Sunday, May 29, 2011

Narrative and information - part I: kibbitzing, rooting, side-bets

An idea basic to game theory is that players will play their best moves, if there is one, that what defines your best move is in part determined by what defines the other player's best move, and vice versa. This means that playing a move in a game in which the players have incomplete information (most of them: Old Maid, Stratego, Bridge, Blackjack) always conveys some information: not only the trivial fact that a player has made this move, but that this move is the best one they could make in their position.

Interesting games, then, are those in which players have to balance their provisional best move against the valuable information that making any move, no matter what it is, will divulge.  Bidding in bridge provides a good example of this dynamic: the cost of getting trumps in your long suit is a declaration of what cards you're likely to have, based on how much you're willing to pay to make those cards trumps.  But Clue is essentially the same (what information are you looking for, what are you pretending not to have, what are you pretending you do have?) as is poker: even five-card draw: are you taking two or three cards? two cards might mean three of a kind, but if it's a bluff based on a pair and a third card, you've also reduced your chances of drawing to three of a kind considerably.

Bluffing is a way of trying to convey disinformation: part of what will make a player decide that bluffing is her best move is that it's disguised as a different 'best' move.  If it looks like my best move is to take two cards, then it looks like I have three of a kind.  Conversely, I might pay to keep information secret, for example by taking only one card with three of a kind to try to convince you that I only have two pairs: doing this cuts my chances of getting four of a kind in half (to 1/47).

Now, the game I am interested in is that between story and audience.  Stripped down this is a two-person game, but that may be too idealizing since we have to take into account Author, narrator, narratee, other audience members, and (following David Markson) Reader.  Have to take them into account because the question of rooting comes up.  In fact I think that one of the most important tasks of the mildly game-theoretical account of narrative I am trying to work out is to figure out the game that rooters and kibbitzers are playing.

I want to press the similarity between rooting and making a side-bet, that is to say, playing a game.  Rooting for a preferred outcome in a fiction and rooting (as the faithful do) for the Red Sox are different, but they do share a structure: those whose faith in their preferred outcome is vindicated get bragging rights over those who wanted something different, but also over those whose preferred outcome was the same but who were of little faith.

So there are two different types I might make a side-bet against: the serenely confident malevolent (those who wish the wrong thing); and the benevolent faithless (who wish the right thing but doubt it will happen).

In narrative, the malevolent (leaving Oscar Wilde's laughter aside) tend to be villains in the piece (including sometimes author and narrator).  Whereas those of little faith will often be found in the piece, but also found on our side of the narrative divide, in the narratee and in other audience members.  Obvious examples of the malevolent include the head-suitor Antinous in the Odyssey, Don John in Much Ado, Oswald and Edmund in King Lear, Blifel in Tom Jones, Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Mr. Elton in Emma, Mr. Grimwig in Oliver Twist, La Cousine Bette, Madame Merle in Portrait of a Lady, Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) in Casablanca, and also Captain Renault (Claude Rains), and Father Gomez in The Amber Spyglass.  These examples show that there are various ways that the malevolent may lose their bets: they may consciously have to realize and suffer the judgment the narrative gods visit upon them (Antinous, Don John, Blifel, Strasser, Mary Crawford, Mr. Elton, Madame Merle); they may change their bets, often just in time (Edmund, Grimwig, Captain Renault, also Mary Crawford); they may think that their bets will eventually be vindicated, even after their deaths (Oswald, Father Gomez, Major "King" Kong [Slim Pickens, riding the bomb like a cowboy hellbent for hell] in Dr. Strangelove).  And sometimes the malevolent win their bets -- which is to say that the outcome of the story does not confute the obnoxious line they take: (Rodolphe in Madame Bovary, for example, possibly Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra).  And sometimes, especially in Shakespeare, you get characters who seem to combie all these seemingly incompatible positions simultaneously, like Edmund and, the villain of villains in Shakespeare, Iago.1

What makes Flaubert Flaubert is that we have to live with that. And this fact, the fact that Emma isn't vindicated, as we in our Balzac-trained naïveté might have bet she would, the fact that we've lost our standing bet on novelistic satisfaction helps shed light on a feature of side-betting that might at first make it look somewhat different than the main game. When I bid one heart in bridge I'm suggesting something like being long in hearts (depending on the convention, of course; but as my bids get higher, they become more straightforward declarations of the hand I'm holding); when I bid one heart reading Flaubert (after all I've loved Un Cœur Simple), I don't seem to affect the play - either in the main game Emma and Rodolphe are playing, nor in the side-bets between me and the more cynical reader, nor between me and the narratee.

