Interpretations not Truths: The Necessity of Play

                                                               and as I said I am not ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall not,
Will not do so for the moment. Except to say that the carnivorous
Way of these lines is to devour their own nature, leaving
Nothing but a bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence, but still.

John Ashbery ~ The Skaters


In Charles Bernstein’s somewhat involved essay-verse ‘Artifice of Absorption’  the poet-critic seems to invoke Benjamin’s ‘absorption’ effect of the ‘aura’ in the mind of the perceiver when he posits that the idea of ‘absorption’ we’ve all come to understand as a fundamental prerequisite when reading poetry (namely, the edifying effect of meaning & the concomitant/coterminous emotive valences semantic meaning brings in tow) is a moment in which the reader/perceiver in an abstract sense outstrips, or even better, overlooks the material constructions of the text or object before them (failing to recognise the typology or bibliographical factors interplaying with the reception processes of a codex, or the jutting-out spikes and rounded contours of paint in an impasto portrait). To ignore the present truth of such objects (texts included) is to be carried away or tricked by the prestidigitation of the magician; it is not to witness the ‘truth’ in the intricacies of the material in front of you or the careful, morphological construction of the material components, with the intention of deceiving.

Benjamin’s finding pedigree with aura, absorption and religious idolatry (Benjamin, 223) bolsters Bernstein’s argument that ‘absorption’ is part of a largely theological, even atavistic paradigm & is ultimately distorting of reality, as it posits that one thing is more true, or closer to the truth, than another. The aura & its absorptive reaction are entirely fictitious. The supposed import of one singular object over another are engendered in the individual per the inculcations of  a wider societal imputation & assertion of what is important & what is not, & ultimately may serve as a beeline towards consolidation & control. For Bernstein, then, ‘absorption’ is an atavistic way of reading or perceiving art, and this mode of reception must be stemmed and can be by investing meaning in what has always been considered the ‘nonsemantic’ components of a text:

I would say
that such elements as line breaks, acoustic
patterns, syntax, etc., are meaningful rather than,
as she [Veronica Forrest-Thomson] has it , that they contribute to the meaning
of the poem. For instance, there is no fixed
threshold at which noise becomes phonically
significant; the further back this threshold is
pushed, the greater the resonance at the cutting
edge. The semantic strata of a poem should not be
understood as only those elements to which a
relatively fixed connotative or denotative meaning
can be ascribed, for this would restrict meaning to
the exclusively recuperable elements of language—a
restriction that if literally applied would make
meaning impossible.

Bernstein’s writing here as one of the standard bearers of the Language ‘school’ of poetry; a study in poetics predicated to the nth degree on form. Meaning in poetry, to put is succinctly, is the form. What we traditionally come to perceive as meaning as readers is, according to this poetics, a fallacy, as this semantic valence of language is completely & entirely constituted by the graphemic & phonemic morphology of a poem’s structure. There’s no getting around or getting past this. To index a poem’s meaning as being extensible beyond this form-barrier is forcing your own singular truth upon it. It is the selfsame process witnessed in religious idolatry (the aura subsummation of pointing to something ‘greater’), by pressing your singular interpretation of the truth or what the object represents upon it. In Bernstein’s reaction to this response, he argues that to focus on the form-morphology of any given object or text, the perceiver/reader is not closing in meaning but keeping the possibilities of what the object might mean open.

Bernstein then continues his argument by pointing out the checks & limitations of such traditional ways of reading, the contradistinction of form & content for the purpose of accommodating orthodox exegeses in which both are compared & contrasted, form feeding into content and vice versa:

The obvious problem is that the poem said in any
other way is not the poem. This may account for
why writers revealing their intentions or
references (“close readings”), just as readers
inventorying devices, often say so little: why
a sober attempt to document or describe runs so
high a risk of falling flat. In contrast, why not
a criticism intoxicated with its own metaphoricity,
or tropicality: one in which the limits of
positive criticism are made more audibly
artificial; in which the inadequacy of our
explanatory paradigms is neither ignored
nor regretted but brought into fruitful play.

In ‘Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation’, Stanley Fish rejects the, what he might consider, latest trends in literary reading (in particular those used by digital humanists, such as algorithmic criticism), while advocating the potentialities of insight yet to be gleaned by a continuation of ‘close reading’. He handily gives a demonstration as to just what ‘close reading’ entails, by positing how it could be argued that in his polemical work Areopagitica, Milton employes the fortuitous circumstance of both the letters ‘b’ & ‘p’ being approximate in sound (both bilabial plosives) to formally signify & ultimately underpin his message that despite the complaining of the Presbyterian ministers about how they were censored by the Episcopalian bishops, the Presbyters were really quite the same in carrying out their own acts of censorship. Fish can then extrapolate from the phonetic conflation of the consonants ‘p’ & ‘b’, of Presbyter & bishop, from a formal device in Milton’s prose apparatus, the content-meaning of the piece. He has drawn an interpretive solution per the formal properties.

