The False Promise of Critical Theory

Ask someone to justify the teaching of critical theory and you will often hear that familiarizing students with a range of critical approaches enables them to make more interpretive choices. The implied assumption here is that theory is an instrument of reader empowerment. I have always been suspect of this justification. After all, what was it I used to do when I read with little or no consciousness of critical theory? If, as those who defend teaching critical theory contend, all reading is governed by implicit interpretive strategies, then I must have had a strategy? So what was it?

In reviewing my own experience, I seem to have been after a couple of things. The first was fun. I read because I enjoyed it. Secondly, I read under the assumption that insight was to be gained from books. In a fuzzy kind of way I just assumed that books taught me something. Now whether they ever did -- whether they contained any insight that I wasn't in fact supplying myself -- is a debated issue, and not one I'll argue here. All that I'm saying is that before I knew much about critical theory, I was inclined to think that books did have insights to offer.

Third, as I read in those days, another very interesting thing sometimes happened. If a book was particularly engrossing, I would begin to assemble the act of reading it into a remembered personal experience; for, indeed, my life was transpiring as I was reading. I was moving through a series of thoughts and emotions occasioned by the book. Sometimes, upon completion of a book, I may have looked back at this period of my life alongside the book and fit it into my other lived experiences. In short, as I tried to make sense of that particular lived experience, I engaged in a casual, text-occasioned self-examination of my own impressions.

Then I began to take literature courses in which the goal was to heighten my awareness of the many interpretive choices available to me, and I soon discovered that my initial, often highly successful reading strategy was no longer relevant. This became apparent in class whenever I said something like "That book was a lot of fun" (which before had always before been a sign of a successful interpretation). Now the instructor would ask “What made it so fun?”

Me: I don't know, it just was.
Instructor: What do you mean it just was?
Me: I mean that when I was reading, I felt like I was having fun.
Instructor:
But why? What specifically in the text made you feel like you were having fun?
During this interrogation something revealing occurred, for it became apparent that in order to answer these questions I would have to systematically analyze my responses. But this highly conscious analysis would require suppressing my old impressionistic approach in favor of one that I could later articulate in a rhetorically coherent manner. In other words, the instructor was demanding that I read with a heightened self-awareness of what I was doing as I read.

Now here is the point I want to underscore: when I read with little interest in or awareness of what I was doing (awareness of my governing norms, contexts and the need eventually to justify my interpretation), I was engaged in an interpretive strategy. Moreover, when I began to read with a heightened awareness of critical issues and demands, I was also engaged in an interpretive strategy. They are both legitimate interpretive strategies (is there an illegitimate strategy?). Moreover, both can be successful at what they set out to accomplish. They differ only in their aims. More to my point, though, I could not read with both aims in mind for they seemed to work against each other. As soon as I heightened my awareness of what I was doing, my strategic aims were unavoidably altered.

It therefore seems that a pedagogy designed to empower a reader with choices can only do so by eliminating a choice. That many instructors devalued my old approach was apparent in their disapproval of my impressionism in favor of views I could successfully defend. To be unconscious of critical issues, I was told, was to be "suckered" by the text (but what if that was the whole point of my strategic interpretive aim?).

And there is another irony in heightening my awareness of what I am doing as I read. Imagine a classroom situation where one student has just finished justifying her reading to the instructor, and so the instructor moves on to ask another student how he saw the text:

Instructor: Well, how did you read the text?
Student: Ditto.
Instructor: Ditto? What do you mean ditto?
Student: (Pointing to the other student) I mean I agree exactly with what she said.

Now it's not enough that students are aware of all of the critical possibilities. They must also justify their reading in a way that is unique from how others have done it (else there is nothing distinguishable for the instructor to assess). From the point of view of the unconscious interpretive strategist, originality of response is meaningless. Why should unoriginality of justification devalue the reading? Was it not as authentic? Did the reader not live it? And what's more, are the reader's impressions any less a part of his life because of their lack of originality? But the devaluation of unoriginal responses is often what happens in literature courses where other, quite separate aims are valued. Students first find themselves confronted with having to justify their reading, a kind of miniaturization of the publish or perish dilemma, and then find themselves in still another quandary. Whatever their justification is, it must be original.

So what am I saying? Is this an essay that could be entitled "In Praise of Unawareness and Unoriginality"? I hope not, and I don't mean to echo Pink Floyd in saying, "Hey, teachers, leave those kids alone." No, what I am seeking to point out is that the ability to interpret literature is not acquired; it is constitutive of being human. Thus raising students’ critical awareness is not inherently better than what can get done in ignorance of such awareness, in the same way that what gets done in Marxist criticism is not somehow inherently better than what gets done in Feminist criticism. It's just different.

If we seek a rationale for teaching critical theory, it can't be found by arguing or implying that the unexamined critical approach is not worth having. Obviously, many millions of people do live and read without any such detailed examination of their critical approach, and with every sign of keen enjoyment. No, to rationalize the teaching of critical awareness we will have to look elsewhere.

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