ENG 371 - [Political Criticism] | Literary Criticism | Truth

Turhan Uludag 002729 ENG 371 Dr. Rodney Sharkey Politics of Non-Political Criticism What is “Literary Criticism”?

According to one definition, it means “analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of works of literature in light of existing standards of taste, or with the purpose of creating new standards”.1 Should literary criticism only analyze literary works, or, can it expand into other areas of study—philosophy, science, politics, psychology, theology etc? In this essay, I will attempt to illustrate how literary criticism should not just deal with literary works, but also political, sociological and cultural issues. I will also show the development of literary criticism in the 20th century, and how it improved to be political. Historically, literary criticism has started with the works of Plato. Ever since Aristotle wrote about the works of Plato, literary criticism has been the history of critical arguments. In the 20th century, by the establishment of English literature departments, F.R Leavis dismissed “all literature except the small amount of genuinely realized work which represented the “great tradition”.2 Leavis made an assumed distinction between good literature and probably bad literature. According to Leavis, every work of art must contain within itself vibrant language, must have a moral point and also must connect to the organic community. A piece of literature that does not employ these characteristics, according to his taste, would be considered not a good literature. Obviously, Leavis’ biased notion of what is good and bad literature is a subjective opinion of his own understanding of literature. First, because what is considered moral, vibrant piece will be seen differently by the eyes of another reader—it might be vibrant to me, but it may not be vibrant to someone who has read literature 30 years (which, of course, has a accumulated vocabulary). Furthermore, to give another example, Shakespeare’s work might be culturally vibrant now, but was an ordinary language at the time he was writing. Leavis thought that literature had intentional vibrant language whereas that was not the case; he looked literature in its moral sense. That is why the first criticism was called “moral criticism”. Again, in moral criticism, authorial intention was present because critics sought to understand the moral point of the author—if there was any, of course. In moral criticism, critics looked at the conflict between good and

Uludag / 2 bad; and who was the main character of the story. To give a broad example, fairy tales exemplified these moral characteristics. Russian Formalism emerged in Russia during the second decade of the twentieth century and remained active until 1930s. Formalists, “first and foremost emphasized the autonomous nature of literature and consequently the proper study of literature as neither a reflection of the life of its author nor as by product of the historical or cultural milieu in which it was created”.3 This also parallels with the theory of New Criticisms which they thought that literature is just about itself. The main two characteristics of Formalism are “defamiliarization” [ostranenie] and “literariness”. Defamiliarization, as the word suggests “makes strange” either by the function of the form, or by the function of the content. Formalists thought that literature is different from non-literature; and what makes a piece of writing is its literariness. Again, one can ask the question: what is special about this literariness? For Formalists, perhaps it can be speculated that literature is fictional, whereas a newspaper text is factual; literature is about stories, which have plots, whereas political speech is not. In United States, with the arrival of New Criticism, (analogously similar with Formalism) author’s cultural context, biography, and intention was considered meaningless when analyzing a piece of literature. W. K Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley have identified five fallacies on this account, which the reader should consider when reading a text. They argue, that the author is the cause of a work, but he/she are not the result [meaning]; the presence of writing a text is not important because the readers can never be in that presence; the object [aim] of poetry is not singlitude in meaning but multitude [ambiguity]; narrator of a text is not the author; and finally, drafts signify the incapacity to communicate. I. A. Richards, in his Practical Criticism (1929) “emphasized the importance of close textual reading and warned against the dangers of sentimentality, generalizations, and lazy, careless reading”. (Encarta 98) His work has also affected the development of New Criticism. New Criticism, as it is indicated above, is involved in taking a close look at the text, finding out what the text can say in its own. Thus, new critics limited themselves to the formal structures of a text. How can New Criticism be a political criticism? New Criticism, in some sense, can become political because it makes the readers realize that meaning is not always found outside of the text, but inside. Furthermore, it forces readers’ imaginativeness to expand by making them to focus and create commentaries about a little material thus the readers become aware how much they can produce from less data.

