Spivak: “Feminism and Critical Theory”

In her essay “Feminism and Critical Theory” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak analyzes the relationships between feminism, Marxism and psychoanalysis and how each relates to the field of literary criticism.

Spivak begins her essay by introducing the major points of her essay as well as explaining the interesting structure that her essay takes on. She divides her essay into four different sections, the first is a lecture given sometime in the past. The second is a reflection on that lecture, the third is “an intermediate moment” in which Spivak comments on many of the major themes of her essay and the fourth, according to Spivak, “inhabits something like the present” (476). Spivak then goes on to introduce her fields of study and comment on the ways in which these different lenses of femininity, Marxism, and psychoanalysis overlap and combine to create new ideas within the field of literary criticism. After introducing her different fields of interest, Spivak goes on to illustrate her argument by providing an analysis of The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble. Spivak concludes her essay with a section with reflects on the previous three and ends her essay by stating “Feminism lives in the master-text as well as in pores. It is not the determinant of the last instance. I think less easily of ‘changing the world’ than in the past. I teach a small number of the holders of the cannon, male or female, feminist or masculist, how to read their own texts, as best I can” (491).

While I found Spivak’s essay confusing at times, I really liked the very different structure of her essay and how she utilized older versions of her thoughts and ideas and commented and reworked those ideas in the following sections. This untraditional structure is very interesting and it really allows her readers to see the logical progression of her thoughts and ideas over time. Spivak’s critique and reworking of her older ideas was especially interesting, and helped the reader to follow along in this difficult essay. While this structure may have been somewhat confusing at times, I feel it really enhanced Spivak’s overall analysis of the relationships that exist between feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis and literary theory.

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Mitchell: “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis”

In her essay “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis” Juliet Mitchell offers her views on the history of the development of the novel as well as the role of women writers within the literary world.

Mitchell begins her essay by explaining the workings of psychoanalysis and arguing that, as psychoanalysis is the process of telling and retelling stories, the novel is inherently related to the workings of psychoanalysis. Mitchell then goes on to write of women writers of novels, questioning whether or not women writers have a “voice” in writing, as language is inevitable phallocentric. She goes on to assert that the woman writer must either write using masculine language or write as “the hysteric,” which is “…simultaneously what a woman can do both to be feminine and to refuse femininity, within patriarchal discourse” (389). Mitchell argues that through this discrepancy, a kind of bisexuality emerges for the woman writer. Mitchell goes on to illustrate her arguments by utilizing several examples from Emily Bronte’s classic novel Wuthering Heights.

While I found Mitchell’s essay on the combining factors of feminism, psychoanalysis and the novel to be interesting, I’m not sure that I entirely understand and agree with her point. She states that “The woman novelist must be an hysteric,” and she defines hysteria as  “…simultaneously what a woman can do both to be feminine and to refuse femininity, within patriarchal discourse” (389). She then goes on to question the existence of a woman’s voice in narrative, as she is condemned to work within a phallocentric language. It is from this notion of hysteria that a sort of “bisexuality,” as Mitchell calls it, occurs. A woman must write either as a man, or as a combination of both. I found this point to be rather confusing, however, and I’m not quite sure that I agree that language is inevitably masculine. I have found many authors to have very distinct and different voices in their novels, however I have not found this difference to exist primarily on the basis of gender. Furthermore, the English language is, I feel, relatively gender neutral. In many foreign languages, like French, gender is an integral part of the language, however the English language seems to be relatively neutral.

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Todorov: “The Typology of Detective Fiction”

In his essay “The Typology of Detective Fiction” Tzvetan Todorov examines the different genres of detective fiction by outlining the distinct features of each and how each genre compares and contrasts with the others.

Todorov begins his essay with a brief explanation of genre, and its evolution within society. He also mentions the features of great novels and that “As a rule the literary masterpiece does not enter any genre save perhaps its own; but the masterpiece of popular literature is precisely the book which best fits its genre” (138). Todorov then begins his analysis of detective fiction, starting with the classic “whodunit.” He classifies this genre as having relatively strict rules, and consisting of two stories, the crime and then the detective finding out who did it. From this, Todorov states, another form of detective fiction branches out: the thriller. While the whodunit relies equally on both the crime and the inspection of the criminal, the thriller primarily revolves around the second story and instead of a strict factual approach to catching the criminal, the main characters are constantly intertwined within the events of the story. In some cases it is doubtful that the main character will even make it to the end of the book. The final genre of detective fiction that Todorov introduces is that of the suspense novel. This novel keeps the suspense of the whodunit while adding some of the elements of a thriller novel. Todorov then ends his essay by questioning whether these different genres evolved from one another or exist simultaneously.

