Presentation on theme: "LITERARY THEORY (Part 1). Post-Structuralism Post-structuralism and Structuralism Post-structuralism both challenges structuralism and grows out of."— Presentation transcript:
LITERARY THEORY (Part 1)
Post-structuralism and Structuralism Post-structuralism both challenges structuralism and grows out of it. Structuralism contends with the construction of texts, it “focuses its attention on the text, understood as a construct whose mode of function must be described,” usually through a focus on narrative structure. But structuralism proves inadequate to address particular questions surrounding the text: “reader, author, discourse as communicative practice and as ideology.”
The appeal of structuralism is that it seems to add a certain objectivity, almost a scientific objectivity, to the realm of literary studies (which have often been criticized as purely subjective/impressionistic). This scientific objectivity is achieved by subordinating "parole" to "langue;" actual usage is abandoned in favor of studying the structure of a system in the abstract. Thus structuralist readings ignore the specificity of actual texts and treat them in terms of patterns, systems, and structures. The text is a function of a system, not of an individual. This is an explicit rejection of the Romantic humanist model, which holds that the author is the origin of the text, its creator, and thus the starting point of the text. Under structuralism, the text has no origin. Language speaks us, we don’t speak language. Every text is effectively “always already written,” canceling out the operation of history. Again, a major challenge to humanism.
Humanism The humanist model presupposed: 1.) That there is a real world out there that we can understand with our rational minds. 2.) That language is capable of (more or less) accurately depicting that real world. 3.) That language is a product of the individual writer's mind or free will, meaning that we determine what we say, and what we mean when we say it; that language thus expresses the essence of our individual beings (and that there is such a thing as an essential unique individual “self”). 4.) That the self (also known as the "subject," since that's how we represent the idea of a self in language, by saying I, which is the subject of a sentence—or the individual (or the mind or the free will) is the center of all meaning and truth; words mean what I say they mean, and truth is what I perceive as truth. I create my own sentences out of my own individual experiences and need for individual expression.
Structuralism The structuralist model argues: 1.) That the structure of language itself produces "reality"—that we can think only through language, and therefore our perceptions of reality are all framed by and determined by the structure of language. 2.) That language speaks us; that the source of meaning is not an individual's experience or being, but the sets of oppositions and operations, the signs and grammars that govern language. Meaning doesn't come from individuals, but from the system that governs what any individual can do within it. 3.) Rather than seeing the individual as the center of meaning, structuralism places the structure at the center--it's the structure that originates or produces meaning, not the individual self. Language in particular is the center of self and meaning; I can only say "I" because I inhabit a system of language in which the position of subject is marked by the first personal pronoun, hence my identity is the product of the linguistic system I occupy.
Post-structuralism Post-structuralism also challenges the humanist manner of thinking, but in a slightly different manner. Post-structuralism rejects the notion of a discernable “truth” of the text implicit in the structuralist approach. Post-structuralism also contends with some of the previously neglected aspects of the text: reader, author, discourse, etc. “While structuralism sees the truth as being ‘behind’ or ‘within’ a text, post-structuralism stresses the interaction of reader and text as a productivity.”
Post-structuralist theory grows out of the work of a number of theorists, but two are of particular interest to us: Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Foucault and Derrida
Foucault: analysis of discursive practices that lay claim to revealing knowledge. Rather than analyzing these practices for “truth,” he analyzes them in terms of their history of genesis. Foucault sought to show how the development of knowledge was intertwined with the mechanisms of power. Derrida: language or “texts” are not a natural reflection of the world. Text structures our interpretation of the world. Language shapes us: texts create a space that we understand as reality. The history of western thought, and thus of western texts, is based on opposition: good versus evil, man versus woman, speech versus writing, etc.
Binary Oppositions These oppositions are defined hierarchically: the second term is seen as a corruption of the first. All texts contain a legacy of these assumptions, and as a result they can be re-interpreted with an awareness of the hierarchies implicit in language. But there is no end point of interpretation, no “truth.” All texts allow multiple interpretations. Meaning is diffuse, not settled. Textuality gives us a surplus of possibilities, yet we cannot stand outside of textuality in an attempt to find objectivity. To further clarify: according to Derrida, texts are indeed systems, and any system necessarily posits a center, a point from which everything comes, and to which everything refers or returns. Sometimes it’s God, sometimes it’s the human self, the mind, the unconscious, or what have you, depending upon what philosophical system or set of beliefs we’re talking about. Moreover, as mentioned, all systems or structures are created of binary pairs or oppositions.
