Tag Archives: literature

Theory or Pleasure?

“At the end of this year, Shauna, you’re going to eat, sleep and breathe literary theory.”  That’s what a friend of mine told me over the summer.  And I’m not going to lie: it scared me.  A lot.

My academic background only recently includes English.  For that reason, school and hobbies have always remained separate.  For school, I read textbooks.  For fun, I read novels.  But life has a funny way of bringing things together.  So here I am now, looking at the prospect of joining school with fun.

Now I have no qualms about looking at Shakespeare or Margaret Atwood through the theory lense.  But the thought of looking at everything in this way fills me with dread.  My friend started our conversation off with: “I can’t even watch a bad movie without noticing how something is an example of colonialism or whatnot.”  I can’t say that I want to be pointing out colonialism in a bad movie.  Bad movies are something I want to enjoy (or at least make fun of) on a superficial level, not on a deep, intellectual level.  And today, a professor in another class brought this point up again, thereby bringing my dread to the forefront once again.  How can I avoid damaging my pleasure reading with the interpretation school is now demanding of me?

Luckily, Dr. Pound came to the rescue this morning.  He said that it is possible to preserve your enjoyment by not studying something too much.  You can choose to intellectually examine only certain things, while leaving other things just to your senses to enjoy.  Maybe it is possible to live in both worlds, just not both simultaneously.  I only hope that my brain can make the distinction!

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What English Produces

While reading through the blogs a few days ago, I came across a post that commented on what English produces.  I remember reading in Klages’ Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed that English produces knowledgeable people, and at the time I was okay with that.  But the more I thought about it, the less okay I felt with this statement.  Engineers, while trained to build bridges, have to learn math, which is knowledge.  Scientists, while trained to discover how natural phenomena work, have to learn scientific theory, which is knowledge.  Philosophers, while trained to ponder existence and our purpose, have to learn about the philosophic thought that came before, which is knowledge.  How then does English get away with saying that our product is knowledge?

Klages herself partially answers that.  She says that Literary Theory helps to examine how our world works.  But wait, don’t other disciplines do that?  Doesn’t psychology and sociology try to describe everyday human life in a scientific way?  Yes, English examines literature, but couldn’t I just apply psychological theory to the literature?  And don’t we already do so, seeing how there is a chapter in Klages’ book devoted to psychoanalysis?

There is obviously more to English than this, or we would just be an offshoot of another discipline.  The more I thought about it, the more English reminds me of anthropology.  But unlike anthropology, we are devoted solely to the written work produced by people throughout time.  We are like historians, but we are looking at more than just the stories of people; we examine the way those stories are written, and we are always interpreting what is on the page.

The more I think about it, the more English seems like the unifying discipline among the humanities.  There is a little bit of everything in us, and we still manage to stand apart from the rest.  While I’m still not entirely clear whether there is a product, I know English produces a unique cultural record that no other discipline has.  And isn’t that good enough?

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The Definition of Literature

“How do you feel about literature having no definition?” 

The class was asked this question after a lively discussion of what we thought literature was.  Everyone wrote their own definition, then Dr. Pound read them all out loud.  The definitions tended to cluster into several groups, dealing with art, fiction, or so-called classics.  The definitions made clear the fact that even within our class we could not agree on what literature is; literature changes and evolves along with us.

So how do I feel about studying something that cannot be defined?  To be completely honest, it doesn’t really bother me.  I encountered this same problem a few years ago with psychology.  In psychology today, there is no unifying theory.  In the past, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis looked at all aspects of behaviour and thought.  But since that time, psychology has fractured.  Now many separate theories look at different aspects of behaviour and thought.  There is nothing to tie them all together except that all the researchers are studying the brain and behaviour.  They just all study it in (very) different ways.

When I was first told straight-up that psychology is a fractured thing, I was shocked.  How could I go home and tell my parents that I’ve essentially been studying a lie?  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t true.  While there is large disagreement between researchers, everyone is still aware of what they are doing.  They are all trying to describe human behaviour, to figure out why we do the things we do.  There’s just disagreement on how to go about finding this knowledge.

The lack of a literature definition is much the same as the lack of a unifying psychology theory.  Literature is defined differently, depending on who is defining it.  There is disagreement between theorists, critics and writers what exactly constitutes literature, but everyone is still aware of what we are studying.  We’re all trying to study the stories, poems and letters that make up our written history.  We’re just disagreeing on where exactly to draw the line.

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Title Story

While I was at work a few nights ago, I found myself with a few free minutes.  Instead of wasting them aimlessly surfing the web, I decided to try to come up with a title for my English 2903 blog. I started with a quick Google search of the term literature. The first hit was from wikipedia, bringing me to this site.According to wikipedia, literature literally means an “acquaintance with letters.” I thought this was extremely interesting, and that it also had some possibilities.  I thought calling the blog something like “A Novel Acquaintance” might work, but decided to keep looking in case something better came up.  I continued my search for a little while longer, finding another neat definition from a dictionary.  With the two possibilities in mind, I decided to take a few days to think it over, and to get some more opinions on my choices.  I emailed my brother the two possible titles, along with where they came from; he was the one who suggested An Acquaintance with Letters.

While I really liked my dictionary possible blog title (I’m not going to share it in case I use it in the future), the more I thought about it the more I liked An Acquaintance with Letters.  The title is just so fitting in many different ways.  If wikipedia is correct, then it means literature.  English 2903 is my first in depth acquaintance with literary theory.  And with just this first post, there are already many letters here!

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