Contemporary literary theory

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Contemporary Literary Theory John Lye page


by John Lye

Note: This essay was published in the Brock Review Volume 2 Number 1, 1993 pp.  90-106, which publication holds the copyright.  The article addresses contemporary theory in its more post-structural mode, and were I to rewrite it today I would put more emphasis on the cultural studies model, on the growth of gender studies, and on New Historicism, than I do here.  I believe however that what I have to say here is still relevant and describes the fundamental paradigm shift which has altered the direction and mandate of literary study.

July 2001

Studies in literature in universities in the last two decades have been marked by the growing interest in and bitter division over a set of related theoretical approaches known collectively as Literary Theory. Many Departments have become divided between "theory people" and opponents who see themselves as defending the traditional values central to the culture against Theory’s perceived anti-humanism. Literary Theory is part of a wide-spread movement in the culture which has affected a number of disciplines, occasioning similar disputes in some, a movement which has explored and elucidated the complexities of meaning, textuality and interpretation. Literary Theory is not a single enterprise but a set of related concepts and practices — most importantly deconstruction, post-Althusserian ideological or 'political' criticism, post-Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism, New Historicist or 'cultural' criticism, some reader-response criticism and much feminist criticism. The aim of this essay is to define the issues that ground these contemporary literary theories.

There have always been literary theories — about how literature works, what meaning is, what it is to be an author and so forth. The central interpretive practices in force and in power in the academy which are being challenged by Theory were themselves revolutionary, theory-based practices which became the norm. The two main critical practices in the mid portion of the century have been the formalist tradition, or 'New Criticism', which sees a text as a relatively self-enclosed meaning-production system which develops enormous signifying power through its formal properties and through its conflicts, ambiguities and complexities, and the Arnoldian humanist tradition exemplified most clearly in the work of F. R. Leavis and his followers, which concentrates evaluatively on the capacity of the author to represent moral experience concretely and compellingly. Many readers have in practice combined the values and methodologies of these traditions, different as their theoretical bases are.

Contemporary theory: the issues at stake

Theories and interpretive practices change with time, reflecting changing world-views and uses of literature, and each theoretical perspective tends to find fault with the one before — apparently a normal evolutionary pattern, an orderly changing of the paradigm guard, the child rebelling against the parent as a way [end page 90] of proclaiming its identity. Literary Theory challenges this orderly developmental premise, suggesting that this continual cultural change reflects an inherent instability, fault lines in cultural imagination which demonstrate the impossibility of any certain meaning which could have any ultimate claim on us.

Contemporary Literary Theory is marked by a number of premises, of which I will present nine, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of them.

  1. Meaning is assumed, in Saussure's seminal contribution, to be created by difference, not by "presence" (the identification of the sign with the object of meaning). A word means in that it differs from other words in the same meaning-area, just as a phoneme is registered not by its sound but by its difference from other sound segments. There is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense, only chains of differences from other meanings.

  2. Words themselves are polysemic (they have multiple meanings) and their meaning is over-determined (they have more meaning potential than is exercised in any usage instance). They thus possess potential excess meanings. As well, rhetorical constructions enable sentences to mean more than their grammar would allow — irony is an example. Language always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context. It must have this capacity of excess meaning in order for it to be articulate, that is, jointed, capable of movement, hence of relationship and development.

  3. Language use is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not fully aware.

  4. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture, meaning and identity. As Heidegger remarked, man does not speak language, language speaks man. Humans 'are' their sign systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, patch-work, relational.

  5. Consequently there is no foundational 'truth' or reality — no absolute, no eternals, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent 'truths' generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, both values and personal identity are cultural constructs, not stable entitles. As Kaja Silverman points out even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated.

  6. It follows that there is no stable central identity or essence to individuals: an individual exists as a nexus of social meanings and practices, psychic and ideological forces, and uses of language and other signs and symbols. The [end page 91] individual is thus a 'de-centered' phenomenon, there is no stable self, only subject-positions within a shifting cultural, ideological, signifying field.

  7. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use.

