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ANGLO-AMERICAN LITERARY THEORY summaries

Terry Eagleton: What is Literature?


Although many have tried to define what "literature" is or what makes something "literary," no one has successfully
defined literature in such a way that it accounts for the complexities of language and the wide variety of written texts.
For example...
Some define literature as writing which is "imaginative" or fictive, as opposed to factual, true, or historical. This
seems reasonable until we realize that ...
1.

what counts as "fact" varies with cultures and time periods. Is the book of Genesis (and the entire Bible for
that matter) fact or fiction? Are the legends and myths of Greek, Scandinavia, and Native Americans fact or
fiction? Is Darwin's Origin of Species fact or fiction? Are news reports fact or fiction?

2. What is clearly imaginative writing is often not considered literature. For example, comic books, computer
game stories, and Harlequin Romances are usually excluded from the category of "literature" even though they
are certainly imaginative.
3. A lot of what we do consider literature is more like history (i.e. Boswell's Biography of Samuel Johnson,
Claredon's History of the Rebellion) or philosophy (i.e. the works of Mill, Ruskin, Newman). In sum, fact vs.
fiction is not a helpful way to distinguish between what is literary and what is not. There are also a lot of
"facts" in novels, and many novels are based on real historical events.
Perhaps it is the way we use language. As some argue, literature transforms and intensifies ordinary language. If I
say, "Thou still unravished bride of quietness," then you know it's literature or you know that I'm using "literary"
language. The language is different from everyday speech in texture, rhythm and resonance. The sentence, "This is
awfully squiggly handwriting!" doesn't sound literary, does it? However, there are also some problems.
1.

"Unordinary" speech depends upon a norm from which to deviate. But the specialized vocabulary used in
sports, dance, music, small town diners, Glaswegian dockworkers, etc. or even everyday slang varies widely
from the norm, but we don't classify that language as "literary." For example, most if not all of our swear
words employ metaphorical/poetic language.

2. There isn't a universal norm. One person's norm may be another's deviation. "Shitkicker" for "cowboy boot"
may be poetical to someone from New York, but it's everyday speech in Laramie. Many of us think British
words for everyday items seems poetical.
3. Finally, the sentence above "This is awfully squiggly handwriting!" doesn't sound literary, but it comes from
Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger. Therefore, what is literary depends upon the context. Anything read in an
English class could count as literature simply because it is read for English.
Perhaps literature is "non-useful" writing, writing that doesn't help us do something pragmatic. There are still several
problems.
1.

One could read anything as "non-useful." That is, I could easily read a shopping listand point out the
interesting metaphors, beautiful sounds, imagery, etc. or

2. I could read Moby Dick to find out how to kill whales. In fact, I have used a novel about sled dogs to train my
own dogs. Is that book no longer "literature" once I turn it into a "how-to" book?
Perhaps something is literature because it is the kind of writing we like to read; it's a highly valued kind of writing. In
this case, anything can be literature, and anything can stop being literature. The important implication is that we don't
get to decide what is literature because our parents, teachers, exams, etc. define that for us. We are trained to value the
kind of writing that they value.
"Literature" and the "literary" then are highly subjective categories. We can't decide whether or not something is
"literature" or "literary" simply by looking at its form or language.Shakespeare's works have not always been valued as
literature, and his works may not be valued in the future.
You may feel dissatisfied because we will never come up with a concrete definition, but that is the point. As Terry
Eagleton points out, "we can drop once and for all the illusion that the category "literature" is objective in the sense of

being eternally given and immutable" (10). He goes on to say that our opinions and value-judgments are not neutral
either, that "the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power-structure and power-relations of the
society we live in" (14). In other words, your opinions about literature and literariness are not just your opinions. They
are related to how and where you were raised and educated. Importantly, our environment encourages us to accept
some values but not others, support the activities of some groups but not others, or exclude some choices as
unacceptable. Therefore, how we define literature reveals what we have been taught to value and what we have been
taught to reject. This is important for you because you are forced, for the most part, to learn what other people value
and at the very minimum, what other people have made available for you to read. It's also important if you plan on
teaching, for you will help shape the perceptions of your students. Again, have you ever had a teacher tell you that the
novel you are reading is "not literature," "escapist," or just "fun reading"? Can you see the potential problem here,
especially when it comes to passing tests, getting into college, and pleasing others, including yourself? Do you
recognize that the source of your values may not even be you?
Another way to frame this insight is to say that I tried to encourage you to ask different questions, questions that I
have found far more useful. Asking "Is it literature?" or "Is it good literature?" is not as important or interesting as
asking...

