Richard Dutton: The Debate Continues

My thanks to Aman and Jim for such a lively, entertaining and thought-provoking session. I just hate to let it end there …The reason I became a historicist, having trained as anything but (Cambridge Practical Criticism is about as a-historicist as it gets), is that I became increasingly frustrated  by the slipperiness of meaning both at the linguistic level and at the level of genre. Words and genres simply do not stand still, and our assumption that we can read them now as anyone read them even twenty years ago (without the utmost circumspection) is deeply suspect. We may continue to read Pride and Prejudice, but any assumption that we continue to read it with anything like the understanding brought to it by (say) the Prince Regent on its publication seems to me simply misguided. How many in 311 today know that Fitzwilliam Darcy’s name marks him out as a Norman aristocrat (a fact reinforced by having an aunt called Lady Catherine de Burgh?) How many would know the difference in status between her being “Lady Catherine de Burgh” as distinct from “Lady de Burgh”? How many know that Mr Collins is marked out in his name as being very probably of Gaelic/Irish origin and so (no offence) an upstart as far as Regency gentry would have been concerned? How many would even have known that “Bennet” derives from “Benedict” and so implies “blessed one” — and so foreshadows Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome from the very beginning? All of this speaks to Aman’s concession that no one is going to be confused about whether Mr Darcy or Mr Collins is the hero of the novel. My point is that many of us are probably *very* confused (or, even worse, not yet confused enough) about precisely what we mean by “the hero” in this context — the resonances, the significances, the social and cultural implications. [Push this back a couple of hundred years and ask yourself whether Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Othello is a “hero” in anything resembling the same sense.] If I recognize some of this which others in 311 may not have done, that may well have something to do with my being English — and some of these resonances are still quite loud over there, in a way they probably never were in the US. (I am correspondingly tone deaf to a good deal in, say, Hawthorne.) But i still don’t pretend to assume that I have more than a glimmer of what any of this meant to the Prince Regent, much less what it might have meant to the Austens’ chamber-maid. (My own historicism comes with some post-structuralist knobs and whistles.) If all of this is true at the level of mere name-words, how much truer must it be at the level of narrative structures, which depend upon infinitely more complex word-complexes. I *cannot* read the novel as the Prince Regent read it, nor can I begin to guess its affect on him. This is where I — like a good little New Historicist — would part company with the other Jim (Fredal). [Did anyone notice that I let in an English full-stop there? It explains everything …] The truth is that we can never recover affect or emotions. We do, of course, have a very important body of literature from ancient times onwards which [that??] attempts to explain how to generate certain emotional responses in a reader or hearer. The problem is that we actually cannot know what love, or hate, or shame [or their Greek — or do I mean Attic? — equivalents] actually felt like to Aristotle, or how they compare to the emotions given the same labels by my next door neighbour (neighbor?) today. All we can trace is the linguistic or semiotic shadow, not the thing itself. Now, I actually think that tracing the linguistic shadow is a pretty worthwhile thing to do, because in the end history (the semiotic shadow of all things) is all we have that binds us together as human across the ages. And literature is one important part of it. Richard

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5 responses to “Richard Dutton: The Debate Continues

  1. (reply by Jim Fredal):
    I might need to apologize for being more confusing than I thought I was being, but Richard’s comments, far from parting company with me, find me in good company: that we can’t really recover affect or emotions, but we can recover their semiotic traces (or shadows), that this (valuable project of recovery) is one of the goals most worth pursuing, and that rhetorical criticism gives us some tools to do precisely that (beginning with Aristotle).
    –the other Jim

  2. (reply by Jim Phelan)
    Thanks, Richard, for this response and the effort to carry the debate on. In that same spirit,I’ll go once more unto the breach.

    And the axe I carry along is the one I was grinding yesterday about the compatibility of historicism and rhetorical theory.

    On Thu, Feb 14, 2008 at 9:07 PM, Richard Dutton wrote:

    “My thanks to Aman and Jim for such a lively, entertaining and
    thought-provoking session. I just hate to let it end there …

    The reason I became a historicist, having trained as anything but
    (Cambridge Practical Criticism is about as a-historicist as it gets), is
    that I became increasingly frustrated by the slipperiness of meaning both
    at the linguistic level and at the level of genre. Words and genres simply
    do not stand still, and our assumption that we can read them now as anyone
    read them even twenty years ago (without the utmost circumspection) is
    deeply suspect.”

