Theory: Poetics vs. Hermeneutics

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus - Chicago Museum of Art

When we use words like “style” to describe a writer or artist of any medium, we tend to use the word as a catch-all that defines ineffibilities and abstract qualities that are themselves hard to define. Not sure how to describe or substantiate the phrasal cadence of Salman Rushdie? Let’s say he has a “kinetic style”. Sure. We can also talk about related words like “tone” or “voice”, or slightly less ambiguous terms like “pace” or, as read above, “rhythm”.

But amidst all this, time and again, I find myself coming back to a single, central question. It is a question that relates to the well-known, much-discussed dwindling attention span of the age, the pragmatism of literature since the Modernist era of the early 20th century, and the terseness of texts that shun nested clauses, intransient verbs, whole parts of speech like adverbs or even adjectives, and other such nonsensical adornments as rules of thumb, as though there are any rules at all to “style”. Sadly, in my experience, this kind of myth is perpetuated at all levels of education.

The first question is: Comprehensible? Check. That’s it. There are no second questions. Write what you want, so long as you’re happy with the result. Write what you want, so long as you’re happy with the task itself. Write what you want, so long as your goal is not enhanced commercial viability through the positioning of your novel on the top shelf of the new fiction section of Barnes and Noble. Rules of thumb like “keep it short” are rules of marketability, not creativity. They are rules of distribution, not substance. They are publisher’s rules, and market’s rules, which are not the same as the adages of artists. It all depends on the goal. See also: Finnegan’s Wake and much of what is considered revered literature. Funny how so many classic texts would be shunned like lepers nowadays. Texts are good because they were good at the time of their making, yes, but also because they still matter, at least in the way that all history matters.

So how streamlined or simplified is the text of novels in an era of micro-blogged character counting? Sadly, I don’t have any parsed, raw data because this essay isn’t being written for a sponsored and funded PhD. But in an era of blockbusters – across all media – where people hoover up facts and want to “get to the point” faster than ever, there is an increased focus on narrative and plot to the inevitable exclusion of ineffables such as tone or voice. It’s difficult to lift up both simultaneously. Yes, there is perhaps among certain circles of inclined individuals a desire to delve into abstractions of voice, subtext, technique, etc., but I’m talking about a trend in literature that’s been snowballing, with degrees of up and down, for a century. World War I was the cutoff, more or less; its bombs and gas masks and the cracking of the spirit of a generation. I’m talking about a trend that’s reflected in the literary theory that’s developed in response to the trend, itself then used to interpret texts in the manner of the age and subsequently influence further texts and future theory. The cause causes a cause-effecting effect. Ouroboros.

So to test this: next time you talk to someone about a book or a movie try using the word “voice” to describe the piece and see how long it takes for the listener’s eyes to turn to glass. Then follow it up by saying, “and then this thing happened,” and watch them reboot. Plot, not technique, takes precedence.

Before moving forward, it’s necessary to define a couple terms which yes, run the risk of being reductionist academic parlance, but which are nonetheless useful in focusing our attention. Those words are poetics and hermeneutics.

If you’re not familiar with the two terms, the first will at least be recognizable (or even pronounceable). Yes, there is a connection between poetics, as a theoretical construct by which we view literature, and words like poetry and poetic. We colloquially say something is “poetic” if it is evocative or ornate in composition. Flowery, you might have heard. There are features of the text that pop out and demand attention. The words depict themselves as peculiar enough; different enough from everyday speech to stand out and be recognized as something we might call poetic. It’s clear, on sight, that this written group of words, phrases, fragments, clauses, etc., constitutes poetry. We can define poetry then, very generally, as a body of text composed in a poetic way. Whether lyric, epic, dramatic, or none-of-the-above, it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this breakdown.

