Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Positivism and Post-Potter Revelations

This post is a continuation of a discussion in the comboxes on Darwin's earlier Harry Potter post.

It seems to me that two discussions are going on at the same time: the question of the validity of Rowling's post-series revelation that Dumbledore is gay (as in, he once had a crush on a guy); and the issue of positivism as it relates to a text. The two may or may not be related.

First, what exactly is positivism? Commenter Zippy used the term in his first reponse:
"But the idea that Dumbledore's gayness is only pertinent if it can be verified in the canonical text (using some unspecified verification procedure) is a form of positivism; and you probably know what I think of positivism. Sola the canonical text doesn't work any better as a theory of meaning in literature than it does as a theory of meaning in theology." When I asked for a further clarification of positivism, he replied: "For the purposes of this discussion, by "positivist" I mean someone who believes that a text taken alone is meaningful."

Wikipedia tells me that "Positivism is a philosophy that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method." The American Dictionary of Cultural Heritage defines positivism thusly: "An approach to philosophy frequently found in the twentieth century. Positivists usually hold that all meaningful statements must be either logical inferences or sense descriptions, and they usually argue that the statements found in metaphysics, such as “Human beings are free” or “Human beings are not free,” are meaningless because they cannot possibly be verified by the senses."

Now perhaps there is a theory of literary positivism not covered by my above sources, but I wonder if positivism can be applied to a work of fiction. Since the writing of fiction is an act of sub-creation (in that the author is [or ought to be] constructing a fictive world in which his characters and plot advance) it's incumbent on the author to develop his narrative in such as way that it's coherent enough to be understood in and of itself, and then allow it stand on its own. The story ceases to exist simply in the mind of the author and begins to exist in the mind of the reader as well, and the reader, before grappling with appendices, post-scripts or revisions, must first grapple with the book that is presented to him.

In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers says that "For the reader, that is, the book itself is presented as a three-fold being": the book as Thought (that is, the book in the mind of the author); the book as Written; and the book as Read. The author is of course free to later expostulate on the ideas and motivations and sources that induced him to write the characters as he did, but the fact remains that the reader encounters what the author has chosen to write.

So positivism doesn't really seem to be a useful description of the kind of criticism that involves by comparing a statement about the book (even if made by the author) with the book itself and saying, "Eh, not so much." The text has to be jumping-off point for discussion, or else there's nothing to discuss. Perhaps a better comparison is that the text is magisterial, and that authorial press conferences are like private revelations?

Now as to Potter. The issue with Rowling's outing of Dumbledore (as I see it) is that it is indeed a revelation: the story that she created and published bears no reference to homosexuality. The events that would seem to justify her revelation -- a young man gets excited by the ideas of another young man, and is led into endorsing some Bad Ideas -- are more convincingly and satisfyingly explained by the motivation contained within the work itself: pride. "But I loved him!" is less interesting from the point of character development than "I'm better than all you fools, and the fact that this charismatic figure here agrees with me is proof!" If, as she was writing the novel (for given her plot innovations with each successive novel, it's improbable that she came up with the "gay" idea before she wrote book 7) she suddenly realized that Dumbledore was inclined to man-love, she was careful to put no hint of it into the book itself.

In that case, it becomes gnostic knowledge, unknowable except to the fans who will remember this press conference after it fades from public memory (say, next year). But frankly, evaluating literature in terms of gnosticism or positivism seems to stretch those terms far enough past their definitions that they just become jargon to sling around.

54 comments:

Anonymous said...

Zippy has a certain monomania about positivism. If he gets on a kick about something or other, you know that positivism will eventually be denounced as the ultimate cause of whatever he's opposing or the ultimate source of opposition to whatever he's promoting. It's like Morning's Minion and Calvinism except more severe, univocal, and unyielding.

zippy said...

Zippy has a certain monomania about positivism.

And postmodernism too, as the other side of the coin. Guilty as charged. They are the defining intellectual (or really anti-intellectual) errors of our age, and have roots going at least back to Ockham.

I'm not the only person who thinks it is important to understand positivism as a modern error which unnaturally truncates knowledge:

'The abandonment of Europe's Christian roots implies the abandonment of the idea of "Europe" as a civilisational enterprise constructed from the fruitful interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. This infidelity to the past has led, in turn, to a truncated idea of reason, and of the human capacity to know, however imperfectly, the truth of things, including the moral truth of things. There is a positivism shaping (and mis-shaping) much of Western thought today -- a positivism that excludes all transcendent moral reference points from public life.' -- Pope Benedict XVI

Now granted, if there is an area where one would tend to think that the positivism-postmodern modality of modern thought might reduce to irrelevance it is in literary criticism. But truth is a unity. If literary criticism involves knowledge, then fundamental errors in the nature of knowledge will have its impact there as elsewhere. And if literary criticism doesn't involve any knowledge then we wouldn't be able to know anything about it at all.

CMinor said...

You may well be right about the Book 7 connection, MrsD. There's a humorous piece in the 10/23 LA Times on "Seven Clues That Dumbledore Was Gay" in which the seventh clue was that nobody, not even most of the series' most assiduous readers, had any idea he was!

Statements like "...his ideas caught me, Harry, inflamed me!" don't add up to a physical relationship with G, unless the author then expects me to assume that Hitler and Goebbels were doing more than just washing up in the beer hall lavatory as well.

Tolkein was known for similar commentaries (though I can't think of anything he might have said touching on characters' sexuality except maybe objecting that the elves in the cartoon version of LOTR weren't very masculine) and while I don't think his input can be discounted out of hand, some things have to be taken with a pinch of salt. While he claimed LOTR wasn't Christian allegory the symbolism in it is hard to ignore. He probably didn't get up in the morning saying, "let's symbolically rewrite the Passion today," but Christianity was such a part of his psyche, if you will, that keeping it out of his stories would have been impossible.

