Restate My Assumptions

So, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of the things I’m reading at the moment is Beginning Theory by Peter Barry. In the first chapter, he lays out “a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit”, under the banner of “liberal humanism”; and then, later, lays out five core assumptions which describe “the basic frame of mind which theory embodies”. I thought it might be interesting to go through both lists and note down my initial — unexamined, as it were — reactions to each statement, both for my future reference, and perhaps to start being a bit more specific about what “theory”, as used all over the place in that other comment thread, means. (i.e. I’m also interested in other peoples’ reactions to these statements. Heck, turn it into a meme and post it on your blog, if you like.) These are slightly truncated versions of the statements, in most cases — Barry gives some elaboration — but I think they get the gist across.

Liberal humanism, then:

1. Good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature.

Nah. I know from experience that the older the work I’m reading, the more work I have to do filling in historical context to get even a bare minimum of understanding of what’s going on, but more than that, there’s a part of me which believes that one of the most interesting things about literature is precisely the way in which it engages with the limitations and peculiarities of the age it is written in.

2. The literary text contains its own meaning within itself. It doesn’t require any elaborate process of placing it within a context, whether this be socio-political, literary-historical, or autobiographical.

See above; certainly some texts will resist the need for contextualisation more strongly than others, for a longer period of time than others, but ultimately I don’t think anything endures by itself forever; certain texts that appear to have endured have done so, in part, because the contextualisation they require has become part of the cultural air we breathe (i.e. Shakespeare), not because of anything inherent to the text itself.

3. To understand the text well it must be detached from these contexts and studied in isolation. What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or, indeed, specific expectations of any kind.

Mmf. Sort of. I do place close verbal analysis at the core of understanding a text, not least because it’s something I enjoy getting better at; and I do prefer to let a text suggest meaning to me than to go to a text looking for an answer to a question. But, of course, that is my prior ideological assumption. (I knew that much before I started reading the book.)

4. Human nature is essentially unchanging. The same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout human history. It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation.

Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.

5. Individuality is something securely possessed within each of us as our unique “essence”. This transcends our environmental influences, and though individuality can change and develop (as do characters in novels) it can’t be transformed — hence our uneasiness with those scenes (quite common, for instance, in Dickens) which involve a “change of heart” in a character, so that the whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by force of circumstance.

This, on the other hand … “transcends our environmental influences” makes it sound like we’re born being who we are, which is clearly rubbish; but individuality as something that evolves but does not transform sounds right to me. I don’t think I’ve ever transformed in the way the process is described here; I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to transform in that way, either. Life isn’t that easy.

6. The purpose of literature is essentially the enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values; but not in a programmatic way: if literature, and criticism, become overly and directly political they necessarily tend towards propaganda.

On the one hand, speaking again as a science fiction reader, I’m not supposed to mind a bit of didacticism in my fiction, and I’m sure I mind it less than most of the people Barry has in mind here. On the other hand, to the extent that literature can be said to have a purpose, “propagation of humane values”, in the sense of making, through literary creation, a sincere and compassionate attempt to understand people and the world, and to communicate that understanding to another, doesn’t seem so bad.

7. Form and content in literature must be fused in an organic way, so that the one grows inevitably from the other.

Must be? No. (Are there any “must” statements that could justly be applied to literature?) Can often very productively be? Yes.

8. This point about organic form applies above all to “sincerity”. Sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature. It isn’t a fact or intention behind the work … sincerity is to be discovered within the text in such matters as the avoidance of cliche, or of over-inflated forms of expression; it shows in the use of first-hand, individualistic description … the truly sincere poet can transcend the sense of distance between language and material, and can make the language seem to “enact” what it depicts, thus apparently abolishing the necessary distance between words and things.

This seems more or less to be an expansion of point 6, which makes me wonder whether I’m misunderstanding one or both of them; but still, it seems largely sound to me.

9. What is valued in literature is the “silent” showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it. Hence, ideas as such are worthless in literature until given the concrete embodiment of “enactment”.

Sf-reader ping again: I suspect that what satisfies me as being an “enacted” idea wouldn’t necessarily satisfy the people Barry has in mind here; there’s that touch of didacticism to consider. But an idea that is worked through a text is a beautiful thing.

10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. A theoretical account of the nature of reading, or of literature in general, isn’t useful in criticism, and will simply, if attempted, encumber critics with “preconceived ideas” which will get between them and the text.

I have no problems with the first sentence. As to the second sentence … well, that’s why I’m reading the book, isn’t it?

