Culture Magazine

Prospects: The Limits of Discursive Thinking and the Future of Literary Criticism

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Another working paper. The usual deal, links, abstract, contents, and introduction. SSRN:
Book Revue 1 Shakesworks
Abstract: After considering future prospects for literary criticism in terms of conceptual possibilities, and preferred intellectual style, this picture emerges: 1. Ethical criticism is the only criticism we can do that is entirely prose-centric. 2. Naturalist criticism requires considerable intellectual investment outside of literary study and is quite limited if one insists on prose-centric thinking. 3. Description has relatively few extra-literary prerequisites, but requires tables or diagrams. It is not consonant with a prose-centric orientation. 4. Computational criticism is giving us new phenomena to examine, but it is not prose-centric. From this we may conclude that discursivity, prose-centric thinking, is the primary obstacle preventing further development of literary criticism. It stands in the way of computational criticism and description, neither of which is fundamentally discursive, and constrains the development of naturalist criticism.
Introduction: Beyond Discursive Thought Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism Some Notes on Ethical Criticism, with Commentary on J. Hillis Miller and Charlie Altieri Ethical Criticism: Blakely Vermeule on Theory, Cornel West in the Academy, Now What? Literary Form, the Mind, and Computation: A Brief Note (Boiling It Down) Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age The Disciplines of Psychology, the Study of Literature, and an Ecology of Cultural Beings Latour, Language, and Translation Appendix 1: An Annotated Guide to my Writing about the Profession Appendix 2: Critical Disciplines, the Short Version Appendix 3: Critical Method: the Four-Fold Way, from Then to Now
Introduction: Beyond Discursive Thought
Abstractly considered, the future of academic literary criticism has three aspects: 1) intellectual capabilities and methods, 2) institutional arrangements, and 3) the preferences of those seeking to do literary research and publication. Most of my thinking and writing about the matter has focused on the first issue, though I’ve made some scattered remarks here and there on the second. But I’ve mostly neglected the third – well, not quite. It’s complicated.
I’ve written a bit about ethical criticism, a term I’ve taken from Wayne Booth, and that is certainly partially motivated by that third issue. Why do people become professional literary scholars? Because they want to do ethical criticism. They may not call it that, but that’s what most people in the profession do under the guise of interpretation, Certainly that is what critique is about.
Style Matters
But the issue has another aspect, and that has to do with how people think. When, some 40 years ago, I turned toward the cognitive sciences and away from structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the rest, the turn was driven as much by intellectual style as by epistemological conviction. No, I didn’t have much affection for the predicate calculus, which I learned in a course in symbolic logic (it fulfilled my math requirement), but I did like the intellectual style I found in linguistics books, the sense of rigor and explicit order. I also liked the diagrams. A lot.
There were large sections in my dissertation — Cognitive Science and Literary Theory [1] — where the major burden of the argument was carried by the diagrams. I’d work out the diagrams first and then write prose commentary on them. That modus operandi pleases me a great deal. In the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil (the book had some diagrams, but not many) I refer to my thinking in that book as speculative engineering. I like that term: speculative engineering [2].
There are other intellectual styles, obviously. Some very different from my diagrammatic and speculative engineering style. New historicism, for example, is, or can be, a very writerly style. One gathers stories, vignettes, and passages from various writers, literary and not, and arranges them more according to rhythm, surprise, and repose than for logical progression and finality — though such matters come into play as well. It is a style that can be a bit like literature itself, at least prose fiction, though one can sneak in some lyrical passages here and there, and maybe even a bit of insistent rhythm.
I’ve been told, and have no reason to doubt, that new historicism is the closest thing academic literary criticism currently has to a dominant methodological practice. I can’t help but thinking that this preference is as much about intellectual style as about epistemological conviction. Yes, the varieties of Theory are also prose-centric, but they are more insistently argumentative, if not polemical, and so don’t offer the (often unrealized?) possibilities for lyrical expression that flow from new historicism.
