Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

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PhilSandifer
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Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 4:04 am UTC

The thread for "Impostors" has been interesting and fun (and got me to register for this site), but one thing I've noticed is that there are a lot of people on this board who... don't seem to really know what goes on in literary studies. Some people seem just genuinely unaware and accepting of their lack of awareness. Others are... rather puzzlingly misinformed. None of which is surprising, given that this is basically a comic for math/science geeks.

In any case - I'm a post-exams PhD student in an English department, specializing in media studies. Which basically means I study video games and comic books. It's a very, very good life. I'm unrepentantly a fan of what is broadly considered "postmodernism" (the term is hardly ever used within the field anymore, but it's as good a term as any for now). My dissertation has a Derrida chapter. I've published Lacanian analysis of Calvin and Hobbes.

Obviously, my perspective isn't somehow representative of the entire field. But I felt like, well, maybe some misunderstandings and misconceptions could be cleared up, or at the very least I could demystify slightly what the heck those weird humanities people in your university actually do.

I'm also happy to, inasmuch as I can, answer questions about postmodernism. Or defend Derrida against the various charges that he's a relativist or that he spouts nonsense. Or to get into arguments about the validity of my field. I'm easy like World 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers. I just figured some attempt at cross-discipline dialogue might be useful and productive.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Gadren » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:05 am UTC

Thanks for making this thread -- I'm seriously curious about what exactly this field is about, but it seems so unapproachable.

Anyway, here's my first question: what does a literary theorist/critic do? I'm not talking about things in terms of usefulness, but more like what such a person's working day would be like. Let's say you have a text in your hands -- what do you do with it?

Also, what is the goal or significance of the "meaning" you find in a text? That is, once you've analyzed a work, the meanings you find in it -- what exactly are they? They can't always just be authorial intent (and I've noticed, to my confusion, that many literary critics couldn't care less about authorial intent). Is it about meanings in the text that were unintended by the author? Are these unintended meanings a product of the author's historical background, or is that (as some of my English teachers have said) irrelevant? How are we to know when meanings are "actual" and not merely projections by a critic onto the literature, in an attempt to have the text be an authority for his or her own opinions? For example, if a feminist literary critic finds feminist messages in every text analyzed, do all those texts have those messages? And, if that's the case, then what's the use of any text, if you can find whatever message you want in them?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:21 am UTC

Gadren wrote:Thanks for making this thread -- I'm seriously curious about what exactly this field is about, but it seems so unapproachable.

Anyway, here's my first question: what does a literary theorist/critic do? I'm not talking about things in terms of usefulness, but more like what such a person's working day would be like. Let's say you have a text in your hands -- what do you do with it?


Well, for me this is particularly weird since I'm on fellowship and theoretically writing a dissertation full time. And because I study popular culture. So the line between "working" and "not working" is really, really fuzzy.

In terms of work, though, it's a combination of research, which basically consists of reading books - both new material in my field, and stuff that seems likely to be relevant to a particular project I have in mind. And, in my field, of playing video games, reading comics, etc. What do I do with the texts? Depends - usually I don't pick up a book for a project unless I know what I expect to find. So I generally look for things that will be useful in an argument I have in mind. Usually I end up finding other stuff that alters my hypothesis as well - this is a tough balance of confirmation bias, essentially.

But mostly it's a matter of, for instance, going "OK, I'm really interested in the idea of retcons. Let's look at the death and subsequent bringing back of Sherlock Holmes. I bet I'll find a bunch of tensions where the two stories don't really jibe and you can't really read them both as being straightforwardly true." And then I go and I look at the texts for evidence that supports the hypothesis, and for other interesting interplays between the two stories. So generally I don't read blind - I look at something with an expectation about what I'll find, and then I just read it closely and carefully.

The hard work isn't so much the reading as the figuring out what to look for. Reading closely isn't just a matter of slowing down and reading every word - it's a matter of figuring out particular patterns to look for. That's where the skill of the job comes in - figuring out an approach or a question that will find new stuff in a text.

And then of writing - which consists of me on my laptop, well, writing.

Also, what is the goal or significance of the "meaning" you find in a text? That is, once you've analyzed a work, the meanings you find in it -- what exactly are they? They can't always just be authorial intent (and I've noticed, to my confusion, that many literary critics couldn't care less about authorial intent). Is it about meanings in the text that were unintended by the author? Are these unintended meanings a product of the author's historical background, or is that (as some of my English teachers have said) irrelevant? How are we to know when meanings are "actual" and not merely projections by a critic onto the literature, in an attempt to have the text be an authority for his or her own opinions? For example, if a feminist literary critic finds feminist messages in every text analyzed, do all those texts have those messages? And, if that's the case, then what's the use of any text, if you can find whatever message you want in them?


Well, there's a couple things here. First, for the most part, I don't look for "meaning" in texts. It's more accurate to say that I talk about how texts work. This can be done on a number of levels - sometimes I talk about specific elements of craft in the text, looking at how the text produces a specific response. Other times - particularly if I'm talking about media - I get into technical details - right now I'm working on a bit of my dissertation about the particular limitations of 3D movies and how they affect what can be done in the form.

