Culture Magazine

On the Nature of Academic Literary Criticism as an Intellectual Discipline: Text, Form, and Meaning [where We Are Now]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Since the late 1950s and early 1960s the discipline has made interpretation its central focus. The discipline’s job is to determine or at least comment on and explicate the meaning of texts. At the same time the discipline has failed to define just what the text is and has arrived at no consensus about form, though formalism is a central conception. This makes sense. Form is a property of texts. If the discipline doesn’t know what a text is, then it can’t know what form is either.
Correlatively, the distinction between reading, in the ordinary sense of the word, and reading, as explicit interpretation, has become elided so that reading can mean either or both depending on the context. This too makes sense, though we need to think about it and come at it from another angle.
That other angle starts with a straight-forward definition of the text as a string of symbols. Form then becomes a matter of how words and syllables are arranged on the string. That’s my starting point; that’s the starting point for the naturalist study of literary morphology [1]. With that as your starting point, how do you get to meaning?
There are two ways.
The way of the critic
Here’s the standard way, the way of the critic: You can simply read the text, in the ordinary sense of read. This makes you a reader, obviously. To act as a literary critic, using this as your starting point, you go on to interpret the text. That is, you read it, in the sense the word has come to have among critics.
This process renders the text, as a string of symbols, all but invisible, and so obscures form – the arrangement of symbols in the string – as well. There are, of course, exceptions. In poetry rhyme and meter are obvious and so attract comment. But they are obvious that makes it easy to subordinate that comment to interpretive exegeses. In prose we have the distinction by story and plot, which is so prominent in Tristram Shandy. This too is so obvious that it doesn’t threaten the hegemony of interpretive meaning.
The way of the modeler [speculative engineer]
That’s one way. There is another. That’s what I pursued, staring with Lévi-Strauss on myth and, to a lesser extent, Jakobson on poetics. That led me first to “Kubla Khan”, where I ran up against a very elaborate formal structure [2], form in the sense of the arrangement of words and syllables on the string. Despite all the attention that had been given to this poem that formal structure had been missed.
That formal structure seemed computational to me and so I went off to graduate school in search of the computational underpinnings of literary texts. I produced a partial computational model of a single text, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 [3]. Take that model, flesh it out in various ways, and then embody in an appropriate computer program and then, yes, the computational engine reads the text. You could then, at least in principle, open the engine and see what it did in the course of reading the text. In a paper I co-authored with David Hays in 1976 we imagined such an engine and I fully anticipated that I would one day be working with it, as would others [4]. That didn’t happen, nor do I expect it to any time in the near future, if ever.
This path leads you to models, but also to the description of form [5]. But you do not end up with interpretations. Those you must forswear.
Which way?
There is a trade off. If you seek meaning, then you take the way of the critic, but subordinate the text and form. If you seek form, then you must subordinate meaning and pursue the say of the modeler. There is no reason, of course, why one individual can’t pursue both paths, sometimes in different investigations, sometimes at different points in the same investigation. I have investigated this trade-off in an open letter I wrote to Daniel Everett, who was an academic dean at the time [6].
I see no reason why academic literary criticism should give up the way of the critic. But it will whither and die if it does not attend more deeply to the way of the modeler.
Note on terms and citations
This short post makes many assertions about literary criticism. I believe that I have discussed all of them in various posts and working papers. But I have decided not to cite those many pieces in this post, which would have turned it into a bit of a slog to write. It’s Friday morning, I’m exhausted from thinking and writing about GPT-3. Enough. If you have a mind to do so you can hunt those pieces down through the links I attach to the post.
I don’t particularly like the term “modeler”, but I can’t offer another at the moment. In the past I’ve talked of “naturalist criticism” and so of the “naturalist critic.” That suffers from the use of “critic”. I’ve taken the term “speculative engineer” from the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001), where I describe my method as speculative engineering. I do like that, but I can’t see it being used as a term of art.
That being said, this is pretty much how I see things at the moment. If I changed the tone a bit I could turn it into a manifesto.
[1] William Benzon, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2006, Article 060608,
[2] William Benzon, Articulate Vision: A Structuralist Reading of "Kubla Khan", Language and Style, Vol. 8: 3-29, 1985,
[3] William Benzon, Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics, MLN 91: 1976, 952-982,
[4] William Benzon and David Hays, “Computational Linguistics and the Humanist”, Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 10. 1976, pp. 265-274,
[5] William Benzon, Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature, Working Paper, September 2017, 35 pp.,
[6] William Benzon, An Open Letter to Dan Everett about Literary Criticism, June 2017, 24 pp.,

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