Replies to Against Theory, Part 1

Two weeks ago I blogged about Knapp and Michael’s “Against Theory.” I’ve started going through the book Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, which is a compilation of all the major papers arguing for/against the points brought up in “Against Theory.”

Here’s the main point of Knapp-Michaels, which I never articulated in a clear way. All theory is effectively an illusion based on making distinctions that don’t actually exist (meaning/intention; true belief/knowledge). Thus, the only thing we should do is “practice” (i.e. read/interpret), and we may as well skip out on the unnecessary “theory” part.

One of the most interesting things about these articles is that no one has mentioned the point I raised (so far), but many, many other issues are raised. The first response is titled “Revisionary Madness: The Prospects of American Literary Theory at the Present Time” by Daniel T. O’Hara. It is quite good but hard to summarize, since it’s points are made rhetorically through satire.

The next one is Hirsch’s “Against Theory?” This was the piece I was most excited to read, because I wanted to hear how Hirsch defended himself. He begins by reiterating that Knapp and Michaels seem to firmly agree with him, and it is somewhat odd that they took so much effort to call him out over what appear to be misunderstandings.

Hirsch reiterates that intentionalists never imagine a moment of interpretation before intention. That is the whole point of this school of thought! One must have intention for there to be a meaning to interpret. Hirsch also agrees with them that intentionalists choose among a range of possible speakers. He takes it for granted that this avoids the intentionless meaning issue, but I think this grants Knapp-Michaels too much ground.

I diverge from Hirsch here, because this is such a bizarre way to frame what an intentionalists does. I still like my analogy. When one works out the answer to 2583 x 3921, one doesn’t posit a range of plausible answers in order to choose the correct one. There is only ever one correct answer, and just because you don’t know it at first glance doesn’t mean there are other possibilities you are “choosing between.”

The interesting thing about this example is that it shows how both practice and theory can be necessary even if there is only ever one right answer. Deriving the correct answer is “practice.” But you won’t know the derivation gave the correct answer without the “theory” to ground the method.

Under this framing, intentionless meaning is avoided. The collection of symbols on the page only ever has the meaning the author intended. You may have to do work to find that meaning, but you don’t have to posit a bunch of meanings by fictional people to choose among to do it.

Hirsch’s main criticism of Knapp-Michaels is with their leap from “intention and meaning have no distinction” to “intention has no theoretical interest” (also a point I alluded to in my post). He claims some semantic slight of hand goes on here by pointing out that text-authorship and meaning-authorship are not the same. In other words, there’s no theoretical interest if a text only means what “its” author intends, but there is theoretical interest if a text can mean what “an” author intends.

Again, this feels slippery to me, because I think Knapp-Michaels do have a point if one allows “theoretical” intention to be relevant. I’m not sure Hirsch really wants to allow this either, because it basically nullifies the whole point of the intentionalist project. This would allow all of the New Criticism in, which Hirsch wholeheartedly wanted to reject with his book. So I think I must be misunderstanding his point here.

Hirsch also brings up the distinction between “what an author intends” and “what an author intended,” another scary distinction for intentionalists in my view. It seems to me that in an attempt to refute Knapp-Michaels, Hirsch is almost bringing on more problems than he solves. I think there was a section in his book about this, but it again seems scary to think intention can change at the whim of the author twenty years after writing something. Surely intention must mean: by the author at the time of writing; otherwise, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Against Against Theory

I’ve been getting a lot of hits on my critical theory posts and the ones on Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation. I thought I’d do some more on famous papers on related issues. Probably the most important and influential is Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels’ Against Theory. It appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of Critical Inquiry.

My initial goal was to provide a synopsis of this paper in a similar way I did to Hirsch’s book. Unfortunately, I’m either so confused by what they are trying to argue, or their argument is fundamentally flawed. So I’m going argue against its main point.

The entire second section of the paper is based around debunking Hirsch’s defense of intentionalism. If you’ll recall, Hirsch’s book is centered on the idea that the only valid interpretation of a work is the one the author intended. Then he spends the book constructing a theoretical framework for reconstructing the author’s intended meaning.

For some reason, Knapp and Michaels think they will succeed in their argument against theory if they prove there is no such thing as intentionless meaning, i.e. a text cannot have meaning if there is no authorial intent.

I think everyone on the authorial intent side of things (including Hirsch) is in agreement here. It is quite a bizarre thing to focus on. The crux of the paper ought to be an argument for why there is no need for theory if authorial intent is the only thing that matters. They just assert, without argument, the truth of this claim. But it’s the only claim in the paper that seems to need justification!

