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.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

"Living with Theory" by Vincent B. Leitch (Blackwell, 2008)

This book makes a case for teaching modern literary theory. He says that "Starting in the 1990s and up to the present, cultural studies in English departments occupies a central position as did formalism/New criticism from the 1940s to the 1960s and poststructuralism from the 1970s to the 1980s. It is the dominant model of research and scholarship in a field of contenders, only vastly more heterogeneous than its two immediate forerunners" (p.25). His position is stated on p.1 when he says "I for one do not long for or personally miss the previous era's insulating aestheticism, obsessive stylistic analysis, predictable search for image patterns and archetypes, and thin history ... It warned against the heresy of paraphrase, fearing the connection of literature to life.". In contrast, "contemporary theory has a special penchant for exploring margins, contradictions, countercurrents, and resistances, unlike the earlier period's obsession with unity, harmony, balance and wholeness.".

He suggests some questions that literary theory might address "What is literature? Who defines it? In what ways? How is it produced, disseminated, used, evaluated? What are the protocols of interpretation? How and why do the definitions, roles, and social positions of author, reader, and literary genre change? What institutions are involved in literature and literary teaching? Do past answers so such questions have currency today?" (p.19). As he points out earlier, "This cross-disciplinary pastiche is, not surprisingly, subject to the broad critique of postmodernism, especially for its undermining the hard-won autonomy gained during modern times for both the university and the academic disciplines" (p.11).

He gives space to those who object to the supposed domination of the syllabus by literary theory. For example, even if one considers these questions relevant, the issue remains of what priority they should have. Students studying science could spend their time dealing with questions like "What is Science?" but they're too busy learning and doing science. Why shouldn't literature students be given literature to study first and foremost? On p.22 this "often seeming hysterical" complaint is addressed (see MLA Newsletter 23.4 and Association of Departments of English Bulletin 101 for details of surveys).

He points out that "Angry charges of partisanship and classroom advocacy invariably arise in attacks upon the teaching of contemporary theory. The time-tested way to avoid such problems is to teach all schools of criticism as optional points of view and reading strategies - the so-called approaches method ... Teach the conflicts and stay out of it" (p.22). But this approach sacrifices depth for breadth, and time's in short supply. Perhaps one should have faith in one's convictions. The loss of New Criticism objectivity doesn't worry him - "Compulsory objectivity and obligatory critical disinterest, sacred cows of many a theory opponent, often mask blind spots, racial and gender privileges, nationalistic mindsets, and prejudices" (p.23), suggesting that taking a stance might be more acceptable - "This standpoint epistemology, characteristic of our postmodern posthumanist times, challenges all calls for neutrality" (p.23). Nor can we pretend to transcend politics - "Notwithstanding some recent quixotic turns to reborn formalism and pure aesthetics, nearly all academic theorists of literature and culture have been firmly disabused of the idea, or even hope, of being above politics" (p.67).

So responses to texts may need to be more personal and varied. Approaches to analysing texts have changed. "In the wake of 1970s reader-response criticism, especially, theory often came to mean a toolbox of interpretive strategies" leading to a "postmodernisation of reading practices ... It goes without saying that "close reading" retains high prestige among academic reading practises ... [old-style close reading] required not only focus on the words upon the page but also numerous programmatic exclusions: of author's intentions, historical and political contexts, reader's personal feelings, social forces, philosophical concepts, institutional factors, and didactic values whereas now lecturers are "teaching slow painstaking line-by-line, word-by-word analysis of ... isolated passages of discourse, attending to all manner of topics, form and style included, with no set list of taboos ... Call it postmodern close reading"" (p.46-47). He considers other ways of discussing texts - how fans of Startrek discuss things, for example. They too perform close readings, but they also explore the texts by creatively rewriting them, and by going behind the scenes - finding out about the actors and directors.

When people denigrate "theory" they often mean "post-structuralism", not realising that they'd find allies amongst today's theorists. Leitch thinks its prominence has been receding since the late 1980s, that its teaching has been more or less standardized by now. Current theory takes from post-structuralism what's useful for any particular text and, along with a toolbox of other techniques, analyses texts in ways that shouldn't frighten traditionalists. New Criticism focused on "the work itself" but the edges of the work were always fuzzy. Seeing the word "gay" in a 19th century work, readers today won't assume that it means "homosexual", but there are other words that they might misunderstand. "woman" for instance has different connotations now. What were roses like in Shakespeare's time? Timeless concepts like love are affected by the changing status of women, and changing attitudes to homosexuality. Telephones change how distance affects relationships. Even if we "naively" want to understand what the author meant we need to know something about politics and sociology. If we "just" study literature in order to enjoy texts more, then other disciplines might be useful too. It may be that canonical works might not best illustrate the value of this multi-disciplined approach, which is maybe why a wider range of "low culture" texts are used with students. After that they can tackle works where interpretation is complicated by intrinsic (or at least traditionally validated) merit.

What the book covers less well are the voids that modern theory leaves, the responsibilities it has talked itself out of. For example, who's taken over canon formation? Steven Conner in "Theory and Cultural Value" suggested that the notion of literary value has been "driven into the critical unconscious", no longer "available for analytic scrutiny" but still exerting an influence.

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