Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Argument and monologue

A sadly neglected portion of graduate training—in any field, not just English—is what might be called the ethics of argument. Young scholars should be taught the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem, for example, but they also need to be taught that attacking a man’s argument is not the same as attacking the man. While the resort to argumenta ad hominem is filthy perhaps even worse is the indiscriminate reception of any attack upon a man’s argument as an attack upon the man, because it corrupts the devotion to argument upon which the Republic of Letters relies.

I begin this way because I suspect that Daniel Green feels abused by me. He has removed A Commonplace Blog from his blogroll, and he pointedly ignores my argumentative challenges to his stated views. From my side, the matter looks slightly different. In January, we engaged in a scuffle over the definition of literature. The whole thing began when, replying to criticisms of Patrick Kurp’s and my selection of the best American fiction from 1968 to 1998, I had said: “Literature just is a selection of masterpieces. There is no getting around this obstacle. The problem is what criteria of selection you are going to use.” Now, faithful readers of this blog will recognize in this a restatement and combination of my first two dogmas: “(1) Literature is good writing, where ‘good’ by definition yields no fixed definition. (2) Literature is a title of prestige bestowed by critics. . . .”

Two and a half weeks later Green blasted my assertion, saying, “I really can’t imagine a more reductive and . . . a more implicitly dismissive view of the value of literature and literary study.” I replied later the same day, quoting E. D. Hirsch Jr. as the source and provocation of my views: “Either literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates,” Hirsch wrote, “in which case literature can be defined as one pleases; or literature is what the authorities call ‘literature,’ in which case The Origin of Species is literature.” Hence my conclusion that literature is a special status bestowed by critics, for this statement covers both of Hirsch’s cases.

As I was soon to learn is somewhat characteristic of him, Green did not reply in the Comments section of my post. In order to carry the fight to him, I was obliged to reply in the Comments section at his own Reading Experience. Fair enough: there, at least, Green accepted the responsibility of answering my challenges. I explained how I had arrived at the assertion that he had described as reductive: “Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is. If the former the problem becomes how to reduce it to manageable proportions, and the only fair tactic—since by definition you are foregoing selectivity—is by means of some arbitrary category. If the latter then you must choose.” Either one must be a scholar and read everything in an arbitrarily restricted field, or be a critic and recommend only some of it.

Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is. Green responded: “Or everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature, if the author intends it to be taken as literature.” And finally, finally, we were engaged in a face-to-face debate. But not for long. I pointed out that the first half of his definition (“everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama”) was exactly what Hirsch referred to in saying that “literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates.” Not everyone agrees with the stipulation. In fact, Hirsch had supplied an example of a literary work that falls outside it: Darwin’s Origin of Species. The second half of Green’s definition, I pointed out, was tautological. But “[i]f a writer of fiction intends his work to be judged as ‘literature,’ ” Green objected, “then I don‘t see why we shouldn‘t do that.” Because then literature would not be everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama, but something else—that’s why.

Green tried again: “Literature is fiction, poetry, or drama that seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria,” he said. Right. “And cows are mammals that are known as ‘cows,’ ” I scoffed. The definition begs the question. “It doesn’t beg the question,” Green replied, although denial is not refutation. “It simply acknowledges that the question can be answered only by looking at specific cases.”

At this point I threw up my hands. For if literature exists only in specific cases there is no possibility of generalizing about it at all. What sense would it make, then, to say that any text seeks to be judged by “literary” criteria? Green would have to hold that a text seeks to be judged by its own specific criteria. On the contrary, however, he explicitly maintained that specifying what “literary” criteria he would apply in judging self-described “literature” is what he had been doing for years on his blog.

My guess is that Green had confused definition with a priori knowledge, which is arrived at independently of experience. By preferring to look at specific cases, he may simply have been expressing a preference for a posteriori knowledge. But a definition can be offered in advance without its necessarily being a priori. If it is derived from experience it will serve as a summary of experience—a report delivered after the fact—although its abstract form can lead incautious readers to mistake it for something else. (It is also readily confused with dogma, for example.)

At all events, I decided to give Green some time to rethink his position, as I had invited him to do when I pointed out that he had fallen victim to petitio principii. And that is why I reentered the lists only two weeks ago, when he set forth a generalizing and abstract account of literary criticism, complete with instructions on what and what not to do, which violated his stated attachment to specific cases. I acknowledge that I was rough on him. My conclusion may even have seemed to have crossed the line into a personal attack, although I will hold till my dying day that if you are not devoted to argument—if you are content with question-begging conceptions of experience—then you can only resort to force when you put those conceptions into play.

And I say all this because, once again this morning, Green has written something to which I should like to reply. In fact, I read his review of Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff’s memoir of his mother Susan Sontag, as an invitation to an argument. While making a sharp and useful distinction between biography and gossip, Green goes on to challenge the place of biography in literary understanding. He is worried about a literary culture in which the “biographical will triumph over the exegetic.” This is, in my opinion, a false distinction. But what is the point of developing an argument to that effect if it will go pointedly ignored? Unless you open yourself to the possibility of correction and refutation—unless you are devoted to argument, even if it gets rough at times—you have chosen to set up camp outside the Republic of Letters. You have preferred the solitary life of monologue. I should welcome a dialogue on biography and exegesis, but I cannot carry it on by myself—though perhaps Daniel Green can.


