hatman on literary theory



Hatman is not entirely unaware of the explosion of literary theory in the last few decades. Theory has occupied a prominent place in literary study, with theory classes now among the basic requirements in many degree programs.

Naturally, there are different opinions about this. Some are totally committed to it as the necessary direction to link literary study with philosophical and cultural ideas. Some are totally opposed to it, seeing it as an attempt by the Philosophy Department to hijack the English Department, and believing we should move forward to the good old days of close-reading of texts. Many see it as a great post-modern smorgasbord, allowing critics to pick and choose theories to suit the particular texts or questions they wish to explore.

The study of vernacular literature in universities is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon rather than one that has been in existence since the "rise of universities" in the Middle Ages. Before the present age of theory, literary study tended to be defined by periods and authors: "Ah yes, he's a Medieval man" or "Ah yes, he's a Chaucer man," meaning that these men (they were nearly always men) studied the Medieval period or Chaucer. Now scholars are often defined by the theoretical frame in which they usually work: "Ah yes, she's Material Culture" or "Ah yes, he's Queer Studies."

Like many intellectual movements, "theory" has opened the way to many new and valuable insights about literature. As well, like many intellectual movements, it has also produced uncertainty because of the sheer profusion of paradigms, terms and distinctions. Indeed, some theoretical writing is intentionally opaque or obscure, like densely metaphorical abstract poetry, from the belief that difficulty requires the reader to engage more fully and therefore generate more meaning. Dr. Robyn Penrose, a young English professor and a central character in David Lodge's novel Nice Work, explains her job as teaching students "the way every text inevitably undermines its own claim to a determinate meaning." (218)

If you are looking for the definitive explanation of literary theory you are obviously in the wrong web-site. What Hatman offers here is a simple (some might say simplistic) little theoretical tool-kit which he finds useful as a teacher of literature in this so-called post-modern age. (It seems inevitable that the terms modern and post-modern will be replaced by Early and Late 20th Century, or something else, since modernity is a term which typically defines the present rather than the past. Those who will live in the 24th Century will probably want to think of themselves as modern, just as thoroughly modern Millie did in the 1920s.) Hatman's tool kit has three trays in it: in the top tray--theories of everything, in the second tray--theories of language, and in the third tray--inadequate thumbnail sketches of a few post-modern literary theories and approaches.

Theories of Everything
John Stuart Mill observed, as many others have too, that Plato and Aristotle expressed some fundamental ideas in their time (about 375 BCE) which defined the terms of many of the intellectual debates to come after them. For example, in political philosophy there is a fundamental contrast between the demand for total unity in Plato's Republic and the allowance for at least some diversity of opinion, for pluralism, in the city state discussed by Aristotle in his Politics. Mill's discussion of civil society in On Liberty turns on this issue set forth by the ancient writers--how much liberty should individuals in a society have to be different from the norm? To give only one of many possible examples from our own age, should every traveller be subjected to body-scan machines or should there be different rules to accommodate physical and cultural differences? What balance shall we strike between security and liberty?

Aristotle's assumption is that there is value for a state in a diversity of opinions, that the diversity will prevent any one opinion from being carried to an unhealthy extreme. Ah yes, says Plato, but what if that one opinion happens to be the truth? Plato believes that there is a capital-t truth which can be apprehended only by certain people who love wisdom and are attuned to receive it. These are the philosophers. It is for this reason that Plato's republic is a hierarchy with the philosopher-kings at the top--they alone are able to see the truth and so, of course, they should be at the helm of the ship of state.

What is this capital-t truth which the philosophers can see? One essential point about Plato's theory of everything (his metaphysics) is that it divides the world into two levels. The capital-t truth is to be found at the level of the ideal, of perfection, of permanence, of eternity, and of the other ideal virtues and objects. This level is characterized by unity, by oneness, as Keats put it in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (49). At this level they are the same. Beauty must be truthful and what is truthful must be beautiful. The lower level is the level of the actual, physical world which we inhabit. This world, as we know, is characterized by imperfection, by change, by death, and by disunity and multiplicity. In the actual world something ugly may be truthful and something beautiful may be a lie.

Clearly, the philosophers of The Republic decided, unity is superior to disunity and the ideal world is superior to the actual world. This is why unity is the value which determines the political shape of the Republic (160), which leads to the exclusion of the dramatic poets, because their productions are not truthful and might incite people to riot and disunity. In fact, imaginative art occupies a sub-category of the lower, actual level. For example, the ideal table is perfect and incapable of change, because it is ideal; the actual table which we sit at in the classroom is made of wood or other materials which can break down and eventually disintegrate, so it is only an imitation of the ideal; the artist's painting of a table is not even useful to sit at, so it is merely an imitation of an imitation. (The idea that the imagination of the artist may actually perceive something of the ideal and represent it in the work of art was the kind of argument made later, in response to Plato, by the poet Shelley in his "Defense of Poetry.")

