Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Theory of Reading: Conclusion

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Conclusion: To Exist is to Differ

In writing my descriptions of different schools of criticism, I noticed something I forgot to mention: good literary analysis understands the text in relation to other texts, noticing both where it is similar and where it is different. In a profoundly obvious sense, a text is only a text if it is different in some way from other texts—it must have some difference in words if it is more than just a copy of another text. Bourdieu writes that a text, in order to be a part of a certain literature (say, 18th century French literature), must participate in that literature with its difference and as result change the literature a little bit. He summarizes, “to exist is to differ.” A good literary analysis of a text attends to this difference—but it also attends to the literature in which the text differs. Some focus on one more than another, but if the purpose of literary analysis is to uncover some set of a text’s possible meanings, it must bear both in mind.

However, scholars in English literature departments are not always in the business of uncovering some set of a text’s possible meanings. Some scholars are interested in reception history; for instance, someone doing reception history might ask how 18th century English poets responded to Shakespeare or how 20th century Latin American short story writers responded to Cervantes. Some scholars are interested in language theory, looking at the pragmatics of language use (this can be quite interesting, and is an entirely different thing than what I was used to before taking a language theory course). Some scholars are interested in publication history, and the way in which books or plays were published in different periods of time. These are all interesting questions, and I begrudge such scholars neither their work nor their place in the discipline—not that it would matter much if I did begrudge them, because I’m no one. However, I think it’s important to note that they aren’t doing the same thing as someone doing literary analysis; they are asking different questions, and so they are getting different answers. What I have been trying to outline here has been a theory of literary analysis and not, for instance, reception history.

Of course this theory of literary analysis has been terribly basic and, as a consequence, really quite boring to anyone who digs into literary theory or critical theory. It is also ferociously na├»ve. I admit to these charges, before anyone has a chance to make them, without compunction. Indeed, my point has simply been to create the bare bones of a theory, the sort of thing upon which most of us can agree—and if you don’t agree with what I’ve determined, then I’m not sure how you could really do literary analysis at all, because you’re either going to run into pure relativism or you’re going to be constricted in an impossible unitary meaning. So, before I sign off, I will give a brief outline of this basic and boring theory of literary analysis so you (and I) can see it all in one place.
  1. Misreadings are possible. There is such a thing as a bad interpretation.
  2. Not all interpretations are equal (but some are).
  3. A text has a field of possible meanings, some of which are better than others.
  4. Interpretation attends to the text’s field of possible meanings, not to what meanings the author intended or what meanings any particular reader experienced.
  5. A text can only have a field of possible meanings by using a pre-existing set of symbols; this includes the language(s) in which it is written, but also includes allusion, genre conventions, and so on.
  6. Pre-existing sets of symbols change over time, so the set of symbols a text uses will depend on its historical context.
  7. Good interpretations take into account the entire text, including its details, bearing in mind the historical context.
  8. Mastery of a text is not possible; a good interpretation prepares the ground for more good interpretations.
  9. While the reader’s experience of a text is not the same thing as the text itself, the reader’s experience is important because it is what makes texts worth writing and reading.
  10. An author is responsible for the text they write, not for the reader’s experience of the text.
  11. What I’ve described here is not the only thing people do in English literature departments, and that is fine; however, those other things that people do aren’t literary analysis.

I would like to repeat, once again, that I welcome feedback. I hope this has been helpful to someone.

Part IV: Schools of Critical Theory

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