gall and gumption

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


This looks promising:

A generation of academic literary critics has now arisen who invoke “neuroscience” to assist them in their work of explication, interpretation and appreciation. Norman Bryson, once a leading exponent of Theory and a social constructivist, has described his Damascene conversion, as a result of which he now places the firing of neurons rather than signifiers at the heart of literary criticism. Evolutionary theory, sociobiology and allied forces are also recruited to the cause, since, we are reminded, the brain functions as it does to support survival. The dominant model of brain function among cognitive neuroscientists is that of a computer, and so computational theory is sometimes thrown into the mix.

I am looking forward, myself, to the results.

We have become accustomed over the past half-century to critics sending out to other disciplines for “theoretical frameworks” in which to place their engagement with works of literature. The results have often been dire, the work or author in question disappearing in a sea of half-comprehended or uncritically incorporated linguistics, mathematics, psychiatry, political theory, history, or whatever. Why do critics do this?

For an academic, there are many reasons for going “interdisciplinary”. You can, as John Bayley once said, “rise between two stools”. Most of the time you will be selling your product to an audience that is not in a position to judge the correctness, the validity, or even the probable veracity of the claims you are making about the guest discipline you exploit. Ingenious, not to say flaky, interpretations will pass unchallenged. A new paradigm also means lots of conferences and papers, and other ways of enhancing the path to professional advancement. It may also help you to overcome a crisis of confidence in the value of what you are doing. To modify what Ernest Gellner once said, “When a priest loses his faith, he is unfrocked, when critics lose theirs, they redefine their subject”.

A couple years ago it was agricultural statistics. You may remember some of the great breakthroughs that followed.

While aficionados of Theory regarded individual works and their authors as, say, manifestations of the properties of texts, of their interaction with other texts and with the structures of power, neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in ordinary human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life.

Soon we will be able to find out what oysters think about "Ozymandias." Or catfish, possibly. Or Junebugs.

For this reason – and also because it is wrong about literature, overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity – neuroaesthetics must be challenged.

I’d like to shake the hand of this big-hearted, reckless optimist.

Maybe they do these things differently in the Old Country, but here in America challenges are referred to the Sneering Committee, where Professor Stanley Fish presides in an extremely well-padded chair.

Reviewing a new book by French theorist (no, not an American practicioner of French theory but a theorist who is from France) Francois Cusset on the history of deconstruction in the U.S., Professor Fish says that deconstructionist project was not an attack on the rationalist-empiricist tradition so much as it was a mild-mannered inquiry into its basic assumptions. I can see that, quite so. More like "Have you stopped beating your wife, sir?":

… what was involved was less the rejection of the rationalist tradition than an interrogation of its key components: an independent, free-standing, knowing subject, the “I” facing an independent, free-standing world. The problem was how to get the “I” and the world together, how to bridge the gap that separated them ever since the older picture of a universe everywhere filled with the meanings God originates and guarantees had ceased to be compelling to many.

Do take note of the vaguenesses that start to occur. I've bolded them in this and subsequent quotes. Notice how all these ideas are held by "persons unknown." Whose problem was this? Who ever said this was a problem? When was it supposed to be a problem? It wasn’t a problem in Bacon’s 17th century, when so many people felt sure that the discoveries they were eagerly and excitedly pursuing would help them to 1) understand God’s creation or 2) get rich.

The language is ambiguous in another way, aside from its failure to identify whose problem it is. Is this a theoretical problem, or a problem that exists for actual people somewhere? When I think of authors who write about being separated from God, I think of Donne and Herbert. And they totally “lived in a universe filled with meanings God originates and guarantees.” Or, right in the Enlightenment, Samuel Johnson, who suffered from terrible depressions and an almost disabling fear of damnation because he felt that not science but his own unworthiness separated him from God. And his contemporary David Hume, the total atheist, quite calmly and cheerfully dying, facing with a smile what Johnson could not bear to even think about. In fact, the people who most seem to suffer from feelings of alienation from God were those (Jonathan Edwards, Gerald Manley Hopkins) who believed in him most intensely.

