5 June 2011

Ghosts of University Past

A while ago, when reading a post on John C. Wright's journal, I came across this video, and while I don't agree with it in its entirety, I must say some of it took me unwillingly down memory lane..  First, here's the video.

As I said, I do not agree with it in its entirety, but what did strike a chord is the idea of narrative, and, in particular, its relation to critical theory,

During my time in university, the old forms of criticism were pretty much abandoned.  We no longer appreciated books, or read them for pleasure, but rather, we encountered "texts" which were neither good nor bad, and which inherently said nothing.  We were told that it was impossible to ever understand a text perfectly, so, any reading was in part a misreading. While there was nothing new about this notion- no critic ever claimed a perfect understanding of any book, to the best of my knowledge- the critical theorists turned this idea that a valid reading of a book would also be a misreading, at least in part, on its head and then claimed that a misreading was a valid reading.  a book could not mean whatever the interpreter wanted it to.  Then this got married to the notion of narrative, and all texts told the story the interpret wished them to tell, and usually bad stories at that- sexism, racism, classism, all the evil isms were represented in what were once considered the great works of Western Art, the bedrock of our society.  If the old great works once embodied the ideals of our culture, critical theory stripped the ideals away from us, and instead gave us nothing.  The most common brand of Critical Theory practiced at my university was called "Deconstruction", which, as the name implies, builds nothing, only tears down the work of others.

For instance, I once gave a seminar that ended up giving me no end of headaches for quite some time.  I was going to present on Sir Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella.  My troubles began because another student, who was considered to be a rising star at the time, presented on the same work before me.

In her interpretation, she consulted her feminist theory to see what was to be seen in the poems.  It told her that the poems were sexist, about the subjection of the object woman (Stella) to the dominant gaze of the male observer/poet, Astrophil.  Astrophil dominates Stella through his poetic practices, forcing her in his poetry to be the woman he desires to be, as his poetry represented her and dissected her for consumption.  So dependent upon her feminist critical theory for this reading, she quoted frequently and often feminist critical theorists, but she did not once quote the work she was interpreting. The work was going to fit her narrative, the only thing she believed was to be seen.  What the work actually said was less important that what the critics had already decided it had to say.

To be honest to that student, and I was to note in my presentation, her interpretation would have been accurate had it been applied to virtually any other sonnet sequence extant today- but not to this one.  This one was quite different.

I had prepared myself in a different way.  My presentation was based on, first and foremost, the poems themselves, and also another work by Sir Philip Sidney entitled "A Defense of Poesie" in which he outlines what he believes to be the nature and job of poetry.  It seemed to me to be a no brainer at the time to take  the man's ideas of what poetry should be and do, and apply it to his own poems, but that was not apparent to my colleagues. 

The guts of my presentation went like this:  Sir Phillip Sidney says in his Defence that the purpose of poetry is to move and delight the reader.  Poetry is, in short, an art of persuasion. Astrophil and Stella is a series of sonnets in which the poet fails to persuade and move the main target of his poetry, namely, Stella. In the whole work, Stella speaks only once, and that is to tell Astrophil "no".  Astrophil cannot persuade Stella and therefore, according to Sidney's own ideas about poetry, he is a failure as a poet.  But more than this, Sidney also says in his Defense that poetry shows the rewards given to the good, and the punishments given to the wicked, as it shows behaviours that are to be emulated and those which are to be shunned.  Astrophil and Stella, therefore, is a warning to the reader in general not to behave like this. 

The other student was livid with me that I had shot down her presentation, for denying her narrative, for failing to affirm that her narrative was correct.  She became yet another rising star in the department whom I had alienated, because I still had this quaint and outdated notion of looking for what was to be be seen, rather than simply seeing what the theories and narratives told me was to be seen.  I had committed the secular heresy of denying the narrative, and denying the nihilism of modern scholarship and saying that there was, in fact, meaning in a text.  I used to tell my students, a book may be able to support any number of interpretations, but that does not mean it will support just any interpretation.  One narrative does not fit all.

1 comment:

Belfry Bat said...

Suddenly I've an entirely new perspective on how all this nonsense went terribly terribly wrong! It all starts with Satan, of course... but the present lie about texts finds its most insidious expression in that Lutheran slogan Sola scriptura ... --- that [sacred] scripture alone is teacher. Somewhere among the meandering deltas of history were recognized as being divine, not the Word (although none can say He isn't), but the text: these particular words. Somewhere else --- i've forgetten where --- was noted that the fairly-old method of carefully disecting poetry to tease out the author's meaning (and weigh his skill) grew out of the same very fruitful teasing-out of the senses of scripture. Now it seems in postmodern literary criticism the same deification of one's favourite texts-as-such, and separated them from anything else the particular authors might have had to say.