Well does my bet, my play, convey any information?  A move needn't convey information, but I think that in any interesting game it does, so now the question would be, are the side-bets that I make, against the more cynical reader or the narratee, the only moves that I make?  Or might these side-bets also convey information to the author or the narrator?  And if so, how?  How do I affect the past, the already written text, the already scripted play, the already filmed movie?

Notice that this question also pertains to the narratee, who inhabits a peculiar temporal space, more peculiar than the narrator's, since she is learning the story as I learn it, even though she's an already completed creation of the story.  The narrator is like the Augustinian God in Paradise Lost: outside of time, having arranged the whole story, so that any moment of the telling includes what is to come as well as what has happened and what is occurring now. Indeed Augustine compares God's command of the whole of time to the knowledge of a psalm, that is a literary text, where every moment contains within it the compression of the whole.2  But the narratee knows only what has come before, and what is happening now, though she will certainly be predicting and anticipating how the story will unfold.

Let's begin by asking the slightly easier converse question: what information does the narratee's taking the opposite bet convey to me? For one thing the narratee (and more subtly, the other audience members) represent for me a possible outcome to the story - a possible pathway which helps map the terrain the actual pathway finds its way through.  Now, I can sometimes get this information very explicitly, from a narratee as character (e.g. Belford or Anna Howe, receiving a letter from Lovelace or Clarissa), or from a worrying or gloating window character (Horatio, Enobarbus, Poins), or from a Chorus, sometimes continuous with the other audience members (as in some of the sly induction scenes in Elizabethan drama).

But sometimes I can only get this information from narratees (and also from other audience members, in the silence of a theater) who say nothing and indicate nothing about what their own anticipations are.  I have to understand what they -- the narratees, the expected interpreters -- must be thinking.  The author or narrator has to give me to understand their thoughts or reactions.  James may be the writer who most explicitly makes this into a theme: we need to think like Isabel Archer or Merton Densher or Maggie Verver, to understand exactly what the silences of Madame Merle and Osmond, of Milly Theale, of the Prince and indeed of Adam Verver, must mean.  Adam Verver is of course the crowning case here: everything depends on Maggie's understanding everything his complete inscrutability (inscrutable to the point of its not being clear whether he's inscrutable or not) might signify.

So the side-bets are bets between me and a silent narratee (the last narratee, the person over whose shoulder I am always reading or watching, is always silent).  Since the interest of narrative always includes wishful thinking (if I weren't wishing I wouldn't be interested), I bet that there's still a way for things to work out.  I take some vicarious pleasure in thinking the narratee thinks there isn't a way for things to work out.  That pleasure is generous, at least seen from the right perspective: the narratee will, I am sure, be delighted that things work out, and I anticipate that delight with delight. The narratee will be delighted to lose, so in a sense it's a win-win situation.

But on the other hand, the narratee is betting against me, in her stony, silent, hsst-don't-bother-me way.  She doesn't think things will work out at all.  She thinks I'm naive.

So we're both conveying information in our bets, in our moves.  This information is moral, you could say, or characterological.  I show my naivete, perhaps, my naive love of fiction, or my bent towards the fictitious. I stand for wish-fulfillment and fantasy.  The narratee shows her disabused knowledge of reality.  The world doesn't work in the lovely-to-think-so way I want it to work.

