Rhetorical ectoplasm

The title of this post comes from a comment that Northrop Frye makes in the ‘Polemical Introduction’ to his collection of essays, Anatomy of Criticism (1957) when he talks about criticism trying to find a personality behind an author’s work. I wondered then if this whole enterprise might not be about wrestling with rhetorical ectoplasm.

I also noticed, as I began to write this commentary on the ‘Polemical Introduction’ that the book’s title has no preceding article, definite or indefinite. I am not sure whether this is significant or not, but it seems to be of a piece with an uncertainty that pervades the entire introduction, and possibly the four essays, the uncertainty of the critic trying to work out where he belongs. ‘Anatomy’ points us towards the idea of the dissection of an existing body and to a desire to find out what is going on underneath the skin. The body lies on the dissecting table, anonymous, bereft of articles. I have the sense that we may already be in trouble. We do not dissect the living. Has criticism already died, or will it be granted a reprieve?

Polemical Introduction

It is perhaps also worth pausing for a moment to think about what ‘polemical’ suggests. Frye is clearly inviting controversy, debate, dispute. He implies that he is looking for an argument; it is up to us as readers to offer that argument if we can.

And yet, even as he challenges us with the title, in the very first paragraph of the introduction, when he lays out his vision of the ‘Anatomy’, Frye immediately offers caveats: ‘[t]he gaps in the subject as treated here are too enormous for the book ever to be regarded as presenting my system, or even my theory’ before inviting us to consider the essays as ‘an interconnected group of suggestions’. There also seems to be a certain amount of foot-shuffling and throat-clearing going on as he lays out his intentions. We should view these essays, he says, in the original sense of the word’s meaning, as ‘a trial or an incomplete attempt’. He is offering possibilities, and offering them tentatively.

And what is Frye attempting to do? Two things. First, he will argue for ‘the possibility of a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles and techniques of literary criticism’. Secondly, he will try to convince his readers that such a view is attainable. Which, of course, suggests that doubts have been expressed, though by whom he doesn’t say. Perhaps he expects his readers to do the same.

Frye’s first key point is a definition of sorts, namely that criticism is ‘the whole work of scholarship and taste concerned with literature’. It is not very precise, and one thing that will become apparent during a reading of the Polemical Introduction is that Frye seems to find a certain amount of difficulty in offering a proper definition of criticism because the concept itself will prove to resist easy explanation. Indeed, Frye immediately has to leap to the defence of literary criticism as an art in itself rather than being a parasitic form of literary expression: in other words, those who can do, those who can’t instead teach. I can’t decide whether it is more depressing to consider that this argument was already in play almost 55 years ago or that we are still having to deal with it in 2011.

Similarly, all these years later we are still pondering whether the critic is a non-productive intellectual or some sort of cultural middle-man. For that matter, do we even need a cultural middle-man? Frye’s view seems to be that yes, some sort of intermediary is required. The public needs critics, in part to avoid impoverishing or losing its cultural memory, and in part, and more vitally, because: ‘[c]riticism can talk and all the arts are dumb’. This is, I think, a powerful and provocative statement. If the arts are dumb, what is their purpose or role? Why do people create? And, if the arts are dumb, is criticism, which speaks on behalf of the arts, no longer an art? This also, I think, throws open other issues for discussion, about the critic’s suggested role as an interpreter of the arts.

Whatever else it might be, Frye is keen to separate the critic from the artist. Or rather, in acknowledging that artists may also be critics, they cannot be critics, and here I think he means interpreters, of their own work. They might, as Frye notes, have a ‘peculiar interest, but not a peculiar authority’. Frye’s concern is to establish that the critic as ‘his own field of activity’, and that he has autonomy within that field’. Beyond that, ‘criticism deals with literature in terms of a specific conceptual framework’. In suggesting this, Frye – and here I think I’m correct in saying he was writing prior to the rise of continental philosophy as an influence in literary theory in the US – is keen to dismiss external belief systems, such as Marxism. (Somehow, I can’t imagine Frye ever being enthusiastic about Theory.) However, what he seems to struggle with in turn is deriving a system from literature itself. An understanding of good taste is insufficient, and properly so, not least because, as Frye recognises, taste is as much a social issue as it is a matter of judging one book or author against another, and tastes change.

