Glide #1.5: New Criticism and Rationality

Glide Meditation #1.5: A Reflection on Reflecting on the Original Sequences

When I started to write (what I anticipated to be) my second Glide Meditation, I almost immediately hit a wall. Now that I had something concrete to work with, I couldn’t simply smile, cheerily quip “Death of the Author!”, then forge blithely ahead. Now the text was saying things explicitly, which meant that _I_ needed to say things explicitly! And frankly, the thought of doing so was (and largely still is) somewhat scary. If I don’t prove that I “get it” before veering off the beaten path, will people even take me seriously? If the map is annotated in Tagalog, and I only speak English, is it even possible for me to stumble onto something interesting?

In my first-ever Glide Meditation, I (somewhat unintentionally) revealed that my primary analytical approach is heavily influenced by New Criticism, which originates from my collegiate study of literature and literary theory. However, I came to the realization that such a strategy is (or at least should be) almost wholly incompatible with something like the discussion of rationality. Such a discussion depends on one being clear in what one is saying, and on one’s intention and the meaning of one’s words being synonymous to the greatest degree possible. If this is true, then any differences in audience interpretation must indicate communicative deficiency on the part of the author, rather than actual openness to philosophical interpretation.

Now, my analytical style is by no means strictly New Criticism; I don’t go out of my way to avoid learning about an author’s intentions, nor do I seek it out, and I think it can be very useful to understand the general context in which a text was created. However, there’s a socially-conscious part of me that still worries that analysis of a philosophical work in relative isolation might be seen as insincere or unworthy of consideration. On the other hand, the rebellious part of me feels that approaching such works without a pre-constructed framework might be key to making interesting or novel insights. Perhaps approaching philosophical texts using a primarily New Criticism-inspired methodology is only possible when the critic is, like me, largely ignorant of related and supporting texts.

Indeed, the New Critical approach eschews context, and what could be more contextual to a given philosophical text than adjacent texts meant to support or build off of it? Here, though, I can anticipate another objection: that the “text” in question should be the Sequences as a whole, rather than any individual essay. “After all,” you might say, “you don’t just close read one chapter of a whole book out of context and call it a day! You need the entire book to understand the individual components!” Except we (the people who literary analysis) actually do that all the time! My favorite example of this is Lindsay Ellis’ ongoing video essay series “The Whole Plate”, in which she provides an in-depth analysis of many individual aspects of Michael Bay’s Transformers series using a variety of different theoretical frameworks. One need not be familiar with the source material to both appreciate and understand Ellis’ individual essays, beautifully demonstrating that one need not analyze a body of work as a unified whole in order to meaningfully interact with it.

A further problem arises when one considers the format of the Original Sequences: what exactly counts as part of the text? Were I to reflect on them as they are presented in From AI to Zombies, the answer would fairly cleanly be: whatever is in the book. But the Original Sequences are hosted as webpages, and include comments by both the author as well as other interested people. They include hyperlinks to other essays and webpages, some of which are also part of the Sequences, and some of which are not. Even if we were to take an incredibly strict interpretation of “text” and consider everything beyond a hyperlink to inadmissible “context”, we would still be obligated to acknowledge the inclusion of the hyperlink itself as part of the text. Further, piped links often serve as an informal method of citation, and even New Criticism generally stops short of forbidding the awareness and verification of cited sources. So treating the hyperlinks as citations may suggest that any analysis should take into consideration whatever lies beyond. However, it’s very likely that those webpages also have hyperlinks, and soon you have a massive branching tree of hyperlinks that you must consider for your analysis. So what is someone like me to do?

Of course, I’ve already started writing essays that are not Glide Meditations, and have contributed to discussions on other contributors’ works. Thus, I couldn’t claim New Critical “purity” even if I wanted to. Thankfully, the answer to the dilemmas posed above lies in a sort of “Zeroth Rule” of literary analysis: use whatever framework and context you want, so long as you’re clear about what you’re using. It’s a simple enough (and extremely pragmatic!) method of operation, and most importantly, it preserves the personal significance that I’ve been pursuing from the beginning. These are “Meditations”, after all, not “Analyses”, so the important thing is that they reflect my thoughts, regardless of how well they may or may not fit into a true New Critical formula. Though I acknowledge the possibility that I simply might not “get it”, I’m hopeful that even if I don’t come out of this with a perfect understanding of Yudkowsky’s formulation of Bayesian rationality, I will come out of this with a better understanding how _I_, personally, think.