Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 3: Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of those postmodernist philosophers that people can name but probably don’t know much about. He’s most famous for his work Simulacra and Simulation, in which he argues we’ve replaced everything real in our society by symbols (more on this later). If you’re thinking of the movie The Matrix, then you’ve understood. That movie gets misattributed to a lot of different philosophers, but the underlying concept is basically a fictionalization of Baudrillard’s ideas.

I thought we’d tackle his paper “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” published in New Literary History, Vol 16, No 3. The paper appeared in 1985, and it tackles issues relevant to our current media environment. I thought it’d be interesting to see how it holds up now.

He begins with an observation about the media:

…they are what finally forbids response, what renders impossible any process of exchange (except in the shape of a simulation of a response, which is itself integrated into the process of emission, and that changes nothing in the unilaterality of communication).

In the 80’s, as well as traditional media today, this is certainly true. There’s no way to comment on or engage in a dialogue with the people presenting information on TV or radio or even podcasts or newspapers and blogs with closed comments. Traditionally, media gets to define the conversation, and when there is “response” to what they say, it’s still controlled by them, and they still distribute that response to you.

Baudrillard wants to frame this as a power imbalance. The media have a monopoly on information. When a response is allowed, the exchange of ideas becomes more balanced.

Baudrillard brings up the case of an opinion poll as an example to motivate the next part of the paper. He points out that this distribution of information is merely symbolic of the state of opinion. There is a complicated interaction where the information itself changes opinion, rendering itself obsolete. This type of distribution of information introduces uncertainty on many fronts:

We will never know if an advertisement or opinion poll has had a real influence on individual or collective wills—but we will never know either what would have happened if there had been no opinion poll or advertisement.

Here, I have to say this analysis is a bit dated. This statement was probably accurate in the 80’s, but with Google, and other analytic big data companies, tracking so much of our lives, we can be quite certain if certain advertisements or polls have caused some sort of influence on both individual and collective wills.

This point is mostly not important to the overall thesis of Baudrillard in the article, though. He goes on to make an astute observation that can cause a bit of anxiety if you dwell on it too much. We don’t have a good way to separate reality from the “simulative projection in the media.”

It’s a complicated way to say that we just can’t check a lot of things. If we see on the news that there was a minor earthquake in Japan, we believe it. But we weren’t there. All we get is the simulation of reality as provided by the news. Of course, there are other ways to check that fact by going into public seismic activity records, etc.

But there are other narratives and simulations that are much harder to check, and in any case, we are bombarded by so much information that we don’t have time to check it. We believe the narrative as presented. If we come across a competing narrative, we only become uncertain. It doesn’t actually clarify the situation (here we get back into Lyotard territory).

Baudrillard would later write a book-length analysis of this about the Gulf War (entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place) in which he claims that the American public only received propaganda about the war through the media. The war took place, but the simulated reality the public received did not accurately reflect the events that occurred. Moreover, there were pretty much no sources outside this propaganda to learn about the actual events.

We live in an age of hyperinformation, and the more we track how everything is changing, the worse our understanding gets. This isn’t Baudrillard’s wording, but I can see how this makes sense: we confuse noise for signal when we pay too close attention. We also get trapped in our own little information bubbles when we pay too close attention. “Hyperinformation” (his term) can lead to more uncertainty, not less.

I think we’ve come to a point where hyperinformation is at least somewhat good. Yes, for the reasons listed, it can be paralyzing if you want the truth. But at the same time, it means the truth might be out there to discover. We don’t only get the corporate media narrative now. There are independent reporters and journalists working hard to present viable alternatives. It isn’t hopeless to see through the noise now (as it was back in the 80’s).

Baudrillard says we can get out of the despair of all this by treating it like a “game of irresponsiblity, of ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.” The media manipulates and the masses resist, or better yet, respond.

I’ll just reiterate that what Baudrillard identifies as the central problem here has been partially solved in modern day. The masses have twitter and facebook and comments sections and their own blogs and youtube channels. The masses have a way to speak back now. Unfortunately, this has opened up a whole new set of problems, and I wish Baudrillard were still around. He’d probably have some interesting things to say about it.

Now that I’ve been doing this Critical Postmodern Reading series, I’m coming to believe these postmodernists were maligned unjustly. I’m coming to believe we should keep two terms distinct. The “postmodernist philosopher” analyzes the issues of the postmodern condition. The “postmodern academic” utilizes the confusion brought on by the postmodern condition to push their own narrative.

