Monday, September 16, 2013

Harman's "Literary Criticism"

Texts already reach outside their boundaries — they are already on the verge of breaking. Harman’s argument relies on a substance/holism of a text that just isn’t “really” there in an objective ontological sense. We can recognize an author’s “style,” yes (although, contra Harman’s assertion, Shakespeare’s “style” cannot “enable us to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic plays under his name” — debates still rage on; this also undermines (in the colloquial rather than Harman-esque sense) his claim later about the “death of the author”), but the claim that “to make a slight change in two lines of the Fool might not alter the general effect of King Lear, nor would it likely make much difference to the characterization of Regan or Kent” is really problematic. Although he thinks he is reinforcing it, Harman erases the text’s “materiality” that resists the reader. Readers can make decisions and do the work to argue that a play’s alterations (or one might even think of the various “versions”) fundamentally change the play. And yeah, I’m talking about meaning here — meaning to human readers (the horror!). Reading fundamentally contains an epistemological component that cannot be overlooked in favor of questions of a text’s ontology. Harman’s notion of a text’s “depth” that can never be reached reinscribes the notion of a text’s “truth” and it also isolates the text from all of its possible relations, which already changes its meaning and significance. Harman’s target is the “surface” readings of Derrida and Foucault — moving back into a language of “depth” is to reinscribe a hermeneutic mode of investigation that assumes a persisting unity of a text, outside its dissemination to its context as part of language. It is to revive the idea of the “Book” in its sense that Derrida gives when he talks about the Book of the World that God (or some other entity) has laid out to us to read and decipher. The simple binary of “undermining” and “overmining” does not do justice to the complexity of the issue. We can certainly “undermine” the book by saying that it is nothing but another object made up of atmospheric particles. And yet– the very form of the book has meaning for human beings — it has power and significance due to the medium’s history. We can undermine and overmine to a different degree, but literary criticism involves a human reader and a human reader’s decisions (the critic’s writing delimits the ‘context’ at least for that particular article or book). Thus, epistemological questions arise as soon as Harman says that we can change the text and show “how each text resists internal holism by attempting various modifications of these texts and seeing what happens.” We don’t have to even CHANGE the text “itself” in order for it to be modified by other texts. Indeed, the very fact that the text is composed of language already breaks the text’s boundaries as ultimately the text is a part of cultural context and an (open) system of meaning. Harman seems to have this idea that literary critics use “cultural context” to dismiss works of art — this hardly seems to be the case. My frustration with Harman is that he seems to think his ontology helps us see literature in a new way (rather than reinforcing naive assumptions about the unity/substance of a text). To show how a text “resists its internal holism” is already to assume that the text has a holistic unity unto itself; Indeed, Brooks and co. (New Critics) were constantly exploring the “tensions” within the boundaries of the texts. But literary critics have already done this without reducing a text’s particular materiality (as explored by Derrida, De Man, etc.). To be fair, he does mention that some “literary methods recommended by object-oriented criticism might already exist” so I don’t want to fault him for talking about methods already known by literary critics; what I do want to argue is that .object-oriented ontology, in its preference for a “depth” understanding over surface, is not what literary criticism should strive for, IMO

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