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On the other hand...

I liked the post a while ago about academic bêtes noires. I have difficulty with over-determined words or phrases, like 'over-determined',  or 'reify'. But also improper uses of 'radical' and its cognates piss me right off.

So I was interested to ask - what academic words do you find consistently useful or illuminating? What terms do you find often help you to cut through a text in a way that you find constructive?

I have been thinking about this: my fetishes at the moment are to wonder what the author's anxieties and repressions are, and what their investments or agendas are. I think that the words I overuse the most at the moment in class are accordingly 'anxiety', 'concern', 'agenda'. The flip side of imagining myself in this probing psychoanalytic role is that I also want to 'interrogate' texts, or 'put pressure' on words or phrases to see if they reveal what an author has tried to conceal. I suppose I do this because it can show what the writer thinks the weaknesses in their own argument are.

Anyone else?


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 27th, 2008 10:04 pm (UTC)
When examining larger/complicated issues, I like to attempt to think of the orientation of influencing/interrelated factors as "constellated points," rather than as linear in their relation. It is also fun to see when and how they can be seen as relating in a "radial" fashion to a centermost point.

Why do I see such utility in these astronomically based, orientational metaphors? I do not know!
Sep. 28th, 2008 05:46 am (UTC)
I think this is really useful
No, I think you're really onto something. I think those kinds of metaphors are some of the most productive ways to think. Let me show you something that I've been working on this summer that I think would really interest you. I'm trying to "map" Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism—which is to my mind by the way, quite clearly the most brilliant work of actual literary criticism since Aristotle's Poetics—onto a visual representation of its argument. That is, I'm trying to make a spatial representation of a radial of propositions, which come from the text, and which are logically interrelated, and potentially coherent as a conceptualized whole. You can check out the main page to get the feel for it, but the first real sight of it in practice is here, on the first chapter. What's really useful about this way of thinking is it forces you to pay attention to the most nuanced permutations in the meaning of any given term, say "myth" or "fiction," as it functions in its relation to every other term constituting a conceptual "node" of the framework.

Also, and this is what I wanted to reply to the OP with, you can reach a truly sublime stage of conceptual imagination by trying to imagine any one of the words in any given (preferably deeply coherent) argument as, in a sense, the center of all of its words—just as you can imagine any given point in space as the center of all of space—that is, as a theoretical origin point by which relations such as distance and speed can and must be measured. But, at the same time, the universe, taken as a whole, is finite, and so is the argument. So in a more accurate sense, the depth or volume of the sphere you're expanding around the chosen point in space will, in fact, vary according to that point's distance to the center of space as a whole (which is the universe). So in deeply pondering a theory, I find it fascinating not only to pick a point and ponder all its permutations in the argument, but try to find the one truly central word for the argument, the immanent manifestation in logos of the Logos, from which all theoretical relations can be most deeply pursued.

I know I may sound a bit crazy to some, but I really think this way of thinking is especially important for English studies today. I think we need a suitable injection of space into our space-time framework; we're about to fall off the fence into a kind of temporal solipsism whereby arguments are conquered not by confronting them spatially but by merely succeeding them in time. We are a discipline without a logically spatial framework of our own; we have absolutely no idea how any of our critical beliefs are related to all of our other critical beliefs, so we call them methodologies and assign them to experts, which in science would correspond to something like trying to study the relations between animal species by tagging various sorts of animals only to leave them to their own affairs.

But I'm rambling...
Sep. 28th, 2008 06:14 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
brilliant rambling, though.
Sep. 28th, 2008 06:18 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
Thing is, perhelia, in class I know that this is his silent train of thought.
Sep. 29th, 2008 05:04 pm (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
I think that your suppositions about the universe are deeply suspect. I do agree that spatial metaphors can be transformative in helping you figure something out. But I disagree with you very strongly indeed when you say that a) we lack any understanding of the interrelation of our critical beliefs and b) that only a spatial model could provide a coherent basis for such an understanding.

