Thursday, September 18, 2008
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.
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
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.)
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Imagine the following scenario:
There is a room, with 15 men in it (there are no women allowed in this room). In the center of the room is a chair. One man asks: “What does that chair mean? What is the essence that it communicates to us?”
Another responds: “I don’t know, but it is signed by its maker – why not look him up and ask?”
“And if he is dead?”
“Surely he left some writings – we can consult them.”
Another man responds to them both: “Why are you talking about the chair’s maker? He doesn’t know what the chair means, he was only the builder. Maker’s are only imaginary, or – at best – produced by the culture in which their built objects persist.”
“Where do we look then?” asks the first man.
The other responds: “We look to the chair itself, and between the chair and that table over there – they are all connected, and their meaning is only in virtue of that connection; it is a slippery matter.”
Another man says, “That sounds too mystical; besides – there was a maker. How could we imaging a chair without imagining that somebody, a person with a biography, intended to make it as such.”
“But that person with a biography is not the one we’re looking for. We want the maker of the chair – and that person is not necessarily the actual person who …”
Somebody else interrupts him: “Why don’t we just look and see what the community that uses this chair has to say about it. There’s no point in fretting about the chair’s maker, or about the relation between the furniture in this room – the chair is only …” And another: “But we need to look at the intention of…”
Still another: “But you are all fools – we cannot make a theory about this. There is nothing to discuss: it is clear that someone built that chair… can you imagine sitting on a rock that you found on the beach – and calling it a chair! How silly that would be. Haven’t I solved you’re problems?”
A man from earlier responds: “But that doesn’t answer any of our questions? What is the meaning of …”
And this continues for hours. Finally, however, a 16th man – who has been listening all the while – enters the room. He wears a blue dress shirt unbuttoned to the base of his neck; his hair is matted and un-kept; his eyes are fixed firmly on the chair in question. “What are you speaking about?” he says. “I have been listening for hours, and I have heard only vacuous tautologies and rhetorical fallacies. Let me explain to you something simple.” He walks to the center of the room and points to the chair. “This,” he says, “is a chair.” “Here,” he demonstrates, “is how we sit in chairs.”
“But what is the meaning of the chair?” somebody asks.
He responds, tepidly: “No such thing was in question.”
* * *
This Wittgensteinian fable is a caricature; but it is not so exaggerated as to be un-instructive. I think that it is instructive, and that what it instructs us about is the nature of the sort of conversation depicted. To be frank, my claim is this: there are no authentic problems regarding authorship, biography, or intention; there is no such thing as a transcendental interpretive criterion; there is no literary content that must be decoded. We can raise very real and very important questions about hermeneutics, ethics, aesthetics, etc. (in fact I think that many of the essays we read do raise some of these issues, if only tangentially). We cannot, however, do what so many theorists seem to want us to do – we cannot put ourselves out of business by making the task of interpretation a matter of getting clear about the nature of literary meaning, of authorial intent, of readerly practices, or of any other surrogates for necessarily difficult work at hand.
Interpretation requires work, it requires creativity – and that will not stop any time soon. Creativity, it seems, regardless of any attempted assassinations, will not die after all – and if by maintaining this I am as a consequence calling for the ‘death of literary theory,’ then literary theory was never alive in the first place… and I have never had a taste for thanatology (nor, for that matter, for taxidermy).
What I’m aiming for here is a healthy level of skepticism (or even, dare I say it, of epistemic relativism). I want to say that there are two possible propositions that we can assert, and either one of them will do:
(1) There is no clear way to unearth the golden interpretation-grounding criteria (the specific nature of what that criteria are of – ‘literary meaning,’ ‘propositional content,’ ‘contextual semantic value,’ ‘authorial intention,’ etc. – is of no consequence for this position).
(2) We can assert that there was – in principle – no such criteria to begin with (and again here the specificity is of no import).
Monday, September 15, 2008
Saturday, September 6, 2008
The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."
Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:
- "It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks, 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."
Hitchcock related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary The Men Who Made the Movies. Hitchcock's verbal delivery made it clear that the second man has thought up the MacGuffin explanation as a roundabout method of telling the first man to mind his own business. According to author Ken Mogg, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, a friend of Hitchcock's, may have originally coined the term.
This course introduces students to several important paradigms in literary theory, including Jacques Derrida's deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, contemporary feminist theory, Edward Said’s postcolonial theory, and the emerging field of “science studies.” However, alongside some of the most influential theoretical arguments of the latter part of the 20th century, we will also engage with critics and skeptics of these theoretical approaches, who wonder if there is any "there" there. So alongside Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, and so on, we will read essay-length critiques by J.R. Searle, M.H. Abrams, Martha Nussbaum, Noam Chomsky, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Stephen Adam Schwartz, Valentine Cunningham, Denis Donoghue, and others. Some of these theory skeptics would prefer a return to an earlier era and traditional methodologies, but others disagree with the premises of certain recent theories for reasons that might be seen as non-ideological. The larger goals of the course are 1) to help students decide for themselves whether given theoretical approaches are valuable, and 2) to enable students to use literary theory as a tool in shaping their research. A vigorous climate of debate will be encouraged; no previous experience with literary theory is required.
Approaches to Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”: Lacan, Derrida, Johnson, Muller & Richardson
Authorship Unit: Nature of the Author
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (in Leitch)
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (in Leitch)
Roland Barthes, “Deliberation.” Trans. Richard Howard. In Susan Sontag, Ed. A Barthes Reader. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984 : 479-496.