All of this seems to suggest that I am not, actually, a full-on liberal humanist; but there are several points on that list that I wouldn’t want to let go of.

Now, on to Theory:

1. Many of the notions which we would usually regard as the basic “givens” of our existence (including our gender identity, our individual selfhood, and the notion of literature itself) are actually fluid and unstable things, rather than fixed and reliable essences.

Yes … to a point. Newtonian mechanics isn’t actually a wholly accurate description of how the universe works, but it’s a pretty good approximation for a lot of purposes. Cognitive neuroscience may reveal that my selfhood does not exist in the way that I perceive it to exist, but on a day to day basis my perceptions are what I have to work with. And to bring it back to literature, it is not possible to draw a sharp line between, say, science fiction and fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to talk about science fiction and fantasy as distinct types of literature.

2. All thinking and investigation is necessarily affected and largely determined by prior ideological commitment. The notion of disinterested enquiry is therefore untenable: none of us is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately: rather, all investigators have a thumb on one side or other of the scales.

Yes, again to a point. Necessarily affected yes, largely determined, not necessarily. Acknowledging thumbs-on-scales is good; investigating the consequences of thumbs-on-scales is good; trying to construct systems of thought which compensate for thumbs-on-scales is also good. It may not be possible to carry out a purely disinterested enquiry, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to approximate it; it means we should be aware of the biases that factor into the attempt.

3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see. Thus, all reality is constructed through language, so that nothing is simply “there” in an unproblematical way — everything is a linguistic/textual construct. Language doesn’t record reality, it shapes and creates it, so that the whole of our universe is textual. Further, meaning is jointly constructed by reader and writer.

Define “reality”. Do I believe a physical universe could exist if no language existed to describe it? (Assuming here that the action of observation counts as a form of language.) Yes, I do. A rock doesn’t need to be called a rock to exist. Do I believe that our social reality, how we think and relate and describe, is constrained by the language we have to think in and relate through and describe with? Also yes. I don’t know what “the whole of our universe is textual” means. As for reader-writer interaction constructing meaning: yes, but with the caveat that this appears to be intended as at least a partial counter to “the job of criticism is to mediate between the reader and the text” above, and the two positions don’t seem exclusive to me. Reframe it as the job of criticism being to mediate the construction of a particular meaning, if you like.

4. Any claim to offer a definitive reading would be futile. The meanings within a literary work are never fixed and reliable but always shifting, multi-faceted and ambiguous.

Yes. I do not think, for instance, that Victoria Hoyle’s reading of Lucius Shepard is inferior to the author’s view of his own work. (But some meanings are more equal than others.)

5. “Totalising” notions are to be distrusted. For instance, the notion of “great” books as an absolute and self-sustaining category is to be distrusted, as books always arise out of a particular socio-political structure, and this situation should not be suppressed, as tends to happen when they are promoted to “greatness”. Likewise, the concept of a “human nature”, as a generalised norm which transcends the idea of a particular race, gender or class, is to be distrusted.

Yes — recognising the obvious paradox inherent in the statement — as long as “distrusted” means “recognise the limitations of” rather than “discard out of hand”.

And that’s the lot. Not quite a theorist yet, then. It occurs to me that the second list is somewhat less interesting to me, at first glance, simply because it says less about reading and interpreting; it talks in generalities, about principles that apply far beyond criticism, whereas what I’m interested in (what I’m reading the book for) is ways to talk about literature specifically. But I suppose that’s what the rest of the chapters will do.

33 thoughts on “Restate My Assumptions

  1. My problem here is that many of Barry’s statements about liberal humanism make it into far more of a strawman than it should be; had I but world enough and time, I think I could rewrite many of them into far less expansive and more reasonable statements that would be far less like “have you stopped beating your wife?”.

    Funnily enough, I just found this review by James Wood, which for all the author’s habitual arabesques and flourishes gets down to the bone of what we’re talking about:

    “This absence of a general, non-academic literary criticism is the speaking void which tells us that writers, though apparently closer than ever to academics, are actually miles from them. The void is the public space that might have been. Many contemporary writers are familiar with the procedures of post-structuralism and deconstruction. They can talk about decentred texts and self-reflexive narration; they acknowledge that a text has an unconscious, and that it can be read against the grain of its author’s apparent intentions. They see that Eminem’s lyrics might be a ‘text’ in the way that Middlemarch is a text. They are often keener than many scholars to open up the canon. But they diverge from most academic critics, theoretical or otherwise, in two massive areas: intention and value.”

