Friday, December 12, 2008

In the end, theory seems unescapable

After a full semester of playing with literary theory in and out of the academy, I am still left with unanswered questions. These doubts aren't due to a lack of thoroughness on our Critical Theory class.
By nature, theory leaves much to the imagination. I felt like I was always armed with the question, "How does this operate in my daily life?". And while these concepts are meant primarily to dissect literature, I found them nagging me at the strangest of moments. Sometimes I felt Derrida or Baudrillard creeping into arguments and papers that, at first glance, had little to do with deconstructing my universe. From arguments with my boyfriend over feminism to analyzing film, theory became a great way to confuse friends and win debates.
After all this time I think I was most fascinated by Marxist concepts of ideology combined with feminist theory. The concept of ideology as applied by almost all theoretcial schools dominates the way I think about these theorists. Every time we read a new perspective I could only obsesses about the author's ability to see past the prejudices he/she wrote about while simultaneously declaring these systems encompassing and mentally inescapable. I feel like this contradiction is my main criticism of theory as a whole. Nevertheless, this question does not invalidate literary theory as a whole. Instead, it adds an entirely new dimension to the criticisms these intellectuals make.

The moment when I knew that I could never "unknow" theory was when I went to see Charlie Kaufman's new film Synecdoche, NY. To summarize this film briefly is literally impossible. In short, Synecdoche, NY centers around Caden Cotard's efforts to reconcile his tragic and futile life by building a life-size replica of New York full of actors playing other actors playing other actors. It speaks to the nature of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulacrum as well as Derrida's thoughts on the signifier and the signified. While the pseudo-city is bursting with life and tragedy, it does not approach the essence of that which it replicates. The imitation lacks the substance of the real, implying that this simulation is no less "real" than the imitation. Or, using Derrida's logic, perhaps the simulation is merely trying to imitate something that is an imitation as well. The complexities these theories propose both complicate and enrich my understanding of the things I enjoy.

Maybe these theories are best applied as philosophies. Used over a broader spectrum, I find that theory is just another lens through which we can critically view the world.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The "F Word"

Once again another great blogger has given us material to react to. Special thanks to Dr. Krouse for her guest post on feminist theory.

Inevitably when talking about Feminism in all its incarnations, a professor will ask if there is anybody in the class who identifies themselves as Feminists. And, of course, very few respond positively. While I do consider myself a femininist--i.e. someone who believes women deserve equal rights--I'm always reluctant to express my views. Like Dr. Krouse discussed, the word "feminism" has been saddled with a less-than-pleasant connotation. It seems as if the "f word" (as one of my classmates called it) is instantly equated with a militant, man-hating bull dyke. That somehow, women who advocate their own rights are noisy and maniacal in their beliefs. While I am not the most traditionally elegant, demure, or feminine woman, I still am hesitant to associate myself with that image (though, to be honest, I secretly LOVE flannel.)
Even though I do have some degree of knowledge concerning Feminism and agree with its essential tenets, I still fear association with it. It's troubling to think that I might be the hapless victim of the patriarchy.
Before Dr. Krouse's post, I sort of embraced postfeminism. That is, I found the idea that it's okay to act on sexual desire and to relish femininity for femininity's sake liberating. It was the happy medium for me. I could call myself a "feminist" but not really have to be vocal or attract attention. Of course, that notion has been thoroughly disabused. This version of feminism almost feels like "feminist lite". While it's alright to revel in your womanhood, it is not the same as challenging the status quo. Unfortunately, Cosmopolitan's idea of the "independent woman" operates directly within the patriarchy by espousing a feminine ideal created by men. This does not necessarily mean that I totally disagree with everything in the postfeminist movement. Rather, I think that feminist theory needs to be executed and developed into more spheres. No amount of shoe purchases, however delightful, are ever going alter gender politics. Perhaps the first step is to de-villify the word "feminist" so I can continue to wear the mantle proudly.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Before I start let me thank Ashley Shelden for her guest post on the central blog. It really helped break down the nearly impenetrable world of Lacan and "The Mirror Stage".

After reading the guest post, it was suggested that we draw parallels between the reality presented in John Fowles' Mantissa and Lacan's ideas about language. I was surprised that after a moment of contemplation I was able to see how compatible these two works were.
Mantissa centers around the creative process of Miles Green as inspired by his muse Erato. While the novel starts with a narrative and plot, the charade quickly dissolves when it becomes apparent that the helpless protagonist is actually the capable (but confused) author. Reality continuously shifts as Miles and Erato bicker and cooperate for the sake of constructing his next great work.
The writer shapes the world we read using language, and constantly shifts quickly from one imagined scenario to the other. There is no fixed center in the novel, no plot points to use as guide posts. In short, there is no stability. And Miles Green continues to promote this instability through constructing a world through language.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Thanks to Ken Rufo for his guest post on the central blog. Baudrillard is certainly dense, but you've put forth a wonderful and thorough walk through on the subject.

I'm especially fascinated with the ideas of commodity and integral reality in relation to currency. In our culture fueled by "tap-and-go" credit cards and debit accounts, we detach ourselves from the type of consumption that involves the exchange of currency for a commodity. Now when we needlessly consume, it does not seem like we're actually exhanging anything for goods. As Ken says, "we're not really spending it". I know that most of the time I myself forget exactly how many times a day my debit card was used, or how much I spent, or even what I purchased.
Yet the debit system at least is somewhat of a simulation. Debit retrieves the cash from your account and forwards it to a business. The credit card system is more similar to an "integral reality", because it's not even a simulation--After all, it has no real model or value backing it. It's not quite mimicking the traditional nature of consumer transaction because no "pure commodity" is exchanged. We merely make a promise to return a certain amount of money to some shady organization at an unnamed date. The entire system of fiat currency that credit operates fades into the background, is not being simulated, and is in fact being eliminated. Of course, we seldom think of this because this integral reality acts on so many levels that it confuses our entire notion of money and currency in the first place. We might have a thousand dollars of debt on card....but did any actual money change hands at all?

This idea becomes even more headache-inducing (and simultaneously more interesting) in relation to the concept of impossible exchange. This term describes theory's inability to capture reality, as well as reality's resistance to being so easily dissected and understood. Essentially, our feeble simulations of simulations that have no model are actually valueless, and ultimately confuse our reality rather than illuminate it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Death of a Blogger

Barthes presents some challenging ideas in "Death of an Author", some of which I still don't fully understand. But perhaps his most interesting suggestion is that writing is "the destruction of every voice". Such an assertion is easy to balk at, especially given the general consensus that writing is an instrument though which we create and amplify our unique voices. Am I somehow shattering my own voice by recording it?
What I take Barthes to mean is that the essence of writing is illusive--i.e. there is NO singular meaning or interpretation to a text. He agrees with many theorists when he claims that language is ambiguous and works to decenter our reality. In this way, we are not able to designate an origin of meaning within any work of literature simply because language is arbitrary. Words cannot successfully capture reality in any meaningful way, so how can literature--hundreds and hundreds of pages filled with these subjective words--have a concrete message? He takes this post-structuralist line of thought even further, claiming that this lack of center destroys all voices. The "voice" is shattered because such a concept implies unification and intent. In Barthes world, the "author" does not have a will or wisdom to imbue upon a text, let alone a distinctive voice.

I find Professor Zero's ideas about blogging identity and personal identity interesting and pertinent to Barthes' suggestions about voice and authorship. El Professor speaks about having separate voices that contrast between his personal/professional writing and his blog persona. He claims that he has made this anonymous blog "to escape my other writing voices and develop a new one". This idea of separate voices (let alone unified voice) is directly antithetical to Barthes. He would argue that neither of these voices are an authentic or valid idea, due to the fact that these perspectives have no intrinsic uniqueness or value due to the nature of writing.

I guess we're not all unique snowflakes, but that's something we can live with, right?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Signifier and the Signified

"The bond between the signifier and the signified is radically arbitrary" Page 35

Structuralism, especially the brand that Sausserre promotes, suggests that the language we use to describe ourselves and the natural world is completely and utterly without logic or base. My first thought upon hearing this suggestion was frustration. Immediately I mentally protested, thinking of all our complex linguistic systems--Latin and Greek roots, systems of grammar and syntax. But then the realization dawned on me--Just because something is perceived as a system does not make it any less arbitrary. We've constructed these absurdly specific rules to follow when we speak and write, but they just don't have any rhyme or reason.
This proposition becomes a lot clearer when we take concrete examples into consideration. My favorite is the use of the word "tree". Saussere calls our words and ideas "signifiers" and separates this concept from the actual object and deems that "signified". He complicates things farther when he makes the bold assertion that there is no real correlation between these two. Just because we use the word tree to describe the tall, leafy structure outside our windows does legitimize the usage of the word. Nothing about the letters t-r-e-e speaks of the essence of that which it describes. We have somehow consented, through social contract, to acknowledge these relationships and perpetuate their significance.
Such an assertion warps our perception of reality and art, but Post-structuralism challenges us to take this idea further. Post-Structuralist admit that Saussere's idea are in fact true, but that this implies an even greater subjectivity. They claim that the arbitrary nature of signifiers also means literature is devoid of meaning.
While it may be radical, Post-structuralism seems like the logical conclusion of Structuralist theory. I might not agree with this particular school of thought, Post-Structuralism is a great aid in in understanding its predecessor. Certainly, though, it leaves a lot to ponder.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Response to Dr. Craig

In a continuation of last week's post, I'll be responding to some of Dr. Craig's thoughts on Marxism and how our ideologies (Communist or Capitalist) pervade most aspects of society.
I think the most fascinating idea Dr. Craig has commented on is the notion that all literature, whether it consciously acknowledges it, still directly or indirectly, perpetuate the dominance of the ruling class. Even those who deliberately and forcefully write in opposition to the prevailing ideology in their society are in some way legitimizing their own subjugation. In a sense, it seems to suggest that there is no "outside of ideology", for our very sense of self and consciousness is shaped and molded by powers beyond our control.
The "ruling class", in whatever methods or forms it chooses to use, attempts to hide our very subjugation from us. Most people would raise issue with this and try to assert that our small forms of rebellion (i.e. reading the Communist Manifesto, hanging pictures of Che in our dorm rooms, attending protests) are a manner with which we can voice dissent. Yet these small liberties are not true measures of freedom, at least according to many Marxist theorists. Dr. Craig summarizes the idea succinctly when he states, "radical departures from the dominant values of society are nonetheless engaged with those values, even when, and perhaps, especially when, they claim that they are not."
This is a difficult idea for me to grapple with, and one that I'm not sure if I completely agree or disagree with. I'm with Marx when he asserts that ideologies are central to how we understand ourselves and our place in society, and further more that these dominant ideologies are culturally constructed. Yet the question that really plagues me is the difference between recognizing your relative subjugation by hegemonic forces and freeing yourself from said forces. Surely if ideology was as inescapable as Marx and Engels believed, nobody would be able to truly revolt against anything, especially not the Bolsheviks and other socialist and Communists who DID succeed in restructuring their society. This is a question I actually ponder often, and one that keeps me awake at night (so to speak). I think that for Marxism to function, it must require some great faith in humanity for without that a true revolt of the people could never take place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Marxism and Danielle Steele--Not so strange bedfellows?

As a political philosophy, I think Marxism asks a lot of us capitalist pigs. In direct opposition to the tenets of liberal humanism, it mandates that our ideologies are in fact socially constructed, and that our notions of human nature, independence, and freedom are blatantly untrue. While I agree on most levels that there is no intrinsic human nature, I take issue with the assertion that I am unable to understand my personal freedoms outside of a capitalist context. Sure, ideologies are a product of culture, but that doesn’t validate all of Marxism’s demands. This premise does not warrant the wholesale redefining of already solid concepts like “liberty” and “freedom”. It seems to me that while Marxism tries to deconstruct what we think of self-determinism and freedom, it cannot wholly redefine what those things are. Freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without restraint". Communism/Marxism is in direct opposition to this definition, and asserts that the only true form of liberty can be found within the strict confines of community. That, in my estimation, is the antithesis of autonomy.

Qualms with Marxist political theory aside, its literary component is a bit more fluid, but still fundamentally flawed. Marxist literary criticism in all of its forms inserts class struggle and economics into your favorite books. This Marxist reading can take many forms. Some theorists strictly consider the work’s author and try to find the conscious or unconscious influence of his own social status as reflected in his/her work. Others scrutinize the text more thoroughly and view the relationships between characters, plot, and setting as a direct result of their economic statuses and the dominant political forces present (however minor they may appear).
At first, I assumed that this brand of criticism would fall apart if I took some ostensibly “unpolitical” books and read them through the Marxist filter. But, try as I might, I couldn’t find so much as a trashy romance novel that was completely devoid of fodder for a Marxist critic. Take the complex Danielle Steele classic Bittersweet. Danielle's protaganist India is a disenfranchised ex-journalist who decides to seek some form of self-actualization after she realizes that she is but a useless second fiddle to her working husband. In the process she is swept off her feet by the wealthy and savvy Paul Ward. While he does dazzle her with his masculinity, good looks, and sexual prowess, his wealth and success is as much of factor as his other charms. She contrasts her relative anonymity and lack of riches to his abundance and is spurred towards upward mobility. In fact, this quest for personal betterment is as much of a plot point as her torrid love affair. As she attains a sort of class consciousness, she is affected enough to seek a change. Of course, none of this is explicitly stated by either the brilliant Mrs. Steele or India, but I assume that most texts dissected by Marxist critics contain covert signs of economics and class struggle. (I also assume that most literary critics tend to save their profound insights for more serious literature).

Now that I've not-so-coherently ranted about both Danielle Steele and Marxism in my inaugural blog post, I think I'll give it a rest. This was long enough anyways, right? Next week I'll try to end my posts with something a more memorable. However now, hunger calls.