Tag Archives: theory

A Problem of Centre

When I wandered into class last Thursday, I thought I understood.  I had just read Klages’ chapter on Deconstruction the night before; while I had a few questions, I thought Deconstruction was pretty straightforward.  I thought that Dr. Pound would provide me with that extra bit of clarification that I needed.

Boy was I wrong.

I sat through class wondering what the heck was going on.  It was only after the first half hour or so that I figured out we weren’t talking about Deconstruction yet.  And when we finally moved onto Deconstruction, things only got more confusing.  I will admit here that part of my confusion stemmed from Klages.  I read her discussion of the centre as the centre being separate from the binary opposition.  Klages says “The center holds the whole structure in place, keeping each of the binary opposites on its proper side of the slash” (55).  This makes it sound like the centre is separate from the two terms in the binary opposite.  As an example, in the case of heaven and earth, God would be the centre.  From this example, God is part of the system, necessary for it to function, but apart from it.   This example works if God is the centre of the entire system of Western Thought, which is made up of all these binary oppositions.  But in class we have been talking about the binary oppositions as systems all their own, which is where my real confusion appears to be stemming from.  A friend of mine who took this class in the past even lent me some notes, and I was going to say “I get it” as I tried to explain it here, but I find that I really don’t.  Binary opposites are made up of two opposing terms, such as “light” and “dark.”  You cannot have both at the same time.  We priviledge the first term over the second.  In class, we have been calling this priviledged term the centre of the system.  The centre keeps everything in place, but also allows for play between its elements.  In the case of “light” and “dark,” I cannot really see how “light” keeps the system in place.  In a different example, such as “teacher” and “student,” I can kind of see how the teacher would keep the center in place.  But it makes more sense if an outside force, such as “the education system,” is imposing the opposition of “teacher” and “student.”  This is similar to what Klages said: “every system posits a center, a place from which the whole system comes and which regulates the system” (55).  It also makes sense that the centre is not one of the two opposing terms, as otherwise the centre would have to be bound by the system.  The teacher is bound by the education system as surely as the students, just in a different way. 

But if you take the example of “teacher” and “class,” the story is a bit different.  The teacher is part of the class, but is not one of the learners.  In that way, the teacher is then outside of the classroom system.  But to be outside of the system, how can “teacher” be the opposite of “class?”

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Theory Highlights

I dreamed a few nights ago that I was in Victoriaville mall with a friend of mine.  I told him that in the past, my brother and I used to go up to the second level above the food court and shimmy around the outside of the railing.  My friend decided that sounded like fun, so he left me to try it.  There was a father with some young children, a boy and a girl, who were watching him.  The father complained to me about my friend going around the outside of the railing; the father said he was a bad influence for the children.  We all went upstairs to find my friend sitting at a table, waiting for us.  The balcony is a strange, unstable shape and my friend was sitting at the spot that juts out over what I call the green (it used to be an area of green carpet, but I believe it is now grey tile).  After sitting for a little while, my friend decided it was a good idea to start jumping up and down in an effort to tip the balcony over onto the green.

I don’t normally remember my dreams, so I was lucky to have had this one before having to analyze one using Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” for a class.  I started analyzing the dream using Freud`s method, but I was still looking at it from my own perspective.  Part way through my analysis, I decided to look at the dream the way Freud might.  This was when my analysis got a little strange: I started seeing weird things like the Electra complex where before  I only saw things relevant to my daily life. 

I personally am not a fan of Freud`s theories, especially the psychosexual theory (the Oedipus and Electra complexes).  So I was quite surprised when I was able to `find`evidence of the Electra complex in my dream.  I thought that this was a really good illustration of how different theory frameworks highlight certain aspects of a text while downplaying others.

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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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