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Someday, I hope to make a thing.

January 31, 2012

New plan: From now on I’m not telling you the plan. I’ll just say that that there will continue to be content of some kind on Tuesday mornings when you get up.

I ended up writing more about writing than intended over the last few weeks.  The process of putting this thing in motion dominated a little too much time and energy, so when it came time to put words on paper, I didn’t have much else left.  The act of writing isn’t terribly interesting in itself; it’s the product that counts. So I’l try to have a little more product going forwards.

This week we dig in to the pseudo intellectual side of things a little bit.  For now I’m not posting any “real” scholarly writing, and I’m not sure I ever will.  I can’t imagine it’s any more fun to read than it is to write.  I will still be adding my own explanatory footnotes, like I detailed a few weeks ago, but those may not always go live with the initial post.

This week is basically an intro, and it covers a lot of ground in one big, sloppy, pass.

Let’s talk about the New Criticism.  New Criticism is a literary theory that got its start about 80 years ago. Why no one worried that someday it would no longer be “new”, I can’t say.  A similar complaint could be made against postmodernism.  I suspect it comes from the apocalyptic notions that weigh so heavy on 20th century theory.  Instead of naming their new criticism, they all got trashed and wandered the streets, screaming at passersby.

“Who needs names?! It’s the end of the world as we know it!”

It wasn’t.  It usually isn’t.

Whether you know it or not, you already know what New Criticism is.  I wanted to come up with a succinct explanation, but couldn’t manage it. The Wikipedia page, however, has a surprisingly elegant description:

New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. (Pedia, Wiki)

Although Pedia is correct to identify New Criticism as a theory whose dominance has ended, the theory is far from dead.  There are still plenty of teachers teaching this in colleges, and it’s basically the only style of criticism taught in high schools. This focus can be so strong that most students don’t realize they’re learning one specific style of criticism; to them, New Criticism is academic criticism.

Full disclosure: I think its horseshit, so take my characterization with a grain of salt.

There are a lot of arguments that could (and have) been made against New Criticism. Is it even possible to ignore the history of the text and reader? And if you remove context, how do you know if you’re just making stuff up?

Ironically, the second question comes from a desire for the opposite effect.  Many other schools of thought allow for historical context to affect the work and its interpretation.  This can cause problems; if a work is shaped by its present context, it’s always in flux. The ‘meaning’ is always changing, because the reader, and their place in history, is always changing.  By separating context from the work a book can be approached in isolation.  This is one goal of New Criticism.  The hope is that it will lead to a near scientific approach, where it’s possible to have a ‘correct’ answer. To determine what a passage means, you would only need to look at the book containing it.  The idea is that by starting everyone with the same pieces there would, in fact, be a correct answer.

All these things considered, I have a different problem with new criticism:


New Criticism makes interpreting text into a kind of game. When we read a text, we take the passages and turn them into a kind of puzzle. It’s than up to the critic to put this puzzle together; to find out what it means.

I’m fine with that part.  I enjoy the game too, but then there’s the next question: why is it important to teach people to play this game better?  As a people, we are rabid consumers of story.  We read, watch, play, tell, and otherwise engage in a constant barrage of stories. Counting TV shows, books, office talk, and whatever else, how many stories will you experience today?  Do you need to be taught how to figure out what they “mean”?  Probably not.  Could you still get better at playing this game?  Probably.

Framed like this, it’s hard to justify this training.  People pay lots of money to sit in a room and be graded on how well they play a game everyone is already playing, and when those four years are up, what have you learned?  Diligence and hard work, I suppose.  But it’s a little easier to understand why so many people don’t take English degrees seriously, and why many people who go to college “just because” choose English.  It really is easier, or at least more familiar. It’s also why many English majors give up. I suspect that every student of literature has that moment where they sit in class, and suddenly suspect that all the people around them, teacher included, are just making shit up to sound smart.  Not just one student bluffing for a grade, but the entire discipline.

All this takes us back to the why.

There are the easy answers, but most of them require us to move on and set New Criticism aside as the enlightening game it is (Hmm, no wonder I never made friends in class).

It could be argued that literature is very bound to history, and by reading it we can learn more about our historical and current selves. Where history books tell us what literally happened, literature tells us how it felt.

It could also be argued that literature teaches us about ourselves in a broad way, even without historical context.  We are storytellers, and presumably when we tell stories, there is something beyond the literal content we wish to communicate. How do we do this? What does this tell us? And on a story by story basis, how is each book a manifestation of these fundamentally human traits?

That last one sounded nice. Not sure I agree, but it may be on to something.

 Disagreeing is Easy

I don’t play well with the academic other, but that doesn’t prove anything.  Anyone can tell you why other people are wrong.  It’s a little harder to suggest what might be right.

All the above issues come down to one thing.  One underlying theme that I can’t, no matter how hard I try, accept: The idea that the book, or even the story as we typically regard it, is in some way a privileged or fundamentally different form of communication.

Earlier, all that talk of games, it wasn’t an accident.  We aren’t just storytellers, we’re players.  We play, perhaps more than anything.  Remember when you were a kid, and you went off to play house, or Rambo, or Pokémon, or whatever the hell you did in imagination land?  Now think about grown up you, watching Avatar last year (Don’t lie, we all went).  Don’t these two experiences seem, in some way, similar?

I think they are.  In fact, I think they are pretty much the same thing.  So are Videogames, TV shows, office gossip, Novels, Plays, Comic Books, poems and more.  All of these things are, for lack of a better term Make-Believe.  They are the creation of a second ludic realm.

(Due diligence requires I acknowledge Walter Benjamin, Kendall Walton, and a wee bit of Jacques Derrida at this point, the last two paragraphs are heavily based/influenced by their work.)

Now, with foot proudly in mouth, I’m going to stop for the week.  In the near future I’ll continue, get into the details a little more, and offer a clearer idea of exactly whose ideas have been amalgamated into my own.

…To Be Continued…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tyler Caffall permalink
    February 8, 2012 8:14 am

    (imagine italics and a outrageous dialect)

    Yes! But what do you have to say of Matthew Arnold’s seminol 1880 treatise on ‘THE STUDY OF POETRY’, mmmmm?!

  2. February 13, 2012 1:43 am

    Arnold wanted to build a critical platform on disinterested analysis, sort of like Kant. At least for Kant it made sense, his concepts of sublimity and the divine more or less require that approach. I’ve never quite understood where Arnold was coming from; it’s hard to read him as much more than another early modern critic who built on Kant without really understanding him.

    And here you thought you were just making a joke…

  3. February 20, 2012 11:56 pm

    If you were not already my son I would ask you to apply for the position.

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