on OOO and New Criticism

September 17, 2012

There’s an interesting critique by Daniel Green, HERE, of my recent article in New Literary History. It’s quite refreshing in the sense that I wasn’t expecting anyone to critique that article from the standpoint of New Criticsm, which many regard as old-fashioned and long since buried; what I was expecting instead was a lot of resistance from the New Historicist and Derridean camps.

There are just two passages I want to respond to:

“First of all, I do not think it is accurate to say that the New Critics conceived of the poem (the literary text) as ‘encapsulated machines cut off from all social and material context.’ It would be absurd to say that a literary work is literally ‘free’ of the social/biographical/cultural context in which it was written. The New Critics just believed that this context had little to do with the reader’s experience of the poem, and it is the experience of reading that the New Critics wanted to emphasize.”

Green’s point here is that only a fool would think that literary works could be cut off from all criticism context. The New Critics were very intelligent, not fools; of course they knew that the literary work wasn’t cut off from all context, they simply chose to “emphasize” the relative autonomy of literary texts.

I disagree with this rejoinder, for the following reasons. Yes, the world is a complicated place, and theoreticians qua human beings are rarely going to embrace extremist doctrines about anything. If you try to pin down a Derridean on “there is nothing outside the text,” then of course they’re going to concede that the world isn’t just a text, and they may even act annoyed that you would attribute such a belief to them.

But the point isn’t whether private individuals called the New Critics really believed that a work could be entirely cut off from its social/biographical context. The point is whether they sufficiently accounted for the context in their theory. This is why reductio ad absurdum proofs are possible, after all. If I say that mathematism and scientism give us no good explanation of why perfect knowledge of a tree would not itself be a tree, it is insufficent to say “but of course they know that knowledge and trees are different.” The point isn’t what they know qua humans, but what their theories lead to as logical consequences.

The New Critics don’t just “emphasize” the internal structure of the text, they make this internal structure the sole topic of discussion. Perhaps the occasional historical fact peppers the New Critical reading, but this is not just a matter of “reduced emphasis,” but of defining the very reality of the literary work as a structure that is both closed off, and –a more important point for my article– holistic. Each element of the work can only be understood in its interplay with each other element.

A similar paradox haunts the art criticism of Clement Greenberg, who has much in common with the New Critics and who belongs to the same basic current of avant-garde modernism. On the one hand, Greenberg cuts off the artwork from the biographical and social conditions of its production (despite the occasional light he might shed on a work now and then by talking about the provincial social background or conservative political opinions of a Cézanne). But on the other hand, Greenberg treats the artwork as a holistic machine in which we cannot weigh the importance of individual elements apart from considering them as a whole.

In other words, Greenberg and the New Critics are every bit as holisitic as New Historicism or socio-political interpretations of art history. But instead of a holism that places artworks alongside other things not traditionally viewed as art, it’s a holism that cuts off that outside and turns the interior of the artwork into a global holistic machine. This isn’t just a matter of “emphasis.” They are quite serious that you can’t understand individual pieces of an artwork apart from all the rest; this is what bolsters their “paradoxical” recognition that you can’t invent rules for creating great art. See for instance Greenberg’s interesting reflections in the Bennington Lectures (contained in Homemade Aesthetics) as to why you can’t say, for instance, that “brushy” art such as that of Delacroix or Rubens is inherently superior or inferior to the “smooth” finish of Ingres or Raphaël. Sometimes it works better one way, sometimes another, because the painterly brushtrokes either work or fail to work only in their systematic interconnection with the other elements.

In short, we have a genuine trench war here, but both sides accept holism at a certain point, simply differing over whether that holism is internal or external to the artwork. And that’s why, as soon as I reject the internal holism of the New Criticism, Green automatically assumes that I must be endorsing the outward-looking holism of the New Historicism (even though earlier in his remarks he acknowledges my critique of New Historicism, and even endorses it). See the conclusion of his review, when he critiques my call for a counter-factual literary criticism that would alter specific elements of literary works and see how far this process can go without changing the work in question:

“This project is not an exercise in criticism but a further experiement in object-oriented ontology, a philosophical, rather than a critical, move. Harman seems to want to prove that OOO is correct, using the literary text as vehicle. How is this different from using the text to do politics or sociology?”

This isn’t it. No literary analysis can “prove” that OOO is correct; instead, I simply think the non-relational, non-holistic methods of OOO might be usefully applied to literary analysis.

The fact that Green thinks this is no different in kind form sociological or political analysis shows his basic presupposition, which is the literary text is a holistic unit that must be taken as precisely the whole that it is– with all the exact wording that it currently has, for instance.

By contrast, I think the literary text is something deeper than its current holistic configuration in the form of how the author chose to publish it, or the best available scholarly version of a text available at any given moment, or whatever is usually taken to be the real text.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the socio-political or biographical analysis of literature, which would refuse to cut a text off from its surroundings, would insist on seeing who is empowered or belittled by any text, what the dedication page of a text says about class privilege under Louis XIV, or whatever.

Instead, it is saying that while the New Critics were right not to reduce a text to the surroundings from which it was born (and here I side with Green against the excesses of New Historicists, who qua humans also “know” that texts have an autonomous reality too), the New Critics were wrong to reduce a text to the current shape of interrelated elements that it currently happens to have.

In other words, I think I’m giving an even stronger critique of authorial intention than is usually the case. Not only do authors fail to master the infinite dissemination of their texts, they probably don’t even put the text in the right shape in the first place. Most of them should have written better texts. Just as social surroundings fail to exhaust a literary work, the exact written form of a literary work fails to exhaust the deeper spirit of that work. My article proposed the rudiments of some methods to get at that deeper spirit. In my newly published Lovecraft book I put some of those methods to work, but I’d like to do it on a larger scale at some point.

Anyway, I did enjoy Green’s post.

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