Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.
Not only the most fascinating play of the period, but its greatest prose work (in England), has melancholy for its theme. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is an exhaustive analysis of the causes, symptoms, treatment and cure of melancholy, with two enormous appendices on love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton was an Oxford don, and his chief amusement is said to have been going down to the Isis river and listening to the bargemen swear. The story may be true, or it may have been invented by someone who noticed that the qualities of Burton’s prose, with its vast catalogues, piled-up epithets, Latin tags, allusiveness and exhaustive knowledge of theology and personal hygiene, are essentially the qualities of good swearing. Burton assumes rather than discusses the connexion of melancholy with creative power: being a scholar himself, like Hamlet, he associates it rather with the scholarly temperament, and includes a long digression on the miseries of scholars. On religious melancholy his position is simple: one can best avoid it by sticking to the reasonable middle way of the Church of England, avoiding the neurotic extremes of papist and puritan on either side. But in love there is no reasonable ground to take, for its very essence is illusion.
This comes from Northrop Frye’s “The Imaginative and the Imaginary” in his Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. Frye is considered obsolete in the discipline, but as with almost any critic who has had any popularity or respect in the field at all, he has excellent observations. I rather like the ones above.
Watching Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller 2015), which I very much enjoyed, I was struck by how existentialist the film was; indeed, it made me realize that all post-apocalyptic fiction has an existentialist seed. But then, there is also something post-apocalyptic about existentialism. God is dead, spake Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. God remains dead. And we have killed him. If that doesn’t announce an apocalypse, I don’t know what does.
When Nietzsche declared God dead, he was not making a metaphysical claim but rather a moral and psychological claim: at one point, humanity relied on the authority of God to guarantee moral questions. In order to decide what to do, what kind of decision to make, they appealed to God; moreover, this appeal was beyond question. But as Nietzsche pointed out, by the end of the seventeenth century God no longer had ultimate moral authority. People might well still believe in God and derive their morality from that belief, but it was no longer the case that any moral code, any moral prescript, was unquestionable. God as a figure for absolute norms was dead. This was not a physical apocalypse but it was, at least, a social and ethical one. And as with so many apocalypses, some of us survived it (though, as Dallas Hunt might point out, the question is not so much “did we survive?” but “who is the ‘we’ that survived?”).
In what I called A Theory of Reading 1.0, a series at The Thinking Grounds, I tried to articulate and justify what seemed to me to be the underlying assumptions and approach of literary interpretation in the English discipline. In its supplementary materials, I tried to tie up some loose ends, especially shoring up my explanation against authorial intent and reader-centred interpretations. I’m glad I did that work, because it led to my writing about Twitterary Theory, which I’m pretty happy with.
However, there are some outstanding problems with that version. I say “version” because I understood it as an initial attempt. One day I am going to attempt a 2.0, maybe a 3.0, as needed. I expect that I will need to update my understanding of interpretation as I learn more. Even as I wrote it, I knew that I was weak in the area of what Foucault calls the “author function.” I still do not feel equipped to deal with that problem. Since writing the series, a few more problems have come up, too.
First, what about singer-songwriters? My friend Jon Wong insists that listeners understand songs in relation to the real biography of singer-songwriters. For the most part I would say that my explanation of the problems of reading are universally binding; whether or not listeners attempt to understand songs in relation to their singers is utterly irrelevant to the dynamics of interpretation in the same way it is irrelevant with readers, books, and writers or viewers, paintings, and artists. I do want to bookmark Jon’s concern, though, because it will come up later.
In my last term before graduating as a library student, I took a course in social media for library professionals, and for this course each of us had to maintain a blog. There is one particular post (link) for that blog which I want to share. (While I am arranging a move, I thought it would be smart to re-run old work.)
A little background, first: One of my classmates, Fiona Hanington, wrote two posts about Twitter (which I linked in the post, if you want to read them, which you should do), considering specifically how context relates to what a particular tweet means. This sort of question was in my wheelhouse, as I had fairly recently been tackling the problem of interpretation on a much broader, more summary scale (see here for a table of contents), so I used that background to reply to Fiona’s more specific questions. That post is as follows:
Twitterary Theory: Meaning, Context, and Responsibility
A few days ago Fiona wrote two posts about Twitter, tweets, and Twitter essays: in the first, she discusses Jeet Heer, who numbers tweets to structure them together into an essay; in the second, she talks about how a person ought to read tweets. In particular, Steven Salaita had an offer for a tenure position withdrawn over a tweet which seemed, on its own, to be incendiary:
1. A Far From Serious Thought Experiment
Imagine that humans have learned to colonize other planets, but once people have arrived at their colony it is unlikely that they, or their descendants for quite a few generations, will get to leave. Or imagine that the earth has been stripped of resources and humans are beginning to launch space stations on which they can survive. Or imagine that, in anticipation of nuclear war, people are building and moving into underground vaults. The specifics don’t matter—what does matter is that some people live in small, isolated, pre-planned communities. More importantly, imagine that the people who planned these communities decided it was a good opportunity to do some unethical experimental social science, as in a certain computer game.
The social scientists constructed libraries for each colony (or station, or vault); about 2 000 volumes represent the entire cultural legacy for each community. The vast majority of these volumes are identical across communities, but they have made careful adjustments to a randomly-selected sample of libraries. For instance, while most libraries contain J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and derivative works, a few stations (or vaults, or colonies) have L. F. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and derivative works in their place. A few vaults (or etc.) have been carefully combed over to remove any work by or reference to William Shakespeare. In others, it is William Wordsworth who has been so excised. Perhaps a few libraries have more radical changes—one has no works authored exclusively by men, or by white people, and another has only works written by people who went, or are rumoured to have gone, blind. These more radical changes are really just an indulgence, I guess; it is not the best experiment design, to change so much. Continue reading