  2. It’s interesting to compare the public spheres of literary criticism with those of film criticism.

    Film-writing is almost the absolute opposite of litcrit in the respect that Woods (and Graham) raise in that much of the running in film criticism has been done by amateurs and fans. The big beasts of film-writing are frequently employed by magazines and newspapers while the academic discipline of Film Studies is treated as a largely irrelevant backwater. In a lot of film criticism the author is very much alive and (to accept Adams distinction from the other post for the sake of discussion), reviewing is where much of the action happens.

    Regarding the list :

    I share Niall’s reticence at seeing texts as severed from there here and now. Books are the products of their age and so it makes sense to me that this is how they should primarily be seen.

    The third textual entry just strikes me as profoundly wrong headed and demonstrably false.

  3. First, Niall – excellent stuff – I’m giving the introductory lecture for a first year theory course on Tuesday and we’re using Barry as the course text – so I might draw upon some of your explication – and, in general, this discussion and the essential sf criticism strand have been good prep.

    Second, I like the way you read the lot in a nuanced ‘do I agree with this or not’ way. Although on the point of there being ‘nothing outside the text’ (Theory 3), It’s not really about reality (independent or otherwise) – it’s about liberation. If we understand everything as text, then (a) literature immediately becomes visible as a mode of direct interaction with the world and (b) writing and reading become forms of direct praxis. Once Neo accepts the world is only code, he can fly!

    I think the James Wood thing has two strands that need to be separated. One of these is the academic/non-academic literary criticism debate which is a red herring. There is just criticism but some critics have different employment structures. It’s not academic critics who are responsible for the drying up of the market for general literary criticism and Woods plaintive note grates (I prefer Clute attacking the MLA as a conspiracy theory, which at least has the virtue of being amusing). However, I think he’s right about intention and value – but then how many critics have been strong on intention and value, whether before or after theory? Or to put it another way, how many critics really get near the complexity and fluidity of literature itself. Not many, ever, and many of those were also writers. I think Empson is the greatest British literary critic and he certainly did intention and value. However Cambridge English also threw up Leavis, with a particular take on intention and value – well, leavis is not so much the problem himself (he can still be read quite profitably) as the fact that English Literature as a discipline became saturated with a leavisite conformity – and one reason Theory is as it is is because it was the means by which the dominant leavisite orthodoxy was overthrown.

    Poor old (well, he’s presumably done quite well out of the book) Peter Barry has merely done a good job of sticking all this into some sort of assimiliable form for students (it is better than many of its competitor volumes – or leastways better for actually giving to first year undergrads). Obviously it’s important to challenge this stuff at face value – at the level of ideas – but there is also a historical context (as above), modes of teaching delivery, academic publishing industry etc to take into account. At the end of the day, it’s a text book and one can’t definitively judge theory/academic lit crit by it anymore than one can judge ‘science’ from a general science text book – although it is a place to start.

  4. Okay, I’m a historian and not a literature specialist, but my take on this has always been that Theory, in whatever form, can be and often is an excellent tool, be it interpretive, analytic, directly practical, modelling, as an antagonistic position and so forth. But it should never become the master — working to satisfy the demands of Theory. So in relation to Niall’s listing of theoretical positionings on his lj, I can only answer that in some circumstances any and all are true but none of them are always and everywhere true.
    (Re-posted here as I’d added it on the earlier thread in error. Attention to the text, Dr K!)

  5. Jonathan: I’m not sure which number three you’re referring to …

    Nick: Is there any way to read them *other* than “do I agree with this or not?” Strictly speaking, as Kari says, I can imagine circumstances in which any of them are to a useful degree “true” — though I have tried to discuss them here with a view to which I find more *generally* true. Glad you’re finding this useful, anyway! And yes, I’m taking it all in the very introductory spirit in which the book intends it. This will be an ongoing project, I’m sure.

    Kari: not to worry, I can approve this version of your comment but not the other!

    (And to anyone wondering at Kari’s comment about lj — I posted all of the above quotes as a poll, with options to vote “true” or “false”, before I left for work this morning. I’ll be interested to see what the responses look like when I get home …)

  6. Niall, I couldn’t do your LJ poll for the simple reason that I couldn’t give a true/false response to any of these propositions. Yes I believe in looking at the context in which a text was written, but at the same time when I go and see a Shakespeare play I expect it to speak to me now (and not just because of the way the director has arranged the costume or set). Yes I think human nature changes, but if I read Jane Austen shouldn’t I expect to recognise the human nature revealed in the novel (and an sf novel set so far in the future that human nature had changed completely would probably be incomprehensible to a reader now). In contrast, studying a text in isolation can be revealing, but putting a text within its context can be just as revealing.