This information is important to the fictional interaction.  It sets up the stakes of the fiction.  In the conflict between life and wish-fulfillment, will wish-fulfilment find a way?  How much reality can I know is true, can the narratee emblematize, without the destruction of the wish?  The balance is different in different genres, along different dimensions of ambition: commitment to truth, to life, to hope, to cleverness, to seriousness, to verisimilitude, etc.  Our side bets bring out these different dimensions, bring them into relief, so that they become part of the story, part of the stakes of the story.  The information these moves reveal is part of the story-information.


1 Who, Trilling points out, is the only character identified as a villain in the original dramatum personae.  (Trilling doesn't point out that only seven of the First Folio plays have lists of the "Names of the Actors" as it calls them.)  Here's what the Othello list looks, like:

[Brandeis University First Folio]

You ask, What's right under "The Names of the Actors"?  X-P

2 Leonardo will later point the same thing out about the focal point in a camera obscura: the entire image is compressed into a single point before decompressing upside down.  That spatial point in the camera obscura is analogous to the temporal instant in Augustine's and Milton's thinking.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Shakespeare and Milton

I think a lot about both Shakespeare and Milton, and about the Keatsian question: What makes them so different? One thing that does, that differentiates Shakespeare from Dante as well, is the way the tradition of Shakespearean criticism adds almost nothing to our sense of his depth.  There are agreed on versions of Milton and Dante, and woe betide the person who doesn't see a large and always accreting set of truths that have been won from the void and formless puzzlement of their first readers.  They're like Joyce that way: every insight is a piece of the puzzle put down for good and all.  Even when there's disagreement, as between Empson and Lewis, the disagreement takes the form of moral surprise that the other side should so refuse established insight.

I think we could call this accretion of insight about the Dantesque writers (to give them a useful epithet) the establishment of a kind of anthology of florilegium. By anthology I mean that what critics have done is produced a hierarchy of passages which serve as foci and thematic centers of the work.  A new reader might be moved by Paolo and Francesca, but the experienced Danteist will be able to quote those passages of rebuke that apply to any great sympathy for them.  We might be astonished by Satan's grandeur, but the keepers of Paradise Lost will know what later moments show astonishment to be a sign of the very sin the poem seeks to cure. I might like Shem too much, or not enough, but the community of scholars knows how to weigh his actions and intentions.

These Dantesque works are then either the triumphs or the prisoners of their interpreters.  It's not that there aren't major disagreements about them -- I've already instanced Empson vs. C.S. Lewis.  It's that what the disagreements are about has been almost entirely stipulated.  These things change too, of course.  I'm giving a synchronic snapshot, but the point is that at every point there's an agreed agenda that the critics of whatever day debate.

But this is not true of Shakespeare.  We have better texts (or did for a while) than they had before the last century's revolution in textual scholarship; and we also have better glosses on Shakespeare's vocabulary.  What we don't have is better criticism, nor even anything like general agreement on what the issues are.  Sure, there are plenty of issues you can apply to Shakespeare: feminism, absolutism, theatricality, the coming of capitalism, imperialism, anti-semitism, racism.  But none of those things really get you into the plays in any way that makes it possible to have new insights into Shakespeare.  The idea of Shakespeare as author-function, as site for the circulation of social energy, is a kind of tribute to his non-accretive genius.  This is the odd commonality between skeptical attitudes towards Shakespeare in people as otherwise different as Wittgenstein, de Man, Greenblatt, and even Freud.

What I mean by that is that Shakespeare has been seeming to me, over the last couple of decades, more and more amazing, in ways that no theoretical or philosophical approach can capture or systematize.  He's amazing on the level of craft: he makes craft something transcendent, so that he's understanding of the experience of a play, of characters, of language, of communication becomes the real locus of his power: because these experiences -- of human interaction, of their language, of their communication with each other (and with us) -- are the deepest experiences of human life.  Craft of his order just is as complete an understanding of "this complicated form of life" (LW) as there can be.

