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Topsight and Textual Strategy

domingo, 21 de junio de 2015

Topsight and Textual Strategy

A passage from Stephen Bygrave's Kenneth Burke: Rhetoric and Ideology (Routledge, 1993) in which he discusses Burke's translation of the term 'strategy' from a military to a rhetorical context. We are more comfortable, Bygrave argues, with the notion of texts having an 'ideology' than with the notion that they employ 'strategies'. Bygrave seems to take for granted that the 'strategies' referred to are not under the author's deliberate or planning control, any more than the ideology—but of course it is not a matter of all-or-nothing, as there may be congruent transitions from conscious design to unconscious 'strategy' just as there may be incongruent tensions between intent and results (of the kind often analyzed by deconstructors). Any such strategies, if they are an identifiable object, must be recognized by a reader, but they should be ascribed to the reader's perceptive (or critical) insights on the text; they cannot be ascribed wholesale to the reader's agency or ingenuity, as that would result in "hopeless relativism since we could no longer appeal to the text to validate the claims we made about it" (108).

But just now I want to draw attention to the relationship between perspectival dominion or topsight (dominant insight, if you will) and strategy, as against tactics, as discussed by Bygrave.

The martial associations of the term 'strategy' are to do with directing a campaign rather than a battle. A field commander in the presence of the enemy employs tactics. A strategy is rather the set of such operations, the logic they follow. It is evident that this may be a logic that can only be discerned retrospectively, and that strategies may need to be modified in the light of the contingent and the unexpected. A strategy has both a spatial aspect—the deployment of available resources—and a temporal or narrative aspect—those resources are deployed in sequence. The presence of an opponent anticipating your strategies and initiating their own, together with variables such as the weather, means that a strictly causal logic is likely only to be apparent when the sequence is complete. (108-109)

There is an ongoing narrative aspect (involving anticipated retropection, thence the narrative dimension) in the strategic confrontation, and each of the opponents may construct their partial and ongoing narratives. But these are contingent narratives which are subordinated to the major narratives depicting or interpreting the strategy, and these are possible only ex post facto, once the confrontation has been settled and a result has been achieved. Of course the agonists may still hold to different narrative interpretations of the confrontation, but many hypothetical elements in the agon have been resolved or determined by the end; secret plans have been unfolded and come to the light, and narrative topsight is largely shared by both parties in the confrontation, i.e. they share a knowledge of the main strategic dimensions of the conflict and a narrative interpretation of the agon which is largely common to both.

The link between topsight and retrospection is one I have underlined in a number of papers. As applied to textual structure, part of the implication has to do with the act of reading, an agon between text and reader which  reaches a partial endpoint with closure (and its concomitant retrospective dimensions). As applied to criticism, the agon is one a contest of insights, or of the perception of relevance, between different readers of a text (readers interacting or leaving a critical interpretation). Here we encounter the dynamics of blindness and insight described by Paul de Man, or the sequence of deconstructions surrounding Poe's allegory of interpretation in "The Purloined Letter" (see my papers "Acritical Criticism, Critical Criticism", and "Benefit of Hindsight"). This contest can have no definite closure.

For an early approach to tactics and topsight, see my paper on Sun Tzu's The Art of War. A comprehensive theory of strategy is developed by Erving Goffman and applied to multiple interactional contexts in Strategic Interaction.

Poe-tics of Topsight


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