  8. A text is, as Roland Barthes points out, etymologically a tissue, a woven thing (from the Latin texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts and language uses, echoes of which it inherently retains (filiations or traces, these are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play ('play' as meaning-abundance and as articulability) of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminacy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities, but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them, become apparent.

  9. There is no "outside-of-the-text," in Derrida's phrase. Culture and individuals are constructed through networks of affiliated language, symbol and discourse usages; all of life is textual, a tissue of signifying relationships. No text can be isolated from the constant circulation of meaning in the economy of the culture; every text connects to, and is constituted through and of, other texts.

Contemporary Theory as part of the 'Interpretive Turn'

Contemporary literary theory does not stand on its own; it is part of a larger cultural movement which has revolutionized many fields of study, which movement is often known as the 'interpretive turn'. The 'interpretive turn' was essentially introduced by Immanuel Kant two centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is shaped by our mental categories, although Kant thought of these categories as stable and transcendent. Nietzsche proposed that there are no grounding truths, that history and experience are fragmented and happenstance, driven by the will to power. Marx and Freud theorized that what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by forces of which we are aware only indirectly, if at all, but which we can recover if we understand the processes of transformation through which our experience passes. What is new in the interpretive turn is that the insights of these and other seminal thinkers have coalesced into a particular sociological phenomenon, a cultural force, a genuine moment in history, and that they have resulted in methodological disputes and in alterations of practice in the social sciences and the humanities. [end page 92]

There are a number of ideas central to the interpretive turn: the idea that an observer is inevitably a participant in what is observed, and that the receiver of a message is a component of the message; the idea that information is only information insofar as it is contextualized; the idea that individuals are cultural constructs whose conceptual worlds are composed of a variety of discursive structures, or ways of talking about and imagining the world; the idea that the world of individuals is not only multiple and diverse but is constructed by and through interacting fields of culturally lived symbols, through language in particular; the related idea that all cultures are networks of signifying practices; the idea that therefore all interpretation is conditioned by cultural perspective and is mediated by symbols and practice; and the idea that texts entail sub-texts, or the often disguised or submerged origins and structuring forces of the messages.

Interpretation is seen not as the elucidation of a preexisting truth or meaning that is objectively 'there' but as the positing of meaning by interpreters in the context of their conceptual world. Neither the 'message'  nor the interpretation can be transparent or innocent as each is structured by constitutive and often submerged cultural and personal forces. In the interpretation of culture, culture is seen as a text, a set of discourses which structure the world of the culture and control the culture's practices and meanings. Because of the way discourses are constituted and interrelated, one must read through, among and under them, at the same time reading oneself reading.

The 'dangers' of Literary Theory

It appears to many that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental value of literature and of literary study. If everything is a text, literature is just another text, with no particular privilege aside from its persuasive power. If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if human beings are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal 'humanness' and not sustained by any transhistorical truths, not only the role of literature as the privileged articulator of universal value but the existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation is local and contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and the role of literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural force is diminished. If interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter, then one must discount the intention of the author. The stability of meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain. Imaginative constructs such as literature may in fact be merely culturally effective ways of masking the exercise of power, the bad faith, the flaws and inequities which culture works so hard to obscure. Ultimately Theory can be seen to attack the very ground of value and meaning itself, to attack those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based, and to attack the [end page 93] centre of humanism, the existence of the independent, moral, integrated individual who is capable of control over her meanings, intentions and acts.

As theory has become more central in English departments, literary studies have in the view of many turned away from the study of literature itself to the study of theory. And as attention moves to literature as the cultural expression of lived life, and to the textuality of all experience, the dividing line between 'literature' and more popular entertainment is being challenged; such things as detective fiction and romances are being treated to as serious and detailed a study as are canonical works. The Canon itself, that collection of texts considered worthy of study by those in control of the curriculum, is under attack as ethnocentric, patriarchal and elitist, and as essentializing in that it tends to create the idea that canonical works are independent entities standing on their own intrinsic and transcendent authority and not rooted in the agencies and contingencies of history.

It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often sceptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issues however must be whether Theory has good reasons for its questioning of traditional assumptions, and whether it can lead to interpretive practices that are ultimately productive of understandings and values which can support a meaningful and just life. In order to further elucidate Literary Theory's reasons for its stands, it would be useful to examine and illustrate three main areas of meaning in literature: context, ideology and discourse, and language itself.

