The Enchanted Loom
A New Paradigm for Literature
Increasingly over the past few
decades, as postmodern critical theories have percolated from the academy
down to the general culture, the prestige of literature has declined.
Vulgarized ideas from deconstruction and other postmodern schools now
permeate the zeitgeist, spreading the notion that words don’t refer to
things, but exist in a self-enclosed system divorced from the world.
In classrooms and academic journals, literary texts are often
treated as little more than tissues of self-serving lies—or subtle snares
set by culture and language to entrap readers’ minds. A devotion to
precise and memorable language is considered either a quaint anachronism
or dangerous resistance to a liberatory new social scheme. Consequently,
the new “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” postmodern critics,
often disdain traditional poets and storytellers while lauding
experimental writers who in effect burn down their own houses to expose
the sinister illusionism of words.
The irony of the situation is that
for all of their revolutionary posturing, postmodern critical theories and
the literary avant-garde are rooted in a paradigm established more than
three centuries ago by Rene Descartes. Before it reached its
reductio ad absurdum in the linguistic experiments of so-called
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing, Jonathan Swift satirized the absurd conclusions
to which this method led. Now that the arts have entangled themselves in
the very absurdities Swift predicted, it is time to reassess the basic
premises underlying them. Fortunately, the foundation of a new paradigm is
already being laid. Though the news has not yet broken through to academic
departments of literature, this newly evolving paradigm gives support to
common-sense notions about the power of literary representation to
illuminate and transform human life. As the old model of language and
thought crumbles under the weight of new evidence, poets and writers can
believe again in the value and meaningfulness of their art.
Before we can talk of a cure, however, we have to diagnose the disease. Luckily, Swift provides a preliminary diagnosis in “A Voyage to Laputa,” the third book of Gulliver’s Travels, where he describes an academic establishment as theory-maddened as our own. During Gulliver’s visit to the Academy of Lagado, professors in the School of Language there have (like our modern theorists) discovered that natural language has dangerous properties that must be allayed. To reduce its harmful effects on the human body, they first propose “to shorten discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one, and leaving out Verbs and Participles” since “in Reality all things imaginable are but Nouns.” Then, perhaps sensing the chasm between “signifier“ and “signified“ posited by our own theorists, the Lagadoan professors propose “. . . that since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them such Things as necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on.” Thus the professors of Lagado abolish logocentrism at a stroke, replacing those slippery, dangerous, and unstable things called words with an entirely new method of communication, whose operations Swift describes:
. . . many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the new Scheme of expressing themselves by Things: which hath only this inconvenience attending it; that if a Man’s Business be very great, and of various Kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater Bundle of Things upon his Back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us; who when they met in the Streets would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burthens, and take their leave.
adds that most people could pack enough implements to engage in ordinary
conversation, but complex situations required a more elaborate artifice:
rooms kept “full of all Things ready at Hand, requisite to furnish
Matter for this kind of artificial Converse.”
as it appears, the Lagadoan scheme is rooted in the best science and
philosophy of Swift’s era. Impressed by Descartes’ success at reducing
complex problems to their elements, Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and
Leibniz tried to apply the same method to language and philosophy. Sharing
Descartes’ atomism, Locke believed that words could be fully understood
if they were reduced to their constituent parts. Leibniz, a mathematician,
similarly believed that once “words of vague and uncertain meaning”
were reduced to mathematical ”fixed symbols,” the language of
philosophy could be purified so that even in matters of ethics “. . .
there would be no more need of disputation between two philosophers than
between two accountants. For it would suffice to take their pencils in
their hands, to sit down to their slates, and to say to each other (with a
friend as witness, if they liked): Let us calculate.” An idea which even
in its phrasing recalls Swift’s implement-toting conversationalists, who
“ . . . when they met in the Streets would lay down their Loads, open
their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together. . . .” Swift
clearly rejects this absurd reasoning, even summoning up the ghost of
Aristotle in a later chapter to refute “the Vortices
Enlightenment thinker hovering in the background of Swift’s book is Sir
Isaac Newton, whose mathematical explanation of nature’s laws seemed to
reduce the universe to a vast machine. After centuries of doctrinal
controversy and religious wars, Newton’s image of a clockwork universe
must have provided comfort to religion-haunted Europeans. As time passed,
however, and people’s lives became more mechanized, it became an emblem
of horror, inspiring a Luddite revulsion against the scheme’s cold
determinism. Later scientific developments like the Second Law of
Thermodynamics, which showed that the universal clock was winding down,
only added to the confusion and terror.
in the twentieth century, Einstein’s theory of relativity and
Heisenberg’s concept of quantum uncertainty further quantified and
demystified nature, yet, paradoxically, some artists and thinkers
interpreted the ideas more positively, believing they offered loopholes
allowing some measure of freedom. Rejecting order and symmetry, they
embraced chaos, uncertainty, and randomness instead. Dada was born of this
new zeitgeist. Since the
early twentieth century, poets and artists have fractured the elements of
their media and inserted randomness into the process of creation. Poets
have pulled words from hats, artists spattered paint, and musicians
flipped coins to determine the arrangement of their compositions—or
offered ambient noise in place of orchestral harmonies.
More recently, writers and computer programmers have collaborated
to produce “poems” by inserting randomly selected words into
And yet, as modern and revolutionary as these experiments once seemed to be, they appeared—fully developed—centuries earlier in Swift’s great satire. During Gulliver’s tour through the Academy of Lagado, a professor bent on improving “speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical Operations” devised a large mechanical frame designed so that even “the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” Here is Gulliver’s description of its operation:
He then led me to the Frame, about the Sides whereof all his Pupils stood in Ranks. It was Twenty Foot Square, placed in the Middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several Bits of Wood, about the Bigness of a Dye, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These Bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them; and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order. The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were Forty fixed round the Edges of the Frame; and giving them a sudden Turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then commanded Six and Thirty of the Lads to read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make Part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes. This Work was repeated three or four Times, and at every Turn the Engine was so contrived, that the Words shifted into new Places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.