Most often, though, I end up looking at a text as an example of something we call "discourse." What this basically means is that I look at the text as a complex system of metaphors, plot devices, references, etc that goes together to try to interact with a reader in a particular way. And in doing so, the text makes a ton of assumptions about the reader, and the reader has to make a number of assumptions about the text or about the world. For instance, I've just finished up a paper about superhero comics where I talk about what sorts of fantasies and desires one has to engage in to enjoy superhero comics.

So, basically, I look at the text as a designed object that is trying to do something. And I ask what it's doing, how it works, and why it's doing that. This is different from what its effects are - that's a related field, best called literary history or literary anthropology. It's small, and not that many people really do it. This may well be a pity, but that's another story.

This also helps explain why we don't care that much about authorial intent - because the author is certainly related to what a text does, but so are a ton of things beyond the author's control. A given text exists on a larger social, political, economic, and cultural context, and that context has effects in how the text works that go beyond the simple matter of what the author intended. For instance, I have no idea if Shakespeare "intended" to have a really screwed up view of marriage in Taming of the Shrew. On the other hand, I'm very confident that the comedy of Taming of the Shrew depends on a really screwed up set of assumptions about marriage. And that's where authorial intent starts to fall out of the equation.

What happens in the case of a feminist critic is that the feminist critic tends to be interested specifically in what texts do in terms of gender - that is, how does gender play into how a text works. Some critics do end up finding that everything looks a bit like a nail in these cases, but for the most part the "finding feminist issues in every text" is a matter of only reporting the positive results - if you're interested in gender and literature you tend not to publish on the stuff that doesn't have a lot to say about gender and literature.

On the other hand, a lot of feminist critics do believe that gender is something that's really fundamental and insidious in society, and would argue that there aren't a lot of texts that don't implicitly make assumptions about gender that have consequences in terms of what the texts do.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby tantalum » Sun Jul 20, 2008 6:34 am UTC

You seem like an honest guy and your explanation of this stuff seems pretty clear, although I still have doubts about the validity of any interpretations you might find of a text. My question is not quite about literary theory itself, but i wonder - why do you think people study this shit? Is it possible that some people actually are taken in by the whole "the more convoluted it is, the more sophisticated it must be" act and genuinely revere the obfuscated shit that comes out of some papers?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby jmorgan3 » Sun Jul 20, 2008 7:29 am UTC

Do you (or anyone) take Freud seriously? How about Marx? Does it not matter if they're right so long as their ideas illuminate the text in cool ways?
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby snails » Sun Jul 20, 2008 1:12 pm UTC

What is the ultimate goal in the analysis? To reveal something about culture, human nature, authors, or how to write effectively?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 1:57 pm UTC

tantalum wrote:You seem like an honest guy and your explanation of this stuff seems pretty clear, although I still have doubts about the validity of any interpretations you might find of a text. My question is not quite about literary theory itself, but i wonder - why do you think people study this shit? Is it possible that some people actually are taken in by the whole "the more convoluted it is, the more sophisticated it must be" act and genuinely revere the obfuscated shit that comes out of some papers?


Nah. I hate unnecessarily convoluted writing - though I tend to think that most alleged convolusion is clearer than people think. I mean, at this point I can get through Derrida essays and books without losing the thread. It's not obfuscation though.

Why do I like Derrida? He's genuinely interesting. The readings you get when you use Derrida are lively and dynamic and interesting. He lets you see a text much more as an active, constantly working, endlessly complex thing instead of as a static object that you can pin down a singular "meaning" of. That doesn't mean he leads you towards relativism or anything like that. It's more like, and I will be explicit here that I am working via analogy and this is imperfect, that a Derridean reading of a text makes the text behave more like an electron. It's meaning is not fixed here or there, but rather is many things at once. That's not to say it's anything - the electron of a given atom is still somewhere in the appropriate orbital as opposed to, you know, 5 inches away. But the text does still do many, at times contradictory things, at once, and its overall function embraces those multitudes and tensions. It's satisfying, interesting, and illuminating.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 2:09 pm UTC

jmorgan3 wrote:Do you (or anyone) take Freud seriously? How about Marx? Does it not matter if they're right so long as their ideas illuminate the text in cool ways?


There are a couple of ways to take this question. Do I think Freud is a credible psychological model, or Marx is a credible economist? No.

But, as Popper observes pretty persuasively about both, neither is strictly speaking falsifiable. And if you take them as something other than science - as being more philosophic and metaphysical - they are more useful. As I said earlier, what I do is less about meanings than about figuring out how a text works. Freud and Marx both lay out interesting philosophical structures - ones that you can see played out in a lot of texts. The Oedipus Complex may do a shitty job as an empiricist theory about sexual development, but on the other hand, you can find that particular structure in a ton of fiction.

And there's something to be gained by taking that seriously. There are Oedipal issues in play in Hamlet - this seems to me a transparently true statement. Freud describes an Oedipal structure, and that description fits Hamlet squarely. That doesn't mean that Hamlet is about Shakespeare's own internal psychosexual drama - in fact, I think Freudian criticism that starts to psychoanalyze the author is idiotic. But it does make Freud useful (which is more than just cool) in understanding what's going on in Hamlet.

