Guide to Week 1: Tuesday
We will start with a brief review of the historical background which led to the creation of a course in "Critical Methods" required for all English majors. If you understand the cultural forces which produced each interpretive theory we will study, and the critical methods it mandates, you will be able to use the theory and its methods with greater assurance. Almost nobody responds to every critical theory with equal enthusiasm, and some you probably will dislike or even hate. Once you realize that these theories arose in competition with each other, based in criticisms of each other's failings and omissions, you will be able to appreciate what each theory adds to our ability to interpret literature, as well as the theory's weaknesses, which often are the first thing students notice. I have tried to condense a century of cultural revolution and evolution into a single web page on "Critical Methods and the 20th-Century's 'Theory Wars'". The treatment of each theory is necessarily brief, but I also have installed links to longer essays in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Critical Theory, which we access through a library subscription. Please use it to supplement my brief overview, and Tyson's largely a-historical account of each theory's practices. Click here if you are unsure what "theories" and "methods" are in scholarly research, and how they relate to one another.
The first writing assignment, a personal Reading Protocol ,will be due by 12:00 PM noon tomorrow. It is ungraded, but very important as a way to gauge where we are starting from as a class of people who interpret literature usually without conscious awareness of the theoretical assumptions which make their interpretations possible and convincing (or vice versa!). Click on the hyperlink for instructions and follow them as carefully as you can.
Finally, we will discuss three things theories of interpretation control since the New Critics imposed an international standard of methodological practices on the discipline in the late twentieth century: 1) determining the text; 2) performing the text; 3) interpreting the text. The first practice usually is taken care of for most students when the teacher orders books for the semester, but for some authors and eras, determining which text of the author's work to study can be an important and debated first step. The second practice, "performing the text," is like the musician's question of how to perform the score of a musical composition. What choices do readers make when they read, what constitutes an "accurate" or "complete" or "expert" reading, etc. I describe theoretically naive readers' starting place as living in the "dream of the text," unaware of the rules they follow or alternatives which might improve their reading. This "dream" reading obviously differs from the methods by which trained scholars understand how the text works/means, but we all share it in common--the feeling of being carried away by an author's words, unaware of our surroundings or what we are doing as we read. The course does not seek to end this experience, but rather we hope to discover other ways to read once the "dreams" have ended. The third practice, "interpreting the text," will be the subject of each week's class discussion--how do we turn the raw "data" of a text and our experience of performing it into something that "means something" to us.
The following are some related questions you might consider before class. Most of them will be answered differently by each theory of interpretation we will study: What is the work of literature? Where does the work of literature "occur"? How should works of literature be read? What do works of literature mean, and how should meaning be detected? How does "a reading" of a work of literature differ from "saying what a work of literature means"? What outcomes does the interpreter hope to bring about as a result of interpreting the work of literature? Can a "work of literature" exist before the invention of writing? How does the invention of printing change the way a "work of literature" is produced and consumed? Does a work of literature which exists online or in other digital forms mean differently from those which circulate in manuscript or in print?