I found Todorov’s final paragraphs in which he questions whether each form of detective fiction evolved from one another or all forms exist and developed simultaneously. In reading his essay, I felt as if each genre evolved into he next one, as each genre contained core elements of the first, with several new elements integrated as well. In addition, I associated each genre with specific books, some of which are typically associated with different time periods. In his conclusion, however, Todorov points out that each genre exists today, and some are even penned by the similar authors.In addition, I found it interesting that in his conclusion Todorov realizes that many detective novels do not fit into any of these three genres, and that that is also a valid form of literature.

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Barthes: “Textual Analysis”

In his essay “Textual Analysis: Poe’s ‘Valdemar'” Roland Barthes proposes a method of textual analysis which breaks up the structure of a text and analyzes the plurality of meanings that emerge from these separate “lexias” as well as their combined meaning and demonstrates this method in his textual analysis of Edgar Poe’s narrative ‘Valdemar’.

Barthes begins his essay by providing a definition of “textual analysis” by stating what it is, and what it isn’t, “Textual analysis does not try to describe the structure of a work… but rather of producing a mobile structuration of the text…Textual analysis does not try to find out what it is that determines a text…but rather how the text explodes and disperses” (151). Barthes also differentiates textual analysis from structural analysis in that the latter is applied strictly to oral narratives and the former to written works. Barthes then goes on to deliver a four-point outline of his proposed method of textual analysis. First Barthes proposes to divide the text into small chunks which he refers to as “lexias.” Second, the connotative meaning of each lexia is to be determined, meaning which does not rely strictly on grammar and definitions but on secondary meaning. Third, Barthes argues for a chronological reading, “…only this reading will be, in some measure, filmed in slow-motion” (153). The fourth and final point in Barthes’ textual analysis is that it is acceptable to “forget” some meanings, as “…the important thing is to show departures of meaning, not arrivals…” (153). Barthes goes on to utilize his method of textual analysis to analyze Poe’s narrative “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” ending his essay by demonstrating the plurality of meanings “…without one’s being able to choose which is the ‘true’ one…” (171).

I was intrigued by Barthes final sentences, “Undecidability is not a weakness, but a structural condition of narration…Writing is precisely this loss of origin, this loss of ‘motives’ to the profit of a volume of indeterminations or over-determinations” (171). These few sentences seemed very much like Derrida’s essay we read a few weeks ago, especially in relation to “play” and toying with the structure and meaning of language. The final sentence of his essay is also very interesting and very much in line with Barthe’s earlier essay “The Death of the Author.” “Writing comes along very precisely at the point where speech stops, that is from the moment one can no longer locate who is speaking and one simply notes that speaking has started” (171). I feel that this sentence very elegantly depicts Barthes’ views and his argument in this essay.

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Bakhtin: “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”

In his essay, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” Mikhail Bakhtin offers a study of novelistic discourse that emphasizes the history, culture, and construction of language used in modern novels.

Bakhtin structures his essay into three sections, each of which outlines a specific aspect of his argument on the study of novelistic discourse. He begins his essay by outlining the history of the novel, as well as the history of and introduction to the study of novelistic discourse. He mentions several other traditional approaches to the study, explaining the flaws associated with each. In the second section of his essay, Bakhtin analyzes several different works of ancient Greece and argues that these works should not be “contained within the narrow perimeters of a history confined to mere literary styles” (135). Bakhtin concludes his essay by reviewing the major points of his argument, and stating that novelistic discourse should not be narrowed by the study of linguistic tendencies, style, and abstract languages but it should be viewed, rather, as “a complex and centuries-long struggle of cultures and languages” (135). In addition, Bakhtin states, novelistic discourse should be closely related to language and especially the changes that take place within language.

In his essay Bakhtin argues that instead of analyzing the style of a novel, one should instead analyze the intricacies of the language employed within the novel. He argues that in analyzing particular stylistic aspects of a novel, one emerges with a much limited view of a work. “…We wish only to emphasize that the novelistic word arose and developed not as the result of a narrowly literary struggle among tendencies, styles, abstract world views – but rather in a complex and centuries-long struggle of cultures and languages” (135). In stating this, Bakhtin seems to be saying that the history of different languages and cultures and the works they created contribute to the current form of the novel today. In addition, Bakhtin concludes his essay by stating, “The prehistory of the novelistic word is not to be contained within the narrow perimeters of a history confined to mere literary styles” (135).

