What is Semantic Criticism? A Taxonomy Past and Present

by Roland Greene

The present moment sees a momentum around the project of semantic criticism. As a durable model for literary studies that has refrained from the hegemonic gestures of labels but at the same time has never entirely gone out of fashion, semantic criticism is not so much a coherent program as a set of practices that must be reinvented by every generation. Moreover, it lacks a commonly acknowledged genealogical story: in fact, its history as a method is often seen only through a few models whose relation to recent criticism may be imagined or aspirational more than anything else. In my view, a productive turn toward semantics in criticism depends on our knowing its past and distinguishing among the models provided by Raymond Williams, William Empson, C. S. Lewis, Theodor Adorno, Reinhart Koselleck, Martin Jay, and others. It's not recognized enough that these available models are not only very different from each other but make imperfect guides for future work; they speak to the eras and assumptions for which they were conceived, but the present requires, and we ought to demand, a semantic criticism of our time. In the brief remarks that follow, without the scope to produce a genealogy, I set out a provisional taxonomy with some questions about the method and a conversation with some of the essays in this Colloquy.

As Anston Bosman presciently observed during the session at the 2018 MLA Convention for which this essay originated, this is the age of keywords. Every year brings several new books on keywords: keywords for cultural studies, media and writing studies, Latinx and Asian-American studies, sound, children's literature, and disability studies. There are period-based conferences and projects (nineteenth-century keywords and so on) and at least one international research project on early modern keywords. Among all this exertion, it's seldom recognized that semantic criticism can be more than the study of keywords or how some of the most intriguing models fashion a broader field. There are at least three strands to this work.

One model other than keywords involves what might be called axial reading, or the kind of criticism that ranges deeply or widely in search of semantic information. Reading along what we might call the vertical axis has sometimes been associated with an inimitable, highly personal criticism: thus a deep dive into single words considered more or less in isolation is the project of Empson's idiosyncratic chapters in The Structure of Complex Words (1951), where he grants words such as honest, man, and dog a great deal of autonomy from their historical contexts and from each other. Empson seeks after "feelings" and "statements" in words as well as the factors that condition them, for instance as "moods" color feelings and "implications" affect statements. Instead of what we now consider a historical context, Empson appeals to something more subjective and inchoate: "a poet no doubt is not building an intellectual system; if you like the phrase, he feels the thoughts which are in the air . . . [;] or he is recording a time when his mind was trying out an application of the thoughts, not proving a doctrine about them" (6-7). Few critics would write like this now, because of not what seems an unashamed impressionism but the serious purpose it masks, a single-minded attention to words as compacting meanings on meanings on a vertical axis, as corpses are found one over another in a single grave. Many critics today might find such a project impressively thorough but somehow incomplete; we draw the boundaries of our work differently now. Still, for the sake of a taxonomy, these are bravura demonstrations of close reading by a founding figure of the New Criticism, with words rather than poems as the objects of analysis.

A corresponding instance of reading along the horizontal axis occurs in several projects in the digital humanities that permit browsing of corpora, literary and otherwise and produce line-charts to show usage and sometimes go under the name of culturomics, after a paper in Science that coined the term; most of these projects are founded on the Google Ngram Viewer introduced in 2010, which enables searches of words and phrases in the vast Google Books collection of texts in several languages. The historian Benjamin Schmidt's Bookworm is a prominent example of a platform built on such a viewer to search not only books but newspapers and television scripts. Both the deep and wide varieties of axial reading are necessarily incomplete because of their compromises over representativeness—in the case of Empsonian deep reading, where the reach of the corpus is entirely contingent on one reader's knowledge—and over import, in the case of quantitative surveys that often cannot discern one usage from another, those written and read in obscurity versus those, like the usages of a Shakespeare, that may alter the course of a word's semantic purchase.