Six Hours a-Day the young Students were employed in this Labour; and the Professor shewed me several Volumes in large Folio already collected, of broken Sentences, which he intended to piece together; and out of those rich Materials to give the World a compleat Body of all Arts and Science . . .
translating Descartes mathematical-coordinate grid into the realm of
mechanics, Swift’s frame is a postmodernist’s dream-machine. Pasting
words onto dice, the tools of gamblers and mathematicians, and arranging
them by purely mechanical, chance operations reduces language to a game,
mocks reason, and turns Newtonian science and modern engineering on their
heads. If put into actual use, Swift’s marvelous invention could produce
books worthy to sit beside the collected lectures of John Cage.
such Lagadoan texts would nicely illustrate the tenets of
poststructuralist theory. Literally, “authorless,” these works would
engage “nothing outside the text.”
From such a closed system, no “totalizing narrative” could
emerge to oppress innocent readers. It was no doubt for these reasons that
Swift‘s work–along with that of another eighteenth century English
writer, Laurence Sterne—was seized on by Futurist and Russian Formalist
critics trying to establish a scientific theory of literature. Tomashevsky
wrote admiringly of how Gulliver’s descriptions of English society
defamiliarized and decontextualized its elements by removing their
“shell of euphemistic phrases and fictitious traditions.” Shklovsky
wrote a monograph on Sterne’s Tristram
Shandy to show how in “laying bare” the various devices of
fiction, Sterne drew attention to the artifice of novelistic form. Indeed,
Sterne’s protracted descriptions, misplaced prefaces, typographic games,
and parodic language seem oddly out of place for his time, making him seem
a postmodern artist miraculously transported to the past.
Swift’s time to ours, atomization, fragmentation, and
decontextualization have been the hallmarks of modern art and criticism.
Like Swift’s professors, modern critics have tried to untether literary
texts from authors and reduce language to its constituent elements.
Avant-garde writers have responded by creating texts that accord with the
modern approach to literature is perhaps best exemplified by the
Deconstruction of Jacques Derrida—a movement whose very name epitomizes
modern thought. Beginning in
Cartesian dualism, Derrida first proposes to reverse traditional binary
categories of thought (such as mind and body) and so stymie any attempt to
establish a “center” of discourse. According to Derrida, this desire
to establish a center is the root of all error in Western philosophy and
constitutes the sin of “logocentrism.”
To keep this seductive illusion at bay, Derrida follows the
Structuralists in asserting that words (signifiers) are composed of
atom-like elements called phonemes, which function in a system of “differance” that forever frustrates their ability to communicate
seeming to pose a revolutionary challenge to Western philosophy,
Derrida’s system is rooted in the same nexus of Enlightenment ideas that
produced Swift’s Academy, among whose professors he would surely feel at
home. In creating his deconstructive philosophy, Derrida duplicates two
fundamental errors made by Swift’s professors: He believes words can be
reduced to their constituent elements, and he believes these elements are
actual things. Unfortunately for his system, recent developments in
science suggest that language cannot be reduced to a linear chain of
signifiers strung out like dice on a wire; that meaning is not perpetually
deferred, but rather pervades language down to its smallest elements. To
understand how stories and poems work, we first have to take language off
the rack on which it’s been stretched for the last three centuries and
consider how it’s woven on the mind’s enchanted loom.
In Eve Spoke, Philip Lieberman, a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Brown, disproves the first of Derrida’s premises. He demonstrates that when we speak we don’t simply arrange discrete linguistic units in a neat row, but “continually plan ahead, modifying the immediate movements of our speech-producing organs . . . to take account of what we’re going to say.” To illustrate this, he proposes the following experiment:
. . . say the word tie. If you carefully watch your face, you’ll see that you don’t round your lips at the start of the word. Now say too, which contains the vowel [u]. If your speech producing system is working correctly, you will round your lips at the start of the word when you are articulating the initial [t], anticipating the [u] that is produced “after” the initial [t]. Your speech production has been encoded. The rounding of the initial [t] of too makes its acoustic properties different from the “same” sound, the [t] of tie.
Other researchers undermine Derrida’s second premise, that “signifying forms” like words and letters possess an absolute “self-identity,” which they retain, like things, even when removed from a given context. In his seminal essay “Signature Event Context,” Derrida asserts,
. . . a certain self-identity of this element (mark, sign, etc.) is required to permit its recognition and repetition. Through empirical variations of tone, voice, etc., possibly of a certain accent for example, we must be able to recognize the identity, roughly speaking, of a signifying form.
suggests we can recognize words and their elements despite variations in
tones and accents because they possess an immutable self-identity.
Hofstadter, a pioneering thinker in artificial intelligence, has also
considered the problem of “signifying forms.” In Metamagical
Themas, he notes the curious fact that we can recognize variations of
the letter “A,” for instance, in different—and sometimes
bizarre—fonts. He suggests we can do this because inside each letter
“lurks a concept, a Platonic entity, a spirit.” But unlike Derrida,
Hofstadter argues that this Platonic entity is not an immutable form, but
a mental abstraction composed of modular “roles” it shares with other
letters, like the crossbar in “A” and “H.”
Letters don’t exist in isolation, he writes, but “. . .
mutually define each others’ essences,” and so any attempt to find
an “isolated structure supposedly representing a single letter in all
its glory is doomed to failure.”
in the new field of “fuzzy logic” share Hofstadter’s belief that
words are mental abstractions. In
their view, words don’t possess immutable identities, but rather exist
as “fuzzy sets” in the minds of those sharing a language. Even a
concrete noun like “chair” signifies a class of objects—ranging from
wingback to folding metal to beanbag chair—possessing some indefinable
essence of “chairness”.
philosophical problem confronted by Derrida, Hofstadter, and fuzzy
logicians becomes clear when we consider what Swift’s Lagadoan
conversationalists would have to pack in order to communicate. What thing,
for instance, could signify a simple noun like tool?
