Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Theory of Reading: Part IV

A Theory of Reading (1.0)

Part IV: Schools of Critical Theory

Those familiar with academic literary theory—also called critical theory—will recognize bits of specific schools of theory in what I've written so far, but they will also recognize that it does not really participate in any particular school. What I've been trying to elaborate is a very bare-bones understanding of reading; I'm trying to establish the minimum theory sufficient for interpretive reading. I would argue that what I've elaborated is the de facto theory of English classrooms at the university level; these are the assumptions which allow us to interpret texts, and my task has only been to codify and justify them. When I say this theory is minimal, I don't mean to say you cannot do anything with it; instead, I think it is quite powerful, and is a good and sufficient starting place for the sorts of interpretations—criticism, praise, etc.—that I describe in Part III. However, I recognize that people smarter and more educated than me have given critical theory a lot more thought than I have, and the schools of critical theory that result are therefore quite robust. I need, at least, to account for some of them. But I also think these schools of theory can be quite useful, and enable us to make valid interpretations which the practices I've outlined in Part II aren't quite able to produce.

This also seems like the right place to notice a distinction between theory and focus. Some schools lean heavily toward explaining what a text is and how a reader can understand it, while other schools lean more towards identifying certain subjects of interest in texts, on which their practitioners usually focus. Structuralism is a good example of the former; feminist criticism is a good example of the latter. Both theory and focus influence each other, and both influence the kinds of methods a scholar would use, but it is worth noting that some schools cannot be well combined (formalism and reader response theory, for instance) while others can be well combined (deconstructionism and feminist theory, for instance) because theory-based schools often make mutually exclusive claims, but focus-based schools do not.

So, without further ado, I will attempt to sketch out a few of the schools of critical theory and explain how they relate to what I've said. This isn't meant to be a complete and exhaustive guide, however; it is no more than a beginning.

1. Formalism

New Criticism is not the only kind of formalism (Russian formalism is also influential), but it is the one I will focus on because it has most shaped Anglo-American literary theory. To a New Critic, a text is a unified structure of meaning, and the purpose of criticism is to explicate the text. Explicating the text means, basically, to explain what the unified meaning is. New Critics typically analyzed poems rather than novels, and an explication would often involve a line-by-line analysis of the poem's unfolding meaning. This emphasis on what's called close reading—a focus on individual lines, words, or passages—is still a major component of literary analysis, but neither New Criticism nor contemporary analysis is focused entirely on bits and pieces of a work; the close reading served as an end to understanding the text taken as a whole.

New Criticism strongly championed the idea that the text's meaning was located in itself, not in the author's intention nor in the reader's experience of it. Further, only the text in its entirety produces its meaning; a mere summary of the work will never mean quite the same thing as the work itself. These claims are still, often, the default assumptions of contemporary criticism, unless and until the analyst announces a departure from them into, say, deconstructionism or reader response theory. However, even if these working assumptions prove to be false, they are historically valuable, moving the field out of its previous practices, which were more akin to poetry appreciation than poetry analysis.

There are a number of possible critiques of New Criticism, including its failure to recognize the roles language, readers, and economics play in creating meaning, but the critique I find most convincing is against the assumption that texts have a unified meaning. New Criticism often assumed that poetry (or at any rate good poetry) had a single overall meaning. I've tried to suggest this is false by describing a field of possible meaning, but I haven't yet mentioned that this field of possible meaning might be self-contradictory; I'll talk about this at further length when I discuss deconstructionism.

2. Reader Response Theory

It is possible to imagine most major schools of literary theory as critical responses to formalism. While this way of imagining things would be limited, I think it's a fair introduction to reader response theory. The basic idea behind reader response theory is that it’s the reader who creates the meaning of a text. This was in response to new criticism's general disregard for the reader's experience.

While there is a great variety in reader response criticism, almost all of it studies the reader's experience of the work. Quite a lot of reader response theory assumes that that is where meaning resides: in the reader's experience. So the large project of reader response criticism is to understand how different readers create different meanings, whether this is an analysis of features of the text (ambiguity) or different kinds of readers or communities of readers.

The problem with reader response theory, I think, is only that reader response theories conflate the reader's experience with the text itself. The readers' experiences are worth studying, but so is the text itself.

3. Structuralism

Structuralism is less interested in the analysis of an individual text and usually more interested in the way in which meaning is generated by structures of signs; most structuralism is based on Saussure's linguistics. Language is not a list of words matching to things; rather, language is a set of signs (signifiers) which correspond with concepts (signifieds), and they can only correspond according to their similarities and differences. A lot of structuralism is really interesting, but for my purposes the main take-away is that language and tropes can only gain meaning from an external structure of meaning.

