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A Passage into Critical Theory
Steven Lynn
University of South Carolina - Columbia, [email protected]
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Publication Info
Published in College English, Volume 52, Issue 3, 1990, pages 258-271.
Lynn, S. (1990). A Passage into Critical Theory. College English, 52(3), 258-271.
Copyright © 1990 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
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Steven L ynn
A Passage into Critical Theory
might hav~ d~plom:l th~ ~ntim~nt. had it com~ from one 0( ller students.
" What "'~ nud." she .... as saying. Irying hard not to .... hine. "is a short CUI. a
s;mpl~ guide. a kind of recipe fIX cach of the~ Ihrories. lelling uS Sl~ p by step
how 10 make a parlicular reading." It was lbe ~cond ...·eek of a Ihru·wuk insti·
tule d~dicated to the proposition that all teachers were created equal and that
therefore all should share in lbe ucitemenl and challenge of IIIe on-going tranS'
formation 0( literary criticism. h ut tlle~ teachers. it was clear. were just On the
verge of saying ... Let's just pretend Ihal nothing impol1ant has happened since.
011 . 1967." I had .... hip!"'d them into an evangelistic fever at lhe om~t of tbe in·
stitule. ready to receive the spirit of critical lheory ; and they had read so much
and worktd SO hard. h UI I nodded. Sbe " 'as right . l1>ey ... ere mired in complu ·
itt and subtleties. I reali~e<!. of cour~. that no one .... hose Joof "'as fully slictd
,,'ould ~rious ly auempl an overvi~w of rec~nt critical theory in a f~w Mes. But
all they needed was 10 get lheir bearings. and lhen the confusion of ideas bounc·
ing around in Iheir heads ...'ould probabl y s1lu1 falling into some coml"l'hensible
ordu. So I came up with lbe briefest of guides to some 0( the =ent critical the·
ory. an ovuvi ew Illat " ',m ld succeed when its users began to understand its
My strategy was to show how a single paS$Il8C might be treate<! by a handful
of d ilfer~nt criticaltheori es---c~nainl y not every theory 3nilable. but enough to
show how lheory sha!",s practice and to help my Sludenl S with tho~ most pilZ'
zling them. Ahhough multiple readings of the <am< work are easy to as""mble
and useful. my effort nOi only had the vinue of a calculated simplicit y and brev·
ity. it also dis played the same reader al1empting to ",I as lhe e~tension of vari_
ous differ~nl interpretive codes. l1>e passage I chose. a ,,"Onderful ucerpt from
hrendan Gilrs Herr", Ih~ N~ ..· y",krr. is ilselfb,",f. bul also rich. In offering
the"" notes [ am assuming lhal my reader. lik~ those teachers. knows enough
abom r~cent critical theory 10 be confused. Obviously. my theorizing will be
alarmingly reduclive. and the e~amples ...·on·t illustrate what any studenl al any
level can produce. gi"en a sketc h of this or thalthorory. l1>ey ill ustrate only what
I can do to provide in a very s mall space an uampte ofa particular kind 0( cril ·
ical behavior. BUI my tcacller/ students . as w~ 1I as my stu dentI Slud~nI S. have
found these di.cu ssion/uamplcs helpful. and so ['11 proceed imm(dial el y 10
Gill's text and then mine. before anyone J!CIO cUI on any oflhese slashes.
S«ftn L..... ;. os"",,""
• ;P'<n'I>-«n'.fY
pror.. _of f......... , he U. ;• ....,yofS<lo>'hC_
ti'."".",. ,he '""Of)" of """ori< . • nII <11"<01 'iI<ofy.
. 11;0 .." .."''' ;0<1 ....
College Englisll. Volume 52. Number 1. Marcil 1990
Crilicnl Tht:ory
Herc's Gill" s ICX.I:
Whe:n I ,,~n~d ~t Tilt Nt ... Yorb,. I fell an un,hakabl~ ~onfidcnc~ in my laknl and
int~tlii"n<;e . I revelled in Ihem openly. like a dolphin diying . kyward OOt of Ihe sea.
Aficr almost fony years. my assurance is Ins than i, was; ,he revetli"", . su<: h as
Ihey arc. [ake place in bCl;omini .cclu!oion . This sleady progress downward in'M
amounl of OM'S ~onfodcnce is a commonplace at the: mapzi~ might al"""'l
c~tI it a tradition. Apin and apin . wme wriler wlto ha. made Bname for himself in
Ihe world " 'ill be,in 10 wrilt for uS and will discover as if for 1M fi~ ti"'" how difficu lt writing is. Thc machinery of benign skepti<;i.... Iha[ SIlrrotln,h and beSC[' him
in the form of editon. copy ed itors. and (hede ... to.ay nothing of fellow· writers,
digs a yawning pil an il>l:1I or w beyond hi. de.k. He hears it repeated U gospe:l
Ihat there arc not three people in all America who can Set down a simple dc,
darative sentence ",..rectly: wh~t arc Ihe odd. apiMI his being One of Ihis tiny
In some cuco. the pre .. ure of all those doubtinl eyes upon his copy is mOfe
Ihan the writer can bear. When the pUeys of a piece are placed in fronl of him.
cOYered wilh scores. pe:rhaps hundreds. of pe:ncillcd IM:n'lracks of illquiry, suCi"S1ion. and correelion. he may SCn" nOllhe ilory of creation btl[ Ihe [hreat of
be;ng Slung to death by an army of pats. Upon which he milY think of rIOthing bet·
ICr 10 do than lower his head onto hi . blone, and bu,., into lears_Thanh 10 Ihe
hen·lrac k. and their ~onsequences. the: pieu will be much impro~ed. 001 Inc author
of it will be pilChcd into a stale of IJraver sdf-doubC than ever. Poor devil. he will
Iype out his name on a sheet of 1'O'l'(r and StarT al it long and Ion•• wilh dumb un·
(en ainly . It looh _-oh. Ch risl!---lli. na .... looks a. if il could sland ..."", wor\.inM
As I was wrilini the above. Gardner Sot~ford. the ~dilOf woo, amoni Oilier duties.
handles copy for ·· Theatre.·· ~a .... inlo my office with IIIe ... lIe)'5 of my 1~lesl pl;oy
review in his hand . Wearina an expression of s.oIemn;[y. he said ... ] amoblicoo to
inform you that Miss Gould has found a buried danal;l\c modifier in one of your
scnleI>«S.·· Miss Gould ~ our lM:ad copy edilor and ~nquestionably knows a. much
about En&lish pammar as anyone al;ve. Gerunds. prcdica[e nominalives. and pa ...
sive peri phrastic conjuMation. arc mOl he,', milk to her. a.lhey are 001 [0 me .
Nevenhelus , I boldly challenged her aIiClat;on. My prose was surely correct ;n
eye". " 'ay_ Botsford pl~ced tIM: galleys before me and indicaled lhe offending sentence ..... hich ",n •.. ] am lold lhat in her nin[h decade thi, beaut; ful woman', only
complaint in respeCt to her role is IIIat she dOlan'l have eoougb work to do:'
].I;orcd blan kly al Ihe .alleys. Humilia[;"11 crIOUgb 10 ha ve buried a dangling
modifier unawares: sl;11 more humiliating oot to be able to disinter it . Botsford
caine' 10 my rescue. " Miss Gould poinl' OUI IIIat as Ihe sentence is written. the
"",anini is Ihat the complaint ili;n ils ninlh decade and has. mOreOVer . suddenly
and unaccountably assumed the female lender." I said ,hat in my opinion lhe ",n·
tcnee could only be m:tdc worsc: by bein. correeled_ il wu pla in thaI "The only
complaint oflhi. beaul;ful WDm2n in her nint h deeadc . .. " would han. on the paKf:
a. heavy a. a sa,h._igh\. "Quile w:' said Bot"ord. "11lcrc an: I;mes wlM:n to be
righl i. WrollC. and thi. is one of them . Tile senlence stands ."
Ne ..· C,ilici5m. ru stan wil h New Cri licism because modern literary study ar·
guably begins W;t h New Criticis m . and because it is probably. even today. the
mOSt pervasive " 'ay of looki ng al litera ture. II emerged in the struggle 10 ma ke
literary criticis m a respcctable profession. whic h for many sc OOIars meant mak·
ing it more r igorous. more like Ihe scie nces-a goal embodied in We ll ck and
Warren ' S landmark Thl'ory of LilulJluu in 1949. We ll ck' s cha pter on " The
Mode of ElliSle nCe of a Li tera r y Wo rk o f A rl" is crucia l: " T he wor k of arl.··
College English
Wellek a sse rts. is "an object of knowledge:' "a system of norms of ideal concepts which are intersub;e<:tive" (156). What Wellck mcans by this difficult formulation. at least in part. is that " a literary worle of an is in exactl y the same
position as a system of language" (152). Because the work has the same sort of
siable and "objective" sta lus as a language. uisting in a "colleclive ideology:'
governed by enduring " norms:' cril ical statements are nol merely opinions of
laste: ··It will always be possible to determine which poinl of view gras!» the
subject mosttlloroughly and deeply ." as "AII relativism is ultimately defea ted."
This assu mption is imponant. because although New Critic s in practke have not
always ignored authors. genres. or Ilistorical contexts. the purpose of their analysis of panicular works. their "close reading:' ha s been finally to reveal how
tile formal clementS of tile lilerary work. oflen thought of as a poem. create and
resolve tension and irony. Greal worle s conlrol profound ten sions. and therefore
New CritiCIsm's IIl trinsic ana lysis. dealing wit h th e work in isolation. is implicitly evaluative.
Common sense migllt suggeSi that the function of crit icism is to reveal tile
meaning of a work. but New Criticism attend s to how a work mean s. not ,,·hal.
for a simple reason: as Cleantll Brooks puts it. tile meaning of a work is "a con·
trolled experience which Ilas to be np"i~nad. not a logical process" (1 90) . The
meaning cannot. in OIller words. be summed up in a proposi tion. but tile system
of norms Ihat constructs a reader 's e~perience can be analyzed. So. tile New
Critic foo;;uses on "the poem itselr ' (rather Ihan tile author. tile reader. the hi s·
torical contut). asking. " What elemenlS a rc in tension in tll is work ?" and
"Wllat unity resolves this tension?"
In Gill's Slory. the most obvious tension might be: secn as tllal belween rigllt
and wrong (o r edilor versu s writcr. or the world versu s Th t Ne ... Yorkl'f. or
grammar versus style. or confidence versus doubt. o r sometlling else). Whatever
Ille basic ten sion is determined to bc:. it must somehow be resolved if II\c lext
succeeds. and New Cri tic ism is inevitllbly teleological: endings arc c ruc ial. Thus
a New Critical reading of Gill's passage might well foo;;us on Ihe reconciliation at
the end. when Botsford pronounces " riglll is wrong:' T he New Critic would
then consider. " How docs this idea fit into the system of the work's tensions.
and how is Ihe tension ordered and rcsolll~d ?" The following paragraph briefly
suggests the son of discussion that mighl be produced in response:
In Gill's slory of Ihe d"n&lin, modifier. Ik>tsford ... Iyc. the conflict bclw«n Mi..
Gou ld's rules ~ nd Gill's l ast~ wilh a parado~ thai unifies the worlt: sometimes
" ';&1>1 i. wrong." Miss Gould ""as ,;,ht 10 'POI Ihe error. but GiU was ,;ghl to be
wronB. to huc w,;lIen 1M senlence as he did. The irony of Ihis soIu lion i. rein ·
forced by various parado1ical images; for uample. Ille dolphin is "di.inl sk)"
w~rd: ' a n aClion I1la1 in ;t$ simulta neou Sly downward ("diy in,") and upward
("skyward") implications embodin the SlIme logk as a wronl righlne ... The
"progress downward" of the wnler. and eyen hi. " becomi", scclus.ion" (appea ling
to O1hc~; unkl>OWn 10 others). conyey 1""11""'" ;""'ic. In lalller lelmS.tt.e wriler 's
"unshlokable con rl<kn c~" Ihal quickl y become! a "dumb uncenainly" WBICUSI""
«,versallhat informs lhe "ory·slrulh. In such an u~ide-do"'n world. we would n ·
peCIIO find Ihc im agcry ofSlruule and violence. and such i. ind ic~ted by Ihe
"yawning pit" and Ihc "army of &IUII~ . " Such lension i. harm<)ni~ by Gill's bril·
lianl conclusion: in wriling. conducled properly. the dcman d~ of cor«'clncss and
style .,.. unif.. d by (he "'"'er',
by (he notion 0( a COfreC' error.
instine". i"" a, lhe
i,self i, ",solved
St,uc/I<ralism . AI firsl glance . >lruclucdli,m mighl appear 10 be simply Ihe en·
largement of New Criticism' s project But instead of focllsing on the formal element. thai create the e xperience of a particular work. slruclurali,m a,pired 10
deal. as Terry Eagleton says. "with "rucluru. and more particularly with exam·
ining the generalla w< by which the y work" (94). In other word •. the struc turaliS! looks at a surface manifestation and theorizes about a deep ,Iructure. or
. the interprets . urface pheoomena in terms of Ihi' uMierlying slruclure .
In its most ambitious moments. Slru(luralism may aspire 10 rev(al anything
from Ihe structure of the human mind itself to the conventions 0( a lileral)' form .
Strucluralist' have tried. for inslance. nOI only 10 isolat e the convemion, of certain kind s of narrativ • . such as the fanta<1ic and sc ience fiction . but alw to de ·
lermine what fealures allow u, to identify a te xt as a S1(1)' . Is G ill 's passage a
",If-contained SlOI)'. a n entily in itself. or it i, an excerp!. a fragmenl. a part of
He', at the Nr~' Yorku? I( we consider how we decide whether somelhing is a
story. We migh! well agreelhat a passage b<:com.s a story when i! filS our ideas
of whal a story is. when it satisfies certain general law s of discourse regarding a
story. If w. u,e a very si mple and ancienl notion ofnarrativ. s lruc lure . mosl
readers would probably agree thai Gill' s te~t ~s have a beginning. a middle .
and an end. moving from harmony. to complication and cri sis. and finall y 10 res·
olution . Readers might also agree il has a hero (rhe writer. who appea rs to b.
