Literary Theory and Anti-Theory
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.