More than a handbook but not quite a textbook. That’s probably the best way to describe what follows these opening remarks. Throughout my career as an English Professor, I have been committed to demystifying the terms, concepts, and methods that are part of my discipline for students and the general public. I also remain a strong advocate of higher education. All who want to obtain a degree from a public college or university should be able to do so. Access is what makes an institution “public” to begin with. My belief in student access to learning has prompted the method of publication that I’ve chosen, freely available to all through my website.
These edited transcripts of my lectures in literary criticism and critical theory are aimed at those students too embarrassed to ask questions in the classroom or those who are priced out of the kind of education I provide students at UIC. They might also be of use to faculty who struggle figuring out where to begin with new English Majors in an era where few scholars even know any more what they are practicing as English Professors or why.
In some instances the process of editing has included adding material to fill in gaps in my notes, which are handwritten and sometimes chaotic to read even by me months after the fact. I have tried throughout to create ease of reading for the user. This has included blending lectures and discussions that took either three days (on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule) or two days (on a Tuesday, Thursday schedule) into one lecture. Below is a photo showing the raw material I started with.
I also decided to rearrange these lectures to move from the concepts of reader to those of text, author, and context. This arrangement suggests, to a certain extent, how I see these theories fitting into a larger framework than that of simple chronology. I could have organized these schools of criticism and theory by the time period in which they emerged, but I believe this thematic organization will ultimately prove more useful to the reader.
The textbook I used in this course is David Richter’s The Critical Tradition (3rd edition), but the authors and texts cited in these lectures are readily available in many other forms (print or digital). Consequently, I don’t use page numbers in my lectures but simply cite the author’s name and in some cases the title of the work referenced in the lecture. This allows readers to use whatever version of the work they choose. I also made use of Debates in the Digital Humanites (2012 Edition) and PDF copies of essays on Digital Humanities and Disability Studies circulated to students via the course Blackboard site. As with the works from Richter’s text, I mention the author name and essay title in my lectures rather than citing page numbers. This allows readers to access texts through whatever means is convenient.
Since this is an e-text in its mode of delivery, revisions are much easier to make. The content here will continue to be edited by me over time. I also encourage those of you who read it to make suggestions. What elements have you found most useful? Which ones could stand improvement? Education, after all, without revision is a pointless exercise in memorization rather than an journey into the tangled realm of active thought.
For three semesters I had the privilege of teaching the gateway course for English Majors at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) — ENGL 240: Introduction to Literary Study and Critical Methods. What I discovered from working with these students is that few if any knew what it meant to study English and that fundamental concepts and methods of the discipline remained mysterious to them. That in itself would not be so troubling were it not for the fact that many of these students were not taking this as their first course in the major. They had either transferred to UIC from other schools with enough credits to be counted as advanced juniors or had meandered their way through our department’s course offerings until someone noticed that they had not taken and passed this core class for both the major and minor. These students challenged my assumptions about what a student studying English knows prior to sitting in their first class and what they should know to be considered a student of English. They forced me to return to first principles and consider what we mean when as scholars we say that we study “English.” It is with these first principles that I intend to begin.
Lecture #1: The Question of Literature and What it Means to Study English
One of the things that you’ll learn about me as the semester progresses is that I tend to think (and teach) through a series of interlocking questions and answers. At the start of this class it is important for us to begin with what is a fundamental question for all of us in this room: What does it mean to be an English Major?
Our curriculum offers one answer. It breaks down the English Major into a series of sub-specialties: British and Anglophone Literature; American Literature; Media, Rhetorical, and Cultural Studies; Creative Writing. These sub-specialties suggest in a general way what you should be studying, but remain silent on how you are to study these things and why. Consequently, to answer the question what does it mean to be an English Major we must take a step back to answer the prior question of: What is Literature?
At the heart of what one of your classmates aptly referred to in our class discussion as a “vague” discipline is something we call literature. This is the God term or ur-term if you prefer of English as a field of study. Part of the reason that English is so vague, or perhaps sprawling is a better description, lies in our continued inability as a discipline to pinpoint the characteristic of “literariness” in the things we read with any precision. How does a “literary” text differ from other modes of communication?
Henry James offers us one perspective on this question. He suggests in his essay “The Art of Fiction” that literature is something that defies classification. It demands that we create a new system of classification for it. Literature is also a creation whose sum is greater than its parts. Jean Paul Sartre reminds us of this in “Why Write” as he attempts to describe the proper relationship between writer and reader as a game to create lasting meaning for ourselves in a world that seems devoid of significance. Through that game the author gains immortality (in the form of his or her ideas) and the reader attains a purpose, to use the ideas they have created through reading to remake their world. A focus on the intent of the creator allows us to sidestep the question of genre or medium and not worry about explaining why TV, Movies, and Graphic Novels now count as literature. Yet even if we focus on form, James’s criteria allows us to see through the more obvious aspects of form and focus on the goal of the creator to exceed the limits imposed by their chosen medium.
Once we have determined as a reader that something is literary in nature, it still remains for us to decide how to engage a work of literature. Three main tasks come into play at this stage. The first is basic comprehension. Too often in the college classroom, we faculty assume that you understand what you are reading when (in reality) it leaves you bewildered either at the level of concepts or vocabulary. Shakespeare provides an obvious example as linguistic context is often needed as well as historical background to help readers understand the overt meaning of what is taking place in a scene. The second task is to engage with the implied meaning of the text. Once you know what is happening in a fictional narrative the question still remains of why it matters. As a reader, you are often a detective of the intentions of what you are reading. Can you decipher the clues and arrive at the significance of what you’ve read? The final task involved in engaging a work of literature is to evaluate what you have read. This involves more than a simple like or dislike of the text, although an evaluation might start there. Instead it means asking yourself how well an author achieved what you perceive to be their goal for a text. Then considering what role that text might play in your life and world. Relevance is clearly a part of evaluation but it must follow carefully from a consideration of what a literary text meant in its own place and time.
The moment you are willing to engage in these three tasks, you’ve decided to become an English Major. This will be the skill you study and the talent you have to bring with you to the world. A skilled eye for analyzing how words work and careful attention to how you use your own to explain the writings you examine.
Much of the writing you will engage in during your time in this class will be analytical in nature. This type of writing takes another piece of writing apart to describe and interpret its pieces through reassembly. Since literature is by its very nature greater than the sum of its parts, this activity might seem at times to be a pointless exercise. It might also seem, as Susan Sontag argues in “Against Interpretation,” to be an activity that violates a work of art. She calls analytical writing or literary criticism an act of “translation” that attempts to remove from literature that which makes us “nervous” as readers. To rationalize what often is irrational or attempt to explain what we feel more than understand.
Although Sontag in “Against Interpretation” might be seen as claiming that we should simply leave literature alone and enjoy it for what it is, she instead offers her own theory of comprehension, significance, and evaluation. Readers must begin with what she calls “an erotics of art.” Her essay remains silent on what that might entail, but we might safely assume based on what we’ve read that this process would start with acceptance that what we have read has moved us in some way. Our emotions roused, it then becomes our task to figure out what we are experiencing inside upon reading a work of literature. The methods for doing this are the subject of next week’s class and our examination of Reader-Response or Reception Theory.
Lecture #2: Reader-Response or Reception Theory
The key difference between literary criticism and critical theory is the issue of application. Literary criticism focuses on methods used to unlock the meaning of a piece of literature while critical theory asks questions about those methods and the process of reading itself. Both literary criticism and critical theory depend upon insights borrowed from other fields of study, most notably philosophy. A general outline of the branches of philosophy looks something like this:
Ontology: The Study of What Is
Epistemology: How We Know What Is
Logic: How To Use Reason to Determine What Is
Ethics: How to Act Once We Know What Is
Phenomenology: The Study of Our Experience of What Is.
Much of what we discussed in week one of our course falls either under epistemology, ethics, or phenomenology. Today as we examine Reader-Response or Reception Theory we will be looking primarily at these three criteria again, with a particular emphasis on epistemology.
Reception theory has two points of focus: the Reader and the Reading Process. These interests remain constant regardless of medium (i.e. book vs. film or TV) but the vocabulary changes to viewer/viewing process to address emphasis on visual media. The critics I asked you to read for today are interested in both visual and written media but focus specifically on reading written texts as a process.
Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser were part of a sub-group within Reception Theory called the Konstanz School, named after the university in southern Germany where they both worked. Each was heavily influenced by the theories of Hans Georg Gadamer. Jauss references him directly at one point in today’s reading. Gadamer’s influence on Iser is not as clearly present but is still apparent in his questions and methods of understanding reading.
Gadamer proposed three steps in the hermeneutic process, which is quite simply the careful reading conducted during literary analysis. These steps are: Understanding (Basic Meaning), Interpretation (Significance of What you Have Read), and Application (Relevance of What You Have Read to the Present Moment). Gadamer and the critics at Konstanz who were influenced by his work complained that most literary criticism and even critical theory limited itself to Step #2. Other issues were seen as trivial. This had the effect of turning the text into an object rather than the catalyst for a process of meaning making.
Jauss explains this process in “The Three Horizons of Reading” using the analogy of a musical score brought to life by musicians. Iser uses the example of stars that make up constellations in “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.”
Iser continues to focus solely on the timeless elements of the author/reader relationship in the reading process. He tries to conceptualize the birth of something he calls the “implied reader” and the relationship of this figure to the “actual reader.” The actual reader is the person who reads a text or watches a film. They come to that creation with their own preconceptions. If those preconceptions are fully met, Iser suggests, the work is not literary.
The reader/viewer must have gaps in the text to fill. These are places where the imagination can supply images based on what is known by the audience. Interesting research, by the way, has been done by cognitive scientists on this human tendency to look for patterns and coherence where it might not exist.
But the literary text also works to reshape the reader’s preconceptions. As we read the text, we become entangled. We start to think two thoughts simultaneously–the author’s and our own.
Jauss complicates this image of the author/reader relationship constructed by Iser and Gadamer. He does so by adding historical considerations into the mix. In place of an “implied reader,” Jauss conceptualizes “horizons of expectations.” The reader’s horizon of expectations is established by: the reading process as it is understood at a particular place and time as well as cultural beliefs about the characters and topics represented.
The literary text both denies and gives us what we want at the same time. Thus (just as Iser’s implied reader) we are of two minds, entangled in a text that we like but that bothers us in some way.
But in Jauss, this condition is an effect of culture/history rather than a by product of the author’s work alone. Iser ultimately leads us in the direction of psychology and cognitive science with his ahistorical reader. Jauss leads us to a history of reading as a practice in specific places and times.
Of these critics, Jauss has been the most influential on my own work. He has encouraged me through his writings to see reading as a social activity that changes depending on time and location. His historical approach also offers us a tantalizing possibility of deciphering taste. Why does the relative value of a book rise and fall over time? How and why does it cease to “speak” to readers in a meaningful way?
Next we have two critics (Norman Holland and Stanley Fish) who are less interested in the dynamics of the reading process than they are in the reader. Norman Holland in “The Question: Who Reads What How?” examines literature as a form of wish fulfillment for the reader that tells us more about the varied tastes of people who read than the author of the text or the language used by that text.
In this essay, Holland describes the experience of five student readers responding to a William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily.” From these anecdotes, Holland produces the theme of his text–the effect of personality on perception.
His real interest here is in patterns of response among actual readers. Here he demonstrates a delicate balance between the humanist and scientific impulse as he tries to turn qualitative data into some sort of generalizable results. The essay reflects the technological limits he faced at the time of his writing. To a certain extent, his approach is much more possible today with new tools for collecting and analyzing large data sets as well as advancements in cognitive science. Holland seems to anticipate with his interest in idiosyncratic readings of a text the “distant reading” promoted in the work of Franco Moretti.
Stanley Fish in “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” wants to collapse the distinction between subject and object (reader/text) as well as that of the author/reader. In its place, he proposes a communal standard of meaning making (method and semiotic code) that precedes our attempts to interpret literary works and is indoctrinated in readers through the institution of the school. This theory does away with the concern expressed by most skeptics of Reception Theory that its results are too individualistic to have any significance.
Fish gives two examples in this essay. The first is the famous (or infamous) nonsense poem he creates on the board out of a reading assignment list for a prior class. The second is the action of student William Newline raising his hand.
Both instances illustrate the power of the teacher and the system he or she represents to create our experience as reader, student, and educated person. How do we know a poem when we see one? It is because someone in a position of authority has taught us what a poem is, how to read that poem, and why that reading matters.
Gadamer’s theory of reading/readers thus remains largely intact but the educational system that made Gadamer’s theory possible is exposed by Fish and becomes his main interest. Fish reveals the ecclesiastical roots of literary study as well and the ways in which the school has taken over from the church the duties of hermeneutics.
As an interesting aside, there is work waiting to be done linking Fish to Foucault, particularly the Foucault of Discipline and Punish, as well as to educational policy research on student literacy standards.
The question of course still remains (in Fish’s theory) if non-standard readings are possible after one is taught how to be a reader and what to do with what you read. Imagination, after all, is “excessive.” This is what makes it dangerous to any dominant group and its beliefs. One can imagine almost anything in fiction and the imagination is not easily subject to the construction of barriers.
Judith Fetterley provides some answers to this question in her work The Resisting Reader, which acknowledges the institutional control of reading that Fish describes while at the same time suggesting how to circumvent that control.
Her research was written in response to two social trends in the 1970s. The first was the rise of Second Wave Feminism and the second was the beginning of the so-called “Canon Wars” in the 1990s.
Both movements reacted against the seemingly universal standard of reading and evaluation described by Fish as the main goal of colleges and universities. Scholars like Fetterley decried the absence of women’s voices from literary study and illustrated the negative effects of this absence on women readers.
In the introduction to The Resisting Reader, Fetterley makes two key assertions. First that American literature is overwhelmingly male and second that this norm of “maleness” silences or enacts “symbolic violence” on the female reader.
A resisting reader, in her view, is a woman who is aware of the silencing taking place and who attempts to stop it through self-conscious reading strategies that unmask gender oppression in the text.
Fetterley raises some interesting questions for Reception Studies that ultimately get picked up by other modes of interpretation. Among them are: Does the intellect have a gender? What ethical responsibility do fiction writers have to their readers? Particularly those of the opposite gender? Can we learn anything from a text that appears dismissive to who and what we are? Would a comparative or non-nationalist study of literature alleviate gender bias in literary studies?
Fetterley’s text is best understood as an early attempt to “engender” the reading process. As such, it raises more questions than it ultimately answers. It did, however, force critics to include gender in any discussion of texts, readers, and reading.
Lecture #3: Structuralism and Formalism
Some scholars distinguish between Structuralism and Formalism as two distinct schools of criticism and theory. The similarities between structuralism and formalism are greater, however, than there differences so they will be considered together here.
