Critical Theory Notes for Week 2

Critical Theory


Week 2

Literature and Literary Theory


[After discussing the issues raised here, begin writing and electronically publishing your responses. Make explicit note in your published piece that you will provide further elaborations later. You will have to publish your responses by Tuesday night 11.59 p.m. at the latest to allow potential readers to present comments and questions. Your failure to publish your response will cost you your grade for Response 1.]


Two questions may haunt students of literature—both those paying and those being paid to study—who have decided to dedicate a major portion of their lives—at least for a particular period of time—to studying literature. One is: What is the function of literature in society? This may be safer question than the more utilitarian question: What is the use of literature?—both in its denotative and rhetorical meanings. Even if we ask the second question, we may still follow it up with the question: If there is no practical use for literature, why is it being constantly produced by society, and for significantly lucrative commercial purposes for that matter? We may consider that the printing and publishing industries, though one may argue that those industries were initially driven by political religious motivations of the promoters of seventeenth-century Protestantism, flourished for the purpose of distributing literature to the general public, with similar Lutheran sentiments to those who have taken advantage of the industries to give the general public access to the word of God. (In this light we might also consider Boccaccio’s argument that poetry is secular theology.)[1] “Literature,” Frye reminds us, “has been always recognized to be a marketable product, its producers being the creative writers and its consumers the cultivated readers, with the critics at their head” (1957: 19-20).

This is not after all a new question. In Horace’s advice to his pupil, he emphasizes that poetry should be utile or useful (and, by this he means that it should be teach some kind of lesson—moral or otherwise) as well as dulce or sweet (in that poetry must also entertain or delight).[2] At this point, let us consider the following questions:

  1. a. How does Horace rhetorically make the argument in support of the utilitarian benefit, or even necessity of poetry? What statements does he put forward to make this claim?
  2. How does his argumentative point of urbanity fit in this rhetorical purpose? What does this point on urbanity suggest about the place of poetry in high culture, Horace’s views about social structures and hierarchies, and the prestige of poetic language in society? What does the constant separation between “good” and “bad” poetry (the latter being not poetry at all) as well as what forms are superior or inferior to other forms suggest? What does the inclusion of English (literary) studies in England in the early nineteenth century suggest about the way prestigious and non-prestigious writing travel around social hierarchies?
  3. What can you infer from the fact that Horace as well as Plato, Aristotle, and Boccaccio talk about literature as “poetry” or “poetic fiction”?
  4. a. Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and Boccaccio assume the fictional nature of poetry by constantly addressing the problem of imitation or mimesis.[3]How do they talk about this either defend or discredit the place of literature in social discourse?
    1. How can the underlying assumed end or function of literature as being truth or the revelation thereof be removed or replaced in order to get around the problem of imitation? Does Aristotle’s strategy of appreciating the complexity of poetic forms help to get around it?
    2. How does such contemporary discussions as Scholes’s which argues for the necessity literature as the social space where “[o]rthodoxy…[codifies] unorthodox behavior, setting aside times and places for approved Saturnalias, designating certain attire as the jester’s special clothing, and telling poets they have a ‘license’ to be odd” resolve or further problematize our understanding of the place of literature in everyday socio-cultural activities?

The other question is somewhat a continuation of Horace’s discourse. While Horace and also Aristotle[4] elaborate on the sophisticated mechanisms of poetic language and what their effects to show what the (novice) poet should and should not do, contemporary students of literature—perhaps inheriting the legacy of nineteenth-century English studies—are accustomed to study literature as readers rather than writers. If they are to be writers, what they write would be criticism of literature but not literature itself. This presents them with the question of the function of literary studies and literary criticism. Prior to theory, as De Man suggests when he reminds us of the distinction between Warheit (truth) and Methode, the main end of the literary scholarship has been the revelation of truth hidden as a mystery underneath the labyrinth of poetic language. Perhaps, this is also the underlying problem when making the distinction between “good” and “bad” literature, for what is the use of studying inferior writing if there is no truth to be found beneath the text? This is an essential question for literary criticism as an academic subject because “it should be possible to get a comprehensive view of what it actually is doing” (Frye, 1957: 12).

The mere fact that such a statement as Frye’s is put forward at all does not only present us with a kind of guideline on what we should or should not do, but more importantly that we as students of literature feel insecure by the fact that we actually need to justify what we do. Frye’s comment that literary criticism is “[n]ot a “pure” or “exact” science, of course, but these phrases belong to a nineteenth-century cosmology which is no longer with us” (1957: 7) shows uneasiness about the kind of academic work that we do. Then, we can proceed with the following questions.

1.            How does Frye’s constant comparative reference to the “exact” sciences and other fields of study help us understand the problems with English studies in particular and literary/cultural studies in general in our contemporary Indonesian social and academic discourse, especially as they pertain to the recent developments in the curriculum in our English studies programs.

2.            If we depart from Warheit and the use of literature as a kind of guidance for social and moral life, and then take on Methode, does that necessitate theory in our carrying out our work? If so, why then is there resistance to theory at all? What does such resistance assume? Is Methode as De Man discusses it similar to the way Aristotle “propose to treat of poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each; to inquire into the structure of the plot…and the nature of the parts?”

3.            Is Scholes a supporter for or an opponent against theory? How does his general attitude related to his concern of English studies as an “apparatus”?[5] What does Scholes’s mapping of English studies show about the field as a part of social hierarchiazation of knowledge?

4.            Is De Man saying that the study of literature is an application of linguistic principles when he says “[l]iterary theory can be said to come into being when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic, considerations or, to put it somewhat less crudely, when the object of discussion is no longer the meaning or the value but the modalities of production and of reception of meaning and of value prior to their establishment- the implication being that this establishment is problematic enough to require an autonomous discipline of critical investigation to consider its possibility and its status?” Does such an argument give more justification for carrying out serious, dedicated study of literature?

5.            How may then literary studies be beneficial for society?[6]

[1] In this defense of poetry, Boccaccio makes the excuse that “although the two forms of writing [i.e. the Scriptures and poetry] do not have the same end in view, but only a like method of treatment,” he continues by citing Gregory that both are worthy of praise because the former allows access to divine truth (according to Christian doctrines) and the other  “reveal to us the causes of things, the effects of virtues and of vices, what we ought to flee and what to follow; in order that we may attain by virtuous action the end that they, although they did not rightly know the true God, believed to be our supreme salvation.”

[2] On the issue poetry’s needing to be both instructional and entertaining, Boccaccio suggests that poetry like the Scripture use poetic devices and language “disciplines the wise, and…strengthens the foolish….[by nourishing] little children, and [preserving] in secret that whereby it holds rapt in admiration the minds of sublime thinkers.”

[3] Begin thinking about issues concerning representation and their implications for next week.

[4] Note that Ion is also a rhapsode, and the lesson that Socrates offers is presented to an artist with a specific skill and not the general audience enjoying poetry as “end-users.”

[5] This term reminds us of Louis Althusser’s concepts about State Ideological Apparatuses (ISAs).

[6] This question will resurface as a question in the Oral Examination at the end of the semester.