Wednesday, May 20, 2009



Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed by Mary Klages
(Continuum Press, London, 2006)

The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory Edited by Ellen Rooney
(Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006)

These two English contributions to literary theory, although the latter was published in New York, provide much different access to the subject matter. Continuum Press’s various guides ‘for the perplexed’ provide something equivalent to ‘Literary Theory for Dummies” although several steps above. There are no little diagrams or drawings here. But, as Continuum states on the back cover, “Continuum’s Guides for the Perplexed are clear, concise and accessible introductions to thinkers, writers and subjects that students and readers can find especially challenging. Concentrating specifically on what it is that makes the subject difficult to grasp, these books explain and explore key themes and ideas, guiding the reader towards a thorough understanding of demanding material.” So, in actual fact, we have a cross between Coles Notes and Dummies but explained in a more thorough, intelligent manner. The Cambridge work, on the other hand, is a collection of essays providing, as the back cover states, “the most accessible guide available both for students of literature new to the developing field, and for students of gender studies and readers interested in the interactions of feminism, literary criticism and literature.” We’ll see if they live up to their marketing hype.

A cursory examination of the Table of Contents and the Index of Literary Theory immediately reveals some shortcomings. There is no mention of Roland Barthes whatsoever. Julia Kristeva is relegated to a brief mention. For some reason, Gayatri Spivak receives no consideration even though about 20 pages are spent on the subject ‘Race and Postcolonialism’. Whereas 8 pages are spent on Hélène Cixous, only two are spent on Jean-François Lyotard and about the same on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. These deficiencies are partially remedied by the first chapter “What Is ‘Literary Theory?’” which should really be titled “Introduction” and which, in somewhat of a Socratic manner, Klages gently walks us through by describing her own experience in learning theory before arriving at the conclusion that “What we call ‘Literary Theory’ really ought to be named something like ‘world theory’ or just ‘how things work,’ because the theories that explain how meaning is made and what it produces are theories that explain how our everyday world works. And that, it seems to me, is something worth knowing.”(8)

Klages subsumes the entirety of pre-twentieth century literary discourse under the title ‘Humanist’. Using a conversational tone which anticipates the questions that the reader might ask, she provides an overview beginning with Plato and Aristotle and ending with Poe and Arnold. Although glossing over this period, she does provide succinct statements of the major concepts of each. For example, in considering Plato and Aristotle, she states: “While Plato founds the tradition of moral criticism by worrying about what a work of poetry does to its audience, Aristotle founds the tradition of genre criticism by investigating what a particular work is, rather than what it does.”(16) In considering Sir Francis Bacon: “for Bacon, poetry is greater than rationality because reason can only observe the pre-existing material world, not alter it; poetry allows the mind to create its own worlds, and rule over them.”(20) She elicits from Edmond Burke the idea that “the critical assessment of art should be based on the idea of taste” and that taste “is a matter of ‘sensibility’...rather than a question of reason and logic.”(21) Coleridge led the way towards free verse through his idea that ”because the form emerges from the interaction of the poet and the natural world, the poet is free to make his own rules about poetic expression, and to create his own forms unique to his particular experience.”(26) Klages establishes Keats as the father of postmodernism through his concept of ‘negative capability’ defined as “the ability to stay in, be comfortable with, uncertainties, indeterminacies, mysteries, and doubts without needing to find some resolution or certainty.”, following this up by stating “Keats here articulates what would increasingly become a central conflict in literary studies in the twentieth century: formalist criticism would focus on finding a resolution or an explanation for the unity of elements in a poem, while poststructuralism would recall Keats’s ‘negative capability’ and the need for ambiguity and flux, rather than answers.”(27) Klages concludes this chapter with Matthew Arnold whom she elevates to the father of New Criticism through his statement that “the goal of criticism is to ‘see the object as in itself it really is’, free of polemics, agendas, and preconceptions, in order to provide disinterested observation and assessment.”(28)

Klages begins her discussion of Structuralism via a brief discussion of what Structuralism is arriving at the following assertion:
In any field, a structuralist is interested in finding the basic elements – the units - that make up any system, and in discovering the rules that govern how those units can be combined. And that’s all. A structuralist analysis is not concerned with anything beyond the interrelationship of units and rules.(31)