4. Deconstruction

Out of structuralism developed poststructuralism, a major strand of which is deconstruction. Associated mainly with Jacques Derrida, who insisted that deconstruction was not a theory or even a methodology so much as a method, deconstruction notes that the meaning of a word or text is always deferred (or, if you prefer, open-ended). Subsequent words can change the meaning of a previous word. For instance, in the sentence, "The house was large for a shack," the first four words are revised by the last three. This deferral of meaning (which Derrida calls différance) makes the entire structure of language unstable. The binaries which structure language (male/female, white/black, civilized/uncivilized) are therefore subject to change.

Deconstruction, as a method, focuses thus on the underlying instability of texts, analyzing the contradictions inherent to them. The existence of binaries means that there are things which a particular text cannot say; deconstruction tries to discover those binaries, absences, and contradictions.

Gerald Gaff makes what I think is a strong critique of deconstruction: as New Criticism always discovers that a poem has a unified meaning, so deconstruction always discovers that a text has internal contradictions. Any method which knows in advance what it's going to find is suspect. However, deconstruction taken as a tool which usually works, instead of as a forecast which a scholar tries to confirm, is quite useful. Texts certainly can have tensions and contradictions within their fields of possible meaning; indeed, the idea of multiple possible meanings increases the changes of this happening.

5. Marxist Criticism

In general, criticism is Marxist when it looks at texts as either espousing particular ideas about economics, or as actually embodying particular facets of economics as Marxists understand it. After all, a novel written in a capitalist economy is necessarily a product of that economy—and a novel written in a different economic system is necessarily a product of that system. While Marxist criticism has influenced other forms of criticism—including feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, and structuralism—and while Marxist critics have developed their own theories of texts, scholars of most schools can incorporate Marxist ideas into their analyses, even when they are not in a traditionally Marxist-affiliated school.

6. Feminist Criticism

Harold Bloom labeled feminist criticism, along with Marxist and postcolonial criticism, as a School of Resentment because he’s a bit of a misogynist feminist criticism was interested in the politics of poetry rather than the poetry of poetry. But one of the central tenants of feminist criticism, that literature’s patriarchal and misogynistic content helps perpetuate patriarchy and misogyny, necessitates a careful critique of fiction and poetry to uncover that content. As with Marxist criticism, feminist criticism is not mutually exclusive with the other forms of criticism I’m describing here—you could be a formalist and a feminist, for instance, and feminists often employ deconstruction—but feminists have also developed some of their own methods of looking at texts (though many of these get overturned by subsequent feminists, as with Cixious’s écriture feminine, which sought to show how women’s writing was essentially different from men’s writing and how “writing the body” could be emancipatory).

I want to make a brief note on the sort of feminist criticisms you might encounter as an undergraduate student: it can be very difficult to sell feminist criticism—or feminism generally—to undergraduate students, so often the form of feminist criticism you see modelled in lectures, tutorials, and other students’ papers is terribly simplistic. Very often the thesis of this criticism is quite simply that the text is sexist. But just as formalism is useless if you know you’re going to find a unitary meaning, so feminist criticism is useless is you know in advance you’re going to find problematic portrayals of gender, because of course you are going to find problematic portrayals of gender. Rather, good feminist analysis uncovers the way in which the text portrays gender problematically, often in aggregate with other texts. There isn’t just one kind of sexism, after all; the ways and methods of badly portraying women abound.

7. Postcolonial Criticism

To a large extent, I would be repeating myself if I were to elaborate much on postcolonial criticism; while the history of postcolonial criticism differs from those of feminist criticism and Marxist criticism, I have not been describing any of these schools at a level of specificity which would really notice those differences. However, I want to note that postcolonial criticism is very interested in place in a way the other forms of criticism are not. Since postcolonialism is about the transition of population from being a colony to being an independent nation, it is invariably interested in the politics of the countries which literature represents and in which literature is written. This is likely as good a place as any to observe that criticism like postcolonial or feminist analysis is not as wedded to the Intentional Fallacy or the Death of the Author as some schools are; after all, they would argue that it matters whether a certain statement is made by a member of the oppressed group or a member of the oppressing group.

Of course, not all countries are postcolonial; some critics note that Canada, the United States, and Australia are not postcolonial because the colonists never returned political power to the indigenous people. So possible versions of postcolonial criticism in these countries are looking for a new vocabulary to describe what they are doing, since “postcolonial” won’t do it.

8. Other Political Schools

I feel bad lumping into one category queer theory, Asian Canadian and Asian American Studies, disability theory, and other schools of criticism engaging with privilege and its representation, and treating them as analogies to feminist criticism and postcolonial criticism. I feel like they ought to be represented somewhere and I don’t trust myself to remember them all for individual commentaries, so I am creating this catch-all despite the awkwardness of it. In lots of ways they do resemble one another, but of course in other ways they have widely different challenges, since the forms of structural oppression and misrepresentation they confront are different from one another. Treating them as the same would be a problem.