    I suppose I’m an unreconstructed relativist, but I can’t get my head around any absolutist response to any of these statements.

  7. Nick — Your second point makes more sense than Barry’s formulation but is it still not a dangerous confusion? surely, no matter how we come to see the world (whether as code or otherwise) we cannot fly?

    I sense that this is one of the pillars underpinning a lot of Theoretical politics and the idea that changing perceptions of the world is the same thing as changing the world but while you can change some aspects of the world (namely those relating to how it is perceived) in that way, you can’t change all of them and so “the world is text” is a rather heroic simplification.

    Hence the fact that for all of Theory’s successes, we still live in a world where people fight and die and other people spend their lives working away in conditions little better than slavery. Some things are deeper than text.

  8. For thousands of years most people were tied to a life based on seasonal rhythms and the material imperatives of survival. On one level (a) technological process changed that but on another level (b) changes in perception changed that. Compared to what my existence would have been in the early 19C, I am able to (a) fly (in jumbo jets, with all the associated mobility, influence of ther cultures etc) and (b) ‘fly’ in terms of what I can think, do, how I bring up my children, who I sleep with etc etc. I’m not interested in an argument as to which has priority – I’d rather think of them as overlaid. What I like about sf is that it overlays them. That is why sf is strong (because it’s right!). It has an independent existence to the academy and mainstream literature – and it will continue and eventually (I hope) generate a wider public sphere, which will (I think) have potential to make world better place because it simultaneously operates at levels a and b.

    Sure ‘flying’ can be dangerous – not of course because people mistakenly step out of windows in the belief that they won’t fail but because sometimes you try and live in practice in the way your mental adjustments suggest and you discover that the people around you have not made the same mental adjustments and aren’t prepared to. I.A. Richards discusses this very point in Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) – pointing out the threat posed by a society whose values are based on satisfying one set of desires at the cost of suppressing another to any individuals who demonstrate the possibility of successfully satisfying both of the apparently opposed sets of desires: ‘the spectacle of other people enjoying both activities without difficulty, thanks to some not very obvious adjustment, is peculiarly distressing and such people are usually regarded as especially depraved.’ (This, to my mind, is a much better account of a lot of violence directed at particular groups – jews, non-straights – than theories of the ‘other’). Of course, something along these lines happened to Richards’s star pupil, Empson, who got thrown out of Cambridge for keeping condoms in his room. But I’d still argue the world is a better place for Richards and Empson – and they certainly contributed to the better (I nearly wrote more liberal and humane) society of postwar Britain.

  9. I can’t help but fixate on liberal humanism stance #4. Partially because the third sentence in no way follows from what comes before, giving it the air of a straw man, and partially because, however complicated my feelings on the issue, any strong rejection of the second sentence strikes me as untenable.

    Certainly values and dispositions differ wildly from context to context (whether removed in space, time, or both). Certainly huge chunks of our identities and opinion schemae are socially constructed. But the fact is, I can read “The Tale of Genji” or “Journey to the West” with very minimal confusion. You might say that the Odyssey or Hamlet have informed our culture so thoroughly — and developed strong enough apparati for their perpetuation — that they are inevitably comprehensible to the Westerner, but that’s certainly not the case for the above sorts of works. Yes, my reading is mediated by a translator, and that’s its own theoretical kerfluffle, but even the conceptual massage of translation isn’t going to be enough to render a totally incomprehensible pattern of thought or behavior more familiar.

    You obviously want to be wary of reifying or codifying “human nature,” particularly in such a way that particular segments of the population are excluded or regarded as conforming imperfectly to it. But there is a significant enough continuity in “human nature” — which is to say, there are enough physical and experiential consistencies universal to all human beings — that the behavior I find in literatures from distant times and places is usually quite familiar, or at least understandable. A question in earnest: has anyone encountered behavior in a foreign literature which has no meaningful analogue or referent in your own?

    I’m in danger of building a straw man myself here — no one’s arguing against continuity in human experience, I imagine. But literary theorists sometimes carry notions out of social science rather far, and you get frankly silly assertions like “the whole of our universe is textual.”

