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Quality DistinctionsEdmund Leach
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Vol. 3 No. 24 · 17 December 1981

Quality Distinctions

Edmund Leach

1949 words
The Architecture of Experience: A Discussion of the Role of Language and Literature in the Construction of the World 
by G.D. Martin.
Edinburgh, 201 pp., £12, February 1981, 0 333 23560 6
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Just why the publication of this expensive book should have merited a subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council is not obvious. Much of the text has the disjointed irrelevance of the Walrus talking about why the sea is boiling hot or whether pigs have wings, though, since Martin is a University Lecturer in French, a better parallel might be Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s satire on the indiscriminate accumulation of half-digested knowledge. The blurb endorses such comment: ‘Graham Martin trespasses widely into linguistics, psychology, sociology and philosophy – areas where he has (as a teacher of literature) no permit to go and poach on other scholar’s game.’ But it is not only his professional competence that is in doubt: it is his intention.

The book appears to have started out as Chapter Four, which is a self-contained essay about metaphor and mental imagery: most of it has appeared previously in the British Journal of Aesthetics. Part of the theory is derived, unacknowledged, from Saussure, but with the more celebrated, if debatable parts of the Saussurean scheme, such as the arbitrary nature and binary structure of the Saussurean sign, left out. Martin borrows from the psychologist Ulric Neisser a use of the term ‘icon’ which is quite different from that ordinarily employed in literary studies. This ‘icon’ is the sensory ‘impression left in the “mind’s eye” after contemplating some scene’. He then invents a jargon term of his own, ‘ison’, which means an ‘icon’ (in Neisser’s sense) reconstructed by mental recall. ‘We can use fragments of isonic imagery in flexible combination. It is this which allows us to say ... that poetry “shows” us reality.’ What professional psychologists or Martin’s professional colleagues may make of this I don’t know: it is not my country.

Although we do not encounter ‘isons’ elsewhere, the first three chapters of the book in fact cover very similar ground in a different tone of voice. But the final chapter on ‘culture and “Culture” ’, which is a Quixotic, Little Englander defence of the values of Matthew Arnold against imaginary attacks by hordes of social scientist windmills, does not seem to connect up at all.

So by what standards should the outcome be judged? Those of amateur or professional? And what sort of professional?

The first chapter presents a simple version of the familiar view that our knowledge of the external world is based on models constructed of sensory images and verbal concepts available to individual consciousness. But Martin seems to be very suspicious of constructs which are made up of verbal concepts alone. For this reason, he appears to claim that the objectivity of the resulting constructed world of natural science is much greater than that of the constructed world of social science.

The fact that even when the model constructs of natural science start out with some ‘mental picture’ their testable forms usually consist of mathematical equations and chemical formulae (which are impossible to conceptualise in individual consciousness) is not discussed, nor is its converse – namely, that ‘concrete’ pseudo-science verbalisations (‘black holes are discontinuities in space-time,’ ‘the velocity of light is the same for all observers,’ ‘a neutrino is an “object” with no charge and no mass,’ ‘the processes of Darwinian natural selection result from competitive “investment” by individual parents in their offspring’) almost invariably generate fog rather than illumination. On the contrary, Martin claims that an approximately valid consensus as to what is the case can only be achieved by arguing about the differences of interpretation that are generated by different individual consciousnesses.

In defending the merits of individual consciousness as against collective versions (derived either from genetic endowment or cultural upbringing), Martin assures us that ‘it is a striking fact that science has usually scored its greatest successes in countries where the Protestant world-view has been dominant – that is, a world-view in which individual interpretation of reality is given precedence over the diktat of some supreme authority.’ Presumably he has in mind such focal centres of the Calvinist ethic as Ancient Alexandria, Renaissance Italy, 18th-century France, Soviet Russia and 20th-century Japan. Throughout the book Martin’s thought-ways are so thickly strewn with throwaway rubbish of this kind that the occasional passages of common sense get lost to view.

