XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 8, 2016 - 5:21pm

...or how Diaz and Scratch learned to stop worrying and love drunken philoso-bingo.

This is just to keep me and Jose from tying up Nathan's thread about shared snippets of wisdom with our long diatribes of confusion. Though not to be exclusionary, if anyone else wants to jump in, you're more than welcome.

Oh, diatribe. (drink)

No, I think there is a definite separation between authorial intent and what is inferred by the audience.

Well, actually that's the "having to choose between the two" I was referring to... and perhaps it was my turn to be too loose with my words when referring only to the danger in prioritizing authorial intent. I don't think we can so easily separate the two. What I like about your schema is that it takes on the inference from the culture, and the intentions of the artist as both inherent parts of the structure. It feels weird to come out at the end and look at the product of the system and then split them apart again. To say that the artist's intentions in regard to his interaction with cultural inferences is a separate question than the cultural inferences from an artist's intentions... that doesn't seem a sensible distinction. Or at least a somewhat self-defeating one, to create a system that combines artistic intentions with artistic inferences in a unified dialectic (drink) progression, and then talk about them as two separate entites when you've just established them as being one in the same. Especially on the level of individual works as opposed to artistic movements or modes.

But just because he did not enjoy what he produced does not mean that the public has any obligation to concur. It is two separate arguments that are asking two very different things.

Yes. Whether or not an artist enjoyed a piece of work and whether or not an audience enjoyed a piece of work are separate questions,but are also both separate from the piece as a product of this schema you are developing. Now I'm struck by Melville's letter to Hawthorne, "People think that if a man has undergone any hardship, he should have a reward; but for my part, if I have done the hardest possible day's work, and then come to sit down in a corner and eat my supper comfortably -- why, then I don't think I deserve any reward for my hard day's work -- for am I not now at peace?" or perhaps Mencius speaking to King Hûi of Liang, 

The king said, 'Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand lî, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?'

Mencius replied, 'Why must your Majesty use that word "profit?" What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.

Now I understand why we want to talk about art in terms of enjoyment. Our modern utilitarian point of view has shifted these discussions towards framing this in terms of pleasure: "I may not know art, but I know what I like," we have our guilty pleasures in "bad" television shows, and if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then we don't have to justify any claims beyond, "It's my eye." It's unassailable, but also indefensible. I understand that our culture gives us this notion that the purpose of the artist is to produce art, not explore art. That we regard the artist as a worker like any other, with a job; to make things that are beautiful for us.

And I acknowledge that if we're going to hold the socially constructed aspect of art as still a necessary part, then it is something that we will have to contend with. Though I am probably mostly only reacting to the characterization you seem to be aiming at. If we are to talk about throwing our whole souls and beings into destroying our pasts and reconstructing our futures, why is enjoyment the measure of the end product? Unless we again couch this in terms of love. I would be willing to go along with a notion of love that qualifies enjoyment for painful/destructive processes as means to an end, or for the sake of a medium that is incapable of returning that love, or in the face of a culture that turns a blind eye to artistic acheivement in favor of pleasure and utility. But then we have to untangle what it means to love words as a medium from what it means for words as a medium to be merely the means to an end that we love. (Does that qualify as Kant? Drink!)

Did Tchaikovsky produce what he intended?

I thought we weren't going to talk about teleology (drink) :) But that was my point about not using teleology in this scheme. Not that I'm confused about why teleology would be "not a good thing" but because the word itself is slippery. Yes, it comes to us from the Greeks, but it comes to us only meaning "intentional" or "designed". It takes thinkers like Aquinas to use this concept (admittedly, probably through Cleanthes) to engage in cosmological questions, to get the heavily burdened "teleology as god's plan for the world" that we still mostly have today.

From the S.E.P. (a fantastic resource I cannot recommend enough):

Design-type arguments are largely unproblematic when based upon things nature clearly could not or would not produce (e.g., most human artifacts), or when the intelligent agency is itself ‘natural’ (human, alien, etc.) 

So to say that Guernica seems designed, or intentional, or purposeful and so had a designer/intention/purpose is a teleological argument and is not controversial. We just point at Picasso, "yeah, here he is." The extra baggage that comes with the word (again probably through Aquinas and Cleanthes) is when it is used abductively to explain the natural world. And I think you are right to push against it (which seems odd that you'd want to bring it into the discussion in the first place) but to go the extra step and deny teleology in art because "...teleology is an unknown. That we never know the ends. Can a person know the mind of god? Can an artist know what he will produce?" seems to be confusing the baggage of the term with its definition.

And to unpack this further; the robust teleological arguments for the natural world also do not purport to know god's ends, to know the ultimate design. Our inability to know the divine will (or I suppose in Nietzschean terms, the divine mind?) is an integral part of the teleological argument. So if that ignorance doesn't hurt intelligent-design theory for nature, why would it hurt intelligent-design theory for art? Just because we can't know (with the hard-line, determinative certainty you seem to be aiming for) what end Picasso would acheive when he started Guernica, and I would include Picasso in that 'we', doesn't mean we can claim he didn't intend or design the painting. Or I suppose most relevant, that the end he was aiming for wasn't an eleven by twenty-five foot piece of canvas with oil paint on it.

Because the opposite of teleology is not acting through will in spite of the limitations of the mind. The opposite of teleology is randomness, unintentional or coincidental, at best, a product of natural processes.

But the main reason not to bring up teleology is because it is a big old ball of problems that has sidetracked us away. Silppery words for slippery slopes... or something.

Are all Picasso paintings perfect?

Picasso was the first to note that everything he painted was not a masterpiece. In a particular anecdote; a dealer purchaces a painting, seemingly signed by Picasso. He brings it to Picasso's studio and asks him to verify it. Picasso looks up from the piece he's working on (he never stopped working, hence the plates) and says, "no, that's a fake." A few months later the dealer comes back with another painting, seemingly signed by Picasso, and asks him to verify it. Picasso looks up and says, "no, that's a fake." The dealer is flabbergasted (this anecdote is really just an excuse to use the word 'flabbergasted') and says, "But how can that be? I saw you working on this painting the last time I was here." Picasso replies, "yes, I often paint fakes."

All this really to say that these relationships are complicated. If your ultimate goal is to draw a line of separation between "writers must love words" and "writers must love what they do with words" then that is what you have to go after. You can have all the idealistic, Nietzsche-backed reasons for wanting people to follow you into that divide, and find the future of their art in the ruins caused by breaking their assumptions apart... but until you create that divide, I don't think this argument can get very much farther. But to get you started on that path, you do have to tackle Eichenbaum, and Jakobson, (and perhaps Bakhtin) as well as Knapp and Michaels. All of these have claimed, fairly conclusively, that that divide does not exist. What words are (especially in fiction), is what we do with them. I think the post-structuralists would go even further and say there is nothing deeper, because it is already an infinite chain of signification. (Bakhtin, post-structuralists, signification... drink drink drink, I win. liver loses...)

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 8, 2016 - 10:34pm

Okay, I think we have 98 ideas running through all of this. Let's try to focus our effort instead of drinking ourselves to death. 

And good call moving the thread. 

What are we talking about? I will concede that my initial idea went into "what the fuck are you talking about" territory. I think, now, this can be our focus.... Until you chime in. We can go all Hegelian (drink) with a thesis, antithesis, synthesis model. But I would like to have this question in mind.....

Question: What will lead to producing great writing?

I would like to remove the aspect of the audience from the argument, or the reception it receives. For now...

While, we can use art for examples, let us try to use writing examples. If our question is for writers, let us use writers as models, as much as possible. Or at least make sure the analogy definitely ties back into writing.

My initial argument had this question in mind. So, a writer having a love for words is great, but it is not the end of the discussion. We can ask,

Why is a love for words not enough?

What else must we have?

Do we have any firm examples? Or must we only work at a meta-level for now?

What is great writing? 

All of this is going to force me to do a shit-ton of research and I haven't taken a literary theory course, so this is going to be painful. My background is Ancient Greeks (Platonic), Modern epistemology (Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume), perspectivism (Nietzsche), existentialism (Sartre, Kafka), feminism (de Beauvoir & Yasbir Puar), theory of mind (Paul Churchland, T.S. Kuhn), evolutionary theory (ethics, Darwin, Dawkins, Dennet) contemporary epistemology (Clifford, James, Wittgenstein, Russell, Dewey and some really recent like Michael Williams and Nicholas Tebben) (mostly pragmatists, but a couple naturalists, like Kornblith). I have some other stuff sprinkled in. I see my biggest flaw will be taking bits and pieces of different philosophy to try and create something cogent (drink). I have an understanding of the typical modernist, post-modernist, Brit Lit stuff for literature. Most of my English degree was writing, mostly focused on rhetoric and different tools for writers, like understanding plosives and asyndetons and polysyndetons. But I have a solid foundation in research and I still have access to my schools JSTOR account, so there's that.

I write all of that so you know where I will be coming from. Just so we can try and stay on the same page. Feel free to tell me to read something, I go and read it, then I come back with interpretation, and we move forward. 

And all of this is contingent on you actually wanting to delve into the depths of this entire holy-fuck (drink). 

Let me know.....but if you're game, the question has been asked. OR, we can just ramble on and see what sticks?

 

 

 

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 10, 2016 - 1:31pm

Sure, if you want to take a step back and refocus, I'm down.

Question: What will lead to producing great writing?

Oh good, let's start with the easy questions :)

But there actually was a straight-forward and simple answer to this question, once upon a time. We have just broadly rejected that answer for the past 100-150 years, on various grounds, for both good and ill. And we could talk about it (I'm sure I won't be able to resist referring to it further myself) but rather than opine a nostalgia for an education system we never had, I agree we should tackle this question as contemporarily as possible, with the tools we do have.

While, we can use art for examples, let us try to use writing examples. If our question is for writers, let us use writers as models, as much as possible. Or at least make sure the analogy definitely ties back into writing.

Sure... I'll certainly try. I must admit to a slight phenomenological (drink) tendency (as I'm sure you can tell from my last rambling post) that I tend to follow my insights where they lead, and then work backwards from there to find relevance. But I'm sure between us we can find suitable literary examples to support our arguments.

I would like to remove the aspect of the audience from the argument, or the reception it receives. For now...

Well... okay. I can go with you on this to a point. Especially if we're trying to steer away from discussions of enjoyment or utilitarian notions... which I think we should. But I feel I have to point out that art in general (and this goes doubly for writing specifically) is conventional. It only has meaning in context, and that context is necessarily cultural.

This isn't to say that there is nothing interesting to say about the artist's work in isolation of its context, or indeed that we haven't already said some interesting things along these lines. But this is no small concession for our discussion to follow.

And indeed, it feels like we are already going to overrun that line before we've even gotten to this first batch of questions, just by keeping our guiding principle in mind: What will lead to producing great writing? Great for what? Great in comparison to what? These are perhaps even more basic questions that we may have to tackle first, especially if we can't refer to the culture that produced the work. And if you want to restrict this (at least for now) to just the artist and their relationship to the work, we aren't left with much to work with. I suppose we could refer to the artist's judgment, or we could try to find some objective things to say about the work itself... but both of these are problematic in the long run. It seems we either end up prioritizing authorial intent, or trying to derive oughts from is's.

Or we have to untangle the audience from the culture... which could be interesting, but it feels a little far afield from our discussion so far.

Why is a love for words not enough?

What else must we have?

For being a great writer? Well, I suppose for the same reasons that a love of food is not enough for being a great chef. Or love of baseball is not enough to be a great baseball player. So... lots of things. And I'm not opposed to trying to enumerate some of these things, but this feels like a moving target, and possibly (depending on the level of resolution we're looking at this from) an infinite list. But if you have some things in mind, I'll certainly give some input.

Do we have any firm examples? Or must we only work at a meta-level for now?

Well, if we reject the artist's claims that love of words is necessary (and by the same move would also have to reject examples of writers who say love of words is unnecessary), and we reject our own, and other people's response to works (as we're still bracketing off audience response and cultural inferences) then I'm not sure what other evidence we could point at. But the problem with relegating this to a 'meta-level' question is that it makes it functionless. We may indeed create a beautifully cogent, concise, complete system for describing how to produce great writing, but if it doesn't actually refer to anything in the world, then it doesn't actually refer to anything in the world. Do you have any suggestions of what we could use as examples?

What is great writing?

Again, this is a value judgment. So either it's teleological (great for something), or it's inferred culturally (great compared to something)... or likely both. I mean it is the million dollar question, and I hope we can get to it at some point, but with the stipulations we are establishing, we may not be able to talk about it yet.

All of this is going to force me to do a shit-ton of research and I haven't taken a literary theory course, so this is going to be painful.

Here's something to get you started: Paul Fry's Intro to Lit Theory Survey Course, with reading lists in the course materials. And it may be painful for you... it was pointed out to me that Fry's voice is similar to Don Knotts, and now I can't unhear it. So I guess it would depend on how you feel about Mr. Furley, as now I have done the same for you :)

I see my biggest flaw will be taking bits and pieces of different philosophy to try and create something cogent (drink).

It would ill behoove me to criticize this approach, being so near to my own... except for the end goal of something cogent. Philosophical projects are (for me at least) best understood as tools for investigation, analysis, and interrogating the world. So I don't foresee, or even desire, an end result of a cogent whole comprised of all these disparate and often contradictory parts. So if your 'something cogent' is like a toolbox, then great. I have no concerns for that at all. But if your 'something cogent' is like a meta-multi-tool, some single device that can contend with the infinitude of issues the world presents for us... I suspect you may run into problems.

And all of this is contingent on you actually wanting to delve into the depths of this entire holy-fuck (drink).

Well, you are certainly not going to ward me off with tales of how deep this may go. As long as the conversation is as interesting and cordial as we have both been able to be so far, I'll continue with you. Indeed, I fully expect these depths to be bottomless.

but if you're game, the question has been asked. OR, we can just ramble on and see what sticks?