A hammer, screwdriver, ax, crow bar, wrench? For that matter, what should
they carry to signify screwdriver—a
philips head, flat head, or motor-driven electric? What if they wanted to
speak of a pet? Should they pack
a dog, a snake, a gold fish, a ferret? Exactly what degree of
“petness” does each possess— and how far can we extend the continuum?
logicians point out that neither words themselves nor the concepts they
represent have clearly defined parameters. We use the word tall,
for instance, when describing people, buildings, and mountains. And yet,
tests show that people generally agree on what constitutes a “fuzzy
set,” determining with remarkable statistical consistency, for example,
what degree of “toolness” is possessed by objects ranging along a
continuum from hammer to spoon. It has
also been found that cultures throughout the world categorize the colors
of the spectrum in similar ways, despite different languages.
Zadeh, one of the founders of fuzzy logic, has observed how simply
combining adjectives with nouns alters their meaning. Commenting on his
work in Fuzzy Logic, authors
Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger note, for instance, “red
hair alters the meaning of red.
Ice cube changes cube.
We bring knowledge to these terms. In the past, red
hair has always referred to a special kind of red, quite different
from the red of the spectrum. Our experience perfuses language.”
don’t reside within individual words any more than human memories reside
within individual neurons. This is quite a different thing from saying, as
deconstructive critics do, that there exists an unbridgeable gap between
signifier and signified. Consequently, Derrida’s “iterable marks”
are not entirely graftable, as he asserts, but change in subtle ways from
context to context. In
focusing on the printable and reproducible elements of linguistic forms,
deconstructionists are committing an error that scientists in the fields
of complexity and artificial intelligence call “level confusion”—an
idea with particular relevance to the art of writing.
of the fundamental insights of complexity science is that by following
simple rules, complex dynamic systems self-organize to produce higher
levels of order from lower ones, in a process called “emergence.”
Trying to reduce emergent orders to lower level phenomena results
in all manner of confusion. In talking of computers, for instance, we have
to make various level distinctions between the computer’s hardware—that
is, its actual circuitry, the semiconductors inside its plastic frame—and
the software—the program running on it. In the language of complexity,
the software constitutes a higher level than the hardware. Similarly, if
we were to run a chess program on a computer, the rules of chess would
constitute yet another, higher level. We can’t talk about chess by
referring to computer codes or silicon chips. Though it arises from the
passage of electricity through semiconductors and the chunked rules of a
digital software program, the game you play against your computer is an
emergent phenomenon—like human consciousness. To talk about it, you need
a new language—of gambits and strategies, advantage and disadvantage,
placement and position.
In a similar fashion, in speaking of a poem or story, we have to avoid confusing the various levels involved. At the lowest level, the printed ink on the page is a novel’s “hardware” analogous to the computer’s circuits. Pride and Prejudice, for instance, can be printed on different types of paper with various inks and fonts and it’s still Pride and Prejudice.
At the next level, we find the “software” of the grammatical and syntactic rules of English. At a still higher level, we find the generic rules of novelistic fiction. When we read a story or novel, we engage several levels at once. At the lower levels, we run our eyes across a printed page, decoding words and their grammatical relationships. At higher levels, we follow imaginary characters living out their lives in a “virtual” world of the imagination. Emergent levels include this dramatic unfolding of fictive lives, the novel’s “theme,” and the alteration in consciousness we experience when observing—or reflecting on—the tragic or comic nature of the imagined experience.
problem with much modern literature is that writers from Sterne to
Silliman have deliberately concocted strategies to thwart the emergence of
higher-level orders from lower ones. In “laying bare” the devices of
fiction and calling attention to the “constructed” nature of their
language, postmodern writers often frustrate a reader’s attempt to
imagine a story’s characters and events. Similarly, one of the key
problems with deconstructive criticism is that it dwells mostly on the
level of linguistic coding—on the hardware of printed “grapheme” and
the software of grammatical and semantic form. By isolating linguistic
elements in order to reveal their incomplete, self-contradictory, or
indeterminate nature, they give short shrift to emergent orders such as
character, voice, theme, or the tensions and resolutions of a work’s
The reproducible sign so beloved of deconstructionists is a meaningless nothing outside its human context, as a simple thought experiment will show. If NASA transmitted all the printed texts in the Library of Congress into space, an alien race would still be unable to decipher the information in its various codes without a large database of human cultural contexts to give them meaning. The problem, as Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart explain in The Collapse of Chao, is that
The meaning in a language does not reside in the code, the words, the grammar, the symbols. It stems from the shared interpretation of those symbols in the mind of sender and receiver. This in turn stems from the existence of a shared context. For language, the context is the culture shared by those who speak that language.
and Stewart usefully define words as “data compressors” and argue that
the problem with such compressed data is that one needs to “make a
computational effort to decompress the data before they exist in usable
form.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem of literary interpretation.
There’s a cost for unpacking the information packed in a story or
poem’s codes. While reading a text, a reader has to de-compress the
meaning of words and sentences the way a CD player unpacks the digital
information encoded on a disk. The player is the cost of decompressing
data. Similarly, the cost for unpacking information in a literary text is
a life spent in a human culture, learning the rules of language and social
behavior. That’s why, contra deconstruction, there is always something
outside the text.
this packing and unpacking process is nonlinear and recursive, since
language begins and ends in a human brain. Neuroscientists now define the
brain and its various sub-mechanisms as complex dynamic systems since from
their earliest prenatal development they are governed by self-organizing
feedback processes. Scientists now use terms like
“attractors,” or “basins of attraction” to describe how
memories are stored in its neuronal weave.
The fractal nature of memory is also evident when we see how, from
the merest fleeting detail, we reconstruct complex patterns and scenes.
