Review of Week 6: Feb 15, 17 (by Jacob Graudin and Chris Cimorelli)
This past week our reading and classroom discussion centered around The Theory Toolbox, with supplemental readings coming from The Bedford Glossary and The MLA Handbook. We focused our discussion on the idea of meaning in literature, and how the author and reader both affect it in their respective manners. This idea spread into the realms of language and subjectivity, which we also discussed at length. Finally, we read about and discussed research methods in The MLA Handbook.
Outside of reading and discussion, we had the revision meetings for our summaries of Tompkins’ “Masterpiece Theater” and held a session of peer-review in the classroom. We proposed subjects for our course projects and commented on one another’s choices.
On Tuesday we came into class having chapter three, “Reading,” of The Theory Toolbox and selections from The Bedford Glossary, such as reader-response criticism and signifier. Before we got to actual discussion of our readings, however, we did inter-student criticism of one another’s essays. Our goal in doing so was not to, to quote Billy, heap “endless praise” on the author, but to act both as a pair of fresh eyes, one who is unfamiliar with the subject matter, and as one who does know Tompkins and can bring that insight. We had to ask ourselves, “How can I better convey this to my reader?” while reading our own and others’ essays. We aimed to not compare our essays to another’s, as each person has a different way of emulating their own point. We also aimed to not be evaluative in our critique, but to be analytical instead. We had instead examine how everything works in terms of the essay itself.
After spending about ten or fifteen minutes on our peer-review, we moved on to discuss our Theory Toolbox reading on, fittingly enough, reading. The writers of Toolbox asked the reader the question of meaning. More specifically, they asked the question of the author’s intention in writing a text versus the reader’s intention in reading a text. Where does meaning come from? Here we discussed Roland Barthes’ idea of the death of the author, a symbolic death where the author is no longer the subscriber of meaning. That leads to the question of who is actually controlling meaning. Is it the reader? According to the Toolbox authors, because not all readers are equally good at reading, not all readings are equally valid. Thus, meaning does not come from one, definitive source. The meanings different readings ascribe to a text should constantly be examined and questioned, which creates truly critical reading. In the Middle Ages, one read the readings of others to definitively understand the text. Viewing reading as “inherently unsettling” is a very modern notion.
In The Bedford Glossary, we discussed the school of theory known as reader-response criticism. This school of thought was spearheaded into the mainstream in the 1970‘s by Stanley Fish, who preferred texts that demanded that the reader respond to a work, and, in doing so, provide meaning to the work. While the New Critics used the term affective fallacy for this same idea, one they believed erroneous, the School of Fish reveled in this practice of bridging gaps in the text by one’s own response. Current literary criticism is very much centered around the reader-response model, and generally the focus in the fields of class, race, gender, and sexuality. We also discussed the terms sign, signified, and signifier. The editors of the Glossary tell us that words have multiple meanings, but that they cannot mean simply whatever we want them to. That leads to the question of how we can choose. The key lies in looking at the context of words. This means that, regardless of the opinion of a student, Moby Dick is not about Jacob’s great-aunt or Scientology (according to Billy). We also read that, according to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, language is not natural, it is cultural. This would reinforce the idea that meaning is contextual, not inherent. Words do not have a meaning transcendent of the context of how they are used; instead, society, culture, and people give meaning to language. The same can apply to literary texts, not simply because they are written in the form of language, but because they are written in a context that informs it. Thus, reading is the process of relation among a set of signifiers. However, separation between cultural contexts tends to create difficulty in reading.
To close our discussion, we returned our attention to Toolbox, where we had read about how the characters Beavis and Butthead relate to the respective ideas of metonymy and metaphor. Metonymy is the substitution of one word for another, whereas metaphor is the substitution of an abstract concept for a word. In the context of Beavis and Butthead, the metaphor is Butthead equating five dollars to Rolls-Royce, a speedboat, and luxury, and metonymy is Beavis equating five dollars to a five dollar bill. As the writers of Toolbox point out, like Beavis and Butthead, we are only ever seeing things. We tend to think interpretation as a metaphoric process, but it seems more likely, in fact, that it is metonymic. A signifier is a substitution for another signifier, not a signified. Everything is a signifier; we are stuck in this system. Because, technically speaking, there is no such thing as a signified, then there is no getting to the “real thing.” The authors continue to state that there is no text existing outside the realm of interpretation. This challenges the idea that there is a even real meaning.