Some of these binary oppositions are foundational: particularly the privileging of presence over absence. The privileging of presence is part of what Derrida refers to as logocentrism. Because of the favoring of presence over absence, speech is favored over writing (and, as we'll see with Freud, masculine is favored over feminine because the penis is defined as a presence, whereas the female genitals are defined as absence). It’s because of this favoring of presence over absence that every system posits a center, a place from which the whole system comes, which guarantees its meaning. What Derrida ultimately tells us is that each of these terms designating the center of a system serves two purposes; it’s the thing that created the system, that originated it and guarantees that all parts of the system interrelate, and it’s also something beyond the system, not governed by the system’s rules.
However, language itself, as a system or structure, does not have a center. There is no central term or idea that creates language and that holds it all together. This is an extremely important idea, for Derrida and for poststructuralism. Without a center to hold the elements of the system in place, there is no absolute or definitive "truth" or "meaning." Language is always shifting and moving, not fixed by a center—hence meaning is always ambiguous, multiple, and provisional. We’ll talk about this more in the next theory unit.
Deconstruction Here's the basic method of deconstruction: find a binary opposition. Show how each term, rather than being polar opposite of its paired term, is actually part of it. Then the structure or opposition which kept them apart collapses. Ultimately, you can't tell which is which, and the idea of binary opposites loses meaning, or is put into "play" (more on this in the next theory unit). This method is called "Deconstruction" because it is a combination of construction/destruction--the idea is that you don't simply construct new system of binaries, with the previously subordinated term on top, nor do you destroy the old system--rather, you deconstruct the old system by showing how its basic units of structuration (binary pairs and the rules for their combination) contradict their own logic.
Three Tenets of Post-structuralism
(1) The Primacy of Theory In contemporary philosophy, it has become incumbent upon every critic to "theorize" every position and critical practice. In effect, "theory" has almost in and of itself become an independent field of study and research in the humanities, designating as it now does any account of whatever conditions determine all meaning and interpretation. In addition, much of contemporary theory seeks to challenge, destabilize, and subvert the foundational assumptions and beliefs which comprise all modes of discourse that make up western civilization. Because of this ongoing and at times rather stridently oppositional stance, post-structural criticism has been associated with an adversarial stance that often takes on the established institutional and political forces in American society.
(2) The Decentering of the Subject Poststructural critics have called into question the very existence of the human "subject" or "self" posited by "humanism." The traditional view of individuals in society privileges the individual's coherent identity endowed with initiative, singular will, and purposefulness. However, this traditionalist concept is no longer seen as tenable in a poststructuralist view of human subjectivity. By way of contrast, the poststructural subject or self is seen to be incoherent, disunified, and in effect "decentered," so that depending upon the commentator a human being is described as, for example, a mere conveyor of unconscious mainstream ideologies, or as simply a "site" in which various cultural constructs and "discursive formations" created and sustained by the structures of power in a given social environment play themselves out.
With the destabilizing or decentering of the author and in more general terms of language as a system, the reader or interpreter has become the focal point of much poststructural theorizing. The traditional notion of a literary "work" that has some sort of objective, singular existence and meaning all its own has been rejected and translated into the more common contemporary category of "text," a concept that suggests the centrality of the reader and the decentered nature of the written product itself. According to "deconstruction," a theoretical approach to written texts that is largely an offshoot of poststructural theory, any text comprises a chain of signifiers which appears to evoke a singular meaning, but which upon investigation can be shown to contradict itself and thus "deconstruct" whatever meaning it can be said to contain. In the most extreme forms of deconstruction, meaning is fully indeterminate, and any claim to understand and interpret objectively and completely a given text is merely an illusory "effect." (3) The Fundamental Importance of the Reader
"Gender," meaning the differentiation, usually on the basis of sex, between social roles and functions labeled as "masculine" and "feminine," is universal: all societies known to us in all time periods make some sort of gender distinctions. Feminist Theory
Historically, thinking about gender happens in cultures where gender configurations--the social meaning systems that encode sexual difference--undergo changes or shifts. The same is true with thinking about race (that race as a construct becomes apparent when ideas of race are shifting) or economics, or politics, etc.: all of these concepts are reevaluated when social practice shifts. So gender, or masculine and feminine qualities, or male/female social roles, comes up as an area for analysis whenever gender roles are shifting. And because gender roles seem to shift in just about every time period, in relation to all kinds of factors (war, for instance, or economics, or notions of morality), gender is often a major focus of thought and writing, in popular culture and in theory.
