Tuesday, November 19

Fun w/ Critical Theory Part I: WTF R U EVEN DOIN'; An Introduction

My time in graduate school is coming to a close as I begin my final semester in a couple of months. Because I'm not currently seeking a position in a PhD program, I know I'm going to really miss coursework. As much as I can complain about having to go to class or write a paper, I really, really love school. I love doing the work that I do, and I don't want to stop just because I'm not enrolled in a class. So I decided that it would be fun to share some of my critical and theoretical work here with you fine people in a new feature I'm calling:
Look at banner, reader! Generally this kind of academic work is viewed as really ~Ivory Tower~ and inaccessible to people who haven't gone to school for it, but I don't think that's true, especially when the stuff we talk about in the academy is stuff that non-academics talk about every single day: race, class, gender, culture, etc. I don't think you need any special knowledge to engage in a critical discussion of a text; really, you just need to have a working knowledge of whatever's being talked about.
Today I'm going to write an introduction to some key ideas, including what exactly it is that people who study literature do, and next week when I post some cool stuff about Shakespeare and dead ladies you'll be ready to go, ready to have your mind blown (or not!). Of course this is just an overview, and if you want to know more your best bet is to do some reading. I love and still turn to this inexpensive little handbook on literary and cultural theory. But, for my purposes here, I think this nutshell of knowledge is enough.
Literary criticism and criticism in general is like a book report but next level. It's in depth, researched and, well, critical. The purpose of literary criticism generally shouldn't be to espouse an opinion ("This story was good because I like the main character because she's Japanese and I'm Japanese...") but should tackle bigger issues: why the text is important or valuable and to whom, or what the text changes and how ("This book is important to today's young adult readers because it's a best seller in a market where women of color, like the main character, are grossly underrepresented in media...").
That's not to imply that personal opinion and experience can't be valuable in criticism, but it's difficult to do. Think about it. It's easier to analyze something outside of yourself than it is to analyze things that you consider personal or close to you. A joke in grad school is that you should never work with a text you love or hold dear because inevitably you will have to destroy it or else you'll spend so much time with it that you'll come to hate it. Imagine doing that kind or work with your memories and feelings. Additionally, lot of times the personal, emotional or sentimental aspect can get away from you, and then rather than a critical look at a movie, you've got a narrative about that time you were bullied at summer camp; a fine thing to write about, but arguably not criticism. It's easier to keep your analysis distant, almost scientific, but, in my opinion, not required to create compelling, useful work. 
Another fun thing about the criticism I do is that instead of just writing about books and stories, I can look at and use poems, films, comics, history, science and culture to support and/or illustrate larger issues. Criticism can get into some real minutia and some really convoluted arguments, but that's good. Whereas your high school book report on The Great Gatsby might have analyzed the Jazz Age as a theme (not a bad choice, mind you) an even closer and more critical reading might consider the rhetorical moves, language, even specific, singular sentences and words that lend to an overall theme or idea. And, of course, this closer reading will provide reasons as to why it's so important to look at these specific choices and what they change for readers, the book, the Jazz Age, culture as a whole, whatever. Criticism gets to do a lot of work. Many of us do the work of critics every day in our lives when we watch TV and movies and participate in our culture. It's a really, really broad field and that's why I think it's so exciting.
A good way to begin the work of a critic is to use a lens. This is where theory comes in (see also: critical theory). A theoretical lens will allow you to focus in on a particular aspect of a text (and again, when I say text I mean more than just books) without having to be distracted or held up by others. Think about The Great Gatsby again; you can look at the treatment of women or a specific female character and use a feminist lens; you could argue that Nick was in love with Gastby and use a queer lens; you could look at class and economy in the book and use a Marxist lens. There are a lot of things you can do, but you wouldn't want to write an essay on every single one of those things. That's not one essay, that's three, and now you've got half of a book. The fact of the matter is that the texts we read contain multitudes and it's impossible and even silly to consider that we can completely and wholly interpret a text by ourselves. That's why we use theoretical lenses to focus.
Most people have their own personal favorite lenses. Marxism, New Historicism, Psychoanalysis, Post-Colonialism, Eco Criticism - I'm not making this up, these are real things! My favorite theoretical lenses are Queer, Feminist and Cultural, but I tend to bleed into a lot of other territories, too. There's a lot of overlap and blurriness, but that's fun! Surprisingly, a lot of the theories we use for our criticism come from non-literary/artistic places. You may not have ever thought about Marxism, Ecology, or even Feminism as being related to literature and art, but they are - or at least they can be.
You can read more about these theoretical lenses here, but the field as a whole is vast. Each theoretical area has its own foundational texts and writers (the trunk of the tree), and numerous responses, rebuttals and reworkings spreading out from those works (the branches), not to mention works using the foundational works to do further work (the leaves). A lot of the time these trees are already pretty big and continue growing all the time. It can be hard to wrap your head around and even intimidating, but being a part of a field or even a culture means that your input is valuable. You get to do this work, too! You get to watch TV and read books and magazine articles and analyze them with your lenses and consider the broader implications of what you've read. Think about it: everyone's got an opinion about Miley Cyrus right now, and a lot of them are based around discussions of race and gender. You may be sick to death of hearing about Miley Goddamn Cyrus, but the fact that she's such a cultural touchstone right now means that it's worth examining, even just for a minute. Something bigger and broader is happening and it isn't Miley just bein' Miley.
I hope that this was fun to read. Again, it's not meant to be comprehensive, but an introduction. If you have any questions please feel free to ask! I don't know everything, I know very little in fact, but I can try to help.  For our next installment of Fun with Critical Theory I'm going to revisit a paper I wrote in undergrad about The Merchant of Venice: a 'comedy' that's full of antisemitism and dick jokes! I'll talk about death, etymology, culture, history, women, all kinds of awesomeness, and it won't be this tl;dr! I hope.

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