Quality Distinctions

Edmund Leach

  • 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, £12.00, February 1981, ISBN 0 333 23560 6

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.