But you probably knew I was going to say that.
Sep. 29th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
My only supposition about the universe was that it is finite, which is standard physics. As for:

a) Sure, we have some idea how our critical beliefs are related, but we haven't attempted to draw out those relations with the aim of systematic coherence (which is the most fundamental goal of any body of knowledge). And not only have we not done it, we are opposed to doing it for reasons not much more sophisticated than the fact that words like 'goal' and 'knowledge' are not suitably ironic for our postmodern sensibilities.

b) You're probably right, a spatial model is probably not the only way to study an interrelated body of knowledge, but it is certainly the most efficient.

I do know you disagree with me on these things, Claude, but I'd love to hear more reasons why you do.
Sep. 29th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
I don't know why systematic coherence has to be a goal. I actually think that heterogeneity is to be promoted and that in an effort to homogenise - to schematize, or institute a systematic coherence - you do an epistemological violence to each component part of the supposed system. So I am deeply sceptical that any schematisation ultimately has any goals beyond itself. (Basically I don't believe than an intellectually honest interrelation of parts into a whole is actually possible.)

I know that my postmodernity pisses you off - I just think it's ultimately more intellectually defensible. I know that you don't think that there's any point in studying literature if you think as relativistically as me. I just don't think that the attraction of literary study lies in trying to construct or inscribe a coherence where one doesn't exist.
Sep. 29th, 2008 06:09 pm (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
"Basically I don't believe that an intellectually honest interrelation of parts into a whole is actually possible."

No matter what sort of parts constituting what sort of whole? Is this, for instance, an argument against physics, biology, chemistry, and music theory all at a stroke, because "heterogeneity is to be promoted"? Personally I think the only "epistemological violence" being done would come from treating a part as having a meaning in itself rather than as deriving its meaning from the total system of which it is a part. Imagine if music theorists had specialized into those studying the minor and major tonalities and that these were never considered related to each other through the system of music as a whole, because "heterogeneity is to be promoted" and because no "intellectually honest interrelation of parts into a whole is actually possible."

"I just think it's ultimately more intellectually defensible."

I think it's more imaginatively defensible but certainly not intellectually. Postmodernism evokes the ironic mode in criticism; I would rather see criticism as study of all modes, rather than as a half-self-conscious voice for one of them. And your postmodernity doesn't piss me off; postmodernism does.

"I just don't think that the attraction of literary study lies in trying to construct or inscribe a coherence where one doesn't exist."

Fair enough, but again, why do you think that a coherence would not exist? The coherence of criticism is founded on the same axiom that the coherence of any of the humanities is founded on: the rationality of the human being. If humans are by and large rational, they are by and large explainable; their behavior is explainable; and thus their responses are explainable. At a stroke anthropology is founded as the study of social human behavior; and criticism as the study of human responses to centripetal verbal structures.

Don't be tempted to deny humans are rational. This would itself be a rational response. Human rationality means acting by and large in accordance with your beliefs and desires. Once a being is conscious, it is never possible to do otherwise; if you do not act from certain desires, you're acting from others. Without this fundamental axiom, the entire humanities is a myth. Psychology, anthropology, sociology, everything—would be a joke.
Sep. 29th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
Your definition of rationality is sliding around a lot here, though. "acting by and large in accordance with your beliefs and desires" is looser than most definitions of rationality (say traditional economics or Socratic rationality) that I've heard of to start with and then reserving the freedom of humans quote unquote rationally choosing between separate and competing rational desires as under the umbrella of rationality is another very loosening step... while the way that you're approaching crit, with spatial maps and scientific terminology, seems to me to be veering into a much stricter view of rationality-come-logic.

Honestly the reason I enjoy the humanities (and further realms of physics) so much is because people aren't by and large rational; so much of what we do stems from the emotional and the creative. And while I certainly agree with you that there needs to be discussion and fusion across critical boundaries, it's because that will lead us closer to fully understanding a work. The works that we study are the cohering umbrella that bring all critical perspectives together; there doesn't need to be an outside theoretical scheme.