Key attributes of feminist theory and thought: 1). Feminism is interested in studying and understanding gender as a system of cultural signs or meanings assigned (by various social mechanisms) to sexually-dimorphic bodies, and sees these cultural signs which constitute gender as having a direct effect on how we live our individual lives and how our social institutions operate. 2). Feminism sees the gender systems currently in operation (in our culture and in other cultures) as structured by a basic binary opposition--masculine/feminine--in which one term, masculine, is always privileged over the other term, and that this privileging has had the direct effect of enabling men to occupy positions of social power more often than women.
A number of different approaches to feminist theory exist. The central approaches, for our purposes, include psychoanalytic feminist theory and post-feminist theory. Psychoanalysis and Post-Feminism
Psychoanalytic feminist theory: Views the subject, and sex identity, as a process. Considers the impact of the symbolic order, an inherently patriarchal order, on subject formation. (Male ideology underlies the whole system of meaning.) Challenges the notion that the self is fixed and unified. Posits that language poses a problem as the language of tradition, or of the canon, is masculine. Considers whether there might be an inherently female or feminine language.
For many feminists, psychoanalysis, or the work of Sigmund Freud, represents powerful attempts by patriarchy to control women's sexuality. Psychoanalysis as practiced in the 50's and 60's in the United States often blamed mothers as well as feminism as the source of social unrest. Moreover, many scholars have exposed Freud's decision to ignore the accounts of rape and sexual violence that his female patients were giving in therapy, choosing instead to interpret them as mere “fantasies.” Given the problematic relationship between feminism and psychoanalysis, many feminists are bewildered by the growing literature among continental feminists.
Feminist psychoanalytic theory often considers precisely how notions of pathological femininity, penis envy, or castration anxiety emerge in Western thought as expression of deeply entrenched patriarchal fears. Rather than confronting these entrenched ideas about the wickedness of female sexuality, Freud and Lacan naturalize them and use them as explanations for many psychiatric disorders. Irigaray pokes fun at this move by mimicking the very notions of femininity they espouse in order to unearth their blind spots. She identifies how their failure to rethink their fundamental notions of normal and abnormal sexuality (read: male and female sexuality) unconsciously operate in the background of their conceptual edifice.
Another way in which Continental feminists have taken up psychoanalysis coincides with how both the later Freud and Lacan mine the individual's psyche in order to unearth cultural forces at work. Lacan, for example, argues that our very sanity depends on our adherence to both the imaginary and symbolic realm of culture; we rely on these realms to make sense of the world. The imaginary realm provides us with fictitious images of ourselves as whole and self-mastering, while the symbolic realm provides us with the conceptual categories of our shared world.
Lacan describes the mirror stage as a turning point in our psychic development because during this phase we come to identify with a stable and coherent image of ourselves—our mirror reflection—that supplants our experience of our body as uncoordinated and fragmented. The image of ourselves as whole, one of the many images that constitute the imaginary realm, gives us a fixed point; identifying with a singular, stable body, in turn allows us to take up speech and thereby enter into the symbolic realm. Lacan points out that our image of ourselves lays the groundwork for our ability to becoming speaking subjects, and thereby social subjects. Similarly, we inherit other images from the imaginary realm, such as the representation of the female body as unruly or threatening. Likewise, when we learn how to speak (i.e., enter into the symbolic realm) we learn a particular set of concepts by which to view the world. Many of these concepts are binaries—such as man/woman— that both oppose their constituent parts and rank them in a hierarchy. For Lacan, both the images and the symbols we inherit, through the imaginary and symbolic respectively, are fixed; they are not revised as culture transforms.
