Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Adverbs in Sestinas

To the person who found my blog because they wanted to know whether you can put adverbs in sestinas: yes, you can, but I don't advise using adverbs in sestinas often. Adverbs only sometimes work well in poetry. Words that end in -ly are not very euphonious, and most of the time there'd be a more efficient way of conveying whatever you're trying to convey with the adverb. However, if it does sound fine and if it does convey something that's worth conveying, then there's no reason not to use it.

With a sestina in particular I can understand why you might want to give it a shot: an adverb could modify one of those repeating end-words, which could give you the difference-within-repetition that makes a good sestina tick. However, I feel like it would be more powerful if you managed to convey the change in the end-word using the whole line; that way, the sameness of the end-word remains, despite the change in meaning. Generally, the more the reader has to work for something, the greater its effect, but the more the reader has to work for something, the less likely the reader will get it. You need to strike that balance. Adverbs make things obvious.

But even more generally: find an editor! Try it out multiple ways and then run it by someone you trust with your work to see what they think of it. Revise revise revise; your first draft ain't sacred, so don't be afraid of bungling it.

At the Feet of the Arkans

At the Weekly Wonders two weeks ago I posted about the Cainites. There have been lots of versions of the descendants of Cain—vampires, monsters, non-vegetarian barbarians—but I was looking at a specific, and very obscure, tradition from Jewish mysticism. It was said that Cain’s children were led by God into a dark cavernous world or place and where each given two heads. Their bicephaly was possibly a reminder of Cain’s brother Abel, who he killed, and thus the need for peace between siblings, but in the stories it usually seems to be a symbol for internal conflict. Solomon rules that Cainites are merely two-headed people rather than sets of twins sharing a body, and so the fact that one head is often pious while the other is wicked is taken as an external, visible sign of every human’s dual nature. Solomon, however, was wrong: two minds in two brains means there are two people. That is all the evidence you need. The land in which these Cainites were said to live is usually called Arka, so I tend to think of them as the Arkans.*

At the end of the Weekly Wonders post, I wondered what Arkan culture might look like:
But more interesting to me is to wonder what the society of Arka […] would be like: What would be their laws? How would they marry? (Note that, in Israel, the Cainite took only one wife rather than two.) What attitude would people with no exclusive claim to their own bodies have toward the ownership of property? What would be the history of their philosophy? Similar questions are posed, and some answers ventured, in other works featuring societies of bicephalic twins: Shelley Jackson’s novel Half-Life and Alluria Publishing’s Remarkable Races: The Taddol RPG supplements. But I would appreciate fuller answers, so you should feel free to offer your own.
No one took me up on that question—or not yet, anyway—but I’d still like to hear possibilities.

As I indicate, Alluria Publishing’s taddols are interesting. Their anatomies have particular implications for their culture: for instance, they do not practice strict monogamy or even marriage, I assume because taddols cannot participate in the sort of sexual exclusivity we tend to (rightly or wrongly) imagine is a central component of marriage. But what’s more interesting to me is that they do not have any sense of private property: with their stuff as with their own bodies, their attitude is “You can use it if no one else is.” What they are possessive of is their ideas. The supplement specifically mentions that taddols will hold long grudges or even start battles over philosophical disagreements (though the examples given have a really impoverished sense of what a philosophical disagreement might entail). I trouble following this logic, though: if a taddol is possessive of her ideas because it is the only thing that is truly hers, this implies a contrast to her body, which she shares with her sister. The implication is that she might have different ideas than her sister. However, the supplement suggests that you should play as taddol twins who have significantly different moral alignments, since it would be needlessly difficult to have your characters squabble over every decision, and the description of their culture suggests that taddols tend to do more than quarrel when they disagree.

It seems to me that Alluria Publishing is somewhat mistaken: taddols would be likely to have better, not worse, ways of living with disagreement than we singletons do. And this is why I want to speculate about Arkan culture. I suspect that Arkan culture must contain some wisdom that helps in conflict resolution and living despite disagreement. (I’m thinking of Wade Davis’s suggestion in The Wayfinders that different cultures contain, or even simply are, techniques for addressing different challenges or questions; I discussed that when I wrote about the Majesty 2: Monster Kingdom game.) In real life, there’s been some interest in how conjoined twins resolve their differences; Alice Dormurat Dreger’s One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal deals with this somewhat, but also see the video interviews with Abby Hensel and Brittney Hensel, who freely admit to arguing fairly often. But conjoined twins don’t have a tradition. There’s little sense that they can learn from conjoined twins before them, since conjoined twins rarely even meet anyone else like them, let alone have a chance to learn from them. Each pair must produce their own conflict resolution techniques on their own. The Arkans, though, would have a whole culture which would address this problem. I’ve written before that living with disagreement is a concern of mine, and even used conjoined twins as a brief example; living with disagreement must be done, but I’m still not entirely sure how.