After science, literature. Just as Martin’s ‘science’ is, in practice, restricted to Anglo-Saxon science since 1850, so also, with rare exceptions, ‘literature’ means the work of French, English and Russian authors during much the same period. Thus confined, literature is of value because it emphasises individual consciousness as against collective consciousness and avoids the pitfalls of ‘relativism’ to which social science is said to be prone. The function of literature is ‘to remind us of the facts of experience, of the relative uncertainty of abstractions, of the central role of the individual as the creator of a world-view, of the importance of other people as ultimate moral purposes; and to disturb and make us question the apparent certainties and delusory solidities of the social world. Literature is in a sense less fictional than they, for it deals with the concrete.’ Professional students of ‘Eng Lit’ may be able to extract some sense out of this: to my mind, it is just a string of ungrammatical self-contradictions. But at least it is clear that Martin is a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist.

Chapter Three, entitled ‘Concrete and Abstract’, returns to the relation between concepts as sound images and objects in the world-out-there. The Bouvard and Pécuchet flavour is unmistakable. Martin has picked up snippets of information from scores of authors writing about a wide variety of important topics in philosophy, social anthropology, psychology, linguistics and political sociology. He pontificates on these themes with confident authority, but wherever I have been able to check up, his actual knowledge is to be measured in thimblefuls. Many of his most categorical assertions are simply wrong. For example, we are assured that ‘when we refer to scientific constructs such as “relativity”, “gravity”, “mass” etc’, we are using abstractions to refer to ‘concrete data which are capable of being perceived’, and that ‘the process is identical to’ that which operates in the case of concepts such as ‘the State’ or ‘democracy’. Furthermore ‘this linguistic-imaginative process of abstraction makes the great victories of science possible.’ On the other hand, ‘if there is no concrete reference and no sensory validation we may say that the abstraction in question is a fiction.’

Just who ‘we’ are in this Popper-derived passage, and who is being victorious over what, is obscure, but, to leave aside the obvious point that the words listed happen to refer to categories of five entirely different kinds, Martin’s argument is nonsense. Only by a cart-before-the-horse kind of thinking can it be said that the three ‘scientific constructs’ have any ‘concrete reference’. What can be ‘validated’ in such cases (though not by direct ‘sensory’ means) is not a set of verbal abstractions but a set of axioms linked with probabilities embodied in mathematical equations which are quite independent of the sensory perceptions of individual consciousness.

Despite Martin’s initial emphasis on the theme that the mental images generated by words are only conventional representations of the world-out-there, the general approach is one of naive empiricism. Thus we are told that a religious creed ‘is true only if it corresponds to the facts in the outside world’, and are expected to be outraged when politicians and political sociologists follow Humpty Dumpty’s principle that ‘a word means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘It is the actual features of a society that should determine what we call it, not its “essence” or the customary labels for it.’ This authoritarian view that there are correct and incorrect ways of using language, and that the proper task of sociologists is to engage in a kind of botanical taxonomy of social forms, possibly explains the almost paranoid dislike of the relativist tendencies of social science which is exhibited in the final chapter of the book.

Reluctantly, Martin has to admit that the English word ‘culture’ has been used in two quite different senses for well over a century. He therefore distinguishes the Arnold sense as value-culture and the anthropological sense as socio-culture. Value-culture is that which (hopefully) will be generated by an English literary education; it is the supreme good. The narrowness of its limitations are indicated in Martin’s denunciation of the distinguished social anthropologist/ethnomusicologist John Blacking, who (according to Martin) ‘would have almost the whole of value-culture from Bach to Britten, from Bosch to Picasso, from Donne to Dylan Thomas, consigned to the dustbin’. Apparently the continents of Asia, Africa and South America do not exist except as the homelands of superstition and benighted savagery.

