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901Re: [biopoet] Ring Form and the Importance of Description in Literary Studies

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  • Bill Benzon
    Dec 9, 2013

      On Dec 9, 2013, at 4:33 PM, Jeff Turpin wrote:




      In literature, on the other hand, we have (and I think this is part of your concern) been drowning in extrapolation, but for the last half century that extrapolation has paid very little attention to the “artifacts” in question (narratives).  I, too, would like to see a little more attention to the text, but experience (in lit crit) shows me that there are a thousand ways to describe any narrative text, so that fully describing the text is nearly impossible, or at least impractical, and the ultimate description would likely be longer than the text being described. 

      Right, full description is impossible. And when you consider the multiple levels of structure and process involved, that's pretty much true for most organisms as well. And yet somehow biology has managed to get along. Some organisms have been described in great detail, others have received only the minimum necessary for classification, if that. And classification itself is a way of organizing descriptive information to eliminate redundancy.

      And at least for post-structuralists, the text is whatever you say it is, so there are potentially infinite descriptions.  Hell, even for literary Darwinists a good story is a cornucopia.  In archeology, as above, an artifact description is well-defined, and very brief, and most of the descriptive units are inarguable.  In Shakespeare studies, not so good. 

      Given the above, are you suggesting limitations, parameters to the kind or category of description that will fit your new paradigm?  And if so, how do you deal with the multitudes of critics who will contest your parameters?  Definitively describing a new insect is a lot easier than definitively describing Hamlet.  I think. JT

      Either you want to give it a try, or you don't. If you do then you'll figure out how to move forward. If you don't, well then, sure, you can pick nits 'till the end of the universe. If that's what someone wants to do, then I'm not interested in what they have to say. I stuck an addendum to that effect on yesterday's post, Center Point Construction: Description and Objectivity. 

      If you start comparing texts with one another, for example,the process of comparison will suggest categories to you. That's what I've been doing with these center point texts. And that work doesn't require anything approaching complete description, though, as a practical matter, I've done quite a bit of work on my example texts, more than is directly present in these current posts.

      I didn't just start pulling arbitrary features out of a hat in order to do that work. I got started through correspondence with Mary Douglas, who in turn had immersed herself in an existing literature while doing her own work (mostly on Old Testament texts). So I took the rules of thumb that she had developed and then applied them to other cases, making modifications as I felt necessary. You do what scholars do, you build on the work of your predecessors. Beyond that, raid cognitive science and evolutionary psychology for clues to the sorts of things to look for. 

      The profession does have a lot of descriptive knowledge. But we haven't been systematic about organizing it or building on it. To the extent that I'm proposing a new paradigm, that's it. Well, there's a bit more, a couple of years ago I sketched some things out in a long essay (or short monograph) Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. But it's not the sort of thing that requires a lot of complicated knowledge before you can get started. You learn to do this sort of thing by following examples.

      A couple of years ago J. Hillis Miller, the deconstructionist, gave an interview to The Minnesota Review. It's worth checking out. In particular he talked about Burke and Derrida. What he learned from Burke was how to notice things, patterns, in texts. The same with Derrida. He thought that Derrida was a very great literary critic and that the patterns he found in texts were even more important than the concepts he created to rationalize those patterns. It's the patterns first.

      What it mostly requires is faith that there's a world out there and that we can know it. That and a willingness to do the work. There aren't any miracles here, no magic bullets, and no key to all mythologies.


      Bill B


      From: biopoet@yahoogroups.com [mailto:biopoet@yahoogroups.com] On Behalf Of Bill Benzon
      Sent: Monday, December 09, 2013 12:52 PM
      To: PSYARTS the Arts; Cognitive Literature Assn; Biopoetics
      Subject: [biopoet] Ring Form and the Importance of Description in Literary Studies



      In a way this is a follow-up to me short post on the still-born "revolution" in literary studies that's been spinning around for the last two decades or so. In that post I called for description, which is foundational to literary studies in the way that description was (and still is) foundational to biology. Where would Darwin have been without thousands  of descriptions of life forms that had been created in the previous few centuries?


      But you can't give prescriptions on how to do descriptions. You need examples. That's what the links here are about. In this post I demonstrate that four very different texts _ "Kubla Khan", Tezuka's Metropolis, Heart of Darkness, and Apocalypse Now – all share center point construction and all have an emblem that can stand for the whole:




      In the next post I use the examples in the previous post to argue that it is possible to create a body of descriptive knowledge about literary forms that is  rigorous, rich, and objective. 


      Center Point Construction: Description and Objectivity


      Finally, here's a link to a working paper where I do some of the spade work on Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now:


      Myth: From Lévi-Strauss and Douglas to Conrad and Coppola


      With regards,


      Bill B


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