The solution to the problem in the rationalist tradition was to extend man’s reasoning powers in order to produce finer and finer descriptions of the natural world, descriptions whose precision could be enhanced by technological innovations (telescopes, microscopes, atom smashers, computers) that were themselves extensions of man’s rational capacities. The vision was one of a steady progress with the final result to be a complete and accurate — down to the last detail — account of natural processes. Francis Bacon, often thought of as the originator of the project , believed in the early 17th century that it could be done in six generations. [emphasis added – kp]

Whose solution? Whose vision? At what period, exactly? Was there any philosophy in the 300 years between Sir Francis Bacon and atom-smashers?

If this vision is what deconstruction was supposed to question and challenge, then I must say that deconstruction should have tried to find better uses for its time. Nobody who does any actual science has held this view of science since the 19th century, except for deconstructionists, ignorant people, and cranks. Right now the only people who believe in and/or practice Professor Fish’s version of Baconian induction, seeking by induction to “prove the truth” of some theory, are the freaks and frauds of the Intelligent Design movement and other pseudoscientific bogosity.

(You might notice that nowhere in his picture of science is the idea that people do it because they love the subject they are studying; nowhere is the idea that the universe without God in it fills them with excitement and wonder. It wasn’t the hope of nailing everything down that drove Richard Feynman or Einstein or Darwin, who all, like countless others, enjoyed unusually cordial relations with the universe; it was delight. I would like to have seen somebody try to tell one of those guys that their trouble was they were unhappy about their separation from a Biblical narrative.)

In his account of deconstruction, he again makes it clear that deconstruction is meant to criticize Bacon’s induction and Bacon’s hope that science would soon know everything. But why are we still fooling around with Bacon?

To this hope, French theory (and much thought that precedes it) says “forget about it”; not because no methodological cautions could be sufficient to the task, but because the distinctions that define the task — the “I,” the world, and the forms of description or signification that will be used to join them — are not independent of one another in a way that would make the task conceivable, never mind doable.

Instead (and this is the killer), both the “I” or the knower, and the world that is to be known, are themselves not themselves, but the unstable products of mediation, of the very discursive, linguistic forms that in the rationalist tradition are regarded as merely secondary and instrumental. The “I” or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.

Obviously the rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive this deconstructive analysis intact, which doesn’t mean that it must be discarded (the claim to be able to discard it from a position superior to it merely replicates it) or that it doesn’t yield results (I am writing on one of them); only that the progressive program it is thought to underwrite and implement — the program of drawing closer and closer to a truth independent of our discursive practices, a truth that, if we are slow and patient in the Baconian manner, will reveal itself and come out from behind the representational curtain — is not, according to this way of thinking, realizable.

This is a deconstructive analysis of straw. Again, what does he mean by "the rationalist Enlightenment agenda?" Science? Empiricism of any kind? Any and all, or only some, uses of rationalism? And although deconstruction only wanted to ask a simple question, the "rationalist Enlightenment agenda does not survive the analysis intact." The rational Enlightenment agenda just totally freaked out and collapsed, apparently. If the rationalist is intellectually honest (though how one is to be intellectually honest without being rational or truthful I don't know -- but I'm not a deconstructionist) he will gratefully admit to the futility of his whole intellectual project, and he will keep sending Professor Fish laptops. Professor Fish likes those.

It’s like having a conversation in which the other person keeps calling you “shithead.” When you protest against being called “shithead” he replies that your protest originates in your attachment to the futile and unrealizable Baconian inductive rational agenda, shithead.

Surrender your rationalist critique of being called shithead, and what do you get? What sort of bargain have you made? You get pure deconstruction.

And pure deconstruction, Derrida’s “endless play of signifiers,” is an infinite regress which deconstruction, making a virtue of utter pointlessness, appears to regard as a groovy metaphysical perpetual-motion machine.