Reception Studies concerns itself with what we might call the “pre-text.” These are assumptions and skills possessed by an audience before they encounter a work of art. Structuralism concerns itself, in contrast, with the text, the object of art itself and how that work contains within it the clues for its decoding.
Formalists and Structuralists would probably grant some of Stanley Fish’s assertions about the collective construction of meaning and the historical evolution of texts. But they would counter his notion of the institutional control of interpretation by saying that texts have ‘inherent’ meaning apart from what any reader or group of readers might assign them. That is, even if the system of academies that teach us how to read didn’t guide us through that process, we would still probably be able to distinguish poetic language from prose and derive some meaning from it. For a Formalist, language and its structure create both meaning and value in a work of art apart from what we assign it.
Both Structuralism and Formalism were a product of the decades after World War II when science and the space race dominated the public imagination. The methods of both schools of criticism and theory were meant to prove the rigor of literary study as a field of inquiry within the academy. Structuralism and Formalism gradually fell out of favor in the 1970s and 80s as minority groups began to question the norms of literary study and attempted to open up the canon of literature examined in English courses to include a greater diversity of genders, ethnicities, races, and religions.
New Criticism (a specific type of Formalism and perhaps the most influential one practiced in the United States) became a convenient target for all that was wrong in literary studies. Too close a focus on the text (critics of the New Criticism claimed) allowed readers to ignore the biased nature of the texts selected as worthy of analysis and how those texts shaped our understanding of literary value. Women, minorities, and texts translated from non-European languages suffered.
Cleanth Brooks, one of the foremost practitioners of New Criticism, believed that all a reader needed to interpret a poem (he referred, strangely, to all literature including prose as a “poem”) was the poem itself and knowledge of the language in which it was written. This view of literary criticism was particularly appealing in the post-World-War-Two context where the G.I. Bill of 1944 led to a massive expansion of undergraduate education in all areas, including English.
Brooks sought through his criticism to teach the art of ‘close reading.’ Focus on the word choice and structure of literary texts. And also on the “unity” of good literature and its effective use of indirection or “irony.”
W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are best known for their exposes of various literary fallacies such as the “intentional fallacy.” These two New Critics caution us to trust the text (tale rather than the teller) and also to carefully separate our conception of the narrative voice from that of the author.
There are some obvious limitations to New Criticism as an approach to literary study. The first is the strange conflation by its critics of poetry with all other forms of literary expression. It’s unclear if they are blind to the issue of genre or simply are attempting to use the term poetry as a synonym for belle lettres or aesthetics. The second is their lack of interest in how meaning and value shift over time. They have what we might call a Platonic ideal of “the poem” as an unchangeable reality across space and time that seems highly problematic.
The New Critics best fit the model of literary criticism in that they are interested more in the application of a method than self-reflection on that method. Perhaps this explains why certain techniques of New Criticism such as close reading have outlasted the existence of the New Critics as a school of criticism.
Structuralism is best represented by the field of Structural Linguistics and the research of Ferdinand De Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Vladimir Propp, Tzvetan Todorov, and Levi-Strauss, who although he was an anthropologist by training adopted and adapted the methods of structural linguistics to his field work on primitive tribes in the south Pacific.
The group of structural linguists who made Structuralism visible to the scholarly world were interested in creating both a critical theory as well as a method for analyzing culture. Although each theorist differed in the details of their approach, these linguists saw all of life as an expression of language that could be decoded using the grammatical principles of a particular language. In other words, all of the world was seen by them as a text and our experience of living as a reading process, decoding our environment.
Some key terms for the Structural Linguists include: Sign/Signifier/Signified, Binary Oppositions, Langue/Parole, and Synchronic/Diachronic. All of these terms are taken from Ferdinand De Saussure’s early work on general linguistics in the 19th century as recorded by his former students in The Course in General Linguistics.
De Saussure understands the sign as a concept blended with a sound, the signified as a concept, and the signifier as the sound representing that concept. He points out that the relationship between the sign, signified, and signifier is arbitrary in nature but not accidental. Binary oppositions are paired concepts that must be understood together. Langue is the knowledge of a language whereas parole is its use (competence in that language). Synchronic is the in-depth study of a concept at a particular moment whereas the diachronic is a study of that concepts evolution over time.
Roman Jakobson uses these terms but adds new layers to De Saussure’s foundational concepts. He attempts to provide us a way to understand connotation and its role in both culture and everyday communication.
His most important contribution is that he creates a model for the act of communication that argues that literature is just one form of human communication. This makes literary study a branch of linguistic study and communication theory as a whole.
Among the most basic elements of communication, Jakobson lists a series of steps that stand between the Addresser (author or speaker) and the Addressee (audience). These are: context (reason for communication), message (content of communication), contact (medium used to communicate), and the code (language).
Jakobson also describes six functions of language that help the addressee understand the connotation or significance of what they are reading, seeing, or hearing. These are:
- Emotive (speech focused on the addresser and their needs)
- Conative (speech focused on the addressee and their needs)
- Referential (self-conscious speech)
- Metalingual (academic or highly analytic speech)
- Poetic (artistic speech)
- Phatic (command or religious oriented speech).
Literature contains within it elements of all these general functions of language, but it is primarily classified by Jakobson as “poetic” in nature. This function of communication blends elements of the desire to communicate with elements of the desire to explore the possibilities of language for its own sake. Literature is best understood in Jakobson’s analytic framework as a word game played by the author and participated in by the reader.
Structural Linguistics (as conceived of by Jakobson) was interested in literature primarily as an example of how the general principles of communication were used in a specific time and place to engage in more than simple information delivery. The poetic function of language provided a unique opportunity to examine a form of speech that was meant to be misunderstood and variously interpreted. Noise was just as important as signal. Jakobson found this contradictory form of communication worth exploring.
Structural Linguistics had a very different problem than New Criticism. While it had a very coherent theory of language, knowledge production, and comprehension, it was not easy to apply to literary production. It worked better as a critical theory than a method of literary criticism. Claude Levi-Strauss’s reading of Oedipus Rex makes the cumbersome nature of literary theory under the structuralist paradigm abundantly clear. As a method of analysis for specific literary texts, it tended to overcomplicate and deaden the text.
Levi-Strauss (influenced by the scholar of Russian Folklore Vladimir Propp) sought to find the origin of myths in the south Pacific cultures he studied and compare them to more well-known myths of the Mediterranean region. He wanted to uncover something he called the “mytheme.” This was the smaller possible unit of mythology. This would allow him to create a list of elements present in all myths and examine how they were combined and adapted by different cultures. Among the mythemes that Levi-Strauss found most compelling were creation myths, incest taboo stories, and tales concerned with the origins of the sexes.
Vladimir Propp is technically considered a Russian Formalist. He was a scholar of folklore whose work became well known thanks to its influence on the structuralist anthropologist Levi-Strauss.
Before we examine Propp’s work, it is useful to pause for a moment and reflect on the differences between folklore, myth, popular culture, and literature. This discussion is warranted as questions came up in a prior class about Godzilla and the television show Grimm. These are examples of what Propp calls “contamination,” but they also raise an interesting question about the relationship of folk culture to popular culture.
Folklore is generally understood as the cultural production of a pre-literate people. It is embodied in oral traditions, stories told over generations. These tales tend to be localized with some elements similar to far off communities but difficult if not impossible to trace to a common point of origin. They tend to focus on issues of hunting and agriculture or communal relations. Mythology is similar to folklore but more widespread in nature. It represents the cultural legacy of an ethnic group rather than a village or group of villages. It also tends to be aristocratic in nature. The official story a pre-literature people tell of themselves. Popular culture is a “contaminated” version of folklore (in Propp’s sense of the term), but it serves as the localized culture of a literate era. Prized by small groups in distinct ways. A great example of this is fan fiction and fan culture. Literature is the substitute for mythology in a literate culture. Often nation-centered. It tries to create a sense of community on a grand scale.
Marxist cultural critics Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno both criticize popular culture for attempting to appear populist when in fact it is often yet another commodity sold to people for consumption. Evaluating the relative value of folklore in relation to popular culture is highly subjective. It would make an interesting argument. Should we view earlier Japanese folktales and myths as superior to Godzilla? Does the Television Show Grimm debase or degrade its source material in Germanic folklore? These are questions beyond Propp’s interest but certainly compelling for anyone studying folklore in a modern context.
In his analysis of folklore and fairy tales, Vladimir Propp argued that there were a limited set of narrative elements that were combined, recombined, and altered in various fairy tales (key genre of folklore). These are listed by Propp in his work “Fairy Tale Transformations.” The idea was to isolate those elements that repeat in folk narrative and mythology and try to determine why. Propp was trying to accomplish for fairy tales and folklore what taxonomists had done in the natural world, classify specific elements of these narratives and place them into a larger framework to aid interpretation.
The great potential of Propp’s work is not simply in its value for understanding folklore. He also provides a method for interpreting cross-cultural phenomenon such as the nature of literary heroes and the significance of quests in literature.
There are, however, some key limits to his work. One is that a structural study of genre has the potential to flatten differences between narratives and overlook the complex in favor of the simple. Another is that depth of research is needed to make this analytical approach work. The task is daunting. It bears a resemblance to the approach to a history of reading proposed by Reception Studies critic Hans Robert Jauss. Perhaps Digital Humanities work in data mining might some day make the kind of analysis Propp proposes here more accessible to critics not willing to devote their entire scholarly career to one project.
Umberto Eco is influenced by Vladimir Propp’s version of Structuralism, but he takes a more sophisticated approach towards language and mythology. Eco’s analysis of Superman shows how this literary figure represents the classic hero of mythology, changes in culture, and shifts in language use.
Eco views Superman within the context of the evolution of myth. In classical mythology, the hero is frequently a demi-god. A human with superhuman powers. The demi-god frequently has tasks and generally uses his superhuman powers for good purposes. In the case of Superman, the hero has two forms instead of one. Hercules is always Hercules. Superman, however, is sometimes Clark Kent (a mild-mannered reporter who looks and acts like a weakling) and (when needed) switches to his other role as Superman. This suggests that the demi-god is an “everyman” while at the same time being a hero. This is not a typical component of most classical myth. Eco’s analysis of Superman also shows a new relationship towards time and culture. The demi-god is typically viewed as a part of a cyclic time structure whereas the new modernist demi-god (at least in the case of Superman) is trapped like the rest of us in a linear progression of time. Language use in the Superman myth and also in much popular culture reflects these changed conceptions towards myth. We might consider this language use shift in Paul De Man’s terms as an “iterative mechanism,” a grammatical form that persists but whose “rhetorical” use has altered.
To a certain extent, failure and a strong critical backlash were inevitable outcomes for a theory that aspired to create a universal system of comprehension for all culture. Structural linguistics clearly over-reached and yet it was a product of its time. The 1950s and 60s were a period of resurgence in interest in positivist forms of thought that offered empirical rather than ideological results. Even in the humanities, scientific methods were ascendant.
Where New Criticism was answered by early versions of what later became called African American Studies and Feminist Criticism, Structural Linguistics was countered by Deconstruction and various forms of criticism known as Post-Structuralism that highlighted those elements of language that refused to fit comfortably into any interpretive framework or classification. We can think here of translation and those words and phrases that don’t pass over easily from one language to the next.
Lecture #4: Post-Structuralism
Before examining Deconstruction (the most well-known school of Post-Structualist thought), it’s first necessary to review a few key concepts of Structuralism.
- Language governs our entire being.
- Most (if not all) experience can be considered a ‘text.’
- Since the majority of our experience is ‘textual’ or linguistic in nature, a human science is needed to identify and decode its structure.
- Once that structure is found, all texts will become comprehensible.
Post-Structuralism did not contest the idea that most of what we experience in life is mediated through language. Jacques Derrida (one of Post-Structuralism’s best known theorists) was after all a philosopher of language. They did, however, challenge the notion that a stable relationship existed between signifier and signified and that a universal system of interpretation could be built upon that relationship.
Two key concepts in Derrida’s work highlighted his understanding of the instability between language and meaning. The first is “logocentrism.” Derrida argued that speech should not be privileged over writing. As Derrida’s example of differance shows, we can often only notice a distinction in meaning through writing and not hear it. In this case, the change between an ‘e’ and an ‘a.’ This change in letter to the French verb alters the meaning from “difference” to “delay.” The problem is compounded when multiple languages come into play in a conversation as pronunciation varies considerably from one language to another. Asian languages such as Mandarin and Vietnamese are particularly susceptible to this.
The second is the play of meaning contained within a text. In place of a stable connection between sounds and words with concepts, Derrida proposes a play of meaning that teases us into believing there is a presence or ultimate meaning when there is not. Instead there is an almost infinite multiplicity of meanings some of which contradict each other. These are the excesses, traces, or “aporia” that Structuralists and other types of Formalists like the New Critics seek to avoid. These gaps in meaning prevent us not only from attaining the final meaning of a text but also from seeing the work as an organic whole.
The play of meaning outlined by Derrida is endless and its description constitutes the main task of Deconstruction influenced critics. To show how words (signifiers) and concepts (signified) differ and defer the process of meaning making.
Deconstruction and even most Post-Structuralist thought was not meant to serve as a literary critical methodology. It was a critical theory directed at linguistics, philosophy, history, and anthropology. These are the fields that most Post-Structuralists belonged to and that had been most affected by the Structuralist turn in the 1950s. Nonetheless, Deconstruction caught on among literary scholars in part because it championed a close reading of literary texts while at the same time critiquing the systematic approach to literature practiced by Structural Linguistics.
Deconstruction is not nearly as popular among literary critics today as it was in the 1980s. However, it’s concepts remain active in the work of Feminist Critics and Queer Theorists. Particularly useful to both groups of critics is Derrida’s analysis of “binary oppositions.” He argues that each binary presents us not with a choice but a conceptual hierarchy. One term is understand as better than the other (more desirable or dominant). Derrida attempts through deconstruction of the sign system to destabilize that binary or what he calls “phallogocentrism.” This approach to the binary has also been used by African-American Studies critics such as Hazel Carby.
The move from either/or to both/and complicates our conception of the text and at the same time opens up the possibility of changing the social relations represented in the text. It adds context into the equation. Something that Derrida would have avoided.
You may have noticed some interesting conceptual links here between Derrida and the Reception Studies critics Wolfgang Iser and Norman Holland. Again we see that meaning making in the reading of literature is a complex process. But the text rather than the author or reader sets the terms of the question here. Historical association even is built upon word and sentence structures. Deconstruction thus relies upon the idea of connotation and its history.
Paul De Man’s great contribution to Deconstruction was to move beyond the level of the word and its phonemes (sound of its syllables and the homophones those sounds make possible) to that of the sentence and the collective effect of syntax on readers.