Sir Charles Sherrington, Nobel Prize-winning physiologist, in Man on His Nature, describes the brain as “an enchanted loom, where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one: a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.” If Swift’s mechanical frame represents the old paradigm, Sherrington’s loom represents the newly emerging one. When we recall that text, context, and textile all have the same root, meaning “woven thing,” the applicability of Sherrington’s metaphor becomes clear. However, the human brain is not like a textile loom; it’s multi-dimensional, operates in time, and has an infinite fractal complexity. The texts it generates are interwoven with all nature and culture. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), scientists have begun to show what happens on the neural loom when people use their imaginations. What they’ve found has interesting implications for what we’ve termed the “level confusion” inherent in deconstructive analysis. Describing the work of Xiaoping Hu and colleagues at the University of Minnesota in Frontiers of Complexity, Coveny and Highfield write:
The scanner showed that centers of the brain responsible for vision were activated when subjects used their imagination, although the brain activity was approximately half as much as when they actually looked. The same team has revealed a similar phenomenon in the sound-processing centers of the brain when subjects are asked to imagine saying words. And they also found a part of the brain that is involved in forming a mental picture or map, situated in the fissure between the parietal and occipital lobes.
implications of this for literature and criticism are immense.
If, for instance, while reading Moby
Dick we can mentally “see” the swelling ocean, great white whale,
and harpoon-clutching crew, then it appears that, contrary to theory,
signifiers do evoke the signified. The meaning of a text is not wholly
indeterminate, but collapses into relatively clear, determinate pictures.
Though the imagined details may vary somewhat from reader to reader, a
moving drama unfolds inside our heads, above the level of decoding, like
movie clips transmitted to our pc’s.
discovery has implications for poetry, as well. If merely imagining
saying words activates our hearing center, then silent reading must
download a poem’s music like Napster downloading a hot CD to our home
Thanks to complexity science, we no longer need to imagine an ideal realm above the mundane world to explain the existence of complex forms. We now know they arise spontaneously when rules operate on chance elements through feedback. Nature, it appears, has a bias toward symmetry and beauty. Studies have shown that neural networks have an inherent aversion to asymmetrical and irregular patterns, and prefer symmetrical ones instead, partly because they’re easier to discern from various viewing angles. Other studies have shown that this human preference is shared by monkeys and crows. Artistic forms arise just as natural ones do, through rules and feedback. Since nature is the context in which art and language evolved, it’s logical that our brains and the artistic forms that emerge from them partake of the same bias. What the last three centuries have shown is that if we short-circuit our natural bias toward order and beauty, relying instead on reductionism and chance to produce books in “Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Mathematicks and Theology,” we will wind up with the same fragmented and meaningless nonsense cranked out on Swift’s absurd frame.
avoid the errors that have plagued modern thinkers from Descartes to
Derrida, we have to place language and literature within a larger
hierarchy of symbol systems. After
all, the human brain that produces language is itself produced by the
coded symbol system of DNA—a code shared by all other living things in
the eco-systems of planet Earth. Each
individual human being also exists within the complex symbol system of a
human culture, which in turn exists within a larger natural economy. Each
of these systems is complex and dynamic and interacts with the others in a
general level mixing, involving countless exchanges of information.
key function of higher-level systems is their ability to make models.
John Holland, one of the pioneers in artificial life, observes,
“All complex, adaptive systems—economies, minds, organisms—build
models that allow them to anticipate the world.”
To illustrate how context affects the model-making adaptations of
living things, he points to the viceroy butterfly, an insect apparently
appetizing to birds. To prevent being eaten, the viceroy butterfly has
evolved a pattern on its wings that resembles the awful-tasting monarch
butterfly. “In effect,” writes Holland, “the DNA of the viceroy
encodes a model of the world stating that birds exist, that the monarch
exists, and that monarchs taste horrible. And every day, the viceroy
flutters from flower to flower implicitly betting its life on the
assumption its model is correct.”
butterfly’s modeling does not depend either on the conscious intentions
of the butterfly or an intelligent designer, but on the behavior of the
complex adaptive system in which it lives and the self-organizing
properties of living things. It
is a beautiful example of what science now calls “downward causation,”
a process in which higher levels of organization reach down and influence
the operation of lower level ones. In
the case of the viceroy butterfly, the larger ecosystem has reached down
to fiddle with its DNA code to select for the monarch pattern on its
As the example of the viceroy butterfly shows, it’s impossible to fully understand living processes by reducing them to their constituent elements and treating them separately from their contexts. Even in the cloudy realm of quantum physics, many scientists now doubt that the so-called fundamental particles of matter are in fact fundamental. Instead, scientists like Ilya Prigogine and David Bohm believe that there is an “implicate” order enfolded into even the lowest levels of matter. John Wheeler asserts, “Physics is the child of meaning even as meaning is the child of physics.” Paul Davies in The Cosmic Blueprint suggests that in a sense nothing—not even an elementary particle—exists independently, unaffected by downward causation:
In principle, all particles that have ever interacted belong to a single wave function—a global wave function containing a stupendous number of correlations. One could even consider (and some physicists do) a wave function for the entire universe. In such a scheme the fate of any given particle is inseparably linked to the fate of the cosmos as a whole, not in the trivial sense that it may experience forces from its environment, but because its very reality is interwoven with the rest of the universe.
to the human realm, Davies goes on to describe how, although mental events
represent quite a high level of organization in the cosmic scheme, there
exist above them still higher ones. Using Karl Popper’s classification
system, he divides the human and natural orders into three “Worlds.“
Material objects are defined as World 1 entities, mental events as World
2, and societal and cultural events as World 3.
Davies then describes how downward causation operates in a way that
applies directly to literature and writing: “Thus an artistic tradition
might inspire a sculptor to shape a rock into a particular form. The
thoughts of the sculptor, and the distribution of atoms in the rock, are
determined by the abstract World 3 entity ‘artistic tradition.’”
we’ve seen, it’s perilous to discuss literature by referring only to
its lower levels of organization. The
literary tradition not only provides the context in which literature is
read, it operates in a top-down manner to help shape it as well. As with
other symbol systems, literature is created jointly by complex human
brains, language, and artistic traditions.
