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John Lye

Professor John Lye

parce que je navais pas compris, jenavais pasvu Proust Please note that ENGL 4F70 no longer exists. The pages below are still in operation, however, or should be. You may find more at my main site, Material on Theory by John Lye Links to other Theory pages

General Theory Some characteristics of contemporary theory Contemporary Literary Theory (article) A checklist of theoretical concerns Some Factors Affecting/Effecting the Reading of Texts The differences between Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, and 'theory itself' The Problem of Meaning Structuralism Elements of Structuralism Jakobson's Communication Model Summary of Genette, "Structuralism and Literary Criticism" Reader-Response The Interpretive Turn Some Principles of Phenomenological Hermeneutics Reader-Response: Various Positions Poststructuralism, including Deconstruction Some Poststructuralist Assumptions An Essay on Barthes' "From Work to Text" by Lisa Smith Deconstruction: Some Assumptions notes on diffrance Synopsis of J. Hillis Miller, "The Critic as Host" Examples of deconstructive reading by J. Lye:

love poem Impediments Time is the only just power The 'death of the author' as an instance of theory
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Critical Theories Brief ideology page prepared for my Year 1 & 2 students Some Issues in Postcolonial Theory An Ideological Reading of "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" Bakhtin on Language A summary of Foucault, "The Discourse on Language" Synopsis of Foucault,"Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" Psychoanalytic Theory Psychoanalytic Theory Miscellany Close Reading vs Cultural Studies Some Attributes of Modernist Literature (from my ENGL 2F55 site) Some Cultural Forces Driving Modernism (from my ENGL 2F55 site) Some Attributes of Post-Modernist Literature (from my ENGL 2F55 site) Nation article on university presses Links to other Theory pages The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (limited access) David Miall's Reader Response site Russ Hunt: On Literary Reading (new address) Dino Fellugi's Undergraduate Guide to Literary Theory Introduction to Modern Literary Theory (Kristi Siegel) Mary Klages' Modern Criticial Thought Literature and Social Change Tony Christini Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism Barry Laga, Mesa State College A Brief History of Literary Theory by Chris Lang, at Xenos Christian Fellowship. Postcolonial Studies Page at Emory University On the Teaching of Literary Theory -- article by D. G. Myers Bakhtin Links at the Bakhtin Center (U. of Sheffield) Culture Machine: Generating Research in Theory and Culture (on-

line journal) Critical Approaches to Culture, Communications and Hypermedia by Ron Burnett, Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design Sites of Significance for Semiotics

Theory Resource Pages

Contemporary Theory, Critical Theory and Postmodern Thought at Colorado-Denver Voice of the Shuttle Literary Theory page Alan Liu, UCSB Cultural Studies and Critical Theory -- database of primary texts, well structured Literary Resources--Theory (Jack Lynch) Sarah Zupko's Cultural Studies Center

Download as an .rtf file Note: This essay was published in the Brock Review Volume 2 Number 1, 1993 pp. 90-106, which publication holds the copyright. The article addresses contemporary theory in its more post-structural mode, and were I to rewrite it today I would put more emphasis on the cultural studies model, on the growth of gender studies, and on New Historicism, than I do here. I believe however that what I have to say here is still relevant and describes the fundamental paradigm shift which has altered the direction and mandate of literary study. Studies in literature in universities in the last two decades have been marked by the growing interest in and bitter division over a set of related theoretical approaches known collectively as Literary Theory. Many Departments have become divided between "theory people" and opponents who see themselves as defending the traditional values central to the culture against Theorys perceived anti-humanism. Literary Theory is part of a wide-spread movement in the culture which has affected a number of disciplines, occasioning similar disputes in some, a movement which has explored and elucidated the complexities of meaning, textuality and interpretation. Literary Theory is not a single enterprise but a set of related concepts and practices most importantly deconstruction, post-Althusserian ideological or 'political' criticism, post-Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism, New

Historicist or 'cultural' criticism, some reader-response criticism and much feminist criticism. The aim of this essay is to define the issues that ground these contemporary literary theories. There have always been literary theories about how literature works, what meaning is, what it is to be an author and so forth. The central interpretive practices in force and in power in the academy which are being challenged by Theory were themselves revolutionary, theory-based practices which became the norm. The two main critical practices in the mid portion of the century have been the formalist tradition, or 'New Criticism', which sees a text as a relatively selfenclosed meaning-production system which develops enormous signifying power through its formal properties and through its conflicts, ambiguities and complexities, and the Arnoldian humanist tradition exemplified most clearly in the work of F. R. Leavis and his followers, which concentrates evaluatively on the capacity of the author to represent moral experience concretely and compellingly. Many readers have in practice combined the values and methodologies of these traditions, different as their theoretical bases are. Contemporary theory: the issues at stake Theories and interpretive practices change with time, reflecting changing world-views and uses of literature, and each theoretical perspective tends to find fault with the one before apparently a normal evolutionary pattern, an orderly changing of the paradigm guard, the child rebelling against the parent as a way [end page 90] of proclaiming its identity. Literary Theory challenges this orderly developmental premise, suggesting that this continual cultural change reflects an inherent instability, fault lines in cultural imagination which demonstrate the impossibility of any certain meaning which could have any ultimate claim on us. Contemporary Literary Theory is marked by a number of premises, of which I will present nine, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of them. 1. Meaning is assumed, in Saussure's seminal contribution, to be created by difference, not by "presence" (the identification of the sign with the object of meaning). A word means in that it differs from other words in the same meaning-area, just as a phoneme is registered not by its sound but by its difference from other sound segments. There is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense, only chains of differences from other meanings.

2. Words themselves are polysemic (they have multiple meanings) and their meaning is over-determined (they have more meaning potential than is exercised in any usage instance). They thus possess potential excess meanings. As well, rhetorical constructions enable sentences to mean more than their grammar would allow irony is an example. Language always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context. It must have this capacity of excess meaning in order for it to be articulate, that is, jointed, capable of movement, hence of relationship and development. 3. Language use is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not fully aware. 4. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture, meaning and identity. As Heidegger remarked, man does not speak language, language speaks man. Humans 'are' their sign systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, patch-work, relational. 5. Consequently there is no foundational 'truth' or reality no absolute, no eternals, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent 'truths' generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, both values and personal identity are cultural constructs, not stable entitles. As Kaja Silverman points out even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated. 6. It follows that there is no stable central identity or essence to individuals: an individual exists as a nexus of social meanings and practices, psychic and ideological forces, and uses of language and other signs and symbols. The [end page 91] individual is thus a 'de-centered' phenomenon, there is no stable self, only subject-positions within a shifting cultural, ideological, signifying field.

7. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use. 8. A text is, as Roland Barthes points out, etymologically a tissue, a woven thing (from the Latin texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts and language uses, echoes of which it inherently retains (filiations or traces, these are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play ('play' as meaning-abundance and as articulability) of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminacy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities, but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them, become apparent. 9. There is no "outside-of-the-text," in Derrida's phrase. Culture and individuals are constructed through networks of affiliated language, symbol and discourse usages; all of life is textual, a tissue of signifying relationships. No text can be isolated from the constant circulation of meaning in the economy of the culture; every text connects to, and is constituted through and of, other texts. Contemporary Theory as part of the 'Interpretive Turn' Contemporary literary theory does not stand on its own; it is part of a larger cultural movement which has revolutionized many fields of study, which movement is often known as the 'interpretive turn'. The 'interpretive turn' was essentially introduced by Immanuel Kant two centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is shaped by our mental categories, although Kant thought of these categories as stable and transcendent. Nietzsche proposed that there are no grounding truths, that history and experience are fragmented and happenstance, driven by the will to power. Marx and Freud theorized that what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by forces of which we are aware only indirectly, if at all, but which we can recover if we understand the processes of transformation through which our experience passes. What is new in the interpretive turn is

that the insights of these and other seminal thinkers have coalesced into a particular sociological phenomenon, a cultural force, a genuine moment in history, and that they have resulted in methodological disputes and in alterations of practice in the social sciences and the humanities. [end page 92] There are a number of ideas central to the interpretive turn: the idea that an observer is inevitably a participant in what is observed, and that the receiver of a message is a component of the message; the idea that information is only information insofar as it is contextualized; the idea that individuals are cultural constructs whose conceptual worlds are composed of a variety of discursive structures, or ways of talking about and imagining the world; the idea that the world of individuals is not only multiple and diverse but is constructed by and through interacting fields of culturally lived symbols, through language in particular; the related idea that all cultures are networks of signifying practices; the idea that therefore all interpretation is conditioned by cultural perspective and is mediated by symbols and practice; and the idea that texts entail sub-texts, or the often disguised or submerged origins and structuring forces of the messages. Interpretation is seen not as the elucidation of a preexisting truth or meaning that is objectively 'there' but as the positing of meaning by interpreters in the context of their conceptual world. Neither the 'message' nor the interpretation can be transparent or innocent as each is structured by constitutive and often submerged cultural and personal forces. In the interpretation of culture, culture is seen as a text, a set of discourses which structure the world of the culture and control the culture's practices and meanings. Because of the way discourses are constituted and interrelated, one must read through, among and under them, at the same time reading oneself reading. The 'dangers' of Literary Theory It appears to many that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental value of literature and of literary study. If everything is a text, literature is just another text, with no particular privilege aside from its persuasive power. If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if human beings are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal 'humanness' and not sustained by any transhistorical truths, not only the role of literature as the privileged articulator of universal value but the existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation is local and contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and