R. T. said...

The rhetoric and logic of argument are often abandoned in the world of blogging. It would take a bolder person than I to speculate and generalize about the reasons (though I am tempted to offer several). Instead, as a footnote to your excellent comments, I would offer a simple toast (and perhaps someone recognizes their sobriquet appropriately included within that phrase): Here is to civility and well-reasoned argument in the world of blogging. May it somehow thrive in spite of its adversaries, and may its adversaries be somehow seduced and reformed by its virtues.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I enjoy reading this blog - and a number of other literary blogs - but I've noticed an increasing insularity among those I enjoy most.

Reading about literature (however it's defined) is great. Reading dissenting opinions about literature is great. But this back (and forth?) is derivative, self-referential, esoteric almost to the point of being an inside joke, and I'd imagine it'd scare off new readers.

Not saying the meat of the argument isn't an important discussion to be had, but I don't think there'll be any convergence on the issue - ever.

Regardless, I'll stick around for your more substantive posts because I learn a lot from them.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks, R.T. To which I would add: not only in the world of blogging. Increasingly also in the world of scholarship.

For just that reason, Becca, I was taken aback by your use of the word insularity. A debate invites others in. The only qualification you must show at the door is a willingness to be proved wrong. Not everyone is willing, however. It is they who strike me as truly insular.

Did you see that I added your blog to my blogroll, btw?

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

WOW. I'm reduced to internet-speak... OMG! Thanks for the add! I'm honored (and not embarrassed to admit that I feel my blog is now validated lol).

And 'insularity' wasn't meant to describe your blog specifically - but the culture of this THING that's been happening.

I started reading your blog around the time this e-beef began and that it's still going on is surprising. If it counts for anything, I think you're on the right side of the dividing line.

R.T. is more optimistic than I on the matter of your opponents - and funnier.

Amateur Reader said...

I had a similar experience with Green in late 2007, I think, when I had just started my own blog. The subject, funny enough, was literary biography. "Pulp all biographies," he declared, and insisted that one should - and he did - make all of his judgments about books with no help from any extratextual knowledge or context, certainly not biography or history ("excruciatingly boring").

I thought that this was nonsense, and obviously a provocation, meant humorously, and responded in what I thought was the same key. We went around a bit, and then I made the mistake of mocking Stanley Elkin, or, actually, using the example of Elkin to mock Dan Green. I also learned than Green means nothing humorously.

I still can hardly believe the arrogance of someone who specializes in literature of his own time and place claiming that history, biography, and context are of no value in understanding a literary work.

I guess I remember that argument a little too well!

Dan has never had me on his blogroll, I assume because he finds what I do of no interest or value, and it's hard to argue with that.

D. G. Myers said...

Irony upon ironies. Green wrote an essay on Elkin’s Rabbi of Lud for Contemporary Literature.

Long before I launched this Commonplace Blog I wrote an essay of my own on Elkin in which I quoted—and abused—an earlier essay on him by Daniel Green.

D. G. Myers said...

Wuthering Expectations has been added to my blogroll, btw. Too bad Isaac Meir Dik has not been translated. He was the first commercially successful Yiddish novelist. Romm signed him to a novel-per-week contract!

Lee said...

Despite our differences, I couldn't agree with you more about the importance of well-constructed arguments, online or off. And even in the main with your first two dogmas (heh heh), though we're not going to see entirely eye to eye about John Banville.

And perhaps one of the reasons I prefer to write fiction rather than criticism - aside from the fact that I'm even more terrible at the latter than the former - is that it's the stuff beyond argument's ken which really interests and moves me.

litlove said...

I've been following your sparring with Dan Green over the past couple of weeks and I'm confused as to what you actually want from him. You seem to veer between actively picking a fight and then claiming that you want a debate. I think the two are different emotionally. If you want seriously, conscientiously, to debate the implications of certain definitions, then ask, put forward a proposition. If you want to engage in a defensive scrap in which what really matters is upholding your own opinion over another's, then fine, provoke and insult.

I do not wish to be overly harsh, only I find myself feeling very tired, after a dozen or so years in academia, of this kind of misplaced aggression informing and motivating intellectual questions. I've seen scholars waste their whole research lives arguing over other people's readings of texts, other people's definitions, in ways that have rightly brought accusations of futility and aridity onto literary study.

I think you have insightful views and I'm glad that you publish them here. But if Daniel Green doesn't want to engage with them, fine, others probably will. I would rather watch you develop your own understanding in creative dialogue with those interested in doing so - something infinitely more valuable will come out of that.

D. G. Myers said...

I've been following your sparring with Dan Green over the past couple of weeks and I'm confused as to what you actually want from him.

