Monday, May 18, 2009

The Lit-Crit Defense of God

An effective way to discredit ideas in the humanities for being sensible is to associate them with the Enlightenment; there is always something bad -- colonialism (hence exploitation, the overuse of colons and subordinate clauses, etc.), property rights (hence the notion of authorship*, the fencing-in of emotions and couplets, the decline of enjambment, the advent of preposterous corsets), both of the above (the Enclosures; the desire to colonize, fence in, and rearrange the known universe; the widespread interest in physics; the obsession with water-clocks and gardens; the Industrial Revolution) -- about the Enlightenment that you can associate your target with.

This family of objections is not a recent or an academic one; it dates back to Blake ("London"), and persists through Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Dickens (e.g. Hard Times) to a mid-20th cent. poet like A.R. Ammons in "Corsons Inlet." Yeats condemned the "modern" attitude as

A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.

(You don't have to be Yeats to parallel saints and drunkards, Bertrand Russell famously said around the same time that "From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes.") On the whole, though, Romantic poets are satisfied with grumbling about reason as such. What's different about the academics is that they use ideas like the "theory-ladenness" of observation to claim that all coherent theoretical wholes, including the saint's and the drunkard's, are equally valid from a rational point of view. At least, that's what Stanley Fish does in his Times blogpost today:
Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. [...] But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? [...] I am not affirming this view, [...] I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of.

Fish goes on to say that this is how religious people think about religion so religious people are deconstructionists and religious belief is justified. Of course, religious people are not deconstructionists by and large, and nor is Fish, really, with regard to scientific truth or at least the more humdrum parts of it. (Would he throw a baby off a cliff? Why not? What's different in kind about evolution?) A closer literary analogy to the average religious moderate is a critic who believes in authorship in all cases except when the author is John Keats, but insists that Keats is "a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates." Which would be muddled if it weren't so transparently dishonest.


* This association is true. Voltaire and Swift had strong feelings about pirated editions.


zbs said...

that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought?My understanding of the basic attitude (of the two mentioned; not Fish) diverges here; it is not the idea of the author, per se, that matters, so much as the importance of that idea. (And the Enlightenment valorization, etc., could lead to an exaggerated importance). Moreover, the claim may be more along the lines of a basic interrogation as to the importance of identifying a particular poem (not necessarily arriving at the conclusion "none"). Of course this observation would not be unique to "post-structuralists" but I do not think many would make the claim that this to be the case (but likely could make a case that its political ramifications this time are different).

Zed said...

Authorship is a "theory-laden" concept that's even meaningful only in a model of creation in which authors are important; i.e. in which the author "causes" the book to happen. (One doesn't credit typesetters with "creating" books. However, when evaluating a 17th cent edition the identity of the typesetter might matter. Similarly if you think the Zeitgeist creates books, the author still potentially matters for some scholarly purposes.) This argument translates to something analogous re science and god; the laws of nature are information about typesetting, which have little to do with the "true" causation of events. My sense is that Fish is tacitly invoking Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts, along the lines above, to connect Barthes to Eagleton.

Zed said...

I should add that I believe this is what Fish is doing because he made some very similar arguments during the Sokal affair.