Monthly Archives: July 2007

The Descent of the Novel

While Darwinism still faces incredible and scientifically unacceptable skepticism as a naturalistic theory about the origins of living species, ‘natural selection’ and ‘struggle for survival’ keep being abused as any concept can be in the field of human sciences and, lately, even in the humanities, namely the theory of the literature. Indeed, a couple of recent books, Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism. Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (New York-London, Routledge, 2004) and a collection of studies about The Literary Animal. Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 2004), edited by Johnatan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, basically defined literature as an actual factor in the adaptation and natural selection of the human species. Both of them collected a good share of negative criticism, mostly due to the polemic overtones and the lack of documentation and/or consistency showed by many of their contributions. So-called ‘literary darwinism’ has even been criticized from a darwinist point of view by Steven Johnson, as it will happen in here in a partially different (and probably more radical) way.
The general problem with Literary Darwinism and The Literary Animal basically concerns the question underlying the collected contributions, that is “why” literature should be considered an “adaptive feature” and “how” literature “evolved” as an evolutionary asset. Indeed, all the «why» approaches, as «why» the mammals evolved the ear from a gill, «why» the horse evolved a single finger when he got four, deal with the actual outcomes as evolutionary goals, not just as the aftermaths of evolutionary processes relying on differential variation regulated by natural selection. Basically, self-proclaimed literary darwinists adopt a very deterministic approach to the Evolutionary Theory, never maintained by Darwin himself, offering a series of «evolutionary fairy tales», as Stephen Jay Gould might have very likely called them.
Moreover, the particular problem basically concerns the fact that evolution of speech is certainly a biological event, whereas the discovery of literature is definitely one of a cultural kind, as Alvin Lieberman wisely observed (The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing, in Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, ed. by R. Frost and L. Katz, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1992, pp. 167-178). Since literacy just arose some 10000 years ago, so that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens survived 99.9% of his evolutionary history without literacy. Whatever so called darwinian explanation of such a late feature of human culture, started some half a million years ago, looks pretty hazardous, even considering oral narratives as avatars of literary ones (why not Narrative Darwinism and The Narrative Animal, then?). Hence, instead of investigating causes as a starting point, that is looking for the “big bang of literature”, a more reasonable darwinistic approach to literature, originally maintained and recently developed by Franco Moretti (Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Verso, 2005), actually deals with the descent and evolution of literary forms, as the divergence of genres, through time and space, circumscribing the period of interest to the age of literacy or its segments so to look for turning points in the curve of an evolutionary process that is still running.
Indeed, storytelling can develop in infinite directions. Humans can tell circular, intertwined, very complicated, atemporal, parallel, out of topic, very confused stories, and usually they do. The western standard of storytelling could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats a narrative can take as a report of events in natural conversation. So, why the mainstream story format evolved into a linear, oriented and concluded narrative, a chain of events connected by consistent logical ties? In other words, why a modern reader who enters a bookshop finds himself surrounded by novels? Moreover, the novel itself could have evolved through his relatively short history into a different genre, ruled by some fully different principles of consistency. So, why it simply did not happened? Some very celebrated novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake failed to set a standard for English novels. Likewise, the extremely inventive Carlo Emilio Gadda’s ones failed doing the same for Italian literature. Basically, such ‘mutated individuals’, as many others throughout western literatures failed to breed and develop into new species. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure?