the role of literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural force is diminished. If interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter, then one must discount the intention of the author. The stability of meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain. Imaginative constructs such as literature may in fact be merely culturally effective ways of masking the exercise of power, the bad faith, the flaws and inequities which culture works so hard to obscure. Ultimately Theory can be seen to attack the very ground of value and meaning itself, to attack those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based, and to attack the [end page 93] centre of humanism, the existence of the independent, moral, integrated individual who is capable of control over her meanings, intentions and acts. As theory has become more central in English departments, literary studies have in the view of many turned away from the study of literature itself to the study of theory. And as attention moves to literature as the cultural expression of lived life, and to the textuality of all experience, the dividing line between 'literature' and more popular entertainment is being challenged; such things as detective fiction and romances are being treated to as serious and detailed a study as are canonical works. The Canon itself, that collection of texts considered worthy of study by those in control of the curriculum, is under attack as ethnocentric, patriarchal and elitist, and as essentializing in that it tends to create the idea that canonical works are independent entities standing on their own intrinsic and transcendent authority and not rooted in the agencies and contingencies of history. It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often sceptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issues however must be whether Theory has good reasons for its questioning of traditional assumptions, and whether it can lead to interpretive practices that are ultimately productive of understandings and values which can support a meaningful and just life. In order to further elucidate Literary Theory's reasons for its stands, it would be useful to examine and illustrate three main areas of meaning in literature: context, ideology and discourse, and language itself. The issue of meaning: context and inter-text

The process of meaning in literature should, one thinks, be clear: authors write books, with ideas about what they want to say; they say it in ways that are powerful, moving, convincing; readers read the books and, depending on their training and capacities and the author's success, they get the message. And the message is, surely, the point. It is at this juncture however that this simple communication model runs into trouble. An author writes a text. But the author wrote the text in at least four kinds of context (note the presence of the text), not all of which contexts the author is or can be fully aware of. There are, first, aesthetic contexts the contexts of art generally, of its perceived role in culture, of the medium of the text, of the genre of the text, of the particular aesthetic traditions the artist chooses and inherits, of the period-style in which she writes. Second, there are the cultural and economic conditions of the production and the reception of texts how the 'world of art' articulates to the rest of the social world, how the work is produced, how it is defined, how it is distributed, who the audience is, how they pay, what it means to consume art, how art is socially categorized. Third, there is the artist's own personal [end page 94] history and the cultural interpretation of that personal history and meaning for her as an individual and an artist. Lastly and most essentially, there are the larger meanings and methods of the culture and of various sub-cultural, class, ethnic, regional and gender groups all of them culturally formed, and marked (or created) by various expressions and distinctions of attitude, thought, perception, and symbols. These include how the world is viewed and talked about, the conception and distribution of power, what is seen as essential and as valuable, what the grounds and warrants of value are, how the relations among individuals and groups are conceptualized. These are the most basic considerations of the context of the production of a literary work. Some of them are known to the author explicitly, some are sensed implicitly, some are unrecognized and virtually unknowable. Every context will alter, emend, deflect, restructure the 'meaning'. This would be easier to handle interpretively if the same constraints of context did not apply also to the reader. Both author and reader are 'situated' aesthetically, culturally, personally, economically, but usually differently situated. The reader has the further context of the history and traditions of the interpretation of texts. When we read Hamlet, we read it as a text that has been interpreted before us and for us in certain ways, not simply as the text that Shakespeare wrote or that his repertory company performed, whatever that was experienced to be. An essential, central and inevitable context of any text is the existence of other texts. Any literary work, even the most meager, will necessarily refer to and draw on works in its genre before it, on other writing in the culture and its traditions, and on the discourse-structures of the culture. This creation of meaning from previous and cognate expressions of meaning is known in Literary Theory as "intertextuality." Anything that is a text is inevitably part of the circulation of discourse in the culture, what one might call the inter-text: it can only mean because there are other texts to which it refers and on which it then depends for its meaning. It follows that 'meaning' is in fact dispersed throughout the inter-text, is not simply 'in' the text itself. The field of the inter-text extends not just to the traditions and usages of the genre, and to literature generally, but to intellectual traditions, language and argument, to emotional experiences, to cultural interpretations of experience, to central symbols, to all expressions of meaning in the culture: it is a network of allusion and reference. This is the ground of the question of the extent to which an individual can author a text. Many of these intertextual meanings may not be apparent to readers, who must be situated themselves in the inter-text in order to

participate in the meaning. All meanings of a text depend on the meanings of the inter-text, and our interpretations of texts depend on our contextualized perspective and the norms of what Stanley Fish refers to as our "interpretive community," our socially-determined interpretive understandings and methods. [end page 95] The issue of meaning: discourse and ideology The second general area of meaning is that of discourse and ideology. 'Discourse' is a term associated most closely with Michel Foucault; it refers to the way in which meaning is formed, expressed and controlled in a culture through its language use. Every culture has particular ways of speaking about and hence conceptualizing experience, and rules for what can and what can not be said and for how talk is controlled and organized. It is through discourse that we constitute our experience, and an analysis of discourse can reveal how we see the world in the case of Foucault, particularly the changing and multiple ways in which power is distributed and exercised. As language is the base symbol system through which culture is created and maintained, it can be said that everything is discourse, that is, that we only register as being what we attach meaning to, we attach meaning through language, and meaning through language is controlled by the discursive structures of a culture. There is no outside-of-the-text; our experience is constructed by our way of talking about experience, and thus is itself a cultural, linguistic construct. Discourse is not, however, a unitary phenomenon. One of the great contributions of the Russian theorist of language and literature, Mikhail Bakhtin, is the concept of multivocality. The concept of multivocality might be likened to meteorology: the sky looks like a unitary entity, but if one attempts to measure it or traverse it, it turns out to be full of cross-winds, whirls, temperature variations, updrafts, downdrafts, and so forth. Similarly the language of a culture is full of intersecting language uses those of class, profession, activity, generation, gender, region and so forth, a rich profusion of interacting significances and inter-texts. As discourse constructs a world-view and as it inscribes power relations, it is inevitably connected to ideology. As used by Marx, the term referred to the idea that our concepts about the structure of society and of reality, which appear to be matters of fact, are the product of economic relations. More recent thinkers, following Gramsci and Althusser, tend to see ideology more broadly as those social practices and conceptualizations which lead us to experience reality in a certain way. Ideology, writes Althusser, is our imagined relation to the real conditions of existence; our subjectivity is formed by it we are 'hailed' by it, oriented to the world in a certain way. Ideology is an implicit, necessary part of meaning, in how we configure the world. But ideology is always masking, or 'naturalizing', the injustices and omissions it inevitably creates, as power will be wielded by some person or class, and will pressure the understanding of the culture so that the exercise of power looks normal and right and violations appear as inevitabilities. It was clear in time past, for instance, why women were inferior. Women were physically weaker, more emotional, not as rational. The Bible said they were inferior and Nature said so too. Men did not think that [end page 96] they were oppressing women; women's inferiority was simply an obvious matter of fact, as was the inferiority of blacks, of children, the handicapped, the mad, the illiterate, the working classes. The theorist Pierre Macherey showed that it is possible by examining any structure of communication to see its ideological perspective through the breaks, the silences,

