Welcome back to the weekly wrap-up. As always, please feel free to comment on these weekly posts, especially if you are less likely to contribute to our conversations in class.
So here we are “doing” English. We’re learning about concepts and methodologies rather intensively during these early weeks, and we’ve even begun applying them. We’ll continue applying these lessons in a more thorough way beginning in a few weeks when we start reading Tropic of Orange. For now, the goal is to do our best to grasp the ideas we’re reading about as we keep our minds open to those critical concepts and approaches that we find most engaging, and that might end up informing our final projects.
During the first week of our TheoryCamp module, we covered three core theoretical ideas: “Author/ity,” “Reading,” and “Subjectivity.” What’s the organizational logic behind these first chapters? If you’ve ever puzzled over a novel or poem, then you likely have mumbled to yourself: “I wish the author was here to explain what’s going on in this supposedly amazing work of literature.” That very human desire to call upon some true authority that might certify the real meaning of a given text, however, tends to quash critical and theoretical curiosity. Theory begins precisely at the point where we decide to forestall that easy discovery of meaning, and to question, instead, where meaning comes from. Does it come from the author alone? If not, does it come from the reader’s private opinions? But what, then, is a reader? And is the reader a unified self, or just a cog in the cultural wheels that keep turning and turning despite us? And what, exactly, is culture? How can we define something so broad? This is the slippery slope of these first four chapters of The Theory Toolbox, and this is where theory begins.
As the story grows more complicated, we are slowly learning to forestall that act of “finding” meaning as we work instead to build or make meaning through the act of interpretation. This doesn’t mean that authors are not important: we still invite them to campus and read their interviews. But language is too slippery for any single person to be able to have a monopoly on what it means. And besides, what it means to be an author has changed over time. Theory is all about questioning what we might have otherwise thought to be timeless and essential. Nearly everything, Nealon and Giroux remind us again and again, is historical, cultural, and variable.
It makes sense, then, that once we’ve gotten rid of the author, we don’t find an easily identifiable authority residing in the reader. If meaning were reduced to our own cherished opinions, that wouldn’t really take us anywhere new, would it? We would have just shifted authority from one person (the rarified author) to ourselves (the rarified self). According to our authors, reading is “not primarily a matter of forming or reinforcing personal opinions, but rather a process of negotiation among contexts. What texts mean, in other words, has everything to do with the contexts in which they’re produced and read” (23). Reading, in other words, is the production of meaning, not the finding of meaning. This class is all about the ways in which we make meaning in our reading and in our lives.
Moving beyond the chapters on “Author/ith” and “Reading,” we tackled something even closer to home: “Subjectivity” and the crucial distinction between a self and a subject. A self gestures towards what is unique, what is unconstrained by culture and context. A self stands apart: it is our soul, our inner self. Self is a cause, a mover. A subject, on the other hand, gestures towards what is social. The subject is defined by its role in culture, its being subject to something. A subject is an effect of something else, not a cause; it is moved by things, not a mover of things. A subject is understood in relation to preexisting social conditions and categories. Everything predates the self: culture, history, language. We are always embedded in culture—or, to borrow Althusser’s terminology, interpolated by culture, hailed by it. “In the end,” Nealon and Giroux write, “every time we recognize ourselves—every time we say ‘yeah, that’s me’—we confront or construct not the freedom and uniqueness of our individual selfhood, but rather the cultural codes of subjectivity. Wherever we think we see our free and unconstrained self, what we actually see is cultural interpellation.” (47).
Well, that’s depressing. Can’t we come up with a slightly more positive account? In class, we came up with some great responses to that question. We talked about how subjectivity is inherently social insofar as it recognizes that we are a part of a community of others. That seems positive! Seeking additional positive accounts, we suggested that the self is not a mystification, not some “incorrect” concept to discard; rather, it might be viewed as an important, and unavoidable, part of the cultural script that we’re all writing together. There is no getting outside of that script, but ideas of uniqueness, however cliché, are crucial to that script because they function like a rip in the fabric, something that, whether real or not, allows us to imagine what might exist outside that script. How can we declare independence from tyranny—as individuals or as broader groups—if we didn’t have some concept for what might exist outside of certain forms of tyranny?
The shift from self to subject—as with the movement from author to reader—can empower us. In both cases, we are readers and interpreters of our lives. We are aware of our overlapping contexts and how they clash and affect us and others. Just as Nealon and Giroux define reading not as our personal response to literature, but as our engaged negotiation amongst different contexts, the same occurs as we “compose” our lives: we negotiate meaning, as we negotiate life, “by working with, between, and alongside already existing cultural signs” (41). But we can also work against them, make them collide, make them break, and help define new contexts. Indeed, thinking outside stale categories and trying to imagine the unimagined–trying to see beyond that which is already determined–remains a hallmark of literature: literature shows us worlds we don’t yet know, but might.