Gill). a hel per (Botsford). and a villain (Miss Gould) . fealures thai Vladimir
Propp finds. inlerestingly enou~h. in fairy tales. W. can identify Ihe'" eleme nts,
which we might argue are esse ~tial to a story. becau,e we can relate this story to
other Ones and to a paradigm of stories. We can imagine (and perhaps even recall) other stories invol ving a confident neophyle who encounters destructive
forces. desc e nd s into des pai r and near helpl ess n.... and then find s an un. xpected helper and vindication. Such struclurali" anal ysi, mOVes into Ih. realm
of archct ypal criticism (as in Nonhrop Frye's work ) when it see ks the universal
pal1 e rn ,. the " archetype," wh ich a re the foundation of th. system of "liter·
atur •. " rather than isolating Ihe structures and ~I.tions h ip s within a particular
system of discour",.
To produc. a structuralist re ading. then .•xposi ng a te xt' s conventions and
ope ra tion s. w. muSt (irsl identify Ih. elements of th e t e~t -the ge nre . the
agem ,. the episode s. lhe turning points . ,,'hatever. Structuralists are nalurally
attracted to chans and diagram s because these are helpful in reducing the com·
plexily of a le xi to some unders tandable pallern . which can be co mpared to
other patterns. or their transmutation. or ab",nc • . This concern with conVen_
tions rather than discrete wo11;s mean, that structuralis m. unli ke N.w Critici,m.
is not implicitly eval uative. Gull;"~r ' , Tya>'~/s and Gilligan's 1, Iand are equally
wort hy of analysis. allea st structurall y: Ihey may. in faci . illuminate one an_
other. since textual conventions appear in Ihe relationship of tuts. If all the stories in our c ultur •. regardless of characlers or plot. e nd with a pac k of multi·
colored dogs going oIT to hunt antelope s. as is indeed apparently the case in one
African culture (Grime s vii ). Ihen "'e recognize ,uch an e"ent as a discrete ele-
College English
ment Ihe end ing element. In Ihe ca~e of Gill's le , I, One convention of a literary
wor~ that we surely r""ogni~e as missing is a toesinning operation, a title, Does
Ihis lac ~ alone disqualify this te xt as a lilerary story? If so, could we Ihen add a
title (wh al would il toe?) and make lhe tnt inlO a siory? If so, who would !x the
author of Ihis story that didn't exisl until we tit led it? (We might also con<ider
the stalus of this story before it .... as extricated from Gill's book,)
Because students' n perience of lilerature may !x limited , it's often helpful to
suppl y compardble lextS o r to as k students to invent a comparable text, th us
ma~ing the texl ual conventio ns .asi.r to imagine . lI ere is my very limited altempt to thin k structurally aoout Ihis excerpt, offering also another story to high_
light the postulated form .
The ,truCtun: of Gill', tut invol.e. the repetition of on underlying ..,quence, in
which. central figun: encounle .. 0 controry foreelhal 'e ....'" hi, fonune" x + y
_ anli, . , Thi, SC<Iuence, which w. s« in the firsll"'o panovaph., mi~t b< rep ....
,"nted this way:
L Unreali"ic <;<>nfidence ("un.h"kable confHlence") + critic.1 force. (<<Iitors,
copy editor •. and checLen) _ unrealistic doubl ("dumb uncen.inty"),
The .. me unJerlying structure appca .. in the last 1"'0 paragnorh" e.cept thi. time
" panicula, e.ample of the pallern is present«l :
2, Spc.:ific inslance: un ... ali"ic conridence ("'boldly challenged her .1legalion"l
+ a critical force IMi.. Gould) _ unrealistic doubl ("St ill more humiliating").
In Ihe f,nal parasraph Ihe pallern i, inverted •• s confidence bec""",. doubt. an",,_
onistic force. become helpful, " nJ do"bl bccomes confidence . Thi. inver,ion.
which i. perhap' a Common OCCurrenCe in the concludini element of a 'eries,
hei~h'en. by conl"',1 the effcct of the hero', ,u<ccs1'
3, Unr ..li,t;'; doubl (helple" 10 "di.inler ;r') + a helpful force (Elo"foro) _
... ali.,ic confidence (Gill", bold challenge, """tly main'ained. i. upheldl.
The .ame unde~ying paltern can b< s«n in the f<>lbowini p\o1:
I. I),-eamin& of fUlu ... glory a. an ani" , a "udent COme, to study at Ihe "niver.ity and discove .. that an r,ofe.",,, 'y>lemlltically ,!>ow ""den" ho'" incompetenl IMY a ....
2. The art "udent tum. in a projeot. and one faculty member e.pI.i", in rublic
ho'" the project i'lIro"ly wrong. Tlte "udent did not ... alize that he ha<! de_
paned from 1M '''ilInment.
). The chairman of lhe departmenllhen respond. to the facu llY member', cri, _
ici.m. >3ying ,hal Ihe a"ignment..-a. a f""li,h one, and lhe "udent has demon"rated a<!miroble creativiW in revi,inll the profe."," direction. and producinll 0 good project .
D~C{)MlruClion .
New Criticism. li ke its sibling phil<>sophy of writing in,lruction, Current_Traditionat R hetoric, is product-oriented. II is perhaps then not
su rprising that my New Critical reading of Gill's piece focuses on the centrality
of error, one of CoT Rhetoric' s fund amenlal concorn •. At fir" glance, Gi U' s
story may appear to denat. Error. terror, since !xing wrong turns OUito be
right. If we pre.. this cloS(: reading, however. as king if the texl might say something ()Iher than what it appears to say , we mOve into Ihe realm of deconstruction . Composition st udenls in panicutar might be sensitive to the way 8 0tsford's
parado x reve", .. it ,e lf, unravelling Gill's grammatical triumph and plun ging
Th ~ory
"the writer" finally into an even dumbe r a nd darker uncerta inty. It ' s bad
enough for the writer at 111, N~~' Y",ln. not to mention the compo«r in Fre$h.
man Eng/i$h, if the rule$ of writing are so complex that not even three people in
America "can set down a simpk decla rative sentence correctly.'" if an uperi enced and accomplished wriler can commit a m'lior blunder withoul knowing il
and without Ixing able to fix it when he does know it . But if s even worse if the
rules obtain in one case and not in aoother. and the rules for determinitq! such
uceplions don'l .cem 10 exi.l but are ralher invenled and applied by whoever
happens to be in charge. Bask wriling students. mystified by the rul., of Stan.
dard English . live injust such a nighlmare . I suspeCI.
If we look again al BoI.ford's vindicalion. we .ee it i. deceplive. fOf he doe.
",,1 actually say that sometimes right is wrong and wrong is righc He only says
thai sometimes "right is wro"3.· · Cenainly wrong is also occasionally wrong,
and perhaps il is alway. wro"3 . BUI Botsford'. apparem reversal of the disman·
tling of authors al Th~ N~H" Yorl" is finally ambiguous. since We never know if
the wriler is ever correct, no maner what he does. "The sentence stand$" in·
dee<!. but it sland, Wilh it' error inlacl . a monumenllo Gill 's inabilit y and the
inevitable error of wrili"3- the way language maSlc ... us. The passage lhu. comploments the deconstructive commonplace that reading is always misreading,
Although it has Ixen assened lhat post -structurali s m is not an applicable
metllod (.ce Tompkins). I am. I lhink, jusl "pplyi"3 some basic deconslructive
moves to Gill' s text. which seems .specially receptive. givcn i(s oven opposi·
tions and emphasis on language. And despile the reluctance of some (heorisls to
risk lhe speclacie of defini"3 deconstruction (an action that deconslruclion , by
definition , renders fu(ile). useful and clear explanalions are available. For exam·
pie. Barbara lohn",n says lhat <kconstruclion proceeds by "the carefullea,ing
out of warring force. of signification within the teXl itself' (5). Jonathan Culler
says that "to deconstruct a discourse is to show how il undermine. the philosophy it asserts. or lh. hierarchical opposition, on which it relies" (86). This teas·
ing oul or undermining might Ix descrilxd as a three· step proce,s' firs!. a de·
constructive reading musl nole which member of an Opposilion in a texl appears
to be privileged or dominant (writers versus edi(urs. error velllus cOfTectness.
men velllus women, etc.): second. the read ing shows how this hierarchy can Ix
reversed within lhe lext. how the apparenl hierarchy is arbitrary or illusory: fi·
nally. a deconSlructive reading places bolh structures in queslion. making the
text ullimalely ambiguous. For student. 10 deconstruct a leXl, they need to l0cale an opposition. determinc which memlxr is privileged. then reverse and un·
dermine that hierarchy. Such activity often makes cen(ral what appears 10 be
marginal. (hereby exposing "hidden" contradiction, . Ikcon~lruClion seems 10
me especially worthwhile because it encourage, creativity tmy studenls often
enjoy the imagin;!(ive playfulness and punning of much post-strucluralisl erit ici$m) and scruliny (in order 10 deconstruct a work. one at leas( must read it
Th us. if struc(uralism ,how. how lhe convention, of a text work, then post structuralism. in a sense. points out how lhey fail. In our (imc. Ihegenre, fiction
and non ·ficlion ha,'e proved especially int(.-es(i"3. Oill"s passage .... ould appear
College English
to be non-fiction, since Gill ",ally did work at Th~ N~w YorAu. and his book ob·
viously employs the o~rdtions of autobiography, But look at Mi •• Gould', uncannily apt name: she is a Miss Ghoul, having uneanhed a "buried" dangling
modifier, decomposing Gill's sentence: Botsford, perhaps played by Vincenl
Price . enters with '" an expression of solemnity,'" carrying this mutilated modifi.,
that the author find. himself unable to "disinter.' Mi ss Gould may not drink
human blood, but she does have some strange nutritional ideas if "gerunds,
p",dicale rwminalivu, and passive paraphrastic conjugations a", mother's milk
to her, " Fonunalely. Ihe edilor, a prdener, or ralher a Gardner, who has the
final responsibility for nunuring, pruning, and harvesting the writer's senlences,
knows how to deal with buried modifiers. A Bot,ford, h. knows how to get over
the unavoidable errOrS of prose, how to ford the botches of writing (ouch!).
Thu s, although We initially may place this piece into th. noon·fiction category,
deconstruction call. such placement into qu.tstion. People in non.fiction usually
don't have symbolic names------<lo they? Of course, there was that White House
spok es~"on named l.arry Speakes. And then my allergist in T uscaloosa,
whose name, prophetically enough, waS Dr. Shotls. And a hund",d olher folks
I've knoown with strangely meaningful nam ... Deconstruction typically leaves us
in uneenainty, but with a richer understa ooing of the categories we have put in
motion-thereby unavoidably functioning as a kind of cultural critici,m, or at
least a prduM 10 cultural criticism,
Although deeonstruetive critics may well deal with pervasive, basic issues,
they may also choose some marginal element of the text and vigorou sly explore
its oppositions, reversals, aoo ambiguities. In fact, for SOme critics. deconslrue·
tion is simply a name for "close reading" with a vengeance. T he deconstructive
critic, for example, might w.1I decide to concentrate on the arguably marginal
a"e rtion t hal because of the editors' me reiless correction, "the piece wi II be
much improved." TI>e New Critic. I Ihink, would not be very likely to consider
this assenion central, the key to the passage. Yet, proceeding from d.construc,
tive assumptions, bringing the marginal to the center, here is what ha ppened
when I turned on this a ..enion:
Gill', anecdote clearly ",n Ihe world', wrile" 3.iain.. th. edil ..... , ~nd Ih. lo"er
conlrolth. IP'me. The e~il"" and th.ir h.nchmen. th. cl>e<:kers and copy .ditors.
lIelto >oy ... hal i. "'·rOIlll. They get to dill the '"y.wnillll pit" in front o(th. helpl ...
wriler. desk: they d.termin. the '"tiny .~ct" ... 110 can wril. CO<TCctly: th,y make
the """"" and hundr.ds 0( "hen·tl1Ch" on the writer', manu""ripl, "'hieh ",TVe
as t.stimony to the incompet.nce of write". the ""ar.impo"ibi lity of writi ni. and
'he arbitT1lI)' powe, of lhe editor. To be 'ure, it i. acknowl.dged that th.", ed itorial
asnults upon th' writer s.'ve tbeir purpo ... for '"Thanh to the hen·track> and
,h.i, con~u.nc ••. the pi..,e will be moch improved." Bullh. "."t i. dearly 'em·
bk NO! only i< the writ.r ..... ble to ... rit. hi. OWn name with any """rld.nce. he
has become. "Poor d.vit,'" OU15ide "'he eloc.,'" In deliverinll hi, writin, ove' to
,h. editor>, concedini their dominance:, Ihe writer inevitably pi",,", hi. O""n Id ....
tity, perhaps .ven hi. very soul. in jeopardy. aothe UpoOlulation "011 Chri,,'"
comu to be an inmcalioa 10 Ih. ""Iy power who Can sav.the wriler from th. devil
and the edilor', de,tructiv. foree •.
In fac" (hi, .tOry of th •• "ors of writing ""tually ,.veal. that th. kinlldom of
.ditors i, ba..d Up"'" lie: il ,imply i, nOllrue, de,pite lbe bele3.iuered wrile,' , ad,
mi .. "'n under 'orlure, lha' "'he piece will be mueb improved" by edilOrial inlerv.nlion. Mi" Gould', .""mIOu, Jrammalicallol"¢ does 001 impro"e lhe pkce al all;
l\er erro" nearly made il " wor..,. " And Botsford', """,,ib".ion involvu . imply
leavi"1I Ihe piece as il was w,il1en--;o ,Irani<' mOlh"" of improvemen1. Tbi, in·
.. ane •. in olher word •.• UU.... lh •• lbe wril'r ne<:d nol approach di,,,,lu,ion in
ord.r '0 compose hi, wrilini' Al lhe """e 'ime, Gill "an never become .pin like
lhe ,ill -Ie .. dolpbin of lhe firsl p'raj!raph . confidenlly "divin, ,kyward." ror ,he
danllling modifier I"¢mains. a pan of .he ~. of lanllulli< ,"" aUlhor ,ann", leav • . In
Ihe end . bolh ",'rit.r and edilor are dere.1N by ll\ei, inabilily 10 conI,," Il\eir Ian·
,ollie. a, ,he s,.tu, 0( II\e wri,., .1 Th~ N~~' r",k~' bec","", • pamdij(m for lhe
.Iarmin, "a'U' of wriling i"eff: decepli ... mul<. and in"a".bl •. "Th. "nlence
>land •. " neilher impmveJ nor made W"",,"
P.ycholollkal C,ilici.m . In i" mosl common·..,n,ical form. a psycoolOgical
approach 10 a leAl si mply involves focusing allenlion On the motiva,ions and
relalion,hips involved in the teu's prodUCliQn or con,umplion, The mental pr<>cesses of aulhor. characler. and/", reader may be in"olved in such considera·
lions. My slUdent •. who have seen Iheir own wriling covered by '"pencilled hen·
(racks of inquiry, suggestion. and corr.c'ion." are easily intereSl.d in what
Gill's passage implie. aboullhe emolional effeclS of Crilic;sm and why wrile",
reacl so uncon.Hucl ;vely and painfully 10 correclion and advice . Wherea,
reader_re'ponse crilicism ,"'ould build a "reading" frQm suc h subjective re·
aClion. psychological crilicism would be more inter.Sled in analyzing (rather
than .. pressing) Ibe i>lI"age', effecl,. Obviously. term, like "ego," "anxielY."
" unconscious:' and .. obsessiv .... would Ix handy in suc h an analysis. ahhough
an imroduClion to psychological concepls could quickly engulf a cour.., in Cr;licism. And one could easily spend several semeSlers exploring different psychological schools and the various ways tl\ey mighl influence our reading. My mini.
mal (but still challenging) gwl in an imroduclion to theory is 10 give my studenlS
an extremely basic underst anding of some essenlial Freudian Odeas and their applicalion.
Many of my studenlS Ihink lhey already unde",tand Freud: he's Ihe gu y woo
thoughl of everylhing in lerms of ..,x. Freud did of course lhink that ..,xuali,y
(in a large sense) pe,.".ades our lives. bu, it is also always in conflicl wilh opp,,,.
ing forces, So lhal we can funclion in soc ie'Y. our drive loward pleasure is nee·
essarily conlained and suppressed, relegaled in pan 10 Ihe unconsc;O\ls. wl\<,re;1
does nOl slumber peacefully away, bul ratl\<,r assens itself indirectly. in dreams.
jo kes. slips of Ihe longue. crealive wriling. For inSla nce. dreams of waler. Freud
tells us. harken back 10 · ·Ihe embryo in lhe amniOlic fluid in lhe IDOlher', uterus"; dreams ofdivinll into walcr may bc e xpressing a dcsire 10 r<lurn 10 Ibe
womb (L~cl"'~' 160). Repression of such desires Ixcomes a problem when the
uncQnscious e nlarges ils domain. creating hySlerical . """essional. or phQbic neuroses lhal insiSlemly express lhe desire while <Jill di sguising i1. If tl\<, power of
the unconscious begins tQ take over realilY . creating delusion. lhen We have a
This economy of desire i, based Qn Freud ' s most outrageous (and undeniable)
claim, Ihal even infanlS are sexual beings . Freut.rs lh.",y of lhe c.mral sexual
phenolmnon or early childhood, admilledly ba,ed on lhe developmenl of males.
College English
is laid oul in a brief aad acccssible paper, "The Dissolulion of the Oedipus Complex." Focusing fiNt on the mother's breasts . tile you1\i boy invests his desire in
his mother--he "develops an obj<:ct-catllexis" for her. Freud ",ys , As the boy' s
"seAual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense: ' his fatller is incrusingly "perceived as an obstacle to them:' thus originating what Freud calls
"the simple prnlitive Oe<lipus compleA'" (MO). The desire to supplant his father
an<l join wilh his mother cannot be acted OUi. and il musl be repressed. turned
away from . PUI out of sight. This "primal repression"> iniliates the unconscious .
engen dering a " place " for repressed desires. If no more than a repre ssion is
achieved, howe"", Ibe Oedipus compleA "persists in an unconsdous stale in
Ihe id and will later manifest ils palhogenic effecl.'" This "pathogenic effeci"'
can be avoided. Freud says. by "Ibe destruction of Ihe Oedipus complex."
whicb "is brought aboul by Ihe threat of castr~tiOl1'" (664). This Ihreat is embodied in Ihe falher and perpelualed by Ihe formal ion of the super-ego, which ·'re·
lains Ihe character of Ihe father" (642) an<l comes to slan<l for Ihe restr~inls of
'"aulhority, religious leaching. schooli1\i and reading,'" This conslr~ining law in
Lacan's readi ng of Freud is ultimalely the syslem 0( language.
Even Ihe mOSI glimmering underslanding of Freud . I would a rgue . can be
useful' Ihe idea of the unconscious. for instance, dispenses wilh the second mosl-often-as ked question in introduclory courses-"'Oo )'00 Ihink Ihe author
really intended 10 mean any of Ihal'"' Funher. my studenl. generale thin and
uninteresling readings more oul of caution and a poveny of oplions than a plen.
itude of possibilities, and after an exposure to Freud, whal interprelation can be
immedialely rejected as absurd? Eve n a basic understanding of "The Dissolution
of the Oedipus Concepl'" opens up Gill's passage in ways my studenls have
found liberaling. comic, and revealing . For example. one of the most interesting
problems in thi s pa ..age is the apparent disparity between the emolional contcnt
and the actual evenlS. We see a wriler bursti1\i into teaN. hiding his head on his
bloller; a writer who conside", himself humilialed. who glares "blankly'"; we
even see a writer who i. unsure of his very name. And what is the cau.e ? A
grammalical error? The scene makes so little logical sen,e that We may well
wonder if it makes more psychological sense. The foll(>wing reading trie, to see
what might happen when the Ckdipal triangle. the unconsciou<. the ,uper·eg<).
