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War! Huh, What is it good for?

...different readings struggle with each other on the site of the text, and all that can count, however provisionally, as knowledge of the text, is achieved through this discursive conflict (Barker and Hulme 444).

When I read this, for some reason I got this hilarious image of the pages of a text as a battleground where miniature critics stand on the page plucking the words up that support their argument and hurling them at other critics standing nearby. The page is a frenzy as words hurl across the page, splitting midair, and individual letters clonk the critics on the heads. At the end of the battle the critics stand exhausted with bumps on their foreheads on a page where sentences and words no longer exist. Letters lie in piles of rubble, entangled together and unable to find the word and sentence they came from. The text is destroyed.

I think this is the impression that many people get when they think of literary critics. They imagine men dissecting the text, pulling at the words, until the whole cannot be put back together again. While I did have fun imagining little mini critics bashing each other on the head with letters, ultimately, this is not the way that I view literary criticism. The text is not Humpty Dumpty, but instead it has magic healing powers: if one critic takes it apart to argue his claim, another critic can always pluck a few other lines out to make a different claim, and still the original text will remain. These critics add something to the text: by plucking a line here or there and adding their own train of thought to it, these trains of thoughts now trail behind the text.

My dad always scoffs at me for my choice as literature as a major (he doesn't understand, math brainiac that he is) and says, "I don't understand why you can't just read a book to read it." In a sense, he views what we've been doing to poor old texts such as "The Yellow Wallpaper" all semester (particularly Derek, who seems to have formed a strange attachment to that text in particular...haha) much like the image I imagined after reading Barker and Hulme's quote above.

While, like I said earlier, I don't agree with such a depressing take on criticism, I think they do raise a good point: our criticisms can affect the text we criticize. While they may not destroy the original text, they add to it, and many readers might be affected by our claims. While this is, in fact, the goal of criticism, I think as critics we need to keep the structural integrity, so to speak, of the text in mind when we make a claim about it (even if you're a deconstructionist and your goal is to undermine the texts underlying and assumptive structure). This warning relates to an issue I do have with literary criticism: it seems to me that critics need to wary of their motives in making an argument about a text--Are they using the text to support a belief they hold outside of reading the text? (as many feminist critics seemed to do in our readings) I think, as critics, we need to keep in mind that our main goal is to interpret the text, not to attach our personal beliefs to it.

Finally, while I think that the battle between critics over a particular text is valuable, and that we do increase our knowledge of a text, as Barker and Hulme state, I also believe that we should not lose sight of the original text in our arguments. In a sense, I think we need to be a formalist before we decide to be anything else when criticizing a text.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 20, 2009 1:00 AM.

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