What I’d love is if I had a cosmogony machine with which I could make worlds. I’d create a world which contained Arkans, and let them live for a hundred generations or so. I would let them build a civilization, or civilizations. I would let them write a literature and produce aphorisms and so on. I would give them time to forge a culture. And then I would visit them, and I would sit at their feet and learn.

Or would I? There are, today, experts in conflict resolution. Peacekeepers and diplomats exist. Once upon a time my own country was known for them, though not since our current PM destroyed that reputation with his tactlessness. There may not be a culture of living with disagreement, but there is a scholarly literature in it. I am sure I could sit at the feet of those experts and learn, but I do not. It is easier to imagine perfect teachers and lament their absence than to seek out the ones which exist.


*I shoddy writing a fantasy story in which Arkan citizens petition to be recognized as two persons, meaning they can cast two votes (one per person) and cannot consent to an agreement for one another.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A Dating (Multi)Culture

Leah Libresco is kvetching about dating woes at her blog Unequally Yoked, in some conversation with other bloggers. One of these other bloggers, Thomas Umstattd, critiqued the courtship culture he had spent some portion of his life promoting and offered as a substitute a 1950s-style model of casual dating. In this model, people do not go out on a date with the same person twice in a row. If a guy takes you out for ice cream on Monday and you want to take him up on his invitation to the Saturday night dance, you need to get a date with someone else during the week. This way, accepting a date or asking someone out on a date doesn’t imply anything much, and you get to know a number of people in a romance-possible context without feeling like you’re leading them on. After all, if I know my date is seeing another guy two days from now, I can hardly feel entitled to her attentions or affections. What we call “dating” was called “going steady” or “exclusive” back then, and it meant that you’d then only go on dates with that one person. By the time anyone proposed marriage, you had gone on dates with rather a lot of people and had a sense of what you were looking for in a partner.*

Leah quite liked this model and was trying to think of ways to bring it back. Noting that dates with people you met online already had the 1950s implication but had many many other pitfalls, while dates with people you already knew tended to be over-invested with meaning even when it dodges online dating's pitfalls, she thought Umstattd’s grandma’s 1950s approach might well be the best one.

One of the commenters was leery, however. Cam was concerned that trying to construct a culture with such strict expectations might only work for some members of society:
What's so wrong with clear, open communication? It's the best and I think it can be nicely grounded in respect, feminism and all kinds of love. 
If at any point a misunderstanding occurs, this isn't the end of the world, right? Clear it up, laugh it off, move on with life. I don't think trying to orchestrate a 'dating culture' is the best way to manage expectations among individuals. A 'dating culture' can still feature confusion too. 
Everyone is unique and there are a wide range of identities, approaches to life, sexualities and relationships that are conducive to love and happiness (please keep trying to learn/accept this). A wider culture is needed where all sorts of people can navigate all kinds of relationships safely and happily. That's why wishing for some sort of 'dating culture' isn't a good idea, the best way to manage expectations is through communication and respect. [emphasis mine]
Even though I had been interested in what Leah and Umstattd were suggesting, I wound up agreeing pretty strongly with Cam that such a culture was not going to be helpful for everyone. Of course, part of Leah’s and Umstattd’s concern with the way dating happens now is that it often doesn't; people hook up or make out instead, and see what happens from there. Now, no one I know started their current relationship that way, to my knowledge, but prevailing wisdom seems to be that that’s how most relationships start these days, and I don’t have the data to contradict that. Anyway, good-Catholic Leah isn’t interested in hook ups either for herself or as a cultural script, so she’s suggesting something else.

