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