Again, there's a fine line to walk here. Why Freud, basically? And the answer there is basically "he keeps being useful." Freudian structures keep showing up in a way that other things don't. Does that mean that Freud accurately describes the workings of the human mind? No. In fact, he clearly doesn't. But it does mean that he has a set of ideas that seem to recur in art and literature. And so looking at how his ideas work provides a useful window for looking at how art and literature work.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Hammer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 2:14 pm UTC

Note: Given the specifically call-and-response nature of this thread, I think PhilSandifer is using separate posts appropriately. Please don't derail the thread with a lecture on double-posting.
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 2:16 pm UTC

snails wrote:What is the ultimate goal in the analysis? To reveal something about culture, human nature, authors, or how to write effectively?


To reveal something about art and literature.

Wolfgang Iser has an idea called the implied reader - basically, the person that the text expects the reader to be. Snow Crash expects its reader to find Hiro to be an utterly awesome guy. It expects its reader to share certain values with Hiro. And to engage with Snow Crash and enjoy Snow Crash, we have to let ourselves become the implied reader - we have to play that part.

All art and literature involves becoming a particular audience - stepping into a particular role expected of us by the text. We do this every day - mold ourselves briefly into these audience roles.

Literary studies is the study of what those roles are, and what they do. It's the study of the people we let ourselves become.

Or, at least, that's what I do. But I tend to think that most people in my field would at least not denounce that. ;)

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby the_stabbage » Sun Jul 20, 2008 2:29 pm UTC

Where do you suggest I go to find information about the basics of this field? Which books or websites do you recommend for someone with almost no grasp of the field?

As an avid reader who is interested in symbolism, metaphor, the way things are written, and so on, do you suggest literary theory is a useful field to study or read up on? Does it increase your enjoyment of reading?

How much side reading do you do on your literary theorizing ventures? Do you take the text as a stand-alone object, separate from all the other works by the same author/school/time period, or do you read everything that could be referenced by a particular text?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 2:48 pm UTC

the_stabbage wrote:Where do you suggest I go to find information about the basics of this field? Which books or websites do you recommend for someone with almost no grasp of the field?


That's tough. One thing I've found in teaching about the field is that knowledge and understanding of the field works differently from the sciences. It doesn't move from basic concepts to more advanced concepts. So when I teach a freshman class, I assign reading very similar to what I'd assign in an upper division class, which is itself not all that different from what I'd do if I were doing a graduate class. What changes is my expectations about how it will go - I expect the freshmen to have a really rough, awkward time, the upper division people to do pretty well, and the graduate students to nail it. Because I find that you learn the field not by starting with the easy stuff, but by diving in, getting what you can out of it, then taking a deep breath and going again and doing a bit better than you did the first time.

So I'd want to know more about what sorts of literature or ideas you're interested in - then I could probably direct you better towards something that would be an interesting starting point, as opposed to a beginner starting point.

As an avid reader who is interested in symbolism, metaphor, the way things are written, and so on, do you suggest literary theory is a useful field to study or read up on? Does it increase your enjoyment of reading?


Yes - it absolutely increases my enjoyment of reading. That's why I chose to do it over the dozens of other worthwhile pursuits I'm good at - because doing literary criticism doesn't feel like "work" very often. Your mileage may vary. But it is certainly possible to increase enjoyment of reading through literary criticism.

That said, literary criticism is not the best field if you're interested in understanding writing from an angle of "how to do it." That's better suited to the close cousin, creative writing. The two fields get along pretty well, and often take each other's classes, but there are distinct differences.


How much side reading do you do on your literary theorizing ventures? Do you take the text as a stand-alone object, separate from all the other works by the same author/school/time period, or do you read everything that could be referenced by a particular text?


That depends on the specific project. If I'm doing a historically-minded project then I have to be more completist - for instance, I'm looking at early 3D movies for my dissertation right now. That means I have to get access to as many 3D movies from the 1950s as humanly possible, and I have to really look at all of them. Even if House of Wax is going to be my main example, I've got to work broadly because I'm trying to draw conclusions about 3D movies in general.

On the other hand, I'm also doing a paper that's going to touch on a pair of Sherlock Holmes stories. And what I care about there is something unique to those two stories - Holmes's death and subsequent return. For that, I don't need to read the rest of Sherlock Holmes. I mean, there might well be something in A Study in Scarlet that would be interesting too, but I'm really only asking a question about these two short stories, and so I don't necessarily have to go beyond them. I will if I have specific reason to believe there's something useful beyond them, but I don't go on a fishing expedition. I'll only go for another Sherlock Holmes story if I happen upon something that specifically makes me think "Oh, I've got to look at that." Whereas with the 3D movies I really need to, if not watch every 3D movie from the 1950s, at least perform due diligence and try to look at whether they're likely to be useful to me.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby The Great Hippo » Sun Jul 20, 2008 3:09 pm UTC

PhilSandifer wrote:I'm also happy to, inasmuch as I can, answer questions about postmodernism.


How about defining literary post-modernism in a way that's accessible to someone outside your field? I've never read a very clear explanation of what it was.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 3:34 pm UTC

The Great Hippo wrote:
PhilSandifer wrote:I'm also happy to, inasmuch as I can, answer questions about postmodernism.


How about defining literary post-modernism in a way that's accessible to someone outside your field? I've never read a very clear explanation of what it was.


Well, the tricky thing here is that we don't use the term. So you're asking me to define something that is really a term thrown around outside the field to describe stuff inside the field that's viewed by us as loosely connected at best.