But I agreed with Cam, with some caveats:
I would mostly agree with you, but I'd need to add this caveat: there almost certainly are people who think they work best with one sort of relationship but actually don't work well with that sort of relationship, and there are almost certainly kinds of relationship that don't work well for anyone (even when they are all consenting), like the extreme courtship model Umstattd critiques. But allowing people to make those mistakes is a necessary evil (or really just inconvenience, I wager) that comes as a consequence of the far more necessary practice of allowing people to find and pursue the sort of relationship model that does work well for them.
Of course I was inclined to agree with Cam, because zer complaint was much like the sort of complaint I myself have made in other arguments. Like I was in those other arguments, Cam was accused of rank relativism, which I pointed out was silly because saying that there are multiple good answers doesn’t mean that all answers are good; good answers may even be in the minority, but still there can be more than one equally good answer. However, I feel like Cam’s suggestion ignores some of the original problem and it ignores that a dating culture of some sort will inevitably exist and the question is merely how explicit it is.

Let’s do those in reverse order. Cam wrote, “That's why wishing for some sort of 'dating culture' isn't a good idea, the best way to manage expectations is through communication and respect.” But, of course, managing expectations through communication and respect is a dating culture, or part of one. Communication and respect are things that work better if everyone does them, and they are things I certainly would have no problem pushing on other people, within the bounds that they themselves set, of course. By arguing that we should communicate and be respectful and otherwise expect as few particulars as possible from potential dating partners, Cam is in effect “wishing for some sort of ‘dating culture’,” just not the same one as Leah as wishing for.

And I think this is precisely the sort of dating culture we should be pushing for: one which is open about the kind of relationships people might engage in, but which insists that communication and mutual respect manage our expectations about those relationships. However, we have to add one more element in order for it to work: we need participants to know and accept that there are lots of different possible models and that what works for some people won't work well for everyone. In a sense, it’s like a culture which has multiculturalism baked into it, which has means of handling different scripts or etiquette as part of its scripts and etiquette. What I’ve described is a minimal sort of dating culture, but it’s probably the only acceptable one, where “acceptable” is defined as “not terrible for lots of people.”

However, this proposed dating culture has problems, and some of those problems are the very ones that Leah’s been complaining about. For example, it might be difficult to communicate to people what your expectations are, even if open communication is a norm. Leah can’t possibly be expected to recite her series of posts when she asks a guy out ice-skating or responds to an invitation to the local maple syrup festival. A person’s needs and expectations might be complicated, and it might not seem reasonable or possible to explain them all before going on a date. What would really help is a way of signalling what sort of relationship you’re interested in without having to conduct a screening interview with every applicant.

One of the other commenters—Randy Gritter—and I came to the same conclusion independently: a person could open a coffee shop that deliberately promoted itself as being a location for a particular kind of date (in this case, the kind Leah was proposing). The coffee shop would require an aggressive and canny marketing campaign so that everyone in the target customer base would understand its social role, but if it were to achieve that then everyone in the area would know what an invitation for coffee/tea at that particular coffee shop meant. There’s already a place for this if you’re looking for a hook-up (singles’ bars), but it would be nice to have such venues for many different romantic models. Today Leah proposed a dating service that one might tweak to these ends, and I might also suggest trying to develop and popularize a lexicon. All of these suggestions are intended to manage the same goal: creating options which are easy to communicate, and allowing people to develop, advertise, and communicate new options as needed.

Of course, all of this is already happening, but in a disjointed and often unacknowledged way. Again, there are yenta and dating sites and singles’ bars, and there are multiple models of dating which people struggle to communicate, and there are already campaigns pushing for communication and respect. What is needed is a framework—a dating culture—in which people acknowledge that there are multiple models and which allows people to communicate, or signal, their preferred relationship models (or relationship models they are willing to try, even if they aren’t the preferred option) to others as conveniently as possible. Two people who are romantically interested in one another might still disagree about the sort of relationship they should have because they have different needs and desires, but that’s still currently happening and would happen in the 1950s model or any other possible dating culture, unless there are literally only two options: strangers or married. All I’m asking for is that we salvage the existing mess by making it an explicit system.

And note that I'm being a bit ironic when I say "all I'm asking"; there's a tiny problem trying to orchestrate a dating culture, or any sort of culture at all, especially when you have no social clout whatsoever.


*Think Archie Comics, if you've ever read those. Actually, I think a lot of the ways in which the Betty and Veronica trope plays out today is a strange artifact in which a franchise carries one generation's cultural expectations through several other generations, and those subsequent generations don't quite understand what they're seeing but don't misunderstand it enough to realize they're misunderstanding it. I mentioned at Leah's that Umstattd's description of 1950s dating is what made those comics finally click into place for me; otherwise, it's too easy to interpret the Betty-Archie-Veronica thing as a terribly dysfunctional/unstable poly triad.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

When the Pattern Leaps Out

The trick to Portal 2 community chambers is to make needless complication look clever and obvious in retrospect.

