Tuesday, September 8, 2009
From Critics, to Theorists, to ?
In Peter Barry's Beginning Theory the first chapter lays out the ten tenets of liberal humanism (a lump term for criticism before theory) and contrasts these with a few basic qualities of literary theory. This simple compare and contrast exercise put a million questions and uncertainties to rest for me, but it also raised a few new, possibly bigger ones.
Barry, like the professor leading this seminar and like many in English studies, has a bias. He favors theory over liberal humanism. For theorists, theory is the resolution of many of the contradictory positions and methods held and used by liberal humanists (who it's important to note never called themselves that -- it's a term coined for them by the theorists). Obviously, for Barry, theory is an advancement from earlier types of criticism, and it builds upon them while fixing their problems and beefing up their inadequacies. In some cases it completely discounts earlier methods and approaches, labeling them naive or not practically useful.
Some of the less desirable ideas held by the early critics (less desirable as I see it that is -- I think Barry finds them all undesirable) are that literature's purpose is "the enhancement of life and propagation of human values," that "continuity in literature is more important than innovation," and that "human nature is essentially unchanging," and, perhaps most egregiously because it is itself a theoretical sort of claim, that "a theoretical account of the nature of reading. . . isn't useful in criticism."
These cause a lot of nose-wrinkling for me, the first three claims because they seem to suggest that literature is a tool for upholding the status quo, whatever that may be, yet at the same time professing that literature cannot be didactic. And the last claim is awful because it anticipates a branch of theory yet negates it before even finding out what it might have led to. Some of the early critics are notorious for not explaining how they arrive at their conclusions or apply their methods.
Some of the other tenets of "liberal humanism" (which is sort of roughly interchangeable with New Criticism) don't really rub me the wrong way as much as they appear to for Barry and Dr. Dunn. There are useful things in that list. Here are some of my favorite "outdated" liberal humanist, pre-theory ideas and why I've "favorited" them --
-- The organic nature of literature (something I always try to require!), specifically requiring content and form to be interrelated and build upon one another. I write vaguely about the organic in literature (and criticism) all the time, but this helped me put a finger on some things.
-- Literary sincerity (which I'd love to write a huge hulking paper on, preferably one that leads to more questions), specifically holding that the locus of sincerity is in the language of the text and its truth to itself, not in the authors intent or in whether he is writing like himself. I so often read things I find unsincere, and it (almost) all has to do with the text, not with what I think of Jodi Picoult or whoever. I'm simplifying this in my head right now, but it could get insanely complicated and rich when brought into the light of theory. (Yes, I still think it's a light...)
-- Separating the text from its context in order to better understand it. Some theorists do this for part of their method, and even if they eventually re-insert the text into its timeline or continent, they do benefit by extracting it for a bit. This method is championed by the pre-theory critic Cleanth Brooks, and while it cannot be used to exhaust the possibilities of studying a poem or other work, it offers a fun and challenging plunge into extremely close reading, which, as even Barry will admit, is the foundation or at least an important building block of many methods of theoretical practice. That, and I just really like Brooks, and I loved writing two papers using his "ancient" method (though it was required) last semester.
-- Showing not telling in literature. Every writers' group veteran knows this one. It's simple. But I wonder how much of it is stylistic and how much of it has to do with the core of what literature is or should be (and of course the l.h. crowd was occupied with getting at this essential pith). I haven't read Leavis' take on it ("The Enactment Fallacy"), but I will.
Now what does theory have to offer that the New Critics didn't? Barry doesn't devote as much space to spelling it out, as the rest of the book focuses on different theories in detail. He gives five main points:
1- Politics is pervasive
2- Language is constitutive
3- Truth is provisional
4- Meaning is contingent
5- Human nature is a myth
I think I buy a few of these in their distilled form. #2, 3, and 4 come in part from theorists that I have read and for the most part "believe" if you could call it that. I have a problem with #1, and I take #5 with a grain of salt. I don't think anyone, pre- or post-theory has figured out human nature, nor can they hope to do so through literature alone.
My problem with #1 comes from my heavy leaning toward the close reading and from my own reading habits. First, I do like to separate the text sometimes. Separate it from a socio-political sphere,and the politics can't get in quite as easily. Second, I have read enough that I watch myself read, and even as a student who is aware of politics' pervasiveness I don't require it to make good sense of what I read or to write what I think is good criticism. Third, I often read for and write about style and less concrete qualities of literature, like imagery and emotive qualities.***
*** (I said essentially the same thing aloud in class after writing this, and my professor tells me I am speaking like a true New Critic. Well, so be it, for now anyway.)
Politics, next to more intuitively all-encompassing words like language, truth, and meaning, seems like such a specific lens to put over every book, like it is so limiting, and even has nothing to do with some aspects of a text. I could even say that meaning has nothing to do with some aspects of a text. So why should politics always have a say?
So my new questions and problems arise from my love (possibly naive love) for some of the outdated critical ideas, and my urge to get all polemical on the blanket detractors of these ideas. I also run into confusion because I recognize that theory has corrected many problems and solved some contradictions associated with pre-theory methods and ideas, I love reading it, yet I refuse to give over to theory completely. Theory itself is not free from contradiction nor can it tackle every literary "problem" (although the fact that I can think of a work of literature as possibly having a "problem" in it must come from theory).
Today we are supposedly post-theory. I understand why, based on my own current problems with it. But we're enough post-theory (in the nineties it was "too soon!") that we can think back on it and that it gets studied as important literary history and as something we should all learn how to use. I am just a little taken aback that the early critics are getting such a bad rap because we've gone beyond them, yet the theorists, who have supposedly been similarly outmoded, are still sitting high on their pedestals and handing puzzle boxes down to us while we are told by voices in the crowd to look up at them in awe.
At least Dr. Dunn makes fun of them when he can.