March 25, 2007

Wright is Not Necessarily Right

Wright, ''The New Psychoanalysis and Literary Criticism'' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

“Reading a text is no longer considered an innocent activity. Post-structuralist criticism undermines the notion that the text contains a stable meaning. The author’s intention is not only not recoverable but was never where he might have thought it was in the first place” (Keesey 393).

Reading a text can still be an innocent activity. For us literary critics, it is no longer an innocent activity, because it requires us to think beyond what we were originally capable of, which is a very difficult skill to obtain. At the same time, there are many readers out there that simply read for pleasure, and can find a simple connection. I would like to argue that reading used to be a joy, and while it still can be, the post-structuralists tend to use complexity in language and literature as something to which one can not find just a simple meaning in a literary text. As long as one can create a relationship between any aspect of a novel, poem, etc…, we can find that the Post-structuralist argument is one that appears to be invalid. While I agreed on the theory that literature is complex, the meaning that one can gain from the text is easier than one would imagine. I find it more than necessary to attempt to try to find another meaning in a text, because that is the greatest part about literature, the search for meaning. But to say that reading is no longer an innocent activity is too bold, because it should be considered that there is a 15-year-old student that finds a simple relationship to a text that keeps them enjoying the literature far after he reads it.

Posted by The Gentle Giant at March 25, 2007 6:36 PM


Posted by: Dave Moio at March 28, 2007 12:19 PM

Lots of random thoughts... these won't all coalesce into coherent response, but I thought I'd let loose anyway.

Note that Keesey here is not arguing the point himself, but rather articulating one of the key principles of poststructuralism. Rather than argue against him here, it's probably more productive to use this detail to help you understand this particular world view.

Deconstruction will be very useful if a student arrives in the classroom with a rigid sense of what is "interesting" literature and what is "boring". Depending on the age of your students, you might examine the sexual puns that Romeo and his homies use, and contrast that to the language Romeo uses when talking to Juliet; you might then ask students to consider "locker-room talk" and the portrayal of women in rap music, vs. the way people publicly talk about their significant others in their MySpace profiles.

The point is that the student who arrived with a rigid sense of what counts as "interesting" and what counts as "boring" needs to be shaken up and forced to consider how limiting and ultimately unsupportable any rigid binary opposition is.

If we recognize that a text has a meaning only when the reader ascribes meaning to it, that pretty much nails the final lid on the coffin of "write down what the teacher says and spit it back for credit." But a student who claims a text was "boring" because he or she didn't actually finish it is not making a decision based on taste or aesthetics. That's a choice not to engage, and it implies a set of values. We all make decisions about what is or isn't important to us on a given day, but if you concede that the author loses control of a text once it's published, and you concede that the meaning that each individual reader makes is important, then there's a big yawning gap in what used to be literary instruction, and you have disaffected students judging a work they have not read. You can't fill up class time by reciting brilliant insights for the students to memorize, but they can't say anything intelligent about the text until they have read it.

When I sing in the shower or sing Happy Birthday with my family, "signing" means something very different from what happened when I used to lead song in church, or on stage in a musical.

Any kind of intellectual activity can look extreme or ridiculous outside of the proper context.

If I were to insist on doing warm-up exercises and getting the right pitch before singing "Happy Birthday" when my daughter turns five in a few weeks, that would be excessive -- but it would not diminish the value of those techniques in the context of a professional concert hall.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at March 28, 2007 1:59 PM
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