‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Talking Back To Fiction: or, Gee, I Really Hope Somebody Got Fired For That Blunder

In a 2004 essay on philosophical fiction the late, lamented Jerry Fodor argues that, though ‘the philosophical novel’ is a well-established mode, viz. ‘Comp. Lit. 102: readings in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Sartre’ (‘little or no philosophical sophistication required’), in fact philosophy and fiction aren’t particularly miscible. Fodor sees metaphysicians and novelists as doing quite different things: ‘practically by definition, theories traffic in abstractions; they purport to see where the eye does not. Novels, by contrast, tend to be concerned with the surfaces of things.’ Then he says this:
Philosophical theories are worse candidates than most for novelistic treatment. The whole function of a philosophy is to be argued with, pro or con, and it is churlish to argue with a novel: ‘Call me Ishmael.’ I won’t! ‘About two in the morning he returned to his study.’ In fact, it was nearer 3.15. You can’t talk back to a novel: ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ and ‘Why should I believe that?’ are out of place. But these are the queries that philosophers want to test their theories on; not just because philosophers are churlish by profession, but also because theories to which such questions aren’t posed can get away with murder.
Reading this I was, to use the old nautical cliché, taken aback. If Fodor had spent as much time in the halls of Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom as I have, I fancy he wouldn’t have been so blithely confident that readers of novels don’t answer back. Nor is it just SF/F, of course. As with many things, The Simpsons has a meme for this. In ‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show’ (s8 ep14, first shown 1997) the ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ producers decide to liven the show by adding a new character—voiced by Homer—Poochie, a dog with ‘attitude’ who surfs, raps, and plays electric guitar. Homer accompanies the stars of the show at a fan convention, when they field questions like this:
“In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy's skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a... [nerdy chuckle] a magic xylophone or something? Gee, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.”
It’s funny because it’s true. It’s been recognised as true (and therefore funny) at least since William Shatner’s Saturday Night Live ‘Get a Life!’ sketch in 1986. Fans talk back to their novels (and films, and games, and comics) all the time.

I suppose it’s the case that a hefty proportion of fans talking back concerns franchises rather than single texts, because one thing that grinds fandom’s gears is: inconsistencies in worldbuilding and character-development. This can be specifics, where things happen that don’t fit the material specificities of earlier instalments, or where the timeline goes screwy, or it can be more about a perception of tone, or vibe: as when fandom divides into two shouty cohorts, one declaring vehemently that Star Wars Corporate Product Movie/Game/Novel x+1 doesn’t ‘feel’ like a proper Star Wars text and the other insisting just as vehemently that it does. “J J Abrams’ can’t capture the true Star Wars-ness of Star Wars” is one version of this argument, which is interesting to me in that if the Star Wars sequel trilogy shows one thing very clearly it is Abrams sweating with the exertion of pastiche-ing Star Wars as energetically and completely as possible, cramming in as many easter eggs as the basket can hold. That, though, doesn’t capture echt-Star Warsosity for many.

But bald issues of consistency and canonicity aren’t the only things that provoke fans to answer their texts back. Another is: problems with diversity, the use of derogatory stereotypes and so on. A third, more meta- point of fannish engagement has to do with genre itself. Many’s the SF fan who will talk loudly back at even a standalone SF novel because it is not ‘proper’ SF, or because it doesn’t get the physics right, or is too long, or too short, or too infodumpy or whatever.

I was going to add something here to the effect that literary criticism is a mode of talking back at texts too, but actually I’m not so sure. In one sense, of course, it’s absolutely literary criticism’s job to look at a sentence like ‘Call me Ishmael’ and interrogate it. But the specific challenge Fodor presents—the ‘no! in thunder’ he implies—is rarely part of the idiom of literary criticism, actually. There have been one or two notable flame wars, but mostly we academic critics are politely, even mouse-ishly, happy to busy ourselves contributing to an ongoing accretive discourse. This may be one of the things that differentiates critics from fans, actually.

