Methodological Difficulties

by Mark Wallace

When what one is doing is predominantly analysis of literature, the imposition of precise and minutely developed methodologies can be difficult. Nevertheless, it has not escaped the overall turn towards methodologisation of aademic research of recent decades. For sure, there are ore hold-outs in literature than in other fields. One of the world’s most famous literary critics at this moment, Harold Bloom of Yale University insists that “[t]he individual self is the only method”. This recalls an old dictum of T.S. Eliot’s: “There is no method but to be very intelligent”. Should this remain so when the methodological approach has taken over almost every field of knowledge?

If you don’t think, by the way, that the methodological approach has taken over, you should apply for funding for your research. A section of the application will be set aside for delineation of method, and citing Bloom won’t get you off the hook. For the lover of literature, no method is sufficient for the study of a worthwhile work because such a work is, by definition, sui generis. The will to study literature is dependent on a belief in the singularity of the great work.

Therefore, to really dedicate one’s studies to a methodological approach to literary criticism is to deny literature’s worth and remove the possibility of demonstrating such worth. Many people do deny such worth, at least in practice, by not reading literature. Which is fine, but to institutionalize such a denial of worth, a denial of singularity of a work of literature is to devalue the whole project of literature, and hence of literary criticism.

This is not to advocate an uncritical attitude towards literature, simply to contend that such criticism should be the work in itself and as a singularity, not the kind of sweeping theoretical criticism involved when one invokes, say, Foucault, and performs a Foucauldian criticism of a text.

I’m not even suggesting a Foucauldian reading might not be quite enlightening about some texts, but I am suggesting that a preconceived methodology whereby a Foucauldian or other reading is imposed on some set texts is the kind of reading that gets no one anywhere. No literary texts should be deliberately framed by any one theory, as if that somehow contains them.

The problem with theories of texts are that their sophistication is inversely proportional to their practical workability. It’s easy to construct a mechanical methodology of the structuralist variety that can be used on texts and that – so long as the method is kept quite simple, like Barthes’ division of textual units into functions and indices – can be applied uniformly. The only problem is, dividing a text into its functions and indices doesn’t get anywhere near giving us a comprehensive or definitive account of how texts are written, how they are read, how they relate to each other. The vagueness with which the terms of analysis must be defined to made them relevant to all texts prevents this. So a science of the text is partlally impossible, and partially irrelevant.

Of more sophisticated methodologies, such as those of Foucault and Derrida, one should first note one thing: they’re not supposed to be methods of reading texts. They are private and idiosyncratic views of society – patently, certainly in Foucault’s case, related to psychological quirks of the author. They weren’t intended to be generalizable methodologies, and it’s somewhat baffling how suddenly these particular authors became, not just very widely read in academia, but seen as holding the keys to viewing all texts, and off having an insight that is reproducible by the mastery and application of method. This is not the way that older authors of influence, say Nietzsche, were read, by and large. And rightly so, for this approach precludes originality and critical thinking. Ironic, given it’s called critical theory, but the “critical” element is rigidly pre-ordained: the exact type of criticism is dictated by, say, Foucauldianism as an academic construct. One can only make the same tiresome points being made within the academy as a whole.

So, my conclusion is that one should not read authors as sources of methodologies – as telling you exactly how to read. There is no author, or combination of authors (as in Zizek, whose method is that a proper mixture of Marx + Lacan = Theory of Everything) that can define one’s reading, no matter how much one tries to apply it. there is always some remnant of self left , or of that which cannot be defined within a framework or theory. If one tries to frame one’s reading as a theory of some description one will soon find that there is a self always peeking through. Even if one believes that that self is but a social construction. The point is not that there is an essential self, but that the complexities of any individual are so great as to be irreducible to formulae. In that negative sense, there is individuality, at least until science reaches such a pitch of prefection that it can predict and control everything about each person. Until then, the notion of individuality has at least as much explanatory power for me, you and everyone as notions of social construction, and while individuality remains, we read always partly as ourselves, not through method alone. It is this kind of reading that literary academics should practice and defend.