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75th anniversary reprint: figures and grounds in linguistic criticism.

Interpretation of Narrative, edited by Mario J. Valdes and Owen J. Miller. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Interpretation of Narrative is a series of papers presented at the International Colloquium on the Interpretation of Narrative at the University of Toronto in 1976. More than a dozen papers were presented. These have been arranged under three headings--Part One: Verification of Formalist Analysis, Part Two: Verification of Hermeneutic Criticism, and Part Three: Metacriticism.

Part One consists of papers by Christie V. McDonald, 0. J. Miller, Michael Riffaterre, Timothy J. Reiss, and Brian T. Fitch. Part Two comprises the essays of Cyrus Hamlin, Felix Martinez Bonati, Wolfgang Iser, and Eugene Vance. Part Three includes papers by Hans Robert Jauss, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul Hernadi. The Conclusion and Epilogue are provided by Uri Margolin and 0. J. Miller. Ralph Cohen's original summing up of the Colloquium is now the Introduction:

"Remarks on Formalist and Hermeneutic Features of the Conference Papers."

Mario Valdes says at the beginning of his Preface, "Our task has been to explore the commentary of various text-oriented approaches as distinct from that of reader-based approaches." He adds, "Both the text and the reader are subsystems in their own right, and each is a subject of inquiry." One of the implications of this approach is that the "text" can be taken to include, as it were, the entire reading public and the technological history of a particular work.

In terms of the hemispheres of the brain, the left concerns the formalist or structuralist patterns, while the right, on the other hand, would seem to relate to the practitioners of hermeneutics and multileveled exegesis.

In his essay on "Hermeneutic Criticism and the Description of Form," Mix Bonati makes a statement that includes several of the themes in this volume:
  One essential inadequacy of an exegesis of content in
  terms of a conceptual statement (in addition to the
  insufficiency of the conceptualization of artistic
  vision) derives from the difference in kind between
  the intellectual experiences that correspond to
  rational discourse on one hand and novelistic vision
  on the other. They are radically diverse operations
  of knowledge and totally different games of the mind
  (one pointing to abstract order, the other to concrete
  immediate presence), and their results could be at most
  congruent or symmetric but by nature never identical or
  equivalent: the difference is between knowing all there
  is to know about an experience and living it. (p. 95)

One of the implications of the passage might well concern the contrast between the structural and hermeneutic approaches as parallel to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The two hemispheres are indeed "totally different games of the mind," for they are complementary, "one pointing to abstract order, the other to concrete immediate presence." J. E. Bogen, one of the key figures in the world of neurosurgery, has an essay in which he makes a similar contrast:
  The type of cognition proper to the right hemisphere
  has been called 'appositional,' a usage parallel to
  Jackson's use of the word 'propositional,' to encompass
  the left hemisphere's dominance for speaking, writing,
  calculation and related tasks. (1)

The propositional function of the brain is naturally "conceptual," whereas the appositional is "perceptual." The "conceptual" relates to the world of connected, or visual space, and the appositional relates to the juxtaposed and discontinuous space which is resonant, acoustic, and total. The student of symbolist art and poetry will recall that the word symballein indicates a placing together without connections of two words or situations.

To return to the passage from Bonati on "Hermeneutic Criticism," he is contrasting here two modes of awareness, the one conceptual, and the other perceptual or experiential. It might be, he argues, that the strategy and procedure of linguistic theory is to translate the world of immediate experience of texts and narrative into the world of "abstract" thought and logical order. We are familiar with the world of abstract painting and abstract music; the hermeneutic circles now invite us to a new "game of abstract narrative and verbal encounter. One feature that is lacking in this programme is any indication of the situation, or ground, which impels such a change in the figures. I would suggest that the instantaneous environment of electric information, which is now experienced even in the third world (e.g., via radio and telegraph), has given new dominance to the right hemisphere, just as technologies related to the phonetic alphabet gave dominance to the left. This change has in turn brought new ecological awareness of literary experience. This new field includes what Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser term reception aesthetics. By contrast, the previously dominant left hemisphere had stressed the sequential and classificatory. It was concerned primarily with literary "content" and interpretation of the conventional, familiar kind. The new enhancement of right hemisphere activity makes possible a reversal of the customary literary procedures. As Jauss observes,
  Although traditional bourgeois as well as Marxist
  aesthetics still cling to the classical priority
  of the work over the reader, a new aesthetic theory
  has on both sides replaced the authority of the work
  by the reader's experience of it. Consequently, its
  function in society and its history of reception have
  taken the place of the work's timeless meaning. (p. 138)

Since Jauss is one of the leaders in this new kind of audience study, he deserves to be heard more fully:
  The step from a .substantialist conception of a work
  towards a definition of art arising from its historical
  and social function is synonymous with granting to the
  receiver (reader or audience) those rights so long
  denied. The notion of the work as an entity which
  supports or represents the truth is replaced by the
  progressive concretization of meaning. This meaning
  is constituted by the continuous convergence of text
  and reception, of the given structure of the work and
  the appropriating interpretation. The productive and
  receptive aspects of the aesthetic experience are
  dialectically related. The work does not exist without
  its effect; its effect presupposes reception, and in
  turn the audience's judgment conditions the author's
  production. Thus literary history is represented as a
  process in which the reader as an active but collective
  subject confronts the individual producing author. As
  the mediating, long-forgotten element in literary history,
  the reader can no longer be ignored. (Ibid.)

