Tag: Philosophy

The Tyranny of –isms

I dislike many things, among them, the tendency of some academics (particularly philosophers) to dismiss certain arguments or statements as examples of some “–ism” or other.

In this game, one “thinker” dismisses the statement of another with a phrase that includes an “–ism” word (or an “–ist” word), together with an explicit or implicit claim that this particular “-ism” (or “–ist” claim) has already been well described, and is today totally refuted. The critical refutation of said “–ism” is an already settled matter among those cool kids who are in the know. Don’t you know?

Not being in the know myself, and being the sort of person who in any case tends to see academic “knowledge of things” as a kind of rhetorically constructed set of power-relations among privileged disciplinarians, this kind of thing just really hacks me off.

In other words, people, when you quickly dismiss anyone’s arguments (but especially mine) because they depend on “naturalism,” “positivism,” “constructivism,” “reductionism,” “foundationalism,” “scientism,” “rationalism,” “materialism,” “psychologism,” “historicism,” “idealism,” “realism,” etc., then you get to go on my naughty list. Even if I like you well as a person. Even if I ultimately will agree with you.

I understand that what I am reacting against is a useful shorthand for philosophers. It must get so tiring to have to repeat the same old arguments against particular patterns of bad ideas, over and over again.

Too bad philosophers. You don’t get to mask or fold-away your arguments by special appeals to authority, tradition, and inside knowledge. Because the problem is, believe it or not, that “philosophy” has yet to unveil any system (or –ism) that can claim the status of “consensus view.”

Or is my claim there too rooted in positivist assumptions for you?

the exhaustion of criticism and “pseudo-modernism”

A recent entry in this blog entitled “the exhaustion of criticism” (published July 9th, 2011) accused academic critical studies in general, and Biblical Criticism in particular, of exhausting itself (and its potential readership), to the point of a complete disciplinary unraveling.

I do believe that scholars working in the Humanities (Philosophy, Theology, Religious Studies, History, Cultural and Media Studies, Art and Literary Criticism, and cognate fields) face a dangerous threat of exhaustion unto death. Attribute the situation to any number of factors.

During the past century and a half the earth’s population has exploded, leading to a proliferation of new philosophies, theologies, religions, historical investigations, and artistic and literary productions. The sheer volume of potential objects for critical activity would overwhelm the capacities of any particular scholar.

Of course, disciplinary mastery has always been elusive, but today, it is frankly impossible. Given that the number of potential contemporary objects of study far exceeds the (already numerous) important objects that have survived from previous centuries and from antiquity, the balance of work to be done must focus on “contemporary” materials. And so, in this context the idea of a classical canon of important works is increasingly hard to defend to an academic audience — forget about successfully selling the canon to the next generation of readers, distracted as they are by hundreds of cable channels, tens of thousands of games, millions of websites, and the myriad options for textualized and mediated connectivity in the world of social media.

Coincident with this proliferation of potential objects of criticism, and the “contemporization” of discourse, there has been an inevitable fragmentation of academics into ever more numerous and narrow specializations. Increasingly, intellectuals find themselves separated into camps, pockets, and subcultures, talking either at cross purposes, or on parallel, non-convergent lines. Within the subdisciplines, the proliferation of work forces academics to turn from the objects that should properly occupy their energies and towards bibliographic and pedantic analysis of scholarship. Scholarship becomes scholarship on scholarship, and it seems ever less likely that we can expect synthetic work to emerge or find a broad, popular audience. Nobody is listening.

At the same time, economic practices have shifted dramatically, so that scholars are no longer in the economically privileged position of their great grandfathers. Scholarship is not a field dominated by men with wives and nannies for the children, maids for the home, cooks for their food and secretaries for their paperwork. Most scholars today lack such economic supports for their life of the mind. Instead, we labor along other servants in the service economy, being extremely lucky to have our summer vacations as the main thing that sets us apart from other typical dual-income middle middle class suburban/urban households, where children, housework, and the worries of everyday life constantly undermine “serious work.”

And beyond this, while a few exalted academics at elite schools still enjoy the leisure and economic support they need to do “research” (All Souls College at Oxford University springs to mind… it still exists), most scholars are teaching more credit hours, to more students, for less pay, with fewer teaching assistants, all the while dealing with a even greater emphasis on the culture of bureaucratic oversight for their work. Try saying the phrase “outcomes assessment” to any college professor you know and watch his or her brain start to melt inside the skull. It’s amusing.

Such mundanities are certainly not the only set of distractions for middle aged scholars like myself. We operate in the same informational matrix as our students; social media bombards us with the constant recommendations of (or banal updates from) friends, our work email inboxes overflow with “carbon copied” announcements of events and other chatter. My generation was the first to work through school with the burden of knowing about the psychological problem called “ADHD”; but this disorder seems to have been robustly adopted as a typical cognitive paradigm.

