Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Theory: For These And Other Reasons...

So a few days ago I was in a ranty mood and started writing a post that Blogger in its bloggy wisdom decided to share before it was done. It was part of a process I've been going through trying to deal with some readings on literary theory that I'm slogging through. I've been trying to figure out what it is that gets my back up about them, what frustrates me so much, and I think a recent post by Sisyphus over at Academic Cog started me down the right path, along with a recent post I did myself here. At least in part.

I come from an increasingly lonely planet where the author -- though he or she may have died a thousand years ago, though we may never have known his or her name -- is still very much alive. At least, more alive than in much of the theory I'm reading. On my home planet, literature is, first and foremost, a communicative medium. It is the process of conveying information (intended and unintended) between two people, the writer and the reader. The writer transmits information, and the reader receives.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The reader interprets what has been written based on whatever social or literary conventions s/he is familiar with. The writer tries to anticipate what the reader's toolbox of conventions contains in order to convey the right meaning. Or maybe s/he doesn't, but her or his writing is grounded in societal conventions and the un-thought-of assumption that the readers have the same social understanding. But the fact remains that every word in a book is the product of a writer in a society, and every time a reader picks up a book s/he is interpreting that.

And from what I'm reading, it's like the writer doesn't matter. Anything you can read into a text is okay. Anachronisms, outright confabulations even, and everyone smiles and nods. I feel like I'm watching the naked emperor wandering down the street.

And yeah, that's fine I guess, but it isn't how I understand the function of literature. It speaks to me of an incredible narcissism on the part of the reader to believe that he or she is living in isolation. That only the reader's response matters. It's a two-part process and we're increasingly focused -at least in the readings I'm wading through- on only the receiving end.

So there's that. I have other beefs, but that's the big one, I think.

There's also the tendency of theorists to make grand sweeping generalizations that have no plausible provability. Like the idea that all art originates in ritual (Benjamin), or that all photographs encode death (Barthes). There's also a pervasive "now-centeredness" of opinion, a feeling that we were all functionally illiterate until the linguistic turn. And of course there's my perennial favourite, the tendency to use high-brow jargon or conveluted sentence structures to obfuscate* the fact that what's being talked about is really very simple.

So those are, I think, the issues at the heart of my resistance to capital-T Theory. I'm still reading the stuff. I'm still trying to get something positive out of it. But damn, if it doesn't automatically put me into a confrontational mood, then nothing does.

*read: "hide" -- haHA irony.


theswain said...

Part of the feeling that the author doesn't matter results from "new criticism": where indeed the author doesn't matter because meaning resides in the text. Then there's the "Author is dead" essay.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Very difficult for a historian to omit the author, though: one of the obvious ways to look at why the text is how it is is to use the author as an explanatory tool. But then, Vaulting, you know I'm with you on this one all the way anyway.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

Crap, I mean Vellum. Sorry. It was late UK time when I wrote that.