She then begins a discussion of linguistics at a very basic level. She provides a cursory discussion of the Russian Formalists and Vladimir Propp’s analysis of folk tales resulting in her opinion that “this may not seem like a very productive or useful way to analyze literature; once you’ve identified the units and explained the rules, you’re done, and there’s nothing more to say.”(33) But then, isn’t what Propp did to folk tales the same thing Aristotle did to genres? Has the latter led to a cessation of discussion because Aristotle set out the units and explained the rules? She does a good job of discussing Saussure in a concise manner beginning with the reminder, which appears to have been forgotten in most analyses that “the linguistic sign is made of the union of a concept and a sound image.”(35) The discussion is then extended to the signifier and the signified: “The sound image is the signifier and the concept is the signified.” This leads to Levi-Strauss and structural anthropology which itself leads to her discussion of mythemes and the conclusion that “maybe structuralism isn’t as ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ as it hopes to be, and that perhaps it is not uncovering universal human structure.”(46)

Perhaps the most important section so far is the “Interlude: Humanism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism” which sets out, side-by-side, the edicts of each ‘school’. Unfortunately, Klages again engages in her editorializing: “If only we could return to the old-fashioned ideas, and believe in absolute truth, meaning, permanence, and the essential self, such people say, everything would be much better than it is now. Perhaps these people are right. What’s important is not whether you like these theories, but that you understand what they say, and why they’re saying it.”(52) One can’t help thinking that Klages is one of those ”people.” One can also wonder at the effect these editorials will have on those attempting to learn something which Klages seems to have absolutely no use for.

But, then, Klages begins her discussion of ‘Deconstruction’ and leaves us gasping at her ability to present such a complex subject so clearly, so concisely. Along the way, she deposits little nuggets, such as: “This is where we can begin to see how these ideas about language and structure apply to ‘literature.’ What we call ‘literary’ are texts within which language tends to operate loosely, with lots of play. Non-literary texts, by contrast, use language as if meaning were fixed and stable.”(56) Or this which concludes the section on ‘bricolage’, and this chapter, “The system of language of which every text is made, has no discernible center – there is no ‘God’ of language that determines what every word means. As language users, we want language to work both ways. We want language to be a stable structure, so that words have definite meanings...And we want language to have lots of play, to be ambiguous, so that we can have multiple meanings for a single word. That’s what makes puns and poetry possible.”(62)

She continues this succinct and insightful analysis into the chapter on ‘Pschoanalysis’. In discussing Freud’s concepts of condensation and displacement, she says, at p. 64-5:
Condensation is when a whole set of images is packed into a single image or statement, when a complex meaning is condensed into a simpler one...Displacement is where the meaning of one image or symbol gets pushed onto something associated with it, which then displaces the original image. Displacement corresponds to the mechanism of metonymy in language, where one thing is replaced by something corresponding to it or associated with it...You might think of condensation and metaphor as being like Saussure’s syntagmatic relations, which happen in a chain and displacement and metonymy like Saussure’s associative relations.

In attempting to address the difference between Freud and Lacan and their concept and position of the ego, Klages explores the Sausserian concept of signifiers and signifieds as they relate to the slippery signified ‘I’ and how this particular signified is unlike any other as it “shifts every time someone uses it”(76), she falls into faulty logic and a faulty comparison. In saying that “if I say ‘page 102’ and you say ‘page 102’, we assume we’re referring to the same signified, page 102,” she forgets to mention which book each is holding. If different books, then different signifieds. This would be true for an infinite number of signifieds resulting in the entirety of her analysis breaking down. The fact that you saying ‘I’ and me saying ‘I’ mean different things is true for an infinite number of other cases what would fall into that category of thought. Aside from this, the chapter is well written, succinct and thought-provoking.

Another entr’acte enters in the form an interlude which clearly and concisely reconciles Structuralism, Deconstructionism and Psychological Literary Theory in the space of a few pages and which then empties out into Klages’ forte, Feminism. Jouissance has never been described in better terms:
The capacity to avoid, escape, or evade the structuring rules of the center of a structure or system is what Lacan and the poststructuralist feminist theorists call jouissance which is the French word for ‘orgasm.’ The word in poststructuralist terminology means a pleasure that is beyond language, beyond discourse, something that can’t be expressed in words or in the structure of language, and which in fact is disruptive to that structure. This form of pleasure, or any activity or position that escapes the rules and structures held in place by the Phallic, is a specifically feminine pleasure, a feminine jouissance which is unrepresentable in language, and which interrupts representation, disturbs the linear flow of language, and rattles the foundations of the structure of the Symbolic. Thus jouissance can be considered a type of deconstruction, as it shakes up the fixity and stability of the structure of Language and puts signifiers into play, making them slippery and indeterminate.(97)

Minus the absence of Julia Kristeva without whom Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray would not have been possible, Klages does a bang up job of describing French poststructuralist theories of feminism focusing on Cixous and Irigaray. For example, in discussing Cixous’ theory of l’ecriture feminine she describes this as “milk, it’s a song, it’s something with rhythm and pulse, but no words, something connected with bodies and with bodies’ beats and movements, but not with representational language.”(103) But why doesn’t she mention Nicole Brossard’s extension of this via French Canadian into North American culture? Why aren’t Judith Butler and others who developed the North American strain of feminist literary theory, such as Margaret Atwood and Daphne Marlatt, even mentioned? Minor annoyances, perhaps, as the French theorists were responsible for much of the development and reconciliation of feminism with the major developments in literary theory since the 60s, but important just the same.

The other chapters in this book – Queer Theory (where Judith Butler is discussed leaving no one to represent the American strand of Feminist Theory), Ideology and Discourse, Race and Postcolonialism (which would have been better discussed in separate chapters the current arrangement somewhat confusing and which insults the Arabic population by declaring the Arab States “inhabited by people who practiced the Islamic religion and who were identified as ethnic or racial ‘Arabs’ but who imagined themselves belonging to various nomadic tribal communities”(160) as if she’d never heard of the Ottoman Empire) and Postmodernism – again have flaws. However, the simple, clear language they are written in makes the understanding of the complicated issues they address understandable, at least on a basic level, which is all that was intended. The flaws would be easily addressable in a second edition.

While Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed has provided a panoramic, macro view of the subject of literary theory, The Cambridge Companion to Feminist Literary Theory purports to apply the microscope to one strand of this theory – Feminist Literary Theory. However, as the subject of Feminist Literary Theory applies a veneer – not in the sense of shallow or deceptive but in the sense that each aspect of the macro subject of general literary theory can be examined through the glaze of feminism – to every aspect of the broad subject of literary theory, the coverage here is almost as comprehensive. And as Feminist Literary Theory is not one but several, often contradictory, theories, its scope is incredibly broad. Ellen Rooney, in her introduction, while succinctly summarizing each of the essays that are compiled in this work, addresses this diversity and its necessity in an informative, engaging fashion. The work is divided into three parts: ‘Problematics Emerge’, ‘In Feminism’s Wake: Genre, Period, Form’, and ‘Feminist Theories in Play’. Each contains several essays and approaches to the subject.

‘Problematics Emerge’ consists of three essays: ‘On canons: anxious history and the rise of black feminist literary studies’ by Ann Ducille, ‘Pleasure, resistance, and a feminist aesthetics of reading’ by Geraldine Heng, and ‘The Literary politics of feminist theory’ by Ellen Rooney.

Ducille launches immediately into controversy or, at least, setting out what the controversy has been, between the mainstream feminist movement and the black woman: “The trouble stems in part from the history of elitism and exclusion that attends the development of feminism as a social and intellectual movement in the United States and as a politics of reading in the academy.”(29) While discussing such 18th and 19th century black women writers as Lucy Terry Prince, Maria Stewart and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ducille references the widely held belief, among both white and black literary scholars, that black women’s writing during that period concerned “racism first and sexism later”(35) -- a statement she well refutes. Ducille does an excellent job of documenting the struggle to create a separate black women’s canon, an area that was overlooked in the creation of a feminist canon, particularly in Gilbert and Grubar’s Madwoman in the Attic. She extends this to documenting the difficulty of establishing a woman’s voice in the Black Studies departments. And, finally, berating the black female literary scholars themselves for overlooking much of black woman’s literature created during the 1890s as it didn’t speak with an accepted voice.

Heng’s article concerns the recent emergence of woman in medievalist literature. Central to her concern is this passage, found on p. 58:
Sometime around the beginning of the thirteenth century in Europe...historical shifts occurred that formed a crucible for the emergence of race and nation. These new conditions would result in racemaking and the expulsion of Jews from several countries, beginning with late thirteenth century England; formulate a discourse on color and see the ascension of whiteness to centrality as a definitional construct of European Christian identity; and elicit newly imagined bond of community (in societies otherwise riven by numerous internal divides) that would issue in nascent medieval nations by the fourteenth century. Crucial to the shifts that took hold from approximately the late twelfth century onward is a new recognition and codification of difference in medieval Europe; before this time, scholars agree, a general tolerance of variety in human life and practices is discernible. In the durée I call the ‘long thirteenth century,’ however, differences began to be identified (and were devised) in order to be taxonomized, ruled over, and ordered into hierarchies – in canon law, legislation, and institutions – inserted into systems of power/knowledge for purposes of manipulation.

As can be seen, this is an application of the Foucaultian analysis of power as applied to medieval history. The essay then dissolves into a detailed analysis of a 12th century document titled the Ancrene Wisse where female anchorites resided depicting the various means by which they attempt to achieve purity and, thereby, salvation. As interesting as this is, one wonders what it has to do with the title of this section. We, as readers, await the extension of her originating thesis, that of the rise of difference, to another day, perhaps another author.

We can centre Rooney’s essay on the following: “Even for those who are persuaded that theory is always already at work in all feminist practice, the step from a general argument or theory on behalf of feminism or women’s liberation to a more focused feminist literary theory is not a trivial one. There are obvious differences between the kind of theoretical break that denaturalizes the subordination of women within the family, or that discloses the sexual myths of feminine passivity or normative heterosexuality, and the sort of theoretical work that focuses on literary canons, the relations between gender and genre, or the matter of a ‘feminine style.’”(74) This is extended, at p. 82, into the area of the problematics that ensconcement within academia has a risk of entailing:
as many feminist thinkers, from bell hooks and Denise Riley to Elizabeth Spelman and Gayatri Spivak (and others) have argued, the very fantasy of a feminism defined only by the category of women or even by gender (common in the United States and the North more generally) has been silently normed by whiteness, heterosexuality, and middle-class status. As such, it often represents a very legible political class and its particular political program, one that hardly represents ‘women’ as such; indeed, this feminist politics was enabled by the very form of uninterrogated ‘common sense’ – this time vis à vis a universal ‘woman’ projected out of very particular women’s experiences – that protected certain masculinist literary critics from seeing the political interests at work in their allegedly universal ‘literary values.’

In the end, Rooney views the relationship between feminist literary theory and feminist politics as still intimate but now with a loss of innocence, that the shadow of ‘common sense’ has been brightened.

We move now into the middle section ‘In feminism’s wake: genre, period, form’ where we find five essays: Nancy Armstrong’s ‘What feminism did to novel studies’, Linda Anderson’s ‘Autobiography and the feminist subject’, Katherine Mullin’s ‘Modernism and feminism’, Kari Weil’s ‘French feminism’s écriture féminine and Nickianne Moody’s ‘Feminism and popular culture’.

Armstong’s essay centres on the concept of ‘lack’ and how this concept has changed as a result of feminist forays into the realm of the novel. She begins with this statement: “In saying that we read novelistically, I refer to a process by which the critic identifies some kind of lack in the protagonist – a lack that someone or something else must supply.”(99) to which she applies, at p. 100, the concept of ‘agency’: “Feminist critics most often identify the lack in terms of ‘agency’, by which they mean the political authority to effect some change, however local and temporary. But such critics rarely seek a remedy for this lack in terms of either wealth or political power. Instead, they posit literacy as the precondition for achieving such power and therefore the key to female agency.” The analysis that follows leads to the challenging statement, on p. 107, that “if writing has the priority over being and determines our identity to the degree that poststructuralism suggests it does, then we ourselves are narratives featuring protagonists who overcome a lack and find or fail to find a gratifying place within the given social order.” And it is through this statement she arrives at the conclusion that feminism and the concept of ‘woman’ has opened up the novel to assaults by other disenfranchised groups.

