setting, the contact is the physical or psychological channel of connection, the code is the shared language, and the message is the message.  To each component there is a corresponding function:

Messages that focus on the code—“what do you mean by that?”—are called metalingual;

Messages that focus on the context—“the cat is on the mat” (a hypothetical sentence popular among philosophers, even though, curiously enough, no cat has ever been on a mat anywhere in the world)—are called referential;

Messages that focus on the contact—“can you hear me?”—are called phatic;

Messages that focus on the addressee—“please take that cat off the mat!”—are called conative;

Messages that focus on the addresser—“a slumber did my spirit seal”—are called emotive; and

Messages that focus on the message—“a slumber did my spirit seal”—are called poetic.

You can already see my thumb on the scales with those last two examples, but you get the idea.  This really isn’t a bad way to classify utterances, and what’s even better, Jakobson insists that most utterances are mixtures, with one “dominant” feature among several.  This gets him out of the Formalist Impasse, insofar as he’s not required to adduce examples of utterances that are “purely” poetic and to distinguish them categorically from merely “practical” or “ordinary” speech.  On the contrary, he insists that “any attempt to reduce the sphere of the poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to the poetic function would be a delusive oversimplification.  The poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent.” Jakobson thus deftly refigures the difference between the poetic and other modes of speech as a difference in degree rather than in kind, and disarms wiseguys like me who like to open class with poems like

Unbelted occupants
Are not able to resist
The tremendous forces of impact by holding tight
Or bracing themselves.  Their impact
With the vehicle interior
Has all the energy they had
Just before the collision.

It is a compelling piece of work.  I want particularly to draw your attention to the reiteration and personalization of “impact,” as the impact is no longer that of “tremendous forces” but of the “occupants” themselves, and the way this process is repeated in line six, where we find that their impact “has all the energy they had.” That abrupt modulation into the past tense is, I think, understated and powerful.  We need not say any more about why these occupants are now spoken of only in terms of the energy they have lost.  And that’s why, if you want an account of a car crash that is at once clinically precise and strangely moving, I recommend the 2003 VW Passat owner’s manual.

Jakobson’s response to this (and all such Fishy endeavors) is simply, what did you expect? Of course you can find elements of the poetic even in the most utilitarian of utterances, even campaign slogans.  Here’s Roman on “I Like Ike”: “both cola alliterate with each other, and the first of the two alliterating words is included in the second: /ay/ – /ayk/, a paronomastic image of the loving subject enveloped by the beloved object.  The secondary, poetic function of this campaign slogan reinforces its impressiveness and efficacy” (1264).

And you thought jargon-laden overreading was invented in 1991!

Really, the notion of the “dominant” solves all kinds of problems . . . except one.  How do you know that the emphasis on the message itself is the dominant feature of the utterance?  Uh, because the utterance is poetic.  OK, then how do you know the utterance is poetic?  Uh, because the emphasis on the message itself is the dominant . . . oooooh (cue Yosemite Sam voice here), ya varmint, it’s circularity all over again!  What, after all, is the difference between citing Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” as an emotive utterance and citing it as a poetic utterance?  Aren’t poetic utterances, particularly in lyric, likely to be emotive as well, whereas in epic (or pastoral, or georgic) they might be referential as well?

Yes, but (and here comes the bromide) it all depends on how you look at it.  It all depends on who, or what historical epoch, or what cultural formation, is doing the looking.  Where Jakobson goes wrong is just here: he insists that “Hiawatha” (for example) retains its dominant poetic function even when it’s being read on the Senate floor by a filibustering senator, whereas I (because I’m of a more pragmatist bent) would suggest that any filibuster is at once phatic (a message about Senate procedure itself) and referential (in its attempt to forestall a vote), regardless of whether it involves a poem or a telephone book or a car owner’s manual.  Jakobson thus backs into one of two uncomfortable positions: either an utterance carries the designs of its utterer through all space and time, so that “Hiawatha”’s dominant is whatever Longfellow originally intended it to be, or certain utterances have intrinsic features that render them indelibly poetic, referential, metalingual, etc.  Since Jakobson’s inquiry set out partly to obviate the problems of postulating “intrinsic” features and original intentions, you can see that this makes for a bit of a mess.  One is left with the conclusion that Jakobson has defined not six types of utterances but six ways of attending to utterances, and that the determination of which utterances have a dominant “poetic” function (and how, and why) is left profoundly up for grabs.