    Cambridge Practical Criticism seems to me to lead to this conclusion precisely because, as I understand it from the outside (and thus no doubt imperfectly), it sees literary texts primarily as meaning structures built from the meanings of individual words and then the meanings of those words in combination. But if one thinks of literary works as rhetorical actions then one can conceive of their authors marshalling words in the service of particular purposes, a marshalling that leads those words to have some meanings and not others (except in those cases when one of the purposes is to take advantage of the plurisignification of words and multiply ambiguities). Exactly how that happens is of course a huge question and most of the answers to it are contested, but the larger point is that the different assumptions about the nature of texts lead to very different views of the roles and functions of individual words.

    “We may continue to read Pride and Prejudice, but any
    assumption that we continue to read it with anything like the understanding
    brought to it by (say) the Prince Regent on its publication seems to me
    simply misguided.” (qtd. from Richard Dutton, above)

    Rhetorical theory doesn’t claim to recover the actual reading experience of a text’s original audience. And it wouldn’t claim, to stay with Richard’s examples, that the Prince Regent and Austen’s chambermaid would read the text with the “same understanding.” Instead it posits the following ideas: (1) that Austen designed the text with a particular audience in mind–that is, an audience with certain kinds of knowledge, skills, and values (what rhetorical theory calls the authorial audience); (2) that this audience is potentially recoverable through our knowledge of/research in history and through the examination of the internal mechanisms of the text; and (3) that in recovering that audience we create the possibility of entering it, that is, reading from its vantage point. Thus, for example, rhetorical theory wouldn’t claim that either the Prince Regent or a member of Austen’s family would get the irony of the first sentence, but it would claim that Austen’s authorial audience would.

    “How many in 311 today know that Fitzwilliam Darcy’s name marks him out as a
    Norman aristocrat (a fact reinforced by having an aunt called Lady
    Catherine de Burgh?) How many would know the difference in status between
    her being “Lady Catherine de Burgh” as distinct from “Lady de Burgh”? How
    many know that Mr Collins is marked out in his name as being very probably
    of Gaelic/Irish origin and so (no offence) an upstart as far as Regency
    gentry would have been concerned? How many would even have known that
    “Bennet” derives from “Benedict” and so implies “blessed one” — and so
    foreshadows Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome from the very beginning?” (qtd. from Richard Dutton, above)

    All of this information is an excellent example of how historical knowledge can contribute to our sense of an authorial audience. But from the rhetorical perspective, all of this information is material that Austen could fashion in multiple ways. If she had different ideological commitments, she could have used Collins’s Gaelic/Irish origin as part of her portrait of someone who is actually more heroic than Darcy. (I know that her own historical situatedness made it extremely unlikely that she would make the upstart more heroic; my point is simply that the information that Collins is an upstart from the perspective of Regency England does not mean that he must be less heroic.) Richard’s comment on Elizabeth’s name is perhaps a clearer example of what I’m trying to get at. While Richard reads the implication of “blessed one” as foreshadowing Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome, a different set of internal mechanisms, including a different trajectory for the action, could make the name an ironic commentary on her eventual outcome.

    But it seems natural for Richard to present the information as he does because he has already experienced the workings of Austen’s internal mechanisms. In fact, those mechanisms include other more substantial ways to foreshadow Elizabeth’s fortunate outcome. There’s a pattern of action in the early part of the novel involving what I’d call local instabilities that works by introducing a threat to such an outcome and then resolving it in a satisfactory way: in Chapter 1, Mr. Bennet threatens not to call on Bingley but at the beginning of Chapter 2 the narrator tells us that he was among the first to call; the next major element in this patter is Collins’s proposal. Despite his initial refusal to take no for an answer, the desires of her mother, and the pressures of the entail, she does say no and with her father’s support makes that no stick. This pattern influences the authorial audience’s understanding of the likely trajectory of the global instability involving Elizabeth and Darcy.

    “All of this speaks to Aman’s concession that no one is going to be confused about
    whether Mr Darcy or Mr Collins is the hero of the novel. My point is that
    many of us are probably *very* confused (or, even worse, not yet confused
    enough) about precisely what we mean by “the hero” in this context — the
    resonances, the significances, the social and cultural implications. [Push
    this back a couple of hundred years and ask yourself whether Hamlet, or
    Macbeth, or Othello is a “hero” in anything resembling the same sense.]” (qtd from Richard Dutton, above)

    My point is that we may be confused about the word, but we’re not confused when we read because it’s actually not that hard to enter Austen’s authorial audience and pick up on her designs.