It’s also, of course, about the willing suspension of disbelief. One of my boy Coleridge’s most influential ideas, this, although I’m not sure I see that ‘will’ is actually the mot juste. We do indeed suspend our disbelief when we read, see a play or watch a movie, but this is rarely a matter of active will. It is, on the contrary, a habitual decoupling of aspects of our natural scepticism that we learn, or are acculturated into, when we’re young and that become second-nature by the time we’re adults. The withdrawal from scepticism could be called ‘gullibility’, and in a sense I suppose we are gullible for stories: fools for them, holy fools even. But there are degrees, or perhaps whole separate magisteria, within the realm of ‘gullibility’ and it’s possible to moderate our ingenuousness without shouting at the text ‘Emma Woodhouse handsome clever and rich …’ OH YEAH? FOR ALL I KNOW SHE WAS POOR AND UGLY—HELL, SHE NEVER EVEN EXISTED AT ALL, WAKE UP SHEEPLE. An argument with somebody can be a slanging match, sure; or it can be a civilised debate. The thing is, I’m not sure either paradigm describes what critics—and most readers—do with texts. Something far less specifically engaged, mostly. Something rather more passive-aggressive.

The point is that books can’t answer back, or not very well. If we’re arguing with a version of a book we have in our head then I suppose it might answer back, to some extent, but only in the echo-chamber sense that we're using the text to talk to ourselves, actually. If we’re arguing with an author—with J K Rowling for instance, something many hostile and abusive people do on social media daily—then we’ve missed the point.

Our talking-back at books, as fans and critics, is Socratic, but in a very particular sense of Socratic. I'm talking about the way Socrates knows it all, and his interlocuters know nothing, so that Plato has to gussy-up a series of what are, we can be honest, monologues with repeated interjections from the other guys of ‘how true that is!’ and ‘I see!’ and the like. T H Irwin puts it well: ‘Socrates conducts strenuous, maddening and one-sided discussions of moral questions with interlocutors who lack his argumentative skill. … Socrates needs to assume that his discussions with interlocutors involve a genuine and honest exercise of the interlocutors’ capacity for moral judgment, and that their capacity for moral judgment is both reliable and corrigible. … It is far more difficult to decide whether the assumptions are plausible.’ Assume it’s a free-and-fair exchange of views and you’ll probably conclude: they thrashed these complex ideas out and all agreed that Socrates is right! But we can be honest. A debate between Socrates and Some-schmuckates was never going to be free and fair.

I suppose another way of seeing these dialogues is picturing Socrates as Tom Hanks in ragged shorts with a huge beard and his interlocuters as a basketball with a face painted on it in blood. Of course they’re going to agree with Socrates. They exist in order to affirm that Socrates is right. That’s baked into the form itself. Can you imagine a dialogue that went…
SOCRATES: Do you not agree that ideas must be derived from a previous state of existence because they are more perfect than the sensible forms given them by experience? If the soul existed in a previous state then it will exist in a future state, for a law of alternation pervades all things. And, if the ideas exist, then the soul exists; if not, not.

CEBES: But I can hold in my mind the idea of an inexistent soul. Therefore, if my idea exists, the soul cannot.

SOCRATES: [long pause] You know what? You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. Bollocks. Ah well, maybe I’ll get it right next time. Let’s grab some moussaka.
Of course not. That’s not the idiom of the Platonic dialogues. And my point is: this Socratic exchange is, actually, how we argue with our books. The books to which we subject our reaction are Cebeses and Menos and Critos, whose role is to nod and say ‘yes indeed’ and ‘truly’ and ‘of course’ and we monologue at them with our own obsessions and fascinations and needs and failings. As they talk about philosophy as footnotes to Plato, so the history of fan and critical engagements with literature is all footnotes to Plato.

One way of reading Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ is to see it this way, as a manifestation of the urge to keep our texts as Wilson-the-Basketballs and not have to complicate stuff by learning, let us say, that J K Rowling’s views on the reality of biological sex differs from ours, and whatnot. When this latter happens (which is to say, when a book we have interrogated Socratically to the point where its ‘Quite right, Socrates!’; ‘Correct!’; ‘Indeed, yes!’ and so on have convinced us that it cleaves to our very soul—reveals itself, in its author's eyes at any rate, to be doing something that doesn't, actually) the sting is sharp, and we can lash out.


