I am taking English 470A: Contemporary Critical Theory this term. The course is taught by Murray McArthur, chair of the Department of English Language & Literature at University of Waterloo. The course covers formalism (including American New Criticism), structuralism, pyschoanalysis, post-structuralism, feminism, queer theory and post-coloniality.
The reading list includes excerpts of essays by Victor Sklovskij, Roman Jakobson, Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude LÚvi-Strauss, Vladimir Propp, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and others. To date, we have read and discussed texts by the first six writers.
McArthur delivers a short lecture on each text. He uses an overhead projector more often than students ask questions. The course is cumulative because the later writers often engage the work of earlier writers by critiquing or revising it. Too, McArthur's basic argument is that Saussure and Freud both discovered the nature of the sign, so a good understanding of Saussure's Course on General Linguistics is essential if one wishes to engage McArthur's argument.
The formalists are familiar from English 251B: Criticism 2. McArthur emphasized the importance of the literary device (the Russian word priŰm), which is often translated as technique and sometimes translated as procedure. He also stressed the importance of the text and the relative unimportance of non-textual elements, such as the writer.
Boris Eichenbaum's esssay "Introduction to the Formal Method" summarizes the main theses of the early formalists. He covers Sklovskij, Jakobson and others. The essay, published ten years after Sklovskij's "Art as Technique," is an excellent introduction to formalism. Eichenbaum states that the the object of literary science "ought to be the investigation of the specific properties of literary material, of the properties that distinguish such material from material of any other kind." He also distinguishes between practical and poetic language, drawing on Sklovskij's essays. Eichenbaum's essay is not argumentative but historical: he quotes liberally from Russian formalists and comments on their work. It is a useful summary of the aims and main points of the formalists.
Viktor Sklovskij's thesis in "Art as Technique" is that the function of the literary device is the defamiliarization (in Russian, ostranie) of things. McArthur urged the class to pay close attention to the examples used in the text. Specifically, he noted that the examples -- taken from Tolstoij -- are examples of arbitrary things rather than natural things. The examples include flogging, private property and human burial. Sklovskij's essay would be weaker, had it used examples of natural things (the sun rising, water falling, etc).
Boris Tomashevskij's "Thematics" was not studied in great detail, perhaps because the exceprt included in our anthology is quite short. The essay's title belies its focus, which is narration and methods of narration -- two aspects of literature which would now most properly belong to narratology. Importantly, Tomashevskij's example is a folktale, which does not have a specific author. The essay seems unoriginal; thus, it has been highly influential: its basic points are now considered literary common sense.
Our study of the formalists was interrupted by the second topic of the course: Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. The course was not published by Saussure; it was collected, edited and published by his students posthumously. Though it is old hat, so to speak, in contemporary linguistics, the course is clearly one of the most significant publications of the 20th Century.
Our anthology contains only a short excerpt from the course, so McArthur quoted a few times from the full text. He covered two of Saussure's principles, which, like Tomashevkij's essay on narration, are common sense, now:
- "The linguistic sign is arbitrary."
- The signifier is a line.
These two principles require some context. First, Saussure distinguishes between parole and langue. Parole is a collection of individual speech-acts. Langue is the system of signification, or language. Saussure does not focus on the use of language; he focuses on language itself, on its general laws and forces.
As evidence for Principle 1, Saussure notes that the a concept has different signifiers in different languages (hence, then need for translation).
Principle 2 shows us how Saussure priveleges the spoken sign over the written sign. However, the principle holds regardless of media. Simply, the sign is linear. Words, whether spoken or written, are intelligible one after another.
Importantly, Saussure perceives the sign as a unity of two parts -- the signifier (sound-image) and the signified (concept). Most importantly, however, Saussure argues that language functions through difference. The differences in the chain of signs create meaning.
I have, however, treated the course very briefly. Future posts will examine it in more detail.
Many of the formalists were linguists and aware of Saussure's work. Certainly, an understanding of Saussure's quest to discover the nature and structure of language helps one understand the formalists' quest to discover the nature and structure of literariness.
Roman Jakobson's essay "Two Aspects of Language" is very important. The essay begins with an introduction to two types of aphasia: similarity disorder and contiguity disorder. People who suffer from similarity disorder cannot substitute synonyms (for example, laugh and chuckle); people who suffer from contiguity disorder cannot provide complementary words for a given word (for example, sunny and hot). Jakobson associates similarity disorder with metaphor and contiguity disorder with metonymy and states that each disorder is most concisely expressed by each figure of speech. He ends his essay with a damning claim that literary critics suffer from contiguity disorder because they privelege metaphor over metonymy. Jakobson's essay should be used as an example in essay writing classes: it is very-very good.
Claude LÚvi-Strauss's essay "The Structural Study of Myth" is interesting. He make three claims:
- "If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, it cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined.
- "Although myth belongs to the same category as language, being, as a matter of fact, a part of it, language in myth exhibits specific properties."
- "Those propertires are to be found only above the ordinary linguistic level, that is, they exhibit more complex features than those that are to be found in any other linguistic expression."
The essay proceeds to examine many myths. LÚvi-Strauss shows how the mythemes (sort of like morphemes of myth) can be combined in many different ways. His demonstration resembles a solution to a math problem in some ways. For example, he proposes F x(a) F y(b) ~ F x(b) F a-1(y) as the general formula of all myths.
Vladimir Propp conducts a similar but less mathematical examination of folktales in "Morphology of the Folktale." Interestingly, both myth and folktale, like many of the examples used by structuralists and formalists, do not have an author to tempt the literary scientist to become an historian or a biographer.
The past two classes have been devoted to Freud. First, we looked at The Interpretation of Dreams. Next, we looked at "A History of an Infantile Neurosis," perhaps better known as the Wolf Man case history. The excerpt of The Interpretation of Dreams included in our anthology covers Freud's analysis of one of his own dreams, the dream of the botanical monograph. Here is the dream report:
I had written a mongraph on a certain plant. The book lay before me and I was at the moment turning over a folded colored plate. Bound up in each copy there was a dried specimen of the plant, as though it has been taken from a herbarium.
Freud's analysis of the dream of the botanical monograph segues into his theories about the two types of dream work, condensation and displacement. Basically, the latent content of the dream (the source events of the dream) is distorted through condensation and displacement into the manifest content of the dream (related in the dream report). The interpretation of dreams, then, is an undoing of condensation and displacement to reveal or discover the latent content of the dream.
The "History of an Infantile Neurosis" is an amazing text. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in analysis or literature. The most interesting parts of the text are two additions to the text that Freud made post-publication. Briefly, he questions his own theory of the primal scene and advances an alternative theory.