Comments on Eileen Joy’s ‘Notes Towards a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism’

Eileen Joy gave a series of stimulating, ‘gnomic’ (her term), feed-limited notes towards what a speculative realist literary criticism might be here. I’d like to respond with a slightly more scrambled set of notes. I want to raise some questions about the ‘fitness’ between speculative realism and literary criticism, although these problems should be seen against the backdrop of a common enthusiasm for its possibility. If Eileen’s note moves ‘towards’ something, the following comments are less directed and far less coherent.

One of the less exciting things about learning and using philosophical engagements is that it quickly starts to feel like a method, both in the sense of a procedure for interpretation (structural) and as a predominantly rational enterprise. By the latter I mean the way in which the reading practice itself is bureaucratized by its own file folder. But nor is hedonistic opportunism the sensible way to understanding the quandary of the textualized object.

Perhaps, the first application of object-oriented ontology to literary criticism might begin with de-prioritizing the supremacy of the text in relation to its ilk (ink, page, book, pixel, web page, libraries, university, etc.) not in order to create a flat ontological plane whose residents are equal and equivocally summoned, but in order to understand the ideological and institutional contexts through which texts arrive in our mailboxes, homes, tables, eyes and ears. This has been done and continues to be done by various historicist and post-Foucauldian agents. It would also require understanding the history of the emergence of the text as a written object, as opposed to a ritual, memory, or recitation; and indeed, might think about how the emergence of the written text in the West  (and its relation to the current emergence of the hypertext) [I’m thinking here of Paul Saenger’s Silent Reading, and especially David R. Olson’s The World on Paper] contributed to the phenomenological con-fusion of the text with the mind, as something mental-evident, at least for those whose competence takes place in the know. Hence, the development of a humanist interpretation is closely related to the ‘text as speech’ idea. Meaning, strictly speaking, is a metaphor for the text as a kind of mind. Indeed, mind and ‘to mean’ share the same Indo-European root. Taking a more anthropological stance, i.e. understanding the text as a kind of cultural record without the immanent development of subjectivity lurking behind it. The dialectical tearing and damage inflicted upon language by the writers of those texts whose language relinquishes its author–these are the encounters of textual resistance and enigmaticalness which produce the alien status of the textual object. I’m thinking especially of recent poetry, such as J.H. Prynne, Peter Manson, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish (especially!). If we accept that the mind, and also the groups of embodied minds in a community or culture, are largely  homologous with ‘language’, then the mind absorbed in reading is experiencing the kind of effects that a landscape painting might generate when placed in the middle of a field. That is to say, uncanny, strange, weird, defamiliarized. It would seem that OOO has something interesting to say about the status of the verbal artwork.

The next step would be to counter-act this de-prioritization by understanding the role of language (e.g. English) in texts: what does it look like, how does what it looks like contribute to how it may potentially be read, how does the praxis of reading change the status of the object, how does the language on the object (*not* the language ‘of’ the object) make claims upon the object’s status fundamentally uncertain? Is the textualized object a special case of ‘vicarious causation’, and who is the proxy there? If I look at a book cover whose text is written in Mongolian script, the status of that book as an object–its flickering between ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand, say– is markedly different than a book cover in English, or one featuring a picture. Even if the picture is inscrutable, my identification of it as a picture goes a long way to understanding the ‘bibliographical code’. So this means that it is not enough to try to squash meaning-hermeneutics by thinking of the text as an object–the precise role language has in constituting the text must be thought through as a material practice of discovery.

I’ve been enjoying Levi Bryant’s post about Eileen’s talk. But I disagree that the humanist tradition of textual interpretation has always attempted to ‘close the text’. This strikes me as a very Derridean reading, but overlooks a whole tradition of praxis whose precise aim has been not to ‘complete’ the text or to ‘have the final say’, but rather to further open the text. Commentary. The history of Biblical, Scholastic, Renaissance, scientific, and literary commentaries shows that the quest for meaning has done nothing but the opposite of closure. ‘Meaning’ has generated intense dialogue and debate. And yet, there is still this ‘ghost in the machine’ problem; this transcendental spirit of intention/author which continues to haunt the grounds of lit crit like a specter of moral edification and redemption, as though waiting for the text to animate itself and speak.

The idea of autopoeisis, which Eileen mentions in her lecture, never quite hit full steam, despite Jerome McGann’s use of the term in The Textual Condition (1991). He writes:

This book attempts to sketch a materialist hermeneutics. In so doing, it considers texts as autopoietic mechanisms operating as self-generating feedback systems that cannot be separated from those who manipulate and use them. Their autopoiesis functions through a pair of interrelated textual embodiments we can study as systems of linguistic and bibliographical codings. (p. 15)

This raises an important question for sketching an OOO for the text: how will it become operative? If the text is not, strictly speaking, a phenomena, it nonetheless requires a human mind to make sense of its language, and how can this set of neural cognitive activity be distinguished from an ontological claim for the object’s autonomy? Autopoiesis is a term derived from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1980). I’m already over my head here, but I’ll just say that their idea came about when they switched from asking a semantic question (e.g. what does it mean for x to do y? what is the cause or root of x?) to a structural question: “How does it happen that the organism has the structure that permits it to operate adequately in the medium in which it exists” (p. xvi). This powerful structural idea was notably taken up by the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, who virtuosically combined it with G. Spencer Brown’s algebraic thinking in Laws of Form (1969). In Art and Society (1995), Luhmann still observes the (unfortunate) distinction between medium and form. By ‘medium’ I think he signifies something like the materiality of the page: “the whiteness of the paper from which figures or letters emerge” (p. 109). By form, I think he must signify the the cognitive-abstract system of language.

