Culture Magazine

LitCrit: Getting My Bearings, the Lay of the Land

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Another quick take, just a place filler.
I’ve been playing around with this chart. Nothing’s set in stone. Terms are likely to change (especially the first column), move about, add another line, etc.


Ethical Criticism Naturalist Criticism

Observe the Text Translation/ Interpretation Description

Object of Observation Meaning Form

Grounding Metaphor Space (inside, outside, surface, etc.) Computation

Source of Agency Human Subject Psychological Mechanisms

For the Agent Advice/How do we live? Explanation/How do things work?


The point, of course, is that ethnical and naturalist criticism are different enterprises, requiring different methods, different epistemologies, and different philosophical accounts. The discipline (literary criticism) as it currently exists mixes the two and is skewed toward ethical criticism. Ethical criticism addresses itself to the human subject, which is why it is all-but forced to employ the thin spatial metaphors of standard criticism and why it must distance itself from the explicit (computational) mechanisms of linguistics and of the newer psychologies. That is also why, despite the importance of the concept of form, it has no coherent conception of form and cannot/will not describe formal features of texts beyond those typical of formal poetry and a few others.
The recent Critical Inquiry mini-symposium [1] inevitably mixes the two but is, of course, biased toward ethnical criticism (without, however, proclaiming its ethical nature). All contributions assume the standard spatial metaphors while the world of newer psychologies, much less that of linguistics (computation and psychological mechanisms in the above chart) doesn't exist. Post-structuralism/post-modernism is the (tacitly) assumed disciplinary starting point. My guess is that, except for Marjorie Levinson [2], none of the participants is old enough to remember when structuralism was a viable option.
As always, more later.
[1] Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, Form and Explanation, Critical Inquiry 43 (Spring 2017).  Five replies in Critical Inquiry 44 (Autumn 2017).
[2] Marjorie Levinson, Response to Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, “Form and Explanation”, Critical Inquiry 44 (Autumn 2017).

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