Sunday, 2 October 2011

On Methodologies, or, Trying To 'Make Up' With Theory

It's a Sunday night, and I'm frankly out of things to read until my visit to the Library tomorrow (I know, I should have planned further ahead, mea maxima culpa). So instead, I'm going to bleg about how capital-T theory and I have never really gotten along, and how I'm trying to make up with it.

Friends of mine know that, as a medievalist interested in the written word (and one who doesn't currently blog at In The Middle), I've had trouble with what I call Capital-T Theory. At first I thought it was because it wasn't necessary. I mean really: did we already know so much about the so-called "middle ages" that we had recourse to fall onto reader response criticism or psychoanalysis? We didn't even know how it was responded to when it was written, let alone know enough about who confronted it to bother trying to psychoanalyze them.

But, live and learn (and get forced into Theory classes during grad school) and you find yourself in awkward positions. No, I don't know what Agamben said about it. And when I tried to look? He lost me by trying to redefine the word "gesture" as something other than, you know, a gesture.

So of late I've been trying to get back in Theory's good graces. Our Theory, who art in the English Department, etc. etc. be thy whatever. Forgive me Theory, for I have sinned. And so forth. Genuflection, prostration, et al.

Because that same professor who made me rethink the word "criticism" has made me rethink Theory.

What I want, the thing I think I need more of in order to teach, is tools in my toolbox. And my lack of knowledge of Theory has always been a spanner to my plans, if you will (talk about mixing your metaphors). And this professor of mine has got me realizing that without Theory, I'm cutting myself off from a lot of useful tools.

What she's said is simple: take Theory, use it, and bury it as far under the surface of your writing as you can. It enriches your arguments, underpins them -- but the Theory isn't the point. Theory is a means to an end, and unless you couple it with language that allows for easy communication, that end isn't reached.

This isn't to say that Theory that tries to break out of the current paradigm by redefining language itself isn't useful. I mean, it might be; I have no idea. I haven't figured out how to understand it just yet. But I won't come out and say it isn't useful just because I haven't figured out how to use it.*

Take Authorship Theory, for instance. In 1968 Barthes declared the author dead. And I get what he meant. I get what he was reacting to, and if you hold aside the broad, sweeping generalizations Theory likes to make, I can even find it useful. He pointed out (for you medievalists who don't know) that "Lo," and I'm paraphrasing in quotation marks, so sue me, "Lo, we cannot ever know the authorial intention, and who gives a F**k, anyway? All we can know is the reader's reception."

And then the next year, in French, I think, Foucault pops up and says "Well, I mean seriously guys," and this is a direct quote. No really. "Seriously guys, like, what is an author anyway?" And so he redefined the author as something we can't really reach. But since we still try, he said we should think about the author in terms of the way we ascribe authorship to texts. The "author as function" or, if you will, the "author-function". The thing we create to take the place of the unreachable author. Fair enough.

About twenty years later a fellow named Alexander Nehamas pops up and says "hold on, dude. The author can't just be anybody. He's got to be plausible, at least." Basically, the author has to be someone the writer of the text could actually have been. For example, we can't just say Jesus wrote everything. That would be weird. And, you know, hard on Jesus.

So what does this mean? If I'm writing about the Beowulf-poet, how does any of this matter? Well, on the surface, not a heck of a lot. We know we don't know who wrote Beowulf.** We know, thanks to the peculiar integration of history and literature found in Anglo-Saxon studies, that any trait we ascribe to the poet is more a reflection of ourselves and what we need in a Beowulf-poet, than of the actual person (or persons) who wrote the damn thing. But it can help in that, through Theory, we can become aware of our own modes of thought, and more accurately render a reading of the poem and of the poet, knowing full well that what we strive toward isn't the poet him- or herself, but the closest construct we can manage. It can help us in thinking about the audience, in the recognition of the unknowability of the audience of the poem. By calling them the author-function and (as per Kathy Cawsey) the audience-function, we can more accurately name what it is we construct around the few relics of the past we have left for study.

Foucault seems to have been worried that when we read a poem and know that it's by Shakespeare we imbue it with a meaning, or at least a potential for meaning, beyond what we might otherwise ascribe to it. The same, I think, is true of Anglo-Saxon authors: from assuming the texts in Junius 11 are by "Caedmon" (as has been done in the past) to creating a persona for the Beowulf-poet, we must be cautious in our creations so as not to alter the fragile remains of the texts we have left.

And so that's why I'm trying to get along with Theory these days. Because sometimes -- when I understand it -- it gives me an insight that helps. Something that helps me to get at the text in a way that lets me get out of my own way. And God knows I need as many of those as I can get.

*I'm still working on questions like: 1) Why are we still using Lacan's psychoanalysis in English departments when people actually working in psychology wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole even when it was written? and 2) how are you supposed to get through to the paradigm you're trying to change if you opt out of it and thereby sever communication with it? But these are questions I'm trying to deal with. If you know the answers, comments below, please :)

**Thanks Rumsfeld. Known Knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns... probably the smartest and dumbest thing the man ever said (at the same time).


Sulpicia said...

Your advisor is bang on, though I'd not think of it so much as buried as planted. I was trained in an very theoretical department, and spent a lot of time feeling like I really ought to be reading Deleuze and Derrida, without being entirely convinced they could be usefully applied to what I was trying to do. It took a long while to see how I could use theory to refine arguments and lines of thought without ending up writing about philosophy (badly), rather than writing literary criticism. When it works though, it's incredibly helpful. Good luck with it!

Anonymous said...

You must know I've also had this fight with myself. The problem is of course that whether or not we know it, we all approach our materials with a predetermined set of tools. Confronting capital-T theory can sometimes serve to make one more aware of what one's own tools are even when it's not any help in replacing them. That's actually quite a big thing.

Sisyphus said...

What translation of Foucault are you reading?!?!?! Clearly he says,"duuuude, check it" in my edition.

A little accuracy please! Sheesh.

Dr. Virago said...

I think we still use Lacan (and Freud) in literary studies because psychoanalysis was always better literary theory than psychological theory. After all, so much of the models and metaphors come *from* literature.

I've always been fond of thinking of Theory as tools, too, and I've also tried to bury/integrate it in my writing, but then some less clever people don't think it's very theoretical. Sigh.