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
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.
On the Longfellow example:
“A linguist may analyze a glossolalic pronouncement, attempting to discern sound patterns but in no way correlating them with the intrinsic ‘magical’ function, and may even cite such a pronouncement in a scientific meeting. Such usage does not, however cancel its intrinsic glossolalic character” (Linda Waugh, “The Poetic Function in the Theory of Roman Jakobson. Poetics Today. 2.1a : 63).
Glossolalia’s a useful comparison, I think.Posted by Jonathan on 07/26 at 06:40 PM
My wiseguy lecturer used to do the opposite of your example, putting up a picture of a post-it note on a fridge reading:
“This is just to say I’ve eaten the plums that were in the icebox. Forgive me, they were delicious. W.”
(And none of us knew the least about American litt.history, of course)Posted by Martin G. Larsen on 07/26 at 07:18 PM
Oh poop. Why did I know I was going to end up typing something about intention again?
So Jakobson defines not six kinds of utterances, but six ways of attending to utterances? That seems fair enough, but I’m sure that we can find more than six ways, especially when we talk about printed matter.
There’s the decorative way, which focuses on the patterns of type and the style of font (good for inexpensive wallpapering). There’s the material way, which focuses on the amount of paper it takes to print out a text (good for leveling a wobbly coffee table). And there’s the meditative way (good for evacuating all other aspects by means of endless repetition).
Still, why can’t we continue to focus on what the creators of these texts and/or utterances intended –- on the ways in which they attempted to emphasize their texts’ various communicative aspects? What does it matter that these intentions are frequently misunderstood or misappropriated by various readers or audience members? (I might read Macbeth’s weird sisters scenes as a cookbook or a rallying cry for Wiccan civil rights…but who cares?)
Jakobson may have been wrong about “Hiawatha” on the Senate floor. The poetic principle may not shine through and demand to be heard and appreciated –- but so much the worse for the Senate (although possibly good for the filibuster). Nonetheless, the poetic intentions of the author remain, “attempting” to draw our attention to the message, emotion, the drama, the code, whatever. (I worry about the agency of that “attempting.” Ready. Aim. Fire.)
Overall, though, I think we agree, both on what we like and dislike about RJ. Thanks for the lesson and for the reminder of how exciting this language once was to me.
P.S. A small point. You state that folks act as if no one challenged Derrida until Searle, and as a counterexample, you site Rorty’s misgivings. But of course, Rorty was reacting to … Searle’s challenge of Derrida and “SEC.” Nonetheless, I have always appreciated Rorty’s openness about Derrida’s strengths and weaknesses, especially when he admits that JD never laid a glove on JS.Posted by on 07/26 at 07:33 PM
P.P.S. I like Theory Tuesday. Thanks for taking the time.Posted by on 07/26 at 07:34 PM
Peter: your P.S. is on the money. I’d meant to say “until Searle came along with his 1994 essay, ‘Literary Theory and its Discontents,’ reprinted in TE.”Posted by Michael on 07/26 at 07:58 PM
"this just in: sign not multivalent after all!”
It is what it is what it is.
Pretty funny, and I enjoy the “Tuesdays with Theory” also.
“SPARTANS KNASH MOLARS, ITHACANS VOW PEN IS CHAMP”Posted by on 07/26 at 08:13 PM
Al Jackson! the . . . best . . . drummer . . . of all time! Bar none.
Rorty on Derrida doesn’t count because it an excuse, not a criticism.
But, the Hurley to Fish alley-oop? a thing of beautyPosted by Sean McCann on 07/26 at 08:21 PM
Great post, Michael. When I was taking “boot camp,” it was heavy on the research aspect. On the first day, Dr. A had us chasing down the definitive account of what “really happened” during a speech that Mark Twain gave in honor of Emerson, Howells, and, yes, Longfellow--forcing us to track down all allusions and full names of dinner guests from a cocktail-napkinesque map of the Brahmin gathering. (Dr. Henry Nash Smith wrote the definitive account of this gathering, if anyone cares).
The “theory” part of the course was not as rich, thick, and syrupy as your post. I had to take a two-course sequence for that. Funny thing is I got a better historical background of the discipline from the theory sequence than I did anywhere else. Nothing like people trying to get grand vistas to give you a...well a “grand vista” of the sweep of language and literature.
Do you cover film in your course? Other forms of cultural production can shed such great insight into the blindspots of literary production--auteur functions, etc.Posted by DocMara on 07/26 at 08:47 PM
Peter: I’m back from playing the Harry Potter CD-ROM with Jamie and can answer your first question.
why can’t we continue to focus on what the creators of these texts and/or utterances intended –- on the ways in which they attempted to emphasize their texts’ various communicative aspects?
