Science Fiction Studies

#32 = Volume 11, Part 1 = March 1984

F.E.L. Priestley

Understanding the "Analytico-Referential" Lion

Timothy J. Reiss. The Discourse of Modernism, Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982. 410pp. S28.50.

The nucleus from which Timothy Reiss develops his learned, ingenious, and very entertaining book is a problem familiar to thoughtful historians, particularly historians of ideas. It is very difficult, and may be in fact impossible, to move imaginatively from the familiar framework and pattern of thoughts and values that form our present context, and to enter into those of a different age and culture. Historians who wish to write about Newton, for example, must be able to accept the reasonableness of his deep interest in alchemy, as well as his strong concern with theology. If they wish to write about Joseph Priestley, they must not only praise his experiments on kinds of "air," but also see the brilliant imagination and reasonableness of his phlogiston theory. If they deal with Western thought in almost any period from the first to the 20 century A.D., they must first remember that modern professionalism did not always exist, even in the "learned professions." They must then remember that theology, and theological issues, were generally as all-pervasive and all-important as politics and political issues are now. These things have to be learned and remembered intellectually--and also imaginatively, which is a rare achievement. For Reiss, the problem is neatly epitomized in Wittgenstein's remark that if a lion could talk, we could not understand what he said: the lion appears regularly as a thematic reminder throughout the book.

Learning the lion's tongue would not be simply a matter of learning the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and idioms he uses: it would involve thinking like a lion. As Wittgenstein puts it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either....The limits of my language mean the limits of my world..., my logical space"! Reiss finds a very neat illustration in Robinson Crusoe. In teaching Friday to speak and to understand English, Crusoe has to "reinvent" the Indian and "place" him in Crusoe's mental space, not Friday's's. He teaches him his name, Friday, and the name by which he must address Crusoe, Master. Both names fit into a complex pattern of meanings for Crusoe, which Friday must come to learn. Crusoe, significantly, shows no wish to learn Friday's's language.

The basic purpose of The Discourse of Modernism is, as the opening words of the preface put it, to examine "aspects of the emergence and development, of the consolidation and growth to dominance, of modern Western discourse," which is here called the "analytico-referential." We have become accustomed, partly through the popularity of anthropology, to the idea that the thought-processes of a Papuan, say, especially before contact with white men, were very different from our own, as were those of the Inuit, of isolated African and South American tribes, and so on. But the only way in which the anthropologists could describe these strange habits and modes of thought to us, and perhaps to themselves, was by translating them into terms intelligible to us. In Reiss's way of putting it, we can only understand what is fitted into the shape of our dominant "analytico-referential discourse"; anything else remains unintelligible to us, or unreal. What Reiss recalls to us, in this provocative work, is that much of our own past, not only the remote but the not-so-remote, used a different "discourse," and offers the same problems of understanding. He reminds us, too, that where others are lions to us, we are lions to them.

He sees a great change in discourse developing essentially from and with the growth of empirical science: the methods and logic of that science create and are embodied in "analytico-referential discourse," the discourse of modernism. His book uses the change as "a model to describe how one dominant discourse gives way to another.... It shows the creation and development of the various elements fundamental to analytico-referential discourse, and it demonstrates at the same time the necessary occultation of other elements whose visible presence in discourse would I subvert its overt aims" (p. 9). "The kind of epistemic development seen in the early seventeenth century, preceded by at least a century of crisis and followed by a half century of consolidation, is being echoed in our own time and is leading to a similarly significant and complete conceptual change" (p. 9). The model is intended to throw light not only on our past but on our present and perhaps our future.