  1. On gullibility: there's gullibility and gullibility. We laugh at this fellow because he's too gullible, he has, we could say, over- suspended his disbelief; although we're also laughing a little at ourselves, since what Prince George does here is actually only an exaggerated form of what we all do, all the time, when we read books and watch movies and go to the theatre.

  2. In this vein, and as a big fan of your work, I thought this post was going to be more about why philosophy is absolutely the most appropriate subject for a novel. Which leads me to: when are you going to publish your sequel to The Thing Itself? (I heard there might be something Hegel-y in the works?).

    1. I have two novels written, one of which is the something Hegel-y of which you speak; but I think that one needs more work. So maybe next year?

    2. As a fan, I can honestly say that we all look forward to picking apart any inconsistencies between the two books! ;)

  3. Fodor's comparison depends on a simple (but common) P.O.V. error: he assumes that the reader of philosophy is a philosopher (a fellow producer) but the reader of fiction is merely a reader (a target consumer). As a reader of philosophy my primary duty is to try to go along with the philosophical text (at least to the point that I throw it across the room in disgust), just as with fiction. And WRITERS of fiction explicitly argue with the fiction they read: that's where a lot of new fiction comes from.

    And isn't the troubling thing about fans (for those who find them troubling) their assumption of creator rights absent any creator responsibilities?

    Looking forward with some dread to the Kant sequel -- Hegel can go dystopian in so many directions!

    1. Yes: every writer is a reader but not every reader is a writer.

      I don't disagree with what you say about fans, although I suppose I'm puzzling a smidge over what "creator responsibilities" actually are.

      One (but by no means all) of the problems with The Hegel Book is that I've called it The This after one of the sub-section headings in the Phenomenology and my publishers think this a terrible title, liable to confuse bookscan and potential readers alike.

    2. "Creator responsibilities" -- having to make a living is a big one. Just keeping it interesting is something fans (and the biggest blockbuster writers/philosophers who live well off them) don't have to worry about. Marketable titles.

    3. There are creators for whom that is a consideration I suppose, but, I don't know: perhaps fewer than you might think? I'm a creator and I don't, I'm sorry to say, make a living from what I do. Thus I have a day-job to cover the mortgage etc, and almost all the writers I know personally either (a) do likewise, (b) are independently wealthy or (c) have finanically supportive partners. I know some writers who make a healthy living, but they're very much the exception rather than the rule I think. At the other end of course are the big-sellers who make not just a living but a fortune from what they do, and that means they have hordes of fans; and that, I suppose, might impose a responsibility, to protect their brand and keep their fans sweet. But then again, such figures may think: "I've already made more money than I can ever spend. Why should I bother? Why not just be myself?"

  4. This reader hopes you win the battle to keep that title.

  5. The post reminds me of a time when I was nitpicking a recent science fiction movie with my brother-in-law and his adult daughters (we're all nerds). My wife asked why we couldn't just enjoy the movie, to which I replied, "We're nerds; this is how we enjoy movies!"

  6. As always, a stimulating post, and as always, I learned something. This time, however, you got my dander up by dissing Socrates. Such an uncharitable (though funny) characterization! I’ll note that for every Cebes, Menos, or Critos, there’s a Parmenides, or Protagoras, or Callicles, or even a drunken Alcibiades who either schools Socrates, stalemates him, or just refuses to play by his rules. Socrates doesn’t overcome every interlocutor.

    The funny thing is, the observation that writing can’t respond to questions was original to Plato’s Phaedrus (to my knowledge). Footnote to Plato indeed.

    1. Fair point! It's most Socrates, though (maybe?) but, no, you're right, not all Socrates.

  7. I think that dialogue is more possible for books and films, and such constructed with sufficient deliberation to stand up to repeat viewings. Suspension of disbelief is certainly one of the starting ways we can listen to a book. But I think critical techniques like looking for textual evidence can offer some opportunity for fruitful dialogue even if we don't like what a book has to say.

    I think both nitpicking and extrapolation based on minimal textual evidence can make for fun conversations between fans but, as you say, aren't typically in dialogue with the book. But one reason they aren't is that they are often focus their attention on something the author(s) were less concerned with rather than paying attention to what the creator(s) seek to talk about. When arguing on the creator(s) favored ground, I've found there's more chance for the work itself, or other interpreters, to surprise me and make me declare its time to grab some moussaka.