Saturday, December 16, 2006

Integral Literary Criticism, Part 1

I've been toying with the idea of an integral model of literary criticism ever since I first read Ken Wilber back in college. At the time, I had no idea how to formulate such a model and what it might entail.

With the publication of Integral Spirituality, and before that the excerpts from Volume 2 of the Kosmos Trilogy (especially Excerpt D), there is finally a model that feels capable of handling the task. The quadrant model on its own is unable to account for all the various approaches one may take to a text, but with the addition of zones there is now a comprehensive framework by which to include all the various critical models.

I want to say up front that this is a tentative approach to the idea -- and that I am hoping to hear from other integral thinkers on this topic. One need not be terribly familiar with literary criticism, although that would help, but more importantly I want to be sure that I am fully understanding Wilber's new model. Integral Methodological Pluralism is not merely a big phrase -- it's a complex idea that I am not sure I fully grasp.

Literary criticism has as its goal the task of making the text more available to the reader. In order to do so, many different approaches have been developed that each claims to offer the most effective entry into the meaning of a given text. As Wilber might say, each is true but partial. However, some approaches offer more to a reader than others, and this is where literary theory gets messy.

To me, and to readers such as Camille Paglia, the text itself holds primacy over all else. With this in mind, the text is the "ground" upon which we might superimpose the quadrant model. We may look at a given text through the prism of each individual quadrant, and, of course, the text exists in each quadrant.

We gain a great deal, however, by adding the inside and outside "views" to each quadrant. As a human creation, the text is a report of sorts on some aspect of human experience (the inside), but it also exists in space and time (the outside).

So, in this first exploration, I want to try to outline in broad terms the individual quadrants and how we might read a text within those "zones."

I'm using Wilber's older charts because I can't find the newer versions on the web. In the newer versions, the plural zones are numbered 5-8 rather than 1-4 as pictured here.

Beginning with the singular or individual:

Zone 1: When we approach the interior-individual of a literary work, we are looking at what the narrator tells us about his or her experience, what is revealed in the text about her or his psyche. All texts have a narrator that may or may not be the poet or novelist. [Drama may be a huge exception here, and since I know very little about drama I have no idea how it might fit, or not fit, within this model.] In this view we are examining the first-person approach to a first-person experience of reality, the inside of an I

Zone 2: We can distinguish between the narrator and the author on many occasions, and this only adds to the depth of the work. We just as well examine what the text might reveal about the author as we can what it might reveal about the narrator. From this view, we are not as concerned about what the experience of the author or narrator might be, but with how we might take a third-person approach to the first person experience presented in the text.

Zone 3: This is the story, novel, or the text of the poem. When looking at Zone 1, we are concerned with what the text says, the information presented. In a story or novel, we can outline the plot points; in a poem we can look at what it says, literally. In this view we are concerned with insides of the text as seen from the outside, what Wilber describes as a third-person approach to a first-person reality.

Zone 4: In Zone 2 we look at the language, the diction, the structure, or anything that we can analyze from the outside without being concerned with meaning. In a poem, we can look at diction, rhythm, line structure, rhyme scheme if it exists, stanzas, and so on, all of which tells us a great deal about the poem. We are taking a third-person view on a third-person reality, the outside of the text.

If we only employed these four views, we have a good deal of information about the text, but we would be lacking just as much. We also need to include the collective or plural realm in which the text exists.

I'm still puzzling out these last two quadrants, but I hope to have the next post up soon. Once I have the broad outlines in place, I hope to loot at each view or zone a little more in-depth.

In the meantime, I welcome comments and criticisms, and most of all, suggestions from anyone who sees theoretical errors in my understanding of Wilber's model.


MD said...

Hey Bill,
I'm assuming you've read it, but if you haven't, Wilber two chapters on this topic from Eye of Spirit will provide much of what you need, if you want to pursue this line of map-driven art interpretation. Though that stage of his work didn't include the zones, per se.

Since I had my head around this very issue for several years while part of I-I, I'd say it can be useful. But for me this approach lends itself to a paint-by-numbers method of art criticism, doesn't allow meaning of the artwork to gradually unfold (you end up superimposing your desires for what the work should mean upon the work) and inevitably leads to a lowering priority of the object itself.