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” (in Leitch)
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (in Leitch)
Seán Burke, “The Ethics of Signature” . In Sean Burke, Ed. Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, 1995.
Seán Burke, “The Birth of the Reader,” from The Death and Resurrection of the Author, 1998.
Authorship Unit: Intention
Wimsatt and Beardsley, “Intentional Fallacy” (in Leitch)
E.D. Hirsch, “Objective Interpretation” (in Leitch)
Jeffrey Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory” (in Leitch)
Stanley Fish, “Consequences” (in Against Theory)
Richard Rorty, “Philosophy Without Principles” (in Against Theory)
Daniel T. O’Hara, “Revisionary Madness” (in Against Theory)
Wimsatt and Beardsley, “Affective Fallacy” (in Leitch)
Authorship Unit 3: Biography
Boris Tomasevskij, “Literature and Biography” (in Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern)
Stanley Fish, “Biography and Intention” (from Contesting the Subject, 1992)
William H. Epstein, “(Post)modern Lives: Abducting the Biographical Subject” (from Contesting the Subject, 1992)
Michael McKeon, “Writer as Hero: Novelistic Prefigurations and the Emergence of Literary Biography” (from Contesting the Subject, 1992)
William Irwin, "Against Intertextuality" (Philosophy and Literature; Project Muse)
Performativity & Language Unit: Fundamental Questions
Plato, From “Phaedrus” (in Leitch)
Roman Jakobson, From Linguistics and Poetics, and “Two Aspects of
Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance” (in Leitch)
Ferdinand de Saussure (selections in Leitch)
J.L. Austin, "Performative Utterances" (in Lietch)
J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (chapters 1-3, 8-10; photocopy)
Performativity & Language Unit: Controversy
Jacques Derrida, From "Plato's Pharmakon" (Leitch)
Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context” (1977; photocopy)
Michael Berube on this essay (Online: link)
John R. Searle, "Reply to Derrida: Reiterating the Differences" (1977; Photocopy)
John R. Searle, “Literary Theory and Its Discontents” (in Patai/Corral)
J. Hillis Miller, "Tradition and Difference" (from Diacritics 2; JSTOR)
M.H. Abrams, “The Deconstructive Angel” (in Patai/Corral)
Gender & Sexuality Unit: Fundamental Questions
Plato, from Book VII of The Republic (in Leitch)
Jacques Lacan, on the Mirror Stage (in Leitch)
Jane Tompkins, “Me and My Shadow” (in Leitch)
Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (in Leitch)
Gilbert and Gubar, “The Madwoman in the Attic” (in Leitch)
Michel Foucault, “History of Sexuality” (excerpts in Leitch)
Nancy K. Miller, “The Text’s Heroine” (Diacritics 1982; JSTOR)
Paggy Kamuf, “Replacing Feminist Criticism” (Diacritics 1982; JSTOR)
October 13 No Class
Gender & Sexuality Unit: Controversy
Judith Butler, “Gender Trouble” (in Leitch)
Martha Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody” (online/TNR)
John McGowan on Butler-Nussbaum (Online)
Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality" (in Leitch)
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Between Men” and “Epistemology of the Closet” (in Leitch)
Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (in Novel Gazing)
Lee Siegel, “Queer Theory, Literature, and the Sexualization of Everything” (in Patai, Corral)
Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory” (Leitch)
Postcolonial Unit: Fundamental Questions
Edward Said, Orientalism (selected chapters)
Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa” (in Leitch)
Ngugi w'a Thiong'o, “On the Abolition of the English Department (in Leitch)
Frantz Fanon, “On National Culture” (in Leitch)
Homi Bhabha, “The Commitment to Theory” (in Leitch)
Postcolonial Unit: Controversy
Gayatri Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts And A Critique of Imperialism”
Erin O’Connor, “Preface for a Post-Postcolonial Criticism” (in Patai/Corral)
William Irwin, “Dangerous Knowledge” (chapter 9, on Said)
Arif Dirlik, “Postcolonial Aura”
Ella Shohat, “Notes on the Postcolonial” (in The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies)
David Scott, “The Social Construction of Postcolonial Studies.” (in Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, 2005. 385-400.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Battle of the Bien-Pensant” (in Patai/Corral)
Robert L. Ross, “Reading Literatures in English without Theory.” Critics
and Writers Speak: Re-Visioning Post-colonial Studies, 2006. 48-55.
Science Studies Unit: Fundamental Questions
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (excerpt)
Paul, Feyerabend, “How To Defend Society Against Science” (in The
Philosophy of Expertise)
Bruno Latour, “Give me a Laboratory, and I Will Raise the World” (in The Science Studies Reader)
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Knowledge” (in The Science Studies Reader)
Science Studies Unit: Controversy
Noam Chomsky, “Rationality/Science” (in Patai/Corral)
Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, “The Furor Over Impostures Intellectuelles: What is All the Fuss About?”
Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, “Epistemic Relativism in the Philosophy of Science” (from Intellectual Impostures)
Meera Nanda, “Postcolonial Science Studies: Ending ‘Epistemic Violence’”
Meta-theory and the History of Theory
Francois Cusset, French Theory (selected chapters)
Valentine Cunningham, “Theory, What Theory?” (in Patai/Corral)
Rene Wellek, “Destroying Literary Studies” (in Patai/Corral)
Morris Dickstein, “The Rise and Fall of Practical Criticism” (in