In class on Wednesday, the distinction between history and historiography was brought up. This was a really interesting part of our discussion for me personally, mostly because my idea of “history” has always been the written out chapters in textbooks, the stories told by others, and the memorization of dates, names, and events. The topic of historiography versus history made me think about history as more of an abstract idea, a concept of the past and it’s purpose. This realization led to me thinking of historiography, the ‘writing down of history,’ or the choosing of what is important and noteworthy, as our way of applying history to our lives. Lately in class, we have been discussing how the media (television shows, magazines, etc.) are designed to give us what we want to see, read, and hear. Well, I think this is largely what every social and cultural construct is designed to do. This is what literature can do, and this is what history seems to be able to do as well. The difference is that written works from the past can be revisited, and we can determine from them what must have been important or new at a given time. It is argued that these works cannot capture history fully, because they were written by biased individuals who had opinions about what was important, and because these individuals cannot have possibly included everything in their work. I agree, I think that this history cannot in fact be written down, because it is abstract. We cannot make something abstract become concrete, simply because not all nouns represent something physical. How could a person paint a picture of love? They could paint their idea of love in the form of two people embracing, or of a mother holding her child. But at the end of the day neither of these things epitomize love. This is why historiography, and what we generally think of when we hear ‘history,’ is an art of its own, and it should be appreciated as such. When a work of art is critiqued, the critic may say ‘I think that the artist should have incorporated this’ or ‘I think that the piece lacks that,’ in an effort to improve or expand a work, to help it become more complete. This is how written accounts of history should be viewed and discussed, not with cynicism or even with mere doubt, but with concern for the validity and verisimilitude of it.
I believe that I better appreciate now the extent and purpose of the 299 class. We’ve been going through the necessities of the course, and how it will improve our work in other classes in the future 300 level courses. I see this and acknowledge that this is how these classes go from now on, as in discussion on the viewpoints of literary works, lectures on the time periods and customs therein, analyzing aspects of form and style within works, and writing research papers based upon these factors(among others). I find it most curious. The following is probably going to seem critical, but I promise I do not intend for this to be directed so negatively, but more so to explore through writing different visions I have of English Studies.
From that aspect, it seems that the majority of English Studies classes are fairly “cookie cutter” in that approach, and I see the reason and purpose. A place to have discourse, a place to see and react to different aspects of literature, different conventions, etc. And, of course, to have the research paper which seems more or less the same no matter where you go in how it is written, its purpose, etc. I have a question here of, “is this the case?” I am currently engaged in such a course, and I cannot help but think that these courses engage the material, but almost in a way that screams, “try to find something original that no one has(or at least few people haven’t) already noticed about this work after 100+ years and try to put that out there.” I understand, with the New Critical approach of appreciating the text for what what it is, and that there will always be a developing “cutting edge” which comes from the new approaches, but eventually, it seems that one could also define a work by what isn’t there…and I initially meant that as a joke out of absurdity until I really JUST thought about it. Give it fifty years…
This is not a moment of disillusionment regarding this class, as this class is meant to teach us the basics of upper level English courses. I understand that there are plenty of upper level English courses that are different. However, the unfortunate thing about basic training in a discipline is that it does tell you about its core and what it wishes to accomplish. I guess when it comes down to it, the research paper has me question a lot of things when I read my sources. We just had a few articles presented in the 300 level course I’m in, and thankfully, several students debated the purpose of several articles. At what point is the hair split too far? At what point do things need to be left alone?
I ask these questions not to insult, but more so simply to be honest with myself about the commitment that goes into English Studies. It seems to turn us all into critics instead of focusing on the works themselves. Sure, they have importance when it comes to history, culture, form, technique, etc. Yes, you can tell great things about culture, time, customs, and writers by their work. Yes, you can study a work for the work itself, cutting off all of these things. But it seems to still be lacking. I remember a friend remarking that each time she read an article of the sort, she questioned whether or not these pieces would have a platform for publication if it were not assigned for students like us to read–would that circulation continue to exist? I think her point has some validity. And I know it is extremely arrogant to say, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is saying it. And it probably all goes over my head–my world, isn’t that a grand notion? But ultimately, I just question a lot of it. Like I remarked about Mark Twain’s note in Huckleberry Finn- “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” I think, in light of this, there have been too few lawyers, governmental bodies, and firing squads, respectively of course.
Bressler shed some insight on the various levels of criticism, as well as attempting to form a concrete definition of “literature”. When describing the different types of critics, he showed how they relate to one another. I was under the assumption that a literary critic was just a critic who evaluated a piece of literature; after reading Bressler’s definition of the different roles a critic takes, however, I feel much more informed and now view the literary critic with more respect and reverence. He then drew my attention to the theory of literature. I have had a brush with a few key terms from the theory toolbox in other classes, but I found his explanation more comprehensive. I especially like the quote: “Whereas literary criticism involves our analysis of a text, literary theory is concerned with our understanding of the ideas, concepts, and intellectual assumptions upon which our actual literary critique rests” (8). The distinction between the two made these broad concepts more understandable for me, and I enjoy thinking of literary theory as “concerned” with what my personal experiences and knowledge lends to my analysis of a text.
