Entries in the Category "marxists"
Literary theory, or I have a report due and I hate it
I had a conversation with my friend Andra once, about theory. She had been an anthropology and religion major (and I’m in English, of course). I said that I had trouble reading theory—that I never really understood an abstract concept until I could put a scenario to it. Apply a narrative, basically. She said that it was strange—she didn’t much enjoy reading novels, because she was always more interested in the ideas than the seemingly trivial details of what happened next.
At least I have Flannery O’Connor on my side. I quoted her in an earlier entry saying, “Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” That’s from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” and if you want to know what she means, it’s simply this: her stories are not reducible to themes of good versus evil or the impact of righteousness on a bruised soul or the petty racisms of a person who thinks they’re doing right (although she’s written about all those things). Her stories are about people getting gored by bulls, and getting their wooden legs stolen by traveling Bible salesmen, and getting murdered by one’s own grandfather. She put a lot of thought (perverse thought, clearly) into creating those scenarios and “what happens” is every bit as important as what she’s saying through what happens. You can’t have one without the other.
So, theory is trying to have one without the other. The study of theory is meant to help me, as a student of literature, discover and develop methods for interpreting literature. Unfortunately, when it’s explained to me, it sounds like this:
The complexity of a culture is to be found not only in its variable processes and their social definitions—traditions, institutions, and formations—but also in the dynamic interrelations, at every point in the process, of historically varied and variable elements. In what I have called ‘epochal’ analysis, a cultural process is seized as a cultural system, with determinate dominant features: feudal culture or bourgeois culture or a transition from one to the other. This emphasis on dominant and definitive lineaments and features is important and often, in practice, effective. But it then often happens that its methodology is preserved for the very different function of historical analysis, in which a sense of movement within what is ordinarily abstracted as a system is crucially necessary, especially if it is to connect with the future as well as with the past.
I could go on. I’ve read about a thousand pages of that this week—it’s Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, and I have to deliver a report on it in two days. The main obstacle to this is that I barely understand a word of it. If I can keep my eyes on it—which is only sometimes, because (and this I have discovered) the narrative, or the story, is the rope that I cling to as I navigate the darkness of any configuration of words—then I still don’t understand what’s happening, because these ideas are presented with no analogy or application that will help me to understand it. All these problems make attempting to read this stuff really frustrating and tiresome. I’m used to mostly understanding what I have to study. But these complex ideas, communicated at the apex of their complexity with no little diagrams to put it in terms that I recognize, skate over my consciousness like stones skipping across the water. My mind reads—all the words get picked up—but nothing penetrates.
I ask questions in class—clarifying things, for example: “So this view of semiology is particularly distinguishing itself from an etymological view of language?” That’s really what I thought was going on, but here’s what the professor gave me: blankness, and “…No…” Like it’s not just that I’m missing the point, I’m so far off they don’t even get where I’m coming from. I am a bad student in this class. I’m doing the reading, like I said; I’m not absorbing or understanding it.
Six weeks left of this class. If I survive it, I will consider myself lucky. If I never have to deal with theory in my entire career again, I will consider myself blessed.