Consequently, I’ve got two suspicions about intellectual style:
• In anyone’s intellectual ecology, style preferences are deeper and have more inertia than explicit epistemological beliefs. • Some of the pigheadedness that often crops up in discussions about humanities vs. science is grounded in stylistic preference that gets rationalized as epistemological necessity.
I think/suspect/fear that is the case with a lot of literary critics. And that affects the first issue, intellectual capabilities and methods. For many of the most exciting intellectual opportunities require that one think in modes other than discursive prose.
* * * * *
What I would like to do in the rest of this introduction, then, is consider the future possibilities of literary criticism in light of two considerations: intellectual possibilities, and conceptual style. First I offer a sketch of how prose-centricity has affected the evolution of literary criticism over the past half-century or so and then I look at a four-fold division of intellectual possibilities in light of that evolution.
Prose-Centricity in Literary Criticism
Let us choose 1957 as a reference year. Aside from the fact that that’s when the Russians launched Sputnik, thereby inspiring America’s federal government to invest in higher education, that’s when Northrup Frye published his Anatomy of Criticism and Chomsky published Syntactic Structures [3]. Though both books dealt with language, they did so in a very different way. It’s not just that Frye was interested in literary texts and Chomsky was interested in sentences, but they displayed very different intellectual styles. Frye’s book was written entirely in prose, while Chomsky’s was written in prose, diagrams, and logical formalism. And Chomsky’s core thinking was in that formalism and those diagrams; the prose existed to explicate them.
How could literary criticism be thought in any vehicle but prose?
At roughly the same time Lévi-Strauss initiated his investigations into myth and used tables (I have an example later in this working paper in the section “Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism”), and later diagrams, as tools for thought. The tables and the diagrams were relatively simple, but it is not at all clear to me that he could have done that work without those visual objects. They were essential to his thinking, which thus ceased being prose-centric.
For awhile Lévi-Strauss’s ideas were widely influential in the humanities, with that influence reaching a high point in America with the 1966 structuralism conference at Johns Hopkins. But, in part as a consequence of a paper delivered by a young scholar, Jacques Derrida, that conference also proved to be the beginning of the end of structuralism in literary criticism. To be sure both Robert Scholes and Jonathan Culler (who also referenced Chomsky) published influential books on structuralism in the mid-1970s, but the structuralist moment in literary criticism moment was all but over by that time. Deconstruction was on the rise.
I find it convenient to date structuralism’s end with Eugenio Donato’s “Lévi-Strauss and the Protocols of Distance”, a review of all four volumes of Lévi-Strauss’s Mythologiques which he published in Diacritics in 1975 (vol. 5, no. 3). Donato tells us that “what follows, then, is not an attempt to describe or evaluate Lévi-Strauss’ contributions to specific areas as much as to question some of the implicit or stated assumptions which Lévi-Strauss himself relates to the ultimate significance of his work.” That is, he is not interested in Lévi-Strauss’s practical analysis of ethnographic materials, including, of course, the 100s of myths he examines in Mythologiques. Rather, Donato is interested in Lévi-Strauss’s relation to the phenomena he investigates and goes on to assert that “despite Lévi-Strauss’ repeated protestations to the contrary, the anthropologist is not completely absent from his enterprise.”
No, he is not. It is a trivial truism that none of us is absent from our enterprises. It is a question of how we construct our enterprises, what the rules are, and how they are shared. What Lévi-Strauss was after with his tables and diagrams is what Donato called distance, perhaps in contrast to the closeness of “close reading”, but which I suspect could also be called objectification. That’s an argument I make in a recent working paper, Beyond Lévi-Strauss on Myth: Objectification, Computation, and Cognition (2015 [4]).