In addition, each skill we bring to reading and writing is itself—in Holland’s words
again—“an implicit model—or more
precisely, a huge, interlocking set of standard operating procedures that
have been inscribed on our nervous system and refined by years of
experience.” We are able to encode and extract real meaning from
literary texts because each of our brains shares the same model-making
abilities and standard operating procedures.
Douglas Hofstadter suggests human brains share certain
“isomorphisms” that make coding and decoding possible and adds that
these isomorphisms represent a “correspondence which not only maps
symbols in one brain onto another, but also maps triggering patterns onto
patterns.” Though exact correspondences might not always appear at
smaller scales, there are enough global similarities in these patterns to
make real communication possible. This is also what makes translation
possible from language to language and culture to culture.
implications of this for literature are obvious. Somehow, writers pack
four dimensions of space-time implicate with human meaning into
two-dimensional strings of letters on a page, which readers must then
unpack, using built-in procedures they share with the writer.
A further complication is that in order for this process to work,
the writer must first model the minds of prospective readers to predict
how they’ll respond. To
satisfy and subvert reader expectation, he must continuously refer to his
own internal model of the reader’s mind and adjust the writing process
to accommodate it. Because
both writer and reader share a language, a culture, and certain universal
human experiences, their mental maps of the world share similar patterns.
The full context of any text must include this large, recursive mapping
understand the complex nature of writing, consider how a novel is written.
The writer may begin with an intuition of the novel’s overall tone,
plot, or theme, which he may have glimpsed—in toto—in a tiny scrap of
memory or an overheard conversation. Proust found the seed of his seven
volume Remembrance of Things Past
in the taste of a madeleine (tea cake).
From as little as a single phrase, a voice or character can emerge,
bringing with it a tangle of associations.
Once sensing the gist of a plot or a character, the novelist begins
typing, starting with a single letter, then a word, then a phrase, then a
sentence, looking ahead to the small episode in which each element is
lodged—and perhaps to the entire story—as he writes.
first declarative sentence the writer types contains within it a tiny
plot, which will take place within and help comprise the novel’s larger
plot: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow
coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down the road
met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . . ” This first sentence
anticipates, and helps create, all that follows by establishing a tone, a
repetitive rhythm, and a specialized diction evocative of early childhood.
another sentence follows: “ His father told him that story: his father
looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.” To the first
sentence’s single character, the second adds another and situates them
both in a dramatic situation. Since the second sentence states that the
first was only a story, the writer has already engaged potential readers
in a marvelously tangled and recursive process of models packed within
models, forcing them to readjust perspectives since this second sentence
too is part of a larger story.
however, as the writer continues, sentence blurs into sentence; a larger
pattern emerges and the unfolding story acquires an illusionistic reality.
Partially forgetting he’s composing individual sentences now, the writer
looks ahead to where each new sentence might lead in the larger scheme.
As sentences build into paragraphs, paragraphs into episodes, and
episodes into subplot and plot, every sentence now includes a gist of all
that precedes it and contains within it the seeds of all that will follow.
In the language of complexity, the novel has become a complex
hierarchy of nested scales. This is what allows the writer to initially
glimpse the whole in the part.
the low level of the sentence and the high one of plot, lies a middle
level, where characters develop and take on a life of their own, forcing
the writer to adjust the action of other characters and accommodate the
plot to their motives and actions. This is one of the ways that feedback
occurs in writing. Paradoxically, though each individual sentence contains
a tiny part of a character, characters can’t be reduced to the sentences
that compose them any more than people can be reduced to their atoms. They
have a holistic nature—another element of complex systems.
Similarly, though each sentence constitutes a small part of the
plot, the plot is an emergent quality that exists on a higher level than
its constituent elements.
as Aristotle perceived, is the central mapping device of drama and
fiction; it’s also a large-scale map of time. Its rhythms ripple through
pages and chapters like large, low-frequency waves. Incidents and episodes
are smaller scale rhythms whose vibrations contribute to it. Curiously,
time can also be mapped at different scales within the novel: from summary
paragraphs that condense many years into a few pages to dialogue-filled
scenes that move in real time. We accept these odd conventions
unconsciously until a writer like Sterne comes along to deliberately bore
and annoy us with exaggeratedly long descriptions or until a Joyce invents
stream-of-consciousness to model time and thought in a new way.
Of course, not all stories begin, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by calling attention to their own artifice and declaring their status as fiction. They don’t have to. The reader knows she’s reading a novel from the moment she picks up the book and willingly submits to its conventions. Joyce, in his first novel, was already moving toward the experimentalism of his later style, but even more traditional writers of realistic fiction sometimes draw attention to their writing’s artifice, unintentionally laying bare its devices, as it were. Here’s how Dickens begins David Copperfield :
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.
protagonist’s speculation about whether he’s going to be the hero of
his own life and his words referring to the very pages (part of the
“hardware”) on which it’s written, we enter a dizzyingly recursive
self-referential loop reminiscent of an Escher print. By the end of the
second sentence, however, Dickens has drawn our attention away from the
fictional conventions he’s employing and begun to immerse us in the
grand and compelling illusion of the life of David Copperfield. To a
slightly greater degree than Joyce in A
Portrait of the Artist, Dickens subordinates his language, style, and
use of novelistic conventions to character and plot.
