Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Literary Criticism Revisited . . .

Some readers may recall my post on literary criticism versus literature from a bit over a week ago, but if not, perhaps this will jog some memories:
Criticism generally tries to clarify precisely what those meanings are, but to do so, the criticism itself must remain as unambiguous as possible, and this explains why we do not "read criticism . . . as a literary work."
I considered this distinction unassailable, but it has now been assailed, in an email, by a student of Professor Fletcher (image above) named Bruce Carroll:
I was just reading your Gypsy Scholar post of April 27 on Eli Park Sorensen's question: Why don't we read criticism like literature? You are right that the purpose of much criticism is to clarify ambiguity (if we can think of an interpretation as clarifying, which I suppose we can).

But as I write onward in the dissertation (I will defend in spring '14), I have noticed just how mimetic argumentation is. Not unlike fiction, argument too is a mimesis or imitation: of the argument the writer has apprehended and, very much like fiction, an imitation of any reality it attempts to make apparent to the reader.

I am thinking here of how dependent argumentation is on the thesis, the chief claim that points to the reality the argument seeks to clarify. And yet by its nature the thesis is so often too constraining to wholly account for the multi-dimensions of a well-crafted (read: ambiguous) fiction, or an area of culture or history, or some combination of all that the thesis would theorize on.

A counter-example to the rhetorical problem I am trying to clarify (and I admit it is not easily clarified) is the thesis of Angus Fletcher's recent Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, a book about the influence of Galileo's scientific theory of motion on Elizabethan writers. His thesis:
The main question my argument raises and inevitably leaves standing at the doorstep of explanation, is this: Shall we claim that the verbal arts are radically separate from mathematics and science, or is there an intellectual and cultural manifold in which they belong together, almost as twin components of the same discoveries? Despite all the difficulties in asserting this latter position, I believe it is the better one.
I asked Prof Fletcher (he's on my dissertation committee) about his choice of the figure of a manifold to capture the subject of his book. He told me simply that a manifold is multi-faceted and moving, and so provides a liberal figure in which to situate an argument. His thesis, then, more accurately reflects the reality of the artistic, scientific, and cultural circumstance he is trying to make clear to his reader.

For what it's worth (which may be nothing), I think we not only read criticism as literature, but in terms of criticism's mimetic character, I think we are writing it as literature, too, if more so than we are aware.
Readers -- and Mr. Carroll himself -- will need to clarify this for me. Does mimesis in criticism mean that the critic mimics what is being analyzed? And how is Professor Fletcher's thesis a counter-example to mimesis?

As I await clarification, a thought occurs to me, namely, that the essay form is often considered a branch of literature, so to the extent that literary criticism overlaps with the essay form, it can also be considered literature.

Now that I've assailed myself, I'll again retreat into waiting . . .

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At 6:14 AM, Blogger bibnida said...

Jeffery, let me try to clarify my suggestions:

If I could make any one point, it would be that the thesis is insufficient to capture the reality of whatever rhetorical situation we have discovered. The *reality* of well crafted fiction, for example, is the very ambiguity many of us seek to make clear in criticism. But to clarify a piece's ambiguity is to choose from its possible meanings, to reduce those possible meanings, and to do so is to reduce the piece itself.

None of this is a crime against the art or culture that is under analysis. The mimetic nature of the arts itself is little different: a poem confines to language its subject in reality, and does so in a way that is reductive, for the multi-dimensions of any reality, such as the 'human experience', *must be* reduced if we are to communicate them. In his _An Apology for Poetry_, the English poet and humanist Philip Sidney was perhaps trying to avoid this 'trap of mimesis' when he proposed (as his Italian counterpart JC Scaliger had before him, and in the very same terms) that the poem does not stop at imitating nature (reality) but makes a 'new nature', that the poet is not confined to the imitation of the nature external to him/her, but creates, like God, from 'the zodiac of his own wit'.

(But note the extent to which Sidney must aggrandize poetry simply to say that it is more than an imitation of nature/reality.)

The thesis is a necessary tool that makes our work something more than a mere collection of evidence. It provides not only the organization but also the justification for the piece; yet in doing so, it reduces what it seeks to clarify.

Though I would not say it renders my argument invalid, Prof Fletcher's thesis is at least a counter-example of such limitations. It is expansive, liberal, and, yes, even ambiguous, for much like a literary work, you must read the book to understand *how* the figure of a manifold applies to his subject.

Just fyi, I notice that both Angus Fletcher's and Kenneth Gross's criticism do a fine job of carrying a bit of ambiguity from the artistic or cultural subject into the critical analysis. Perhaps this is how their work generates more questions than answers.

If I have missed something, it's b/c I am typing in a little box the size of a driver's license.

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Bruce, for the elaboration. Let me respond to what I think is one of your central points:

"But to clarify a piece's ambiguity is to choose from its possible meanings, to reduce those possible meanings, and to do so is to reduce the piece itself."

I don't see that to clarify what the ambiguities are is to reduce them. A full interpretation would reveal them all.

For that matter, even a narrow interpretation need not exclude others; it might just single one out for examination.

But I have to acknowledge what I've already acknowledged in my post -- the essay form itself can be a type of literature, and to the extent that a literary analysis is an essay in form, it can be considered literature, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:54 AM, Blogger bibnida said...

You are right that this is a central point, and one I hope to develop further. I will consider your comments as I do so. Much thanks~~

At 7:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I look forward to learning more.

Jeffery Hodges

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