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Lecture 03: A Gentle Introduction to Theory


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Slideshow for the third lecture in my summer course, English 10, "Introduction to Literary Studies: Deception, Dishonesty, Bullshit."

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Lecture 03: A Gentle Introduction to Theory

  1. 1. Lecture 3: A Gentle Introduction to Theory PATRICK MOONEY, M.A. ENGLISH 10, SUMMER SESSION A 24 JUNE 2105
  2. 2. A quick thought from Culler The main effect of theory is the disputing of ‘common sense’: common- sense views about meaning, writing, literature, experience. For instance, theory questions ● the conception that the meaning of an utterance or text is what the speaker ‘had in mind’; ● or the idea that writing is an expression whose truth lies elsewhere, in an experience or a state of affairs which it expresses; ● or in the notion that reality is what is ‘present’ at a given moment. Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common sense’ is in fact an historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory. (4; ch. 1)
  3. 3. Some corollaries … ● Appeals to “the obvious” will rarely get you far in college-level English classes (and other humanities/social science classes) precisely because – The task that discourse in the humanities attempts to accomplish is precisely to determine “the truth” (under any number of understandings of what that means); and – Getting there is generally taken to require an argument of some kind; and – The point of “the obvious” is precisely to avoid the necessity of constructing that kind argument, so deploying “the obvious” instead of arguing for your own position is taken to be a cop-out. ● That is to say: many of your professors agree (in at least some ways; to at least some extent) with Culler’s basic point.
  4. 4. So what goes in a college-level English paper? ● An argument about at least one primary text. – Your argument should not be ● Obvious; or ● Trivial; or ● Incoherent; or ● Otherwise non-evaluable or non-falsifiable. – Usually, your argument should be expressed in a well-crafted thesis statement (of one or two sentences) at or near the end of your introduction. – You should carefully set up your introduction so that your thesis statement takes a meaningful position on a problem of some kind whose boundaries you’ve explored in your introduction.
  5. 5. So what goes in a college-level English paper? ● Evidence that your argument about your text is correct; this evidence should be part of a logically meaningful argument. – Your argument should be supported by well-chosen quotes from the text about which you’re writing. These are your evidence for your argument. – Remember that the meaning of a piece of text is never “obvious.” You need to explain how the quotes support your argument, even if only in a sentence or two. Don’t just drop a quote in and move on. – That is to say: your argument should contain an analysis that connects that text with the position that you take. Your analysis needs to argue that your position is correct and logically sound.
  6. 6. So what goes in a college-level English paper? ● Your primary task in a literature paper is to interpret one or more texts. – Remember what Foucault said: “On the other hand, whatever the techniques employed, commentary’s only role is to say finally, what has silently been articulated deep down. It must—and the paradox is ever- changing yet inescapable—say, for the first time, what has already been said, and repeat tirelessly what has never been said.” (“The Discourse on Language” 221)
  7. 7. So what goes in a college-level English paper? ● An argumentative thread showing why the argument is itself relevant, interesting, worth making, important, etc. – That is to say, you should show that you’ve thought about the “so what?” question. – Think about why your argument is worth making to someone who is interested in this topic. Why should your audience care about this idea that you’ve spent space exploring in such detail? – For virtually all of your college-level literature courses, your audience will, in point of fact, be a single person: a professor or TA. ● However, more often than not, what this person wants you to do is to write as if you were writing for some other audience. ● For this class, you can assume that your intended audience is the other students in the class.
  8. 8. So what DOESN’T happen in a college-level English paper? ● Plot summary for the sake of plot summary. – You need to pick a text from the syllabus for your final paper. This means that I’ve already read the text you’re writing about. I know what happens in it. You don’t need to tell me again. – You don’t need to prove you read the book. I assume you read the book before you started writing on it. ● An analytical argument is not (just) – The expression of, like, your opinion, man. (You will in fact take a position, but your position should be falsifiable, at least theoretically.) – A statement that a position is merely plausible. (You should be arguing that you are correct.)
  9. 9. Back to Culler … some terms Figures of speech / tropes I do not expect you to understand the small distinction between these terms for purposes of the final exam. Personification Treating something non-human (especially inanimate) as if it were a person; especially, giving it agency. (71) Alliteration The repetition of consonant sounds. (71) Assonance The repetition of vowel sounds. (71)