These words of mine today were inspired by a recent essay in Philosophy Now, on the “Death of Postmodernism.” I think if the essay is read correctly, it matters very little whether its author, Alan Kirby, may be correct that “Postmodernism” is a useful scholarly rubric or even a live movement in art and culture. (The “postmodern” already seemed like a dead issue when I first heard the term and tried to read the impenetrable postmodernists back in sophomore year of college, in 1989; my friends and I instead suggested that we should just be “postfuturists” and get over ourselves already). What seems important, instead, is to notice how exhausted Kirby sounds, as if he simply cannot fathom how we will ever, as scholars, come to terms with the technological transformations of text and reading practices that he so deftly identifies. He calls the new way of creating and reading texts “pseudo-modern,” which stretches the idea of “modernity” well past the breaking point, as far as I am concerned. Like me, he sees a bewildering variety in the modern show, text, and game, and also like me, he despairs at the undeniably vapid and shallow nature of it all. The fact that Kirby’s analysis turns on an apparent generation gap (speak for yourself, sir!) between today’s teachers and the supposedly different readers and consumers that make up today’s students highlights the same issue that I raise above: faced with ever expanding ranks of junior human beings, with their strange ways of talking and their unfathomable tastes in music and art, many of us in older generations are apt to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

I’d keep working on this little rant and give my suggestions about how I think we ought to deal with this desperate situation of our exhaustion, but I have to stop writing and take care of my 21 month old son, James.

Lapore is wrong about meaning in Poetry

Ernie Lapore, “Poetry, Medium, and Message.” The Stone. New York Times Online. 7.31.2011.

Rutgers philosopher Ernie Lepore writes about poetry in yesterday’s installment of “The Stone,” a philosophy “blog” on the New York Times. Something about the article rankled me and inspired this cranky response.

Lapore says the New Critics locate meaning, and the resistance of poetry to both translation and explanation, in a magical (or mystical) property of the words themselves, but his critique describes a pomegranate, examines an orange, condemns an apple, then recommends something that looks to me just like a pomegranate. Apples to oranges, Lapore.

He confounds words like “meaning” “interpretation” “translation” and “paraphrase” as if their mutual substitution could be accomplished without qualification. In general, he seems to think definitional meaning resides at the level of the word, or nearly so, and does not discuss combinatorial syntax, figure, image, denotation, connotation, nor manifest versus latent content. No mention of cultural identity, class, historical and geographical factors, codes or other vexed subtleties of discourse. Apparently he wrongly assumes these do not matter to his argument. Perhaps he thinks they can be easily disposed of in phrases like … “Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur” — but that is just silly.

His article takes on the problem of explaining the truth behind the persistent ‘heresy of paraphrase’ … beginning with a witticism from Eliot … literalism, I’d call Eliot’s quip … as if New Critics all just thought that poetry means only what is said. He conflates the idea with translators’ complaints that languages resist full translation. (If languages did not resist translation, we’d all be effortlessly multilingual). And mixes in the notion, one I find typical of undergraduate writers, and unworthy of a philosopher, that interpretation can be accomplished by plot summary.

He ends up defending a simple distinction between articulation (“perceptible” or measurable qualities of the presentation of words) and lexical meanings. Poetry brings intentional articulation in to play, and that’s why it can’t simply be paraphrased.

He writes: “Of course, we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means but since poems can be about their own articulations, substituting synonyms will not result in an exact paraphrase or translation. To do so requires not only synonymies but also identical articulations, and only repetition ensures this end.”

Notice here that what he calls articulation is reserved by definition from “meaning” … but this simply cannot be the case.

He says “the poet wants to draw the audience’s attention to … articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express” but also says poetry differs from prose only in that it can be more “about” its articulation.

Once you’ve admitted that the poet can take language and make it about its articulation, you’ve committed yourself to a robust and complex idea of meaning. It doesn’t matter if you jest, like Elliot, or dismiss complexities with a vapid gloss like “linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message.”

No poem can “be about” something other than its meaning; meaning is the aboutness of discourse.

A paragraph or so earlier Lapore had blasted New Critics for claiming that “form shapes content” [his italics, ironically] a notion he mocks as both “quasi-mystical” and “magical” … utter nonsense. Only the color blind, the tone deaf, and the naive would insist upon the idea.

A poem’s unique articulations have been brought into its meaning; manifest features manifestly shape the content of discourse. Meaning cannot be found in a dictionary or thesaurus, and you cannot even look up the meaning of poems in books.

I think Lapore is right on the money to emphasize the importance of articulation as a key way of distinguishing poetry from prose; of course an older age was content to call this music, and under his analysis, we can still call it music.

Lapore implies that an interpretation and a summary of a poem amount to the same thing, and then ends up defending a ridiculous version of ‘the heresy of paraphrase’ on the allegedly new grounds that summaries leave out the music. He doesn’t actually care to interpret poetry, so he seems not to care without caring that his conflation of paraphrase and meaning would make interpretation, by his own account, more or less impossible for more “poetic” texts. Again, nonsense. (Also nonsense: that ‘interpretation’ is restricted to discovering “meaning” on his or my terms).

Meaning must be sought afresh in every utterance, as a dog finds water in a bowl, as a parent places a hand on a child’s forehead, as a student looks at the clock. Meaning is not strictly lexical or referential; it is critical. A worker opens the days newspaper, or a believer approaches scripture. All meaning is phenomenon; it resides in the lived, temporal, historical present — the appearance or presentation — of communicative action. This necessarily includes linguistic and paralinguistic features.

To talk about meaning in things, among other things and their meanings, that’s interpretation.

Beware of pomegranate seeds.

%d bloggers like this: