Daily Archives: September 27, 2009

Reply to Jonathan Allan: Invasion of the Body Snatchers


I was intrigued by Jonathan Allan’s description of graduate studies at the University of Toronto. It is probably similar to the experience elsewhere for many students, certainly at McMaster. Clayton’s comments about being in the classroom capture it beautifully: a rhetorical dance, a danse macabre I am afraid, the dance of the death of logic. Little wonder Clayton fled into computer science. His description of it as a rhetorical performance void of argument strikes me as very apt.

At the risk of descending into testimonial, I would like to share my own experience, mid-seventies to mid-eighties, just as the the new critical theories were beginning to take hold. French theory had begun its invasion, and I was then a graduate student, like Jonathan, in Comparative Literature, the “House of High Theory,” as he puts it, at the University of Toronto. Comparative literature departments at the time were the advance-guard of literary theory, particularly deconstruction and post-structuralism. Those were heady days and the new wave moved swiftly, and seductively, and soon broke down the walls of last resistance, English departments, which were of course as much opposed to Frye in many cases as they were to the new theorists (Frye has been controversial from the beginning). At the time, comparative literature students were regarded with great suspicion by professors in English, since we were known to be the hosts, the vectors that threatened the establishment with the disease called deconstruction. But it wasn’t long before many of them succumbed as well, though Toronto, given its conservatism, was certainly the last bastion to fall.

As is usual with such things, the new theorists first protested that they simply wanted the freedom to pursue their own work without prejudice, but once the tide turned it quickly became an imperial enterprise and the tune changed: now that they were the establishment, it was their sacred duty, in the name of the revolution, to ensure that the new approaches become the only work that young scholars be exposed to. By this time post-structuralism had paved the way, via Althusser and Foucault, for New Historicism and the ideologically militant Cultural Studies.

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Michael Sinding: The Extraliterary and the Interdisciplinary


Responding to Joe Adamson and Bob Denham.

I’ve got two comments, which are I think related as concerning the extraliterary. One is about logic and language again, and one is about interdisciplinarity.

Paradox and metaphor and irony and dialectic are indeed very important in Frye. But while giving them their due, I think there’s a danger that overemphasizing those rhetorical or hypothetical aspects can insulate Frye from questions and criticism. It can seem to drain his writing of any actual claims that can be discussed: we make it look as if he’s not really saying anything about anything. And I’m pretty sure he’s not doing that (not not doing that?). Such insulation occurs with some poststructuralist criticism, though for a different reason: the language can get rather opaque, to put it mildly. The effects are unfortunate.

Giving the rhetorical and hypothetical its due is not easy. One challenge is the everything-fitting-togetherness of his thinking. Within the system, things can make an amazing amount of illuminating sense. And to do justice to any part, you have to consider it in the context of the whole. (When you try to pull one brick out, a few more may come with it.)

It’s not as if he doesn’t make claims about literature, and about many other things. Even though Frye stresses ‘creating perspectives’ over taking ‘positions’, a perspective is still a perspective ON something, and it can be evaluated for how well it reveals something of its topic, proposes certain patterns, and heck, even for its rightness and wrongness. If all we can say about it is ‘hmm, interesting, another perspective … OK, what’s next?’, it hardly seems worth the candle.

It’s important not to oversimplify what Frye is saying. And it’s important to be, well, judicious in our judging: not to reach too quickly or in the wrong way after fact and reason. But I think we can and should question those claims, because it’s essential to taking Frye seriously, and to keeping the conversation alive.

As an example, if we take Frye to be saying that all language is literary language, that’s a claim about language—one which, as it stands, I don’t think has a chance of surviving serious scrutiny. All kinds of language is non-literary, is literal, referential etc. But if we consider in context the general idea of this dialectic between centripetal and centrifugal language, or attention, and the idea that all language has a centripetal, rhetorical, literary aspect (which I think is what he was actually saying), then that looks like an idea with some future in its bones.

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Today in the Frye Diaries, 27 September



[130] Well, today was the Retreat. I got through it somehow, dividing it into “The Search for Wisdom” (morning) and “The Search for the Word” (afternoon). I said everything is learned by the scientific method and absorbed in the personality as an art, a knack or flair. The former is knowledge, the latter wisdom & the goal of an “arts” course. Knowledge of itself is lumber or a machine: a liberal education implies the elimination of pedantry & vulgarity & the achievement of a fully integrated personality. Students come to college because they want to grow. Mental growth is a fact like physical growth. But the possessor of a liberal education is not his own end, nor do his class affiliations or social responsibilities exhaust his duties, for there are no douanes in culture. Hence wisdom is the entry into a universal order and a world of spiritual values. The discussion was good but the staff talked too much. I stressed “scientia,” knowledge, as against “love of wisdom,” philosophy, which defines defines the human attitude towards the knowledge. Love today is interest, the difference between the good & mediocre student of equal intelligence. In the afternoon I went on with “The Search for the Word”: wisdom reveals spiritual values but does not save more than a few Stoics of exceptional strength who have the very rare quality of heroic wisdom from an evil physical world. Besides, the personal is superior to the impersonal. Hence wisdom becomes less an abstract noun & more a concrete entity of mind, or person: a saviour, furthermore, a God also man. Hence wisdom which arrives at the Logos has expanded into revelation or vision. The kids couldn’t get that, of course, and fought whether you could know if God exists or not. However, I really think the Retreat was less hideously futile than usual.