So many college students have bad experiences with literary criticism.
The whole discipline is handed to them in a dry and dusty way that ends up separating them from books instead of helping them mine meaning out of them.
I'm always sad when I encounter a student damaged by this sort of delivery, because literary criticism is one of my favorite things in the whole world. Understanding different approaches to reading a text has helped me squeeze books like oranges and drink their wine to the dregs.
If you're not familiar with how literary criticism works, imagine a line of spectacles with different color lenses. When you put on the first set of glasses to read a book, you suddenly notice who the author was, when the author was living, and historical and cultural influences on the writer.
The second set of glasses blocks all of that external information out. Instead you are focused intensely on the language of a text itself. You are free to zoom in to the sorts of words used and the mechanics of how a book is structured, and (to your surprise) you find that this limited focus helps you notice things you didn't pick up when looking at the text historically.
The third set of glasses allows you to explore the effect that the book has on you. It takes time to unpack how the mix of 50,000 words and your past and personality mix to create a response.
By engaging with one method of observation at a time, readers can build muscles. Like a dancer focused on repeating one move over and over, individual observation skills grow in the reader so that over time the scope of our ability to take in new information is wide and deep.
Someday I would love to take the time to walk you slowly through the benefits of various schools and expand on why knowing criticism can change your life, but for now, I want to zoom in on one specific area -- a school called post-structuralism.
Post-structuralism is the most complicated school of criticism that I have ever studied, and I'm not an expert on it by any means. It's very similar to post-modernism, in that morality tends to be seen as relative and objective truth tends to be denied altogether.
By definition, post-structuralism resists definition, so working with this school (which isn't a school), is a bit like nailing Jello to a wall. However, I'm hoping that just by naming a few things about this viewpoint, we can understand how it has impacted our daily lives and national culture.
The chances of you running into a person who self-identifies as a post-structuralist is relatively slim. There are few people who believe in post-structuralism who do so consciously. Instead, elements of this interpretational method have broken off like tapeworm segments, and little bits of method are living in the mind-guts of thousands of hosts. The fluidity of post-structuralism allows it divide and subdivide while living off other belief systems, until like a virus, it has retrained the RNA of its hosts.
But before I explain what post-structuralism is, let's look at structuralism. Understanding what this method rebels against will help us see what it is in itself.
For thousands of years, it was assumed that people could know truths with certainty. Even though philosophers disagreed with HOW we could know things, there was still an underlying belief that it was possible to come to some sort of conclusion if we could only find the right system for finding it.
Through time, different cultures tried out different systems. The Greeks tried to build knowledge upon logic. Descartes started with confirming his own existence, and trying to move on from there. Hume tried to find a way to use his senses to prove truth.
Then we have larger groups. Christians claim that Truth is a Person from which all virtues and wisdom exude, which is why they say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Materialistic science claims that because the world is observable and measurable, and because causes produce effects, we can find truth empirically through observation and experimentation.
Once one of these philosophers or people groups decides on a method for determining what truth is, a metanarrative can be created. A metanarrative (coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard) is sort of a "super story" that contains all the other stories.
For example, for a person of faith, the micronarrative of a sick child would fit into a metanarrative of sin entering the world and affecting the physical realm of health. For a person who trusts science, the micronarrative of a sick child might fit into a metanarrative of evolution of species that is prone to genetic weaknesses. But either way, the bigger story of the universe determines how we understand the smaller stories.
Post-structuralism is deeply suspicious of metanarratives. It challenges the core assumption that any sort of singular truth exists, and it claims that all frameworks and systems (secular or sacred) are only imagined forms that humans have made up to try to make sense of the universe.
But not only do they believe these constructs are created to make sense of things, they claim micronarratives are created to control other people, to gain and maintain power, and to reinforce hierarchies.
In our American culture you might find a challenge to metanarratives in an atheist who claims that religion only exists to manipulate the masses. Or you might find it in a NRA member who believes that the government is stirring up fear about mass shootings with an ultimate goal of taking away civil liberties. Whatever large narrative is told, it is assumed that the story is told to obtain power.
By suspicion and cynicism, the hierarchies and establishments of culture are torn down. Meaning is scraped from the sides from the bowl and from between the cracks. We deconstruct what we are expected to observe and look for the marginalized and the unsaid. We doubt. We challenge. We break apart. We invite chaos and then watch for what emerges.
There are some positive aspects to this approach, of course. Power does corrupt, and it is shrewd to look behind the scenes. But there are also conclusions drawn from post-structuralism that are too extreme.
For example: language is metaphorical, therefore it isn't trustworthy. Is that statement true? If I say, "I'll take care of you," is that a threat or a nurturing promise? See how confusing that is?
A post-structuralist would look at the lack of precision in a sentence like this and say that because words cannot be definite, and because words are how we find truth, there is no truth. Nietzsche, for instance, said, "The various languages, juxtaposed, show that words are never concerned with truth, never with adequate expression."
I find that conclusion a bit whacky. Thinkers as far back as Aquinas acknowledged the metaphorical nature of language. This is not some sort of modern discovery.
Dorothy Sayers wrote "We need not"... "suppose that because it (language) is analogical, it is therefore valueless or without any relation to truth. The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things." ... "we must think by analogy or refrain from thought."
C.S. Lewis, likewise, saw the metaphorical nature of language as a strength instead of a weakness. Dr. Bruce L. Edwards writes, "Influenced by his friend and linguistic mentor, Owen Barfield, and cognizant himself of the cognitive power of metaphor, Lewis saw language as 'incurably' mythopoetic, inevitably and simultaneously linking hearers/readers to items, persons, and relations on one plane of existence -- while also pointing them backwards and forwards to ever deeper, resonating layers of meaning that lay beyond any single soul, lifetime, or civilization, into eternity."
So we have (at least) two options here. We can follow thinkers like Derrida and Nietzche into questioning the reliability of meaning because words are inherently indefinite. Or, we can follow thinkers like Sayers and Lewis into seeing the limitations of language for what they are, following them along a trajectory until we glimpse a bigger, more meaningful universe instead of a scrambled one.
To close, I want to include some excerpts from a chart created by Ihab Hassan, exploring some of the differences of modernism and postmodernism. As you look at each of these opposing beliefs, let your mind unpack how embracing each extreme might have an influence on a culture. What are the dangers? What are the benefits?
As an individual, what might you want to keep? Where does each position you in regard to an external authority? Where does each position you in relationship to a truth that is possibly bigger than your capacity or understanding?
Roland Barthes has written that "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." That's not just a method of interpreting books. That's a belief that impacts how we engage with the world.
MODERNISM: form (closed)
POSTMODERNISM: anti form (open)
MODERNISM: finished work
POSTMODERNISM: the process
MODERNISM: grande history
POSTMODERNISM: small history