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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Since I’ve stated in STALKING THE PERFECT TERM: THE THREE PROBABILITIES that it was a mistake to invoke the concept of coherence in respect to probability, I should hold forth on the original context of the concept.

         I articulated the concept in response to Susanne Langer’s useful distinction between “discursive symbolism” and “presentational symbolism” in her 1942 book PHILOSOPHY IN A NEW KEY. Langer did not say anything about judging particular literary manifestations of these two forms of symbolism.  In contrast, I wanted to expound on ways in which these very different symbolic discourses could be used competently or not so competently.  So the argument came down to two interdependent parts:

         (1) A well-known trope, like Batman- villains placing the Crusader in a death-trap rather than simply shooting him, was not a worthless endeavor simply because it flew in the face of logical, discursive symbolism.  Patently the death-trap had a function even if it was one that couldn’t be justified discursively: the device served to test the ability of Batman—or a similar hero in similar dire straits—for the enjoyment of the reader.  Hence it was justifiable in terms of Langer’s “presentational symbolism,” having no more connection with logical discourse than a symphonic piece.

         (2) The second part was my own idea: that even though the trope of the death-trap could not be critiqued on the basic of logic, it could be critiqued aesthetically: as to whether it communicated a certain effect.  In GESTURE AND GESTALT PART 3 I showed why one death-trap was coherent and expressive while another one was not. 

The corresponding essay PART 4 argued that the same principle of coherence should apply to tropes that were intended to be discursively meaningful, and I gave examples of, respectively, coherent and incoherent manifestations of discursive symbolism. 

I now perceive that by I linked the concept of coherence to the NUM formula  because I formed an unconscious link between the very different ways in which Langer and C.S. Lewis spoke of “presentation.” 
In NEW KEY Langer used the term to distinguish an aspect of human perception: to underscore that when humans were presented with sense-experiences, they did not ipso facto interpret them with respect to discursive symbolic models. 
In THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, though, C.S. Lewis spoke of “realism of presentation” as a socially constructed discourse, which is to say one that *was * informed by a given reader’s expectations as to what or was not believable in a logical and discursive sense.   

        I now surmise that when Lewis spoke of “realism of content,” I lined up this conceptualization with that of Tzvetan Todorov’s idea of "the marvelous," that category of all fictions that represented something “unreal” as being “real,” rather like Aristotle’s “probable impossibility.”

      Similarly, I’ve repeatedly claimed, in my rewrite of Todorov, that the differences between “the naturalistic” and “the uncanny” depend not on the reader’s perceptions of the narrative, as Todorov had it, but on the way in which an author “presents” a trope like, say, “psychotic madman on the rampage.” 

      Todorov wished to assert that whatever was not cognitively unreal was perforce “real.” I assert that the category of “the uncanny” depended on an affective factor—the presence of “strangeness”—that allied that category with that of the marvelous, so that both were categories of the metaphenomenal.   

From there, I unfortunately tried to bring in the other half of Aristotle’s famous dictum, the “possible improbability,” and judge it not by “possibility” but by coherence—hence the “coherent probability” (for the uncanny) and the “incoherent probability” for the naturalistic.  But the use of probability and/or possibility, whether invoked by Lewis or by Aristotle, are not determinative, because they depend on socially constructed criteria as to what is possible or probable. As I noted in PROBABILITY SHIFTS, the nature of probability depends on the ground rules of a given fictional cosmos, and those ground rules are created not by expectations external to the work but by the way in which the work’s author constructs the cognitive and affective aspects of the work—to which I will turn next.

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