That said, I'll do what I can - in particular, describing it in terms of a related term, post-structuralism.

That's going, however, to require defining "modernism" and "structuralism."

Modernism: An artistic movement, largely (but not exclusively) associated with the 1920s, that was heavily interested in experimentation with form and structure, looking for ways to push the expected limits of both to present things in new and unfamiliar lights.

Structuralism: A movement in literary criticism and other fields that attempted to discover patterns, rules, and formulas for things that weren't usually assumed to have them. For instance, structuralist literary criticism generally tried to find over-arching structures for various literary forms, and, in its extreme forms, started to reduce stories to a symbolic notation.

The common ground here is a real interest in form and structure as something that should be studied as much, if not more, than "content" as such.

OK - so postmodernism and post-structuralism. Basically, what happens in both of these is the realization that form and structure are complex and even contradictory. To use an example from art, modernist art is something like Jackson Pollack - a sort of pure formal play of color. Postmodern art is something like "The Treachery of Images" (The famous "This is not a pipe" picture), where the formal rules of the system are being broken and turned inward on themselves so that we see the limits. Where modernism tries to find new things to do within the limits of form and structure, postmodernism tries to use form and structure to create a sort of sensible nonsense - that is, to create things that both break the rules and are still understandable within the rules.

Most of what is called postmodernism - deconstruction, Lacan, etc - is better labeled as post-structuralism, because it follows from the academic tradition, not the artistic one. The common link in all of them is that they tend to describe systems that work despite (or even because of) contradictions, major gaps, errors, etc - that is, they are theories that find contradictions and then try to figure out how something works even though it is contradictory.

Which is a crappy approach for, say, science. But turns out to be a really good approach for art, where you often have contradictions, subtleties, ambivalences, ambiguities, etc.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Malice » Sun Jul 20, 2008 4:50 pm UTC

So what comes after post-structuralism? Has the next movement begun? Any ideas what it will be?
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Belial » Sun Jul 20, 2008 4:55 pm UTC

I was kindof afraid to even open this thread....but damn if I'm not pleased. Thanks for starting it.
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:04 pm UTC

Malice wrote:So what comes after post-structuralism? Has the next movement begun? Any ideas what it will be?


Post-structuralism ended up coinciding with a pretty dramatic widening of the field, such that now most good departments contain not only people studying a mix of texts but a wide variety of approaches - Marxists, psychoanalytic people, Derrideans, feminists, queer theorists, etc, etc, etc. As a result, the field is really diverse now in a way that makes a movement difficult - I'm skeptical that there will be another "big" movement. Instead I think that individual big ideas and changes will come out of individual sub-fields.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Generic Goon » Sun Jul 20, 2008 5:58 pm UTC

"All art and literature involves becoming a particular audience - stepping into a particular role expected of us by the text. We do this every day - mold ourselves briefly into these audience roles."

What relationship does this effect have on the author? If we mold ourselves as receivers of a text, to what degree does comprehension or enjoyment depend upon an author's ability to adapt to appeal to the reader's actual nature, as opposed to the reader's ability to change?

Does your field have a method of determining the value, or how "good" a text is via some external metric? i.e. does the theory have an explanation for why Shakespeare is a better writer than I am? If so, how does this conception mesh up with popular acceptance or reception of a piece of work by lay-peoples?

"I've just finished up a paper about superhero comics where I talk about what sorts of fantasies and desires one has to engage in to enjoy superhero comics."

At some point will the paper become publicly accessible? It sounds like something that I would be interested in reading.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Naurgul » Sun Jul 20, 2008 6:04 pm UTC

Hi, sorry for being so direct but I'm interested in knowing this: Is there any actual evidence that the implied reader theory is valid? I mean, is it right to assume that the writer has to assign a role to the reader and that the reader willingly plays that role? I'm sure it can also be done without the intention being there, but still, according to this, the writer knowingly or not casts a role for the reader and the reader -again: knowingly or not- please that role; at least most of the time.

My point is that I only see a nice hypothesis so far, not a valid and useful way to analyse how art and its recipients interact.

That's why I chose to do it over the dozens of other worthwhile pursuits I'm good at

Err.. yeah. Modesty is a virtue?
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 6:08 pm UTC

Generic Goon wrote:"All art and literature involves becoming a particular audience - stepping into a particular role expected of us by the text. We do this every day - mold ourselves briefly into these audience roles."

What relationship does this effect have on the author? If we mold ourselves as receivers of a text, to what degree does comprehension or enjoyment depend upon an author's ability to adapt to appeal to the reader's actual nature, as opposed to the reader's ability to change?


A great deal - lots of good, detailed criticism has gone into looking at the way that texts anticipate what the reader is going to do and respond to it, and how texts control and manage their readers.

Does your field have a method of determining the value, or how "good" a text is via some external metric? i.e. does the theory have an explanation for why Shakespeare is a better writer than I am? If so, how does this conception mesh up with popular acceptance or reception of a piece of work by lay-peoples?


This isn't really a big part of contemporary criticism. To the extent we still do this, it's largely a matter of texts being considered "good" if they reliably produce interesting readings. Shakespeare is a better writer than you are, effectively, because hundreds of years later we're still not done with Shakespeare. But part of the fragmentation of the field has been a real de-emphasis in the traditional "canon of great literature" approach. So the question is less "what is good literature" than "what will be interesting and productive to talk about."

