Friday, August 10, 2012

Literary Theory is like Magic

When I think about literary theory it's a natural step for me to think about magic.  (When I think about philosophy, I think about science fiction.)  And that's because literary theory is the study of the sublime.  When I read great theorists, like Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach and Roman Jakobson, I can feel the wonder that they have, and how they're struggling so hard to answer the great question: Why is art - verbal, visual, musical - wonderful?  What is the great gift that it gives us?

Now these people work with the idea of language.  And language has two intersecting ways of building meaning.  There's narrative (syntax) which describes events and happenings and progress, and there's metaphor (semantics), the symbolism and meaning internal to each word and phrase.

I was reading Steven Rendall on Benjamin yesterday - for fun, and because I'm going to teach Benjamin in the coming semester and I should probably know a little more than my students do - and he was explaining Benjamin's attitude toward translation and toward quotation.  There was a lot of crazy complicated stuff, but what stuck out to me was the idea that quotation, in its strict word-for-word accuracy, brings the whole text that it's referencing into view.  And at the same time it strips the words from their context and offers them up as something universal, context free, unprosaic.  It gives them a claim to being truth - not contextual accuracy, but divine truth.

And every word in every language also has a claim to divine truth, because they can be used again and again, and still retain a core meaning, a function of communication - 'translatability' perhaps.  Isn't the fact that words have this quality of allowing for communication a wondrous thing?

In linguistics we're very against the divine wondrousness of language.  We like qualities like arbitratiness and recursiveness and compositionality.  We say no - words don't have any real meaning.  Their meaning is given by convention.  But what is convention?  Convention is the power of community.  And community is like the ocean.  Members of the community, you and I, are plankton.  We are alive.  We have agency.  But we are inside this huge and powerful creature, and we are tossed by its waves and directed by its moods.  But unlike plankton, we create community.  We are the origin of power and the victim of it.  (Judith Butler figured this one out.  Hardcore.)

My grandfather, Ric Masten, was a poet.  In a poem, he wrote about the voice of the hive.  There was no queen who directed things.  It was community, the buzzing and the closeness and the interconnectedness of the beehive that created this voice and gave the bees their instructions.  And this was what he believed God was.  That it was the feeling of not being alone.  Of being inside the ocean - for better or worse.

If language and divinity originate from the same source, isn't conventionality itself a divine quality?  If I can say a word and refer to something real and you can hear that word and refer to the same real thing - that's pretty amazing - that we can transfer a real thing between us.  Conventionality is caused by the fact of community.  And like all magic, it is raw power, not good nor evil, but inescapable.  It fills the world.  It creates the world.  And with wit and skill we wield it.

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