Some interesting clues may eventually come from a couple of papers about Letteratura e darwinismo (‘Darwinism and the Literature’), that Ugo Angelo Canello published in Padova in 1882, while Lessona, Canestrini e Saccardo were still busy translating in italian the complete works of Charles Darwin for the UTET publisher, based in Torino (1872 and 1890). The debate on the evolutionary theory was spreading all around Europe, when Canello, one of the early pioneers of Romance Philology, openly referred to Darwin’s Descent of the Man while contesting the romanticist esthetic of the «arts for the arts», that is the Schlegel’s assumption of art being unnecessary and just aimed to please, adopted in Italy by the very celebrated literary critic De Sanctis. Essentially, Canello adopted a positivistic point of view, based on Darwin’s Descent of the man. He defined the literature, and the arts in general, as a purposeful evolutionary tool, meant to establish the benchmarks of the sexual fitness and reproductive success.
In Canello’s view, visual arts define the standards of male and female beauty, that is their effectiveness in the natural and cultural environment and the expected ability to ensure the survival, growth and social achievement of the offspring. In other words, the bodies painted and sculpted by artists through the human history of the arts have to be considered as the true indicators of the ideal partner’s genetic fitness.
The evolutionary effectiveness of the literature is more remarkable into the field of the human ethology. The literature have to be considered as a device aimed to describe, to show, and usually to worship the selective behaviors that allow the establishing of the family, regarded as the milestone of any human society. The typical topic of novels, epics, plays and fiction in general is the struggle for sexual reproduction, according to the fact that narratives are about the differential selection of behaviors ensuring the reproductive success.
Canello sketched two different kinds of narrative plots. The former, leading to an happy ending, is involving a young lady and a young man that usually go through all the natural barriers, the cultural stakes and the social obstacles before earning the legal and righteous validation of their «natural ambition» to marriage and breeding. The latter tells the story of a badly assorted couple, in terms of age or social difference, their relationship typically being ruined by an affair with a a third person, better matching the needs of the male or the female individual of the married couple. Adopting an ecological approach to ethics and aesthetic, Canello rejects the typical account defining as moral and good just the first kind of plots. Rather, he considers both as samples of right and wrong partnerships, aimed to show, warn, eventually rectify the sexual choice and, as an outcome, the sexual selection.
Last but not least, Canello assessed the authorial awareness as a totally unnecessary asset. Even if the authors of the novels, the epics, the plays are just aimed to please by their works, or to show how life is, just doing it they indirectly (pleasing) or directly (describing) show how the sexual selection works or should work. So, according to Canello’s the arts are involved in the evolutionary process, suggesting the individual behaviors that ease the choose of the better partner. Indeed, Canello gave a terrific clue, assuming that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens is «per eccellenza un animale imitativo», a sort of ‘mimetic mammal’. In sum, Canello stated that literature, as the visual arts and every other symbolic activity, could eventually benchmark the male and female prototype of reproductive success. In his view, imitation, a key-feature of human nature, acts as a major player into the evolutionary process well known as the sexual selection. Indeed, Canello circumscribed the «usefulness» of the literature to sexual selection, assessing poetry and narratives as devices aimed to establish patterns of icon worshiping, so to stress and emphasize the selective advantages of some physical and cultural set of characters in the struggle for the reproduction.
Canello’s approach, a good sample of how positivism could have applied to literatures regardless of History even in the 2oth century, may somewhat match intuitions about an ecological theory of the novel. Indeed, the novel typically blends body-part related and general aspecific events, giving a deeper insight of character’s peculiarities, his strengths, his flaws, the way he or she or it plans and performs throughout a whole story. Every single reader of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary knows the leading character of the novel much better than his own wife or partner. Likewise, hardly somebody knew his partner or husband better than Pierre, after reading Tolstoy’s Война и миръ (War and Peace). The same can be said of every single protagonist of every single good novel. Narratives and other literary kinds as the experimental novels or the simply sloppy ones, that went all the way to extinction maybe failed to blend perception and action, emotion and evaluation so to establish patterns of icon worshiping as valuable and easy-to-grab as the ones provided by the novels that survived, bred and found spots into the ‘shelves of fame’ of literary canons.