The issue of meaning: context and inter-text

The process of meaning in literature should, one thinks, be clear: authors write books, with ideas about what they want to say; they say it in ways that are powerful, moving, convincing; readers read the books and, depending on their training and capacities and the author's success, they get the message. And the message is, surely, the point. It is at this juncture however that this simple communication model runs into trouble. An author writes a text. But the author wrote the text in at least four kinds of context (note the presence of the text), not all of which contexts the author is or can be fully aware of. There are, first, aesthetic contexts — the contexts of art generally, of its perceived role in culture, of the medium of the text, of the genre of the text, of the particular aesthetic traditions the artist chooses and inherits, of the period-style in which she writes. Second, there are the cultural and economic conditions of the production and the reception of texts — how the 'world of art' articulates to the rest of the social world, how the work is produced, how it is defined, how it is distributed, who the audience is, how they pay, what it means to consume art, how art is socially categorized. Third, there is the artist's own personal [end page 94] history and the cultural interpretation of that personal history and meaning for her as an individual and an artist. Lastly and most essentially, there are the larger meanings and methods of the culture and of various sub-cultural, class, ethnic, regional and gender groups — all of them culturally formed, and marked (or created) by various expressions and distinctions of attitude, thought, perception, and symbols. These include how the world is viewed and talked about, the conception and distribution of power, what is seen as essential and as valuable, what the grounds and warrants of value are, how the relations among individuals and groups are conceptualized.

These are the most basic considerations of the context of the production of a literary work. Some of them are known to the author explicitly, some are sensed implicitly, some are unrecognized and virtually unknowable. Every context will alter, emend, deflect, restructure the 'meaning'. This would be easier to handle interpretively if the same constraints of context did not apply also to the reader. Both author and reader are 'situated' aesthetically, culturally, personally, economically, but usually differently situated. The reader has the further context of the history and traditions of the interpretation of texts. When we read Hamlet, we read it as a text that has been interpreted before us and for us in certain ways, not simply as the text that Shakespeare wrote or that his repertory company performed, whatever that was experienced to be.

An essential, central and inevitable context of any text is the existence of other texts. Any literary work, even the most meager, will necessarily refer to and draw on works in its genre before it, on other writing in the culture and its traditions, and on the discourse-structures of the culture. This creation of meaning from previous and cognate expressions of meaning is known in Literary Theory as "intertextuality." Anything that is a text is inevitably part of the circulation of discourse in the culture, what one might call the inter-text: it can only mean because there are other texts to which it refers and on which it then depends for its meaning. It follows that 'meaning' is in fact dispersed throughout the inter-text, is not simply 'in' the text itself. The field of the inter-text extends not just to the traditions and usages of the genre, and to literature generally, but to intellectual traditions, language and argument, to emotional experiences, to cultural interpretations of experience, to central symbols, to all expressions of meaning in the culture: it is a network of allusion and reference. This is the ground of the question of the extent to which an individual can author a text. Many of these intertextual meanings may not be apparent to readers, who must be situated themselves in the inter-text in order to participate in the meaning. All meanings of a text depend on the meanings of the inter-text, and our interpretations of texts depend on our contextualized perspective and the norms of what Stanley Fish refers to as our "interpretive community," our socially-determined interpretive understandings and methods. [end page 95]

The issue of meaning: discourse and ideology

The second general area of meaning is that of discourse and ideology. 'Discourse' is a term associated most closely with Michel Foucault; it refers to the way in which meaning is formed, expressed and controlled in a culture through its language use. Every culture has particular ways of speaking about and hence conceptualizing experience, and rules for what can and what can not be said and for how talk is controlled and organized. It is through discourse that we constitute our experience, and an analysis of discourse can reveal how we see the world — in the case of Foucault, particularly the changing and multiple ways in which power is distributed and exercised. As language is the base symbol system through which culture is created and maintained, it can be said that everything is discourse, that is, that we only register as being what we attach meaning to, we attach meaning through language, and meaning through language is controlled by the discursive structures of a culture. There is no outside-of-the-text; our experience is constructed by our way of talking about experience, and thus is itself a cultural, linguistic construct.

