Saturday, March 27, 2010

Criticism vs Theory

Celebrity writers are writers nonetheless, and their notoriety doesn't reduce the value of there work, if the work is good. That is the real issue, I think, coming to a new framework that the worth of a work can be determined across the field: artistic, social. The situation is that postmodernism, as a writing style with discernible notions about how a tale will be told, has outstripped contemporary criticism's ability to discuss the work in any really meaningful, useful way. That was the point initially. While postmodern writers are actually engaged with the world through their writing, postmodern critics, a different breed entirely, lose themselves in undecidables and have turned vacillation into a pathetic , minor art. What  concerns me is whether the work is any good,  and the task for criticism, it seems to me, is to determine under what terms  are that bring the desired qualities to life, or instructs us, to a degree, how a writer's book is lacking. This is the short coming of much modern theory, in that "theory" has replaced what we used to regard as real criticism, the starting point at which a conversation starts. A good amount of literary thought of the last fifty years informs us that such a conversation, about what a text means or what can reveal about human experience at the farthest or most intimate edges, is impossible.

It's useful, I think , to separate  "postmodern" novelists,etc, from postmodern theorists. I propose that a new critical language be created to help us deal with the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Acker, Burroughs, Gaddis, Reed, Kundera, Wallace, Eggers, a language that can see the links between postmodernism and other literary styles, such as Magic Realism, and expand the study as to how different cultures respond to their increasingly variegated existences. Pomo theory , as is, is nothing but a stop sign. A point among many is that postmodern writing has been around long enough -- since after WWll, I believe-- for a useful literary criteria to arise around it. The re-making and the re-re-making of those values are generally extensions, elaborations or, more radically, severe disagreements with standards that formed around a work while in nascent form. Modernism, as an aesthetic movement, among scads of others in history, had it's propagandists in it's early time, critics whose views remain bed rock, the base from which reformations are made.

Postmodern criticism went wrong when the discipline mistook itself for philosophers, or linguists, or cultural anthropologists. The result of this detour has been a mess of unreadable prose whose authors aim to disguise the fact that they've nothing to say. I am for postmodern literature, but I am aghast at postmodern literary criticism. Now, I think, is the time to convene a new project, a better way of dealing with the huge body of work by an interesting population of writers. It's time for a re-making, and re-re-making after that.

Critics without a malleable framework are talking only to themselves, finally. The value of criticism is in how it deepens the reading: an ideal criticism, I think, ought to be the sieve through which the variety is taken in and studied.

This is ultimately about discourse: discourse needs to go somewhere, though, needs to have results, because it is about trying to figure what ways there are that we may engage each other in ways that are honest and mutually satisfying, whatever market system you think this goal is possible under. The exact problem with postmodern theory, the intellectual and not the aesthetic texts, is that it's turned into a self-conscious wallow (often disguised under the rubric of being "self-reflective") that brandishes the idea that an awareness of it's own social construction somehow advances bold, better human freedom. What it does is make the nominal partisans of just causes weak and immobile, ready to have their own conventional wisdom used against them.  by a foe that's true to its own cause enough to use any weapon it can lay its hands on in order to make the world theirs and sterile under one Totalizing God, who, I suspect, isn't likely to have much truck with language theory. 

I don't think understanding ever stops.


  1. "What it does is make the nominal partisans of just causes weak and immobile, ready to have their own conventional wisdom used against them. by a foe that's true to its own cause enough to use any weapon it can lay its hands on in order to make the world theirs and sterile under one Totalizing God..."

    Couldn't this apply equally well to political discourse in the good ol' USA today? It may be that literary battles up in the rarified precincts of criticism are just another symptom of the fragmentation of society as a whole. Entire segments of the population seem to lack a common language to speak with one another. There are few if any agreed-upon facts, only grievances and fears endlessly nursed, possibly.

  2. Especially in today's political discourse; the Constitution's application is a history of judicial deconstruction, and the formalization of the practice as a means of dealing with any texts plays right into the hands of the Hard Right, who, I believe, would like to dispense with what the road blocks the document provide against their harsher wishes.


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