It’s easy to look at the surface of Baudrillard and claim he’s some crackpot history denier that thinks there’s no such thing as objective reality so we all make our own truth.

But if you read him carefully, he seems to be saying some very important true things. He thinks there is an objective, true reality, and it’s dangerous that we all simulate different versions of it (i.e. we filter the news through an algorithm that tells us the world is how we think it is). The truth gets hijacked by narratives. He sees the monopoly the media has on these narratives as damaging and even simulating a false reality.

His writing doesn’t even slip into incomprehensible, postmodernist jargon to obscure the argument. I thought this article was illuminating despite and comprehensible. The only parts that don’t still feel applicable are where he didn’t predict how technology would go.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge. There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard. Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world. Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge. If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.” It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 1: Lyotard

I’m over nine years into this blog, so I think most readers know my opinions and worldview on many issues in philosophy. I roughly subscribe to a Bayesian epistemology, and in practical terms this amounts to something like being a rational humanist and skeptic.

I believe there is an objective world and science can get at it, sometimes, but we also have embodied minds subject to major flaws, and so we can’t experience that world directly. Also, with near 100% probability, we experience many aspects in a fundamentally different way than it “actually” exists. This puts me somewhat in line with postmodernists.

I believe there are valid and invalid ways to interpret art. This puts me in stark contrast to postmodernists. Postmodernism, as a school of thought, seems to have made a major comeback in academic circles. I’ve also written about the dangers posed by these types of ideas. For more information, search “philosophy” on the sidebar. These opinions have been fleshed out over the course of tens of thousands of words.

I first read famous postmodernists and proto-postmodernists like Baudrillard, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Hegel, and so on as an undergrad (i.e. before this blog even existed). At that time, I had none of the worldview above. I basically read those philosophers with the reaction: “Whoa, dude, that’s deep.” I went along with the other students, pretending to understand the profound thoughts of continental philosophy.

I’ve never returned to them, because I didn’t think they were relevant anymore. I kind of thought we were past the idea of “post-truth.” Now I’m not so sure. This whole intro is basically a way to say that I want to try to tackle some of these texts with a more critical approach and with the added knowledge and experience I’ve gained.

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers. Part of postmodernists “thing” is to dismiss any criticism as “you’re not an expert, so you just don’t understand it.” That’s fine. I’m going to make an honest effort, though, and if you love this stuff and think I’m misunderstanding, let me know. I’m into learning.

Today we’ll tackle Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. This is arguably the most important work in the subject, and is often cited as the work that defined “postmodernism.” Since I’ve already wasted a bunch of space with the setup, we’ll only cover the Introduction for now. I recall having to read the Introduction for a class, and I’m pretty sure that’s the extent we covered Lyotard at all.

The Introduction is primarily focused on giving an explanation of what Lyotard means by “the postmodern condition,” and how we know we are living in it. There is something important and subtle here. The section is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Modern (liberal arts) academia tends to think in prescriptive terms. We’ll get to that later.

I guess I’ll now just pull some famous quotes and expound on them.

Science has always been in conflict with narratives.

I don’t think this is that controversial. He’s saying science is one narrative for how we arrive at knowledge. The narrative might be called the Enlightenment Values narrative. It’s based on empiricism and rational argument.

This narrative is so pervasive that we often forget it is a narrative. We usually equate science with knowledge, but these values didn’t always exist in the West. There is a substantial body of work from Descartes to Kant that had to make the case for rationality and empiricism as a foundation for knowledge. That’s the definition of a narrative.

The fact that science comes into conflict with other narratives should be readily obvious. There are science vs religion debates all the time to this day. Lyotard also points out another vital concept we often overlook. There are lots of institutions and political forces behind what we call science, and each of these has its own metanarrative that might come into conflict with forming knowledge.

I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences: but that progress in turn presupposes it.

This is a bit deeper than it looks, but only because I know the context of Lyotard’s writing. Taken with the first quote above, one might just think that he’s saying the progress of science has led to people questioning the metanarratives of their lives, like the religion they were brought up in.

Part of the reason Lyotard has chosen the term “postmodern” to describe this condition is because of the artistic movements known as postmodernism. The utter destruction of World War I and World War II brought a destabilization to people’s lives.

