Reading and Critical Theory

by Mark Wallace

The application of critical theory to primary texts is, of course, by no means a simple procedure. You have your primary text, you know what you think about it, and what you’d say about it if a non-academic asked your opinion of it, but you also know that as an academic you need to see it through a critical lens of some sort, either adopting someone else’s lens, or, in the long run, trying to grind out your own. It can be very difficult to maintain one’s own take on the text when that take is not wholly consonant with an established methodology. As one studies methodologies and theories with a view to helping towards a textual analysis, one often finds one’s own instinctual reaction being pushed into the background. The theory might make big statements about texts that you only half agree with, but which it’s not conducive to the construction of an explicit methodology for you to dissent from.

For many denizens of Not-academia, the idea that a text can be adequately theorized is anathema, or just irrelevant. Within academia, postmodern theory takes a somewhat similar stance, by being an anti-theory theory, focussing on the absence in the text, its essential indeterminacy or unknowability, and then making a theory of that. It’s a somewhat paradoxical stance, though a postmodernist might argue that’s the point. It’s a hard leap to make for a person of strongly rationalist tendencies (i.e. me) to begin to study in postmodernist terms. Postmodernism has rarely made much sense to me; it’s never given me a eureka moment of revelation or epiphany. To see through a PM lens one must first adbicate a great deal of one’s intellectual faculties: all those discredited notions like reason, common sense, etc. A lot is being sacrificed there, and it’s a leap I’m resistant to. I have discovered through my pg studies that, to characterize myself intellectually, I am an empirico-rationalist, indeed pedantically so. The problem, then, is finding a way of making literary criticism work for me. I’m strongly of the opinion that nobody should do what they don’t like, and all intellectual work should be carried out in general accordance with the individual tendencies of the mind, even where that comes into conflicts with prevailing schools of thought.

There are few enough theorists I have come across (at least of the really influential ones) who avoid the generalizations and exaggerations which make it hard for me to apply theories without dissenting from my own inner critic. One well-known critic who made a substantial effort to avoid theoretical tunnel-vision was Raymond Williams, who “laid the foundations for the field of cultural studies”, according to his Wikipedia page. Late in his career, Williams wrote Marxism and Literature (OUP, 1977), in which he explcitly associated himself with the titular worldview. It’s also his most heavily theoretical work, omitting the close textual reading found in his other works, including such influential volumes as Culture and Society (1958) and The Country and the City (1973).  What Williams tries to hold onto in Marxism and Literature is that literature, any literature, is always “a range of intentions and effects” (155). This is quite general and vague: by “intentions” Williams obviously wants to include not only what the author consciously “wants” to say (as the word “intentions” might convey), but also all the internalized social conventions which find voice through him; by “effects”, he includes everything that comes under reader-response. Within these intentions and effects, Williams wanted also to trace the presence of the “whole social material process, and specifically cultural production as social and material” (138). In short, Williams’ offers a synoptic model of the literary critic, tracing every interaction between text, author, reader, society. Society creates texts, and texts create society, Williams says, but he never tries to simplify the relationship, always keeping an eye open for any stray factor which can account for a text or any feature thereof. His is an approach, then, which can take a very wide view of the text. What is sacrificed to do this is theoretic specificity; Williams’ theory is necessarily vague and diffuse, but it is only through theoretic vagueness that the individual insight can be allowed to come into play.

This notion of insight is opposed to the idea of the critical lens, and hearkens back to Thomas Carlyle’s distinction of the dynamic from the mechanical, as the two great spheres of human thought and action (“Signs of the Times”, 1829). Theory and methodology, any theory and methodology, is by its nature primarily mechanical. Literature, meanwhile, is always in some degree dynamic; it is never pure system, and so can never be fully theorized, even by adding theory to theory the sum of your parts is less than the whole of the literary text. And even when you think you’re applying a particular theory, you’re really applying something else – if not, we’d all apply theory the same, and we don’t. Of course, the converse is also true, that when you think you’re giving your true thoughts, independent of any theory or system of thought, you’re still an expression of a process of socialization. But that second part is less important at this time, because it seems we in the 21st century always err in the other direction – too much system (even the anti-system system of post-modernism – real system would be preferable to a system which refuses to declare itself); the author (as an individual, or at least a unique complex of social pressure-points) is too dead, at this point, for my liking anyway. The author of academic literary criticism is also dead – he/she can only live through theories and methods. The task is to try and breathe some dynamism into the corpse. The task is to begin to favour the eye and to allow some slight devaluation of the lens. Perhaps as a current thesis-writing pg, I’ll have to stick with the lens, but hopefully build/ adapt a lens that will allow some light into the eye.