A Gentle Introduction
PATRICK MOONEY, M.A.
ENGLISH 10, SUMMER SESSION A
24 JUNE 2105
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,
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.
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;
– 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.
So what goes in a college-level
An argument about at least one primary text.
– Your argument should not be
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
– 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.
So what goes in a college-level
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.
So what goes in a college-level
Your primary task in a literature paper is to interpret one or more
– 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)
So what goes in a college-level
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
– 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.
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
– A statement that a position is merely plausible. (You should be
arguing that you are correct.)
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.
Treating something non-human (especially inanimate) as if it
were a person; especially, giving it agency. (71)
The repetition of consonant sounds. (71)
The repetition of vowel sounds. (71)
Addressing something absent, or abstract, or that otherwise is normally a
wildly inappropriate object of address. (71)
“History! You will remember me.”
Treating something as something else. (72) Not to be confused with simile,
which says something is like something else.
Substitution of one thing by something that is closely associated with it. (72)
“The Oval Office issued a statement today …”
A substitution of a part for the whole (or, occasionally, the whole for a part).
Example: referring to a car as “wheels”; referring to workers as “heads” or
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.”
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!”
Something happens that is the opposite of what is expected.
Doesn’t just mean “something unfortunate or regrettable.”
– “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
– “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
– “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.
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
Relations between form and content
(Culler 80; ch. 5)
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
Epic (or “narrative”)
Sometimes, the narrator speaks in his or her own voice;
sometimes, characters in the story speak in their own voices.
All the talking is done by characters. (75)
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)
“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
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
“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).
“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)
“we can isolate another group: internal rules, where
discourse exercises its own control; rules concerned with
the principles of classification, ordering and distribution.”
“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)