However, in one way it is fruitful to bunch them: they all potentially intersect with one another and can work with the other schools of criticism I have discussed here. Indeed, some of the best work comes from an analysis of how these different fields interact with one another—see, for instance, Eve Sedgewick’s The Epistemology of the Closet for a good example of how that might look. Intersectionality—the way in which different forms of privilege and oppression interact with one another—has been a buzzword in the field lately, and for good reason.

8. Digital Humanities

The digital humanities are a hot new field, and they are also a field which many members of the discipline consider distracting, trivial, or potentially dangerous. Some of this response is purely reactionary, especially when the digital humanities seem to advocating against reading itself or against reading from the canon. For instance, some scholars get up in arms because their peers in the digital humanities are studying digital texts rather than Shakespeare and Dickens and Eliot. That’s just silly and, anyway, reading outside the canon is hardly unique to the digital humanities. But I am sympathetic to some of the others concerns about digital humanities.

Traditionally understood, the digital humanities are an attempt to use quantitative analysis on literature. This might vary from making data-rich maps showing how often influential thinkers in a certain time period mailed one another (look up A Republic of Letters to see that), or graphing the book sales of assorted genres, or plotting local oral stories on a map to show how they spread. Or it might involve crunching the page-numbers of a book’s index to see how the book changes in topic over the course of its pages. Or it might involve a quantitative analysis of the different words a text employs, counting the number of times certain keywords might appear. The results might be startling and illuminating, but often enough the analysis instead reveals something that could also be determined simply by reading the book. Moreover, a lot of those examples I mentioned do not even do literary analysis as traditionally conceived: after the quantitative analysis, we still do not have a better sense of what the text means.

However, I am starting to come around. A lot of the really good quantitative analysis provides insight into the text’s context—for instance, mapping the kinds of stories produced in different places, or creating networks of allusion and citation—or brings out some element of the text which the critic might consider—for instance, sophisticated linguistic analyses looking at word count frequencies. These results do not contribute to a better understanding of the text on their own, but they might raise questions or provide evidence for proper analytical claims about the text. Alternately, the digital humanities might prove an interesting and fruitful field on its own—but, if so, it should be distinguished from traditional literary analysis, which is asking an entirely different set of questions.

9. Other Criticisms

The schools I have listed are by far not the only ones; there are others still in practice, and there are some that have fallen by the wayside.

Archetypal criticism, a form of structuralism, tries to develop a set of universe archetypes, plot structures, and tones—so, a structure—into which all literary texts can be fit. Northrop Frye was its great proponent; there are still a handful of archetypal critics, but most have recognized that a universally-applicable structure usually privileges one kind of literature over others. Further, it does almost nothing to help us understand individual texts.

Psychoanalytical criticism looks at the way in which a text is a result of human psychological processes. This criticism was originally Freudian (or Jungian, in which case it overlapped with archetypal criticism), and then it was subject to all the flaws of Freudian or Jungian psychology. And indeed psychoanalytical criticism still struggles with these problems, but neuroscientific criticism provides an alternative which keeps up to date with current psychology.

New historicism—the school which I have probably studied the most—attempts to learn about the culture (with a particular eye to politics) in which a literary text was produced by analyzing the literary text alongside non-literary texts produced in the same (or a similar) context: court transcripts, religious treatises, letters, sermons, political pamphlets, and the like. New historicism is also most often associated with the early modern period (which you might know as the Renaissance), but a political analysis of a certain period by reading literary texts alongside non-literary texts has been performed for many periods and places. As I just described it, the method seems obvious; however, digging into the actual practices of new historicists I’ve come to the conclusion that much of its theory is based on a structural contradiction. (Ask me about it if you’re curious.)

Literary Darwinism is probably the one school of criticism which I would banish from existence if possible, since it’s the only one which has done nothing whatsoever for the field. The other ones, even when they turn out to have problems, have still yielded useful results; the same cannot be said for literary Darwinism. Essentially, this school holds that literary tastes must be the product of human evolution, so an analysis of literature should teach us something about human evolution and vice versa. But the resulting analysis invariably flattens both the text and human evolution. Texts are reduced to what they have in common; the idiosyncrasies which makes a text mean what it, in particular, means are ignored as trivial. And human literary taste is also reduced to what humans have in common, at best; at worst, literary Darwinists take one set of literary tastes as representative of all literary tastes. Either way, they deny the role culture has in shaping human psychology and deny the variation between individual humans within a culture. Perhaps it would be possible to perform a literary Darwinist analysis which has a robust place for culture and addressing texts in their particularities, but the field has not yet shown that such a thing is even so much as possible.

Part III: Reading Experience and Interpretation

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin