A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.15: Know Where You’re Entering The Intellectual Conversation

I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter one. To have a look at other parts of the book, click here.

Concept 1.15. Know where you’re entering the intellectual conversation. When you chance upon a group of people at a social gathering having an animated discussion, your first impulse may not be to jump in half-cocked with a comment, but to listen. You want to discover where the conversation is at–the beginning, middle, or end–and at what level it’s taking place (serious, ironic, analytical, etc.). You want the lay of the land before participating–and this is true of intellectual conversation in college as well. So naturally the question becomes: what’s the basic lay of the land for intellectual conversation? This can be answered in broad terms as falling into six distinct categories: conversations in which mimesis, romanticism, structuralism, formalism, poststructuralism, or social text theorizing are taken for granted. To navigate this territory in conversation and writing, let’s flesh out each of these in turn.

First, what is mimesis? Mimesis is imitation before an audience of what is most essentially true, holding, as Shakespeare famously put it, “the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet Act 2.3). A tragic play, for example, reflects the turmoil of the human soul to an audience, a book is a mimetic artifact of an author’s thoughts, and the description of phenomena in a science text presumably has some correspondence to the real world.

That, in any case, is the theory.

But not everyone accepts the mimetic assumption about communication. Indeed, two of the broad takeaway claims frequently encountered in the contemporary era—the postmodern era—is that meaning is slippery and a great deal happens beneath awareness. Thus our communication is less mimetic–less reflective of reality and our intentions–than we suppose. As the British literary critic Frank Kermode observes, the central premise of all postmodern reasoning is that there is always more in a text than the author knows or intends–and this goes rather nicely with the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

But before killing off the author, truth, and mimesis (words reflecting accurately what is actually the case) as archaic, flawed concepts from bygone days, chew on this question raised by two philosophers in 1982 (Knapp and Michaels): if the following stanza from a Wordsworth poem magically appeared scrawled in beach sand in the wake of a receding wave, how would you interpret it?

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

In other words, were you to witness these words before you, apparently written via the action of water, how might you explain to yourself such a Twilight Zone moment? Absent an author, would the words mean anything? Your answer to that question is likely to reveal a good deal about your assumptions concerning mimesis and its importance to interpretation.

The evolution of Western thought in the light of mimesis. To orient oneself in the Western intellectual tradition generally, it helps to think of it as having passed through six periods or turns first sketched out by literary scholar M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp (1953): the classical, the romantic, the formalist, the structuralist, the poststructuralist, and the “social text.” When Abrams wrote, he hadn’t lived through the postmodern turns yet (the poststructuralist and “social text” turns), but these are the two readily discernible critical approaches that have emerged since the 1950s. And all six of them overlap and interact. None has ever really gone away. One way to explain their differences from one another is in their assumptions about mimesis and their relation to Aristotle’s famous rhetorical triangle (ethos, logos, pathos—speaker, message, audience).

The classical turn. Those who identify with the classical tradition (the tradition stemming from the ancient Greeks) concern themselves with the message (logos) sent to an audience (pathos) in its relation to the universe (the cosmos): does that message reflect the objective truth of matters? That is, does it point to reality as a whole—the cosmos—as it most truly is? If it does, the sender is to be praised for holding “the mirror up to nature.” Successful mimesis—which is, again, mirroring in language to an audience what is most essentially true—is taken in the classical tradition to be the highest end of all communication, displaying scientific, rhetorical, moral, and artistic excellence. If you believe that objective truth is, in some sense, “out there” in the world, and that communication ought to be consonant with it, your sensibilities are in accord with the classical tradition. 21st century scientists, for example, though living in a “postmodern” age, tend to take the classical tradition for granted. They assume, like the first scientists of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment assumed (Galileo, Newton, etc.), that they’re discovering true things about nature, not just constructing imaginative interpretations of it, and they think of themselves as communicating their findings to others clearly, as one might hold “a mirror up to nature.” But some thinkers, especially in the humanities, focusing on the ways that time, language, and culture functions, doubt vigorously these common sense mimetic assumptions, and this is what makes them 21st century “postmoderns” as opposed to ancient Greco-Romans, 19th century romantics, or 20th century modernists—all of whom shared the assumption that the truth is “out there” and real—it’s not relative—and can be communicated clearly, simply, and directly.