What does one's definition of "literature" reveal about one's attitudes, beliefs, values, training, or socialization
(in short, one's ideological affiliation)?

How do definitions and categories of "literature" and especially "good literature" coincide with specific
political issues like "Who should govern?" "Who should have what role or function in society?" "What kinds of
behaviors and belief should be excluded or included?"

Put yet another way, I would encourage you to look at definitions, reading lists, evaluations, etc. as a way to learn
about your own set of values (that inevitably connect with larger systems of value), your own particular school system
and our culture at large. As you will discover, a quick glance at the race, gender, class, and time period of authors you
have had to read in school will reveal something about whose ideology (system of values, beliefs, and history) is
valorized, privileged, and passed on to other generations. Therefore, what and how you read is a political issue because
it has to do with relations and structures of power. Texts are enjoyable to read, but we need to take them seriously, for
they tell us in their own way a lot about ourselves and our society
William Wordsworth: Preface to Lyrical Ballads

T.S.Eliot: Tradition and the Individual Talent


Eliot presents his conception of tradition and the definition of the poet and poetry in relation to it. He wishes to
correct the fact that, as he perceives it, "in English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply
its name in deploring its absence." Eliot posits that, though the English tradition generally upholds the belief that art
progresses through change a separation from tradition, literary advancements are instead recognised only when they
conform to the tradition. Eliot, a classicist, felt that the true incorporation of tradition into literature was
unrecognised, that tradition, a word that "seldom... appear[s] except in a phrase of censure," was actually a thus-far
unrealised element of literary criticism.
For Eliot, the term "tradition" is imbued with a special and complex character. It represents a "simultaneous order," by
which Eliot means a historical timelessness a fusion of past and present and, at the same time, a sense of present
temporality. A poet must embody "the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer," while, simultaneously,
expressing his contemporary environment. Eliot challenges the common perception that a poet's greatness and
individuality lie in his departure from his predecessors; he argues that "the most individual parts of his (the poet) work
may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously." Eliot claims that this
"historical sense" is not only a resemblance to traditional works but an awareness and understanding of their relation
to his poetry.
This fidelity to tradition, however, does not require the great poet to forfeit novelty in an act of surrender to repetition.
Rather, Eliot has a much more dynamic and progressive conception of the poetic process: Novelty is possible only
through tapping into tradition. When a poet engages in the creation of new work, he realises an aesthetic "ideal order,"
as it has been established by the literary tradition that has come before him. As such, the act of artistic creation does
not take place in a vacuum. The introduction of a new work alters the cohesion of this existing order, and causes a
readjustment of the old to accommodate the new. The inclusion of the new work alters the way in which the past is
seen, elements of the past that are noted and realised. In Eliots own words: "What happens when a new work of art is
created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it." Eliot refers to this organic
tradition, this developing canon, as the "mind of Europe." The private mind is subsumed by this more massive one.
This leads to Eliots so-called "Impersonal Theory" of poetry. Since the poet engages in a "continual surrender of
himself" to the vast order of tradition, artistic creation is a process of depersonalisation. The mature poet is viewed as

