Notes On Gustav Jönsson’s High Theory & Low Seriousness

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Gustav Jönsson’s, High Theory and Low Seriousness (2019)a brisk and biting critique of contemporary literary theory published via Quillette  — opens with an assault upon the practice of ‘deep reading‘ (analytically interrogating a text to find overarching, underlying or purposefully or accidentally embedded meanings which may not necessarily be explicit).

Sixty years ago today, just as Henderson the Rain King was going to print, Saul Bellow penned an article for the New York Times in which he warned against the perils of deep reading. Paying too close attention to hidden meanings and obscure symbols takes all the fun from reading, he wrote. The serious reader spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to find profound representations in the most trivial of details. “A travel folder signifies Death. Coal holes represent the Underworld. Soda crackers are the Host. Three bottles of beer are—it’s obvious.” (Jönsson)

§00. Mr. Jönsson’s argument — that paying too much attention to the meaning of a text is detrimental to the experience of reading itself — whilst superficially compelling, is mistaken, as the problem in the scenario he lays out is engendered not through paying too much attention to obscure or arcane symbols, suggestions or descriptions, but rather, through possessing too little in the way of reliable heuristics for explicating them. Further, to say that plying attention “too close” to what is being said in a given text should be avoided configures a dictum that can lead to taking unseriousness very seriously (this is not, in any particular, Jönsson’s argument but it is easy to see how a rejection of literary-artistic “seriousness” can lead to superfluousness and anti-intellectualism, just as a fixation on “seriousness” can lead to a lock-jawed, grim-toned, pridefully humorless air).

Moreover, deep reading is such an imprecise game that numerous dull and contradictory interpretations arise from the same passage. “Are you a Marxist? Then Herman Melville’s Pequod in Moby Dick can be a factory, Ahab the manager, the crew the working class. Is your point of view religious? The Pequod sailed on Christmas morning, a floating cathedral headed south. Do you follow Freud or Jung? Then your interpretations may be rich and multitudinous.” One man, Bellow wrote, had volunteered an explanation of Moby Dick as Ahab’s mad quest to overcome his Oedipus complex by slaying the whale—the metaphorical mother of the story. (Jönsson)

§01. Here Jönsson makes an excellent point — namely, that everyone brings some kind of ideological framework to a text, and when the contents of the latter are made to fit into the pre-conceptualized mold of the former, the scryed work’s intended and real meaning is distorted, obscured, coopted or outright destroyed.

Instead of this tedious attitude to literature, Bellow urged that people take after E. M. Forster’s lightness of heart. Forster had once remarked that he felt worried by the prospect of visiting Harvard since he had heard that there were many deep and serious readers of his books there. The prospect of their close analysis made him uneasy. In short, for Bellow and Forster, the average academic critic tried to understand literature and thus ruined the enjoyment of it. (Jönsson)

§02. A reiteration of the problem covered in §00. — enjoyment is of key importance to any literary work, however, if it is made the only criterion, then art is rendered impossible, as all good and durable literary works incite in the reader, more than mere passing pleasure (ie. terror, dread, hopelessness, unease, ideas not considered which do not, in their re-consideration necessarily engender enjoyment); for the novel to be reduced to nothing more than a mild dopamine rush is to snatch it from its pedestal as the highest and most intricate form of art and transmogrify it into what functionally amounts to slowly consumed fast-food.

The low seriousness that Bellow lamented has only increased since his complaint. Today, literary scholarship is home to some of the most impenetrable gobbledygook ever put on paper. The main culprit is easily identifiable: literary theory. Literary theory, a school of criticism with little hold outside the universities, has captured whole colleges and threatens to extinguish students’ love of reading. Imagine the dejection a student about to begin university, eager to read the best that has ever been written, feels when they are told to examine some heavy tome of unreadable theory. It drains all the fun from reading. (Jönsson)

§03. The issue of the “gobbledygook” (to borrow Jönsson’s phrase) in the academies is one which has been vexing to the linguistically and narratively concerned since the shift in literary criticism turned to interpretation during the 20th Century. Tensions around the lack of unification in interpretation were further intensified by the lack of interdisciplinary discourse between the sciences and the humanities; a problem which can be ameliorated by simply fostering more interdisciplinary discourse (and crucially, debate, public and private).

Solemn readers—especially within the academy—take the view that novels must be read in the same manner that philosophers read Principia Mathematica, namely, by “interrogating” the text’s underlying logic. Theorists see themselves as philosophers of literature. For them, the task of understanding any piece of prose or poetry means developing an array of theories, much like philosophers try to explain reality through formulised conjecture. And just as philosophers have specialised lingo to aid their job, literary theorists also require their own jargon. Hence whole dictionaries now exist to help students navigate near incomprehensible passages. Opening my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism more or less at random, I’m met by the following sentences:

[The phenotext is constantly split up and divided, and is irreducible to the semiotic process that works through the genotext. The phenotext is a structure (which can be generated, in generative grammar’s sense); it obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee. The genotext, on the other hand, is a process; it moves through zones that have relative and transistory borders and constitutes a path that is not restricted to the two poles of univocal information between two full-fledged subjects.]

This is not an unfairly selected quote. Literary theory is often written in language that is not much more transparent than this. To offer one more example; Fredric Jameson delivers this inscrutability:

[The operational validity of semiotic analysis, and in particular of the Greimassian semiotic rectangle, derives, as was suggested there, not from its adequacy to nature or being, nor even from its capacity to map all forms of thinking or language, but rather from its vocation specifically to model ideological closure and to articulate the workings of binary oppositions, here the privileged form of what we have called the antinomy.]