You'd think if Rowling had a character's sexuality in mind, it would have come out in something a little more tangible than "the boys really took to each other" (I have boys. Boys take to each other. Especially if they have similar interests, like starting a band or world domination.) I think it's possible she may have wanted to create a gay character, but didn't have the nerve to write him that way in the book. Or maybe she was being a little too Brideshead Revisitedy.

zippy said...

Darwin (and Mrs. Darwin, for that matter): you might also be interested in Pope Benedict's recent criticism of legal positivism.

Naturally the Holy Father's main concerns with positivism reflect in concern for the public good, faith, and morals. But again, if truth is a unity and positivism reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of true knowledge, one would expect its effects to be pervasive.

Darwin said...

Zippy,

Naturally the Holy Father's main concerns with positivism reflect in concern for the public good, faith, and morals. But again, if truth is a unity and positivism reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of true knowledge, one would expect its effects to be pervasive.

Well of course, I have significant problems with legal positivism. (And scientific positivism, in the absolute rather than methodological sense.)

But you've only got a leg to stand on in that respect if you're correct that the main object in literature is not the written text, but rather that which resides in the author's head.

This actually strikes me as something of a Romantic idea, stemming from the "artist as hero" concept. This was in turn a reaction to the Englightenment error (think Montaigne) that anyone who managed to think something (say, a student reading Plato) was thus at the same level as the original thinker (Plato).

However, if, as I think, the ancient and medieval approach to literature tended to see the text (and to an extent the meaning which the reader could take from the text regardless of authorial intent) as the primary object in literature, then the truly ancient and Western approach to literature centers on the text qua text, not some ideal within the author's head. (I mean honestly, no one sat around wondering what Homer thought -- people just took what they found in the text and went with it.)

Considering the text as the primary object in fiction is only "positivism" in any sense if one assumes that the "reality" of the story is something _other_ than the text.

zippy said...

However, if, as I think, the ancient and medieval approach to literature tended to see the text (and to an extent the meaning which the reader could take from the text regardless of authorial intent) as the primary object in literature, ...

I recommend the addition of The Wycliffite Heresy by Ghosh to your library, for some perspective on medieval interpretation of texts.

Literacy-chic said...

You know, I'm not sure, but I think that at this point I'm qualified to make the observation that what Zippy is talking about has no basis in the actual realm of literary criticism as it exists in academia. "Positivism" is not useful in literary studies to my knowledge, and postmodernism is used in quite a different sense than how Zippy seems to be meaning it. Indeed, as I pointed out, the deconstruction of language is something that would be associated with postmodernism, and that is what Zippy is essentially upholding by saying that words are meaningless in themselves.

In what universe, might I ask, has Zippy studied literary criticism? Reading "libraries" worth of fiction is not quite the same thing, nor is taking to heart the Pope's comments about the legal system, or reading about medieval interpretation of texts.

Literacy-chic said...

A postmodern is someone who realizes that this is going on but refuses to give up on "the text alone" for a variety of reasons about which we can speculate, but which are often connected to the fact that giving up "the text alone" means accepting some extra-textual authority without which meaning is literally impossible.

Incidently, this is not how postmodernism is used in literary theory. Postmodern theory, indeed, seeks to undermine the text rather than uphold it, sometimes going so far as to assert that the contradictory currents of meaning that exist both within and outside of the text render creation of meaning impossible. But that's only one thread of postmodern criticism, and not one that is considered particularly useful anymore. So I repeat, where are you getting this stuff?

Literacy-chic said...

Darwin,

To reply to this comment of yours,

the ancient and medieval approach to literature tended to see the text [...] as the primary object in literature,

my expertise is not in ancient/medieval lit, though I have dabbled, but my understanding is that the textual criticism of the Middle Ages (which was generally Biblical in focus) was allegorical, and so did actively seek meaning (usually more philosophical and theological, though sometimes spiritual and inspirational) outside of the text in order to attain the highest possible meaning of the text, which was seen as having multiple layers of meaning.

Also, the technologies of manuscript writing (and rewriting, and overwriting) did not lend themselves particularly well to textual authority in the way we perceive it post-Gutenberg (and post-post-Gutenberg). So really, our attachment to the exact words as written by a definite author came a bit later, and then semiotics elucidated the tenuous relationship between the sign, signified, and signifier, and deconstruction told us that none of it mattered anyway because it was all contradictory and negated meaning! But in the real world of literary criticism, as it exists today, if it's not in the text, it's not important unless, in this case, you happen to be a Queer Theory specialist. Feminist theory gets away with a lot in this regard, too.

Darwin said...

my understanding is that the textual criticism of the Middle Ages (which was generally Biblical in focus) was allegorical, and so did actively seek meaning (usually more philosophical and theological, though sometimes spiritual and inspirational) outside of the text in order to attain the highest possible meaning of the text, which was seen as having multiple layers of meaning.

I think we're in agreement here, and in your earlier comments. Certainly, medieval interpretation doesn't seem to have focused on "only what can be found in the text" (nor would I, necessarily) but it does seem to me that the text was very specifically used as the jumping-off point for (sometimes wild) speculation. There certainly wasn't a sense of the "mind of the author" that they actively sought to discern.

I would tend to take the medieval tendency to both modify texts and also to come up with wild and complex interpretations that could not possibly have been in the mind of the author to be an example of seeing the text (and the story it conveys to the reader) as an object which can then be worked from based on one's own frame of reference in understanding the world (in their case, a very Aristotelian Christianity.)

Literacy-chic said...

Exactly. I must have misread your earlier comment--I thought you were saying that medieval/ancient criticism was text-based (which I guess I was taking to mean, in the way we understand text-based criticism).

The "mind of the author" thing, as I believe you said somewhere else, is a definite Romantic innovation. The authorial mystique is what yields poems like "Kubla Khan," for example, with Coleridge's famous (and false) story of its inception and the "visit" that interrupted his "dream," resulting in an unfinished poem. While it makes an interesting story, it has nothing to do with the content of the poem.

Rick Lugari said...