I acknowledge that you (wisely) attempt to guard against this up front. I'm just unconvinced doing so has that effect in practice. Theories simply overpower objects, sadly. The tyranny of the mind, is one way of putting it.

This is why I believe Paglia wise in that she doesn't name her method to poetry interpretation according to any theory. That is because it isn't any theory -- it is simply the honest, antural way to read poetry. One so honest and, in a sense, simple, people think "it can't be just THAT!" and search for some theory which advertises deeper meaning.

And because Wilber's work is based on collecting theories, the Wilberian approach to art interpretation, by definition, complicates what ought be as clear and direct a connection as possible -- that between art object and the art lover (where the work of art occurs).

In any event, looking forward to how you fill out the map, because I'm sure your efforts in thinking into this Wilberian approach won't be fruitless, at least on some level, meta or otherwise.


Unknown said...

I am of the mind that you sixteen zones to explore all the zones in this construct. I disagree with MD that art criticism is somehow especially resistant to interpretation. If we can attempt to analyse "reality" -- [Who was it who said that "'reality'" should always be in quotes!?] -- then, surely, anything can [and should] go under the knife.

This first eight should all be within the art; the second eight all without, in "reality." In this way, you overcome MD's objection/reservation.

To criticise a novel, let us say, you would first have to dive into its reality as if the characters [its] were real [I/we], then, in the 5-8 zones, you view the events/experience as a third party [an extra, quiet character] to the reality within the novel.

THEN, in zones 9-12 you explore the experience as being yourself, I as I/eye. And in zones 13-16, as an objective reader.

Unknown said...

Of course, somewhere along the way, you need to explore the artist's experience and resume. Does this mean you need 24 zones?

william harryman said...

MD & Tom,

Thanks for the input.

I hadn't read those Wilber articles in at least ten years, so thanks for the reminder.

I don't want the paint-by-numbers approach either, criticism should be more intuitive and free flowing than that. Although I've always had my biases as a I approach a text, I try to let the text speak for itself as much as I am able. My hope would be that can still be the case after trying to look at how the various forms of criticism fit into an integral model.

I think KW's approach, as you each suggest, can get lost in an infinite expansion of contexts. That's not what I want. I want to focus on the text, so maybe what I am wanting is an integral deep text approach.

I'm less interested in looking at all the various theories, as KW does in Eye of Spirit (which gets bogged down to an extent in developmental models), than I am in how to approach the text while taking into account, at least in the background, the 8 zones. So maybe in that respect, I am a formalist like the other New Critics, except that I allow in other material that they would exclude.

To really do a fully integral model, we'd have to plug in the text, the author, the reader, and the various critical approaches -- way too many zones, levels, lines and whatnot -- so maybe there is nothing integral at all in what I want to do.

Much thinking to do still.


MD said...

I disagree with MD that art criticism is somehow especially resistant to interpretation.

Since I don't know what this means, I don't know how to respond. I rest, however, on the knowledge that I never said any such thing.

"deep text approach" sounds right. What I make out is an attempt to be systematic about interpreting art. My view is that it's not that it is wrong-headed, per se, but that it risks not allowing the work to speak for itself, on its own terms, organically, on its own time and pace.

The problem with using the artist's account is that their words about their own work often cannot be trusted (Harold Bloom's insight), and of course that their art, if art at all, is to some extent intuitive (which is why the art is made, and not just talked about). Loose biography about the artist is usually helpful. But do we need a theory to tell us that?

To really do a fully integral model... No, a fully Wilberian model, I would argue. the zones approach is entirely, or almost entirely, out of the Wilber playbook (which, again, has merit, limitedly, and I don't besmirch your attempt at this kind of understanding).

Here's another way to think about the question, "what is an integral interpretation of art?":

What sort of review/write-up about a work of art would appeal to the general art lover, the sophisticated art lover (scholar, or whatever), and working artists (both of the medium in question, and out)?


Unknown said...

I wrote: "I disagree with MD that art criticism is somehow especially resistant to interpretation."

MD responded: "Since I don't know what this means, I don't know how to respond. I rest, however, on the knowledge that I never said any such thing."

