May 13, 2003

The Literary Theory of a Midwestern Maître à Penser

The now-suspended Stanford Humanities Review turns out to have devoted an issue back in 1994 to Herbert Simon's "Literary Criticism: A Cognitive Approach", comments by humanists, and a reply by Simon. The fact that I had no idea this existed until this afternoon is probably enough to void my membership in the Society for Literature and Science. I forget how I discovered this, but I've spent the evening reading it, rather than doing anything useful. Unfortunately the site is suffering from near-terminal link-rot, so Simon's essay is in five unconnected pieces (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and his reply is in two (1, 2).

Simon sounds (as he always did, to my ears) utterly reasonable and obviously right; here, rather like the early I. A. Richards (as Paul Johnston observes), or Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson. The meaning of a text to a reader is what it evokes in that reader, which depends on the context available in memory, which is shaped by the reader's history of bodily experience and social interaction, as well as what has been read already. It may more or less closely resemble what the author wanted to evoke; much of the art of writing is controlling the evoked meaning by shaping context. The meaning of any long-lived text inevitably shifts, because context inevitably changes. (To quote one of Simon's examples, Homer can now evoke Joyce.) One of the main functions of literary scholarship is reconstructing lost contexts (in broad outline), and understanding how context affects evoked meaning. Simon being Simon, he recommended writing programs to simulate the evocation of meaning, the interpretation of texts, and contextual effects.

Most of the amusement value comes, naturally enough, from the comments. (Oddly, Frederick Crews is not listed among the editors.) Some are sensible, including those which amount to "right on!" (Johnston, Mark Turner and Norman Holland, who I clearly need to read), and at least three are actually constructive (Currie, Miall and Petitot). Others were clearly written by people who, however well-meaning, obviously hadn't really thought things through, like Janet Murray. (Bookstein and Winn, who lecture Simon about heuristic decision-making, take the prize for cheek.) Others wish Simon had written a different essay, and respond to it (e.g. Matteuzzi). There is the usual fretting about whether it leaves any room for "wonder".

Of course, it is the sheer range of among the replies which are just rubbish that really testifies to the vitality of the western academic humanities (at least in 1994). They run from macho Romanticism and semiotic noodling (Simon points out that he learned semiotics from Charles Morris), through postcolonialist paranoia, to the really peculiar. One response, in particular, could almost have been written by Andrew Bulhack's postmodernism generator, and I would rather believe it was than think there is anyone capable of calling a book The Devil's Anal Eye: Inquisitorial Optics and the Ethnographic Authority without spending the rest of their life incapacitated by uncontrollable giggling. (Nothing seems to have actually been published under that title, sadly.)

Drawing a merciful veil over His Satanic Majesty's anatomical peculiarities, is Simon's essay any good? Obviously I think so. I'd happily see it made a prolegomenon to any future theory of literature. In fact, I'd say that the psycholinguists (among others) are making good progress at building just that theory (see, e.g., Catherine Emmott's excellent Narrative Comprehension). The only reservation I have, which is admittedly a big one, is that while Simon provides a good charter for literary scholarship, he has squat-all to say about literary criticism. Critics must answer questions like (at the very crude end) "Is this a bad novel?", or "Was Millay a better poet than cummings?" (cf.), or (slightly more refined) "What are the most valuable features of His Master's Voice?". On this kind of evalutive question, Simon provides no guidance whatsoever. I confess to being a bit astonished that neither Simon nor his commenters said a word about this classic is/ought gap. I can see why Simon might not --- he was interested in describing literature as a natural phenomenon --- but why didn't any of the critics of critical criticism bring it up? Richards, by contrast, saw clearly that evaluative questions were at the heart of criticism, and struggled manfully with them (with what success, another time).

Perhaps, in defense of leaving such questions alone, one could say that they are notoriously hard, perhaps the hardest part of philosophy, and that one has a better shot of being able to give them a sensible answer if one can first understand what, or how, a story means. And given that people will continue making critical judgments, a good theory of literature might even help them be better critics. I will leave the last word here to Mencken, since this is one of the times when he really did know what he was talking about.

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment --- and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Commonwealth of Letters; Learned Folly

Posted at May 13, 2003 23:55 | permanent link

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