  10. My comment got et. I’ll restate it: I don’t entirely disagree with Eric, but I’m not sure ‘a widely read Westerner can totally “get” Eastern literature’ is enough of a test. Today, reading Graves’s The White Goddess, for reasons unconnected to this thread, I came across this passage, which seems to me germane to this point. Graves is arguing that the poetic instinct is atrophied in the West, ‘much as,’ he says

    the faculty of understanding pictures is atrophied in the Bedouin Arab. (T E Lawrence once showed a coloured crayon sketch of a Sheikh to the Sheikh’s own clansmen. They passed it from hand to hand, but the nearest guess as to what it represented came from a man who took the Sheikh’s foot to be the horn of a buffalo).

    I don’t know if this is from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, or whether Graves heard it from Lawrence first hand (they were friends of course), but I like it very much.

    Also, I don’t know anybody whose ever said anything so foolish as ““the whole of our universe is textual.” That’s not what ‘il n’y a rien de hors de texte’ means.

    Also, mucho mucho kudos for the phrase ‘…developed strong enough apparati for their perpetuation.’

  11. “Nope. “Human nature”, to the extent that it can be defined at all, isn’t even the same from culture to culture in the present moment; I sincerely doubt it remains the same over centuries or longer. And, of course, as a science fiction reader one of the things I enjoy is imagination of the ways in which humanity can change in the future.”

    I like most of the answers to the posts above, but I have to disagree profoundly with the above. The belief in the malleability of human nature led to too much suffering and tens of millions of deaths in man-made pseudo-utopias that wanted to create “New Men” to remain unchallenged.

    All current genetic research and historical experience shows that civilization, culture, whatever you think makes you different from a human living thousand of years ago, is just a thin veneer that is fragile, precious and easily stripped away.

    Torturers and killers are not aberrant, they are in “us”, so when for whatever reason and in even how narrow a space, civilizational norms break down, they raise their heads like noxious weeds.

    Same with this attachment at owning things, eating fatty foods, engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

    You can raise any baby from whatever culture you want in whatever other culture you want, the baby will get imprinted culturally by his upbringing, but his essential human nature ain’t going to change and is independent of culture, birth, historical age in which he/she lives. We are not intrinsically smarter than the Stone age humans, we are just better educated/exposed to much more stimuli from birth, but I would bet anything that if we somehow could resurrect a Neolithic baby and raise him today he/she would be indistinguishable from a modern human.

    Conversely if our civilization breaks down, do not expect humans to behave better than in any other historical turbulent period…

  12. Adam,

    “The whole of our universe is textual” is taken from an extract of “Beginning Theory” above. The quote, however, is divorced from its full context (an undergraduate primer) where it shouldn’t be understood as a straightforward affirmative. I certainly wouldn’t want to say it’s representative of theory in any broad or particular sense (I find much of theory quite useful). But one does see these sorts of assumptions bandied about uncritically by theorists not especially well-grounded in social science, linguistics, contemporary philosophy, etc. And right or wrong, simplistic or no, Barry DOES use those words in describing the “basic frame of mind which theory embodies.”

    Re Eastern reading: obviously we profit from footnotes. And as with good novels written in our own time and town, there are going to be plenty of nuances we’ll miss. In something like “Tale of Genji,” there’ll be rituals, hierarchies, mythic resonances for which we’ll need some contextual education. But I wager most anyone will be able to understand the behaviors of the characters on display by reference to themselves. On the whole, motivations and emotions will be very, very familiar.

    I like the Bedouin story as well, and agree that it’s of interest here. It highlights, I think, the arenas where theory can be quite relevant: perception, representation, all that fun semiotic business.

  13. I agree with Liviu: human nature seems to me to be startlingly consistent. You can read newspaper clippings from distant yesteryears and be amazed at just how similar the various issues/scandals/concerns are compared with our contemporary outlook. Have another look at Frankenstein and you will realize that, apart from knowledge and interaction with technology, not only are people all over the world basically the same, but they are all over time as well.

  14. I’m going to take issue with Liberal humanism point five, the no change of hearts clause. (Or at least, I’m going to take issue with my understanding of it.)

    This would seem to repudiate the reality of every conversion story, from Saul on the road to Damascus, to the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and everything in between. Which, if you’ve never met anyone in real life who is a recovering drug addict, soldier turned pacifist, liberal turned conservative, priest turned atheist, etc., might seem reasonable. But these transformations are everywhere. Yes, they may be like earthquakes, caused by pressures building silently under the surface. And there is the argument that people simply trade one fanaticism for another. But the final reality is that people can radically transform the way they behave, in what seems to outside observers to be a very short time, and which is often surprising to the person doing the changing too.

