Initial Review of Issues/Premises Via Essays in Critical Terms for Literary Study, Eds

Flores/Initial Review of Issues/Premises Via Essays in Critical Terms for Literary Study, Eds. Lentricchia and McLaughlin

  1. Critical theory examines how specific discourses or language practices shape how we read/interpret/understand, construct/construe identities, and produce meaning (1).
  2. Because the terms (words as well as larger relations of texts/contexts/institutions) through which we make meaning develop out of social use and are themselves part of our inquiry (interpretation), we are engaged in larger cultural debates and exchanges : we need to be aware of such engagements (4-5).
  3. Some basic premises: a) Literature is not an autonomous object of knowledge but a writing practice/activity; b) critical theory continues to debate whether we can determine meaning—how does meaning exist and how is it produced? (5-6)
  4. Because literature is not purely aesthetic—separate from qualities and connections shared with (its) cultural context(s), we always occupy positions from which we read/interpret: our reading practice plays out within such contexts and positions and related assumptions; we may assume, for example, that our desires for certain meanings proceed from one context or motive when such desire could be explained in relation to a different set of relations and concerns.
  5. The reader actuates the potential meanings made possible by the text and by socially constructed and enforced interpretative processes.
  6. Through interpretation we act rhetorically, taking positions with interests to persuade, exchanging texts with others, and reconstructing the meanings of texts as well as the meaning of ourselves.
  7. Signs and representations presume a kind of social agreement and never occur in isolation: there is always a context invoked for interpretation (13).
  8. But representations/texts cannot be controlled completely or desire articulated fully: it is as if the text eludes attempts to determine its meanings, prompting us to repeat interpretive strategies familiar to us as a way of trying to understand or to master the text’s “otherness” (20-21).
  9. Moreover, there are gaps between one’s intention and its textual realization, and among writers, texts, and readers. Yet gaps also invite the production of unforeseen and uncontrolled meanings (21).
  10. One way of trying to understand literature is in terms of its relation to history (250). If one could assume that history is comprised of knowable facts/events/attitudes, then a particular cultural and historical setting and its predominant ethos/meaning could be seen to shape and to inform its literature (251).
  11. Formalists resist this privileging of history over literature by claiming that literary language and practice evinces unique qualities and structures (forms) that do not function primarily with reference to the world or its representation but with reference instead to literature, with this distinct and self-referential character used as a basis for formalists’ claims about both the nature of literature and the human condition.
  12. Formalists (e.g., New Critics), therefore, tended to bar literature from history or from analyzing it as a social practice, and they did not consider the possibility of questioning the boundaries between history and literature or of critiquing the supposed objectivity of history itself.
  13. Deconstruction, however, challenged the assumption that literary language is unique by showing how all discourse constructs “truths” and meanings through interpretive conventions and relationships: these reading practices turn upon the figurative aspects of language—upon the figuration of tropes and metaphors—in a futile effort to stabilize or ground interpretation (upon , for example, the privileging of one term over another, or certain metaphysical/philosophical assumptions that seek origins and bases of authority to account for or to determine meaning).
  14. Deconstruction may suggest that meanings are always in play, detached from claims of referentiality or direct correspondence to the world, but the premises of deconstruction also enable us to resituate literature as a form of cultural practice and production that has a material life and effects (260).
  15. If the meanings of “individual” texts are now made problematic—situated in relation to culture and the uncertain play of language and signification—then “individuality” and one’s assumed autonomy and the possibility of self-recognition or understanding are also called into question. Such attempts to identify cultural positions and identities alert us to the heterogeneity within and across cultures, and to conflicting positions, and perhaps the possibility of significant actions and agency because of the limits or lack of wholly successful determinations of meaning and identity (261).
  16. If literature puts our identities into play, sometime precariously, it may be understood as enabling us both to experiment with possible selves and it may work to instruct us about what positions or places we (should) take in the world (69).
  17. Fictions thus not only reflect but make culture, acting to police behavior or perhaps to challenge the reigning assumptions of a given culture, to test alternative ways of being or seeing (70).
  18. However, familiar or repeated stories (plots) may reassure us about the order and relations (ideology) those stories represent and enact (72).
  19. We need such repeated plots because in some way the stories do not fully satisfy our desires or accomplish their functions and goals. Each story contains some loose end that unravels its effect (72), and often this unraveling occurs because of the text’s dependence upon a figure or system of figurative language that can be deconstructed to show how the text’s figures and rhetoric attempt to contain and unify conflicts that the text cannot fully resolve (77).
  20. For instance, the shifting and problematic distinctions between a word’s “proper” and “figurative” meanings (85) can make us aware of how language is a system of figures through which our ideas and knowledge become possible, and through which we “agree” upon what is “true” (87). Yet this awareness of the social and systemic nature of meaning may enable us to challenge received andpracticed values and meanings presented in texts and produced in our interpretations.
  21. This awareness of how meaning can be both “determined” by some groups and then made “indeterminate” by others, and the notion of exploring how texts fail to fulfill their purposes (165-66), may undermine our confidence in being able to determine or to control meaning—or to agree upon interpretation and to reach mutual understandings as we choose and negotiate among “relevant” contexts for deciding upon particular meanings (167).
  22. Furthermore, not only are the contexts and premises to which we appeal to settle disputes subject to dispute, intentions themselves are shadowy and unstable, riddled with repressed desires and meanings (169ff).
  23. Hence, we seek to find ways to relate determinacy and indeterminacy, to mediate or confer among different contexts and positions. In Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler describes much the same situation/issue: "If we must adopt some overall principle or formula, we might say that meaning is determined by context, since context includes the rules of language, the situation of the author and reader, and anything else that might conceivably be relevant. But if we say that meaning is context-bound, then we must add that context is boundless: there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant, what enlarging of context might be able to shift what we regard as the meaning of a text. Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless" (67).