Sunday, October 09, 2005

A Problem Worth Solving

Scott Nokes concludes this very worthwhile post by asking:
"How do we [literature faculty] re-connect with the public? How do we encourage quality research over quantity? How do we move from philosophy-lite to depth of thought? How do we re-concieve literary studies to allow a re-naissance?

These are big, important questions and not likely to be answered in one or a few blog posts (though perhaps some kind of open-source process could be attempted). But I have a suggestion for a starting point (keep in mind that my kids were sick all last week, and just as they got over the virus, they gave it to me, so I am both sick and exhausted after chasing them around all day--library, goose-chasing, climbing the 'Whomping Willow," catching butterflies and swordfighting until someone was cracked across the bridge of the nose with an insect net. Also, I have, at last measurement, a 102 fever).

One problem with literary study, at least in the minds of the many scientists and engineers with whom I'm friends (and in one case, married to) is that it seems not to be going anywhere. Physics has a goal: a unified field theory. Biology has a goal: to explain life from molecules up through ecosystems. Chemistry has a goal: to be able to understand the workings of all possible molecules (and figure out what that set is). Even Mathematics has goals, though some of them, such as "really understanding prime numbers and why they are distributed the way they are" makes my head hurt thinking of how you'd go about it. Engineering is almost entirely about measurable goals. But in English, my friends say, you read the same texts over and over again, for hundreds and hundreds of years. And you come up with one theory that replaces another theory that replaces yet another theory. That's good, in that it keeps you and your future grad students employed, but it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

[I'm deliberately leaving out the counter-argument of medievalists who point out that, after a book like Mechthild Gretsch's The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform, we are moving towards a better understanding of the period. My friends and colleagues are reacting to the interpretive side of English, not the philological or literary-historical.]

Well, I think there are worthy problems that we should be attacking. Some of these have been sloughed off to the dreaded realm of the Linguists: chased out of mainstream literary studies by Babara Hernstein-Smith and Stanley Fish in their jihad against Stylistics (some day I need to write a post about how the establishment rewards people like H-S, Fish and, in medieval studies, Larry Benson, who launch an attack against some new approach that makes the establishment uncomfortable). But others just aren't being dealt with at all.

The biggest, it seems to me, is the philosophical problem of enumerating formal criteria for determining the ‘meanings’ of words or works. Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and the host of other contemporary critics who have followed them have argued that there is no way to determine if a particular interpretation is correct (i.e., you can't appeal to the author's intent, you can't get outside the text). And yet criticism proceeds apace. Stanley Fish attempts to solve this conundrum without contradicting the French post-structuralists by arguing that meaning is determined by “interpretive communities,” groups of individuals who are socially and culturally authorized to confer ‘meaning’ upon utterances, interpretations and literary works.

Fish’s argument is deeply unsatisfying because it is merely a kind of anthropology of interpretation. Give him his due: ‘interpretive communities’ with varying memberships and degrees of political power do obviously help constrain or enable various meanings: convince enough Anglo-Saxonists that your interpretation of a text is correct, and that interpretation gets taught to a generation or so of students.

But Fish’s argument does not account for the differing formal characteristics of texts that might serve to limit the flexibility of interpretive communities in conferring meaning. For instance, no matter how powerful an interpretive community might be, it is hard to imagine that community being able to establish the meaning of Beowulf as a discussion of lemurs, elm trees or porridge. The free-floating meaning that Fish accepts is limited not only by the power of the interpretive community, but also by the text itself [I have an essay that discusses this problem in relation to Tolkien in this collection, which should be out any day].

To me, these formal, textual limits (whatever they are) are far more interesting than the fact that interpretive communities can constrain or enable various possible interpretations. And it seems to me that trying to figure these out is the kind of thing that literary scholars can and should do. I also don't know exactly how to go about doing this (so I'm not yet flacking my own work here), but I'd sure like to. If we can steal some terminology from Daniel Dennett: the number of interpretations of Beowulf that can be sustained by the text is Vast, but that number in comparison to the number of interpretations that can't be sustained by the text is Vanishingly small. And yet the great majority of proposed interpretations (i.e., those upon which the interpretive community can act to authorize or rule out of bounds) stay very much within the boundaries of the first space.

My hunch is that any possible solution to the problem will have elements of Wittgenstein in it and might also explain one of my major questions about Borges' "Library of Babel": how would the intelligible books in the library be arranged? I also think that we'll end up talking about replications and inheritances and the connected facts that a) there are infinitely more ways of being dead than being alive and b) all living things are descended from other living things, not from dead things (to translate into literary studies: there are infinitely more un-convincing interpretations than there are convincing interpretations and convincing interpretations probably arise out of previously convincing interpretations) -- but is coming close to flacking my own work, so I'll stop).

This obviously isn't the only problem (or perhaps even the most pressing problem) facing literary studies, but I sure would like someone to solve it. And I think efforts towards understanding the interaction of formal characteristics with "interpretive communities" and their desires would be much more easily communicated to (and taken seriously by) people outside of literary studies.

So, all you hotshot graduate students reading this, hurry up and solve this problem, ok?


Kate Marie said...

I'd had professors who made as much sense as you do, I might have stayed in graduate school -- and become a medievalist to boot.

Glad to see the 102 fever hasn't clouded your thinking. Hope you feel better.

Kate Marie said...

Ooops. Left off the "If" at the beginning of my comment.