Technology created this destruction, and it was fueled by science. Not only did people question the traditions they were brought up in, but they began to question if science itself was good. Much of the postmodern art produced in the decades after WWII focused on highly disjointed narratives (Lost in the Funhouse), the horrors of war (Gravity’s Rainbow), involved utter chaos and randomness (Dadaism), or emphasized futility and meaninglessness (Waiting for Godot).

All these aspects overthrew narratives and traditions. They weren’t just radical because of the content, they often questioned whether we even knew what a novel or a play or a poem or a piece of music was. If we no longer knew what these longstanding artistic forms and narratives were, how could we trust any of the narratives that gave our life meaning?

And I’ll reiterate, there is a pretty direct link from the science that brought the destruction to this “postmodern condition” people found themselves in.

The rest of the Introduction gets pretty jargony.

Where, after the metanarratives, can legitimacy reside?

There is a danger that people will seize upon any stabilizing force once in this position. Authority figures can even ride this to power (we just watched this happen in the U.S.). They tell us stories that make sense and make us feel better, so we put them in power. This is an endless cycle, because once in power, they control the narrative.

How do we form truth and knowledge in such a society? That is the subject of Lyotard’s book and is not answered merely in the Introduction.

I’ll end today’s post by pointing out something very important. Lyotard seems to believe in truth and knowledge and science. He seems concerned by people’s rejection of these concepts due to the postmodern condition.

When people self-describe themselves as a postmodernist, they tend to mean they reject the notion of truth. They say that all we have are narratives, and each is equally valid. Maybe this is because Lyotard isn’t a postmodernist? He merely describes what is going on.

I think more likely it’s that this label has changed from descriptive to prescriptive. Current postmodernists think of the postmodern condition as being good. If science starts to dominate as a narrative, these people want to reject that. In some sense they see this as “liberation” from the “imperialist white capitalist patriarchy” that has dominated the West and caused so much suffering.

I’m very curious to see if these attitudes actually crop up in the writings of postmodernist philosophers or if the this view is some corruption of these thinkers.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 3: Moby-Dick

I went in to Moby-Dick with very few preconceptions. The only thing I had heard about it was that there is some chapter on cetology, and everyone finds it too tedious to keep reading. I think this is a poor excuse, because it doesn’t occur until Chapter 32 and it isn’t that long.

Since I’ve been focusing on description on this blog recently, I thought I’d give a particularly interesting description. Early on, we get this description of a painting:

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbhours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavoured to delineate chaos betwiched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

The description actually continues after this. It is quite wordy, but much of this can be attributed to an older style. One of the joys of reading this novel is to revel in how inventive the descriptions are. Melville could have described every detail of this painting, giving us a perfect image of it in our minds.

Instead, we get this nebulous, vague sense. We have to imagine a painting for which an ambitious artist tries to capture chaos. This contributes much more toward the unsettling feeling we’re supposed to have of the place than if we had some clear idea. The description also does a good job of having more than one purpose. It incorporates some of the surroundings: “unequal cross-lights” and “little window towards the back of the entry.”

The painting has an ominous whale figure in it, and so it serves a deeper function than pure ambiance. It is a foreshadowing of the chaos that is to come. It sets the mood for whaling.

I’m only about half-way through the novel so far, but here’s my general impression. In some senses, it’s not as hard as I thought. The language is dense and there are tangents, but the first half has a lot of good suspense and the story is never lost for long.

In other senses, it’s harder than I thought. I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. I have to have a particular attitude and willingness to go along with it. This is different than most novels. If you like to read, you probably can pick up almost anything at almost any time and enjoy it.

This novel must be embraced for what it is. If you’re going to get annoyed at reading detailed categorizations of whales, you can’t pick it up (or you have to skip those parts). But if you embrace it, even these sections are enjoyable.

All these sections taken together contribute to a full immersion into the culture of New England whaling in the 1800’s. There’s newspaper clippings, poems, songs, paintings, personas, textbook-style cetology, historical bits, sermons, etc. These are all woven beautifully into the story itself. It’s really brilliant and fun when you are willing to go with it but feels impenetrable when not in the mood.