Both!

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 11, 2016 - 9:19am

Brilliant.

I'm going to start with something I picked up from Arthur C. Danto's What Is Art?. And, unfortunately, I will instantly go back on my request that we try to limit the use of other mediums besides writing, but I assure you it will come back. I beg you to read this article, which is only two pages. I hope it will set the stage for us.

http://mysite.pratt.edu/~morourke/common/Readings/DantoTransfiguration.pdf, or simply find Danto's piece, "Works of Art and Mere Real Things.

I'll wait...... (Jeopardy theme playing)

While this article deals with paintings, I think we can come up with a parallel in writing. In order to do so, we continue with a thought experiment.

We have developed a computer that generates word combinations. It uses all languages and all punctuation. Given enough time (infinite amount of time), each and every great story will be created by this computer. We somehow have the ability to sort through this seemingly infinite amalgamation and retrieve what we want from it. So, when Cormac McCarthy presents to us Sunset Limited, we can retrieve the computer's version and place it next to his. Your next story, my next story, every story that we painstakingly create, is then placed next to the computer's version. So, no matter what anyone produces, we have an exact duplicate created in a completely different way.

Then, we get a third version by means of copy. Another person, grabs the copy from the writer, takes it into the next room, types it out, and then that copy too is placed next to the writer's version and computer version. So, we have three copies.

Obviously, we will not be able to determine which is which. Yet, we know one is art, one is forgery, and the last is pure chance.

What makes the one art?

I think by delving into this thought experiment, we can begin to see that authorial intent does matter. (This is not to say that I think you said intention doesn't matter. I just want to solidify the assumption.) If the writer produces something that they like, but it wasn't their true intention, then we must, I think, respect that decision. Then it is not art. It is a work in progress, it is unfinished.

So, I think by going through this, I think we can certainly state that an author's intent is not only relevant, but of paramount importance when determining if writing can make it to the table to be considered great writing.

 

This does bring up another issue. A digression if you will. That is of the happy accident. I hold that the happy accident is one in which the author writes something, does not believe it to be complete, shows it to others, and they bestow upon it great praise. The author, happy that it is accepted and praised, no longer considers it "in progress", but it is now a finished product.

This is a difficult issue. This shows the transitory nature of artistic intent. Was the work complete, unknown to the author? Another question, was the intent merely to receive praise? Therefore, anything produced that managed the right reception would be considered what the author intended. But in this case, going back to the thought experiment, any of the three versions would have received the same admiration. Does this negate anything? Must the author be bold, nay--courageous enough to say, "Et voila!" (there it is), to bring closure to the process. Or is authorial intent as multifaceted as everything else in our world? Is the finished product and the reception all part of the same package? Or is it merely parallel desires that may influence each other, but are not of the same stuff?

I'm going to stick to my gun and say that reception does not complete work. It is merely abandoned. If the artist wishes to call it a complete work only after it has been accepted, then it should not be considered art, it is merely pandering. (Yes, I fully expect you to destroy this).

I guess that means we should bring up the opposite. Yet, what is the opposite of the happy accident? Van Gogh? Mr and Ms Anonymous?

So, for now....

Great writing is...

A) A product of authorial intent.*

B) Not produced by accident.*

C) Not dependent on reception.

D, etc.) TBD....

Therefore, E) it is Great Writing.

*Should I combine these? A product of authorial intent and not produced by accident.

{[(A * ~B) * ~C] * (D * ~D)} ^ E

* = and, ~ = not, ^ = then, v = or, =  = if and only if, (I'm horrible at logic. But I'll never get better if I don't try.)

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 11, 2016 - 12:38pm

And I think we can table the discussion on the value judgement of "Great Writing." It will be the place where all of this crumbles. Let us for the moment proceed with our idealistic idea of great writing that we each have in our own heads, as of yet, undefined. Let us presume it is intuitive, and that when we read it, we just know, "hey, this is great writing."

No, as I write this, it all falls apart. Dammit!!!!!

fuck, okay, great writing, what is great writing is a bullshit statement.

What will lead to great writing? Maybe...

What are things that writing, that is to be considered art, should have in common? No, this a question geared to fit nicely with my argument. Fuck me.

I like my argument, I think it does well with removing reception as a measuring stick for writing. It places the onus back on the author, and what was their intent. Only the author can know what they truly intended. So, there must be personal honesty with ones self.

Dammit. I'm all over the place. I'm much better at deconstructing arguments.

"What is Great Writing." It is something that is produced with intent, not produced by accident, not dependent on reception, (I will say nothing of enjoyment because I think there must be some enjoyment for it to finally achieve that Great mark).....

These all seems like qualifiers on the writer and very little to do with the actual writing. *flips desk, sets it on fire, sets self on fire, enjoys the scenery*

Fine, you're right. Where do we start? Fuck, what are we trying to accomplish?

Perhaps, the best we can achieve is to force the writing community to ask better questions concerning what great writing is. But who's asking and what are they saying? Saying that it's based on reception is akin to saying based on profit. Profit as the bench mark of writing. Awards? Nobel, Pulitzer?

Fuck it. I'm officially a nihlist and it's all pointless. Just let me die.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 12, 2016 - 9:16am

i am so appreciative of this thread

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 12, 2016 - 7:35pm

something I picked up from Arthur C. Danto's What Is Art?

Ah, I do enjoy reading Danto... "less a case of the mimesis of vacuity than the vacuity of mimesis..." An auspicious (re)beginning.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of where our first analogy/thought experiment succeeds and fails, let's take a moment to put out the fire and pick up some of this mess and look at what has actually happened. An argument has fallen. And you didn't even wait for me to come and push it... shame on you, stealing all my fun :)

Often I find arguments fall because there wasn't enough to support it, and I suspect in this case, there wasn't enough to support the argument because we have already cut off one of its legs before we even began. And I'll endeavor to have an argument for this for you to pick apart at some point, but at least for now; consider that the reason we can't talk about great writing without referring to audience reception, is because we can't talk about "greatness" at all without referring to someone's reception. Now I'll try to convince you that this also goes for "artness" in general and "writing" in particular... but for now, yes, let's bracket [greatness] away with audience reception and tackle them more fully later.

Now I do like Danto's essay as an analogy, despite its weaknesses, which I'll try to point out, but I think as a matter of sticking to literary examples, three immediately came to mind... perhaps not coincidentally all by Borges: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, The Library of Babel, and The Secret Miracle. I think all of these are available in the Labyrinths collection, and maybe also in Ficciones, if not randomly searchable online; should you desire a refresher. Not to say you should reread these works to continue this discussion... but you probably should to continue being a writer :) And I will be talking with little concern for spoilers about them later, so in case you haven't yet... spoiler alert. Borges also strikes me as similar to Nietzsche in a way; able to say more in a single line than others could in entire books.

When I say weakness in reference to the essay, I mean primarily weakness as an analogy. The essay is fine, though he probably, if had more space, could have gone into how intentional acts of "meaninglessness" are still intentional acts, and so carry meaning, but that's not necessary for our current problems with the analogy. The weakness as an analogy comes from two points: each item in his exhibition is unique, and each item in his exhibition is art. You'll note in his conclusion:

Now everything in my collection is a work of art, but nothing has been clarified as to what has been achieved. The nature of the boundary is philosophically dark, despite the success of J’s raid. [emphasis added]

"Now" everything is... he spent half the essay arguing against it, but he eventually has to accept J's contribution. We're not happy about it, but we have to acquiesce. And you're right to pick up on this as being a matter of authorial intent, such that despite J's work having none of the traditional intents we'd see in a portrait, or a landscape, or even in minimalism or found-art objects, it still qualifies as having intent. And so at least as long as that boundary is philosophically dark, we can't disqualify J's contribution as art, at least not without disqualifying Duchamp.

But notice the difference in emphasis between the Danto essay and our thought-experiment. The portrait is different from the landscape, is different from the minimalist work, is different from the found-art object, is different from the incomplete "Conversazione Sacra" and from the still-life. His emphasis throughout is that despite the differences being indescernable (or more accurately immaterial), they are still different works of art. While in our experiment, despite them having different origins, they are all they same Sunset Limited. Where because each work in Danto's exhibition has a different origin, it is its own work of art, but because each Sunset Limited has a different origin, we claim only one is a work of art. We use the same argument to come to the opposite conclusion? That strikes me as a problem in the analogy.

And to make this point stronger, consider that Danto has already included our examples in his exhibition. What is J's contribution but a forgery? He saw the work on the wall and copied it, nothing more. And what is our computer generated Sunset Limited but a found-art object like the last piece in Danto's original exhibition? He found his red square and picked it because of its similarity to the other works, and we searched through the computer output to find the one most like Sunset Limited. And though tenuously and obscurely, Danto qualifies both his found-object and forgery as art. So why don't we?

So the first problem with our thought experiment is just that; if we can't tell them apart, then we can't disqualify a forgery or computer generated play as not being art until we can say why a forgery or computer generated play doesn't count as art in the first place. We can't simply take that as a given.

The second problem is because Sunset Limited is a play. Which is mostly just a matter of making the thought experiment more complicated than necessary. Because plays are meant to be staged, and there are strong arguments that a play is not complete until performed. So if we don't address that, then McCarthy's "original" copy of Sunset Limited doesn't qualify as art either, because it hasn't been performed. Even more complicated because plays often run for multiple performances (so which performance is the 'original' and which are merely copies of the original performance, or are they all only forgeries of the text as written?) and this play was also made into a movie. Is the movie merely a forgery of the play? If so, is it a forgery of the play as written or as performed? Or is each and every instance of Sunset Limited a unique work, qualified as its own work of art even if they are materially indistinguishable? Does a half-breath's difference in the delivery of a single line of the play between two otherwise identical performances count as qualitatively different/materially distinguishable?

This isn't to say we can't address some of this at some point, but thought experiments are meant to be simplistic to clearly point out implications, so perhaps we should pick something slightly less complicated... like Blood Meridian. But you'll notice that we still have at least one problem when we come to forgeries... is my copy of Blood Meridian a forgery and so, not [great] writing? Is your copy? Is the copy in my local library merely a forgery, or any of the copies in the library of congress (I know at one time it required multiple copies to secure a copyright, though I don't know if that policy has changed) or any of the copies at Random House? Is Albert Erskine's copy? Does only the Blood Meridian that McCarthy penned (presuming he writes long-hand because that's simpler than qualifying which copy on his computer is the original) [great] writing or art? Not the version he got back edited by Erskine? Not the version he got back after line edits? Not the galley he approved or the ARC before the cover was decided on? Not the full final 1st edition, 1st print run I presume authors still get a copy of?

If the only Blood Meridian that counts as art, or even [great] writing, is the one that McCarthy has, then how do we know that Blood Meridian is [great] writing? I've never seen McCarthy's copy. I will probably never see it, much less read it.

But, I belabor the point. I'm sure you got where I was going. That is a particular difficulty that comes with writing though, which is not so problematic for visual arts (and only slightly less problematic for performing arts) because of how literature is disseminated/conveyed/performed/audienced. The difference in my reading of the last edition of Blood Meridian from a reading of the first edition, is not really qualitative. Certainly less so than the difference between seeing a picture of Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond on the internet and sitting in front of the 6x41 foot beast of oil and canvas at MoMA. And if we are still bracketing out my response to the work as an audience, the work itself is not qualitatively different, unlike the difference between oil and canvas vs. jpeg.

Enough of that for now... what do we agree on?

Is [great] writing a product of authorial intent? Yes. I would never argue against the necessity of authorial intent, only against its sufficiency or primacy. I think Danto makes a [great] argument for the inclusion of authorial intent, as does Borges in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. The only thing that separates the two versions of Don Quixote is the intents of the two authors... yet it strikes us (or at least the narrator) as a palpable thing. And, this will also be relevant for the computer-generated case, we are human. We like human things. There comes a point where that really is the only justification we can use. We want human activity in the world to be important, so we call it important, and we treat it importantly. But we also know the dangers of saying human things are the only important or even most important things. Writing and art is no different.

Is [great] writing the product of random processes? No. This is why I like The Library of Babel example. As Borges points out, in the realm of the truly infinite, knowledge is destroyed. We could never find Sunset Limited or Blood Meridian amid a truly infinite catalogue of works. Or at least if we could, it would take infinity to do so. Even with the help of computers (notice that 256bit encryption takes 6 times the life of the universe to break, and they're not even close to infinitely long or variable.) But I would also say that natural processes also cannot produce art. A mountain may be beautiful, but it is not art. And actually if we listen to Kant, it isn't beautiful either, it's sublime. We don't need to suppose an infinitely computatative machine to randomly spit out McCarthy knock-offs. We can also suppose, like pictures of Jesus in cheese-toast or burls of trees or apple cores, clearly unintentional resemblances to meaningful/intentional work, do not confer meaning. At worst, we don't see the resemblance at all, or we simply say it was a coincidence. It means nothing. Because what is the difference between a computer randomly spitting out Blood Meridian and purposefully spitting out Blood Meridian because McCarthy told it to? Does this mean my copy of Blood Meridian, which only superficially resembles the work McCarthy wrote doesn't count? I want to say no. Just that whatever value we ascribe to authorial intent (and perhaps more generally to 'art' and 'writing') does not exist in the book itself.

Note though that I don't refer to 'accident'. I think [great] writing, as an act of exploration and experimentation requires 'accidents'. But to get into a situation where an accident could occur, and what to do with such accidents requires intentionality in the course of artistic endeavor.

