Thursday, 19 March 2009

Playing Fast and Loose (Part I)

I had originally entitled this "A Brief Examination of Literary Analysis," but my eyeballs started to die in boredom, so I've renamed it.

I suppose the previous title was a bit of a misnomer. Really, what I'm interested in is when literary analysts (a term I am prefering to literary critics, because some people, especially sciency ones, seem to be stunned and don't realize that 'criticism' does not mean 'finding something wrong with') do the wrong thing and give the rest of us a bad name. I'm talking about the ones who play fast and loose with the text, equivocate, don't keep their boundaries and methodologies straight. And let's be clear: I'm not talking about students who don't yet grasp what it means to be an English major. I'm talking about famous, published, well-respected (or highly controversial) theorists who get put in the Norton (for those who don't know, Norton publishes highly respected anthologies for universities; the Norton anthology is to the literary canon as the Oxford English Dictonary is to the English language).


In Danse Macabre, Stephen King recalls a conversation with a woman about the book The Incredible Shrinking Man. Her thesis, predictably, is that the novel is about sex. What the novel appears to be about is a man who shrinks by an inch a day, but she claims it's about a man wrestling with his sexual identity. At a point near the end of the novel, the protagonist battles a spider. According to her, the spider is symbolic of the universal vagina.

Cue laughter.

King, if I recall correctly, then goes into one of his signature tirades against literary theorists and their propensity to sling BS. Now, if this woman was typical, that would be a fair argument. I would like to say she isn't typical, but sometimes I wonder. I will need to delve into some academic-y literature for that, but let's postpone such an adventure for the moment.

One of my housemates repeatedly insists that anything can be read sexually. He also insists that anything with the right shape can be a phallic symbol. This, I think, fairly approximates the opinions of most people who have only a very indirect relationship with literary analysis, and hear some of the worst of it (ie. the stuff you get in newspapers and in the beginnings of books by Orson Scott Card--if you've read the intro to Ender's Game, you might know what I mean). This is also utterly wrong. Yes, you can read almost anything sexually. But no, that doesn't mean that one such reading is equivalent to another. The Goblin Market is quite possibly "about" a rape, and maybe about lesbians (but more likely sisterly chastity, in my opinion). Yes, le Belle Dame sans Merci has something sexual to it, if we could only figure it out. However, if you try to tell me that the relationship between Frodo and Sam in the original, textual Lord of the Rings is homosexual, I will submit your opinion to the nearest fertilizer distributor. It all has to do with the degree that the text asks to be read that way.

The same goes with phallic objects. A hat-rack is not phallic unless described so. For instance, "He put his hat on the hat-rack" is not phallic at all. I'm sorry, but it isn't. However, "He placed his hat on the stiff, knobbed prong of the hat-rack" is remarkably more phallic. "He inserted the knob of the stiff, reaching prong of the hat rack into the cup of his hat" is even more so. These are obviously very silly examples, but my point is that the shape of an object alone is not enough to make it sexual: it must be used or described that way, first. And it had better be pretty clear, too.

If you want, you can say that guns and swords are almost always phallic. I will accept this, but only with the "almost."

Which is to say, your average Joe doesn't seem to get it, entirely. You would hope the "real" analysts would, but, again, I'm not so sure...


Donna Haraway published "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" in 1985. Haraway is polyglot of the academic sphere: she says she underwent a transformation from a simple feminist biologists to something more, a sort of science-culture critic that blended biology with philosophy, history, and science fiction theory. She is considered the founder of cyberfeminism, which itself blends many disciplines. The Norton describes it as "a new and often iconoclastic wave of feminist theory and practice that is seeking to reclaim technoscience." Whew. Mouthfull. She is controversial, largely unaccepted by both humanists and scientists. She is an environmentalist, but not one of the hippy variety. She embraces hybridity, and you can see that in her resume.

She also doesn't seem to know how to do rigourous analysis. I thought they taught you that in biology? I suppose not.

I would like to throw whole chunks of her writing on here, just so you can see how problematic it is. But I'll have to stick with a little bit. Let's take this:
The diseases evoked by these clean machines ["Our best machines are made of sunshine: they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum"] are "no more" than the miniscule coding change of an antigen in the immune system, "no more" than the experience of stress. The nimble little fingers of "Oriental" women, the old fascination of little Anglo-Saxon Victorian girls with doll houses, women's enforced attention to the small take on quite new dimensions in this world. There might be a cyborg Alice taking account of these new dimensions.
Would you look at this? There's this strange leap: because women have in some cases been relegated to the realm of the small ("women's enforced attention to the small"), they'll be somehow more adept at dealing with the small matters of our technological age. What? 1) I'm not convinced by this that women have been delegated to matters of the physically small, at least not universally. But that I can be sold on; give me enough evidence and I'll buy it. 2) If it is true that women, in needlework and other matters, have an affinity for doing little things with little fingers, this does not seem to me to give them an edge, or a fresh perspective, in the microscopic (or sub-microscopic). For these things you require tools and mechanisms--often abstractions--that seem entirely unrelated to darning, etc. The best training for this would be such things, perhaps, as theology, theoretically mathematics, and philosophy (abstraction), or astronomy, siesmology, and oceanography (the use of instruments to "see"). And that's just a guess.

What Haraway is doing is equivocating. She's conflating two different realms of "small" and saying that skill in one equates to skill in the other. It's like saying that a good cook is a good boxer, because cooking and boxing are both about timing. It's patently ridiculous.

This is playing fast and loose with the text. Well, ideas, in Haraway's case. It's not rigourous. Sure, it's creative. But that doesn't cut it in theory. I'm not saying it has to be rock-hard and empirical, or that it has to work up from a priori like pure mathematics. I'm just saying that you can't ricochet around like Haraway does. When people try to pull this off, it makes the rest of us look bad.


One of my professors is a very brilliant man, but he was once guilty of such ridiculous games (or so I think). He once supposed that the frequent use of apostrophes (that would be the little mark in "can't") in a particular character's dialect was indicative of the number of things absent from the text. Absent letters, absent ideas/motives/whatever it was that we had decided was absent. Which is a quick and clever connection, of course, but it's also total bologna. If it was something a bit more signature, a bit quirkier--a Dickinsonian dash fetish, for instance--then I'd be able to buy that characteristic use of punctuation meant something on a more theoretical level. Perhaps Dickinson did not like the finality of periods, as she had troubled relations with finality itself (ie. death). This I can follow. But the thing about an apostrophe is that it's so ubiquitous. Everyone uses apostrophes, especially when trying to catch the oral element of dialect. I think those apostrophes were a side-effect of the author's desire to capture the "local flavour" or the speech patterns of the characters being portrayed. Certainly this seems more likely, and more supported by other elements of the text, than that the apostrophes call our attention to absent letters and therefore absent other-things.

Now I'm still trying to work out exactly where one draws the line between scholarliness and silliness. Perhaps there is less of one than I imagine, and perhaps it's not where I want it. However, I hope you can agree with me that there is a problem in playing so fast and loose with the text. Not only does it give me a bad name when I say I'm an English major, but it's also a quite useless form of analysis.

I must go and do real work now, but I'll come back later to explore this problem more.

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