His entire essay “Semiology and Rhetoric” hinges upon his understanding of the distinction between Grammar and Rhetoric. De Man understands grammar as the structure of language. This includes semiology (the study of signs and symbols). Rhetoric, in contrast, is concerned with the effects of language. In literature, specifically the effect of figurative language.
There are two main types of figurative language. The first are Rhetorical Figures. These create an intended effect without significantly changing the meaning of the words. Some examples of this include parallelism, rhetorical questions, and apostrophe or direct address of the reader. Each of these techniques involves the use of word placement and/or tone to create its intended effect. The second are tropes, literally a “turn” or “twist.” When the meaning of a word, phrase, or concept is changed to create a new association, De Man suggests that a trope is being employed. Some examples of tropes include metaphor, metonymy, simile, personification, and synecdoche. De Man includes both types of figurative language under the category of Rhetoric.
What one learns through analyzing the gap in meaning between grammar and rhetoric in literature is how literature (according to De Man) creates its effect on the reader. Moreover, he suggests, the text contains within itself the need to be incomprehensible in order to be worth reading as literature. The reader plays a meaning game with the author.
Paul De Man uses key concepts from Derrida such as logocentrism, binary oppositions, and aporia but gives them alternative names. In place of the aporia or gaps in meaning, De Man uses the more straightforward term “contradiction.” He believes that the structure of a text (it’s grammar) contradicts its goals (what he calls rhetoric). The elusive goal of the writer and also (to a certain extent) the reader is a “grammar devoid of ambiguity.” Of course, this would remove the component of literature that makes it literary in the first place, the possibility of being creatively misunderstood.
Lawrence Lipking critiques the ability of Deconstruction to form an entire argumentative and critical structure upon one word or line in a poem. This is a common technique used by both Derrida and De Man. He demands the nuanced examination of the inside (text) and outside (context) of a work of literature that De Man calls for but ultimately violates in practice.
In spite of the limits in De Man’s theory (and there are many), he does make two useful observations.
- He exposes the link between literature and rhetoric via tropes such as metaphor and metonymy and rhetorical figures such as antithesis and rhetorical questions. The text is designed to create an effect not simply exist an an artifact of culture.
- Language frequently exceeds intentions. A common observation but one that De Man provides a fairly compelling explanation for. The meaning of language does not lie in its structure or grammar but in the constellation of associations that surround it. Ironically, De Man provides a coherent argument in defense of contextual criticism. The text alone cannot provide answers.
Two other useful insights provided by De Man are the understanding of cliche’s as “a dead or sleeping metaphor” (an overused technique) and the insight that criticism demands a grammatical explanation of a rhetorical document.
Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism offer a useful explanation of how literature becomes literature through the careful use of language. The significance of these techniques beyond the text, however, is often absent. The play of language on its own is a subject of interest outside space and time. This has led to the most common criticism of these approaches to literary study. Describing how literary rhetoric works while ignoring its effects, is viewed by critics of Post-Structuralism as just another form of symbolic violence used in support of the status quo.
Lecture #5: Digital Humanities
Current practitioners of Digital Humanities (DH) tend to branch into several categories. Among the oldest practitioners in the field are those who create archives of digitized texts out of print documents and those who make pedagogical tools. These are the first products created by what was known in the late twentieth-century as Humanities Computing. Father Busa’s index of the works of Thomas Aquinas, begun in the 1940s, is an early example of such a project. As are the digital text archives of such websites as Perseus (mostly classical Greek and Roman texts) and Wright American Fiction (mostly 19th century US novels) that first appeared in the 1990s. We might also group among the early projects in this field the language learning tools and electronic visualization labs created to teach linguistics and history in 1980s and 90s.
Other practitioners of DH engage in the creation and interpretation of ‘digital born’ texts. These are works of fiction that were created for online reading rather than print texts coded and scanned for online use. Connected to the work of these critics are those interested in how the reading of such texts is similar to and different from the practice of reading print texts.
There are New Media scholars who examine the creation of genres that are unique to a digital distribution environment. There are also those who use data mining software to examine word patterns and frequency in literary texts, something that has come to be known (thanks to Franco Moretti) as “distant reading.”
There is a group amongst practitioners of Digital Humanities that sees as its task the criticism of the movement, pausing to self-reflect on what exactly is new about this literary movement and what is an evolution of already existing disciplinary practices. There are also those who see DH as a troubling sign of the erosion of interest in the humanities and urge caution as scholars move into the field.
The great diversity of interest among DH practitioners makes its difficult to say with any assurance what the movement or its interests might be. This, of course, reflects the reality that it is still a work in progress rather than a historic artifact, movement once practiced but now out of favor.
For simplicity and also because it seems most relevant to me, we are going to examine primarily DH scholarship that examines the movement as an evolution of existing disciplinary practices, attempting to create a theoretical underpinning for what has been criticized as a mode of study that is lacking in self-reflection. These scholars are interested in how DH changes (or doesn’t) our understanding of “the text” and what it means to read.
The discipline of English is not that old. It dates from the early 20th century. Similar to most new disciplines, English borrowed from earlier modes of scholarly inquiry, specifically Biblical Studies and Classical Philology. These were the types of literary study that preceded what we do today in the English classroom.
Early English scholars focused on authoritative versions of texts viewed as exemplary works of art that they assembled into a canon of literature that they believed worth teaching and conducting research on. If an authoritative text couldn’t immediately be agreed upon, scholars worked to present and analyze the most common variants in the hopes of arriving at the most perfect version of the text.
These scholars created a textual apparatus that noted variances in spelling, word choice, and omissions from various editions of the text. Building upon this work, Bibliographers then listed primary texts and scholarly criticism to make discussions on a text comprehensible to the widest possible audience of readers.
W.W. Norton’s Critical Editions carry on this scholarly tradition.
The goal of this scholarship was to create a teachable list of texts that would define the new discipline of English for students and professors alike.
With the advent of digitization (scanning old texts into HTML and other electronic formats), issues of textual scholarship have come back to the fore. Although what exactly constitute the Digital Humanities (DH) is still a subject of debate, textual scholarship and the origin of the discipline of English are a good place to start in understanding DH. It helps us see what is truly new in this scholarly movement and what is not.
In the collection of essays Debates in the Digital Humanities, Paul Fyfe’s essay “Electronic Errata” takes us back to textual scholarship and the issue of an authoritative text. Among the questions he examines in this essay are: What constitutes an authoritative text online? Who tracks changes to wording and format? Do these issues matter in the new scholarship prophecied by DH?
Fyfe is interested primarily in errors found in scholarly texts. The works interpreting fiction. But the same basic principles apply to literature itself. A text in print goes through a well established process that has changed little since the invention of moveable type. Work goes from manuscript form (written in longhand or typed) to editors who make suggestions on substantive changes to content and form. Once these alterations are agreed on, the text goes to copyeditors and proofreaders for a closer reading that looks at grammar, style, and facticity.
The perceived quality of a text depends in large measure on the quality of its publication. Fyfe wonders what will replace this age old process in the digital era and if such close reading of texts prior to publication will survive.
He examines the concept of “crowd sourced commenting” and that of “continuous correction.” Fyfe also explores the role of search engines as mechanical bibliographers. Quality data (it is hoped) will be more commonly accessed thanks to the algorithms governing these tools with users of content providing any additional corrections needed voluntarily.
The basic idea is that error is self-correcting and doesn’t need a group of experts to monitor its appearance and spread. This point of view also exposes how the dream of an authoritative text is just that–a dream.
My understanding of Fyfe’s point of view in this essay is that he is skeptical of the idea of self-correction. Some form of textual scholar or at the very least a proofreader will still be need in the 21st century. What their job will look like remains unclear in this essay.
Fyfe’s essay also opens a door to a type of critical theory that might fruitfully be associated with the rise of DH. A theoretical study of the text and the reader’s relationship to it as an object depending on whether it is print, digitized (available in print or online), or born digital (only available on line). This new branch of Reception Studies would examine basic issues of epistemology as it relates to digital technology and would also focus on the nature of the shifts in the creation and distribution of knowledge.
A branch of this might be the study of “the cascading effects” of error. How do small mistakes shape big areas of discourse? This was the original goal of textual scholars. To find God in the details.
To call the text a “massively addressable object” is a reminder to us that it is not something to be taken for granted. It is an object worthy of study in its own right whether in print or on screen. To borrow an oft-quoted phrase from Media Studies scholar Marshall McCluhan–“the medium is the message.” Or perhaps a better way of looking at it might be–How something is said matters as much as what is said.
Aside from questions about the nature of the text and what now constitutes an authoritative version of a text, DH practitioners also examine the consequences of seeing words as “data” that can be analyzed with the help of machines. Again, this isn’t exactly new as linguists have been conducting this type of research with linguistic corpus collections used by teachers of English as a Second Language as well as those who study the English language in its own right.
Mills Kelley in his article “Visualizing Millions of Words” suggests that new technologies such as Google’s N-gram viewer can be used as a way to generate new research questions. To generate a paradigm shift for a discipline he sees as trapped in a hermeneutic circle where new ideas can’t be conceived due to the methods applied.
While Kelly is cautiously optimist about the role of data visualization in literary study, Matthew Kirschenbaum in “The Remaking of Reading: Data Mining and the Digital Humanities” is unapologetic in his defense of this type of scholarship. In large part because he has created and used some of the tools he describes for data mining literary texts.
Kirschenbaum supports data driven humanities scholarship by using the history of reading as his main example. He argues that reading is best understood as three distinct practices: close-reading, not-reading, and distant reading. We have always skimmed certain texts. This might be considered a form of not-reading as we are simply scanning the surface of a text to decide if it is worth more or our time and attention. Now technology merely expands the volume of what we can skim and allows us to do so at a greater distance. This doesn’t prohibit close reading (according to Kirschenbaum) but enhances it. We can skim the context of a vast number of works to unlock the text or texts worthy of our in depth study.
He also supports his belief in data driven scholarship by arguing that technology can help us see familiar texts, close read for generations, in an entirely new way. Software can uncover word choice and arrangement patterns that might otherwise be missed by the human eye alone. These patterns might change the way we understand a work of fiction.
Tom Scheinfeldt in his essay “Sunset for Ideology” argues in defense of method over theory in his attempt to stake a claim for DH within departments of English. He sees the Digital Humanities as a return to an older model of scholarship that emphasized how texts were created and distributed. He sees this as the necessary groundwork for a post-print age of scholarly work in literary studies.
Every new critical approach meets with a certain degree of skepticism and sometimes hostility. In the case of DH, the range of emotions towards the field is polarized due in large part to the perilous financial situation of most English departments and the declining role of the humanities in relation to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. Critics see in DH (not unreasonably) a return to the ethos of Structuralism, which was also a response from beleaguered humanists to the rising interest in science during the post World War II years.
Creation of digital tools, texts, and resources will no doubt continue. What (in my opinion) will be the lasting influence of DH will not be these tools and methods but the fundamental questions this new school of criticism raises about the foundational concept of the discipline of English–hermeneutics. What is a text? How do we read it? Does it really matter what version of that text we read? These are questions we must answer in an age where students are more likely to read a text online than buy a print textbook, especially when the online text can be procured for free.
Lecture #6: Psychoanalysis
As with most methods of literary criticism or types of critical theory, this one does not have its origins in the interpretation of literature and culture. Psychoanalysis began with Sigmund Freud’s research on neuroses and the stunted psychological development he saw as their origin.
The highly controversial and scientifically dubious “oedipus complex” was at the hear of Freud’s theory of psychological growth or its impasse. Simply described, the complex develops because the child desires the parent of the opposite sex and imagines its rival (typically the father) as absent. Eventually, Freud argued, most people advanced beyond this stage, learning to identify with the same sex parent in a non-sexual way. Those with crippling neuroses (he claimed) commonly did not. They were stuck in a prior phase of psycho-sexual development.
Freud’s method used to uncover the exact nature of a patient’s blockage in psychological growth was something he called the “talking cure.” A patient would lay down on a couch and recount their dreams to him. Freud as the “analyst” would decipher them.
In the selection “The Dream Work” from his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s method is the primary subject. He introduces several key terms that are important for us to understand before moving on. The first set are “latent and manifest content.” Essentially the distinction Freud is making here is between the literal content of the dream and the significance of that content. The second set of terms are “condensation and displacement.” Condensation describes the ability of dream to collapse space and time. Displacement refers to the ability of a dream to complicate the relationship between appearance and meaning. Symbolic relationships are created that are not immediately obvious. We can use many of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories as examples of displacement, particularly “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell Tale Heart.”
The analyst seeks to understand not only individual dreams, which serve as his or her text, but also the dream-work itself or the process underlying the creating and encoding of that dream text. Freud acknowledges that it is an on-going and often frustrating process to accomplish this.
Freud’s writing in “Creative Writing and Daydreaming” helps us better understand the relevance of Freud’s obsession with dreams in relation to literature. He sees the writer as a daydreamer and the text as a record of his or her fantasies. The goal of the writer is to express obliquely these repressed fantasies and forge a connection between the author’s ego and our own.
The application of psychoanalysis to literature had its heyday in the mid-twentieth century. Niche interest persists among some critics and theorists today who use some of the key concepts of psychoanalysis but not as part of a system of interpretation.
The distinction between latent/manifest content appears sometimes in Marxist critiques of cultural forms. Dreams are still discussed in relation to fiction by Reception Studies and Formalist Critics but in a much looser way that equates them with the imagination and not with a systematized mechanism of sexual repression as imagined by Freud. Repression, transference, and displacement are all still part of the vocabulary of literary critics who haven’t any interest in Freud or Psychoanalysis but still use the terms. Among the only groups who still find some use in Freud’s theory are Lacanian critics who use Psychoanalysis (ironically) as a feminist interpretive practice.
The great flaw in Psychoanalysis as a system of interpretation is its reductionist tendencies, similar in some ways to crude forms of Marxist criticism. Everything in a text eventually leads back to the stunted sexual growth of the child who is almost always male.
Critic Peter Brooks attempts to remedy (to a certain extent) this reductionist tendency in “Freud’s Masterplot” by applying psychoanalytic methods to the literary concept of plot. Brooks notes that much of psychoanalytic criticism focuses on the unconscious of the author, reader, or hero. In its place, he proposes a type of psychoanalytic criticism that would focus on narrative technique in the form of plot analysis.
Brooks understands plot as the structuring of a story through space and time. It is a fairly basic idea. But he is interested in the significance of plot in specific stories as well as its role as a general principle in fiction. Transference (a key concept in Freud’s work) is understood by Brooks as a type of metaphor or metonym. In Freud’s work, these forms of symbolic meaning are interpreted as the manifest content of a latent neurosis. Narrative plotting comes the means through which people make sense of experience and regain some sense of mastery in their lives. Human life thus becomes a stand in for plot and visa versa. This is central to Brooks’s understanding of the value of psychoanalysis for interpreting literature.