I’ll try to lay out my case for why theory still matters. First, Knapp and Michaels seem to believe that theory is the attempt to relate authorial intent to meaning. I’m not sure where this comes from, but it takes a narrow view of theory that actually excludes Hirsch’s book. So I’m not sure why they even talk about that book if this is their view (I know they separate the ontological and epistemological parts of theory; more on that later).

Theory, as seen in practice, is almost always an attempt to relate authorial intent to interpretation. This creates no conflict with equating authorial intent and meaning. It doesn’t posit a need for intentionless meaning.

It is a fact that language is inherently ambiguous. So even though there is only one valid interpretation, a reader may not know what that is. This makes interpretation necessary. This means there must be tools for the reader to discover the meaning of the text. The grounding of these tools in a theoretical framework is what is usually meant by “theory.” Thus theory is needed.

One way I could see arguing against theory is to claim that Hirsch provides all the theoretical framework we need, and so there is no point to continue the enterprise. I’d almost be able to get on board with that. Unfortunately, they seem to be arguing against Hirsch, and so they are creating a hole that needs to be filled with more theory!

Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Suppose you have a math problem. It has one right answer. This doesn’t eliminate the usefulness of a theoretical framework for arriving at the correct answer. Once you have a way to get to the correct answer, more theory can be created to get to the correct answer more accurately or more quickly. You never have to posit “other answers” for this to be true. There is only ever one correct answer through the whole process, but it is still possible for someone to make a mistake and get a “wrong answer.”

Hopefully you see where this is going. Knapp and Michaels claim that theory is not needed if a text’s meaning only ever has the correct interpretation of the author’s intent. But the above example shows this not to be the case. A person can look at a math problem and not immediately see the answer, but after some derivation come to the correct answer. Similarly, a person can read a sentence and not immediately ascertain the author’s intention, but after some interpretation can come to the meaning. It is in that interpretation step that theory still has a function.

I’m actually still extraordinarily confused at how Knapp and Michaels didn’t think of this or how they could read Hirsch’s book and think it was about an intention/meaning distinction rather than a book about how to interpret correctly. It is called Validity in Interpretation for goodness sake, not “Validity in Meaning.”

I’ll just reiterate how bizarre it is that they want to assume theory is only about an intention/meaning distinction and then engage Hirsch’s book which clearly is not about this at all. You can’t insist his book is theory and hold to the idea that theory is only about intention/meaning.

They must be aware of this, because in section 3 they say, “For Hirsch and Juhl, the goal of theory is to provide an objectively valid method of literary interpretation.” So far, so good. They continue, “To make method possible, both are forced to imagine intentionless meanings or, in more general terms, to imagine a separation between language and speech acts.”

That’s where they lose me. It may be the case that Hirsch and Juhl abstractly talk about this in their works (though I don’t recall because of how minor it is to their theory), but as I pointed out above, it isn’t a necessary component. You never have to imagine intentionless meanings for Hirsch. The only thing you have to imagine is that the reader doesn’t immediately know the author’s intention, which is almost a tautology of how reading works. If you don’t believe this, think of the math problem. We never had to imagine wrong answers to still have to do work to get to the right one.

Sorry for harping on this point over and over, but it is exactly what the paper does. This makes no sense to me, because this “problem” (which I don’t see to be a problem at all; please make an argument!) is tangential to the question of theory at best and a non-issue at worst. How this paper became so important is beyond me when they seem to have offered a long-winded, purely semantic strawman.

I have the book Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism on its way, so hopefully that will provide some more answers and clarification.

On Barthes’s “From Work to Text”

Roland Barthes was a prolific and important academic literary critic in the mid 20th century. He published many books, but his most famous are probably S/Z, Mythologies, and Image – Music – Text. The essay “From Work to Text” comes from this last book.

I thought I’d continue from Sontag into Barthes, since he was mentioned in the last post. She was one of the main academics to introduce him to the U.S. Unfortunately, I’ve always found him quite difficult to read. To me, his academic style (or at least the translation of it) makes it difficult to tell whether there is serious content in what he is saying or if he hides behind the abstraction.

“From Work to Text” starts from the idea that in modern critical theory we use the “capital T” Text in a different way than the “work” of literature. The way in which he teases out the difference is through a sequence of numbered comparisons. I warn you. This is going to get strange.

The Text cannot be put into strict categories and genres. A work can. The Text subverts classification. A work can be seen, but the Text demonstrates. The work is physical (i.e. a book), but the Text is language and non-physical. The Text is always paradoxical.

A work is symbolic and to be interpreted. The Text “practices the infinite deferment of the signified.” In this sense, the Text is radically symbolic, because its language never ends unlike the limited symbols of a work. The Text is plural in the sense of transcending all interpretation, not because it is ambiguous, but because of its inherently infinite nature.