I must admit this gave me pause for thought when I began to think about what I do as a writer of reviews and commentary. On what do I draw when making a judgement on whether I consider a novel to be successful or not, on why I do or don’t like it. Which brings us to Frye’s attempts to conceptualise the critic. On the one hand, we have the scholar who tries to make the study of literature possible, and on the other, what Frye calls the public critic, the person who assumes that literature exists. Somewhere between the two, in a mysteriously indefinable place, stands the critic Frye envisages, as much scientist as artist, practising:

an intermediate form of criticism, a coherent and comprehensive theory of literature, logically and scientifically organized, some of which the student learns unconsciously as he goes on, but the main principles of which are as yet unknown to us.

Except that, annoyingly, what one might for lack of any better terminology term a ‘grand unified theory of literary criticism’ doesn’t seem to exist. If anything, there is a space where it ought to be and other disciplines are squabbling over occupancy of that space. Frye therefore embarks on a lengthy exercise to determine what a systematic conceptual framework of literary criticism might look like, using inductive principles. What is striking to me throughout this exercise is how much it seems to rely on saying what literary criticism doesn’t do, what it shouldn’t do.

Take, for example, the issue of value judgements, whether one book is better than another or worse. Frye identifies two kinds of value-judgement, comparative and positive. The first he associates with what he calls biographical criticism, which relates the work to the man (and something I personally prefer not to practise unless circumstances absolutely demand it; occasionally an author’s work runs very close to their biography). Positive criticism Frye associates with what he calls tropical criticism, dealing comparatively with style and craftsmanship, which is, I guess, part of what I do, but Frye was arguing that literary value-judgements generally are projections of social judgements. Taking a modern example one might crudely say that, for example, Trainspotting isn’t as good as a novel with rather nicer people in it.

As Frye works his way through this process of attempting to construct a framework, the problems keep on piling up. Obviously there is more going on in there than a matter of taste, but what is it?. Frye pinpoint one problems as the relationship between the value-judgement and the actual experience of reading, which is not accessible to us. Accountable only through terminology, it doesn’t recapture the experience of reading, only of generating criticism. On the other hand, simply to draw on a widening body of material read is insufficient. As Frye himself puts it, the danger is of settling into a general stupor of satisfaction with everything written, which is clearly not acceptable.

My initial thoughts on the introduction: there are complex arguments at play here and though I’ve read the introduction twice now, I’m looking forward to the discussion with the other members of this reading group, and anyone else who cares to join in, to try to clarify various aspects of Frye’s project (I’ve not yet read the rest of the essays so I have no idea in which directions Frye himself will head).

It is striking that, for Frye at least, little if any significant progress had been made in developing a systematic approach to literary criticism since Aristotle’s poetics. Sidney’s Defence of Poesy and Coleridge’s voluminous writings are not mentioned in this introduction, with not even a hint of Burke on the sublime, or of Keats’s letters, all of which come immediately to my mind. Which suggests to me that Frye is definitely looking for something detached from the artist’s point of view.

I am still not entirely clear about Frye’s conception of the critic, as distinct from the public man of taste or the scholar, perhaps because, on the one hand, I wonder if my general reviewing doesn’t belong in the former category, and on the other hand, I am also an academic. I’m constantly seeking to bring my academic skills to bear on my reviewing in a way that makes them more generally accessible but I am not always sure they make a good fit with one another. I wonder if Frye will show me a way of reconciling these points of view.

On an historical note, I was also struck by the fact that Frye’s critical landscape consists primarily of white male writers, mostly dead ones; according to the index, Frye mentions Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield, Marianne Moore, Amanda Ros, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, of whom the only one still living when the book was published was Moore. I think the index lists more female characters than female writers. Which is not to criticise Frye in particular but it’s always a shock to me when I read back to a past when female writers were mainly invisible.


11 thoughts on “Rhetorical ectoplasm

  1. Paul Kincaid

    I intend to comment on this at rather longer length later today, but for the moment a couple of thoughts about the title.I assume, from the word 'Anatomy', this this work is meant descriptively rather than prescriptively. In other words, it is meant as a description of the workings, the various bones, sinews, organs that go to make up the body of criticism. (I have to say, having read ahead somewhat, that this isn't always obvious in the essays: it can, in places, be an extraordinarily prescriptive form of description.)But if the book is descriptive in intent, why is the Introduction 'Polemical'? That suggests something rather more prescriptive to me: this is how it should be and damn the torpedoes! So the two titles we are dealing with right from the start indicate a tension in what Frye is doing. Now, tension isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, but as I read through the book I find myself being pulled in two different directions, and I'm not altogether sure that Frye knew which direction he wanted to go in. I suspect this is of a piece with the uncertainty that you detect.

