Literary Theories: A Case Study in Critical Performance.
If this ain't the berries! as an uncle of mine (memorable only for that botched idiom) used to say. Here's a book explaining and performing literary theory for undergraduates that is not only dutiful (which we would expect) and lucid (which it had better be) but brilliant (yes) and great fun (I swear). Wolfreys and Baker have devised an ingenious and challenging way to stage this anything-but-sure-fire-hit, and they have assembled a seven-person ensemble of scholars (the editor Wolfreys also appearing in the role of the butler) to provide an experience in lit-theory-for-beginners that is, by far, the best available. No other guide, survey, anthology, study manual, or crib comes close to the poise, wit, slyness, and effectiveness of Literary Theories. No other work makes so fully available to students and the rest of us the idea of a theoretical position as an awareness of what the hell it is you are doing and, even better, what you might be doing instead. It is a generous and assured book that honors both its readers and its subject with affability as well as respect.
Literary Theories is the only book of its kind to get its audience right. It has an uncanny sense of how it is being read, and a wonderful flexibility in adapting to its most interesting readers. It is a challenging and entirely uncondescending book, figuring that anybody prepared to tackle good theory deserves good words and shows about theory. It knows who these people are, these undergraduates taking "Intro to Theory 201" or "The English Major: A Gateway." Any theory book for such an audience should assume as its rhetorical challenge something like this: providing a detailed explanation of S/M theory and practice to the Christian Coalition. Your audience wants to hear but doesn't; it is secretly eager but openly, dramatically hostile. The audience, that is, should be regarded as profoundly ignorant but with an appetite it is not necessary to arouse (no need to peddle the product). In addition - and here the parallel to Ralph Reed breaks down - the student audience can be projected as bright but easily bored. Each of the contributors to Literary Theories seems not only to accept these conditions but to revel in them.
This book gets its foot in the door irresistibly by telling us, right off the bat, that it has no idea what "theory" is and will make no attempt to consolidate the various presentations made in it. In fact, the editors see theories as a set of intriguing possibilities, not mutually exclusive but certainly not capable of simply being pluralized or homogenized. Theories, in other words, give us different ways to perform, different ways to act in reference to literary experience. To demonstrate this, Wolfreys and Baker offer a short story as a kind of rough set of notes toward a choreography and then fling seven dancers at us: structuralist, poststructuralist, psychoanalytic, feminist, Marxist, new historicist, and deconstructive.
The short story is also given, published for the first time ever. Richard Jeffries's "Snowed Up" seems to have been written in 1876; at least it was rejected then in the only extant reference to the story. That is surprising, as "Snowed Up" is a layered and immediately absorbing tale about a London blizzard that isolates the city, cuts off food supplies, and provides material for a young woman's diary, concerned equally with suitors, battles with papa (over the suitors), money, food, the looting lower orders, rats, and snow. The story is strange and open, chosen not simply to tease young readers into theoretical activity but to show how much fun that activity is. "Snowed Up" offers a playing field for seven different games, each of them persuasive and none of them exclusive. One of the unusual aspects of this collection is its resolutely undogmatic and good-natured air, its refusal to make truth claims and score mean-spirited points. All these games have their rewards: you get what you pay for, and it is worth it in each case.
Taking them one by one: Julian Cowleys's essay on structuralism reminds us how delightful it can be and what a shame it is that current fashion requires that we be stupid about it. Cowley analyzes the story in terms of its way of communicating and the various and complex (contradictory) ways we readers communicate with it. At the same time, he artfully works in, without any hint of jargon, Saussure, Barthes, Genette, Propp, and other biggies. Structuralism is shown to be a dynamic system, opening possibilities rather than selling templates.
Mark Currie's poststructuralist analysis is not only readable and unpedantic but as astute and clear-headed as any such essay I have read. His awareness that texts do not constrain readers, much less do things to themselves, should be shouted from the housetops. Texts, he bluntly and medicinally says, do not deconstruct themselves; such subversions as are generated in deconstruction are not in the text but "represent the interests of a poststructuralist approach to narratology" (74), an approach which aims not to suppress but to make possible gaps, openings, and problems.
Jill Barker's psychoanalytic performance seems to me a little less adapted to its audience, in that it reads the text as a symptom by way of Lacan, assuming a knowledge of Freud. In my experience, students come equipped with only enough grotesque distortions of Freud (acquired in psychology courses, largely) so as to dismiss his ideas. Still, there is only so much an essay of this sort can do, and the actual performance of Jeffries's story as an incitement to desire, to a perpetual desire that wards off fulfillment (and the Law of the Father), that seeks in snow for the very opposite of sterility and stasis: "flirtatious indecision" (95), without end, is admirable.
The feminist essay offered by Ruth Robbins is cagey and quick, one of the finest in this collection. Especially useful here is her ability to show how the toughest kind of analysis - of language and syntax, say - can be illuminating, even thrilling. Offering a sense of the variety of feminisms, Robbins sets up a clear demonstration, not only of how different general approaches operate, but of how these differences open up new texts and new ways of being in relation to those texts.
Jessica Maynard's Marxist reading advances high-voltage clarity and some extremely valuable historical commentary on Marx, Engels, and (interestingly) Darwin. Her play with the story is also a sharp and lively play with humanist and liberal readings of it. She also roars into a powerhouse reading of "nature" in the story, seeing in it not just catastrophe but a kind of nostalgia, an antimodernist yearning for an older, idyllic order.
Such a view of "nature" contrasts vigorously with that in John Brannigan's accomplished and supple engagement with New Historicism. In part, Brannigan walks the walk - cites Greenblatt and Foucault, examines the connections to Marxism, and rehearses the standard procedures: start with a rich extratextual cultural anecdote, unpack it and the text together, move out and out, and then compact everything into Power and the fixed idea that a given culture will always not only contain but program its own apparent subversions. Brannigan is one of the few to be so perfectly plain (and brilliant) about the deterministic requirements of New Historicism, which "believes that subversion is always produced to be contained within the text" (174). Exactly. It is a matter of "belief," and Brannigan plays out the drama of New Historicism with all the energy and sweet charity of an assured agnostic.
Julian Wolfreys, who along with William Baker wrote the introduction, shoves his way on stage again at the end. But, unlike the reluctant playwright who is yanked onto the stage after the curtain, forcing us to applaud when we really want to be going home, Wolfreys gives us another dazzling performance. Perhaps the most adept and athletic deconstructionist going, Wolfreys, who seems to have no limit to his showmanship or smarts, here lets students in on the brassy, clever, outrageous joy of deconstruction, serving up to them and to us its powerful ideology as well as its bliss. Never mind that the explanation of deconstruction, the primary material, is in a note, a mere annotation, and that the key to the whole essay is a joke, even more unthinkably a joke explained (in note 5); he lets us feel that such tricks, dazzling as they are, are not magician's hokum but participatory: be sure to try this at home. We would all travel around the globe to watch Wolfreys juggle while playing the mandolin, hula-hooping, riding a unicycle, and singing all the parts in Gounod's Faust. Now our students can get in on the fun without ever leaving their desks.
Wolfreys and Baker are like old-style vaudeville kings or burlesque pros who really know the business and are here operating at the top of their form. Run, do not walk, to your local theater or bookstore for this gala event.
James R. Kincaid
University of Southern California
James R. Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor at the University of Southern California and author of, most recently, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting from Duke University Press.
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|Author:||Kincaid, James R.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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