There is no origin of the Text which sits in a seamless relation to all other texts. Sources and influences are a myth with the Text unlike a work which sits in an ordered string of influence. In other words, there is a relation between author and work. The Text comes into being through The Author, but the difference between reading and writing is abolished in the Text.

One plays the Text rather than reads it so that there is a collaboration. Still, no matter how we try we can never fully articulate what the Text is.

On the one hand, I get what he is saying. The essay is an attempt to explain what he sees as the difference in usage by a particular academic community. The problem is that I can’t tell if it is serious or if it is meant as some sort of hyperbole to make fun of the academics which try so hard to distinguish these things. To me it reads as academic satire, but from what I’ve seen elsewhere, this is to be taken seriously.

Except for the over-the-top parts, it does a fair job at teasing out the intended difference and many people summarize the distinction he makes as coming from seven places: method, genre, signs, plurality, filiation, reading, and pleasure. When put in this way, it is easier to see that he tries to tease out the difference between “high literary art” and “low popular fiction,” a debate that is notoriously difficult to this day.

I’m curious if anyone else has had better luck with understanding the Barthes hype.

Validity in Interpretation Chapter 5

You know the drill by now. These are just notes from my reading of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. We have finally reached the last chapter. The main thrust of this last chapter is on how to tell whether our interpretation is valid. It rehashes a lot of stuff we’ve already covered, and it gives some examples of putting the theory to use.

The first point is that we can often trick ourselves into self-validating an invalid interpretation. Hirsch doesn’t use the term, but this is a direct rephrasing of confirmation bias to literary interpretation. If we go into a text thinking it must mean something, then try to find confirmation of this interpretation, we will always find it and will overlook conflicting evidence. This is not the correct way to validate an interpretation (or anything for that matter!).

We are led back to the hermeneutic circle, because some of the evidence will only appear after a hypothesis about the interpretation has been formed. In the next section, Hirsch doesn’t say this, but he essentially argues for a Bayesian theory of interpretation. The process of validation is to take all the hypotheses and then figure out which one is most likely correct based on the evidence. As new evidence comes in, we revise our view.

All that matters are the relative probabilities. Sometimes two interpretations are equally likely, and then we say both are valid. The point is not to have one victorious theory, but to have a way to measure how likely each is in terms of the others.

Personal Note: Whenever someone brings up probabilistic reasoning in the arts (or even history) the same sorts of objections get raised. The assignment of a probability is arbitrary. You can make up whatever priors you want to skew the results in favor of your pet interpretation. These are very recent debates that came decades after this book was published. Surprisingly, Hirsch gives the same answers to these objections that we still give.

First, we already speak in probabilities when analyzing interpretations. I think it is “extremely unlikely” that the word “plastic” means the modern substance in this 1744 poem, because it hadn’t been invented yet. It is “likely” that this poem is about the death of a loved one, because much of Donne’s work is about death. These statements assign relative probabilities to the likelihood of the interpretation, but they try to mask this.

By clearly stating what we are doing, and coming up with actual quantities that can be disputed and argued for, we make our reasoning more explicit and less likely to error. If we pretend that we are not dealing with probabilities, then our arguments and reasoning become sloppy.

As usual, when determining probabilities, we need to figure out the narrowest class that the work under consideration fits in. A good clarifying example is the broad classification of women vs men. Women live longer on average than men. But when we pick a specific woman and a specific man, it would be insane to argue that the woman will probably live longer based only on that broad class. If we note that the woman is a sedentary smoker with lung cancer, and the man is an Olympic marathon runner, then these narrower classes improve our probability judgments.

This was the point of having an entire chapter on genre. We must analyze the intrinsic genre of a work to find the narrowest class that it fits in. This gives us a prior probability for certain types of interpretation. Then we can continue the analysis, updating our views as we encounter more or less evidence.

Hirsch then goes on to talk about the principle of falsifiability as we know it from science. Rather than confirming our hypothesis, we should come up with plausible evidence that would conclusively falsify the interpretation. He goes on to give a bunch of subtle examples that would take a lot of time to explain here. For simplicity, we could go back to the plastic example. If a poem dates before 1907, then any interpretation that requires the substance meaning of the word plastic is false.

He ends the section by reminding us that we always have to think in context. There are no rules of interpretation that can be stated generally and be practical in all situations. There are always exceptions. The interpretive theory in this book is meant as a starting point or provisional guide. This is also true of all methods of interpretation (think of people who always do a “Marxist reading” or “feminist reading” of a text).

