Monday, January 22, 2007

Language and My Situated Human Body

I've been demoted to the level of lurker for the last few days because, as Eileen Joy points out here, language is "situated in a human body," and my human body injured its hand in a martial arts class on Thursday night. It's getting better (two days ago I couldn't capitalize because I couldn't hit the shift key and a letter simultaneously), but it's still not fully back. I can now type reasonably well, but only for very short periods of time before my wrist starts giving me trouble again.

In any case, I'm able to post in terms of short, pithy things, but not much beyond, so the rant I was planning about the Norton Anthology of Brit Lit will have to wait. For the many of you who have e-mailed me asking for a response to Eileen Joy's comments here, you'll just have to wait for a couple more days of healing. And, yes, I did notice the implication that (unlike Drout) I'm a "conservative troglodyte," but as the knuckles on my left hand are dragging to the ground a little lower than normal, I can't give the post the longish response it deserves at the moment.

Just a preview: For those of you hoping for a flame war, go off to the Daily Kos or somewhere else. I happen to like Eileen Joy's writing, and nice vigorous disagreement is part of the academic life. Besides, what I said that she's responding to is difficult, was posted in a seriously reduced form, and flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. When it gets a response, it won't be an "I hate that mean ol' Eileen," because I don't, and she's not mean (at least so far as I know).


  1. I'm afraid I am not an Anglo-Saxonist, nor do I work in a Department of English, History, or Philosophy, nor did I bother to trace the source of this debate. Moreover, I am not even literary in outlook. Nevertheless, the annoying practices of history-lite and philosophy-lite tend to determine the course of my own livelihood, so here is my unqualified opinion.

    What perked up my ears were the terms "textual-based studies" [i.e., old = bad] and "contemporary critical approaches to textual culture" [i.e., new = good], which Eileen Joy used in her post.

    Joy wrote:
    It's only right that we not dogmatize the knowledge of our disciplines, whether that knowledge is philosophical, linguistic, or otherwise in nature.

    I agree.

    But whether we like it, yes Virginia, everything really is political--it's just that, sometimes, nothing much is at stake.

    This, for me, pretty much defines the central issue: If you start with the assumption that "everything is political," then you will come to the conclusion that every individual thing you encounter is politically significant, even when nothing much is at stake.

    Joy also wrote:
    [It has to be, noted, too, that sometimes these commentaries have nothing to do with professional anxiety or anger but simply stem from good, old-fashioned grouchily elitist tendencies, which is, frankly, how I often read many of Nokes's and Soltan's blog posts].

    This statement contains the unfortunate irony that "elitist" can refer to pretty much anyone in academia who is not getting paid to build widgets by hand.

    For instance, someone who theorizes about the political significance of a text from a point of view developed 500 years later, without reference to some credible reconstruction of contemporaneous linguistic, philosophical, or historical logic, is in error.

    The text itself is about the only fact one can know for sure, and secondarily anything directly pertaining to it; any subjective or "contemporary critical" reactions to it are properly the subject of modern studies, as they only indirectly concern the text itself.

    One might as well analyze the significance of older texts referenced in Finnegan's Wake based on Joyce's word-play and free-association concerning them. There, I've summed up 20th-century literary criticism for you.

    I'm not sure if my comments have anything to do with the issues at stake here, which is why I did not post them at Joy's blog, but this is the perspective of a "textual realist" on such debates.

  2. Prof. Nokes--very sorry to hear about your hand, and no, I do not think you are [or anyone else] is a troglodyte. Everyone please note that the one time I invoked the word was to say that Michael Drout was "BY NO MEANS a conservative troglodyte," nor do I believe that you are one. My ultimate intention there was something along the lines of not wanting to "paint" this debate as being between conservative scholars and supposedly more progressive ones, as that is, I believe, a facile way to go about this discussion. I, like you, would rather have a respectful, vigorous debate. So, get better and flame, um, I mean, fire, um, I mean, write away! Cheers, and take care, Eileen.

  3. Dave writes,

    ". . . .someone who theorizes about the political significance of a text from a point of view developed 500 years later, without reference to some credible reconstruction of contemporaneous linguistic, philosophical, or historical logic, is in error."