I don't read HP, nor do I intend to, and frankly I'm a little amused by all the brouhaha. Nevertheless, I have been paying some attention to the various arguments and analogies put forth. Some are very good (on both sides of the debate) and worthy of consideration. And as a somewhat removed observer, I've noticed a bit of a trend. It would seem that those who have a more cynical view of Rowling's intentions (regarding her remarks) fall on the "text is what it is" side of the argument. It just seems that way to me, and I think since I share in some of that cynicism, I'm a little more persuaded by the "text" argument - at least in this case. It seems both ideas can be correct depending on the nature of a work and/or the character of the author.

So here's my hand at analogizing this. I should also note that I consider Chesterton's remark valid when he says "words are deeds". Anyway, I'm thinking of lies and oaths. Everyday we hold people accountable for their words. We assume that their words have a reasonable measure meaning to our own. If the author's interpretation of his words are always valid, then conceivably we could never try someone for perjury. When caught in a lie, the person can "interpret what they really meant to say", and who would be able to dispute it? Likewise with an oath; what good is an oath if the person later claims that they meant something far different from the words they used?

Now, I don't doubt that the consumer of a work can come to a different conclusion than the author about what a work is about or the intention behind it. It happens all the time in poetry and song lyrics, and I consider that actually a good quality in a work, but the words are what they are and regardless of what they may say about their work, the author is bound by their words and there is only a certain degree of clarification that can accompany them before it becomes absurd or a lie.

zippy said...

You know, I'm not sure, but I think that at this point I'm qualified to make the observation that what Zippy is talking about has no basis in the actual realm of literary criticism as it exists in academia.

That is no surprise. Literary criticism as an independent discipline doesn't interest me even slightly. Epistemology interests me quite a lot, and epistemic issues arise in and have an impact upon all disciplines. So if the claim is that Zippy's epistemic terminology doesn't match the ingrown terminology of academic literary criticism, I'd stipulate without the slightest surprise or resistance.

Postmodern theory, indeed, seeks to undermine the text rather than uphold it, ...

It is even worse than that makes it appear. Lets talk about postmodern theory at the deep epistemic level, as opposed to the fashionable academic level in which it talks about itself and its ctitics talk about it.

Postmodern theory doesn't seek to undermine text, it actually believes text to be arbitrary as it pertains to meaning. (Positivist critics of postmodernism make the mistake of thinking that postmoderns do not believe the insanity they say they believe, but it is always a mistake to think that entire swaths of people are universally superficial liars when they tell you what they believe). That is because a postmodern is a positivist who has come to realize and truly appreciate that a story (or whatever meaning-content we are discussing) is not the text, but an interpretation of the text. And if meaning resides in an interpretation rather than the text itself - if reading a text requires us to be passively accepting of the authority of an author and a hermeneutic tradition - why that means that we as an autonomous modern individual are actually required to submit to an authority in order for stories or scientific textbooks or Bibles to have any meaning at all. And that is simply impossible, because we are self-made autonomous free and equal supermen. We don't submit to the vagueries of human authority, unverifiable metaphysics, and nonexplicit tradition. To do so would be to cease to exist as a free and equal modern superman. Submitting to God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons is impossible for the modern superman without him ceasing to exist as superman. So rather than accepting that the meaning of a text is an authoritative interpretation, the postmodern concludes that the meaning of a text is an arbitrary interpretation.

zippy said...

And this, by the way, shows how the "text alone" Potterpositivists are also postmodern. No Potter positivist has to passively accept an outside authority, not even the authority of the author herself speaking right in the Potterpositivist's face (and, taking into account Rick Lugari's comment, presumed not to be lying) on the meaning of the text: he is himself the final and ultimate arbiter of the meaning of the text for his own purposes. So at bottom, the positivist and the postmodern are in agreement. They think that they are diametrically opposed to each other, when in fact they are just two sides of the same coin.

Literacy-chic said...


Postmodern theory doesn't seek to undermine text, it actually believes text to be arbitrary as it pertains to meaning.


This is merely a statement of why postmodern theory seeks to undermine the text.

What I now fail to understand is (1)if you accept that the "meaning of the text is an authoritative interpretation," how you can stand up on the side of the author who attributes meaning to the text after the fact as having some kind of external authority that we must accept in order to avoid the twin evils of positivism and postmodernism, and (2)if your real concern is with epistemology (in which my colleagues dabble, but which has little use in literary theory, as far as I'm concerned, and transforms literature into a vehicle for discussing something much, much different), why you are cloaking this concern in terms of literary criticism, which term you have invoked all through this discussion?

The "God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons" notion is interesting in philosophy and theology, and in its own right, but can not really be applied to literature--or at any rate, literature can not productively be discussed in these terms. Tolkien and others have demonstrated the ways in which this can work in literature, but it depends on the willingness of the author to take on a role as sub-creator that acknowledges a Creator. So we can read Tolkien this way, and Chesterton perhaps, and Dante. But why bother? They made that point themselves, and it is borne out in the texts they actually wrote, not just in an empty statement that this is what they were doing that can't be substantiated. So we can look at them and say, "hey, cool!" and move along. If you wanted to apply the "God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons" notion to all of literary history, that would be a completely different undertaking, and might yield something worth talking about. But authors--individual authors--create fictions. Sometimes these fictions are contained in texts. Sometimes they create fictions about their texts (as in Coleridge and Rowling, and any number of other authors). Sometimes all of their fictions willfully defy any notion of God--of the external authority under which they are sub-creators, if we choose to use Tolkien's term (which, to be fair, was only used in reference to fantasy literature). This is not to say that taken as a whole, everything ever written is not in accord with the will of that Creator. (I am reminded of Tolkien and the way in which Illuvatar maintained harmony in spite of the deviations of Melkor in the initial song of the spheres.) However, that sense of external authority can not really operate on the level of author and text without becoming very, very skewed. At their worst, authors are often big, fat liars and publicity seekers; on the other hand, they are frequently simply unaware of the influences of external forces on their own works, so saying "this isn't what I was thinking about" doesn't necessarily preclude the influence of that idea on the work. Having said this, there are some authors whose words I trust more than others, but not insofar as I would take as Gospel anything that they said, even if I couldn't find textual evidence to support the claim.