Is [great] writing dependent on reception? No... but I would change that to "determined by reception". We have to remember that the author is also an audience for their own work. Even the author saying, "this is or isn't a [great] work" is audience reception. The only way to cut out audience reception entirely (as you seem so intent on doing) is for each artist to wholly create/originate not just the artwork, but the artform... and then also "art" itself. As in The Secret Miracle, it is a work that has only one audience member, the playwright himself... And though we will never know, I believe Borges when he says that this play, which will never be seen or even written down, is a masterpiece. But it is still a play. And we know it is a play because we know what plays are. Not because I invented "plays" or because plays exude some noticible quality of "playness", but because I was told, by my culture, what plays are and I make a comparison. We know what novels are because we have read other novels, and really because someone told us what novels are. We know when we see art because we compare it to other art we know, which we know because someone told us what art is. This goes for both audiences and artists. And while either, and/or both, can be wrong in the estimation of value [greatness, artness, writingness] of a particular work; someone has to make that initial inference: this is a play, this is a novel, this is art... even 'this is something completely different/new' can only be true if we compare it to all the things it is not (which is actually how all semiotic systems work). The valuation can be varying degrees of accurate (though even that phrasing has problems) and is ultimately supplemental to the work itself, but the comparison is necessary. Even before the piece is complete, this is already at work in the writer, is already a comparison to what has come before.

Cultural inference (you'll also note that I shy away from your term "audience reception" but I think the two are for this purpose somewhat interchangeable) works alongside authorial intent, they are both necessary, and I would go further and say that neither is paramount. You can't intend a [great] novel without inferring "the novel" from the stack of pages with writing on them. You can't infer "novelness" without the author's intention as expressed in a stack of pages with writing on them. A stack of pages with writing on them is meaningless without an artist/audience, or audience/artist working with them.

Now I've gone on plenty long enough... and though probably not a complete argument, I think I've given enough pieces of one that you could start to take it apart. I can see two controversial (if not outright broken) pieces to my claims, but I'd like to see if you can find something I don't.

@Thuggish: Glad to have you along.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 14, 2016 - 6:49am

@ Thuggish, Please step in at any time. I can only handle getting ridiculed by XyZy for so long before I end up in an asylum for the philosophically inadequate.

@ XyZ - y, because you love us.

You have ruined my plans. I wholly expected you to see that I had destroyed my entire argument, then, because you couldn't help not being the destroyer, you would have destroyed my destruction thus proving my initial argument. But no, I said I erred and you just nodded.

I will admit, I have read Borges sparingly, and one of those was his A Course on English Literature, which was great. I did stay up very late to catch up on these readings, luckily they were all very short, but quite profound. Thank you for bringing them to light. I can now go on being a writer. ;-)

Danto does, I believe, in his actual book, What is Art?, go into the meaningless, or automatic, form that in itself is an act of intention. Specifically I think he brings in Pollock. I think the movie Ex Machina did a great job bringing this up. In one scene they mention Pollock and his style. It is said he used the automatic thought process to create his work, but also noted that the opposite is never possible. That is, if one were to think about every aspect before they begin, the artist would never begin, thus at some point the artist must just go and figure it out along the way. There is no possible way to plan out every aspect. This means that authorial intent is still, at best, a vague term.

I concur that I did struggle to come up with an analogy that would cross the boundary between art and writing. I'm not sure there is any parallel, though Borges' "The Library of Babel" produced a better snapshot of our landscape than I ever could. I did say that one was art and I dismissed the other two. That was error 1 on my part. (At least I think it was one.) Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be: since we cannot distinguish either piece from the others, all three must be considered despite knowing that their origins are wholly different.

Also, let us change out the forgery for something like what Borges brought up in "Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote." This way, we remove the forgery aspect, if not entirely, but it is still produced to be a work of art per se.

So, if you will allow that we have three works that cannot be distinguished, and that we must therefore accept all three on this basis, then (what I think Danto was actually after) is that we have discovered a situation in which we must accept all or accept none. This situation for the art world is not good. Not everything is art, but we do know that there is art. I think what he has done is forced the point that if you have no good reason to consider something art other than its origin, then you open the door to everything. I think the field of thought that grasps this point in literature is the New Criticism School of the 1920s. They felt that the best way to determine if a work had literary merit was to break down its components, or something like that. (i'm not going to delve into New Criticism, but it is one in which I think there is lots of stuff that we can play around with, that and Historical criticism, and their bretheren.)

Danto on the aspect of the found-art and the produced-as-art differentiation used Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can etc. art pieces as an example of how we can have mass-manufactured work and work that is produced once and how one is art, the others are not forgery, but serve a wholly different purpose. Campbell's Soup, the company, does not produce art because their purpose is to sell what is inside the can, whereas Warhol's work (mind you he was not the sole creator of that lot) was created specifically to bring attention to the distinction between mass-manufactured items, and actual art. So from this, I think we have reason to believe that while the works may be similar, how they are created, what the intent is, actually matters in differentiating art from non-art.

I think because of this, we must know origin, and we must know intent, before we can provide a verdict on which is actually art. So if we receive all the different versions and we can't tell the difference, we do not simply say all are included. We must say all are excluded until more information can be gathered.

As for the second problem, Sunset Limited as a play, yes, it is a play, but it was written down and I take it as literature the same as we consider Shakespeare's plays literature. I did not intend to jump into the argument between play and novel to determine if one qualifies or one doesn't. I simply accept that if it is written down, then it counts. (I'll pay for this later.) But this is a separate argument and only leads us off course.

Though, I do like the idea of parsing out is if only the original copy is art or if each print is considered art. I do not consider these to be a forgery. They never claim to be anything other than copies that signify that there is an original and the one in question is not it. I think the copies are not the actual art, hence they have much less value. Much like a copy of a Monet vs the actual Monet. But they do have the ability to introduce people to the work. Yes, it is very different to actually see it than only see it on a screen.

I do agree that natural things are not art. I think that since we have included intention, they must be excluded. Unless we want to chalk one up to the dude in the sky,but i have a feeling you don't want to jump into that hole. Neither do I.

I do believe accidents are a part of the process. Much like a scientist that says, that's funny, follows the new path and discovers something much better than they had originally intended. Perhaps not better, but something that the scientist considers more valuable.

This did make me think about our issue of "great" writing. I would like to take a page out of the scientists handbook. We cannot hold a work up by itself and say it is great. There is no measuring stick. But, we do know that it is a product from a culture. A culture is made up of people that have commonalities. Based on this shared commonness, we call it a culture. Let us start with the individual. If one person, not the artist, says that liked book X, then we will give it a single point. If two people, then it gets two points. And so on. There is no teleological thing for each person to say that this is great. Much like the automatic art, I think we also get an automatic like toward things. If we bothered to parse out every detail of why we liked it, we wouldn't have any time to enjoy what we liked. A person would only respond with an automatic like if the work somehow reminded them of something in their own life, or showed them a new way to look at something in their own life. But either way, the work connected with the culture in a meaningful way. And if there are 100 people that like a work, it may be considered more great than the one that gets 50 likes. (god, I feel like I'm influenced by facebook.)

But what of a work in China and one in the U.S. the likes would be skewed. Perhaps, if the number of people that represent a culture, if more than 50% who read it, like it, then we can say that it is great.

This is really rough, but I'm now tired and my brain isn't firing on all cylinders.

So, authorial intent, known origin (this is problematic for the anonymous work, or maybe not, maybe anonymous is the mystery origin that acts like origin) and cultural reception, may be some key elements of determining what is a great writing. How do we justify things like Twilight? I think there will always be outliers in every model. It doesn't negate everything, it just means there are things we don't know yet.

 

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 14, 2016 - 6:31am

step in? i have yet to read any of the long-ass posts, and have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 14, 2016 - 6:50am

Perfect, because neither do I.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 14, 2016 - 1:47pm

...does xyzy?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 15, 2016 - 5:12am

I'd say he has a better grasp of the material than I do.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 16, 2016 - 9:32am

You have ruined my plans.

Oh... I can't help but feel I've deprived you the pleasure of playing your trap card :) Not to worry, there will be further opportunities. But keep in mind (and I only bring this up because it's a point that will become highly relevant later) what we would have learned if I had defeated your self-defeat. What was actually "measured" in that case? Would that have proved the initial argument true? Or would that have only proved your counter insufficient? Or would that have only proved my inability to argue effectively?

As an aside; I am not immune to leaning towards self-aggrandizement: there are no laurels for besting weak arguments, and I won't deny that as a possible motivation here. But for me, the best outcome would be that we build something together that we both agree on, and I try to not champion ideas even I can poke holes in. So I want your argument to be strong and not won through rhetorical trickery in case it too should become my argument. Or if we still disagree, it would at least be an argument worth trying to knock over.

That is, if one were to think about every aspect before they begin, the artist would never begin, thus at some point the artist must just go and figure it out along the way. There is no possible way to plan out every aspect. This means that authorial intent is still, at best, a vague term.

Well, perhaps it would be useful to think of authorial intent as on an asymptote curve, never quite reaching either the axis of absolute certainty nor of complete randomness. I can certainly see arguments claiming that different artistic movements or forms or works pushing these boundaries (Pollack paintings and aleatoric music pushing one way, Kubrick films and Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk pushing the other.) So instead of a binary, intent or not, art or not, sort of question, it becomes (at least for the extreme cases) more about testing that boundary. How meticulous and exacting can it be and still be art? How free and unstructured can it be and still be art? Or, to stick to our commitment to literary examples; the difference between the ghazal or villanelle (Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night), and free-verse/experimental (Howl).

So, if you will allow that we have three works that cannot be distinguished,

Yeah, I don't mind adjusting the thought-experiment in this way, though be careful with the word 'distinguished'. I ran into the same difficulty with 'discernible'. In establishing the experiment we have already discerned between the works, we have already distinguished them. We have already presupposed that there is a knowable difference between the works that should influence their values, even if it is not a material difference. And that our system will be able to account for that difference, even if we can't. I think it will be the "even if we can't" that is going to cause us the most trouble.

And I do like where the experiment is going... though I'd be careful with some of the phrasing of it (the New Critics are screaming at us... I'll get to that in a bit) but let us see what we actually achieved/measured. Perhaps I can use an analogy to clarify what I mean...

And since you are not using your supercomputer anymore, I'll reprogram it to read literature and then tell us if it was [great] or not. Right now it's a rather simple device (The last time I took an organized computer programming course... well, back in my day... once upon a command line... Pascal, alright! I learned  to program in Pascal. You happy!?!)  but it is modular, so we are free to make whatever adjustments will help us in the future. I think this is an apt metaphor for what we are doing.

The way the experiment was initially set up, it only measured two things: material form/content and authorial intent. And actually, we're still waiting on the module to tell the computer how to measure form (though it looks like we might be getting a module from I.A. Richards any day now and I look forward to opening that up and tinkering with it with you in the future) so we have instead flipped a switch on the back that turns the MFC algorithm (material form/content) to the "art" position automatically. So far, we've only been testing the AI algorithm (cute how that worked out), and we've run into a problem. We've fed in our three versions of Sunset Limited and it told us they were all "art". So we tried tweaking the AI algorithm, and then it called all of them "not art".

Now there are a few different conclusions we could draw from this and a few different directions we can go from here. And this is one of the fundamental questions Lit Theorists have been asking and arguing over for the past 400 years. We can even expand our analogy to generalize some of the major positions that have been taken so far: The New Critics have a very articulate and complicated MFC algorithm, but basically leave the AI switch in the "art" position; the Russian Formalists have a single, integrated MFCAI algorithm; the Structuralists have basically taken the AI module out altogether, replacing it with "The Poem", "The Novel", "The Short Story" modules depending on what work they are putting in it... while the Historical, Personal Identity and Psychological perspectives all tend to have very intricate AI modules, and rely on the MFC module less, sometimes just leaving it as a switch as we have so far. Of course, this is a broad generalization and these positions are much more nuanced (and well-argued) than my description.

But presuming my description of what we've done so far is accurate, the conclusion you've drawn doesn't seem to follow:

I think because of this, we must know origin, and we must know intent, before we can provide a verdict on which is actually art.

Because our still very rough AI module doesn't tell us anything useful, reliable, or consistent about works that are materially identical, we have to know authorial intent before we can even begin? All we have been measuring so far is authorial intent. We could just as easily say, "Since we can't make meaningful distinctions about authorial intent with materially identical works, perhaps authorial intent isn't important at all." Instead, we now have to manually flip that switch to "art" or "not art" before we put the work in the computer so it can tell us if it is art or not...

We can go in this direction if you want, but it is literally the definition of appealing to authorial intent. (This is why all the formalists are screaming at us.) And what do you think this system is going to tell us about the work if we already have to assume its status as art or not before we let it analyze the work? Well, we can call this a sort of threshold measure; Sunset Limited must meet the threshold of legitimate authorial intent before we can go further... but how do we know authorial intent? If the three versions got mixed up by the courier in route, and we knew one was McCarthy's, one was Pierre Menard's, and one was from the Library of Babel, but we don't know which was which, how do we tell the computer? Would McCarthy know which one he wrote? Do we believe Pierre Menard when he tells us his justification for his intent, or do we maybe consider he only read Borges's justification for his earlier book and is now parroting that to us?

And I'm all for having a much more nuanced definition of authorial intent (hence my asymptote) and I'm all for having it play a role in analysis, even possibly a necessary one... but if all we really have to go on is the text itself (and again, many schools of thought say so) how do we get authorial intent out of the text? The danger of going in this direction is that we stop analyzing literature, and are only analyzing either what author's claim to be their intents, or what we claim to qualify as intent. If we hold intent as being an a priori distinction, all we are measuring is what works we put in the computer or not; as far as authorial intent is concerned, we are measuring ourselves, not literature.

We must say all are excluded until more information can be gathered.

Good... well, I mean the conservative approach is fine, if not without its own complications, but good for needing more information. We need to measure more than authorial intent. Origin? Maybe, but I feel that is probably closely tied in with intent, so I'm not entirely sure they're even two different things. But it's a place to start, sure. What else? Intent, origin, form...