The computer game Portal 2 is a three-dimensional puzzle game that relies heavily on a well-established physics. The player's character has a portal gun, which allows the player to create two linked wormholes on solid surfaces and pass from one to the other. As you pass through, you maintain your momentum, but gravity acts differently on your body, so you can do a variety of interesting things with these facts alone: you can launch yourself great distances by leaping from a raised platform onto a lower horizontally-placed portal which is linked to a portal on a vertical surface. Gravity increases your momentum on this side of the portal; on the side of the portal gravity now starts pulling you in a direction orthogonal to your trajectory, but momentum carries you pretty far. However, there are a number of other devices in the puzzle chambers with you: lasers and laser catchers (which can trigger other devices), bridges made of solid light, lethal turrets with friendly and forgiving artificial intelligences, platforms on moving pistons, and so on. (Sixty Symbols has some videos about the Portal physics.) There is a single-player narrative arc (which is excellent, but I won't get into it here) and a cooperative narrative arc (which I haven't played), but what I want to discuss is are the community test chambers: players can design their own stand-alone chambers and allow others to play them.
Screenshot of part of the solution to one of the puzzles in the Portal 2 game.
Although the portals, gravity, momentum, and whatnot are all functionally analogue, the other gadgets are often binary. They are either on or they are off. Triggers are either triggered or not. A laser stream is either obstructed or it isn't. And most devices can be triggered by another device: light bridges can be switched off, swinging panels can be opened or closed, moving platforms can be activated or deactivated. These consequences are also all binary. As a consequence, you can make elaborate systems with these devices.

You could, for example, make a computer.

You couldn't make a terribly fancy computer. You have a limit to the number of devices you can place in a chamber. But user TtHsa-1 has made a computer. First, some background. TtHsa-1 has always made interesting systems: for instance, in Test Cycle - Concept the player can place a weighted cube on a button, which triggers a series of reactions that ultimately remove the cube from the button and then puts a new weighted cube on the button, starting the system over again.

That chamber is the one that got my attention because I was working on a similar chamber at the time: having seen this video about iodine clocks, I wanted to make a Portal 2 chamber that repeated itself but with some remainder that eventually absorbed the entire process. In other words, I was planning on making a cycling process which degraded with each cycle. But I could not figure it out; what I did figure out in the meantime was how to make a puzzle which ran in part on an automated system. Unlike TtHsa-1's, mine started automating as soon as you entered the room. (It involves a system I just called "the engine," which involves buttons, weighted cubes, and tractor beams.) Once the cycle begins, the chamber has two states which alternate automatically, and the player needs to learn what each states looks like and incorporate those states, and their alternation, in her solutions to the puzzle.

So I was surprised to see TtHsa-1 working on a similar project, though he makes systems, as I said, and not puzzles. But then he started working in another direction: logic gates. With the devices Portal 2 provides, logic gates are actually fairly easy to make, though some of them are device-expensive. And TtHsa-1 must be far cleverer than I am, at least about this sort of thing, because he made then made a 6-bit adding machine. It's pretty slick: you get twelve cubes and two rows of six buttons. Each row represents a line of binary, so you can make two numbers by placing the cubes on the buttons: a pressed button is a 1 and an unpressed button is a 0. The output display is on the wall, made of seven flipping panels: the black (unportable) side of each panel is a 0 and the white (portable) side of each panel is 1. Yet again, it reads as a line of binary. Between the buttons and the panels is a very complicated system of lasers and laser catchers which make the necessary logic gates.

TtHsa-1's chambers are very clever and they're also quite clean and beautiful. And I appreciate all of those qualities in a puzzle, so much so that most of my pleasure comes from those qualities. But there's something his systems don't have that puzzles do: the retroactive delight of finding out that a complicated system makes sense after all. A good puzzle is much like a detective story: what appeared to be meaningless unconnected pieces are in fact coherent, but only once that coherence is discovered. It's the moment the pattern leaps out at me, in its cleverness and efficiency and beauty, that I really love. The fact that I worked for the pattern helps on a psychological level, I'm sure. Some of these puzzles are very relaxing, because the pieces just sort of fall in place as I interact with them; others are much harder and require quite a lot of mental modelling in order to work out what I'm going to do before I start doing it. I enjoy both, but with the first kind I enjoy the creator's cleverness, while with the second kind I get to enjoy the creator's cleverness while also feeling clever myself. TtHsa-1's systems can't offer any element of the latter, though it offers quite a lot of the former pleasure.

