Theory Module 3

Looking Back

Welcome back! Last week represented our most in-depth and extended engagement with theory as we tackled chapters on “Culture,” “Ideology,” History,” “Space/Time,” and “Posts.”

Let’s begin with “Culture.” Nealon and Giroux write a lot about the importance of cultural context–about how meaning is in many ways a negotiation among various contexts, cultural and otherwise.  What makes up a cultural context?  In short: everything. We are all a part, they argue, of a “multiculture.” There are so many elements in our cultural DNA that we can’t possibly be determined by any single aspect of it.  This helps us see culture less as a restrictive force, and more as a mobile set of possibilities that we can negotiate strategically. The key, for them, is that we understand the ways in which cultural distinctions can be both necessary and exclusionary, and we must be vigilant about both recognizing crucial differences while not making those differences the basis for unjust exclusion.

Beyond this very diffuse sense of culture, Nealon and Giroux also offer a useful distinction between “high” and “low” culture as they argue for a certain skepticism in light of the supposedly universal values transmitted through high culture, while arguing for a certain permissiveness when approaching popular culture.  Indeed, popular culture has a lot to teach us—it has what Nealon and Giroux call a “pedagogical” influence—whether we’re talking about Saturday morning cartoons or the latest Stephen King thriller. Culture teaches us a lot–especially in our highly media-saturated environment. It makes sense to explore how Disney teaches us about gender, or how video games teach us about violence, or how Facebook teaches us about friendship, or how Twitter teaches us about community.

This discussion of culture included a more focused section on “Media.” And that makes perfect sense, media—old-school or 2.0—is where we get much of our so-called “culture.”  We should be aware, then, of who owns the airwaves, and we should also be wary of casting emerging forms of digital media as inherently positive or revolutionary. There’s no rule saying a dictator can’t have a Twitter account.

Culture seemed like one of the broadest, most encompassing concepts so fat; it’s the sphere in which our subjectivities are formed.  But the next chapter on ideology seems even more encompassing? If culture relates to the material world we engage even when we’re not aware of that engagement, a broad definition of “ideology,” the authors write, is “what you think before you think or act—what thinking and action silently take for granted.”  Ideology, in other words, is an assumed “common sense” that binds a group of people–essentially cultures–together. Nealon and Giroux present two more focused understandings of ideology.  The first is ideology as false consciousness—a kind of stance that divides the world into those that are not deluded, and those that have ideological blinders—also known as “us” and “them.” This is an often-irresistible high road.  But even as this stance can lead to dogmatism or worse, it also enables an important mode of argument called ideology critique. “In its most basic sense,” Nealon and Giroux write, “ideology critique is an attempt to show the rational kernel—the concrete explanation—that’s hidden inside the ideological or mystical shell.” If one is alway aware of their own ideological underpinnings–the things they take for granted–such an approach can be clarifying rather than merely combative as it so often is in politics. The example they gave regarding youth crime offers an example of how difficult it is to produce a more earnest ideological critique: whose to say that lack of infrastructure related to youth leisure time is a more “concrete” or less “ideological” explanation for youth crime than media exposure or failures of parenting? There might not be a “first cause,” and it’s important that ideological critique not unreflectively think is has a claim on that cause. 

Upon reflection, it’s clear that ideology, though articulated here for the first time in The Theory Toolbox, lies behind many of their chapters. We might think, for example, of the twin ideologies of the author or self that we worked to move beyond in the earlier chapters.  And this brings us to the second definition of ideology. Saturating everything thus far, ideology brings us back to the grounding question of this book: why theory? “The task of… theory,” Nealon and Giroux contend, “is not to escape ideology, but to account for its workings in the seemingly disinterested and neutral presentations of culture, as well as in our interpretations of those cultural artifacts.  There is no escape from ideology, but there is a kind of constant vigilance that ideology critique calls for: what unarticulated premises stand behind our knowledge?” This reminds us of the true motto for this course: always be curious.

As we move from “Ideology” to “History,” we would appear to be making our way back to solid ground.  Isn’t history the final context that determines meaning?  Sure, authors are fickle figures of false authority, and “selves” don’t exist; media and culture control and contain us, preempting our actions. We got that. But can’t we always appeal to the stable historical record? To fact itself?

