Saturday, May 22, 2010

Aesthetic Algorithims?

I continue to be inspired and awed by the syllabus at The New Inquiry. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen . . .

What are we to make of a study of the number of times words referring to "beauty" appear in literature? Or a study of the role of alleged "universals" in cross-cultural studies? Do we learn what a text has to tell us if we can develop equations concerning word use, placement, and so forth?

At The Common Review, Apurva Narechania describes the work of self-declared "Darwinian critic" Jonathan Gottschall. At the heart of the review is an article Gottschall published, co-authored by his entire class of students, that attempted to go after Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth by analyzing the use of words referring to "beauty" in the literary and folk writings across cultures and languages. While western literature does, indeed, have an overabundance of such references, there is a similar pattern across time and space.

Which, it seems to this reader, is neither as surprising nor interesting a result as Gottschall and the editor's of the journal that published his paper seem to think. After all, the issue with which Wolf was wrestling was the social construction of particular aspects of beauty and the ways these social constructs are used by institutions to the detriment of women. Discovering (!!) that other societies, when they tell stories, would tell stories about beautiful women no more discredits Wolf's thesis than it does provide information about the way human beings tell stories. This is the kind of generalized, reductive approach to "criticism" that offers nothing more than begged questions, a restated thesis, and does not address the point at issue at all.

Yet, Narechania is correct that literature departments are in a state of crisis. With the collapse of poststructuralist theory, are we now left with the only possibility being a kind of data mining, as evidenced by Gottschall's study? Are we on the brink, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, of a science of literature? Will studies of Dickens and Hawthorne, Proust and Pynchon become indistinguishable from studies of molecules and proto-stars? Will we see lit-crit become "scientific", with Gottschall's paper understood as the paradigm shifter, the revolutionary tract that started it all?

Lord, I hope not. Words are not data points. They are historical artifacts. Each time we use a word, the sediment of meaning becomes thicker. Like Heraclitus' river, no word is ever used the same way twice. Stale notions of "quantitative" versus "qualitative" study do not even begin to capture the differences between both the subject matter and methods of physics and literary criticism. Indeed, as Ernst Mayr makes clear, there is a huge distinction within the sciences between physics and biology; attempting to make literary criticism akin to physics is as wrongheaded as trying to make biology like physics. It refuses to recognize the reality that we are dealing with distinct phenomena, that must be addressed with more than one eye on its integrity qua something distinct.

Which is not to say that there is not some use to be made of the notion that our theories, as high-minded as they may be, need to have some contact with reality in order to function. This is true of any theory, and is itself a somewhat banal observation. Gottschall's notion of turning loose graduate students upon texts like a group of geologists on a new planet, say, offers no indication that Gottschall actually wrestles with meaning. Indeed, there is no indication that his so-called "Darwinian theory" of literature has any grasp of that word, even as some kind of operational level.

I suppose my own response would be, in this historical moment when the world of literary theory actually lacks any cohesive understanding of the second part of the phrase, we might return to the text itself as a unit. Treat it with respect; treat it as part of the on-going project of human beings trying to figure their world out, figure their own place in this or that historical moment out. While literary theory is parodied easily enough (and Narechania's article is full of examples), at least it took the text seriously as something human beings used to come to some understanding of themselves. While it might seem blase to say it, criticism should be the place where we at least come to terms with "meaning" as a never-ending process. Counting words, seeing individual stories as evidence of Darwinian evolution does nothing more than beg the question - Why do human beings tell these stories? How does this particular story convey information to those who are (or were) its audience? How does it fit in to our contemporary attempts to understand our own particular historical moment?

Virtual Tin Cup

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