I think anyone interested in writing should read this novel, because it is written with such magnificent style (unlike Don Quixote where understanding its historical significance is more important than actually reading it). Melville is a master at sliding between registers: from high lyricism to gruff whaler dialect. If you only stick to modern novels, you’ll never encounter brilliant passages like:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

I’ve read this passage twenty times in the writing and editing of this post, and it never ceases to amaze me with its beauty. This type of thing could never get published today, even in obscure literary fiction (actually, maybe Mark Helprin comes close). Anyway, I definitely recommend this one, which surprises me. I expected it to be a terrible experience.

P.S. Most of you probably wouldn’t notice if I didn’t point it out, but I’m switching to Friday posts after over a year of doing Wednesdays.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 1: Don Quixote

Back in my youth, I used to love reading giant novels: Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, etc. There are still quite a few left on my list that I haven’t gotten around to.

In the past few years, I’ve mostly read short novels. I even find myself getting annoyed when a 350-pager has gone on too long. The most common complaint I have these days is a lack of focus that leads to too long of novels.

I hereby declare this The Year of Giant Novels, where I will attempt to get through all the giant novels I own but haven’t read. I may even get some more if it goes well. I will, of course, blog about them as I read them. My list so far is: Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Ulysses. Let me know if I should do any others (Warning: I might veto War and Peace). I would like to add something from the past 50 years (maybe 2666?).

Anyway, on to Part I of Don Quixote. This novel is quite a strange beast. Say the name Don Quixote to anyone, and they will probably think they know all about it without having read it. They’ll have images of pure silliness.

They probably won’t be able to tell you why he fought the windmills, but they will know it happened. Some might even predict that the novel is episodic and monotonous going through his crazy and delusional adventures. Pretty much everything anyone knows about the book happens in the first 5%.

What most people don’t realize is that this novel was published in 1604 (according to the Penguin Classics edition). 1604! They also don’t realize how far ahead of its time it was; we’re talking about being hundreds of years ahead of its time. This thing is a tome of post-modernism 200 years before modernism happened.

First off, the narrator wants you to believe this really happened. Cervantes goes so far with this idea that in an early chapter, he has the narrator interrupt the story mid-action to say that he doesn’t have the proper citations to continue the story.

The narrator goes off on his own story. He visits a library where he accidentally comes across an Arabic text that contains the end of the story about Don Quixote he interrupted. This qualifies as Borges-level mind games (which is probably why Borges chose Don Quixote for the backdrop of his famous “Pierre Menard” story). When Barth used this technique in the 1960’s, it was considered a mind-boggling innovation. But here it is in something published in 1604.

Another example of these postmodern techniques is in Chapter 6, where a barber and a priest are trying to destroy the books that Don Quixote read that led him to his delusions (already a clever premise examining the interaction between fiction and reality, author and reader). The two come across another of Cervantes’ novels.

This nearly killed me. Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, has been so enamored by one of Cervantes’ other novels, which somehow exists in this fictional universe, that he goes mad. That’s not all. Then the barber claims to know Cervantes in real life. This means the author wrote himself into his fictional universe! Then the barber goes on to criticize the novel. This is brilliant. A fictional character speaks a critique of the author who wrote him.

I’m starting to see why Don Quixote went crazy.

On Validity in Interpretation

I have two volumes of critical theory, and an excerpt that appears in both of them is a selection from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validy in Interpretation. I just got the full book, because I’m fascinated by the argument. This is one of those things where I’ve made a complete reversal of opinion over the course of this blog. Let’s start at the beginning.

If you’re unfamiliar academic literary criticism, there was a period of time starting around the early 40’s (still kind of going on) where literary theorists thought a text could stand on its own. It began with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy, which argued that the intention of the author shouldn’t matter when interpreting a text. The text would make you feel something. The symbols and themes would mean something to you. And that was how it should be, since you were the one doing the interpreting.

That description is an oversimplification, because these were complicated academic papers making these arguments. The nail in the coffin of the author came a bit later with Barthe’s Death of the Author. This school of thought was roughly associated with something called “New Criticism.” The New Critics argued for doing close readings of a text, and this came to dominate the scene so much that we were all taught this as the only way to analyze literature.

It is extremely difficult to get out of this mode of thinking, because we were taught to think this way in school. When talking about literature, we are told there are no wrong answers. We can come up with a theory of what the book is about and then find passages to support it. We get an A if we do this successfully. What is interesting is that despite the fact that this is what people will publicly espouse, everyone secretly believes that there are wrong answers.