That is to say, the profession rejected a mode of thought in which one distanced oneself from the text through the use of simple visual devices, thereby objectifying those texts, in favor of one where the critic is ultimately unable to distinguish himself from the texts he analyzes. That rejection is part of a complex of intellectual developments I examine in the first post in this series, “Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism”. This evolution shows up in three slippages:
1) Reading: The distinction between ordinary reading, which everyone does, and interpretive reading, the province of literary critics, has become elided. Critics “read” texts and so create “readings”. Moreover these written interpretations are often seen as the only “true” readings of the texts. In the extreme, it’s all interpretation.
2) The Text: The distinction between the text as physical object (marks on pages, pages bound into books) and whatever it means and whatever it represents is elided. While there are times and places when critics mean only physical marks or sounds, the signifiers, these tend to be in discussions of theory and/or method. In practical criticism the text is always something more than, in excess of, the marks on the page.
3) Theory of Literature becomes Theory: Over time the theory of literature (think, for example, of Wellek and Warren, Theory of Literature) morphed into critical theory which in turn became Theory. In the (old-fashioned) theory of literature there is a difference between theory, which is about the nature of texts and other literary phenomena, and the practical criticism of texts. In Theory that distinction is gone. Instead, one uses various bodies of political, social, psychological or philosophical theory as was to interrogate the expanded text and present the result, not as criticism of a verbal artifact, but as critique of the social and political world. That is to say, theory and text (critic and text) merge in the act of critique.
These developments were in place by 1980s and have remained in place ever since. As far as I know none of these developments were ever justified by a need to preserve prose-centric working methods, but that preservation is a direct consequence of the various explicit decisions that have been made. There is one arena, however, where prose-centricity is being challenged, computational criticism, aka digital humanities. And with that, let’s move on to a consideration of the intellectual possibilities before us.
A Four-Fold Way
Over the past few years I have been developing a four-fold categorization of the intellectual possibilities now open to literary criticism [5]. Consider this diagram:
The point of the diagram, I suppose, is that these four modes are not distinct and disjoint alternatives. There is overlap between them.
Let’s start at the right, with naturalist criticism, by which I mean a criticism that treats literature as a thing of the world like other things of the world, rocks and trees and galaxies and other worlds, for that matter, tidewater pools. Naturalist criticism draws on the newer psychologies, cognitive science, neuropsychology, and evolutionary psychology, but isn’t necessarily limited to them. Naturalist criticism also draws on the nascent study of human cultural evolution and compatible views on human society in history.
In my own practice, for I have been doing this kind of work since the 1970s, computation is a central motivating idea, which I discuss later on in “Literary Form, the Mind, and Computation: A Brief Note (Boiling It Down)” and in “The Disciplines of Psychology, the Study of Literature, and an Ecology of Cultural Beings”. Computation as I understand and deploy it leads to the (often quite detailed) description of literary form and to the use of diagrams in that work – see “Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism”.
Computation has been overlooked, however, by more recent literary advocates of these newer psychologies, those working in cognitive poetics and in biocultural criticism (aka Darwinian literary criticism) [6]. These critics don’t have much interest in the detailed description of literary form and they do not, so far as I know, make diagrams central to their practical criticism. Thus in its most widely practiced forms, naturalist criticism is discursive; its modes of thought are prose-centric. Here and there some Darwinian critics and some cognitive critics have participated in empirical research, but that work is, so far at least, exceptional rather than standard.
While a prose-centric orientation thus inhibits the development of cognitive and biocultural criticism into a full naturalist approach, these schools have two accomplishments to their credit: 1) they have brought a much wider range of work in the behavioral sciences within range of literary criticism and 2) they have restored the distinction between theory of literature and practical criticism. In fact, one might argue that their theorizing about literature is more successful than their practical criticism. On the downside, becoming fluent in these idioms requires a substantial intellectual investment outside literary studies.