  2. Jonathan M

    I agree Paul, there's a real tension between the title of the book and the title of the introduction. You'd expect an anatomy to be descriptive of an existing body but the introduction is polemical in that he seems less interested in what criticism IS doing than what it SHOULD be doing.Reading the introduction, I was struck be two quite strong and confliction impressions. On the one hand – not much seems to have changed since Frye was writing. Here's the tension between the academic critic and the amateur critic, there's the belief that there's something not quite right about taking Theories developed to describe one thing and using them to look at another and over there in the corner is a bit of defensiveness about the respectability of criticism as an intellectual endeavor in its own right.But on the other hand – There is something deeply old fashioned about his belief that there might be some mature version of literary criticism that might allow us to effectively dissect any new work of literature that comes along. This really is an approach from another age… it's like the idea that our understanding of human nature might one day become so perfect that sociology might become a science. That positivistic hopefulness really has completely fallen by the wayside and nowadays nobody argues that we might one day come up with a science of literary criticism.Together these two sets of emotions make me think that while much of the intellectual climate has changed, the position of the critic has not.On the issue of critic vs. general man of taste, I'd interpret those remarks as being part of a professional land-grab by academic critics who essentially wanted to force all the amateurs out of the market (in fact, you could argue that the rise of theory was a product of this desire for a professional monopoly – only professional critics would have the time to read the books AND all the theory and so be able to join in the commentary)… so I read Frye's quite snippy comments on amateur critics to be an expression of a desire for an intellectual monopoly on the activity of criticism.

  3. Paul Kincaid

    As a critic, the first thing I felt on reading the Polemical Introduction was flattered. The thing is full of gung-ho, ra-ra cheerleading for criticism. "Art for art's sake is a retreat from criticism which ends in an impoverishment of civilised life itself." "Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb." "The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with." How can you come away from all that not feeling a glow of importance about your place in the universe?Of course, I react to flattery with doubt.Doubts start to creep in when I read: "The framework is not that of literature itself, for this is the parasite theory again, but neither is it something outside literature, for in that case the autonomy of criticism would again disappear, and the whole subject would be assimilated to something else." As Maureen says, this is defining criticism by what it is not, which is a poor way to go about things. It is also an indicator of that uncertainty, that hesitation I pointed to in my previous comment. And on top of that, you feel he is trying to lay out his stall in opposition to Marxist criticism, though I never felt he had made his case./ to be continued

  4. Paul Kincaid

    /part two …In this discussion there was a key point when I read: "Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these." Of course, by his insistence on "induction" he is setting up an argument for criticism as a science, whereas the Theorists who came after would, I suspect, see it more as a philosophy. But again we have a negative, along with the fact that this handy list allows him to dismiss just about anyone who propounds a critical theory that calls on any discipline outside of literature itself.But therein lies the problem. How do you establish criticism as a science without calling on a discipline outside of literature itself? And what exactly is scientific about criticism? This is actually a problem that Frye himself seems to come up against without ever quite admitting it. For instance, picking up on the academic land-grab that Jonathan talks about, he says: "It is the task of the public critic to exemplify how a man of taste uses and evaluates literature, and thus show how literature is to be absorbed into society". I'm assuming here that the "public critic" is anyone who practices criticism outside the academy, though I'm not sure I'm comfortable with his insistence on taste, there's a belle lettrist quality to this that feels at odds with his notion of the scientific principle of criticism. But then he adds "his work is not a science, but another kind of literary art" so we get a sense of two kinds of criticism with no clear dividing line between them. And there is still the problem of taste. Another version of this comes when he says "Rhetorical value-judgements usually turn on questions of decorum" which takes me back to my reading of More's Utopia, decorum being one of the defining characteristics of Humanism. So the basics of criticism haven't changed in 500 years? (Well, possibly not in Frye's world; I've read a couple of the essays on top of this introduction and the two most frequently quoted critics are Aristotle and Philip Sydney, and the most recent critics he cites are Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot.)After the robustness of the opening, the Polemical Introduction seems to retreat towards the end into hesitation and uncertainty. He can't escape the problem of taste and seems to settle rather for a sort of informed taste, as if the experience of critical reading provides a scientific basis for taste, but what he is doing ends up feeling very unscientific. I note that at the end he is talking of a deductive rather than an inductive method. I'm not sure he can live up to his own plan.

