The Oxford Protocol : Modules

Explanatory/Descriptive?

My current worry is the nature of the purpose of the intellectual activity in literary studies – is it explanatory or descriptive, of what and for what? If explanatory, it seems to me that it should be testable, and repeatable – I can see cases where this might be possible, but they are few. The history of a text is sometimes presented as causative – this can be suggestive, but very difficult to prove or disprove. Using the structure of a text to suggest what other texts might be produced as a result in the future is at least more open to this kind of test, and linguistic analysis can be used in a way that is predictive and testable. Most of our work is probably descriptive – nothing wrong in that providing we know what we are doing – but do we always? As soon as we move away from formal analysis, the quiddity of the thing observed becomes contingent on vast and complex contexts. What is usually being described is the relationship between many things – a work, its history, the present observer, the history of the present observer, and any number of intellectual paradigms casually invoked. So-called ‘theories’ are not in any sense testable, but rather linguistic and intellectual sets which are used in the writing of the description. They present the description in a particular context, and are themselves part of the ‘thing’ described. Such descriptions are properly not explanations of a phenomenon or artefact, but are themselves the latest part in its history. The provocative way of putting this might be to say that criticism is meta-fiction, a creative rather than an analytic activity. No harm in that, supposing we recognize it.

The next question is to what end does this activity then exist? Presumably it becomes part of the tissue of current intellectual activity, itself the object of study from any number of critical perspectives – literary, linguistic, sociological and so on. There could be thought to be something faintly depressing in this circularity, but then that would be true of one generation reproducing itself in the biological way too, and in both cases the term ‘re-producing’ is not accurate strictly, since the third generation will be changed from the first by the intermediation of the second. But while the intellectual activity of pattern recognition and so on does not differ from that involved in explanatory work, the end result is substantially different, and has no claims on even hypothetical or transient certainty. If a culture makes these claims, there is within something amiss.

Oxford Group, January 2014: Academy Turned Inside Out | Apotheosis | Core Technology | The Dedisciplinary Environment | Explanatory/Descriptive? | Fiction | Good Explanation | Mediation | Platform | Polemic | Portal | Problems | Protocol | Protocol (II) | Search*/Know* | Sciences/Humanities | Stuckness | Threshold Effects | Topology | Touchstones