I've been trying to think of ways to use his inventions in a puzzle. The most obvious is to create a 6-bit calculator and then hook up the exit to a particular answer, which you can show (in Arabic numbers) on the ceiling. But I've tinkering with a set of rooms which rely on manipulating the logic gates, or actually the same logic gate over and over again; the final room would require you to have figured out how the logic gate works, because you would have to build one using movable pieces. It's...not going so well.

Two parting, not entirely related, thoughts:

1. The devices are nice and fun, but some of the best puzzles hinge on something obvious but easy to forget. For instance, a lot of nice puzzles mostly use devices throughout, but the final stage requires you to remember that gravity exists, or that nothing can pass through solid objects. In fact, I find that when I design puzzles I often forget that gravity is an element of the puzzle which I can incorporate into my design. Sightlines are also an important part of puzzle design.

2. I really like puzzle designs in which the same chamber involves multiple puzzles, where the different puzzles use the same pieces. For instance, one of mine has four chambers, in succession; you must solve each on its own to get to the next one, but when you solve the final rooms you then have access to all of the rooms and must solve a final puzzle which involves elements of all four rooms. Since I like four-room chambers, I'm also thinking of making a kishotenketsu-based puzzle which repeats the same kind of puzzle in the first two rooms, uses a whole different design philosophy/puzzle type in the third room, and blends the two in the fourth. (I hear this is what the makers of the Mario games did.)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Singular Flavor of Souls

While I’m recording things I’ve read recently that do a far better job of articulating, and expanding, what I was trying to say last summer, I have two more things to mention that touch on what I was trying to get at with my posts on difference and the acknowledgement thereof. I assume there are many people for whom these ideas are well-trod ground, but they were new to me and it might be worth something to record my nascent reactions here.

In “From Allegories to Novels,” in which Borges tries to explain why the allegory once seemed a respectable genre but now seems in poor taste, he writes the following:
Coleridge observes that all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists. The Platonists sense intuitively that ideas are realities; the Aristotelians, that they are generalizations; for the former, language is nothing but a system of arbitrary symbols; for the latter, it is the map of the universe. The Platonist knows that the universe is in some way a cosmos, an order; this order, for the Aristotelian, may be an error or fiction resulting from our perfect understanding. Across latitudes and epochs, the two immortal antagonists change languages and names: one is Parmenides, Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Francis Bradley; the other, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, William James. In the arduous schools of the Middle Ages, everyone invokes Aristotle, master of human reason (Convivio IV, 2), but the nominalists are Aristotle; the realists, Plato. […] 
As one would suppose, the intermediate positions and nuances multiplied ad infinitum over those many years; yet it can be stated that, for realism, universals (Plato would call them ideas, forms; we would call them abstract concepts) were the essential; for nominalism, individuals. The history of philosophy is not a useless museum of distractions and wordplay; the two hypotheses correspond, in all likelihood, to two ways of intuiting reality.[*]

But the distinction between nominalism and realism is not so keen as that, commentaries on Borges—Eco’s The Name of the Rose is notable—have noted, maybe missing that Borges might already have understood that.