Contrarily, hermeneutics is an approach we employ when asking ourselves what the text means, regardless of whether or not it’s composed in a poetic fashion. Hermeneutics are inherently ontological and emphasize an examination of the text at hand in a decontextualized way, rather than focusing on the factors that contributed to its making. It makes more sense that prose is often subject to a hermeneutical inspection, hand-in-hand with the rise of the novel and sequential narratives as we moved into the modern age, from Neoclassics, to Victorian literature and into Modernist texts, Avant Guarde, the ever-poorly defined Post-modernism, and so on. You implicitly understand what a hermeneutical approach is if you’ve ever chatted with a friend after seeing a movie and asked, “So what was that about?” The word “about” being synonymous with “meaning”, as in, “What was the meaning of the movie?” What was the point? Get to the point. The point, the point. No time, no time. Point and purpose seem to be the same.

Of course, this isn’t just an exercise in esotericism or slapdash literary theory, or a refresher of Marshall McLuhan’s rudiments on Media Ecology and the Information Age. Terms like poetics and hermeneutics potentially don’t matter aside from what they reveal about narratives, whether they are books or movies or plays or TV shows, and they reveal quite a lot. It’s not the terms itself that matters, it’s what the terms indicate, and these two terms alone can help us crack the code of an entire text.

As a writer, I personally take especial pleasure in playing with words. Tumbling them around, smashing them together and squishing them like putty. I care how sentences crackle or moan, or jerk off a page, or thunder or shower, or how well the clauses, like waveforms, from one to the next, fall into a marching rhythm, or how the prose conveys silence through a liturgical scarcity of punctuation, or haste, or how off-the-cuff neologisms and compound adjectives promote new and fascinating ways of envisioning familiar objects or actions. But I not just care about the mere fact of it, I care about the how of it. How, in a technical sense, are these feats achieved? What are the tools needed?

Or in other words, you could say that I am personally more interested in the poetics of a text rather than the hermeneutics. I am more interested in what techniques the author, director, artist, etc., use to convey their voice and meaning rather than what the meaning itself is. Plot is subordinate to method.

This is a perspective that’s fallen out of fashion in the past 100 years, and to an extent the 100 years prior, moreso and moreso, as stated, concurrent with the rise of the novel rather than the poem as the dominant form of written literature and literary expression. It also coincides with shifts in political current starting with the Renaissance away from the plutocratic fidelity of the Medieval ages and towards the democratic egalitarianism (supposedly) of the modern age. Don’t tell me what it means, let me figure it out: that’s the idea. At least, in terms of the overall weight of this span of time.

This tendency is exemplified specifically in the rise of the United States as the dominant global cultural force of the 20th century, which is important to mention for the sake of context and vanguards of modern literature. Trends and precedents established in the bedrock of American cultural ideology have extended outward, as always, through its media and popular culture and into the rest of the world to help steer the zeitgeist. Let’s not kid ourselves and pretend to need to discuss whether or not arts and entertainment shape people’s outlooks and perspectives, and shape what they themselves come to expect from media, which then influences those creative projects which rise in public consciousness. The cause causes a cause-effecting effect.

To be specific, the rise of New Criticism as a theoretical treatment of literature in the early 20th century, hand-in-hand with Modernism and the associated tilt away from focusing on the author as an idolized mastermind, reflects the United States’ inherent anti-intellectualism and detestation of class discussion. The whole bedrock of American ideology is, after all, founded on anyone being able to do anything, to rise to the top, attain their dreams, be all they can be, etc. etc., and any information to the contrary is often received with scorn and disbelief and decried as unreal and untrue. I.e., freedom “fails” because people fail at freedom, not because institutions and cultural precedents influence human behavior. Certainly not. We’re far beyond that, right? Those who’ve “made it” are used as examples that demonstrate the truth of the prevailing ideology, and those who haven’t are seen as exceptions to an extant, unquestionable law (despite those people constituting the vast majority of working people).

This line of inquiry ties together with the general discussion of poetics versus hermeneutics. Literature has, over the course of the last century, generally become more terse, crisp, direct, and undecorated (again, with exceptions). We’re talking huge hits here. Sales. Grabbing people’s attention. Greater strain on time. Writing “page turners”. Concise sentence structure. Henry James? Hell no. Get that shit out of my face. I’ve got tweets to tweet. Fiction, and all the arts, have been pushed further and further towards a pure “products”, no matter how the still unexcised core spirit remains intact. This shift in trends, as related to the influence of American culture in particular, has led to a complete inversion of how fiction is digested. We’ve turned from poetics to hermeneutics.

