Research Programs

In fallibilism on 20/08/2011 at 6:48 am

Feminist theory, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Marxist interpretations of texts speak more about their respective research programs than of the text. Upon reading their work, a small portal briefly opens so I can catch a small glimpse through a dense fog how the world must look like to them — everything revolves around gender inequalities, sexual turmoil, class struggle.

Of course, this isn’t limited to three research programs. I single them out only because they are the most egregious examples. All research programs have this affliction. Everything is understood in light of theory. Just this morning I caught myself understanding a literary critic as expressing, while couched in different language, the same problems and working within the same research program found in evolutionary epistemology. I misread a text so I can understand it better.


  1. You seem to presuppose that the objective of literary criticism is to ascertain the author’s intended meaning. This approach is inherently faulty, since any text is capable of transmitting messages of which the author is unconscious. In the opinion of Roland Barthes, the true function of lit crit is to reveal the societal codes (norms, taboos, value systems) that produce meaning in a text. The function of Marxist/Freudian/Feminist interpretations of texts, then, is to connect the text with the sociopolitical situation of its writing, and to show how the codes of its time contributed to the text’s form. Many jokes, for example, cannot be understood without reference to current taboos, and the investment of mental energy (cathexis) that accompanies them: in Freud’s book Wit & Its Relation to The Unconscious, he utilizes a number of jokes regarding ‘marriage arrangers’ (an occupation that has since become obsolete) to illustrate his points; these jokes, however, though they still suffice to prove Freud’s points, are not funny to the contemporary reader because the associations which would be readily available to Freud’s contemporaries are now lost.

    I entirely agree that such analyses can be done in a painfully reductionist manner, and many of the dilettantes in Marxism/Psychoanalysis/Feminism/etc who try their hand at lit crit tend to reify their concepts, and often impute more value to their method than is merited, i.e. they feel that their analysis is comprehensive, whereas it really only covers a single facet of a text.

    It astonishes me just how prevalent is the view of ‘meaning’ as that which was intended by the author. It may be more helpful, in this regard, to think of meaning as ‘signification’. Of course, one can certainly go overboard with this view, but I feel that its ability to make literature political more than makes up for its susceptibility to academic decadence. If you’re at all interested in this extended view of ‘meaning’, you might be interested in an introduction to Structuralism which I wrote, as well as a (somewhat obscurantist, I’m afraid) look at Freud’s theory of humor.

    • Graham,

      This is the third time I’ve tried to write this comment. Something is up with wordpress. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

      Your comment was caught by the spam filter. Two or more links seems to trigger it.

      Your second paragraph is right on the money. I agree with you that such a reductionist attitude is mistaken. In fact, it’s quite helpful at times to view texts through a different world-view or framework. Often, it’s the only way we can change. That said, some textual ‘gnostic’ exegesis goes too far, not just in reducing it to sociopolitical attitudes, but in missing the ‘plain’ meaning of the text. It might be helpful to some to interpret Darwin’s Origin as being a product of 19th c. capitalism, but does that make his theories of natural selection by modification and common descent true or false? Some, I’m sad to say, see this as weighing in on the scales as a demerit of Darwin’s theory. Frankly, I find that absurd. Others, though, might even miss his theory from the trees, and not even get around to understanding the theory.

      I’ll check out your post.

    • Graham,

      You said in your post (very informative, by the way), “Determinism: People are prisoners of language and cannot escape, no more than a physicist can find an observation point outside of nature.”

      I see one issue with this assumption: it doesn’t explain the fact that people can break out of their linguistic ‘jail’. I mean, it does not explain how change is possible.

      We have people that expand the cell walls as large as they can go, and when they’ve escaped, express themselves differently than before by taking an observation point from outside the cell. In fact, we can talk to others that live in different jails, although it may be difficult — but difficulty does not make impossibility.

      Of course (to stretch the metaphor just a bit more), the prisoner is still trapped within another jail, but this one is larger than the one before, and they can escape to a larger one still if necessary.

      What I’m getting at is that language determines our attitudes, beliefs, and stances in some fashion, but that’s just old hat. Everything we come into contact with determines our attitudes, beliefs, and stances in some way or another.

  2. Replying to your first comment: I’m could nitpick about the notion of a singular ‘objective’ meaning of a text, but I know roughly what you mean by the ‘plain’ meaning, so I’ll leave that aside. I fully agree that anyone who dismisses Darwin’s theory solely because it was a product of 19th c. capitalism is an idiot. Still, insofar as theories are not conceived in vacuo, I feel that there is value in trying to identify the ‘antecedents’ which consciously (Malthus) or unconsciously (merchantilism) influenced Darwin and gave his work its final shape.

    As well, Gadamer, a hermeneutician, makes the (seemingly trite) point that we necessarily make use of contemporary concepts to understand dated texts: a biologist cannot suspend his/her knowledge of Mendel’s experiments, the discovery of DNA, and the refinements of Darwin’s theory that ensued. With this latter point I simply hope to show how it may be necessary, and at times even desirable, to ‘distort’ a text in order to better understand it: it would be positively foolish for a contemporary reader of Darwin to take everything he says in Origin without a grain of salt.

