03 February 2005

A feel for literature

Dan Green at The Reading Experience never lets me down:

The overriding claim is that all "readings," even those that claim to renounce "theory" as it is currently understood, are nevertheless unavoidably theoretical, "shot through" with some theoretical assumption or another. It's a very common move made by the partisans of academic theory, one that is supposed to induce silence on the part of theory's skeptics, dazzled as they should be with this penetrating insight and forever after unable to mount an attack on theory that isn't self-undermining.

It also has the effect of yanking the rug out from under the feet of neophytes like myself, who don't think "privileging the text" is such a bad idea. Should we really be treating literature as a glass onion, seeing through all the layers till there's nothing left to see?

Since we can't ultimately make sense of anything without some underlying assumptions about how they are presented and how they have previously been understood, does this mean we're just theory programs, assembled so that we apply our theoretical constructs to everything in sight? Perhaps so, but at this level it seems to me that "theory" becomes mostly a meaningless word, synonymous with "education." If CS wants to maintain that we can't appreciate literature at all without being "educated" about it, so be it.

John Harwood lambasts the critics/theorists who are "persuaded that he or she is already in possession of the only valid reading of the sacred texts--or that only the elect know how to read at all" (although overall, he seems to not only throw out the baby and the bathwater, but the actual tub as well). The prevailing attitude seems to be that the "uninitiated" just don't know what the hell they're talking about. (I'm nearing the end of this book and hope to comment more on it soon.)

Personally, I think it's obvious that literature can be appreciated apart from "education." But the purpose of "education" should be to heighten (refine, deepen) "appreciation." (This was the effect a BA had on me, and should I go on to teach, I can only hope that this is what I inspire as well.)

I can't help but include the rest of it:

Works of literature quite clearly differ from other forms of communication and expression. They are written not to transmit ideas or attitudes or opinions but, first and foremost, to become formally shaped works of verbal art. (At least the best ones are.) They are composed, intended to evoke an aesthetic response from their readers, and it doesn't take any convoluted "theory" for us to recognize this. In my opinion, to say that our understanding of this distinction between literature, poetry and fiction, and other kinds of writing depends on a "theoretical" intervention is, pragmatically speaking, just plain silly. I know literature when I see it, and while, indeed, my ability to do this has to some extent been enhanced by my education, calling it a theory adds nothing useful to the discussion of literature or of literary criticism. Similarly, in this context it makes perfect sense to speak of a "feel for literature": This is possessed by anyone who responds readily to the aesthetic effects of literature without any need to be told that doing so involves some theory of reading.

Ah, validation!

Perhaps my habitual response to works of literature is naive--in the sense that it arguably presupposes this is the way most people respond as well--but it certainly is not a lie. I'm not describing my "pre-theoretical" stance in order to bamboozle people into accepting a reactionary agenda. It's real. Nor am I fooling myself into thinking I'm theoretically pure while in truth I'm infected with theory. I haven't failed to "interrogate" my approach to literature through the good offices of critical theory and all that it's taught us that we didn't know before. I'm familiar with all of the current brands of academic theory, and I understand all of the arguments about the inevitability of theory. I just think they're wrong. I don't say that works of literature often become unduly "contaminated" with politics, just that when a literary text becomes preoccupied with politics (social commentary more generally), it's no longer literary but political. I'm frankly dumbfounded that so many people seem not to be able (or refuse) to acknowledge this fairly simple "conceptual assumption."

And of course this is fundamentally an "academic" discussion in the most literal sense. If literature and literary criticism could be wrested from the institutional hands of the academy, literary theory as it is presently known would be dead.

Quite a mouthful.

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