I’ll end with a quote:

“While there is not and cannot be any method or model of correct interpretation, there can be a ruthlessly critical process of validation to which many skills and many hands may contribute. Just as any individual act of interpretation comprises both a hypothetical and a critical function, so the discipline of interpretation also comprises the having of ideas and the testing of them.”

Validity in Interpretation Chapter 4

We are back with the next set of notes on E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. This chapter is on Understanding, Interpretation, and Criticism. I found it to be the least interesting as a whole. It mostly involved clarifying some terms related to interpretation.

The first section is about the diversity of interpretations. If there is a notion of valid/invalid for an interpretation, how can there be so many? Is only one correct? The answer is that we should welcome these diverse interpretations, because they all contribute to understanding. A key idea that is repeated throughout this chapter is that understanding comes before interpretation. We must understand what the author means before we can put our explanation into words.

Different interpretations can agree on the author’s meaning, in which case our understanding is deepened. Conflict only arises when two interpretations disagree on what the author means. Sometimes the difference might only be aspects of the same traits. Hirsch gives an example of two people looking at the same building from different angles. They might describe the building in radically different ways, but they are still describing the same thing.

The next two sections are where the terminology begins. I’ll distill the definitions here.

Understanding: The construction of meaning. A silent, internal affair.

Interpretation: The explanation of meaning. This almost always contains criticism and significance claims, but should be kept separate as a theoretical matter. Interpretation is an art, because the interpreter must convey their understanding accurately using terms that are familiar to their audience.

Significance: A perceived relationship between the verbal meaning and something else. We usually cannot artificially isolate significance from the above two acts, because these relationships aid us in coming to an understanding of a text.

Criticism: The explanation of significance. Thus, criticism is to significance as interpretation is to understanding.

Judgment: The act of perceiving significance. “One understands meaning; one judges significance.” This can include value judgments, but could also be purely descriptive.

Even though Hirsch is largely concerned with interpretation for the book, he emphasizes that criticism is important because it shows us why a work has value. He turns to the idea of intrinsic criticism for the next section. This starts with a brief retrospective. After the early 20th century logical positivists took hold of criticism, the literary community rebelled and tried to formulate a literary form of criticism. This was a useful advancement, but Hirsch wants to do better.

The theorists argued that the only way to properly judge a literary work is on literary grounds. For example, it is wrongheaded to judge the value of a poem on how well it would serve as a newspaper headline. The only fair way to judge a poem is in how well it succeeds as a poem. New problem: this is not a good way to judge a poem, because there is no agreed upon notion of what a poem is.

This is where intrinsic criticism comes in. We must make our judgments according to the nature of the work, but we cannot come into the work assuming we know what those standards are. We must look to the work itself to determine its nature. Judging by extrinsic criteria will be called extrinsic criticism. The theorists argue that extrinsic criticism is always wrongheaded.

Hirsch points out that it can be a useful tool sometimes. Being forced to limit yourself to intrinsic criticism is, well, limiting. The critic has a duty to judge by extrinsic criteria if she believes the purpose of the author to be misguided. For example, an essay may be extremely unclear and vague, but the arguments of the author well-known. If the intended argument is faulty, then it is reasonable to critique it. This is extrinsic, because the intended argument cannot be parsed from the poorly written essay itself.

A more concrete example is Gadamer’s famous work on interpretation Truth and Method. Gadamer wrote about how the historicity of understanding affects interpretation. Hirsch criticizes it for not concerning itself with validity. This form of extrinsic criticism is judging the assumptions on which the work was written. Hirsch believes Gadamer succeeded in his intended purpose, but that his purpose was faulty in this matter.

He ends with a plea for critical freedom. At the time this was written, the established schools of thought argued for a very limited “literary” internal criticism (*cough* New Criticism). The main point they try to make is that anyone is free to criticize a work using any method, but it is not valid to evaluate the work on the arbitrary grounds that the critic makes up. For example, one should not evaluate Paradise Lost as a poor work on the grounds that it does not contribute to the history of mathematics.

Hirsch gets around this by saying that extrinsic criticism shouldn’t be arbitrary. A good critic understands what the intent and values of the author are, and can make a case for a reweighing of those priorities. This isn’t a question of limiting the critic, but merely one of appropriateness. To totally ignore the purpose of the author is to misunderstand the work, and hence you cannot possibly present a valid interpretation (the explanation of your understanding). A critic must found their argument on valid interpretation.

Narrative Voice vs Narrative Perspective

I’ve been on a bit of a Gérard Genette kick lately. If you don’t know who he is, then you probably haven’t studied much narrative theory. He is mostly known for his work on structuralism, but I’ve never really found the structuralists that interesting or compelling. Genette’s other major work was to almost single-handedly invent the foundations for modern narrative theory (in the 70’s).