Value-culture is the mark of ‘our’ superiority, and it is ludicrous to suggest that ‘literacy is no more or less intrinsically valuable than crossing oneself, eating snakes or practising human sacrifice.’ Reading and writing are ‘the basic tools of knowledge’. Anyone who expresses doubt about this self-evident truth must be either a Marxist or a Papist, and is certainly a mortal enemy of our individualist (capitalist) society, which represents the culmination of human intellectual progress and is morally superior to all other conceivable systems of human organisation either real or imaginary. Martin doesn’t quite say that but that seems to be what he believes.

The views of academics who have pointed out that British children who devote their energies to learning how to assemble a motor – bicycle or write computer programs may have a better grasp of reality than teachers who expect them to write essays about the plays of Shakespeare are denounced as representing a ‘new treason of the clerks’, especially when they come from the ‘provost of an ancient Cambridge College’, where they represent the mindless ‘gut response’ of a functionalist who ‘cannot accept quality distinctions between cultures’.

The rationale of this anathema escapes me. From the age of 12 onwards, when I built my first radio, I have got much more enjoyment from fiddling with machinery than from reading or writing books, but I cannot see that this has made me any less useful to society than I might have been if my personal values had been reversed. What I now know about Martin’s value-culture I have learned on my own, and if the whole range of the humanities had been excluded from my school curriculum it would have made no difference at all. This is true of the great majority of British adults and most of them, if questioned on the subject, would agree that this is so. But I suppose that academics who specialise in literary studies are liable to feel under threat if influential colleagues from other fields suggest that what they are doing is a luxury rather than a necessity.

The business about cultural relativism is quite beside the point. As an anthropologist, my concern is with the variety of human culture. Cats are not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ animals than mice and the culture of Edinburgh University teachers of French is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than that of headhunters from Borneo. It is different. Social scientists of my sort are not in the business of making moral judgments about the peoples they study.

There is an Appendix which is intended as an attack on Structuralism, but Martin is so ill-informed about the nature of his target that comment would be pointless. The publishers optimistically expect that a wide variety of scholars ‘who reflect on the intellectual foundations of their disciplines will find this a rewarding and challenging study’. I have duly reflected, but I have not found myself either rewarded or challenged.

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Vol. 4 No. 3 · 18 February 1982

SIR: ‘Ten years ago,’ wrote Borges in 1940, ‘any symmetry with a semblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly planet?’ Forty years later philosophers continue to construct their own versions of Tlön and intellectuals continue to be entranced by them and to submit to them. Often they do not do so until they have first projected onto whichever rigid intellectual system is in question – whether it be Lévi-Straussian structuralism, Althusserian Marxism, or any other version of mechanical idealism – their own intellectual flexibility and vitality, their own aspirations and social hope, their own historical awareness or poetic sensitivity. The great danger of this pattern of projection, a pattern which lies at the heart of all messianic movements, is that, in succumbing to it, we give authority to the very people who may ultimately seek to ignore, denigrate or attack the qualities and values we have projected onto them. It is to the climate which results from the prolonged indulgence of such intellectual self-deception that Edmund Leach’s bullying and arrogant review of Graham Martin’s The Architecture of Experience belongs (LRB, 17 December 1981).

In the course of being disgruntled about Martin’s book Leach reaffirms the view that ‘British children who devote their energies to learning how to assemble a motor-bicycle or write computer programs may have a better grasp of reality than teachers who expect them to write essays about the plays of Shakespeare.’ From the context it is evident that Leach is putting forward a kind of epistemological axiom according to which, in an ideal world, the whole of our intellectual housekeeping would be conducted. In an expanded version his argument would run something like this. ‘Since the social and psychological reality which lies behind our everyday existence resembles the affectless and value-free structure of bicycles more than it does the affective and value-loaded substance of Shakespeare’s poetry, then taking bicycles apart and putting them together again is a more appropriate apprenticeship for the social scientist than reading literature could ever be. Indeed, mathematical and mechanical models are the basic tools of all knowledge. Anyone who expresses doubt about this self-evident truth must be either a fool or a literary critic and is certainly the mortal enemy of 20th-century rationality. The discipline of literary criticism should now be recognised for what it is: a luxury refuge for the soft-hearted and the soft-headed who prefer the soft-bedded luxury of emotional indulgence to the bare boards, cold baths and other rigours advertised in the latest prospectus of the social sciences. In a time of higher education cuts and government austerity it is to such rigours as these that we must increasingly submit ourselves; they will be even better for our souls than unemployment, although this latter fate might well, without too much loss to our intellectual culture, be meted out to literary critics. Leach does not quite say all this but this seems to be what he believes.

There are, of course, many conservative arguments which literary critics might advance against this view. But there is also a radical argument – one which is concerned not only with the vitality of criticism but with the vitality of the social sciences as well. For in their present state the social sciences are dominated by mechanical models and reductive, crypto-theological theories. As long as the arena in which social scientists operate remains cordoned-off from real history, and the unruly facts of human experience and affective behaviour are ruthlessly policed and frequently detained without trial by ideology which masquerades as methodology, the rule of such reductive theories will remain unchallenged. Let those facts emerge with their full force, however, as they do in many of the most intimate areas of human behaviour, and as they do also in poetry and literature, and all those cherished theories and elegant abstractions will soon lie in shattered fragments on the ground. Only then can the true work of theory-building begin, and theories which mystify social reality can be replaced by theories which possess genuine explanatory power.

This cannot be done until the social sciences admit fully the reality of affective behaviour. The particular value of our literary tradition to our intellectual culture lies in the manner in which it does this and thus affirms the very dimensions of human and social reality which are denied elsewhere. So long as that denial is maintained by the social sciences there will always be works of literature which contain more psychology than psychology, more history than history, and some which, in addition, contain more democracy than any parliament. One such work is King Lear. Another, from our own times, is D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel.

It is because of the enduring power of the literary imagination that it might once have been suggested that a literary education, or one which included a strong literary component, was the best training that any aspiring social scientist could have. If that view is now in doubt it is because many of those who have been entrusted with teaching literature in our universities appear not to understand the nature of that trust, and to understand still less the wealth of the literary tradition of which they have become the guardians. Edmund Leach, who returns now and then from the remotest corners of the wilderness of the social sciences to prophesy to us, should not worry so much about the decadent sensuality of literary critics. For many of them have long been clamouring to join him. See how they are leaving the oasis in droves and walking deep into the barren desert carrying their tyre-levers and their spanners in their hands. Edmund Leach should really not grow so depressed. Social anthropology will not be on its own for long. Soon, if we are not careful, literary criticism, too, will be a branch of higher bicycle mechanics and everyone can assemble bicycles together, regretting only that, in this part of the desert at least, there is no oil.

Those who, craving distinction, seek to purge themselves of ordinariness will always follow prophets into the wilderness. Into whichever wilderness its critics may wander, however, literature itself will remain, and its wealth will remain an ordinary wealth. Some works of literature have always possessed the capacity to evoke the whole range of human emotions. At the same time novelists, dramatists and poets have observed the intricacies of human character which are associated with these emotions. They have evoked the complexity of human relationships and human society, and the mystery of human motives, and have gone a long, long way towards unravelling those complexities and solving that mystery.

It is, no doubt, a mark of our own poverty that we should need to resort to literature at all in order to experience our own nature fully or meditate fruitfully upon it. But we cannot afford to conceal that poverty. For when we do that it is never very long before we begin to mistake poverty for wealth, and parade it and invest it and multiply it as though it were our only capital. That indeed is something we began to do long ago. Edmund Leach now calls upon us to extend our investment in poverty. His call should be resisted.

Richard Webster
Norwich

Vol. 4 No. 4 · 4 March 1982

SIR: In the course of his long tirade your correspondent Mr Webster (Letters, 18 February) provides no evidence that he has read the book which he seeks to defend against my allegedly unjust attacks. This puts me at some disadvantage, particularly since the main target of Webster’s venom is a passage in my review in which I was defending myself against an entirely gratuitous personal attack by Gerald Martin!