Critical Disclaimers

Positivism and the Humanities
The way Positivism incarnated into literary studies led to the History of the Literatures, being History conceived as the only positive scientific basis humanities could rely on. History of the Literatures basically required Titles, Authors, Publishers, Dates, so to the identify single literary objects ready to be placed into linear, progressive series, moving from simple forms to more complex and accomplished ones. Unfortunately, History resulted in a questionable and debatable researching field as any other one featured by the humanities can be. Besides, literary works keep being labeled as given ‘positive’ units, as if the ‘positive’ series of events leading from the origins of a given literary system to its peak and its consequent decline could explain their ‘meaning’.

So ‘real’ that is not
‘Modern’ literary criticism established Realism as an ideological feature in order to calibrate the progressing scale, perpetuating the aristotelian mimesis as the crucial feature modulating the referential process. Since the idea that language ‘naturally’ ‘represents’ ‘reality’ started being seriously questioned, classic realism resulted in a theory based on very shaky foundations. Unfortunately, post-positivist theories of the novel reacted in a very compulsive way, basically abolishing reference as an actual issue criticism should deal with.

Auto-referring to nothingness
Indeed, structuralism established Text with capital ‘T’ as the one and only authority. Consequently, literary works have been evaluated just as texts referring to other texts, intertextuality becoming the ‘cool’ thing to do for a while. Since form and structure imply a given symbolic basic constituent of a story, structuralist criticism resulted in a perpetual and desperate quest for primitive textual units, aimed to identify the base-brick of a story. Unfortunately, components are an hypothesis, any part of a story being not an universal symbolic unit encoded into a given textual feature. That’s why the whole doesn’t correspond to the sum of his components, that is the novel will always be exceeding the sum of its episodes, chapters, paragraphs, phrases, sentences, words, syllables and single letters.

Close reading causes blindness
Even approaches to the novel relying on close reading developed sort of a fetishism of the text, relying on the assumption that the text and the novel can be identified as the very same thing. Unfortunately, getting closer to the text doesn’t actually make the poem or the novel any closer, since literary works are not just texts written or printed on paper pages, folded into a square-shaped object called a book. Therefore, when it comes to the understanding of the novel there is nowhere criticism can get close to, since there is no way to get close to something that is not even dimensional at all. That’s why the metaphor of close-reading is definitely out of place and the procedures it actually addresses are actually ineffective.

Deconstructing Deconstructionism
Correctly assessing theories of ‘general meaning’ as a product of modernist ideology, deconstructionism disassembled the novel by approaching it from multiple critical angles, each one showing partial coherence and cohesiveness. In the process, ‘Realism’ has been deconstructed as an ideological feature feeding modernism aim to find general ‘truth’. Unfortunately, Deconstructionism can be deconstructed as well as an ideological feature feeding post-modernist aim to find local truth. Indeed, the bare concept of ‘part’ qualifies as an arbitrary feature as well. Since you start questioning unity, you can’t stop till you reach infinite, given that every literary text can be partitioned in infinite possible ways. So, partial angles are not more attainable than the general ones. Probably literary criticism hit rock bottom with deconstructionism, in the desperate effort to perpetuate the traditional divisio operis as the typical reading strategy. In this sense post-modernism looks pretty much as a modernist-dependent fashion of pre-modernism. Not to mention the fact that, deconstructing everything, deconstructionists end up asking the very questions they are supposed to answer, being often even payed for that.

The Text before the Text

Since the Karl Lachmann’s edition of De rerum naturis, through Paul Maas Textkritik and further into Lachmannian method inquiries and critical assessments, The Method states that the critical edition of a given text imply the previously acquired knowledge of every source defining the extent of the textual tradition concerning the literary work that is about to be published, say a poem, a novel, as written documents of any kinds. Any lack of knowledge may imply missing of given lectiones singulares or shared erroneous ones causing an incorrect evaluation of the relations connecting the various textual sources. That’s why any lachmannian textual reconstruction process involves a special feature called recensio, aimed to collect any known, and possibly some still unknown, source of the text about to be published. In lachmannian terms, any edition based on a limited evaluation of the textual tradition simply can’t be be considered critical at all. Since the editor has to check and collate all the sources of the literary work he is about to publish, the recensio represents a primary issue of the critical process. So primary he hardly wonders what he is actually doing while he is collecting his sources.

Basically, the recensio is conceived and practiced as a very simple activity, based on the consultation of catalogues and a more accurate direct evaluation of the items most suitable to be taken into account as sources of the poem, the romance or epic narrative or whatever the editor is about to study and publish. It looks like such an empirical process actually relies on the «family resemblances» described by Wittgenstein in his Philosophische Untersuchungen. In facts, the editor applying to recensio is absolutely committed to the identification of similarities. This commitment drives to the recollection of similar objects which have «something in common», in terms that they have some parts in common. As Wittgenstein could have eventually said in such a case, the editor “feels” the similarity, he could easily “show” it, explaining that: “here it is, can’t you see it? It’s similar!”. Empirical approaches as the one suggested by such an utterance are the ones which editors actually assume while working on the critical edition of ancient and medieval literary works, say poems or narratives of various kind. Indeed, editors categorize sources as individuals belonging to the same family without even wondering how similar two or more texts have to be to be considered different versions of the same poem, novel, whatever and what is the symbolic level the “quest for similarity” applies to.