Brooks tends to focus his psychoanalysis of plot primarily on the ending of works of fiction. Does the end of a life related in a coherent way to the beginning and the events that mark its development through space and time? Is an end proper or improper based on our socially constructed beliefs? Is there an ending at all? A literal expression of the lack of ending might be works of fantasy that focus on the undead (Zombies and Vampires).
Without an individual to analyze (usually the author), psychoanalysis seems adrift. Even Brooks in his attempt to rescue Freud from obsolescence appears overly reductive. All plots arrive at some point at the realization of human mortality. Brooks’ approach to Freud, however, does provide us with an interesting starting point for examining why some endings of fiction are perceived as satisfying or not.
Freud was less interested in the origin of desire than he was in the ways human beings repress and express that desire. For Freud, the origin of desire was explained satisfactorily by the oedipus complex. Treatment via the talking-cure was supposed to make the method of repression and expression of desire visible to the patient. It was the first step towards ‘normalization.’
There are many problems with Freud’s theory. One of them was the equation of all desire with sexual desire. Desire or ‘the id’ (=) sexual desire for the parent. Boy for his mother and the girl for her father. In essence, all human creativity (in Freud’s theory) was driven by a repressed instinct for incest.
Jacque Lacan’s understanding of desire doesn’t fully resolve the problems presented by Freud’s theory of desire, but it does move us away from biology to language, a realm more suitable to understanding culture in a sophisticated way.
Desire for Lacan is a product of self-recognition. Our birth into self-consciousness comes with a sense of ‘lack’ or ‘loss.’ We rationalize the cause of that lack and imagine objects or persons that will eliminate it.
This is where the concept of the “phallus” becomes important in Lacan’s thought. The phallus is not a literal or even a symbolic penis. Any object or person that we grant the power to fulfill our sense of lack or loss can become “phallic.”
Phallus serves as a signifier. What it represents, the missing signified is a complex web of emotions. Perhaps best understood by the concepts of safety or contentment.
Even as biology is removed from the idea of the phallus (making it a floating signifier), gender distinctions still apply. Boys realize that what they possess is not the phallus and they seek to possess it beginning at an early age. Girls realize that they do not possess the phallus and (according to Lacan) seek to become it.
The distinction here between “having” and “being” is worth discussing for a moment as it exemplifies the ongoing gender bias in psychoanalytic theory (even as Lacan envisions it). Men are simply looking to turn what they already possess into a source of power. Women are trying to make two different moves. To get to the position of self-confidence the boy already possesses at the start of his journey to self-realization and then to use that starting point to find their power.
Lecture #7: Feminist Theory
Feminist Theory is discussed as a series of waves. The First Wave began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and grew into a burgeoning Suffragette movement that fought for women’s right to vote. This First Wave was also focused on issues of inclusion. Allowing women the same opportunities guaranteed to men. The Second Wave began in the 1960s and was part of a larger spectrum of social movements that emerged in that decade. This Second Wave was focused on “patriarchy” and the idea that “woman” was a distinct consciousness shared by females around the world. The Third Wave of feminism began in the 1990s and continues to the present. It was a response to the essentialism of Second Wave feminism and was meant to address the experience of women of color and non-heteronormative women (lesbians and transwomen). Third Wave feminism called their effort to address the distinct experiences of groups within the larger category of “woman” intersectionality or intersectional feminism. Through this they hoped to create a more complex view of patriarchy that addressed the complicity of upper-class white females in subjugating other women.
Annette Kolodny was an integral part of Second Wave Feminist thought. She was responsible for creating some of the earliest Women’s Studies Programs on US campuses. In her essay “Dancing Through the Minefield,” Kolodny outlines her understanding of feminism and feminist literary criticism during the Second Wave.
Feminism for Kolodny is about exposing cultural assumptions about women and questioning “the ethical implications of our otherwise unquestioned aesthetic pleasures.” Her version of Second Wave Feminism involves recognizing that literary history (often referred to as the canon) is a historical construct. It also demands that we engage paradigms rather than texts. Kolodny asserts that we “enter the text through interpretive strategies” that precede the act of reading. These strategies should be the focus of any feminist literary critique. Critics should re-examine the grounds of aesthetics and critical methodology.
Kolodny’s understanding of the goals of Feminist literary criticism led to attempts by feminist scholars to recover a lost female literary tradition. A canon of women authors who would challenge then current literary history and the existing paradigms of reading. The work of Nina Baym and Jane Tompkins are just two examples of this effort. It also led to the practice of “resisting readings” that expose patriarchy at work in canonical texts. Forcing the reader to shift from a male to a female point of view. Judith Fetterley’s research (examined in the lecture on Reader Response or Reception Theory) focused on these efforts. Finally, her understanding of the goals of Feminist literary criticism envisioned a movement to alter the grounds of literary study and the workings of the academy. To a certain extent, this was accomplished through the creation of Women’s Studies and various area studies programs that focused on previously marginalized identities.
A recurring theme in Feminist Criticism is the representation of women in a wide variety of texts (novels, poems, film, music, etc.). Laura Mulvey was a key figure in the creation of interpretive strategies to examine how women are represented in one medium–film.
To understand Mulvey, we must first know something about Jacques Lacan. A notoriously difficult French Psychologist who saw himself as rescuing Freud from his mis-interpreters.
At first glance, Psychoanalysis seems the last place that feminist critics would or should go to defeat patriarchy–the male dominance of women both literally and symbolically. Freud’s theories seem to entrench the biological difference between women and men and support the implied inferiority of all things feminine. See especially Freud’s writings on the oedipus complex and penis envy. Here he argues that the boy suffers from “castration anxiety,” a worry that the father has castrated the mother and might do the same to him (alpha male dominance). The girl, in contrast, desires to possess the same anatomy as the father who dominates his surroundings.
For Freud, the penis equals power. He never asks why or if this is just. Nor does he bother to inquire if this is true in all societies. Freud also uses the term in a way that is confusing, mixing mythology with biology in a haphazard way. Lacan offered a new way of conceptualizing power and desire in psychoanalytic thought. He used language theory to describe human psychological development and desire.
Lacan believed that human development went through three stages. Initially, an infant lacks both language and self-consciousness. In the first stage, something he calls the “mirror stage,” the child enters their first real moment of self-recognition as a human. We see our image and realize that we are looking at ourselves. This is followed not long after by language acquisition, a stage he called “the name of the father.” In this stage, we enter into language and the symbolic order associated with it. Lacan sees this moment as the birth of the unconscious with its repression. Hereafter we feel a constant lack or need that is signified in our lives by something he calls the “phallus.” The third stage is something he calls “the real.” This is experience or life as it is lived once humans enter the realm of language and self-consciousness.
These stages are both linear and non-linear as vestiges of the first stage of development remain long into adulthood. Imaginary (stage one), the symbolic (stage two), and the real (stage three) are foundational elements of the human experience that overlap in unpredictable ways.
Once we enter the symbolic order we feel a permanent sense of something missing in our lives. Free floating desire. Lacan calls this un-anchored signifier the “phallus.” Men want to have the phallus (according to Lacan) whereas women want to be the phallus.
The image of the mother and child are central to Lacan’s work. His main approach to explaining the nature of desire and its failure to ever be fulfilled is through that image. We move in Lacan’s conception of human life from undifferentiated experience to an imagined self and life constructed within the symbolic order. The desire of the mother meets the name of the father. Our degree of satisfaction depends upon how well we construct our self-conception. Does it match the narratives of the symbolic order?
Feminists saw the linguistic conception of the phallus as a useful tool in the attempt to understand and take apart patriarchy. They also found the Lacanian description of the symbolic order valuable. For Lacan, the unconscious was a language system that could be read using the methods of Structural Linguistics. The goal was to uncover the mechanisms of desire that became associated in the human mind with the phallus or free floating signifier. Lacan also saw the self as an imaginary construct crated in relation to “otherness.” Both the Other (not me) and the other (alter egos we create).
His work appealed to feminist critics like Mulvey because he shifted Freud’s theories from biology to language. He suggested that socialization is the major factor in gender and the creation of desire. Lacan also opened up a method to analyze and dismantle patriarchy. Patriarchy for feminist critics using Lacan’s work was the symbolic order. The phallus was both a sign of that order for them as well as a means of destroying it. The ultimate goal was to find a way to harness desire towards a different end.
When Mulvey refers to psychoanalytic theory, she is referring to Lacan. Her interest here is to use Lacanian Psychoanalysis to expose how patriarchy works in film. Specifically she is interested in critiquing canonical film. The movies of the classic Hollywood era (1930s to the early 1960s).
Mulvey argues that these films manipulate the viewer through a skillful deployment of what she calls “narrative pleasure.” The audience is encouraged to identify with the male point of view. What she calls “the gaze.”
Mulvey describes a dynamic relationship between those who create a film (writers, actors, directors, etc.) and those who watch film. A viewer is encouraged by the camera (conduit of desire) to engage in what she calls “scopophilia.” The pleasure of looking at what’s on screen. Specifically, the viewer is imagined as a man viewing a woman on screen. Visual mise en scene (staging of the film) combines with the tendencies of traditional narrative form and characterization to create active male figures (defined by their actions) and passive female figures (defined by who they are and what they look like). Watching a film of this type thus becomes a space to enact the fulfillment of desire. The viewer temporarily possesses the phallus (object of desire).
Mulvey sees her task as a feminist critic of narrative cinema as exposing the process that creates desire in film and interrupting that process. Not dissimilar in concept of from Brecht’s “alienation effect” as applied to theatrical performances. It seems less a matter of switching the look from a man to a woman than eliminating it entirely or making it (at least) self-conscious. This would “out” our desires as a film goers and show how and why they are harmful to women, indirectly influencing how men act towards women and how women understand how they should interact with men.
Eliminating desire entirely from our experience of culture (visual or written) seems a tall order. Desire is a fundamental component in the creation and reception of all artistic production. What seems to be the most useful lesson to take away from Mulvey’s theory is that one should be held accountable for the social consequences of their desires and learn how to channel it into new directions. Even the “id” (it would seem) is subject to the passage of time. No desire can remain static or immune to the pressures of community and social change.
Mulvey’s theories make sense in the context of the 1970s. This was a period when film was becoming a legitimate field of academic study with its own canon and critical methodologies. Her analysis today, however, seems overly restrictive in an era where film creation and distribution is much more fluid. The gaze certainly applies to some films and many video games. Yet there are many films working outside of the avant-garde mode envisioned by Mulvey that counter that gaze. Women are finding their voice and taking charge of the camera.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic was a key text in Second Wave Feminism. In the selection from this text titled “Infection in the Sentence,” Gilbert and Gubar address the question of female authorship. The word connotes self-confidence and power (authority) that women in their view have traditionally been discouraged from associating with their sense of self. Modesty, self-denial, and acknowledgement of other limitations as a writer are recurring tropes in works written by female authors. All of this is what Gilbert and Gubar refer to under the rubric of an “anxiety of authorship.”
Concealed beneath the limits of the surface text (Gilbert and Gubar claim) is a subplot. A narrative of release (physically and emotionally). This release is part of a quest for self-definition. The quest of the female author to be recognized as an author.
The author’s rage gets projected onto monstrous female characters to achieve this quest. The examples they give include Bertha Rochester (mad woman in the attic) in Jane Eyre. Female authors identify with the monstrous elements in their text. It provides emotional release to an imagination demanding to be freed from patriarchal constraints. Since most works of fiction assume a masculine perspective, women are forced to either adopt that point of view as a mask or forge a new feminine authorial perspective, which initially appears monstrous because it is so different from what has come before. Images of madness take on new interest for Gilbert and Gubar who see it as a sublimated message of the dilemma faced by the female writer creating her work in a man’s world.
Madness (seen as a positive rather than a negative) becomes a concept that reframes and parodies patriarchy. It also forces readers to be more attentive to the spaces inhabited by women and to recognize the links between maternity and authorship. All of these issues come out in Gilbert and Gubar’s reading of the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, where madness eventually sets the woman in the story free from the seemingly benevolent room assigned her by her doctor and her husband that she sees and that we are encouraged to see as a prison.
The quest to help woman find her voice, to uncover an essence of femininity and femaleness, is a hallmark of what is called Second Wave Feminism. Gilbert and Gubar argue not only for a distinct form of woman’s writing or woman’s fiction but also for a female mind and way of thinking.
Feminist critic Toril Moi has four main critiques of Gilbert and Gubar’s understanding of female authorship in the selection from her book Sexual/Textual Politics:
- Author equals the character. Both the angel and monster are the writer.
- Feminine and female are seen as the same thing.
- Gilbert and Gubar speak for women rather than with them.
- Some women are not prevented from speaking and writing in the existing system. Many do so (moreover) quite subversively.
Moi is generally critical of Anglo-American Feminists for the same reasons she critiques Gilbert and Gubar. She sees them as naive when compare to French Feminists inspired by Derrida and Lacan. She sums up her point by calling Anglo-American Feminists a group with a “feminist politics” joined to a “patriarchal aesthetics.” Moi (like Kolodny) calls for more than simply women having a voice within the existing system. She calls for an entirely new conception of aesthetics and with it a new type of literature that she believes is needed to advance a true Feminist project. In essence she is saying “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools.”
The legacy of Feminism in literary studies is largely found in the act of textual recovery. A process that has been made easier thanks to Digital Humanities projects and the electronic archives they have helped to create. More women authors are having their works made available for research and teaching than ever before. Traces of early Feminist scholarship can also be found in the tendency to read established works of literature against the grain, comparing surface message to latent meaning.
Many of Moi’s critiques of Feminism in the US, specifically Feminism of the Second Wave, anticipates the decline of that movement and the shift into a realm interested in gradations of gender and sexuality. Moi’s critiques of Gilbert and Gubar are aimed at the essentialism of their research. This is a critique that Judith Butler extends in Gender Trouble and that leads to the creation of Queer Theory and Third Wave Feminism, which is more interested in the social origin of gendered behavior (masculine/feminine) than the biological origins of sexual identity (male/female).
Lecture #8: Queer Theory
Sex and Gender are key terms in Feminist theory. Typically, critics of these concepts view sex in relation to biology (male/female) and gender in relation to sociology (masculine/feminine).
One of the blindspots of traditional or Second Wave Feminism is it lack of discussion of sexuality and intersexed bodies. Heteronormativity remains unchallenged in most traditional feminist criticism even as patriarchy is dismantled. Monique Wittig in her essay “One is Not Born a Woman” refers to this tendency of traditional feminist criticism as the “myth of woman” and its attendant emphasis on the concept of motherhood.
Wittig proposes lesbianism as a concept that offers an alternative to the binary of man and woman. Sexuality (in her view) is a new way of understanding the relationship of sex and gender.