Deconstruction’s technique of always going deeper has no natural stopping place, leads to no truth or falsehood that could then become the basis of a program of reform. Only by arresting the questioning and freeze-framing what Derrida called the endless play of signifiers can one make deconstruction into a political engine, at which point it is no longer deconstruction, but just another position awaiting deconstruction.

Cusset drives the lesson home: “Deconstruction thus contains within itself…an endless metatheoretical regression that can no longer be brought to a stop by any practical decision or effective political engagement. In order to use it as a basis for subversion…the American solution was…to divert it…to split it off from itself.”

Why has Professor Fish interrupted his beatific meditations on the “nothing outside of the text”? He appears to be using rationalism to defend "pure" deconstruction. Surely pure deconstruction needs no defense?

The result is the story Cusset tells about the past 40 years. A bunch of people threatening all kinds of subversion by means that couldn’t possibly produce it, and a bunch on the other side taking them at their word and waging cultural war. Not comedy, not tragedy, more like farce, but farce with consequences. Careers made and ruined, departments torn apart, writing programs turned into sensitivity seminars, political witch hunts, public opprobrium, ignorant media attacks, the whole ball of wax. Read it and laugh or read it and weep. I can hardly wait for the movie.

It really must be quite a tale. The University of Minnesota Press, which published it, blurbs it as a "must-read expose." In setting the record straight about "pure" deconstruction and dissociating it from those retrospectively unsavory political types (feminists, multicultis) who turned it into "less pure" deconstruction, Professor Fish is cutting himself loose from any association with the whole appalling clown show. He was just up on Olympus, minding his own business. He wasn't anywhere near that Saturday Night Fish Fry, shithead.

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At 3:58 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

The “I” or subject, rather than being the free-standing originator and master of its own thoughts and perceptions, is a space traversed and constituted — given a transitory, ever-shifting shape — by ideas, vocabularies, schemes, models, distinctions that precede it, fill it and give it (textual) being.

This, according to Fish, is French theory talking, "and much thought that precedes it." Talk about vague.

I was struck by the three-card monte strategy here. First, he's writing about a book called "French Theory" which then sort of decomposes into a larger solution consisting of generic French theory and much other stuff.

Just as the "I" oscillates as “(textual) being” – a statement Fish makes in the name of French Theory without explication or negation, so also French theory is oscillating a bit. Hard to pin down, but that’s ok, because that sort of exemplifies its point, that crucial questions of being, of self, of cognition, etc., are also more or less hard to pin down. It’s all so fishy.

He gets our attention with legitimate questions about self, language, truth. At first, deconstruction etc. is on the side of Bacon's insight - that yes, we must if we are to not miss our marks be very aware of the tricks and tropes of language.

But more and more, as you make clear, this entire cartoon version of the intellectual voyage of French theory is only being presented in order that Prof. Fish can lead it to a giddy position from which he can give it a good kick in the arse, citing "French Theory," the book, to spurn the entire matter of whether any of the several thousand years of thinking about the complications of language ever mattered.

He cues the thread that follows. Most of the commenters think they are on Fish's side - against the French nebulizers. But where exactly does he stand? As you say, nowhere near the shitheads, but equally nowhere near the unbeshatheads. He's climbed the mountain, moved the pea, and pulled the ladder up behind him. Clean getaway for the Fish. After a few days a funny smell though.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Chad said...

(Just wanted to say hi, found your blog).

Well, also I wanted to thank you for writing this post in particular. I haven't read the book in question (and probably won't anytime soon), but after yet another bout of Foucault-bashing (one of my few true pleasures these days) I was tormented about the question of why "The History of Sexuality" is still often cited by historians despite Foucault's historical research being found to be inadequate at best and his paradigms overwhelmingly out of sync with the evidence. A good deal of this post, especially your second quotation, gave me a soothing answer. (Although I'd add that the prevalent reluctance to view certain historical figures as "gay" plays a role as well...).

At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Across the universe, a little hat tip to MM from WH Pritchard in the latest Hudson.


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