On Literary Worlds: Pittsburgh Q&A

So a group of people at the University of Pittsburgh (including the excellent Gayle Rogers) is reading On Literary Worlds, and they sent a few questions. I’ve pasted my (slightly cleaned up) responses and their questions below.

EH: Thanks to you (and to the group) for these questions. Honestly some part of me feels like they’re above my pay grade. By that I mean that the philosophical coherence of the book may not go as far “down” as the first two of your questions imply. But let me try to say something that may be useful; you could also tell the group that I may not be the best final arbiter of everything I have written, and that in some respects these questions have taught me things I didn’t already know about what the book does. (Later: this is always true; a lesson I learned from Spivak’s final remarks in the introduction to her translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology.)

Gayle Rogers: The biggest thing we grappled with was trying to come up with how you’re approaching epistemology. A colleague framed it as a split between representational and phenomenological epistemologies of which you were siding with the latter; I thought the former, if you were taking sides in that dichotomy at all. So I’ll leave it open-ended: what claims about epistemology (of aesthetic worlds, specifically) do you need to make, to your mind, if any?

EH: I suppose my argument is this: human cultures grapple with the problem of how to relate to and describe the wholeness of things. I feel like this is a phenomenological problem—that is, that the encounter with “everythingness” is an encounter with the limits, first, of the social, and second, of the natural world; these are both in some strong sense “out there” to be encountered as phenomena. Once that happens, though, things become more representational; that is, the phenomenon acquires a cultural force that minimally interacts with (and on some occasions exceeds) the force of whatever bald phenomenological scene might have inspired it. We all come into a world full of worlds. Most of us don’t give the problem any more thought. And in  many cases the history of world-ideas is simply driven by the succession of representational demands, which obeys its own structure and logic. In some other cases it may result from a serious philosophical attempt to reencounter the phenomenological problem (Descartes, Kant, Foucault, etc.); at those moments then a world-idea becomes known at the intersection of the phenomenological (which we only ever encounter in history) and a very long history of world-ideas that have themselves emerged in the crossings, hybridizations, and divagations of earlier phenomenological and representational encounters with the world (going back to the very first one, which never “happened” and is thus outside history). In a third case, perhaps the most interesting one, the rethinking of the world-idea comes from a new apprehension or revision of the phenomenological “facts”—as when, for instance, the God of the neighboring peoples is revealed to be more powerful than your God, or, more recently, as when we confirm with sensory evidence that the Earth is round (and start making globes, etc.), or see the Earth for the first time from space. And then there’s the fourth case: in which these encounters are not so much thought and expressed directly as they are enacted or put into play in the work of art. This being put into play can be quite obviously metadiscursive, as in SF or utopian fiction; but it can also be purely (or almost purely) a matter of the philosophical “background” (the “background” that is the relation between foreground and background, e.g.) to a story or a picture that has nothing to do, finally, with worldedness at all. It is in this latter case that worldedness functions as the preconscious or unconscious of the work.

See here for the rest.

GR: Another question we had came up circuitously as we took a detour through Kant to Sianne Ngai and then began to wonder how much, if at all, you needed to rely on theories of apprehension and their universalizability?  E.g., that we all see the foreground/backgrounding in the Odyssey/Genesis in the way that Auerbach does, or the metadiegesis in the Quijote in the way that you do?  Where do you fit in that spectrum, if that’s relevant?

EH: This is a really good question. I don’t really need my readings to be universally agreed upon; it seems entirely plausible to me that someone could come up with a different (and better) reading of DQ’s relation to worldedness than the one I have; that’s what scholarship is for. I certainly don’t claim (any more than Auerbach did) to have come up with the final, end-all, be-all readings of all these texts. And I say that without relinquishing any claim to have come up with the best and most truthful readings I could think of, in these circumstances–readings that are not only “best” and “truthful” for me but “best” and truthful” (as much as I can make them for as wide a swath of the profession as I can imagine. That is the goal of any disciplined discourse–it is in fact what it means for a discourse to be disciplined.

The thing I will say is that to some extent any other readings of these texts would depend on the scale at which the text/work gets read. You can instantly complicate my reading by delving down deeper into the texts, either through a very close reading of the very words I cited, or through close-ish readings and workings-through of examples from elsewhere in the text. I really do think that worldedness in the way I talk about it in this book (which may not be the only way to discuss it) appears best at a level of analysis that’s just a bit generalizing and “fuzzy”; it can be immediately undermined by any kind of closer, sharper look, which will tend to illuminate distinctions. 

 Part of my argument, then, is that the method of analysis tends to be appropriate to its object (this is what I mean in all the stuff about scale): not just epistemologically but phenomenologically. “Worldedness” in the way that I describe it does not really exist if you close-read. This is a crucial thing to understand about worldedness—that it is real but that its reality includes the fact that it is not present (not just visible, which would be an epistemological point) at certain scales of understanding or even lived experience. Or rather—since I don’t want to say that worldedness is anywhere absolutely absent—I will say that the reality of worldedness is distributed differentially across a variety of social and aesthetic scales, and that what I wanted to do in the book was to make worldedness visible to us by focusing on the scale where I think it appears most strongly and easily (“strongly” and “easily” there parsing again the two categories of the phenomenon and the representation).

When I say “make worldedness visible to us” part of my argument was that the way we generally read now (mainly close reading) has allowed us to develop very strong analyses of certain ontological features of the work of art (and the actual world), while leaving us essentially unaware of other ontological dimensions of the work. My complete theory of the work of art is that it includes a number of dimensions operating at a variety of scales (this is the subject of an essay I’m working on now), and that we need to be reading at multiple scales to understand the work. (Scale of the word, sentence, paragraph, very large chunk of text, impression of the whole novel, etc.) The idea that worldedness as a phenomenon is differently distributed across the social is the mirror image of that heuristic position: just as the work itself produces meaning at a variety of scales (and so those who only read at one scale will develop a too-narrow theory of the ontology of the work, and also miss out on a bunch of stuff), so a social force like worldedness (which is itself a response to phenomenology and its historical representation;, see the answer to the question above) is differentially distributed across the social. In both cases the differential distribution is the ontology of the thing; we can only understand the concept (or the work) if we understand it in its varieties. (Example: you might think of genres as essentially working the same way: they lyric does not generate meaning at the same scales as the novel, and they respond differently to different patterns of reading; drilling further down you might say the same of the sonnet and the villanelle. Understanding where and how something gives itself to be read is a key part of understanding it.)

GR: Finally, a colleague wondered if you were writing a manifesto for what would be the 21st c. multicultural version of what New Criticism was post-World War II, in that it would be a democratized, decentered approach to world literatures.  Thoughts on this?

EH: You know, I’m surprised to be saying so, but this seems possibly right, for three reasons. (1) I don’t say this anywhere but you’ll notice that the mode of reading returns us pretty forcefully to the literary object as such; certainly more so than a lot of other work going on today. So at one level you  might say that what I’m doing resembles NC in that it pushes for a relentless approach (or “return”) to the literariness of the literary—without, I hope, abandoning politics or history, but changing the balance a bit. Of course, I’m a guy who still teaches undergraduates how to scan poetry, and tests them on it. (2) Democracy, part 1: part of my impulse here is to democratize processes of reading: to open up to a much wider variety of people a set of tools that can be ported and modified for use anywhere and everywhere. This is as I understand it one of the great triumphs of the NC: that it allowed the GIs (who came to college on the GI Bill in the post-WW2 period) and others who did not have a conventional Latin-in-high-school literary education to nonetheless act as critics, and to become them—that it created a situation in which the advantages of privilege (in the Bourdieuvian sense) mattered less than they used to, because (as I.A. Richards showed) that privilege was not in fact especially well correlated to “good” readings of texts. (3) Democracy, part 2: part of my impulse it do democratize what we read so that world literature can finally emerge not as a subject of special pleading but as what we all do. I do think that we should all be together in one big Literature department (I don’t know what you’d call it, but I’d want it to include film/drama/poetry and new media, along with the paintings, photos, and other works that our colleagues read and study). And I think that the entire way that we think about literary history has grown out of the needs of the national language departments, which have been focused so much on origin and development stories. Trying to think about Literature in General – or imagining what a department like that might develop as its primary foci and methods of attention – is one way to, if nothing else, make us aware of the ways we tend to think, and to imagine a world in which we have more ways to think and to institutionalize ourselves than just the one (here I’m approaching the arguments I make in the periodization section of the book).


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