We sure can, provided we have some reasonable certainty as to what that intention is. This is where the Wittgenstein-and-Derrida conversation-that-never-happened is useful. You ask,
What does it matter that these intentions are frequently misunderstood or misappropriated by various readers or audience members?
and Derrida would say, it matters quite a bit, because misappropriation is part of the structure of understanding itself. Whereupon Wittgenstein would reply, the sign-post is in order—if, under ordinary circumstances, it fulfills its purpose. Derrida says “every utterance is context-bound, but no context permits saturation,” and Wittgenstein replies, “OK, but most of the time things work. It’s only when they go awry, or when language goes on holiday, that we need a deconstructive account of misappropriation.”
Sean: Rorty on Derrida doesn’t count because it an excuse, not a criticism.
D’oh! Just when I’d finally deconstructed the distinction between “use” and “mention,” I trip up over the distinction between “criticism” and “excuse.” Hurley to Fish was a deadly combo, though, wasn’t it? Who can forget that buzzer-beater against Kentucky in the Fall 1992 Critical Inquiry?
And DocMara, no, I don’t cover film qua film, though I point out that the fabula / sujet distinction holds for any kind of narrative (fabula being the raw material of the story and sujet the means of the story’s presentation), and that Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse elaborates this point for both literature and film.Posted by Michael on 07/26 at 09:04 PM
So let me tell you about Haj Ross. He was a graduate student with Chomsky at MIT in the 1960s (along with James McCawley and George “cognitive metaphor” Lakoff). He wrote a brilliant dissertation, took a position at MIT, published a pile, and developed a rep as a rising star of linguistics. And then he walked away from it and resurfaced at—of all places—the University of North Texas at Denton, a place best known for its kick-ass jazz performance program.
What happened? Roman Jakobson.
While Ross was getting Chomskied at MIT he was also sneaking across the Charles River where he studied poetry under Jakobson. His love of poetry was as strong as his love of abstract syntax and the two struggled him to a standstill. For the last two decades the love of poetry has been taking over, in, as I’ve indicated, Denton.
Haj is one of the most accute analysists of poetry we’ve got. I figure that some possibly significant percentage of what he says is chimerical, but at the moment I don’t care, not while so few know how to look as closely and deeply as Haj. He’s opened the hood and is working on the engine. We need more of that.
Jakobson’s principles are important, very, as is the metaphor and metonymy stuff (especially as he developes it through analysis of brain lesion data). But to know structuralism, you need to look at examples of structuralist analysis. That’s where the meat is.
This is even more so for Levi-Strauss. Read and analyze what he actually does with myths, with Oedipus, “The Story of Asdiwal,” and in The Raw and the Cooked. Read Edmund Leach on “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” and “Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse.” And read Mary Douglas, her old work Purity and Danger and her more recent Leviticus as Literature.
Then figure out how to apply this to literature. That project got started back in the 60s and 70s, but it got aborted by Theory. Theory got all hung up about Levi-Strauss’s confused insertions of himself into the myths he studied (you can date this by Eugenio Donato’s 1975 review of Mythologiques in diacritics).Posted by bill benzon on 07/26 at 10:17 PM
Theory got all hung up about Levi-Strauss’s confused insertions of himself into the myths he studied (you can date this by Eugenio Donato’s 1975 review of Mythologiques in diacritics).
OK, OK, but Claude still shouldn’t have sold that gun to the Bororo. The postmodern turn in anthropology had to happen for a reason, after all. Just saying.Posted by on 07/26 at 10:38 PM
I hope this goes through. I tried to post something earlier, but I couldn’t connect. I’m going to test this before I write out a long comment.Posted by Abby on 07/26 at 10:42 PM
Was that song by the Byrds about the post-modern turn, or was that some other tern they were singing about? What about Lauren’s tern?
(I can’t believe I said that. In fact, I flat out deny it. I didn’t say it. It’s someone else.)Posted by bill benzon on 07/26 at 11:49 PM
Michael, it makes my day to see you delving into The Conflict of Interpretations. Along the lines of extending what you observe in “Structure and Hermeneutics,” you might want to take a gander at “Structure, Word, Event” in the same volume. It looks across a none-too-wide chasm, I would argue, to the similarly named “Signature, Event, Context” by one of Ricouer’s former students and thus gives a sense of what is at stake in the differences between the two.Posted by on 07/27 at 12:14 AM
Hey Michael, could you say more about this dependent clause:
“. . . 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 . . . “
It’s been a hot issue over at The Valve, and it would great to hear your take on the subject of intention, meaning, and interpretation.Posted by on 07/27 at 02:07 AM
Okay, so it did work.