Not so fast. History is such a difficult concept because, in many ways, the past is even more mysterious than the present because we don’t have ready access to it.  It only flashes up in so many fleeting instants–and then disappears. And yet another difficulty: history is inescapably narrative, just another form of storytelling with examples chosen and arranged according to very specific and rooted—and often privileged—points of view.  History trumps fiction, we might say, but it does not escape it.  Like meaning, history is made, not found.  History, therefore, names an act of interpretation. And the simple notion that history resembles storytelling shouldn’t diminish its importance. Indeed, history is not about merely looking to the past for facts; rather, as Nealon and Giroux reminds us with a little help from the late progressive historian Howard Zinn, it is about inventing strategies for the present.  We don’t just learn about history; we learn from it.  The more we expand our sense of what history includes—private as well as public, the history of the victors as well as the losers, this history of commodities and weather phenomenon as well as persons—the more informed readers of our pasts and of ourselves we will be.

This theoretical attention to “History” aptly anticipated our methodological attention to New Historicism, which we read about in the Bedford Glossary. This approach moves beyond the old, cobwebby historicism that sought to locate the “spirit of the age” and that then read literature as a perfect reflection of that sprit.  New Historicism instead knocks literature off the pedestal, reading it as just one cultural document amongst others.  Like our authors in The Theory Toolbox, New Historicists view history as elusive and in many ways unknowable in some absolute sense. Both view history as fundamental narrative and constructed.  And both focus on marginalized voices and less apparently “important” or mainstream documents to offer a picture of the history behind history—the history that capital-H History often leaves out.

In class, as a way of thinking about how this emphasis on the concept of history and the literary critical mode of New Historicism, I had planned to bring up Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “The Artilleryman’s Vision.” Rather that focus on formal particulars, as a more intrinsic or formalist reading would, a more historical approach to the world around this poem might note that the poem depicted something like what we would today call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But what would doctors in Whitman’s time have called this? Was it thought to be a psychological or physical malady? Was there a clinical diagnosis? Looking at diary entries, letters, and official medical studies from the Civil War era, one can began to piece this poem’s world together. “Irritable Heart,” they called it—a purely physical malady, the description of which to us seems utterly off the mark. How, we wondered, could they not have been more sensitive to psychological trauma? Especially as so many of the other documents around at the time seemed to support that idea? Such questions help us understand history as always constructed and always shifting.

On Friday, things got a bit abstract—or seemed to. In their chapter on “Space and Time,” Nealon and Giroux follow a familiar pattern by defamiliarizing that which seems so straightforward. Though space and time are things we move in and through rather thoughtlessly in everyday life, they impact our lives in ways both subtle and startling. We experience our lives in space and time; our ideologies are structured by—and embedded within—them. Space and time are often shaped, defined, and harnessed by those with power to limit and constrain the action and movement of those with less power.  We discussed many examples of these constraints, first in our own lives, and then in the examples that Nealon and Giroux proved.  From the history of the work day (a tool originally developed to control the urban masses) to the concept of “inequalities of temporality” and racial time; from the exploitation of urban decay by shoe marketers to our own varying commutes to work; and finally, from the larger cultural resonance of east and west to concerns of the suburb and city, we learned to see how the limitations of time and space work in (or should I say ‘on’) our lives.

Beyond the sense of space “out there,” we also discussed the space of the body via the French critical theorist Michel Foucault, learning how the body has served as ground zero for disciplinary control.  Though the means of control have evolved from the medieval spectacle of torture, to the panoptic control of institutions, to the synoptic grip of the media and celebrity culture, the ends are the same: we are, to borrow Nealon and Giroux’s preferred language, subject to space and time in profound, complex and lasting ways.

This all seems fairly depressing—a sense is disenchantment we’ve rather gotten used to in our romp through The Theory Toolbox. Remember when they told us that the author is dead, and that there is no special self to replace her?  Can we get a positive account here? Some curiosity to combat that dour skepticism? Fortunately, we can.  Nealon and Giroux cite the work of Michel de Certeau, who writes that “social spaces cannot be reduced to their most repressive functions; they are also open to human agency, creativity, and action. The key questions for us is how our concepts of space and time evolve, change, and give meaning to various cultural forms and practices” (131).  Thank god for graffiti and Banksy and parkour! Of course, we discussed many other examples of ways we can creatively—musically, artistically, violently, peacefully—resist constraints of space and time. The possibility of resistance remains key.

What lies beyond “Space and Time”?  Well, if you’ll pardon the unintentional pun, “Posts.”  In the final chapter we discussed last week, Nealon and Giroux introduce us to postmodenism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism.

