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Thursday, January 17, 2013

While looking at the last time I taught theory, I notice that I framed things differently

Theory Lecture I: Introduction (validity, interdisciplinarity, eclecticism, voice, application)


In some sense we will have to put the question of “validity” between parentheses. After all, we aren’t scientists, right? And yet the problem of what makes for a valid critical approach does not simply go away. For example, structuralism in literary analysis depends on structuralism in linguistics (and anthropology): if the underlying linguistics is not valid, then what is the point of using this method in literary analysis? Another example is psychoanalysis: critics using this method assumed that Freud was fundamentally correct in his analysis of how the human mind works. Now, there are serious questions about whether he was in fact correct, so I don’t believe that those questions are safe to ignore, simply because as literary scholars we aren’t scientists.

Disciplines are narrow channels that run very deep. The problem of literature as a discipline is that it always seems to need support from elsewhere for its validity. That’s one idea of what theory is: bringing in support from elsewhere to shore up the intellectual validity and prestige of what we do. The argument is that if we have no theory, then we will be dependent on an unarticulated theory. Perhaps a positivism? A naive empiricism? But, if the discipline on which we call for intellectual reinforcements is itself struggling with questions of validation, that means that we must interrogate the validity of that discipline as well.

(To start off with, we are going to read two essays on validity, by Thomas Kuhn and Isaiah Berlin. The Berlin is a highly technical essay. The Kuhn, however, is a little more accessible. Kuhn wrote a fundamental book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that has been subject to some basic misunderstandings. In this essay Kuhn attempts to clarify some of his ideas.)

What most people in our field do is to practice a kind of eclecticism. In poststructuralist theory there was kind of a break from the idea of validity. In structuralism, for example, there was still the idea that structuralist linguistics and anthropology was a good scientific basis for the study of literature, providing a good analogy, at the very least, for what literary criticism would try to do. Literary semiotics was to be based on a scientific study of signs. With poststructuralism, however, this rational or empirical substrate no longer applied.

In English we use the word “science” to mean natural science, primarily. In French, there is the term “les sciences humaines,” what we would call in English “social sciences” plus “the humanities.” All “science” really means is “knowledge.” What makes knowledge scientific is its validity, in other words, not its truthfulness but its methodical nature.

It might be helpful to think of two major theories of knowledge: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism is rooted in the French tradition of René Descartes. The basic idea is that knowledge comes from the intrinsic qualities of the mind. Kant is also rationalist. In this sense. So is Noam Chomsky.

Empiricism is stronger in the English speaking world. (John Locke is a founder of this tradition. Think, too, of Hume.) The idea of empiricism is the primacy of experience, not reason. We have to actually go out and do the experiment; we can’t just rely on a priori ideas. (Experiment and experience have the same root). For some, empiricism is naive, in that experience is never unmediated by some abstract or theoretical scheme. On the other hand, the opposing argument says that rationalism is too deductive, trying to impose its ideas on reality and ignoring the actual evidence. I think it was easier to make a jump to a position in which validation itself was not as important, in a rationalist tradition like the French one.

There are other such divisions in intellectual style that might be useful for us in this class: between “lumpers” and “splitters,” for example. Lumpers try to synthesize and group things in larger categories. Splitters look for fine distinctions. There are hedgehogs and foxes. (This is from I. Berlin). Hedgehogs have one move, one technique, which they do very very well. They basically bury themselves in a hole. Foxes have a variety of strategies. They are “jacks of all trades, masters of none.” Just so you know where my own biases lie: I am a fox, not a hedgehog, and a splitter rather than a lumper. I have respect for both rationalism and empiricism, but am tending more toward the empirical pole lately.

Very, very strong critics can end up being hedgehogs. By this I mean critics who come up with one very good idea, and then apply it with success in many different contexts. One example might be Harold Bloom with the “anxiety of influence.” The problem with hedgehoggism is that we will be able to predict what the critic is going to say: the conclusion is determined a priori. (In this sense the hedgehogs are more rationalist than empiricists, more Platonists than Aristotelianas.) It is probably worse to be a hedgehog with someone else’s idea. If I were to apply Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” to everythings I see, it might be somewhat less effective than if Bloom does.

The problem with the fox is that the fox tends to have less of a strong identity. We don’t know what the fox’s principles are, what the fox will say in any given situation.

The goal for us all is to find a critical voice. You should be able to define what you are interested in and what positions you take. That’s one of the goals of this course. I think these categories (hedgehog, fox, lumper, splitter) might be useful in the process of self-definition.

By the end of your graduate career, you should be able to do a theoretical analysis that does not blindly “apply” a scheme, but, rather, intelligently looks to how and why the theory fits the material that you want it to fit. Usually, it won’t fit very well. In other words, your theory won’t automatically lead to “valid” results. These gaps between literary theory and the practice of literary criticism are significant opportunities.

“Finding a voice,” entails reading and absorbing a lot of material, thinking critically about what we read. As I mentioned earlier, I want you to do a paper in which you explore a theoretical issue, not one in which you take a given theory and apply it. The reasons have to do with the developmental stage you are as critics / theorists. The skill I am looking to develop is that of evaluating the discourse of literary theory. If you can’t do that, then it will be difficult to judge what theory will be appropriate to apply. There is no such thing as a pre-established method for doing a “deconstruction” of a text, or a “Lacanian reading.” There aren’t formulas. (Or if there are, they should be avoided!)

Understanding what a theorist says is not equivalent to endorsing that position. We can disagree with a given perspective in our class discussions, but we must understand first what exactly what that position is. It’s also important not to prematurely criticize a position, or to criticize a particular article based on one narrow mistake (that we think) it makes. Negative critique is almost too easy. When I present the ideas of a particular theorist, I will be, in some sense, pretending that I agree with him or her, at first, just to make sure we all understand what the points are. There may be great value in a particular essay, even if we end up disagreeing with its main thrust or with individual side issues.

If we go back to the idea that the theory is not likely to fit, exactly, our needs, that there will be a gap between theory and practice, then we can see that it isn’t that important whether we agree with every single detail of a given article: that is going to be a rare exception. A similar situation obtains with literary works themselves. Insofar as literature embodies ideological positions, we are likely never to find many works that line up exactly with our own positions. Finding misogyny in medieval literature is pretty easy.

It can be empowering to a graduate student to realize that Bakhtin is full of shit, or that Mr. Famous Theorist comes up with a position that is not tenable on its face. What I am saying is that it’s good to resist that temptation.

2 comments:

Professor Zero said...

1. Am I mistaken or is Lorca's support for his theories not literature itself? ...Or am I just thinking broadly (I consider JRJ narrow)...?

2. "Disciplines are narrow channels that run very deep."

I am interdisciplinary from day 1 and I say that to be interdisciplinary you have to have at least 2 full disciplines.

Latest dictum from dean: if student is a minor then they get to decide to substitute something you assign with something they invent on the theory that it is more relevant to their major. This from their day 1.
I am révoltée.

Jonathan said...

1. There is another lecture where I talk about poetics in the sense of literature about literature. This was my introduction from 2009 and I would do it very differently now. Though I still agree with some of this.

2. So I can't just read an article by Clifford Geertz and say I'm interdisciplinary?