Sunday, December 05, 2004

more criticism

continuing with the discussion that is not yet a discussion begun yesterday on the place and function of criticism, i thought i would pass along a couple of excerpts from gian biagio conte's essay 'empirical and theoretical approaches to literary genre' (in The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics?, K. Galinsky (Ed.), P. Lang 1992). the first has to do with the huge success of deconstructionist criticism; i think the parenthesis in the middle, though relegated only to parenthesis, is perhaps the most telling statement herein (p.114) (all translations are those of glenn w. most):

As you certainly know better than I, hermeneutic criticism in its deconstructionist version is enjoying increasing success in many places, if for no other reason than because it answers to a widespread need. Many people seem in fact to believe that our relation with the classic texts is running the risk of becoming tired, static, unadventurous. The idea that these texts have shot all their bolts of meaning and have been definitively understood is truly frightening: we would then be left with sluggish readers on the one hand, and texts that are no longer interesting on the other. Deconstructionist hermeneutics responds to this crisis with a new movement that gives an undeniable impression of vitality: it draws its motto from a recognition that "there is no peace in the texts." As a struggle against conformism this is certainly positive (and also--but let us not say this too loudly--because it promises to provide a living for a larger number of interpreters, a promise all the more attractive for classicists, who are obliged to work on a finite body of material--a source of energy which cannot be renewed!). As a pre-deconstructionist critic, I wish these developments good luck; but I refuse to limit myself to a static and rigid vision of my own hermeneutic practice. I do not believe that literary criticism, as I understand and practice it, needs this medicine.

later in the essay, he slips into a place i cannot go, or where my miniscule brain will not allow me (to be fair, i allow the caveat that i am reading this in translation; perhaps there are nuances to the italian vocabulary and sense that i simply am not understanding in english):

What we should avoid is thinking of reality naturalistically, as though it were a simple datum. In fact, reality is nothing but a system of perceptions determined by cultural codes and is therefore itself a construction, even if one at a different level from literature.

am i really supposed to believe this? to take a very simple example--if i were to stand on top of a 20-story building and to send a collection of derrida's writings plummeting toward the earth, i am under the impression that it will fall at 9.8 m/s/s (excluding drag from wind, etc.)--but according to the foregoing, that would merely be a perception i had determined by a cultural code. forgive me for saying so, but i think it rather beyond the scope of a cultural code to create something like, say, gravity. i am confident that the book would fall at the same rate regardless of whether i dropped it in america, japan, or the hindu kush of the 4th century BC. and, at any rate, how do views of reality such as that cited above really help the critic in his task? how does it help us understand roman poetry? if the romans' view of reality is completely conditioned by their own cultural codes, now lost to those of us who do not have the (radically alien) lived experience of a roman of (say) the augustan period, why should we trick ourselves into thinking we're actually discovering anything meaningful about roman poetry? and if we're not, how is criticism anything more than a narcissistic exercise in self-gratification?

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