The whole point of this post was to point out that we recognize some interpretations as nonsense even if they are well-supported. But we’ve been taught this New Criticism stuff so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to call someone out on it. This is because most people aren’t familiar with a philosophy of literature that allows you to talk about valid versus invalid interpretations. Isn’t the whole point of an interpretation that it is personal and can change from person to person? I say no. If a text can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t really mean anything.

Hirsch gives us a way out of this bind with Validity in Interpretation, published in 1967. The excerpt I’ve read is the first chapter, and it is brilliant. Before going on to describe a positive theory of validity, he first goes through and dispels the common objections to a notion of validity for interpretation. That’s what the rest of this post will be. Note that Hirsch’s argument is a whole chapter of a book, so I can’t do it justice here. I just want to give an overview.

Counterargument 1: The meaning of the text changes (throughout time), even to the author. Thus, the original intention of the author should be irrelevant.

This is obviously nonsense. The example used to support this is of authors that reject their old work. But it isn’t the meaning of the text that has changed, but the author’s attitudes or opinions. If the meaning had changed with the author, then the author would have no need to reject it. In this example, the changed author still recognizes the original meaning as the meaning.

Counterargument 2: It doesn’t matter what the author means, only what the text says.

To expand on this argument a bit, it often appears in a different form: an author may intend something, but not have the technique to effectively convey that meaning. This is part of the argument in The Intentionally Fallacy. A text must be evaluated on what it does and not on what the author intends it to do.

We must pull apart a few distinct concepts here. If the point is evaluation, then the intention is important. We can’t evaluate whether the author effectively conveyed their meaning without first knowing their intended meaning. The other concept is meaning.

The only way to successfully argue that authorial intent doesn’t matter is to find examples where there is a consensus that a text meant one thing and the author intended something different. The New Critics use this example as a thought experiment, but in reality no such example exists. Even if these examples were abundant, then we wouldn’t need to have a theory of interpretation at all, because everyone would agree to the valid interpretation confirming the fact of validity in interpretation.

Counterargument 3: We can never truly know what the author meant, because we are not the author.

Implicitly, this argument is asking: why bother trying something that is an impossibility? First, we don’t have to be the author to claim that a certain proposed meaning is highly improbable. To take Beardsley’s own example, a poem in 1744 in reference to God, “He raised his plastic arm.” We know beyond all doubt that “plastic” was not intended to mean the material that wasn’t invented yet.

All a theory of validity involving authorial intent is trying to do is bring up a range of possible valid meanings. There can be interpretations that hit every part of the spectrum from highly likely to literally impossible (as the above example). We get around the problem of knowledge of the author’s internal states by using probabilities.

One more thing. Certainty is also impossible in science, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile to try to understand what is happening in the universe around us. Similarly, being certain of what the author intended is impossible, but it is still worthwhile to try to reconstruct the possible intentions.

Counterargument 4: The author often doesn’t even know what they mean.

The example given is that Kant claimed to understand Plato better than Plato himself. This is a subject/meaning confusion. Kant doesn’t understand what Plato meant better than Plato. He better understands the subject matter.

The other example is where someone makes a compelling case that an author had an unconscious meaning that came out in the artistic process, but was not intended. Hirsch beautifully counters by asking, “How can an author mean something he did not mean?” In other words, things that come out from subconscious processes are still part of the author’s meaning.

That’s it. All common objections to authorial intent and validity in interpretation have been dealt with. Hirsch can proceed to constructing the theory. I’m quite excited to read it!

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.

Rorty’s Pragmatism

Today I’d like to talk about Richard Rorty. He was an American philosopher that became famous in the late 70’s and 80’s for advocating a new form of pragmatism. I thought this might be a timely topic, because we’ve been spending a lot of time on making sense of data. Modern society has become polarized on a bunch of issues which basically stem from more fundamental questions: what is knowledge and what is truth?

On the one side we have radical scientism. This side argues that in order to count something as knowledge, it must be falsifiable, formulated as a scientific hypothesis, and demonstrated with 95% certainty. There are of course much milder variants on this side. For example, one might stipulate that all questions that naturally have a scientific formulation must meet scientific standards before we consider it to be reliable information, but science doesn’t have much to say about non-scientific questions.