I don't mean to sound smarmy.  I was thinking of this because I was thinking of an interesting error that it struck me Garry Wills was making in a review of Kenji Yoshino's book on Shakespeare and the law, A Thousand Times More Fair.  Wills takes issue with Yoshino's defense of Shylock, citing an essay by Anthony Hecht:

As Anthony Hecht points out in the most profound essay on “Merchant” (in ­“Obbligati”), modern actors omit (as Olivier did) or play down the most naked expression of hate in the drama, Shylock’s “I hate him for he is a Christian” — a line not quoted by Yoshino. The second most hateful speech declares Shylock’s motive for going to dinner with Antonio: “But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian.” Shylock should not be seen as EveryJew. Not all Jews hate Christians — his daughter, Jessica, loves them. Hecht points out that Shylock also hates music — never a good sign in Shakespeare — and Belmont is the land of music, where Jessica is welcomed.

While Wills exaggerates Hecht's focus on hatred in The Merchant of Venice, it's also interesting that Hecht himself is trying to read the play as though it were by Dante: his scholarship reads like Singleton's footnotes, and in fact he ends the piece with a direct comparison to Dante (Merchant of Venice is a comedy in the same way that Dante's is).

But what struck me, and the point of this entry, is that Wills makes a great deal of a word that it's striking, once you notice it, Shakespeare never makes very much of.  It's a powerful rhetorical move to quote Shylock on hatred, and even more effective to repeat the word out of quotation marks (I've bolded those unquoted repetitions).  Will's use of the word, especially his phrases "hateful" and "naked expression of hate," gives it a good Dantesque resonance, as echoed in Shelley's account of Dante returning "to tell, / In words of hate and awe the wondrous story / How all things are transfigured except Love."  It's also Miltonic: "Heav'nly love oudoing hellish hate."

But in Shakespeare the word is strikingly milder.  Even in Merchant, Portia assures Bassanio she's on his side (as he's thinking about the caskets): "Hate counsels not in such a quality."  "Hate" there means "dislike," as it does in Sonnet 145.  Yes, hate will rise to Miltonic or Dantesque viciousness in Shakespeare, but not very often.  Even in King Lear, where Gloucester "callst on him that hates thee," Kent says that to try to save Lear's life at the end is showing a misapprehension of what Lear needs: "Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer."

In fact in Shakespeare "hate" tends to mean something like indifference to the good of someone.  And the same mildness to be found in Shakespeare's use of hate is to be found in his use of love as well.  There's very little of the extravagant (Heavenly Love, Love that moves the Sun and other stars) in Shakespeare.  Love and hate are among the social emotions in Shakespeare: they show how it is we are with other people.  And as long as we are with other people, we're in the realm of real life, and not that of the transcendent embodiment of primal principles.

So the interesting thing is that the two most central of literary words, love and hate, are just not central to Shakespeare.  They can be misleading, people can make too much of them (like Lear), but they're part of our give and take with each other.  What is central to Shakespeare is time and loss and commitment. "Love" and "hate" are highly attractive words for the rhetorician, for writers (like Wills) who plays their cards in order to use them as trumps.  Shakespeare never trumps with them: it's amazing.

So imagine that: the greatest of all writers is really not interested in depicting love and hate, and the reason for this is that he's not interested in depicting principles at all.  He's interested in depicting people.  And the result is that criticism can't really get us very far with Shakespeare.  The thing is he knows an amazing number of people: his characters and also his audience.  He describes them amazingly well.  He sees how they interact, and he sees what gives pleasure in that interaction.  He sees too what they need.

And what they mainly need is time with each other.  It's almost impossible to ruin Shakespeare if you don't cut the apparently extraneous scenes of nothing happening for a long time -- Lear, Kent and the Fool just talking, As You Like It in the forest of Arden, Act IV of The Winter's Tale, and so on.  This is time we can spend with them too.  Burgeoning critical consensus is not going to get you to understand Shakespeare's characters, and their interactions, better.  Spending time with them will, and the trick is to avoid turning them into the representatives of some critical argument as long as possible.  Unlike Dante or Milton, Shakespeare never did.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How literary transference ends

Reading a great note of Jeff Nunokawa's (you may have to friend him on Facebook to read it) -- two notes, actually -- got me thinking about the moment when, seeing Beatrice's presence flame up before him, Dante attains to the full sublimity of the earthly Paradise that Eve has lost and turns to share the transport with Virgil, who's been silent these last cantos, lost in his own awe and wonder. (The higher they go in Purgatory, the more Virgil's authority reduces to his still-parental capacity to ask intelligent questions of the guides they meet and to interpret their answers, even if he can't answer those questions himself as he'd done below.)  She's not only a counter-Eve; she's a counter-Dido too, meeting him "vestita di color di fiamma viva," dressed in the color of living flame, in contrast with the flames of Dido's funeral pyre which Aeneas sees as he abandons Carthage.