I too appreciate Theory Tuesdays. It’s just that there’s much that I don’t understand. I’m rather slow to process these things, and I feel silly writing something if it won’t actually add to the discussion.
Let me just say thank you. I think that if I repeat “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination,” often enough it may just sink in, and I really appreciate the description of the six functions of language/signs. Let’s just say that this comment is a phatic utterance.
(BTW, did you know that Digby did a whole post once about how Republicans politicians--who are terrible at governing regardless of what you think of their ideology--kick Democratic ass on phatic communication. I’m not sure whether he thought that wonky liberals excelled at metalingual or poetic communication. (Wonk-speak is hardly poetic in the colloquial sense.)Posted by on 07/27 at 02:24 AM
Need i remind anyone that W. named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher? (whether that is true or not, since I’ve been told his actual favorite is Leo Strauss) Anyway, I can’t say I’m familiar with any of this Jesus’ writings (or Socrates’, for that matter). What is being signified? Literary characters are still our most informative signposts along the road to justice?
P.S. I didn’t mention earlier--we actually had a “Bakhtin day” at my school. But only one.Posted by on 07/27 at 04:08 AM
”...metonymy was the shit.”
Really, Michaeal, shouldn’t you get points deducted for using a metaphor to describe metonymy?
But you do get bonus points for using scatological slang in a theory post, so maybe things even out.Posted by on 07/27 at 10:28 AM
as a current grad student at virginia, i (and some of my colleagues) have been aching for an intro to theory course at the grad level that provides at least a refresher on the kind of deep background your last few tuesdays have taken up. hence, i find your theory tuesdays extrememly informative and entertaining.
keep em comin!
ben.Posted by on 07/27 at 10:33 AM
Abby: did you know that Digby did a whole post once about how Republicans politicians--who are terrible at governing regardless of what you think of their ideology--kick Democratic ass on phatic communication.
Yes, and I do believe that this was the same Digby who said, a propos of understanding GOP postmodernism, that “the most valuable person in the Democratic party may be Michael Berube”. Not that my head was turned by that post or anything—after all, it’s not like Digby added me to his blogroll or anything. (And it’s not like I care about such things, either!)
Luther, thanks for the invite, but I really do think John Holbo’s all over this one. I will add this much, though—when I first read the Knapp/ Michaels essay, I thought it was a kind of koan. “Since no one could possibly intend this argument seriously,” I mused, “these guys must be implicitly asking us to (a) divine their true intentions and (b) recognize the many ways in which meaning is not exhausted by intention.” But if, as Michaels’ more recent work suggests, they did intend that argument seriously, then I can only surmise that neither Knapp nor Michaels ever had a conversation that went like this:
“What did you mean by that remark?”
“I didn’t mean anything by it. Why?”
“Well, you sounded like you meant something by it.”
. . . and so on.
Lance: Really, Michael, shouldn’t you get points deducted for using a metaphor to describe metonymy?
D’oh! And I’m still in deficit for failing to distinguish between a criticism and an excuse. This metonymy mistake is as bad as using a dead metaphor.Posted by Michael on 07/27 at 10:59 AM
We love Theory Tuesdays, even if we don’t always necessarily read every word all the way to the end. “Defamiliarization” has become one of my favorite words, to the point where friends are looking at me funny.
I presume it is okay, concerning “the real fun lies in finding out just how multivalent that sign can be, and what its multivalences can mean in various contexts,” to add “and that it is not in fact omnivalent”? Naive anti-Theorists often seem to be arguing that it’s dangerous to admit that sometimes words have two meanings, to which I’ve tried to reply that we’re not doing ourselves any favors to close our eyes to the slipperiness of language, even if one’s ultimate goal is construct utterances with fixed meanings.Posted by Sean on 07/27 at 11:18 AM
It seems to me that Levi-Strauss was NOT consciously a structuralist until AFTER Lacan had his seminar read L-S’s paper on the incest taboo and go to his lecture. I.e., Lacan thought the paper a great structuralist essay, and L-S then took up the mantle of structuralism, which he hadn’t necessarily been adorned in before that.Posted by on 07/27 at 12:04 PM
Damn you, Al Jackson of all things! Now my hermeneutics will all be in a wad. I like my literary theory raw and uncooked. Now I will have to deconstruct a new reality.
And does Charlottesville really need visitors for people to feel the weighty chip that weighs down so many a shoulder there? Between your townies and your frat boys, between your Maupins and your Cauthens, it always seemed everybody there felt somebody else was more chippy than them.