the contradictions hidden in the text, as well as through all its implicit assumptions about the nature of the world. Structuralism/Poststructuralism The concept of ideology is part of structuralist and, consequent to that, poststructuralist thought. Structuralism was a broad movement which attempted to locate the operative principles which ground activities and behaviours; its importance to Literary Theory is substantial, although Literary Theory has rejected a number of its premises. Two central structural theories were Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Marx's economic/political theories. What marks these theories as structuralist is their locating of generative forces below or behind phenomenal reality, forces which act according to general laws through transformative processes. In structural theories, motive, or generative force, is found not in a pre-text but in a sub-text; the surface is a transformation, a re-coded articulation of motive forces and conditions, and so the surface must be translated rather then simply read. From the rise of the whole rich field of semiotics to the theorizing of the history of science to the revolutionizing of anthropology to the creation of family therapy, structuralism has been a central, pervasive force in the century. The idea of decoding the depth from the manifestations of the surface, that what appears is often masking or is a transformation of what is, is a key tenant of Literary Theory. Poststructuralism carries on with the idea of the surface as a transformation of hidden forces, but rejects structuralism's sense that there are timeless rules which govern transformations and which point to some stable reality below and governing the flux what poststructuralism refers to as an essentialist or totalizing view. Poststructuralism sees 'reality' as being much more fragmented, diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does structuralism. Some consequences have been, first, poststructuralism's greater attention to specific histories, to the details and local contextualizations of concrete instances; second, a greater emphasis on the body, the actual insertion of the human into the texture of time and history; third, a greater attention to the specifies of cultural working, to the arenas of discourse and cultural practice; lastly, a greater attention to the role of language and textuality in our construction of reality and identity. Literary Theory is a poststructural practice. [end page 97] A demonstration reading: ideology Perhaps we should take a moment to examine some of these concepts in art at work, with the warning that Literary Theory represents a broad range of practices and emphases, and no one kind of reading can be fully exemplary. Take, however, just the first lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129: Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action; and till action, lust Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame. This looks like a clear moral point: lust is bad stuff. There is, however, more to 'read' in these lines. As there was no standardized spelling in Shakespeare's time, the spelling of "waste" is an editorial decision. It could have been spelled "waist;" the force of the pun is inevitably present. A "waist of shame" is a female waist, particularly when "spirit" is expended there, as "spirit" was a euphemism both for

semen and for (as "sprit") the penis. So we have here lust in action indeed, genital intercourse. But notice the valuation of the sexes. The male is associated with the spirit with the 'good', with non-material value; the woman is associated with the lowest of material being, waste. He is 'above' her in every sense. As in modern advertising, the male is coded for action, the woman is coded as body parts. It is to the woman, not to the man, that shame is attached; woman is the waist/waste of shame. There is in the line as well a metaphysical discrimination, as the world of 'spirit' is valued over the world of the body; it is not to the spirit but to the body that waste and shame are attached. There is an economic ideology here, as the sexual act is an economic transaction "expense" and "waste" with the male having the power of the purse, economic, moral, sexual power tied together. This economic language not only again privileges men, but places the imagination of the poem within the bourgeois mercantile culture. Shakespeare's lines can be analyzed to reveal not, or not only, a lucid and moving moral perspective, but an ideological construction which privileges male over female and spirit over matter, which uses moral terms in an oppressive manner, and which in the end shares and shows bad faith in many ways. The very language of the line undermines the certainty and centrality of the moral perspective the poem is claiming. This undermining is continued in the bland assumption of the second line that action is naturally consequent upon lust, an assumption which has been used against women for centuries, and in the third line's linking sex and violence together as if that were natural. It is, shockingly enough, to the devilment of the gap between lust and release, "till action," that the word "blame" refers; while shame is attached to the woman, blame is attached to the bad things men do in the heat of needing to get it off. Further, the moral perspective within the poem is placed in a neutral, remote way as if it were inevitable, unassailable: while "blame" requires an agent, a blamer, it is spoken of as if it were inherent ("full [end page 98] of blame"), and the tone is authoritative. Finally, the poem uses language from various realms of discourse moral, physical, social, economic and seams them together in a seemingly benign and normal, but damaging way. The issue of meaning: language The third large general area to be addressed is that of language. Contemporary theory rejects the commonplace belief that language functions by establishing a oneon-one relationship between a word and an object or state which exists independent of language. Among the assumptions behind this rejected belief are that reality is objective and is directly and unequivocally knowable; that words have a transparent relation to that reality one can 'see through' the word to the reality itself; and that that meaning is consequently fixed and stable. Contemporary theory accepts none of this. 'Reality' is too simple a formulation for the collection of acknowledgments of physical entities and conditions, of concepts of all kinds, and of all the feelings, attitudes, perceptions, rituals, routines and practices that compose our habited world. Medieval medicine was based in large part on astrology, and astrology was based on the known fact that the (not too distant) planets each had a signature vibration which impressed the aether between the planets and the earth, which in turn impressed the malleable fabric of the mind of the newborn, and which thus created the person's disposition through the combination of and the relation between the characteristics of the dominant planets at the time of birth. To what reality, do we think now, did the language of medieval medicine refer? We could say that the medievals were 'wrong', but the conceptions involved so structured their imagination

of human nature and motivation, so suffused their attitudes, were so integrated with values which we still hold, that such a statement would be meaningless. Language exists in the domain of human conception, and is dependent not on 'reality' but on how we see relations, connections, and behaviours. In turn how we see these things are, of course, dependent on our language. Since the work of Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the century, language has been seen by many to signify through difference: words mean in that, and as, they differ from other words, which words in turn mean in that they differ from yet other words. 'Meaning' becomes a chain of differentiations which are necessarily at the same time linkages, and so any meaning involves as a part of itself a number of other meanings through opposition, through association, through discrimination. As a word defines itself through difference from words which define themselves through difference from words, language becomes a kind of rich, multiplex sonar that carries the cognitive, affective and allusive freight of meanings shaped by and reflected off other meanings, full of dimensionally. Derrida's famous coinage diffrence, which includes both [end page 99] differing and deferring, catches something of the operation, although Derrida's concept penetrates to the very structure of being, to the differing and deferring without which space and time are impossible and which are thus fundamental to 'being' itself. Language has many 'levels' or currents of meaning, shifting, interrelating, playing off one another, implicated (from L. plicare, to fold) and pliant (from F. plier, to bend, ultimately from plicare). Some currents carry us back as in cultural memory to the etymological roots of the words, as just illustrated. Some currents carry us back to the time and the way in which, as infants, we entered the symbolic order, the world of signs and thus of authority, power and socially (Lacan), and even before that to evocations of our infantile immediate, inchoate experiences (Kristeva). Some currents tie us in to experiences and symbols that involve and evoke our repressions, our fears, and our narcissistic needs. Some currents tie us in to the various worlds of "discourse," socially constituted ways of conceptualizing and talking and feeling judicial, economic, domestic, theological, academic and so forth (Foucault). Some currents tie us into key cultural symbols, to ways we see and feel the world as constructed, to our imaginary world of hope, trust, identity, to our projection of ourselves into the future and into our environment. Many currents carry affective weight, as words are learned in social contexts from people who are usually close to us, and there is thus an intrinsic sociality in the very acquisition of the meanings and hence to the meanings themselves (Volosinov). Meaning in language is highly context-sensitive. Words are not little referential packages, they are shapes of potential meaning which alter in different meaning environments, which implicate many areas of experience, which contain traces of those differences which define them, and which are highly dependent on context, on tone, on placement. A further demonstration reading: language and meaning In order to look at how language might be approached in contemporary theory again with the caveat that there are many approaches and understandings within the domain of theory let us take the first sentence from this first quatrain of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters where it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. One might ask, does the word "admit" mean "confess" or "allow to enter?" Is "impediment" a legal or a conceptual term here, or a term from the world of physical manipulation, a stumbling block? An impediment is something that gets in the way of pedes, the foot, and while the word "impediment" as a moral or social hindrance is taken from the marriage ceremony, that explanation does not [end page 100] consum exhaust the meaning potential "impediment" also meant a physical defect or impairment, a speech defect, and baggage. Its use must include these possibilities through the operations of difference. Why, one might go on to wonder, are the worlds of morality ("admit") and of fault ("impediment") immediately entered into the world of "true minds"? And is it chance that, on the levels of both conceptualization and enunciation, the smooth rhythmic flow of the first line is suddenly interrupted by two tough Latinate words? These words not only need to be stumbled over and figured out but introduce worlds of opposition on several levels: criminality vs. innocence, fault vs. wholeness, social/legal vs. moral/philosophical. Hasn't the poem just admitted a number of impediments while saying it wasn't going to admit impediments? The phrase itself "the marriage of true minds" implicitly admits an impediment. This impediment is the body. The body is admitted but denied by the word "impediment" with its root reference to stumbling feet but its abstract usage, and the body is implied by "marriage". The phrase "marriage of true minds" raises the whole question of the body by being explicitly about minds, whereas marriage itself as an institution is a union of bodies and property. The body is admitted by "marriage" most strongly through the fact that marriage is a social act (sanctified by the Church, the Body of Christ, and only legal when witnessed by others, bodily presences), through the realm of the legal, the control of bodies, and through the legitimation of marriage, as a marriage which was not "consummated," an interesting concept in itself, was considered not to be a marriage. There is yet another impediment in the sentence. The word "true" in reference to "minds" suggests of course straightness or levelness, body values, but it suggests by exclusion the unstraightness of mind that the "true" is structured against and includes by difference. If the speaker has to say "true minds" then there are untrue minds, so we have to ask what the 'mind' is here that is being married, what the nature of 'mind' is. The word cannot refer to some abstract, non-physical value or being if 'mind' can be unstraight, morally unsound, not on the level, therefore fallen, therefore (as fallen) in the world of action and conflict and thus of the body. But 'mind' is obviously explicitly opposed to the body, and the body is an impediment. The sentence's play of meaning forces us inexorably back to the centrality of the body, and questions the status of 'mind'. There is another impediment that the poem admits from the very beginning: "Let me not ....." Who is to let or not let the speaker admit impediments? (A "let" was, incidentally, a hindrance, an impediment). There is someone who can stop him from not admitting impediments, otherwise he would not have said "Let me not:" a world of power and restriction peeks forth, qualifying the apparent freedom the line claims. As well, "Let me not," with its implicit emotional appeal, takes us back psychically to the world of restriction, prohibition, [end page 101] forbidding, and in its colloquial force and its imperative, demanding tone to the two-year-old's universe, its