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition those who could perceive the ultimate truth and convey it to the rest of the people were the patriarchs and the prophets. For example, Moses leaves the Israelites and goes up the mountain where God speaks to him and sends him down with the Commandments on stone tablets (Exodus 19-20). The idea of doubleness or duality is an important element of this tradition too. In this case, a similar distinction to that between the Ideal and the Actual is the distinction between the lasting spiritual values of Heaven and the merely transitory material values of Earth: "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:19). Just as for Plato the Ideal is superior to the Actual, in a number of important religious traditions the spiritual realm is superior to the material realm. Thus, it is not only a duality but also a hierarchy. (note 1)

Theories of Language
If philosophical and religious explanations have often divided reality into parts or levels, it is not surprising that the study of written texts and other forms of utterance should follow suit. A few examples can suggest how the idea of duality is embedded deep in our culture.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us that dialectic is the art of investigating opinions and testing truth by discussion and "logical disputation," and that there is a particular philosophical sense of dialectic as "criticism dealing with metaphysical contradictions & their solutions." Such contradictions could include Ideal and Actual, Spiritual and Material, or Being and Becoming. Plato presented this Socratic mode of teaching in the dialogues as a way of clearing away the false to make way for the true. For example, one of the familiar Platonic dialectical distinctions is between Truth and Opinion, with Truth being the statement of what actually is the case and opinion the statement of what is believed to be the case but may not be true.

Our modern sense of disputing something is related to the Latin word disputatio, which in educational practise meant to debate issues by taking controversial and argumentative positions about them. The word debate is related in its etymology to the word battle, a contest in which two sides fight and the result is a winner and a loser. An example of an argumentative speech, or prolusion, is one given by John Milton in university, called "Whether Day Or Night Is The More Excellent." Such exercises teach much about gathering facts and martialling arguments, as well as about rhetorical skills. Milton concludes, after many examples drawn from classical literature, that since the Night is nothing more than the "death of Day" the audience should award his cause the "honor of [their] votes]" (602). Perhaps, however, there is one student at the back who thinks it is obvious that night is more excellent for sleeping while day is more excellent for working outside--in other words, that this is not a question for which there can be one right answer, based on classical references, but a question which depends on the context.

There is a parallel in matters of law. It has been suggested that the basic structure of a trial is a formalizing and civilizing of the more ancient method of trial by combat such as by David and Goliath (I Samuel 17: 49-51) or by Sir Walter Scott's medieval hero and Sir Brian Bois-Guilbert in Ivanhoe (Chapter 43).2 In criminal trials the prosecution and the defence make the best cases they can for the guilt or the innocence of the defendant. The judge or jury decide the issue, and the whole future life of the defendant may be determined. Although this remains a dominant mode for the resolution of many legal charges and disputes, there has been increasing interest in recent decades in mediation and alternative forms of dispute resolution. There is also a parallel in the world of business negotiations and collective bargaining; instead of focusing on the other side's weakness and attempting to exploit it, some negotiators prefer to search for common ground, for what is popularly referred to as the "win-win scenario," because in the end, after the dispute, we all have to continue living in the same world.

Another kind of text involves "reading" the psychology of an individual. Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is a clear example of the cultural idea of duality, most obviously in the notion that the monster is Frankenstein's doppelganger or double. Frankenstein himself recognizes, almost a hundred years before Freud, that his unconscious mind has a tremendous power to drive his actions in negative ways. This reflects the cultural hierarchy or bias which maintains the distinction made by Plato in ancient Greece. Any student of Shakespeare and the "Elizabethan world picture" understands that, officially, reason is superior to passion, the spiritual and intellectual superior to emotional desires and physical appetites. Any student in English classes today understands that he or she is expected to write essays and exams which are rationally based upon evidence and logically organized, rather than essays which say merely what the student feels about the material, such as "this is awesome!" or "this sucks big time!"