In point of fact, I am even more of a philistine than Webster seems to imagine. I hold it to be an unassailable fact of history that connoisseurship and patronage of the arts is a luxury which can only be afforded by affluent societies and, in class-stratified systems, by affluent sectors within those societies. Furthermore, although I am not a committed Marxist (in any of the accepted senses of that term), I certainly hold that the infrastructure of society is basic. Access to the management and control of the means of production appropriate to the available technology is the only sure way to avoid exploitation at the hands of those who control such resources. In a just society access to such technological knowledge should therefore be maximised and systematically credited with the highest possible social value. Engineers are more important for our survival than art critics. Indeed any society which invests heavily in creating art critics instead of engineers will simply go bankrupt and end up with neither. British society is still affluent to a precarious degree, but because we have for years paid insufficient attention to the training of ordinary people in the technological necessities of a modern society we are rapidly ceasing to be so.

I hold it to be axiomatic that one of the prime purposes of education is to teach the individual how to enjoy himself/herself. I don’t know whether Messrs Martin and Webster would accept this axiom, but it seems quite clear they both arrogantly believe that the enjoyment which they themselves derive from the study of literature is morally virtuous whereas the enjoyment which I derive from writing computer programs and fiddling with machinery is morally debased. I categorically reject that view. I consider that it is of the utmost importance that every child should be shown how to gain enjoyment from doing things which are ‘necessary’ in an economic sense even if in the last resort that means the abandonment of the study of the arts altogether.

Some readers of the LRB may find such views shocking but in fact we have no choice. Unless British education is given a much more drastically technological slant in the very near future, then it will only be a decade or so before we shall be unable, as a nation, to sponsor any study of the arts of any kind.

Edmund Leach
Cambridge

Vol. 4 No. 6 · 1 April 1982

SIR: The exchange between Richard Webster and Edmund Leach (Letters, 18 February and Letters, 4 March) is further evidence of the continuing and useless conflict between the ‘human’ as found in literature and the scientific-technical. It is an argument that seems peculiar to British life – the Leavis-Snow ‘two cultures’ debate being only the most notable recent instance. The two positions are entrenched and apparently unbridgeable. However, there is an area of activity and thought that could provide some common ground: this is in the practice of design. As a publisher of books on design, I hesitate to say this, knowing the enclosed and intellectually impoverished character of the British design world, but it is in designing that the technical gets imbued with values, even those of the high-serious kind that Richard Webster elaborates. The designer is exactly that person who can break out of the dichotomy presented by Edmund Leach: the false choice of either ‘engineer’ or ‘art critic’. In designing, play with machinery or with a computer program takes on a human and social purpose – something absent from the vacant ‘fiddling’ of Sir Edmund’s description.

If one had to support these claims for design, one could mention specific achievements and products – or, more confidently (in the context of a literary-intellectual publication), one could point to the tradition of design thinker-practitioners that includes Patrick Geddes, W. R. Lethaby, Walter Gropius, Lewis Mumford (this last the clearest exponent of a human-technical vision). Currently-producing contributors to this tradition would include Tomas Maldonado and Norman Potter: quite different from each other, but both substantial and necessary figures. The fact that very few readers of the London Review will have heard of these last two names (or even those of the first group) can be taken as evidence of the virtual non-awareness of design in British culture: lost in the gaps between fine art, literature, science, technology; at best, a poor and embarrassing relation to architecture.

Further recent evidence of this lack of awareness has been the sense of as-if-for-the-first-time naive enthusiasm evident in the reception of the ‘Art and Industry’ exhibition that inaugurated the Boiler-house project at the Victoria and Albert Museum – almost fifty years after Herbert Read’s book of this title was first published. (Was Read’s interest in design passed over, as a further sign of superficial polymathy?)

The problem is an educational one, no doubt – and there are signs that design is starting to be tackled seriously in the secondary schools. One supposes that the last places to get the message will be the universities, and the London literary establishment.