Discourse is not, however, a unitary phenomenon. One of the great contributions of the Russian theorist of language and literature, Mikhail Bakhtin, is the concept of multivocality. The concept of multivocality might be likened to meteorology: the sky looks like a unitary entity, but if one attempts to measure it or traverse it, it turns out to be full of cross-winds, whirls, temperature variations, updrafts, downdrafts, and so forth. Similarly the language of a culture is full of intersecting language uses — those of class, profession, activity, generation, gender, region and so forth, a rich profusion of interacting significances and inter-texts.

As discourse constructs a world-view and as it inscribes power relations, it is inevitably connected to ideology. As used by Marx, the term referred to the idea that our concepts about the structure of society and of reality, which appear to be matters of fact, are the product of economic relations. More recent thinkers, following Gramsci and Althusser, tend to see ideology more broadly as those social practices and conceptualizations which lead us to experience reality in a certain way. Ideology, writes Althusser, is our imagined relation to the real conditions of existence; our subjectivity is formed by it we are 'hailed' by it, oriented to the world in a certain way. Ideology is an implicit, necessary part of meaning, in how we configure the world. But ideology is always masking, or 'naturalizing', the injustices and omissions it inevitably creates, as power will be wielded by some person or class, and will pressure the understanding of the culture so that the exercise of power looks normal and right and violations appear as inevitabilities. It was clear in time past, for instance, why women were inferior. Women were physically weaker, more emotional, not as rational. The Bible said they were inferior and Nature said so too. Men did not think that [end page 96] they were oppressing women; women's inferiority was simply an obvious matter of fact, as was the inferiority of blacks, of children, the handicapped, the mad, the illiterate, the working classes. The theorist Pierre Macherey showed that it is possible by examining any structure of communication to see its ideological perspective through the breaks, the silences, the contradictions hidden in the text, as well as through all its implicit assumptions about the nature of the world.


The concept of ideology is part of structuralist and, consequent to that, poststructuralist thought. Structuralism was a broad movement which attempted to locate the operative principles which ground activities and behaviours; its importance to Literary Theory is substantial, although Literary Theory has rejected a number of its premises. Two central structural theories were Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Marx's economic/political theories. What marks these theories as structuralist is their locating of generative forces below or behind phenomenal reality, forces which act according to general laws through transformative processes. In structural theories, motive, or generative force, is found not in a pre-text but in a sub-text; the surface is a transformation, a re-coded articulation of motive forces and conditions, and so the surface must be translated rather then simply read. From the rise of the whole rich field of semiotics to the theorizing of the history of science to the revolutionizing of anthropology to the creation of family therapy, structuralism has been a central, pervasive force in the century. The idea of decoding the depth from the manifestations of the surface, that what appears is often masking or is a transformation of what is, is a key tenant of Literary Theory.

Poststructuralism carries on with the idea of the surface as a transformation of hidden forces, but rejects structuralism's sense that there are timeless rules which govern transformations and which point to some stable reality below and governing the flux — what poststructuralism refers to as an essentialist or totalizing view. Poststructuralism sees 'reality' as being much more fragmented, diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does structuralism. Some consequences have been, first, poststructuralism's greater attention to specific histories, to the details and local contextualizations of concrete instances; second, a greater emphasis on the body, the actual insertion of the human into the texture of time and history; third, a greater attention to the specifies of cultural working, to the arenas of discourse and cultural practice; lastly, a greater attention to the role of language and textuality in our construction of reality and identity. Literary Theory is a poststructural practice. [end page 97]

A demonstration reading: ideology

Perhaps we should take a moment to examine some of these concepts in art at work, with the warning that Literary Theory represents a broad range of practices and emphases, and no one kind of reading can be fully exemplary. Take, however, just the first lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129:

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame.

