Sunday, May 1, 2011

An Overwrought Argument

Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels make a critically audacious claim in their essay "Against Theory"-- that the practice of literary theory per se should be abandoned. Their reason for this is an assumption that, while blasphemous to mainstream scholars of literature, deserves consideration: meaning is categorically equivalent to intention. Though critics flail reflexively against this assertion, citing the plethora of pluralistic meanings reaped from a text through critical theoretical approaches, their definition of meaning seems to me to be abusively expansive. Of course there can be as many personal lessons, cultural applications, etc. drawn from the ideas presented in a text as there are individual readers, but meaning is NOT synonymous with relevance or valence, as these critics implicitly assume. Knapp and Michaels take issue only with the "attempt to govern interpretation of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general." (723)

While I find their basic premise to be a valid and provocative idea, the argument which they put forth to defend it tends to complicate and consequently weaken their case. It seems to me that one must either choose to accept or reject their definition of meaning. If one does not, their entire argument is futile. If one does, it is a long-winded sermon to the choir, for, like their vision of intention and meaning, there is no gap between their definition and the case built thereupon. In particular, their example of the poem in the sand that appears to have been written by the insentient waves, while initially compelling, seems to rest on faulty assumptions. "But in the second case-- where the marks now seem to be accidents-- will they still seem to be words? Clearly not. They will merely seem to resemble words... What you thought was poetry turns out not to be poetry at all. It's not poetry because it isn't language; that's what it means to call it an accident." (728) This analogy misses the point that critical theorists make when they "interpret" a text. They do not see the author's language, or the signifier as accidental, but assume that there can exist signifieds that are accidental, mutable, and plural.

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