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 Here are some of my favorite "outdated" liberal humanist, pre-theory ideas and why I've "favorited" them --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.


  1. "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."

    You know that I too am taken aback by this--what's continually amazing to me is the utter hypocrisy of such anti-liberal-humanist-theory which close reads everything as political precisely by isolating it from any other meaning... in other words by using precisely the techniques of New Criticism while all the time saying it isn't!!

    This gets even more complicated as, institutionally, however much we like people to be "radical," or using some theory in vogue at that moment, we continually reward close, intrinsic readings of texts, or ones that read the extrinsic with similar attention.

    And anti-liberal-humanism seems to me to never have been a viable project within the American literary-critical community, except insofar as its aim was purely negative.: that is, insofar as it got rid of the most egregious pre-60's tendencies to pronounce upon texts... which the best critics of that earlier era never did anyway.

    Why, besides this, wasn't it viable? I think, maybe, because it relied heavily on the force of imported arguments, without recognizing their context. Take the horrible proposition 5 of Barry's, which seems to me to smack of imported structuralism. How can such a project to oppose/expose human nature itself be anything but a myth if it is not backed up, as it was in France, by the systematic creation of the sciences de l'Homme? There seems to have been the hope that each theorist, adopting her or his mode of work individually, would together create through sheer agglomeration something like this disciplinary re-organization (which, by the way nearly made literary study in France into anthropology, or at least into something more like a social science--something that we have never, ever neared experimenting with!! what a totally different point of view is involved!! how could such a point of view been so ignored!!). In short, it seems like a certain populist logic was at work--and this would indeed account for how theory modeled itself after the form of political praxis in America in the 60's (getting-together as activism, in other words, with its telos in Woodstock). (Look at Yale--the only place that modeled itself, and somewhat reluctantly, after the sorts of groups that militated in France and in Eastern Europe, or were their centers for political action [if you wanted to do something, you needed to make a group, and then combine your group with others--which is why Mai 68 was so amazing... it was an event for the French finally bigger than their avant-garde/radical/worker groups]... look at how Yale gets characterized: precisely as elitist--as if forming groups betrayed the spread of theory!). I'm taking off of Fredric Jameson's analysis of Cultural Studies (in The Ideologies of Theory), which sees that movement in particularly American-populist terms... terms which always reveal individualism (not the people, as some populist movements in Latin America, for example) at their core.

  2. (Sorry to ramble! I'll get to the point!)...Such anti-liberal-humanism wasn't viable, in other words, because as populism it simply became an alibi for radicalism for no reason... a sort of empty progressivism... If it would have organized, it might have been truly something to watch... but then, that would have required it to define its enemy better--something you point out just wasn't done in the first place (and accounts for a resurgent humanism, almost more conservative than the previous generations, in aging theorists).

    If it would have organized--but, indeed, it did, in certain areas: feminism, queer studies, minority literatures... In a way I think what we too quickly dismiss as "identity politics" saved the theoretical effort, because it precisely made the individualist work into a collective effort with some direction...

    Anyway, I'm just trying to share my frustration, but also trying to figure out a new way to cast my objections to 1 and 5--which I share with you, in every way--such that I don't view the history of theory along a traditional genealogy: theory got introduced at some point, was pure (or stayed pure as what some people call "high theory"), and then got mucked up by cultural politics, identity politics, etc. etc. This is a genealogy that is pervasive and ultimately makes it sound as if theory is in fact closer to the intrinsic analysis of literature when it is doing good (it is task of the entire corpus of de Man to make us think this)--i.e. that theory cleaned up a lot of things wrong with the previous years, rather than something else. ...But perhaps we can specify this something else merely by saying that, maybe it was the other way around: theory wasn't first, but political groups were.

    So the "pervasiveness of politics" isn't really a theoretical contribution at all, despite what Barry says--what theorist, indeed could have introduced it, perhaps besides Foucault, whose actual political impact in America seems minimal? Wasn't it the case that there were groups wanting to politicize literature in a substantial way, and then theory was a way (one way) for them to do that? This would account for the fact that the politicization that we actually find in the best of these political/theoretical texts is never something so sweeping as a universal critique of all society (such projects, I think, always sound hollow) but basic tasks that often involved the intrinsic activity of close reading as a woman, as a black man, as a member of the lower class...?

  3. Thanks so much for understanding my issues with this! I thought I was just having some naive growing pains, but your comments helped me think through my objections more clearly, and with a little more background.

    Two things you said: First, talking about that "pronouncing" on texts of which the theorists accuse the humanists, and how "the best critics of that earlier era never did anyway." Barry mostly uses examples of early critics who pronounce and refuse to explain their methods and who are made to look bad by their cleverer contemporaries -- yet he doesn't say much about those contemporaries. He also talks endlessly about Matthew Arnold who I don't think had much to do with the good stuff that happened in the early 20th century considering he was quite dead and had been ridiculed for decades already. So yeah, there are some bad early critics, but the best ones did amazing things that did't need to be "corrected" by the theory messiahs. Barry's treatment of Brooks has an air of "Getta load a this guy! Those crazy humanists!"

    Second, and in a similar vein, you said "the politicization that we actually find in the best of these political/theoretical texts is never something so sweeping as a universal critique of all society..." Yes! I hastily shied away from the "politics is pervasive" statement, but I do have to admit that they are a big part of some theory and can do wonderful things through it. But only when the theory is good! I just hate the idea of pervasiveness, as if you can't ever get away from politics and it's ALL you should ever think about when you try to make sense of a text (which certainly isn't taking a "wider view" or thinking "indisciplinary" or any of the other things the culture theorists like to say they do). Inescapable and paramount is how Barry makes it sound (it is #1 on the list), and it just makes me want to stick out my tongue at him and refuse to ever think about it. But I'll be a grown-up and again admit that I see where he's coming from on the political in theory, and your explanation of how they interact or stem from one another was very helpful.

    Also, I think "politics" in theory (at least the kinds of theory I find myself liking) is something more abstract than real-world class or gender issues, but it is also something so much more specific to a text (your "basic tasks"), and in some cases more foundational to literature (in the way we talk about it anyway) rather than society.


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