Robin Kinross
Hyphen Press, 73 Blenheim Gardens, Reading

SIR: Replying to imaginary letters is sometimes easier than replying to real ones. The fact that Edmund Leach (Letters, 4 March) has taken so much trouble to reply to an imaginary one presumably indicates either that he has no answer for the letter which I actually wrote or that he does not understand the point I was making in it. I will try to put the point more clearly.

My letter was not concerned, as is Leach’s reply, with the relative economic usefulness of art critics and engineers. Nor was it concerned to condemn Edmund Leach for the entirely legitimate pleasure he may derive from fiddling with machinery. It was concerned, in part, at least, with Leach’s habit of mystifying social reality by using mechanical and mathematical models in his attempts to understand it. Readers who are easily beguiled might well conclude from the studied irrelevance of Leach’s reply that he has never indulged in this habit. In view of this, it seems necessary to underline the fact that he has and that he has done so on and off throughout his intellectual career. As long ago as 1959, in Rethinking Anthropology, Leach was urging his colleagues to think of ‘the organisational ideas that are present in any society as constituting a mathematical pattern’. Sounding remarkably like Jacques Lacan, who sought to use the structure of complex knots as a basis for a new geometry of the psyche, Leach went on to maintain that ‘considered mathematically society is not an assemblage of things but an assemblage of variables. A good analogy would be with the branch of mathematics known as topology which may crudely be described as the geometry of elastic rubber sheeting.’ Since 1959, it may well be that Leach has quietly allowed some of his wilder ideas to lapse. But the rod which, Moses-like, he once held out to his colleagues, was unmistakably the rod of mechanical reductionism. It was with that same rod, as I saw it, that Leach was seeking to chastise Martin’s book. If, as his letter obliquely suggests, Leach was in fact not doing this but was actually stretching the body of Martin’s book on a rack of cruel technocentric monetarism, then I can only apologise for my mistake.

Leach now says he holds it to be axiomatic that ‘one of the prime purposes of education is to teach the individual how to enjoy himself/herself.’ Coming from one of such a puritanical and utilitarian cast of mind, this sounds rather odd. It soon becomes apparent, however, that what he really means is that children should be taught how it is that they may draw pleasure from submitting willingly, pacifically and even eagerly to government by the cruel junta of the rational and the quantifiable, and that this should be done ‘even if in the last resort it means the abandonment of the study of the arts altogether’. What Leach seems not to have noticed, and what I was trying to point out, is that we have already started to abandon the study of the arts and that we have done so not openly but covertly by our commitment to reductive mechanical models and by our adoption, in structuralism, of a philosophy of reactionary repression which masquerades as a philosophy of liberation, a philosophy which provides a means of invisibly suppressing the subversive vitality of literature and replacing it by a pseudo-technical metaphysic.

Not all literary critics are intent on becoming what Leach aparently thinks university academics should be – the paid agents of a technocentric economy. But many evidently are. It was for this reason that I sought in my letter to defend, not so much the discipline of literary criticism, as literature itself. Contrary to Leach’s suggestion, the appreciation of literature is not something which depends on luxurious patronage. It depends only on a little ordinary humanity and the wealth of the human imagination.

Richard Webster
Norwich

Edmund Leach writes: Since I inadvertently initiated this bizarre correspondence, perhaps I may close it down by invoking my favourite 18th-century author in support of Robin Kinross. Vico maintained (contra Descartes and the majority of contemporary natural scientists) that only God can be expected to understand the natural world because God made it. On the other hand, Men can reasonably expect to be able to understand human society because Men made it. As the model for this argument, Vico claimed that only the carpenter who made it can truly understand the nature of a chair. We now know from Darwin and his successors that even God’s inventive originality is not inexhaustible and that living organisms are, by and large, topological transformations of other living organisms. This is true also of all human societies and of all man-made machines except that it is much more obvious. It is not ‘reductionist’ to argue in this way; it is just common sense.

Edmund Leach

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