A couple of responses to Joe’s earlier post:
Joe, I find very little to disagree with in what you have written here. (And I especially share your enthusiasm for Mill. I teach On Liberty whenever I get the opportunity). Ultimately I think it comes down to a question of temperament: didn’t Frye somewhere describe himself as an Odyssey-critic, inclined towards romance and comedy as opposed to tragedy? I must be too inclined to pessimism!
I agree with you about not subordinating works to ideological criticism. The work, the author, not the student, and not the teacher, should be the voice that is heard in the classroom. But the nagging point that Bogdan raises for me is that, to quote her again “the hypothetical dimension of literature notwithstanding, literature does say things.” It doesn’t entirely leave behind what Frye calls “the original reference,” though of course it cannot be reduced to that either.
Joe has hit on what I believe is the real problem with critical theory; that the logical end point of ideological criticism is a disdain for literature. How can it not be so? Identifying power structures a la Foucault or searching for Marxist class inequalities inevitably leads to an identification of the problems inherent in a text. Apply this model enough times to a text from enough ideological views and what is left? This to me is the number one argument against this type of inductive criticism. If I begin with an ideology and then use the tenets of that philosophy as a lens through which to see a text, then not only will I inevitably see whatever I’m looking for but it will also eventually become the reality of that text. If this is misogyny or anti-semitism or some other disdainful ethos, then it becomes a necessary action to dismiss that text as being “only” of that ethos. I have always wondered if this is a conscious act or simply a necessary outcome of such an approach. Regardless of the answer to that question or whether critics admit to this practice, the necessary result is that the text ends up becoming a secondary object to the soapbox that the critic puts himself on, yelling to the crowd about how terrible that text is. It reminds me of how the religious right creates demons out of everything to further the cause. By identifying everyone else as being evil then they can laud their own practices as being holy. I believe that critical theory began with good intentions but has ended up being the right wing faction of literary criticism, the bullying older brother that finds whatever he is looking for and shouts about it.
Joe Adamson very graciously provided a lengthy response to my initial posting “Finding Frye” and highlights yet another level of the history of ideas and Frye’s place in these ideas. I distinguished myself from Bob Denham’s experience in the 1960s, and now Joe has rightly pointed out another side of this history – coming of age during the theory boom in the early 1980s. Though we all think we have unique positions, what is striking is our relation to theory: before theory, theory, and after theory. Well, I do not believe in an “After theory” because we are always theorizing as we read; but, the High House of Theory seems to have reached its potential, or perhaps it is in search of a renaissance of sorts. Recently, I read that the last great book of theory was written in the late 80s, early 90s; the author of the article cited Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, which is, at the very least, one of the finest examples of the potential of close reading alongside a practice of critical theory. Sedgwick was a rare critic – she had a political intention, but also a fidelity to textuality.
As some readers are likely noting here, there is a sympathetic tone in my writing when speaking about theory. It is a tone of respect, I imagine. I respect theory but I also feel committed to not being committed to theory. When I started graduate school (actually, when I started university), the major movers and shakers in my discipline almost seemed passé, for they were part of an historical process that seemed complete. Fredric Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and the list goes on and on (as readers of the Norton Anthology of Criticism can attest), had published works which were no longer “new” but rather were “commonplace.” I had always read text alongside theory, theory alongside text. There was never a time when I wasn’t aware of theory as a scholar of literature. I had no canon from which to depart, even literary history was in doubt. “The author is dead” was one of the central claims that I had heard time and time again…strangely, the “pleasure of the text” seemed lost. Hostility toward theory hardly seemed revolutionary – theories are, in many instances, always already hostile (often with one another). To borrow from Frye: the academic stock market is always at play and the New Critics, Structuralists, and Northrop Frye (of course), were not trading well (but they were trading as the Collected Works of Northrop Frye suggests).
Selected Quotes from Interviews with Northrop Frye, ed. Jean O’Grady, U of Toronto P, 2008
This superb collection of 111 interviews, compiled and edited by Jean O’Grady as part of the Collected Works, brings together for the first time all surviving records of Frye interviews from television, film, radio, conferences, journals, and magazines. The range of topics covered includes literature; theory of literary criticism; Canadian culture, arts, and media; pedagogical theory (pre-school, primary, secondary, and university); the Bible and religion; and autobiographical reminiscences. Below, I offer a selection of quotations from the collection, variously chosen on the basis of eloquence, wit, or erudition. My hope is that these teasers will prompt those who follow this blog to purchase or borrow their own copies of Interviews with Northrop Frye, thus enriching our collective and on-going effort to understand Frye’s mind and character.