This looks like a clear moral point: lust is bad stuff. There is, however, more to 'read' in these lines. As there was no standardized spelling in Shakespeare's time, the spelling of "waste" is an editorial decision. It could have been spelled "waist;" the force of the pun is inevitably present. A "waist of shame" is a female waist, particularly when "spirit" is expended there, as "spirit" was a euphemism both for semen and for (as "sprit") the penis. So we have here lust in action indeed, genital intercourse. But notice the valuation of the sexes. The male is associated with the spirit — with the 'good', with non-material value; the woman is associated with the lowest of material being, waste. He is 'above' her in every sense. As in modern advertising, the male is coded for action, the woman is coded as body parts. It is to the woman, not to the man, that shame is attached; woman is the waist/waste of shame. There is in the line as well a metaphysical discrimination, as the world of 'spirit' is valued over the world of the body; it is not to the spirit but to the body that waste and shame are attached. There is an economic ideology here, as the sexual act is an economic transaction — "expense" and "waste" — with the male having the power of the purse, economic, moral, sexual power tied together. This economic language not only again privileges men, but places the imagination of the poem within the bourgeois mercantile culture. Shakespeare's lines can be analyzed to reveal not, or not only, a lucid and moving moral perspective, but an ideological construction which privileges male over female and spirit over matter, which uses moral terms in an oppressive manner, and which in the end shares and shows bad faith in many ways. The very language of the line undermines the certainty and centrality of the moral perspective the poem is claiming.

This undermining is continued in the bland assumption of the second line that action is naturally consequent upon lust, an assumption which has been used against women for centuries, and in the third line's linking sex and violence together as if that were natural. It is, shockingly enough, to the devilment of the gap between lust and release, "till action," that the word "blame" refers; while shame is attached to the woman, blame is attached to the bad things men do in the heat of needing to get it off. Further, the moral perspective within the poem is placed in a neutral, remote way as if it were inevitable, unassailable: while "blame" requires an agent, a blamer, it is spoken of as if it were inherent ("full [end page 98] of blame"), and the tone is authoritative. Finally, the poem uses language from various realms of discourse — moral, physical, social, economic — and seams them together in a seemingly benign and normal, but damaging way.

The issue of meaning: language

The third large general area to be addressed is that of language. Contemporary theory rejects the commonplace belief that language functions by establishing a one-on-one relationship between a word and an object or state which exists independent of language. Among the assumptions behind this rejected belief are that reality is objective and is directly and unequivocally knowable; that words have a transparent relation to that reality — one can 'see through' the word to the reality itself; and that that meaning is consequently fixed and stable. Contemporary theory accepts none of this. 'Reality' is too simple a formulation for the collection of acknowledgments of physical entities and conditions, of concepts of all kinds, and of all the feelings, attitudes, perceptions, rituals, routines and practices that compose our habited world. Medieval medicine was based in large part on astrology, and astrology was based on the known fact that the (not too distant) planets each had a signature vibration which impressed the aether between the planets and the earth, which in turn impressed the malleable fabric of the mind of the newborn, and which thus created the person's disposition through the combination of and the relation between the characteristics of the dominant planets at the time of birth. To what reality, do we think now, did the language of medieval medicine refer? We could say that the medievals were 'wrong', but the conceptions involved so structured their imagination of human nature and motivation, so suffused their attitudes, were so integrated with values which we still hold, that such a statement would be meaningless. Language exists in the domain of human conception, and is dependent not on 'reality' but on how we see relations, connections, and behaviours. In turn how we see these things are, of course, dependent on our language.

Since the work of Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the century, language has been seen by many to signify through difference: words mean in that, and as, they differ from other words, which words in turn mean in that they differ from yet other words. 'Meaning' becomes a chain of differentiations which are necessarily at the same time linkages, and so any meaning involves as a part of itself a number of other meanings — through opposition, through association, through discrimination. As a word defines itself through difference from words which define themselves through difference from words, language becomes a kind of rich, multiplex sonar that carries the cognitive, affective and allusive freight of meanings shaped by and reflected off other meanings, full of dimensionally. Derrida's famous coinage différence, which includes both [end page 99] differing and deferring, catches something of the operation, although Derrida's concept penetrates to the very structure of being, to the differing and deferring without which space and time are impossible and which are thus fundamental to 'being' itself.