How far can this work continue without more scholars thinking seriously about computation as a mental process underlying literary texts? My own conviction on that matter should be obvious: not very far. I suspect that Franco Moretti would agree: “Computation has theoretical consequences—possibly, more than any other field of literary study” [“Operationalizing”: or, the function of measurement in modern literary theory, Literary Lab, Pamphlet 6, December 2013, p.9].
Continuing clockwise around the diagram we have digital humanities. Aside from the fact that this work has been getting a lot of press and is well-funded (to date), which bear on institutional issues, it is NOT prose-centric, not discursive. Computational criticism thus is currently the most successful challenge to prose-centric practice. More traditional critics have challenged computational criticism, not, of course, on prose-centricity (which is all but invisible in these discussions and debates), but on the question of meaning: what do these charts tell us about meaning? I take up these issues in the section “The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age” and in a working paper on Alan Liu [7].
If I have come to believe computational criticism is the most important current development in literary criticism, that is not just because it challenges prose-centric thinking. It also presents new objects represented new phenomena for analysis. Take, for example, the work that Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood have done on the history of the profession of academic criticism – work I draw on in “Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism”. While there has been a good deal of historical work on the profession, which they cite, their work is based on the analysis of a corpus of 21,000 articles written by 13,000 scholars in seven different journals spanning over a century. Their many charts show us things we simply couldn’t have seen in any other way.
Moving back in time, it is one thing for traditional humanists to talk of the “spirit” of an age, of Geist. But when Matthew Jockers presents us with an image depicting similarity relationships among 3300 19th century Anglophone novels, that one image arguably depicts something that is, for all practical purposes, the spirit of the 19th century Anglophone world (or at least a large part of it) [8]. Jockers – and Goldstone and Underwood – are not the only ones doing interesting and provocative work.
These visualizations (of statistical investigations of large collections of texts) are like microscopic or telescopic images in that they allow us to see things that have heretofore been invisible. When traditional humanists talk of Geist they summarizing and abstracting over a wide range to texts they’ve examined and ideas they’ve had in the process. But the relationship between whatever it is they assert of this Geist and their primary sources is indirect and largely invisible. That is not the case with computational criticism. The source texts are available and the analytical methods can be examined. This is quite explicit.
In an obvious sense this computational criticism is an aspect of naturalist criticism ¬– think of how Moretti talks of and justifies distant reading. But I list it as a separate focus because 1) “digital humanities” is recognized, rightly or wrongly, as a distinct intellectual enterprise, and 2) there is more to digital humanities than computational criticism. Of course, there is work in humanities disciplines other than literary studies, but even within literary studies, not all work is about analyzing large bodies of texts. Some work, for example, is about presenting texts and associated materials in electronic format. This is important work, but it doesn’t bear so directly on how we think about literature.
Continuing on around we find ethical criticism, which I consider in two sections of this paper: “Some Notes on Ethical Criticism, with Commentary on J. Hillis Miller and Charlie Altieri” and “Ethical Criticism: Blakely Vermeule on Theory, Cornel West in the Academy, Now What?” I mean “ethical” in the broadest sense, from ethos as invoking a way of life. Ethical criticism in this broad sense embraces both the aesthetics of the text itself and the ethics implied by the life represented or evoked within the text. Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction can stand as a rich and full account of and justification for ethical criticism. As Booth notes, most criticism today is ethical in this broad sense, even though the evaluative dimension of ethics has apparently been jettisoned. The various political and identity criticisms are all assertions about how life ought to be lived and how various texts support or undermine that life way.
Ethical criticism if fundamentally discursive; it IS prose-centric. And, as I said at the outset, it was what many people want to do when they undertake literary study. Moreover, evaluative criticism is often what members of the general public want from literary criticism: What books should I read, what movies should I watch, and why? The only issue it seems to me is whether or not the profession is willing explicitly to acknowledge what it is in fact doing, in the name of Theory or critique. This likely means that we’ll have to abandon the unquestioned authority we assign to modes of critique and Theory and acknowledge that these ideas follow from culturally contingent convictions about how society should be organized and lives should be lived.