Many feminists criticize Lacan's notions of both the imaginary and symbolic realms, precisely because he posits them as fixed, and therefore, immune to cultural revolutions such as feminism. The images he describes of mothers, i.e., beings whom male children must escape or else be devoured by, have much in common with stereotypes imposed on women to maintain their inferiority. Teresa Brennan argues, for example, that the foundational fantasies (which is another way of describing images such as the “mirror stage”) are really drawn from the concrete, historical practices of Lacan and Freud's own culture, rather than pre-historical symbols (Brennan 1992). Irigaray and Jane Gallop, among others, argue for a more fluid notion of the imaginary, one that produces more humane images of women as our cultural ideas shift (Gallop 1982, Irigaray 1985; see also Hansen 2000).
Freud, on the other hand, understood the psyche as a conflict of forces: the id, the super ego, and the ego. The super ego contained the “law of the father,” the cultural norms of behavior. Lacan incorporated Freud's notion of the “law of the father” into his notion of the symbolic realm, which not only names things and sets up power relations between them, but it also teaches us our moral codes. Freud also posited the id, which he argues is a dissident aspect of the self, rebelling against all of the cultural constraints enforced upon us both externally and internally by the super ego. Our egos, lastly, are compromises that grow out of conflict between what society asks of us, and our deepest counter-cultural wishes.
Some Continental feminists map either the metapsychology of Freud or Lacan onto the culture itself, studying social systems as the competing forces of normalization and dissidence (see Zakin 2000). In this light, feminism can represent an unruly and dissident attempt—like the id's actions—to bring down the “law of the father” (super ego), which can explain why a patriarchal culture so violently opposes female empowerment: it threatens its very foundation.
Lastly, continental feminists such as Julia Kristeva appropriate psychoanalysis for feminist ends. Kristeva rethinks the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis in order to show the profound importance of the mother-child relationship on subject formation. The mother-child relationship, contrary to patriarchal thought, is not an animal relationship; rather, it is the precursor for all social relationships. Our first relationship is one of dependence on a caring being who nurtures us to become more autonomous. This autonomy is the product of loving relationships. This view of autonomy differs dramatically from classical liberalism, wherein autonomy is invoked to protect us from paternalism. The legacy of classical liberal thought is for us to be suspicious of dependency, rather than celebrate how early attachment and dependency on the mother lays the foundation of our adult self.
Post-feminist Theory: Theorizes sex identity as performative, by which we mean that sex identity is ‘performed’ on the subject. The subject comes into being by being called, or interpellated, into language.
There is no such thing as “being female.” The female is a category constructed in contested discourse and social practice. We are wrong, then, to imagine that women are women before they are taught the behaviors, roles, and scripts that are assigned to them. Moreover, because gender is performative, it demands to be iterated: without the repetition of performance, gender would literally cease to exist. Within this theory is articulated both the persistence of gender—it appears to be so natural, so given, because our very identities have been steeped in it—and the possibility of resistance, for once we are aware of the scripts, we become capable of speaking otherwise. Indeed, because every iteration necessarily includes the possibility of disloyalty, gender demonstrates itself to be paradoxically vulnerable to new and disobedient incarnations.
Continental Feminist Theory Both of these feminist theories come out of the broader tradition of continental feminist theory, about which a few words.
Continental feminists ground their explorations of sex, gender, and the inequalities related to both in the European philosophical traditions that emerged after Kant and throughout the twentieth century, particularly phenomenology, existentialism, deconstructionism, and psychoanalytic theory. Although such feminists are acutely aware of the male bias that runs strongly through these traditions, they also find them useful tools for articulating the depth and structure of women's lived experiences within a patriarchal society.
Theories of the Self and Society: Continental feminist thinkers are strongly interested in the ontology of the self, the structure of society, and the connections and disruptions between the two. Central among their philosophical interests here are sexual difference, embodiment, and intersubjectivity.
Embodiment: A strong strand of continental thought includes a reevaluation of the role of the body with regard to subjectivity. Part of continental's philosophy persistent critique of modern, Enlightenment thought was the latter's insistence upon defining the human being primarily in terms of intellectual or cognitive capacities. Continental philosophy sought to understand the body not as peripheral (or worse, opposed) to subjectivity, but rather as crucial to the lived experience of the human subject.Continental feminists have also demonstrated a lasting interest in the body and its relation to agency, ethics, and politics. They have also pointed out, unlike many other continental thinkers, that when modern philosophy ignored or marginalized the body, it simultaneously ignored or marginalized women.
