Critical Realism and Literary Theory

I've been busy. I've been after the in-breaking of Critical Realism in literary theory. Here's why:

In 1975, Roy Bhaskar, a philosopher of science, published A Realist Theory of Science, in which he affirms fallibism (he acknowledges that knowledge is socially constructed and relativistic). He maintains, however, that there exists an objective reality quite independent of our knowledge of it, and that this reality is stratified, with layers of depth that subjective knowledge can penetrate while never reaching the bottom. After subsequent publications, and after breaking into the field of sociology, Bhaskar's theories became known as Critical Realism. I contend that Critical Realism should also break into literature in order to provide a counter to the post-postmodern condition in three ways: By resurrecting the human agent from her burial under socialization, by providing a model for coping with the arbitrariness of signs, and by providing a method for provisionally evaluating truth propositions.

Margaret Archer, a prominent Critical Realist sociologist, terms the subject buried under socialization Society's Being: "Society's Being thus impoverishes humanity, by subtracting from our human powers and accrediting all of them--selfhood, reflexivity, thought, memory, emotionality and belief--to society's discourse." And yet, Archer argues that “Society's being requires [a] sense of self in order for a social agent to know that social obligations pertain to her.” This self is what prioritizes between physical wellbeing, performative skill in the workplace, and social self-worth. The self is not subsumed by social identity; they are placed in a dialectical relationship. Archer would no doubt prescribe that we turn off the television long enough to spend some time thinking for ourselves instead of being blinded by a flood of images.

Norman Fairclough, Bob Jessop, and Andrew Sayer have embarked on a project to integrate semiosis (the creation of meaning) into Critical Realism's account of social structure. They would argue that the arbitrary nature of signs has been so problematic because hermeneutics has focused solely on determining the meaning of a text. Their solution is to give even-handed attention to the effects of words by considering them more like chemicals in a complex reaction, to validate the extra-semiotic dimension of reading, and realize that meaning is not found in words but the subjects who read them. They would advise us to quit fixating on words as symbols which may or may not point to objects in the world, and to instead realize that words are more like events which take place in socially situated contexts.

Ruth Groff is a Critical Realist whose most recent monograph expounds upon a theory of truth which posits that propositions are true if and only if what they claim is actually the case. Because all knowledge is theory-laden and therefore fallible, propositions can never be said to be definitively true. Groff believes, however, that we can be reasonably justified in believing a proposition is true when any opposing propositions that can be falsified have been eliminated, when any remaining propositions wield less explanatory power, and when an interdisciplinary consensus has been reached that belief in a given proposition is justified. She might advise us to quit opting out of passing provisional judgment on things.

I recently presented this in the context of a paper at the South Central MLA.


Nick said...

See, I knew if I posted you soon would. I'm crediting myself with this return to form, just like I blamed you for my head story.

Nick said...

Should break into *literature* or into *literary criticism?*

The latter I understand, but otherwise I don't see what this has to do with telling stories. PoMo hardly has a stranglehold on scribblers.

Bryan Tarpley said...

how pomo affects scribblers, or rather the entire publishing industry, deserves a separate post. i think the most immediate effect of pomo has been a surrender, culture-wide, to a flood of unevaluated images. this has led to * allowing the media to do the collective "thinking" (which is more like reacting), * engendering a schizophrenic public with low attention spans (siphoning off readers of anything that doesn't immediately stimulate), * making the publishing houses more and more pragmatic and opportunistic and market-driven in order to survive.

Greg McKinzie said...

Okay, I'll bite.

@ Fairclough, et al.: Can the solution to the hermeneutical fixation *solely* on the meaning of the text be legitimately compensated by an assertion that meaning is *not* found in words [as signs]. It seems to me that it would be much more reasonable given the problem to say that meaning is not *only* found in the semiotic function but also in the performative function of words (to say nothing of the author's subjectivity).

@ Groff: Isn't the elimination of opposing propositions, the determination of explanatory power, and the evaluation of even interdisciplinary assumptions precisely the epistemic problem that beleaguers the pomo discussion of truth. It seems kind of facile to say that if we could do these things, we would have a fair set of criteria for determining truth. Doesn't the question continue to be about how we accomplish those tasks?

Bryan Tarpley said...

greg, i responded to part of your bite in my latest post. thanks for the conversation ;)