The other side is radical skepticism or postmodernism (I know these are not at all the same thing). The radical skeptics claim that all knowledge is impossible, so we should be skeptical of all things that we hear (even if they were proven by a scientific study). I have a lot of sympathy for this side. Facebook alone makes me skeptical of basically anything anyone says, because I know that half of the interesting things I’m told probably come from a totally false Facebook post someone made. Everyone has bias and/or funding which skews results including supposedly objective scientific ones.

Postmodernism gives a bit more substance to this argument. It essentially says that we have no foundations anymore. Science can’t prove that science is getting at truth, so we shouldn’t treat it as a special class of knowledge. This “lack of foundations” argument ends up giving merit to a lot of dangerous ideas. Since the scientific method is no longer seen as the most reliable way to truth, maybe new age spirituality or alternative medicine actually works and is just as effective.

I’ll state my bias right up front. I tend to agree with the scientism viewpoint (although I’d probably call my stance “naturalism,” but let’s not get into that). Both sides make really good critiques of the other when done by a careful thinker. Science has assumptions that cannot be justified. It is merely building models. Maybe our model of gravity is totally wrong, but just happens to consistently give really accurate predictions when tested.

Science critiques the other positions as well. Skepticism is not self-consistent, because it requires you to be skeptical of skepticism. The lack of foundations in postmodernism does not mean that all things are equally likely to be true.

These differing foundations manifest in huge shouting matches: evolution vs intelligent design, medicine vs alternative medicine, atheism vs theism, and on and on. The main reason I err on the side of science is because all people seem to think that science provides the best answers until those answers disagree with their previously held beliefs. It is only then that the lack of foundations is pointed out or the bias of the researcher is brought up. See also this post which shows why the scientific method is needed to surpass bias and this post for an ethical reason to err on the side of science.

Anyway, we’ve passed 500 words already and I’m still just setting up why Rorty is such an important thinker. His views seem to just gain importance as data sets keep getting bigger and we get confused about who we should believe. Rorty basically comes up with a middle ground which is sometimes called neopragmatism. He entered the scene at a time where both sides seemed right and wrong. His position is that the postmodernists are right that there are no foundations, but this doesn’t matter because some systems are useful. Let’s unpack this a bit.

First off, if this interests you, then go read Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A quick blog post cannot do it justice. It is quite complex and subtle. One side says that they’ve built a fantastic pillar called science on the solid foundations of peer review, objectivity, etc. The other side says that all our institutions can be knocked down, because there are no solid foundations.

Rorty has a somewhat shocking response that both sides are wrong. There are no foundations (i.e. external objective standards), but this doesn’t mean the pillars are unstable. It just means that the rules of the game depend on which game we’re playing. When playing tennis, we must follow the rules of tennis. When doing science, we must play by the rules of science. There is no universal, correct rule set for all games. It is just dependent on the game. That’s okay. None are more “right” than another, because this concept doesn’t even make sense.

So what is truth? Rorty says that we can think about justification, but not about truth. How we justify beliefs is dependent on the system we are in. We know how to use the word true in each system, so we don’t have to define it. This is a very classic pragmatic response. When speaking of scientific truth, we have a collection of things we mean. When speaking of literary truth we have another. These truths are dependent on time and place (e.g. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”)

So how is this different from the extreme relativism of postmodernism? Well, Rorty would say that usefulness has to be taken into account. There is no way to get at objective truth, but some systems are more useful for certain purposes than others. For example, at this point in time, science seems to be the most useful system to answer scientific questions. Your computer is working, polio was eradicated, we put people on the moon, etc, etc. As the internet meme goes, “Science. It works, bitches!” And so even though we don’t know if science is getting at truth (which reasonable scientists fully admit, by the way), it does consistently get at something useful. There may be other contexts in which scientific rigor is not the most useful system.

Rorty develops a theory that fully admits that the postmodernists are right when they say that we have no basis for foundations anymore. But he doesn’t descend into extreme relativism. He leaves room for some systems of thought to be more useful than others. They don’t have a monopoly on truth, because we don’t even know what that means. Relativism doesn’t even really make sense from Rorty’s viewpoint, because you can never leave your current context from which to make a relative judgement. And that’s why I think he’s so important. He points out that our shouting matches aren’t about content or truth. They are about coming at the same question from different systems.