This leaves us with description, up at the top of the diagram. Description is hardly recognized by the profession and so is not theorized and practiced only informally, though much practical criticism consists of descriptive summary of texts. It is only in the last decade or so that I’ve seen the necessity of theorizing description. And, while my own descriptive work has been driven by naturalist proclivities, I see no reason why it should be seen simply as an aspect of naturalist criticism.
Ethical critics must engage in description too, and even the more rigorous modes of description that I advocate (see e.g. “Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism” in this paper) should be of interest to ethical critics, especially those sharing Charlie Altieri’s interest in appreciative criticism. Moreover, as far as I can tell, description doesn’t presuppose an extensive background in the newer psychologies or linguistics. In particular, though I conceptualize description in conjunction with computation, it doesn’t seem to me that one needs any particular knowledge of or interest in computation in order to do effective descriptive work. All it requires are examples to work from, an interest in the craft, and diverse experience with texts. This is something you can only learn by doing it.
However, description is not prose-centric. To undertake anything more sophisticated that prose summary you need visual support of some kind, diagrams or tables. I have no idea how this consideration plays out.
Finally, while the meticulous description of literary form is not dependent on naturalist criticism, I believe that the long-term development of naturalist criticism depends on description in the same way that the emergence of biology as a science depended on having a large body of reliable and detailed descriptive work. I’d almost go so far as to say that, as long as the descriptive work is done, it makes no difference whether critics gravitate toward literary Darwinism or cognitive rhetoric or whatever. It’s not that I don’t have preferences among those materials, but that I believe that over the long term, the descriptions themselves will come to guide our preferences.
* * * * *
Where does this leave us?
• Ethical criticism is the only criticism we can do that is entirely prose-centric. • Naturalist criticism requires considerable intellectual investment outside of literary study and is quite limited if one insists on prose-centric thinking. • Description has relatively few extra-literary prerequisites, but requires tables or diagrams. It is not consonant with a prose-centric orientation. • Computational criticism is giving us new phenomena to examine, but it is not prose-centric.
Discursivity, prose-centric thinking, is the primary obstacle preventing further development of literary criticism. It stands in the way of computational criticism and description, neither or which is fundamentally discursive, and constrains the development of naturalist criticism.
I suggest that we learn to draw and to think of it as a serious intellectual activity.
The Posts
Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism – I examine the discipline of literary criticism as it has emerged after World War II, when it became focused on interpreting the meaning of texts whereas before the war it had been philological and historical in nature. Discursive prose is the primary means of thought and communication. In this I draw on the work Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood did in analyzing 21,000 articles by 13,000 scholars, “The Quiet Transformation of Literary Studies” (New Literary History, 2014). I then list five ‘parameters’ (a word I don’t actually use; perhaps “aspects” or “facets” would be more congenial) that characterize how the discipline has developed. There is a sixth aspect: the denial of value judgment.
Some Notes on Ethical Criticism, with Commentary on J. Hillis Miller and Charlie Altieri – After some general remarks on ethical criticism I consider some remarks from Altieri and Miller in a special issue of SubStance devoted to the question, Does literature matter? Altieri is interested in appreciation, while Miller addresses the imaginary in Blanchot and Iser. He talks of this imaginary in terms that are remarkably computational.
Ethical Criticism: Blakely Vermeule on Theory, Cornel West in the Academy, Now What? – Vermule argues that literary criticism fulfills an expressive function for those who do it, with which I concur, and that for most, what they express is a liberationist political agenda. Thus she is skeptical about the prospects for literary Darwinism, with which she is sympathetic (she’s responding to a presentation by Joseph Carroll). In this I see a parallel to Cornel West, who has all but abandoned a promising career as a philosopher/theologian in favor of political activism and the life of a public intellectual. Should there be room in the academy for a Cornel West?