We read three texts for today’s class: chapter 4 of The Theory Toolbox, entitled “Subjectivity,” the Bedford Glossary’s description of “subjectivity,” and sections 1.4-1.7 in the MLA Handbook.
The Theory Toolbox chapter on “subjectivity” proposed a difference between the subject and the self, asserting that the subject is something affected and formed by external forces and the self is something essential and unique, like a person’s own individual character and personality. However, using the extended example of two people in a car (the driver being the self and the passenger being the subject), the book went on to elaborate that since the driver is subject to the car and to the conditions of the road, that he too is subject. Basically, everyone is subject, and even concepts like uniqueness and individuality are socially engineered. To apply this toward literature, people are subject to the language in which the work is produced or the language that they speak or the culture in which they and the work they are reading is produced. And when we read, we pick up on presently existing cultural cues and apply those observations to our interpretations.
The Bedford Glossary approached “subjectivity” from a much different angle, describing subjectivity simply as the opposite of objectivity. Subjectivity is associated with the internal mind and the opinions and biases that go with it, and objectivity is associated with external reality that describes factual truth. Subjectivity in literature refers to the degree to which an author projects his personal feelings into his work. Examples of subjective writing are confessional poetry and autobiographies. Journalism is an example of objective writing. However, no author can be completely objective, so perhaps they are better understood as two sides to the same coin. Psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan described subjectivity as different ways of approaching knowledge and he identified three orders of subjectivity: the Real, and the Imaginary order, and the Symbolic order.
The MLA Handbook entry gave some useful insight into conducting research. In class we determined that the hardest thing about research is finding sources that are relevant to the paper you are trying to write. There is a lot of trial and error that goes into research, so sometimes it is helpful to start broad (but not too broad) and tediously pick through articles until you find something that you can use. Other difficulties of research include synthesizing research into your own work, using research materials not just for the sake of meeting a requirement, finding enough sources, and preventing a need to feel combative and dismiss another’s viewpoint, and instead to have more of a sense of building from previously existing knowledge on a subject. When looking for sources, Wikipedia can be a great starting point but we should not rely too heavily on it, but online databases can be very useful for finding articles. Works that you should use in your research include peer reviewed works and academic journals. It is wise to keep a working bibliography, and not just to delete sources after you decide not to use them, but rather list them in a separate pile so you know what you have researched and what you haven’t. Also, be aware of the time that articles you are using are coming from. If they are several decades old, be clear to indicate that this is an old conversation that you are writing about, and don’t just ignore the date of publication, because then you will just sound ignorant.
- Terminology used by Ferdinand de Saussure to refer to the relationship between words and what they represent. Although this relationship is arbitrary, one cannot exist without the other. The combination of the two together creates a sign, the study of which is called semiotics.
- Two distinct relationships between signifier and signified. Metaphor is the substitution of an abstract concept (signified) for a concrete word (signifier), while metonymy is the substitution of one concrete word (signifier) for another (signifier).
- The social usage of a word that is, as The Theory Toolbox puts it, “the final court of appeals for what any given word means.”
- A school of literary criticism that was most championed by theorist Stanley Fish. Holds that a text’s meaning comes from the way that a text causes a reader to respond to it. This collaboration, called a poem by Louise M. Rosenblatt, has taken many different forms over the decades, and has caused reader-response, or reader-oriented, criticism to become one of the most common approaches in recent history.
• For greater detail, read the overview above about the “Subjectivity” chapter in The Theory Toolbox and the Bedford Glossary. Subjectivity may refer to the idea that everyone is subject to something, whether they be cultural forces or social identifications like gender, age, race, and class. Subjectivity may also be simply thought of as the opposite of objectivity, so more biased and based on personal opinion.