And I don't think admitting that humans aren't rational would destroy the humanities. Are we really looking for universal laws of human behavior, some way to plot out in equations what people think and do the way we can know where (to use a vastly oversimplified example) a ball dropped from a height of 1.3 meters will be in 4 seconds given constant wind of .75 m/s will be? That would be it, nothing to move forward to.

Just what I was thinking, anyway.
Sep. 30th, 2008 12:22 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
"Honestly the reason I enjoy the humanities (and further realms of physics) so much is because people aren't by and large rational; so much of what we do stems from the emotional and the creative."

Either we have very different conceptions of rationality or something is very wrong here. Why would an emotional response be irrational? Do you mean that, since having an emotion is not a cognition, it is not "rational"? But by "rational" there you mean something more like thought-oriented. Or because it is not a conscious act? But human responses too can be explained as in accordance with that human's beliefs about the stimuli along with the nature of the stimuli itself.

What I mean by rationality is a general coherence of beliefs and desires. I don't know why you think this is sliding around. And I don't know why you think that drawing out a map or using precise terminology means that I am committed to a separate view of rationality.

But you bring up an interesting point at the end: no, we are not looking for strict psycho-physical laws whereby we attempt to prove that any time physical event E happens a mental event M happens. In fact, it is through the concept of the holism and coherence of the mind (i.e., the concept of rationality) that Donald Davidson has shown (to my mind) that this is impossible: that although every mental event has a physical event (e.g. a neuron firing) associated with it, strict laws regulating them do not exist precisely because mental events can only be explained with respect to the mental system as a whole; that is, a mental event such as having a belief can only be explained in relation to that human's other beliefs and desires, not simply in relation to a neuron's having fired. If I have a belief that my bike was stolen in San Francisco, it can by and large be inferred, on the basis of mental holism (i.e. my rationality), that I also believe that I had a bike and that it was, at one point in time, in San Francisco.

What we are looking for is ways in which mental events are related, not ways in which the text, as physical cause, must cause certain things to happen in the mind. Obviously that latter quest would be futile and hugely misguided. What I am advocating is for criticism to realize that its coherence is founded on this coherence of mental events: tragedy and comedy are not terms which denote the class of all physical texts of tragedies and comedies, but are the two opposite 'directions' a plot can take, either toward the separation or inclusion of a "protagonist" into his society. A reader may believe that Hamlet is a comedy; but this belief entails other beliefs, most importantly the belief that in Hamlet a general process of inclusion is evoked.

So while critical terms are related logically (thus the map metaphors), these logical interrelations are relevant for literature only in so far as the reading of literature is, as a mental event, coherent. Rationality is therefore not opposed at all to emotions or to creativity; in fact, the very logical relations between the emotions and creative impulses (happy, sad; to create, to destroy) is founded on this same coherence of the mind.

Not only would admitting humans aren't rational destroy the humanities, it would mean that we could never communicate with humans, or even know that humans could communicate. Because communicating with someone presupposes their rationality. If you crash-landed on an island inhabited by a people whose language you didn't understand, you would need to presuppose the general coherence of their beliefs and desires in order to begin a theory of their language. Otherwise nothing they uttered could be said to have any explanatory value, if it were not uttered for a reason (that is, if they were not rational).

Anyway, hope this makes sense...
Sep. 30th, 2008 12:35 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
now we're getting somewhere, and I think this is bleeding into one of our older discussions. I need to finish William James before I wander into any linguistic-philosophical discussions (especially with you!), but I'll come back to comment.

Sep. 30th, 2008 12:26 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
How and where do we tack down the first principles, Ryan? A priori: we always have to start somewhere, and the start itself is always suspect because it cannot be proven, as it is outside the argument itself.

I agree with the need for systematic coherence (but isn't that simply a part of any decent argument?), but I'd argue that any such framework which would demand coherence is a tool--a means to an end (what end? that's always the question, isn't it?) rather than an end in and of itself.