A second strand of semantic criticism is at once empirical and philological. The critic notices a semantic feature in the weave of a text and pulls at a loose thread: as C.S. Lewis explains the process in Studies in Words (1960), "the smallest semantic discomfort rouses his suspicions. He notes the key word and watches for its recurrence in other texts. Often they will explain the whole puzzle" (5). At length a structure of meanings becomes legible, and the method the critic applies to elucidating that structure is based in philology. Lewis writes that "the philologist's dream is to diagrammatise all the meanings of a word so as to have a perfect semantic tree of it; every twig traced to its branch, every branch traced back to the trunk" (9). This impulse toward schemes of relation and ramification seems different from the motives of what I was calling axial reading: to mention just one feature, philological reading places a premium on the kind of contextual conditions that maintain every meaning in its place in relation to others, the shape of the tree so to speak. Lewis calls this "the insulating power of the context," and like other philologically inclined critics he is concerned with registering that power as much as with observing any strictly semantic force that inheres in the words themselves. Where Lewis confronts Empson, the differences have to do with what he perceives as Empson's inattention to the ramifications of the word wit even in a single poem, Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism. Empson having brilliantly elucidated a dominant, vivid sense of the word in action—wit as the "power to make ingenious (and critical) jokes" (85)—Lewis argues that he has not noticed other senses (for example, wit as ingenium) that are rooted in the history of the language and have their own roles to play in the poem (93). The philological critic inevitably sees axial readings, whether vertical and deep or horizontal and wide, as two-dimensional and therefore, despite their strengths as virtuosic and comprehensive respectively, as fatally incomplete. Among the philological critics I'm drawn especially to Leo Spitzer's Essays in Historical Semantics (1948) and his book on stimmung as examples of empirical observation that conclude in searching contextualization.

The third strand of semantic criticism, of course, is the most famous as well as the one that many readers believe to be the only extant method, as though the axial and philological readings were merely versions of it. This is what I call historicist reading, demonstrated in Raymond Williams' Keywords of 1976, which was first conceived as part of his book Culture and Society, but also seen in different versions in Martin Jay's Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time (1998), Reinhart Koselleck's essays in Begriffsgeschichte (collected in English as The Practice of Conceptual History, 2002), and a few other practices. This kind of reading is concerned with words or concepts that embody historical periods or encode historical change. Keywords—the words or concepts themselves—tend to be self-evidently important in a cultural sense: as Williams puts it, they are, like culture (his original keyword), class, art, industry, and democracy, both "significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation [and] significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought" (15). While few of us could write definitions as rich as those in Williams' book, many readers can bring to these words an idea of their semantic history and contours; we have generally heard them treated as representative in settings other than semantic criticism, and one can imagine treating them as items in an exam for a course on certain periods (industry for the nineteenth century, democracy for the twentieth). Moreover, keywords tend to manifest a sense of mutual relation even before we have fully investigated them. When Williams narrates how his book came about, he observes of culture, class, art, industry, and democracy that "I could feel these five words as a kind of structure. The relations between them became more complex the more I considered them" (13). If the other strands of semantic criticism run the risks of producing analysis that is unrepresentative, indiscriminate, and overly schematic, then historicist reading of the keywords sort faces a danger that is hardly ever acknowledged by the promoters of keywords: that of tautology, or granting substance to a semantic feature or narrative that is implicit in the current usages of the word, in effect staging the analysis as an elaboration of the word itself and telling us what we already know. While Williams generally avoids tautology through feats of interpretive acumen, some of the recent work that derives from his method doesn't fare so well.

What in my work I have called critical semantics stands apart from these three strands of analysis, although it should preserve elements of all of them: the social and cultural significance found in historicist reading, the attention to context indispensable to philological reading, the access to information available through the databases central to horizontal reading, and finally the scope for critical risk-taking that validates vertical reading. This last element, which cannot be supplied by method but must be contributed by each particular critic, drew me toward the adjective "critical" in giving a name to critical semantics. I wanted to name the method I was demonstrating but resist the promotional attitude that appears in names such as the New Philology and the New Formalism.

The most salient difference between critical semantics and what precedes it is in the nature of the objects themselves: I make a distinction between keywords and working words, or the everyday terms that populated my book and that appear here and there throughout semantic criticism. Working words are the ones that people live and think with, as opposed to those that self-consciously represent the age; working words are so multivalent that we don't necessarily see the shape in their semantics, nor do they always seem to tell a common story. They may be rooted in mutually exclusive disciplines, as blood in the sixteenth century belongs to the disappearing context of chivalry, the emerging context of race theory, and two versions of physiology, one obsolescent and one quickened by new discoveries such as circulation. Moreover, where working words are concerned the databases supply us with too many examples. One compares a working word such as Empson's honest or Lewis's simple or my language to a keyword such as nature or human and despairs that an intelligible story may ever be found. (I like Empson's remark about Wordsworth: "there are of course 'key' words like Nature and Imagination, and these may in reality be very puzzling, but he seems to be making a sturdy effort to expound them in discursive language. The apparently flat little word sense has I think a more curious part to play" [289].) Working words are often "flat" or overloaded, unobtrusive or noisy. And they are everywhere.

