Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thank You for the Flowers and the Book by Derrida

You don’t have to like literary theory. Hell, I understand not enjoying theory. It’s an arcane subset of the humanities, and it sometimes feels like an attempt to dress up itinerant musing with the scientific method. In other fields, theory is the safe playground to explore new ideas with out actually altering anything, but with literature, it only takes one read of an article to potentially permanently impact your point of view, even if you disagree, especially if you disagree. It’s hard to do well and it’s easy to use it poorly. However, not liking it is not the same as disliking it, and disliking theory is somewhere between superstitiously avoiding carwashes and being a vehement supporter of magnet therapy. If you dislike literary theory, I want you to give me a chance to turn that around.


Dismissing or disliking theoretical texts as a whole is a lot like having a beef with hammers. They both have a specific use, and a skilled craftsman can find a particular love for the different types and their varied idiosyncrasies and applications, and improvising with them can be anything from a stroke of genius to a booze soaked felony, but without a user, they are heavy and cumbersome, but easy to pack away and ignore, easy to forget.

Most of these aren’t great examples, but for the most part, the really good stuff I’ve got is in PDFs or pirated binders assembled by kind-hearted PhDs (yarr, ‘tis true).


Each deadlier than the last.

As you can see, it can show up in many forms, from broad cultural critique (serving as the support texts: philosophical works, religious tracts, classical thought, political diatribes, sociological position papers), to specific piece critique, an essay written about a particular work.

There’s a third big category, the latter that also serves as a former, one in which texts of the second are so groundbreaking they become used as the former, but that’s more rare than most theorists’ ego may like. S/Z, pictured above, is a pretty good example of this, as are most of Umberto Eco’s greatest hits, although he does his dance through an extra layer of difficulty, using allegory, weaving fiction and theory together, essentially applying his work with semiotics as he goes, creating his evidence.

Anyway. Essentially, works of the first category are used to leverage open a story to allow for the creation of the second category.

The second category is what many of you were exposed to in lower division English classes in college, and maybe a little bit in AP English classes in high school. These are the stereotypes, the works that everyone thinks of when they hear the words “literary theory,” photocopies of chapters out of books you’ve never heard of telling you what an author Is Really Saying.

Now, here’s what almost every English teacher forgets to tell you: “what the author/piece is saying/means” is shorthand.

Proper theory isn’t about prescription, it’s about description, it is, more often than not, an invitation to have a conversation about a piece and what it can and/or does mean to a specific group of people in a specific socio-political context. While the field is, as far as popular opinion knows, dominated by wet, gay, French Marxists who are wildly comfortable speaking as if God farted genius bubbles into their amniotic wading pools, it really is just shorthand.

Why teachers forget to preface theory discussion with intro-students boggles my mind.

And that’s probably why there are so many different schools of theory. There’s Marxist (the most popular, but not because people are Marxist, it’s devotees are just incapable of shutting up for five minutes, although to be fair, in many ways, they popularized the field), Structuralist, Post-Structuralist, Feminist, Historicist, New Criticism (getting old), Comparative, Post-Colonial (my favorite, but this bias might be because I have more of it in my background than any other), Romanticism, Queer studies (exactly what it sounds like), Psychoanalytical (this overlaps with a lot of the others), just to name a few, each with their own critical lens, their own way of evaluating a text, with something to say about what it says to each of them.

Which is what it’s all about, really. Literary theory is an academic framework to describe what a story means to someone, which, in turn, hopefully reveals what we’re thinking, how others receive what we’re thinking, and what it will mean for our legacy.

Critical literary theory is somewhere between introspection on a massive scale and artistic appreciation, both done by way of archeological exploration of a society before that society is dead. It's a way to turn reading from a passive method of passing the time to an active, aggressively stimulating exercise in critical thinking. If anything, it manages to do so while still preserving literature as a pleasurable past-time. It’s difficult, and it takes passion, and I happen to think it’s a lot of fun.