Literary Form, the Mind, and Computation: A Brief Note (Boiling It Down) – This is simply a quick tour, with hyperlinks, of my belief that the human mind has an ineluctable computational aspect and that that aspect is on display in literary form. Literary form is all but a “pure” trace of the mind in motion.
Description as a Mode of Literary Criticism – This is perhaps my most sophisticated brief for description. The central idea is that the rich and detailed description of literary form requires visual means, diagrams and tables. The post is built around examples of visualizations I have used in practice. It is through visualization, even in the most rudimentary forms, that texts become objectified, and objectification is a necessary precondition for objective thought. Where objectifications are strong enough to compel intersubjective agreement, we have achieved objectivity. By using the proper descriptive methods, whatever they may turn out to be (I have no reason to believe that my work is definitive in this regard), we can evolve a regime of cumulative knowledge about literary form(s) that is comparable to that which naturalists initiated in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age – I argue that at the moment digital criticism is the most sophisticated mode of practical criticism. It is the only mode that is creating new objects of knowledge, and those objects generally take some visual form. Digital criticism thus forces critics beyond discursive prose as a mode of thinking. Many, perhaps even most, of these visual objects represent something about large collections of texts spanning decades of time. Digital criticism thus displays phenomena we’ve never seen before, even if we’ve written around and about them, sorta’. Moreover, digital criticism has access to funding and publicity – alas, tricky mistresses.
The Disciplines of Psychology, the Study of Literature, and an Ecology of Cultural Beings – Psychology in the 21st century investigates a five-way correspondence between: 1) computation, 2) behavior, 3) the brain and nervous system, 4) ontogeny, and 5) phylogeny. In the current era naturalist literary criticism must embrace that as a psychology and then operate within its own pentad: 1) computation, 2) circulation (of texts in society), 3) literary form, 4) affective stylistics, and 5) cultural evolution. The second pentad is speculative in a way that the first is not.
Latour, Language, and Translation – This is a brief comment on Rita Felski’s call for a Latourian approach to the humanities generally, an approach that emphasizes translation among individuals and groups, rather than difference. I suggest that the system of linguistic signifiers consists of intermediaries in Latour’s sense, while the signifieds are mediators in his sense.
Appendix 1: An Annotated Guide to my Writing about the Profession – What the title says. Annotations are in the form of abstracts of formal papers and working papers, along with links to downloadable versions.
Appendix 2: Critical Disciplines, the Short Version – A one-page version of the scheme presented in “Meaning, Theory, and the Disciplines of Criticism”.
Appendix 3: Critical Method: the Four-Fold Way, from Then to Now – When I studied with Richard Macksey at Johns Hopkins he would characterize critical approaches in terms of their interest in the: 1) author, 2) reader, 3) work, and 4) world – a scheme, I assume, he’d adopted from Meyer Abrams. I have come to characterize my own work in terms of a different quadrant: 1) brain, 2) culture, 3) description, and 4) explanation. I regard this as informal and not ‘deep’.
[1] Cognitive Science and Literary Theory, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1978, 359 pages, URL:
[2] See my post, Speculation as Fundamental Thinking, URL:
[3] Some years ago I posted a brief chronology of publications in which I ran cognitive science in parallel with literary theory: For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology, URL:
[4] URL:évi-Strauss_on_Myth_Objectification_Computation_and_Cognition
[5] See my working paper, Literary Criticism 21: Academic Literary Study in a Pluralist World (2012), URL:
[6] See my recent working paper, On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form (2015), URL:
[7] Remarks on Alan Liu and the Digital Humanities, A Working Paper (2014), URL:
[8] Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History, University of Illinois Press, 2013, pp. 165. Jockers doesn’t talk of spirit and Geist, but I do, and justify such talk in Reading Macroanalysis: Notes on the Evolution of Nineteenth Century Anglo-American Literary Culture (2014), URL:

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