and the ca.'rdtion comple ~ gel Gill" s passnge on the couch;
The d<>phin divinll . ky....ard a"he beilinning ofGiU', passage is an ooviou, F", udi·
an im",e of birth. and an imporlant clue to the p. ychi< proolem< being odd",.«d
here . The writer move' from tl>< buoyant amnioti< ocean of ""'" plea,u", and un·
threatened egO. II>< ...."'Id of' 'un.hakable confidence." inlo the diffICult realily of
Tht Nt'" Y",br. Ihe world of tl>< a",iou •. ncurotic wriler. Gill'.longi!\ll for an impo><ible ,etu,n to the uncomp licat«l indulge""e of an animal <tate. symbolized by
the d<>phin, conmcu wit h hi. unavoidable "atu, in a parental society of tradi,ion •.
iO,pel,. ""mmatieal rule" and "edilors, .opy edi,,,, •• and .beckers." TI>< "mbill\Iily of Ihe image. "divinS . ky..... rd.·· relk." this troubled po>ilion ..... pended be_
tween II>< id', impo>.ible no'talJia and II>< super~iO 's ,Iern correction, Gill" •• ymbol for himself. Ihe dolphin. i. an inlere.tinK (and no d""b! "ncons,""",) play on
his name: a "gill"' is ""tu,oIly associ.'ed wi,h a fi.h. ,,"'hieb be<omes tl>< dolphin; a
dolphin. however. <loc:s noc have a "iill."" thus ""'rki!\ll agai n the gu lf bclw«n lhe
burdened Gil l and Ihe fr •• _noati!\ll d<>phin,
Critkal TMory
Does Freud', model of I"y.ho. ... ual development 0.1"" he:lp to uplain 1>0><' this
I",. of in""".nce ~ad. to Gill'. u""xpeot.d ly .motOo ....1 """tion? Yes. stanlingly
",el l in faot. for .""Iy.is .. veol. IIow Gill'. see .. ~n""ts the t",umatic di.soIu,ion
of the Oedipal compl • • . To see ho .... the Oedipal tnani~ , h"l"" Gill'. po.suae. Ito....
Gill', r •• ponse bea .. the: e""",Oo ...1 <harg. of ",· wort inj; hi. way thrOUgh this <omplex ...... hould f,... t oote the wnter •• pecial relation,hip to hi, .ditors: h. owes
hi. ui.tenc •••• a ... rit.r any"'.y. to hi •• dito ... The union of Mi" Gould and
G.rd .... r Botsford. in this case. allow. "B.. t>dan Gill" to appear. Mi.. Gould, the:
<opy edi'or. ,h. ,ymbolic mO'her .• tands for v;ommatkal <OIT«t ....... At n~
York" the ... rit.r·. first d.,ir•• mu" hc: for ller .. y..... Rut thi, id<ntiflCa,ion ",ith
Miss Gould, or ",ther ... hat sh... p ... sen". i. u... voidably frustra1<d. Like 'he child
wllo d •• i.... union with hi. mother. the wnt.r i. ill.~uipped to ....'i.fy Miss Goold ;
not even on. of ,h. "tiny .Ie,t." 'he writer canoot "",.ib ly flU in ,he "ya"'ning
pit" of .trot".
Bu, the ... ri1<'. lik. the developillj! ,hi ld. mu" al<o face ,he law of the father.
Gard"", Bot,ford, the .ymbolie fa' her, the "" nior editor. must "Itimately direct the
wnte .. s att.ntion aw.y from Miss Gould 'o""ard the: proper object of hi •• tt.n'ion,
ou"id. T~r /Vr_' York" fa mil~h . . ...,.r. We se. that Gi ll d.,.. in f""t ",veal a
t.mil\ll ."'.y (tom Mi" Gould. u'in& in f.ct the: satnt (ocu. as the ,hild Who tum.
initiallY (rom the mo,he", b .... st ••• In obj.ct o( de,ire: Gill find, Miss Gould's
"moth.r·, milk ." the pr.dicat. nominativ., .nd ,"oh. di"."du i. The .... y Gill
choose. to pt""'nt her name tnot "Glori. Gou ld" but " Mi.. Gould"l m.rk . hi,
"'cosnition of her a< a · ·Mi"." A, a by.the.book l!J"!I1manlln. she may .Iso be •
ihoul. brin8in& a deadly .. iffne .. '0 what , he handles. Gill', dev.lopme nt a. 0
",'nter thus requi.... him to reject her.
To ..., ho ... this rejection is occomph,he:d. again in t.rm, of the Oedipus compi ••• we muS! OOse",. 1>0", the ",·nt.r·, identifICation with his ""ntina contribut., to
hi, extraordinary an xiety aOO ~s symptomatic di'tot"lion •. Threa .. to hi ..... ntina .ndanger hi. id.ntity. hi. eRO. Thus ,,'e see that although it i. t~ wnter's gall.ys tha t
are cover.d ""ith "inquiry •• otlll<:'tion. 000 corr.ction," Gill,hin. th.,. imp",..ion. to the wnter. aOO (unh.r tran,form, them ftom "p. .dU.d hen·tntck." into
"ini'· It i. not . •• w. milht
t~ pan icul.,- ... ork that may be att.d.d <0
mu,h it die<. but in" •• d the ... nt.r who may be .... ung to <ka,h by an ,lmY of
llna ... " In reali'y . gna .. do not . of cou ..... have <1in8<r" ,hey bite, if any,hing. The
d",am·like alte".tion h.re again ,ubotantiltt., the: threat to hi. iJentity ,hat the au·
thor has pe .. eived: being bitten to dea,h by i na.. i. absurd. but bein8 "u n8 to
de.th i,. terrifyinll prospect.
At 'hi. point F... ud·. assertion that the di,soIution of the: Oedipu. ,""'pIe.. is occomplished by the th",at of ca.tration is .,pecially he:lpful. Gard .. r Botsrord. Gill's
senior .di,or. hi. symbol", father. poses this th",at. To see how Bot.ford plays thi,
rol ...... must <on.id.r "" hat h. is threat.ninllto ... "",ve. flot.ford ent.rs the se.""
"'ith Gill', play revie .... "in hi. haOO ." aOO w. discover .v.nt .... lly that a part of thi,
r.vi.", h •• t>cen ill<"imately "buried." and may ,ubsequently be r.moved. al ·
thOOgh Gi ll himself <an"", ... IIow to "di,int« it." Thi, threat '0 Gill', wntin, i,
ch.tl;.d by the rea, of c"'tration precisely be,.u« the writer identifle . ... ith hi.
wntinl. It i, no accident that the wn,er', "dumb uncertainty" become, a ",taly.ed
,il.nce th.t thr.at.n. to er ••• the: most publi, .illn of hi, iden'ity. a. "h;' name
look. a, if it could staOO """,. workina on ." Hi. natnt. his .iinature. ol"i"ni,.s 'h.
evidence of hi. potency. hi. ability tin a Kn«) to reproduce aOO promulgate him·
.. If. Thu •. the .... nt.r ma y ",·.11 .. " ...... at his name "101\11 and 1ontI,'· onc. he: ... aI i••• he may 10.. it if he <an"", control the prose to ... hkh it i. attact.ed. Gill real·
i.e, that ,he: .ditorial "". nts may CO"OCt . nd improve hi. "pi«e." bm the COst
may be terrible. a, the p;ec. may hc: .. parat.d from ,II< Wnter. taken over by th.
authorities woo control the emission. of hi. pen . Gill'. image for ... hat he ha, 10...
the dolphin. thus beCOtnt. a rath.r bI.t,nt phallie symbol. re-<:m.tl;il\ll" the: pen
College E1l8lish
(tne grammatical peni.) Ihal tne "dumb,"' unnamed writ<, 10.... In 0,1><, wo,d ••
tne w,i'e' mu" Bive up hi' "piece" '0 be publi.hed. 10 .urvi.e .. a wri,er_ but
then .. i, no I""ger the wri'er. He can"'" &<1 himself inlo prin" "" he submits 10
the authorit;". of cui,"",. propr;"t~. and c"""""t ..... having re.liU<l 'ha' tn...(f
may be cu' off from the . ign of it< identi'y.