After the words themselves are identified, critical semantics depends for its unfolding on what I call, following Kenneth Burke in A Grammar of Motives (1945), a representative anecdote that offers the broad outline of a word's changes. As Burke envisions it, the "calculus" that produces an anecdote "must be supple and complex enough to be representative of the subject-matter it is designed to calculate. It must have scope. Yet it must also possess simplicity, in that it is broadly a reduction of the subject-matter" (60). A semantic anecdote should persuade readers that the critic's account is worth entertaining at least provisionally, while in the self-conscious, provisional quality of its framing it exposes the reading at hand to critique as potentially inadequate in any number of ways. In any case, the anecdote puts the critic's version of the word as a dynamic event into play in a way that some other methods (such as the stratified, dictionary-style definitions sometimes found in keyword projects) often do not. Calling attention to itself as a narrative, the anecdote invites disagreement and courts risk.

And finally, the third element of critical semantics is the provision of a conceit to explain how the senses of a word relate to one another: I choose to envision words according to the physical properties of objects that were invented or widely known contemporaneously with the words themselves, such as in the sixteenth century, the envelope for blood, the palimpsest for invention, and the engine for world. I am not much interested in the material things as such, but only in how they permit us to imagine semantic change as experienced and felt. Once we have understood tongue and language as (what I call) pendents to each other, like keys on a ring or pearls on a string, the idea goes, we might be able to apply that kind of relation to other terms of the period such as troth and truth. If it is assumed that the haptic nature of the conceits carries an explanatory power, this is perhaps an expedient concession to the multifarious character of working words, a way of explaining them in light of the everyday that honors their homeliness and ubiquity.

Considering how prevalent keyword criticism remains, it will seem funny for me to say that I believe it to be a relic of another era. Its survival, I think, rests on an unreflective reduction of semantic criticism to this approach. Of course there is a place for keywords in the genre of reference, where a concise account of conventional views can get a beginner ready to think more boldly (or discreetly refresh the knowledge of a non-beginner). But in criticism, I'm convinced that an attention to working words reflects the tone of the present, when digital databases that show a wide range of usages have the potential to call into doubt the significance and inevitability of any keyword. Some of the most suggestive criticism now, such as Philip Lorenz's book on sovereignty, obliterates the distinction between keywords and working words, these alternative objects, by treating even the most durable keywords as deserving an anecdote that can be modified, augmented, and challenged in usages. Perhaps most urgent to the present is the imperative for the critic to find a voice in which to tell a semantic story that is authoritative but open to change. My experiment in critical semantics is in considerable measure an attempt to summon such a voice for our moment—the age of the Google Ngram Viewer and Wikipedia, in which the critic and her or his readers face the challenge of having access to more information than Empson or Lewis ever imagined.

Five Words is only an experiment, however, and it raises several issues it raises without quite answering them. The papers first presented at the 2018 MLA Convention and now gathered in this Colloquy remind us that there are still other questions, practices, and challenges that go well past what I conceived in that book. Let me conclude by addressing each of the papers briefly in turn.

I admire Debapriya Sarkar's crisp account of how utopian was "an extraordinary word that became ordinary, a particular term that became general, and a reference to a physical place that became an idea." The most insightful gesture of her argument is to suggest how the notion of hypothesis and the hypothetical shadows the semantics of utopian in the period, such that "utopian embodies a hypothetical ontology, a concept of nonexistence." Hypothetical thinking needs a body in which to be represented, Debapriya tells us, and as "utopian" becomes that body, it also becomes ordinary, unspecialized, and finally the everyday word we all recognize. The important questions at the end of Debapriya's paper—e.g. how do words become ordinary?—are already answered in outline, though naturally not in detail, in her paper, which tells a compact story of how a word changes from its inception within the sixteenth century through its emergence in the modern lexicon.