evocation therefore of narcissism, of the taboo, of the root conflict of social life and personal identity; it thus enters us into a world of meaning which on the surface sorts oddly with the social/legal language that follows. There is in the sentence as a counter-current a narcissism, the juvenile selfaggrandizement of a speaker who thinks he could in fact stop the marriage of true minds. But if anyone can stop the marriage of true minds, as obviously he believes that they can (or he can), then it is probably because the marriage of true minds does depend on the powers of property, the body, physical and social force, and so the line really does not in fact claim the power or liberty of the spiritual nature of humans, as an unsuspecting reading might assume, but claims instead the power of the physical and judicial. This may well be what the line really confesses or, to put it another way, the reality that the ideological structure masks: that the social, judicial, physical elements of our world do in fact have the force over a union of persons that the line denies that they do, and perhaps that in point of fact a 'person' is comprised of these physical, social, legislative elements, these worlds of discourse, of the constitutive imaginary. The case could be made that the idealism of the apparent meaning of the line, which idealism depends on there being real, isolable, inviolate "minds," is what is ultimately put in question; on the other hand, the 'obvious' meaning of the line remains in force, creating a challenge, a contest of meaning, an undecidablility. Not only does this short sentence launch us on a strange journey of oppositions and contradictions, but it enters us into whole arenas of cultural discourse and concern, the long-standing philosophical debates about the relation of and values of mind and body, the place of the power of the judicial in the world of body and mind, the sociality of the individual, the nature of marriage and what it entails, the physically of marriage both sexually and legally and the relation of that physicality to the moral world, issues of moral freedom, issues of what constitutes the good. These differing but implicated worlds, with their differing assumptions, language uses and emotional resonances importantly including the poetic expressions of these debates become part of the meaning of the line. Different Literary Theory approaches would concentrate on different aspects of these considerations, give them different weight. A deconstructive approach would concentrate on the way that the sentence works against itself, proving for instance the dominance of law and the body while apparently proclaiming the freedom of the mind it might be claimed that what I have done is to "deconstruct" the sentence. Typically too deconstruction would begin with something that seemed extra, or marginal, or unchallenged, the presence of the lowly foot in "impediment', or the absent presence of the body, and might show how the meaning ultimately depends on that exclusion or marginalized element. [end page 102] An ideological approach might concentrate on the complex of linguistic and social meanings which attempt to but ultimately fail to support the ideological construction of an independent autonomous immaterial self, and might tie that in with, say, the development of the (false) identity of the inviolate 'self' in the western capitalist regime. It might also want to look at the conditions of production and consumption of the line who wrote it for whom, under what conditions, with what social implications and class exclusions, for what kind of payment and reward, and how those things shape and are subtly present in the line itself. This form of poetry was written for the leisure class, the world which had power over the bodies and discourses of others, by the leisure class or those who wished to profit by them, and was circulated to privileged

individuals in manuscript form, not (basely, popularly) published. A psychoanalytic approach might well head straight for the narcissistic demand and assumptions of the first words, on the currents of projection, denial and pre-symbolic conflicts that swirl through the line, and on the issues of subjectivity, identity (or loss of identity) and displacement that the line suggests. A reader-response reading would concentrate on how the line structures our responses, and on the larger issues of how our horizons of meaning can coincide with those of the author, writing in a different time with different preconceptions. A cultural criticism or new historicist reading might want to work hard to see how the linguistic, ideological, cultural constructs present in the line tied in with those of other texts and with the cultural practices of the time, and to thus articulate the sentence in its culturally embedded implications, meanings and conflicts. It would be most interested in the lines of power that the sentence suggests and how they reflect the social structures of the time, and in the power of the discourses themselves (the areas of for instance personal demand, philosophy of love, judicial and confessional legislation and experience, social institutions) and how they work with and against each other. What these approaches would not do is merely affirm that the lines support the ideals of the freedom and independence of love and the wonder of the human spirit, although most would grant the presence and power of these meanings in the line. These approaches would not seek closure, trying to resolve into a neat package the various conflicts and centrifugal tendencies of the line (a "reader response" reading would include the natural human demand for closure as part of its reading and therefore as part of the way the line 'makes' its meaning). Most of these readings would focus in some way on the disparities in our imaginations and our practices that the line reveals, the contingency of our lives, the hidden exercises of social power that the line finally confesses. They might well think that the line means more, humanly speaking, than the humanistic reading would suggest. [end page 103] Is Literary Theory bad for us, and will it go away? There is a certain self-satisfied celebration among people opposed to Literary Theory who see that the practice of deconstruction, the most metaphysically-based and in some ways the most oppositional and intricate of the contemporary critical theories, is apparently on the decline. It is unlikely, however, that its methodology and its insights will be wholly left behind, or that the issues it raised or faced will disappear. Deconstruction de-limited linguistic performance and critical thought and has afforded the most astute critique of our failure to question the assumptions and the complexities of our uses of language and discourses. Deconstruction has furthered the work of existential and hermeneutic thought in attempting to locate meaning in a world which has no permanent or ultimate metaphysical realities to underwrite its meaningfulness, and it has most refreshingly challenged both the pieties of humanism and the rigidities of structuralism. The other kinds of Literary Theory, enriched by poststructural theory and deconstructive practice, are still in force, coalescing most effectively at the moment in the cultural analyses of New Historicism and in the work of ideological criticism with both 'high' and popular culture in penetrating to the motives and mystifications of cultural meanings. Contemporary critical theories may or may not be 'right,' given that there is a 'right,' but the issues that they address are genuine and considerable, as is their contribution to and place in contemporary thought, and the practice gives rise to serious and at times telling interpretations and revaluations.

Brock University St. Catharines, ON A Guide to Further Reading There are hundreds of books on Contemporary Theory. This guide gives texts one might begin with of theorists mentioned in the essay, introductions to contemporary theory , and major movements. I Theorists mentioned

Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books. Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press. See Volosinov Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Glasgow: Fontana Collins. [end page 104] de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in General Linguistics . New York: The Philosophical Library. Derrida, Jaques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, and 1992. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge. Derrida is very difficult; see "Deconstruction" for some introductions to his work. Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is There a Text in This Class?. Boston: Harvard University Press. Foucault, Michel. 1984. Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon. Kristeva, Julia. 1986. A Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Mol, New York: Columbia University Press. Lacan, Jacques. 1982. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: Norton. A difficult theorist and writer, Lacan might best be approached through secondary sources such Madan Sarup's brief and lucid Jaques Lacan, 1992, Toronto: University of Toronto Press or, as an interesting alternative, Slavoj Zizek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 1991, Boston: MIT Press. Macherey, Pierre. 1978. A Theory of Literary Production . New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Silverman, Kaja. 1983. The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Silverman gives a good introduction to psychoanalysis and semiotics. Volosinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Academic Press. Originally published in 1929 and said to have been written in whole or part by Bakhtin, it contains one of the finest and earliest critiques of de Saussure. II Introductions to Contemporary Theory

The best remains Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983; very good and more difficult is Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. A good brief introduction with applications is Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice, London: Methuen, 1980. III Major Movements

Deconstruction. Good introductions are Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1982; Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, New York: Routledge, 1982; Vincent B. Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; and a collection of emys by the "hermeneutical [end page 105] Mafia" (also known as the Yale deconstructionists) Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction and Criticism, New York: Seabury Press, 1979. Feminist Criticism. There are many kinds of feminist criticism. A good introduction is Making a Difference, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, New York: Routledge, 1985. Ideological or Political Criticism. Francis Mulhern, Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism, Harrow, Essex: Longman, 1992. New Historicism. A collection edited by Aran Veeser, The New Historicism, New York: Routledge, 1989, is a good start. Poststructuralism. Vincent B. Leitch, Cultural Criticism Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Psychoanalytic Criticism. Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice, London: Routledge, 1984, is a good introduction; see also Silvemm. Reader Response. Susan R. Suleinian and Inge Crossman have edited a very good selection of writings in The Reader in the Text. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1980. The most read book is Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. See Fish for a more post-structural approach. Structuralism. Good introductions are Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, London: Metheun, 1977, and Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. Brock Review 1993