    “If I recognize some of this which others in 311 may not have done, that may
    well have something to do with my being English — and some of these
    resonances are still quite loud over there, in a way they probably never
    were in the US. (I am correspondingly tone deaf to a good deal in, say,
    Hawthorne.) But i still don’t pretend to assume that I have more than a
    glimmer of what any of this meant to the Prince Regent, much less what it
    might have meant to the Austens’ chamber-maid. (My own historicism comes
    with some post-structuralist knobs and whistles.)

    If all of this is true at the level of mere name-words, how much truer must
    it be at the level of narrative structures, which depend upon infinitely
    more complex word-complexes. I *cannot* read the novel as the Prince Regent
    read it, nor can I begin to guess its affect on him. This is where I —
    like a good little New Historicist — would part company with the other Jim
    (Fredal). [Did anyone notice that I let in an English full-stop there? It
    explains everything …] The truth is that we can never recover affect or
    emotions.

    Again I wouldn’t disagree with the claim, especially if we add a “fully” to it, but I would disagree with the idea that we can’t infer from narrative structures ideas about the authorial audience. It seems to me, for example, that the narrative structure, as a result of the pattern I mention above, allows the authorial audience of Pride and Prejudice to know that the first proposal scene, disastrous as it is, is a temporary obstacle to the eventual union of Elizabeth and Darcy. And that narrative structure and the accompanying knowledge have consequences for the affective experience the novel invites its authorial audience to have. One consequence is that, even as that audience’s affective responses are tied to Elizabeth’s, that audience’s responses are significantly different because it has a knowledge about her experiences that she cannot have. I recognize that those two sentences–pace, Aman–say very little about the actual content of that affective experience, but for my purposes here, I think they say enough.

    We do, of course, have a very important body of literature from
    ancient times onwards which [that??] attempts to explain how to generate
    certain emotional responses in a reader or hearer. The problem is that we
    actually cannot know what love, or hate, or shame [or their Greek — or do
    I mean Attic? — equivalents] actually felt like to Aristotle, or how they
    compare to the emotions given the same labels by my next door neighbour
    (neighbor?) today. All we can trace is the linguistic or semiotic shadow,
    not the thing itself. Now, I actually think that tracing the linguistic
    shadow is a pretty worthwhile thing to do, because in the end history (the
    semiotic shadow of all things) is all we have that binds us together as
    human across the ages. And literature is one important part of it. (qtd. from Richard Dutton, above)

    And the communications carried out by its structures are an important part of literature.

    Jim

  3. (reply from Richard Dutton)
    It would seem from Joey’s intervention that we are approaching something like critical debate as spectator sport. Or maybe Reality TV. At all events, Jim’s offer to respond to my earlier contribution stirs me to one last (heroic?) effort.

    For Joey’s benefit, the story so far: Critic A [historicism] insults Critic B [narrative theory] (in the nicest possible way).
    Critic B returns the favo[u]r. They exchange mutual compliments while each gripping the other by the throat (not easy when one is at least a foot taller than the other). The overheated spectators shout on their favo[u]rites by asking generally reasonable questions. Critic C [moi] stews on the issues that evening and reopens the debate on the airwaves. Now read on …

  4. (reply from Jim Phelan)
    One more round from me, one more effort to suggest to a committed historicist with post-structuralist leanings that rhetorical theory isn’t as wacky or impossible as it initially appears (or perhaps I should say, as I have previously made it sound).

    Richard agrees that texts have patterns and that following them is an important part of the reading process. He even acknowleges that authors, despite being pronounced dead by those once very much alive French theorists, marshall words purposefully. But he questions the extent to which either such authorial marshalling of words or the activity of following textual patterns delimits meaning because, well, readers not authors determine meanings and because our old friend language is actually a very slippery fellow.

    If the question we’re asking is “what can this arrangement of this language at this point in history, an arrangement that depicts these events experieced by these characters in this order, possibly mean to its range of contemporary readers?,” I’m willing to grant Richard’s position and happy to have the answers. Similarly, if that’s the question, then I’m willing to grant that patterns won’t delimit meanings very much, precisely because that question calls for us to seek multiple patterns, even contradictory ones.