    As for your second comment: Despite the variations of thought that different languages allow (if the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis is correct, that is), there are nevertheless unchangeable linguistic universals, e.g. syntax, grammar, phonemes, morphemes, which which afflict all ‘jails’ equally, but with rules switched around, e.g. French syntax has [noun] [adjective] rather than the reverse order of English, and Mandarin has words with single morphemes, so instead of saying ‘cats’ they say [cat] [plural]. It is not impossible that the order provided by these unconscious systems of rules seeps into our perception of reality, so to speak.

    I cannot think of a cogent, universal linguistic example offhand, but I have another that I think will suffice: the structural(ist) anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed that all humans in all cultures have a tendency to think in binary oppositions, e.g. dead/alive, good/evil, mind/body, etc. While the structuralists resigned themselves to this, poststructuralist philosophers make a deliberate effort to not think in binaries because they think that by doing so their thoughts will more closely approximate the Real. Superficially they escape, but perhaps underneath all their word-twisting, there remains a series of binaries, simply pushed beyond notice: threes become fours (double binaries), fours become fives, etc., etc., and they pile binaries on top of one another until they come to something ridiculous like C.S. Peirce’s 76 types of signs.

    Anyway, the latter example of binary thinking is just trying to illustrate the sort of structuralist resignation to the limits of the human faculties which, like you imply, we must simply accept, and then get on with our lives. The poststructuralists, conversely, either try to challenge these limits, or take into account determinisms which structuralism did not.

    I don’t feel like I’ve been optimally clear in this second portion. Despite all the above, there is still debate about whether humans are capable of thinking without the use of some sort of language (formal logic & mathematics included), while the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis & Structuralism seem to commit themselves to the opinion that we are not.

    • Graham,

      I see no real disagreement in your first paragraph, only a matter of emphasis. On your second paragraph, I agree with you. After all, I did say, “I misread a text so I can understand it better.” I mean that sincerely. The only way we can understand something is in light of our background knowledge, framework, &c.

      On your third paragraph, it should be noted that this these are not necessary qualities of language, but contingent qualities. They are universal insofar as they are human. I would think that our cognitive and biological frameworks that existed long before spoken language would have a stronger influence, since they don’t just color our senses and cognitive states, but often drive them: we see within a limited spectrum, with limited colors; what is good-tasting is a property of our brains and tongue, not the food; we don’t understand risks in a ‘rational’ way; we always fail the Monty Hall problem; &c. In short, we’re all fallible Kantians that evolved the capacity to learn from some of our mistakes.

      On the fourth paragraph, we’ve transitioned to saying that something is more alive than another, or more truth-like than another, or acts more ethically than another, and this isn’t as binary. But put that aside for the moment. What is wrong with binary oppositions generally?

      Your last paragraph: I think it’s possible, at least in principle, to do away with language. The problem is that feral children, while they can do basic problem-solving and learn, seem to miss a necessary point in their childhood to prime the language module of the brain. I think Chomsky is right: language, even though it’s a relatively recent adaptation, is an integral part of properly socializing children.

      • Oh, it seemed to me from your post that you were being overly hard on yourself by demanding strict hermeneutic readings all the time; the above was mostly trying to provide a basis for saying “Relax, man―it’s all good,” and to show that since we must necessarily distort a text with concepts foreign to it, we might as well do so if it will better our personal understanding.

        I cannot even conceive how a language could exist without syntax, phonemes, & morphemes; even computer languages need them. If it is animal ‘languages’ that you have in mind, (bio)semioticians are more inclined to think of them as ‘codes’ than languages (with the possible exception of bee dances), since the amount of possible messages they can send it extremely limited. As well, I can’t imagine how we could do away with language without destroying human society: no feasible amount of codes would be able to substitute for the infinite combinations of messages possible via language.

        As regards the shift away from (explicit) binary thinking, you can most likely attribute that to the influence of Nietzsche and the Poststructuralists upon the zeitgeist. Alternatively, McLuhan would likely say that the modes of thinking encouraged by electrical media, such as television, discourage dogmatic categorization and promote multiplicity (as opposed to more ‘literary’, i.e. visual, thinking). (The latter factor is equally valid, despite my oversimplification, and both factor have likely operated in concert.)

        Nothing is wrong with binary oppositions in and of themselves, but Poststructuralists feel that (given the universality of this sort of thinking) binary oppositions act as a sort of less a priori Kantian category which distorts the Real (causing us to unjustly oversimplify things such as sociological patterns, e.g. Occident/Orient). Non-Kantians (like yourself, I presume) don’t have this problem, but instead must show how binarism is an ontological quality of reality. (Not that poststructuralists are dogmatic Kantians, but they feel that a modified Kantianism is the most promising avenue for explaining reality, despite Kant’s many problems.)

        You caught me right in the middle of writing a post about the Real and how things such as language & binaries supposedly distort it, and which compares Kantian & non-Kantian philosophies, and some of the arguments against each. I’m embarrassed that I keep peddling my essays, but I think you might find it interesting (since it is strongly related to philosophy of science, insofar as the aim of the latter is to cognize the Real): I’ve just published it now, here.

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