1997, 2000 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes. As are all of my posts for this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me. Contemporary Literary Theory is not a single thing but a collection of theoretical approaches which are marked by a number of premises, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of the them. 1. Meaning is assumed to be created by difference, not by "presence," (that is, identity with the object of meaning). As the revisionist Freudian Jacques Lacan remarks, a sign signals the absence of that which it signifies. Signs do not directly represent the reality to which they refer, but (following the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure) mean by difference from other words in a concept set. All meaning is only meaning in reference to, and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense. Meanings are multiple, changing, contextual. 2. There is no foundational 'truth' or reality in the universe (as far as we can know)--no absolutes, no eternalities, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent truths generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, values and identity are cultural constructs, not stable entities. Even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as Kaja Silverman points out in The Subject of Semiotics, in that the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated. 3. Language is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not be fully aware. Contemporary theory attempts to explore the implications (i.e., the inter-foldings, from 'plier', to fold) of levels of meaning in language. 4. Language itself always has excessive signification, that is, it always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context; signification is always 'spilling over', especially in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature'

are. This excessive signification is created in part by the rhetorical, or tropic, characteristics of language (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else, as in a metaphor, a metonym, or irony), and the case is made by Paul de Man that there is an inherent opposition (or undecidability, or aporia) between the grammatical and the rhetorical operations of language. 5. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture and meaning. Humans 'are' their symbol systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, relational, dynamic. 6. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use. 7. A text is, as the etymology of the word "text" proclaims, a tissue, a woven thing (L. texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts, echoes of which it continually evokes (filiations, these echoes are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it properly be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process of engagements. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminancy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them become more apparent. 8. The borders of literature are challenged by the ideas a) that all texts share common traits, for instance that they all are constructed of rhetorical, tropic, linguistic and narrative elements, and b) that all experience can be viewed as a text: experience insofar as it is knowable is consequently symbolically configured, and human activity and even perception is both constructed and known through the conventions of social practice; hence as a constructed symbolic field experience is textual. While on the one hand this blurring of differentiation between 'literature' and other texts may seem to make literature less

privileged, on the other hand it opens those non-literary (but not nonimaginative, and only problematically non-fictional) texts, including 'social texts', the grammars and vocabularies of social action and cultural practice, up to the kind of complex analysis that literature has been opened to. 9. So the nature of language and meaning is seen as more intricate, potentially more subversive, more deeply embedded in psychic, linguistic and cultural processes, more areas of experience are seen as textual, and texts are seen as more deeply embedded in and constitutive of social processes. None of these ideas shared by contemporary theories are new to the intellectual traditions of our culture. It appears to many, however, that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental values of literature and literary study: that it attacks the customary belief that literature draws on and creates meanings that reflect and affirm our central (essential, human, lasting) values; that it attacks the privileged meaningfulness of 'literature'; that it attacks the idea that a text is authored, that is, that the authority for its meaningfulness rests on the activity of an individual; that it attacks the trust that the text that is read can be identified in its intentions and meanings with the text that was written; and ultimately that it attacks the very existence of value and meaning itself, the ground of meaningfulness, rooted in the belief in those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based. On the other hand, 'theory people' point out that theory does is not erase literature but expands the concept of the literary and renews the way texts in all areas of intellectual disciplines are or can be read; that it explores the full power of meaning and the full embeddedness of meanings in their historical placement; that it calls for a more critical, more flexible reading. It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often skeptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issue is whether theory has good reasons for the questioning of the assumptions, and whether it can lead to practice that is in fact productive.


1997, 1999 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes. As are all pages for my course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me. One is faced at the very outset, when approaching literature theoretically, with considerations such as the following. You should build your own checklist of theoretical considerations as we go through the course. For some other formulations of these issues, see my pages Some Factors Affecting/Effecting the Reading of Texts and The Problem of Meaning.
I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. What is the Nature of and What Are the Functions of Literature? What is the Nature of the Subject? Who is the Reader? What is the Relation of the Author to the Text? What are the Relations of the Author and the Text to Society? Where (and How) Does 'Reality' Exist? What is Representation (Mimesis)? What is the Nature and Status of Language? What is the Relation of "Form" and "Art" to Meaning? Where is Meaning?


What is the Nature of and What are the Functions of Literature? The question of what "Literature" in fact 'is' is a difficult one. Why might a seventeenth century treatise on religion be Literature, and scads of poems about love not be Literature? Is this Literature, or not -- ?

Nobody knows, Tiddley-pom How cold my toes, Tiddley-pom How cold my toes, Tiddley-pom Are growing.

Well, if it isn't Literature, what is it? It's part of our culture, our heritage; it's in verse; it's in all the bookstores.

Does literariness reside in the idea of quality (in which case a well written book on brain surgery might be Literature), or in conventions (but many works which follow the conventions faithfully are not Literature), or in fictionality -- that is, to be Literature it can't be true -- well, not literally, at least? (The latter question points of course to a further, serious problem: the truth status of narratives. Is an autobiography true, or is it someone's imagination of 'real' events, moulded to tell a certain story of the self?) Or, on quite another hand, is "Literature" merely what your professor (as a local manifestation of the power of the ruling class) says it is? 1. One might think of Literature as, for instance, a. a body of texts marked by the imaginative verbal recreation of the world as we experience it b. relying upon the powers of form, allusion, poetic qualities of language and tropes to intensify and render complex such representation of experience and both drawing on and referencing the forms, the genre and discourse conventions, and specific examples, of previous literature whose function is not simply to represent our experience but to offer possible worlds which may expand and/or critique our vision of or understanding of human life.



Then again, on might have quite other ideas about what constitutes this cultural practice, or classification, that we call "Literature," for instance.... 2. And/or is Literature an institution: that is, "Literature" as a creation of the joint workings of publishing houses, professional critics, prize-awarding bodies, anthologizers, and the designers of curricula in universities and schools. As such, its form and its definition or nature, as well as its 'body' of works, may be said to represent the interests of the professionals involved, and to represent their political agenda and sense of their place in the society. Consider a comment from a recent supplement on literacy, in the Canadian middle-brow, wishing it were-highbrow, weekly magazine Saturday Night, a supplement decorated with corporate logos and paid for by the literacy organization ABC Canada, "a joint initiative of business and labour." In it the writer reports approvingly, surveying attitudes toward literacy, Pity and scorn intermingle in the voice of [award-winning and financially successful] novelist Carol Shields when she talks about the businessmen who tell her that their wives love her

books, but they don't read fiction themselves because they have to wade through reports all day at the office. Pity and scorn. Wow. Those barbarians! 3. Is Literature, to raise another problem, or the same one in a different way, a. a self-contained body of knowledge which refers primarily to itself, or b. one instance of the ongoing engagement of writers in the historical and cultural aspirations, anxieties and crises of the time, consequently responsive to and formed by the immediacies of history and implicated in the forms and discourse practices of their time?

These questions lead us to ask, among other things, what the role of 'aesthetic' value or force as opposed to representational value and force are in literature, what the real functions of "literature" and "Literature" are (that is, works which we characterize as literature, and literature as a social structure and practice), what the ideological and/or moral force of literature may be said to be. There are some suggestions for the nature of literature on my page On the Uses of Studying Literature and on my page on some considerations regarding quality.


What is the Nature of the Subject? 1. Questions of the nature of the reader and the author, and of their place in the process of meaning and significance, lead us to the question of the nature of the subjectthat is, the experiencing self. Is the subject (here are some possibilities)... a. an integral entity existing independently of language, cultural meanings, or the contexts of experience an entity which is created through one or more of: language and other symbol systems; social interaction; responses to contexts; such that the 'subject' might be said to be a social formation a being distributed across different meaning frames and discursive practices, a 'de-centered' subject, as the phrase is.




If the subject is in some manner an amalgam of physical and mental being, what implications does this have for ethical existence, for the nature of consciousness and knowledge, and

(hence) for the nature and functions of modes of communication such as literature? 3. If the subject is an entity or a continuum of experience which has an unconscious and a conscious component, what is the balance between and the relation between the two, what is the unconscious and how is it formed, and to what elements of the unconscious and conscious self does literature appeal?


Who is the Reader? In brief, a. is the reader an individual affected only incidentally by history and social judgment, or is the reader the product of a 'reading formation', a set of cultural understandings and expectations and a set of conventions for reading literature? is the reader outside of and independent of the text, or is the reader in fact a formation of the text, a 'self' created through interaction with it?