But, as I said above, that’s where the real fun is.

Jakobson argues nonetheless that “the indispensable feature inherent in any piece of poetry” is that it messes with the principles of metaphor and metonymy.  Metaphor, you know, expresses likeness or equivalence; metonymy expresses contiguity and/or combination.  “My love is like a red red rose” is metaphor, “the White House said today” is metonymy.  Now go back and plug this into that formula I mentioned above: the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination. Jakobson adds: “equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.” Basically, the poetic function treats metonymic relations as if they were metaphoric.  It sounds cool, and it is, particularly when you’re trying to figure out why the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.  But this is a description of only certain kinds of poetry, and surely we want to escape the conclusion that very few poems contain a dominant poetic function.  We also want to know just who is promoting equivalence to the constitutive device of the sequence: does the poet—or the poetic function—do this at the outset?  Or do we (whoever “we” are) do it whenever we stop reading the owner’s manual for content and start looking at the language as language?

Just to be clear about this: I don’t teach Jakobson in order to trash him for not being pragmatist enough.  Neither did Michael Levenson.  Jakobson’s work was hugely influential for quite some time, and for good reason: those six functions of language, together with the idea of metaphor and metonymy as “poles” corresponding to axes of selection (equivalence) and combination (continguity), will get you pretty far in the world.  At one point in “Two Aspects of Language,” Jakobson writes that “Similarity connects a metaphorical term with the term for which it is substituted.  Consequently, when constructing a metalanguage to interpret tropes, the researcher possesses more homogeneous means to handle metaphor, whereas metonymy, based on a different principle, easily defies interpretation.  Therefore nothing comparable to the rich literature on metaphor can be cited for the theory of metonymy.” Ha ha! I tell my students. We fixed that! If you root around in Lacan-inflected theory of the 1970s and 1980s, you’ll find that it’s all about the metonymy.  In fact, the more intensely Lacanian you get, the more likely it is that you’ll wind up speaking about metaphor as if it were the vehicle for Evil Incarnate (because it asserts a likeness between two things, a Dreaded Dyad) whereas metonymy disrupts all systems of likeness, initiates that exciting, never-ending Metonymic Skid, and ushers us into the way language (and therefore the world) really works.  “The unconscious is structured like a language,” said the Lacanians, and suddenly metaphor was out and metonymy was the shit.  But if you take a step back, you’ll realize that we were still working with the terms more or less as Jakobson left them to us.

Borrowing yet one more page from Michael Levenson, though, I hasten to point out to my students that there are two very annoying things about structuralism.  One, it is constitutionally grandiose.  No sooner does Jakobson discover two types of aphasia than he’s off to the races, carving up genres (from lyric to epic), artistic schools, and even entire historical periods according to whether they are predominantly metaphorical or metonymic.  (Romanticism and Symbolism are metaphorical; Realism is metonymic; Cubism is metonymic, but Surrealism is metaphorical.  Bob, you and Kathy are metaphorical. . . .) And there’s no reason to stop at literary and cultural history, oh no!

A careful analysis and comparison of these phenomena with the whole syndrome of the corresponding type of aphasia is an imperative task for joint research by experts in psychopathology, psychology, linguistics, poetics, and semiotics, the general science of signs.  The dichotomy discussed here appears to be of primal significance and consequence for all verbal behavior and for human behavior in general.  (Emphasis added.)