This is indeed a return to Eden for Dante: Beatrice has been dead for ten years now, and it's ten years since he felt the awe that now overcomes him again in her presence.  Virgil has seen him through the lowest depths of hell and to this glory, and so now:

Tosto che ne la vista mi percosse
l'alta virtù che già m'avea trafitto
prima ch'io fuor di püerizia fosse,

volsimi a la sinistra col respitto
col quale il fantolin corre a la mamma
quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto,

per dicere a Virgilio: 'Men che dramma
di sangue m'è rimaso che non tremi:
conosco i segni de l'antica fiamma'.

Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciati scemi
di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre,
Virgilio a cui per mia salute die'mi;

né quantunque perdeo l'antica matre,
valse a le guance nette di rugiada,
che, lagrimando, non tornasser atre.  (Purgatorio 30, 40-54)


As soon as all my sight was driven wild
by that same force which, timelessly archaic,
transfixed me then while I was yet a child,

I turned back to the left, with hopes as quick
as when a little boy runs to his mama
if he's afraid of something or is sick,

To say to Virgil, "No drop of blood is calm: a
trembling has rapt me: I see all about
the returning fire of that blazing drama."

But Virgil was not there. We were without
him now. O Virgil! sweetest father,
to whom my soul I'd trusted without doubt!

Nor could the world, recovered, our first mother
lost once in Eden keep my dew-cleansed cheeks
unstained by tears I now wept for the other.
Dante lost his mother when he was five years old, and he has already seen that Beatrice must have taken her place in his soul, especially once she too has died. But Virgil has been so tender, and it's to Virgil he turns, as to a mother, as to his childhood, away for a moment from the Godlike blaze of Beatrice.  It's to Virgil that he entrusts his own wondrous and direct acknowledgment that he recognizes the archaic feeling he'd once felt in Beatrice's presence on earth: "conosco i segni de l'antica fiamma," I recognize the signs of that ancient flame (my translation above sacrificed the directness of this line for the even more important rhyme on mama) -- words which directly translate Virgil's Dido -  "Adgnosco veteris vestigia flammae".  Her ancient flame had been for her husband Sichaeus, now dead, and now she fears (accurately) that she will betray his memory and turn from him to Aeneas.

So for a moment Virgil and Dante take on the rolls of women, of Dante's mother and of Dido, while Beatrice takes the role of Aeneas. Since Dante will follow her, he abandons Virgil, perforce, and so he disappears, another abandoning himself before he is abandoned for Beatrice's living flame.  Over now, the fictive world that returned Dante to childhood, and gave him back a mother in Virgil.

If Dante is thinking of the Aeneid he must also be thinking of the binding of Isaac, the moment John Limon aptly describes as Isaac's adulthood.  For Abraham leads him to this terrible pass, seemingly knowing what he's doing but hiding his own terror and bewilderment.  We know this because Isaac asks his what's going on:
And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.
He doesn't trust Isaac with (what he thinks is) the truth.  (Note that his intended lie isn't going to turn out to be the truth either, since it's a ram, not a lamb, that God provides, falsifying the inadvertent prophecy.)  But then he binds Isaac.  After this episode (as is notorious) Isaac disappears for several years, and we see him again only as an adult, after his mother dies.  The binding of Isaac is the end of his childhood: he has turned to his father in anxiety and trust, and his father has betrayed him.  God intervenes, but that's hardly recompense for the loss he indemnifies.

