Monthly Archives: April 2006
It seems to me that those who take the ideas of Saussure, Foucault, Marx, Kant, Barthes, Freud, Aristotle, Plato, Derrida, et al and appropriate them for the task of interpreting literary texts, whatever the critical school — humanist, Marxist, feminist, Frankfurt, structural, reader-response, post-structural, ecocritical, new historical — are trying to do philosophy in the guise of literary criticism.
What I enjoy about reading and writing criticism — close engagement with a text — is lost in the approach of many of these schools of criticism; what I enjoy about reading and writing philosophy — careful reasoning in the service of defining or understanding truth, beauty, goodness, how to live the good life — is also lost in the attempt to meld critical and philosophical discourse.
Discourse! Just one of many words — agency, heterotopia, signs, trace, hegemony, play, etc. — appropriated in the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s by literary theorists in the process of establishing a technical vocabulary with which to discuss the significance or reality-status of authors, texts, intentions, meaning, etc. The words that came to comprise this technical vocabulary, as they gained greater and greater currency, led critics, theorists, and other readers further and further from the texts being studied and read. Scholars outside of English and other modern language departments began to question, belittle, and, finally, simply ignore literary theorists, their writings, and their debates.
Parodies of and withering attacks on deconstructive critical writing are especially easy to come by. Recently I came across a blog-review by John Holbo, of Gerald Graff”s recent Clueless in Academe. It contains a brief, understated observation that expresses, aphoristically, the gist of my conviction that literary criticism and philosophy ought to respect mutual boundaries. Holbo writes:
. . . trying to transmogrify literary criticism culture into argument culture is rather problematic.
There are different kinds or types of truths, each appropriate to a given realm, whether that realm be logical, physical, social, mathematical, psychological, aesthetic, or moral.
Literary critics should elucidate and evaluate texts and only foreground engagement with procedures, theories, and methods if such foregrounding serves to enhance our understanding of the text. Which athlete is more likely to catch the ball: the one who keeps an eye on the ball while running toward it, or the one who takes a moment, however brief, to first solve the calculus equations that predict its trajectory?
The question is not whether or not to appropriate theory or philosophy when analyzing literature, but when and how to do so. The text should remain the focus for the critic and reader. This is not to say that critical writing that foregrounds theory instead of the literary text being discussed is not interesting; it often is. But that is precisely the problem: engaging theoretical arguments, if not controlled by the critic, can lead the critic and the reader into paths that wander away from the text being discussed and analyzed. Again, it”s a question of when and how, not if.
In any case, the conversation, the controversies, life–they all continue.
The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer: as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it. Thus the observation of human blindness and weakness is the result of all philosophy, and meets us at every turn, in spite of our endeavors to elude or avoid it. — , An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, IV.i