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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

trapped in hypostases

Brian Rotman


Replacing the gulf dividing science and literature, art and techne, by a more integrated dynamic between these separate halves of our psyche, C.P.Snow's two cultures, is surely worthwhile. Snow's solution-scientists become literate and art-lit people read the second law of thermodynamics and understand entropy-hails from the arrogant heyday of science. And its prescription of getting both lots of chaps to read more is marked by an intellectual shallowness about the nexus of technology, science, and culture that has, one hopes, long been overcome. Nearly forty years after Snow, Simon suggests not thermodynamics but cognitive science as the sharp-edged, scientific antidote for all that impressively accomplished but vague, subjective, and fashion-dominated activity of the lit-crit folk. I suspect they will throw it back at him with a vengeance. After all, what does his menu of inten(s/t)ionality, context, ambiguity, and the evocation of meanings have to offer?

Intentions/intensions? The confusional slippage isn't Simon's making but, having introduced the terms, one can ask why he isn't sharper about them. What, I asked myself after several passes through it, is the difference (if he thinks there is one) he wants us to attend to? Yes, authorial intention is a crucial starting point for Simon, but why should the task of clarifying U.S. constitutional law, understood as it is by definition in terms of framers' intentions, be an interesting, let alone fruitful model of reading texts? Nobody wants him to write about the so-called intentional fallacy, but his tone suggests he has never heard of the debate and the implications it had for lit-crit. Context? Plainly a concept essential to literary criticism, and included as such routinely in the reading of texts as well as more intensely within any number of social-and-historical-context courses. But hardly the basis for a new contribution to critical method Simon takes it to be. And not as simple as he imagines: Eliot's writings on the poet's creation of a tradition and a context of forebears, let alone more recent work, should quickly dispel that. Likewise ambiguity is neither as unknown nor understood so unambiguously by the practitioners of lit-crit as Simon's rather patronizing explanation and recommendation of it would indicate; he should read, as the lit-crit people did long ago, Empson's celebrated seven-fold typology of ambiguity. As for Simon's take on meanings, with its talk of recognition, access, information, and evocation, I felt trapped in hypostases. He nods in the direction of "The Meaning of Meaning." This was a fine book in its day, but the manner and the prerequisites of its hunt for the thing called meaning belongs to another age.

All this is not to say that cognitive science has, or could have, nothing to offer the reading of texts. That is surely an open and

interesting possibility. The trouble here is that what constitutes the science is on a Simon-says basis: he's our only witness. But as some might know-and Simon certainly does-the particular version of cognitive science long espoused by him, the current orthodoxy now known as cognitivism, is under a great deal of attack. Against Simon's understanding of intelligence-plan-driven thinking operating via exact representations of the environment and requiring specification of contexts and disambiguation of meanings-there are ranged a variety of anti-cognitivist visions clustered around a certain set of positions: rejection of plans as causal determinants of thought (e.g. Lucy Suchman's ethnomethodology, Philip Agre's interactionism), rejection of top-down architecture in favour of bottom-up constructivism (eg Rodney Brook's subsumption-based robotics, Edelman's selectionist model of brain morphology), emphasis on thinking as situated and embodied action with a consequent refusal to equate cognition to computer-based information processing. Note in passing that Chomsky's writings on generative grammars, closely associated with if not a product of the cognitivist approach, have (despite their extraordinary press) contributed nothing of value to the reading of texts.

But to return to Simon's paper. "Meanings," he says, "are evoked." We attend to words in a text, and certain items stored in our memories "come to awareness." He is surely right. But then what? Leaving the difficulties of literary meaning aside, let's ask the question about mathematical texts whose definitions and explicit clarities surely make them in many ways ideal for Simon's approach. I read the words "natural transformation" in a mathematical text and something is immediately evoked. Specifically, a symbolic world brought into being through an apparatus of definitions, motivating examples, diagrams and reading-writing protocols determining what is meant by a category, morphisms, functors and the particular transformations between functors called "natural." My access to these "meanings"-their distinctness, reality, and availability to me-is inseparable from practice and use, from the situated action of manipulating mathematical ideograms in accordance with the given protocols and the motivations written into them. In other words, meaning (thinking, imagining) and action (writing, manipulating, reading) are co-creative and co-determined, and talk of hypostasized "meanings" is both inadequate and misleading.

In light of this one has to wonder about the fate of Simon's recommendations were they to be applied to the trope-filled, reflexive, inexact, and creatively unclear texts of literature. For here, more radically than in mathematics, recovering intentions and talking of "meanings" as entities waiting to be evoked by readers who share their context (whatever that means) is to misrepresent processes by objects and (on the metalevel) relations by properties. What goes on is not a hermeneutic search for buried cognitive treasure but modes of engagement, ways of eliciting significance and responding to texts that the literary criticism people have over the years found fruitful. And if, somewhat perversely and with uncharacteristic economy of expression, they are content to simply call these things readings, one should not be fooled thereby into thinking of these activities as simple. Simon, I was left thinking, is either gesturing to an enterprise more complex than he conveys here or he seriously underestimates his audience.

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