I don't mean to suggest the Virgil should be equated with Abraham, only to say that Dante is underlining the terrible moment when the child turns to the parent to find that the parent cannot help.  That's in Eden too.

As I say, I was thinking about this because I'd put together the moment in Dante with that in the frame to Turn of the Screw, the story of Griffin's ghost which is about
an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.
He turns to her and she can't help him.  What scene more archaic than the child turning to a parent when haunted by ghosts? What comfort more primal than that which the parent gives? And when she can't -- that's the failure of Abraham, of Virgil, of Wordsworth in "Surprised by Joy" ("I turned to share the transport, O with whom, / But  thee, deep-buried in the silent tomb"), of the mother in Griffin's story (and of the Governess), of the father dreaming of his burning child whose story Freud reports (how often Abraham must have had this same dream, on his way to Moriah, and on his way home too!), and indeed of Gertrude, that inaugurates adulthood and its ultimate failure to be able to lay the ghosts of mortality that haunt our children.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

So you quote know unquote thoughts, or, Wittgenstein's inverted commas

With apologies to Stephin Merritt, for his great line: "So you quote love unquote me."*

Great because the line really describes, not how you love me, but how, even if you're quoting love, you unquote me, almost from th'nave to the chops. Merritt's alluding to the Paris is Burning, camp way that quotation is self-aware. It can't help mentioning words, even when trying to put them to good, clear, canonical, transparent use. Sontag says that camp puts everything in quotation marks: "not a lamp but a 'lamp,' not a woman but a 'woman'." So when you unquote me it's as though I've fallen out of the category of the mentionable, out of your frame of reference.

Thinking about this helped me understand an interesting moment in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which makes a complementary point. Wittgenstein is worrying the grammar of the word "know", which seems to suggest a privileged relation between the knower and the known. His notoriously bracing summary of this issue runs:
     I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking.
     It is correct to say "I know what you are thinking", and wrong to say "I know what I am thinking."
     (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a single drop of grammar.)

I've always liked this passage. But one thing that might make it more plausible to you, if you don't, is to look at another moment, the one that recently struck me. Five pages earlier Wittgenstein has written:
That what someone else says to himself is hidden from me is part of the concept 'saying inwardly'. Only "hidden" is the wrong word here; for if it is hidden from me, it ought to be apparent to him, he would have to know it. But he does not 'know' it; only the doubt which exists for me does not exist for him.

I think the scare-quotes around 'know' here are the point. Imagine him saying something to himself, thinking something which he doesn't share, brooding or considering, or whatever. Now imagine a kind of campy expression of scorn: "just look at him, he's so cool, knowing what he's thinking." That's what LW means by quote know unquote here.

That he'd be struttin' about knowing what he's thinking. In a way the point is that the grammar of the word "know" (in the way that it's at issue here) means something like: having access to privileged information. It comes with a headshake or
By pronouncing of some doubtful phrase
As "Well, well, we know," or "We could an if we would,"
Or "If we list to speak," or "There be an if they might,"
Or such ambiguous giving-out...

But who would (ordinarily) do that about their own thoughts? That's LW's point. We don't ordinarily know our own thoughts, we don't prance around knowing them. When we do prance, it's usually because we know something that we oughtn't, or that those we're lording it over coherently (rationally) wish we didn't, and this kind of knowing-as-gallivanting just couldn't and doesn't apply to the things we're saying inwardly to ourselves.


*I can't find a great version on-line, not one from I at all, but here:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Costly signaling in Balzac

Costly signaling is a term being used a lot in recent literary criticism of an evolutionary cast. But the idea is a biological analogue to what you find in anthropology, in accounts of gift-giving and in particular of completely destructive expenditure, as in the potlatch. Georges Bataille was the first person to see the relevance of dépense, of waste and destructive expenditure, of practices like that of the potlatch, to understanding not only the literature of excess but literature as excess. It's just this latter idea that most literary Darwinists are very intent to oppose, in all its manifestations (read: Freud, Lacan, Bloom, Kristeva, Irigaray, Derrida, Deleuze, u.s.w.) To take a particularly egregious example, one anti-psychonalytic literary Darwinist thinks that Oedipal analyses of literature and of human behavior are wrong because evolution is too parsimonious to get us all hot and bothered about stuff that it would be bad for us to do (like incest with our parents). Much easier for us just not to care. That's how she'd engineer it, so that's how evolution must be doing it. (All this is on my mind because Science had an article last week on literary Darwinism, considering some of these issues).