It is true that Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction (from which the idea of “show don’t tell” originated) came first. But until Genette’s groundbreaking Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method it wasn’t really thought that the narratology could be applied to anything more than simple, contrived examples. Genette clarified the terms we use today like “voice” and “mood” and showed how they can be used to examine actual complex literature (he used Proust’s In Search of Lost Time).

Today I want to pull out an interesting concept from Narrative Discourse. The concepts of narrative voice and narrative perspective tend to get lumped together as the “point of view” in inattentive analysis, yet the distinction is important and clear in contemporary literature.

To illustrate the distinction, let’s consider an example. I write a story with a third-person limited viewpoint about a child growing up. There is a clear main character, and we only see things from his “point of view.” Now what if I tell you that the narration is done through a set of journal entries from the child’s mother. Nothing about the story itself has changed, but it seems the “point of view” should be the mother.

The confusion comes from conflating two distinct notions. The first is narrative perspective. In our example, the narrative perspective is the child. Genette would say the story is “focalized” through the child, because the story unfolds with the child as the main character. The other concept is narrative voice. The voice of the narration in our example is the mother.

I think most people are probably comfortable with the distinction between voice and perspective, because these ideas have become universal. That’s why it is kind of surprising that it wasn’t until somewhat recently (in comparison to how long writers have been using the distinction) that we actually had terms to talk about them.

Of course, you can intentionally make these the same, but this tends to be more work than keeping them separate. You often hear, “You must develop/find your voice as a writer.” If you use your own voice for the narration, which will come most naturally, then the narrative voice is you and not the main character. To write in the main character’s voice will take a tremendous effort, because you have to overcome all of your own natural tendencies and stick to a consistent fictional voice.

Also, notice how much complexity can enter into a work merely by being aware of this distinction. There is a narrator, who could be a fully fleshed out fictional character, and there are one or more focal lenses to the narration. The narrator can learn of various events in a certain order. Then they can relay those events in a different order, which could be totally different from the order in which they happen to the main characters.

The main characters will have feelings and emotional reactions to events. The narrator can have totally different ones. The narrator can try to skew the telling of events due to their reaction. As you see, keeping the voice and perspective separate can be a useful tool for making complex and rewarding fiction. In fact, all the complexities listed here can be found as fairly standard technique these days.

If you are interested in isolating various elements of narrative such as voice and perspective, then I definitely recommend looking at this classic work.

Critical Theory through If on a winter’s night a traveler

I recently read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Before trying to explain what made this book so entertaining for me to read, I’ll try to sketch an outline of the book if you haven’t heard about it. The overall form consists of alternating chapters. Half the chapters are in second person and refer to “you” the reader. It tells you how you are reading the other half of the chapters and what you are doing between reading those.

The other half of the chapters consists of “short stories” which are fragments of novels. Thus the whole book is in a sense a novel, because it has one overarching story in which you are the protagonist. But it is also a book of short stories which runs the gamut with style and genre. The frustrating thing is that you keep getting stopped right when each story starts to get interesting. There is no closure. The reasons for being interrupted start becoming weirder and sillier (and we’ll see there is good reason for that).

It starts with a bad binding. You go to the store to replace it. Every time you keep getting what you think is the full version of the book only to find out that it is actually a different book. One time you are in a college seminar and the seminar only needs part of the book to do their analysis, so no one has the full thing. By the end, the reasons become much stranger as you enter a Kafka-esque prison situation. The absurdity of the reasons and even conspiracy behind it should keep a smile on your face. As you approach the end of the book, it reads like Pynchon.

Let’s answer an easy question first. What’s up with the title? Part of what is nice about the form of the book is that it tells you what to think sometimes. The book as a whole is a commentary on the falseness of novels. Classical novelists try to give you the sense that what they write is a neat and tidy story. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. In reality, you are just getting a snippet of the character’s lives.

Calvino writes this explicitly near the middle of the book, “Everything has already begun before, the first line of the first page of every novel refers to something that has already happened outside the book.” The book could almost be read as satire in how it comically exaggerates this point by giving you a bunch of fragments of books that never amount to anything. This is the point of the title. All of the books get cut off with no sense of closure, so why not emphasize the point by making a title that feels cut off?

I think basically everyone that reads this book will have gotten that far. They will be aware of how the literary devices fit right in with other postmodern works of that time (late 70’s early 80’s). It is subtly self-referential and comments on what you are reading as you read it. People will probably pick up on the fact that the book is filled with imitation. Allusions to Borges with infinite regressions, labyrinths, and huge libraries are all over the place.