"I've just finished up a paper about superhero comics where I talk about what sorts of fantasies and desires one has to engage in to enjoy superhero comics."

At some point will the paper become publicly accessible? It sounds like something that I would be interested in reading.


It'll be coming out in a journal called English Language Notes. It's not a web journal, so you'd have to check local academic libraries to see if they stock the journal. If they don't, drop me a PM come January or so when the issue is out and I'll send you a pdf.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 6:23 pm UTC

Naurgul wrote:Hi, sorry for being so direct but I'm interested in knowing this: Is there any actual evidence that the implied reader theory is valid? I mean, is it right to assume that the writer has to assign a role to the reader and that the reader willingly plays that role? I'm sure it can also be done without the intention being there, but still, according to this, the writer knowingly or not casts a role for the reader and the reader -again: knowingly or not- please that role; at least most of the time.

My point is that I only see a nice hypothesis so far, not a valid and useful way to analyse how art and its recipients interact.


Well, but remember, literary criticism is not an empiricist field. There's a difference between literary criticism and the analysis of the actual phenomenon of a work of art and its recipient interacting. There are people who do this - there's a burgeoning field of neuroscience and literature. But they're not the mainstream of the discipline.

That's not to say there's no empirical evidence - there have been a good number of fairly sociological literary analyses that show things like implied readers. Janice Radway has a really interesting book called Reading the Romance where she's doggedly sociological, and comes to conclusions that are very compatible with the implied reader theory.

But for the most part the question of empiricism isn't one that comes up - the argument for the implied reader rests mostly on close, careful readings of texts where critics have found places where the text is setting up particular assumptions and reactions in the reader.

That's why I chose to do it over the dozens of other worthwhile pursuits I'm good at

Err.. yeah. Modesty is a virtue?


Gah. Yeah, that came off wrong now that I re-read it. :) "Employable" is probably the better word than "good." I, along with most of the world, am capable of training to be employable in a large number of fields. I chose literary criticism because I find it more fun than other jobs I could perform. Better?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby the_stabbage » Sun Jul 20, 2008 6:43 pm UTC

PhilSandifer wrote:So I'd want to know more about what sorts of literature or ideas you're interested in - then I could probably direct you better towards something that would be an interesting starting point, as opposed to a beginner starting point.


Most of the literature that I've read, I suppose falls into the Modernist school. I've read Joyce - everything but Finnegans Wake which I found impossible, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Kafka. I've tried reading some poems by T.S. Eliot but what's actually entertaining from him is very little. I've read some newer authors, such as Pynchon and Borges, and older authors: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. I'm also intrigued by philosophy and have read some Plato, Camus, and fragments of others.

I'm interested in the way that a text relates to society, history, as well as what it contains as a story and means for entertainment. When I choose a book, I flip through it, maybe read the introduction, look up the author and his times and try to imagine what would have driven him to write what he did in addition to what he did end up writing. I'm also fascinated by how an author reveals his biases and prejudices, and what a text implies. I guess I like ideas and the history of ideas as much as a good plot.

I hope this helps you direct me towards some jumping-off point.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 7:04 pm UTC

the_stabbage wrote:
PhilSandifer wrote:So I'd want to know more about what sorts of literature or ideas you're interested in - then I could probably direct you better towards something that would be an interesting starting point, as opposed to a beginner starting point.


Most of the literature that I've read, I suppose falls into the Modernist school. I've read Joyce - everything but Finnegans Wake which I found impossible, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Kafka. I've tried reading some poems by T.S. Eliot but what's actually entertaining from him is very little. I've read some newer authors, such as Pynchon and Borges, and older authors: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. I'm also intrigued by philosophy and have read some Plato, Camus, and fragments of others.


Hm. You're outside my area, so I'm not in any way on the cutting edge of modernist studies. You might try Frederic Jameson's A Singular Modernity. Jameson is difficult, but he's very well-regarded, and everything I've seen dealing with modernism lately at least name-checks him.

If you like Kafka you could try Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka, but it's a real brain-bender - very much what people complain about when they accuse literary criticism of obscurantism. (I promise the book makes sense, but ouch.)

Derrida has a very, very famous engagement with Plato in Dissemination, if you feel like tackling another giant straight-on. And Heidegger (who isn't really literary criticism, but we cite him a lot) has an absolutely brilliant essay called "Plato's Doctrine of Truth" in a book called Pathmarks.

All three of these are definitely hard, difficult thinkers at the top of their game. Heidegger and Jameson are probably the easiest, but that's not saying a lot. So you'd be jumping into the deep end in a big way. If you go for any of them, I recommend continuing to read even if you don't have a clue what's going on. I was completely lost my first time through all of them, and it took a bunch of tries before I started to really get what was going on. But they're good examples of what goes on. And as I said, literary criticism isn't really a field with beginner concepts.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby The Great Hippo » Sun Jul 20, 2008 8:43 pm UTC

I appreciate the explanation. I think one problem with literary theory is that, much like any field, it eventually becomes steeped in cryptic terminology and citations of obscure works--creating what's almost a second language. A lack of clarity leads to frustration and accusations that people are being obscure on purpose just to hide bull shit and laziness.

