I originally wrote the following in response to Guo Zhang’s January 16 post, “Criticism, evaluation and interpretation.” However, I think this response may help a number of you with common problems with this (and similar) reading(s), so I am reproducing it here so it doesn’t get too buried.

Guo Zhang posed this question:

when I describe, contextualize and classify, aren’t I “analyzing” the intellectual content in mind?

… There’s two things to keep in mind that may help de-confuse this kind of thing.

First, these six words for Carroll (description, classification, contextualization, elucidation, interpretation, analysis) are all used in a particular, technical sense–they have a more precise and more narrow meaning for Carroll than they do in everyday English. When I read a book like this, I pretend that these words have an asterisk after them, so that when Carroll writes about classification or interpretation, I imagine it to be classification* or interpretation* to remind myself that what he is saying only applies to this narrow and technical sense. So we have to be careful ourselves not to conflate the technical and everyday senses of these words when we reflect on the writing. So, if we rewrite your question in this way:

when I describe*, contextualize* and classify*, aren’t I “analyzing*” the intellectual content in mind?

… we can see how the answer might very well be “no,” because analyzing* has a narrow and special meaning that is distinct from the narrow technical meaning of the earlier three; but if we treat “analyzing” in the everyday sense of the term, then the answer would be “yes,” because we typically use the word “analyze” in a broader and more inclusive sense than Carroll means.

Second, Carroll is not trying to make a firm ontological argument that these activities are so radically and fundamentally distinct that it is possible (let alone common) to have significant critical thoughts where, for example, only one of his activities (description, classification, etc.) is actually used. Rather, I think Carroll is trying to call attention to the different types of thoughts and statements we have and make, to make it easier for us to see the constitutive parts of criticism.

Let’s play with this example:

Riefenstahl’s 1934 film Triumph of the Will depicts the Nazi party as an organized, popular, helpful, and joyful political movement.

This statement is explicitly a description* of the contents of the film. Yet it is easy to see that implicitly there is also classification* (it is a documentary film), contextualization* (it is a Nazi propaganda film from the era before World War II broke out), interpretation* (this film is sympathetic to the Nazi party and Hitler), and evaluation* (this one is tricky: on an academic blog, you can correctly infer that I am condemning this film, since my description so obviously runs counter to what we know historically of the Nazi party; had the exact same statement appeared on a neo-Nazi blog, you might infer just the opposite).

Anyway, I don’t think it’s productive for us to attempt to logically separate each of Carroll’s terms as if they could function in complete isolation of each other; the better strategy is, for example, to look back at Reynold’s reading of Gatsby and be able to perceive the mechanisms of his critical activity more insightfully than we could before we had this reading. That is, how did Reynold’s, e.g., classification of the novel (this is modern and certainly not Victorian, he wrote) contribute to his critique of the novel?

Or, still another more productive way to read Carroll is simply to try it out:

  1. Pick an interaction design
  2. On a sheet of paper, write down Carroll’s six words, with plenty of space beneath each.
  3. Look at your interaction and design, and jot down descriptions, classifications, contextualizations, etc., under their appropriate headings.
  4. Once you’ve done this for a while, step back and reflect on your “understanding” (Barnard) and “evaluation” (Carroll) of the work.

I hope this is helpful….

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