Saturday, 20 April 2013

To Exist is to Differ, Part One

To Exist is to Differ

Difference as a Place of Study

Part One

Recently I have been realizing that, for me, the proper appreciation and/or understanding of difference is one of the most important themes in how I think about social, political, and ethical matters. I want to think about this a bit over two posts, but I'll start out with some academic autobiography that might help explain why I think about things this way. The gist of it is that I was trained in the humanities, not in the sciences, but of course it's more complex than that.

Pierre Bourdieu, in "The Field of Cultural Production," writes, "to exist is to differ." What he means by this is that an artist, in order to be said to have produced art at all (by whatever definition of success, and these vary), must have a unique oeuvre (and a unique reputation). It also relates to Bourdieu's definition of art, which is anything that changes the field of art by participating in it with its own difference (roughly). As far as texts go, I take it to mean something a bit more obvious: in order for a text to exist, it must differ from other texts. If someone found a manuscript that was identical to Hamlet (let's say the B text, because it's a better play), then it would for all intents and purposes be a manuscript of Hamlet. Only if it were significantly different would it be a play unto itself.

(Of course, it is technically the case that having a different author is enough to make one text different from another. This may be the genius, or at least the only redeeming value, of Andy Warhol's work, in that all of his minor differences, like colour and contrast, emphasize the one difference he cares about, that between original and copy. An even better example of the copy-original difference, however, is Borges' excellent short story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote", in which the titular character re-writes Cervantes' classic, which is exactly verbatim but nonetheless different.)

In order to understand a text, then, you must understand what makes this text different from all other texts. Of course it is useful to understand how it is like other texts, too. We divide things into genres for a reason; when gathering texts together based on certain similarities, their differences become more salient. A lot of work can be done with similarity, but in the end it is what makes a text different from other texts that really helps us understand it.

There have been schools of literary analysis that have attempted to study similarity rather than difference. One of the most famous, in terms of its former prominence in the field and its current notoriety, is archetypal structuralism (not all structuralisms failed in quite the same way, but lots of the failed because of an inability to account for difference). This is the school championed by Northrop Frye. His goal was to create a schema, or set of schema, on which all texts could be charted. (This webpage summarizes these schemes and also makes visual representations of them.) His work is really fascinating in the way that, say, the more convincing forms of Ptolemaic astronomy or Freudian psychoanalysis are fascinating: it is detailed, well-worked out, surprisingly plausible, and ultimately fantastic. While he had quite a few of these structures, his most famous involves what he called the archetypal myths: Comedy, Romance, Tragedy, and Irony, which cycle in a large wheel, each producing the conditions for the next. It is easy and kind of fun to take a text and plot it out according to Frye's structures, but it does not often tell you very much about the text itself. You get a sense of how the text relates to other texts (so, for instance, you see that Pride and Prejudice and As You Like It are both comedies; the first is a prose novel while the other is a dramatic romance), but you can't get a sense of how two texts differ in the case that they occupy the same space in his scheme (so, for instance, you can hardly tell Pride and Prejudice from Sense and Sensibility). A text is more than just a mode/myth/genre combination. Thus one of the ways Northrop Frye's archetypal structuralism fails is that it offers no way to discuss the sorts of idiosyncrasies that make texts what they are. Perhaps Frye's structuralism could serve as a tool to another form of criticism, but in the end it is of little use on its own.

A more contemporary, and even less plausible, school of literary analysis to have failed in the same way is literary Darwinism. Literary Darwinism is the attempt to use evolutionary psychology to discuss literary texts. Proponents say that the features of texts will be consequences of evolved human preferences (they're strict adaptionists), so we should be able to examine texts as a way of examining evolved human traits. In the end, literary Darwinism usually winds up saying that literary texts rehearse primary human drives, specifically the drive to survive and the drive to reproduce. Pride and Prejudice is about trying to fulfill the reproductive imperative, while Oliver Twist is about trying to survive. The sort of evolutionary psychology that is needed to support this claim (one that is strictly adaptionist and does not allow for the existence of spandrels) is pretty outdated and problematic in itself, but even if the scientific side of this method was sound, it would still be bad literary analysis, because it reduces all texts to "universal values". It has no way of accounting for the bewildering idiosyncrasy of texts other than claiming that they are irrelevant artifacts, obstacles to understanding the text's real workings rather than the actual subject of study.

Recently I noticed that one thing these schools of analysis have in common is that they all attempt to introduce a veneer of the scientific into literary analysis. (Frye's "Polemical Introduction" to The Anatomy of Criticism is an exhortation to make literary analysis more scientific; literary Darwinism's affinities with science are obvious.) It's really tempting to make literary analysis a science of literature because science has been so effective when explaining physical events. The scientific method has been one of the most reliable and just plain exciting epistemological devices we've ever hit upon, so cashing in on that is of course really tempting. But science works mainly by induction, generating universal laws from individual data. It moves from the particular to the general. Idiosyncrasy is not especially interesting to scientific research except as a test case for refining universal laws. As I argued using Bourdieu, difference is precisely what makes literary analysis tick. Texts can only be understood with respect to difference as much as to similarity, so trying to make the field scientific will doom it to failure. (Also, literature probably does not operate according to universal laws in the way the physical universe does. That's a hurdle.)

Of course, not all scientific fields are disinterested in idiosyncrasy. Human bodies are quite idiosyncratic, a fact of which the medical field seems aware. And not all of the humanities are interested in idiosyncrasy: a lot of analytical philosophy is all about universals, which is probably why English departments celebrate the continental philosophers which the more analytical philosophy deparments reject. Anthropology seems to balance between the two, but at its best, to quote Ruth Benedict, "[t]he purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences" (which is why I think Bones, of Bones, is such a terrible anthropologist--she universalizes anthropological observations far too much).

My training in this environment is, I think, part of the reason I am so invested in idiosyncrasy, in differences, in the particular over the universal. It is surely not a coincidence that I share the emphasis on the local over the global with most postmodernist thought, and is maybe why I sometimes get mistaken for an actual postmodernist rather than the appreciative outsider of postmodernism that I actually am. But I am attracted to structuralism more than many of my peers were, too. (Bourdieu is a structuralist, after all; my objections would apply as much to him as to Frye, in fact.) Very recently, I am suspecting that this has impacted my politics, as well. For the better, obviously. (That's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek.)

(tl;dr: Literary analysis only works if you can explain how texts are different from each other; such focus on difference is not true of science, and that's perfectly OK; I suspect that my own concern with the differences between people is at least in part a product of my studies in literary analysis.)

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