The study of the audiences of writers is a great step from the study of writers' "content." It is as though one were to write an account of Plato's readers instead of Plato's philosophy. (In this new pattern, Robert Weimann has published a study of Shakespeare's Audience.)

Our traditional study of a writer's content is in fact related to efficient causality, whereas the study of the writer's audience is the study of formal causality, or the study of effects. This latter is the kind of causality which has been by-passed in the Western world until the reversal of form that has come with the holistic environment of instant information. Whereas efficient causality encourages a private point of view and value judgments, formal causality by passes value judgments and considers the audience, or reading public, as the major factor in the production of literature.

Jauss heads one of his sections "The Reader as a Prototype of Bourgeois Literacy," without considering that reader as the ground or productive cause of bourgeois literature. He assumes the bourgeois reader as a figure minus a ground. Jauss differentiates three levels of canon formation through reading: the first, the reflective level of the authors; the next, the social level of cultural institutions; and finally, the prereflective level of immediate aesthetic experience.
  The "summit-dialogue" among authors creates the impression
  of a continuity from Homer to Beckett, whereas reading as
  a socially formative institution represents an historical
  period of a few centuries of the bourgeois era. Whoever is
  interested in the aesthetic experience of the overwhelming
  majority of humanity which is not yet, or no longer, reading,
  must search through the realms of listening, watching, and
  playing, the manifestations of which have scarcely entered
  the history of art. (p. 139)

He turns to Rousseau, who "continually addresses himself as the representative of the entire genre humain":
  He summons the vast multitude of readers (linnombrable
  Joule de mes semblables) to judge him as well as
  themselves when he presents his book to God on judgment
  Day. The book, however, claims to reveal all the inner
  secrets known hitherto only by the souverain juge, who
  is now no longer indispensable. (p. 140)

  Reception aesthetics for the public also relates to
  literature as escapism:

  It demonstrates that subterranean pleasure which from
  Don Quixote to Emma Bovary has again and again been
  sublimated or suppressed in vain. In the case of the
  bourgeois reader, this aesthetic experience should be
  analyzed as a narcotic or a fantasy escape from his
  everyday world, as well as a factor contributing to
  his sentimental education ... (ibid.)

Jauss clarifies the reception aesthetic to the extent of adding:
  An analysis of the reader's, or, if you will, a reading
  community's, experience in the past or present must
  encompass both aspects of the textreader relationship.
  It must include the effect as that which is stipulated
  by the text, as well as the reception as that which
  depends upon the receiver both these elements constitute
  the concretization of meaning in the fusion or mediation
  of two horizons. (p. 141)

Hillis Miller has a fascinating exploration of "Adriadne's Thread: Repetition and the Narrative Line." Throughout, he seems to ignore the acoustic dimension involved in repetition as echo. This is the dimension that W. B. Yeats stressed in his seminal essay on "The Emotion of Multitude," where he explained that the resonance of two parallel actions, or a double-plot, creates the archetypal sense of universality. A parallel structure is not connected, as in visual space, but resonant, as in acoustic space. M liter notes, apropos resonant structures:
  Repetition might he defined as anything which happens
  to the line to trouble or even to confound its
  straight forward linearity. (p. 157)

  When he says:

  The model of the line is a powerful part of the
  traditional language of Occidental metaphysics (p. 158)

he is citing the sine qua non of all Western abstract thought. This thought is based upon the artifact of visual space, i.e., a figure without a ground.

The concluding essay by Uri Margolis also sets up an interplay between structuralism (formalism) and literary hermeneutics, i.e., between systems of signs on the one hand and the rules, mechanism, and kinds of sense-making on the other. The overall direction in all this speculation seems to maintain the appearance and effects of left hemisphere logic and connectedness in a right hemisphere world that is holistic and intuitive. Margolis writes,
  It is interesting to note that the perspectives,
  assumptions, and models nowadays shared by literary
  hermeneutics and structuralism are precisely those in
  which both approaches coincide with recent schemes
  proposed by communication theory and speech-act
  theory. (p. 181)

Margolis seems not to note that the Shannon-Weaver model of Communication Theory is entirely lineal and belongs only to the left hemisphere (structuralism). This misunderstanding is pushed even further:
  The multiple convergence noted above is in fact not
  accidental, since communication theory tried to do
  in the most general terms just what recent literary
  structuralism and hermeneutics sought to do for their
  special domains ... (ibid.)

Owen Miller has the last word, in his Epilogue, where he observes:

Northrop Frye has reminded us, what one learns in literary studies is not literary works themselves but literary criticism, in other words the critical discourse that actualizes verbally the reader's or critic's thought about literary works. (p. 186) Interpretation of Narrative is an indispensable survey of current schools of linguistic criticism.

[This book review first appeared in ETC. Volume 36. Number Three, Fall 1979. Neil Postman was then editor and Paul Levinson was the book editor.]

Notes and References

(1.) J. E. Bogen, "Some Educational Aspects of Hemispheric Specialization" U.C.L.A. Educator, Volume 17, No. 2 (Spring 1975), page 26.


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Title Annotation:Interpretation of Narrative
Author:McLuhan, H. Marshall
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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