a medium, through which tradition is channelled and elaborated. He compares the poet to a catalyst in a chemical
reaction, in which the reactants are feelings and emotions that are synthesised to create an artistic image that captures
and relays these same feelings and emotions. While the mind of the poet is necessary for the production, it emerges
unaffected by the process. The artist stores feelings and emotions and properly unites them into a specific
combination, which is the artistic product. What lends greatness to a work of art are not the feelings and emotions
themselves, but the nature of the artistic process by which they are synthesised. The artist is responsible for creating
"the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place." And, it is the intensity of fusion that renders art great.
In this view, Eliot rejects the theory that art expresses metaphysical unity in the soul of the poet. The poet is a
depersonalised vessel, a mere medium.
Great works do not express the personal emotion of the poet. The poet does not reveal his own unique and novel
emotions, but rather, by drawing on ordinary ones and channelling them through the intensity of poetry, he expresses
feelings that surpass, altogether, experienced emotion. This is what Eliot intends when he discusses poetry as an
"escape from emotion." Since successful poetry is impersonal and, therefore, exists independent of its poet, it outlives
the poet and can incorporate into the timeless "ideal order" of the "living" literary tradition.
Another essay found in Selected Essays relates to this notion of the impersonal poet. In "Hamlet and His Problems"
Eliot presents the phrase "objective correlative." The theory is that the expression of emotion in art can be achieved by
a specific, and almost formulaic, prescription of a set of objects, including events and situations. A particular emotion
is created by presenting its correlated objective sign. The author is depersonalised in this conception, since he is the
mere effecter of the sign. And, it is the sign, and not the poet, which creates emotion.
The implications here separate Eliot's idea of talent from the conventional definition (just as his idea of Tradition is
separate from the conventional definition), one so far from it, perhaps, that he chooses never to directly label it as
talent. Whereas the conventional definition of talent, especially in the arts, is a genius that one is born with. Not so for
Eliot. Instead, talent is acquired through a careful study of poetry, claiming that Tradition, "cannot be inherited, and if
you want it, you must obtain it by great labour." Eliot asserts that it is absolutely necessary for the poet to study, to
have an understanding of the poets before him, and to be well versed enough that he can understand and incorporate
the "mind of Europe" into his poetry. But the poet's study is unique it is knowledge which "does not encroach," and
which does not "deaden or pervert poetic sensibility." It is, to put it most simply, a poetic knowledge knowledge
observed through a poetic lens. This ideal implies that knowledge gleaned by a poet is not knowledge of facts, but
knowledge which leads to a greater understanding of the mind of Europe. As Eliot explains, "Shakespeare acquired
more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the wholeBritish Museum."
Wimsatt and Beardsley: The Intentional Fallacy
Attention to intention leads to no good criticism, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley's article "The Intentional
Fallacy." The piece argues against what the authors see as the traditional reliance upon authorial intention as a
standard for critical judgment of poetry, which may be extended here to include literature as a whole. Rather than
looking to the author as an "oracle" of truth and knowledge on his/her own work, rather than establishing and
upholding a necessarily arbitrary evaluation of authorial intention as the measure for a literary work's degree of
"success," Wimsatt and Beardsley locate the critic's role in an analysis of the inner workings of the literary piece. Once
made, the poem assumes primary importance over its maker as literary artifact, not to be reduced to the status of
simple expression of a writer's psychological state or biographical clue. Out with the author, the article seems to say, in
with the critic/public as supreme authority and final word on the merits of literary production.
Without directly invoking "science" as did Eichenbaum in his explanation of the Formalist method, Wimsatt and
Beardsley implicitly fault "intentionalists" for an unscientific approach to literature that indulges in arbitrary and
unfruitful speculation on authorial intentions while losing sight of the object at hand, the poem. Intentionality is seen
as an impossible quest: "How is [the critic] to find out what the poet tried to do?" (p.1015) Even in cases where the
author is alive and willing to answer questions regarding his/her work, Wimsatt and Beardsley find no critical
satisfaction in recourse to the unscientific, subjective pronouncements of this "oracle." By looking to intention as the
answer, critics fail to recognize that the judgment of literature involves not answers but the ongoing, informed process
of critical inquiry.
In taking on intentionality, the authors attack an approach to literature rooted both in common sense and critical
tradition. From Goethe to the present day, Wimsatt and Beardsley argue, critics have wrongly valued the externals
factors, that which is "not part of the work as a linguistic fact" (p.1018), i.e. the author's intentions, motivations, or the
circumstances of production, over internal evidence, defined as the language of the poem and the general body of
knowledge of language and literature. In asserting the primacy of these internal factors, the authors establish the
poem, or any literary work, as self-sufficient, autonomous, not subject to the author but an object of scientific inquiry
in its own right. Such an insistence on the literary work and its proper qualities of literary-ness bring to mind again the
aims of the Formalist method, which posits as the "central problem of the history of literature...the problem of
evolution without personality -- the study of literature as a self-formed phenomenon" (p.845, Eichenbaum).
Wimsatt and Beardsley debunk ideas of a private, omniscient authorial authority, defining the evaluation of works of
art as belonging to the public space. "The poem belongs to the public," they write, "It is embodied in language, the

peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge."(p.1016) Such
claims, however, may overshoot the goal of demystification to veer into simplification. One might take issue with the
idea of literature "belonging" to anything outside of literature itself: is not the public, are not we possessed by the idea
of literature, subject to the influence of literature (and language), as much as we may be said to possess it?
Furthermore, Wimsatt and Beardsley in presenting the poem as an object sufficient unto itself, draw the boundaries
more clearly than they perhaps are. Rather than identifying external, internal and intermediate zones of meaning, the
authors might speak of the negotiation of meaning that goes on between the literary work and its audience. The fact
that negotiations of meaning must pass through language further complicates matters. Indeed, this would support
Wimsatt and Beardsley's argument, as any intentionality would inevitably be distorted, distanced as expressed in
language. Finally, the authors do not seem to address the case of authorial intention as inscribed in the literary work
(through, for example, textual models of writing or reception). And what of the intentionality of literary production
itself, engaged in the "dialectical self-creation of new forms"? (p.844, Eichenbaum)
Northrop Frye: The Motive for Metaphor
The Motive for Metaphor" is the first essay in Northrop Frye's collection "The Educated Imagination". Metaphor is the
basic building block of all literary work, hence "The Motive for Metaphor" is an essay justifying the place Literature
has in society. As Frye says, Every child realises that literature is taking him in a different direction from the
immediately useful, and a good many children complain loudly this. (15) Haha! Adults complain loudly too.
In this essay, Frye proposes that there are three levels of the mind, and three languages for each of them. There is the
level of consciousness and awareness. The English of this level is that of ordinary conversation, full of adjectives and
nouns, the language of self-expression. Then there is the level of social participation, and the English of this level is the
working language of teachers and preachers and politicians and advertisers and lawyers and journalists and scientists.
Then, there is the level of the imagination, which produces the literary language of poems and plays and novels. (2223)
Science starts with the world we live in, and moves towards the imagination. Art, on the other hand, begins with the
world we construct in our minds, and moves towards reality. The closer they get to the middle, the more alike they are:
"A highly developed science and a highly developed art are very close together, psychologically and otherwise." (24)
Just think about the quark and you will see what I mean.
However, this different starting point means that while science is constantly evolving and discovering new and
wonderful things about the world we live in an average scientist today knows more than Isaac Newton; it is different
from art because art begins in the imagination, and so nothing is ever completely new. As far as tragedy is
concerned, Oedipus Rex is it. It can't get any better than that.
Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation
"Against Interpretation" is Sontag's seminal essay within Against Interpretation and Other Essays that discusses the
divisions between two different kinds of art criticism and theory: that of formalist interpretation, and that of contentbased interpretation. Sontag is strongly averse to what she considers to be contemporary interpretation, that is, an
overabundance of importance placed upon the content or meaning of an artwork rather than being keenly alert to the
sensuous aspects of a given work and developing a descriptive vocabulary for how it appears and how it does whatever
it does. She believes that interpretation of the modern style has a particular taming effect: reducing the freedom of a
subjective response and placing limitations or certain rules upon a responder. The modern style of interpretation is
particularly despised by Sontag in relation to the previous classical style of interpretation that sought to bring
artworks up to date, to meet modern interests and apply allegorical readings. Where this type of interpretation was
seen to resolve conflict between past and present by revamping an art work and maintaining a certain level of respect
and honour, Sontag believes that the modern style of interpretation has lost sensitivity and rather strives to
excavate...destroy[1] a piece of art.
Sontag asserts that the modern style is quite harmful; to art and to audiences alike, enforcing hermeneutics- fallacious,
complicated readings that seem to engulf an artwork, to the extent that analysis of content begins to degrade, to
destroy. Reverting to a more primitive and sensual, almost magical experience of art is what Sontag desires; even
though that is quite impossible due to the thickened layers of hermeneutics that surround interpretation of art and
that have grown to be recognised and respected. Sontag daringly challenges Marxian and Freudian theories, claiming
they are aggressive and impious.[2]
Sontag also refers to the contemporary world as one of overproduction... material plentitude [sic],[3] where one's
physical senses have been dulled and annihilated by mass production and complex interpretation to the extent that
appreciation of the form of art has been lost. To Sontag, modernity means a loss of sensory experience and she believes
(in corroboration with her theory of the damaging nature of criticism) that the pleasure of art is diminished by such

overload of the senses. In this way, Sontag asserts that inevitably, the modern style of interpretation separates form
and content in a manner that damages an artwork and one's own sensorial appreciation of a piece.
Though she claims that interpretation can be stifling, making art comfortable and manageable and thus degrading
the artists original intention, Sontag equally presents a solution to the dilemma she sees as an abundance of
interpretation on content. That is, to approach art works with a strong emphasis on form, to reveal the sensuous
surface of art without mucking about in it.