Sometimes, however, perhaps without intending to, writers employ a language and style that prevents readers from rising above the level of decoding into emergent worlds of imagination. Poststructuralist critics balk at the idea of seeing through a text to its action and characters, arguing that a text’s “transparency” is an illusion, that readers can never see “through” language to what it names. But once again they have trapped themselves in binary thinking. It’s not a matter of either/or. In On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner makes some practical observations about this dilemma, offering the useful notion that the language of fiction partakes of varying degrees of opacity ranged in a continuum from relatively opaque to relatively clear. Most novelists, Gardner writes, subordinate their language to plot and character. Others, however, “. . . do present characters, actions, and the rest, but becloud them in a mist of beautiful noise, forever getting in the way of what they are saying by the splendor of their way of saying it.” The what novelists say is, of course, the encoded model of the world that readers must unpack from their words. Gardner adds that when, at the other end of the continuum, writers direct readers’ attention more toward imaginary worlds than their language,
. . . we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images . . . . We slip into a dream, forgetting the room we’re sitting in, forgetting it’s lunchtime or time to go to work. We create, with minor and for the most part unimportant changes, the vivid and continuous dream the writer worked out in his mind . . . and captured in language so that other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream the dream again.
virtuoso stylists, Gardner suggests, are able to combine the best of both
worlds, using a brilliant prose style and richly embroidered language to
evoke vivid characters and large human situations, among whom he names
Proust, the later Henry James, and Faulkner. Of Shakespeare, that
incomparable master of language, Gardner argues that although he employs
brilliant language, Shakespeare always “fits language to its speaker and
occasion,” making his poetic language ultimately “subservient to
character and plot.”
Shakespeare, however, we leave the realm of fiction and enter the new
realm of verse, where a different set of rules prevails. In Shakespearean
verse drama, as in the classical Greek analyzed by Aristotle, plot is
paramount. But being poetry, plot and language have a different relation.
To explore this new realm more closely, let’s put aside verse drama and
narrow our attention to lyric poetry. For though narrative elements exist
in varying degrees in lyric poems, verse presents a far more tangled
situation than prose fiction or verse drama.
Lyric poems organize time differently than prose, and at finer
scales. In place of narrative, argument often serves as the poem’s
large-scale organizing scheme, as in the poems of Donne or Marvell.
To the rhythms of syntax, which prose possesses, poetry adds
another unit of rhythm: lines. Together, the interacting rhythms of syntax
and line generate an intersecting wave pattern within the poem’s
middle-level time scale. Meter adds yet another, finer-scaled rhythm
within the line, at the level of syllables.
writing contains a large element of feedback as writers listen to the
sounds and rhythms their words make and adjust their writing in response.
Writing in lines and meter greatly increases this feedback since the poet
has to listen to and arrange words at multiple levels to make the line
cohere. In addition, a line in meter has a holistic integrity independent
of its semantic meaning. Readers
literally use a different part of the brain to recognize metrical
patterns. As in prose, the semantic meaning of a line of verse is decoded
primarily in the linguistic processing areas of the left brain; but meter
is perceived in the pattern-recognition areas of the right. Consequently,
reading a line of metrical poetry activates both halves of a reader’s
brain simultaneously. In
writing metrical verse, a poet is literally transmitting different sets of
triggering patterns in readers, forcing them to coordinate both semantic
and spatial elements in multiple processing areas of their brains.
with other sonic devices like assonance and alliterations—adds yet
another element, requiring a different sort of processing.
Jeremy Campbell in Grammatical
Man writes that the right
brain is “poor at comprehending consonants and does not do well at
syntax.” He adds, “While it can understand the meaning of word pairs
like ‘ache’ and ‘lake,’ recognizing them to be different, it is
unable to preserve the sameness amid the change; it does not know that the
words rhyme.” Despite these limitations, however, the right brain plays
an important role in poetry, helping readers see larger patterns than
merely semantic ones. First, rhyme folds time by forcing readers to recall
previous rhymes and raising expectations for future ones, thus adding
another nonlinear element to the poem. In addition, rhymes generally occur
in “schemes” or in complex formal patterns like sonnets. In these
cases, the right brain helps readers perceive the formal architecture of
an entire stanza or poem.
Though not good at syntactical coding, the right brain, according to Campbell, is good at “detecting pitch, intonation, stress, cadence, loudness and softness.” It can also construct
. . . imaginary “situations” into which these various different non-verbal items of information might fit and make sense. On hearing the sound “bee,” the left hemisphere will be dominant if it is clear that the speaker is talking about the letter b. However, if the speaker says, “I was stung by a bee,” the right brain will be more accurate in identifying the meaning of the sound.
right brain is not only good at fitting words into larger, narrative
contexts, it also knows “what words connote, what associations they
have”; it recognizes “the ridiculous and inappropriate,” and is
“aware that words and sentences are embedded in a wide matrix of
We have already noted how poststructuralist critics tend to define language and literature in terms of left-brain decoding. Literature, however, involves more. Campbell remarks that in limiting interpretation to the functions of the left brain, “Meaning converges into the sentence instead of diverging out into wider contexts” and adds:
The right hemisphere corrects this tendency to constrain meaning. It makes the brain as a whole less literal-minded. It probably plays a role in understanding poetry, where words have many shades and levels of meaning beyond mere reference and dictionary definition. It pays attention to the meaning of sound and tempo, not merely to the content of words.
addition to its other functions, the right brain is also where metaphors
are fashioned and understood. Metaphors are a particularly “effective
decoding device” because they provide contexts for new ideas, find
likenesses between things from different realms of experience, join the
familiar to the strange, and compress large amounts of information into a
very small compass.
Depending on left-brain activity alone to understand literature is, in psychologist Howard Gardner’s words, “like reading the script of a play instead of going to see it”—a metaphor with particular resonance for our discussion of postmodern criticism. Reading Campbell’s description of brain-damaged patients whose mental activities are restricted to the left brain, one can’t help noting their similarities to left-brained critics:
They could not appreciate the pattern of connections among key points of a story, and intruded themselves into events when retelling the plot or answering questions about it. Instead of treating a fictional narrative as something with a separate existence of its own, they failed to respect its integrity, tinkering with details which did not conform to their notion of truth. . . . Many of their comments were feasible and even appropriate when applied very narrowly, to a single incident. Only when the wider context and the general setting of the story were taken into account did the comments stand out as bizarre and out of tune with the clear, overall intention of the author.
