+I, Literary CriticJamie Leigh KeggEnglish 312 / Seton Hill University
+Literary Theory: What my parents think I do What my friends think I do
+Literary Theory: What my peers think I do What my professor thinks I do
+Literary Theory: What I think I do What I really do
+When the semester began,despite having been warned thattheory is something you do andnot a set of facts you can know, Istill foresaw the work ahead ofme as a giant memorization andcomprehension challenge.
+I thought if I studied hard, readcarefully, wrote thoughtfully,engaged in discussion with mypeers and dedicated plenty oftime and energy to learning thetheories we studied, I wouldeventually “get it”. I would knowtheory.
+In my head, this was somethinglike installing a software programon the computer of my mind: itwas going to take awhile, and Imight run into technicaldifficulties, but in the end, theinformation was going to bethere, complete, concrete andready to be put to use.
+I quickly realized I was wrong.I would have to adjust my expectations.
+I was right about reading.And I was right about writing.I was right about studying, anddiscussion, and time and energy…(though I never could have foreseen quite so much time and energy…)
+I was wrong about getting it.By week four, I stoppedexpecting to “get it” and starteddesperately hoping my blogs,discussion posts and exerciseswere even making sense.(Sometimes my writing didn‟t make sense. Sometimes my writingwas terrible and seemed pointless… but every once in awhile, writingwould lead me to a breakthrough. So I kept writing about everything Iwas reading.)
+I had visions of knowing all thebuzzwords, the appropriatejargon to use and the hot topicsto bring up when discussing eachtheory.
+But I realized that even if I knewthe lingo, and could “talk thetalk,” there was only one way forme to “walk the walk”—byactually doing theory.
+My blog posts,my Moodle forum posts,my discussions with peersand comments on their workwere preliminary;preparatory exercises to exorcisethe clutter from my brain so I couldcull out what was really significantand just write.(Like Dr. Jerz tells me to do. Stop overthinking. Stop worrying. Just write.)That‟s my new mantra.Stop overthinking. Just write.
+For my first exercise in criticism, Itried to make sure I sounded likeI knew what I was doing, eventhough I felt like I was writing in aforeign language.(Not just any foreign language. A dead language. Like Sanskrit. OrLatin. Or Old English. Or Klingon…. Oh, wait…..)I wrote things like“Hamlet uses his play to simulate the conditions under which hisfather‟s murder took place, but does not consider that the actionsand reactions of those who witness the play will cause it to ceasebeing a simulation and to become reality itself—he believes he isstaging what is not reality, but in fact he is constructing realitythrough his simulation, thus defying and disturbing order andrationality—as Baudrillard says, „order opts for the real‟ (Baudrillard373). “(Yes, that‟s all one sentence...)
+My first attempts at doing theorywere full of ridiculously longsentences, fancy words (the kindthat earn you big points inScrabble) and vague, impreciseconnections.(I often fall prey to the idea that if I can make it seem like I know whatI‟m supposed to be doing, I‟ll look competent. Once in awhile, itworks. Usually, not so much.)By the way, did you know that the longest word currently in use in the English language ispneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis?It‟s a lung condition. I swear I‟m not making it up.(But you can‟t actually make that word in Scrabble…)
+A few weeks later, as I began to work on mynext formal exercise, I had a meeting with Dr.Jerz. I had spent about twenty hoursformulating the position I wanted to take onArundhati Roy‟s The God of Small Things andwriting my essay. Dr. Jerz didn‟t want to readmy paper; he wanted me to talk about mypaper. As usual, when put on the spot, Iflaked and couldn‟t articulate my thoughts. Dr.Jerz gave me lots of advice that would havebeen helpful before I started writing.(I left. And cried. Because I had finally thought I was getting it right until the meeting, afterwhich I was sure I was getting it all wrong. For the rest of the semester, I found itimpossible to motivate myself to write anything prior to a meeting with Dr. Jerz for fear Iwould have to throw it away and start over. Don‟t get me wrong—Dr. Jerz is helpful andencouraging. But I‟m really good at psyching myself out.)
+Once I stopped panicking and got down tobusiness with my psychoanalyticperspective on The God of Small Things, Inoticed a difference in my writing.I wrote things like:“The physical encounter between Rahel and Estha is more than an incestuous expressionof love—it is an inevitable manifestation of long-repressed memories and emotionsstemming from childhood trauma. The traumatic sequence that occurred twenty-threeyears earlier, when the twins were eight years old, provoked such definitive repressivemental action in both siblings that neither was able to cope alone. Reunited for the firsttime since childhood, the twins symbolize the re-establishment of their unified identity withphysical consummation. Their pairing represents quiet retribution for all the injusticescommitted against both of them as children—drastically damaging events such as Esthabeing the victim of child molestation, the twins witnessing their mother‟s abuse at thehands of their father, and the twins witnessing Velutha‟s vicious beating by the police. Allof these instances were permitted and even quietly condoned according to societalnorms, while the act of incest, were it to be found out, would carry far heavierrepercussions than any of the far more damaging events of their childhood. Their unionsymbolizes emotional freedom, taking back control and finally moving forward. “
+There were coherent sentencesof a manageable length. Most ofthe vocabulary was comprised ofwords I would actually use ineveryday speech. My ideas wereclear and the approach hadtaken was evident.(Okay, maybe most people wouldn‟t use those words in everydayspeech, but I would. It‟s a personality quirk.)
+Maybe I wasn‟t engaging with myprimary source enough, or drawingon secondary sources to support myconclusions. I knew I would need toimprove in those areas. But at leastI was able to demonstrate myimproving grasp of how to do theory.
