Sunday, May 18, 2008

Against science

Jonathan Gottschall admits that he's not the first to argue for a marriage of the two cultures but goes further than CP Snow by calling for literary scholars to adopt science's "theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, [scholars] should embrace science's spirit of intellectual optimism". "In some cases", he says, "it's possible to use scientific methods to question cherished tenets of modern literary theory." So why doesn't he apply these high standards to his key example?

"[C]onsider this shibboleth of modern literary theory" he says, "the author is dead".
Roughly speaking, this statement means that authors have no power over their readers. When we read stories we do not so much yield to the author's creation as create it anew ourselves - manufacturing our own highly idiosyncratic meanings as we go along. This idea has radical implications: If it is true, there can be no shared understanding of what literary works mean. But like so much else that passes for knowledge in contemporary literary studies, this assertion has its basis only in the swaggering authority of its asserter - in this case, Roland Barthes, one of the founding giants of poststructuralist literary theory.
He then debunks this "cherished tenet" with results from scientific tests. Yet anyone who reads Barthes' essay will find that the "radical implications" are only that. Nowhere does it say that we manufacture "our own highly idiosyncratic meanings as we go along". Nor does it deny the possibility of a shared understanding. It's ironic, given Gottschall's evident contempt for Barthes' swagger, that his refutation relies on a reduction of a complex essay to a "statement" and his own idiosyncratic extrapolation of the final passage of the essay:
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.
It's just about fair to imply from this that "authors have no power over their readers", but Gottschall is presenting it as an expression of Reader Response theory. The destination of writing cannot any longer be personal. What else do we share but impersonality? Rather than test "statements" with scientific method, it might have been better for Gottschall to call for more intellectual history in literary scholarship (at least for himself). The Death of the Author is part of a deep movement in Western culture. It reaffirms modernist resistance to romantic notions of mastery begun in Proust's Against Sainte-Beuve (beginning: "Daily, I attach less value to the intellect").

Just as Gottschall isn't the first to cede authority to utility and rationalism, Barthes wasn't the first French literary thinker to distance the author from his work. Fourteen years before The Death of the Author, Maurice Blanchot published The Essential Solitude, an essay on the literary work's neutrality. We can see where Barthes is coming from because, as Christophe Bident outlines in R/M, 1953, he writes in parallel to Blanchot. The Essential Solitude begins by distinguishing the author's solitude from the social world:
In the solitude of the work - the work of art, the literary work - we discover a more essential solitude. It excludes the complacent isolation of individualism; it has nothing to do with the quest for singularity. The fact that one sustains a stalwart attitude throughout the disciplined course of the day does not dissipate it. He who writes the work is set aside; he who has written it is dismissed. He who is dismissed, moreover, doesn't know it. This ignorance preserves him. It distracts him by authorizing him to persevere. The writer never knows whether the work is done. What he has finished in one book, he starts over or destroys in another. Valéry, celebrating this infinite quality which the work enjoys, still sees only its least problematic aspect. That the work is infinite means, for him, that the artist, though unable to finish it, can nevertheless make it the delimited site of an endless task whose incompleteness develops the mastery of the mind, expresses this mastery, expresses it by developing it in the form of power.

[Translated by Ann Smock]
Power is what Gottschall and the literary bloggers sympathetic to his call remain in thrall to. In their case it is the understandable desire for "relevance", a respected academic career and a book-buying public ready to afford criticism the same market share as popular science. However, for Barthes and Blanchot (and Heidegger before them in Poetry, Language, Thought) the focus remains literature itself.
[T]he work of art, the literary work is neither finished nor unfinished: it is. What it says is exclusively this: that it is - and nothing more. Beyond that it is nothing. Whoever wants to make it express more finds nothing, finds that it expresses nothing. He whose life depends upon the work, either because he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent void of the work. The solitude of the work has as its primary framework the absence of any defining criteria. This absence makes it impossible ever to declare the work finished or unfinished. The work is without any proof, just as it is without any use. It can't be verified. Truth can appropriate it, renown draws attention to it, but the existence it thus acquires doesn't concern it. This demonstrability renders it neither certain nor real - does not make it manifest. The work is solitary: this does not mean that it remains uncommunicable, that it has no reader. But whoever reads it enters into the affirmation of the work's solitude, just as he who writes it belongs to the risk of this solitude.
There is a reason for these overlong quotations. Blanchot's writing - its unique and relentless patience - is performative rather than didactic. Neither information nor wisdom is being imparted but, as Barthes says, it is writing "borne by a pure gesture of inscription" tracing "a field without origin - or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins".

Barthes, sharing Valéry's optimism, heralds the absence of authorial control as the birth of a new freedom, a new quest for the key to all mythologies. This headline-grabbing opportunism is perhaps what draws attention to Barthes and obscurity to his secret sharer. And it enables Gottschall to present a caricature of his own misreading of Barthes' essay and to believe it is guaranteed by means of extra-literary verification. Even his expression of appreciation for literature - "stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature" - indicates a patronising tolerance for literature only as fodder for the mills of science. "Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition". But in what way is "the human condition" already transfigured by the unnatural force of art? Unfortunately for Gottschall and his Monday-morning optimism, science, like religion, is just another system of expression; a literary genre.


  1. Excellent response, nicely encapsulated by the last sentence: 'science, like religion, is just another system of expression; a literary genre.' Agreed. I'm glad to see you're back on song. How's the head?

  2. I've already read and appreciated the Blanchot you've recommended thus far. Now I see I must read more. One sentence I especially appreciated: "Whoever reads [the work] enters into the affirmation of the work's solitude, just as he who writes it belongs to the risk of this solitude."

    I am bemused by: "Without a robust study of literature, etc." "Robust study." Wow. I just finished Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. Calvino would have had fun with this quote and this shaking down of the word for that "reckoning."


  3. Oops. I guess I meant I am "amused" by the "robust study." I am really not confused at all.


  4. Anonymous7:49 am

    An excellent, excellent post Steve.

    I can see one place and one place only for "scientific method" with regard to literature and that would be the approach to data gathering taken by Franco Moretti.

    There are so many books out there that sweeping historical statements about what the novel is tend to be very narrow and Euro-centric. Moretti's data allows a fuller and wider view.

    But, as with other "scientific" approaches, it does nothing to help us read a particular book more sensitively and more carefully ...



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