- The Ontological Turn in Literary Criticism and Some Challenges It Faces
I was sent three books on contemporary poetry to review. Each emphasizes the significance of moving from epistemological issues involving the role of imagination as the core of poetic thinking to ontological issues involving psychological and ethical conditions of embodiment. In the heyday of the New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom could produce an essay entitled "Wanted: An Ontological Critic" (1941). Now his wish has come to fulfillment in terms he would both admire and deplore.
David Jhave Johnston explains that an early section of his Aesthetic Animism (2016) "outlines a history of materiality's ascendancy to become the dominant literary criticism methodology, and also proposes a merger of hard materiality with soft ontologies, a healing of the poetic divide between brain (conceptualism) and body (inspiration)" (30-31).
Nathan Brown observes:
Insofar as [molecular scales] are situated "at the limits of fabrication," both material science and materialist poetics engage the boundaries of formal invention and material construction in their respective fields. . . . What von Hallberg thus elides is Olson's emphasis upon an ontological rather than an epistemological approach to the poetics of the object.(12, 80) [End Page 304]
Finally, Nikki Skillman offers even sharper, more nuanced versions of what allies contemporary poetry with the cultural moment of cognitivist brain science: "our vision of the embodied mind not only substantively departs from the ideal minds of Romanticism and modernism but also underpins the vision of the increasingly soluble lyric subject to which late twentieth-century American poetry gives such diverse expression" (36-37).
These books are all quite impressive—and Skillman's offers the most careful, intricate, and elegant account of late twentieth-century US poets in their historical context that I have read in the past decade at least. But their projects are not without serious problems. In very general terms, the saddest feature of these books is their equating ontology with materialism, thereby negating phenomenology's promise to heal the divide between analytic thinking and antireductionist modes of attention. (Whatever happened to the appeal antifoundationalism had for literary critics?) On the other hand, their most fascinating feature is that however much materialism is touted as a methodological stance, the actual engagements with poetry end up resisting virtually every analytic claim made by both old and new materialisms. But sadness returns when one realizes that each author's historicist perspective precludes really engaging conceptually in explaining or defending what the poets see as the limitations of these scientific perspectives. Our authors seem ultimately content with a two-world model analogous to what prevailed in the 1950s. In contrast, I think the role of literary critic is best fulfilled when one tries to specify how these ontological terms are likely to trap one in somewhat reductive modes of analysis. The models of mind those terms afford are inadequate for exploring how imaginative writing elaborates social and psychological virtues like elaborate and capacious attention to complexity, sympathy, empathy, and multifaceted judgment.
Each book under review is sufficiently powerful that its particular project is well worth summarizing before I offer some general critical comments. And because there is what seems to me a surprising lack of interest in the easy lyricism of vitalist New Materialisms, I have to say how impressed I am with the seriousness of the authors' efforts to ask imaginative texts to meet interpretive standards set by the sciences. Johnston and Brown nearly succeed in convincing me that the criticism of interesting contemporary poetry may require quite different priorities from those I have relied on. In their work, there is not much interest in the text as an independent [End Page 305] object with a well-wrought density, and so virtually no interest in the text as a means of metaphoric expression. Instead, all the focus is on how the authors invent ways to stress the material structures governing the processes the works enact...