+Once I realized I was capable ofdoing theory—and putting forth adecent performance, at that—I gotexcited. Actually, I gotsuper-enthusiastically overzealous.(You have to be super-enthusiastically overzealous to try to take onStieg Larsson‟s entire Millennium trilogy in a couple of shortpapers…)
+I wrote a Marxist perspective on StiegLarsson‟s Millennium trilogy. I meant towrite only on the first book, The Girl Withthe Dragon Tattoo. But after I got intowriting, I realized most of the material I wastrying to discuss was in the other books.Rather than backing off and tackling amore manageable text, I dug in my heelsand searched harder for passages thatwould support my assertions.(See, told you I learned something from the paper I wrote on TheGod of Small Things!)
+My first Millennium paper said thingslike this:“Lisbeth is not a commodity belonging to the capitalist domain, despite being labeled award of the state. She manipulates her circumstances so that she has total control.Though her methods of acquiring funds are not legal, once those funds are in heraccounts, they appear legal for all intents and purposes. She employs her exceptionalcomputer skills to procure all information necessary to perform the financial transferslegally and openly (Dragon Tattoo 634). Then, she uses her digital research skills toselect and blackmail lawyers and financial advisors to manage her estate, which furthersher appearance of legitimacy in the upper social echelon (Hornet’s Nest 617-22).Additionally, most of the funds she appropriates have first been procured by the entitiesfrom whom she has stolen them by illegal, illicit or corrupt means. Even if they couldimplicate her in the theft, which would be nearly impossible considering Lisbeth‟sunsurpassed skill in embezzlement, those entities are in no position to fight to have thestolen money returned or to have Lisbeth prosecuted. So the funds she possesses aregood as legal, and the upper echelon mobility and power she procures with those fundsis legitimate, as though those assets were legal. Lisbeth is not owned by capitalismbecause she exists outside of that socioeconomic hierarchy. “
+Ambitious? Probably.Fun to write? Definitely.Exasperating at times? You bet.Did I feel sure of what I was doing?Not at all.(But because I‟m a glutton for punishment, and sifting through 1800pages of text for good evidence for my paper seemed like aproductive way to spend my time, I pressed onward and expandedthe Millennium paper for a second exercise. Crazy, I know.)
+What I learned during Millennium, round two:1. Sometimes even when you‟re searching as hard as you can forevidence to support your position, all you find is evidence to thecontrary. This is discouraging, but don‟t give up! Intuition is rarelywrong.2. I understand Marxism better than I ever thought I would, but notnearly well enough to be writing from a Marxist perspective.3. Working on a text from a certain perspective cements a lot oftechnical stuff in your mind, and you can NEVER, EVER go back toenjoying that text for fun. Ever.4. Ambition pays off. My expansion earned a perfect score.*(*I did not discover this perfect score until I was ten pages into writingmy term paper. Had I realized I was finally “getting it right”, I probablywould have kept slogging through 1800 pages of Larsson.)
+Finally, it was time to write my lastformal exercise, which I planned toexpand for my term paper. Afterburning out on 1800 pages of Larsson,I thought I‟d choose something short,sweet and simple: a few short storiesby Raymond Carver.(Also, I wanted an excuse to pull out the Carver collections I pickedup a few years ago but never had time to read. This way, I couldconsider it research…)
+I wrote my exercise. It went well.Plain language, readablesentences, clear ideas, plenty ofcitations. I felt good about it.Then it came time to expand itfor the term paper.I panicked.(I know, I know. When do I not panic?)
+But after some reassurance fromDr. Jerz that I was, once again,overthinking it, I settled in towrite.All the while, telling myself, “Stop overthinking. Stop worrying. Stoppanicking. Just write what you think you want to say. Just write.”
+And I surprised myself.By creating an outline of all the ideas Iwanted to include, rearranging them intoa logical progression, marking whereand how I would engage with scholarlysources and noting what questions Iwanted each section to answer, I cameup with a plan for my term paper—athorough, detailed plan. A good plan.(Now all I had to do was write.)
+So I wrote. I wrote all my topicsentences first. Then I startedfilling in paragraphs andcitations. I began to see ideascome together. I thought tomyself, I think you might finallybe starting to do theory!!
+And I was.And it wasn‟t about using fancywords—or even about knowingthe right words. It wasn‟t aboutmemorization or beingconversant about hot topics. Itwasn‟t about how much I couldread or write or cram into myhead at once.(Though reading, writing and hours of studying certainly paid off…)
+It was about taking a work ofliterature I had read before andlooking at it from a newperspective—a new “lens,” as Dr.Jerz would say. And it was aboutbeing able to support thatperspective with evidence fromthe text and communicate it in aclear, progressive and engagingmanner.(All along, I had been making it so much harder than it needed to be. Who knew?)
+My term paper, a cultural studiesperspective on three selectedstories from Carver‟s What WeTalk About When We Talk AboutLove, culminates like this:“In these three stories, Raymond Carver creates meaning implicitly byaccentuating the differences between cultural ideologies andrepresentations of reality. Carver situates his characters in mundanecircumstances in the midst of working-class America, then unwraps thetidy package of perceived normalcy to reveal the beauty, complexity andhorror of anomalies which are, perhaps, not so unusual after all. In “AStoryteller‟s Shoptalk” Carver writes, “what creates tension in a piece offiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to makeup the visible action of the story. But its also the things that are left out,that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimesbroken and unsettled) surface of things.” Carver creates the spacebetween ideology and reality, the gap between explicit and implicit, butultimately, meaning is as much a product of interpretation astransmission. What the reader takes away from these texts dependsupon the way he understands what Carver has left unwritten. “
+I‟m proud of it. And excited about it. I‟mdoing theory. And, just maybe, I like it.