    Am I just completely misunderstanding this point?

    If I’m not, then may I suggest that it may not be easily comprehensible to people who have accreted their ideologies slowly and over time, or who have not significantly changed their viewpoints on the world since they were children. But millions of people (political radicals, the born again) would recognize the change of heart, the sudden transformation, as being not only a key piece of human nature, but the key piece.

  15. I’m finding it a bit odd that we’re all getting in a fluster about what essentially boil down to crude characterisations. As Nick points out, Barry’s is a text book, and I think, as Paul points out, his statements are therefore inevitably going to be unusably bald and stratified.

    In the best criticism, ‘trad’ humanism and ‘new’ theory will dovetail and complement each other. Separating them out like this is a means at getting at them rather than truly grasping them – certainly there are moments of accuracy and moments of barmpottery in every quote you’ve listed above. My knickers are staying resolutely untwisted.

  16. And to anyone wondering at Kari’s comment about lj — I posted all of the above quotes as a poll, with options to vote “true” or “false”, before I left for work this morning. I’ll be interested to see what the responses look like when I get home …

    I’ll respond to other comments later, but these are the unscientific results — in terms of percentage of respondents agreeing with a statement as “true” — as I noted them down this morning. Several people declined for the same reason as Graham (lack of nuance etc), which is fair enough, though as already discussed, these lists are only intended as a broad-brush snapshot of two positions. Nevertheless, sympathies seemed to lie with theory:

    LH1 70.8%
    LH2 13.0%
    LH3 0.0%
    LH4 21.7%
    LH5 29.2%
    LH6 34.8%
    LH7 54.3%
    LH8 56.5%
    LH9 37.5%
    LH10 21.7%

    T1 87.5%
    T2 75.0%
    T3 58.3%
    T4 87.5%
    T5 66.7%

  17. (I’m not in any way trained in Theory, but developed an interest while reading for my thesis introduction – despite the fact that it came dangerously close to arguing my whole thesis out of existence… Anyway, some thoughts:)


    “But I wager most anyone will be able to understand the behaviors of the characters on display by reference to themselves. On the whole, motivations and emotions will be very, very familiar.”

    Yes and no. There are a great many character actions in, say, Greek tragedy (or, even more strongly, Icelandic sagas) that I find incomprehensible without some knowledge of context. (On this point I refer our esteemed host to his difficulties in watching an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, during which he was infuriated by characters acting in ways he found plot-contrived stupid, when in fact they often could not have acted otherwise within the confines of their time. ;-)) Even that supposedly perfect exemplar of human nature exploration, Lord of the Flies, looks to me very context-dependent; a large part of its horror derives from *who* the boys were before they went savage (well-brought-up stiff upper lip Brits). (And their savagery looks pretty limited, too – I note that the recent film Eden Lake needed much more brutality for the notion of kids being somewhat evil when uncontrolled to remain shocking.)

    Indeed, I find the fact that you choose the terms ‘motivation’ and ’emotion’ revealing, since I think approaching, say, a play by Aeschylus with the assumption that one can discern consistent and coherent ‘characters’, let alone their motivations, is problematic in itself; it may not be impossible, but isn’t going to be routinely the case, and in any case isn’t really the point of the work. (This is not to say that debating motivation isn’t valid – new readings, after all, are part of what keeps texts alive.)

    It’s absolutely true that there will be instances in any text where we relate to/understand/sympathise with an act or a motive; but I’m not sure this is an indication of universal human nature showing through, so much as confirmation bias. We spot something we recognise – while perhaps not even *seeing* all the stuff we don’t understand or relate to, which to the intended (ha!) audience, such things may have been much more important.

    To Jonathan M., and others: Of course, from a historiographer’s point of view, even the idea of finding a context for a given text is problematic, since any notion of historical/social context is itself, inescapably, subjective and constructed… ;-)

    Oh, and re. ‘textual world’ – text doesn’t necessarily mean words on a page, obviously. As I understand it, the point is that it is impossible for us to have an unfiltered (untextual) perception of anything. A rock may still be a rock, but that’s irrelevant to the point: we cannot help but approach it with textual eyes. Or something.

  18. I second what Nic says, and disagree with Dale: Frankenstein is premised on a hard-to-swallow absolute ‘tabula rasa’ model of consciousness (that is one of the weakest aspects of the novel, I’d say); and ‘not only are people all over the world basically the same, but they are all over time as well’ seems to me off the mark. Of course there are constants (food, power, sex) but the way specific human cultures and specific human beings … which, after all, is what art is always concerned with … parse these things manifests in the world in a superb and indeed bewildering variety of ways.