Don't be tempted to deny humans are rational.
But who is going to make the analysis? Rationality, to me, requires some sort of judge, caliber...some sort of norm/standard to be evaluated against. And for that matter, it would also depend on the circumstances, wouldn't it? Every law applies only within a given realm. Who gets to draw the boundaries?

The physics example that rokikurama gave wouldn't apply if, say, we're standing by a black hole, or in area with a different field of gravity. Newton's law (as the very mathematical principles that we're applying), for that matter, might not apply depending on the milieu.
Sep. 30th, 2008 05:06 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
"I agree with the need for systematic coherence (but isn't that simply a part of any decent argument?), but I'd argue that any such framework which would demand coherence is a tool--a means to an end (what end? that's always the question, isn't it?) rather than an end in and of itself."

I think you're reading too much french theory. :P Or more fairly I think you're confusing yourself. Knowledge is true belief; what is true, coheres; thus knowledge must cohere. (If anyone replies with 'truth' and 'relative' in the same sentence, I will kill a kitten.)

That's it. There's nothing else to it. Any body of knowledge must be coherent because knowledge must be coherent. The notion of a body provides a domain for knowledge; a sphere of logically interrelated true propositions, to go back to my highly suspect example. This body, domain, or sphere is the only thing meant by "framework." A framework is not a tool. It is a body of knowledge.

I don't know what you mean by first principles. I don't know what you mean by asking, who's going to make an analysis of rationality. Nobody. Rationality is a necessary supposition of all communication; all it implies is a general coherence of beliefs and desires. It makes absolutely no implication about the subject or content of those beliefs and desires; it merely implies that, whatever the subject, it is by and large coherent.
Sep. 30th, 2008 06:55 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
Of course I read too much French theory! Worse yet, I read too much French theory in ENGLISH (*hangs head*). This time, however, I don't think my mis-translation of Derrida is to blame.

"who's going to make an analysis of rationality."

Did we just miss the entire "project" (excuse my borrowing from the banned list) of the enlightenment? Rationality has been in contention at least since then...and I'd argue for much easier.

First principles: simply put, philosophy doesn't come out of a vacuum. Every philosopher must start with some basic tenants, which are absolutely necessary as the foundations to his philosophy. But since they're foundational, they are also analytical scope of his claims. Hence, first principles. Or as my professors used to explain: keep asking why, and why, and why until the other person is unable to answer.
Sep. 30th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
This is exactly what I'm trying to get at with the definition of rationality. You're starting with the axiom that people are rational, ie have a "general coherence of beliefs and desires."

First off, again depending on the meaning of "general," I disagree. I'm just going to take one example and run with it to try and explain. Studying philosophy taught me nothing if not that my ethical beliefs are startlingly non-coherent in a logical, "this all fits together" sense. Okay, you say that rationality has nothing to do with *logical* or truth-based coherence, my ethical beliefs might come from ingrained cultural beliefs like a strongly ingrained hatred of people who kill kittens because I like kittens, which makes my ethical belief that people who kill kittens deserve to be killed themselves (;-)) understandable. But at the same time, I'm against killing people who kill monkeys because I always thought monkeys were icky. That is, today. Tomorrow I might be in a good mood and want everyone to just live happily together and ignore our differences.

If we're calling this kind of thing rational and coherent, then I can't see that the axiom "people are rational" is a strong enough basis to get us to any conclusions about communication. The very language example you give would break down if people changed the meaning of words on emotional whim. (as I'd argue often does happen, to a lesser degree, in mis-communication incidents between people)

(I'd say someone should jump in and help you, btw, as it looks like both me and circumfession are jumping in on Vardaman's side of things... if you ever appeared to need it :-))
Sep. 30th, 2008 12:18 am (UTC)
Re: I think this is really useful
Settle down, boys! :P

(I would LOVE to be a fly on the wall your class...or do you guys only go at it outside of class?)

Ok, to jump into the foray here...