I read Borges' essay months ago; Saturday, I read/skimmed the first chapter, written by Marcia J. Bates, of Theories of Information Behavior, edited by Karen E. Fisher, Sandra Erdelez, and Lynne (E. F.) McKechnie. In that chapter, I read this:
First, we need to make a distinction between what are known as nomethetic and idiographic approaches to research. These two are the most fundamental orienting strategies of all.
  • Nomothetic – “Relating to or concerned with the study or discovery of the general laws underlying something” (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • Idiographic – “Concerned with the individual, pertaining to or descriptive of single or unique facts and processes” (Oxford English Dictionary).
The first approach is the one that is fundamental to the sciences. Science research is always looking to establish the general law, principle, or theory. The fundamental assumption in the sciences is that behind all the blooming, buzzing confusion of the real world, there are patterns or processes of a more general sort, an understanding of which enables prediction and explanation of particulars.  
The idiographic approach, on the other hand, cherishes the particulars, and insist that true understanding can be reached only by assembling and assessing those particulars. The end result is a nuanced description and assessment of the unique facts of a situation or historical event, in which themes and tendencies may be discovered, but rarely any general laws. This approach is fundamental to the humanities. […]
Bates goes on to describe the social sciences as being between the two, the contested ground; at times, social sciences tend to favour one approach and then switch to the other. It is in the context of the social sciences that she talks about library and information science:
LIS has not been immune to these struggles, and it would not be hard to identify departments or journals where this conflict is being carried out. My position is that both of these orienting strategies are enormously productive for human understanding. Any LIS department that definitively rejects one of the other approach makes a foolish choice. It is more difficult to maintain openness to these two positions, rather than insisting on selecting one or the other, but it is also ultimately more productive and rewarding for the progress of the field.
I don’t think it’s difficult to see the realism/nominalism distinction played out here again, though it’s important to note that realism v. nominalism is a debate about the nature of reality, while the nomothetic v. idiographic debate concerns merely method (if method can ever be merely method).

Statistics, I think, is a useful way forward, though not sufficient. The idea of emergence, of patterns emerging at different levels of complexity, might also be helpful. Of course, my bias is showing clearly when I say this: Coleridge would say that I am a born Aristotelian, in that it is the individual that exists, not the concept. And yet it is clear that patterns exist and must be accounted for, and we probably can’t even do idiography without having ideas of general patterns, and it’s better to have good supportable patterns than mere intuitions and stereotypes. So we need nomothety! (I don’t even know if those are real nouns.) Statistics, probability, and emergence, put together, are a way of insisting that it's the individuals that are real while still seeking to understand those patterns the cosmos won't do without.

(And morality has to be at least somewhat nomethetic/realist, even if the idiographic/nominalist informs each particular decision, or else it literally cannot be morality, right?)


As you can tell from the deplorable spelling of flavour, the title is a quotation, in this case taken from a translation of Borges' essay "Personality and the Buddha;" the original was published at around the same time as "From Allegories to Novels." The context reads like this:
From Chaucer to Marcel Proust, the novel's substance is the unrepeatable, the singular flavor of souls; for Buddhism there is no such flavor, or it is one of the many varieties of the cosmic simulacrum. Christ preached so that men would have life, and have it in abundance (John 10:10); the Buddha, to proclaim that this world, infinite in time and in space, is a dwindling fire. [...]
But Borges writes in "From Allegories to Novels" that allegories have traces of the novel and novels, traces of the allegory:
Allegory is a fable of abstractions, as the novel is a fable of individuals. The abstractions are personified; there is something of the novel in every allegory. The individuals that novelists present aspire to be generic (Dupin is Reason, Don Segundo Sombra is the Gaucho); there is an element of allegory in novels. 

* What is strange about Aristotle and Plato is that Plato was Aristotelian when it comes to people and Aristotle, Platonic. Plato admitted that a woman might be born with the traits of a soldier or a philosopher-king, though it was unusual, and if such a woman were born it would be just to put her in that position for which she was suited. Aristotle, however, spoke of all slaves having the same traits, and all women the same traits, and all citizens the same traits, and thus slaves must always be slaves and women subject to male citizens. I want to hypothesize, subject to empirical study, that racists and sexists are more likely to be realists and use nomothetic thinking, while people with a more correct view of people (at least as far as sex and race are concerned) are more likely to be nominalists and use idiographic thinking... but the examples of Aristotle and Plato give me pause. Besides, is not such a hypothesis itself realist and nomothetic?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Reasons to Read

A Using Theory Post

In my discussion of literary theory and interpretation, I made a particular assumption about reading which isn’t universally supportable: I assumed that the point of reading was either to 1) discover what the text’s meaning really is or to 2) gain a particular reading experience (be that challenge or distraction or pleasure). However, there are almost certainly other reasons to read something and other expected results.

For instance, a person might read a text in order to learn something about the author. This is a fraught process, as I outlined early in my argument. But it’s a common and unavoidable reason to read: I don’t read letters as independent objects of reading, but as correspondence, one person’s attempt to communicate their ideas to me. I don’t listen to politicians’ speeches as pure rhetorical performances, meant to be enjoyed in themselves; I listen to politicians’ speeches in order to understand what the politician is thinking about the issues that face our body politic. And so, in what are maybe the most quotidian and ubiquitous acts of reading, we violate the intentional fallacy, a cornerstone of interpretation.