    I couldn't agree more, although I would simply argue for the caution [or caveat] that the text in question is both an artifact of the past, as well as being situated alongside us in contemporary time. If it is a literary text that "performs" some kind of story, narrative, poetic lament, etc., it will have a multiplicity of ways of being able to "speak" to us, which will also be partly dependent upon our modern modes of reception and re-playing. As to whether or not a text is also a "fact": that may be something we could argue about further. The material presence of the text, including the marks within it that make up letters, words, phrases, etc., could be said, to be sure, to be a kind of "fact," but in what other ways is it "factual"? Don't all the other ways in which it might be "factual" [i.e., the "meanings" to be associated with the actual marks/words on the page] depend to a certain extent on other apparatus [i.e., dictionaries, historical records] that themselves have to be "related" by imaginative acts of scholarship?

  4. Eileen,

    Thanks for the kind words. I got a couple of e-mails from readers that were the equivalent of people standing around an argument in a high school hallway chanting "Fight! Fight! Fight!" I'm afraid when my hand heals up, they are going to be disappointed ... though I was once involved in a fracas at a BBQ joint that nearly erupted over a colleague's poetry book. But that's another story.

  5. A fracas over a poetry book at a BBQ? That sounds like fun. Cheers, Eileen

  6. When I say that the text is a fact, I mean that it is an artifact of the author's final intent, which indeed depends on various cultural influences. That text is necessarily established in the present, based on current editing practices, unless all the original circumstances of publication were such as to enable it to adequately represent the author's final intent.

    We could go further into the social theory of the production of a text and the validity of current editing practices, but the point is that a text can usually be established according to objective principles. The fact that 100 years from now a different set of objective principles may be in play doesn't prevent us from making a sincere effort to establish first, an authoritative text, and second, its meaning from the perspective of the author's final intent.

    How the text is situated alongside the present reader, how it speaks to the present reader, what our modern modes of reception and re-play are, are all subjects of, say, Media Studies, Sociology of Higher Education, Discourse Analysis, Psychology of the Reader, or Informatics and Student Interactivity, but not the study of literature itself.

    The ways in which a text might be factual are, indeed dependent on linguistic, historical, literary, and philosophical resources contemporaneous with its production. However, the imaginative acts of scholarship involve the production of hypotheses as to the most precise and accurate methods representing the author's final intent.

    Again, some authors, texts, or publishing circumstances make this impossible, and in that case we must explicitly state our assumptions and do some imaginative reconstruction. Also, every text presents endless opportunities for imaginative speculation about its contemporaneous influences and effects.

    Although such digressions might be very entertaining and even truthful in the poetic sense, they are factually inferior to the product of principled efforts to attain objectivity.

  7. Dave, I agree with pretty much everything you say, but would just add that, in the case of Old English texts, "final author intent" is pretty much impossible to deduce or induce, as a "fact," anyway. And I'm not sure such can be adduced in the case of a Thomas Pynchon novel, either. Against the claims of New Criticism, I do not believe that an authoritative text, whether Klaeber's "Beowulf" or the collected poems of William Carlos Williams provide any kind of clear window on "final intent," except when we mean, by "intent," the order in which the words are placed, the punctuation of the sentences, etc. "Intent" and received meaning do not always match up neatly, nor do they have to in order for literature to be "meaningful."

  8. Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

    Dr. Richard Nokes, nursing a bruised fist after what is being politely called a "debate with a colleague" earlier this week, prepares to respond to taunts of 'troglodyte'! He warns that this will be no simple "flame war" and prepares for "vigorous disagreement" (how vigorous one wonders?).

    Stay tuned... ;-)

  9. Yes, I realize the limits of this perspective, and I don't have any illusions about the relationship between objectivity and truth.

    However, I believe it is necessary to acknowledge, and teach, the difference between analysis adhering to objective principles and fanciful speculations about possible meanings.

    My primary concern is with establishing an authoritative text. It is easy to make a literary analysis look foolish by having the scholar use a poorly edited text.

