May 06, 2003

Conceits and Argufmentation

John Holbo has two nice posts up about literary-critical theory (a.k.a. "theory") and its penchant for argufying (1, 2), which looks like arguing isn't really meant to be consequential; a "therefore" in an argufment is really no more meaningful than "a punch on the nose". What he's saying, really, is that "theory" is a string of conceits.

By "conceit" I don't mean a swollen head (though that's involved, often), but the rhetorical term of art: a strained, striking, or outlandish comparison or metaphor, especially when elaborated in detail or carried on at length. Petrarch and his imitators are full of conceits; Shakespseare's fools do them, sometimes ("all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players", or Touchstone's bit about how all herdsmen are damned as bawds, for "getting their living off the copulation of cattle"); the metaphyiscal poets could hardly get through a poem with only one conceit. (There's a great discussion in Samuel Johnson about the conceits of the metaphysical poets, which is however rather long, so I'll stick it at the end.) Persian poetry is full of conceits, too; Rumi has a wonderful passage where he explains how a happy marriage is like good halva, which my grandfather read at my wedding.

If you look at theory as a series of metaphysical conceits in academic prose, suddenly it all makes a lot more sense. On the one hand, the pseudo-argumentative form; on the other, the way nothing really follows from anything else, and the hyperbolic, outlandish and absurd nature of the propositions advanced. Thus: there is nothing outside the text; or, all language is really a kind of writing (clearly one for Touchstone, not Jacques); or, society is really a Panopticon; or, schizophrenia is really superior to normality; or, pick your own favorite example from the Routledge catalogue.

Before we go on, I should make some disclaimers. (1) Not all the theorists' conceits are bad --- see the end of the Johnson passage below. (2) Not all books of theory consist entirely of conceits. (3) There are sound scholars who find some value in "theory", and quote it in their works, though I think it's usually redundant. Take Jack Balkin: when not blogging, he writes excellent books in which he invokes Derrida and Foucault in defense of his 190-proof liberal evolutionary rationalism. Here endeth the disclaimer.

Now, an argufment, Holbo says, is not so much supposed to convey information as express the argufier's personality or desires; in this respect it, and so argufying theory, are like poetry. I'm inclined to agree that theorists are failed poets, or some kindy of prosy scholastic parody of poets, though with reservations. Conceits and metaphysical pathos and self-expression are not confined to poetry, nor do I see self-expression as the aim of poetry, or even its proper aim. That just flies in the face of most of the historical experience of poetry. My grandfather writes Persian poetry, but so does everybody else of his generation and social position from Afghanistan. While some of their poems are self-expressive, much of it is just using poetry because it sounds neat, or it's conventional for the topic, or it's more memorable that way, or what-not. Things like oral epic poems are manifestly not self-expressive, because there's no one self behind them to be expressed, but no worse for that. To steal a line from ibn Khaldûn, "poetry is a technical habit of the tongue". But since sometime after Dr. Johnson, we've associated that technique with self-expression, so I'm willing to go along with John (and Rudolf Carnap), and say that many of theorists are really trying to express themselves, and would be better off as poets. (I like Steven Cassedy's notion that the theorists learned many of their ideas from poets; they are producing a kind of scholastic version of modernist poetry, which was another great period for conceits. But I've only had the time to read the introduction to his Flight from Eden, and it could well be bunk.)

Next post: how all this relates to Malthus, sexual selection, adjunctification, and the decline of the academic humanities. That'll have to wait until after I finish the papers I should be editing, instead of blogging.

This is the one time in my life I'll get to quote Dr. Johnson, so I will do so at length; specifically, the account of the metaphysical poets in his Life of Cowley.

Wit, like all other things subject by their nature to the choice of man, has its changes and fashions, and at different times takes different forms. About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets; of whom, in a criticism on the works of Cowley, it is not improper to give some account.

The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.

If the father of criticism had rightly denominated poetry techne mimetike, an imitative art, these writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets; for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect.

Those, however, who deny them to be poets, allow them to be wits. Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries, that they fall below Donne in wit; but maintains that they surpass him in poetry.

If wit be well described by Pope, as being "that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed," they certainly never attained, nor ever sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts, and were careless of their diction. But Pope's account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous; he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.

If by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it, wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.

But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

[...] What they wanted, however, of the sublime they endeavoured to supply by hyperbole; their amplifications had no limits; they left not only reason but fancy behind them; and produced combinations of confused magnificence, that not only could not be credited, but could not be imagined.

Not that they (or the people who write literary theory!) are all bad:

Yet great labour, directed by great abilities, is never wholly lost; if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme, and volubility of syllables.

In perusing the works of this race of authors, the mind is exercised either by recollection or inquiry; something already learned is to be retrieved, or something new is to be examined. If their greatness seldom elevates, their acuteness often surprises; if the imagination is not always gratified, at least the powers of reflection and comparison are employed; and in the mass of materials which ingenious absurdity has thrown together, genuine wit and useful knowledge may be sometimes found buried perhaps in grossness of expression, but useful to those who know their value; and such as, when they are expanded to perspicuity and polished to elegance, may give lustre to works which have more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment.

Learned Folly

Posted at May 06, 2003 22:03 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth