Comments on Eileen Joy’s ‘Notes Towards a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism’Posted: December 23, 2011
Eileen Joy gave a series of stimulating, ‘gnomic’ (her term), feed-limited notes towards what a speculative realist literary criticism might be here. I’d like to respond with a slightly more scrambled set of notes. I want to raise some questions about the ‘fitness’ between speculative realism and literary criticism, although these problems should be seen against the backdrop of a common enthusiasm for its possibility. If Eileen’s note moves ‘towards’ something, the following comments are less directed and far less coherent.
One of the less exciting things about learning and using philosophical engagements is that it quickly starts to feel like a method, both in the sense of a procedure for interpretation (structural) and as a predominantly rational enterprise. By the latter I mean the way in which the reading practice itself is bureaucratized by its own file folder. But nor is hedonistic opportunism the sensible way to understanding the quandary of the textualized object.
Perhaps, the first application of object-oriented ontology to literary criticism might begin with de-prioritizing the supremacy of the text in relation to its ilk (ink, page, book, pixel, web page, libraries, university, etc.) not in order to create a flat ontological plane whose residents are equal and equivocally summoned, but in order to understand the ideological and institutional contexts through which texts arrive in our mailboxes, homes, tables, eyes and ears. This has been done and continues to be done by various historicist and post-Foucauldian agents. It would also require understanding the history of the emergence of the text as a written object, as opposed to a ritual, memory, or recitation; and indeed, might think about how the emergence of the written text in the West (and its relation to the current emergence of the hypertext) [I’m thinking here of Paul Saenger’s Silent Reading, and especially David R. Olson’s The World on Paper] contributed to the phenomenological con-fusion of the text with the mind, as something mental-evident, at least for those whose competence takes place in the know. Hence, the development of a humanist interpretation is closely related to the ‘text as speech’ idea. Meaning, strictly speaking, is a metaphor for the text as a kind of mind. Indeed, mind and ‘to mean’ share the same Indo-European root. Taking a more anthropological stance, i.e. understanding the text as a kind of cultural record without the immanent development of subjectivity lurking behind it. The dialectical tearing and damage inflicted upon language by the writers of those texts whose language relinquishes its author–these are the encounters of textual resistance and enigmaticalness which produce the alien status of the textual object. I’m thinking especially of recent poetry, such as J.H. Prynne, Peter Manson, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish (especially!). If we accept that the mind, and also the groups of embodied minds in a community or culture, are largely homologous with ‘language’, then the mind absorbed in reading is experiencing the kind of effects that a landscape painting might generate when placed in the middle of a field. That is to say, uncanny, strange, weird, defamiliarized. It would seem that OOO has something interesting to say about the status of the verbal artwork.
The next step would be to counter-act this de-prioritization by understanding the role of language (e.g. English) in texts: what does it look like, how does what it looks like contribute to how it may potentially be read, how does the praxis of reading change the status of the object, how does the language on the object (*not* the language ‘of’ the object) make claims upon the object’s status fundamentally uncertain? Is the textualized object a special case of ‘vicarious causation’, and who is the proxy there? If I look at a book cover whose text is written in Mongolian script, the status of that book as an object–its flickering between ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand, say– is markedly different than a book cover in English, or one featuring a picture. Even if the picture is inscrutable, my identification of it as a picture goes a long way to understanding the ‘bibliographical code’. So this means that it is not enough to try to squash meaning-hermeneutics by thinking of the text as an object–the precise role language has in constituting the text must be thought through as a material practice of discovery.
I’ve been enjoying Levi Bryant’s post about Eileen’s talk. But I disagree that the humanist tradition of textual interpretation has always attempted to ‘close the text’. This strikes me as a very Derridean reading, but overlooks a whole tradition of praxis whose precise aim has been not to ‘complete’ the text or to ‘have the final say’, but rather to further open the text. Commentary. The history of Biblical, Scholastic, Renaissance, scientific, and literary commentaries shows that the quest for meaning has done nothing but the opposite of closure. ‘Meaning’ has generated intense dialogue and debate. And yet, there is still this ‘ghost in the machine’ problem; this transcendental spirit of intention/author which continues to haunt the grounds of lit crit like a specter of moral edification and redemption, as though waiting for the text to animate itself and speak.
The idea of autopoeisis, which Eileen mentions in her lecture, never quite hit full steam, despite Jerome McGann’s use of the term in The Textual Condition (1991). He writes:
This book attempts to sketch a materialist hermeneutics. In so doing, it considers texts as autopoietic mechanisms operating as self-generating feedback systems that cannot be separated from those who manipulate and use them. Their autopoiesis functions through a pair of interrelated textual embodiments we can study as systems of linguistic and bibliographical codings. (p. 15)
This raises an important question for sketching an OOO for the text: how will it become operative? If the text is not, strictly speaking, a phenomena, it nonetheless requires a human mind to make sense of its language, and how can this set of neural cognitive activity be distinguished from an ontological claim for the object’s autonomy? Autopoiesis is a term derived from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1980). I’m already over my head here, but I’ll just say that their idea came about when they switched from asking a semantic question (e.g. what does it mean for x to do y? what is the cause or root of x?) to a structural question: “How does it happen that the organism has the structure that permits it to operate adequately in the medium in which it exists” (p. xvi). This powerful structural idea was notably taken up by the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, who virtuosically combined it with G. Spencer Brown’s algebraic thinking in Laws of Form (1969). In Art and Society (1995), Luhmann still observes the (unfortunate) distinction between medium and form. By ‘medium’ I think he signifies something like the materiality of the page: “the whiteness of the paper from which figures or letters emerge” (p. 109). By form, I think he must signify the the cognitive-abstract system of language.
I’ll try and give a hackneyed glimpse into this monumental work with a big citation. I’m wondering how it might ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ with OOO. Following Spencer Brown, Luhman outlines the “calculus of form” where:
[O]bject and creative process coincide (in this respect we are dealing with a kind of ‘constructivism’), since both emerge—simultaneously—from the imperative ‘Draw a distinction.’ An observer can once again distinguish between object and process when selecting this distinction as the form of observation. This is why it takes an observer to raise questions about objects; a system simply starts operating. It takes an observer to see the paradox of a beginning that presupposes itself, to recognize the self-implicative structure of the distinguishing act, and to plunge himself, at least logically, into confusion. Only an observer can run into paradox and be forced to admit that paradox is always presupposed—in mathematical and even more so in logical operations—as the blind spot that makes distinction, and thus observation, possible in the first place. Operations, on the other hand, including observing operations, simply happen. A distinction discriminates; its mere occurrence must be observed (retrospectively by the same system, simultaneously or later by another system); only then does the unity of the distinction become apparent as the blind spot that enables observation. This unity remains invisible while the distinction is used—this holds for all distinctions. It is as indisputable as our certainty about the world, a certainty based on inaccessibility (pp. 31-32).
Thus, form is a dialectic in which distinction withdraws into an invisible unity as the selection of further distinctions makes this possible. Luhmann’s work has been taken up by critics (notably Cary Wolfe’s “The Idea of Observation at Key West, or, Systems Theory, Poetry, and Form Beyond Formalism”, NLH 39 (2008), 259-276). Stopping short here for more later.