1. Ryan, I'll take you up on the physics metaphor (but for now, only as a metaphor). Still, that leaves us with some deep questions: many physicists, as I'm sure you're aware, are struggling with their own frameworks. The very idea of a conceptual master-model, "the theory of everything" is under scrutiny, and I'd argue that we're reaching the very limits of both sides of the enlightenment debate; the objects of our scientific studies escapes empirical detection, while the concepts we're juggling (22 universes? vibrating strings?) are pushing the limits of rationalism. If physics is science par exemplar, perhaps science itself is starting to outgrow the old model. The upheavals are decidedly less mathematically outrageous (Newton's model of gravity will work just about anywhere on earth, and in most parts of the universe. Einstein's model, in this sense, merely provided more precise calculations)...but conceptually shocking (space=time???!!). Essentially, I'm arguing that the very concept of a mastermodel is more fluid than it seems.

(and the universe being finite....I think...is still a matter of debate).

2. On a more personal note...that's exactly what drew me to physics in the first place. I love the undecidability of it, the wild flights of imaginative arguments (and the recognition, I hope, that an argument is merely that--something to be supported while not yet proven, perhaps unprovable). My approach hasn't changed for literature. I believe that we need working models...we need broad conceptual frameworks, but we can't lose sight of what they are: frameworks that help us understand the nuances of the specific text, rather than true representations of the "really real" (as my exasperated philosophy professor used to explain). Let's use the frameworks...but let's not pretend that they are in any sense Absolute. Or heck, anything that requires a capital letter.
Sep. 27th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
Phenomenological. That's a fun word you can apply to what you are doing.
Sep. 27th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
Hah. I'm not sure I'd dignify myself with such a word implying such rigour. It's more pop-psych than anything else.
Sep. 28th, 2008 12:14 am (UTC)
oh dear. I worry whenever I see a "one-size-fits-all" application of theory--any theory. My personal pet peeve (though I'm guilty of this too) is forcing the theory unto the literature. It's not a criticism of theory, per say, but rather of using literature as merely as a vehicle for the theoretical argument.

To pontificate (don't you love how arrogant that word sounds?) on Vard's question...I like self-implication, especially in critical text. I understand that it's (always?) performative, and can be used deceptively or at least elusively, but when it's genuine, it can be quite striking. With theory/criticism (as opposed to literature, if I can make that reductive distinction), I do not tend to be a sympathetic reader. Genuine self-implication...honest acknowledgment (as opposed to a preemptive tipping-of-the-hat) of the very criticism that I'm making as I read tends to disarm me. In the same vein, I'm sympathetic to critical writers who openly acknowledge their subjectivity, who anticipates the weaknesses in their argument...who recognize it as an argument--that is, as a presentation of a point of view, rather than God's-given-truth.

(which of course, is what also makes them so powerful and dangerous).
Sep. 27th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I suppose when I'm trying to make sense of a text or (more so in fact) to study it for later recall, I gravitate towards the summaries. Phrases like "what she/he/they/I mean is" and the like. I also have to say that I personally don't mind so much when I start reading a particular term over and over again in someone's writing (or in academic writing in general) as there are few better signposts for what someone's concerned about or how they're trying to thing about something than a recurring term... just as you describe what you've been doing. It's not necessarily overusage; it's natural.
Sep. 28th, 2008 12:31 am (UTC)
I think I've already outed myself in the last comment: my sympathies are closely in line with yours.

Reading through your comment though, I keep milling around this tangent: to what extent have we moved past (if we have at all) Barthes? It seems, both from your instincts and mine on this, that the author may be dead, but he still haunts our reading strategies. While this certainly isn't a "naively" Victionarian/biographical approach to reading, the interrogation of the text seems to entail at least a movement towards a psychoanalysis of the author.

(or maybe we're just deeply curious creatures who can't leave well enough alone)
Sep. 28th, 2008 01:37 am (UTC)
Well, I was wondering about this too - how far can this approach be construed as biographical? Or are we only interested more in the author as it exists (or can be construed) in the text? I'm thinking particularly here of reading criticism.
Sep. 28th, 2008 02:04 am (UTC)
contributing to the litany of questions here:

Are we interested in analyzing the author or, rather, in analyzing the cultural/historical frameworks through the author?