  10. 10. Apostrophe Addressing something absent, or abstract, or that otherwise is normally a wildly inappropriate object of address. (71) “History! You will remember me.” Metaphor Treating something as something else. (72) Not to be confused with simile, which says something is like something else. Metonymy Substitution of one thing by something that is closely associated with it. (72) “The Oval Office issued a statement today …” Synecdoche A substitution of a part for the whole (or, occasionally, the whole for a part). (73) Example: referring to a car as “wheels”; referring to workers as “heads” or “hands.”
  11. 11. Verbal irony Saying something while meaning something very different. Arguably, sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. (Many people will insist that it’s different.) “Sure, I’d love to wait in my office for an hour and a half after I’m done on campus so that you don’t have to give up your afternoon beach walk to meet earlier.” Dramatic irony Occurs when the audience of a narrative understands the significance of an event or situation, but a character in a narrative does not. “Don’t marry her! She’s your mother!”
  12. 12. Situational irony Something happens that is the opposite of what is expected. Doesn’t just mean “something unfortunate or regrettable.” ● Frequently misunderstood: – “It’s like raaaaa-ayyyyy-ayyyy-ain on your wedding day.” ● This is only ironic if you think that the laws of physics will necessarily produce good weather for nuptial ceremonies. – “It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.” ● This is only ironic if, normally, reality itself unfailingly supplies you with the utensil that you need when you need it.. – “It’s like meeting the man of my dreams / And then meeting his beautiful wife.” ● Desirable partners are often already attached. Being attracted to someone doesn’t mean the universe was supposed to save them for you.
  13. 13. “ ” Theories of poetry […] posit relations between different types of organization of language— metrical, phonological, semantic, thematic—or, to put it most generally, between the semantic and non-semantic dimensions of language, between what the poem says and how it says it. Relations between form and content (Culler 80; ch. 5)
  14. 14. Genre and speech forms Lyric (or “poetic”) The narrator speaks in the first person. (73) ● Remember that “the narrator” is often not the same as “the author.” Epic (or “narrative”) Sometimes, the narrator speaks in his or her own voice; sometimes, characters in the story speak in their own voices. (73–74) Dramatic All the talking is done by characters. (75)
  15. 15. “ ” I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to copy with chance events, to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality. Foucault and Discourse (“The Discourse on Language” 216)
  16. 16. “we all know the rules of exclusion. The most obvious and familiar of these concerns what is prohibited. We know perfectly well that we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything, when we like or where we like; not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything.” (216) “We have three types of prohibition, covering objects, ritual with its surrounding circumstances, the privileged or exclusive right to speak of a particular subject; these prohibitions interrelate, reinforce and complement each other, forming a complex web, continually subject to modification.” (216)
  17. 17. Other forms of exclusion: – “a division and a rejection”: “I have in mind the opposition: reason and folly” (216–17) ● “his [the madman’s] words were considered nul [sic] and void, without truth or significance, worthless as evidence, inadmissible in the authentication of acts or contracts […]” (217) – “the division between true and false” (218) ● Which “is, undoubtedly, a historically constituted division” (218) ● “this will to truth, like the other systems of exclusion, relies on institutional support” (219). – “many other systems for the control and delimitation of discourse” (220).
  18. 18. “there is barely a society without its major narratives, told, retold and varied; formulae, texts, ritualised texts to be spoken in well-defined circumstances; things said once, and conserved because people suspect some hidden secret or wealth lies buried within. In short, I suspect one could find a gradation between different types of discourse within most societies: discourse ‘uttered’ in the course of the day and in casual meetings, and which disappears with the very act which gave rise to it; and those forms of discourse that lie at the origins of a certain number of new verbal acts, which are reiterated, transformed or discussed.” (220) “What is clear is that this gap is neither stable, nor constant, nor absolute.” (220)
  19. 19. “we can isolate another group: internal rules, where discourse exercises its own control; rules concerned with the principles of classification, ordering and distribution.” (220) “we have to recognize great cleavages in what one might call the social appropriation of discourse. Education may well be, as of right, the instrument whereby every individual, in a society like our own, can gain access to any kind of discourse. But we well know that in its distribution, in what it permits and in what it prevents, it follows the well-trodden battle-lines of social conflict. Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with us.” (226–27)