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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Calling All Theorists! The Problems of Literary Theory

Knapp and Michaels’ thesis states, “The mistake on which all critical theory rests has been to imagine that (the problems of interpretation) are real” (Knapp 724). To back this up, they cite the relationship between correct interpretation and authorial intent and the ambiguity and generalizations done by “interpretive assumptions” (724). On the first point, we have seen this relationship explored in our workings of Joyce’s Dubliners, particularly in the role of Joyce’s little brother’s diaries in A Painful Case, as well as in Dr. Herzog’s discussions of Vietnam War literature. It is no question that the connections between authorial intent and correct interpretation are often hazy, especially when an author’s work is read in a different era. However, I believe there are examples in which authorial intent can play a direct role in more thorough interpretation. I see this in Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Nikki Rosa”. Her poem essentially is a post-structuralist attempt to rewrite the popular construct that wealth determines happiness in creative form. Instead of material goods, she states that “Black love is Black wealth” (Giovanni “Nikki Rosa” l. 30). Her biography is reflected in the piece by describing her poverty and childhood home in Woodlawn; however, she explicitly states that while biographers will “probably talk about my hard childhood / and never understand that / all the while I was quite happy” (l. 31-33). Her explicit statements help the reader to examine what structures and binaries the “biographers” would have drawn upon (l. 17).
I find the second issue of their piece much more relevant and in need of examination. Particularly in some of our presentations, there is a general assumption that certain stereotypes about women, non-white races, and other subjugated groups exist because of their subjugation. However, many of these stereotypes are not grounded in “a direct encounter with its object”, also known as the text (Knapp 737). Here, they see the danger of the practice of theorizing about a subject that may not exist exactly in their framework. When I read this, I hear a call to ground theory, whether that is the original constructions, the deconstructions, the explorations, and the arguments, in the texts. If there are any “practical consequences” of such an examination of theory, it is to make sure what we theorize about is tangible in the language of a text (738).

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