Physical Approach at Critical Theory

It is in the firmest of my opinions that music and words are the same, and that the construction of any text or work must be examined first, from these standpoints. It is the verbal motion in writing which is the crux of textual structure. My goal is to steer the dialogue towards the mechanics of the writing itself. To take a step back from the deep pool of hermeneutic discourse, examine concrete examples of technique, style and structure, and determine whether they were conceived by the author or if a declaration of the reader is my final goal. The difference between whether the author consciously prescribes technique and form to his work, or if it is alleged by the reader is ineffectual to the argument of the work, having its utmost base/core in verbal sounds themselves.

Letter to word, word to sentence, sentence to paragraph or page; this process, however understood, is still the underlining basis to “what” we read. My argument is that, an altered sense of formalism can serve the understanding of the text further than dwelling on concepts of personal significance within texts. I will use the subtle arguments presented in David Richter’s Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature to give birth to my idea.

If it is necessary to “kill the author” for a reader to exist, this suggests the author is usurped by “divine utterance” for the sake of the utterance itself; the utterance is the creator of the text, and the author assumes invisibility while the reader commits themselves to the text. Destroying the author, I will try to advocate, is central to a formalist reading of any text. As Wayne C. Booth puts it; with “authorial audience”, playing a role in the way an author composes a text, we lose all ability to look at the text with the eyes that Barthes wanted us to have (351).

“Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and the customer, between its author and its reader” (S/Z 4). Seemingly, this quote does little to serve Barthes stance on “the death of the author”, in fact, it seems to contradict the statement by saying that “our literature is characterized” by a dichotomy of author and user; in this case the author and user coexist. Perhaps in this passage, Barthes is really aiming at the universal coexistence of author and interpreter (4).

The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. (Barthes 254)

So, with Barthes idea that modern criticism is based in the tireless dissemination of text from its author, or text in relation to its author, we are provided with a clearer entry-way to an arena of thought where we are reduced to a set of symbols, music and language. In “The Death of the Author” Barthes embarks upon this dichotomy.

What Barthes suggests, at least in his time, and perhaps currently, the literary audience suffers from a consistent tendency to apply author, authorial meaning, personal meaning, etc, etc., to formulate an understanding of the text (256). My argument is against this reading of literature; subsequently those who practice it (applying inherent authorial intention/understanding to the text) subject and limit themselves to a “lesser” understanding the text. They are relegated to understanding the text from the author’s point of view, perhaps even a narrower one than theirs. The student loses sight of the actual constructs of the text. This is so rarely studied save for poetry courses where poetic techniques are closely observed and written about. I can’t remember one time in my undergraduate studies when I was asked to look at technique and form when talking about a novel or extended piece of fiction/nonfiction.

In authorial reading, the reader fails to focus on formal techniques used in the construction of the text, and instead deciphers symbols, words and concepts in their own understanding and interpretation. The author is alive and well. Concurrently it is the reader who suffers the “death” in his or her application of author to the text. Interpretation turns into projection, criticism turns into a psychological/emotional melding of feelings provided by reader to author. Barthes’ point is clear. We lose a dimension of understanding, when the author lives and breathes within our study of the text (255).

Peter Rabinowitz is clearly operating from a different paradigm. “But while authorial reading without further critique is often incomplete, so is a critical reading without an understanding of the authorial audience as its base” (264). This supports Barthes argument that literary criticism is based in the ever-present “divorce” of author and reader.

In conclusion, I will allude to another article in Richter’s book. It should lend evidence to the inconsequentiality of authorial intention/audience. In this essay by Stanley Fish, he starts by remembering an experiment his students in a religious poetry class partook in interpreting what they assumed was a contemporary religious poem. In reality the “poem” was a reading assignment, comprised of 6 writer’s names in a list: Ohman, Hayes, Jacobs, Rosenbaum, Levin and Thorne. The students accordingly began determining the religious meaning or connotation behind each word, and determining the contradictory concepts between the names. What results is a nonsensical dissection and false understanding of what was simply a list of names. Judaism, Christianity, rose, tree, “Oh Man”, Jacob’s Ladder, etc. etc. (268).

If I may be harsh, and a bit naÃ?¯ve in my frustration, I will say that Stanley Fish’s exercise proves futile: what the students interpret is not even a poem, rather a non-related set of symbols that aren’t even symbols save for representing the people who were given these proper nouns as names. The religious interpretations serve no cause save for the end result of aiding primal formalism: by masterfully dissecting the text, they later, come to understand formal elements of the piece’s composition. The end result is a waste of time in which Fish’s students were dooped out of an hour of class and Fish advances an internal-philosophical controversy that only he himself, finds value in. The experiment is vain; it serves no advancement to the dialogue of why we read, or in what light are we asserting our convictions of textual meaning. If the outcome were to be an understanding of what a particular individual feels is the religious connotation in the names, then still, I find no value. We may as well study the form.

Fish’s controversy is one of determining how and why these students project what they do, and what difference it makes if this type of projection would have been expected and or inherent in any setting (271). Shouldn’t it be tacit that all critics and their students are going to attribute non-transpersonal meanings and symbols to the text? Of course, but it does not address the actual construction of the text and often times, this dialogue leads to other places such as, personal religious/political ideals, emotional/social idiosyncrasies that serve no understanding of the text. The discussion becomes circular in that they stem from the text, promote self-exploration, revelation, but do nothing to ask questions about the text’s creation; this personal dialogue stagnates talking about the work. My point is: the act of interpreting a work is often belittled by personal meaning. This goes against most common ideologies of literary criticism, but I am willing to accept the ridicule in sacrifice for a richer reading of the text; one that is purely neo-formalist in its want to examine the form, diction, syntax, musicality and verbal qualities of the words.

My outlook is bleak, when considering an authorial reading of the text. I, like every other English pursuant, has found his or herself in a classroom surrounded by a meaningless dialogue concerned with someone’s personal projection or “feeling” of the text. I raise my hand in resistance to this type of reading, as well as ridicule the mediator who allows this sort of practice to go much deeper than the surface. I urge interpreters of literary works to examine what truly makes the stories sing, the poems flail and the verse sing; to explore the musical and verbal qualities of each word on the page, and how the correlation between it, and the others around it, construct texts. After all, if music is the “universal language” should we not pay it attention?

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