Literacy-chic said...

And this, by the way, shows how the "text alone" Potterpositivists are also postmodern. No Potter positivist has to passively accept an outside authority, not even the authority of the author herself

Ummm... No, it doesn't, since this whole rant is based on a false analogy of author-as-authority over a text in the same way that God-is-authority over Creation. So I suppose it is an article of faith that anything an author says about the text is part of the overall act of creation of the text? Is this, perhaps, the root of where we differ?

zippy said...

This is merely a statement of why postmodern theory seeks to undermine the text.

No it isn't. That is just rhetorical "comfort food" for the positivist. From the postmodern's perspective the very idea that he is "undermining the text" is incoherent.

...how you can stand up on the side of the author who attributes meaning to the text after the fact as having some kind of external authority that we must accept in order to avoid the twin evils of positivism and postmodernism, ...

I am neither postmodern nor positivist. My position is not "the text does nothing with respect to communicating meaning", which would be an odd (read: postmodern) position to adopt while typing text into a combox in order to communicate something.

...why you are cloaking this concern in terms of literary criticism, which term you have invoked all through this discussion?

I don't think it is fair to suggest that I am "cloaking" anything. I've been quite straightforward in answering questions as directly as possible.

The "God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons" notion is interesting in philosophy and theology, and in its own right, but can not really be applied to literature--or at any rate, literature can not productively be discussed in these terms.

When you say that, what I hear is "truth has no bearing on literature", which I take to be self-evidently (indeed self-refutingly) false.

Literacy-chic said...

It is clear that you are very selective in your responses, and that you reduce the two words, "postmodernism" and "positivism" to complete arbitrariness and meaninglessness, basically assigning them to mean "bad" at will--particularly when labeling other commentors. So what you hear is "truth (or do you mean Truth?) has no bearing on literature." Who cares if that's what you hear? All you hear is postmodernism and positivism, after all.

zippy said...

It is clear that you are very selective in your responses, ...

What important point have you made which you believe I have ignored? And why presume that I'm responding in bad faith? If you think I've ignored something critical, why not say "Zippy, you've ignored the critical point I made above that..."

I used the "when you say...I hear" language in order to be careful not to attribute something to you that you weren't saying, by the way. People tend to get testy about that kind of thing, even if the meanings they have asserted in fact do imply the inference.

Literacy-chic said...

Okay then, please be aware that you are ignoring the entire paragraph in which I explain exactly how the "God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons" notion relates to literature--you know, all of those black marks that follow the part of my post that you quote & take to mean that truth is not relevant. You can't miss it; it takes up a lot of space.

zippy said...

OK, perhaps you thought I was ignoring this:

...how you can stand up on the side of the author who attributes meaning to the text after the fact as having some kind of external authority that we must accept in order to avoid the twin evils of positivism and postmodernism, ...

If I understand correctly, "after the fact" here is equivocal. That is, there are two distinct possibilities, which Rick Lugari's post also raises above: either the author really did mean to write Dumbledore as gay, or, at the time she was writing, she didn't mean to do so, but rather is making this up after the fact for some extraneous purpose. (Yes, there are additional possibilities in the gray areas between, but for my purposes here the point can be made).

Now, the author herself presumably knows this, setting aside the psychology of the unconscious and epistemic concerns about self-knowledge and all that. But we have no way of directly verifying whether or not she is telling the truth, nor the particular manner in which she knows it, etc. So we have to trust her. In order to have access to the actual meaning in her story, we have to be passive and trusting.

Now Darwin can always "take control" of the story himself and decide that he doesn't like the meaning (story) that she told, and remake it in a way he likes better. He can do this because this is fiction, and he is capable of writing fiction too. But if he relenquishes the role of story-receiver and takes on the role of story-writer in an act of literary masturbation that doesn't mean that Rowling's Dumbledore isn't gay. It means that Darwin's rewritten Dumbeldore isn't gay; and the reason this is always a bit unsatisfying is that it requires us, not to perform the "fill in the blanks" role natural to the passive reader but to reject and "rework" the meanings as a positive actor. This is why a bad sequel can sour us on a good movie more generally, if you will.

Darwin and I had an argument some time ago about the Clean Flicks lawsuit, and this discussion has definitely helped me to understand where he and Steven Riddle were coming from better. The difference I think is that editing the crap out of movies and repurposing them is to make a different movie. It isn't to make a different movie for onesself but rather to do so for airline consumption or consumption by children; this is a consequence of the consumerization of art. But I do "get" where they were coming from better now, and I better understand the notion of artistic integrity they were attempting to uphold.

zippy said...

Okay then, please be aware that you are ignoring the entire paragraph in which I explain exactly how the "God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons" notion relates to literature...

I thought I did already answer that, though perhaps more succintly than you might have preferred. "God-mediated-through-fallible-earthly-history-and-persons" applies to (which is to say grounds) all truth. So if you categorically reject that it applies to literature, then you also reject that there is anything true or false about literature.

mrsdarwin said...

But if he relenquishes the role of story-receiver and takes on the role of story-writer in an act of literary masturbation that doesn't mean that Rowling's Dumbledore isn't gay.

Zippy, this is a particularly offensive formulation.

But no one has any need to rewrite the story to make Dumbledore "not gay"; it's simply not included in the story. If Rowling wants to rewrite the story to include that element, she's capable of publishing a revised edition.

zippy said...

Zippy, this is a particularly offensive formulation.

Mea culpa. I'm hard pressed to come up with a different image capable of relating clearly how an act of giving-receiving is turned into an act of self-giving by the adoption of a positivist hermenutic; but that is what the image is intended to convey.

But no one has any need to rewrite the story to make Dumbledore "not gay"; it's simply not included in the story.

That begs the question of what is included in the story, which is precisely what is at issue.

Darwin said...

Zippy,

I think that part of the issue here is that you seem to be taking people to be insisting on telling themselves their own story while looking at the text (thus your masturbation metaphor) while refusing to "receive" the story from the author.

This is because you're holding onto this rather Romantic Era conception (goodness, the innuendo keeps coming, even though I don't mean it to) that the real story is that which lies in the author's head, while the text is simply one attempt (and perhaps not the only one) to communicate that story. Thus, according to your schema, the reader is refusing to "receive" the story from the author.

However, I think this idea of the story as primarily an object in the author's head (with the text only being the means of communicating that) is problematic. I'm trying to figure out why, and the best shot I can take is that I'm not clear why we should necessarily be interested in whatever thoughts happen to come into the mind of some other human being who happens to be an author. What makes a story truly interesting and compelling to us? Is it, as the Romantics would have said, that the author is imbued with some kind of divine inspiration which inspires the story in his mind? I think the answer is: no.

Rather, it seems to me that the main thing that makes fiction interesting is that it attempts to distill and filter the wide range of experience down to some limited set of events and observations which communicate something about the real world to the reader. The story is thus a sort of selective lens, which shows the reader certain things, from which the reader then discerns something about the world. The author creates this lens, but the author is not actually what the reader is looking at – the world is what the reader is looking at.

Thus, one of the primary moral or artistic problems one might have with a work of fiction is: “I just don’t think that’s how things work. It didn’t ring true.” This would not be a valid criticism if the point of literature is simply to inform us what once resided in the mind of an author.

Now, I don’t deny that it’s interesting to know what an author was thinking of when writing a particular story – but I think it’s key to distinguish between how the author sees the world and how the story portrays the world (through the events and observations in the text), because an author may often be a better observer than thinker, and thus write a portrayal of the world which is clearer than the author’s personal understanding.

Literacy-chic said...

So we have to trust her.

Hence, that author-as-god, author's-word-taken-as-article-of-faith false analogy I mentioned above. No, we don't have to trust her. We can use our own critical faculties to examine the text, determine whether there are "clues" that substantiate the interpretation proposed by the author (just as we would do if the interpretation were posited by any other critic), and determine whether the interpretation is a valid one given the evidence we have in front of us. (Yeah, yeah, positivism, blah blah blah--not everything is a matter of faith!! We are given intelligence and critical faculties for a reason, and it is not to blindly follow human whim!!) So exercising these critical faculties, we can determine that either (1) she was lying, or (2) that she is a bad writer.

We take it on good faith as readers that what we access when we read a text in good faith is complete. There is a covenant of sorts between the author and the reader that says that if the reader uses the normal means of accessing meaning from a text, s/he will be able to access that meaning--no tricks. If an author says that something exists without giving evidence, and if others are unable to detect the meaning she attributes to the work, she has broken that covenant.

Literacy-chic said...

My clarification & request for a statement of how literature, which is fiction, is related to Truth or truth, whichever Zippy is discussing, seems to have been lost in cyberspace after appearing for a brief minute. :( I can't really recreate it. But I believe Darwin's question as to the author is imbued with some kind of divine inspiration which inspires the story in his mind? and conclusion that the answer is: no. comes very close to what I had in mind. Some authors saw themselves as tapping into the Divine Truth. I give at least 2 examples, but I'm not very familiar with Chesterton. The whole of literary history, as a subset of human history, might be interpreted as some kind of revelation of Divine Truth. But not individual literary works, which are just fictions. Ask Plato about their relationship to Truth.

zippy said...

I probably won't be able to revisit this for a few days, but quickly on this:

This is because you're holding onto this rather Romantic Era conception (goodness, the innuendo keeps coming, even though I don't mean it to) that the real story is that which lies in the author's head, ...

That is not how I understand a story as a meaning-reality. The author is privileged with respect to the story as the proximate giver of its meaning, but it isn't a thing completely contained and comprehended in the author's head, and the author is not herself "God" of the story, literally creating it ex nihilo. The story is an object of a sort thought, and not merely symbols on paper, nor a construction from those symbols utterly independent of the author: it cannot be "truncated" from the author without losing its meaning. And the positivist process of "truncation" of meaning from an author-ity, the trans-meaning of all meaning, achieves its fullest realization in postmodernism.

zippy said...

"of a sort though" not "of a sort thought".

Freder1ck said...

Man! I'm so happy to have left English grad school behind...

Literacy-chic said...

If all authorities are created equal, though, the author being as much an agent of truth as God, then all we have is relativism. So in the name of eschewing positivism, we promote relativism, subjecting the text (complete in itself) to what I interpret as the shifting whim of the author.

Frederick,

There's only so far you can go & still beck out gracefully, and I passed that stage a long, long time ago! This is fun stuff by comparison, though! ;) (Your comment made me chuckle)

Literacy-chic said...

That is, "back" out gracefully!

zippy said...

If all authorities are created equal, though, the author being as much an agent of truth as God, then all we have is relativism.

I'll eventually get back to the detailed comments, after the weekend. But, as one more authoritative than you on the things I've said, I can assure you that I never equated the author with God, nor the reader with the author, nor the reader with God, etc. (Odd to be accused of meaning-egalitarianism when I am asserting quite the opposite). But positivists do believe that the only conceivable alternative to positivism is postmodern relativism. Criticise a postmodern and you'll be labeled a positivist; criticise a positivist and you'll be labeled a postmodern or a relativist. That is no accident.

It isn't relativism though for me to tell you that you have less "say" over what is true than you think you do, even when it comes to literature. It is philosophical realism.

Also when you say this:
We take it on good faith as readers that what we access when we read a text in good faith is complete.

... you are basically affirming that you are a positivist. Positivism is at bottom a claim of formal (textual) completeness; a positivist thinks that denying completeness is denying the possibility of meaning; therefore denying completeness is tantamount to relativism. The key difference between the positivist and the postmodern is that the postmodern embraces this, but they both see meaning in fundamentally the same truncated way.

This may or may not be inconsequential with respect to Harry Potter, but to the extent it is inconsequential that is only because Harry Potter itself is inconsequential.

Literacy-chic said...

Yes, Zippy, like Rowling, you are more authoritative over the things in your own head. And there is nothing at all I could have said at any point that would have convinced you that I am not a positivist according to your definition.

1990bluejay said...

In all my grad work in Political Science, Linguistics and Spanish - and having been exposed to far too much post-modern thought in all these disciplines - never I have seen positivist contrasted with post-modernist. In poli sci and linguistics - with their social science roots - positivist is usually contrasted with behavioralist. Post-modern writings began with historians (French primarily) who would have had the same take on the axis of positivism v. behavoirialism. It would seem, Zippy that your contrasting of these two terms-positvist and post-modernist, is rather novel. One of the issues with epistemology is validity of knowledge and frankly, you're being so ad hoc with terminology that any conclusions being drawn are unreliable because your definitions or perceptions of these terms is not definitive to determine a coherence among the different pieces of knowledge you're trying to bring to bare. Perhaps you've been using the wrong -ism. Not positivism, but constructivism and you have a problem with the inconsistency Rowling has now presented to you.

Melanie B said...

"you're being so ad hoc with terminology that any conclusions being drawn are unreliable because your definitions or perceptions of these terms is not definitive to determine a coherence among the different pieces of knowledge you're trying to bring to bare."

In other words....

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Sorry. I couldn't resist. I've been dying to throw that quote into the conversation for a while now. I have nothing more to contribute to the discussion.

zippy said...

Yes, Zippy, like Rowling, you are more authoritative over the things in your own head.

No, that isn't what my words mean. My words mean that I am more authoritative than you about the meaning of the things I've said. I have more privileged access to some aspects of that meaning (whatever is implicit, connoted, etc) whereas in the case of the (explicit) meaning to which we share access your access to the meaning is not privileged over mine.

This little exchange is a case in point, in fact, with no small irony.

...never I have seen positivist contrasted with post-modernist...

As I conceded above, that may well be the truth in contemporary academic literary criticism. I know nothing of the jargon of that discipline.

It isn't unusual in (e.g.) the philosphy of science, to wit:

"Positivists and postmodernists may despise one another, but there is a surprising resemblance between them." - Matthew B. Crawford in The New Atlantis

Literacy-chic said...

Not very impressive credentials:

Matthew B. Crawford is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia

Advanced Studies in Culture??? That's not really philosophy of science... That's "make your own discipline." And a postdoc, to boot!

zippy said...

I probably first began to understand the connection between positivism and postmodernism upon reading Huston Smith (Beyond the Postmodern Mind) and Catherine Pickstock (After Writing). The point isn't an invocation of credentials or an endorsement of any particular thinker, it is just an observation that contrasting positivistic scientific modernism to relativisitic postmodernism (and seeing the connection between them) isn't exactly a personal novelty of mine. (Though even if it were, the real issue wouldn't be that but whether or not it is true).

I'm curious though, literacy-chic, as to whether you still believe your own interpretation of my words in this thread to be more authoritative than mine. They can't be equally authoritative, because one of us has to be wrong: either I am in fact asserting that the author's interpretation is privileged (I am, in fact: that is to say, that is the view that my words express) or I'm not. And if I am, then this discussion in itself demonstrates the point.

Note that saying that the author's interpretation is privileged isn't the same thing as saying that the author's interpretation is always and everywhere dispositive. It is qualitatively positivist to conflate the two, that is, to conflate consistency and completeness or to insist that the former is impossible without bringing the latter along for the ride.

Darwin said...

In an attempt to get a little more clarity on what Zippy is asserting here (which at this point, I don't find myself likely to agree with, but it would at least be nice to be clear) let me try a couple of different things where, which I'll number in order to keep things as clear as possible in responses:

1) I think what's clearly upsetting people most is this idea that an author can announce story elements not hinted at in the text after the fact, and somehow be authoritative as to "what the story is". Thus, as an example, if Waugh had announced well after Brideshead came out, "Really, I think the Catholic stuff is just a metaphore: Lady Marchmain had an incestuous relationship with both her sons, which drove her husband away and turned them into the sort of them they are." This would be a claim unsupported by the text, yet not explicitly contradictory to it (and "explaining" things in its own way), and from what I understand you when then hold, "In that case, the story is definitely about incest: Waugh is in a position to know."

From this two issues seem to crop us, which I'll number separately.

2) It seems like this view undermines the purpose of the written work qua object -- if the "real story" may well have important elements missing because it's the author's understanding of it that really counts, then a conversation with the author would be better than the written work itself. And yet this seems not to jive with our experience of literature, whether author is often actually less interesting than the work.

3) Clearly, your view doesn't hold that absolutely anything asserted by the author "is the story", since you open the possibility that the author could be "lying" about the story. (Which if the story was truly whatever the author said would be impossible.) So I'm wondering if you see the story as being "what the author thought at the time he was writing the words that tell it." Is this what you're saying? From an authorial point of view, I see some problems with this: especially as a particular passage may be the result of multiple revisions (at which point the author had different things in mind); a passage may quite simply not convey what the author meant it to, but something else instead; and an author may not "mean" something specific, but rather be writing based on instinct without "knowing" why the characters are behaving the way they are.

4) One of your comments strikes me as rather revealing: I'm curious... whether you still believe your own interpretation of my words in this thread to be more authoritative than mine. There are two things this could mean, "Do you think you know better than I do what I meant to say?" (to which the answer is clearly: no, another person can't) and "Do you think you know better than I what it is that words that I've written convey?" The latter is often, in my experience, the case. One of the difficulties in being an author is that you know what you "meant to write", while the reader (assuming him to be perceptive and fair minded) may actually see more clearly what you actually did write. This is why having someone else read your writing is often a key part of revision. (Would this be a sort of methodological positivism in your opinion?)

5) One of the things that is striking me as so odd about all this is that it seems to make "having the idea" be the main creative act, and then writing the prose that conveys that idea as an imperfect attempt to convey that idea to others. (Which you may then clarify later.) This certainly fits with a certain popular conception of what writing is about: "I keep thinking of writing a novel," one occasionally hears someone say. "I've got so many great ideas." The fact of the matter is that ideas are generally a dime a dozen. The real trick is writing a text that is interesting and compelling: something lots of people "with ideas" aren't very good at. So saying that the "idea" is the real story even if the prose fails to get it across seems very odd to me.

zippy said...

I think what's clearly upsetting people most is this idea that an author can announce story elements not hinted at in the text after the fact...

Let's stop right there. The rest is premised on this framing of the issues, but I don't agree with the framing. "Not hinted at in the text" seems to me to be far too strong a statement in two ways.

First, it is begging the question. "Gandalf is a Maia" can be said to be "not hinted at in the text" of LOTR in quite a few different senses. If Tolkien had informed us that in his story Gandalf was a female Hobbit, we would know as readers that this wasn't true and he had gone off his meds. Gandalf as Maia though isn't a similar statement. We might not have had any idea what a Maia was, let alone that Gandalf was one, without Tolkien's extra-cononical revelations. But in this case the author's view is privileged: Gandalf is a Maia. We can enjoy the story without knowing it, just as we can drive a car without knowing how an internal combustion engine works, but we do not have epsitemic standing to claim "Gandalf is not a Maia" any more than we have epistemic standing to claim "my car engine is a turbine". In general there is a whole taxonomy of statements an author might make after the fact about her story, and the idea that there is some clear and complete set of what is explicit in the text, and that nothing else is relevant, is precisely the position I reject. You can't expect me to accept a framing of the issues in terms that contain the very position I reject.

Second, I also think "the text" is multivocal in this discussion. We all seem to have agreed that a text taken literally alone as just shapes on paper is meaningless. So when we use the term "the text" in conjunction with a claim in this discussion we are already presupposing some underlying theory of meaning and interpretation. But again, that is precisely what is at issue.

Darwin said...

Zippy,

When I said "not hinted at" I meant precisely that: something neither stated nor implied. Your example "Gandalf is a female hobbit" is something contradictory to the text.

However, there are lots of things which are not contradictory to the text yet are not hinted at (or not clearly hinted at) by it. I toyed with the Brideshead example for a couple days because of the shear outrageousness of it -- and yet I think it's pretty clearly not _contradictory_ to the text, there's just nothing to suggest it.

Anyway, I think we're actually on the same page that it has to be something "not obviously contradictory" to the text -- feel free to continue without fear of the framing.

Literacy-chic said...

Zippy,

First you tell me that I "have less 'say' over what is true than [I] think [I] do," assuming that I am trying to determine truth for myself without any external authority. Now, you say that I "believe [my] own interpretation of [your] words in this thread to be more authoritative than [yours]." I am not arguing that you don't have the authority to think what you think, I am merely trying to understand what you have written. However, with the name-calling and labeling, the attribution of philosophies to people you whose philosophies you can't begin to understand in such a small space, and the arguing about who is trying to control truth (when I don't even know what conception of truth you are talking about) trying to understand where the heck you are coming from (since it certainly isn't from literature or--I dare say--anywhere in academia) is really impossible, fruitless, and futile. You are not interested in discussion, but discord. You aren't interested in mutual understanding, but in pressuring others to accept your ill-formed (or at least ill-articulated) definitions--or else!! If there can be no common ground, then as far as I'm concerned, there can be no discussion (with you, Zippy), so I will go back and see what Darwin has said.

Literacy-chic said...

A Tolkien-related question:

Can anyone provide me with a citation for where in any of the works, diaries, or backhistories Tolkien said that Gandalf is a Maia?

Because, for my money, it can be deduced from The Silmarillion, but was never explicitly stated. By contrast, Rowling (in a media event and not in writing) explicitly stated that she thought of Dumbledore as gay, but this can not be deduced from any written source that exists in support of the published texts at this time.

Literacy-chic said...

Something further occurs to me...

Zippy, are you of the school that says that C. S. Lewis's letters to a 6-year-old that said, in effect, "Yes, you're right, lad! The Narnia books should be read according to internal chronology rather than order of original composition and publication!" are sufficient evidence to reorder the books (thus confusing schoolchildren and teachers everywhere)?

Literacy-chic said...

One of the difficulties in being an author is that you know what you "meant to write", while the reader (assuming him to be perceptive and fair minded) may actually see more clearly what you actually did write. This is why having someone else read your writing is often a key part of revision. (Would this be a sort of methodological positivism in your opinion?)

*Literacy-chic applauds loudly*

As anyone who has ever taken (or taught) a writing workshop knows!!

zippy said...

When I said "not hinted at" I meant precisely that: something neither stated nor implied.

Right, well, based on this discussion I think the assumption of your metaphysic of meaning is built into what you mean when you say that. Strict logical implication is not the only vehicle for seeing meaning, if what you mean here is something other than strict logical implication then we are back to the question-begging problem again, and the claim that Gandalf is definitely not a Maia would be false even had the Silmarillion never been put on paper.

FWIW I do agree that readers can sometimes discover things in a story that the author did not know was there. (It should be obvious, I would think, that this is implied in any kind of literary Platonism).

Although literacy-chic is simply wrong that I am interested in discord - what I am interested in is truth, whether the discursive result is discord or concord - I think she is probably right that there is too little common ground to even have this discussion. Certainly it seems to be frustrating to her, I have no particular desire to frustrate my main interlocutor without getting anywhere, and Darwin and I can't even agree on first principles of carrying on the conversation. Given that I'll just say thanks for what discussion we did have and be on my way.

Darwin said...

and Darwin and I can't even agree on first principles of carrying on the conversation. Given that I'll just say thanks for what discussion we did have and be on my way.

Ummm. Okay... I'll admit to having a feeling like the rhetorical quarry has suddenly decided to take its toys and go home just when I thought I'd laid out some points, the responses to which seemed like they'd clear a few things up. But such is life...

Right, well, based on this discussion I think the assumption of your metaphysic of meaning is built into what you mean when you say that.

I think this must be an example where the author has a much more clear idea of what the above words were supposed to mean than any of the readers do.

Strict logical implication is not the only vehicle for seeing meaning,

Yes. Indeed, I suspect that "strict logical implication" is often not present in fiction. Implication, yes. But I wouldn't necessary add the "strict" and "logical" modifiers, since often that which is implied is just that: implied but not definitely so. "Hinted at"

if what you mean here is something other than strict logical implication then we are back to the question-begging problem again

I guess we are, then, though I don't recall us being there before...

and the claim that Gandalf is definitely not a Maia would be false even had the Silmarillion never been put on paper.

Agreed. But it strikes me that in the context of LotR only it is not definitely true. It's clear that Gandalf is something other than a normal human -- what precisely that is is not spelled out within LotR (beyond what he actually does and what happens to him) and that really seems just fine.

FWIW I do agree that readers can sometimes discover things in a story that the author did not know was there. (It should be obvious, I would think, that this is implied in any kind of literary Platonism).

I suppose that one of the things that confuses me a bit in all this is that I don't have a lot to go on in regards to this "literary Platonism". Plato, after all, held some rather different views as to what literature was, if memory serves.


But, as it sounds like this is it, thanks for coming by and goodnight.

Literacy-chic said...

I'll admit to having a feeling like the rhetorical quarry has suddenly decided to take its toys and go home just when I thought I'd laid out some points, the responses to which seemed like they'd clear a few things up.

Sorry, Darwin. I guess that's my fault! (Or at any rate, I feel like the toys were packed away because I wasn't playing fair...) But I did feel the need to resist the constant labeling. That and having valid points ignored were frustrating to me, not so much the line of inquiry.

I certainly never said that Gandalf is definitely not a Maia. But I do say that it is not definitively certain that he is one. What I believe in this case is irrelevant--but Zippy might be surprised. However, when we are dealing with fiction, what is "true" is still only true in the context of the fiction, which is why I am confused about the concept of "truth" and how it intersects with "authority" when we can have so many, many different definitions for these terms, particularly depending on the contexts. Personally, I'm talking about literature--that is, fiction--so the "truth" would then be fictional truth.

As for "literary platonism," I believe I was trying to determine a while back if that's what Zippy was implying--a "tapping into" the Realm of the Forms which, for Plato, would have been problematic because it was that much further from the Forms (real truth) than reality, but would have been O.K. for Tolkien or (perhaps) any other writer of "sacramental" fiction because it was indeed tapping into the Divine, and anything, however imperfect, that tapped into the Divine brought us that much closer to God (that is, Truth). Now, I didn't really spell this out before, but my questions were intended to lead to an understanding of whether that is what Zippy was proposing/assuming. If that is NOT what is being meant by "literary Platonism," I confess once again to not understanding. But every attempt I have made at understanding was greeted with "you're a positivist, which is just like a postmodernist."

I was the one attempting to sign off, though perhaps in a characteristically wishy-washy way. I'm a glutton for punishment, it seems.

Literacy-chic said...

Incidently, what I "explained" above is really only "literary Platonism" by-analogy-to-Tolkien (in "On Fairy Stories"). I'm not trying to be absolutely faithful to Plato's discussion of poetry in the Politeia.

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

lol 50 comments.... way to go.... but I think I will just stick to my day job ;-)

Darwin said...

Yeah, I don't think we've ever broken fifty comments around here before...

I wouldn't worry about it, Lit-Chic.

It'd be interesting to go at Tolkien's "sub-creation" idea some time, because I get the sense maybe we have rather different conceptions of it. Though maybe we're just using different words.

Looking back, I'm wondering if the issue with a lot of what preceded is that I (and I'm guessing you and most others) have no problem with the idea that certain things are undefined in a work of fiction, and that short of modifying the text the author doesn't have a particular authority to resolve those issues. (As in, the author's statements can fill us in as to what the author intended, but they don't represent a single correct interpretation of "what the story is".)

This is one of the clear differences between fiction and the real world: there are lots of questions that don't have a single true answer because the work of fiction does not represent a complete reality.

Anyway, it's been fun.

zippy said...

But I did feel the need to resist the constant labeling.

In the interest of making a fair reading of these two threads possible, I reproduce here the first thing literary-chic said to me, well, ever:

So Zippy, haven't you realized that deconstruction is an exercise in futility? Or have you figured out that it is useful mainly for confusing valid points on blogs? You are obviously acquainted with Saussure and Derrida. Whoopdeedoo.

This was later followed by accusations that I was arguing in bad faith.

I don't think it is irrational for me to have concluded that achieving productive discussion, while perhaps possible in principle, would require an investment of effort on my part which in this particular case would probably not be worthwhile.

Darwin: FWIW, I agree that a work of fiction does not represent a complete reality, though that is an entirely distinct question from whether a story is itself a real thing. The pythagorean theorem doesn't represent a complete mathematical reality yet it is itself a real mathematical thing.

But enough pushing on a rope.

Literacy-chic said...

Yep, I did indicate that I thought your points rather ludicrous (because I did). But I did take the effort to understand them nevertheless.

It'd be interesting to go at Tolkien's "sub-creation" idea some time, because I get the sense maybe we have rather different conceptions of it. Though maybe we're just using different words.

That would be interesting. I'm mainly thinking of the end of "On Fairy Stories" where he springs that bit about Eucatastrophe and the "Christian Story," as he calls it. For me, that's where the "sub-creation" theory takes a different turn (one my students didn't particularly want to mention).

Cheers!