Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Some observations after reading up on literary theory

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During some further renovations in my building, I have made two prolonged visits to the city library. Specifically, I have downed about a third of “Literaturtheorie”* by Oliver Jahraus. While some of the contents are very interesting, my overall impression is not that favorable and I (a) see my less than stellar impression of the non-natural sciences re-inforced and (b) have gained a somewhat better understanding of what is going wrong in the academic system.

*Unsurprisingly, “Literary Theory”. I do not know whether an English translation of the actual work exists, or whether any such translation kept a literal version of the title.

Because I do not have a copy at home (and because I read with an intent on learning something about literary theory—not to write a non-literary critique), I must be a bit on the vague side. However:

  1. The text is filled with a type of specious, “non sequitur”-y reasoning that I have repeatedly observed in softer fields (and in e.g. some types of political and religious propaganda): Premises are stated that are not necessarily convincing and/or obviously represent personal opinion and/or only cover a particular perspective; based on these premises, one or several (il)logical jumps are made to reach some type of conclusion; this conclusion is fed into another series of (il)logical jumps; and at the end a thesis is stated as if proved beyond reasonable doubt. To boot, this often involves disputable use of different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word.* As usual, I have the impression that the respective author has a particular opinion, be it well-founded or not, knows that he lacks strong arguments, and tries to create a chain of somewhat plausible sounding arguments that will give the impression that he has proved his opinion—while in reality the argumentation borders on the nonsensical. Indeed, this type of argumentation is often so weak that it becomes impossible to attack, because there are more holes than substance—launching a counter-argument would be like punching fog.

    *Similar to jokes in the manner of “zero is smaller than one; zero is nothing; ergo, nothing is smaller than one; ergo, minus one is not smaller than one”. (But intended to be taken at face value and more subtle.)

    I do have a suspicion that there is a strong element of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” involved—that many nod in agreement in order to not seem stupid, believing there to be considerable substance in such texts that they simply are unable to see. In reality, the emperor is as naked as he seems.

    My earlier text on “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” mentions some similar problems. I also point to the Sokal hoax.

  2. One of the core ideas of the book seems to be that literary theory is mainly an attempt to answer the question “What is literature?”, which would raise some serious concerns as to whether it is worth bothering with as an academic field. Certainly, the question is a worthy one, and an analogous question is often asked in other fields; however, this question is typically just the first step, something answered to e.g. limit research to a sufficiently well defined or sufficiently small topic, or to ensure that various parties speak of the same thing. If it is allowed to be the dominant question of the entire field, then the field amounts to navel-gazing and self-referential orgies.
  3. At the same time, paradoxically*, he appears to see literary theory (and/or literary science, in general) as the epitome of scientific development, and seems to want to raise it to a model for other fields, including the natural sciences… In this, he deals more with a philosophy of science than with literary science. Not only is this nonsensical and presumptuous—it also amounts to turning a flaw into a virtue…

    *Thinking back, quite a lot of his claims are paradoxical, e.g. on the pattern “X is strong because of X having a weakness”.

    Moreover, the reasoning used was largely based on characteristics of softer fields, which makes a generalization to harder fields inappropriate. This point can be quite important in the larger picture, e.g. with an eye on post-modernism and its often outright misological take on science: What if this is largely simply a matter of inappropriate generalization, possibly through a lack of an understanding of the harder sciences? Notably, the more specific references made to the harder sciences were usually faulty or misleading, including a misrepresentation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.*

    *I do not remember the details, unfortunately, but it might have been a claim about observation of X changing the value of Y, which is not what the uncertainty principle is usually taken to imply. (Which is rather that a more precise determination of the value of X makes the determination and/or value of Y less precise.)

  4. A specific point that annoyed me was a lengthy discussion of “Theorien” (“theories”), where various conclusions were drawn that fall apart on his failure to separate between the concepts of model, theory, and hypothesis, randomly mixing aspects of each under what he referred to as “Theorien”. (I admit that the borders between the three can be both hard to determine and a matter of dispute, but mixing them in a blanket manner is going too far.)
  5. The language pushes the border of the acceptable, leaving me with the impression of someone trying to “sound smart” (not at all unusual in the softer fields). This includes odd choices of words, e.g. the Latin or English loan “evozieren” to imply “evoke”, where standard German would normally call for the more Germanic “hervorrufen”. (As in, hypothetically, “the text evoked strong feelings” and “der Text hat starke Gefühle hervorgerufen” vs. “der Text hat starke Gefühle evoziert”.) It also includes those pointless and pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs that are so common in e.g. texts on art or Marxism (see excursion). While the overall sentences used are nowhere near as bad as Spengler’s (cf. link above), there is some similarity e.g. in undue jumps within a sentence and undue complexity (even by my standards); he also tends to throw in words in a manner that can make the one word correctly parsable only when the reader is five words past it (somewhat in the style of a “garden-path sentence”).

