“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Absurdities and Atrocities in Literary Criticism

All literary theories (except formalism) share one common attraction—they speak to the universal fantasy of being able to know more about someone than that person knows about him- or herself. If you happen to be a feminist critic for instance, then you will examine some author’s work and divine his or her attitude toward women. Because feminist theory insists that all or nearly all texts exemplify patriarchy if they’re not enacting some sort of resistance to it, the author in question will invariably be exposed as either a sexist or a feminist, regardless of whether or not that author intended to make any comment about gender. The author may complain of unfair treatment; indeed, there really is no clearer instance of unchecked confirmation bias. The important point, though, is that the writer of the text supposedly knows little or nothing about how the work functions in the wider culture, what really inspired it at an unconscious level, and what readers will do with it. Substitute bourgeois hegemony for patriarchy in the above formula and you have Marxist criticism. Deconstruction exposes hidden hierarchies. New Historicism teases out dominant and subversive discourses. And none of them flinches at objections from authors that their work has been completely misunderstood.

This has led to a sad, self-righteous state of affairs in English departments. The first wrong turn was taken by Freud when he introduced the world to the unconscious and subsequently failed to come up with a method that could bring its contents to light with any reliability whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine how he could’ve been more wrong about the contents of the human mind. As Voltaire said, “He who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” No sooner did Freud start writing about the unconscious than he began arguing that men want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers. Freud and his followers were fabulists who paid lip service to the principles of scientific epistemology even as they flouted them. But then came the poststructuralists to muddy the waters even more. When Derrida assured everyone that meaning derived from the play of signifiers, which actually meant meaning is impossible, and that referents—to the uninitiated, referents mean the real world—must be dismissed as having any part to play, he was sounding the death knell for any possibility of a viable epistemology. And if truth is completely inaccessible, what’s the point of even trying to use sound methods? Anything goes.

Since critics like to credit themselves with having good political intentions like advocating for women and minorities, they are quite adept at justifying their relaxing of the standards of truth. But just as Voltaire warned, once those standards are relaxed, critics promptly turn around and begin making accusations of sexism and classism and racism. And, since the accusations aren’t based on any reasonable standard of evidence, the accused have no recourse to counterevidence. They have no way of defending themselves. Presumably, their defense would be just another text the critics could read still more evidence into of whatever crime they’re primed to find.

The irony here is that the scientific method was first proposed, at least in part, as a remedy for confirmation bias, as can be seen in this quote from Francis Bacon’s 1620 treatise Novum Organon:

" The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections color and infect the understanding."

Poststructuralists believe that everything we see is determined by language, which encapsulates all of culture, so our perceptions are hopelessly distorted. What can be done then to arrive at the truth? Well, nothing—all truth is constructed. All that effort scientists put into actually testing their ideas is a waste of time. They’re only going to “discover” what they already know.
But wait: if poststructuralism posits that discovery is impossible, how do its adherents account for airplanes and nuclear power? Just random historical fluctuations, I suppose.

The upshot is that, having declared confirmation bias inescapable, critics embraced it as their chief method. You have to accept their relaxed standard of truth to accept their reasoning about why we should do away with all standards of truth. And you just have to hope like hell they never randomly decide to set their sights on you or your work. We’re lucky as hell the legal system doesn’t work like this. And we can thank those white boys of the enlightenment for that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Poststructuralism: Banal When It's Not Busy Being Absurd

            Reading the chapter in one of my textbooks on Poststructualism, I keep wondering why this paradigm has taken such a strong hold of scholars' minds in the humanities. In a lot of ways, the theories that fall under its aegis are really simple--overly simple in fact. The structuralism that has since been posted was the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, who held that words derive their meanings from their relations to other, similar words. Bat means bat because it doesn't mean cat. Simple enough, but Saussure had to gussy up his theory by creating a more general category than "words," which he called signs. And, instead of talking about words and their meanings, he asserts that every sign is made up of a signifier (word) and a signified (concept or meaning).

            What we don't see much of in Saussure's formulation of language is its relation to objects, actions, and experiences. These he labeled referents, and he doesn't think they play much of a role. And this is why structuralism is radical. The common-sense theory of language is that a word's meaning derives from its correspondence to the object it labels. Saussure flipped this understanding on its head, positing a top-down view of language. What neither Saussure nor any of his acolytes seemed to notice is that structuralism can only be an incomplete description of where meaning comes from because, well, it doesn't explain where meaning comes from--unless all the concepts, the signifieds are built into our brains. (Innate!)

            Saussure's top-down theory of language has been, unbeknownst to scholars in the humanities, thoroughly discredited by research in developmental psychology going back to Jean Piaget that shows children's language acquisition begins very concretely and only later in life enables them to deal in abstractions. According to our best evidence, the common-sense, bottom-up theory of language is correct. But along came Jacques Derrida to put the post to structuralism--and make it even more absurd. Derrida realized that if words' meanings come from their relation to similar words then discerning any meaning at all from any given word is an endlessly complicated endeavor. Bat calls to mind not just cat, but also mat, and cad, and cot, ad infinitum. Now, it seems to me that this is a pretty effective refutation of Saussure's theory. But Derrida didn't scrap the faulty premise, but instead drew an amazing conclusion from it: that meaning is impossible.

            Now, to round out the paradigm, you have to import some Marxism. Logically speaking, such an importation is completely unjustified; in fact, it contradicts the indeterminacy of meaning, making poststructuralism fundamentally unsound. But poststructuralists believe all ideas are incoherent, so this doesn't bother them. The Marxist element is the idea that there is always a more powerful group who's foisting their ideology on the less powerful. Derrida spoke of binaries like man and woman--a man is a man because he's not a woman--and black and white--blacks are black because they're not white. We have to ignore the obvious objection that some things can be defined according their own qualities without reference to something else. Derrida's argument is that in creating these binaries to structure our lives we always privilege one side over the other (men and whites of course--even though both Saussure and Derrida were both). So literary critics inspired by Derrida "deconstruct" texts to expose the privileging they take for granted and perpetuate. This gives wonks the gratifying sense of being engaged in social activism.

            Is the fact that these ideas are esoteric what makes them so appealing to humanities scholars, the conviction that they have this understanding that supposedly discredits what the hoi polloi, or even what scientists and historians and writers of actual literature know? Really poststructuralism is nonsense on stilts riding a unicycle. It's banal in that it takes confirmation bias as a starting point, but it's absurd in that it insists this makes knowledge impossible. The linguist founders were armchair obscurantists whose theories have been disproved. But because of all the obscurantism learning the banalities and catching out the absurdities takes a lot of patient reading. So is the effort invested in learning the ideas a factor in making them hard to discount outright? After all, that would mean a lot of wasted effort.

Also read:

Putting Down the Pen: How School Teaches Us the Worst Possible Way to Read Literature