In contrast to such strict left-mindedness, a poet has to use her
entire brain to write. Taking account of the semantic meaning of words,
their various connotations, their sounds and echoes, and the rhythms they
make, the poet has to engage in a special sort of level-mixing, which
Douglas Hofstadter calls a “tangled hierarchy.” He defines a tangled
hierarchy as a situation where different hierarchical levels, such as a
computer’s hardware and software, fold into each other in
Davies, in a dramatic thought-experiment, illustrates such a
hardware-software tangle by describing a computer with a robotic arm
attached: the software program running on the computer controls the arm,
making it reach into and alter the computer’s hardware, which in turn
affects the way its program operates.
A similar tangle occurs when a poet writes. Poets frequently select
words more for their sound, a low level phenomenon, than for their
meaning. Once having selected a word, the poet then becomes aware of
interesting semantic relationships with others in the poem. After
selecting the word for its rhyme, the poet then has to construct
meaningful sentences, images, and metaphors around it. Through such
entangling, the physical sound, or even typed appearance, of words (which
we defined as “hardware”) can influence the poem’s “software” of
grammar, syntax, metaphor, and argument.
also entangle language in other ways.
Logical paradoxes and puns engage words in multiple levels, as when
John Donne writes, "And death shall be nor more, Death, thou shalt
die," joining "death" and "die" in a paradox
involving their mutual cancellation. Similarly, when in "A Hymne to
God the Father" Donne puns on his own name, telling God, "When
thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For, I have more," he uses the
low-level sonic similarity of his name to a common English verb to make
the large theological point of his refrain.
Far more than fiction writers, poets use words on multiple levels.
In the process, they engage multiple areas of the reader's brain,
activating not only their left and right hemispheres, as we've seen, but
mixing thought and feeling by activating the amygdala, where emotional
memory is stored.
The formal and metrical rules of poetry also make it more memorable. To borrow a term from information theory, they increase the "redundancy" of the language system they create. Redundancy enables codes to overcome noise and randomness as they transmit meaning from sender to receiver. All types of human language employ such devices for reducing noise. Redundancy also plays a vital role in enabling various living and artificial systems to become complex. It does this, according to Campbell, by
making probabilities unequal, instead of smoothing them out evenly across the whole range of possibilities. It means that the parts of a system are not wholly independent of one another, but are linked statistically, in a pattern of possibilities. Redundancy in a message system holds information in a loose balance between total constraint and total freedom.
words like "rules" and "constraints" have a bad odor
in the modern era, as they are mistakenly conflated with restrictive
social codes and laws imposed by authoritarian governments.
They are also conflated with the clockwork order of Newton's
scheme, against which so many modern artists have rebelled.
Modern writers and critics are right to believe that the constraints of language inhibit freedom. After all, a key purpose of rules is to limit choice. Redundancy makes communication possible by imposing rules that force speakers and writers to conform to somewhat predictable patterns. Claude Shannon, the pioneering founder of information theory, estimates, for instance, that
. . . English is about 50 percent redundant when we consider samples of eight letters at a time. If the length of the sample is increased, the redundancy is much greater. For sequences up to 100 letters it rises to approximately 75 percent. The figure is even higher in the case of whole pages or chapters, where the reader is able to get an idea of the long-range statistics of a text, including its theme and literary style. This means . . . that much of what we write is dictated by the structure of the language and is more or less forced upon us. Only what little is left is of our own free choosing.
This explanation seems to support the paranoid notions of theorists like Foucault who believe that language-users are puppets controlled by vast "totalizing" systems handed down from the past. The truth is subtler and more interesting. Though we do have to submit to constraints in order to communicate, within these limits we have countless opportunities for creativity and freedom. The alternative to constraints is not the anarchic “bliss” posited by theorists, but paralyzing entropy, as Campbell makes clear:
A thermodynamic system cannot do anything useful if all its parts are free to arrange themselves in any way whatever. Its entropy will be at maximum and its energy inaccessible. To do work, the system's entropy must be reduced, and that means limiting the number of permitted arrangements of its parts. Similarly, information theory makes it clear that if symbols can be strung together at random, in any order, the messages they generate will not be intelligible, nor will they be protected from error.
is bad news for professors of literature from Lagado to France.
Despite modern critics who want to dispense with authors and treat
texts as infinitely malleable globs of verbal clay, it makes far more
sense to define texts in the terms of information theory as “messages”
sent by authors to readers—as long as we keep in mind that these
“messages” are complex systems of mind-boggling reflexivity and depth.
Every increase in freedom comes with the price of increased noise and distortion. Avant-garde texts are often boring for precisely this reason: noise and distortion aren’t interesting. Roland Barthes himself notes that the text of “bliss” can lie awfully close to boredom. Writing of Finnegans Wake, that Ur-text of the modern avant-garde, Jeremy Campbell notes that in trying to create more possible messages than Jane Austen, Joyce created a great deal more confusion and uncertainty instead:
The howsayto itishwatis hemust whom must worden schall. A darktongues, kunning. O theoperil! Ethinop lore, the poor lie. He askit of the hoothed fireshield but it was untergone into the matthued heaven.
hard to extract a meaningful message from a passage like the one above
because the reader is unsure what’s coming next.
The lack of a clear context makes it hard even to decipher
individual words. Randomness and noise have increased at the cost of
reading is extremely difficult.
This “difficulty” is, of course, one of the hallmarks of modern literature, as Eliot noted in his seminal essay ”The Metaphysical Poets.” Although it comes in many types, one major type of Modernist difficulty results from breaking the rules and conventions that make meaning possible. If grammar is an "anti-chance device" applied at the source of a code, then when Modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein break grammatical rules, the “noise” in their texts will increase at the expense of meaning, as these lines from "Susie Asado" demonstrate:
lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers.
the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.
is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the
say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
is short for incubus.
pot. A pot is a beginning of
a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble. the old vats
are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
The poem’s appeal lies in its nursery rhyme rhythms and playful
silliness, so it should rightly be classified as nonsense verse. Its
status as a seminal text of avant-garde literature rests on the
now-familiar gambit of focusing reader attention on the
“constructedness” of the poem’s language. By sometimes ignoring
their semantic meanings and choosing words merely for their sounds and
then placing them in ungrammatical relations, the passage subverts reader
attempts to find an emergent “meaning.” This method pioneered by Stein
comprises one type of Modernist “difficulty” and has been widely
imitated in recent decades by so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.
