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Monday, November 13, 2017

biography and formalism - first round

 The obvious objection to the pure formalist’s notion that biography has nothing to do with the artist’s work is that, indeed, biography provides the unifying link that gives you one distinct level of your units of analysis. We don’t jumble together War and Peace and Sense and Sensibility, on this level, but put Sense and Sensibility in that unit called “Jane Austin’s work” and “War and Peace” in what we call Tolstoy’s work,  and so on. To compare “Jane Austin” to “Leo Tolstoy” is to reference these unities.
When we don’t have those unities, in fact, we get worried. We want all of Plato’s works to be by Plato, and Shakespeare’s to be by Shakespeare, and since the mechanism of publication in Plato’s and Shakespeare’s epochs did not color within the lines and give us straightforward attributions, we have scholars mightily working on the sidelines to either purge the units comprising their works or add others to them. Not surprisingly, these scholars refer to … the agreed corpus of Shakespeare’s and Plato’s works to make their arguments.
But what the biography means after we have all agreed that these are the terms of the game is another matter. Some would say that the unity of an artist’s work is different from that of a philosopher or scientist. The unity of Einstein’s work, for instance, is secondary to the universe that it tries to account for. Shakespeare cannot be overthrown by the behavior of real Princes who happen to be in Hamlet’s position, but Einstein can be overthrown if we find evidence that the speed of light is not the fastest thing in the universe. If Einstein actually stole the proof from his wife, it would lower our opinion of Einstein (the stealer!) but not of the theory of general relativity.
Of course, we “find” our proves for science through science. We don’t have any direct oracle from nature. Unless, like Newton, we think that science makes no hypotheses, and the math is just that direct oracle from nature, more direct than any hearing or echolocation. In which case, there is a sense in which there are no authors in science, there are just figures.
But in the social sciences and in philosophy, we don’t have science in that sense. We have Marx, we have Keynes, we have Wittgenstein, we have Heidegger – we have a set of figures who seem, like Tolstoy or Austin, to have an authorial relation to their texts.
The next defense of the formalist is that at least here, we can forget the vices and virtues of the figures and speak of their arguments in the same way that we can speak of the formal characteristics and values that go into building a poem, play, or novel.
This, at least, is one way of building the argument.
The deconstructive intervention strikes, in a sense, here. Or let us say, the deconstructionist reshuffles the cards.



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