    It’s nature/nurture, of course; and adopting poststructuralist perspectives on this question isn’t the same thing as believing in the viability of homo sovieticus. The common sense take on nature/nurture (viz. it’s a bit of both) is also, as I understand it from my reading in this area, the take of Science; although there are differences of emphasis. I, for instance, used to think the balance was slightly on the nurture side, for instance wrt questions of eg gender: that gender is largely performative, a la Judith Butler. Having kids, and seeing the effect of the little flushes of testesterone in my one-year-old son’s body, and his mini-Godzilla stompings-around; or seeing my daughter gravitate towards pink and girliness without (as far as I can see) any specific steer from us, has shifted my sense a little towards the nature side.

    Ian Hacking had an interesting summary of what’s a stake in the debate in the LRB last year, which is worth checking out.

  19. OK: I check the link I’ve just posted (to the Ian Hacking piece) and I see it’s subscriber only; so maybe it’s worth summarising what he says a little.

    It’s a review of Cognitive Variations: Reflections on the Unity and Diversity of the Human Mind by G.E.R. Lloyd, and also an elegantly written account of the way Scientific consensus (broadly) has veered back and forth between a quasi-essentialist ‘it’s all nature, everything is genes’ and a quasi-constructivist ‘it’s all in the way these things are expressed in culture, there are no essences’. For instance, after a fundamentally essentialist C19th century:

    In the 1920s Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead, reporting from the South Pacific, convinced the general English-reading public that human societies are very very different; little of what we do, above the bare necessities of survival, is fixed by nature. We procreate using more or less the same biology everywhere, but the rituals with which we do so are exotically variable

    Sapir and Whorf argued that different languages mean that different peoples structure their core experience of the world (for instance, of space and time) radically differently. Then in the 1960s and 70s, under pressure from evolutionary pyschology, ‘biology’ came back into fashion. Hacking has fascinating things to say about colour perception, so if you’ll indulge me I’ll quote him at length (excuse typos):

    We start with the universalist results of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. In the 1960s they established a categorisation of basic colours. Some languages will have only a few names for colours, but if there are three they will be black, white and red. If four add yellow or green. If five, both of these. In all there are, by successive addition, in a definite sequence, about eleven different colours.

    That starts to look like perception of colour is ‘natural’ (as in, essential; part of human nature; that all humans everywhere perceive colours the same way). Hacking says he was, as a student, first bowled over by Whorf; then ‘bowled over by Berlin and Kay.’ But it may not be as simple, or essential, as this. Hacking goes on to summarise G. E. R. Lloyd’s account of this research, which dwells on problems. Berlin and Kay’s research was done by showing various peoples in various parts of the world little plastic chips of different colours. But these may impose an already Western perception of colour on peoples who had nothing to relate these funny little chips to, and whose own sensoria may not work quite that way.

    We have made the learning of colour words one of the first required stages in a child’s mastery of language, a mastery inculcated into making the child play with blocks of painted wood in standard colours … Darwin himself noticed that children have much more difficulty acquiring colour words than in picking up names for things, and was rightly surprised. Following the philosophers he had expected that colours would be cardinal among our concepts and easy to learn by abstraction. They are not, at first. Life without our concept of colour seems unthinkable for us. That, the critics say, is an effect of our history, not of our genes.

    There’s more along these lines: he says, for instance, he’s astonished that nobody seems bothered by, or even to mention, colourblindness before John Dalton. This seems right to me. My work in the classics suggests that modern understanding of colour terms doesn’t map very well onto the way colours are invoked in the classics (nobody seems quite sure what glaukos actually means). My friend and colleague, the Old English specialist Jenny Neville, tells me that in OE texts there’s very little on colour as such, but a good deal of description to do with ‘brightness’ or ‘darkness’ (in OE a sword is more likely to be called ‘bright’ than, say, silver). Hawking concludes by wondering:

    Does the dichotomy between nature and nurture (or ‘nature’ and ‘culture’) already presuppose too much. Western notions of nature seem to derive from notions for which classical Greece used the word phusis. That tale is itself extraordinary. One fascinating version of it is told in Pierre Hadot’s The Veil of Isis: an Essay On The History of Nature No Chinese ideas followed the same course. … Our idea of nature is not notably natural, let alone innate: the nature/nurture debates may this be intrinsically Eurocentric


  20. You make the argument well Adam, and I’m sold on it (despite the whole colour perception thing being a bit tangential). Actually, what I think is that it is the human condition itself which shows us the differences in human natures: if you see a troop of monkeys at first glance they are all the same, but with a crowd of people you are immediately able to identify and subsequently recognize individuals because humans are programmed to do that; it is the same with human nature that I still believe it to be remarkably consistent like monkey faces, but we intrinsically amplify what differences there are like we do human faces, and that provides us with an extended space of variety that we can draw on when we create stories.