You seem to be running opposite this trend by explaining your points and views in a clear, forthright, and approachable format. Thus you may consider me slightly more well-informed on the subject for having read this thread!
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby TheAmazingRando » Sun Jul 20, 2008 9:03 pm UTC

What is deconstruction? I know it isn't an easy thing to define, so, how would you go about reading a text with Derrida in mind?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 9:23 pm UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:What is deconstruction? I know it isn't an easy thing to define, so, how would you go about reading a text with Derrida in mind?


Well, those are two different questions, since Derrida did a lot more than just deconstruction.

Deconstruction, which I'm not big on - not because I disagree, but because it's just not what I do - basically stems from the problem of negative definition. What that means, basically, is the idea that some things are defined, in whole or in part, by what they're not. Take something like gender - male and female are each defined, to some extent, by contrast and opposition to the other.

What that means, from a deconstructionist's perspective, is that a text always partially undermines its own meaning. This isn't a matter of authorial intent one way or another - it's a property of language. Basically, language is imprecise and always says more than you mean it to. Because of negative definition, when you talk about something you are always talking about more than it.

What deconstructionists do is they look closely at a text and at the moments where more is said, and argue that at these moments the text "deconstructs" itself - that is, that even as it establishes a meaning, it undermines and calls into question that meaning, leading it into all sorts of twisty little knots. This doesn't mean the text has no meaning, or that it can mean anything. Rather, it means that the text has a very complex, intricate, multi-layered meaning that is many things at once.

Derrida does a lot more than just deconstruction, though. The bit I'm using from him is his analysis of the concept of the promise, which he reads in terms of its reliance on absence - when we promise someone, we are not promising the person in front of us, but an imagined future person at some unknown future moment. So there's always a weird disconnect between the moment of the promise and what it promises. Derrida does a bunch of close readings of the idea of the promise and how the promise works, and I'm using those to talk about the idea of the demo - when a piece of media promises its future coolness.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Quixotess » Sun Jul 20, 2008 9:37 pm UTC

PhilSandifer wrote:What happens in the case of a feminist critic is that the feminist critic tends to be interested specifically in what texts do in terms of gender - that is, how does gender play into how a text works. Some critics do end up finding that everything looks a bit like a nail in these cases, but for the most part the "finding feminist issues in every text" is a matter of only reporting the positive results - if you're interested in gender and literature you tend not to publish on the stuff that doesn't have a lot to say about gender and literature.

On the other hand, a lot of feminist critics do believe that gender is something that's really fundamental and insidious in society, and would argue that there aren't a lot of texts that don't implicitly make assumptions about gender that have consequences in terms of what the texts do.

<3

So the comic poked fun at younger practitioners of your discipline. What mistakes would you say that amateurs/laypeople are most prone to making when analyzing works, like if you read a moderately intelligent layperson's analysis do you ever kind of laugh at something they say? What misconceptions about your discipline did you have going in to it, about technique or attitude or style? Are there any career opportunities for literary theorists other than academia?

ETA: Oh, and you said that your studies have increased your reading enjoyment. What about kind of trashy popular books? Do you ever read those? Can you stand them? Can crappy works yield analyses?
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby TheAmazingRando » Sun Jul 20, 2008 9:49 pm UTC

PhilSandifer wrote:What deconstructionists do is they look closely at a text and at the moments where more is said, and argue that at these moments the text "deconstructs" itself - that is, that even as it establishes a meaning, it undermines and calls into question that meaning, leading it into all sorts of twisty little knots. This doesn't mean the text has no meaning, or that it can mean anything. Rather, it means that the text has a very complex, intricate, multi-layered meaning that is many things at once.
Do you think you could provide an example of how that sort of reading might play out? I think I can understand what you're saying, I'm just not sure I can think of any ways that a text would do that.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Sun Jul 20, 2008 10:50 pm UTC

Quixotess wrote:
So the comic poked fun at younger practitioners of your discipline. What mistakes would you say that amateurs/laypeople are most prone to making when analyzing works, like if you read a moderately intelligent layperson's analysis do you ever kind of laugh at something they say?


Well, if by "moderately intelligent layperson" you mean my students then yes, I laugh all the time.

I'd say the most common mistake is one of unquestioned assumptions. For instance, one of my favorite, favorite films to teach is The Fountain. I adore the film. Students hate it and run into a ton of problems with it, because they have a really hard time letting go of the assumption that everything you see on the screen is a series of events that are happening to imaginary people. And The Fountain isn't really structured that way - there's a ton of stuff that' works on a metaphoric level, where you're watching things that aren't "happening" in the strictest sense of that word. In particular, you've got a few moments where there's definitely causality between stuff that's happening to the characters, and stuff that's happening to characters in a story-within-the-story. Or, similarly, when talking about video games, it's really easy to fall into a trap of unproblematically accepting the idea that we "become" our avatar, and in doing so jump right over a ton of interesting stuff.

What misconceptions about your discipline did you have going in to it, about technique or attitude or style? Are there any career opportunities for literary theorists other than academia?


I was surprised by theory - stuff like Derrida, Lacan, etc. Stuff that isn't even "about" literature as such - the idea of using theory, and how theory works was weird and counter-intuitive, and is still something that's at times hard to articulate. As for career opportunities, no - the PhD in English is effectively a professional degree where all you do is become a professor.