If* this type of understanding of the sciences, lines of reasoning, lack of stringency, whatnot, is typical for the softer sciences, we might as well give up on them…

*Chances are that the “if” holds—this is not the first time I have made a similar experience.

Excursion on pseudo-intellectual hyphenated constructs:

Remarks: (1) I am a little uncertain whether these are common in English, but I have often seen them in both Swedish and German. Should they be uncommon, consider combinations like “abstrakt-biomorphe*” (“abstract-biomorph[ic]”?) and “zynisch-satirisch” (“cynical-satirical”?). (Both are taken from a German art catalog.) Note, in contrast, more legitimate examples like “manic-depressive” and “Marxist-Leninist”, where the introduction of a single word is highly sensible, the word is accepted domain terminology, and the word has spread into the general vocabulary. (2) Here, I have used a plain hyphen (“-”), consistent with most of the examples that I have seen. However, an n-dash (“–”) does seem more natural to me in many or most cases. (3) Note that the issue is not one of hyphenation, per se, but of a particular way of merging two (usually) modifiers to form a new unity, despite not naturally belong together (or having connection better expressed in a more conventional manner). In contrast, e.g., my above “different-concepts-represented-by-the-same-word” does not serve to introduce a new and “smart sounding” word but to make clear that these words are tightly bound together, in order to make parsing easier for the reader.

*The use of “biomorph” leaves me skeptical for other reasons, including the low understandability and the failure to use something more naturally German. Going by the components of the word, it likely means something shaped like something living, but that is very vague and almost necessitates the application to something which was not living to begin with (or the “biomorphy” would not be worth mentioning). However, it is possible that the meaning is detectable through context (I have not studied the catalog in detail) or that this is an established word within the art world.

These have puzzled me since my first encounter, almost certainly more than thirty years ago. At that time, I thought they were some type of domain specific terminology with precise technical meanings*—today, I lean towards expressions created to sound smart or a (typically highly misguided) stylistic means of expressing something. For instance, “cynical-satirical” is unlikely to have an established wider meaning, and likely expresses the same thing as “cynical and satirical” or**, on the outside, “satirical in a cynical manner”. With “abstract-biomorph”, I am even puzzled whether this would express something different than “abstract biomorph” (note space), because the most reasonable interpretation is something that is biomorph in an abstract manner (but possibly it is intended to signify something that is simultaneously abstract art and biomorph). In some cases, the construct appears to be just a means to contract two separate or semi-separate thoughts into one word, as with the hypothetical*** “I typed a text while drinking some water” vs. “I drinkingly-typingly produced a text”.

*Note that this is the case with e.g. “manic-depressive”.

**The introduction of an unnecessary ambiguity is a good reason to avoid such constructs. But for that, I might have given the specific special-case of “cynical-satirical” a pass for convenience, and I might very well have used a “cynical/satirical” myself (note the use of a slash, not a hyphen, which avoids the ambiguity).

***I did not find a specific real example on short notice.

Such manipulatively-confounding writings amusingly-annoyingly strike me as tauro-fecal.

Excursion on other visitors, group-study, etc.:
During my first visit, most other visitors (in the area where I read) appeared to be college age and actually appeared to study (and to do so individually). During the second, they seemed a few years younger and spent more time talking, giggling, and even (playfully) hitting each other. While some of the talking did revolve around some school topic (judging by the two sitting nearest to me), it is clear that these sessions were nowhere near as productive as they could have been. This matches my own experiences* well: Group-study is usually unproductive for good heads, nowhere near as helpful for poor heads as educators claim,** and tend to follow a tempo determined by the most bored and/or unfocused individual.*** To boot, these people disturb the more serious visitors.

*Which are limited through this very observation: I turned down requests for group-study as a matter of course, once beyond the age when they could be forced upon me by teachers.

**Because the poor heads would learn from the better heads, which is rarely the case: Having things explained brings less than understanding them on one’s own, and with group study the emphasis is shifted in the wrong direction.

***Similar claims often apply to group-work as well, often deteriorating into one or two persons doing most of both work and thinking, while the rest mostly free-load or even act to the detriment of the project.

Excursion on continued reading:
I have not yet made up my mind on whether to continue with this specific book, should I seek refuge in the library again. On the one hand, my overall impression is of a relatively poor return on the invested time; on the other, the parts that are likely to be most useful to me are still left. (With an eye on my attempts to be an author of fiction, my superficial formal knowledge of literary science, theories, criticism, …, is a potential weakness—albeit not one that is of critical importance.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 12, 2019 at 1:17 am

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  1. […] was originally motivated by (now ended) renovations in my building (cf. [1]) and, in a twist, a wish to escape excessive noise. My first visits were reasonably […]


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