    I’ve probably sated the argument now by demonstrating that both sides stand without conflict, but in criticising texts I see that the differences, however subtle, are hugely important and thus from this vantage it _is_ important to acknowledge that differences exist in people separated geographically and historically. Still, I wouldn’t have given the argument the flat “Nope” that Niall does, and still think that Barry’s point 4 holds some wisdom; as Barry Norman has said, a lot of space opera is just cowboys and Indians in different clothes.

  21. “It’s absolutely true that there will be instances in any text where we relate to/understand/sympathise with an act or a motive; but I’m not sure this is an indication of universal human nature showing through, so much as confirmation bias. We spot something we recognise – while perhaps not even *seeing* all the stuff we don’t understand or relate to, which to the intended (ha!) audience, such things may have been much more important.”

    This point is well-made and important, but there’s more than confirmation bias going on here, or anyhow the point is otherwise. I want to stop just shy of talking about “universal human nature,” as that implies to me something more precise and transcendental than I’m comfortable with. Instead: while the spectrum of cultural difference is dizzying, and gargantuan chunks of our lives and selves are the constructions of our particular cultures, there are *significant* consistencies in human thought, feeling, and behavior throughout time and space. Some of these consistencies are biological; others are products of “inevitable social constructions.”

    And that’s it.

    I don’t think my point’s very clever or controversial at all; it’s just Adam Roberts’ (commonsensical, scientifically sound) straddled fence between “nature” and “nurture.” But it’s this fence that a lot of poststructuralists – some of whom I call friends – want to leap way the hell over, often with a lot of heroic talk about liberation, social change, etc. And they tend to leap a lot farther than genuine social scientists would ever want to go.

    (As for Aesychlus and Njal’s Saga or whatever: Interesting examples, but I’m not really persuaded by them, or at least I’m not persuaded that the bits which resonate are incidental or tertiary. I mean, Prometheus Bound: even with actors embodying multiple characters, none of whom are straightforward mortals, in a very particular sort of ritual drama, the generalities are going to be comprehensible to the ancient Quiché or the contemporary Japanese. Conflict, defiance, compassion, punishment. One can perhaps conceive of an individual who wouldn’t understand those generalities, and certainly various cultures will have exceedingly various ideas about each, but those realities arise consistently when human beings coexist. I’m certainly not saying conflict is some sort of Platonic reality, or that the reader won’t need a good deal of contextual information.)

  22. I’m coming late to this discussion, but I thought I’d add my view, briefly. People may be using the term “human nature” differently, in such a way as to make the argument about different ideas. I personally understand “human nature” to mean that part of us that we all have in common, and it by definition excludes differences in culture. I would say that human nature is essentially unchanging because that’s what I understand human nature to be: that part of us that every human shares.

    I can illustrate with an essay that everyone is probably familiar with, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” in which an anthropologist tells the story of Hamlet to an African tribe. It’s hilariously funny because her listeners have different social beliefs about the propriety of marrying your sister-in-law and because they don’t have an exact equivalent in their folklore to a ghost — for them, it either has to a zombie or a witch, if I remember correctly. Social mores are not the same everywhere, and are not part of human nature. If you add cultural components to “human nature” it seems to divest the term of meaning.

    The narrator of “Shakespeare in the Bush” starts telling “Hamlet” with the belief that she’s telling a universal story. Then she realizes that she’s not. But at the end, as her listeners tweak the story to fix it in agreement with their understanding of the roles of fathers, uncles, sons and mothers, and adjust the supernatural elements to agree with their folklore, they tell her it’s a good story. It would appear that there was a strong bedrock of shared human nature that found interest in the situation and the conflicting demands of a father’s murder and the son’s dilemma.

    “It follows that continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation”? I can’t see that such a conclusion follows at all. Both are needed in some degree and will vary according to the storyteller’s needs — what’s most important is how well the innovation or tradition is used.


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