ETA: Oh, and you said that your studies have increased your reading enjoyment. What about kind of trashy popular books? Do you ever read those? Can you stand them? Can crappy works yield analyses?


Well, I study video games and comics primarily, so I've got to say yes to that. :)

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Mon Jul 21, 2008 12:24 am UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:
PhilSandifer wrote:What deconstructionists do is they look closely at a text and at the moments where more is said, and argue that at these moments the text "deconstructs" itself - that is, that even as it establishes a meaning, it undermines and calls into question that meaning, leading it into all sorts of twisty little knots. This doesn't mean the text has no meaning, or that it can mean anything. Rather, it means that the text has a very complex, intricate, multi-layered meaning that is many things at once.
Do you think you could provide an example of how that sort of reading might play out? I think I can understand what you're saying, I'm just not sure I can think of any ways that a text would do that.


I'm working a bit from memory here, since, as I've said, I'm not really a deconstructionist, and I haven't worked with deconstruction directly in quite a while. But there's a very famous Derrida essay called Limited Inc. In it, Derrida attacks another philosopher, named John Searle, who had previously attacked Derrida for an essay he wrote about a guy named J.L. Austin. Most of the details here are unimportant - there are two things you need to know going in.

1) A speech act is an example of doing something by saying it - "I promise to do take out the garbage," "I'm warning you, don't come any closer," or "I pronounce you man and wife."
2) Austin and Searle both assert that speech acts function in the absence of their speaker. That is, you are still married, or warned, or promised even when the speaker goes away. This is called the iterability

So Derrida writes an essay about speech acts, arguing that iterability is not actually as straightforward as Searle and Austin want it to be. This really pisses Searle off. Searle writes a really angry denunciation of Derrida. And Derrida responds, basically, by deconstructing Searle's response. This is because when Derrida decides to be an asshole, nobody can top him.

Derrida hones in on a bunch of moments in Searle where he accuses Derrida of not understanding Austin. And he notices that Searle keeps using language of a near-miss here - he says that Derrida's version of Austin is "almost" unrecognizable, that the confrontation between them "never quite takes place," that Derrida "misunderstands" Austin, etc. And Derrida dives into that, accusing Searle of endlessly staging and then trying to unstage this confrontation he's trying to deny. And then using Searle's own argument about the iterability and repeatability of speech acts against him, suggesting that this "confrontation" that Searle keeps trying to move away can't possibly be undone the way Searle is trying to undo, can it? Which of course, sets Searle up into a nasty bind where his argument is turned against him and is showing exactly what Derrida wants it to show - that in fact the iterability of speech acts is a tricky, confused thing.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby Quixotess » Mon Jul 21, 2008 12:41 am UTC

...
...
You read Dinosaur Comics, right? These were less than a week ago.
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Mon Jul 21, 2008 12:43 am UTC

Quixotess wrote:...
...
You read Dinosaur Comics, right? These were less than a week ago.


I actually only read it occasionally, and missed those. Fantastic!

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby the_stabbage » Mon Jul 21, 2008 2:02 am UTC

What are the "big names" in literary criticism? I hear Derrida thrown around a lot, as well Lacan (Wasn't he a psychologist?) What other names are important in the field?

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Mon Jul 21, 2008 2:22 am UTC

the_stabbage wrote:What are the "big names" in literary criticism? I hear Derrida thrown around a lot, as well Lacan (Wasn't he a psychologist?) What other names are important in the field?


Lacan was a French psychoanalyst. Depending on where you are, his reputation is as different things - in France there's a healthy psychoanalytic school following him. Also in, I believe, Brazil of all places. In the US, psychoanalysis isn't that big outside of literature departments, and so he's largely ours.

It's probably useful here to distinguish between literary theory and literary criticism. Theory consists of stuff that isn't necessarily about literature, but that turns out to be useful in analyzing literature.

So, big names in theory - Derrida (who is also a critic at times). Lacan. Foucault. Deleuze. To lesser extents, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Althusser, Zizek...

In criticism, you get people who are better known for specific readings of things. This is a tougher question because it depends on what field you're looking for - a Victorianist isn't going to be big to a 20th century American literature scholar.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Mon Jul 21, 2008 3:13 am UTC

I don't mean to turn you into our librarian-in-residence, but I'm also curious about where I can get some understanding of literary theory. Since it apparently helped with the_stabbage, I'll give a little background.

I'm a high school student, and while I do fairly well in English I concentrate on math and science, as well as music. I enjoy and do well with reading and discussion, but the quality of my writing is simply inconsistent. So, English is unlikely to be a major course of study for me, but I am still interested in this subject.

In particular, I am a bit of a stereotypical young, idealistic leftist, and I understand that literary studies have yielded a great deal of commentary in the areas of feminism, Marxism, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and other fields that I overlook here. I am wondering what I can do to understand these subjects from the perspective of literary theory: what background do I need? what works, or types of works are commonly analyzed in these fields? where can I find already-existing criticism of these works, and what can I do to try and make sense of it? Any help you can give me would be very much appreciated.

PhilSandifer wrote:[stuff about Limited Inc.]


This is a great counterexample for those in the other thread who claim, based on high school experience, that literary theorists accept all interpretations regardless of their merits.