The theme is indeed vast and complex, as no one realizes more fully than Reiss. His subject is a difficult one to manage, and his book is not--probably cannot be--easy reading. He goes to immense pains to help the reader, and if one follows carefully the statement of aims in the preface, with its sketch of the general plan of the work, and then the 30 or so pages of the introductory first chapter ("On Method, Discursive Logics, and Epistemology"), one can enter into the main argument at the second chapter with a reasonably confident grasp of the basic terminology Reiss will be using and already some notion of the shape of his methodology. But at every stage he is offering valuable guidance, with excellently chosen extracts as chapter headings, with very frequent restatements of his theme, further explanations of his terminology, forecasts of what he will be doing in the next and future chapters, and rapid résumés of completed arguments. From time to time he supplements his text with diagrams, to compare shapes of structures or parallels of theme as he does, for example, in his treatment of Cyrano and of Defoe. The excellent footnotes add further light by indicating often the sources of parts of his argument or by added discussion of detailed issues. The rather large degree of repetition produced by these careful pedagogical methods might seem unnecessary to those readers who are familiar with the authors Reiss most frequently refers to (Lévi-Strauss, Gaston Bachelard, Michel Foucault, Gerard Simon, Freud, Frege, and Wittgenstein), but this common reader felt only gratitude as the backward and forward flashes, and the expanding definitions, kept the whole book well tied together and ordered. In time, some sense of having understood this lion emerged.

Faced with the obvious impossibility of dealing with the whole of Western thought from medieval to modern times, Reiss has chosen to construct his model from a single literary genre, of SF and utopias, but his range of reference goes far beyond the texts he gives special extended treatment to. The densely packed 50 pages of the second chapter, "Questions of Medieval Discursive Practice," bring two dozen medieval authors into the discussion, and refer to more than 50 scholars and their works, while conducting examinations of a series of related topics, often challenging generally accepted opinions. The main purpose of this chapter is still partly that of prolegomenon: it argues that the Renaissance marked a real break from earlier times, a radical change in "discourser--i.e., from what Reiss calls a discourse of "patterning" to an emerging (and finally dominant) discourse of "analytico-referential" type associated with the new attitudes towards science. The term "discourse" is used throughout in an extremely comprehensive sense: it is primarily the mode of ordering reality as we see it, which includes all our experience and observation, our views "of society and the individual, of nature and culture, of the 'natural' and 'supernatural'." There is little problem in defining and describing the analytico-referential discourse, since that is still the dominant one and the one we all grew up in. Reiss's definitions and descriptions sharpen our view of our own familiar modes of thought, but his real problem is to try to make "patterning" as clear to us as possible, which is essentially trying to teach us to understand the lion. One does not understand the lion by translating him into our own speech. Consequently, Reiss's first task in this chapter is to attack those who have insisted that the lion actually talked our language.

He chooses first to discuss the absence in the Ancients of the idea of self-identity, and with it of will in the modern sense. He cites and analyzes an impressive body of scholarly opinion, crossing swords with some eminent critics, and constructs a very good case. His remark in passing that Aristotle's hamartia is not a "fault" or a "tragic flaw" but rather an "unwillingness" is not new, but still bears reaffirming. After a very shrewd and persuasive analysis of the position of the Ancients, he broadens the argument and extends it to the Middle Ages, with similar deft results. His position throughout is summed up by a quotation from Rousseau: "Humankind of one age is not the humankind of another, and the reason why Diogenes did not find the [kind of] man the sought] is that he was looking among his contemporaries for a man of a time that was no more" (p. 68). More than once Reiss reminds us of the fallacy of looking for resemblances to our own views. He rebukes Anthony Kenny for finding in Aristotle's views "a remarkable resemblance" to those of such analytical philosophers as Ryle or Wittgenstein. "We should not place too much faith in any similarity... for the underlying concepts are quite different." It is difficult for modern readers to comprehend Anselm's ontological argument (or in fact any ontological argument) and much easier for them to sympathize with Abelard, who seems to place emphasis on the life of the individual. Augustine's Confessions are popular, largely through a misapprehension that they portray "a willful self entirely responsible for its own 'individual life."' "They do not affirm an individual," says Reiss, "But show the absorption of the human into the Divine" (p. 70). The whole medieval "patterning" discourse is based on the relation of the human to the Divine. The "patterning" emerges as complexes of signs, of symbols, of spiritual allegories. The operator which permits the transformation of one set of relations into another is the anima, which, as the soul, is the image of God and a mediation to the Divine.

