The Figure of Oscillatio (Part 2)

[Image: Another historiated initial in a medieval book–found in this case in a psalter held at the British Library.]

Part 1 is here. Enjoy Part 2.

In both The Electronic Word and Econ of Attn, Lanham maps his theory of oscillation on four-line matrices. In the earlier book, this chart plots four considerations–object, viewer, reality, and motive– on spectra of un/selfconsciousness. Lanham stresses that these are not simple either/or considerations; works of art or criticism are unlikely to be pure examples of one pole or the other:

Screen Shot 2016-08-03 at 1.36.57 PMHere’s how he explains the matrix. First, on the object line, he observes:

A text or painting can present itself as “realistic,” a transparent window to a preexisting world beyond, and so fall at the left end of the “Object” spectrum; or it can present itself frankly as an invention, as pure fantasy, and so choose the right extreme.

Lanham is thinking here about the issue of representation. Does the representation call attention to itself as a representation? Or does it attempt to show us the object “realistically” (in this scenario, not focusing on the act or process of representation)? Lanham’s point about the heuristic value of oscillatio seems to me already relevant, as I can imagine some brows have begun to wrinkle due to examples that don’t sit so easily on either side. Again, Lanham wants to allow for that in designating this a spectrum. Consider, for example, the PBS children’s series WordWorld. Within WW, spelling is living: put the letters of a word together correctly and that thing appears. “Living” things, though, still bear the marks of their formation:


The show keeps us our attention the right, selfconscious side of Lanham’s spectrum. Yet there’s still (I’d argue at least) a degree of oscillation that takes place for the viewer, as one is to lesser and greater degrees attentive to the letters that comprise the characters’ bodies. What this allows is for the viewer’s attention to alternate between focusing on the story and the act of spelling. In my view, that’s what makes WordWorld so effective: it integrates the challenging business of spelling into a frame where it needn’t be the only matter of attention.

We have already shifted our attention from work to reader. That brings us to Lanham’s second line:

We can choose to read or view in the same way: either we assume that the object is “real” and stand to the left, or that it is “art” and stand to the right. The object will invite a certain placement but we can decline the invitation, “read” a fantasy as if it were a realistic description of a world as yet unknown, if we like.

These two sentences seem to me especially relevant to the dynamics of the literary studies classroom. The same work that to a “lay” reader (or what once was called the “common reader”) may be a resource, providing useful descriptions of life and the world, fascinates (or concerns) a critic for linguistic habits or structures, such as its obedience to conventional codes or deviations therefrom. For the first reader, the work corresponds to reality; the second reader observes how it constructs reality. The first reader sees the world through the text; the second unravels the text in order to attend its component words. One of the attractions of Lanham’s line for me is that it’s level. One side is not more valuable than the other. We should recognize, though, that these orientations are different and that they express different commitments and desires.

Now the third line whose subject is the “social reality” that the object portrays:

The social reality presented by the object can be pure human biogrammar, an act as natural and unthinking as a mother’s love for her child, or as self-conscious as an actress playing the same scene, or it can be some kind of “ordinary reality” halfway between.

The language of “human biogrammar” has confused readers; but as Lanham explains in Econ of Attn is just the new way of talking about “human nature.” These are acts or habits or modes of response that are instinctual, things that we do without thinking (thus the example of the mother’s love). Lanham wants to contrast instinct with dramatic acting, which even if it seems “natural” is in fact the result of self-conscious effort by the actress (or so Lanham suggests). Among the four lines, this one is the least developed, and, as we’ll see in a moment, will be replaced by a different way of discussing the relationship between humans and reality (information v. drama).

The fourth line, finally, describes the motivations–remember that Lanham is a rhetorician–of both maker and witness (thus lines 1 and 2):

We can plot the motival structure which animates the object we see, or our viewing of it, or the creation of the object, on a spectrum which runs from the most intense competition for hierarchical ranking to the most spontaneous, gratuitous behavior which we perform just for the hell of it, because the performative muscles want to fire; careerism at the left, saintly simplicity at the right.

While we might question that last clause’s characterization of saintly simplicity (perhaps careerism, too), I think that this section is more or less self-explanatory.

As noted above, Lanham continued to work on this matrix, and it reappeared with alterations as the “Style/Substance” matrix in Econ of Attn:

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 4.07.33 PM

Lanham spends an entire chapter breaking down its parts; rather than rehearsing it here, I commend it to readers of Booktrades. I want to notice only that Lanham’s further reflection on the “Age of Information” has caused him to widen his first two categories–object yields to signal, viewer to perceiver. As I noted in the first part of this series on osciallatio, Lanham still believes that art and literature (under rhetoric’s tutelage) provide the right kind of schooling for the new dual economy of “fluff” and “stuff.” We should thus view the change not as an abandonment of the humanities but as an attempt to assert their relevance.


So how might all of this verbiage help those who read poetry or enjoy a good technotext from time to time (as I suggested in the last post)? For the reader of poetry, and especially those who read modern poetry, Lanham’s figure of oscillatio is a useful reminder that we can bring diverse modes of attention to works of art. Poets and their scribblings tend to fall at the selfconscious end of the spectrum, of course, and attention of the AT-sort often rewards the patient reader. (Let’s note, though, that ancient poetics may have been unselfconscious arts, particularly for viewers, or so at least someone like Havelock might argue here.) But that should not prevent us from also seeking to look THROUGH poems, that is, to attend to what the language describes. Our attention, too, can oscillate between the material object presented to our eyes and hands and the sonic process that we hear as a poem is read aloud. Here’s the takeaway: poetry is the stuff and fluff of re-reading.

As far as technotexts go, my point is simple: they inhabit the ride side of whatever chart Lanham concocts. The technotexts are marked by profound selfconsciousness about medium in their construction, and they in turn pass the buck to the reader, who is given an intensely selfconscious experience of reading (or, sometimes, dealing with) it. I am tempted to say that Lanham’s point about choice in the second line of his original matrix doesn’t apply here. There is, in other words, no simple way THROUGH a technotext–no matter how strongly one wills it.

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