Anderson provides another provocative statement by which she introduces and establishes her thesis:
as poststructuralist theory began to transform feminist thinking, autobiography became the site for major theoretical debates about the subject. Toward the end of the 1970s, therefore, the notion of a female selfhood which could be triumphantly liberated from its neglect or repression under patriarchy and made visible through writing was put into question by psychoanalysis and poststructuralist thinking which instead insisted that the subject did not pre-exist the process of its formation within language, and that all identities, including gendered identities, are never fully realized but instead a story of repeated failures to achieve fullness or closure.(119)

Although she presents a number of different writings on the feminine subject, she never really addresses the question she raised in this introduction but just assumes that the female as subject exists in spite of it.

Mullin’s essay is a condemnation of modernism and its masculinist, anti-feminist stance as revealed through the ‘little magazines’. As she writes, on p. 137, “The US journal The Little Review, which published Lewis, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and others gendered itself through its tagline ‘For Virile readers only.’ Its British sister-paper The Egoist started life as The Freewoman in 1912, subtitled ‘A weekly feminist review’, yet within a year the title was softened to The New Freewoman: A weekly humanist review. The title shift was, however, not enough to reflect the journal’s purpose as both a feminist forum for discussions of sexuality and gender roles, and the arena where male modernists such as Joyce and T.S. Eliot might make their debut.” At p. 142, she makes the acute observation that “women were, however, tolerated on the periphery of this stand of ’virile’ modernism, where they disproportionately appear as editors, publishers, patrons, and hostesses of literary salons.” She argues for a revision of modernism to include the feminine, the creation of a new canon alongside the masculinist one that currently exists.

Weil’s essay concerns French feminism and how it “grew under the influence of three primary forces: the massive work of Simone de Beauvoir on woman’s ‘condition,’ the assault on humanism waged by the new intellectual currents of postwar thought, and finally, the political atmosphere of May ’68. Beginning with Beauvoir’s labelling of woman as ‘the other’ in her publication The Second Sex which first attracted the political interests of woman but then, as a result of her acceptance of “the masculine as the norm for ‘authentic’ humanity”(156), her subsequent rejection, Weil explores the writings of Kristeva, Irigaray and Cixous through the lens of the Paris revolt of May 1968 which was “formative both positively and negatively for the women’s movement, for in their attempts to share in the anti-authoritarian stance, women came face to face with their subservience to the men in the movement who regarded them more as secretaries and caretakers rather than comrades in arms and ideas.”(157)

Moody provides a guided tour through popular culture taking into account Madonna, The Spice Girls and Bridgette Jones’ Diary before arriving at the conclusion that “the recognition of popular culture as indicative of, and contributory to, cultural change deepens the understanding of literary and social contexts, while feminist popular culture studies remain a rich but problematic interdisciplinary area of study.”(189)

The last section, ‘Feminist theories in Play’, with five sections is, by far, the most interesting part of this collection – and the one that will receive the least discussion leaving it up to the reader to explore these essays that survey their respective fields in a far deeper fashion than merely skimming the surface. Their titles entice: Key Chow’s ‘Poststructuralism: theory as critical self-consciousness’, Rosemary Marangoly George’s ‘Feminists theorize colonial/postcolonial’, Rashmi Varma’s ‘On common ground: feminist theory and critical race studies’, Elizabeth Weed’s ‘Feminist psychoanalytic literary criticism’ and Berthold Schoene’s ‘Queer politics, queer theory, and the future of ‘identity’: spiralling out of culture’. The only one that is somewhat weak, although extremely interesting, is Varma’s as her discussion focuses more on feminist politics rather than feminist literary theory. Left to the end, these particular essays are placed to elicit further investigation by the reader. A fitting way to end what has been overall an excellent topical discussion of Feminist Literary Theory.

Of the two books under review, the latter is definitely the stronger. Klages’, as already set out, suffers from several problems. However, considering that Literary Theory still provides an excellent introduction to the subject, the problems are minor and the book remains one to be read by those new to the subject. Feminist Literary Theory presumes that the reader already has the basics of both literary theory and feminism and is for the intermediate reader. Both are fascinating reads providing much for discussion and analysis.


John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.

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