A person might also read in order to learn something about the world. When I want to discover something new about koalas or dobsonflies or argonauts, I do not go out and try to find examples of them for observation; I read about them. (I might ask someone about them, but this is no different: the text is auditory rather than written, and while that changes some of the ways we need to interpret, the fundamental principles are the same.) This is a strange sort of thing, when you think about it, because it takes two kinds of trust: the first is that my interpretation of the text is valid, and the second is that the text’s information is valid. Or perhaps it doesn’t: I can imagine a situation in which the text is ambiguous or outright inaccurate, but I still learn what I need to learn because I can compare this text with what I already know about koalas or dobsonflies or argonauts and “correct” it in my interpretation, just like I can usually read around typographic errors.

I might also read as a way of generating ideas. This is the book club sort of reading: we read a common text, and then discuss what we think of the character’s actions or the book’s depiction of some facet of reality. Often these arguments are not really about what the text actually says; the book only serves as a focal point or as common ground for a discussion or argument about ethics, politics, philosophy, and so on. If we ask of Watership Down, “Do you think that rabbits in Cowslip’s Warren would really act the way they do in Watership Down?”, we are not asking a question about the novel but about people, and it’s not a question of interpretation but of anthropology. Nonetheless, this is a reason that people read.

Some people read in order to improve their own writing. They want to inspire themselves, and so they go back to what inspired them to write in the first place. But, as Bloom makes clear, this process does not require accurate interpretation at all. He suggests that it positively benefits from inaccurate interpretation; whether he’s right or wrong, we can notice that this is a different thing from interpretation.

And there are other things that one might do as an academic studying literature. One of the sillier errors David Deutsch makes in The Beginning of Infinity is when he seems to think that literature departments ought to be working on the problem of beauty rather than meaning. Deutsch in interested in explanations that have reach, and if he’s noticing that what literary critics do sometimes lacks reach, he’d be right; his desire to see critics figure out what makes a poem beautiful might be an attempt to get this field back into conjecturing universal explanations. But he’s wrong that universality of reach is the only measure of an explanation; particularity matters too. The question of beauty is probably one that’s worth answering, however, even as the questions literary analysis currently asks are also worth asking. So this is maybe another reason to read: to figure out beauty’s mechanism. (I suspect this is a task for psychology, though, and not the humanities.)

I want to affirm all of these reasons to read. Some of these activities are necessary; some of them are excellent. But they aren’t interpretation; they do not contribute to interpretation, they are not the ends of which interpretation is only one of the means, and they are not what people do in English departments (or at least not primarily what people do in English departments). Of course an interpretation of a text might note that the text seems especially well suited to one of these tasks, but that’s not it’s job. Of course some of these tasks rely on interpretation to some degree, and so they benefit if that interpretation is expert rather than amateur, proficient rather than inept. And of course insofar as these tasks rely on interpretation they are also subject to interpretations limitations. But it’s still important to make distinguish between these activities, because the skills and methods involved in one are not always the skills and methods involved in another.

Let’s go back to that first example: reading a letter. I care what the person wanted to say, so literary interpretation isn’t going to cut it. I could do that work, of course, but it isn’t going to get me the result that I want. Trying to discern authorial intent is a somewhat harder task: instead of working out the meaning of the text in itself, I try to anticipate what meaning a person would want to impart when they chose those words. It is a much more speculative activity than literary interpretation. The result is far less certain when trying to discover intent than when trying to discover meaning; ambiguities must be resolved, not acknowledged and incorporated into the reading. Prior knowledge of the person, however, counts as evidence here, which means that you do have more data to work with—unless you don’t know the person very well, in which case reliance on the person’s personality becomes a liability.

And, I think, this goes back to the questions in the second half of my post on John Green, Twilight, and Paper Towns. If we’re holding people accountable for what they wrote, we luckily have all of the evidence we need in the text itself. If we’re holding people accountable for what they intended to write, our project is in trouble from the outset. If we’re holding people accountable for which misinterpretations they could anticipate…that seems difficult, indeed.  But, whatever we do, our understanding of the text must be an understanding of the text, and not anything else. That’s why I’m making these distinctions.

(For more on literary theory, see this index.)
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