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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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