Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New Essay on "Against Theory" in The Minnesota Review

A new essay looking back at the strengths and weaknesses of Knapp and Michaels' approach to Pragmatism in "Against Theory." Though the original essay was published in 1982, clearly the issues raised in it are still alive.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Tim Burke on Social Constructionism

Apropos of our discussion of David Scott's essay last night, here is a short essay by Timothy Burke on what's wrong with Social Constructionism.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Nice Page on "The Mirror Stage"

Link to a nice paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of "The Mirror Stage."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Author theory

Vincent Walsh
Literary Theory and Anti-Theory
English 481
September 14, 2008

In evaluating the differing positions we have been discussing, which appear contradictory and therefore mutually exclusive, I choose never the less to engage first in an analytical and then a synthetic approach. It seems to me there are merits, and drawbacks, to each argument. Hirsch makes sense to me in that he argues that there is a meaning to the text that is objective and discernible. I am troubled, however, by the vagueness of his term “horizon,” and his insistence that there is only one correct reading. Stanley Fish’s notion of “interpretive communities” makes more sense, though I think he goes too far in suggesting that there is no objective, discernible meaning, and that readers construct that meaning along with (and perhaps even as much as) authors. I also feel that what he says about people’s beliefs as unchangeable is simply not true; such an argument is reductive, in my opinion. I sympathize with the concerns expressed by Wimsatt and Beardsley (and, in a related sense, with Barthes); it is crucial that we concentrate primarily on the text in front of us. They go too far, however, in insisting that anything outside the text is incidental and irrelevant (or even distracting). We need to marshal all our knowledge to arrive at understanding, and that includes every possible source of insight, as well as dialogue and sharing of interpretations among readers, critics, and scholars. O’Hara is correct in alleging that we need theoretical frameworks to interpret texts. The question for me is whether such frameworks are at all helpful when utilized as rigid systems of analysis; such systems, in my view, are necessarily reductive and unnecessarily limiting. Knapp and Michaels help correct this tendency toward enshrining particular theories (like the psychoanalytical model, for example) by claiming that theory should be employed in a pragmatic, case-by-case rather than a systematic manner, and should be regarded as a form of “practice” that is constantly developing and unfolding rather than rigidly fixed and dogmatic. It seems ironic that some theorists “rebel” against traditional authority only to re-create authoritarian intellectual positions of their own. The basic tenet of New Criticism, that one should focus on the text itself, is correct, in my opinion, though there is an inherent tension (and potential contradiction) in such an approach: since words – especially figurative language - - necessarily involve ambiguity, paradox, and a high degree of nuance – we may well arrive, as an interpretive community, at various possible readings of the multiple meanings they suggest. Thus, it may well be pointless to propose that there is a “correct” or “single best interpretation” of any text.

The Author as Reader

Upon going over this, I realize my response might be more closely associated with Fish's ideas, although more generally what I'm trying to get at is that if the theorists we've read looked more to incorporate than reject other theories, they might arrive at a more comprehensive and workable model. To that point, though, if we had a completely workable model we might arrive at Fish's point of theory then being totally uninteresting. Perhaps the failures of each model and the critiques it inspires are what keep the field interesting. To achieve harmony might be to kill with boredom.

The Author as Reader

I might be inclined to say that, for me, deciding which theoretical argument regarding authorship is ‘right’ is irrelevant. As each week we read several essays on opposite sides of a debate, it is clear that the field itself has not reached any consensus as to a ‘correct’ theory, nor, do I believe, it can (or should). As we go through the reading, I tend to prefer those theories that are more inclusive, expansive and open-ended. For this reason I gravitated toward modifying William Irwin’s position in “Against Intertextuality” to include and validate the Barthes/Kristeva position (if slightly modified) he tries to debunk. Irwin’s critique of the Barthes/Kristeva position leaves me convinced as to the importance of readership, but specifically in conjunction with the role of the author. Using the fact that “the reader can no more create meaning than the author can” as an argument against Barthes and Kristeva, Irwin in fact provides a situation that invites us to look at the opposite. If neither reader nor author has the authority to construe meaning, then, perhaps both do. When later, separating meaning and significance, he states “A text cannot have meaning x and meaning ~x at the same time, though it can have meaning x and significance ~x at the same time,” he offers the key to an interesting cooperation between the two stances. If Barthes and Kristeva believe the reader, not the author, construes meaning and Irwin refutes that stating both are empty vessels through which language speaks, then perhaps the real statement is that both author and reader are simply working with significances, that the author itself is really just a different kind of reader, creating his or her own reading of the text the same way each subsequent reader does (or at least can). Importance, then, becomes the infinite variety of significances, as opposed to a limiting/limited ‘meaning.’ This modified version of the Barthes/Kristeva model is most convincing to me because it is a coherent linking of author, text and reader, a relationship that I think is essential in determining meaning, intention, significance or whatever word to describe what a text can do. When asking whether a text means what the author meant or what the reader takes away, to emphasize either one over the other is to ignore the importance of the interaction.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Knee-Jerk Response to the Debate on Authorship

“Where I'm At, Man”

I suppose that when push comes to shove, I'm anti-theory in general. As an author and reader, I feel that the works (infused by the author and the reader) speak for themselves. That said, I agree with Fish when he suggests that the author is a construct of the reader (quite often at least) as is the meaning of the text. We create an “author” whether we call him “author” or not. In other words, we assume an intention. So why ignore the actual author? I believe that the “author-god” that Barthes creates in order to destroy may well have existed, but that no one outside of the very particular field of literary theory ever ever believes that the author is all that matters with a text (particularly the author's intention. There is always more to a text than the author.

I also find myself asking what's the point? It seems to me that most of the big names that we've read are far more concerned with attacking each other or making names for themselves than actually making any contribution to literature. I feel this way especially about those (like Barthes) who deny the author. I recognize that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but why does Barthes bother to sign his work? Obviously, he has no intention in his essays, so why do we respond to them as a whole?

Finally, speaking as an author, the negation that Barthes (and others) suggests is not just a negation of the author; it is a negation of the self. If text is created because the words come together based on cultural and psychological contexts and not because of something (or someone) called the “author,” then this is true of everything humans do. There is no self at all. While disproving such a negative is inherently impossible, it seems to me that, in the long run, it makes no difference whatsoever (in life) whether he's right or I am; however, given that it can't be proven either way, I'll take credit for me and my work.

So, obviously, I found the Irwin article a breath of fresh air; I’m sure I’m in the minority, I found myself agreeing with Irwin, including his contention of purposeful obfuscation on the part of literary critics, almost entirely. The non-existence of a “transcendent signified” (which I agree is true) does not automatically mean a lack of signifieds. I agree that the humanities are not sciences. His final contention about intertextuality (see the last paragraph) is exactly what I believe. (Of course, his basis on biography and history means that Kristeva and Barthes and their minions can ignore him at leisure. And I’m sure they do.)