Thursday, January 19, 2017

What? The Humanities Center WON'T be closed!

What? The Humanities Center, NOT closed? I didn't even know it had been threatened with closure.

The Humanities Center in question is, of course, the one at Johns Hopkins, where I did my undergraduate work. This is the Humanities Center that launched a thousand chattering Frenchmen into orbit. Well, not exactly. But in 1966, its inaugural year, the Humanities Center sponsored the symposium on structuralism that now, for better or worse, serves as the notional inflection point for the revolution in literary criticism that had become Theory two decades later.

I found out about its non-closure when I visited the site of my alumni magazine and read: "An interdisciplinary committee tasked with making recommendations about the future of Johns Hopkins University's Humanities Center has advised against closing the half-century-old academic center—a possibility that had prompted protests on campus and from alumni." The article didn't even mention Dick Macksey, who ran it for years and who was my undergraduate mentor. That absence strikes me as being a bit conspicuous, but I'm not really in touch with things at Hopkins. I was there 50 years ago, a different world, lots has changed, Macksey gave up the directorship years ago and has now been retired from the full-time faculty for a few years.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the fact that "interdisciplinary" work functions mostly as a beacon off there in the distance, beckoning us to a better future, rather than as a source of light in the present. I was only a sophomore when the Center was founded and its mission struck me as common sense. But then, what did I know? I was only a sophomore. I actually expected the academy to change. When I left Hopkins I went to the English Department at SUNY Buffalo, which was all but a small liberal arts college unto itself and apprenticed myself to David Hays in linguistics, who taught a course, "Linguistics as a Focus of Intellectual Integration." Disciplinary myopia never appealed to me  – one reason, no doubt, the academy eventually extruded me.

What I'd like to know is why these folks keep yammering about interdisciplinarity as a Good Thing when they clearly do not mean it. Is the institutional purpose of these humanities centers mostly to serve as a credible threat to the departments? If you don't toe the line, we'll dissolve you – something like that.

In any event, I suppose it's a good thing that Hopkins isn't closing the old Humanities Center. That gives them two interdisciplinary humanities centers, as they established a new one last year, The Alexander Grass Humanities Institute. No doubt the administration intends to play them off against one another, with the threatened closure of the ancient and venerable center of '66 as a credible threat of collapse into disciplinary monoculture if they don't toe the line.

* * * * *

See my old posts, Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out, and Interdisciplinary Research.

Trump and the end of the administrative state

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henniger asks the question of the decade, "Will the Trump presidency produce order or merely more disorder?" Correlatively, if it does produce a new order, will that be an improvement? On that question, I suspect Henniger thinks differently than I do. He continues:
It is said that the Trump electorate wanted to blow up the status quo. And so it did. The passed-over truth, however, is that the most destabilizing force in our politics wasn’t Donald Trump. It was that political status quo.

The belief that Hillary Clinton would have produced a more reliable presidency is wrong. Mrs. Clinton represented an extension of the administrative state, the century-old idea that elites can devise public policies, administered by centralized public bureaucracies, that deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. [...]

Today, that administrative state, like an old dying star, is in destructive decay. Government failures are causing global political instability. This is the real legitimacy problem and is the reason many national populations are in revolt. Some call that populism. Others would call it a democratic awakening. [...]

The idea of placing national purpose in the hands of these elites lasted because it suited the needs of elected politicians. They used the administrative state’s goods to mollify myriad constituencies. So they gave them more. And then more.

The state’s carrying capacity has been reached.
I'm certainly sympathetic to that. He goes on go assert: "Donald Trump’s nominations of Scott Pruitt for EPA and Betsy DeVos at Education are a brutal recognition that the previous order has reached a point of decline." Brutal, yes. But I can't imagine that either or them will improve matters. Henniger seems too satisfied with Trump's dismal cabinet: "One wonders if the hard, daily work by his colleagues to restore world order or a proper constitutional relationship between governing elites and the governed will be hampered by the turbulence of the Twitter storms." 

Frankly, the new order Henniger hankers for seems to be one where a corporate elite is allowed to shape the world to its own ends unchecked by any counterforce at all. That's not an improvement.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Kittens, Flickr Commons, Library of Congress

Fond this photo on Flickr (H/t John Holbo):

Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

Here's the caption The Library of Congress supplied:
Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

The Commons launched exactly 9 years ago on January 16, 2008 with the Library of Congress account. We’re celebrating with a 10 candle cake for kittens– 9 lives and 1 to grow on.

Just a glimpse of the unusual pictures you’ll find in the Commons where institutions from all over the world are sharing photos.
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The birthday cake. Photograph by Harry Whittier Frees, 1914.

Higher resolution image is available (Persistent URL): hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.04028

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do I want to see La La Land?

The movie's been getting a lot of press. And I certainly have taken pleasure in movie musicals. So I've been wondering whether or not I want to see this one. Geoff Nelson argue's that its politics are dubious:
Which brings us back to La La Land and its longing. What Gosling’s Seb and Stone’s Mia share is a commitment to the past—a place where, supposedly, dreamers dream their dreams awake. But which dreamers dreaming what dreams? Why do white Americans (in politics and film) often so wistfully return to the era before federally mandated desegregation, voting and civil rights? (Would La La Land ever have been made with two leading actors of color? Obviously not.) The film only functions as an ode to a lost era of white supremacy, and its viewers, consciously or unconsciously, participate in the delusion. The film’s politics of nostalgia and whiteness are inextricable.

La La Land contains other more explicitly problematic politics—in fact, Gosling’s “white jazz savior” narrative has been unpacked well by MTV’s Ira Madison III. John Legend’s Keith is cast as a sell-out to “pure jazz,” which Gosling promises to successfully save by the movie’s end. The movie concludes with Gosling taking over the piano from a black musician: The erasure of black art is complete. Madison documents the opening number, full of the many diverse faces of Los Angeles, only to see the film retrench into the middle-class bourgeois love affair of two white people. That one of them drives a Prius and the other a drop-top convertible seems to be the extent of the film’s commitment to diversity.

However, Chazelle, Stone and Gosling are almost certainly not racists, if judged by the metric of personal unkindness. Their missteps lie elsewhere in the blurry discourse of cultural hegemony, the degree to which dominant ideological and political structures of oppression—like a longing for the past—must be consistently affirmed and reified. In portraying the romance and escapism of watching two beautiful people mourn the past by returning to it, Chazelle suggests viewers might enjoy this transportation, that these stories are universal. Considering the long history of racism in Los Angeles, it’s uncertain which part of the past would provide a comfortable landing spot for the viewer.
Doubtful politics, of course, is not necessarily a reason to avoid the film. For someone of my interests, it's a perfectly good reason to see the film. Still...Politics aside, is it good? Do the musical numbers work?
Chazelle and his movie will receive much deserved acclaim. The film is an achievement of a sort—it’s beautiful and charming, if one doesn’t think too hard. He’s even done the work to feature a few characters of color at the margins of the action, a gesture that insulates the film from the outright racial ignoarance of the musicals to which Chazelle pays homage. But these efforts at contemporary posture, quite literally, pale in the face of the film’s white nostalgia.
Hmmm...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 2: What I got out of writing the article

So, I ended the previous episode of Rejected @NLH! circling the periphery the discipline, thinking about sending an article in over the transom. Well, of course, I did so, and here it is:

Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature,

What did I get out of it beyond – sigh – rejection? What did the writing do for me independently of its reception?

What’s in the article

For the most part the article was assembled from existing materials. Here’s a list of the section headings from the typescript I submitted:
Introduction: Speculative Engineering
Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour
Computational Semantics: Network and Text
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text
Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance
Meaning, History, and Attachment
Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text
If I had to I could go through that typescript section by section and identify pre-existing stretches of text that contributed to any given section. It would be a bit of a stretch to say that I simply edited the final piece out of those pages, paragraphs, and sentences – as though someone else could have done pretty much the same thing given those materials. But, except perhaps for the section on form, it would also be a bit of a stretch to say that I had to develop any new ideas or conceptualizations for any section.

No, what I got from the article emerged from seeing those various materials assembled in one place. What is it that holds them together? That’s a tricky question, as each section has its own distinct character. Whatever this article is, it is not a single argument sustained within a single conceptual framework.

If it’s not a continuous argument, what is it?

Let’s go through the list again, this time with brief commentary on each one. Here’s a list of the section headings from the article:
Introduction: Speculative Engineering – Engineering is about design and construction, form and function.

Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour – Macpherson and Attridge are literary critics who have addressed themselves to form. Latour is an anthropologist and philosopher, shall we say, whose work is increasingly interesting to a variety of humanists, but he has little to say about literature or form. I argue that form is an intermediary (between individuals) in Latour’s sense while meaning is a mediator (between individuals).

Computational Semantics: Network and Text – Hardcore cognitive science about the relationship between (computational) models of the mind and the process of reading a text. I use Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 as an example text.

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text – Describes the overall form of Obama’s text and characterizes it as a ring-composition. Note, however, that such description is not a standard activity for literary critics.

Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance – Gathers a variety of material from recent work in the cognitive and neurosciences and applies it to Obama’s performance of the eulogy (which we have on video tape).

Meaning, History, and Attachment – This centers on remarks Glenn Loury and John McWhorter made about Obama’s eulogy and performance. This is the kind of material that constitutes current literary and cultural criticism.

Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text – Since Obama’s eulogy was a public performance I concluded with some remarks about how arguments about that public situation can be extended to the situation of individuals reading shared texts in private.
Leaving out the introduction and the coda, this is how I see those pieces fitting together:

article flow 2

Snow on the tracks

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Friday, January 13, 2017

"Renaissance man", the learned and practical traditions, and crossing social barriers

This article, alas, behind a paywall, looks interesting and important.

J. V. Field, The Unhelpful Notion of ‘Renaissance man’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Volume 41, 2016 - Issue 2-3: Some Significances of the Two Cultures Debate, pp. 188-201.

Abstract: The current journalistic use of the term ‘Renaissance man’ to describe someone whose work straddles boundaries between today's specialisms is a hindrance to understanding almost any aspect of the culture of the Renaissance — a culture within which both ‘art’ and ‘science’ had meanings different from those they have now, the most significant intellectual division being between the learned and the practical traditions. We look first at the learned tradition of the universities (where teaching was in Latin). The people considered include William Harvey, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Regiomontanus and (very briefly) Isaac Newton. Within the practical tradition, centred on workshops, we consider the state shipyards in Venice (where Galileo claimed to have learned much), workshop practices in general and the emergence of the notion of ‘Fine Arts’. The individuals considered include Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael, as well as the famous clockmaker Jost Bürgi (who taught Kepler about algebra). We conclude by considering the transfer of skills between these two traditions. There are several areas of overlap, but here we concentrate attention on the story of algebra. Algebra was invented by al-Khwarizmi (whose name gives us the term ‘algorithm’) in the ninth century, within learned mathematics, in Baghdad. In the West, elementary algebra, derived from al-Khwarizmi's work but in the simplified form of problems, became part of ‘practical mathematics’. Slowly, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, developed forms of algebra crossed over into the learned tradition. This is as much a matter of crossing social barriers as of crossing intellectual ones. Eventually, the practical tradition as a whole became absorbed as an elementary part of the learned one.

You can build your own fallout shelter

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I took this photo in Jersey City on September 15, 2007. Notice the "Fallout Shelter" sign at the upper right. This building, now destroyed, was near the Holland Tunnel entrance/exit.

Every now and then I'll talk about growing up in the 1950s and how I even thought about just where to place the family fallout shelter. That was the height of the Cold War and the possibility of getting bombed to kingdom-come seemed real. Well, I war cruising the web, making my rounds, and came across a link to and old issue of Popular Mechanics. Seems that the good folks a Google have a whole bunch of them just sitting out there in the web. So I did a search on "fallout shelter" and bingo! up popped a bunch of articles. Just follow the link and look at those articles. You'll find everything you need to build your own fallout shelter.

A bomb is dropped on a key target. But who cares, you live lies away. Fallout can't reach you. but soon you and your family become ill, dangerously ill. Now you wish you had heeded the importance of a family fallout shelter. If you decide to build one, first consult your local building code and the Civil Defense authorities.

Here's an article about fallout shelters in New York City back in the 1950s and 1960s:
Decades after the end of the Cold War, ominous black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs still mark buildings across New York City’s five boroughs. The actual number of designated fallout shelters in the city is difficult to discern. What is known is that by 1963, an estimated 18,000 shelters had been designated, and the Department of Defense had plans to add another 34,000 shelters citywide.

While the presence of a fallout shelter in one’s building may have given some residents peace of mind in an era when nuclear destruction seemed imminent, in reality, most of New York’s fallout shelters were little more than basements marked by an official government sign.

A small percentage of shelters were fortified underground bunkers stocked with emergency supplies, but these were rare and primarily built for high-ranking government officials. The majority of shelters, including nearly all those that were visibly marked, were known as “community shelters,” and by all accounts, they offered little special protection. Inspector guidelines simply indicated that “community shelters” should be kept free of trash and debris and have a ventilation system that can provide a “safe and tolerable environment for a specified shelter occupancy time.” Regulations for the ventilation systems appeared to be open to interpretation, leaving individual inspectors to determine which of the city’s windowless basements would ultimately make the cut.

“Anchor” – Another term in the study of cultural evolution

Some time ago I decided to drop “meme” as a term for the genetic element in cultural evolutionary processes. 1) It has too much baggage attached to it. 2) The connotations are misleading. Instead, I choose “coordinator” and have defined three kinds of coordinators: targets, couplers, and designators. I’ve decided I need to recognize a fourth kind of coordinator, anchors.

I came to this conclusion after reading:
Dan Everett. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Everett tells us of two incidents:
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness. (141-142)
The Pirahãs live in the Amazon and can see its creatures clearly. But Everett, though he spent years in the Amazon among the Pirahãs, had not been raised there. His visual system had matured long before he entered the Amazon. He could not see its creatures so well as those who’d been raised among them.

By anchor I mean those features of the physical world to which one becomes acclimated by virtue of having become “at home” in that world. The Pirahãs had developed a rich set of anchors in the Amazon but Everett had not, though he lived there for many years. The Pirahãs were born and raised in the Amazon; Everett was not.

Though I have not thought this through, it seems to me that some anchors might well be targets as well. It’s not clear to me whether or not I want to extend the usage to couplers and designators, all of which, of course, are physical features on some substrate.

Note that we could talk of animals as having anchors as well.

Friday Fotos: The Tree, Longwood Gardens, December 25, 2016

Two weeks ago it was white flowers from Longwood Gardens. Last week it was colored flowers. This week it's greenery.

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Is generative grammar moving to the “we knew it all along” phase?

As you may know, for the last few years the linguistics world has been transfixed by a cage match between Daniel “The Pirahã Whisperer” Everett and Noam “The World’s Greatest Intellectual” Chomsky over the nature of language. Chomsky claims, has claimed for years, that recursion is the central defining feature of human language, where syntax is the central ‘organ’ of language. Everett, on the other hand, claims that while recursion is central to human thought, it is not a necessary component of language. The argument centers on whether or not the language spoken by the Pirahã has recursive structures. Everett says “no” while Chomsky says “it has to.”

Everett has recently published an informal account of the controversy in Aeon, “Chomsky, Wolfe and me”. In his article he quotes Schopenhauer as saying “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I think the generativists are about to enter the third stage.

For the last few years I’ve been following, albeit at a distance, Faculty of Language, a blog devoted to generative grammar (GG). On January 6 Norbert Hornstein posted “Inchoate minimalism” and that post reads like the third stage is about to begin. As you may know minimalism is the latest version of Chomsky’s theory. He quotes a passage from Chomsky’s 1968 Language and Mind, arguing that it presages the minimalist program. Here’s the passage followed by Hornstein’s gloss:
Here’s the quote (L&M:182):
I would, naturally, assume that there is some more general basis in human mental structure for the fact (if it is a fact) that languages have transformational grammars; one of the primary scientific reasons for studying language is that this study may provide some insight into general properties of mind. Given those specific properties, we may then be able to show that transformational grammars are “natural.” This would constitute real progress, since it would now enable us to raise the problem of innate conditions on acquisition of knowledge and belief in a more general framework....
This quote is pedagogical in several ways. First, it does indicate that at least in Chomsky’s mind, GG from the get-go had what we could now identify as minimalist ambitions. The goal as stated in L&M is not only to describe the underlying capacities that make humans linguistically facile, but to also understand how these capacities reflect the “general properties of mind.” Furthermore, L&M moots the idea that understanding how language competence fits in with our mental architecture more generally might allow us to demonstrate that “transformational grammar is “natural”.” How so? Well in the obviously intended sense that a mind with the cognitive powers we have would have a faculty of language in which the particular Gs we have would embody a transformational component. As L&M rightly points out, being able to show this would “constitute real progress.” Yes it would.
Could those “general properties of mind” include recursion? Is that where this is going? Inquiring minds want to know.

Here’s Hornstein’s next paragraph:
It is worth noting that the contemporary conception of Merge as combining both structure building and movement in the “simplest” recursive rule is an attempt to make good on this somewhat foggy suggestion. If by ‘transformations’ we intend movement, then showing how a simple conception of recursion comes with a built in operation of displacement goes some distance in redeeming the idea that transformational Gs are “natural.”
Hey, Dan! Get ready. You’re about to be mugged!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Metaphor Deeper than Mere Metaphor

Came across this old post when I went looking for the Thoreau quote, which is about steam engines, and thought I'd bump it to the top of the queue. It's about how we use metaphor to lay claim to the world.
I’m interested in figurative language in this post, but not the sort of figurative language that excites the cognitive metaphor people. Those figures, those metaphors, have become so naturalized that their figurative nature is no longer apparent. Their meanings have become so settled that they’re regarded as literal, not figurative.

No, I’m interested in figures that have new work to do. Actually, I’m interested in one particular figure, one that I’ve been using. It interests me both in itself, for the work that it has to do, but also as an example of the more general phenomenon.

That figure is one I’ve been using to talk about graffiti sites. While I know that the graffiti is put on the walls by particular writers at particular times for whatever purposes they may have, I find it useful, perhaps in a sense indispensable, to talk of the graffiti as an expression of the spirit of the place, for which I also use the Japanese word kami. No, I don’t think there is actually a ghostly creature at the site who’s somehow directing graffiti writers, but . . . .

Let’s set that aside and consider one of my touchstone passages, which I’ve used in a post about ontology. This is a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Sound” chapter in Walden (1854):
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion . . . with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in gold and silver wreaths . . . as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.
There’s quite a bit of figurative language in that paragraph, but I’m interested in two metaphors, iron horse and fiery dragon. The iron horse is a well-known metaphor for a steam locomotive, perhaps from all those old Westerns where Indians use the term. Fiery dragon is not so common, but it’s use in that context is perfectly intelligible.

What was Thoreau doing when he used those figures? He certainly recognized them as figures. He knew that the thing about which he was talking was some glorified mechanical contraption. He knew it was neither horse nor dragon, nor was it living.

Or was it? Did he really know that it wasn’t alive? Or did he think slash fear that it might be a new kind of life? We live in a world where everyone is familiar with cars and trains and airplanes from an early age, not to mention all sort of smaller self-propelling devices. We find nothing strange about such things. They’ve always been part of our world. And so, as we learned to talk, as we learned to think, we made places for these things in our worldview, along with rocks, a dandelions, raccoons, the wind, and other humans.

Dried leaves, still hanging

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rejected @NLH! Part 1: Outside looking in on the critics table

Now it begins, my examination into the rejection of my essay by New Literary History. The essay:
Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, https://www.academia.edu/28764246/Sharing_Experience_Computation_Form_and_Meaning_in_the_Work_of_Literature
This post says little about either my essay or its rejection. It is deep background to both and is mostly a quick and selective trip through my intellectual biography. First I talk about how, between early publications and where I studied, I was institutionally situated for a good career. However, I went this way, the profession went that, and that was the end of my career. That leads to a Socratic bargain, modeled on The Crito, I made in my mind and followed by my history. I end by explaining why I chose to submit to NLH.

From insider to outsider: poetics vs. interpretation

Institutionally I was ‘positioned’, as they say, on the inside of the changes percolating through academic literary criticism in the 1960s and 1970s. I did my undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins in the middle and late 1960s. That English Department was important, and I’d studied with D. C. Allen, Earl Wasserman, J. Hillis Miller and Don Howard. I’d also worked closely with Richard Macksey in the Humanities Center. I took I don’t know how many courses with him and at least one independent study. He was one of the organizers of the 1966 structuralist convention, the one that is used to date the beginning of the swing toward deconstruction and postmodernism, and edited the comparative literature issue of MLN, which was an important voice for theoretical adventure.

When Macksey and Donato were assembling the book from the structuralist convention Macksey invited me to write a commentary on Neville Dyson-Hudson’s piece. For whatever reason, there had been no discussion afterward his presentation, so Macksey was, in effect, improvising one after the fact. I commented on Dyson-Hudson and Macksey commented on both of us. That was my first academic publication [1]. It wasn’t much, only a page and a half, but one could hardly imagine a more prestigious placement.

I got my BA from Hopkins in 1969 (Philosophy) and an MA in 1972 (Humanities). In the fall of 1973 I went off the get a Ph.D. in the English Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which had close ties with Hopkins. Al Cook had built that department into the finest experimental English department in the nation [2]. It was there that I found David Hays in the Linguistics Department and became part of his research group in computational linguistics. While still a graduate student I published some of that research in the special Centennial Issue of MLN, which had me coupled with Northrup Frye (who headlined the issue) and with Edward Said, Stanley Fish, Walter Benn Michaels, and others [3]. That work would become the core of my dissertation. I also published on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Semiotica [4] and on computational linguistics in Computers and the Humanities [5].

The point is simply that I was well-published early in my career and so had every reason to believe that my career would go well. Or at least, as nothing is determined in advance, that I had a good shot. But things didn’t work out that way. I was heading in one direction and the profession had decided to go another way.

1975 saw the publication of Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics; structuralism is where I was coming from (though not where I ended up going). In his preface Culler imagined a type of literary study that “would not be primarily interpretive; it would not offer a method which, when applied to literary works, produced new and hitherto unexpected meanings. Rather than a criticism which discovers or assigns meanings, it would be a poetics which strives to define the conditions of meaning” (p. xiv). That’s what I was after, investigating the “conditions of meaning,” but with the tools of the newly emerging cognitive sciences.

Poetics, alas, never really happened, not even for Culler himself. Structuralism was dead by the early 1980s. The profession had opted for interpretation and relegated poetics to a secondary, if not tertiary, status. By the early 1980s I found myself professionally isolated. I was on the outside looking in.

My Socratic Bargain

It was then that I made a Socratic bargain with the academy. Of course “the academy” is not a singular institution that makes formal bargains. It’s an abstraction. And so is my bargain. It was a way of thinking about my situation.

The Socratic bargain, as I call it, is from The Crito. Socrates had been condemned to death and was in prison. His friend Crito visits him there and explains that he has made arrangements for Socrates to escape. Socrates refuses, arguing that he lived his life within the Athenian state and that it is the laws of Athens that gave his actions meaning, even though he may have criticized the state. For him to run from the state even though it had condemned him unjustly would be to undermine the foundation of his life.

I had read The Crito in my freshman year at Hopkins, but it became a real document when I declared myself to be a Conscientious Objector to military service. Plato’s arguments in The Crito are central to understanding civil disobedience as a moral act.

Literary "theory"


Literary theory isn't theoretical at all. It's just criticism. Theoretical physics, though, is actually theoretical.