and quoting myself. A few weeks ago (1 April 2008, to be precise) I handed in a paper for lit. crit. with this potentially dismal-sounding conclusion:
theories like Arnold’s and Eliot’s, Foucault’s and Freud’s suggest that the process of textual interpretation is endless; complete knowledge of even one’s personal politics is impossible, much less the possibility of understanding the politics of another in order to represent collective social desires, or deciding in whose language these desires should be represented. These problems suggest that wholly responsible literary criticism does not, in the practical sense, exist; and the literary critic must admit it is his task to engage in an endless dialogue that prevents any fixed tradition or method from occurring. (11)
I don’t mean endless in any futile way here. The literary theory game is challenging and fun, and has, I think, rather serious effects on the world: for example, Derrida’s notion that endless discourse can act as means of preventing nuclear strike, or Levinas’s reminder that since can never understand the other we must be careful of imposing absolute systems that pretend to articulate him/her. As the likes of Marx, Althusser, and Raymond Williams have observed, we are always operating under (imperfect) system(s) that determine our cultural and individual morals, beliefs, religions, and politics. The ideas articulated by literary critics, philosophers, and political and social theorists, while they are not the sole arbiters of culture, definitely undergird many of the social assumptions by which we operate every day. We’d better pay attention to them.[i]
Sometimes, however, realization of the number of ideas I don’t know, can’t understand, and won’t solve becomes overwhelming to the point of absurdity. In the spirit of absurdity*, I’ve invited a few friends to engage in a little round-table discussion with me to explain the last few millenia of literary criticism:
Hegel: The artist brings truth to the material world.
Plato: Truth is dead; the poets killed it.
Arnold: The poet is dead; science killed him.
Brooks: Literary criticism is a science. It is also a system of dead symbols. Irony must reanimate dead language; this is the task of the modern poet.
Arnold: Except the poet is already dead.
Barthes: The author is also dead.
Foucault: But the reader is alive!
Frye: The reader does not exist as a single conscious form.
Freud: Nor does the text. Criticism cannot be reduced to a single idea.
Marx: Ideas aren’t in our control anyways.
Shelley: The poet controls the world!
Arnold: The poet is dead.
Nietzsche: So’s the world.[ii]
Lit. Crit exams live on, however; It’s an atrocity I can’t submit this article in its stead.
[i] We’d better pay attention to them. The classical example here is Freud: most of us accept the notion that we possess an unconscious which sometimes causes one to “slip” up and reveal an embarrassing repressed desire we might not have even known existed; this proves we operate under Freudian assumptions even if the individual has never read Freud. For us literary types, we’ve all heard the “form is content” or “there are no new ideas, only new combinations of old ideas”: these can be sourced to Cleanth Brooks (My Credo: Formalist Criticism, 1952) and Frederick Jameson (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” 1988 ) respectively. All of us are walking around with notions of existentialist, post-structuralist, post-modern, Platonic beliefs; the lists are absolutely (no pun intended) endless. Know the sources of your idea(l)s, folks. As far as possible, anyways.
[ii] So’s the world. Is it ironic that all these critics are also dead, or just unconscious revenge?
Me! “The Critical Tradition: Reviewing and reconsidering the methods of contemporary literary criticism.” Obviously Unpublished (April 2008 ). 1-12.
15 April 2008
Absurd. adj. see also “sleep-deprived.”