Hegel hardly wrote anything more muddled. Of course, there are literary theories free of pseudo-philosophical gibberish. But some of the most prominent theorists write in this cryptic style. Martha Nussbaum (herself a lucid writer) criticised the prose of a celebrated theorist by saying that her elliptical and obscure writing “creates an aura of importance” but also “bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding.” (Jönsson)

§04. He remarks that literary theorists see themselves as philosophers of literature; the author seems to take exception to this, which is curious as developing theories (or hypotheses) concerning a given text is not itself the nexus of misinterpretation, but rather, formulating a insufficient hypothesis/theory. The author is on firm footing when he returns to his critique of obscurantist dialogue, a view with which I concur, as the purpose of all writing is to communicate (even if only to oneself at a future point in time, qua post-it notes) and if one is to communicate it were best one did so with as much clarity as possible. I would add that one should not be too quick to recoil from arcane words, firstly because lexiconic expansion should be encouraged (and it won’t be if every word one doesn’t understand is dismissed as fluff) and secondarily because specialized language is indispensable if it compresses and clarifies rather than obscures and expands. For example, instead of saying — as was quoted above — phenotext and genotext of [x], one could simply say, the what and why of [x] text (as the words are born out of genetics, phenotypic traits like eye-color are the what whilst the genotypic traits are the why of the what [ie. the reason why one has a certain eye coloration]. Thus, in this example, though phenotext and genotext aren’t necessarily bad terms, it is simpler to just say what and why (that is to say, to assume the form: x because y). However, there are many instances where new models are created wherein it becomes useful to create new words, and many more where old models are best described by compressor-words — for example: instead of saying “adhering to a conclusion regardless of the evidence once interrogated,” one can simply say “negatively postjudicial” instead (in the same way that one says “novel” in place of “a cultural artifact of bound paper or code, inscribed with a [largely] fictional narrative, typically divided by sections, called chapters, ranging from 70,000 words to 120,000[+] words). Thus, always the question: clarification or clutter?

In a sense, unintelligible writing is an insult to its own discipline because it suggests that it is not important for the reader to understand the content. Surely an author with something insightful to say would take care to make herself comprehensible. Why convey a thought at all if it need not be understood? Only those with nothing to say can afford to revel in opacity. In short, cryptic writing may create an aura of importance but in fact it advertises its own lack of value. (Jönsson)

§05. See: §04.

Badly written scholarship is a negative in itself, but worse, it is also an opportunity cost for it crowds out the reading of good criticism. A seminar spent discussing Althusser or Derrida is one which could have focused on Samuel Johnson or James Wood. Worse still, the examination of turgid theories takes time from truly excellent works of literature. I can remember attending a seminar on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando where the tutor seemed to view the book as an excuse to discuss Judith Butler’s theory of “gender performativity.” Something has surely gone wrong when literature is used to further theories rather than the other way around. (Jönsson)

§06. The notion that something has “gone wrong” if literature is utilized to further theories (or hypotheses) rather than the other way around, is understandable (given the doubtless nauseating performance described before it), but mistaken. There is no reason that literature should not further theories (or hypotheses) anymore than there is reason for the converse to be true. Again we return to heuristics, what kind of theories are being crafted from what works, how and why? Until these questions are answered, then it is simply impossible to make such a blanket statement as “never use literature to further theories.” Case in point: after the publication of Jules Verne’s lauded science fiction work, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (originally serialized in Magasin d’Éducation et de Récréation, 1869 to 1870), inventor Simon Lake became enamoured with underwater machinery and consequently, designed The Argonaut, the world’s first successful open-water submarine; Verne’s story Robur The Conqueror (1886) was also instrumental in inspiring the invention of the modern helicopter. A fairly ringing endorsement of the positive effects of utilizing literature for theoretical inception for practical application. Of course, the spineless, toothless, deconstructuralist, poststructural neocom, anarchist, gender theologizing so characteristic of the academies which the author decries is considerably more difficult (one is tempted to say impossible) to use for such inventive and civilizationally impactful ends.

The problem with literary theory is that it is not proper “theory.” At best, it is hypothesis without predictive value. There may be some descriptive capacity in literary “theories,” but they do not predict anything about prose or poetry. (What future literary developments can be anticipated by reference to Harold Bloom’s theory of “the anxiety of influence”?) In contradistinction to literary theories, scientific and philosophical theories are open to refutation. Science is tethered to reality and scientific conjectures can thus be refuted by empirical evidence. Literature—being fictional—cannot. This allows literary theorists to gain adherents whilst being free from worries of rebuttal. The consequence is an ever swelling canon of contradictory deepities. (Jönsson)

§07. Here Jönsson comes upon the crux of the issue — that of the fundamentally non-theoretical nature of what is called “theory” in contemporary academia (particularly in the humanities). That is to say, all contemporary critical “theories” are not really theories at all, but hypotheses. The linguistic distinction here is important, given the scientific background which informs nearly all of western discourse; anyone who is scientifically literate understands that a theory is privileged above a hypothesis because a theory can be rigorously, empirically, tested. After hypotheses make their way up to the classification of theories, they are considered true, though they are not necessarily true, but rather, have yet to be proven false (ie. evolution). The problem with contemporary literary hypothesis (as it should more properly be called) is that it is primarily concerned with textual interpretation as its standard of operation rather than attempting to hem into those facets of literature which may be objectively remarked upon, then formal-logically remarked upon, induced and deduced, rather than psychoanalytically conjectured or whimfully presumed.


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