Review of Week 3: January 25, 27 (by Jeff Bates)
This week in class we began by discussing our meeting schedules with Dr. Seaman, but quickly delved into our main topic for the week: Formalism.
Our readings gave us the technical definitions for the concept, but it was our discussions that most likely solidified our understanding of the Formalist’s intent. We discussed how Formalism was born as a response to what the Fugitives saw as widespread over-emphasis on historical and other secondary factors within literary study, created from a need for a better approach, something more scientific, based on academic requirements.
We learned how the Fugitives began and how the Leavises’ New Criticism and Formalism have come to be interchangeable in today’s literary discourse. We discussed the Objective Correlative, how literature can be formulaic in its predictability as a touchstone for emotional response and how language can be understood and expressed as a quantifiable and ordered system.
This brought us to a discussion based on Dr. Seaman’s question “How does a work mean?” Or put another way, how is meaning generated by this text? What was the author’s intent? How is the author’s skill highlighted in the text? In this type of scrutiny, Formalism becomes a useful tool for understanding and ‘translating’ a text.
We discussed how the personal experience of the reader can be reflected in the reader’s emotional response to the text. This impression is something the author must consider in their work, and that response becomes a valid tool for the reader in deciphering the author’s intent; in our Bedford readings this is called the Affective Fallacy. The ‘Autonomy’ of a work comes into consideration, characterized by the reader’s subjective reaction and by the work itself regardless of possible mitigating factors (Formalism!). This was described as investiture “…in a kind of rigor” in terms of discipline as a reader and an author of a work. However, we discussed that few, if any, works are spontaneously generated and sociological or cultural factors almost always had some bearing on the work.
That began a discussion on understanding literature WITH contextual information available. We brought up specific authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, where information about the author led to deeper understanding of the literature.
At the final stages of this discussion, we agreed that Formalism was necessary in light of contemporary criticism shifting unevenly towards contextual and biographical criteria, and that Formalism is still useful as one of many tools by which to review literature in scholarly discourse.
We shifted to the Bedford readings to discuss Explication, which is an impressive word for close reading, but specifically the question was raised as the existence of a single answer as to the author’s intent? The New Critics argue that the author’s intent, whether there are hidden meanings or veiled references in the text or not, is irrelevant to deciding a text’s success or failure as literature. We discussed our role as judges of literature’s success or failure, whether it was even up to us to decide, as the Canon seemed to have already decided it. We talked about the study of Pop culture as a sociological research and agreed that the Formalist approach makes for a “better more discerning reader” in an aesthetic context, but a worse reader in a historical and social context.
We began the class period by reviewing access to the College of Charleston online database and the differences between the MLA Directory of Periodicals and the MLA International Bibliography.
We want the Bibliography, not the Directory, by the way.
We talked about our ‘Wife of Bath’ readings, which gave us some historical and biographical context of Geoffrey Chaucer and the creation of The Canterbury Tales. We spoke of Biedler’s inclusion of a physical description of Chaucer, why it would help our appreciation of the text. We had many ideas for this, but none that could satisfactorily explain it. We also discussed the irony of reading this information while simultaneously learning about Formalism.
We spoke briefly again of the MLA databases and on criteria and possibilities for our chosen texts.
At the end of the class, we did a close reading as a group of a sonnet written by William Shakespeare. We went through line-by-line interpretations of the text and we learned about the renaissance ideals of sickness within love. We then discussed whether or not it was identifiable as Shakespearean or as noticeably ‘renaissance’ in form and diction. We discussed how our knowledge of its creation changed our understanding and appreciation of the sonnet or for Shakespeare himself.
We spoke of Formalism’s neglect for possible avenues of understanding literary texts, and that ‘universal themes’ could be present and have their intended meaning, but without any kind of context, that meaning is detached from time and place.
*Patterns and repetition – phrases, words or images used multiple times to highlight or explain the text
*Tonal Changes – noticeable shifts in language or word use
*Diction – the phrasing and syntax of the text
*Tension – reader’s inability to reconcile ambiguities within the text, exemplified in:
Contradiction – seemingly incongruous phrases or concepts in the text
Conflict – the emotional effect on the reader resulting from tension
*Order – a text’s dependence on, or lack of, sequential plot or structure
*Exegesis – (Bedford) originally, close readings of Holy texts, specifically the Bible
*Unity – the ability of all smaller pieces in a work to assemble in a successful manner, like Voltron
Preview of the coming week (Jordan and Taylor will be sharing duties as class secretary):
Tuesday we begin our “transition to theory” by opening Theory Toolbox for the first time and reading its introductory chapter, “Why Theory?” Similar to how Eaglestone and others felt the need to define “literature” before discussing the student of literature, Nealon & Searls Giroux set out to establish what “theory” is, and what its purposes might be, before entering the book-long discussion of it. (You might consider what their central metaphor of the toolbox shares with Garett-Petts’ example of the parlor discussion.) Bressler does something similar in the chapter you have in PDF form for Tuesday, so we will put those texts in conversation in class. The Bedford glossary definitions for Tuesday are pretty long and detailed; make your way through them carefully. We will also discuss more of Beidler’s introduction to the Wife of Bath, in this case looking at the literary tradition in which the texts (Prologue and Tale) are rooted. Consider what that information prepares you to do, with Chaucer’s narratives. Finally, we will go over the assignment sheet for the first formal writing assignment (due a week from Thursday, on Feb 10).
Thursday we address head-on, through the Theory Toolbox, an issue that has come up frequently in class already: the status of the author. This is obviously important in terms of our typical approaches to Chaucer (one of the few authors with a course focused solely on him in our department, for instance–alongside Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser) but also in terms of the Wife’s approach to authority, a very rich element of her Prologue. We also will be discussing Tompkins’ essay “Masterpiece Theater,” on which you will be writing your first two formal essays.