Language has many 'levels' or currents of meaning, shifting, interrelating, playing off one another, implicated (from L. plicare, to fold) and pliant (from F. plier, to bend, ultimately from plicare). Some currents carry us back as in cultural memory to the etymological roots of the words, as just illustrated. Some currents carry us back to the time and the way in which, as infants, we entered the symbolic order, the world of signs and thus of authority, power and socially (Lacan), and even before that to evocations of our infantile immediate, inchoate experiences (Kristeva). Some currents tie us in to experiences and symbols that involve and evoke our repressions, our fears, and our narcissistic needs. Some currents tie us in to the various worlds of "discourse," socially constituted ways of conceptualizing and talking and feeling — judicial, economic, domestic, theological, academic and so forth (Foucault). Some currents tie us into key cultural symbols, to ways we see and feel the world as constructed, to our imaginary world of hope, trust, identity, to our projection of ourselves into the future and into our environment. Many currents carry affective weight, as words are learned in social contexts from people who are usually close to us, and there is thus an intrinsic sociality in the very acquisition of the meanings and hence to the meanings themselves (Volosinov). Meaning in language is highly context-sensitive. Words are not little referential packages, they are shapes of potential meaning which alter in different meaning environments, which implicate many areas of experience, which contain traces of those differences which define them, and which are highly dependent on context, on tone, on placement.

A further demonstration reading: language and meaning

In order to look at how language might be approached in contemporary theory — again with the caveat that there are many approaches and understandings within the domain of theory — let us take the first sentence from this first quatrain of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters where it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.

One might ask, does the word "admit" mean "confess" or "allow to enter?" Is "impediment" a legal or a conceptual term here, or a term from the world of physical manipulation, a stumbling block? An impediment is something that gets in the way of pedes, the foot, and while the word "impediment" as a moral or social hindrance is taken from the marriage ceremony, that explanation does not [end page 100] consum exhaust the meaning potential — "impediment" also meant a physical defect or impairment, a speech defect, and baggage. Its use must include these possibilities through the operations of difference. Why, one might go on to wonder, are the worlds of morality ("admit") and of fault ("impediment") immediately entered into the world of "true minds"? And is it chance that, on the levels of both conceptualization and enunciation, the smooth rhythmic flow of the first line is suddenly interrupted by two tough Latinate words? These words not only need to be stumbled over and figured out but introduce worlds of opposition on several levels: criminality vs. innocence, fault vs. wholeness, social/legal vs. moral/philosophical. Hasn't the poem just admitted a number of impediments while saying it wasn't going to admit impediments?

The phrase itself "the marriage of true minds" implicitly admits an impediment. This impediment is the body. The body is admitted but denied by the word "impediment" with its root reference to stumbling feet but its abstract usage, and the body is implied by "marriage". The phrase "marriage of true minds" raises the whole question of the body by being explicitly about minds, whereas marriage itself as an institution is a union of bodies and property. The body is admitted by "marriage" most strongly through the fact that marriage is a social act (sanctified by the Church, the Body of Christ, and only legal when witnessed by others, bodily presences), through the realm of the legal, the control of bodies, and through the legitimation of marriage, as a marriage which was not " consummated," an interesting concept in itself, was considered not to be a marriage.

There is yet another impediment in the sentence. The word "true" in reference to "minds" suggests of course straightness or levelness, body values, but it suggests by exclusion the unstraightness of mind that the "true" is structured against and includes by difference. If the speaker has to say "true minds" then there are untrue minds, so we have to ask what the 'mind' is here that is being married, what the nature of 'mind' is. The word cannot refer to some abstract, non-physical value or being if 'mind' can be unstraight, morally unsound, not on the level, therefore fallen, therefore (as fallen) in the world of action and conflict and thus of the body. But 'mind' is obviously explicitly opposed to the body, and the body is an impediment. The sentence's play of meaning forces us inexorably back to the centrality of the body, and questions the status of 'mind'. 

There is another impediment that the poem admits from the very beginning: "Let me not ....." Who is to let or not let the speaker admit impediments? (A "let" was, incidentally, a hindrance, an impediment). There is someone who can stop him from not admitting impediments, otherwise he would not have said "Let me not:" a world of power and restriction peeks forth, qualifying the apparent freedom the line claims. As well, "Let me not," with its implicit emotional appeal, takes us back psychically to the world of restriction, prohibition, [end page 101] forbidding, and in its colloquial force and its imperative, demanding tone to the two-year-old's universe, its evocation therefore of narcissism, of the taboo, of the root conflict of social life and personal identity; it thus enters us into a world of meaning which on the surface sorts oddly with the social/legal language that follows.

