Daily Archives: January 22, 2010

Friday Night Dance Party

It’s January.  January.  The worst month of the year, which is then followed by the second worst month of the year — February.

Oy.  That’s a tough go.

At times like these we need cheer wherever we can find it.  We’ve usually put the weekends aside for Frye-related videos of some sort, but dark times call for, oh, I dunno, a Hawaiian themed party with Twister, drinking games and tequila body shots!

And just who would you want providing the music for such a party?  Why, only a self-described “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia” is who!  The one and only B52s.

The video above represents the apex of their commercial success, and the message, appropriately enough, is love.

For those who prefer their B52s a little less cute and cuddly, who remember how genuinely weird they were when they first broke onto the scene, there are some goodies for you after the jump.  Selected for maximum Frye-relevancy.

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What Would a Science of Literary Criticism Look Like?

detail of an automated analysis of King Lear
Bob Denham quotes Frye saying he is not himself interested in turning literary criticism into a science but thinks it will happen one day. I like to play with this idea. In particular, that there might be an intersection of my two disciplines, literary criticism and computer science, has always been tantalizing to me.

It seems that a scientific study of literature has to begin with a cataloguing of conventions, and by conventions I mean the kind that are more or less obvious to anyone familiar with an area of literature and easily communicable to an outsider. Two books I really love are The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant, and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. Together I think they contain an excellent start and model for this kind of endeavour. Once this data is collected, we have a set of subjects that can be analyzed, compared and whose general structure can be described. This would produce an “anatomy” of conventions. Just to be clear, by “anatomy,” I do not mean what Frye meant by anatomy. I am using the word to refer strictly to the description of the structure of obvious conventions.

A science of literary criticism could be built up from works of literature to conventions and from a catalogue of conventions to a language or theory for speaking about the structure of conventions, and from this understanding of the structure of conventions to theories about higher level conventions such as genre, and from such higher level theories to a general theory of the structure of literature.

So here are the phases that I believe are needed in a scientific study of literature.

Stage   Input                       Output
first   works of literature         conventions
second  conventions                 catalogue of conventions
third   catalogue of conventions    anatomy
fourth  anatomy                     theories of higher level conventions
fifth   higher level theories       general theory

I think the really essential point is at the anatomy stage. How do we begin to talk about conventions in a structured and objective way? Several answers suggest themselves to me. It may be that we can never get past a semi-formal technical language of convention. But what is more interesting for my purpose is a formal encoding of convention which can be manipulated algebraically and computationally. Admittedly a computational literary criticism would not be a social science as Frye envisioned, but a hybrid discipline combining computer science and literary criticism.

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Peter Yan’s Top Ten Reasons for Literature


10. Literature is a genuine human creation, a language like math and music, which does not occur in nature. What is defined as culture is a) giving nature a human form (the sounds of nature are not the sounds of music), b) the best that has been thought and said.

9. Political/Scientific reasons: Literature presents different visions of the world we want or don’t want, a way to measure and choose politicians and policies when we vote. It even guides and inspires science, as the visions of literature are being realized, such as Icarus and hang-gliding, or computers that write and respond to vocal commands, even the cellular phone, an influence from sci-fi Star Trek. Also, politicians and governments do not sink to their lowest level of brutality, inflicting the greatest misery on the greatest number, until they rationalize it in words. See Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Be able to read to know difference between ideas which are for or against life, and not accept them passively.

8. Literature reminds us of our need for primary concerns which we share with animals (especially our concerns for food and water, sex, clothing, shelter, and unimpeded movement) over secondary concerns which are our loyalties to a group/mob and beliefs like capitalism, religion, communism. Too often we go to war because we don’t like how another group thinks. Many stories are also of a paradise lost and gained (e.g. story of Eden, Atlantis, the Garden of Hesperides) and we can’t go anywhere unless nature is looked after as well, a strong message for the troubled environment we live in.

7. One often missed point: art and literature are therapeutic. Watching Hollywood movies is the most obvious application of art to cheer us up. Most movies are adaptations of books. No books = no movies, as scripts themselves are written in a literary form, and are direct descendants of drama and theatre. Books and other arts (role-playing) provide a healthy catharsis and emotional release, as a healthy mind is the basis of all health.

6. Reading stories force us to identify with the main character who often is very different from us. This ability to identify, to walk in someone else’s shoes, helps us to identify with and learn tolerance for people who dress, think, speak, act and worship differently.

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