Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Literary Theory (1) New Criticism Reviewed

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I’m not much interested in literary theory but a recent traumatic university assessment experience has forced me to peer into its bewildering world of arcane verbiage and idiosyncratic intellectuality and attempt to distinguish the proverbial head from tail. The unfashionable schools of Formalism and New Criticism seem to me to make a good deal of sense, although we must overlook some deficiencies of method and update elements of old-school language. My brief comments below were inspired simply by the Wikipedia page, but I thought I would share them.  

New Criticism

Such Formalism looks promising:
New Critics often performed a “close reading” of the text and believed the structure and meaning of the text were intimately connected and should not be analyzed separately rather than analyzing the literary text itself.” = non-separation of content and style.
Content by itself = ‘information’ and everything this could entail (not necessarily having anything to do with the arts), i.e. history, culture, opinion, news, etc.
Style by itself = abstract art (not usually very engaging) or ‘the mode of presentation’: the notepaper, empty stage/screen/Powerpoint slides, etc. In sum, meagre offerings with limited potential.[1]

But Formalism seems less promising in the negative:
“New Critics focused on the text of a work of literature and tried to exclude the reader’s response, the author’s intention, historical and cultural contexts, and moralistic bias from their analysis.”
I would add the words: “unless the text itself, or the method of critical examination, explicitly calls for these.”

“For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the words on the page were all that mattered; importation of meanings from outside the text was considered irrelevant, and potentially distracting.”
This is fair – we are studying literature. To read more into a text than reasonably occurs to one while reading is like neurosis: seeing shadows which are not merited/are based on one’s own personal idiosyncratic character or context.

But we can’t HELP being in a social-political context surely?
This is true but:
1. if the work is contemporary, we are currently IN that context and if the context is relevant it should occur to us naturally when reading. (It is also possible that the cultural character of the current age is not something we can see clearly while living in that age and it is problematic (and off the subject!) to be theorizing about this.)
2. if the work is NOT contemporary, or it is from a context which is strange to us[2] (set in distant lands, concerning a subject we know little about), it is fair to say that the context is then relevant provided it is made explicit that we are interpreting it from a relative standpoint. (It is quite possible to analyze an ancient work as viewed through modern historically-unenlightened eyes.)

This is also a bit of a worry:
Wimsatt and Beardsley also discounted the reader’s personal/emotional reaction to a literary work as a valid means of analyzing a text.
If you discount the reader’s reaction what exactly is the point of art? …I have subsequently done more reading on this and it seems that this sentence is a little misleading. It is not any emotional reaction that is to be discounted but an excessively personalised one (see above). Also, writing about emotion in ‘paint-by-number’ categories, e.g. this bit makes us happy, this bit makes us sad, is not enlightening and over-simplistic.

Criticism of New Criticism:
“Terence Hawkes writes that the fundamental close reading technique is based on the assumption that ‘the subject and the object of study—the reader and the text—are stable and independent forms, rather than products of the unconscious process of signification.’”
1. The subject and object of study ARE stable forms – from a particular perspective. When the particular perspective is ‘white Caucasian academics’ it is true that custom has made it assumed rather than specified. This assumption confers a stability which is merited provided we bear the assumption in mind.
2. The subject and object of study ARE NOT independent forms – I am in agreement with Hawkes here; however are the New Critics really saying the work and reader/context are independent? (See the first and last points on this page.)
3. An unconscious process cannot properly be expressed in words. Not addressing such an area (the unconscious) is usually the practice in other academic criticism: for example, one is not to employ theories of the unconscious when discussing Greek myth or, say, the history of the French Revolution – unless specifically asked to do so. Looking into the unconscious nakedly and constantly creates the kind of morass of messy contradictions and heated debates which is the landscape of current literary theory. Unconscious signification is just that – unconscious. We can hazard vague suggestion of it (and signification methods are illuminated by a greater awareness of the perspective from which we are viewing things) but in the end, digging into the unconscious will only take us off the subject. As per Carl Jung: “Only the material that is clearly and visibly part of a dream should be used in interpreting it.”

“For Hawkes, ideally, a critic ought to be considered to ‘[create] the finished work by his reading of it, and [not to] remain simply an inert consumer of a ‘ready-made’ product.’”
This is the chicken and the egg. A work requires the reader, and a reader requires the work. To assume there is only one side of this is the problem.

A salient point from another New Critic:
“to put meaning and valuation of a literary work at the mercy of any and every individual [reader] would reduce the study of literature to reader psychology and to the history of taste.”
This is largely what indeed has happened.

The idea of target audience is fine if you mean ‘audience from whose perspective it may be beneficial to interpret (or create) this work’. It is problematic if you then suggest that all target audiences are equally sophisticated in their readings, which is no more true than that all people are equally happy, or wise, or intelligent. There is a perspective from which there is no target audience: just me – the personal individual idiosyncratic reading – but this is not usually the vantage point of literary theory which is, if anything, collective to some degree.

[1] Note exception for music where the content is the melody = ‘aural sentence’.

[2] Or we are in a context that is strange to the work


Written by tomtomrant

6 June 2013 at 8:16 pm

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