The anthropological idea is that generosity, gift-giving, expenditure, prestation, conspicious consumption, conspicuous destruction, is a signal of what the spending hand that always poureth out can afford to waste or destroy. If you don't have to ask (or to pay attention), that proves you can afford it.

Why advertise your studied indifference to cost? Because (as Veblen said) such an advertisement announces status. But status-seekers in gift economies originally and logically also seek the benefits of status: the tribute of those below them. So gift-givers expected returns on their gifts, expected those they benefited to repay them with interest. (Marcel Mauss explicitly saw credit and interest as prior to barter and equivalent exchange.) And yet such an expectation immediately blights the idea that the gift is a gift. It becomes a loan instead, one perhaps unwilllingly accepted (though the unwillingness would be part of the point the lender seeks to make).

So what do the truly great do, those who don't want to blight the generosity of the gift? They don't give gifts - they give metagifts. They destroy their wealth instead of putting others under an obligation of gratitude or return by giving them that wealth. We don't owe the truly great anything, because they didn't transfer their wealth to us: they didn't want to oppress us with their largesse. That's how great they are: they didn't need to buy our loyalty, at terms however generous.

I make this point to show one version of the recursive aspect of human mind-reading, of assigning motives to others, including their motivation to assign motives to you, toggling back and forth in an endless rock, paper, scissors or Dupinian whirlpool.

Part of what's interesting about costly signaling, when humans do it, is its recursive quality. You won't really find that among any other animal; the human version says a lot about how central are nested levels of mind-reading to how we interact. This is particularly true when it comes (as with the potlatch) to self-reflexive signaling, that is to say to signaling our attitudes toward our own signaling.

A neat paragraph in Balzac makes this point: La Cousine Bette describes a certain kind of competition, occuring at a party, where the beautiful courtesanes try to outdo each other:

Une partie est toujours pour ces dames un Longchamp de toilettes, où chacune d'elles veut faire obtenir le prix à son millionnaire, en disant ainsi à ses rivales: - Voilà le prix que je vaux!
This is pretty straightforward but deserves a second look. Each woman is dressed expensively, to set off her costly beauty. Each therefore is declaring herself simultaneously both the prize and the quality for which the prize is given (the French "prix" covers both prize and price, which is the point). The way to understand this is that each woman is a prize her erotic partner displays to advertise his value (his status and power), the value thus established then redounding upon the value of the woman who's been chosen by so high-valued a man.

She thus becomes a sign of her own value, because the millionaire she's with values her, and her beauty signals that he matters and so his valuation of her matters. He's only there as a toggle (well Balzac's a realist, so he has to supply the diamonds and pearls too, but they're only there as toggles as well) so that she can become a signal of herself, can become her own signal.

Variations and further complications of such situations (sexist though Balzac's scenario is) exists passim in human societies, making it impossible to disentangle signals and what they signal, "until we cannot tell apart / The idea and the bearer-being of the idea." Thus the Derridean idea of the sign, suitably understood, is not very far from what you'll find in evolutionary game theory.

It also makes possible certain ways of understanding the systematic manipulation of the interpretation of signals: Marx says capitalism depends on the carefully established confusion of labor and labor power. Let's say that labor power signifies labor (I sell my labor power to you, but you obtain my labor and the surplus value of their difference: you get my labor but pay only for my labor power): the fact that things can signal or signify themselves, with the circuit of signification routed through a second or third party, opens up a gap, an internal difference where the meanings are, and where they can be argued about.

I think this is what de Man and Benjamin mean by allegory: a thing that exists only as its representation. Turns out this idea is in Marx and in Darwin (in germ, in his theory of sexual selection) as well. But you won't find it in the Literary Darwinists.