Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday 9 March 2008

"Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed" by Mary Klages

The first chapter on "Humanist Literary Theory" runs from Plato to Arnold and doesn't include 20th century developments - cognitive poetics, reader-response theory and modern psychology - so it can say that "In the humanist model, 'identity' was a pretty easy concept: everyone has a unique identity, a core self which is consistent over time and which defines the idea of your self", p.157

Then the book deals with "Structuralism", "Deconstructionism", "Psychoanalysis", "Feminism", "Queer Theory", "Idealogy and Discourse", "Race and Postcolonialism" and "Postmodernism" - all in 179 understandable pages. It describes the theories without criticising them or even devaluing older ones. "What's important is not whether you like these theories, but that you understand what they say, and why they're saying it" (p.52). To me the "Psychoanalysis/Feminism" strand seems the oddest theory, and the marginality of these theories isn't assessed. Little attempt is made to apply the theories to literary works or even assess (by epidemiological means?) their validity. She points out that structuralism "proclaimed itself an objective and scientific mode of investigation [making it] an attractive approach to disciplines which have been open to accusations of subjectivity and impressionism" (p.48). University politics can't have helped either.

She notes that

  • "Poststructuralist theory is difficult because most theorists adopt a writing style that highlights the provisionality and ambiguity of meaning. They don't want to speak, or write, clearly, because to do so would be to affirm that there is such a thing as absolute meaning" (p.51)
  • "They work to write in a way that constantly reminds readers that memory is unstable, and that makes us aware of the constructed system which makes the text possible"

though she doesn't point out why some don't feel the need adopt such a writing style. After all, scientists can write without constantly reminding us that the ink we're looking at is merely atoms or probability functions, etc. Fortunately her style is clear. Here for example are 3 points about Structuralism

  • "structuralist linguistics abandons the humanist understanding that words get their meanings from the things they represent", p.35
  • "In structuralist analysis, the individuality of the text disappears in favor of looking at patterns, systems, and structures", p.48
  • "The (post)structuralist model ... assumes that the structure of language itself produces 'reality'. We can only think through language, and thus our perceptions and comprehensions of reality are all framed by and determined by the structure of language", p.49

I have no trouble understanding them, but I find the motivation harder to understand, and I don't see why one style of analysis should exclude others. "Structuralism shook the foundations of humanism. The theories which followed structuralism critiqued and eventually discarded some of the assumptions and assertions of structuralism" (p.50), though the book doesn't go into details. A chapter on Deconstruction follows -

  • "Deconstruction is a signifier that points to a complex and often confusing set of ideas, concepts, and practices", p.53
  • "This is the first thing that deconstructionism adds to structuralism: all structures have a center. Note, however, that this model does not work very well for thinking about language", p.53
  • "The structure of the binary opposition, and the fact that one side of a binary only has meaning in relation to the other side, to its opposite, means that every system posits a center, a place from which the whole system comes and which regulates the system.", p.55
  • "[a premise of poststructuralist thought is ] Determinate meaning in language is a product of, and the illusion of, a structure stabilized by a center, which limits play, tries to limit meaning, and which subjects all language-using subjects to its rules", p.88
  • "deconstruction reads a text to see where it posits its own center, how it constructs its own system of 'truth' and 'meaning'", p.59

This centre, "the point where you can't substitute anything" (p.56), transcends the system. Then there's the psychology stuff followed by this summary - "So far we've seen how language operates as structure, and how words, or signs, have meaning; we've also seen how binary oppositions create the basic structures through which we are taught to think about our world, and how we can begin to undo, or deconstruct, some of the ways of thinking. We've seen how a human infant becomes a speaking subject, taking up a position with the structure of language, and how gender and sexuality are shaped and limited by the subject positions available within a fixed system. We've heard about alternative forms of language, where meaning is more fluid and the structure less rigid, and we've been told that these 'feminine' modes of meaning can be deconstructive, shaking up the binary oppositions and the linguistic structures which shape, which are, our reality", p.121

Then we're given glimpses of simulacra and rhizomes.

A "Bluffer's Guide" or a valuable missing link to connect readers with modern theory? I'd say mostly the latter, but you may need to suspend disbelief at times.

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