Uludag / 3 A work can be political in three different ways: culturally, formally or textually4; so, in this case, New Criticism is both textually and formally political, but not culturally. Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, attempted to discover “phenomena by focusing exclusively on them”, and also, how these phenomena represented themselves to the consciousness of the reader. Husserl divided this consciousness into two: “noesis” (act of consciousness) and “noema” (object of consciousness). Thus, marked the interconnection between the reader and the text. Phenomenology believes that texts do not exist in isolation; they only exist—or become existent—when there is a reader to contemplate what the text is about. Moreover, it deals with how the reader is affected by a work and in the long rung, how that work will be affected by its reader. So, reader and the text is extricably dependent on each other. Reader can not exist in solitude, nor can the object itself. Phenomenology was probably the thirst theory to discuss the effects of a text upon its reader by bringing this “inter-subjectivity”. Then, how do we apply all these theories to literature itself? What different interpretations can we come up with? In what ways do these theories overlap with each other? For instance, Waiting for Godot, in moral criticism is about the hopeless and remedyless situation of humanity, thus, the characters in the play are waiting for purification by divine will. It can also be about the perverse nature of humanity, where there is no harmony between one and other (Vladimir and Estragon) or the corruption of communication between them. For the Formalists, it was an attempt to “make strange” our beliefs about the nature of play per se. Or, with the content presented, it can also be an eccentric play because there is no happy ending and the readers are totally astonished to see that this guy/girl called Godot does not arrive. For the New Critics, the play was just about itself. The conflict between Pozzo and Lucky is relevant because in some ways it displays the binary oppositions in the play—say, master/slave. What about presence and absence? Phenomenological approach would be the immediate affect it had on the readers. While reading Waiting for Godot, we have constructed ourselves into believing that there is such thing as Godot in the play that must somehow arrive. Let’s say that Godot was going to show up at the end of the text, we would have never known it before reading it. Therefore, the play needs a reader—audience—to convey its ideas, it cannot exists alone. Beckett did not write this play into thinking that nobody will ever read it, maybe he did. What Beckett did is that he “bared the device” he showed the “means of production” in his play because the readers, while reading, understood the different types of discourses that were taking place in the play—the discourse or economics, religion, politics etc.

Uludag / 4 So where is the politics of all these interpretations? What about “laying bare” the device? For readers to understand that what they are reading is just a piece of art, the writer has to reveal the device which it was made so that the readers can understand that what they are reading is just literature. And because of this, suspension of disbelief becomes scattered. On the account of literature, a literature that does not discuss political issues, gender issues, racial issues, class issues is not really about politics. Simultaneously, because it does not talk about it, it then also becomes political because it does not talk about it. Why does it not want to talk about?—because it does not want to disturb the peaceful order of the society, does not want to disturb the ruling class’s power. Walter Benjamin discusses the role of art in his essay “Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” and says that art has become the tool of politics, meaning politicians have “aestheticised politics”, made politics look like art. So the duty of art must be otherwise: writers should “politicize aesthetics”, be political in their narrative; and they should use politics to convey their political issues. When Foucault talks about power and how it is exercised, he also mentions that those who subject themselves to power have the opportunity to reverse this hierarchy “each constitutes for the other kind of permanent limit, a point of possible reversal”.5 For the conclusion, should then theory only be about literature, or what is at least considered literature. Or, as Terry Eagleton suggests, should it also be about other relative fields of study—philosophy, politics, science, etc. Literary theory which succumbs itself into interpreting the meanings of words in language is not really doing what is necessary for humanity’s existence. What is necessary is to expose the realities which we live in, to indicate that there are enough bombs in this world that 10 percent of it can eradicate everyone in this world, if it is used. And it costs millions of dollars to make these bombs; and for what reason? To kill each other at the end with our own hands and with the objects of our own creation? Perhaps, that’s where the world is going.


End Notes

Microsoft Encarta 98, hereafter cited in text as (Encarta 98)

Literature and Society, hereafter cited in text as (Lit and Society) Russian Formalism Rodney Sharkey suggested that music is culturally, formally, or lyrically political. Thus, analogously speaking, I



have adopted these ideas to reveal the politics behind the text.

Michel Foucault’s “The Subject and Power”, hereafter cited in text as (Power)

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”. A Cultural Studies Reader: History, Theory, Practice. Ed. Jessica Munns and Gita Rajan. London and New York: Longman, 1995. 88-91. Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997 Foucalt, Michel. “The Subject and Power”. Michel Foucault: Collected Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Leavis, F.R. “Literature and Society”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol II. New York: Norton Publishers, 1980. Lechte, John. Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers. London and New York: Routhledge, 1994 Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. England: Penguin, 1987 Poulet, Georges. “Criticism and the Experience of Interiority”. The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1972 W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy”. Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Ed. David Lodge. London and New York: Longman, 1972. 334-345

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