Wittig is a traditional feminist critic. Part of a third wave of scholars in feminist studies who are associated with Queer Theory and Gender Studies. The term “queer” is meant to serve a similar conceptual function to the one imagined by Wittig with the term “lesbian.” Queerness disturbs the status quo. It is also an instance of reclaiming a term that had been meant initially as a slur.
Queer can mean many things but for Wittig and critics like her it is meant to disrupt a mode of thought and representation that we instinctively apply in our lives–binarism.
Binary thinking comes to use from Greek Philosophy. It involves pairs of opposite terms. One is understood as inferior to the other. The goal of the dialectical process in classical philosophy is to resolve the original binary pair and create a new one (synthesis).
Queer theory introduces three and four terms to the binary, making synthesis largely impossible, and raising questions about the hierarchical nature of these concepts. What is referred to as “binaries” or “binary thinking” is one way of understanding Foucault’s concept of “discourse.”
Michel Foucault spent most of his career as a scholar attempting to answer the question of why people choose to follow the rules even when doing so harms them. The binary Foucault uncovered in his process of examining this phenomenon was something he called discipline/punish. The first term is the internalized rules of culture (similar to Freud’s superego). The second term is the direct application of force to compel people to follow the rules. For most societies, Foucault claims, the first is preferable to the second as it creates a more long lasting power structure.
Foucault examined this binary in a number of different settings. In the selection from The History of Sexuality, he considers how it might apply to sexuality. Unlike many activist critics (including Wittig) Foucault did not believe that there was any position outside of culture from which it could be critiqued. Resistance was thus limited in Foucault’s thought to tactical gestures. These temporary disruptions of the status quo could not eliminate it but could provide momentary access to the logic underlying a society’s power. That is, how knowledge shapes our reality and thus in turn guides how we behave.
Four instances of disruptive sexuality appear in the selection from The History of Sexuality. Foucault labels these: the Hysterical Woman, the Masturbating Child, the Malthussian Couple, and the Perverse Adult. As different at these character types are, they each share the quality of either being non-productive or overly productive. They prove the point that in the modern era, capitalism and the rule of markets has permeated all aspects of life, including sexuality, which must be productive. “The economy of pleasure” or desire is temporarily disrupted by these figures who must be studied, contained, and corrected.
Contemporary Queer theorists generally ignore the more depressing elements of Foucault’s thought, which tend towards stasis and ethical paralysis. Instead they focus on the potential of disruption in the form of non-reproductive sexuality. For the traditional feminist critic, the personal is political. For the Queer theorist pleasure for its own sake is political.
Queer theory and much of Third Wave Feminism relies upon the concept that who a person desires and how they express that desire are political acts. Pleasure is political in Queer theory and queerness represents the potential disruptive power of pleasure. This insight serves as an explanation for the phenomenon described by Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick. The wall that separates the homosocial (men acting on behalf of other men) from the homosexual (men desiring other men).
Sedgwick describes the different between the homosocial and the homosexual in the selection from her book Between Men (taken from the introduction). Sports, hunting, and military service are all viewed by Sedgwick as homosocial behaviors. These are male dominated rituals that take place in male oriented spaces and that represent male bonding and help promote male interests. The homosexual is the image of men loving and desiring other men that haunts these homosocial spaces and contains within it the possibility of disrupting the status quo. Sedgwick argues that because of this haunting, the specter of the homosexual in spaces and events that emphasize male bonding, homophobia is strong. Homosocial is promoted at the expense of the homosexual. Sedgwick suggests that allowing a continuum between these behaviors to be visible (removing the wall between these concepts) would potentially be disruptive to patriarchy and heteronormativity. Queering the status quo.
How this might happen and why remains unanswered by Sedgwick, at least in this excerpt. Hocquenghem, however, provides in his book Homosexual Desire some answers in his overview of the psychological understanding of the gay male.
Sedgwick argues that women, shut out of the power structure created by men are free to create and re-create the steps on the continuum between “women promoting women” and “women desiring women.” No one in authority is really paying much attention. Men, on the other hand, are disciplined for breaching the wall between the homosexual and the homosocial.
Hocquenghem describes the physical and psychological violence directed at men who seem to renounce their patriarchal power. Either by desiring to be a woman or desiring to be with another man romantically. His description of the disruptive power of this alternative to heterosexual desire appears towards the end of the excerpt in a section titled “The Pick-Up Machine.” The “pick-up” as Hocquenghem describes it is fast, unpredictable, and non-productive sex. It thereby frustrates normalization.
Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble is central to Queer Theory and essentially marks the end of Second Wave Feminism and the beginning of the Third Wave, which includes Queer Theory and Masculinity Studies within its boundaries. In Butler’s work, the idea of an “essence” of womanhood (central concept in Second Wave Feminism) is replaced by an interest in how our actions and appearance indicate our sex, gender, and sexuality.
Here Butler shows her intellectual debt both to Foucault (especially his concept of power and power relations) and also to Derrida. Her theories of gender performance were made possible by Derrida’s modification of mid-twentieth-century linguistic theory. During this period, linguists became fascinated by the potential to understand culture through a structural study of its language. Particularly of interest were the symbols used to explain people, objects, and concepts. For very signified (person, object, concept) their existed a signifier (symbol or word) of some kind. The link between signifier and signified was an arbitrary relationship in many cases but not random. A deeply ingrained cultural rationale (what we might call a connotation) existed in relation to the signifier/signified pairing.
Derrida (responding in part to Foucault’s claims about the episteme and discursive practices) proposed a system of studying language and ideas that would search for and exploit gaps between the signifier and signified. Activists came to realize that these gaps could be exploited as “contradictions” (in the Marxist sense of the word) and used to disrupt the status quo.
Butler identifies one such moment in the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality and the system of belief and behavior associated with them.
Lesbianism serves not as a third sex for Butler (as it does for Wittig) but as an undermining factor to the existence of sex as a concept. She points out that the metaphor of “coming out” presupposes a “closet.” It is simply anther way of playing by the rules of the game. It also presupposes a Platonic ideal of the self. A stable category of self or being in the world.
Butler summarizes this dilemma into a question: “How is it that I can both ‘be’ one, and yet endeavor to be one at the same time?” She asks this question in relation to her attempts to act and appear in a way that properly suggests the subject position of the “lesbian.” This subject position becomes for her an example of a signifier without a signified or (as she puts it) a copy with no original.
She concludes that lesbianism (and all subjectivity for that matter) is performative in nature. There are versions and visions of it held by each person. We perform social roles for which we don’t know the origin. Then we feel guilt and anxiety about the quality of our performance as “gender is an imitation for which their is no original.” There is a constant play of meaning that becomes more important than the meaning itself. Even though social pressures demand a specific version of the lesbian, what Butler calls the “professionalization of gayness,” the actual lesbian subject is never pinned down. Thus it retains as a concept and way of being some degree of freedom within the power structure (understood in Foucauldian terms).
Butler is careful in her longer works to make clear that performance isn’t fully free or fully conforming. It’s both. In the preface to her book Gender Trouble she says:
“I originally took my clue on how tor had the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s ‘Before the Law.’ There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object. I wondered whether we do not labor under a similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that is anticipates.”
The law of gender is that gender must follow in some natural way from sex. Signifier must relate to signified in a clear way. Sexuality merely confirms that link. Instead (according to Butler) gender represents a process that creates the illusion of reality. Illusion is such that it has the force of law. We do it because we can think of no alternative. Internal contradictions alone make us aware of the dynamic that otherwise would remain hidden in its ordinariness.
Butler’s theory has been incredibly influential in a wide number of fields of study. Her ideas, however, have stirred up considerable controversy. Chief among the criticisms of her work is that it reflects a radically constructivist point of view where there are no signifieds but only signifiers. This leads to concerns that her theory will encourage ethical paralysis in a field of study (feminism and gay rights) that is an ostensibly ethical and action oriented movement. Additionally, it has been claimed that the linguistic complexity of her work masks the simplicity and (perhaps) conceptual emptiness of her work. This is a charge that has also been leveled against Derrida.
In spite of these critiques (only some of which are justified), Butler provides a valuable lesson in how to move past the epistemological dilemma faced in the analysis of the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality. Same sex representation in culture (as it is understood by Butler) makes clear the instability of the heterosexual norm. What she calls “heterosexual drag.” It is an ideal we can never attain. What happens next with that realization depends on one’s point of view and purpose. Butler’s theories essentially are the preconditions to a new model of understanding sex, gender, and sexuality even as they don’t provide a clear picture of the concepts that will replace that heretofore unquestioned norm.
Halberstam’s research on female masculinity directly builds off of that of Judith Butler. Natural essence (signified) disappears into a web of approximations of sex/gender/sexuality (signifiers). What makes Halberstam’s research so unusual is that masculinity is the subject of focus (gender that is not one) and that he (once a she) tries to imagine masculinity without men.
Halberstam describes a continuum of gendered identities from the Heroic (dominant) to Female Masculinity (Queen) and from Heroic Femininity (dominant) to Female Masculinity (Butch). Her work relies upon an anthropological understanding of norms. There are standards and then there are degrees of deviation. Heroic (we might imagine) as being the center of a circle with multiple possibilities for performance radiating out from it.
Female masculinity is imagined by Halberstam as the point of overlap between two gradations of gender performance (masculine/feminine) and is the main focus of Halberstam’s research. Heroic masculinity is examined briefly in the form of cultural references such as the fictional character of James Bond. Halberstam’s analysis of James Bond illustrates the point (made by Butler as well) that ideal models of gender are impossible to adequately perform. Bond fails miserably at that task in all his films. He also exposes how the dominant is always dependent on its other (in this case the female) to grant it its power. A variation on the German philosopher Hegel’s analysis of the master slave relationship. Bond thus represents the melancholy and perhaps one might say pathological nature of gendered power (or patriarchy) at the same time he reflects its instability.
Once Halberstam feels she has effectively shown that masculinity is an unstable norm, she then moves on to consider one example of what masculinity without men might look like in her analysis of the Tomboy and also in her description of the predicament faced by Transmen and Butch Lesbians in her section on bathroom use.
Halberstam demonstrates how the female bildungsroman contains a unique pressure for girls to conform to societal norms for women at puberty. Carson McCuller’s novel The Member of the Wedding with its tomboy character Frankie Addams is used as an example. Her first name, Frankie, is androgynous and reflects the liminal state of the tomboy. As she approaches womanhood, her nonchalance towards the gendered status quo becomes harder as she is slowly forced to conform or leave her community. A similar dynamic can be seen in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird in the character of Scout.
Halberstam’s description of the ‘bathroom problem’ is meant to serve as an example of how an engaged scholarship might analyze and then respond meaningfully to problems of both literal and symbolic violence towards non-normative people. Move beyond fiction and written texts to the ways that the spaces of culture indirectly shape our actions. A sociological and political view of literature very much in line with its Marxist origins.
Halberstam discusses the social consequences of using the wrong bathroom for ones perceived gender and the stubborn resistance of bathrooms in the public sphere to attempts to break down binary thinking on sex and gender. Halberstam shows how this real life dilemma affects him (woman presenting as a man) but also points out its influence on lesbian fiction in the characters of Jess Goldberg in Stone Butch Blues and Remedios in Throw It To the River.
It is interesting to note in Halberstam’s analysis how the concept of the homosocial and fear of homosexuality permeates male bathroom use, making Female Masculinity largely unnoticed there in a way it is not in the women’s bathroom. Both Jess and Remedios are afraid of being discovered as women in the men’s room, with the threat of sexual assault, but are more commonly persecuted by women who perceive them as men entering their private space. Performance of Female Masculinity better reflects the reality of these character’s lives but the binary design of their world insures that they will forever be persecuted for attempting to be what the community views as liminal. This is the consequence of performativity and indicates one way in which performance (as conceived of by Butler) is not autonomous or always beneficial to the individual.
The realm of the imagination (literature and the arts) is meant to be a space to move beyond the stubborn impasse of most nature versus nurture debates. Good literature highlights how we have taken perceived ‘differences’ observed in the world, essentialize them, and create a social system designed to explain and/or contain them.
From the examples Halberstam gives us, what are some of the directions that imagination might lead us to consider? Two seem pertinent to me. One that narratives and the characterization of ‘romance’ might shift. Stories might alter in the ways they imagine who we love, how, and why. Second our attention to names. In the case of Halberstam, he began life as Judith and now is Jack. We might consider here the need to be more self-conscious in our use of pronouns and/or the need to create a neutral language to refer to those bodies that don’t fit the heteronormative binary supported by the English language.
Just as sex is often the ghost in the room during discussions of gender norms so too is class. Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Traffic in Women” is primarily an analysis of three dominant modes of exploring the relationship between gender, sex, and sexuality. The first is Marxism. Rubin believes that Marxists trivialize the role of women in the capitalist system. She explains how viewing women’s work (particularly in the home) as non-productive labor privileges the relations of production over the “relations of sexuality,” which actually have much in common. She also asserts that Marxist theory frequently ignores pre-capitalist traces that influence the capitalist system. These instances often show the power of culture over that of economics.
The second area she critiques is Structural Anthropology. The kinship system and the exchange in women it describes are presented as timeless artifacts of culture rather than shifting practices that occur in specific places and times. Practices that can and should change.
The third area she critiques is Psychoanalysis. The oedipus complex and the clinical role of the discipline to normalize aberrant bodies is particularly objectionable to Rubin.
Her critique is meant as an example of how to theoretically dismantle women’s oppression within a sex/gender system. How to dismantle the conceptual tools. The desired endpoint for Rubin is an androgynous or genderless society.
Moreover, after the dismantling of patriarchy, reassembly of a social order should lead to a “political economy of sex.” This would focus on the “exchange in women” in the same way that Marx examined the exchange of money and commodities.
Published in 1975, Rubin’s essay clearly shows an affinity with Second Wave Feminism. But her work anticipates the changes to come in the Third Wave. Calling for a more nuanced analysis and culturally contingent exploration of women (referred to as intersectional feminism). She also anticipates an economically influenced feminist school of thought that became interested in the relationship of marriage to theories of contract and business law. We might also see in Rubin’s work a useful foundation for analysis of how women and heterosexual marriage are used in defense of national identity. The mythic role of the market in women.
Among the questions worth considering in relation to Queer Theory and Gender Studies are whether pleasure is really disruptive and how relevant it is to the creation and reception of culture. The first of these questions is particularly relevant in an era where same sex marriage and child adoption are creating a version of the heteronormative, productive, capitalist household among same sex couples. The second brings us back to Freud and the question of repression. How the thoughts and desires we try to hide find a means of expression through other channels. This, of course, raises the possibility that all literature and culture is a record of perversions from the norms of sexual behavior expressed (more or less) indirectly. If not applied with nuance, Queer Theory can be just as reductive an analytical tool as those that preceded it (Psychoanalysis and Second Wave Feminism).