    But rhetorical theory doesn’t ask that question. Instead it asks, “what designs on her implied audience did the agent who used this language at this point in history to depict these events experienced by these characters in this order probably have?” It believes that the question is worth asking because it believes in the otherness of the text and in the phenomenon of disparate giftedness, the notion that some authors have insights and abilities that are greater than most of ours and very much worth engaging with. And it believes that the question is answerable because it believes that an author communicates her designs on her audience by constructing her text in one way rather than another, and it finds the patterns underlying that construction as important guides to those designs.

    The difference between the questions can be seen in the different accounts they’d give of the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. Someone asking “what can this arrangement of language possibly mean to its contemporary audience” would answer at least that the sentence can be taken straight and it can be taken ironically. Someone asking the rhetorical theorist’s question would answer that the agent has designed it ironically in order to introduce her audience to her wit and to the application of that wit to serious subjects. The rhetorical theorist would go on to note that the irony sets up a relation between the two voices in the utterance (the one who takes the universally acknowledged truth as a given, and the one debunking that truth) and that this relation includes a clash of ideologies about marriage and money in which the ironist takes the side of the debunker. The rhetorical theorist would also note that the relation between the two voices in the first sentence gets picked up in the dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about the single man of good fortune who has just let Netherfield Park, and that the carryover of that relation aligns the narrator and thus the implied audience with Mr. Bennet rather than Mrs. Bennet and further that Mr. Bennet’s singling out his “little Lizzie” aligns her with him, the narrator, and the implied audience. And so on with the way these parts of the initial design get qualified by the revelation that Mr. Bennet was teasing Mrs. Bennet even more than was apparent in their dialogue and by the trajectory of varied relations among the narrator’s views of the marriage market, Mr. Bennet’s views, and Elizabeth’s views. And the rhetorical theorist would go on link these inferences about the design of the novel’s beginning to their ethical and affective consequences, and in this way begin to build up a sense of the novel’s overarching design.

    Following the internal mechanisms of the novel as a way to understand its multi-layered communication to its implied audience does not mean that rhetorical theory escapes interpretation or otherwise turns our engagement with texts into an exercise into discovering certainties. Indeed, it’s very important to the model that its results are hypotheses that need further testing and that are open to revision. Thus, it would say to the critic who insists that Austen’s first sentence can be read as straight or ironic that Austen gives us much more evidence that it’s ironic both in the way it builds to one kind of anticlimax and it way she juxtaposes it with the second sentence which tacitly acknowledges that the truth is not universally acknowledged: “However little known the views or feelings of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood.” But it would also want to account for the force of the literal reading of that first sentence in the action of the novel. One of the consequences of this position is that the model regards the implied or authorial audience not as a Platonic ideal but as a well-motivated heuristic for distinguishing between what an author assumes about her audience’s knowledge and abilities and what any actual reader might know and/or do in response to the text. Thus, for example, Austen’s authorial audience knows a fair amount about the geography of England (way more, for example, than I did when I first read the novel) and about the social mores and class structures of Regency England, and it has the ability to detect her irony.

    As you can infer, I could go on–and on and on. But I’ve just heard a wise voice cry out, “Hold, enough!”

    Jim

  5. Robyn Warhol-Down

    Another bystander jumps into the fray:

    I confess I was smarting from Aman’s calling my work “simplistic and coarse,” and from his yoking me with Garret Stewart, the author of the nastiest and most dismissive footnote ever to reference *Gendered Interventions*. As I kept reading through Aman’s and then Jim’s statements, though, I was relieved at least that my approach had been spared the rhetoric of lameness that seems to have attached itself to Jim’s (Yes, Jim: who *is* your opponent?).

    Our historicist would do well, I think, to attend more closely to the temporal situatedness of the critical text. Taking a look at what the “academic historians” were saying about nineteenth-century gender difference in the mid- to late-1980s would not uncover a much more fine-grained treatment of the subject than you’ll find in *Gendered Interventions*. If my book was not “incredibly nuanced”–and I’m willing to grant it was not–neither were the histories of gender being written at the time.

    What we know about history is subject to development. It develops at least in part through the interchange between historicist and formal approaches to texts. What we’ve learned about the social and cultural dimensions of the rhetorical strategies of the past has contributed something to what we know now.

    Ah—this particular Smack Down may have been indecisive. But just you wait until one of the Divas shows up to throw her chair into the ring! I can hardly wait to get there.

    Yours,
    Robyn

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