The first of these questions has implications for interpretation and evaluation, the second has implications for the role of literature, especially in the socializing processes of the culture. One must ask what the implications are of the apparent fact that one must be 'educated in' the reading of 'good literature' in order to appreciate and understand it. Does this mean merely that appreciating literature is a complex process, or does it mean that the reader is only a 'proper reader' after a socializing process, so that 'literature' is regulated and its interpretations patrolled by guardians of correct reading? This of course gets us back to many previous questions, including the nature of 'aesthetic' experience.


What is the Relation of the Author to the Text? 1. Is the text the intentional production of an individual, or 2. Is the text an only partially intentional production whose unintended determinants are one of or a combination of a. b. c. the psyche of the author, the psyche of the culture, the ideology of the culture,


the particular socio-economic conditions of the production (the placement and role of the artist in the culture, who pays for the production, who consumes it, what are the rewards of successful production, how are they decided and, what are the material conditions of production) the traditions of writing which pertain to the text the traditions of the treatment of the particular subjectmatter in the culture and in the genre

e. f.

3. Or is the text in fact almost entirely the production of the ideological and cultural realm, in which realm the author is merely a function, whose role, aspirations, ideas and attitudes are created by the society in which she lives. In this case, the text is a complex structure of cultural and aesthetic codes, none of which the author has created, arranged around traditional cultural themes or topoi -- whereas the author herself, while an existent being (her existence and effort are not denied), has little to do with the 'meaning' of the text, as she herself is simply part of (or, constructed by) the circulation of meanings within the culture. [For some considerations on the 'death' of the author, a thesis of poststructural theory, see my page The 'death of the author' as an instance of theory.] III. II. What is the Relation of the Author and the Text to Society? This issue is implicitly addressed in the preceding questions. As the author is operating within a certain cultural milieu, 1. In what ways does she represent in her text, deliberately and/or unconsciously, the understandings of the world that the culture holds? 2. In what ways does she represent in her text, again deliberately and/or unconsciously, the understandings of what art is and does, the aesthetic ideolog(ies) of the time? 3. In what ways are the ideologies of the culture, and of the 'educated classes', embedded in the conventions, traditions, canons, style and subject matter of the text? Moreover the text not only will be an outcome of this situated imaginative process, but will be structured in its production and in its reception by various material social forces; consequently one must ask questions such as these:

4. Who is the intended audience, and how does that shape the production of (the imagination of, the writing of, the editing of, the sale of) the text? 5. Who has a say in the text's final form, directly (e.g. editors), or indirectly (who will pay for it and why, who will produce and distribute it)? 6. How is it paid for, and how it is distributed, who has access to it, under what conditions, and what effects might these conditions produce? 7. What status does that kind of writing have in the culture (e.g. what is its cach, what is its authority, where in the education and enculturation system is it placed, how does it relate to entertainment and to the cultural practices that distinguish the elite)? 8. What cultural powers does the (successful) author have?


Where Does 'Reality' Exist? 1. If art represents reality, as Aristotle argued (and most theorists since him have agreed), then to theorize art we need to theorize 'represents' and 'reality'. At a very basic level,

a. does reality exist 'out there', independent of humans? --- in which case knowledge must be homomorphic with (essentially the same structure as) reality, else we couldn't know reality. b. or on the other hand is 'reality' (or are some aspects of the conglomerate of conceptions we clump together under the heading 'reality') a product of the human mind, of our systems and methods of knowledge, and of our symbols systems, including language? How culture-specific is reality? 2. Can we ever know reality, or is what we think is reality just a construct? 3. If we can know it, what is it we are knowing? After all, we know symbolically, so all we know are our symbols; and we know according to constructs of the relations of things, so what we know are those relations. The post-structuralist (or, structuralist, depending on your definitions) marxist Louis Althusser wrote that, in effect, what we know is our imaginary relations to reality -- that we live in ideology, not in 'reality'.


What is Representation (Mimesis)? One must consider what it is to represent something, what gets represented, what relation such representation might have to 'reality' (see the issue of what 'reality' is, below).

Most compellingly, is literature a means of representing reality, or it is a means of representing particular imaginative constructions that we take to be reality but which may have ideological, cultural, political meanings which ground and shape the 'reality' we think we are looking at?


What is the Nature and Status of Language? 1. What is the status of language and rhetoric in literature? Is the language of literature in any way privileged, intrinsically or culturally? -- Is it different from other discourses? -- If so why and how? 2. Is there a particular literariness to some uses of language, as Roman Jakobson, for instance, argues? Are there particular forms of language use, such as ambiguity or irony, which forms mark a work as literary ( for instance one school of contemporary theory, lead by the late Paul de Man, maintains that rhetoric, by which de Man means essentially tropes, ways of saying something by saying something else, are the hallmark of literary language)? 3. Is language composed of signs which have their meaning only in reference to, and through difference from, other signs, as in the popular Saussurean model? Or is language an actual indicator of the 'real world'? 4. Do we speak language, that is, is language subject to our will and intention, or does language speak us, that is, are we implicated in a web of meaning located in and maintained by language?


What is the Relation of "Form" and "Art" to Meaning? 1. What is the role of Form in the meaning of the text? Is form anything at all, and if it is, what is it?-- A means of constructing reader responses?-- A means of putting meanings into particular relationships with each other? 2. And what is what we call 'art'? Is art an inherent property of human existence, or is it a set of learned conventions? Does 'art' have a privileged role in representing experience, or is Pierre Bourdieu correct when, after the exhaustive analyses in Distinctions, he concludes that 'art' and taste in art are merely class markers, so that what we think of as 'art' does not have any privileged representational force or qualities (other than social ones)?


Where is Meaning?

Does 'meaning' reside in the author's intentions, in the text, or in the reading? 1. If it is in the text, is it in the text now, or in the text as an historical, culturally situated document, so that to fully understand the meaning we might best understand the cultural and aesthetic codes and the traditions and the meanings of the particular time of writing? 2. If it is in the author's intentions, is that in the conscious, or the unconscious intentions? --In the intentions before or after the writing, or somewhere in between? Can, in this case, the text have meanings of which the author was not aware? 3. If meaning is in the reading, is that an informed reading, or any reading, and what difference does that distinction really signal? Is it in an ideal non-historical reading, or in a historically and culturally placed reading? (See my handout The Problem of Meaning for slightly more elaboration.)


In Conclusion These are some of the issues that are raised by the theorists on the course, and some of the basic questions any consideration of the nature and function of literature, and of the meaning and function of particular works of literature, must address


Copyright 1996 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes. As are all of my posts for this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me.

A: Matters to be brought to the text for use in the decoding of the text
accessibility of allusion, or reference access to historical references, to cultural allusions, to literary allusions, and recognition of their relevance or meaningfulness in the text usage of genre knowledge of the characteristics and conventions of various genre, of for instance irony in satire; and knowledge of the typical topics of the genre, e.g. heroism, romantic love etc.; historical knowledge of the same, i.e. what were the

conventions of reading including 1) conventions of significance (raising the meaning to its most general application), of metaphorical coherence, and of thematic unity, which all help to create the meaningfulness of 'literature'; 2) conventions as to the way in which texts 'represent' 'reality'; and 3) conventions of interpretation, of how texts are read -- e.g. formally, ideologically, psychoanalytically, 'morally' , etc. history of interpretation knowledge of traditions of reading and of interpretation -- for instance, the Hamlet which we read (have been taught to read) has been interpreted before us and for us.

expectations of the various kinds of comedies held by Shakespeare's contemporaries attunement to polysemy to the multi-valence of words, to connotative force, to metaphor and metonymy and other rhetorical structures and devices; to historical uses of these knowledge of the extensional world judging inference, probability; attributing causality; assigning truth values

B: "THE TEXT" as a coded structure

The rhetorical, formal, linguistic, allusive strategies which guide -- or create, or evoke -- the readers' responses, including: association and interconnection of culturally empowered images, ideas, situations; the contextual loading of words, images, episodes and characters; plotting devices; genre markers; rhetorical structures; multi-valence; ambiguity.