Lecture #9: Disibility Studies
Disability has always been a subject of examination in Academia since the founding of the first colleges and universities. However, it has typically been studied as a medical phenomenon. A problem or disease in need of either a cure or explanation. During the 1970s and 80s, this perspective began to shift as minority groups demanded the right to speak for themselves. This included the right to self-representation. Doctors, Therapists, Educators, Sociologists, and Public Policy experts began to question just what it meant to be disabled.
As the medical model shifted towards a move constructivist view of disability, humanists began to examine how disability might serve an ethical and hermeneutic function in the study of culture. Disability Studies as a humanist project came fully into being in the 1990s following passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
Leonard Davis, one of the founders of the school of Disability Studies, describes in his essay “The Crips Strike Back” some of the goals of this new critical approach to the study of culture. Foremost among them is visibility for the disabled who are often overlooked or demonized by society due to their differences. Here we might think of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who lost the use of his legs due to polio but was rarely seen in photographs or newsreels as a disabled person. We might also think of the horror genre in film where disability is part of the monstrosity of the characters who terrorize normal people in their everyday lives. Davis gives as his primary example of this film Freaks. Disability Studies is also interested in the function of the “gaze” (a term that appears in the feminist film studies of Laura Mulvey). When we look at the disabled what meanings do we take away from what we see? Do we refuse to look or stare impolitely at the parts of their body that are different from ours?
Simi Linton in her essay “What is Disability Studies?” also offers a definition of the movement and its goals. For her, the key questions are what does it mean to be disabled and (more importantly) what does it mean to be “abled” (a term that doesn’t but should exist)?
She shows four dominant ways that disability has been understood. The first and most well known is the medical. There is also the constructionist (common in much of Disability Studies) that looks at being disabled as a function of social design rather than medical condition. There is also the rehabilitationist approach that focuses on how to help the disabled adapt to social conditions and live as close to a normal life as possible. And finally there is the most radical approach, the minority-group view that sees disability as a social status similar to race and ethnicity and deserving of accommodation rather than treatment. This later approach is growing in volume amongst the deaf community who continue to champion the teaching of American Sign Language (ASL) as a language. It’s discourse has also created a new word that is commonly used in Disability Studies “ableism” or “ableist” discourse, which is viewed as being no different in nature from racism and xenophobia.
Linton provides examples showing how the deaf resist mainstreaming. These “crips” appropriate derogatory terms towards positive ends (like the Queer Studies scholars use the term ‘queer’) and explore how the arts seek ways to explain the unique manner of seeing and knowing made possible by disability. Scientists, of course, are skeptical of these claims and see the work of some Disability Studies scholars as denying help to those in need rather than championing the cause of a minority group.
As with most theories after the rise of Marxist Cultural Critique in the 1960s and 70s, the ethical component to Disability Studies is strong. The goal of these scholars is not simply to read and understand disability but to change the relationship of those with disability towards society. To move beyond ignoring disability, pitying it, or fearing it.
As Davis notes, anyone can be disabled. It is a baggy term. This is one weakness of this area of study. Linton also notes the need to understand just what it means to be able-bodied. She argues that there can be too much emphasis on disability at the expense of considering what constitutes ability in the first place.
A problem more specific to literature and literary studies is the issue of whether Disability Studies can or should simply look for disabled characters in fiction and, if so, what analysts should do with that knowledge.
Ato Quayson addressed this issue during his Project Biocultures talk on campus. He suggested that once disability is visible in a narrative analysts should look for how that disability affects the fictional universe of the text and how it affects the society that made the fictional work possible from the beginning. Is disability simply additive in the text? A part of the setting? Or is it substantive? Making a commentary on social relations as a whole.
One might add to this list the call (noted by Linton) for examination of how disability alters more general concepts of aesthetics and epistemology. Like Queer Studies, Disability Studies troubles the norm but it does so in a different way. The specter of disability assaults our sense of self in a way that other shifts in the conception of identity do not. It is unpredictable and reminds us of the biological limits of our selfhood in a very tangible way.
Disability Studies methodology tends to focus on three areas: Visibility, Definition, and Empowerment. The essay from Davis focused mostly on the first of these two areas. Linton’s essay focus on the second and third of them. Rosemary Garland-Thomson’s essay “Shape Structures Story” examines all three but focuses mostly on the issue of representational empowerment. She argues that narrative as both a concept and a practice represents the desire for control. We shape experience through narrative or (in her words) story tends to structure the shape of our world. It fits who we are and what we live into a socially constructed norm. What Foucault would call “discourse.”
In the case of disability, certain narrative forms dominate the shape of experience. Garland-Thomson references three of them here: omission, fear, and pity. Although subject to debate, we might consider heroic narratives of disability an example of omission. A refusal to accept disability. Unlike Davis and Linton, Garland-Thomson explicitly provides us a coherent explanation for the origin of these narratives. The “myth of bodily integrity” and the recognition that disability is a porous category in a way that race, sexuality, and gender are not. We will all be disabled someday.
To counter these narrative structures where story structures shape, Garland-Thomson proposes four examples where shape structures story. Instances of where the lived experience of the disabled works to shift narrative representations of them and their lives. The first is the documentary Murderball, the second the poem “I am Not one of the..” by Cheryl Marie Wade, the third is My Body Politic (a memoir by Simi Linton), and the fourth is the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) convention dance.
All four examples, Garland-Thomson argues, shift the narrative representation of disability by discussing sexuality in relation to the disabled who are typically portrayed in an asexual or child-like way and also by highlighting the communal nature of disability, which is often viewed as isolating.
This existing tropes (most common character types and narrative structures used to depict disability) depend on specific settings and genres. Switch the register (Michael Bérubé suggests in his essay “Disability and Narrative”) and suddenly it becomes invisible.
Two examples of this that he provides are the film Finding Nemo and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The setting and genre of both cultural artifacts suggest a different focus than disability. The manifest narrative of Finding Nemo is the search of a child for their father and in Do Androids Dream.. the fundamental question about the human in a world dominated by science seems paramount. The negative side of progress.
The latent narrative of each work of fiction, however, contains traces of disability. Dory’s short term memory loss in Finding Nemo is a cognitive disability that (interestingly enough) is improved through narrative. The goal of helping Marlon find his father also improves Dory’s memory. Community rather than isolation helps her adapt to a cognitive disability.
The android/human test in Do Androids Dream… hints at autism. Not just memory but emotions like empathy that make us human are part of this test suggesting that Dick used autism as a model for imagining the androids in his tale.
Bérubé cautions against a too literal reading of disabled characters in fiction. He asks for more attention to the figurative value they possess in the narrative. We might think here of the distinction between literal blindness and moral blindness. He is not interested simply in how the disabled are portrayed in fiction (uses of symbolic violence and empowerment). Bérubé also explores how cognitive disability’shifts our understanding of key concepts in literary study. Among them is the concept of the self as a coherent character, narrative coherence as a function of character coherence, and the expectation that fiction will engage in mimesis.
Do disabled characters see more clearly than the able-bodied? Does their of vision open a new vista of understanding. Bérubé raises these questions in his analysis of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (narrated by a boy with autism) and Benjii’s section of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. These examples of a character with a cognitive disability help to expose (according to Bérubé) the elements of storytelling that most readers take for granted and suggest a new approach to fiction.
Disability Studies raises questions about common sense social practice and belief. Once we see disability and how common it is, this makes one wonder why disabled people don’t set the norm for even small tings such as building design and navigation. As Davis puts it, “In a world without stairs, a wheel chair is not necessarily a liability.” Ableism becomes a function not simply of social representation but the physical design of society itself.
Additionally, Disability Studies forces us to consider how a disability might actually be a talent under certain conditions. This allows us to consider how our experience of being human shapes our perception of the world. It also serves a bridge to emerging discourses of post-humanism that consider the role of the cyborg in relation to ability and disability. Moreover, it raises the possibility of how the body itself can become a space of oppression and resistance (something addressed by Foucault’s concept of Bio Politics).
It is very rare in literary studies that one theoretical approach is used to analyze a work of fiction. Often a blend of concepts and methods from two or more schools are used to open the work up to analysis. As we can see from Garland-Thomson’s examples, a blend of Gender Studies and Disability Studies would be fruitful in any attempt to understand disabled characters in fiction. Without such a blending, the disabled are merely added to the status quo rather than shifting our expectations for ourselves and our world. It would also be useful to consider a Marxist or class-based analysis of disability that acknowledges the expense of being disabled and how one’s nationality drives the narrative. In some poor communities in both the developed and developing world, disability is (ironically) less of an issue than it is among the middle and upper class. People struggling to get by often improvise when adversity strikes out of necessity and their need to act for their survival forecloses too much thought on their identity position.
Finally, I would like to point out that cognitive and physical disabilities are just one way to categorize disability. There are other deviations from the norm worth considering. The ultimate goal, however, of this theory is not to highlight the difference of the people examined but to expose the flaws among so-called “normal” people and the society they have constructed. To reshape the world in such a way that disability is simply another way of being in the world and not a barrier to social inclusion.
Lecture #10: Marxist Cultural Criticism
Marxist Cultural Criticism inspired many later schools of literary theory such as Feminism, Queer Theory, Cultural Studies, and Post-Colonialism. It added a political and action-oriented direction to social and cultural critique. Marxist Cultural Criticism had its origins in the works of Karl Marx and more than most schools of criticism it has been heavily shaped by history. Specifically the spectre of Communism. If we think about Karl Marx at all in the 21st century, it is in relation to the Red Scare and the Cold War era of US history. Marx’s influence, however, goes far beyond Communism. His ideas are at the heart of all cultural analysis today. We now take for granted (as an example) the idea that culture can serve either as a tool to enforce the status quo (ideology) or as a form of activism. Marx continues in our thoughts in one other important way–our interest in culture as a commodity that is made, bought, and sold.
Marxism was intended primarily as a theory of politics and economics. It was not explicitly formulated as a method of cultural analysis. This leads to a wide variety of theories and applications of Marxist Cultural Critique, which was fashioned long after Marx’s death.
Variations of Marxist Cultural Criticism are too numerous to list with most being idiosyncratic, more closely associated with a person than a distinct school of thought. Some of the more commonly practiced schools of Marxist Cultural Criticism in the US include the Frankfort School (associated with German philosopher Theodor Adorno) and Structural Marxism (associated with French philosopher Louis Althusser). There are also numerous studies based on the works of Neo-Marxists such as Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson.
Regardless of the type of Marxist theory practiced, all Marxist thought on culture begins from two related points of origin. The first is the concept of the “means of production” and the second is the “division of labor.” Marx traces in his writings on “Consciousness Derived from Material Conditions” (excerpt from The German Ideology) a very general outline of world history in order to illustrate how changes in the means of production have led to a greater division of labor in society. This in turn is used by Marx to prove the superiority of a materialist approach to understanding the human experience.
Dialectical Materialism (as Marx understands it) is meant to serve as a tool that helps scholars challenge the German philosopher Hegel’s assertion that consciousness leads to changes in human society (clashes between ways of thinking). Marx argued (rather) that contradictions (another key term in Marxist thought) between how people actually lived and the way they represented their lives became too great to reconcile. These contradictions led to massive shifts in social structure. Typically revolutions.
Marxist cultural criticism continues to follow the basic principles of dialectical materialism. Critics search for contradictions and what those contradictions reveal about the means of production in a particular time and place as well as that society’s division of labor.
In the cultures of more advanced societies, “alienation” is also a key area of interest. This concept describes the sense among workers that their work lacks real meaning. Numerous examples of this exist in fiction and film. This can also be viewed as a form of contradiction in capitalist society that can be used to disrupt it.
Ideology and its relationship to culture are also central to Marxist cultural critique. Depending on the scholar, most literature is viewed as a form of capitalist ideology that must be deconstructed for true freedom to exist amongst the working class. Scholars of so-called “realist” fiction such as Georg Lukács search for the seeds of a new form of literature more appropriate to a post-capitalist world.
Frankfurt School critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer examined in their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment the role of popular culture in masking social contradictions. What they called mass culture was itself part of the capitalist means of production and functioned as an ideology that supported the beliefs and power structure of the ruling class. Adorno and Horkheimer lament the loss of folk culture and high art under capitalism, both of which presented an alternative to the capitalist order.
Key concepts for Adorno include “false consciousness” and “negative dialectic.” The first is an idea with a long heritage in Marxist thought going back to Marx himself. Mass culture (in Adorno’s view) helps to create false consciousness. It hides from the working classes their alienated labor and the social classes it benefits. The second is something that Adorno worked out through most of his career. It refers to an attempt to find a method of critique that doesn’t replicate the social inequity it describes.
Many have viewed Adorno’s work as elitist and pessimistic. He laments the decline of real artistry in an age of mechanical reproduction but seems to have little to offer as an alternative. He did, however, experiment in the realm of music to see what forms of music might resist commodification. Adorno saw modern forms of classical music as the best avenue for this experiment.
Aside from the tone of his works, we might also object to the datedness of the media forms he critiques. Radio and TV have given way as the dominant means of expression for popular culture. Thanks to the internet and streaming media, popular culture is far more widespread and global in nature than it was in Adorno’s time.
Perhaps Adorno’s work is best taken as a call unheaded to resist the decline of artistry in favor of circulation and availability. His critique of the ideological role of most mass culture remains valid even as solutions to the problem remain elusive.
Fredric Jameson is among the most well-known literary critics to study and utilize the Marxist concept of contradiction on literary analysis. Jameson argues that most contradictions in literature are unconscious, a form of back ground noise that is either ignored or taken for granted. This is thanks in large part (he claims) to the role of culture in symbolically resolving these contradictions. He offers a clear picture for readers of his scholarship of how ideology works through fiction.
Jameson is a synthetic scholar, bringing together bits of ideas from everywhere, but his concept of symbolic resolution was a major contribution to literary studies. As was his belief in the “ideology of form.” He claimed that the structure of culture was itself significant. Genre and medium served as a template for readers and writers to engage in resolving contradictions and through that act engage in ideological actions.
The central difficulty for a Marxist critic, as Jameson understands it, is to exploit gaps in what is a “totalizing system.” As it exists, capitalist culture contains the endless ability to stave off its demise through symbolic resolution.
The method he proposes to resist this totalizing system includes three levels of reading that include: finding the symbolic act, discovering the significance of that act (what he calls the “ideologeme” or the smallest possible unit of ideology), and leveraging that knowledge to change rather than reaffirm the status quo (cultural revolution). This method in essence takes what appears to be an object and returns our attention to what is actually a process. Combatting what Marxist critics call “reification,” a key component of capitalist culture.