Reiss relates these ideas briefly to literature in a glance at the Chanson de Roland and a quick mention of Chaucer and Dante, then moves to a section on Ockham, who has come to be considered in some quarters as the earliest patron saint of modernism. As Reiss observes, the realism/nominalism dispute should not be identified with a later opposition between rationalism and empiricism, "to which it is often mistakenly assimilated. The two disputes do not pose the problem of knowledge in at all the same way. They belong in different epistemes" (p. 95). With these salutary injunctions established, Reiss proceeds to his chosen illustrative texts: More's Utopia, Kepler's Somnium, Campanella's La città del sole, and Bacon's New Atlantis (supplemented by an extra chapter on The Advancement of Learning and "the tetrad of Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Hobbes,...whose influence institutes the dominance of the new analytico-referential discourse"). These are followed by Cyrano de Bergerac's voyages to the Moon and to the Sun, with a collateral discussion of the Prometheus myth, in two chapters. A third chapter on Cyrano, "The Difficulty of Writing," explores theories of language, partly historically, partly philosophically. A chapter each on Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels (the latter brief and unfortunately limited to Book IV) precede the concluding remarks on "Emergence, Consolidation, and Dominance of a Discourse" in a chapter that looks back and also forward, seeing signs in the present of the possible "displacement" of our dominant analytico-referential discourse by another not as yet clearly discernible.

In an extended discussion of considerable subtlety and ingenuity, Reiss argues that "the entire theme of Utopia, indeed, is the uselessness of the writing of it" (p. 121). "In effect More concludes: 'I cannot agree with what I have just finished writing....' The satire that the text is comments not only on the society of More's time but also on that of the Utopians" (p. 137). "More's Utopia textualizes a discursive paradox that will remain an insuperable contradiction until its two sides are separated: we will see this in Kepler as an opposition between 'process' and 'entropy'" (p. 111). The argument is not susceptible to ready summary beyond this; patient readers will find a good deal to brood over in what is perhaps the most difficult chapter of Reiss's book. In his own terms the Utopia seems to mark the "occulting" of the discourse of "patterning" and all it signifies, without a clear emergence (or perhaps acceptance) of the newer discourse, the "analytico-referential."

Kepler's Somnium offers a simpler exposition, since it shows a clear dichotomy between the dream itself, which belongs to the older discourse--allegorical and symbolic, embodying multiple related patterns of meaning--and Kepler's notes, which belong to the new discourse. The notes are scientific, ascribing scientific "meaning" to the detailed parts of the dream; they mark, in a sense, Kepler's final choice of allegiance, for he went on adding to the notes: "Kepler's notes are symptomatic of the development of analytical knowing, and so too is their accumulation....They even try to reduce the telling itself to mythology through an ongoing attempt to explain the denotation of certain elements of the text...." (p. 160). The notes eventually become three times as long as the text they seek to explicate, and could go on endlessly, multiplying meanings of a text that has no single "meaning."

The full development and definition of the new discourse is shown in Campanella's City of the Sun and Bacon's New Atlantis, the latter illuminated by generous reference to the Advancement of Learning in chapter 6, "The Masculine Birth of Time." We now come to what seems more familiar ground, among men who speak our own language. But before the reader gets over-confident, Reiss offers a few warnings. The popular view of Bacon as the founder of the empirical science of nature needs some qualification. For Bacon, as for his contemporaries, "science was a general term and included not only "natural philosophy," but "the other sciences, logic, ethics, and politics." Secondly, Bacon's "empirical science" begins with axioms and descends to "particulars." Finally, Bacon himself was "first and foremost a lawyer and statesman--politician, rather, in modern parlance" (p. 199). His work was meant to be "the prolegomenon to a complete philosophical system...inseparably linked with its author's legal and political activities" (p. 199).

As to Bacon's "empiricism," discovery depends, not on immediate experience, but on what he calls experientia literate (p. 201). Like Galileo, he insists that "raw experience" is useless. "'Experience' is only usable when it has been ordered beforehand by a mental calculus" (p. 202). Bacon's experientia literate indicates a kind of "dialectic," a constant play between the elaboration of "axioms," the "descent to particulars," and the return to the former (p. 203). (One might note the resemblance to Newton's "Rules.") From this "dialectic" develops the linear form of analytico-referential discourse. In this linear pattern, the form of experimentalism, Reiss finds the shaping principle of the New Atlantis, and even more completely, of Cyrano's narratives.