I found the definition of what exactly literature is to also be highly entertaining. I was drawn in by the implications which language and the construction of words can have on something’s meaning. The examples of the Latin term littera and the German word Wortkunst depicted this distinction of carefully chosen words to represent a body of works—whether oral tradition or the “written word”. It never occurred to me that the written word would have its own flaws (hence the example of the phonebook); however, upon reflecting on this crucial part of deciphering just what constitutes “literature” I began to think of many example where the written word wouldn’t actually have any literary merit.
Bressler also brings back the idea of a ‘canon’ when he explains the “hyper-protected cooperative principle” (13). I agree with Bressler when he asserts that though published works may be superior to a phonebook, not all published works are worthy of being included in a significant literary canon.
Our conversation today based on Bresslers “Defining Criticism, Theory, and Literature” got me thinking about modern days vast media, and how the meaning of literature has no doubt shifted greatly from what critics initially proposed as guidelines in the 1800’s. Bressler’s section on Defining Literature put forward several possibilities for the definition of literature, but overall, also left a lot of questions, room for negotiation, and general ambiguity.
I took the liberty of putting forth a few examples of what I consider, walking the modern-day line between art, literature, media and advertising. The truth is, as we progress as a society the meanings of all of these have fused. An advertisements success in targeting the educated literate class may rely on its ability to mimic established literary ideas, and thereby be accepted as more reliable. This is evident even in such minor things as the formatting of letters on commercials or billboards—if it is advertising something that is supposed to be serious, reliable, or have integrity, such as a law firm or an insurance company, you can bet they are using classic fonts—Times New Roman, Arial, Old Courier. This isn’t accidental. We ascribe certain moral values to these types of fonts, we are reminded of sturdy, classic novels, just like we subtlety ascribe values to writing styles. In this way, the question of ‘what is literature?’ is being compounded. Literature is everywhere something disguised as something else.
For example, I today I was reminded of something I think of often when I shop online at Anthropologie (hold on a second, don’t let me lose you on the way to this point, it’s valid, I swear.) Every time I look at an item its accompanied by a very catchy, enticingly well-worded description of the apparel that borders on poetry. There is no doubt that Anthropologie hires advertisers, or quite likely creative writers, to compose these vignettes for each article they put out. Besides wondering “how the hell does someone get that job?” I also found myself wondering: “could this be considered modern-day literature?”
Here are some amusing examples:
“With the help of a little magic, it seems, Leifsdottir has swirled a thousand colors into their chiffon-paneled silk charmeuse dress.”
“Slick, wine-hued patent pours over the platform, chunky heel and stylized origami bow of these embossed suede peep-toes, creating a heady contrast of textures.”
“These season-spanning slip-ons combine the sun-yellow hue of summer with the tassels and kilty fringe of autumn-evoking loafers.”
“Layered and lined with layers of lines, this silver-flecked dress is an achromatic success.”
You might think that this is clearly an instance of advertising, definitely NOT literature, but it more than plays with very much established literary tools. There is alliteration and imagery, even rhyme, characterization, and a conscientiousness of language. What if each of these descriptions was teased out into a short characterization? Each object featured as a small story, to further enhance the perception of ‘uniqueness’ and evoke desired associations?
What about blogs? They are becoming a definite source of employment for creative writing graduates. These days companies, stores, schools, and individuals are all looking to get in on the social mass media frenzy. Here is a blog of one of my friends who graduated from CofC, and who writes amusing daily anecdotes tinged with societal commentary, humor, and occasionally the profound poem. (She would probably kill me if she knew I was posting this, but its public domain : – ) http://sofiewrites.com/blog/
What about the transcript of Obama’s presidential inauguration speech, which was no doubt, VERY carefully crafted and composed?
And lastly, (in this authors opinion perhaps the farthest stretch for the application of the title Literature) what about the Twilight book series? Have you ever tried to read one of those things? Tell me the Anthropologie clothing descriptions are not better written than those. I mean where are the guidelines for this stuff, or is it just all one indecipherable mess of media, advertising, commercialism, and writing? Dare we refer to these things as ‘literature?’
It’s sort of strange to read that The Study of English is a fairly new concept. I guess I always assumed that English was always right up there with Math, Science, History, and everything else. I assumed it had always been like that. I never even questioned it. But, to think it wasn’t even established until after WWI is pretty shocking to me. I’m also pretty shocked that originally people who graduated with the first “English” degrees actually had degrees in Language because it was thought that an English degree wasn’t strong enough to hold on it’s own. It’s crazy how much has changed in the past century. It went from being a debatable topic to one of the most important topics of study. I remember being in school and always being pushed to do my best on English and Mathematics. Even throughout high school, every year, you were required to take both of those.Those two were always the most important, and I can’t believe that less than a century ago it couldn’t even hold a degree on it’s own. It’s sort of amazing how it evolved over the century. I, of course, am glad that it did. I have always loved English and I couldn’t imagine it not being an option of study. Also, I love how it became a source of salvation for the people during the war. To think that something as ugly as war could produce something as beautiful as the new appreciation for the study of English Literature is pretty amazing.
I really liked how The Newbolt Report put it.
“Literature is not just a subject for academic study, but one of the chief temples of the human spirit, in which we should all worship.”
Literature has always been that way for me. It always held character that I appreciated. Even from when I was very young, stories entranced me. I’m just glad that it isn’t taken for granted as much as it used too be back in the day when it was still only a language. It has truly evolved into something great and more widely appreciated. I hope that other areas of study can blossom into something as widely appreciated as English has. Who knows what other under appreciated studies are out there just waiting to grow?