9.688 figuration

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 4 Apr 1996 21:21:00 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 688.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: James O'Donnell <jod@ccat.sas.upenn.edu> (34)
Subject: figuration

Gary Shawver responded to my words (reposted here by Willard):
>In BMMR J. O'Donnell noted:
>>Most readers have accepted Augustine's assertion that the literal
>>sense is prior to the allegorical, but the most unsettling thing
>>about the book is the way it really suggests the exact opposite:
>>that figurative use of language is natural, and the desire to take
>>figurative language literally is a disordered interpretation
>>conditioned by seeing texts on a page, where irony and metaphor can
>>leak away.
>Not sure I agree with this (or even understand precisely what is being
>said). To accept the naturalness of a way of interpreting language is not
>to establish its priority. In order for figurative language to work, one
>must first have in mind its literal interpretation. Nor do I think that
>the instantiation of language upon a physical medium evokes a more literal
>interpretation (than what?). If anything, irony and metaphor multiply upon
>the physical page.

The distinction between literal and figurative is a textual observation
-- the word "literal" (not used that I can find of "literal sense" before
Bede) is a sign of that. To use a word figuratively, it is not necessary
to know this distinction, and we must not impute an awareness of it to
people who have never shown one. I suppose it's like the man in Moliere
who never knew he was speaking prose: some readers of M. think the man
is just silly, but I think he's wise. The Romans never knew they were
speaking literally.
But I quite agree with Shawver that computer usage has so far
tended to increase the literality of discourse and consciousness of
literality. We all know that computers are set up with a very tight link
between sign and thing and that unless you get the sign just right, it
will not function as the token of the thing that you want it to. I may
scribble my signature on a check, but my username must be precisely

Jim O'Donnell
Classics, U. of Penn