2 December 2011

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

I was going over my old university books to see if I could sell any of them to get a little money for Christmas this year.  I was loath to sell any of my novels and books of poetry, save for some of the modern stuff. That left doubles- books that both Puff and I had bought in our courses- and the secondary novels, commentaries and works on literary theory.  Philosophical works on language and literature, leading lights of the time, what was considered brilliant and cutting edge at the time.  The books are all now out of print, unwanted, worthless.

This isn't too much of a surprise to me:  I thought the books were pretty much worthless back when I bought them.

The professors who put those books on reading lists and pushed them on me are still around.  I wonder what they are now pushing.  I don't think they've had any big conversion experience, so I wonder what they are teaching now, what their new reading lists are.

I went through university when Literary Theory was all the rage, although anti-literary theory would be a better name.  I thought it was all nonsense, even back then, but like most nonsense, it did contain a grain of truth.  If nonsense through and through, it would not have lasted as long as it did.

Literary theory of the kind I was taught began around 1900 when a new professor by the name of Ferdinand de Saussure took over the general linguistics course at a European university.  He taught the course for three years, and taught maybe thirty students. He changed the usual course of study by switching from a diachronic approach to a synchronic one. Allow me to explain.

Previously, linguistics was taught diachronically, or historically.  Students were taught that words had the meaning they had because they acquired that meaning from earlier words.  Thus, the English word "table" came from the French word "table" which came from the Latin word "tabula" and so on.  The goal of linguistics was to trace language back to the original language of humanity, the language of Adam, which he in used to name the animals (more on that in a minute), the language inherited from God.

Rather than look at language historically, and trying to reconstruct a lost language, he looked at languages synchronically- what was happening in language right now.  Thus the English use words like "table", whereas the French use words like "table" (pronounced the French way, of course) or "school" where the French say "ecole", and so on.  Different languages, Saussure was saying, use different words to say basically the same thing.  Different words, or sounds, were used for the same things, or rather, ideas of things.  From the earlier courses, words had a definite, inherited, intrinsic meaning.  from Saussure's point of view, meaning was arbitrary, random, based on consensus.

From this observation, Saussure created a theory of semiotics, or signs, based around the simple idea that a sign was made of two elements: a signifier, which is the word or sound, and a signifiied, which is the idea to which the sound is connected.  So the word table, either English or French pronunciation, has nothing to do with the thing that we call a table, but with the idea in the speaker's mind that they associate with the sound  "table".

Over the course of the twentieth century, the connection between a signifier and its signified was of great concern to philosophers of language, as they reasoned more and more that there was no inherent connection. As they pushed this idea to its limits, they reasoned that the signifiers are inherently meaningless,  and therefore language is inherently meaningless, and communication is fraught with dangers of misunderstanding and incomprehension.  They wrote thick, fat books explaining this problem in tremendous detail.

Others celebrated the disconnect, and made new pronouncements, turning the literary and philosophical worlds on their heads.  There is no real meaning in a text, said one, only and endless interplay of signs.  Since there can be no perfect reading of a text, said another, then any reading will be in part a misreading.  Another turned that on its head, and claimed that since there is no perfect reading, and since every valid reading will be in part a misreading, then a misreading is still a valid reading (thus proving that logic is truly dead).

In practice, the usual tactic of theorists was to take an argument, reduce it to its premises, and then show how the premises really don't exist, or are contradictory, or are ironic.  They were really big on irony- or as Elizabethan writer George Puttenham called it, "the drie mocke."

The flaw in all this thinking, to me, is that the theory turns all language into nouns- words are all a series of names (signifiers) given to ideas.  There was another theory that came out around the same time, to my way of thinking a better theory, that took language from another point of view.  Essentially, it turns all language in verbs- action.

Saussure and his heirs all looked at language from the premise of "what/how does language say?" and concluded that it says, in the end, nothing.  My preferred theorist, J.L. Austin, looked at language with the question "what does language do?"



This theory challenges the other theory because, whereas the one theory definitively says nothing can be definitively said, the other theory holds that language can definitely do things.  For example, the word 'bet' may have different meanings, if not in denotation that perhaps in connotations to different people, but  if a bet is offered and accepted, the bet is definitely on.  Or, take the example of the archetypal clear statement: "The dog ran down the street."  A practitioner of literary theory may point out for various reasons (the fact that none of these signifiers are tied to absolute signifieds, or various psychological or experiential factors) that there is no definite meaning to this statement.  One reader, upon seeing those words, may envision a husky running down a city street, while another may see a spaniel mutt running down a suburban one.  One may see a street lined with trees, another may not.  Nothing is definite.  All are equally valid.  But the other theory holds that this was an example, a statement used to illustrate a point.  As such, it either worked, and illustrated the point, or it failed to do so.  One way or the other, something happened through the use and agency of words.

I explored the idea of words acting, doing, persuading, amusing or affecting the reader in my time as a doctoral student, at a time when my colleagues were either saying that written works followed the narratives of their theories- either the words and works and texts revealed the Marxist narrative, or the feminist one, or the postcolonial one, or they said nothing at all, and so on.  In order to do my work, I had to take classes wherein I was taught the theories I did not believe, and I was about as welcome as a skunk at a tea party.  I had to buy their books, learn their theories, and prepare myself to teach them one day myself.

And now, those books are literally worthless.  I could not even get the price of the paper on which they are printed.  They are not worth the price of a match to set them all alight and burn them to ash.  I am reminded to something I read once while in high school.  It was a muscle and fitness magazine, about as lowbrow as these university books were high.  The magazine contained an article about ten commandments of fitness, and it ordered the reader, among other things to "never follow any information more than five years old."  The reasons being were that science was always progressing, and what was cutting edge and advocated today may be found to be harmful and destructive tomorrow.  (A more cynical mind may say that the editors of the magazine had a vested interest in this command.  If one could keep following the same advice endlessly, there would be no need for future magazines, and sales would plummet. I actually am of such a cynical mind.  Like Lily Tomlin, it seems that no matter how cynical I get, events always prove that I was never cynical enough.)   As I read those words, it occurred to me that, in order to follow this advice, in five years I would have to ignore the advice contained in the magazine in front of me.  The thought then occurred to me 'Why wait five years?  I could start ignoring it right now.'  That's what my education meant.  What was once true is set aside, not because it is false, but because it is outdated, old.  Back then, I should have realized that in twenty years I could ignore what was written then.  The books may be worthless now.  I should have realized they were worthless then, no matter what the price tag said.

2 comments:

The Sheepcat said...

Ah, Bear, this brings to mind my master's thesis on the writing of mathematical proofs, which was heavily larded with pomo theory ("Objectivity as Practice" was part of the title) but did explore performative aspects of communication.

Gotta love the '90s!

Bear-i-tone said...

I remember porn theory only too well. One of my colleagues was very much into. He had subscriptions to hustler, high society and celebrity skin which were all tax deductible, as he could claim them as 'research'.