Another source of Modernist difficulty can be found in Eliot’s essay, where the poet enunciates his famous dictum:
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into meaning.
will hardly quibble with Eliot’s comments on “complexity.” But when
he says that to create this complexity the poet has to “dislocate . . .
language into meaning,” we may remain skeptical since he is advising
poets to break the linguistic, formal, and generic rules that make
complexity possible. With his further suggestions that the modern poet
must possess “a refined sensibility” and that poetry should be “more
allusive” and “indirect,” Eliot is effectively saying that modern
poets should write in a private code.
This attitude is characteristic of Modernist writers, who felt they
comprised a cultural elite. Much of their work was designed to chasten—and perhaps forever
elude—a bourgeoisie addicted to popular art.
Theory, which was born partly out of wartime efforts to interpret secret
military codes, provides insights into Eliot’s strategy since the
difference between traditional and Modernist poetry is analogous to that
between peacetime radio broadcasts aimed at a popular audience and coded
military messages aimed at a highly select one. A popular radio broadcast,
according to Campbell, uses a code that makes it easy to separate the
message from noise and distortion. A secret military broadcast, on the
other hand, must add a key onto its coded message “rather in the same
fashion as noise is added onto the message in ordinary communications.”
In order to decipher such a coded military communication, Campbell adds,
“. . . one must separate
the key from the message, and the idea is to design a code which makes
that a very difficult task for the enemy to accomplish.”
In his masterpiece, The Waste
Land, Eliot not only dislocates narrative to make it difficult to
decipher by those of insufficiently refined sensibilities, he also uses
indirection and allusiveness to provide the key to his secret code. The key, of course, is the “mythical method” defined in
his essay on Joyce’s Ulysses
and alluded to in his poem’s Greek and Latin epigraphs and final notes
on primitive myths. In some
regards, this secret code demonstrates Eliot’s literary conservatism,
since it suggests that even a poem as fragmented and dislocated as The
Waste Land is intended to bear a heavy freight of personal and
cultural meaning—if only to an elect few. Poets like Eliot and Pound, who
were steeped in the literature of the past, could wring interesting poetry
from their tactic of displacement because they worked within a vital
tradition, just as Sterne could tweak the rules of fiction to comic effect
during the era of the novel’s ascendancy. But as experimentation
displaces tradition, avant-garde one-up-man-ship inevitably pushes
dislocation past the point of diminishing returns, as the last century has
third type of difficulty occurs when modern writers, like the professors
of Lagado, substitute randomness for rules, placing their faith in chance
to produce order and meaning. “Give a monkey a typewriter,” asserts a
modern adage, “and in enough time, it will produce the collected works
This strategy, too, turns out to be a myth.
When William Bennett, a professor of engineering at Yale, tested
this idea, substituting computers for monkeys, he discovered that “if a
trillion monkeys were to type ten keys a second at random, it would take
more than a trillion times as long as the universe has been in existence
merely to produce the sentence, ‘To be, or not to be: that is the
question.’” It turns out
that randomly typing monkeys can’t produce even one memorable soliloquy,
much less the complete works of Shakespeare.
However, after doing a statistical analysis of Act III of Hamlet, Bennett devised a new program. In it, he arranged for some letters to appear with the same frequency as they did in Shakespeare’s texts. When he ran the new program, his computerized monkeys still typed nonsense; but after he reprogrammed again, adding new rules about which letters should begin and end words, simple words suddenly began to appear in his text interspersed with the chaos. By adding still more rules, about groups of three and four letters, Bennett’s computer finally produced—after an all-night run, in the midst of endless gibberish—the following ghostly echo of Hamlet’s famous line:
DEA NOW NAT TO BE WILL AND THEM BE DOES
systematically applying rules that increased redundancy and lowered the
system’s entropy, Bennett came closer and closer to producing a line of
English blank verse. Paradoxically, it was by reducing the freedom of his
imaginary monkeys that he liberated them to write something resembling
human speech. Still, there are limits on the ability of low-level rules to
produce a Hamlet. To generate
the works of Shakespeare, we need a complex human culture, a literary
tradition, and a poetic genius as well as chance. It took four billion
years of an evolving Earth to produce the works of Shakespeare. Throwing
off the rules that make such complexity possible produces only nonsense.
writers who avoid closure, preferring a poetics of endless process,
misunderstand the nature of creativity. Poems and stories can no more
achieve perfection than people can. A “totalizing system” is a
chimera. However, by submitting to conventional constraints, writers can
create works of infinite depth and complexity. Like a Koch snowflake, a
great poem is a fractal shape, bounded yet never complete; it can sit in
the palm of one’s hand, yet contain a figure of infinite length.
In creating his language machine in Gulliver’s
Travels, Jonathan Swift displayed far greater sophistication than our
modern avant-garde. Like
professor Bennett of Yale, he knew that chance alone would take forever to
generate interesting phrases, so he allowed his misguided professor to
apply some statistical rules to govern his mechanical frame. Only after
making the strictest “Computation of the general Proportion there is in
Books between the Numbers of Particles, Nouns, and Verbs, and other Parts
of Speech” did the professor manage to produce an occasional fragment of
knew that such a simple-minded system could never match the infinite
generativity of the human brain. That was the whole point of his satire.
But then, Swift was a brilliant poet, satirist, and author of one of the
world’s great books, not a theory-maddened professor trying to improve
mankind. Now that modern science is supplanting old models with vital new
theories of art and mind, poets and writers should work with renewed
confidence in the transformative powers of the literary imagination. As
they weave poems and stories on the mind’s enchanted loom, the giant
gears inside the academy are beginning to creak.