C: Contexualizations of reading and meaning

the personal world the realm of personal associations, experiences, ideals and images the needs of persons innate (or socialized) desires for freedom, happiness, connection and coherence; genuine, pervasive hopes and desires socio-political references references which the reader may apply to her or his social or political milieu -- e.g. in novels of manners, satires against corrupt governments, etc. the world(s) of discourse the use of language as it structures our understanding of

shared at some level of consciousness by all the motive of the particular reading explicit and implicit motives and norms -- reading for a course, reading to improve social status, reading for entertainment or understanding, etc. the sociology of reading who reads and why, with what social expectations and delimitations -- e.g. considerations of class, of social mobility and use, of relation of reading to social and political life; the distinctions between 'high' and 'popular', 'good' and 'bad' literature socio-political perspective the social and political situation and perspective from which the text will be read and from which the matter of the text will be viewed

social and power relations; the language and rhetoric of the text in relation to that of other arenas of social meaning and power; the (cultural) way in which we have learned to speak of (which our culture enables and permits us to speak of) our various experiences, ideas and desires ideology & world-view understandings of what is natural, how the world works -particularly as these relate to the exercise of power and as they legitimate dominant interests; our understanding of the overarching, or foundational, frame of things, the ontological and moral ground of being itself, of knowledge, and of the human the world of fact what is and is not the case, as we understand (know) it 'in reality' to be

copyright John Lye 1998. Prepared for my ENGL 4F70, Contemporary Literary Theory, course. Comments welcome, e-mail me at

I: Literary criticism
Literary criticism is fundamentally the estimation of the value of a particular work or body of work on such grounds as: the personal and/or cultural significance of the themes and the uses of language of a text; the insights and impact of a text; and the aesthetic production (or, performance) of the text; particularly as these areas are seen to be mutually dependent, supportive or inflective. The word 'criticism' has ordinary-use negative connotations, and to an extent that is right: for literary criticism is part of the disciplining of discourse generally and of what is considered literature in particular. One patrols the boundaries of good writing, admitting or excluding, determining what should be thought about a text, and why, what personal and cultural value should be placed on it. Judgments of value are not simple, however. They require that one consider what constitutes value, what the personal and social value of literature is, what the value of 'the aesthetic' is. And they require that one interpret the text. As texts judged to be of high literary value tend to be marked by complexity and even ambiguity, and to yield diverse interpretations, judgment may ultimately require a theory of interpretation, or at least careful attention to the question of what constitutes, guides, and legitimates interpretation.

II: Theory
Theory is the process of understanding what the nature of literature is, what functions it has, what the relation of text is to author, to reader, to language, to society, to history. It is not judgment but understanding of the frames of judgment.

III: theory itself

Theory, however, particularly as "a theory of X," tends to operate within a frame of values and expectations itself. Full understanding requires one think as fully as possible about the sets of expectations, assumptions and values of theory and theorizing, and this (always incompletable) exercise I think of as theory itself.

IV: Literary Studies

In this discussion, I skip consideration of literary studies, which Roman Jakobson I think rightly in his famous essay "Linguistics and Poetics" insists must be differentiated from literary criticism. "Literary studies" refers to knowledge about the facts of the case as they illuminate the meaningfulness of texts -- facts of authorship, biography, influence,

aesthetics, the pressures and modulations of contexts, rewriting and publication, historical interpretation, and so forth.

'Literary criticism'
In looking at the piece on Heart of Darkness by Edward Garnett reproduced below as literary criticism, we can discuss whether he is right about the value of the work and about the themes of the work. Is Garnett's judgment correct? Are the bases of his judgment an accurate description of the qualities of the text? The text in question is an unsigned review by Garnett in Academy and Literature 6, December 1902. ["Youth"and "The End of the Tether," stories published with "Heart of Darkness"] will be more popular than the third, "Heart of Darkness," "a study of the white man in Africa," which is most amazing, a consummate piece of artistic diablerie..... We...hold "Heart of Darkness" to be the high-water mark of the author's talent.... "Heart of Darkness," to present its theme bluntly, is an impression, taken from life, of the conquest by the European whites of a certain portion of Africa, an impression in particular of the civilizing methods of a certain great European Trading Company face to face with the "nigger." We say this must because the English reader likes to know where he is going before he takes his art seriously, and we add that he will find the human life, black and white, in "Heart of Darkness" and uncommonly and uncannily serious affair. If the ordinary reader, however, insists on taking the subject of a tale very seriously, the artist takes his method of presentation more seriously still, and rightly so. For the art of "Heart of Darkness" -- as in every psychological masterpiece -- lies in the relation of the things of the spirit to the things of the flesh, of the invisible life to the visible, of the subconscious life within us, our obscure motives and instincts, to our conscious actions, feelings and outlook. Just as landscape are implies the artist catching the exact relation of a tree to the earth from which it springs, of the earth to the sky, so the art of "Heart of Darkness" implies the catching of infinite shades of the white man's uneasy, disconcerted, and fantastic relation with the exploited barbarism of Africa; it implies the acutest analysis of the deterioration of the white man's morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and planted down in the tropics as an "emissary of light" armed to the teeth, to make trade profits out of the "subject races." The weirdness, the brilliance the psychological truth of this masterly analysis of two Continents in conflict, of the abysmal gulf between the white man's system and the black man's comprehension of its results, is conveyed in a rapidly rushing narrative which calls for close attention on the

reader's part. But the attention once surrendered, the pages of the narrative are as enthralling as the pages of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The stillness of the sombre African forests, the glare of sunshine, the feeling of dawn, of noon, of night on the tropical rivers, the isolation of the unnerved, degenerating whites staring all day and every day at the heart of Darkness which alike meaningless and threatening to their own creed and conceptions of life, the helpless bewilderment of the unhappy savages in the grasp of their flabby and rapacious conquerors [note the use of Conrad's language and imagery] -- all this is a page torn form the life of the Dark continent -- a page which has been hitherto carefully blurred and kept away from European eyes. There is no "intention" in the story, no parti pris, no prejudice one way or the other; it is simple a piece of art, fascinating and remorseless, and the artist is but intent on presenting his sensations in that sequence and the arrangement whereby the meaning or the meaninglessness of the white man in uncivilized Africa can be felt in its really significant aspects.... This is literary criticism in that it is a valuation of the writing and the subject matter. It is the high-water mark of Conrad's talent, Garnett says, and along the way he attempts to explain why this is so. The style, the subject matter, and the treatment of the subject, are described. This is a "masterpiece," and Garnett tells use wherein the "art" lies. It lies in the qualities of perception and of writing, in the analysis as well as in the presentation of the subject. It is a psychological masterpiece, an enthralling representation of reality, a rapidly rushing narrative, and an astute treatment of a cultural phenomenon. Garnett classifies it by comparison with a work which had (in Constance Garnett's translation) recently burst on the English cultural scene, and was acknowledged to be a work of great psychological and dramatic power, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; and he contrasts it implicitly to less powerful descriptions, and to descriptions which have political or social rather than simply representational motives. As literary criticism, one can contest his valuation, and/or the grounds of his valuation, of the work.

II Literary Theory
It should become clear, however, that Garnett is also operating with certain theories of literature. No criticism is innocent of theory, and what is at times called 'literary criticism' is often largely theory (Sidney's Defence of Poetry, Pope's Essay on Criticism, Wordsworth's "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads, and so forth).

a. Garnett believes that art is an exact representation of life, however one that is selected and arranged to elucidate truths. He praises the work for the precision with which it portrays what is, but also for a 'method' which brings to light that which is hidden. There are apparently two views of representation here, and of the nature of 'art': art represents, or art uncovers. It is not unusual for a critic to operate from different, even conflicting, theoretical positions, and in this case the conflict is as Flaubert long ago pointed out endemic to Realism: realism claims to represent the truth but in order to do so it necessarily selects and arranges, hence distorting the world as empirically experienced, and inflecting the 'truth' (as empirically conceived) with certain criteria of selection and arrangement. b. As an elucidation of things hidden Garnett sees this text as a psychological masterpiece, also as an astute analysis of a cultural conflict. There is a theory of the social function of literature here, and (as an enablement of that function) of literature as heuristic: literature does not merely teach by delighting (Horace, "Epistle to the Pises") or by saying "what oft was thought. but ne'er so well expressed" (Pope, "Essay on Criticism"); rather it discloses truths which otherwise would not be available but which are necessary if we are to live justly and to understand ourselves. c. In understanding literature as having heuristic powers Garnett reads with a certain model of human nature in mind, and with a certain model of social order. Were the article to be read by someone who did not understand the emerging theories of psychoanalysis, for instance, the ideas of the relation of our conscious and unconscious life (or even the existence of our unconscious life), the idea that we are governed by instincts and motives we only obscurely understand, then the Garnett's reading, and his grounds for valuing the text, might not be understood or accepted as valid. d. Similarly there is a politics in Garnett's reading, and a position in relation to imperialism; in fact he claims, and claims it apparently as a strength, that there is no political motivation to the text. This leads us to the perception that Garnett does not read literature of colonization with suspicion, does not think in terms of the language and sensibility of the Other, does not interrogate imperialist values -- or gender values, for another. Reading Heart of Darkness in that manner requires of set of theoretical conceptions and assumptions Garnett did not have.