Much like a copy of a Monet vs the actual Monet. But they do have the ability to introduce people to the work. Yes, it is very different to actually see it than only see it on a screen.

Right, but my point was this is a material difference. The difference between a painting on a wall and a jpg on my computer of a painting on a wall is is not the same difference as between my copy of Blood Meridian and McCarthy's copy of Blood Meridian. Though it could be the difference (or at least similar to the difference) between the script for Sunset Limited and Sunset Limited performed on stage.

But if we parse out this "copy" problem (and I think it will be helpful to remember our guiding principle "what will lead to producing great writing") what is the nature of the difference in my copy and how does that lessen the value from McCarthy's original? Did McCarthy somehow put less great writing into my copy than he put into his? No, that doesn't feel right. Did McCarthy put less authorial intent into my copy than his original? Well, maybe, but in order to justify that we have to define what authorial intent is and what its relationship is to great writing. We can't just leave it as a vague term. And it feels like we are building an answer to our guiding principle of "What leads to producing great writing is not publishing, because copies are only lesser versions of your original work. So if you publish, you are, by definition, producing not great writing." Which I suppose is a shot in the arm for publishers... let them worry about producing the facsimiles of great writing, and writers can focus on the great writing part... but then what about all the great writing that doesn't get produced at all because the first book tanked and now no one will publish us and we all have to get real jobs to pay the rent? I mean, it seems an accurate description of the world, but it doesn't seem to have answered much about how to produce great writing in the first place. It just firmly entrenches the established publishing house as the gatekeepers.

And notice what has slipped in the back door because we were so concentrated on authorial intent... If the texts are identical such that even the author can't tell the difference between them, and we still maintain that authorial intent is necessary for determining value, where does that value exist? If it's not in the text, and it's not in the author...

There is no teleological thing for each person to say that this is great.

You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means... And I'm only half kidding at this point. If you're going to keep using that word, you're going to have to define what you mean by it, because:

A person would only respond with an automatic like if the work somehow reminded them of something in their own life, or showed them a new way to look at something in their own life.

is giving the telos for each person's response. If I put these two quotes together, you've said, "There is no purpose for people to give to justify their response. And here are two purposes people can give to justify their response: it reminds them of their own life, or shows them something new." I'm not opposed to using this as a metric, but just because you keep saying it isn't teleological, doesn't mean it's not teleological. If you want this argument to be non-teleological then we just have to give up on purpose and intention. But I don't think you want to do that... and I don't really want to do that either. And I think this will actually cause us a bit of a problem later on when we get to Oscar Wilde... but until then, we should stop using that word. My cirrhosis is having little baby cirrhoses of its own.

(god, I feel like I'm influenced by facebook.)

Well, as for this survey project in general... I get the feeling that you see there are already problems with it, but to get you headed in the right direction, replace "points" and "likes" with "dollars" and "sales". At the very least, we aren't embarking on a new way of thinking about this. But what I see as the real concern for this (yes, even more so than the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey-sized holes in there somewhere) is what are we measuring... again. Especially if we want to say "there are no reasons for the audience's choice, it will just spontaneously arise from shared common values" that is a huge assumption to make. It would seem that if "shared cultural values" was a strong a determiner as you want it to be, we wouldn't need to poll this at all. We wouldn't need to study why Twilight was so popular, because we would share the cultural values that prompted them to choose 'like' in the first place. The only reason we have to ask if someone liked the work is because we don't share all our cultural values. So if we can get a large population to agree on whether they like a work, are we measuring the work, or are we measuring what values they share? Now these are good and important and interesting questions, but they don't seem to be the ones we're trying to ask. "What will lead to producing great writing is appealing to largest share of common culture" isn't really a new or interesting way to look at this problem. Indeed, I would say it is just this mode of thinking that leads our culture to say Twilight is the definition of great writing. Not just an unavoidable outlier, but a prime example of great writing (it got an awful lot of 'likes' after all). And if you are happy with that outcome, fine... but it doesn't seem like you are.

This also ignores the difficulty in establishing if we even are measuring shared cultural norms in the first place. Maybe the story does remind the audience of their lives, and they hate it because of that. Maybe the story does teach them something new and they hate it because of that. Maybe the story had the word 'masticate' in it, so they hate it because of that. Or maybe they like the work because the author has a nice smile... or because the dog in the story didn't get hurt and they like dogs, and they were really afraid that the dog would get hurt cause you never know these days, some authors would hurt a dog in the story and call it "artistic", but this was a good book because the dog didn't get hurt. (Although that reasoning does have a certain cathartic quality to it...)

And you've already started on this road, but it would mean that all chinese literature is better than english literature (or spanish or french or german or japanese or all the ancient languages put together) simply because they can get more people to agree (or disagree) based purely on population that has access to the work.

But I think these are the problems we are always going to run into as long as we depend on a utilitarian definition of audience reception. Indeed it seems like we are going to keep running into these kinds of problems as long as we keep trying to treat each facet of this question in isolation, or at least as discretely determinative.

@Thuggish:

It's too soon to tell. And while I appreciate Diaz's vote of confidence, the whole point of having an argument is to find out. It all sounds nice and reasonable in our heads (our own ideas always do) but we can't tell if they are actually any good until we take them out and show them to other people... and we have to be prepared to find out that we don't know what we are talking about.  

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 16, 2016 - 9:08pm

... right... 

You guys are talking about, like, writing, right?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 17, 2016 - 5:08am

Exactly. One of the big questions we're working on is what makes something great writing.

The only caveat is that your argument can't be defeated. Think of it like two attorneys' working a case, but their both on the same team, but have different ideas on how to win the case. And we could always use fresh eyes on what we've come up with.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 17, 2016 - 5:25am

My opionion... That's way too much talking to decide what good writing is.

Good writing is something that captivates you.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 17, 2016 - 6:11am

Then the question becomes, How do you know that?

What if what captivates you and what captivates me isn't the same thing, is yours or mine suddenly not great writing? I recognize The Heart of Darkness as great writing, but I can't sit down and read it for the life of me. I've tried like 8 times. Is it bad writing and we are all mistaken as to its greatness? How can we tell when we're wrong?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 17, 2016 - 11:38am

Aloha XyZy,

Because I have it used quite a few times, and you have brought it up, I must provide an explanation of what I mean by teleology. "Telos, meaning end or purpose. It is a judgment concerning an object the possibility of which can only be grasped from the point of view of its purpose." (IEP, Kant, Teleology) Now, I will say that there is a great fat chance that I have not used in this sense in the past, and for that I do apologize if it has forced us to talk past each other. So, from this point forward, I will ensure I keep it to this definition.

You are correct between the distinguished and discernible nature of the writing. We have said there is a knowable difference, and that we must account for this difference.

Now, Paul Churchland talked about our programming of a computer to discover if something in the water is a mine or a rock. We send out a ping and everything comes back as a rock (0), we tweak, send out another ping and everything comes back as mine (1). The more we calibrate, the better the machine gets at picking out rock from mine. In our case we want art/great writing (1) and not art/great writing (0). Now what data do we insert that would get us to 1 or 0. Our threshold would be that we want all the stuff above .51, and nothing below .49. And .5 will be indeterminate.

So, we have material form/content, authorial intent. But lets add some more information in that is actually relevant and we know it is. I would like to hold that writing is a product of a culture. It cannot exist outside of the culture. So cultural factors will make up an aspect. Let's make it a cube, and hold three sides for cultural factors. Audience reception, Publishing reception, ?? (something else here, maybe criticism that has nothing to do with audience or publishing, how about scholastic reception?) The other three sides are based on the individual creating the work. This is authorial intent, monetary gain, material form/content. Each is based on a 1-0 scale.  

So, we add these parameters in, and then we put in data that we know (a priori) that is great and not great. We insert stuff like Shakespeare's Hamlet and plot his points. .9 for audience, .5 for publishing, .99 for scholastic, The individual stuff is just a guess, but let's say, .8 intent, .7 monetary gain, .8 for material form/content. We get our score of .78 (I think.) Next, we insert one of my great works. The scores in order are .1, .01, .05, .8, .01, .6. We get our score of .26. (How would we actually calculate this I have no clue, but I'm on a roll. I did math, let me play this out.) I think we re-tweak the machine here because I have a feeling the difference between me and Shakespeare may be greater than .52. So, we adjust, Shakespeare comes out at .99, mine at .01, and then we move forward.  

We insert enough data, and we can now start keeping better track. We plot all the work and see what we get. (We can add sides or take them away as needed. We may need an eight sided, ten, 20 sided dice. We could use as little as three (six sided divided).

This was fun to write, but it does little for our current predicament. We could plot each work based on the information and get some good data. We just can't look at the work and say, this is the one that scored .75 and this one was .52. And the one from the Library ... I have no clue what to do with it.

We could make it even more complicated. In the scope of scholastic reception, we can use another algorithm where the different sides are New Criticism, Russian Formalists, Historical, Psychoanalytic, Structuralists, etc. It would be an important determining factor, but it wouldn't be the only factor.

In the above model, there would be information we could not gather. Work that never gets published, never gains an audience, never gains scholastic criticism, it just stays out of the culture. It was still a product of the culture, it just has no significant impact on culture. It could have maxed out in intent, and form, someone could have bought it for millions of dollars, and then it sat on a shelf for the rest of its days. The best it can muster is .5.

So a possible point of contention is works that we "know" are great. I think we must accept certain things as great to start. And certain things as rubbish. It is the only way to move forward. We must make the assumption and accept that there will be information that we do not know. We say Shakespeare is great, we enter in the data, if someone wants to challenge if Shakespeare is great, that's another question we are not focused on. This is a page out of Michael Williams' Groundless Beliefs. It's a book that does a great job combating reductio ad absurdum. The ol' how do you know that, how do you know that....

I think because we do have some models, we have a foundation of sorts. We still have a problem with materially identical works, but we can enter the data and know with more certainty where they would fall if it could be determined which is which. I think Danto did what he wanted to do, he forced us to ask better questions of why we consider certain works art, or great, and why others weren't. I think we still end up at the same destination, but via a different channel. I think the best we could do is to add more checks and balances, hence the computer, in the hopes of helping us identify works that are great.

It doesn't tell authors do this and you will be great, but it does state that these things matter in a way regardless if we want them to or not. So, yes, publishing houses are gatekeepers, but they are not the only gatekeepers. They play a huge role, but it guarantees nothing.

Back to teleology. I wholeheartedly believe that there is no purpose or end other than that which we create for ourselves, as individuals and as a society. This argument is not teleological. It is something we are creating for a purpose that we have also created. It still has value to me, value that I have placed on it. Why do I place value on this and pursue something that I say has no purpose besides that which we are, in essence making up as we go? I guess because it makes me happy. How do I know it has value? Because I'm using the only currency that I know is finite, I spend time out of my life working on this. I know I will die, I know not when, but I will not regret spending the time I have on this project. Thus, that means you also have value to me. I respect your time. I am not attempting to waste it. I am actually trying here. But it must be known that we do this because it is what we want to do with our lives.

Back to our regularly scheduled program. As for Oscar Wilde, he had great form and wit, his writing is okay, he made money, he was famous, he was published, he is well received scholastically. Was that his intent? I don't know. How can we know the intent of authors we no longer have access to?

Perhaps in authorial intent, we can subset it by peer review, revisions and editing, and some other stuff.

 

 

Vonnegut Check's picture
Vonnegut Check from Baltimore March 17, 2016 - 2:23pm

Good writing? Bad writing? Are we in agreement or disagreement that values are created by Man? That objectivity is impossible because everything comes through the filter of subjectivity?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 17, 2016 - 5:41pm

I do not agree. You can't know that objectivity is impossible, the best you can say is that you don't know. And even if it is subjective, it doesn't mean we can't talk about it objectively. However, values are a creation.

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Vonnegut Check from Baltimore March 17, 2016 - 6:50pm

And even if it is subjective ...

But isn't that the problem? Everything is subjective, not if. There is nothing that we can tap that is outside of our subjectivity to verify objectivity.

However, values are a creation.

Then how does one determine what is good and bad?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 17, 2016 - 7:50pm

You have no evidence that it is only subjective, nor are you able to say that it's only objective. You get to a point where the only true answer you can give is that you don't know. But, considering that you don't know, you prefer to act as if it is subjective until you have further evidence for or against. 

 

How we determine what is good or bad, good or evil, is dependent on many factors such as culture, religion, economic status, race, gender, etc. There is no right answer per se, but, we can try to do things that will give us the best possible chance of doing good, or recognizing the good. 

World 1: All anyone does is rape women, will that lead to a good world?

World 2: All anyone does is try and help each other, will that lead to a good world? 

If you can say that you would rather live in one world more than the other, then you have an objective goal for which type or world you would like to live in. Then, you can act in such a way that you try to make that world a reality. 

Sam Harris gives a much better account of this in his book, The Moral Landscape. Good read, check it out.

Vonnegut Check's picture
Vonnegut Check from Baltimore March 18, 2016 - 7:04am

You have no evidence that it is only subjective

Insofar as the observable world is made whole through the prism of the subject I, then yes, it is subjective. How does a person observe outside of the self? That's not to say objective reality doesn't exist, but our reality is indeed subjective.

 

How we determine what is good or bad, good or evil, is dependent on many factors such as culture, religion, economic status, race, gender, etc.

Exactly. If these things, like culture and religion, determine what's good or bad, then clearly there is no Truth in an absolute sense of what is good or bad. This is why what constitutes "good" art has changed over time. Likewise, the deux ex machina endings often used in ancient Roman and Greek tragedies were once acceptable. Today this plot device is derided by writers.

 

World 1: All anyone does is rape women, will that lead to a good world?

If you can say that you would rather live in one world more than the other, then you have an objective goal for which type or world you would like to live in.