Literature, until the late 1800’s, was founded on knowledge of, and recitation of, the classics, as in, “How well do you know Plato’s Republic?” “How well can you apply its evident principles to your life, especially within a Judeo-Christian context?” This approach represents a bias that necessitates, inherently, a kind of idolization of the text at hand, an acquiescence to the superior wisdom of “natural law” and the comprehension therein of the author himself (usually him, not her), also defined in part by the era within which he lived. This necessity of idolization, in turn, completely opposes the aforementioned foundational ideology of American egalitarianism. This kind of force tends to work against the deep reading of texts and the related application of theory and linguistics. It works against poetic application, in other words.

It’s not only, therefore, fashionable to evaluate texts nowadays based on a hermeneutical approach, but it’s a bit easier. We can stick to the apparent facts of the case. We need not dig into hoity-toity realms of polysyllablism. We can talk about what something “means”, and only that, rather than probe into the methodology and techniques that created that “meaning”, which themselves necessitate a certain vocabulary and baseline of knowledge that are not as easily accessible. It’s far easier to watch a five-minute video breaking down JJ Abrams’ lightning technique (flares, we know), rather than go to film school. In the digital era, especially, we crave minutely digestible version of complex ontologies, and while claiming that there are “more and more things vying for our attention” lose potentially hours a day to the sinkhole of internet bric-a-brac. What does it amount to? Over the course of a year, likely weeks of life. Yes, I’m getting off topic.

So how does this fit into the poetics vs. hermeneutics dichotomy? Simply put, it’s integral for writers to be able to break down their craft to the nuts and bolts if they want to have access to a full palette of tools to make what they want to make. When writing, I want to know how to produce an effect. I want to be able to call up a set of discrete, applicable techniques and tools of prose to produce whatever output I want. Yes, each work is different. Yes, the needs of a particular text change in accordance with the text and are in a state of constant flux over the entire duration of the text’s completion. But that rejoinder is too easy of an escape route from doing some unattractive, inglorious labor of prying apart the atoms of a single sentence. But it’s not enough to simply say what something is, to identify the results of technique, and to thereby know the facts of it. We’ve got to dig to the substance, the sediment and texture of a narrative, where process and theory converge. Rhyme, rhythm, pace, tone, nested clauses, split predicates, transitional phrases, all of it. Language *does* need to be called out as LANGUAGE, and not dimmed to a whisper so that no one hears.

Of course, there is a bit of reverse engineering to be done. We’ve got to agree on what the meaning is before we can begin to ask how the meaning was generated. It’s simply the case that, in the past, meaning was assumed. It was shared. Sweetness and light. Aristotle is my bro, bro. Ivanhoe is badass. Now, in something resembling a post-post-post-ad-infinitum-post-modern world, meaning and values and intent are no longer agreed upon, and are in fact the source of more fractiousness than ever, whether we’re talking about a simple vlog or an entire news broadcast network.

It becomes incumbent on us to decide what meaning is, yes, but only a first step before prying that meaning open so we can identify the tools used to build it. The tools we use to deconstruct our literature, in all its forms in all its media, can be used across other disciplines. This can be daunting, but it’s a fantastic opportunity nonetheless, one inimicably tied to the maundering hopelessness and sloppy wrath of the times. It is all the more incumbent on us, then, to not simply say, “Yeah, that story was cool. What was it about? Well, a drug dealer, I guess.” It is the arts and its manifold vessel – media – that perform the task of self-critique and self-evaluation in a society, as well as the more obvious task of revealing who we are as a people. It is necessary, therefore, to evaluate the how as well as the what, and to understand how precisely these vessels of meaning are delivered to us.

Otherwise, we dull our openness to powers of awareness, and at the same time, dangerously shrink our vigilance against powers of coercion.