We now may Ii« 'h, flltinsn... oftne error Mi .. Gould find>: a "ruetu", that i.
"dan>;lina.""The: write, may >« hi . own fat< in the .. nt<""e that "icks out. for it
.uddenly ha. "',,,um,d the f.mal, I!endec." We would nave to
tna' the
w,iter who focu ... hi. de.ire "pOn grammar and CorrCOtn,.. will be impO"nt,
ema",ula"d . The wriler. in o,der 1<, Inrive. mml &<1 b<yond the d..i.. to pie.,.
Ihe Miss Gould. allhe "·arld . We may .10.0 ... now tn. fillinllJlC" of .. G.rd .... , .. a.
the ... me far the .ymbolic falher: "" clo.. to " garde ... ,," · Gardner i, lhe one wno
has tne pO...er '0 rru .... to root OU" tn. write, who i, stuc k on the mother', milk of
Mi .. Gould. grammar. Thu •. Gill', "ory draw, "" ni, psycho-.. ,ual d",elopment
and an apl"",n,ly un",ooIved Oodiru. comple, to r'''ar .. in pO"'errul term. t"
od.ont8g<5 of "C«plinl! the va lue. of tne father and ,nifling ni . de,ire to the
",.der. Gill e.od.. ,ymbolic c." ..... tion. '"The 5<ntence "and.," th. father ""y',
, •• inl! tne ,,·rit,.- • .,.I>(i.).
f'~miniSI Criticism. I ha"e onl)' r e~e nlly SloppW bei ng amaze<.! al how easily
and enthusiastically my students take 10 feminist criticism. Part of its appeal. [
suppose, i. i.. simplicity, al [east on Ihe surface: to pmctice feminist criticism.
one nee<.! only read as a woman. Such a procedure quiek[y IUrnS oul 10 have a
profound dfe<:1 on the reader and Ihe text-an effect Ihal hardly can avoid being
po[ilical. Whate ver ",udents' .exua[ po[ilies mighl toe. feminist crilicism un·
avoidably in"o[ves Ihem in significant, timely issu ... [ do not mean (0 say Iha'
feminist criticism is invariably easy: reading as a woman. even ifone is a
woman, may be extremely diffieull, requiring Ihe reader to dismantle Or discard
yea ... of learncd toehavior. And. of cou ... e, I am leaping o,'cr (he difficu[1 ques·
tion of whal "as a woman" 3I'lually means. Since We ean't reasonably discu .. ,
a. Cheryl T o .. ncy claims, "a single female .e xua[it y" (180), isn't it alYsurd 10 as·
sume Ihere is a di.lirn:lly feminine wa~ of reading? How ~an a man even pretend
10 rCad "as a woman" ')
BUI these questions need nol be answered in order for studenlS to anempt to
undo their sexual a",umplion •. Iry Otll new ones, or simply sensilize Ihcmselves
10 Ihe $(: >ual issues presenl in a ",or • . Feminist crilicism thus involves studenlS
in reader·response and polilica[ Crilicism. NO! all texIS, of course. lend them·
selves easily 10 feminisl criticism . bUI il is difficu[1 10 find One Ihat completely
resists a reminist S1ance. [ have fOtlnd that Gill's passage easily suppons a fami[iar feminist observalion, IILaI language itself is phalloceolric. as H~[ene Cix""s
and Luce Irigamy have insistenl[y argued. Hut Ihe passage also repay. a more
aggressive and perhaps even outrageous (or oUtraged) approach. Hoth appear in
the following analysis:
w, know no' all the w,i .." at Th. N.", Yort" We", men, eVen some ye . rs aiQ
dUring U",ndan Gill'.,enur• . So . ... hen Gill .peaks of"~ ... riter ... no has made
a name for him .. lf in the world." and about
edilorial """",hinery" 1,,"1 be.. ts
" h;m," Gill i. of cour .. ",rerring 10 wrilers in the generic sen ... ~ may "ill a.·
.. rt today .• hnouch I... confidently than in 1975. , .... t "'n imself' and "him" in Ihi.
pO.sage incluJ. "heru lf' a nd "her." S.ch. claim, ,hOI one ....al marker in·
c(""e. its OWOSilc. i. ruble-as if "white " inc(""cd "black." ar '"totalitarian" in·
Critical Th ..ory
ciuded ··democratic." But the mOlivalion, for ,uoh. olaim are revealed even in
this txirl pa''"Ke. foc Gill·. "01)" "'" ""Iy c",,'ain, this obviou. pro..."..,i",,1 bia,.
51ill k«pted by .om< cditor> aoo write", the 51"'y .1", convey. mo~ ,ublle me.·
,age, about ,",uali'y and ~ , ual ",os. It i,. in fae'. a no....,..,ubtle a'taCk "" the
image of women.
Mi" Gou ld funolion> as a familiar "ereo,ype: ,he finic ky 'pi n"er .• Miss
ThisUeboctom. ,,·110 has devoted her life to English grammar and its enforcemenl.
She i• • copy .di'or. ,ub,.rv;"nl 10 'he m~le .ditor ~ nd writer . and her lack of
imaginatKln and ta51e 'e51ify '0 tho wisdom of thi, PO"'" "ruetur., Thi, divi.ion of
"'bor_ male/cr•• tiv •. f.malelm<nial---i' sublly reinforced by r..re~ "" e'o the "h.n·
tra< k,·· lnot "",".r tr»<ks) that COV."he write" plley. thu, further ."oc iati~
pen y oorrcoliOfl with ,he feminine. even thotlllh ,urely 5Ome: oOpy edilor. oould
have been male. Th ..e ·· hen -lracks·· .... mor. Ihan an aggrav.'ing co ..... ction. a,
they evcn come '0 Ihreoten the wrile, s very idenlity , The errects of the,. hentr.ckl. rcminine mark, of correction. allow Gill to assc" lhe disab ling consc quen«. of ,h. reminine upon Ihe masculine: 'he "'ri"" become emotional. and
even effeminately hY"erical. cl)"i~ 011 th.ir blOIte". Gil l r"".ive, comfort and approval rrom the man. Bot.ford. but Mi.. Gould lack> the pCne'rn.'i~ in.ijlhtto deal
properly ",·i,h. probkm ... mall as . iramma'ical c"'or.