I can tell this will be a long post, because at this point I haven’t even started commentating on what I think most people will miss. I now want to argue that the book takes you on a historical tour of critical theory by example. By this I mean that each segment presents a different mode of reading a text and theory behind the relationship between writer and reader. As you move through the book, you see the evolution of these ideas.

The book starts with a very simplistic and intuitive approach which can be linked back to Aristotle’s Poetics. The writer writes a book, and the reader reads it. Novels consist of mythos, ethos, etc. Good books make you feel something, and this is catharsis. The book doesn’t use these terms, but “you” the reader essentially describe the reading process with another character in classical pre-modern critical terms (plot, character, etc).

Soon you go to a place where books are made and your simple philosophy of reading starts to become confused. “Now you understand Ludmilla’s refusal to come with you; you are gripped by the fear of having also passed over to ‘the other side’ and of having lost that privileged relationship with books which is peculiar to the reader: the ability to consider what is written as something finished and definitive, to which there is nothing to be added, from which there is nothing to be removed.” This is the start of the problem of hermeneutics maybe as seen by Heidegger and Gadamer. The book starts introducing these early problems of getting at meaning and whether authorial intent is important in interpretation.

We then start moving on to the “New Criticism.” We get to something along the lines of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous essay “The Intentional Fallacy.” The main character starts to believe that meaning comes from the reader. Calvino writes, “If you think about it, reading is a necessarily individual act, far more than writing. If we assume that writing manages to go beyond the limitations of the author, it will continue to have a meaning only when it is read by a single person and passes through his mental circuits.”

We then start moving on to the structuralism of Levi-Strauss. In “The Structural Study of Myth” he shows that you can put texts into categories based on which mythological structure it follows. Calvino writes, “What is the reading of a text, in fact, except the recording of certain thematic recurrences, certain insistences of forms and meanings?” This is a succinct way of summarizing that essay.

Then we get a parody of the Derrida school and the deconstructionist response. This comes in the form of giving such a close reading that the text gets pulled apart into just a list of the words that appear most frequently. This part of the book is pretty interesting, because as is noted, you feel that you do have a good sense of what the book is about based on merely a close, fragmented study of the words it uses.

Then we move on to the school of Deleuze and postmodernism. This is where foundations were ripped apart. In what I imagine to be a parody of the dense, confusing style of these writers, Calvino writes, “Perhaps my true vocation was that of author of apocrypha, in the several meanings of the term: because writing always means hiding something in such a way that it then is discovered; because the truth that can come from my pen is like a shard that has been chipped from a great boulder by a violent impact, then flung far away; because there is no certitude outside falsification.”

By the end, Calvino starts to backpedal a bit. Despite being a book without conclusions, I think he wants to take this quick tour through the critical tradition and pull out of the endless trap it sets up. His conclusion is interesting, because it seems to foreshadow the “New Historicists” which wasn’t a movement at the time he wrote this. He writes, “The conclusion I have reached is that reading is an operation without object; or that its true object is itself. The book is an accessory aid, or even a pretext.”

It would be interesting for someone to take the time and make a more convincing argument that this is what he is doing. I think a much stronger case can be made, and even a finer tuning of the trends in thought can be found. Since this is merely a blog post, I didn’t have the space or energy to do that. Examples that I think fit would be to add in Lacan/Freud, Marx, and Adorno/Horkheimer.

Minor Preparation to Get the Most out of Infinite Jest

I’ve been reading the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max, and it reminded me that for years I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on some of the preparation you can do to have a much better experience reading Infinite Jest.

First, I’m not doing this out of some condescending “let the self-declared expert tell you how you must read this” type of thing. I actually get asked this question semi-frequently, and I want something I can direct people to. My first answer is usually, “Just do it.” You can get a lot of enjoyment out of the novel without delving into the philosophy of the meta-fictional devices.

On the other hand, if you are going to spend a few months of your life reading a 1000 page beast of a novel, then you should be willing to do some minor preparation. I estimate a dedicated person could easily do these reading assignments in less than a week. I picked these for both brevity and clarity after years of reading everything he’s ever written and watching/reading tons of interviews with him, and reading as many things as I can that he points out as influences.

This will take two posts. One on everything and why I chose it. The other on understanding his story Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. If you are really pressed for time, then my advice is to finish reading this post. Read that story. Then read my soon to come explanation of why that story is the most important thing he ever wrote in trying to decipher why he writes in the way he writes. That story is a Rosetta stone to understanding his later works.

Here’s my reading list:
Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth (a short story)
“The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme (a short story)
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (a very short novella)
“Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” by David Foster Wallace (a short story/novella)

That may look like a lot, but each story can probably be read in one sitting, although I recommend going slowly through that last one. Let’s take them one at a time.