As noted in the article about studying literature, the demand for rationality can create resistance for students in English classes. It calls for writing which is formally and artificially organized--it is not the way we would say the same thing to friends in the bar, for example--and this can also interfere with the creativity of writing. The "thesis" can be like drawing lines we have to stay inside, and this can become a mental box. However, one way to work with these limitations is a bit like the way martial artists try to use the momentum of opponents to their own advantage, or the way skillful gymnasts use the apparatus, or the way skillful musicians use the instrument, or the way creative film directors use the script. The opponent, the apparatus, the instrument or the script provide a basic structure, and necessarily establish some limitations, just as the requirement for logical argument and a certain format establish limitations for the writer. Shakespeare worked within the very close limits of the sonnet form but he created works which will be read and pondered for as long as people read English literature. The essays which students and professors write may not be immortal in that same way, but they can be engaging, interesting, informative and even at times entertaining or moving.

The formal and scientific study of words and language as a system of signs has been foundational for modern literary and cultural theory, and here again we find that dualities are often at the core. For example, Jacques Derrida is associated with the influential theory of Deconstruction, which says (among many other things) that language incorporates "binary oppositions," meaning pairs of terms which are in some way contradictions or opposites. A corollary of this principle is that the pairs of terms are not merely opposites, or different, like the physical notions of wave and particle, but they are hierarchies whose meaning is culturally determined.

Just as for Plato's philosophers the Ideal is superior to the Actual, and for Shakespeare's characters Reason is held to be superior to Passion, there have been many hierarchical binaries associated with the rise of modern societies. For example, the European voyages of discovery were premised on the superiority of "civilization" to "savagery." Associated missionary activities were premised on the superiority of European to Aboriginal religion. The slave trade was, obviously, premised on the superiority of white skin to black skin. The almost total exclusion of women from business and professions, from higher education, and from equal participation in the political process, was premised on the notion that males, as the rational human creatures, were superior to females, the flighty and emotional human creatures.

In the study of literature itself an important traditional binary was between works regarded as canonical and works regarded as ephemeral. The canonical works were those assumed to have lasting value as literature, and these would therefore be the basis for a literary curriculum and the proper subjects for student essays and theses. The idea of a literary canon remains powerful today. It is most often manifested in classes and programs based upon the "Great Books," an idea for curriculum reform recommended by Allan Bloom and others. However, modern literary theory is primarily a reaction against the traditional idea of a literary canon of great works. Grounding itself in the study of words and language, such as Derrida's efforts to "deconstruct" the binaries enshrined in culture, modern theory attempts to de-stabilize these traditional hierarchies, to de-centre the traditional ways of assigning value, to see "meaning" not as a commodity fixed objectively by the words of a work of "great" literature, but as a subjective and shifting understanding based on individual projections and cultural forces.

Literary Theories
Here are a few examples of current approaches to literature. In all of them an important thrust is to challenge a traditional hierarchical binary.

Cultural Studies--this area of scholarship overlaps with other approaches which study literature in relation to social, political and material aspects of society. It considers a wide variety of social and cultural institutions as these are reflected or not reflected in literature, including: cultural construction of the idea of the child or the individual, educational theory and practice in a particular time and place, household management and domestic service, military models for behaviour, the role of clubs and societies, and many more. For example, we may simply assume that the first twenty-one years of life, or more, are for education, a hierarchical binary of study over employment. But deconstruction tells us that this assumption is not engraved on golden tablets anywhere. It was culturally constructed in historical societies, and it may be that employment at sixteen and education on the job, or later in life, will make more sense for some in the world of the future.

Feminism--as one part of its overall purpose of true equality for women, feminist scholarship has challenged the traditional idea that literature is primarily written by men and perhaps by a few token women who are exceptional in some way. Many female authors and their works have been added to the lists for study in university English classes, and canonical works have been re-explored to consider how they reflect the status of women in their time.

Genre Scholarship--this approach to literature studies works in relation to the characteristics of the body of literary work of the same type, and perhaps in the same period. A binary tension in this case is that between norms or standards for the genre as a whole, for example the idea that fiction should have certain characteristics, and the reality of an individual fiction which might not possess those characteristics. For example, in A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf considers whether an imaginary woman novelist is writing with "a pen in her hand or a pickaxe." She compares the author's sentences to the standard set by the sentences of Jane Austen: "while Jane Austen breaks from melody to melody as Mozart from song to song, to read this writing was like


being out at sea in an open boat." (79) The question is whether the author's sentences are failures to live up to the Austen standard or legitimate experiments in a new direction.

Political Criticism--the study of literature which deals with individuals in societies, and that probably includes most literature, often challenges traditional ideas that class division is somehow "natural" or that poverty is somehow "inevitable. Probably the most important and influential school of political analysis of literature has been Marxist criticism. An important question for Marxist scholars has been whether a work recommends reform but holds to traditional hierarchical binaries of social class or patriarchy, or whether it transcends these binaries and expresses a full revolutionary consciousness?