As Levenson paraphrased this twenty years ago: today an investigation of two types of aphasic disturbances—tomorrow, ze universe!

Two, even though (or, more precisely, because) structuralism wanted to be a theory of everything, it did not want to be a mere theory of “meaning”—especially in the hands of Lévi-Strauss, for whom meaning was “epiphenomenal.” I’ll spare you the full-dress analysis of Lévi-Strauss, since we’re past the 3000-word mark, but basically, the man insisted that meaning is to structure as the taste of sugar is to the chemical composition of sugar.  And Lévi-Strauss could not have cared less about the taste of sugar: he was after the structure, which was somehow “deeper” than mere meaning and antecedent to it.  It is stunning, I think, how un- or anti-hermeneutic a position this really is.  (That’s one reason why Jonathan Culler’s mid-70s structuralist dream of amassing all possible interpretive modes that can generate all possible textual interpretations was so mistaken.  The other reason is that it was mad—mad, I say.) In his remarkable essay “Structure and Hermeneutics,” Paul Ricoeur objected to the idea that structuralist interpretation could escape the boundaries of all human forms of interpretation (these would be the boundaries marked by the hermeneutic circle), and was willing to credit structuralist anthropology with being a kind of science while noting that “the passage from a structural science to a structuralist philosophy seems to me to be not very satisfying and not even very coherent.” Suffice it to say, for now, that I’m with Ricoeur on this.

Oh, one last thing.  In the course of composing this post I came across this comprehensive “Semiotics for Beginners” site.  Just in case you’re looking for (a lot) more of where this came from. 

Posted by Michael on 07/26 at 04:35 PM
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Monday, July 25, 2005

Taking the blame

OK, I’ve finally finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I promise I won’t say anything about the ending.  Well, I will say this: Janet and Nick (who finished the book a few days ahead of me) believe that Things are Not What They Seem at the end of the book.  Their theory is somewhat more well-developed than that, but I can’t divulge the details until everyone on the planet has finished the book. 

Not long after rereading certain scenes in order to assess the plausibility of the Janet-Nick theory, I realized that Ms. Rowling’s plots do, in fact, reward careful rereading.  She’s not a brilliant or even a very good writer, sentence by sentence, by any means; but you know, I never understood the “sentence by sentence” branch of literary chitchat anyway.  (And it is chitchat: it calls itself criticism, but it avoids things like “plot” and “ideas” in favor of hauling out one sentence after another for praise and blame.  Where did this sort of thing come from?  Does anybody know?) But her narratives are compelling in scope and in execution, and easily complex enough to withstand close scrutiny a second and third time around.  I wonder whether her under-15 readers are discovering the same thing—and if they are, then that seems to me a phenomenon as worthy of commentary as the stupefying sales figures.  Millions of kids not just reading but rereading?  Goodness, what will happen to their attention spans?  Do you suppose that J. K. Rowling, all by herself, can undo the effects of every other mass cultural medium known to humankind?  Jamie and I reread Sorcerer’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban while waiting for Half-Blood Prince, and I was stunned to see him recall plot details over the course of two-three years.  Just imagine if the Washington press corps had that kind of long-term attention span!

Anyway, after finishing this latest installment I stumbled across A. S. Byatt’s “bitter, party of one” response to the series, which appeared just after the publication of Order of the Phoenix two years ago.  I remember thinking, when I first read it, how clever Ms. Rowling had been to place the Supercilius Curse on her work, so that her most stringent critics would reveal themselves to be insufferably pompous.  But I’d completely forgotten that Ms. Byatt had blamed cultural studies for Ms. Rowling’s success:

It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the levelling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists. It’s fine to compare the Brontes with bodice-rippers. It’s become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called “consumable” books.