Were they still calling UVa the Harvard of the south when you were there? When I was at UVa, no one from Harvard ever called the land of the Crimson the UVa of the north. Just wondering.Posted by The Heretik on 07/27 at 12:15 PM
[Hmmm . . . UVa, Harvard of the South? How many of them are there? That’s how some folks at Johns Hopkins thought about JHU. What about Duke, Emory? De-centering Harvard?]Posted by bill benzon on 07/27 at 12:45 PM
Theory Tuesdays are great. As Peter Sattler says above(#3):"Thanks(..)for the reminder of how exciting this language once was to me”,and how exciting it was to study all these guys.I hold on to the Brad deLong approach regarding what happened after Lacan brought in Lévi-Strauss and Jakobson to read Freud: it made a hell of a difference as a tool for practicing psychoanalysis, and still does.Posted by on 07/27 at 01:54 PM
Forgot to say: couldn’t you dwell on Ricoeur in a future post?Posted by on 07/27 at 02:04 PM
I have loved the series and particularly loved the way that you dealt with Shlovsky as important to theory, as opposed to being important to criticism and aesthetics. I find it interesting that tou are not dealing with Pierce or Sauussere in a discussion of semiotics. I would like a more detailed discussion of Bakhtin before discussing Raymond Williams. They are amongst the theorists who bring in context in very interesting ways and I personally find them very, very useful. Are you going to discuss Stuart Hall? Please, please.Posted by on 07/27 at 02:19 PM
“the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination”
I’ve been wearing this on my arm since 1989, along with Jakobson’s axes (it was one reason I went to Comp Lit grad school at post-de Manian Yale). Thanks for an enlightening review of long-unearthed concepts; I have been trying to work out how to use the metaphor/metonymy distinction to investigate autistic language.Posted by Kristina Chew on 07/27 at 02:25 PM
just to be fair, the hypothetical conversation you mention would’t really count against the Knapp and Michaels (and Fish) argument and more likely works in its favor--i.e, as evidence that when people are arguing about sentences they are inevitably, if the argument is to have any point, arguing about intended meaning.
That argument may not get you all the way to the point that K, M, and F want to arrive at: that there’s no such thing as “sentence meaning.” But even so, as Peter S and others have pointed out at the Valve, that may not in the end be that significant.
fwiw, I’m a fan of TT too, and laughed out loud at the Hurley, Sedgwick, Fish, Laettner line.Posted by Sean McCann on 07/27 at 03:15 PM
As a current English PhD student @ UVa, I can attest that Michael Levenson’s peculiarly indefatigable good cheer and inspiring pedagogy are still going strong.
And no--thank God--I don’t think I’ve heard anyone call UVa the Harvard of the South. (I also passed on the chance to purchase this shirt from my alma mater.)Posted by on 07/27 at 03:39 PM
Michael, as a Virginia alum, I should remind you and commentor 24, that the putative English department at Duke came a cropper. A biology professor was appointed chair. Maybe he was an ichthyologist.Posted by on 07/27 at 04:20 PM
I have nothing smart to say because my brain is fried from humidity. However, I do have something silly to say: Michael, I think you should have business cards made that say “Michale Berube, Cult Stud.” (Sorry, don’t know how to do the accents here.) That abbreviation in the quote from Sean McCann made me giggle. Once again, it may be the humidity.
Seriously, long live Theory Tuesdays! They’re definitely the shit!Posted by on 07/27 at 04:22 PM
Grrr...and sorry for the typo in your first name! Damn, when will I ever learn to use preview?!?!?!?Posted by on 07/27 at 04:22 PM
Theory Tuesday is my favorite day. Alas, I too was absent on Bakhtin Day. I do know something about polyphony as a mark of his work, but I need to be disabused of the belief this has something to do with deceptive parrots. Actually, I read something of yours that draws some parallels between Bakhtin and Wittgenstein. This sounds interesting. Can we have a Theory Tuesday on this sometime?Posted by on 07/27 at 06:32 PM
yeah, yeah, theory talk is great. but, the real issue, what about Al Jackson?!Posted by Sean McCann on 07/27 at 09:27 PM
I took a class with W.B. Michaels where he covered Searle and Derrida, among other things. He did SEC and Searle to get us all to realize that a reductive intentionalism was all there was. He takes it very seriously, or at least as seriously as someone who snaps his fingers every few sentences to make a point can.Posted by on 07/27 at 10:47 PM
A stimulating read. I look forward to more Tues. and Thurs. theory readings. As someone else wrote, thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s fun!