Gill', mi"'nny innuc:nce. ,he 1'"-'_ in OIher ""ay., The .... taphorical th .... t to
the wri'er is di"inc,ly Iy,",oololliool .• ··y."".illll pit.'· Mi" Gould ·, ,horloomillll i.
that she fail' maternally. providin&iooillC" ible ··moth.". milk."' Even 'he error
th.t Mi.. GotIld Io<:a"o is subtly connecled to the reminine. for lhe problem "'i'h
the sentenc. i. th.t pan ofi' ha. ··~ .. umed the female &erider.·· which may be seen
a. the underlyillll problem ror Gill : ",mothinll ha, ..sumed tho female gender, That
pan of the :sentence Mi .. Gould complain, of. n.tu ... lly. i. a ··compiaint··- which.
Gill aoo BDI,ford determi .... ,hotlld ~'ain its feminine natu~. The complaint itself
",em. ",.nge: in 'he mod. of feminine busybodie, like Mi " Gou ld. the non·
agenarian lamen" no' having ··enouih wo rk to do .·· Mi,. GO<Ild. ';milarly over·
zealO<ls. ha, herse lf done more "'ork than i, re.""",ble. and Bot.ford·, pronounce·
relurnS her 10 her place .... gating hor f~mini""
ment,hat ··The ",ntence
fussin ..., ,.·.,,.ning ma",uli ... mastel)" of thc phallocentric "'orld of " 'ri'ing,
Cone/usion . One might want to point WI. I suppose. thaI in offering this reo
hearsal of critical · ·approaches.·· I am assuming thai plurality is bener Ihan
unity. thaI Ihe relative is bener than Ihe absolute (or even a qunl for the abso·
lute) . And. gi"en whal I think we know abou, language and knowi1t$. il ",em,
.illy 10 me to assume otherwi"" a. Jane Tompkins say •. articulating a currenl
commonplace, we are not · ·freestanding autonomous enlities. but bcings lhal are
cuhurally conSlituted by interpretive framework. or interpretive .Irategies thai
ourcuhure makes available to us· · (734). In olher words. the lext. we readwhen we look al books. at our world . al wrsel,'es-are likewi,. Con<lituted by
these framewor ks or siralciies. Obviously . if ,his · ·reading·· of meani"i i, cor·
r«:t, plurality offers uS a richer un;,'erse . allowing uS to take greater advanlag(:
of the sirategie, our culture makes available-strategies Ihal do n01 approach a
leXI. but rather make il what w'e percei"e. Our StudenlS Iherefore should lcarn
how 10 inhabil the theories mentioned herc--and a good many othe".
To be su re . suc h plurality is nol always comfortable, Furthermore . if We
slt.ould "irt<: thai the more <trategies 'l udenlS can deploy (or be deployed by).
lhe more power and insighl lhey can polentially wield. then mu,1 We a),o agree
there are no limits·,' Are all readings welcome. the more the merri.r? My initial
impuls. is 10 .ay ··Yes. we Can karn from any reading. from any..,t ofinler·
College English
pretive assumplions. Come one. come all." We can see how readin~s Ihal seem
severely inattentive might offer useful insight" Roben Crosman reveals. for exampl •. how one 'Iudenf' reading completely missed the significanc e of lhe hair
on Ihe pillow at the el>d of"A Rose for Emily." and yet Ihis reading. comparing
Emily to Ihe sludent's grandmother, profoundly enlarged Cro,man's understanding of Faulkn.r·s story. We Ca n even imagine how ludkrou s.rrors might stimu_
lale our thinking: my student who thought Th~ Hamlet was by Shakespeare did
lead me to as. (mostly in an attempt to ease his emoorrassmenl) at.oUl Shakespeares influence on Faulkncr- perhaps Th~ lIaml.. , in some sense is by Shakespeare. or is shaped by /laml.. ,. But we mu,t admit that most reading. in violation of sha red interpretive strategies will usually be See n as inferior. if not
wrong. and that finding insight in such violations often seems an act of kindness.
a salvnge operation,
I can also imagine theoretical possibilities that would not be welcome in my
"itkal home. should they ever appe. r : Nazi criticism. racist criticism.
electroshock criticism. for uample, In other words. if we are not freestanding
autonomoos entities. we are also not entirely helpless. simply the product. of
the interpreti,'e operations "'e inherit. "a mere cultural predpitate" (xvii;). as
Morse Peckham pUiS it I would like to think we can resist: we can change; "'e
can ~row: we can. perhaps. in some sense, even get belle r, We can. that is. attempt to e"aluale way. or making meaning. and their pankular applicationsand if we are very dever and very lucky. we may even modify interpretive
framewori:s. or possibly even invent neW oneS.
But only if we ha"e some awarene .. that such frameworks exist.
Works Cited
Broo ks. Cleanth.
Th~ W ~II_ Wm~gh'
U,n. New York: Harcoun Brace. 1947.
Crosman. Robcn. " How Readers Make Meaning, " ColI"ge Uteratur.. 9 ( 1982);
Culler. Jonathan. O~ DuonsITuction: Th ..ory ond Criticism It,{tu Structuralism,
Ithaca; Cornell U p. 1982.
Eagleton. Terry. Litna,y The",y. An Intmduction. Minneapolis: U of Min .
neSOla P. 1982.
Freud. Sigmund. ··The Di ssolution of the Oedipu s Complex." Th~ Freud
R ,ad~,. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: Nonon. 1989. 661---M.
___ /"tmductory Lutures on I's),choanuIY'is. Tran •. and ed. Jame s
Strachey. New York; Norton. 1966.
Frye. Northrop, Fobluo[Id.."tily. New York ; Hareoon, 195L
Gill. Brendan. 1/..,.. at the New Yorker, New York: Random.
Grimes, Joseph.
Th ~
Th'eod of Di.course. Paris; Mouton , 1975,
JohnSOn. Barnard. The Crilical DifJrr.. nc ~: EJSoy. in lhe Contemporary Rhe'oric
o[Reading. Baltimore; Johns Hopkins UP. 1980.
Critical Theory
Peckham, Morse. E.<:planati,," and Pm.·a:
New York : Seabury, 1979.
Propp , Vladimir. 1"hr Marphoh,gy
n .. Can/rol o/ llumalf tlrhao;or.
0/ the Folbale. Austin. TX: U of Texas P.
Tompkin,. Ja ne. ·· A Short Course in Post·Structuralism'" ColI"If' Elflflish
(Nov. 1988): 73.3--47.
Torsney. Cheryl. ··The Critical Quilt: Alternative Authority in Fominist Crit·
icism"· Contf'mporary Literary Theory. Ed. O. Douglas Atkin s aoo Laura
Morrow. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P. 1989. 180-99.
We/lek . Rene. and Austin Warren. Theory 0/ Literature. 1942. New Y.,.,.k : Harcourt. 1977.