There is in the sentence as a counter-current a narcissism, the juvenile self-aggrandizement of a speaker who thinks he could in fact stop the marriage of true minds. But if anyone can stop the marriage of true minds, as obviously he believes that they can (or he can), then it is probably because the marriage of true minds does depend on the powers of property, the body, physical and social force, and so the line really does not in fact claim the power or liberty of the spiritual nature of humans, as an unsuspecting reading might assume, but claims instead the power of the physical and judicial. This may well be what the line really confesses or, to put it another way, the reality that the ideological structure masks: that the social, judicial, physical elements of our world do in fact have the force over a union of persons that the line denies that they do, and perhaps that in point of fact a 'person' is comprised of these physical, social, legislative elements, these worlds of discourse, of the constitutive imaginary. The case could be made that the idealism of the apparent meaning of the line, which idealism depends on there being real, isolable, inviolate "minds," is what is ultimately put in question; on the other hand, the 'obvious' meaning of the line remains in force, creating a challenge, a contest of meaning, an undecidablility.

Not only does this short sentence launch us on a strange journey of oppositions and contradictions, but it enters us into whole arenas of cultural discourse and concern, the long-standing philosophical debates about the relation of and values of mind and body, the place of the power of the judicial in the world of body and mind, the sociality of the individual, the nature of marriage and what it entails, the physically of marriage both sexually and legally and the relation of that physicality to the moral world, issues of moral freedom, issues of what constitutes the good. These differing but implicated worlds, with their differing assumptions, language uses and emotional resonances — importantly including the poetic expressions of these debates — become part of the meaning of the line.

Different Literary Theory approaches would concentrate on different aspects of these considerations, give them different weight. A deconstructive approach would concentrate on the way that the sentence works against itself, proving for instance the dominance of law and the body while apparently proclaiming the freedom of the mind — it might be claimed that what I have done is to "deconstruct" the sentence. Typically too deconstruction would begin with something that seemed extra, or marginal, or unchallenged, the presence of the lowly foot in "impediment', or the absent presence of the body, and might show how the meaning ultimately depends on that exclusion or marginalized element. [end page 102] An ideological approach might concentrate on the complex of linguistic and social meanings which attempt to but ultimately fail to support the ideological construction of an independent autonomous immaterial self, and might tie that in with, say, the development of the (false) identity of the inviolate 'self' in the western capitalist regime. It might also want to look at the conditions of production and consumption of the line — who wrote it for whom, under what conditions, with what social implications and class exclusions, for what kind of payment and reward, and how those things shape and are subtly present in the line itself. This form of poetry was written for the leisure class, the world which had power over the bodies and discourses of others, by the leisure class or those who wished to profit by them, and was circulated to privileged individuals in manuscript form, not (basely, popularly) published. A psychoanalytic approach might well head straight for the narcissistic demand and assumptions of the first words, on the currents of projection, denial and pre-symbolic conflicts that swirl through the line, and on the issues of subjectivity, identity (or loss of identity) and displacement that the line suggests. A reader-response reading would concentrate on how the line structures our responses, and on the larger issues of how our horizons of meaning can coincide with those of the author, writing in a different time with different preconceptions. A cultural criticism or new historicist reading might want to work hard to see how the linguistic, ideological, cultural constructs present in the line tied in with those of other texts and with the cultural practices of the time, and to thus articulate the sentence in its culturally embedded implications, meanings and conflicts. It would be most interested in the lines of power that the sentence suggests and how they reflect the social structures of the time, and in the power of the discourses themselves (the areas of for instance personal demand, philosophy of love, judicial and confessional legislation and experience, social institutions) and how they work with and against each other.