Popular Culture Studies--the focus of pop culture studies is on those artistic productions which have a mass-market presence, as well as the institutions and the media which make them available. The challenge here is to the traditional notion that some forms of art constitute "high" culture while others are "low" culture, meaning insignificant and ephemeral. One of the most famous icons in the history of pop culture was the painting of a Campbell's soup can by Andy Warhol in 1968. Scholars now routinely study such areas as pop music and culture (eg hip-hop as poetry), advertising as an art form, mass-market television shows, fashion and design, and many others. This can be controversial for traditionalists who don't accept that an episode of Mary Tyler Moore or The Simpsons might be studied in the same way a novel is studied.

Psychological Criticism--the work of Freud and other psychological theorists has been a source of many insights about the meaning of literature, dealing with binaries such as the rational and the irrational minds, archetypes (Jung), theories about the stages of human development (Piaget), or theories of human needs (such as Maslow's famous hierarchy).

Post-Colonialism--for a long time, literature was defined as writing taken from the centre of an empire to the far-flung colonies, as part of a civilizing mission. Post-colonial writers and scholars challenge the assumption that literature is written only in Paris or London, Toronto or New York. There are today many writers in English who live in and write about the experience of life in former colonial possessions, often with emphasis on the deconstruction of racial binaries. In Canada, for example, there are many aboriginal writers and artists who attempt to re-capture and re-centre their traditional spirituality and culture, which had been deemed inferior to the European brands of spirituality and culture.

Queer Theory--queer theory includes study of literature written by homosexual and lesbian authors, as well as study of literature which explicitly or implicitly explores homosexual and lesbian themes. Traditional binaries challenged in "gaylit" include the division of sexual practises into "natural" and "unnatural," "normal" and "deviant," "good" and "sinful," or "legal" and "criminal." In societies in which homosexuality has been disapproved of and harshly repressed it has tended to appear in literature and films only in a coded form understood by those in the know. A frequent strategy of queer theory has been to study and make explicit these themes in works which make no explicit mention of homosexuality.

Regional Literature--the traditional idea is that the literature produced in the large, national cities is necessarily superior and more worthy of study than literature with a regional or local focus. Although there are many exceptions (such as the Lakes District poets) the city has many associations with sophistication and importance. While sometimes people from cities are belittled as "city-folk" who don't understand country ways, a more prevalent stereotype is that of the country bumpkin whose clumsy ways are a matter of humour or scorn to city-dwellers. Literary editions and anthologies produced now include many more authors who at one time would have been considered merely of local interest.

1. In both Platonism and Christianity there are mystical strains which emphasize metaphysical unity rather than duality. It could be argued, as well, that the Incarnation of Christ in the world as a baby in a manger, suggests that the spiritual is not remote in some distant heaven but present in the material world. This is similar to the insight expressed by the English Romantic poets' religion of nature, such as when Blake sees "a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower" ("Auguries of Innocence" 1-2) or when Wordsworth says that for him the "meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" ("Ode: Intimations of Immortality" 202-03).

There are some interesting echoes of the ancient ideas of duality in modern scientific ideas. Stephen Hawking, for example, has made the search for a "theory of everything" an important part of his life's work; in particular, he has sought for a way to reconcile theories about the very large phenomena explainable by Einstein's theories of relativity and the very small phenomena explainable by discoveries in particle physics (although, one of the most famous of these discoveries was Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle" in relation to predicting the movement of atomic particles). Both of these are part of the measurable, material world, so it is more a true duality than an implicit hierarchy. Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Dispossessed makes a fascinating connection between the ancient Platonic theory of everything and the search for a unifying theory in modern Physics. Her hero Shevek is a physicist searching for a theoretical reconciliation of the two dimensions of time which Plato called Being and Becoming. Le Guin expresses the idea with metaphors, including the metaphor of a book: all the words are in the book and they exist as a unified whole--they have Being. However, we can only read the book one page at a time, one separate part at a time, and this is a process in which the book is Becoming read. Le Guin's Shevek finds the mathematical language to express the relationship of the circle of time (Being) and the arrow of time (Becoming), a breakthrough which makes instantaneous communication across light-years of space possible.

2. Although duality can be represented by the combat between characters, as in the good guys versus the bad guys, it is often the duality within single characters which is more interesting and which is the key to many plots. This scene in Ivanhoe is an example; although Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert meet in combat, it is not Ivanhoe's blow which kills Bois-Guilbert but the violence of his own "contending passions" (490).

Andy Warhol. http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol
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