“Ze Universe” is a clever poke at the structuralists’ apparent promiscuity with regard to their object of study. And it’s a funny tribute to your teacher Levenson. But I’d ask a question about it. Why do the structuralist glibly take Manhattan, then Berlin, without a care for the history of culture? I’d be curious to see you argue this point with more than a witty aside. Don’t get me wrong: I read your blog not only for the sharp insights, but the witty cracks (and not just about branches). The jokes sometimes leave me wishing for a little more argument.
In the case of “Ze universe,” one might say you’re leaving out quite a bit. “Ze universe” is arguably the object of study because structuralism is an anti-Hegelian method. By that I mean structuralists can study anything they like because they reject a historical centering around someone who does the knowing and puts things into temporal categories and order, a subject of knowledge. If there’s no perspective from which to know something, and organize that knowledge, then the researcher can compare the “I like Ike” and Wordsworth. It’s a synchronic method. Propp, for example, doesn’t care if the folktale is Albanian or Zulu, who told it, or about the context of performance in which it was recorded. I think that’s why the structuralist wouldn’t lose much sleep over your “it all depends on how you look at it” charge. There is no looker for the structuralist, because it implies a subject embedded in discourse, and they’re not concerned with that fiction.
Where does this anti-humanism come from? From French intellectuals’ fixation on Kojeve’s anthropological reading of Hegel. If, for Hegel, freedom is what is not determined, then freedom for man (and Kojeve) is death. That’s the only state of pure indeterminacy. Humanist subject, away! The subject can never be the man. Hence all the Lacanian bit about metonym, you mention, since the symbolic is a self-contained system. When Lacan writes “The style is the man,” he means exactly that. The structuralist don’t care about filibusters. Just ask Louis Althusser.
OK, this is the Reader’s Digest abridged intellectual history of structuralism. The point is that there are good reasons for the anti-historical “ze Universe” and it’d be intriguing to see you explore the issue further. It is relevant to an understanding of structuralism, many would argue.Posted by on 07/28 at 01:51 AM
I’m with Sean McCann--what about Al Jackson Jr?! I come here for the theory but I stay for the music. I’ve been listening to “Stax/Volt Revue, Live in London and Paris 1967” the past couple days and Mr. Jackson is UNBELIEVEABLE! He gets so damned excited during Otis Redding’s “Shake” that he completely BLOWS an entire bar of fills but still manages to make them swing. That guy is my hero.
Keep practicing “I’m Still in Love with You”, Michael, it will happen. That quasi-reggae beat is tricky but I find it’s even trickier to play in the pocket the way Al does...those backbeats are in that blissful state between perfect time and dragging. Must have been the Memphis humidity.Posted by on 07/28 at 03:11 PM
Yes, Al! Just enough behind to be swinging like crazy.
I love that revue album, especially when that French woman in the audience has an orgasm as Carla Thomas revs up “Be Good to You.” That’s art!Posted by Sean McCann on 07/28 at 08:19 PM
And if you prefer something more traditional, there’s the Victorian
There is no force, however great,
Can stretch a cord,however fine,
Into a horizontal line
That shall be absolutely straight.
I find it a great comfort in hard times.Posted by Chris B on 07/29 at 03:49 AM
Yep Sean, that’s DUENDE! Or as they used to say about the Stax / Motown rivalry: “Motown has the hits but Stax has the grit!”Posted by on 07/29 at 01:22 PM
Al Jackson was indeed the man. But just because it’s been on my mind (and .mp3 player): you know what song has totally great percussion? “Feel Like Makin’ Love” by Roberta Flack. Hated that song when I was a kid and it was a hit, love it now. Just a fantastic, subtle performance from beginning to end.Posted by JL on 07/29 at 08:05 PM
You know what would be really cool? If you could set up a category on the site for these Theory Tuesday (and Thursday) posts, with a link to a list of them. I’d like to show them to some friends, but don’t want to send them rooting around in your archives.Posted by on 07/30 at 03:49 PM
Good idea, antid_oto . . . but hey, why don’t you want to send them rooting around in my archives? What’s wrong with my archives?
And AN, I’m not avoiding you. I’m still thinking about you. Your comment is too rich and detailed to reply to here, so I’m thinking of enfolding a kind of reply into next Tuesday’s post, which I now think should be about both Williams and Althusser. I can address the (unresolvable, I think) tensions between structuralism and historicism that way.Posted by Michael on 07/30 at 05:49 PM
He was very well written and easy to understand. Unlike other blogs I’ve read that are not really good. I also found interesting your blogs.Posted by Dissertation Help on 05/03 at 03:55 AM