But again, the type of world you would like to live in. Pronouns are important here.

There is a group whose name rhymes with SMISIS that uses sex slaves. For them, this is the world they would rather live in. A world with rape. As for the sex slaves, not so much--ie., subjective.

World 2: All anyone does is try and help each other, will that lead to a good world?

Best intentions do not necessarily lead to "good," so no. Altruism easily devolves into nannyism. The movie Idiocracy tackles some of these dystopic possibilities.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 19, 2016 - 3:58pm

Can I get some bullet points?

Ha ha.

So, the problem is that experience is variegated even though objects may appear static. Obviously, we need for all art to be rendered by a device designed to include chaotic alterations into every iteration. That way, everybody really will be experiencing different things from each other, and they can then focus on attempting to relay their experience of the various objects instead of freaking out about subjective responses to the same object(s).

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 20, 2016 - 9:21am

I think we're getting a little ridiculous.

I promise that with 7 billion people + on the world, if they all learned to read fluently, there is nothing that they all would like, 100%. Sometimes you don't need a double-blind-placebo-hyper-mega-data experiment to know that.

So let's just call it subjective already.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 20, 2016 - 4:54pm

If you all want to make assertions, qualify them. 

If it is all subjective, prove that it is all subjective. You do nothing to advance our knowledge of that matter than simply regurgitating a lame argument. 

You call it subjective, fine. The burden of proof is now in your court. 

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 21, 2016 - 12:03pm

Oooh... this thread is hopping.

  • On the Topology of Artistic Analysis:

Let's make it a cube, and hold three sides for cultural factors.

Let me just say, I very much like this new idea. I was playing with a similar concept myself just before I read your version. But as an analogy for this project, I agree this works, in some ways, much better than our computer model with switches and algorithms. A sort of topology of artistic analysis, if you will.

I do think however, there are a couple places you are going to run into problems with your stated goals, so let me build on this concept a bit.

My first point is a minor one about the scale we're using and its implications. You've chosen a probabilistic scale from 0 to 1, while I would prefer a geometric scale which isn't inherently closed. I think either could work, but the geometric scale does something naturally that we'd have to make special considerations for in a probabilistic setting. And I may have tipped this in the wrong direction initially in referring to asymptotes specifically, but let me try to explain. Probabilistic points are fixed at 0 and 1, while geometric axes are by nature infinite. And what I am concerned about would be something like the Flynn Effect.

Let's say we're back in Elizabethan England, and have one of Shakespeare's Sonnets and we're inputting its data points into the model it scores particularly high on some (perhaps even poetry-specific) measure like rhyme scheme... Now we fast-forward a couple hundred years and we come across Shelley's "Ozymandias" and we want to say this is a great sonnet but the rhyme scheme is different. There are plenty of arguments we could make for how we would score it in comparison to Shakespeare, but let's presume a positive outlook and say that art can "progress" in a way, so we want to say Shelley's difference actually makes it a little bit better and so we score it higher. And this would be fine if there is no limit, but now we're pushing up against 1... presuming we're reserving 1 for some platonic idealization that could only be sullied by actually existing, But essentially the top score in this scale is the same as 1 anyway, Shakespeare's .9 a placeholder for 1 until Shelley shows up with his .99. And then e.e.cummings shows up with "The Cambridge Ladies" a hundred years later and we want to say this is a great sonnet but again the rhyme is different, but we're feeling generous so Cummings is now .999.

Yes, this system could essentially go on for infinity, but it does seem to become quite unwieldy quite quickly. And maybe I'm presuming optimism, but if the whole goal is "what leads to the production of great writing" then we should be getting better, and it makes more intuitive sense to continue to add up to an infinity (that admittedly can't be reached) than to continually divide the distances up to a 1 (that also admittedly can't be reached.) And what's more, having the system codified gives insight for new writers into what they will be aiming for in their work... i.e. they know what's going to be on the test... therefore, Flynn Effect, whether we're particularly generous or not.

But I mostly posit this change in scale in deference to your desire for objectivity. If we allow the metrics to continue to grow, as through time I can only assume it will, then we will not have to shift particular inputs... as you've already had to do. If you put in a Shakespeare work and score it .78, and at some point later you put it in and it score .99, then you have failed to create an objective system. If Shakespeare is a .78, and your work is .98 below Shakespeare, then your work is -.2 and you need a scale that accounts for that. If his work is .78 then it is .78 no matter who does it. And likewise, if your work is .26 then that's what it is. To allow for the type of relativism that says "Shakespeare's work is clearly better than mine, let's move both scores to reflect their relative value" although I grant your tendency toward self-deprecation, is not an objective one. The best you can allow for would be to say, "Shakespeare's works are .98 better than mine... we need to re-way the works, rebalancing how the works are scored." That means everyone's scores will likely change because we measured them incorrectly the first time. Which is fine, we all make mistakes. But then you have to remeasure all the works. Every time you run into this problem.

Now you may be tempted to fight against this because it seems to say that over time, we will no longer consider Shakespeare great. Many other works will accrue scores higher than Shakespeare on any side of the polyhedron, and someday someone may even score higher on all sides (*cough*Beckett*cough*). And if you maintain that "greatness" is merely a factor of the "volume" of the polyhedron (as an aggregate of all sides) then you have to accept this. But, perhaps consider that 'greatness' is not about absolute volume but relative volume. Volume as a ratio to its sides more equally distributed (how near equilateral the polyhedron is) or volume as a change over previously established limits to maximum volume: before Shakespeare the highest score was .68, but Shakespeare increased that by .1 and a 10% increase in value is "greatness" no matter what the absolute volumes of the polyhedrons. Or both, Shakespeare's well-formed octohedron is 'greater' than Marlowe's lopsided tetrahedron.

For me, this is what we already do. We may not conceptualize it as abstract polyhedrons (and we almost certainly don't have well-defined mathematical scales to measure them), but we do abstract away from all the works we read and engage with. Often times our abstractions are very simple (binary even): "I liked it" or "this isn't captivating". When we engage with the work more fully we will have more complex abstractions (linear): "the use of meter and rhythm is excellent" or "the characters are all very shallow." And when we specialize in schools of analysis, we abstract even more complexly (multi-dimensional): "the antagonist's over-reliance of plosives in his speech patterns reinforces his volatile and explosive personality and foreshadows the over-use of dynamite that causes the cave-in at the end of act 2, which is typical (if not even cliché) of late 19th-century writers."

What I like about it, is that simultaneously we are also building these models for "great writing" or "art". We are given our first exposures to "great writing", in our day this is typically in school, and there are numerous reasons for each of our idiosyncratic shapes of it. We don't all read the same things in school (I never had classes on Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby and came to them both later in life) we all have different teachers and that can influence how we shape our models (it took a great teacher to get me interested in Beowulf, and I don't remember a single thing from one teacher I particularly disliked.. which turns out to be mostly Hawthorne and Irving), or we have difficulties reading to overcome (ADHD, dyslexia, being a teenager) or social pressures...

The point being, that not only do I have a different measure/model of Heart of Darkness, I also have a different measure/model of "great writing" and they both inform each other. I know how good Heart of Darkness is because I compare it to my model of great writing, and I know what great writing is because I have built it out of the analyzed components of works like Heart of Darkness. Here again is another way to measure "greatness" in a work, if it forces me to expand my previously held model of "greatness" to include it, then it is 'greater' than work that merely falls within already established artistic space.

You are right, though, that we have to start somewhere. Again, usually in school. But at some point, we stop relying on the authority of our culture to make those determinations for us. And as a culture, we have done that as a whole... somewhat schizophrenically perhaps, but the bottom line is we do not have a culturally agreed upon model for "art" or "great writing"... but have culturally agreed that we do not want one. We had classical models that we held as great (and often still do) have torn them down, and we have rebuilt on those ruins, and have torn those down as well... we're now at a place where we say, "well, ruins are nice too." And they are.

This is already getting quite long, but here's the most important take-away: The reason we don't have an "objective" ground for determining the value of "artistic greatness" any longer, is because people started to dig for it. What objective grounds we had have been undermined by the search for objectivity.

That doesn't mean we're wrong to do so. The search itself has value. And it has been a fruitful search: we don't get The Zoo Story, Endgame, The Importance of Being Earnest, What the Butler Saw, or Friends if Hamlet just is objectively the greatest. But it also doesn't mean there is anything there to find. Remember Aristotle's answer to Plato; the artistic endeavor isn't about what is there, it's about what could be there. You can't ground "could be" in "is", even it is is informed and framed by it, but it only is "could be there" because it isn't what "is there".

  • On Teleology and Oscar Wilde:

I'm still struggling with your use of 'teleology'. 

I wholeheartedly believe that there is no purpose or end other than that which we create for ourselves, as individuals and as a society.

Right. But that is the definition of teleology.

Telos, meaning end or purpose. It is a judgment concerning an object the possibility of which can only be grasped from the point of view of its purpose.

To judge an art object as art, is only possible(or rather meaningful) from the point of view of its purpose; to be an art object. To be the product of an authorial intent. This is why we reject the computer copy of Sunset Limited, because a computer is not an intentional agent. It cannot give telos. It does not intend. The computer copy is non-teleological, therefore not art. The natural process is non-teleological, therefore not art. The forgery is teleological, but for a purpose we want to disqualify as artistic, so still not art. McCarthy's original is artistically teleological, therefore, art. If McCarthy were unintentionally laying out random words, and just so happened to produce something resembling Sunset Limited amid an infinity of ungrammatical nonsense, we'd probably conclude it's not art because it lacks the authorial intention we want to maintain as necessary for art. (Though in this last case we could merely say that McCarthy is not an artistic writer, but an artistic reader and pulling out Sunset Limited from the nonsense is an artistically intentional act and so part of his process, throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks kind of thing...)

The only way I can make sense of your insistence of saying this is non-teleological is if you are trying to say "Art does not intend itself." Which is true, but meaningless. Firstly, because no one is arguing that art intends itself. But mostly because the definitions of both art (as we've been muddling through it) and teleology preclude abstract non-agents. If authorial intent is necessary to perform a judgment on a work of art, as a work of art (which you still maintain), then that is the point of view we must partake in to grasp its purpose. "What did the author intend?" If you say this is non-teleological, you are saying it doesn't matter what the author's intentions are. You are saying art is spontaneously generated from natural, unintended processes. Non-teleological art means mountains are art.

Now, I may still be missing the point you're trying to make, so perhaps you can give an example. If art is non-teleological, what is something that is teleological?

The reason I brought up Oscar Wilde is because he points out that "All art is quite useless." And I mention that it will cause us problems because if we are stumbling so much around 'intention' and 'purpose', imagine what will happen when we try to include 'useless'. And I think he's right.

  • On the Object/Subject debate

​I've gone on long enough, and you all seem to be having enough fun with all this without me, so I'll just make a couple quick points that I think need to be made:

You have no evidence that it is only subjective

Actually, all evidence is subjective. So we can't even get objective evidence to say say it would objective in the first place. And what evidence we do have, also points to it being subjective. Objects do not study themselves, or measure themselves, or compare themselves. All evidence comes through a necessarily subjective point of view.

Obviously, we need for all art to be rendered by a device designed to include chaotic alterations into every iteration.

Like our brains, right? But I agree, we mostly need to just stop freaking out about subjectivity. Subjective is not a null value.

You call it subjective, fine. The burden of proof is now in your court.

Well, that's not how burden of proof works, but most importantly we don't have to prove it, because you've been carving out the space for the subjective nature of this endeavor from the very beginning. An author is a subject. If the author's subjective point of view is necessary for the determination of art in an art object, then art is subjective. It doesn't matter how well-defined, objective, or rigorous our models are, if we input subjective data into the model, it is a subjective assessment. Otherwise we could just let the computer do its objective thing, and every copy of Sunset Limited is just as much art, or not, as every other copy because there is no objective difference between them.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 21, 2016 - 1:22pm

Is it fair to claim the questions over "greatness" come down to the relatively rudimentary problem of qualitative vs quantitative evaluation? That's how a lot of this read to me. Of course, one can say qualities may be displayed in various quantities. For example, one thing might exhibit more "greatness" than another thing, or it might display equal "greatness" in more ways. Or one could say "greatness" is displayed when one or more quantifiable attributes pass the "greatness" threshold, beneath which is mere "goodness". One can define "greatness", or one can say what conditions or other qualities are necessary for something to be considered "great". What sort of scaling system one might employ depends on what is being scaled, no? I could say more, but I'll wait to see what people say about this (admittedly) basic question.

@XyZy --- The brain is the bugbear.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 21, 2016 - 2:57pm

Is it fair to claim the questions over "greatness" come down to the relatively rudimentary problem of qualitative vs quantitative evaluation?

Oh, indeed. And many schools of thought have argued both sides... even (perhaps especially) to what counts as qualitative or quantitative in the realms of literature. It is striking to me, though, that none really do adhere to a stricly quantitative model. They leave that to the linguists and philologists... but I find facets of language like this quite fascinating. Like adverb emphasis and usage in particular speakers over others, or how slang/dialect/pidgin develops or Zipf's Law. These are things that can be spoken of with some degree of objectivity, but we don't really talk about these things when talking about "greatness" of writing.

What sort of scaling system one might employ depends on what is being scaled, no?

This was one of the Structuralist's big points. It doesn't do to hold poetry to the same measures as novels or short stories or psalms. Now we don't have to hold to the divisions they established, but I do think we have to account for that, as well as "do we measure 'character development' along the same scale as 'imagery/metapor use'?"

The brain is the bugbear.

You ain't just whistlin' Dixie.

 

So let's just call it subjective already.