e. To return to the heuristic value, while Garnett does not claim that literature is the only way this uncovering of truth can be achieved, his faith in the eminence of this function is implicit, as are some of the reasons for this eminence (its representational power, its rhetorical force, its freedom from any interest other than the truth). There is an implicit valuation of literature as as means of conveying truth, that is to say. f. Garnett sees the work as proceeding from the intention of the author, and its effects as relying on capacities and attentions (hence the intention) to the audience. While this may seem unexceptional, there are operative assumptions here which could affect his reading, and his valuation. Garnett does not ask what psychic complexities allowed Conrad to see what he sees, he does not ask if the discursive formations which Conrad occupied inflected or occasioned his text, he assumes that language is responsive to the author's wish, that the reader receives the message the author sends and hence the reader's reception is conditioned only by a willingness to attend, he assumes that while there are hidden meanings in personal and social formations, there are none in textual formations, so what the text means is itself unproblematic and its representational power is unblemished. g. As well, an understanding of Garnett's theoretical position will comprehend why the review should have been taken seriously at the time, and so seriously since as to be often reprinted. Part of this will have to do with the institutions which regulate the publication, promotion, sales and valuation of texts, so that the reader of the theoretical assumptions of Garnett's piece will see that Garnett, a socially and culturally influential literary figure, is publishing in a review which proclaims the relation between the institutions of education and of 'literature,' Academy and Literature. Only a certain audience would have read this, and why Garnett chose to publish there rather than in the popular press, as well as the title of the publication, are themselves important statements about his understanding of what 'literature' is and ultimately about what its social functions in society are. Consequently one can simply critique or approve Garnett's literary criticism and feel one has done one's job, but only if one chooses to ignore (or simply so fully agrees with as not to perceive) the theoretical position(s) on which his reading is based. Otherwise one

must begin not with a critique of the criticism but with an attempt to understand and to articulate its theoretical assumptions.

III theory itself

While interrogating the theoretical assumptions, however, one ought to be aware of the difference between "Literary Theory" as a subject, and "theory itself." Literary Theory is, as Deleuze and Guattari remark in A Thousand Plateaus, an arrangement of ideas within a demarked space: one has the author, the reader, the text, society, etc, and a theoretical position will articulate the importance and the nature of the various relations among them. This is disciplined and disciplining theory, theory ready to hand for the practice of literary criticism, theory as practiced and approved by the regulatory bodies of the 'discipline.' One then has a 'theoretical position' from which, or through which, one acts, as a 'reader-response' theorist, or a 'psychoanalytic' theorist, or whatever. Theory Itself, on the other hand, is always one step off, is not to hand for criticism, because it is attempting to assess the assumptions and implications of the demarked space (why it is demarked, by what process, what the demarkation suggest, on what grounds and for what reasons these are authorized, and so forth). The practice of theory itself is self-reflexive, for it includes an examination of the grounds of one's own practice, authority, and goals. The study of literary theory as I understand it occupies a site of struggle between these two locations, "Literary Theory" and "theory itself," between the attempt to locate literature in relation to its 'components', on the one hand, and an attempt to understand the ontological, epistemic, axiological and praxic nature and implications and assumptions of the very phenomenon of 'literature' as a cultural formation and practice. One can read Garnett's piece as a valuation of the text, one [must?] can read it for its theory of literature, and/or one can [must?] read it as an exercise of theory, in which case one must interrogate one's own assumptions, the very act one is engaged in, the categories one applies, the significance of the act.


A brief introduction for my Year 1 students by Professor John Lye
Copyright 1996 by John Lye

"Meaning" is a difficult issue, and what I have to say here only scratches the surface of a complex and contested area. How do we know what a work of literature is 'supposed'; to mean, or what its 'real' meaning is? There are several ways to approach this:

that meaning is what is intended by the author ; that meaning is created by and contained in the text itself ; that meaning is created by the reader.

The author
Does a work of literature mean what the author 'intended' it to mean, and if so, how can we tell? If all the evidence we have is the text itself, we can only speculate on what the priorities and ideas of the author were from our set of interpretive practices and values (how we read literature and how we see the world). We can expand this: 1. by reading other works by the same author, 2. by knowing more and more about what sort of meanings seem to be common to works in that particular tradition, time and genre, 3. by knowing how the author and other writers and readers of that time read texts -what their interpretive practices were (as reading and writing must be part of the same set of activities), and 4. by knowing what the cultural values and symbols of the time were. Any person or text can only 'mean' within a set of preexisting, socially supported ideas, symbols, images, ways of thinking and values. In a sense there is no such thing as a 'personal' meaning; although we have different experiences in our lives and different temperaments and interests, we will interpret the world according to social norms and cultural meanings -- there's no other way to do it. We may have as evidence for meaning what the author said or wrote about the work, but this is not always reliable. Authorial intention is complicated not only by the fact that an author's ways of meaning and of using literary conventions are cultural, but by the facts that 1. the author's work may very well have taken her in directions she did not originally foresee and have developed meanings which she did not intend and indeed may not recognize (our historical records are full of authors attesting to this), 2. the works may embody cultural or symbolic meanings which are not fully clear to the author herself and may emerge only through historical or other cultural pespective, and 3. persons may not be conscious of all of the motives that attend their work. For an expanded consideration of meaning and the author, see my page The concept of the death of the author and the study of contemporary theory

The Text
Does the meaning exist 'in' the text? There is an argument that the formal properties of the text--the grammar, the language, the uses of image and so forth--contain and produce the meaning, so that any educated (competent) reader will inevitably come to essentially the same interpretation as any other. Of course, it becomes almost impossible to know whether the same interpretations are arrived at because the formal properties securely encode the meaning, or because all of the 'competent' readers were taught to read the formal properties of texts in roughly the same way. As a text is in a sense only ink-marks on a page, and as all meanings are culturally created and transferred, the argument that the meaning is 'in' the text is not a particularly persuasive one. The meaning might be more likely to be in the conventions of meaning, the traditions, the cultural codes which have been handed down, so that insofar as we and other readers (and the author) might be said to agree on the meaning of the text, that agreement would be created by common traditions and conventions of usage, practice and interpretation. In different time periods, with different cultural perspectives (including class, gender, ethnicity, belief and world-view), or with different purposes for reading no matter what the distance in time or cultural situation, competent readers can arrive at different readings of texts. As on the one hand a text is an historical document, a material fact, and as on the other meaning is inevitably cultural and contextual, the question of whether the text 'really means' what it means to a particular reader, group or tradition can be a difficult and complex one.

The Reader
Does the meaning then exist in the reader's response, her processing or reception of the text? In a sense this is inescapable: meaning exists only insofar as it means to someone, and art is composed in order to evoke sets of responses in the reader (there is no other reason for it to exist, or for it to have patterns or aesthetic qualities, or for it to use symbols or have cultural codes). But this leads us to three essential issues. 1. Meaning is 'social', that is, language and conventions work only as shared meaning, and our way of viewing the world can exist only as shared or sharable. When we read a text, we are participating in social, or cultural, meaning. Response is not merely an individual thing, but is part of culture and history. 2. Meaning is contextual; change the context, you often change the meaning. 3. Texts constructed as literature, or 'art', have their own codes and practices, and the more we know of them, the more we can 'decode' the text, that is, understand it consequently, there is in regard to the question of meaning the matter of reader competency, as it is called, the experience and knowledge of decoding literary texts. (I have a brief page on various Reader Response positions which you might like to look at.)

Your professor might insist on your having and practicing competency in reading by insisting that any interpretation you have (a) be rooted in (authorized by) the text itself and (b) be responsible to everything in the text -- that is, that your interpretation of any line or action be in the context of the whole of the work. But you may have to learn other competencies too. For instance in reading Mulk Raj Anand's The Untouchables you might have to learn what the social structure of India was like, what traditions of writing about and/or by Untouchables were in effect in India in the early 1930's, what political, cultural, and personal influences Mulk Raj Anand was guided by in constructing the imaginative world of this short novel; you might have to learn, in reading John Donne's poems, about, for instance, the 'platonic' (really, Florentine Neo-Plotinian) theory of love. As another kind of competency, you might have to practice reading certain kinds of literature, whose methods seem alien to you or particularly difficult for you, so that you can understand how that kind of literature works. You may see that this idea that meaning requires competency in reading can bring us back, as meanings are cultural and as art is artifact, to different conventions and ways of reading and writing, and to the historically situated understandings of the section on the Author, above; at the least, 'meaning' requires a negotiation between cultural meanings across time, culture, gender, class. As readers you have in fact acquired a good deal of competency already; you are about to acquire more. The point of this brief essay is that 'meaning' is a phenomenon that is not easily ascribed or located, that it is historical, social, and derived from the traditions of reading and thinking and understanding the world that you are educated about and socialized in. Return to top