(and why this fascination with the author at all? Why can't we leave the "author" (or whatever we're chasing via the author) alone? Why CAN'T we just obey the new critics and read the text itself? My questions, of course, are biased towards my hunch: sofaras reading is a form--or merely a yearning--for communication, it requires a person, or at least a person to whom we can direct that desire for communication).


Specifically the reading of criticism is definitely an intriguing framing. Inversion of sorts? This wanders into the author/speaker divide: though we generally do not make this assumption of literature, the critical author and the speaker is supposed to be the same (though of course, when we read a critic biographically, we can see differences and even contradictions across their opus).

Take an author-critic: leaving aside the beloved but troublesome Derrida, how do read someone like Foucault? Though as (hopefully sympathetic and intelligent) readers, we engage with his questions, but we also engage with his formation of the questions...with his process of thinking, not merely the product of his thought.

I suppose by contrast, I'm thinking of (idealized) philosophy: a good philosophical debate is supposed to engage with the argument, and only the argument. Of course, that never has been true (Plato's Apology is a pretty compelling example), but it still seems to be the exemplar. Are we held to that standard in literary criticism? The same critical tools (and schools) that we apply to the text can also be read against--or into--the critic.
Sep. 28th, 2008 09:59 am (UTC)
Well it doesn't have to be biographical. Just because we recognize what the author was "trying" to say in the text or what his/her hang-ups are doesn't mean that we'll focus in on them as the key to understanding the work. In fact I think it's almost freeing FROM reading through wondering what the author meant and why he/she would have written such a thing to realize what the original intent might have been... and then move beyond it. I hope this makes more sense than it sounds like it does to me typing it.

This is what I ended up doing in my thesis, in fact, when I realized at a certain point how Moore was *wanting* to conceptualize and portray his female characters... but I thought, as a reader, I was getting a lot more out of it reading it my way.

Also the anon up there was me; apologies for not managing to log in properly.
Sep. 30th, 2008 12:29 am (UTC)
"In fact I think it's almost freeing FROM reading through wondering what the author meant and why he/she would have written such a thing to realize what the original intent might have been... and then move beyond it."

That actually does make a lot of sense. We no longer feel obligated to historical accuracy, perhaps, and we're willing to speculate on what the text "could mean" instead? Or maybe we take it for granted that the author might not fully "know himself" (thank you Freud and company), and thus we feel less obligated to discover it?

Another question, then: what does it mean to do justice to a reading? We've all seen the "bad close-readings"...the ones that are such a far stretch that it's painful to hear. But if we're no longer bound to authorial intention...what provides the basis for evaluation?
Sep. 30th, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC)
Exactly--think of it as prioritizing the act of reading over the act of writing. You're shifting the emphasis from the writer as god not to the text itself but to you and how you react to what you're reading. It also requires, I think, giving up on the idea that there is some golden "true reading" or final meaning in a work.

I especially read this way when I'm looking at a classical text. I heard so much about Paradise Lost, say, being an awful text for women to read because of the rampant sexism that runs through some of the passages. My professor spent at least two lectures trying to re-read the relevant passages and argue something like "well maybe Milton didn't REALLY mean that" and, if he didn't, then it's sort of okay to keep reading. I thought it was a tragic waste of time. In all probability, Milton did mean just what it seemed like he did... so what? There are other things I'm getting out of that work. (incidentally one of my favorites) Similarly with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I think you kind of answer yourself with the "doing justice" question. We have all seen such readings... and despite ourselves, I think we usually know when we're making them. The basis for evaluation is solid literary scholarship and thought, making a coherent argument in whatever way you think is best.
Sep. 30th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC)
Though my continued inability to log in correctly rather argues against my points in any of our discussions here. (sigh)
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )