ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 1

 - Introduction


In this first lecture, Professor Paul Fry explores the course’s title in three parts. The relationship between theory and philosophy, the question of what literature is and does, and what constitutes an introduction are interrogated. The professor then situates the emergence of literary theory in the history of modern criticism and, through an analysis of major thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, provides antecedents for twentieth-century theoretical developments.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 1 - Introduction

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: I thought I’d begin today–this [gestures to outline on chalkboard] is, by the way, the regular practice. This is as close as I get to bulleted Power Point. It’s all there. I ought to have got through those topics by the end of the lecture. If I don’t, not to worry. I’ll pick up wherever the dotted line emerges in the subsequent lecture.

In any case, I thought I’d begin today by making a few remarks about the title of our course because it has some big words in it: “theory” and “literature,” but also “introduction.” I think it’s worth saying a word or two about the word “introduction” as well.

Now the word theory has a very complicated etymological history that I won’t trouble you with. The trouble with the etymology of theory and the way in which the word has been used traditionally is that sometimes it actually meanspractice, and then at other historical periods it means something very different from practice, something typically from which practice is derived. Well, that’s the sense of theory that I like to work with, and I would pause over it by saying that after all, there is a difference and practice and we shouldn’t too quickly, at least, confuse the terms. There’s a difference between theory and methodology. Yes, it’s probably fair enough to say that methodology is applied theory, but there’s a great danger in supposing that every aspect of theory has an immediate application. Theory is very often a purely speculative undertaking. It’s an hypothesis about something, the exact nature of which one needn’t necessarily have in view. It’s a supposition that whatever the object of theory might be, theory itself must–owing to whatever intellectual constraints one can imagine–be of such and such a form.

At this level of abstraction, plainly there isn’t all that much incentive to apply thinking of that kind, but on the other hand undoubtedly theory does exist for the most part to be applied. Very frequently, courses of this kind have a text–Lycidas, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a short storyand then once in a while the disquisition of the lecture will pause, the text will be produced, and whatever theory has recently been talked about will be applied to the text; so that you’ll get a postcolonial reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner–something, by the way, which is absolutely fascinating and important to do–and so on through the course.

Now I suppose it’s my reluctance to get into the intricacies of questions having to do with applied theory that makes me prefer to keep it simple. Our text is a story for toddlers called Tony the Tow Truck. I’ve decided not to pass it out today because, after all, I want to get it into the right hands! You can’t read it unless you take the course!–and so I’m going to wait a little bit. [holds up the text] We won’t come back to it at least for the moment, but you see that it’s mercifully short, and as time passes we will do some rather interesting tricks with it. We will revert, as others revert to Lycidas, to Tony the Tow Truck for the purpose of introducing questions of applied theory.

Now this choice may suggest a certain condescension both toward theory and toward literary text, which is not at all intended. It’s much more a question of reminding you that if you can do it with this, you can do it with anything; but also of reminding you that, after all, reading–reading just anything–is a complex and potentially almost unlimited activity. That’s one of the good things that theory teaches us and that I hope to be able to get across in the course of our varied approaches to Tony the Tow Truck.

Chapter 2. Theory and Philosophy [00:04:29]

Now theory resembles philosophy perhaps in this: that it asks fundamental questions and also at times builds systems. That is to say, theory has certain ambitions to a totalization of what can be thought that resembles or rivals philosophy. But theory differs from philosophy–and this is something that I’m going to be coming back to persistingly in the second half of this lecture and many times hereafter: theory differs from most philosophy in that it involves a certain–this is by no means self-evident, and “Why should this be?” is one of the questions we’re going to be asking–it involves a certain skepticism. There seems to be a doubt, a variety of doubts, about the foundations of what we can think and the basis of our opinions, that pervades theory, and is seen somehow or another to characterize its history. Not all theory that we read in this course is skeptical. Some of the most powerful and profound thought that’s been devoted to the subject of the theory of literature is positive in its intentions and in its views, but by and large you will happily or unhappily come to terms with the fact that much of what you’re going to be reading this semester is undergirded, or perhaps I should say undermined, by this persisting skepticism. It’s crucial, as I say, and I’m going to be coming back to it, but it’s just a point I want to make in passing about the nature of theory now.

Turning to the word literature, this is not theory of relativity, theory of music, or theory of government. This is a course in theory of literature, and theory of literature shares in common with other kinds of theory the need for definition. That is to say, maybe the most central and, for me, possibly the most fascinating question theory asks is–well, what is literature? How do we know it when we see it? How can we define it? Much of what we’ll be reading takes up the question “What is literature?” and provides us with fascinating and always–for the moment, I think–enticing definitions. There are definitions based on form, circularity, symmetry, economy of form, lack of economy of form, and repetition. There are definitions based on psychological complexity, psychological balance, psychological harmony, sometimes psychological imbalance and disharmony, and there are also definitions which insist that somehow there is an epistemological difference between literature and other kinds of utterance. Whereas most utterances purport to be saying something true about the actual state of things in the world, literary utterance is under no such obligation, the argument goes, and ought properly to be understood as fiction–making it up as opposed to referring.

All right. Now all of these definitions have had currency. We’ll be going over them again and finding them, I hope, more fascinating as we learn more about them; but at the same time, even as I rattle off this list of possibilities, probably you felt in yourself an upsurge of skepticism. You say, “My goodness. I can easily find exceptions to all of those rules. It’s ridiculous to think that literature could be defined in any one of those ways or even in a combination of all of them. Literature is many things, a many-splendored thing,” you say to yourself, “and it simply cannot be confined or trapped within a definition of that kind.” Well and good, properly ecumenical of you, but at the same time it gives rise to a sense that possibly after all, literature just isn’t anything at all: in other words, that literature may not be susceptible of definition, of any one definition, but it is rather–and this is the so-called neo-pragmatist argument–but it is rather whatever you think it is or more precisely whatever your interpretive community says that it is. This isn’t really a big problem. It’s kind of unsettling because we like to know what things are, but at the same time it’s not really a big problem because as long as we know about the fact that a certain notion of literature exists in certain communities, we can begin to do very interesting work precisely with that idea. We can say there’s a great deal to learn about what people think literature is and we can develop very interesting kinds of thinking about the variety of ways in which these ideas are expressed. And so it’s not, perhaps, crippling if this is the conclusion we reach, but at the same time it’s not the only possible conclusion. The possibility of definition persists. Definition is important to us, and we’re certainly not going to give it short shrift in this course. We’re going to make every effort to define literature as carefully as we can.

Chapter 3. What Is Literature? [00:10:08]

Now in addition to defining literature, literary theory also asks questions obviously not unrelated but which open up the field somewhat. What causes literature and what are the effects of literature? In a way, there’s a subset of questions that arises from those, and as to causes these are, of course, what we’ll be taking up next time: the question “What is an author?” That is to say, if something causes literature, there must be some sort of authority behind it and therefore we find ourselves asking, “What is an author?” By the same token, if literature has effects, it must have effects on someone, and this gives rise to the equally interesting and vexing question, “What is a reader?” Literary theory is very much involved with questions of that kind, and organizing those questions is basically what rationalizes the structure of our syllabus. You’ll notice that we move in the syllabus–after a couple of introductory talks that I’ll mention in a minute–we move from the idea that literature is in some sense caused by language to the idea that literature is in some sense caused by the human psyche, to the idea that literature is in some sense caused by social, economic, and historical forces. There are corollaries for those ideas in terms of the kinds of effects that literature has and what we might imagine ourselves to conclude from them.

Finally, literary theory asks one other important question–it asks many, but this is the way at least I’m organizing it for today–it asks one other important question, the one with which we will actually begin: not so much “What is a reader?” but “How does reading get done?” That is to say, how do we form the conclusion that we are interpreting something adequately, that we have a basis for the kind of reading that we’re doing? What is the reading experience like? How do we meet the text face-to-face? How do we put ourselves in touch with the text which may after all in a variety of ways be remote from us?

These are the questions that are asked by what’s called hermeneutics, a difficult word that we will be taking up next week. It has to do with the god Hermes who conveyed language to man, who was in a certain sense, among many other functions, the god of communication, and hermeneutics is, after all, obviously about communication. So hermeneutics will be our first topic, and it attempts to answer the last question that I’ve mentioned which is raised by theory of literature.

Chapter 4. The Idea of an “Introduction” [00:13:10]

All right. Now let me pause quickly over the word introduction. I first started teaching this course in the late 1970s and 80s when literary theory was a thing absolutely of the moment. As I told the teaching fellows, I had a colleague in those days who looked at me enviously and said he wished he had the black leather concession at the door. Theory was both hot and cool, and it was something about which, following from that, one had not just opinions but very, very strong opinions. In other words, the teaching fellows I had in those days–who knows? They may rise up against me in the same way this semester–but the teaching fellows I had in those days said, “You can’t teach an introduction. You can’t teach a survey. You can’t say, ‘If it’s Tuesday, it must be Foucault. If it’s Thursday, it must be Lacan.’ You can’t approach theory that way. Theory is important and it’s important to know what you believe,” in other words, what the basis of all other possible theory is.”I am a feminist. I’m a Lacanian. I am a student of Paul de Man. I believe that these are the foundational moments of theorizing and that if you’re going to teach anything like a survey, you’ve got to derive the rest of it from whatever the moment I happen to subscribe to might be.”

That’s the way it felt to teach theory in those days. It was awkward teaching an introduction and probably for that reason [laughs] while I was teaching Lit 300, which was then called Lit Y, Paul de Man was teaching Lit Z. He was teaching a lecture course nearby, not at the same time, which was interpretation as practiced by the School of de Man. That was Lit Z, and it did indeed imply every other form of theory, and it was extremely rigorous and interesting, but it wasn’t a survey. It took for granted, in other words, that everything else would derive from the fundamental idea; but it didn’t for a minute think that a whole series of fundamental ideas could share space, could be a kind of smorgasbord that you could mix and match in a kind of happy-go-lucky, eclectic way, which perhaps we will be seeming to do from time to time in our introductory course.

Well, does one feel any nostalgia now for the coolness and heat of this moment? Yes and no. It was fascinating to be–as Wordsworth says, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”–to be around in those days, but at the same time I think it’s rather advantageous for us too to be still “in theory.” That is to say we still have views. We still have to recognize that what we think derives from this or that understanding of theory and these or those theoretical principles. We have to understand the way in which what we do and say, what we write in our papers and articles, is grounded in theoretical premises which, if we don’t come to terms with them, we will simply naively reproduce without being fully aware of how we’re using them and how, indeed, they are using us. So it is as crucial as ever to understand theory.

In addition, we have the vantage point of, I suppose, what we can now call history. Some of what we’ll be studying is no longer practiced as that which is the absolutely necessary central path to methodology. Some of what we’re studying has had its moment of flourishing, has remained influential as a paradigm that shapes other paradigms, but is not itself, perhaps, today the sole paradigm–which gives us the opportunity of historical perspective, so that from time to time during the course of the course, I’ll be trying to say something about why certain theoretical issues and ideas pushed themselves into prominence at certain historical moments, and that too then can become part of our enterprise. So an introduction is not only valuable for those of us who simply wish to acquire knowledge. It’s also valuable, I think, in lending an additional perspective to the topic of theory and to an understanding about how theory is, on the one hand and perhaps in a certain sense, now an historical topic and is, on the other hand, something that we’re very much engaged in and still committed to: so all that then by way of rationale for teaching an introduction to theory.

Chapter 5. Literary Theory and the History of Modern Criticism [00:18:11]

All right. Now the question, “How does literary theory relate to the history of criticism?” That is a course that I like to teach, too; usually I teach Plato to T.S. Eliot or Plato to I.A. Richards or some other important figure in the early twentieth century. It’s a course which is absolutely fascinating in all sorts of ways, and it has one very important thing in common with literary theory: that is to say, literary criticism is, too, perpetually concerned with the definition of literature. Many of the issues that I raised in talking about defining literature are as relevant for literary criticism as they are for literary theory, and yet we all instinctively know that these are two very different enterprises. Literary theory loses something that literary criticism just takes for granted. Literary theory is not concerned with issues of evaluation, and it’s not really concerned with concomitant issues of appreciation. Literary theory just takes those for granted as part of the sense experience, as one might say, of any reader and prefers, rather, to dwell on questions of description, analysis and speculation, as I’ve said.

So that’s what’s lost in theory, but what’s new in theory? Here I come to the topic which will occupy most of my attention for the remainder of the lecture. What’s new in theory is the element of skepticism that literary criticism by and large–which is usually affirming a canon of some sort–doesn’t reflect. Literary theory, as I say, is skeptical about the foundations of its subject matter and also, in many cases, about the foundations of what it itself is doing. So the question is: how on earth did this come about? It’s an historical question, as I say, and I want to devote the rest of the lecture to it. Why should doubt about the veridical or truth-affirming possibilities of interpretation be so widespread in the twentieth century?

Now here is a big glop of intellectual history. I think the sort of skepticism I mean arises from what one might call and what often is called modernity–not to be confused with Modernism, an early twentieth-century phenomenon, but the history of modern thought as it usually derives from the generation of Descartes, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Notice something about all of those figures: Shakespeare is preoccupied with figures who may or may not be crazy. Cervantes is preoccupied with a figure who is crazy–we’re pretty sure of that, but he certainly isn’t. He takes it for granted that he is the most rational and systematic of all thinkers and raises questions about–since we all take ourselves to be rational too–raises questions about just how we know ourselves not to be paranoid delusives like Don Quixote. So that can be unsettling when we think of this as happening at a certain contemporaneous moment in the history of thought.

Now Descartes, you remember, in his Meditations begins by asking a series of questions about how we can know anything, and one of the skeptical questions he asks is, “Well, might I not be crazy?” In other words, Descartes is still thinking along these same lines. He says, “Well, maybe I’ve been seized by an evil genius of some kind or maybe I’m just crazy.” Now why–and here is the question–why do we get this nervousness about the relationship between what I know and how I know it arising at this moment? Well, I think it’s characterized at least in part by what Descartes goes on to say in his Meditations. Descartes settles the matter–perhaps somewhat sweeping the question of whether he is crazy under the rug because I’m still not sure he answers that question–but he settles the matter famously by saying, “I think. Therefore, I am,” and furthermore, as a concomitant, “I think, therefore, all the things that I’m thinking about can be understood to exist as well.”

Now the Cartesian Revolution establishes something that is absolutely crucial for what we call the Enlightenment of the next hundred, hundred and fifty years–in other words, the idea that there is a distance between the mind and the things that it thinks about, but that this distance is a good thing. In other words, if you look too closely at a picture or if you stand too far away from it you don’t see it clearly–it’s out of focus–but if you achieve just the right distance from it, it comes into focus. The idea of scientific objectivity, the idea that motivates the creation of the great Encyclopedia by the figures of the French Enlightenment–this idea all arises out of the idea that there is a certain appropriate objective distance between the perceiver and the perceived. Gradually, however, the idea that this distance is not too great begins to erode so that in 1796 Kant, who isn’t exactly enlisted on the side of the skeptics by most of his serious students, nevertheless does say something equally famous as that which Descartes said and a good deal more disturbing: “We cannot know the thing in itself.” Now as I said, Kant erected such an incredibly magnificent scaffolding around the thing in itself–that is to say, the variety of ways in which although we can’t know it, we can sort of triangulate it and come to terms with it obliquely–that it seems churlish to enlist him on the side of the skeptics, but at the same time there’s a sense of a danger in the distance between subject and object that begins to emerge in thinking of this kind.

Now by 1807, Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind is saying that in recent history and in recent developments of consciousness something unfortunate has set in. We have “unhappy consciousness,” unhappy consciousness which is the result of estrangement, or Verfremdung, and which drives us too far away from the thing that we’re looking at. We are no longer certain at all of what we’re looking at, and consciousness, therefore, feels alienated. All right. So you can already begin to see a development in intellectual history that perhaps opens the way to a certain skepticism. But the crucial thing hasn’t yet happened, because after all, in all of these accounts, even that of Hegel, there is no doubt about the authority of consciousness to think what it thinks. It may not clearly think about things, about objects, but it has a kind of legitimate basis that generates the sort of thinking that it does. But then–and here is where I want you to look at the passages that I’ve handed out. Here’s where three great figures–there are others but these are considered the seminal figures–begin to raise questions which complicate the whole issue of consciousness. Their argument is that it’s not just that consciousness doesn’t clearly understand what it’s looking at and is therefore alienated from it. It’s also that consciousness is alienated from its own underpinnings, that it doesn’t have any clear sense of where it’s coming from any more than what it’s looking at: in other words, that consciousness is not only estranged from the world but that it is in and of itself inauthentic.

So just quickly look at these passages. Marx, in the famous argument about commodity fetishism in Kapital, is comparing the way in which we take the product of human labor and turn it into a commodity by saying that it has objective value, by saying that we know what its value is in and of itself. He compares that with religion. The argument is: well, God is a product of human labor. In other words, it’s not a completely supercilious argument, sort of “God is brought into being the same way objects that we make use of are brought into being.” God is a product of human labor, but then we turn around and we say God exists independently and has value objectively. Marx’s argument is that the two forms of belief, belief in the objective value of the commodity and belief in God, are the same. Now whether or not any of this is true, believe me, is neither here nor there. The point that Marx is making is that consciousness, that is to say the way in which we believe things, is determined by factors outside its control–that is to say in the case of Marx’s arguments, social, historical and economic factors that determine what we think and which in general we call “ideology”; that is to say, ideology is driven by factors beyond the ken of the person who thinks ideologically.

So you see the problem for consciousness now is not just a single problem. It’s twofold: its inauthentic relationship with the things it looks at and also its inauthentic relationship with its own underpinnings. The argument is exactly the same for Nietzsche, only he shifts the ground of attack. For Nietzsche, the underpinnings of consciousness which make the operations of consciousness inauthentic are the nature of language itself. That is to say that when we think we’re telling the truth we’re actually using worn-out figures of speech. “What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms–in short, a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified,” etc., etc., etc., “and are now no longer of account as coins but are debased.”

Now that word “now” [laughs] is very important. It suggests that Nietzsche does somehow believe that there’s a privileged moment in the history of language when perhaps language is a truth serum, when it is capable of telling the truth, but language has now simply become a question of worn-out figures, all of which dictates what we believe to be true. I speak in a figurative way about the relationship between the earth and the sky, and I believe that there’s a sky god. I move from speech to belief because I simply don’t believe that I’m using figures of speech. All of this is implied in Nietzsche’s argument. In other words, language, the nature of language, and the way language is received by us, in turn determines what we can do with it, which is to say it determines what we think, so that for Nietzsche the distortion of truth–that is to say the distortion of the power to observe in consciousness–has as its underlying cause language, the state of language, the status of language.

Freud finally argues for exactly the same relationship between consciousness–that is to say, what I think I am thinking from minute to minute–and the unconscious, which perpetually in one way or another unsettles what I’m thinking and saying from minute to minute. You know that in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud reminded us that the Freudian slip isn’t something that happens just sometimes–and nobody knows this better than an ad libbing lecturer–;it’s something that happens all the time. The Freudian slip is something that one lives with simply as a phenomenon of the slippage of consciousness under the influence of the unconscious.

Chapter 6. The Hermeneutics of Suspicion [00:32:10]

Now in the passage I gave you, Freud says a very interesting thing, which is that after all, we have absolutely no objective evidence that the unconscious exists. If I could see the unconscious, it’d be conscious. Right. The unconscious, Freud is saying, is something that we have to infer from the way consciousness operates. We’ve got to infer something. We’ve got to figure out somehow how it is that consciousness is never completely uninhibited, never completely does and says what it wants to say. So the spin on consciousness for Freud is the unconscious.

Now someone who didn’t fully believe Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, a very important modern philosopher in the hermeneutic tradition named Paul Ricoeur, famously said in the fourth passage on your sheet that these great precursors of modern thought–and particularly, I would immediately add, of modern literary theory–together dominate a “school of suspicion.” There is in other words in Ricoeur’s view a hermeneutics of suspicion, and “skepticism” or “suspicion” is a word that can also be appropriated perhaps more rigorously for philosophy as negativity. That is to say, whatever seems manifest or obvious or patent in what we are looking at is undermined for this kind of mind by a negation which is counterintuitive: that is to say, which would seem not just to qualify what we understand ourselves to be looking at but to undermine it altogether. And these tendencies in the way in which Marx, Nietzsche and Freud have been received have been tremendously influential. When we read Foucault’s “What is an Author?” next time we’ll return to this question of how Marx, Nietzsche and Freud have been received and what we should make of that in view of Foucault’s idea that–well, not that there’s no such thing as an author but that it’s rather dangerous to believe that there are authors. So if it’s dangerous to believe that there are authors, what about Marx, Nietzsche and Freud? Foucault confronts this question in “What is an Author?” and gives us some interesting results of his thinking. For us, the aftermath even precisely of the passages I have just quoted, but certainly of the oeuvre of the three authors I have quoted from, can to a large degree be understood as accounting for our topic–the phenomenon of literary theory as we study it. In other words, literary theory, because of the influence of these figures, is to a considerable degree a hermeneutics of suspicion recognized as such both by its proponents and famously–I think this is perhaps what is historically remote for you–by its enemies.

During the same period when I was first teaching this course, a veritable six-foot shelf of diatribes against literary theory was being written in the public sphere. You can take or leave literary theory, fine, but the idea that there would be such an incredible outcry against it was one of the most fascinating results of it. That is to say for many, many, many people literary theory had something to do with the end of civilization as we know it. That’s one of the things that seems rather strange to us today from an historical perspective: that the undermining of foundational knowledge which seemed to be part and parcel of so much that went on in literary theory was seen as the central crucial threat to rationality emanating from the academy and was attacked in those terms in, as I say, at least six feet of lively polemics. All of that is the legacy of literary theory, and as I say, it arises in part from the element of skepticism that I thought it best to emphasize today.

Now I think that one thing Ricoeur leaves out, and something that we can anticipate as becoming more and more important for literary theory and other kinds of theory in the twenty-first century, is Darwin. That is to say, it strikes me that Darwin could very easily be considered a fourth hermeneut of suspicion. Of course, Darwin was not interested in suspicion but he was certainly the founder of ways of thinking about consciousness that are determined, socio-biologically determined: determined in the realm of cognitive science, determined as artificial intelligence, and so on. All of this is Darwinian thinking and, I think, increasingly will be central in importance in the twenty-first century. What will alter the shape of literary theory as it was known and studied in the twentieth century is, I think, an increasing emphasis on cognitive science and socio-biological approaches both to literature and to interpretive processes that will derive from Darwin in the same way that strands of thinking of the twentieth century derive from the three figures that I’ve mentioned.

But what all this gives rise to–and this brings me finally to the passages which you have on both sides of your sheet and which I don’t want to take up today but just to preview–the passages from Henry James’ Ambassadors from 1903, and from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard from 1904. In other words, I am at pains to remind you that this is a specific historical moment in which, in a variety of ways, in each case the speaker argues that consciousness–that is to say, the feeling of being alive and being someone acting in the world–no longer involves agency: the feeling that somehow to be conscious has become to be a puppet, that there is a limitation on what we can do, imposed by the idea that consciousness is determined in ways that we cannot control and cannot get the better of, so that Strether in The Ambassadors and Yepihodov in The Cherry Orchard speak for a point of view which is a kind of partially well-informed gloom and doom that could be understood to anticipate texts that are much better informed, that we will be considering but nevertheless are especially important as an aspect of their historical moment. I want to begin the next lecture by taking up those passages. Please do bring them, and I will also be passing around Tony the Tow Truck and I’ll give you a brief description of what the little children’s book actually looks like, and then we will plunge in to the question “What is an author?” So I’ll see you on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]