  10. Dave, I generally lean in your direction when a debate like this one arises, and as a student and a teacher, I've always enjoyed the challenge of trying to deduce the meaning of a text from (in your words) "the perspective of the author's final intent" without tripping all too easily into fallacy.

    That said, a funny thing happened to me not long ago: I wrote a book. I thought I knew exactly what the book was about and which reactions it would surely evoke--but to my surprise, reviewers, commentators, and friends all saw points, patterns, and even overarching themes that I hadn't consciously intended. I took a new look and discovered that my text did indeed say these wonderful and unexpected things, largely as a unintended consequence of how I presented the things I did intend to say. I now wait in joyful hope to see what other odd, surprising, and entirely plausible interpretations future readers may propose.

    I'm certainly a fan of the sort of "imaginative reconstruction" you cite, but I spend even more time now than I did before pondering where we should draw the line between plausible interpretation and anachronistic whimsy. Now that I've seen it from the author's perspective, I'm much less sure of where to place that boundary than I used to be.

  11. Eileen Joy wrote: "Intent" and received meaning do not always match up neatly, nor do they have to in order for literature to be "meaningful."

    While I will refrain from the post-structuralist tendency to use quotes, I agree with Eileen's sentence entirely, at least as I understand the sentence. But that is a part of the point of the sentence, isn't it?

    One of the problems with any discussion of intent is the fact that language, while it has constructed meaning, is dependent on so many things that it can never convey absolute information. Think of how many abstract syllogisms break down when particular information is put in place of variables.

    I cannot ask Plato what parts of the Republic are his thoughts and which are those of Socrates, let alone what Plato meant by the clauses he wrote. The human mind, unless I develop psionics soon, is opaque in the present let alone 2500 years distant. The best I can do is attempt to understand the structures, both physical and cultural, which shaped those ideas to make and argument as to what Plato was saying.

    Even if I accomplish that proficiently, I still have yet to overcome the difficulty of applying that to today in some meaningful way.

    Having said all that, I would like to offer some praise for Prof. Nokes first comments criticizing history-lite/philosophy-lite in the study of literature. If a student of literature wants to have a deep, in real physical terms of how much and what has been read, understanding of a subject, that student must read a great deal of the subject. Any time one spends reading philosophy which can be applied to the subject directly affects the depth of specific knowledge regarding a subject area.

    To give example, the student of Ango-Saxon literature might be better served reading more Anglo-Saxon literature and philosophy than reading a smattering of Bakunin, Bakhtin, Kristeva, or Schiller, Kant, and Burke.

  12. I'm just a grad student. Not very versed on this whole debate yet, although given time I'm sure I will be. It seems to me though that even if one decides to analyze only language you are still analyzing the intent of the author. After all language is used to portray intent, why an author chose to use the word ennui instead of say boredom or even something as simple as big versus large can tell a reader something about the author's perspective I guess you could say. Or maybe I'm totally off base, personally I enjoy reading something and not picking apart why the author said this versus that (see Tolkien's explanation for his books It's just a story!) But in the world academia the idea of something just being a story is not acceptable to our minds. Everything no matter how large or small is fraught with meaning.

    Perhaps I've lost the thread of the argument in here somewhere but I felt the need to post this so there you go, take it as is please.

  13. This does drift away from the main argument, but in response to RaeRae's comment that "Tolkien's explanation for his books" was "It's just a story", I would note that Tolkien gave a variety of answers when queried about the purpose of The Lord of the Rings, some of them contradictory. Of course, this returns to the problems with determining author's intentions, and with that, I'll back away from this very learned conversation.

  14. Prof, everyone is ignoring the big question: what were you doing when you injured your hand? I'm imagining perhaps a ridge hand break of a 3/4" board during a demo, but perhaps you were attempting to break a concrete block at a 4th dan black belt test?

    Details, please!

  15. Nothing quite so dramatic. I got thrown when sparring, and landed on my wrist, twisting it as I fell.

    After taking a break for a few seconds to make certain I hadn't broken it, and also to be certain I didn't vomit (it really hurt), I got back up and finished the sparring session -- this time only kicking!

  16. Ouch! You maybe need a little training in how to fall. Hapkido, aikido, or judo, maybe? But I'm very impressed that you finished the fight. Bravo!