Susan Sontag: Notes on Camp

Camp is a social, cultural, and aesthetic style and sensibility based on deliberate and self-acknowledged theatricality.
Camp is commonly associated with and attributed to gay male subculture(s), but its basis and practice extends further.
Camp aesthetics disrupt many modernists' notions of what art is and what can be classified as high art by inverting
aesthetic attributes such as beauty, value, and taste through an invitation of a different kind of apprehension and
consumption.
Camp can also be a social practice. For many it is considered a style and performance identity for several types of
entertainment including film, cabaret and pantomime. Where high art necessarily incorporates beauty and value,
camp necessarily needs to be lively, audacious and dynamic. "Camp aesthetics delights in impertinence." Camp
opposes satisfaction and seeks to challenge.
The concept is related to kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as being "cheesy". When the usage
appeared in 1909, it denoted: ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, and effeminate behavior, and by the
middle of the 1970s, the definition comprised: banality, artifice, mediocrity and ostentation so extreme as to have
perversely sophisticated appeal.[4] American writer Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on 'Camp'" (1964) emphasized its key
elements as: artifice, frivolity, naive middle-class pretentiousness, and 'shocking' excess. Camp as an aesthetic has
been popular from the 1960s to the present.

CAMP: A sensibility that revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony, playfulness, and exaggeration rather
than content, as Susan Sontag famously defined the term in her short essay, "Notes on 'Camp.'" According to Sontag,
"Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticizedor at least apolitical"; however, some postmodernists, feminists, and
queer theorists have explored the ways that camp (for example, the drag show) can trouble the belief that gender is
"natural" or inherent, and can therefore work against heteronormativity. As Sontag argues, "Not all homosexuals have
Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguardand the most articulate audienceof Camp." By
exaggerating sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms, such queer-inflected camp could be said to contend
that all behavior is really performative. Camp is also tied to postmodernism. As Sontag puts it, "Camp sees everything
in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a 'lamp; not a woman, but a 'woman.'" In this way, the term resembles Linda
Hutcheon's very similar understanding of parody, which Hutcheon offers as one of the major characteristics of
postmodern art. Camp's relationship to kitsch is a close one; camp could be said to be a self-conscious kitsch. As
Sontag writes, "Many examples of Camp are things which, from a 'serious' point of view, are either bad art or kitsch,"
though she also acknowledges that "some art which can be approached as Camp... merits the most serious admiration
and study." Sontag also distinguishes between "pure camp," which amounts to a kitsch that takes itself so seriously
that we can now see it as hilarious (in other words, the camp sensibility is on the side of the audience not the author of
the work), and "Camp which knows itself to be camp" and is, therefore, already making fun of itself.
Paul de Man: Semiology and Rhetoric

Paul de Man announces, in "Semiology and Rhetoric" that as critics and/or readers of literature, we may not hear
much about a text's relevance. We instead hear more about the text's reference, or the nonverbal to which language
refers, is conditioned, and acted upon. It is now important, according to de Man, to devote our attentions to the
external politic of literature (de Man 1011). That is, we should strive for a more comprehensible imperative that

attempts to reconcile the internal, formal, and private literary devices with the external, referential, and public effects.
de Man believes that literature should not be interpreted with concrete "meanings" to be decoded, without leaving
something behind, because internal "meaning" has moved beyond reitification of content, and form. He looks to the
nimble literary mind of the French to explore poetics - a branch of general semiotics.

In France, de Man argues, semiology in literature, as opposed to semantics, is the study of signs, words, or signifiers,
and is more concerned with how these words are used to create "meaning," not in what the words actually mean.
French literary critics turned to linguistics models such as: Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, rather than
Paul Valy or Joseph Proust, because Saussure argues for an awareness of the arbitrariness of sign (signifers) and
literature as an autotelic statement is necessary, because it focuses on ways of expression, and Jakobson stresses the
question of meaning can be bracketed, freeing critical discourse from the burden of paraphrasing (de Man 1011). In
other words, the arbitrary use of sign, or signifiers, frees the critic and/or reader of the responsibility of reinforcing an
authors interpretation. According to de Man, [semontics] demonstrates that the perception of the literary dimension
of language is largely obscured if one submits uncritically to the authority of reference" (de Man 1012).

John Phillips argues that Semiology establishes the arbitrariness of signs, the differences that give signs their their
value, and it establishes codes that operate as prompts for signification. A sign is coded according to its system, and
that is how it comes to have a particular meaning. de Man believes that the most striking characteristics of semiology
is conjointly rhetoric that seemingly does not recognize the possibility of discrepancy between these literary devices.
Rhetoric, as de Man interprets through out the essay is used as a study of tropes and figures, becomes an extension of
grammatical models, as well as, particular subsets of syntactical relations not derived from comments, eloquence, or
persuasions (de Man 1013). That is, the way a writer structures signs grammatically and the use of syntax, and how
signs are used to form an argument relies on how the signs, are being used. Phillips attempts to clarify de Man's
declaration by stating that grammatical structure can produce complex structures at the sentence level as well as at the
paragraph level, the chapter level, and the book level. Again, this use of grammatically constructed signs depend on
how the are arranged, or structured to convey certain "meanings," or interpretations. de Man then questions the
legitimacy of reducing grammar to figures.
de Man argues, "The question remains if and how figures of rhetoric can be included in such a taxonomy." On a naive
level, de Man further argues, we tend to conceive a grammatical system that strives to be universal and capable of
arriving at infinite versions of a single model without the intervention of a similar modes that upsets the first (de Man
1013). Or simply put, there is no grammatical system that can claim to be universal without coming in to conflict with
other models that are thought to be already in place. According to de Man, a dyadic relationship of unsubverted
support in a logic of acts, rather than of statements (de Man 1013). In other words, grammar and logic are related to
the communicative effect that supports one another, because logic supports the grammatical statements made by an
author.
Richard Ohman states that rules of illocutionary acts determine whether performance of a given act is well-executed in
the same way grammatical rules determine whether the product of illocutionary act of a sentence is well
formed,whereas rules of grammar are concerned with the relationships of sound, syntax, and meaning. Whatismore,
rules of illocutionary acts are concerned with the way these rules relate to people (Ohman 4). The point appears to be
that illocutionary acts, or the communicative effect of signs, grammar, and syntax, are judged as well-executed by the
same rules that govern whether grammatical constructions are well-informed. Grammar and rhetoric occupy a unique
space when it comes to modern semiology.
Charles Pierce Sanders laid the foundation for modern semiology by stressing the unfathomability definition of signs
by insisting on the presence of a third element he calls interpretant within the relationship that signs have with other
objects. The sign has to be interpreted to understand the idea it is trying to convey, because a sign, not the thing but a
meaning derived for representation. The sign, according to Pierce, is not meaning, but another sign, because one sign
gives birth to another sign. Pierce explains, "Only if the sign engendered meaning in the same way that the object
engenders the sign - that is, by representation, there would be no need to distinguish between grammar and rhetoric,"
(Pierre 156). Simply put, signs are meaningless, because they are dependent on other signs in an endless cycle of
representation. de Man attempts to clarify when he explains how grammar allows the critic and/or reader to asks
questions, but the structure of a sentence, or chapter, or book, may deny the possibility for asking. What is the use in
asking when we cannot decide whether a question asks, or doesn't asks (de Man1015)? But, what difference does it
make?
According to de Man, the point is that a syntactical question has at least two meanings, one that asserts and one that

denies, or one literal question and one figurative . Also, we as critics and/or readers, must decide which one is right
for a particular situation. The grammatical modes becomes rhetorical when it is impossible to decide which
interpretation to follow(de Man 1015). Again, the difference is really unimportant, because the answer may be
arbitrary as well as subjective. To further explore this theory, de Man turn to a poem by British poet William Yeats.

"Among School Children"


O Chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
- William B. Yeats
de Man states that a close reading of the poem assumes that the final line is a rhetorical question. The last line (How
can we know the dance from the dance? line 4) appears to reveal that the thematic and rhetorical grammar yields a
reading that extends from the first line (O Chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer line 1), and accounts for the details in
the text. However, if one reads the last line literally instead of figuratively, it is impossible to come up with a reading
that prevents us from identifying what cannot be really identified. This type of interpretation may appear to be naive,
whereas the literal reading leads to complications in theme and statement. If the final line, de Man argues, is read
literally, it bring with it a sense of urgency, as de Man makes clear, "There can be no dance without a dancer, no sign
with a referent," (de Man 1016). That is, on the authority of "meaning," the grammatical structure is obscured by the
duplicity of the figures (dance v. dancer) that calls for clear definition, or clarification that is concealed. The dance is
dependent upon the dancer, as well as the dancer - the dance. It remains unclear, because one sign is dependent on the
other, and vise versa. So, any attempt at clarification remains unclear. At this point, the difference between the two is
irrelevant.
The metaphors in line four are linked to its proper "meaning" that leads to a perfect synthesis that transcends, de Man
argues, necessity of essence, permanence, or "meaning." Figures, sign, or signifers are thought to be products of the
individual talents of a particular author, but no one can truly account for the programmed patterns of grammar (de
Man 1018). In other words, writers really have no control over how their words will be interpreted, or represented, in
the minds of critics and/or readers. There in lies the beauty of deconstruction, in my opinion.
Deconstructing metaphors, and other rhetorical devices, arrive at the impersonal plane of grammar and semiology,
according to de Man. To state in other words, deconstruction always appears to refer back to the basis of seminology what is the value, or non value of literary criticism because of the indetermination of grammar, syntax, and rhetoric.
de Man explains, "The former ends up indetermination of seminology in a suspended uncertainty that was unable to
choose between modes of reading, whereas the latter seems to reach a truth, albeit by the negative road of exposing an
error, a false pretense" (de Man 1019). This appears to subject literature to the whims of literary deconstruction that
reduces literature to grammar and rhetoric, and ignores author and reader.
According to de Man, the distinction between these two literary devices is based on false distinctions, because
deconstruction adds to the text what has been there all along. A literary text asserts, as well as denies, any authority.
By engaging in an act of reading a particular text, we are trying to a rigorous reader as the writer. By surreptitiously
reintroducing elements that are thought to have been eliminated and/or displaced, we have displaced referent self into
the narrator who becomes signif of a text (de Man 1020). That is , deconstruction becomes a co-conspirator in the
writing process.
de Man concludes that the narrator signifies to the critic and/or reader all the impossibility of metaphor of a
grammatical syntagm that denies "meaning." Deconstruction opens the kind of psychological linguistics that allows
more advanced literary investigations. Therefore, literature appears to be condemned to what is most unreliable in
language (de Man1021). Simply put, an author, as narrator, seems to be unable to convey "meaning," because the
grammatical syntagm is out of her/his control, and is open to all kinds of interpretations and representations.

Stanley Fish: Is There a Text in This Class


In Is There a Text in This Class? (1980), Fish continues to explore the idea of reader-as-subject. This collection of
essays provides a broader statement of the author's notion that the reader, instead of merely discovering the meaning

of a text, actually determines it. The author also calls into question the credibility of facts, maintaining that what are
considered facts actually rely on certain assumptions within particular institutions. Facts thus depend upon the
agreement of the members of an institution; if the nature of the institution is questioned, then the facts embraced by
that institution can also be called into doubt. Is There a Text in This Class? emphasizes the role of an interpretive
community, whereby meaning is attributed to a text through readers who, as members of such a group, share certain
interpretive assumptions.
Fishs theory rejects the claims of the New Critics (formalists) that the work itself contains meaning that can be
derived by a study of its formal features. Fish contends that those formal features are themselves interpretations and
so any interpretation based on them is illegitimate. the reader brings his particular interpretive strategy (a product of
his cumulative experiences) to the text and creates meaning out of the pattern of formal features that are found within
it.
Virginia Woolf: Professions for Women
Virginia Woolf is addressing a group of women seeking employment in a workforce predominated by men. She speaks
of the struggle present for all women writers, and that is to break out of the conventions society has for women- being
pure, and conservative, and sycophantic towards men without a mind of their own. This is a mental barrier that she
was able to break, with great difficulty, in order to incorporate her own voice into her writing. She was able to do so
thanks to her financial independence, which allowed her to not depend on writing for a livelihood and allowed her to
break conventions. Now that women will join the workforce, Woolf says that it is important to ask questions regarding
what all of this implies, and how women are to behave once they are professionals, and to explore the individual voice
that women will need to bring to their jobs.
Judith Butler: Imitation and Gender Insubordination
The aim of Butlers essay (2009), according to her, is to resist homophobic regulatory oppression through rethinking
gender and sexuality. She points out that identity categories are tools of oppressive regulatory systems. Butler opposes
an essentialist approach of fitting sexuality into a clear-cut definition, as this does not account for all the complexities
and the pluralities within a particular group. She questions whether there is a right way to be gay and maintains that
asserting this would be discriminating against homosexuals that do not fit into that framework. Instead, she suggests
that sexuality is fluid and unclear and even implies that that is what makes it sexy.
A key idea for Butler is that all gender and sexuality is performative. An example of homophobic oppression that
Butler is trying to resist is the claim that homosexuality is a bad copy of heterosexuality. Rather than arguing this is
not so, Butler proposes this can be said about all sexuality and gender. By using the example of drag, she
demonstrates that gender can be acted out and worn, concluding that physical sex and gender are separate entities.
Also testifying to her argument are expressions that claim someone can feel more or less like a woman or like a
man, which suggest these categories are not natural but assumed identities. Butler argues not only that gender and
sexuality can both be performed, but that they are always performative. In other words, its not being a heterosexual
that causes one to act as a heterosexual. Rather, repeatedly acting in a way that is associated with being heterosexual is
what defines one as such. Butler insists that heterosexuality is an imitation of an idealised concept of what
heterosexuality is an imitation of itself. Therefore, even if homosexuality is a copy, its only a copy of a copy as there
is no original, similar to Baudrillards theory of simulacra (2009).
Butler also argues that similarly to how gender is not physiologically natural, its also not natural to the psyche. She
maintains that its an effect of the complexities that occur with the formation of an identity, rather than its cause.
Therefore the notion of an inner sex is just an illusion. Butler believes that for this reason, any given performance
can never fully express sexuality, similarly to how a self in the mirror, is not a complete expression of the agent in
Lacans Mirror Stage theory (2009). She says that if identity is constituted by performance, breaks in that
performance can cause a disruption of an identity. She concludes that people are subconsciously aware of this and
compulsively repeat acts to confirm their heterosexuality. Butler suggests to position sexuality against identity and
gender and to embrace the disruption caused by the psychic access that cannot be expressed by performance.
There are parts of Butlers complex essay that I agree with, and others that I find questionable. The idea that gender
and sexuality can only be expressed through performance makes sense. Similarly, fitting identities into rigid
boundaries can be limiting, not only in terms of sexuality, but also in other spheres of life. The term gender benders
in popular culture was coined to describe people who push these boundaries and cause gender trouble. Performers
like Madonna and Prince were noted for this. The Austrian singer Conchita Wurst is a more recent example. Having
the appearance of a woman but also a beard, she simultaneously rejects and embraces both genders. However,
Foucault would argue that identity groups could also serve for the purpose of resistance by those against whom this
type of discourse is positioned. Also, Butler diagnosing people who are consistent in their practices (be those straight

or gay) as compulsive seems to reinforce the very oppression Butler is trying to resist. After all, she bases the idea
that instability is sexy mostly on personal experience, while others may prefer consistency, even if it is performative.
Laura Bohannan: Shakespeare in the Bush
This story, by Laura Bohannan, is a perfect example that literature is open to many interpretations. To many people
in our culture the play of Hamlet is well-known, and accepted without many difficulties. However, in the Tiv culture
there are several errors in the plot that the chiefs point out.
While visiting the Tiv in Africa, Laura is asked to tell the elders a story from our culture. It is at this point that she
finds her chance to tell about Hamlet because she thinks it is one of the most important pieces of literature in our
society. Laura thinks that the story will be fairly easy to explain because of it is generally understood by everyone.
Also, she thinks that the elders will understand because before starting to tell the story, Laura thought that every
culture would understand the plot of the story in the same way our society does. "I was quiet sure that Hamlet had
only one possible interpretation, and that one universally obvious (Bohannan 24). Once the story started, it was clear
that the Tiv had a completely different way of thinking, and interpreting storys. The first error that the elders found in
the story was the word usage that was used to translate non-existent word in the Tiv vocabulary. The word "chief" was
used in place of king or ruler, which may not seem to make a difference to our understanding. However, to a culture
that relies heavily on chiefs, the story is greatly changed because the word chief brings about many responsibilities.
Trying to explain that the chief was dead, brought about a lot of confusion. To the Tiv people there is no such thing
as a ghost, which means as soon as they found that King Hamlet came back to visit Hamlet, the Tiv thought it to be an
omen sent by a witch. The Tiv rely on interpretations to make sense of stories, and the only way for them to
interpret Hamlet is to relate its meanings to their culture. Throughout the story telling by Bohannan it is clear that
each society has their own interpretations of stories no matter what culture the storys come from. When Bohannan
finishs telling her interpretation of Hamlet the elders tell her that it was a good story, but there are errors that were
over looked. This is the ending scene, where Hamlet and Laertes get into a machete fight, and Hamlet is supposed to
die of poisoning. Most people over look the fact that it was who ever won the fight that drank from the poison cup.
This meant that it wasnt only Hamlet that would die if he won the fight, if Laertes won then he too would drink from
the cup. From this story we find that elders in every society feel that they know what is best. Bohannan was told
several times to check with her elders at home to get the real meaning of Hamlet. Elders are often listened to because
they are thought to have much experience in the ways of life. Laura came into the Tiv culture thinking that everyone
thought alike, but really she found that everything is open to interpretation and experience. One person is listened to
if we believe that their experience is better than our own.