“The Balloon” is probably the least important of the list. This is a short story that DFW talked about in several interviews. It was a story that basically changed his life. He wasn’t a literature or creative writing major in college, but this story made him see writing in a different light. It made him want to be a writer.

Here’s how I understand this. All the fiction that DFW wrote was deeply philosophical. He majored in philosophy and as a grad student took lots of critical theory. He was obsessed with the theory behind the relationship between author, text, and reader. This wasn’t abstract for him. Because he wanted to develop a relationship with his readers through what he wrote, he needed to understand what the nature of that relationship was.

What Barthelme’s story does, which was so novel at the time, is put the theoretical considerations right in the story plainly for all to see. This is essentially a defining characteristic of the post-modernists of the time. The story as a whole has some macro-structure (“plot” if you want to use that term), but the individual sentences have a micro-structure which is informing you as you go how to interpret the macro-structure.

The story is very enigmatic. Just as you are thinking, “What in the world is going on?” you encounter characters who say things like, “We have learned not to insist on meanings.” This isn’t the type of place where DFW ended in his writing, but it makes a lot of sense why he started here. The story is difficult, but the reader who is willing to put in the effort to think about the individual sentences is rewarded by being helped by the author, i.e. a back-and-forth rewarding relationship is built. Both sides have to put in effort, which is a key idea that will keep coming up.

As linked above, I’ve written about “Lost in the Funhouse” before. You can read that for details. Some might go so far as to call it “the canonical” example of post-modernism. The main importance on this list is that “Westward …” is simultaneously a parody of it, a rewriting of it, and a tool to get some messages across. I dare say it is impossible to to read “Westward …” and have any idea what is going on without having read “Lost in the Funhouse” first. We’ll discuss it a bit more next time.

Last is The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. This book takes place over something like 10 seconds. The plot (and full main text!) of the novella is that a man walks into a mezzanine and takes an escalator up to the next floor. That’s it. What makes this so compelling is that there are about 130 pages of footnotes telling you what the guy is thinking through this whole process.

The book is a page turner. I’m not joking. It gives you a glimpse into the mind of another human in such a raw and unfiltered way. It, of course, is really funny at times, but the fact that it is funny is because you know your thoughts do the same exact types of things. You chain together all sorts of seemingly unrelated stupid things.

The reason for putting this on here is two-fold. First, DFW constantly talked about the importance of literature being that it makes you for a moment feel less alone. Here’s the quote, “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can alow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” This book comes as close as any that I can think of to achieving the idea of truly identifying with a character.

The second reason I chose this book is actually the key one. The way the book does it is not by any of the conventional means. It achieves this truly magnificent feat purely through the use of footnotes. DFW loved this book. Now ask yourself what is the most daunting part of Infinite Jest? Most people say it is the extensive use of endnotes.

We’ll get more to the endnotes next time, but I think The Mezzanine holds the key to one of the reasons DFW used them. They aren’t purely distraction. They aren’t meta-fictional wankery. They aren’t highfalutin philosophical nonsense. DFW read a book that achieved what he considered the goal of literature, and it was done using this device. If you can understand the use in The Mezzanine, then you will be well on your way to understanding the use of the endnotes in Infinite Jest.

We’re only halfway there, but if you’ve made it this far and you want some extra credit, then I also recommend finding a copy of Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace. It is a good resource if you want to delve deeper into the philosophy and critical theory of what he was trying to do. Also, DFW is trying to surpass his post-modern idols, so it helps to be familiar with post-modernism in general. If you aren’t, then The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon is a pretty short but classic book in that style as well.

Room 237 and Some Post-Modern Problems

I think everyone involved in academia should see Room 237 but for some strange reasons. The movie is a fascinating look at some people who, to put it mildly, are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. They’ve developed all sorts of theories about hidden messages in the film. Is it secretly a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans? Is it secretly about the Holocaust? Is it Kubrick trying to tell us he faked the moon landing for the government? Is it a subliminal message that Danny was abused by his father and then he kills him for it? Is it meant to tell us the entirety of human history and how to surpass it? Is it a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur?

I recommend you watch the movie with suspended disbelief to really try to get inside the heads of these people. It will make the movie much more fun. Once it is over you should then pop on over to David Segal’s New York Times article on it for a healthy dose of skepticism. But here’s the point. The movie should be used as discussion starter in academia on some issues that get swept under the rug, but used to keep me up at night (and now they do again after seeing this movie and it all came rushing back).