What Fish fails to recognise is that this form-content continuum, this method of ‘understanding’ literature per ‘close reading’ (which can, as Franco Moretti rightly devises it, be seen as a school of thought with a trajectory from New Criticism to Post-structuralism [Conjectures on World Literature, 57]) has been consistently undermined, argued against & fudged by poets and writers alike in the attempt to obfuscate the supposition of finding meaning, or truth, in a text. The poet John Ashbery could be considered in many respects to be of a similar stripe to Bernstein inasmuch as his poetry doesn’t pretend to offer up any meaning, & so he obviates  traditional semantic overtures  through a heavy interplay of experimentation with register, parataxis & more traditional devices like rhyme (examples of Ashbery poems: ‘The Skaters’, ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood’).

I would like to see Fish defend the use of ‘close reading’ for the purpose of extrapolating any meaning from an Ashbery poem, when Bernstein’s model of the ‘nonsemantic’ actually being misinterpreted, as being the true semantic, would fit so much better. In ‘Toward an Algorithmic Criticism’, Stephen Ramsey asserts that the problem with methods of reading grounded in philological, philosophical or ultimately academic principles is that they purport to find empirical truths in their ‘findings’, without regard for the fact that all hypotheses of text hermeneutics are nothing more than that:  hypotheses. To look at a text through a particular (and pre-chosen) lens is to reinvent a text, to re-create. Yet in the way traditional scholarship has come about, the ladder (as Ramsey allegorises it), by which he means the experimental processes of cherry-picking, is thrown out (like the baby with the bathwater) at the end, in the hope of disguising this fundamentally ‘ludic’ makeup of all research:

Throwing away the ladder has, in fact, been the consistent method of literary criticism, which, as a rhetorical practice, is indeed often concerned with finding ways to conceal these steps by making it seem as if the author went from open possibilities of signification in Lear to the hidden significance of the Fool in a single bound. The computational substrate upon which algorithmic criticism rests, however, demands that one pay attention to the hidden details of pattern formation. Algorithmic criticism might indeed be conceived as an activity that seeks to scrutinise the discarded ladder.


In scrutinising “the discarded ladder”, then, academic research will finally be able to come abreast of the philological and philosophical ideas of much writing today, which could be regarded as an enterprise in eluding the oppressive attempts at pinning down meaning. To come back to Ramsey, the question is not what does a text mean, but rather, how do we ensure that it keeps on meaning? (170). Where an object or text like an Ashbery poem is never supposed to be ‘right’ (Ramsey again, 173), why preclude an engagement with its inchoateness, its refusal for anything other than its contingency, by overlooking its interplay of form, just to meet an end? (To strengthen your academic vita maybe — to make ends meet?) New methods of computerisation in the humanities can underwrite the ludic in the post-modern poem:

Computer-enabled ‘play’ can accomplish the same type of alteration which these writers have pursued in their works. Such poetic play, beyond the poetic products themselves, serves as a tool to increase readers’ awareness of poetry as a unique blend of word, structure, and pattern. By imbuing the poetic text with a new dimension, on-screen manipulation of what has been called ‘electric poetry’ (Silverstein) evokes the reader’s participation in the poetic process. The interactive modality offered by the electronic medium destabilizes the text, allowing the reader to explore it more thoroughly than is possible in the fixed printed medium and to both appreciate and experience poetry as ‘play’.

(Irizarry, Tampering with the Text to Increase Awareness in the Poetry’s Art, 155)

With the prospects of what algorithmic criticism can do finally come the possibility of a criticism semblable to the poetry it purports to understand. Reader engagement will change in a manner more akin to what was intended with multimedia based interactivity of re-imaginings of data-mined works of art. We can finally unfetter ourselves from the trammelling prescriptions of traditional readings that, as Wilkins asserts, are predicated on ‘a deep set of ingrained cultural biases that are largely invisible to us’ & ultimately make us ignorant ‘of their alternatives’ (250). Which brings us back the the aura once more, & to the artifice of the aura, & of course, the artifice of absorption, which we need to constantly hack at in order to see the wood for the trees, to fend off cultural & historical programmes/distortions through which we’ve been told to read ; for the interpretation of interpretations, not the truth.

Works Cited:

Bernstein, Charles. Artifice of Absorption. EPC Digital Library. 2014.

Fish, Stanley. Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation. The New York Times. 2012.

Irizarry, Tampering with the Text to Increase Awareness in the Poetry’s Art. Lit Linguistic Computing  11, 4, 155-162. 1996.

Moretti, Franco. Conjectures on World Literature.

Ramsey, Stephen. Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Literary and Linguistic Computing 18, 2, 167-174. 2003.