  5. Niall

    nowadays nobody argues that we might one day come up with a science of literary criticism.I think there's a distinction between the idea of a science of literary criticism, and a scientific approach to literary criticism; Frye speaks of a "scientific element", of the kind that "distinguishes history from legend". Which would be rigour, evidence, forming hypotheses …? I wonder whether Frye's assertion on this point seems archaic not because it hasn't happened, but because it has and we're inside it. Certainly in a lot of the criticism I admire I can see the sort of systematisation that a "scientific element" would imply.On the other hand, if it has happened it's done so through the industrialisation of theory, which I don't think Frye would like. (I somehow imagine he'd be cast into a very funny existentialist despair. Or perhaps he's been reincarnated as Dan Green…)(At this point I should confess that I have ten pages of the introduction left to read! Hoping to get through them at lunchtime…)

  6. Paul Kincaid

    Niall, I'm not sure that Frye's meaning is as general as "a scientific approach" would imply. But then, the systemisation of a "science of literary criticism" is what led to Theory, which I think must have been anathema to Frye. So we are left with what now seems a very familiar hesitation over how exactly he relates science to literary criticism. He might simply mean the use of Baconian inductive reasoning, which I suppose is what we get in the essays, though it is not always clear.

  7. Paper Knife

    Re: PaulK’s first comment on 7/3, PaulK asked me, while I was writing my original piece, whether I felt that Frye was advocating a prescriptive or descriptive approach to literary criticism. At the time I wasn’t sure how to answer. My uncertainty, I think now, arises from the fact I suspect he’s trying to do both, at least, on the evidence of the introduction. As you and Jonathan both note (and I am so glad it’s not just me), there does seem to be a lot of tension between the book title and the introduction’s title. On the one hand he is pitching for a ‘synoptic view […] of literary criticism’, which I take to be descriptive, in that he is summarising where we’ve got to and what we have available. However, when I think about it, that is surely the role of the ‘public critic’, to consider how far we’ve come rather than where we’re going. If Frye wants to think about how to proceed, and he clearly does, then he must inevitably prescribe, and indeed already does in terms of what he is rejecting (external ideological structures such as Christianity and Marxism being two notable examples).Following on, I agree entirely, Jonathan, with that feeling that little if anything has changed in the intervening fifty–odd years, particularly when thinking about Frye’s distaste for those external ideological structures. I wasn’t convinced he was really advocating the I A Richards/Practical Criticism approach but at the same time I was hard pressed to imagine what he might be thinking in terms of. Given his rejection of any connection between literature and the social sciences (and for that matter, his implicit rejection of some kinds of writing as not being literature), I cannot imagine he was very excited by the rise of cultural studies. There is also a distinct fear of literary criticism, this thing he cannot actually describe being swamped or encroached on, not only by the amateurs but by the professionals from other disciplines, in the uses of phrases like ‘power vacuum’.

  8. Paper Knife

    Now to Paulk’s two-part comment. I agree about the initial feeling of flattery but it dissipates very quickly, once one realises that Frye can offer no real definition or description of the kind of critic he has in mind, or indeed where in the schematic criticism itself actually stands. I keep coming back to the notion of criticism being somehow caught in the walls of the house of literary studies, like the unseen madwoman in the attic, or the disgraced daughter walled up in the very fabric of the building. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ flickers briefly, with that sense of the person caught between the design of the wallpaper and the very wall. For that matter, the Clutean invisible ‘wainscot’ society springs to mind. I get caught up on that nervous eschewing of the ‘parasite’ construction too, because I can’t see any way that literary criticism can stand independent of literature when criticism needs the literature in order to exist. Naturally, I would say ‘symbiotic’ rather than parasite (though I suspect symbiosis was not a widely known concept in 1957) but even then I think Frye would be struggling towards some idea of purity, of criticism standing alone, and I honestly can’t see how that would happen. Of course, it may be in part that I have a foot firmly in the academy and my other foot firmly in the popular camp so I anyway have a hard time figuring out where I stand and swing my dialectic crowbar, but Frye doesn’t make it easy.There is that sense, as PaulK picks up in the second part of his comment that Frye is going to have to be deductive rather than inductive because, otherwise, how can his plan work? I felt for much of the introduction it was though he was trying to create literary criticism from scratch – hence, I think, the idea of the scientific approach, which I took to be being generally systematic rather than deriving it from particular scientific principles. And here I will admit that when I originally came across the Essays, many years ago, I did hope in my naivety that they would provide me with some sort of checklist for how to do criticism properly. I still wonder if that is part of what Frye was trying to do.