Defoe is one of the most obvious candidates to exemplify the new discourse, and the reader expects to following an entirely familiar path. Reiss, however, has a great gift for close reading and for noticing what generations of readers and critics have passed by. He points out repetitions of pattern in the behavior of Crusoe and his father and significances in Crusoe's passivity (which is party real, partly "occulted activity"); and these repetitions he relates neatly to the theme of "discursive order" (p. 302). His whole treatment of Defoe will give the reader fresh insights at almost every page; Reiss repeatedly takes issue with the general position of critics. Crusoe, and other writings of Defoe's,

have been considered illustrations of economic or possessive individualism. But capitalism, scientific positivism, and puritanism or Calvinism are not linked to each other as cause to effect, or at least no evidence can show that they are. It is not one or the other that is preponderantly important in Robinson Crusoe that the novel would become the story of the new individualistic capitalism, or a criticism of it, or a relation of a (the) fall and redemption. That is not to say that the novel does not make use of such themes. But they are simply the material of discourse ....The form of discourse is what provides them with a particular 'meaning,' their discursive relation ....A general process of change in the use of signs (here, linguistic signs) is taking place....The result of this change is called 'puritanism' in one type of discourse, 'capitalism' in another, in another 'positivistic science,' in yet another 'neoclassical literature,' elsewhere 'modern' philosophy...all these are parallel types of a single class of discourse, the product of Kepler's notes to the Somnium, if you will. (pp. 303-04)

The choice of the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels is also, no doubt, deliberately provocative, since it is even more of a critical cockpit. For a number of reasons, one could question this choice. It would have been interesting to see what Reiss might have done with Book III, for example. But Swift is a very tricky author, the true Artful Dodger, and the accumulated layers of irony become difficult to sort out; consequently Gulliver has become not simply a cockpit, but a sort of critics' gymnasium, encouraging more and more daring feats of agility. In the dazzling display, it becomes difficult to see Swift. Through Reiss's discussion we follow Gulliver's mind and his use of the discourse of modernism, but it is often hard to discover what Swift (who is, after an, writing the book) is doing with it.

It may seem ungenerous to carp at so rewarding a work as Reiss's, and one must also remember his frequent reminders of the limits within which he was necessarily working. One can, however, in reviewing a book about utopias, perhaps express a few utopian wishes. First, there seems a tendency to exaggerate the triumph of experimentalism in Swift's day--which includes viewing Swift himself as a Hobbist (p. 351)--and in the following century (except for Dickens). This is to overlook the strong influence of the Cambridge Platonists, of Jacob Boehme, and William Law in the 18th century, of Coleridge, Maurice, Sterling, Carlyle, Newman, Pusey, Tennyson, Browning, and Ruskin in the 19th. It is worth noting that both Tennyson and Browning make more powerful attacks on the worship of "facts" than Dickens does (although few in our mechanical age have noticed that Dickens in Hard Times has Gradgrind accept "facts" about the horse which are actually egregious errors). Browning's ironic treatment of "fact" and "fiction" and Tennyson's of "knowledge" and "wisdom" are very pertinent here. In the Restoration and 18th century, the sort of Christian fideism based on a clear view of the limits of unaided human reason is powerfully expressed in Dryden's Religio Laici and in Pope's Essay on Man-in the former directly, in the latter ironically. As far as Swift's view is ascertainable, this too would seem to be his. His famous definition of man as not animal rationale, but animal rationis capax suggests this. The clash of philosophies is there, probably at all times, certainly from the time of Hobbes and Gassendi, the revival of Epicureanism, and attacks by the Cambridge Platonists and their allies on "Hobbists, Epicureans, Atheists, and the like." One might note, too, that on the matter of the "systematization" of literature (p. 39), Dryden and Pope constantly urge the limited use of rules. Finally, one would have been delighted to see what Reiss would do with News from Nowhere, Erewhon, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, and Samuel R. Delany. Could one hope? At an events, one must thank Timothy Reiss heartily for a most stimulating work. No reader of it will ever again approach SF with untouched innocence.

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