Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Simultaneous Strength/Weakness of Arac's Argument

I find myself both compelled and frustrated by a piece of Arac's framework regarding the criticism surrounding Huck Finn. Let me first frame the argument and what I find compelling about it, as it's the obvious and intended angle he seeks, and then I'll work to show why I think it's also problematic.

In multiple places, but palpably on 32 and 33, Arac identifies the plausibility that critics may give undo credit to Huck simply because of its/his status as canon. At the start of the first paragraph on 32, Arac works to forward this argument by quoting Pilot:
"Once a work has been admitted tot he highest canon of literary reputability," critics then must "find reasons... for admiring every bit of it"
This concern of Arac's seems legitimate, and gives us reason to be suspicious (note, not dismissive) of positive criticism regarding the novel's progressiveness.

Certainly granted this plausibility, we ought to be cautious not to fall into the trap of seeing positives where none exist, simply because of the work's status within American canon.

I also worry, however, that Arac perhaps unintentionally sets up a trap for himself here. In much of this first chapter while Arac is forwarding his own argument, it seems he occasionally gives way to the temptation to use this aforementioned worry as a way to unfairly entirely dismiss or belittle arguments praising Huck Finn, in essentially an ad hominem move. Example (excuse my inability to hold back from formalizing the argument.

1. Some praise for HF may stem from HF being canon.
2. Argument X/Author Y praises HF
3. Argument X/Author Y only praises HF because HF is canon.

The structure here is pretty clearly invalid. While #1 is a serious concern, it doesn't follow that because #1 and #2 are true, #3 is necessarily true.

Meanwhile, Arac falls into using language like (further down on 32):

"This inadequacy of vocabulary, which idolaters take as a truth about Huck's America, Poirier instead treated as a limiting artistic feature of the fictional world Twain has constructed"

While it's again entirely plausible that some arguments (1) praise HF, (2) take Huck's inadequacy of vocabulary as the result of the society he's embedded in, and (3) think this because of their need to uphold HF as a piece of canon (his use of the word idolaters), it doesn't follow that ALL arguments that do (1) and (2) necessarily do so because of (3). He doesn't state (3) as the cause of their thinking this, but his use of his word "idolaters" here seems to point towards that conclusion, which worries me.

Arac seems to, in many other places as well, give room for the possibility of accidentally (deliberately?) straw-manning his intellectual opponents by dismissing their arguments as being motivated by idolatry.

I think it's important to recognize, that while his concern is compelling, even if an argument is motivated by idolatry, this does not necessarily mean the argument itself is invalid. To say so is to attack the person giving the argument, rather than the argument itself, quintessential ad hominem.

His concern only goes so far as to alert us that we ought to look at the text for what it is, and work to avoid any biases we might have towards it. The worry is not a sufficient counterargument in and of itself. 

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