In general, similarities are scaled on the various symbolic layers of the textual encoding. Sentence-length or more extensive and consistent parts shared by two or more sources, as shared special words, like proper or geographical nouns, can trigger some valuable analogies. Even metrics and other non-linguistic textual features, as the editorial layout of medieval manuscripts, may be taken into account as control conditions, even though different sources will be never classified as exemplars of the same tradition just  because they are copied on similar books or they just share a metrical pattern, as it happens so often, for example, in middle-age Provençal, French, Italian love lyrics. In general, two or more different documents are considered as belonging to the same textual tradition if and only if they share similarities in respect to parts and/or individual special clues and markers that are pretty uncommon into other items carried by the catalogs. The minimum scaling is generally set on the sentence-length similarity, but the very meaningful matches usually involve the sharing of more extensive parts, as phrases and, of course, phrase-sequences.

This bottom-up approach, based on analogy and induction, fits pretty well the basic needs of an editor, as soon as he tries to establish the full set of sources that have to be taken into account for collatio, the process leading to the identification of common errors. At the same time, the complete lack of any deeper theoretical insight causes the editor to bypass a very crucial issue, that is a tragic, huge aporia. Indeed, the critical edition of a given literary work is aimed to investigate the textual tradition in order to attain the archetypal configuration.
Besides, the recensio is supposed to identify the sources a given literary work in order to define the extent of its textual tradition, setting up the critical investigation of the archetypal text. Before manuscripts are connected into a stemma codicum, before errors are found, even before sources are simply collated, a stable configuration of the text arises leading the editor throughout the most crucial part of his work, the recollection of sources by means of similarity-pattern recognition. Basically, while collecting his sources, the editor develops a full representation of an exemplar, that is a “control text” he relies on, he worships, when it comes to check for similarities.

This huge aporia, embedded into the basics of the lachmannian method, evidences an epistemological dilemma, a too big and complex one to be solved into the disciplinary boundaries of Textkritik. That is probably why the state-of-the art on this crucial topic is a blank slate. Neither the most analytical approach to Textkritik provides appreciable hints on the subject, probably because philology can’t answer questions as: how can an editor look for something he still does not know what it really is? Or, what is he looking for when he starts his recensio of the sources that may actually be referred to the “same” literary work? How does he assesses two different documents as sources of the same literary work? Why doesn’t he simply classify them as different ones? What is the special feature triggering the process of pattern recognition that leads to the identification of some sources as “same” and others as “not same”? Where does the editor sets the «upper» limit of the simple quotation, and where does he set the «lower» one leading to the recognition of a stand-alone literary feature, substantially independent from the rest of the textual tradition he is actually inquiring? Brief, if he hasn’t still proceeded to collatio, error recognition, elaboration of the family tree, what is he comparing to what? What does he categorize as a text? And finally, what a text basically is?

A correct answer to this set of questions requires a different approach to the text, to be regarded as a plastic feature, that may be described both as the individual and the family it belongs to, that is as a category and, at the same time, as an object to be categorized into.

(to be continued)

Ecological Art: People and Objects

Some artworks by Mark Jenkins exerting action potential, according to ecological accounts of perception based on Gibson’s Theory of Affordances…


1. Typical ‘sitting affordance’ of a trunk
performed by a fictile person, that is a puppet.


2. Actual affordances of a sidewalk and ball
performed by a ‘fictile’ child,
exerting the action potential featured by
the ‘real’ landmark and object
by means of a puppet.


3. Fictile dogs exerting action potential
entailed by rubbish dump


4. fictile ducks exerting action potential
entailed by sidewalk chute.


5. The real guy smiles at the fictile one
caught in the typical gesture of
‘asking a cab driver for a ride’.


6. objects may suggest potential affordances
based on cultural references,
as the crucified puppet
on top of the lightpole


7. basic (even tho pretty much unusual) affordance of a pole
performed by a baby-puppet


8. culturally-tagged affordance of a pole
performed by a grown-up puppet


9. ‘real’ mom instinctively protects her curious daughter
while walking next to the drop-out sitting on the floor,
that is a puppet exerting the ‘sitting affordance’ of the sidewalk,
socially-labeled as the distinctive tract
of an homeless person asking for a coin.


10. A ‘real’ person checks the sitting drop-out
trying to figure out if he is ‘real’


11. Fictile person suggesting
body-part related affordance of his arm.
The question that very likely arises
about the missing part is ‘where is it?’


12. fictile human objectified