As an addendum... and also so Diaz doesn't think I'm merely picking on his argument... this also isn't the answer. Saying "It's just subjective, so stop arguing about it." is the same mistake as "Once we have the objective answer, we can stop arguing about it." Arguing about it is the point.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 21, 2016 - 6:04pm

I knew it. Everyone's ganging up on me. lol.

I'll respond tomorrow if I have time. 

However, I thought I did say that the examle I provided was a sliding scale and that nothing was fixed. As culture/society/intentions shift, so does how/where place different writing. 

As for the subjective argument ... *sigh* okay, I will find my notes from my courses and pull up the arguments that show how it fails. I think the thread runs from Hume to James to Quine, and from there it branches out again two different lines, that of the naturalists and that of the neo-pragmatists. 

I just not sure I'll be able to remember the argument for how the tree will still be there regardless if someone is there to witness it but it only matters if someone is there to witness it which is a nice pragmatic view, or some such thing. 

How do you know you're arguing with a human? I could very well be a computer running the beginnings of an AI system. Then again, you would expect a computer to learn quicker. lol

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 21, 2016 - 6:37pm

K fine. I saw "data points" as I scrolled to the bottom of the latest posts.

There are no data points in art. At best you can track people and how they react and self-report. Other than that, there is nothing quantifiable about it. Eliminating that, namely things that would be OBjective, it can only be SUBjective.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 21, 2016 - 9:29pm

Are we switching to the subjective argument? I think the IEP has a great workup of the argument in question. http://www.iep.utm.edu/objectiv/

But, as it stands, I wholly believe that we/I have bitten off way more than we/I can chew. How can we possibly create a synthesis between the subjective/objective argument, aestheticism, epistemology, theory of mind, literary theory, add in linguistics, cultural/societal aspects ...? Let alone throwing in the ethical seasoning. 

I would really like to think that I can accurately keep track of all these threads in something that may resemble something cohesive, but I think I have already shown that these arguments are getting away from me. 

So, how do we pull this back in toward something manageable?

Side note:

Teleology: I keep saying it, so I will try to be much clearer. I do not hold teleology merely as purpose, or use. But it is the only purpose to achieve a desired end, final cause. Very Aristotelean. The only time I hear anyone speak of something with a teleology, it always has to do with some design, or specific purpose. While the thing can be used for other endeavors, there was one purpose for which it was designed. 

I think you have a more recent interpretation that has pulled very far from Aristotle. 

For me, I keep thinking religion. Religious people have morality which the use to bring them in line with god's plan so they can get to heaven and be reunited with the old man. If one doesn't have god, then they have no need for morality, thus mayhem. 

It isn't just any use or purpose, but the intended use for which it exists. If teleology just meant purpose or use, we would just say purpose or use. Teleology is the combo bag of specific purpose for a specific end. 

That's why I keep saying art doesn't have a teleology. Yes, there is authorial intent, but I feel that intent to be fluid and not a fixed thing. If you're saying that it can still be fluid and teleology, then that is where we have a disagreement. 

And I completely expect you to give a better run down. 

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 22, 2016 - 8:11am

XyZy,

As for our new model, I didn't mean to imply that we would compare the works against each other and only one would get the top spot and everything else would be shifted accordingly. I used Shakespeare to bring up what is art and great writing. I used my work to show what is not art and bad writing. It wasn't a comparison between the two, it was just the opening salvo to create the framework where we can input data to see where the work falls. If more than one work falls at .99, then so be it. I think we just call these works the greatest of the great. So, the three sonnets that you brought in would not need to compete for space, they would just be.

However, the more I think about this, the more I think of the beginning of Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams is talking about plotting poetry. Excrement.

I'm thinking of falling back to my initial intention for writing ... to woo women.

So, it is great writing if and only if you are able to achieve your ultimate goal of wooing women, or men or whatever you're into, toaster ovens, baked potatoes, apple pie, whatever.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 22, 2016 - 7:57pm

So, how do we pull this back in toward something manageable?

 

I find using fewer words, that are less esoteric, helps a lot.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 23, 2016 - 5:35am

^

If I knew fewer words, I would use them.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 23, 2016 - 6:20am

Are we switching to the subjective argument?

I also would rather not go down that route... though I think we may end up there eventually. And when I refer to "all evidence is subjective" or "objectivity undermining the objective ground it stands on" I'm merely pointing out the still unresolved philosophical issues underlying the objective point-of-view; as elaborated for instance by section 2.f of the IEP article you linked. I don't think it will be necessary to get to that point for our purposes, much less actually resolve those issues (as though we could :P). I just point out that that isn't really the best line of defense to ward off claims of absolute subjectivity.

I think you have a more recent interpretation that has pulled very far from Aristotle.

More than likely. Most of my interactions with the word have involved philosophers and thinkers trying to pull it back from the ad hoc definition that it has aquired: teleology just is god's purpose for us and the world. Striking because even as you attempt to hold to an Aristotelian definition, you can't help but think of it in modern religious terms.

That's why I keep saying art doesn't have a teleology. Yes, there is authorial intent, but I feel that intent to be fluid and not a fixed thing.

Okay, let me see if I'm following your argument. A tree is non-teleological because there is no intention behind the tree. A watch is teleological because there is intention behind the watch, and we can say with a degree of certainty what that intention is; to tell time. A painting is non-teleological because though there is intention behind it, we can't say with any degree of certainty what the intention is.

Something like that?

I didn't mean to imply that we would compare the works against each other and only one would get the top spot and everything else would be shifted accordingly. [...] So, the three sonnets that you brought in would not need to compete for space, they would just be.

Okay... but then we just end up with a lot of poems, all sharing the .99 spot. And so eventually, when all work shares the .99 spot, we can't tell them apart with this system. I thought that not being to tell them apart was the problem we were trying to solve, not create.

I'm thinking of falling back to my initial intention for writing ... to woo women.

So, it is great writing if and only if you are able to achieve your ultimate goal of wooing women, or men or whatever you're into, toaster ovens, baked potatoes, apple pie, whatever.

Well, if you want to get into evolutionary reasons for literature, then I highly suggest Jordan Peterson. He has some very interesting concepts to work with... though he does get a bit prosyletizing at times. But I think you might like him, he's also a Nietzsche fan. Here's an interview he did a couple years ago that's a fair introduction to his thinking.

I find using fewer words, that are less esoteric, helps a lot.

I find precise language, that isn't afraid to spend energy in comprehension, helps a lot.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 23, 2016 - 12:46pm

On Subjectivity: Heard.

On Teleology: With the tree, watch, and art, yes, that is what I mean.

As for .99 spot. I don't think it is a matter of it being put into a spot and a lot of the work being in the same room. I think of it as something like brown hair. It's just a descriptor and doesn't change the status of the work, it is just another way of describing the work. A description that, if it someday worked, would just be a more precise way to talk about the work. So there is brown hair, and in what we call brown hair are a multitude of hues and variations, but it doesn't diminish the other works. Of course my analogy is hugely flawed because I'm not making the claim that brown hair is great and all other hair is less great, I'm just saying we use it as a descriptor, nothing more.

It may lead to a conversation such as, "If we are going to create a new canon, let's use works that have a descriptive score of .8 or higher." And someone else says, "I want to use this work, but the descriptive score is .6." Then the other can say, "If it will help you teach the material to students so they come to understand how to discover this for themselves, then so be it."

It just doesn't have to be a this and only this kind of thing. It would be something to help us make better informed decisions.

Though, I foresee the possibility of people using this tool/model like an axe and chopping down trees just to count the rings, thus rendering the tree worthless in the future. It really could do just as much harm, if not more, if used without understanding. I guess like everything.

"It isn't enough to foresee the invention of the car, one must also foresee the traffic as well."

^ I forget the exact quote or who said it.

 

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 23, 2016 - 7:50pm

"Subjectivity" is a dead horse which might not be dead & which might not be a horse.

@Jose --- What's the agenda? Is it to obtain a means by which to define a new canon? Is it merely to obtain new means for evaluating literature? If so, what's wrong with the old means, as you see it? Or, what are the old means, as you see them?

(I suppose, regardless of a goal, without a means of objectively describing literature, there could potentially never be agreement on what anyone was talking about, and therefore no possible agreement on what's to be done with or about whatever it is.)

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Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 25, 2016 - 7:08pm

@ jyh: I would go back and read through the old thread and this to see where we are. 

As for our computer model, and computer generated works, perhaps we need to rethink some things based on the LR article....

https://litreactor.com/news/japanese-ai-written-novel-makes-award-bid

 

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 26, 2016 - 6:45am

On Teleology: With the tree, watch, and art, yes, that is what I mean.

Okay, good. We can work with that. There still seems to be two things that need to be addressed, though. How much certainty and what is the ontology (drink) of intention? I think they may actually be the same question, but I'll try to address them as separate topics for the moment, and I'll continue to use the agreed upon tree/watch/painting examples for the time being as writing is just by its nature a problem for this scheme.

  •  Degrees of uncertainty

How much uncertainty is needed for a painting to be art? How much certainty is needed to disqualify a watch as art? Now we've already conceded that absolute certainty is impossible, right? Just from being the limited, finite creatures we are, we can't ever account for everything, and attempting to get there will lead to paralysis. And we've already discounted absolute uncertainty: random processes (i.e. trees) are not art. So somewhere in between.

The question here lies in describing how this works. Is it a line or threshold, or more of a scale or area? Now you want flexibility: "It just doesn't have to be a this and only this kind of thing." so that implies a scalar model, between X% certainty and Y% certainty lives art. But there is also a threshold, at Z% certainty and above it's teleological, or a watch. To say something is or isn't art and degrees of certainty of intention is determinative of this, there has to be a demarcation. So we have a bit of the Sorites Paradox. At what point does a pile of art become a heap of not art?

Now of course this is a simplistic rendering of the problem, and I don't think your concept is actually this simple, but this will crop up again and again. Not because there is a problem with the specifics of your system, but because this is endemic to systemization itself. And you even could, I suspect, pin down some exact way to measure and fully describe authorial intent this way (I suggest using the space between Y% and Z% and not trying to discard it) but, as we've already said, we are finite creatures. We can't account for everything. As we create a more accurate and definitive model for intent, what are we losing? What holes are opening up as we close this one? What happens to form and/or content? What happens to our ability to measure greatness?

  • The Ontology of Inebriation... I mean Intention

​What does it mean to be intentional? What does it mean to say we know the intention of a watch when we don't know the intention of a painting? Now I don't propose to have answers to these questions, but if you want to go down this rabbit-hole, I can suggest thinkers that have gone this way before: Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art" and "The Question Concerning Technology", Derrida's "The Truth in Painting", Merleau-Ponty... Phenomenology in general tackles these questions...

Now, there's a part of me that really wants to dive in there and try to dig down and make discernments on this... and part of my brain is working on it, especially with JYH now in the thread, as this would be a place we could pick up our argument from a few years ago. And as a rough sketch... the difference between our interaction with watches and our interaction with paintings is predicated on the subjective/objective dichotomy, and while important for making those interactions (and distinctions), is shallow in comparison to the difference (and similarity) between our interactions with time and art... shallow, but necessary, as watches and paintings are embodiments of our culture's understanding of time and art, and are the best ways to get access to them.

Or something like that... that's still mostly Heidegger, so I'm still working on it.

But, we're already making a problematic claim before we get that far: That we know the intention of a watch, and we don't know the intention of a painting. And here we have to contend with Knapp & Michaels... again, just from a different angle. To say you know that a watch is intentional is to say you know what that intention is. Not because of something about watches or watchness, but because that's what it means to know intentionality. But it feels like you want to say something like, "Well, we know that a painting is intentional, but we don't know with certainty what a painting means... so it's art." We can't do that. We can't split meaning and intention.

And I am loathe to argue for Knapp & Michaels, because their ultimate goal is the end of theory (If I haven't already suggested it, you should read Against Theory... it's not too long, and almost certainly available through JSTOR, though the collected Critical Inquiry edition should still be in print and has commentary and responses) and so the end of this very discussion we are having. But I think they are right on this point. Meaning is intention. To say a painting is intentional is to infer a meaning, that it means something. To bracket off what a painting [means], is only to say that we don't agree what a painting [means]. That your [meaning] is different than my [meaning].

And what happens if we agree? What happens if we have a well-formed, rigorous definition of what it means to be a painting, that we all agree on? We turn paintings into watches. We turn them into teleological things. Now I don't think you are aiming for this, indeed are trying to carve out space for that uncertainty to keep that from happening. The problem is where you are trying to carve that space out from. You can't carve it out of the work itself... that's why the computer can't tell the difference between the different copies of Sunset Limited. You can't carve it out of the author... What Library of Babel shows us is that writing a story is the same thing as perusing a library with every possible story in it and choosing one of them. Choosing one, not randomly picking. The only space left to carve uncertainty out of is audience reception.

If uncertainty of intention is necessary for art, and the only space for that uncertainty is the audience, then the audience is necessary to determine art. Art finalizes in the reception.

  • On throwing JYH under a bus

I wouldn't if I were you. Of all the people that jumped into this thread, he is the most likely to have actually read it. And I think he also, in many important ways, agrees with you. Particularly on the audience reception aspect. And he also brings up a very good point. We keep talking about how we're going to be making actual distinctions between great writing, but we never get there. As of yet, all we've said is that we want a more objective way of talking about great writing... which is exactly the project of the New Critics... not to mention the Russian Formalists, and the Structuralists and the Historicisms and Identity and Psychological perspectives... But we don't actually distinguish this project from them. Indeed, I keep pointing out how we are following their projects, not breaking away from them. If we are doing something different, what is it? If we aren't doing anything different, then why don't we just do New Criticism?

