In the past fifty years or so, the language of literary criticism has become increasingly and unnecessarily complex. I have read that it needs to be so because the ideas that it discusses are so novel and complicated that they require a new and highly specialised language. Yet complicated ideas are not new, and the extremes literary critics have gone to convolute even simple ideas seem well beside the point. In the introduction to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, the editors describe three methods of reading. I present the example below first, though it is the last in the introduction, because it is the simplest:
And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a mode of exegisis wherein the reader’s rewriting or restaging of the text replaces the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.
Though from this sentence we get a clear picture of de Man’s theory, that each reader constructs his own version of the text as he reads it, we are also confronted with some startling, even bizarre, word choices. Why are we given “as a mode of exegesis”, for example? Very simply, “exegesis” means “exposition”, or “description or explanation”. “A mode of exegesis” would, therefore, essentially mean “an interpretation”. Why isn’t the simpler form used? Because if you inserted it into the sentence, it wouldn’t make sense. There’s no need to introduce the idea of exegesis, because we are already talking about critical reading, which is the same thing. “A mode”, in this sentence, is purely superfluous, as whatever follows “Paul de Man instead pictures reading” is necessarily going to be one man’s idea of reading. “Wherein the reader’s” is also superfluous, made necessary only by the addition of “a mode of exegesis”. Eliminating those two phrases, we get:
And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a rewriting or restaging of the text, replacing the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.
Not only is the necessary idea communicated, it is communicated in a way that is more direct and less likely to confuse or mislead the reader, whoever that reader may be.
The other two descriptions of reading seem to me only useful as entries in a bibliography. They transmit little useful information other than the names of two critics who may have written important works on reading.
Friedrich Schleiermacher draws a detailed account of interpretation both as historically informed grammatical explication and as psychological identification with the author. His view contrasts with the perspective of Fredric Jameson, who advocates ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts.
I understand that the above contains a lot of nonsense. Don’t worry. We will go slowly. The first major miscommunication seems to be the idea of “grammatical explication”. What on earth could that be? The word “explication” is not in my dictionary, which may be too plainspoken for this enterprise. The word seems to come from “explore” or “explain”, and a quick search on Google seems to confirm this. So we have grammatical explanation, or the explanation of grammar. We are not told how grammar is explained or interpreted: only that it is considered. Perhaps Schliermacher counts the proportion of semi-colons used to commas and uses this magical number to reveal something important about the author, or maybe he connects periods with his pen and constructs elaborate labyrinths on each page. I’m sure that I am wrong, but there is no way of knowing because no useful information is given. We could investigate how Schleiermacher’s “grammatical explication” is particularly “historically informed”, but it’s pointless to discuss the historical legacy of nothing.
“Psychological identification” also seems to me curious. Does Schleiermacher see himself in every author, or does he, almost like a kidnapped victim developing Stockholm syndrome, come to intimately understand, and maybe even love, each author as he reads their book? There’s no real way of telling. Or, what is more likely, maybe Schleiermacher uses texts to identify the psychological traits of their authors. That might be so–but how does he do this, and what are his motives? Without this crucial information we are left with a phrase that is so ephemeral that it means nothing unless one has actually read Schleiermacher; it is the very definition of vacuousness. Cutting the text down accordingly, Fredrich Schleiermacher’s sentence-and-a-half now looks like this:
Freidrich Schleiermacher’s view contrasts with
It’s possible you see where this is going.
Fredric Jameson “advocates ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts.” Let’s start with “social contradictions”. What could those be? I have no idea. A search on google suggests that a social contradiction is “two forces pulling in opposite directions”. So, to make this example sensible, let’s say “creationism” and “darwinism” are an example of a social contradiction, because they are two forces pulling in opposite directions. How is saying that they are a social contradiction more useful than simply saying they are opposed to one another? What is gained by saying that they are a “social contradiction”? Is the idea of “social contradiction” just a way of saying that two competing ideas exist in society? Why do we need a specialised shorthand for that?
The selection from the Norton Anthology seems to suggest that you can critique the ideology of social contradictions “manifested in texts”, and that this is something Jameson believes we do–or should do–as we read. I don’t see how such a critique is possible, or what it would entail. Is it the critique of the author’s use of opposing forces? Or is it the critique of opposing forces casually invoked by the author…? Or, only because the previous two examples don’t really make sense, is it neither? The same goes for “class antagonisms” and “historical stages of social development”. There doesn’t seem to me anything inherently ideological about those ideas, although social development and issues of class are important when discussing ideology. But in the particular, they don’t really mean anything more than “social contradiction” does, and to investigate them further seems to me needless. I’m sure they mean something–but, like in the case with Schleiermacher–they are unintelligible unless you have read Jameson. As we’re quoting from an introduction to literary criticism, and not from an afterward to a book comparing Schleiermacher and Jameson’s approaches to reading, we will cut accordingly. Jameson’s sentence becomes:
Putting everything we’ve done together, we get:
Freidrich Schleiermacher’s view contrasts with Fredric Jameson’s. And Paul de Man pictures reading as a rewriting or restaging of the text, replacing the original with interpretative allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes “misreading”.
One intelligible idea, two erratic and undefined allusions. I wish I could say that the passage I have quoted from the introduction to the anthology was spectacular: it wasn’t. I chose it at random and believe it to be indicative of the whole.