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.

On to the second comment … Frye also makes an excellent point about the dangers of connecting literature and criticism with other topics and fields—the vertical metaphors of ‘basing’ and ‘depending’ and ‘hanging’, and the horizontal metaphors of ‘relating’ and ‘connecting’. This is the determinism problem: criticism gets subordinated to some other discipline. But the opposite danger is that literature and criticism, including Frye criticism, can become insular, unrelated to other areas of thought.

I think some of the most interesting work on Frye has been those interdisciplinary connections with other areas—history, psychology, philosophy, etc. I know ‘interdisciplinarity’ is something of a buzzword now, but I think this too is an essential part of keeping Frye’s ideas alive. They should be developed, adapted. Of course, again, everything depends on how it’s done, and it can be very tricky. In doing this you are thrown into dealing with the principles, methods, standards, etc. of other fields, but that doesn’t mean you have to be subordinated to them—it is possible to arrange meetings of multiple frameworks, where the other field(s) must also engage with the principles, standards etc. of criticism. It takes interpretive charity on all sides.

I include the sciences here. Some sciences, such as the cognitive ones, seem to me obviously more relevant than others, like say geology. Whether or not, and how, the products of such meetings can be scientific, or scientific-ish, is another question. One view I like is that literary study can contribute to developing and refining hypotheses in the ‘human’ sciences. Hypothesis-building is essential to creating good explanations. Logic and proof certainly aren’t everything. You can get empirical confirmations of perfectly logical theories that just happen to be utterly wrong. Look at behaviorism.

You read laments these days that literary study has become too self-involved, cut off from the concerns of the rest of the world, and even the rest of the academy. (Here’s one, linked from Arts & Letters Daily: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/the-decline-of-the-english-department/. Maybe such laments are nothing new.). Frye’s thinking has potential to overcome that, which is a great strength, one that should be taken advantage of. Again, it’s not a matter of trying to make him ‘relevant’ simplistically, but of showing the continuing richness and potential of the ideas. To do that, you have to question them, push them, apply them in new ways to new topics.

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One thought on “Michael Sinding: The Extraliterary and the Interdisciplinary

  1. Joseph Adamson

    Excellent post, Michael. As Peter Yan noted, every argument implies a counter-argument, and there have been a number of excellent counters to my post on The Extraliterary. It is doubtless an over-reaction on my part, and likely the consequence of passing my days in a seemingly unassailable fortress of cultural studies. As you and others have pointed out, Frye himself was remarkably interdisciplinary, both in his adaptations of thinking in other disciplines and, as Bob emphasizes, in his influence on thinkers in other disciplines.

    I like the fact that you emphasize both the need and difficulty of striking a balance when adapting other disciplines to the study of literature. I suppose this is what I find so problematic in cultural studies, which is essentially applied sociology (of the social constructionist variety), but without any grounding of the application in either expertise in sociology or any coherent understanding of the authority of literature in its own right. It is the latter that is most disturbing: the absence of any conception of a vision that transcends ordinary human experience, or rather the denial of the value of any such vision, on doctrinal grounds, as anything other than an imaginary representation of ideology. And this in spite of the fact that Frye’s dialectic of “the world we want and the world we don’t want” is clearly implied in the assumption made by such scholars that the world we live in is more often than not a complete nightmare. It is the arts and literature that provide us with that vision, and so it seems perverse that literary scholars themselves should be engaged in deliberate efforts to obstruct it.

    This I think is the point of Merv Nicholson’s vehement insistence on the value Frye gave to desire and how fundamentally he departed from Freud when it came to the latter’s view of the neurotic as someone who just needed to abandon his fantasies and grow up. That Frye himself believed and stated many times that the purpose of a university education was to ensure that the student was maladjusted to his society would come as a great surprise to many of my colleagues.


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