  9. Paul Kincaid

    Thinking about it, I have a sense of Frye setting out on this project and feeling very much the way that we do: I know what I am doing when I do criticism, but I don't know what criticism is.The inductive, 'scientific' approach would then look at examples of criticism, and draw general principles from them. I suspect that is precisely what Frye thinks he is doing, except that what he calls on as an example of criticism is small in compass (you can almost tick them off on the fingers of one hand: Aristotle, Sydney, Arnold, Eliot, one or two others nodded towards in passing) and mostly old. There is little sense of Frye keeping up to date with contemporary critical ideas. That does not provide a large enough universe from which to induce systematic scientific principles.A scientific approach would suggest a descriptive account of the way criticism works, but the problem is that by calling on such a narrow set of data he cannot fully describe criticism, which is why his approach keeps veering towards the prescriptive. In many ways, the four essays that follow do provide the sort of checklist that you want. There are four broad approaches (historic, ethical, rhetorical etc), within each of which there are four or five sets of characteristics (modes, symbols, genres) to be considered. [Notice how the third essay has completely eluded me in both parts of that last sentence.] But when you get into the essays I don't think they work well as a checklist in part because more is assumed than is immediately apparent.I am finding, however, that the more I think about the book, the more I argue my way through what he is saying (both in my notes and here in the blog), the more my views on Frye are changing. I started out liking what he was saying, my views then changed diametrically and I found myself disagreeing with him profoundly, but now I think I'm starting to come round to agreeing with him again. Which is, I think, the value of this discussion.

  10. Paul Graham Raven

    My initial reactions mostly show up the deficiencies of my bootstrap literary education, I think, not to mention the linguistic shifts between Frye's time and my own. (To use the vernacular: what a pompous windbag!)My main problem with the polemical intro was its lack of clarity; this is probably inevitable given the grand scope of Frye's project, and I'm hoping some sort of synthesis will emerge as we move through the rest of the book.That said, some interesting points emerge, some of which you've all covered already: the sense that criticism is more easily defined by describing what it isn't than what it is, for example. But I find myself immediately rubbing up against Frye's insistence that literary criticism should be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it exists. Again, this is probably indicative of the different worlds we're coming from: I've grown up in a world where postmodernism is pretty much the default setting, but Frye predates po-mo by some distance (and would doubtless have frowned upon its inherently playful and irreverent way of looking at things). I'm not sure what use a sealed system of criticism will ever be to me, other than as an extra layer of historical meaning and context from which to spring off of.That said, I like Frye's underlying revulsion at prescriptive criticism:Critical statements with "must" or "should" in their predicates are either pedantries or tautologies, depending on whether they are taken seriously or not.I'm also interested to see that Frye's scientific approach admits of the need for the groundwork of taxonomy to be done before the true work of criticism can begin:As long as astronomers regarded the movements of heavenly bodies as the structure of astronomy, they naturally regarded their own point of view as fixed. Once they thought of movement as itself explicable, a mathematical theory of movement became the conceptual framework, and so the way was cleared for the heliocentric solar system and the law of gravitation. As long as biology thought of animal and vegetable forms of life as constituting its subject, the different branches of biology were largely efforts of cataloguing. As soon as it was the existence of forms of life themselves that had to be explained, the theory of evolution and the conceptions of protoplasm and the cell poured into biology and completely revitalized it.I find myself wondering if Frye would think we are any closer to that point today (and concluding that he'd probably think we'd stepped back from it, if anything).(continues…)

  11. Paul Graham Raven

    There's a very clear sense here that Frye thinks criticism must remain unpolluted by outside concerns; I can see the intellectual merits of that, but it feels to me like an elitist disconnect between the study of literature and the culture in which literature is produced and consumed. I feel like this actually devalues criticism, by declaring it as something that doesn't mean much to anyone beyond its own borders. (I'm reminded, suddenly, of the monks in Anathem.) Perhaps this problem lies more in what I conceive criticism as being useful for than it does in Frye's conception.Finally, Frye did manage to get a topical actuLOL out of me with this paragraph:The various pretexts for minimizing the communicative power of certain writers, that they are obscure or obscene or nihilistic or reactionary or what not, generally turn out to be disguises for a feeling that the views of decorum held by the ascendant social or intellectual class ought to be either maintained or challenged.Rather topical, no? 🙂 And probably the clearest illustration so far of what I think Frye's trying to tell me: that much of what professes to be criticism is in fact intellectually dishonest peddlings of ideology. On that point I find myself agreeing with him, but his apparent insistence that one cannot refer to the ideological context in which a work was created (let alone the one in which it is consumed) is incredibly alien to me.

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