Thursday, 06 July 2006

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Iatrogenic Follies & Literary Studies While answering forgotten boy's question about the necessity of a theory of mind to literary studies, I recalled a conversation with a fellow graduate student had about a week ago: Him: The interplay of the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary are an aid to serious thought. They provide a systematic way of thinking through issues that, when applied to literature, open new avenues of investigation . . . Me: But do you believe in the processes by which the Lacanian Tripartite comes into existence? Him: I don't have to. The system itself describes something interesting about human experience, how it's translated into literature . . . Me: But that system has to come into existence. Him: No it doesn't. It has to do its job and it does. Me: Couldn't almost any system so applied do the same job? I mean, why not a vertical hydrocarbon diffusion theory of ideology? Him: Because Lacan's talking about the mind . . . Me: So a groundless, bullshit theory of human cognition tops a sound, scientific theory when applied to literature? I mean, if its origins really don't matter, why does bullshit cognitive theory trump solid chemical theory? Him: I see where you're headed with this, but Freud and Lacan were describing human relations, so their theories . . . Me: Their bullshit theories . . . Him: Their theories of human cognition are more likely to correspond to the kind of things you find in literature. Me: Do you mind if I make you like an idiot when I post this? Him: Only if you make yourself look like a hectoring asshole. Me: Done. Notice how my interlocutor granted me the argumentative edge—Freud and Lacan are pseudoscience—but then tried to sneak it in the backdoor by claiming that, removed of its baggage, psychoanalysis can still produce interesting readings of literature. I could almost find the strong form of that particular argument convincing: i.e. that since Freud explicated works of literature and Lacan translated those explications into structural linguistics, the insights generated by psychoanalytic theory are fundamentally literary. Had that argument surfaced, I would have had problems side-stepping it (for reasons I'll return to shortly). My friend's initial concession denuded psychoanalytic theory of its inherent explanatory power. No longer could the truth-claims of psychoanalytic theory justify the interpretative moves made through it. The justification becomes something more literary—something like "generative of interesting readings"—but it also lost its purchase, in that it is no longer descriptive of a cognitive process. At this point, you can't argue that a vertical hydrocarbon diffusion theory of literary interpretation is inherently irrelevant, only that it's bad. If the psychoanalytic model works even if stripped of its cognitive content, then other models, ones which contain no cognitive content, could generate equally pregnant analogies applied alongside literary texts. The common response—"Then why aren't there any out already?"—I can answer by appealing to the argument my friend doesn't want to make. Namely, that there is something ludicrous about scouring the...

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