I’ll say up front that I’m going to open a big can of worms and not offer any sort of solution. If this is going to frustrate you, then you can stop reading now. To explain the issues, I’ll start in academic fields that are easiest to pick on like the fine arts and more specifically “critical theory.” Let it be known that since these issues are actually discussed there, I actually think they are in better shape for facing them. We’ll then discuss how they arise in “objective” subjects like math. Here it is much more dangerous because people will outright deny these same issues exist. I personally think these are issues that cut across every discipline in the university (except maybe the experimental hard sciences).

For the purposes of this post I’ll define post-modernism as the philosophical position that an interpretation of something is valid as long as it can be supported by a sound argument involving some type of evidence from the work being interpreted. Two things immediately spring to my mind with this definition. First, this idea is the bread-and-butter (at least at the undergraduate level) of what is taught in universities. We actually reward papers that take risks with original and maybe even controversial interpretations as long as the paper that gets turned in uses sound logic, is well-written, and supports its arguments with evidence. It is like we are training our students to make connections where none exist and become future conspiracy theorists.

This brings us to the second point. Even though on the surface post-modernism seems like a totally reasonable idea (again, all of academics seems based on it), Room 237 really brings to light why we might want to be a bit more cautious. Post-modernism tells us that every single one of those interpretations in the movie are valid. Just think about some student writing down the fake moon landing interpretation for an intro to film studies class. That student will get an A+ on that paper. As the New York Times article points out, basically all of the symbols and details that support that theory were mere accidents or conveniences.

Since this is a theoretical discussion, let’s do a thought experiment where we know beyond any reasonable doubt that Kubrick did not intend in the slightest to allow this interpretation. In what sense then is that interpretation “valid?” To put the problem much more bluntly, let’s take any work of art that is reasonably robust. If you have enough time, are well-versed in symbolism, and are fairly clever, then you can probably take any bizarre theory you want and connect the dots of the work to argue convincingly for that interpretation.

More specifically, if a work can mean anything, then the work means nothing. Someone might try to get out of this problem by saying that an interpretation is valid if in addition to the evidence from within the work some evidence from outside the work is provided to show some sort of plausibility that the interpretation could have been intended by the artist.

I think even pre-modern theorists probably rejected this “fix” as too narrow, because a work of art can’t have no valid meaning outside of the intent of the artist. Anyway, I think the problem in the fine arts departments has been addressed and I promised to point out how this cuts across all academic disciplines, so we’ll move on.

If we phrase the problem slightly differently it becomes clear how the problem translates. We’ll rephrase post-modernism to mean that a connection between two things is meaningful if a sound argument can be made showing how they are connected. We recover the art version of the definition by saying the two things are the work and the interpretation. When talking about math, the phrase “sound argument” should just be read as a proof that the two mathematical objects/theorems/ideas/theories/whatever are related.

I know at this point some mathematicians are scoffing. If you prove they are related, then of course they are related. Why care about such value judgments as whether or not it is “meaningful.” I don’t want to say whether or not we ought to care about such things, but the fact is that in current mathematical culture we do care about such things. Also, we could change the word meaningful back to valid to try to avoid value judgments, and I think the problem still exists. Here’s an example.

Mathematicians often use the term “deep.” This means roughly that the connection is both meaningful and difficult to establish. The term cannot merely mean difficult to establish, because with very little thought one can come up with an extreme example of a difficult to establish connection that would be written off as ridiculous and frivolous. For example, the proof might be exceedingly long and include steps that are totally arbitrary like adding 1 to every coefficient of some Fourier series to get a new function and taking the value of the function at 12 to get 145926144000 and noting that there is only one simple group of that order whose double cover is related to the Gaussian integers and so on.

Of course this is an extreme example, but now let’s just pare back the arbitrariness of this example or extend the length and number of somewhat unrelated steps of the “deep” theorem to get to a middle ground. It becomes much less obvious where the line should be drawn between something that is hard to establish and deep versus something that is hard to establish because it involves some arbitrary steps that cause it to lose being a meaningful connection. Arguably a lot of math (and other disciplines as well) do publish these papers establishing these tenuous connections. The publish or perish stress and threat I think exacerbate the problem.

Overall, here’s why I want people to watch Room 237. I hope that it opens up some much needed discussions in academia about these issues. The summary question is as follows. Suppose you notice some pattern or think there might be some connection in what you’re studying. You need another paper, so you over-analyze the situation until you see a way to force an argument for the relationship. You publish a paper on it. In what sense is this legitimate academic work and the moon landing theory is not? How can we tell the difference? I’m not saying there isn’t a good answer, but I think the lack of admitting that this could be a problem allows moon landing style theories to exist without any criticism about legitimacy from the university.