I came into the thread on "Impostor" with some doubts on the validity of your field; I think I've seen Sokal referenced too often without anyone around to refute it. However, you've done a great job of demystifying the topic and showing how it can be used coherently. Thanks for that.
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Mon Jul 21, 2008 3:29 am UTC

TheGrammarBolshevik wrote:I don't mean to turn you into our librarian-in-residence, but I'm also curious about where I can get some understanding of literary theory. Since it apparently helped with the_stabbage, I'll give a little background.

I'm a high school student, and while I do fairly well in English I concentrate on math and science, as well as music. I enjoy and do well with reading and discussion, but the quality of my writing is simply inconsistent. So, English is unlikely to be a major course of study for me, but I am still interested in this subject.

In particular, I am a bit of a stereotypical young, idealistic leftist, and I understand that literary studies have yielded a great deal of commentary in the areas of feminism, Marxism, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and other fields that I overlook here. I am wondering what I can do to understand these subjects from the perspective of literary theory: what background do I need? what works, or types of works are commonly analyzed in these fields? where can I find already-existing criticism of these works, and what can I do to try and make sense of it? Any help you can give me would be very much appreciated.


Well, let's see. For feminism, you've got a whole lot of options. If you're into math and science you might enjoy Katherine Hayles - My Mother Was a Computer is pretty good. For Marxism, try Althusser's "Ideological State Apparatuses" for theory. If you'd rather go for criticism, Jameson, who I mentioned earlier, has a recent book on science fiction called Archeologies of the Future. I've not read it yet (It's on my Amazon list) but it's well-regarded. Postcolonial theory I'm very far from and can't help that much on. Gayatri Spivak is the big name that comes to mind, but I wouldn't read her if I could avoid it - one of the critics that charges of obscurantism can be leveled against pretty easily. Queer theory, there's a ton of good stuff on. Lee Edelman's No Future is very good. Judith Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place is fun.

Oh! Lauren Berlant's Queen of America Goes to Washington City. Good for feminism and queer theory, and a book I'm very fond of in general.

PhilSandifer wrote:[stuff about Limited Inc.]


This is a great counterexample for those in the other thread who claim, based on high school experience, that literary theorists accept all interpretations regardless of their merits.

I came into the thread on "Impostor" with some doubts on the validity of your field; I think I've seen Sokal referenced too often without anyone around to refute it. However, you've done a great job of demystifying the topic and showing how it can be used coherently. Thanks for that.


No problem. I'm enjoying this thread. You've all been really patient, and the questions have been good ones.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby VannA » Mon Jul 21, 2008 4:21 am UTC

PhilSandifer wrote:.

Which is a crappy approach for, say, science. But turns out to be a really good approach for art, where you often have contradictions, subtleties, ambivalences, ambiguities, etc.


I think the first chemists would have something to say to you.

Don't mistake the burgeoning of an empirical and analytical approach to literary sciences. That's what it is. It has yet to develop solid standards of nomenclature, or even symbology. But they are there, in concept. Hand-in-hand with the growth of science in psychology and assorted other, nominally 'soft' sciences, and deeply related to many of the ideas expressed within the philosophy of language.

The hard sciences tend to forget their own history, and to forget that much of what we can mentally do now only exists due to work similiar in nature to what literary sciences are doing now.
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby PhilSandifer » Mon Jul 21, 2008 4:31 am UTC

VannA wrote:
PhilSandifer wrote:.

Which is a crappy approach for, say, science. But turns out to be a really good approach for art, where you often have contradictions, subtleties, ambivalences, ambiguities, etc.


I think the first chemists would have something to say to you.

Don't mistake the burgeoning of an empirical and analytical approach to literary sciences. That's what it is. It has yet to develop solid standards of nomenclature, or even symbology. But they are there, in concept. Hand-in-hand with the growth of science in psychology and assorted other, nominally 'soft' sciences, and deeply related to many of the ideas expressed within the philosophy of language.

The hard sciences tend to forget their own history, and to forget that much of what we can mentally do now only exists due to work similiar in nature to what literary sciences are doing now.


Yeah - as I've mentioned in the thread, there are a few people who are taking more falsifiable approaches to literary criticism - in particular some very cool neuroscience and literature approaches. I'm unconvinced that they'll replace literary studies, just because I'm unconvinced that art should be discussed in terms of falsifiability and empiricism - and, notably, I think Popper, who came up with falsifiability, agrees with me on this - he repeatedly demonstrates deep respect for what he calls "metaphysical" knowledge as opposed to scientific knowledge.

I do think there's a scientific approach to literature that is worth doing - but I think it's a separate field in a lot of ways.

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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby VannA » Mon Jul 21, 2008 5:17 am UTC

And I would stipulate that any approach you take when studying any observable interaction is inherently empirical, and open to the scientific approach.

Most of science is about scraping away the layers.

Just because you dealing with a higher level of abstraction, doesn't change the fact you utilize the same roots.
The Metaphysics involved is no different to that of Mathematics.

And, just like in chemisty, knowing the raw underlying principles that form that abstraction, allow for a clearer understanding of the abstraction.

/shrug.
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Re: Ask (Or just berate) a Literary Theorist

Postby proof_man » Mon Jul 21, 2008 5:34 am UTC

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