I’ll try and give a hackneyed glimpse into this monumental work with a big citation. I’m wondering how it might ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ with OOO. Following Spencer Brown, Luhman  outlines the “calculus of form” where:

[O]bject and creative process coincide (in this respect we are dealing with a kind of ‘constructivism’), since both emerge—simultaneously—from the imperative ‘Draw a distinction.’ An observer can once again distinguish between object and process when selecting this distinction as the form of observation. This is why it takes an observer to raise questions about objects; a system simply starts operating. It takes an observer to see the paradox of a beginning that presupposes itself, to recognize the self-implicative structure of the distinguishing act, and to plunge himself, at least logically, into confusion. Only an observer can run into paradox and be forced to admit that paradox is always presupposed—in mathematical and even more so in logical operations—as the blind spot that makes distinction, and thus observation, possible in the first place. Operations, on the other hand, including observing operations, simply happen. A distinction discriminates; its mere occurrence must be observed (retrospectively by the same system, simultaneously or later by another system); only then does the unity of the distinction become apparent as the blind spot that enables observation. This unity remains invisible while the distinction is used—this holds for all distinctions. It is as indisputable as our certainty about the world, a certainty based on inaccessibility (pp. 31-32).

Thus, form is a dialectic in which distinction withdraws into an invisible unity as the selection of further distinctions makes this possible. Luhmann’s work has been taken up by critics (notably Cary Wolfe’s “The Idea of Observation at Key West, or, Systems Theory, Poetry, and Form Beyond Formalism”, NLH 39 (2008), 259-276). Stopping short here for more later.

2 thoughts on “Comments on Eileen Joy’s ‘Notes Towards a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism’

  1. This is a marvelous piece, and I’m especially excited to have my own thinking further prodded in relation to systems theory. In my original Twitter University lecture, I did mention commentary–as someone who works in medieval studies and who is also interested in re-inventing older forms/genres of writing, I’ve been interested in commentary for a long time and have been thinking how commentary might be differentiated from hermeneutical criticism in literary studies. I think the two overlap in all sorts of ways, but one thing I took away from a glossing conference organized by Nicola Masciandaro, Ryan Dobran, and Karl Steel a couple of years ago at The Graduate Center, CUNY, by way of one of the speakers [Hans Gumbrecht] is that, while hermeneutics attempt to get at a text’s “secrets,” as it were [to decipher the text, unlock its meaning(s), deconstruct it, etc.], commentary seeks to write around the text, extend its writing/meaning, and maybe also unfold its implicate dimensionality. I’m partial to the idea that every literary text is unfinished in some way, partially incoherent, and also mechanistic [propulsive/ongoing]: criticism, then, for me, would be a process of simply continuing to write the text, or to follow its signatures by continuing to “sign” it. [This is actually an idea I’m borrowing from Derrida’s “Paper Machine” and Derek Attridge’s “The Singularity of Literature” and some of Derrida’s writings also included in the volume edited by Attridge, “Acts of Literature.”] So this is also my way of saying that I do understand that not all humanist-inflected forms of “reading”/criticism try to close down a text’s possible meanings [I have written quite extensively, actually, on continuing to invest in humanism and humanist practices within the university, but in forms hopefully made more flexible and generous under the aegis of post/humanist, object-oriented, etc. thought], although I would still aver that the most dominant modes of reading literary texts today [skeptical-ideological, New Historicist, psychoanalytic/symptomatic, cultural-material, etc.] place so much emphasis on the primarily human *forces*, events, intentions, histories, etc. that shape texts’ production and reception, that there isn’t often much consideration of a text’s subversive resistance to those forces, events, etc. I also think that there is a huge [and unfortunate] gap between the way many of read texts in medieval, Renaissance, and other periods of literary studies, and the sorts of discussions that are happening among those who work in contemporary poetry and poetics, and so when you mention J.H. Prynne, Lisa Robertson, etc., I’m paying attention, believe me.

    More important, relative to the post here, is Ryan bringing our attention back to the really IMPORTANT fact that, even if we want to talk about texts as forms/objects of mentation, they can never exist entirely outside of larger sentient/cognitive systems [which include human authors and human readers, but who knows, maybe in the future there will be machines reading and writing for/to each other? but if the human is already a machine, would there be a difference?]. So, a text might be an object [even an object containing other objects], but its “autonomy” [as Timothy Morton and I might put it] is only ever partial. I agree with this. I don’t think a novel by Proust can “do” anything by itself without human-cognitive “support” or infrastructure or “platforms,” but I think going back and thinking about autopoeisis [and yeah, I borrow that term from Maturana and Varela, but did not know about McGann’s use of it, so thanks for that tip!] would be a very rich area of thought for re-thinking our relationship to texts but also, as Ryan puts its here, investigating their singular uncanniness + alien nature at the same time [I think Ian Bogost’s forthcoming book on “Alien Phenomenology” may be a great help in this regard]. There’s a part of me that does NOT want this to, in the end, be all about mathesis + computing + physics; but anyway: let’s keep thinking about all of this! Thanks again so much for your comments.


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