  • On Robot Authors

I'm not sure we do. The AI (remember that one time, when I joked about my made up abbreviation for "authorial intent" modules having the same abbreviation as "artificial intelligence"... ah, good times...) that is doing so well in this contest is no different than Searle's Chinese Room. It's a tool; a process guided by the intent of the people behind it. Its work qualifies as art on the same basis as aleatoric music does... which is to say it does. The real problem (as most people see it) will be when AI is capable of intention itself. When we have created an artificial intelligence that decides it wants to write literature... and does so. Well really, the problem is deciding when that has happened, which is only a problem if you don't like the Sorites Paradox.

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 26, 2016 - 2:21pm

@Jose -- Yeah, I read that a month ago, when it happened; though, I admit, I haven't intimately familiarized myself with its every nuance. You started with "love of words" and ended up here. From what I've read, I've no clear sense of a singular objective. I think you're content to bounce various ideas back and forth for however long it interests you. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose.

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L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami March 27, 2016 - 4:57pm

To clarify I'm not against sentient AI with romantic capabilities from writing.

I'm against the Orwellian use non sentient computers to ensure obediance without individuality.

Or as some may put it. Using such to supplement and eradicate human authors.

In other words. Against computer as slaves to human masters who inherently have an interest in mass marketing, and the desire to make money.

Give a robot a heart. Well that chabges things. That would be awesome.

Sign me up for Uploading my brain to be with 'her' always.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 28, 2016 - 10:01am

@ XyZy: I believe that you are right and the only place where we seem to be able to carve out a niche is in the audience reception, and that "Art finalizes in reception."

This is something I think Alexander Nehamas was trying to do in his work, The Art of Living: Socrates Reflections from Plato to Foucault. In much the same way that a painter creates a painting, humans create their lives, and it is only upon reception that we determine if it was a good or bad life lived. It's a really interesting read.

If I threw JYH under the bus it was not intentional. So, if I have offended, I sincerely apologize. I think I just didn't want to recap where we started and where we were going. I don't think I have a solid understanding of it, if I ever did. So, yes, all I seem to be doing is bouncing ideas around.

And yes, I am content to do just that until I gain a better understanding of the landscape in which I find myself. I did say that literary criticism is one of my weakest areas, so if we are doing New Criticism, then let us do it, or anything else for that matter.

If my randomness makes it feel like I am wasting people's time, it is purely out of ignorance and not out of any animosity or that I simply do not care. I am more than willing to take a backseat as the both of you resume your old dialogue.

I'll be standing by.

 

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like March 28, 2016 - 1:03pm

@Jose --- Your reply was terse enough to seem perhaps curt or impatient, but I wasn't positive that you meant it that way. I wouldn't want to have to recap all this, nor did I expect you to. I was just wondering whether or not you had a course along which you hoped to align all this back-and-forth, or if you wished to perhaps to focus on something in particular. I certainly wasn't trying to put anybody in the backseat.

XyZy makes a good point, though, regarding the breadth of what's already out there. I think you've both probably read more theory than I. I have an observer's interest in modern developments in criticism, but I don't feel I've explored the field in much depth.

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money March 29, 2016 - 9:49am

 This is something I think Alexander Nehamas was trying to do in his work

I have not read this one, and it looks very interesting, so I'll be adding it to my list. I like the idea of the philospher living a particular kind of life of thinking, versus the job of the philosopher is to think about stuff. Similarly for the artist and writer. Plus, I've been meaning to get a better handle on Montaigne.

But now that you've agreed with me... I feel the need to say something contentious. (And you can psychoanalyze that as you want, but there's nothing there. I promise... What? ...why are you looking at me like that? You're not the mom of me, Diaz. Boss! I said boss!)

So let's push into some of the implications of the claim that art finalizes in the reception. And for the sake of contention, I'll push the extreme; this means you can't create great writing. Certainly not purposefully or intentionally, and not as such that "great writing" can be a colloquialism for "art." You also can't create art, for the same reason.

Now, I don't simply want to dazzle you with my rhetorical eloquence (i.e. bullshit) and risk losing contention under the logical might of my justifications (i.e. bullshit) so I'll leave that for your investigations. If you don't agree with this implication, let's find out why, together.

If you do agree, then I've got another one for you: All art is just as dependent (if not more so) on its audience as its creator. Also, all art is inherently pretentious.

If I threw JYH under the bus it was not intentional.

I apologize. I didn't mean to chide you on your response to him. But if the question is "do we have a goal/gameplan" and the answer is "no, still working on it" then that's the answer. I know it's difficult to guage how invested different people will be in this semi-public setting to our conversation, but we should at least be able to be honest with them as to our project. If we don't know, then we should just say that. If we do know, then surely we can articulate that without directing people to follow each of our missteps along the way. And even if it were a confusion caused by them simply refusing to read any of our conversation so far, it doesn't mean that the lines of reasoning that have worked on convincing each other will work the same on new interested parties.

I did say that literary criticism is one of my weakest areas

Well, again I suggest Paul Fry's lecture series, if you want to shore up some of that weakness. But I personally don't have a problem engaging with your ideas without that pedigree.

If my randomness makes it feel like I am wasting people's time, it is purely out of ignorance and not out of any animosity or that I simply do not care.

I understand that. Believe me when I say that, because it is that mutual understanding that allows this conversation to move forward at all. If either of us starts to think that the other one is acting out of animosity or lack of care, this conversation grinds to a halt.

I am more than willing to take a backseat as the both of you resume your old dialogue.

That won't be necessary. If JYH wants to engage, he's welcome and capable. But we we're having this discussion based on your ideas, so if you'd like to continue, let's do so.

If my ideas are not contentious enough... we could also talk about "great writing is brief" as it doesn't seem anyone is coming to defend that claim on their own?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 30, 2016 - 6:38am

I believe that is right, and that one cannot create great writing, but one can pull their weight and make it easier for the audience to say, this is great ... because....

Intentionally and purposefully....: I think a writer can create great work inside the box, per se. They go above and beyond with the big three, Character, Setting, and Plot. There is a music to their prose, the know how to use plosives, fricatives, etc. effectively. Rhetoric is used with great effect, asyndetons, understatement, litotes, etc. They have an ability to make fiction the truth, if that makes sense. They do all of this blended in such a way that the reader doesn't recognize the actual craft, until after the fact when they go back and really try and see how it all works, like that of a clock.

(Separate argument that can be destroyed: Can I appreciate the beauty of a watch, sure, do I become more impressed when I find out how that watch actually works and came into being, I think then it becomes more than just about the watch, it becomes a point of pride for the society to have set up a culture in which this person and that this person created this watch. I can just hear the chants now of 'Merica! How this work switches from creation and slips into the cultures consciousness that becomes a point of pride, is beyond me, but I do think we witness such things.)

But there are writers that do things much like what artists sometimes do, (and by that I mean painters sculptures and the such), and that is they change the landscape, they push the boundaries of what writing is, or can be. The black dot on a white canvas became minimalist. We get magical realism, and science fiction, and the graphic novel, if you will. They have to hit the same marks as the former lot, but they also have to do this new thing really well, so well that people go, that's a new thing. And then others do it.

If we hold that it is in audience reception, then we do open the door for a huge, massive fucking problem, (pardon my fucks), and that is something along the lines of what we have now in certain aspects. Those that have the ability to control availability can guide reception to their own means. They can't control all of it, but they do a really good job of it. It's the record company that advertises and gets radio stations to play only their artists work. It's watching TV and seeing a commercial for yet another James Patterson novel, (no offense to Patterson, but really dude).

If we are to make this work, I think we need watch dogs, and multiple tiers to make sure we haven't just blindly grabbed the first cracker we see and say it's the best ever. We had 50 Shades of Gray, entertaining for what it was, but I personally thought it was awful once I actually looked at it. If audience reception is the marker, there is more to it than just the number of people that agree with it. Perhaps, then we bring up something that becomes the elitist audience. That of the scholars. Who do act as a kind of watch dog, but one that must also be watched over.

And then the watchers of the watchers of the watchers. (But let's not run into the ad infinitum).

So now we have people able to manipulate supply to the audience, those capable of keeping the audience's taste in check to a point but typically have little oversight, other than they teach themselves, and now (as I'm about to become a part of,) teach the writers about great writing, per se.

Perhaps the ultimate goal of writing is to become dulce et utile, (entertaining and instructive), using the mot juste (right/exact word in the right place). I love American Gods, not just because it is entertaining, but I also learn something along the way, same for Invisible Monster, and so many others. Yet, there are so many other works that I read and can only say, "it was good, I was entertained, but there isn't much else to it," and that is because it does nothing to further my education as a human.

^ Yes, I think there is something in that, that we must absolutely explore. Eventually. That is right after the rest of my rant is thoroughly put to bed. But really, that dulce et utile hits on a thread in my mind, and I can't quite shake the feeling it is of vital importance.

---And Off Topic---

Since we aren't out to insult each other, waste each other's time, and we all have a vested interest in this conversation, I think we can move on from the cumbersome worry of insult or embarrassment. I think we all bring something to the table, and we all have limitations, but I still think we can at least force ourselves out of our boxes a little to maybe make us better members of the writing community. Why? Because it's our passion and what we want to do with our lives.

I'm going to spend some of this weekend working on spinning myself up on new criticism.

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 2, 2016 - 3:52pm

There are a lot of big issues touched in that last post. I'll offer my own sticking point which I believe is fundamental to the concerns regarding art & criticism.

------

Without means to discern between types of writing, all writing will be or must be treated as a single type, or as an irreducible lump of all writing. (I'll use the term "texts.") If there are no causes or means to read various texts in various ways, then fiction, non-fiction, poetry & criticism may all be read in the same way.

Some argue for readers accepting cues from the text itself on how it is to be read. But, without a tacit acknowledgement of the author, there is no reason to care about cues, no reason to treat the text with any respect (apart from some belief in texts' inherent respectability).

On the other hand, unless one is to read an instructional manual on how to read an author's work, one has nothing but prior experience and the text itself to go on. And what would a text be without its own characteristics and statements (i.e., that which might be considered cues)?

All this in mind, I can't help but believe that some level of objective certainty is necessary for any criticism to be taken seriously (even if only so seriously as to dismiss it for what it actually is). In fact, for a reader to believe a piece of criticism is in fact in any way relevant to the piece of which it is a criticism, the reader must either recognize a relationship between the two pieces, or the reader must trust the author of the criticism to be acting in good faith.

And there we see that art's and criticism's meanings or values are equally questionable; we see that one cannot evaluate opinion or interpretation with any more certainty than one may evaluate fiction or poetry (or whatever supposedly more subjective pursuits).

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money April 3, 2016 - 10:46am

I believe that is right, and that one cannot create great writing, but one can pull their weight and make it easier for the audience to say, this is great ... because.... [...] I think a writer can create great work inside the box, per se. [...] But there are writers that do things much like what artists sometimes do [...] and that is they change the landscape, they push the boundaries of what writing is, or can be. [...] but they also have to do this new thing really well, so well that people go, that's a new thing. And then others do it. [emphasis added]

Yes. Exactly... but, and this is very important to keep in mind, there is no "The Box", there is no "The Landscape", and there is no single "The New Thing". There are as many boxes as there are people trying to put artobjects in boxes. There are as many landscapes as there are cultural spaces where people meet to compare artobjects (and their boxes). Every artobject is a new thing.

But I do agree, that perhaps the best definition of "greatness" in this realm is just that work that pushes those boundaries. Work that changes the size/shape of your boxes, that changes the landscapes we put them into, that become recognized as a new thing. And these are clearly nested relationships, so while my new detective novel may be a great example of a detective novel (it's really more of a psychological thriller, though... so probably not), but if it isn't pushing the boundaries of detective novels, then it isn't as great as a Dirk Gently novel, or a Miss Marple novel, and certainly not as great as the work Poe, and Doyle, and Dickens put into creating the landscape for all the detective novels to follow.

So what I think you're going for, and I absolutely agree with, if my new thing is recognized as great, then other people will try to create similar work... similar enough that it is no longer just a thing, but we've created a box to fit all these artobjects into, and if great enough, influences other boxes, and makes new space in the landscape and even new landscapes for new boxes. Artobjects that influence this process on multiple levels are greater than works that influence this process on fewer levels, or that have no influence at all. But keep in mind, this also works in the negative, as this will become very relevant in a bit. Something can be great, and change boxes and landscapes by our attempts to exclude it, or make work specifically dissimilar to it or reactionary against it.

If we hold that it is in audience reception, then we do open the door for a huge, massive fucking problem, (pardon my fucks), and that is something along the lines of what we have now in certain aspects.

Certainly it is something along the lines of what we have now. That's simply confirmation that our articulation is correct. We are accurately describing something in the world. But given that we agree on the articulation as we have it so far: art builds on and redefines itself through cultural reception (and to be clear, I anthropomorphize art for ease of language, not from any sense of teleological guidance) and that art that builds more and/or redefines more across multiple levels of analysis is how we measure "greatness"... let me assert a proposition: This is how it has always worked. Art itself, as this self-reflecting process filtered through the culture that produces it, has never changed.

But now you say, this state of affairs, which we have just established as the logical conclusion of what we know about art and how it works, is a problem. In order to qualify this, we have to more fully examine what it is that you mean to be a problem.

Those that have the ability to control availability can guide reception to their own means.

As it has always been.

It's the record company that advertises and gets radio stations to play only their artists work. It's watching TV and seeing a commercial for yet another James Patterson novel, (no offense to Patterson, but really dude).

It's also the theater managers who don't pay Shakespeare for his plays, so he has to start his own theater company to earn a living. It's the political censors that have existed in every era dictating what can and can't be said, throwing Voltaire in jail in the same breath as giving him a medal of merit for his works, and relegating Henry Miller to being a great american author that is only read in europe. It's the T'ang dynasty imperial mandate judging who can get government jobs and sinecures based on reproducing poetic forms in exquisite calligraphy. It's the church, giving commissions to/enslaving through the patronage system of Michelanglo or Bach or Dante.