Roland Barthes is adduced here by way of a little legerdemain, actually: people familiar with his work will remember that he was as willing to interpret magazine covers, detergent ads, and wrestling matches as the work of Balzac.  (I’ll leave aside that strange complaint about the substitution of celebrity for heroism, since Ms. Rowling’s books do a fine job on that subject all by themselves.  It’s too bad Ms. Byatt missed that part of the series.  Maybe she should read the books again.) And for the record, I do believe the Barthesian passage Ms. Byatt has in mind is this one:

Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us “throw away” the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors).  (S/Z, 15-16)

It’s not clear that this fun little passage affords anyone the license to give J. K. Rowling a hard time.  But more importantly, if indeed cultural studies is partly responsible for making it respectable to read and discuss work like Harry Potter, and I do believe it is, then surely someone like Janice Radway deserves a cut of the action.  And maybe people who point out that people like Radway deserve a cut of the action could put in for a cut of a cut of the action?  Just asking.  We cultural studies types have to take our mass-cultural triumphs where we can, you know.

Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 01:10 PM
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Friday, July 22, 2005

Post-whipping post

Today’s Arbitrary but Fun exercise blends the meanderings and divagations of Theory Tuesday and this blog’s traditional obsessions with curious pop-culture phenomena.  Frequent reader, occasional critic, and fellow Horowitz Scourge Philip Klinkner, James S. Sherman Associate Professor of Government at Hamilton College, writes:

Per your earlier post about the origins of smooth jazz, what ever happened to southern rock?  I was listening to some recent iTunes downloads of old Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs and it hit me that this type of music really dominated the charts in the 1970s, but has pretty much disappeared.  Is this the result of the corporate homogenization of all music, so that now the big labels just can’t handle something as eclectic as southern rock?  Or was southern rock just the musical manifestation of the post-civil rights era New South, when the region seemed willing to blend old and new in interesting ways—a musical version of Jimmy Carter, if you will.  And like Carter they eventually couldn’t resist the polarization around them.  Thoughts?

I replied, of course, that I would turn this question over to my readers, which I hereby do (hey, maybe there’s room in a Theory Tuesday for a discussion of performative utterances!).  But I also suggested that one factor in the decline of southern rock might have been the ascendancy of “alternative” southern rock in the 1980s, from the dBs and Let’s Active to REM and Guadalcanal Diary and the Connells.  When I lived in the south (1983-1989), these were the bands the Kool Kids were listening to, and I imagined that thousands of aspiring young musicians throughout the region were cutting their hair, jettisoning the eight-minute guitar solo, stripping the Confederate flags off their amps, and learning to play “Radio Free Europe” instead of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

But Professor Klinkner tells me that my suggestion is excessively formalist and subjectivist, and amounts to a form of deviationism that he will not fail to note at the upcoming Twentieth Congress of Left Cultural Critics.  Insofar as it offers no account of the material base, either with regard to the transformation of the post-Civil Rights South or with regard to the transformation of the recording industry, and insofar as it overlooks the fact that none of these bands achieved much in the way of commercial success in the 1980s, my “Kool Kids” account of the decline of southern rock must be summarily rejected.

OK, readers, it’s up to you.  The Allmans.  Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Marshall Tucker.  Charlie Daniels.  Molly Hatchet. .38 Special.  Once, they roamed the land without let or hindrance; now, they and all their kind are confined to Classic Rock stations and the occasional state fair.  Explain their rise and fall in well-argued comments of 5000 characters or less.  Extra points will be awarded to anyone who can play the solos in “Blue Sky.”

One side note: when I was growing up in Queens in the 1970s, Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels and the Allmans were huge on Long Island.  The closer you got to the Queens-Nassau border, the more cover bands you heard playing “Free Bird” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” I found this genuinely strange.  My theory at the time was that the Mason-Dixon Line actually runs out from the Maryland-Pennsylvania border into the Atlantic Ocean, takes a 90-degree turn north, and reemerges on Long Island, where it bisects Flushing-Bayside.  But apparently this theory is wrong too.

Posted by Michael on 07/22 at 12:08 PM
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