One example of how literature attempts to work through real life contradictions appears in the sub-genre of the bildungsroman or novel of development. This narrative of personal growth reveals gaps in logic that are hard to repress. The largest is the myth of the self-made man. Narrative tries to suggest that personal effort alone made the character’s success in life possible. But it’s impossible for the novelist to fully obscure the people who help the hero to succeed (vestige of earlier mythic forms), the losers necessary to allow the hero’s success, and the long lost family ties that often ensure the permanence of that success. Here we might think of Dicken’s novel Oliver Twist where the child character’s moral compass represents his personal achievement (a refusal to become bad in spite of his surroundings) and the punishment of the criminals Sykes and Fagin (who Oliver realistically should have emulated) is further enhanced by Oliver’s discovery as the long lost child of “quality” people (middle or upper class).
The self-made man is thus revealed through a Jameson-inspired Marxist analysis to be a powerful example of an ideologeme meant to explain why some succeed under capitalism where others fail. In the case of Oliver, that success is due to good character. Of course, that character, it turns out in the end, was inherited, undercutting Oliver’s claims to agency in the novel and making the symbolic resolution it proposes ultimately unconvincing.
Utopia and Utopian fiction play a large role in Jameson’s work as he searches for literature that doesn’t simply reflect and resolve contradictions but tries openly to exploit them. His most recent work is an analysis of science fiction from a Marxist perspective, looking at how this genre that seems to fit within Adorno’s paradigm of mass culture actually works to undermine the social system that created it.
French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser spent most of his career trying to understand why the working classes were unable to see the ways in which the capitalist system manipulated them. He also puzzled over why so many revolutionary groups and movements failed to disrupt the system in a meaningful way as many were co-opted or adapted to fit the logic of the status quo.
His clearest answer to these questions appeared in the essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Here Althusser makes three key claims. First, that ideology represents the imaginary relationship of people to their world. Second, ideology is a practice and a ritual. This makes it “materialist” in nature. Third, the practice or ritual of ideology “interpellates” individuals as subjects, assigning them a role in society.
According to Althusser, we are always already positioned within the system. The subject might believe they have free will, but it is in fact simply the circumscribed number of choices made available by the Ideological State Apparatus whose job it is to “reproduce the means of production.”
Bad subjects, those who resist the interpellation of the Ideological State Apparatus, are dealt with by the Repressive State Apparatus (army and police).
You can already see in this essay the seeds of Discipline and Punish and Foucault’s work on the body (Bio Politics). This is not surprising as he was a student of Althusser’s. Queer Studies also makes use of some of Althusser’s insights through the lens of Foucault’s interpretation of them. Queer subjectivity is sometimes seen as a way to be a “bad subject.” Challenge the “reproductive” imperative of the state.
Lecture #11: Cultural Studies
Marxism is in many respects the grandfather to all cultural studies. It contains within it an interesting tension, however, between those like Adorno who see “popular” or “mass culture” production as a debased form of more authentic pre-capitalist forms of folk culture. The products of what he calls the “culture industry” are designed to subjugate rather than help the masses. On the other side are critics like Jameson who create models to explain how mass culture works both to support and undermine the status quo in the hopes that such analysis might lead to change rather than a purely negative critique.
Cultural studies follows the lead of Marxist’s like Jameson (for the most part). As a literary movement, it defends popular culture from its detractors (Marxist or otherwise). The method used to accomplish this task came from a group of British scholars in Birmingham England.
Inspired by Marxist theories, the Birmingham school (as it came to be known) shared the ways that pop culture represents the desires of ordinary people and how escapism can sometimes become a subversive act.
The methodology of early Birmingham school scholars was a blend of Structuralism and Marxism that is similar to the literary critical approach used by Fredric Jameson.
Borrowing from the insights of Structuralism, which saw all of experience as based on language and therefore most of what we see and do in textual terms, early Cultural Studies practitioners define the text in expansive terms. Everything from Zombie movies to shopping malls and restaurant menus became eligible for literary analysis carried out to uncover a specific cultural moment.
Once popular culture was recognized as a subject worth studying, and a systematic method for analyzing it became available, the next question or set of questions revolved around the significance of what scholars had found.
In the television series Breaking Bad, the poems of Walt Whitman make an unlikely appearance in seasons 4 and 5. Writers for the show deliberately play up the similarity between Walter White’s (main character) initials and those of the poet, W.W. In one episode, they have him receive a copy of Leaves of Grass as a gift as another character reads a Whitman poem to him.
The point of this reference is to illustrate the process of “reappropriation” whereby an object of “highbrow” culture such as Leaves of Grass becomes part of “lowbrow” culture in the form of a television show, Breaking Bad. This reappropriation raises questions about the nature of the categories highbrow and lowbrow that are essential to all cultural studies scholars. Who creates these distinctions? What do they mean? How do they shift?
French Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu examines these questions in his book Distinctions. He argued that an “economy of cultural goods” exists that follows its own set of rules and procedures. These rules select what is included in the category of “highbrow” (often referred to in literary studies as canonical texts) and what is included in the category of “lowbrow” or popular culture. Art (as Adorno conceived of it) versus mass produced forms of entertainment that masquerade as culture.
The rules of the economy in cultural goods shape (according to Bourdieu) the educational practices that teach neophytes how to decode and appreciate these cultural goods. Those neophytes who attain fluency possess a “habitus” or status marker. Their tastes mark them as part of the in crowd.
The insights above aren’t earth shattering. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the process Bourdieu describes at some point. The real value of Bourdieu’s insights lie in his outline of the process. How cultural capital is created and circulated for consumption. His book also provides useful insights into how the relative value of cultural goods rises and falls. Shifts in the canon of taste.
Knowledge of Breaking Bad provides you cultural cache in specific contexts. That of Walt Whitman’s poetry cache in another. Over time, nothing prohibits Breaking Bad from attaining a status similar to that of Walt Whitman.
By creating a theory of the market in cultural goods and how it operates, Bourdieu breaks apart Adorno’s false distinction between an organic culture outside of the realm of capital and a cheapened mass culture produced by capitalism. Everything is “cultural capital” in the realm of culture under capitalism. The critics task is to mark its rise and fall in status as the social consequences of shifts in taste.
The goal of Cultural Studies, therefore, for a Bourdieu influenced scholar is to umask the “habitus” behind a work of culture. Where does the taste favoring that object place the consumer on a cultural scale? How does that taste become outmoded as one generation’s popular culture becomes another generation’s art.
Bourdieu is notable as one of the few critics to tackle the question of taste in literature. Most scholars avoid this controversy and all real questions involving evaluation. Texts are interpreted but their status is implicit. That is, if you are interpreting it, it must be important, but don’t ask why it is important.
Bourdieu provides us with a theoretical framework that actually allows us to collect verifiable evidence on why people like or dislike various cultural forms. Taste, he argues persuasively, is a product of education and environment. We can thus study both elements of taste production for answers to the question of why some cultural products are valued while others are not and look for patterns in the rise and fall of cultural value.
Such a project would benefit greatly from the rise of the Digital Humanites and data mining methods in humanities research. Computers could easily sift through the mountains of data necessary to adequately understand the rise and fall of audience tastes in culture.
One critic who pushes the boundaries of Cultural Studies in her examination of taste is Laura Kipnis, a professor of radio, television, and film, who examines Hustler magazine in her essay “(Male) Desire and (Female) Disgust: Reading Hustler.”
Her choice of text as Hustler indicates the shift in what counts as a text within Cultural Studies. Her analysis of this pornographic magazine is meant to provoke the reader. What it reveals is interesting. Most notably it exposes that “feminism is a class based discourse” and that class resentment in the magazine is readily evident. Her main explanation for this is the life of the magazine’s publisher, Larry Flint.
Her critique opens up the complexity of a cultural form whose capital is granted to it either silently and/or with reluctance. One of the strengths of Cultural Studies is precisely its ability to do this. But the complexity it reveals leaves us intellectually paralyzed in many cases. We see what Hustler is against (highbrow culture) but not what it is for. We experience the range of emotions expected when discussing pornography, but aren’t necessarily sure what to do with them. Perhaps being willing to admit there is more than meets the eye in this area of culture is enough. But it is certainly an uncomfortable experience for many doing so.
Another area of interest for Cultural Studies scholars was to consider space as text. Many scholars who took this avenue of inquiry relied on the work of Michel De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life. In the section of this book titled “Walking in the City,” De Certeau interprets the city as a palimpsest. An older text that has continually been erased and re-written over. As with medieval examples of the palimpsest, traces of the older narrative of an urban space remain after attempts at erasure.
De Certeau also posits different types of “readers” of the layers of meaning in that urban space. The first group are the “planners” who see the city (literally and metaphorically) from above. They are responsible for attempts at erasure and re-writing the space of the city. They also attempt to provide a design that can help the user attain the desired meaning of their urban plan/text. The second group are the “walkers” who experience the city from these trees. Each shares a linguistic understanding of space, but only one has the power of “publishing” or building behind them. The planner is thus related to the published author and the walker to the self-published, un-published, or reader.
Writing and the issue of authority are paramount here. Also, in keeping with De Certeau’s belief in the power of “tactics” to displace the “strategy” of those in power, he sees walking in the city (what he calls the “pedestrian speech act”) as a destabilizing force. The de iure city imagined by the planners morphs into the de facto city of its users making hegemony empty of meaning and power.
The city for De Certeau is an unstable text that ultimately reveals the workings of power, the relationship between reading and writing to questions of power, and the distinction between space and place. This last issue is something that De Certeau only hints at but that human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan examines in depth in his book Space and Place.
Planners can easily create and shape space. Read and re-write the landscape almost at will. But if walkers/users fail to interact with it, space fails to become a place. Here we might think of the half-finished or mostly empty suburban subdivisions that are prevalent in the western suburbs of Chicago. Or we might also think of the example of Chicago public housing where a city plan to house the poor devolved into an urban ghetto where only those too poor to move stayed. In either case, the plan failed due to lack of individual participation in shaping the space to make it their own.
Reading space as text is not strictly speaking new. It was a central characteristic of much Romantic writing in the US and Britain. It was also central to Whitman’s poetics. But De Certeau and the critics following his lead systemized it into an academic practice. The most concrete result of their efforts is the growing body of work in Urban Studies and Human Geography that shows clear signs of influence.
Lecture #12: Historiography, Literature, and the New Historicism
We often think of history as solely a collection of facts organized chronologically (timeline of events). That is why history is so often listed in college catalogues with the social sciences rather than the humanities.
The reality, however, is that the historian must select and arrange the facts to make them coherent. Stories are just as important to historians as they are to authors of fiction. The major difference is that historic narratives are meant to be true.
Historiography is the study of how historians create the narratives that make the facts and figures of the past coherent to contemporary readers. One of the most prominent historiographers of the 20th century was Hayden White. He argued in his book Metahistory that different histories had different plots. Even if they covered the same events. White described four main types of “emplotment”: Romantic, Comic, Tragic, and Ironic. He kept the assumption (shared by Northrup Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism) that these are archetypal modes of storytelling that are as old as human life.
In addition to these four types of emplotment, White imagined characteristic uses of language that he saw related to different narrative plots of historical events. Metaphor was shared by them all as the primary linguistic technique. Some forms of emplotment, however, favored specific modes of indirect speech such as satire or synecdoche. The Ironic, in particular, gravitated towards satire and the grotesque to suggest the meaninglessness of events narrated. The romantic, in contrast, drifted into synecdoche, seeing various historical figures as representative of their age.
The goal of all these narrative modes was to bring the past to life and suggest its relevance to our own times.
Hayden White’s plot analysis of history is an excellent example of Jameson’s concept of the “ideology of form.” How the story is told prepares us for how to respond to it.
The actual, the probable, and the possible. These three concepts explain what can be achieved in either a non-fiction or a fictional narrative. Reliable historians are supposed to be engaging narratives of actual events. Literature is a different matter. Good literature may use the actual in its character, plot, setting, and theme. Yet the goal is to activate in the imagination of the reader a sense of the probable and the possible. What could or might happen versus what actually occurred.
Context consists of external events that surround the composition of a work of literature, its publication, reception, and subsequent legacy. Much of contemporary literary criticism is interested in context, sometimes to the detriment of the analysis of the text. Finding a balance between analysis of text and context in literary analysis is one of the ongoing struggles in the discipline of English.
One theoretical approach to literary analysis that exemplifies that struggle is the New Historicism, which uses a blend of historiography (described above) and literary analysis to unlock the meaning of “cultural products” (a term used to indicate the school’s use of both non-fiction and fictional texts for its analysis).
New Historicism has its origins in the early 1980s with the work of Stephen Greenblatt and other scholars of the English Renaissance who sought new ways of analyzing classic texts (such as the plays of Shakespeare) by returning those texts to their original context. This involved (in many instances) pairing canonical texts with obscure popular texts and non-fiction narratives such as letters, sermons, and diaries.
While contextualizing literature was not necessarily new, English scholars prior to World War Two had commonly done this, the New Historical conception of context was different from these earlier Historicist scholars. This was due in large part to their Marxist inspired understanding of history that was less interested in representative men and major events and more focused on the everyday. There was also a suspicion of any “grand narrative” that claimed to offer the definitive story about an era. However, New Historicists did connect strongly to Hayden White’s conception of history as a narrative form and saw narrative as the essential link between history and literature.
New Historians also made use of the work of Structural Anthropology, particularly the writings of Clifford Geertz. They were interested in Geertz’s conception of “thick description” and “deep play,” both of which explained how culture (written or oral) played an essential role in creating a vision of communal identity. New Historicist critics liked to see themselves as visitor/participants to an earlier era. Decoding narratives in much the same way an anthropologist might decode esoteric rituals of a pre-modern tribal people.
New Historicist practice continues among literary scholars today. It has been one of the more influential theories to my own work. However, the name itself failed to take hold. Most blend other theoretical interests with a focus on context such as gender, ethnic studies, post-colonial analysis, or even formalism.
There are some signs, particularly in the emergence of scholarly groups like V21, that text is slowly taking the place of context from the forefront of literary studies. If this results in a New Formalism to replace the New Historicism remains to be seen.
Lecture #13: Post-Colonial and Ethnic Studies
I’m considering Post-Colonial Studies together with Ethnic Studies because they share the same basic sets of issues and questions involving race and ethnicity. This also serves as a reminder that “colonies” are not simply a phenomenon of the developing world. Internal colonization existed and in some cases still exists in developed nations like the United States.
Edward Said’s book Orientalism, published in 1978, served as the starting point for Post-Colonial Studies as a school of criticism and theory.
Said’s basic ideas are simple enough, but the expression of those ideas is incredibly complex. He adds so many qualifiers to his definition of “orientalist” discourse that it nearly fails as a definition. There are two reasons for this.