All these examples I pull out of a lecture that I think articulates the "problem" with our contemporary system that you seem to be trying to work against. Wes Cecil's entire Human Arts lecture series I think is very good, but in particular to this point in our discussion, Cultural Milieu is germane and worth your time. His main articulation, which I think is correct, follows Jacques Barzun's estimation that we are in an age of decadence, but decadence as a technical term meaning something like, having competing standards or perhaps rejecting standards as established in a classical period. For a better articulation of that you'd have to read From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present - 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Barzun.

But as far as your articulation of the problem goes so far, you seem to be hitting on some of the points Adorno makes, so you may also want to read up on his (and Horkheimer's) essays "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" and "Culture Industry Reconsidered". Though keep in mind that Adorno has a particularly Marxist/Freudian point of view, and while very insightful, I think leads to the unnecessarily extreme position that because of the corruption of capitalism (i.e. your record companies and tv advertisers) on our (i.e. american) perspectives, we are basically incapable of producing or appreciating art. I think the argument goes, not only do they control the access, but because of how access is granted and art is distributed, it isn't even art in the first place. He has a particular hatred for Film and Television... both immediately proscribed from being art because they are unidirectional and static, with no room for the imagination. Something like that. Another thinker that directly takes on mediums this way is McLuhan, "The Medium is the Message" and though not as extreme, he does also say that the medium has qualitative effects on art forms.

If we are to make this work, I think we need watch dogs, and multiple tiers to make sure we haven't just blindly grabbed the first cracker we see and say it's the best ever.

But what is the difference between your "elite scholar watch dogs" and the elite business watch dogs that are in place now? Your argument seems to say "the problem is that there are people in positions of power controlling access, so we need to put people in power to control access to fix this." You haven't solved the problem.

Now presumably this elitist class of scholars will be mandated by their watch dogs to make their decisions based on "what's best for literature" and not something like "what's best for my career as an elitist scholar", but if this is the only difference you propose from what we have now, all you're advocating for is another type of classism, just a classism of academia instead of money. And at least in the current system, people are at least given the illusion of choice and control (and I'm not particularly pessimistic on this point and would say it's not just an illusion) over where the culture that they are a part of goes. Your system wants to treat everybody as a child that has to be controlled, and what determines where our culture goes is not the people that constitute the culture, but this elite group of scholars.

Now you seem to be trying to have a system of controls that will prevent things like 50 Shades of Gray from happening. Such that, if we had an objective set of models, we'd never consider anything so poorly written so highly (or at least highly enough to spend money on and grant cultural capital talking about) but here's the irony of that; we have an objective model, and it is just that objective model that produced 50 Shades of Gray. And here you may want to read Adorno's Negative Dialectics, every objective model will produce its antithetical example, because it has clearly defined it. And since objective models can't give value judgment, we will always do it. Just to see what happens? Just because we can? Just because fuck the police? Just because? It's Doestoyevsky's Underground Man. It's Freud's unconscious, Jung's Shadow.

Every objective model for literature produces its own 50 Shades of Gray. And every objective model has always done so. All objective definitions for art will always be unsatisfactory or incomplete. You can never establish a set of rules or standards by which to judge a thing that embodies breaking rules and redefining boundaries as prima facie "great". The first thing we'd do is make fun of the scholar watch dogs and break their rules in the most extreme way possible, as we always have. If we say character, plot, and setting must work together as a cohesive whole, supporting and informing each other as an aesthetically pleasing form... then Burroughs says, "Naked Lunch to all that," and Beckett says "The Unnamable," and Wilson and Shea say "Illuminatus! Trilogy". We say there should be "[...] music to their prose, the know how to use plosives, fricatives, etc. effectively. Rhetoric is used with great effect, asyndetons, understatement, litotes, etc." And they said, "No, we don't need any of that stylistic crap. Give me simple words in a clear understandable way." We get Hemingway diametrically opposed to Faulkner's stylistics. We get the entire Minimalist project. "They have an ability to make fiction the truth [...]" and we said no. We don't want that. We want narrators to lie to us. We want stories we can take at face value and don't have to think about, because the fiction and truth values are set out for us ahead of time. We get genre fiction.

If audience reception is the marker, there is more to it than just the number of people that agree with it.

Yes, and no. Again, you're conflating audience enjoyment with the artistic merit of a work. That's not what this is about. Indeed, 50 Shades being the case in point, I think that if it does turn out to be a piece of great writing it will be because of all the people that don't agree with it. If we are still talking about it 50 or 100 or 500 years from now, likely it will be because we said, "Nope! Not doing that again. How awful was that? Look here kids, this is how you don't write mommy-porn." (Or at least if you do, have Gilbert Gottfried do the audiobook version.) But ultimately I think it will disappear and be forgotten like so much other not great writing that is produced every day. But if we are still talking about it in 500 years and saying, "Wasn't 50 Shades of Gray great?" it will be because it is great, that is what makes it great. It is just as true as us saying now, "Isn't Shakespeare great?" To say it has to be more than the "number of people" is to pretend that millions of people don't still read and engage with and experience Shakespeare every year... for going on 400 years, and if the Open Syllabus Project is any indicator, will continue to. That is way more than the 100+ million copies 50 Shades sold.

So now we have people able to manipulate supply to the audience, those capable of keeping the audience's taste in check to a point but typically have little oversight, other than they teach themselves, and now (as I'm about to become a part of,) teach the writers about great writing, per se.

This was the problem we have right now, right? Some people manipulate accessibility. You just want to do more of the same. How does that fix the "problem"? It's the "manipulating accessibility" and trying to "control tastes" that is the problem. Whether you're doing it for money or doing it for "scholarship", it's the same thing. Again, what is the problem with the state of affairs? Articulate that first, then we can try to find a solution. And for me, that solution is in the individual, you can't impose it from the outside.

But really, that dulce et utile hits on a thread in my mind, and I can't quite shake the feeling it is of vital importance.

Actually, that is sort of the problem, right? By saying great writing should be both entertaining and educating, that is to say that education is not entertaining, and entertainment is not educational. That we are talking about two separate things. And if we can separate the two things then we can have a class of works that are "only" educational (and so may have value on some other level, but otherwise obscured from artistic investigation) and likewise works that are "only" entertaining (and again, obscured from artistic investigation) and the goal of great writing to combine these two separate things. But I think it goes even deeper than that.

This is to fundamentally misunderstand both how education and entertainment work. I would agree however, that our culture as a whole, misunderstands this. I don't think you are alone or wrong for having this idea, but I do think it is in fact one of the sources of the problems you're trying to articulate.

All entertainment is about attention. What we pay attention to is entertaining. If it's not entertaining, we don't pay attention to it. We say it's boring, it's not worth spending our attention on, it's not worth knowing about.

All education is about attention. What we pay attention to, we learn. If it's not educating us, we aren't paying attention to it. We ignore it, we don't spend our attention on it, we say it's not worth knowing about.

So yes, you are right, that dulce et utile is key, and great writing is educational and entertaining but that is because education and entertainment both revolve around the same system of attention. We have evolved to find learning things pleasurable. That is one of the most basic of human pleasures. When we are entertained, it is because we are learning something. If we are learning something, it is because we are entertained. Now, there probably is some space between the two, otherwise our culture wouldn't have been able to wedge the two apart so thoroughly, so I don't want to simply assert that they are just the same thing (actually I really want to, but I don't think I can) but perhaps they are the two faces of the same coin... stamped on the die of attention or something like that. They are intimately related. And their involvement with artistic investigations is only hampered by talking about them as separate phenomena.

But again, I go on too long and belabor points... Good reading on your New Criticism, though I don't think you have much to learn about it. Everything you brought up in the second paragraph "character/setting/plot/rhetoric/music" is exactly what New Criticism is looking at. You already do New Criticism, especially if you've grown up in american public schools, you just call it interpreting a text.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 3, 2016 - 11:44am

^ More good points. I haven't actually read the book, but Negative Dialectics sounds like it might be compatible with my thinking.

Define & establish an artistic ideal, and someone will do the opposite. Without actual censors or watchdogs, it will slip through at some point. Obviously, scholastic and commercial watchdogs can operate differently; obviously, it's also conceivable they'd both be tapped by some higher influence to use their varied means to single ends.

"Attention" as a metric for greatness is problematic. An untranslated Maori epic poem (hypothetical, I know of none) is inacessible to the overwhelming majority: it can't receive their attention. Is it any less great? Naturally, this again confronts the meaning of "greatness" among other things.

I'm not sure I actually believe in real artistic "greatness" apart from the evaluation of experts. I value expertise, but I'm not in thrall to it. I don't much care for critics whose agenda would appear to be the elevation or protection of criticism itself. If a criticism has something to offer me, I'll feel it when I read it — same as with a work of art. (Or is it? Possibly there's potential for similar experience; yet another question . . .)

XyZy's picture
XyZy from New York City is reading Seveneves and Animal Money April 3, 2016 - 12:32pm

Without means to discern between types of writing, all writing will be or must be treated as a single type, or as an irreducible lump of all writing. (I'll use the term "texts.")

Actually, I think that's backwards. True, but backwards. We don't ever encounter texts as irreducible lumps of writing. We encounter texts as novels, poems, short-stories, movies. We encounter them as the discernments we make between them, that we are always already making. If we get to a point where a particular text doesn't fit into the discerments we have been making about it (Oh, this was a horror short-story all along, not a love poem) then it shifts to a different type or it then turns into an irreducible lump of writing, and we say "What is this? I can't even read this?"

Although, to be fair, we do encounter some texts as irreducible lumps of writing. Foreign language texts in particular. Because this process works on multiple levels of abstraction. That's what it means to be indiscernable, we can't make meaning of it at all. This is one of the points of Saussure's semiotics; signs are differential.

If there are no causes or means to read various texts in various ways, then fiction, non-fiction, poetry & criticism may all be read in the same way.

Yes. And this is true, isn't it? The famous example (I can't remember who brought it up, but I know Bakhtin comments on it) is interpreting a grocery list as a poem. We can read various texts in various ways. We do it all the time. Therefor, there must be no causes or means to do so. This is one of the other points of Saussure, signs are arbitrary. What does give causes or means to interpretation is convention.

Some argue for readers accepting cues from the text itself on how it is to be read. But, without a tacit acknowledgement of the author, there is no reason to care about cues, no reason to treat the text with any respect

Indeed. Death of the Author. But the formalists would say, yes, we don't need any input from the author to make structural interpretations of the text, we need only the structure of the text. Respect doesnt even enter into it. If you are interpreting the structure of the text without referring to the text (by including things that aren't in the text, or not including things that are in the text) then you aren't even talking about the text at all anyway. You may be doing something, but it isn't interpreting the text. Or at least you aren't being objective... and formalisms are all attempts to be objective with text.

On the other hand, unless one is to read an instructional manual on how to read an author's work, one has nothing but prior experience and the text itself to go on.

It's even stickier than that. Even if you had an instruction manual, it would still only be a part of past experience that you then combine with the text to interpret it. All you will ever have is the text itself and what you can bring to it.

And what would a text be without its own characteristics and statements (i.e., that which might be considered cues)?

And here you've lost me. This feels like a non sequitur. How do we get from "if we don't have an instruction manual to read a text" to "texts become characteristicless"? If you can get meaning from a text at all it is because you are already following cues. If you cannot follow the cues, then it ceases to be a text and becomes an irrdeucible lump of writing. So yes, that is problem in interpretation (a text without that which might be considered cues) but that also means you aren't even reading it at all. And you don't need an instruction manual from the author to find cues. We almost never have one, and we read things all the time.

I think the word you are looking for is convetion. Writing is conventional. That's what gives all the reasons and cues and characteristics that we use to interpret texts.

All this in mind, I can't help but believe that some level of objective certainty is necessary for any criticism to be taken seriously (even if only so seriously as to dismiss it for what it actually is).

And yet, we do so anyway.

In fact, for a reader to believe a piece of criticism is in fact in any way relevant to the piece of which it is a criticism, the reader must either recognize a relationship between the two pieces, or the reader must trust the author of the criticism to be acting in good faith.

Absolutely, and we do so all the time without any objective certainty. We are actually very good at understanding things in context. Whether this allows for communication or is because of communication, I'm not sure, but communication isn't the problem. Recognizing relationships is not the problem. We're very good at that. Otherwise we would not estimate so highly those pieces of speech that set out to obsfucate communication (i.e. literature). If it were so difficult to communicate, we wouldn't find difficult communications worth valueing so highly.

And there we see that art's and criticism's meanings or values are equally questionable; we see that one cannot evaluate opinion or interpretation with any more certainty than one may evaluate fiction or poetry

And? Remember this process happens at all levels, that's the point of semiotics. To say "that we can't evaluate criticism's meaning statements that lack objective certainty with any degree of seriousness" filters down to statements in of themselves. "We can't evaluate statements of meaning that lack objective certainty with any degree of seriousness."

But we do. We take statements as meaningful without objective certainty, with all degrees of seriousness, all the time. And have done so for thousands of years. It is in fact how language works. So either there is an objective certainty there that we are tacitly taking seriously (which I think unlikely, but if you want to put this somewhere in our biology/evolution I would follow for a bit) or we don't need objective certainty to take things seriously.

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 3, 2016 - 3:23pm

First, as you respond point by point, I wonder what you think I'm attempting to do. I'm not trying to enlighten you or impress you. Are you replying to my post without any regard for what I intended? Are you rationally estimating my aims? Or are you replying in whatever way feels good / apt / enjoyable / educational?

I didn't say texts become characteristcless. Texts will always have characteristics. That isn't what I said, so I wonder about your conclusions therefrom. (Though it doesn't seem as though all of your statements thereafter depend on this.)

Then you say we do this or that "without any objective certainty." How can one assert the non-existence of certainty?

I don't believe systems of signification can exist within but not without.