Intersubjectivity: Feminists have long been concerned with the autonomy of women, having witnessed the failure of so many political systems (including those inspired by Enlightenment thought) to extend full independence. Philosophically, however, continental feminism takes issue with the centrality of autonomy to theories of subjectivity and ethics. More precisely, continental feminism tends to approach the subject not as essentially separate from other human (and in some cases other-than-human) beings, but rather as inextricably intertwined with these beings. In large part, then, continental feminism tends to speak not of subjectivity, with its overtones of independent, autonomous action, but rather of intersubjectivity, which implies that being with others is a necessary condition to any action whatsoever. In fact, many continental feminists view the privileging of autonomy as a deeply male- centered model of existence. To understand the self as first and foremost alone and free is, after all, to deny the lived experience of dependency that is central to any human existence.
Theories of Sexual Injustice: Given the approaches that continental feminism takes to the self and its surroundings, it is not surprising to find that its understandings of sexual injustice vary somewhat from those of other forms of feminist thought. In their criticism of liberalism as an insufficient response to sexual inequality, continental feminists are fairly unified; in their diagnosis of what a sexually just society would entail, significant differences remain.
African American Literary Criticism
Contemporary African American literary criticism has significant intersections with post-structuralist and feminist theories, so much of the above material applies in any consideration of texts along the lines of race. However, African American literary criticism also comes out of a distinct tradition or African American writing which can be traced through a number of stages:
The 1920s to the 1960s saw the affirmation of a black aesthetic, particularly through the work of W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, among others.
The 1970s saw the emergence of literary theoretical paradigms including, perhaps most notably black feminist critique. Barbara Smith was highly influential in this respect. Additional approaches included the exploration of black language and black words, the theorizing of black poetry, and continued interest in a black aesthetic.
The 1980 presented new opportunities for literary criticism emerge through the availability of post- structuralist theory. Interventions were made into the impact of blues music and black idiom, among other areas of study.
The 1990s saw an interest in queer theory and a turn to a cultural studies approach. The range of available topics exploded: questions ranged from revision and remembrance to silence and the voice.
One of the central issues for African American literary theorists has been establishing an African American literary tradition. Enormous advances have been made in this regard. Long forgotten or ignored writers have been reclaimed. The task then becomes the development of a literary criticism adequate to these texts, one which asks a different set of questions than those posed by white-heterocentrist literary critical approaches. Contemporary scholars of African American literature have succeeded in exploding traditional interpretations of genre, periodization, and literary influence.
The questions of voice and subjectivity are enormously motivating questions within African American literary theory. With respect to the voice, some of the central issues raised concern the interplay of orality and the written text, the use of idiom and dialect, and the problem of articulating a truly African American voice, one which is not overwhelmed or overshadowed by the white culture or context. Henry Louis Gates’ concept of “signifying,” a form of social discourse in the African American community, is relevant here, as is the practice of storytelling. With respect to subjectivity, the question of double-consciousness raised by W.E.B. DuBois remains active. However, the threatening nature of double consciousness that W.E.B. Du Bois saw as the inevitable fate of African Americans has been reconfigured as an extraordinary gift for writers whose mastery of the languages of culture and craft have expanded their vision and enriched their creative imagination.
Signifying: a verbal art of ceremonial combativeness in which one person puts down, talks about, or signifies on someone or on something someone has said (Smitherman). Numerous examples of this practice occur in African American writing, including the verbal games represented by Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes were Watching God and Mules and Men.
Storytelling: the narrativizing of a particular point in order to make it memorable, relatable, or otherwise active and accessible (Richardson). This practice is evident in numerous instances of African America writing as well. A number of the Charles Chesnutt stories we read articulate the significance of this practice.
Subjectivity and Identity: much like feminist theory, African American literary criticism evinces a keen interest in the construction of identity and questions of identity politics. Race, class, gender, and sexuality are seen as components of one’s identity as it is socially constructed, and the notion of difference proves critical. Moreover, the individual’s experience as impacted by the overlap of multiple identity categories, sometimes in tension, is a subject of consideration.
African American literary criticism and readings of African American literature: “our best reading [of African American literature] is an open one, which questions both the objective and subjective reality, recognizes both the discontinuities and continuities in traditions, and considers the relationships between oral and written forms of discourse” (Graham).