• This term was discussed in The Theory Toolbox. It describes interpellation as the process of being subjected to language and culture merely by speaking (and also by existing within a culture). Therefore, it is important to understand that ideas like “uniqueness” are constructed based on social terminology.
• We discussed this toward the end of class on Thursday. The idea behind racial passing is that we consider people to be of a certain race based on what they “appear” to be. For example, although Obama is half white and half black, we refer to him as black because race is very much a socially constructed idea based on skin color. This same idea can be applied to gender passing as well.
The Theory Toolbox, p. 25: “Reading…is not an exercise in burrowing into the words for their “real” meaning but rather a matter of producing relations among signifiers that have no ‘natural’ or ‘essential’ meaning.”
- In reading, we cannot expect to “solve” a text or to get the “right answer” to it, but instead examine our own understanding of a text by the words’ context and our own context as the reader. A work is like a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that can be put together in endless ways, and in each way be interesting, challenging, and worth creating.
The Theory Toolbox, p. 31: “All meaning is socially constructed and decided; all reading is necessarily a socio-historical process of negotiation.”
- This is not to insinuate that all meaning is essentially meaningless, but that all meaning comes from somewhere. We view everything, and thus interpret everything, through the eyes we have been given by our culture and society. We find value in those things that our culture finds value in, and we disdain that which our culture disdains. Thus, in reading, we should be negotiating our own context with the context of a work. This will allow a true dialogue between reader and author to take place, not disregarding either party or giving them complete authority.
The Theory Toolbox, p. 39: “Even to say ‘I am completely unique’ is to subject yourself to cultural categories of selfhood and uniqueness, referring to some social understanding of subjectivity that you have not and cannot merely create from the ground up.”
• While we may consider the idea of the self to be free of subjection, everyone is subject to something, such as cultural forces, so even the idea of being an individual is absurd because individuals are a product of culture.
The Theory Toolbox, p. 47: “Wherever we think we see our free and unconstrained self, what we actually see is cultural interpellation.”
• Essentially this quote is extending from the idea that everyone is subject, nobody is completely unique and completely a “self,” untouched by society. People are subject to culture.
The Theory Toolbox, p. 48: “no meaning or reading can take place outside of a cultural and historical context—and the reading subject is himself or herself subjected to the constraints and possibilities of that context.”
• This is basically presenting the same ideas that have been discussed, but it puts the discussion more into the context of literature, so just remember the idea that the meaning of a text and the way people interpret texts are at least somewhat based on cultural understanding.
Preview for Next Week:
On Tuesday, your revision of your summary of Tompkins’ “Masterpiece Theater” will be due at 8 a.m. in OAKS. This will prepare you to move on to your next formal essay, a response to Tompkins’ argument. The assignment for that is posted on the course blog. Much of Tuesday’s class will be spent discussing that assignment and working on strategies for responding, in workshop fashion. You need to prepare nothing for that discussion. You will, however, need to read sections 2.1-2.8 of the MLA Handbook to prepare for a discussion on Intellectual Property and Academic Integrity.
For Thursday–and I’m pretty eager to see how discussion will go–you will read and closely analyze the example of Marxist criticism included in Beidler’s edition of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. This essay is likely to be challenging, and you’ll be assisted by the introduction to Marxist criticism provided by Ross C. Mufin on pages 155-166. Do bear in mind that this is a separate introduction to Marxist approaches to literary analysis. Then, you’ll find the sample Marxist essay, by Laurie Finke (called “‘All is for to selle’: Breeding Capital in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”). Work as hard as you did on your first reading of Tompkins’ essay to piece together Finke’s argument–her central claim(s), as well as those that she uses to support the central claim(s) and the kinds of examples she uses to support them. We will spend all of Thursday on Finke’s essay and this type of critical approach. (Next week, it will be back to the Theory Toolbox for two chapters before Spring Break–and of course your response essay will be due that Tuesday morning, March 1, at 8 a.m.)