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Benjamin: “The Storyteller”

In his essay “The Storyteller” Walter Benjamin argues that the societal need for information and its increased devaluation of experiences are causing the death of the art of storytelling.

In his essay, Benjamin outlines the act of storytelling and why it should not become extinct, even with society’s shift in focus from stories of experiences to strict information. Benjamin argues that while storytelling is an ancient mode of communication, its value should not be underestimated. Benjamin argues that storytellers weave practical counsel and advice into their life experiences as well as the experiences of others into their intricate, interesting stories. In today’s society, however, an emphasis has been placed on straightforward, unambiguous information, leading to the aforementioned devaluation of personal experience and thus the approaching death of the storyteller. Benjamin also argues that the rise of the novel is also cause for the decline of storytelling. He argues that while someone reading or listening to a story is always in the company of a storyteller; someone reading a novel “…is isolated” (23). This isolation, Benjamin argues, stems from the fact that a novel is the creation of the mind of a single person, and is given to individuals to read. Benjamin concludes his argument by stating that society’s devaluation of experiences, and especially our disassociation from the natural processes of death are causing the death of storytelling.

An aspect of Benjamin’s argument that I found particularly compelling is his assertion that modern society is shifting away from the art of storytelling and coming to focus more on straightforward information. Instead of having advice and morals coded within fanciful and imaginative stories and sharing with others personal experiences, we sit in front of a television or newspaper and are delivered cold, hard, unambiguous facts. While I believe that this portion of Benjamin’s argument is very true in today’s society, however, I disagree with his assertion that novels, too, are contributing to the decline of storytelling. It is true that many novels are fictitious and do not revolve around real experiences, however, an author’s work will contain traces of his or her own life experiences or observations. In addition, while novels are read individually, there are almost always discussions between individuals that have read the same novels, creating a connection between readers that is comparable tot he connection between storyteller and reader.

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Paul de Man: “The Resistance to Theory”

In his essay, “The Resistance to Theory,” Paul de Man analyzes traditional literary theories and theorists as well as the history of the resistance to literary theory in an attempt to explain the relationship between literary theory and resistance.

Paul de Man, in an interesting stylistic maneuver, begins his essay by stating what the original essay was intended to be, why he had begun writing it and why, ultimately, he could not write the essay he was commissioned to. The product of this, he states, is his essay “The Resistance to Theory.” He was asked to write a section on literary theory, but found this difficult, and instead wrote his essay on “…why the main theoretical interest of literary theory consists in the impossibility of its definition” (332). de Man then goes on to analyze the history of literary theory as well as the resistance to it, drawing on the theories of several traditional theorists in order to illustrate his point. He goes on to state that “The resistance to theory is a resistance to the use of language about language. It is therefore a resistance to language itself or the possibility that language contains factors or functions that cannot be reduced to intuition” (341). Finally, in the conclusion of his essay, de Man reveals that literary theories and the resistance to literary theories are inherently related, “Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance” (347). de Man adds that literary theory, the more it is resisted, the more it flourishes, but questions, in the very last sentence, “…whether this flourishing is a triumph or a fall” (347).

I found the anecdote at the beginning of the essay, where de Man explains what this essay was supposed to be and why he failed to create such an essay, to be extremely interesting. In these few introductory paragraphs, de Man explains that he was commissioned to write an essay on literary theory for the Committee on the Research Activities of the Modern Language Association. de Man explains that the outline of such an essay is extremely simple, typically following some pre-determined program and ultimately becoming obsolete and forgotten within a few years. de Man explains that he “…found it difficult to live up…to the requirements of this program and could only try and explain, as concisely as possible, why the main theoretical interest of literary theory consists in the impossibility of its definition” (332). This introduction, while interesting, also provides the reader with an immediate glimpse into the project of the essay and also explains the traces of the original assignment within the essay. de Man’s essay “The Resistance to Theory” was ultimately rejected by the publication it originally intended for, however, de Man finds this rejection “altogether justified” as the essay was not a very good summarization of literary theory (333). However, the essay did work well in examining the impossibility of defining theory as well as the relationship between theory and the resistance to it.

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