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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: If In a Literature Thesis a PhD Student..., or, The Lotarian Trap

Thursday, September 13, 2007

In Italo Calvino's famous meditation on the relationship between novelists and readers, If On a Winter's Night A Traveller, comes a warning about the fundamental trap of a literary research thesis:
A girl came to see me who is writing a thesis on my novels for a very important university seminar in literary studies. I see that my work serves her perfectly to demonstrate her theories, and this is certainly a positive fact - for the novels or for the theories, I do not know which. From her very detailed talk, I got the idea of a piece of work being seriously pursued, but my books seen through her eyes seem unrecognisable to me. I am sure this Lotaria (that is her name) has read them conscientiously, but I believe she has read them only to find in them what she was already convinced of before reading them.
In science, you carefully choose the dataset on which you will run a test for a hypothesis, selecting a target which will provide results most efficiently and with the minimum of uncontrolled variables. But, ultimately, the dataset chosen by the scientist should be entirely irrelevant: the data must be independent of the conclusion if the scientific theory is valid. In the apocryphal story, Newton may have been standing under an apple tree when he reasoned the theory of gravity, but that theory applies equally whether the observational data is falling apples or dropped bombs. Were the theory to stop being applicable in a comparable situation - under a plum tree, for example - then the theory would have been falsified, such that we would need to recognise either that the theory must be fundamentally wrong, or that it requires modification in order that it apply (or appreciates why it cannot apply) equally for different varieties of fruit (or, more realistically, in the extreme conditions of entities such as black holes).

In literary study, however, the division between theory and data is less clear cut, as the Calvino passage makes clear in its parody. Currently researching some of Umberto Eco's semiotic theories, I notice that although deconstruction claims itself as a method applicable across all texts and language - since it places language as the very centre of our way of being in and knowing the world - most often the texts to which it is applied are always already open to deconstructive readings: works that are self-referential, embrace paradox rather than conclusiveness, are conscious of their being as texts. Thus Barthes examines some stories by Edgar Allan Poe, but not the editorial correspondence from the New England Magazine in which many of them were published.

And literary writers such as Italo Calvino (or A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, John Fowles), conscious of the ways in which the academy will appraise their texts, deliberately pre-empt and parody those modes of criticism. Thus texts such as If On a Winter's Night adopt what I call the critically sarcastic attitude. A Lotaria, or other academic reader, comes to the work from a pre-conceived theoretical angle, finds that the text deconstructs itself (or performs according to the predictions of some other theory), and thus the text can do nothing but applaud that critic ironically: "Well done," it says, "of course such and such a theoretically knowing symbol/structure/tone/philosophy etc. was there. I put it there. I knew you would come looking for it."

I am not a poststructuralist myself, though I am aware that I regularly (often subconsciously) dip into its toolbox in my analysis of texts, just as I do Marxism, psychoanalysis, historicism, or the close readings of new criticism. However, though I do not have a single preconceived critical angle, in my research I still risk falling into the Lotarian trap.

Without giving my game away too much (anonymity matters, as does the intellectual property of my original idea in my thesis), I am examining the use of a particular metaphor in literary fiction and science. Now hovering on the brink of its third year, my research is well-developed, most chapters are drafted or written, my ideas are well-honed and focused. Among other things, I am going to be looking at four novels and a couple of films which use my metaphor. However, to select these - effectively my dataset - I discarded tens of other novels which I read over the previous two years which did not happen to contain the image or symbol for which I was looking. It is therefore inevitable that I will give the impression that I "read them only to find in them what [I] was already convinced of before reading them." This is where Chapter One: The Introduction comes in, and I realise only now that in spite of it being only a small component, it is probably the most important single chapter of my thesis, since it is this that will make-or-break it in a viva.

If I fully admit the qualifications, and paradoxes of my research there, then what follows will stand or fall by the internal logic of the framework I publicly have set myself; I admit my theory works only within the orchard of texts in which I have chosen to wander. If I fail to recognise the inherent limits of my methods, however, then a single plum dropped by the examiner will falsify it, showing my data to rely wholly on my theory, rather than existing independently of it. The moral of my experience, and Calvino's story, and The Lotarian Trap, is that literary theory becomes a bad pseudoscience when it seems to explain both apples and plums.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:33 am


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