The romantic turn. Those who identify with the romantic tradition (the tradition stemming from 19th century romantics like Johann Goethe and William Blake) concern themselves with the messages they send in relation to their “souls”: does that message accurately reflect the inner truth of the speaker, writer, or artist? If so, it is worthy of praise. As in the classical tradition, the romantic tradition is mimetic (imitative), but the concern is not so much with the message mirroring outer nature, but rather with it mirroring the greater subjective truths and insights of the mind, imagination, and heart (inner nature) in interaction with the world. In this sense, it is phenomenalist (not excluding the experience of the subject from the truth of the matter at hand; what is true is not necessarily independent of what is subjectively experienced; indeed, to exclude the individual from the truth would be to miss something important).

The structuralist turn. No man (or word) is an island. That’s the structuralist’s insistence. Theorists in the structuralist tradition concern themselves with the field of relations. In linguistics, for example, signs (signifiers and signifieds, the words and the concepts they point to) become a great text—a field of signs—in which meaning does not reside outside of that field. Think of a dictionary in which words define words, and those words are defined by other words. Complete meaning necessarily disperses into the field of signs and is chased there. Think of ecology and the internet. What is the meaning of an organism or web page, but its location in a system of events in relation? Thinkers like Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin can also be thought of as bringing structuralist theories into their respective disciplines: for Freud, the id, ego, and superego structure the energies of the psyche; for Marx, the class struggle structures history; and for Darwin, natural selection structures life into a great and branching evolutionary tree. In each of these, the human individual, like a word in a dictionary, takes her origin and meaning from the logic, systems, subsystems, and structures in which she finds herself embedded. The truth is “out there” and can be communicated—traditional mimetic assumptions are in play—but it resides in the structure. So when somebody asks–“What’s really going on?”–the structuralist is looking to explain things in light of some underlying pattern, system of relations, or structure: “Her relationship with her father was strained throughout her life, and so she dates older men because she has daddy issues.”

The formalist turn. Those who identify with the early and mid-20th century formalist tradition concern themselves with the message alone, and are not particularly concerned with its mimetic representations of either outer or inner truths (outer or inner nature), or its relation to outer structures or history. In formalism, the message itself is to be treated as whole, beautiful, and interesting—a “well-wrought urn,” in the critic Cleanth Brooks’ phrase. Each message is a universe all its own, possessing an inner language and logic apart from that functioning in the cosmos or the message’s sender. The formalist intellectual turn is to be fascinated with a dab of paint on a canvas in relation to another dab of paint on the same canvas; or to notice the materiality of a piece of window-glass itself, and not just of what is seen through it; or to wish to study, not a poem’s history or author, or how it relates to other poems, but its rhyme scheme, visual appearance on the page, word repetitions, it’s inner logic, its form. Have a look online at paintings by modernists like Kandinsky, Klee, and Miro for a visual sense of the formalist turn. Formalism doesn’t necessarily reject classical mimetic assumptions, it just backgrounds them to concerns about a thing’s inner logic all by itself.

The poststructuralist turn. Like the structuralist, the poststructuralist is also concerned with fields of relations. But what divides a structuralist from a poststructuralist—and brings us to postmodernism—is whether or not to treat such fields as basically stable (like in a game of chess, with its spread-out board, accompanied by definite rules and determinate relations). Structuralists see history as largely playing out like a chess game. Interesting things happen, but within a structure governed by some law (perhaps discerned by a genius like Freud, Marx, or Darwin). By contrast, poststructuralists see things as playing out less lawfully, less predictably. Historical and chance contingencies are more in play. The poststructuralist foregrounds the gaps in the structures we purport to understand; the spaces where things can surprise. Think, for instance, of the gap depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between the finger of Michelangelo’s Adam and the finger of God. They almost touch, yet don’t, and in that gap something unexpected can intervene, transforming the meaning of the image. (A fly could land in the space, or a wasp could build a nest there.) Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” nicely anticipates the poststructuralist intellectual turn. When, at death, the character in her poem expects her life’s structure to close upon her quite meaningfully in that “last Onset—when the King / Be witnessed—in the Room,” she gets instead a fly “With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz / Between the light—and me.” That’s the Dionysian trickster to which the poststructuralist turns attention. The trickster is the contingency not anticipated; the margin that disrupts the center. Here’s Dickinson’s poem in full:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –


So if you’re a poststructuralist, you’re particularly inclined to notice that models, rather than serving clarity, can blind us to surprise; that things aren’t stable; that the meaning of words in dictionaries possess ambiguities and evolve; that over time signifiers (words, signs) subtly shift their meanings in relation to their signifieds (concepts)–and in relation to one another–and you conclude from this that language, and everything else, is in flux and historically contingent, including the structures and laws that seem to govern them. Thus to “hold the mirror up to nature” is, from the vantage of the poststructuralist, to take for granted a stable correspondence between stable language and stable reality that is, in fact, illusory. If you’re a poststructuralist, you believe that people in the mimetic traditions (classicism, romanticism, structuralism) are possessed of what might be called the mirror delusion. They’re under the spell of nouns, images, and things they take to be fixed; images they’ve constructed. But time and poststructuralists themselves have their ways of undoing things. They are both deconstructionist. Thus, even when a poststructuralist is not performing a deconstructive reading of a text or event, foregrounding its margins and instabilities, time itself is, in the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida’s phrase, “always already” doing so. The idea of structures being unraveled by unanticipated actors is also captured by Derrida’s surmise of his own work: “All I have done is dominated by the thought of a virus.” Thus the postmodern emphasis on becoming over being directs attention to what Derrida calls l’avenir, the time to come; the time which will break out of our models and structures, and is thus unpredictable. Derrida suggests that we can orient to l’avenir by being open, flexible, accepting, enacting toward it hospitality, as one might while on an LSD trip.

The “social text” turn. Those who identify with the “social text” turn in criticism have absorbed the insights of poststructuralists that the models and languages we overlay onto reality are problematic, but they nevertheless insist on making efforts to link models and languages, in a non-ironic fashion, to (left leaning) social causes. This is why they can be properly designated social text theorists: everything is a text (a field of relations), but we still want non-ironic, progressive social engagement. Duke University, for example, puts out an academic journal of socially engaged criticism titled, Social Text. So to be either a poststructuralist or social text theorist is what it means to call oneself “postmodern” as opposed to “modern” (formalist or structuralist) or “mimetic” (classical or romantic). But within postmodernism itself is this ongoing tension concerning mimesis: do the ways that people represent their inner lives and social struggles mirror accurately a fundamental inner and outer reality or not? Put another way, how do you keep faith with a romantic revolutionary like the poet Byron or a structuralist like Marx after absorbing Derrida (a poststructuralist)?  Another issue in social text theorizing is the relation of the individual to the field of history: is an individual determined in any significant way by biology? Does she have free will? Social text theorists sometimes downplay biology and free will, emphasizing the individual’s embeddedness in the fields of language and culture. “Biology is not destiny,” “nature doesn’t speak, we speak,” and “the personal is political” can seem, at times, to be very near to articles of faith among social text theorists. Except when they’re not. (Think about the above slogans in relation to the question of whether or not some people are born gay). Historian of science Bruno Latour complains that social text theorists are simply not coherent because they sometimes affirm and sometimes deny key assumptions. But in their defense, that’s because they’re trying to be a bit of everything (soulful romantics, Marxist structuralists, and Derridean poststructucturalists) at the same time. How do you square these circles?

Concluding thought. Before entering a conversation, consider asking what the dominant implicit or explicit intellectual stance of, say, a professor is from whom you are taking a class: mimetic, romantic, structuralist, formalist, poststructuralist, or social text. At what level are they posing a question or having a discussion? Also consider thinking of one’s intellectual life as a game of chess. When a writer or speaker makes a claim, offers a support for a claim, or engages in some other critical or rhetorical move, evaluate it as one might a move in chess and reflect on the following: there are lots of moves that could be made across the chessboard of intellectual life (classical mimetic, romantic, formalist, structuralist, poststructuralist, or social text ones). Why did this person make this particular intellectual move–and why now, at this moment? What does the person making this move want me to assume about models and languages in relation to the world, and what should be my move in response? What countermoves by others might I anticipate from my own move? Break the spell. See through the blue pipe smoke. Make your move from the vantage of knowing the intellectual terrain: “They say, I say.”

Writing 1.15.1. Read closely any sort of text (a prose essay, a story, an advertisement, a film, a poem), identifying its dominant sensibility and implicit assumptions about mimesis, romanticism, structuralism, formalism, poststructuralism, and social text theorizing. Would you say that the sensibility of the text has a stable, consistent, and coherent point of view—or is it unstable, contradictory, and confused? What implicit or explicit intellectual chess moves are being made, and what chess moves would you make in reply? Reflect on this in your journal, articulating to yourself your discoveries and insights.


Image result for postmodernism


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, atomism, critical thinking, education, edward feser, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, science, Uncategorized, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s