Sunday 30 June 2013

On Error-Correction and Formative Fictions, by Joshua Landy

Recently, in OnFiction, Rebecca Wells-Jopling posted a very interesting response (click here) to my book, How to Do Things with Fictions.  What I suggested in that book is that certain fictions—like Beckett’s novels, Mark’s parables, and Plato’s dialogues—permit us, among other things, to fine-tune some of our most valuable capacities.  Each of them encourages us to perform specific mental activities, and each of them rewards us, if we do so, with increased skill in the relevant area.  Important differences aside, they are a little bit like weight machines at the gym: you don’t have to lift the weights, but if you do, you stand an excellent chance of strengthening your muscles.

Now Rebecca Wells-Jopling has a serious—and fascinating—worry to raise about my approach.  Where, she asks, is the error-correction?  If all we are doing is performing mental actions over and over again, without ever being set straight when we perform them wrongly, how can we hope to improve?  Might we not merely be reinforcing our bad habits?  “Any coach,” she says, “will tell you that repetitions in the absence of targeted error correction are a waste of time.”  And so, presumably, the types of mental activity solicited by the writers I discuss (fallacy-detection in Plato, for example) are also a waste of time.

In spite of Wells-Jopling’s thought-provoking arguments, I’m not entirely convinced, and for two reasons.  The first is one that Wells-Jopling herself entertains: “one could argue,” she concedes, “that rereading is an error-correction mechanism.”  That seems just right to me: we frequently correct our own mistakes, whether by physically going back and rereading earlier passages or simply by revisiting them in our minds.  And in fact, the texts I discuss require exactly that for their full appreciation.  Readers of Mark generally start out assuming that the parables are straightforwardly didactic; readers of Plato generally start out assuming that Socrates is always his spokesman; readers of Proust generally start out assuming that the narrator is the author.  There are, however, enough indications in each case to make alert readers question these assumptions, reprocess, reread, amend their initial hypotheses.  And only under those circumstances are they able fully to understand, and fully to profit from, the works in question.

Now one could of course worry, with Wells-Jopling, that such readers are few and far between: not everyone is going to figure out that there’s sometimes an ironic gap between Plato and his character Socrates, and not everyone is going to abandon the idea that the parables in Mark are trying to teach us life lessons.  That’s fair enough, but it’s an odd kind of objection to raise.  After all, only 15% of Americans have gym memberships, and an even smaller percentage make use of them, yet we still continue, and with good reason, to think it valuable that gyms exist.  So too with Mallarmé’s sonnets: few will read them in the first place, and many of those who do will miss the point, yet they remain of vital importance for those who get them right.  And that is surely more than enough to make them worth our attention.

In fact, of course, writers like Mallarmé see it as a good thing that many will miss the point.  Mallarmé himself, as is well known, worked hard to keep his poetry out of what he considered to be the wrong hands.  Similarly, albeit more surprisingly, Mark’s Jesus explicitly presents his task as preventing himself from being understood by “those outside.”  Plato’s Socrates, in the Phaedrus, worries about books that “roll around everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with [them]”—a hint, perhaps, that Plato seeks something else from his own writings.  And Beckett can hardly be accused of being a populist.  Such writers deliberately restrict their readership, and few have faulted them for doing so.  Only if one has a universalist bias does selectivity look like an aesthetic defect.  If, by contrast, one believes that individual human beings have different needs, talents, and proclivities, it begins to sound entirely reasonable for a given artwork to target a subset of humanity (those, for example, who consider philosophy a disease) and to leave aside, keep at arm’s length, or even strive to protect, the remainder.

Error-correction, then, is built into my theory. Readers of Beckett or Plato or Mallarmé or Woolf readjust their hypotheses in the light of new information, and in many cases they go back and reread some or all of the text in hand.  It’s true that such dedicated readers form only a subset of the general population, but we are not speaking, as Wells-Jopling claims, only of literary scholars, psychologists, and “committed Popperians”: plenty of non-Popperian layfolk give multiple readings to the parable of the sower, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Mrs. Dalloway.  And in any case, the numbers do not really matter.

There is, however, an even more important reason why reading Plato and Beckett is not a waste of time.  Let’s go back to our weight room.  You’re on the leg curl machine, curling your legs.  Since you’re an experienced weight-lifter, you are making no errors, and accordingly receiving no error-correction.  Are you therefore wasting your time?  Well, only if you don’t think it’s a good thing to strengthen your hamstrings.  The same goes in all kinds of other contexts: professional musicians who still practice scales; forgetful people like me who repeat people’s names to fix them in memory; actors going over their lines for a hundredth time.  Error-correction is a wonderful thing, but it is not always necessary—pace all those hypothetical coaches Wells-Jopling invokes—in order for practice to count as beneficial.

Indeed, in some of the cases I have in mind, it’s very hard to imagine what error-correction would look like.  Mallarmé, I claim, gives us practice in sustaining an illusion while knowing it to be untrue; what would count, in that context, as making a mistake?  What would count as correcting it?  Error-correction is at work in Mallarmé, but it’s not the only thing: after a while, rereading Ses purs ongles is like playing scales, or repeating names, or lifting those weights for the thousandth time.  No reason, a priori, to think it doesn’t work.  And no reason, all in all, to think that formative fictions are a waste of time.

Landy, J. (2013). How to do things with fictions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Image: Saint Mark, who presents parables mentioned in this post

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