Vin Nardizzi makes a good case for grafting as a semantic node where writing, sexuality, and acculturation come together; he raises the inevitable question as to what conceit would permit us to envision the relation among these fields and their semantic evocation of "work, plants, nature, art, magic, poetry, rhetoric, sex, marriage, queerness, rank, and race." To me his analysis implies that graft may be both the word and the conceit that organizes its meanings—an intriguing example of a semantic event that does what Della Porta says about trees, "every [meaning] mutually incorporated into each other."

Crystal Bartolovich reminds us that words are made not only of meanings but of the standpoints from which they are spoken—she calls them "accents," and gives us the anecdote from a volume of 1660 in which three figures—a wealthy landowner, a country man, and the King—trade perspectives on the word common. In five usages over about 120 words, the word is heard to advance the material interests of the two principal antagonists, the wealthy man and the commoner, until the King steps in to "restore" the word, and the place it names, to what it was before enclosure. Anecdotes like this one are not unusual in the period, of course; there's a memorable one in Deloney's Thomas of Reading (in which King Henry I grants three wishes to the clothiers of England) and other middle-class and craft fictions of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. But before Crystal offered this example I hadn't developed in my own work an account of how semantics can be the explicit vehicle for the confrontation of class positions, and how the narrative itself can foreground the word—here, common—as the staging-ground of the conflict and its resolution. She is right to draw our renewed attention to words as inflected by the accents of class, gender, region, and other positions in early modern society.

Finally, John Casey explains how the term color, often seemingly empty of meaning in itself, is thoroughly instrumentalized to capture the intersection of internal (that is, mental and experiential) states and external reality; early modern observers see the world as colored, think of their own thoughts in terms of color, and treat the interpretation of the former by the latter as involving a language of color, as in figures of speech that are "colors" of rhetoric. As a working word, then, is color perhaps "too ubiquitous," as John wonders? His implied answer to his own question is that the challenges of understanding a word that can name subjects, objects, and the ground between them are necessary and even urgent to the development of a critical semantics. The very notion of an explanatory conceit in Five Words could be taken to assume that the word in question should be as graspable as an object; what if instead the word defines boundaries, is both everywhere and fugitive at the same time? Further, John argues that that development must involve "push[ing] beyond both semantic and historical concerns," which might mean considering the visual and material arts as well as other fields that were outside my conception of critical semantics. This important paper reminds me that what started as a renovative experiment for literary studies might well end up bringing a semantically aware dimension to other disciplines, not only intellectual history as in the work of Quentin Skinner or Martin Jay but art history, music, or history of science.

My current project, a conceptual study of the Baroque in Europe and the colonial world, begins with a problem for critical semantics: in the seventeenth century, there is no general term for the kind of art that breaks surfaces, courts asymmetry and incommensurability, and exposes its own workings in a gesture of self-contradiction. The term Baroque comes into usage only later. In the seventeenth century, then, what do practitioners and observers call the Baroque? I see this opening question as an occasion not only to apply critical semantics to a perennial subject of literary history but to complicate the movement of Five Words by starting from a semantic absence, finding some of the many words that name the Baroque and envisioning the relation among them. I expect to share some of my discoveries in this Colloquy.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. "Words from Abroad. " In Notes to Literature. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. 1:185-99.

Empson, William. The Structure of Complex Words. London: Chatto and Windus, 1951.

Greene, Roland. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Jay, Martin. Cultural Semantics: Keywords of Our Time. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

—. The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts. Trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Lewis, C. S. Studies in Words. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Lorenz, Philip. The Tears of Sovereignty: Perspectives of Power in Renaissance Drama. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, et al. "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books." Science 16 December 2010: 1199644.

Spitzer, Leo. Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word "Stimmung." Ed. Anna Granville Hatcher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.

—. Essays in Historical Semantics. New York: Russell and Russell, 1948.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Rev ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Roland Greene's picture

Greene is a scholar of early modern culture, especially the literatures of England, Latin Europe, and the transatlantic world, and of poetry and poetics from the sixteenth century to the present. He is the author or editor of five books and many articles. His current projects include books on the poetry of the hemispheric Americas and on the Baroque. Since 2001 he has taught at Stanford University, where he is the Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

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