What I should have wanted, and in my self-blinding moral ignorance did not even see that I needed, was precisely the sort of thing you have taken the time to write here, Litlove. I now understand my own contributions to the breakdown of debate (and not only on this occasion).

What I had wanted, and was growing aggressively impatient to receive, was an acknowledgment of one’s intellectual responsibility to rethink a position when it becomes untenable. A dangerous “veering” between truculence and dispassion is no way to encourage a debate, however. Who would wish to get into a car with such a driver?

Although I might on another occasion question your distinction between picking a fight and wanting a debate (you have to admit that it has become a cop-out among some academics, who wish to avoid the sometimes unpleasant duty of argument, to compare it to war), you are right on this occasion. If it is an intellectual fault to ignore refutation and an invitation to argument, it is a graver offense to pick on someone.

For that I apologize. I still believe that an intellectual has a responsibility to correct his errors, to resolve his contradictions, to reduce his views to necessity (in Sammler’s phrase). But that is my conception of my responsibility. And it is not up to me to enforce other men’s intellectual responsibilities. (As Levinas should have taught me, except that I stupidly forgot the lesson, such enforcement really is an act of aggression.)

So I apologize—to Daniel Green and to the readers of A Commonplace Blog. (I am going to send him a private message of apology.) I now grasp what Becca meant by the “insularity” of a one-on-one back-and-forth, which becomes particularly insular when it becomes one-on-none. And I thank you, Litlove, and you, Becca, and Lee Lowe, who has said similar things to me, and R.T., who urges civility and well-reasoned argument, for taking the time, not merely to reprove me, but to stand up for intellectual principles that ennoble rather than cheapening debate. I have learned much, and benefitted lastingly, I hope, from your willingness to stand up for them—to embody them in your own writing—instead of seeking blindly to enforce them upon me.

Nay, I have done, I get no more of him, or this argument.

litlove said...

D. G. I do agree with you absolutely that the mark of an admirable academic is the willingness, indeed the sense of responsibility, to return again and again to ideas in order to clarify and/or rethink them. Engaging with the issue is what we're supposed to be about, not sinking into bunker mentality. And I also agree that, hugely tempting as it is, we can't always manage to provoke others into recognising and acknowledging this, with civility and a readiness to appreciate the other's point of view.

But you've just shown all those qualities. So bravo.

What YOU have to say is always engaging. It's very clear also that you have an appreciative and willing audience, ready to engage with whatever intrigues and moves you as a result of the quality and real passion you bring to your posts.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks, Litlove. The problem for me is that I relish the cut and thrust of argument. Fifteen years ago I made just this point to end my essay “On the Teaching of Literary Theory.” Not everyone agrees, however, that there can be no discussion without contradiction. And I am not always very good at remembering that.

You are much better than I. And by the way, I have added Tales from the Reading Room to my blogroll. Expect some contradiction from this quarter!

Art Durkee said...

I completely agree with Litlove here. That was exactly how I was feeling about it, too.

Furthermore, to me it seemed to carry many of the almost archetypically numinous tropes of a fundamental clash of opposing paradigms. Which is why it seems to me that you both talked past each other, rather than at each other. You'll never convince each other, because your individually cherished underlying assumptions about the nature and reality of "literature" are in opposition, or so it seems. I put "literature" in quotes because that wasn't really what the argument was about, I thought; it was the label itself that was being reified by all involved, from my perspective, and I tend to question all such reifications. As Litlove said, propose a definition then discuss it; don't start with an assumption of a definition that cannot be shifted or evolved.

I completely agree that one has a responsibility to keep returning to ideas again and again to clarify, deepen, and rework them. It's almost the same motif as a potter approaching the clay; we keep making the same pot till we get it right. However, there is the matter of style: some prefer to coax the materials, rather than pound on them.

You're quite correct that trying to enforce another's intellectual rigor is an act of aggression. On another occasion I might even have compared it to bullying; something I know a bit about. The energy dynamics of the emotions in play are always important to monitor; it's always wise to check one's motivations. My only motivation here is to applaud you for the realizations that Litlove has brought to light.

Best wishes to you.

D. G. Myers said...

No, bullying is the exact word.

Lee said...

I too applaud you, D.G., for your willingness to step back and re-assess your own position and attitudes, to apologise when fitting. We can all learn from your generosity of spirit in this regard.

I reckon the reason I said that I agree 'in the main' with your first two dogmas is that I'm not particularly interested in trying to define what literature is. It's a worthy endeavour, but one which is always going to swing between opposing poles, and the question is largely irrelevant to me personally. Do I try to write literature? Who knows? I look for my tools everywhere, whether they're primarily in the canon, in genre, in zine poetry, in music, in film technique, in graffiti, on cornflakes boxes.

D. G. Myers said...

Enough with the applause. This blog is not a school play.

As for why I seek to define literature. Because I am trying to account for what people are talking about when they talk about it.

According to me, no one can “try to write literature.” (Someone else I could name believes you can.) You can, and should, try to write well.

Lee said...

'You can, and should, try to write well.'

Yes, indeed. And that is a deep enough well for me.