Allow me to retort: I think my sentence is very understandable and that it factually and succinctly restates the core of you are saying in both your comments in this thread. As for you response to the sentence, nobody asked for one. If the sentiment in my sentence is mistaken, it is because your writing is incomprehensible.

Unknown said...

Literary criticism doesn't disallow the art to speak for itself. Criticism doesn't alter the text of a novel or lop off the head of a sculpture.

And, certainly, criticism should not have as its aim trying to appeal to the general art lover, the sophisticated art lover (scholar, or whatever), and working artists (both of the medium in question, and out). It should be above the fray, otherwise it is just obsequious drivel. There's enough of that around.

MD said...

Tom writes:
I think my sentence is very understandable and that it factually and succinctly restates the core of you are saying in both your comments in this thread.

In order for this to even come close to being true, you would have to provide a reason why it is so. So assert all you like; repeating it doesn't make it any truer. For my part, to the extent I understand what the hell you mean by "art criticism is somehow especially resistant to interpretation", I would say I completely disagree. But, you might mean something else than what I'm taking it to mean. So, whatever. This is a trivial point.

Of course literary criticism, per se, doesn't disallow art speaking for itself. My god, did you miss where I talked about a Paglia-inspired approach? The problem is that literary criticism can be done different ways. A particularly theory-laden literary criticism, of the Wilberian kind (or any of the theories it is attempting to cull together) does, if not exactly disallow, certainly makes taking the object on its own terms far more difficult. Pick any theory you want. If you use it to understand, say, David, Michelangelo's sculpture, you certainly may find truth, but you also risk finding things that aren't there, yet the theory dictates it should be. Or you see the object not for itself, but through the lens of what the theories dictate you must find. Or, in short, Wilberian art interpretation is top-down. Far preferable is a bottom-up, organic process of discovery amidst an intimate relationship with the art object, where one's curiousity and intuitions lead the search for meaning. If those forces in you suggest looking at the artist's biography, or the society at the time of the object's production, or about how other audiences react to the art, or whatever, all that is fine. Wilberian theory implies four quadrants of schools of theories are there, when in fact, that might not be the case at all, for a particular person experiencing art. I mean, are we going to honor human intuition, or are we going to honor a mechanistic theory of theories?

As far as the last point, regarding my challenge for a piece of criticism to have several different kinds of appeal, you misunderstand here, as well. This is nothing other than "polysemy", a principle I find crucial to art creation, but here I apply it to art interpretation. The value of crafting an interpretation with manifold appeal is, far from being "drivel" as you strangely say (which, if you thought about it, wouldn't have any appeal to any of the groups I listed), instead would indicate that the critic is attempting to have the most span realize the most depth of the art experience the critic wants to convey. For if crafting a coherent perspective into a work of art is the job of the critic (which I think it is), then being able to do so for those in the audience who are lay, scholarly, and artists not only shows a talented critic (Roger Ebert comes to mind) but one who realizes his or her limitations, and places the priority not on their opinions, but on people being able to better relate with the artwork. To see it in a deeper way. To be willing to suspend disbelief. To be willing to live with the art.

In short, theories suck the life out of art. It is no wonder that the rise of theory's use -- in museology, in academia, even in everyday life -- has coincided with the postmodern era of the last 30 years, widely regarded as arguably the worst in the history of art.

If we are going to move beyond postmodernity in the art world, it starts (I think) by artists leading the way, and having the rest of the theory schmucks dawdle in their cesspools while everyday people (which far outnumber the pomos, but have far quieter voices) work with artists to forge a new epoch of art. One that will look back upon the "rise of theory" and especially its advocates, as a really, really, big joke.


p.s. Bill, I did try to write the above with concerns related to your developing zonal-approach in mind. I hope you understand that I'm not besmirching your attempt to see the zones through to their logical end. If anything, I hope that in some small way, once you get there (I have no doubt you won't if you want to), my thoughts shared here might also shed light on what's next, post-zone if you will.

Trevor Fuentes said...

Im currently an English undergrad and am also toying with the idea of an integral literary criticism. My idea, however, was not to focus on the quadrants (as integral as they are to integral theory) but to focus simply on the stages and states of consciousness, and how those are at play in different authors and texts.up