What these approaches would not do is merely affirm that the lines support the ideals of the freedom and independence of love and the wonder of the human spirit, although most would grant the presence and power of these meanings in the line. These approaches would not seek closure, trying to resolve into a neat package the various conflicts and centrifugal tendencies of the line (a "reader response" reading would include the natural human demand for closure as part of its reading and therefore as part of the way the line 'makes' its meaning). Most of these readings would focus in some way on the disparities in our imaginations and our practices that the line reveals, the contingency of our lives, the hidden exercises of social power that the line finally confesses. They might well think that the line means more, humanly speaking, than the humanistic reading would suggest. [end page 103] 

Is Literary Theory bad for us, and will it go away?

There is a certain self-satisfied celebration among people opposed to Literary Theory who see that the practice of deconstruction, the most metaphysically-based and in some ways the most oppositional and intricate of the contemporary critical theories, is apparently on the decline. It is unlikely, however, that its methodology and its insights will be wholly left behind, or that the issues it raised or faced will disappear. Deconstruction de-limited linguistic performance and critical thought and has afforded the most astute critique of our failure to question the assumptions and the complexities of our uses of language and discourses. Deconstruction has furthered the work of existential and hermeneutic thought in attempting to locate meaning in a world which has no permanent or ultimate metaphysical realities to underwrite its meaningfulness, and it has most refreshingly challenged both the pieties of humanism and the rigidities of structuralism. The other kinds of Literary Theory, enriched by poststructural theory and deconstructive practice, are still in force, coalescing most effectively at the moment in the cultural analyses of New Historicism and in the work of ideological criticism with both 'high' and popular culture in penetrating to the motives and mystifications of cultural meanings. Contemporary critical theories may or may not be 'right,' given that there is a 'right,' but the issues that they address are genuine and considerable, as is their contribution to and place in contemporary thought, and the practice gives rise to serious and at times telling interpretations and revaluations.

Brock University St. Catharines, ON

A Guide to Further Reading

There are hundreds of books on Contemporary Theory. This guide gives texts one might begin with of theorists mentioned in the essay, introductions to contemporary theory , and major movements.

I   Theorists mentioned

Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press. See Volosinov

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Glasgow: Fontana Collins. [end page 104] 

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in General Linguistics. New York: The Philosophical Library.

Derrida, Jaques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, and 1992. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge. Derrida is very difficult; see "Deconstruction" for some introductions to his work.

Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is There a Text in This Class?. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1984. Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon.

Kristeva, Julia. 1986. A Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Mol, New York: Columbia University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 1982. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: Norton. A difficult theorist and writer, Lacan might best be approached through secondary sources such Madan Sarup's brief and lucid Jaques Lacan, 1992, Toronto: University of Toronto Press or, as an interesting alternative, Slavoj Zizek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 1991, Boston: MIT Press.

Macherey, Pierre. 1978. A Theory of Literary Production. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Silverman, Kaja. 1983. The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Silverman gives a good introduction to psychoanalysis and semiotics.

Volosinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Academic Press. Originally published in 1929 and said to have been written in whole or part by Bakhtin, it contains one of the finest and earliest critiques of de Saussure.

II   Introductions to Contemporary Theory

The best remains Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983; very good and more difficult is Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. A good brief introduction with applications is Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice, London: Methuen, 1980.

III   Major Movements

Deconstruction. Good introductions are Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1982; Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, New York: Routledge, 1982; Vincent B. Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; and a collection of emys by the "hermeneutical [end page 105] Mafia" (also known as the Yale deconstructionists) Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction and Criticism, New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Feminist Criticism. There are many kinds of feminist criticism. A good introduction is Making a Difference, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, New York: Routledge, 1985.

Ideological or Political Criticism. Francis Mulhern, Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism, Harrow, Essex: Longman, 1992.

New Historicism. A collection edited by Aran Veeser, The New Historicism, New York: Routledge, 1989, is a good start.

Poststructuralism. Vincent B. Leitch, Cultural Criticism Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Psychoanalytic Criticism. Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice, London: Routledge, 1984, is a good introduction; see also Silvemm.

Reader Response. Susan R. Suleinian and Inge Crossman have edited a very good selection of writings in The Reader in the Text. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1980. The most read book 14 Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. See Fish for a more post-structural approach.

Structuralism. Good introductions are Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, London: Metheun, 1977, and Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.


© Brock Review 1993


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