Initial Review of Issues/Premises Via Essays in Critical Terms for Literary
Flores/Initial Review of Issues/Premises Via Essays in Critical
Terms for Literary Study, Eds. Lentricchia and McLaughlin
Critical theory examines how
specific discourses or language practices shape how we read/interpret/understand,
construct/construe identities, and produce meaning (1).
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).
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)
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.
The reader actuates the potential
meanings made possible by the text and by socially constructed and
enforced interpretative processes.
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.
Signs and representations
presume a kind of social agreement and never occur in isolation: there is
always a context invoked for interpretation (13).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
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).
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).
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).
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).
However, familiar or repeated
stories (plots) may reassure us about the order and relations (ideology)
those stories represent and enact (72).
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).