Postmodernism, we learned, has both historical and aesthetic significance. It names art after 1945, and an aesthetic practice that emphasizes irony, play, fragmentation, self-reflexivity (art about art), and a an emphasis on surface over depth.  We also briefly discussed poststructuralism, which means we also had to discuss structuralism and the organic understanding of language that preceded it. This is a rather complex story in its own right, but to be as brief as possible about it, structuralists sought out the “deep structures”–the codes and conventions–in specific expressions of culture. Think of the deep commonalities that bind myth, for example, or the patterns that bind narrative. Cultural expression has settled into these deep structures of meaning which provides a sense of continuity across time and space, even if there is not “essential” guarantee to this continuity because it is cultural and socially constructed rather than natural and essential. In this sense, structuralism represents a more hopeful response to modernist ideas of fragmentation and alienation: they sought out the ties that bind. Poststructuralists–and the related deconstructive mode of literary criticism–agreed that the relationship between a word and its meaning was arbitrary, but they resisted the sense that language and cultural expression settled into deep structures that could be scientifically pursued and discovered. For them, meaning is inherently unstable and unpredictable. Poststructuralists took great pleasure in documenting the play by which meaning escapes and ambiguity and undecidability reigns.

To put this slightly differently, structuralists denied any “essential” or “natural” connection between a word and its meaning, but they thought that language nevertheless settled into deep structures that could not be easily overturned. Poststructuralists, on the other hand, reveled precisely in this overturning, in the instability of language–our prime meaning-making system. It’s not surprising that post-structuralists often faced charges of championing relativism and a certain kind of playful chaos.

This is, perhaps, too complex a conversation for ENGL 299—full of signifieds and signifiers signifying, we hope, something!—to capture in this already over-long post. I hope we have time to fill out some of these ideas this week as we swing back to the conversation about Deconstruction in relation to Robert Frost’s surprisingly unsturdy poem “Mending Wall.”  In that seemingly simple poem, Frost’s meditation that mending work—“to each the boulders that have fallen to each / And some are loaves and some so nearly balls / We have to use a spell to make them balance: / ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”—seems to enact a deconstructive view of language itself as signified grated along the signifier, never quite matching up and always falling out of place. “The gaps I mean,” indeed!

Nothing in the poem, once we focus our deconstructive gaze on it, seems to stand up.  And that, I hope we will see, is precisely the point (with deconstruction, at least). If traditionally formal readings worked to gather ambiguity and tension into an impressive ball of sturdy “meaning,” deconstructionists pride themselves on the undecidable, the unstable, the incommensurable.

We will pick up post-colonialism next week when we talk about the “Differences” chapter.

Looking Ahead

This week, we’re covering another four key concepts from The Theory Toolbox: “Differences,” “Life,” “Nature,” and “Agency.”  We’ll also cover a few key methodological approaches: more cultural studies (emphasis on postcolonialism) and ecocriticism. Enjoy our final week of TheoryCamp!  As always, do your best to work through the chapters, and come to class ready to ask questions and discuss–and, perhaps, to be quizzed!

Blog Prompts

As usual, I am providing a set of prompts that you can use to begin generating ideas for your blog post later this week. You can always stray from these prompts, responding in any way you choose to what we’re reading and working on during any given week.  Blog posts should be at least 250 words. They can be informal, but they should still be thoughtful, smart, and free of grammatical errors (no textspeak). Always imagine that you’re writing for an outside audience.  This means that you should name the book and the authors you’re discussing rather than assume our familiarity with them.  It also means that you can and should quote from the reading as well.

(1)  Go Broad: Take one of the key theoretical concepts of methodologies from this week and offer a distilled definition in your own words.  After you adequately capture the main point, offer a brief response to it.  You can be as enthusiastic or critical as you want.

(2) Go Specific: Zero in on a more specific point, quoting a passage from the reading that you think deserves closer attention.  It could be a point that you found confusing and would like to “think through,” or a point that you thought was particularly well-made that you think the rest of the class would benefit from revisiting.

(3) Make Connections: Draw connections between individual concepts from The Theory Toolbox, between different methodological approaches from BG, or between the two. You can also introduce new applications of these concepts outside of examples from TT.

(4) Keep it Going: Continue any conversation we began in class that you think deserves more attention. You might continue to discuss the literary example that we explored as a class, or return to point that you or one of your peers made during class discussion.

(5) Respond/Comment: Rather than write your own blog post, you might respond to what one of your peers posted.  As long as your post is blog-length (200-300 words), it count as a post.

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