First, Said relies heavily on Foucault (particularly his early work in The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things). In those two texts, Foucault outlines his theory of “discursive structures” and their role in systems of power. Said sees “orientalism” as a discourse structure. Knowledge that creates and sustains a specific power system. Here the occident’s power over the orient. West vs. the east. Orientalism as a discursive structure both justifies colonization and also keeps it alive.
Second, Said describes a complex relationship between colonizer and colonized. Not everything that happens during colonization is bad, yet freedom is still very much desired. Freedom, however, is hard for the colonized to conceptualize in non-western terms following their long struggle under the yoke of a colonizing western power. The master’s tools are ultimately used against him, but can they be effectively repurposed. A true Foucauldian scholar would probably say no. Said, however, is far from a purist. He borrows concepts from Foucault and makes them his own. Just like the colonized people he analyzes. He uses western philosophy to undo the west’s symbolic violence towards the east.
Said’s work boils down in the end to a critique of how the west represents the east and uses this symbolic violence to maintain western power over them (even after the end of overt colonial domination).
The relevance of Said’s theories today can be found in discourses surrounding terrorism and the war on terror. Both depend upon an orientalist interpretation of Islam and a lack of discernment on the distinction between terrorism as a concept versus terrorism as a method. It can also be valuable in our discussions about muslim women and the veil. Presented in orientalist discourse as another example of eastern ignorance in relation to the enlightened tradition of the western intellectual.
Another point of origin for much Post-Colonial scholarship is the work of Benedict Anderson, particularly his book Imagined Communities. Much of this book focuses on the historic changes that made nations as we now conceive of them possible. Anderson claims that nations as we now understand them emerged from political, economic, and cultural change in the early modern era. The political change revolved around the breakup of monarchies, the economic change followed the rise of capitalism, and the culture change was associated with the Protestant Reformation. This pattern of development, established in Europe, made its way around the globe over time.
Although Anderson’s contribution to our understanding of the historical context of the concept of the nation is valuable, he arguably made his greatest contribution to scholarship in his explanation of the logic underlying nations and nationalism. Anderson argues that print and print languages create a collective consciousness that is different from that made possible by religion and monarchy. Print allows individuals to see the “nation” as a community rather than a kingdom. This despite the fact that they will never see or interact with all their fellow citizens.
Vernacular language distributed through modern print networks made possible by capitalism creates a new sense of communal identity and the individual’s role in relation to it. One of the many problems faced by a colony after its colonizers have left is the issue of collective identity. Choosing a language, particularly a print language, becomes a crucial first step in constructing a national narrative. Dealing with minorities also becomes a challenge. Here post-colonial nations can become as bad if not worse than the colony that preceded them in terms of their repression.
Most if not all Post-colonial scholars were influenced by the work of Said and Anderson and they are all interested in the cultural consequences of the breakup of empires. This includes questions about “native” languages, representing national identity in fiction, hybridity, narratives of contact, the relationship of native peoples to their colonizers, and the concept of translation (broadly understood). These issues are not exhaustive but give a good sense of the range of interests held by these scholars.
Some key terms for Post-Colonial Studies include: colonialism, hybridity, translation, and nation. Associated with the first of these terms is the question of what counts as a colony and how does the process of colonization work? The second term emphasize the outcome when two different groups of people meet. In the third of these terms we see interest in the use of language and the question of how different peoples understand each other. And finally, the term nation is used to describe an imagined community (in Anderson’s terms) that is too large in scale to exist outside our imagination as well as the symbols (such as language, flags, and music) that help represent that imagined community.
In the essay “Signs Taken for Wonders,” Homi Bhabha explores the role of print culture in creating community. He focuses on the significance of one story. That is the story of a missionary observing natives reading and discussing an edition of the Bible printed in their own language.
According to Bhabha, the Bible serves as a “totemic object” for these people. It’s symbolic value is greater than its actual value and the authority granted the book comes form an incomplete understanding of its contents. It is “The English Book.” A symbol of colonial power and also a tool for assimilation of natives to a new norm. In this case Christianity.
Bhabha’s non-fiction narrative (taken from missionary records) represents one narrative of colonization. Incredulous natives meet the seemingly all powerful westerner and are so awed by his presence that they choose to serve him (a great example of this in film is The Man Who Would Be King).
Bhabha provides several other typical narratives of colonization in this essay. He looks as Joseph Conrad’s works of fiction (particularly Heart of Darkness) and examines the themes of unintelligibility and the dissembling or enigmatic native.
The community envisioned by Anderson’s concept of print culture becomes far more complex in Bhabha’s vision than one imagined community. Instead there are several communities revolving around an object “the English Book” that both represents the tool of oppression as well as the means of liberation for a colonial people.
Scholarship on race and ethnicity in the United States today uses many concepts from Post-Colonial studies to describe the relationship of minority groups to cultural authority (represented by print culture) within a nation regardless of its colonial past. It is interested in the stock characters and narratives applied to African-Americans (in particular) and also how certain ethnicities challenge the black/white dynamic that seems to define US culture and overshadows any other ethnic groups such as Asians and even Native Americans. Hybridity is the concept most often found in these analyses as scholars try to parse the relationship between the national ideal of “the melting pot” and the more complex task of imaging a multi-cultural nation without demanding assimilation to a dominant standard culture that is predominantly white and European.
American identity is typically defined by opposites. Toni Morrison in the selection from “Playing in the Dark” reflects upon the example of slavery and the “Africanistic” presence within American culture it creates and sustains long after its abolition. The Black slave is made to represent the opposite of American. Yet (at the same time) their presence is eliminated from American consciousness. Particularly, the awareness that much of American culture (its food and music are just two examples) depends upon the blacks brought to the nation as slaves.
Morrison’s concept of the Africanistic within mainstream American culture shows how colonialism operates within a nation. The nation presents itself as a norm that outsiders must assimilate to in order to belong to its imagined community. And yet, as Morrison points out, the nation is in reality an “empty plate that writers could fill with nourishment from an indigenous kitchen.” The symbolism of the “Other” gets adopted even as indigenous and minority peoples are persecuted and disriminated against.
Internal colonization presents a similar problem to post-colonial societies. Should a people search for authenticity or embrace hybridity? Something examined in depth by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as well as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. It also (at least in the case of African-Americans) raises the question of reconciliation and reparations for the horrors of slavery. Repressed guilt and the realities of forcible migration by chattel slavery are another way of thinking about the Africanistic presence in American culture. An indirect form of assimilation to minimize remembrance of the damages caused.
In the selection from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, the concept of a “deterritorializing language” is described. This is typically, according to the authors, the language of a colonial power that has been separated from a specific time and place and is being used in a new context. When we talk about Francophone or Hispanic cultures we are seeing this dynamic at work. People who once were colonized by the territorial speakers of a language are finding agency through the language of that oppressor.
The example Deleuze and Guattari provide is that of Kafka who was familiar with four different languages, each with its own connotations. German was the paper language used by Kafka. A colonial dialect associated with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Czech was his native written language. Yiddish was the street dialect of his ethnic group. And Hebrew as an aspirational language connected to the Zionist dream of a state for jews where their language and culture would coincide (dream of every nationalist). Deleuze and Guattari analyze Kafka’s use of each language and show that even in the language of his colonial oppressor he was able to imagine something different from the status quo. To craft a unique identity as an ethnic functionary within the imperial system.
What makes the concept of a “minor literature” most useful to scholars is that it seems to authorize the use of works in non-native languages (including works of translation) without assuming that such use posits a form of symbolic violence. This allows the work of post-colonial peoples to circulate more widely than if it simply adhered to a one language, one people, and one nation approach.
The concept of a “minor language” and literature highlights a number of questions common among Post-Colonial scholars. Is the colonized subject or
“subaltern” (using Gayatri Spivak’s term) a passive victim of the system of colonization or an active participant in its processes. Kafka, after all, was a government official. To what degree is colonization internalized by those colonized? Is there a natural relationship between language and culture or is this link purely arbitrary? What really happens in the process of translation? These last two questions return us to our starting point in the class–What is literature? If a book written in English is authored by someone from Pakistan, where should it be classified? Does this classification then matter to the act of interpretation and evaluation? This last question raises again the tension between text and context. How do balance the focus between what an author has written and the conditions under which it was produced.
Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o takes a completely different approach to the subject of post-colonial literature than Deleuze and Guattari. Thiong’o describes something he calls “europhonism” in his lecture “Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain.” He argues that language produces community and that denying a native people (in his case the Gikuyu tribe) their territorial league destroys their sense of community. Using a colonial language, even when it is used against the grain (he contends), creates a colonial mindset and a colonial understanding of community. This mindset is another way for the colonizing power to enslave the colonized and enact violence on them. In place of colonial languages, Thiong’o calls for self-emancipation through reclaiming native tongues. Hybridity (proposed by Deleuze and Guattari) is rejected in favor of authenticity and nationalism.
Thiong’o reminds his readers that when the term “African” appears in the US it is usually in relation to the word “American.” The cultures and writings of the continent of Africa itself are conspicuously absent. When they do appear (Thiong’o notes), these cultures and literature are often “expat lit” designed more for the western audience than an African readership. He calls this “Europhone African Lit.” and gives Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe as examples. Thiong’o’s desire to match language to national identity and create a national literature is a sign of his acceptance of Anderson’s idea of print culture and its role in sustaining a national identity.
Both approaches to post-colonial literature have their limitations. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor languages and literatures opens up to a wide variety of readers works that otherwise might be inaccessible without translation. Their emphasis on hybridity also is useful in a world where cultural exchanges are more frequent between very different ethnic groups. However, hybridity depends upon the existence of an already established nation and translation runs the risk of silencing the voices of those trying to escape imperial domination. Thiong’o imagines literature as part of the task of nation building where such a thing doesn’t yet exist. He also demands more of his readers than acknowledging the existence of himself as a Gikuyu but also suggests that understanding this people requires an understanding of their stories in their own language.
The work of Gloria Anzaldua offers scholars of Post-Colonial Studies a way of considering hybridity that addresses some of Thiong’o’s concerns while complicating the notion that a colonial language can be used (on its own) to create a new sense of self and communal identity.
She champions the subject position of the “mestiza.” By this term she means a person (female in her case) possessing a mixture of language, culture, race, and gender to such a degree that it makes issues of authenticity or purity laughable to consider. All of these different sources of origin blend to create a hybrid subjectivity that she sees as an entirely new consciousness. As Anzaldua puts it “They’d like to think I’ve melted into the pot. But I haven’t.”
In her essay “La conciencia de la mestiza,” Anzaldua reflects her vision of hybridity in the form of the work itself. The language mixing, non-traditional structure, and overall tone suggest to her readers what she means by hybridity. What it is like to be a mestiza. Anzaldua rejects in her work a reactionary approach to post-colonial studies and asks for a tolerance of ambiguity. She thereby negates the problem of authenticity (which in her view doesn’t really seem to exist outside our imaginations) and also shifts how we understand assimilation. It is a two-way process rather than a oneway absorption of one culture by another.
Anzaldua welcomes the inner turmoil of the mestiza, torn between cultural worlds. The narration of that turmoil becomes a model for a new concept of national identity and nation building.
The one constant in this mixture of turmoil is the land. She suggests that the earth itself should become our text and teach us who and what we are. Anzaldua patricianly champions a study of the borderlands between nations or “La Frontera” as she calls it. Here the hybridity she describes is a fact of life that challenges theories interested in national narratives and pure identities.
Lecture #14: Why Study Theory at All?
Barbara Christian’s essay “The Race for Theory” brings us full circle to a problem posed by Susan Sontag in her work Against Interpretation. Perhaps the way we “theorize” is the problem we face in understanding literature, particularly that written by non-white and non-western authors. Maybe our theories have trapped us in a hermeneutic circle that blinds us to alternative possibilities. How can we invoke the revolutionary power of the imagination when we demand that it fit into a certain analytic frame? For the reader of literature outside the context of higher education, this would seem to be a non-problem with an easy answer. Just read the literature and forget about theory. This is Sontag’s call. However, doing this in a college context would seem to go against the very foundations of what it means to practice the discipline of English. Hermeneutics, after all, is at the very heart of what it means to study literature. Forgetting theory also bears within it the danger of obscuring the western origins of humanistic discourse. This includes the “erotics of art” that Sontag envisions as a replacement for the colder more logical analysis conducted by what she conceives of as “theory.”
What I would propose to anyone (teacher or student) faced with the question of why study theory is the concept of modeling and what is referred to as heuristic problem-solving. Good literature does not easily give up its secrets. It contains within it just enough ambiguity to entice us as readers to engage in the act of problem solving. That might involve something about the setting, plot, character, or themes addressed by the work that could be understood in multiple ways.
Yes I am aware of the fairly recent origins of this mode of thinking in the discipline, dating back to the New Critics’s interest in irony in the text. But this, like all theory, is an heuristic. It is a process or method, a starting point, to help a careful reader determine both what they know and how they know it. As an heuristic, it has limitations, but that is also worth teaching and knowing. No one model will tell us everything we want to know and all models have a history. Make that the starting point of your course on criticism and theory and I think you will strike the proper note.
My students would often hear me refer to every school of theory as a tool in our toolbox. You wouldn’t use a wrench to hammer a nail or a hammer to turn a screw. No theory is all purpose. Each is suited to a specific work of art. Start by reading the literary text. Map out the characters, settings, plots, and themes. Then ask yourself, what do I want to know and what tools will help me achieve my desired end.
By way of conclusion, I would simply remind my readers that this is an open source document. You are free to use it in your courses and research so long as you don’t generate a profit from it or redistribute it beyond your classrooms.
It is also, because it is an open source document, a work in progress. Since I am the writer, editor, and publisher of this document, I am certain there are areas of this work that still need editing and revision. If you spot any while using it, let me know. The photo above is a reminder of the challenging source material I started with (my handwritten notes). I have tried my best in this first go round to polish them up and make them legible to someone other than me. I’m sure that gaps and murky areas still remain in the writing.
A gap in content that is worth noting here is that my lecture notes do not cover theoretical studies on Critical Race Theory and Eco-Criticism. This does not reflect my lack of interest in those subjects but rather the limitations of the textbook I chose and also my limited knowledge of those schools of theory. In the case of Digital Humanities and Disability Studies, I knew enough about those areas of research to find supplemental materials. That was not the case with Critical Race Theory and Eco-Criticism. In a future course on criticism and theory, I would be sure to rely upon my colleagues to help me find the appropriate materials to add units on this scholarship.
One other thing I will note before closing is that a “schools of theory” approach to teaching literary criticism and critical theory is just one way of teaching the subject. I have also used critical terminology as a way to study this subject, showing how a word connects to a concept which then has value to many different groups of scholars. I find, however, that a “schools” approach works best with undergraduate students who have an easier time remembering these clusters of scholars than a list of terms.