Interpreting Lear and karaoke

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism and Postmodern Narrative Theory . First Edition - Postmodern Narrative Theory. First Edition - Literary Theory - Literature. First Edition - The English Studies Book. First Edition
May 28, 1999

It is a commonplace to say that literature is in crisis; what is less commonly observed is that this is a crisis manufactured by critics to give purpose to the study of literature. According to Literature , the latest book from the excellent Routledge New Critical Idiom series, the term literature is contaminated by conservatism, elitism, exclusivity and Eurocentrism. The reiteration of these charges establishes a critic's radical credentials without he or she ever having to leave their office. This does not apply to Peter Widdowson who, in the early 1980s, was one of the first to challenge the complacencies of the critical establishment. Since then, however, serious issues have hardened into aggressive orthodoxies.

The virtue of this book is that it provides a context for understanding why "literature" now attracts such opprobrium. Widdowson traces the history of the term from Plato to the present. We see literature dismissed as an imitation of an imitation and praised as a form of lofty expression. We are reminded that "literature", in the sense of fine writing, appears in the 18th century when Samuel Johnson praises Bishop Sprat for his "pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language (which) have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature". In the mid-19th century Matthew Arnold looks to literature to avert anarchy, and to poetry "to interpret life for us, to console us (and) to sustain us". His ideas find their way into the Newbolt report of 1921, which promotes literature as a means of cementing the social order. Finally we reach F. R. Leavis with his view that the best literature "communicat(es) a felt significance, something that confirms our sense of life as more than a mere linear succession of days".

The various literary theories that mushroomed after 1968 were a reaction against this tradition. Feminism and post-colonialism drew attention to its gender and ethnic bias while Marxists showed its class-based nature. Structuralists rewrote literature in terms of binary oppositions instead of imaginative creations and they were followed by post-structuralists who asserted that literary works are a chaos of conflicting meanings. In short, "literature" was a problem to be explained, not an artefact to be evaluated.

Having said that, Widdowson does not want to abandon the idea of evaluation altogether. His objection to traditional literary criticism is not just that the criteria of judgement were unclear, but that it projected value into the work while treating it as a property of it. In place of this, Widdowson proposes a "purpose-driven criticism" that discriminates between texts on the grounds of how well they fulfil the task assigned to them, be that "the pleasure they provide as holiday reading" or "the insight they give into 18th-century attitudes to sexuality".

But this is still to ventriloquise the work instead of attending to it as sensitively, faithfully and closely as possible. It is to read into it what you want to get out of it and that is precisely what the books reviewed here teach you to do. Literary Theory offers a masterclass on how to apply literary theories to literary texts. Hence we have formalist, structuralist, Marxist, gender and historicist readings of King Lear. Each reading is prefaced by a brief outline of the theory before it is rigorously applied to the play. Whether we learn anything new is a moot point. Do we need a formalist to tell us "low language deflates high language to guide perceptions towards truth and away from falsehood"? Just listen to Lear's Fool. Similarly, does a structuralist account really add to our knowledge of Lear when it states that, as fathers, Gloucester and Lear are "functionally equivalent"? Shakespeare makes that fact so obvious that even conservative critics like G. Wilson-Knight noticed it and, indeed, commented on it. The Marxist analysis that Lear's "fall is an analogy for the crisis of the aristocracy in the 16th century" may be true, but it reduces a great tragedy to a mere illustration. Students will find this book useful for writing essays but it is doubtful whether it will further their understanding of literature.

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism and Postmodern Narrative Theory are part of the Macmillan Transitions series. Like Routledge's New Critical Idiom, it aims to introduce students to a particular critical theory and show how it may be applied. This started with the New Accents series back in 1977, so things have not moved very far. It is a sad reflection of the state of the market that publishers compete with one another to perpetuate the existence of ideas whose moment has long passed. John Brannigan provides a clear and informative guide to new historicism and cultural materialism. He describes their key contexts and theorists and gives examples of how they might be applied. Both new historicism and cultural materialism view the literary text as enacting and, to some extent, subverting the power relations of wider society. It is argued that since this is a function of all writing, there is no reason to privilege Middlemarch over a beer mat. New historicists believe that subversion is always produced in the interests of power while cultural materialists claim that effective resistance is always possible and so "have been intervening in contemporary power relations". Not to much effect, it has to be said. Still, if they have not got new Labour on the back foot over the proposed asylum bill, cultural materialists have at least given Tennyson a severe reprimand for being in "the textual vanguard of the historical movement of imperialism".

As is to be expected from books in the same series, Mark Currie follows a similar format. After first tracing the change from the scientific description of narrative to the postmodern realisation that such description was itself a narrative and that narrative is, therefore, an inescapable condition, he illustrates how the theory should be applied by giving an exemplary reading of Heart of Darkness . With chapter headings that challenge your powers of enunciation - try getting your tongue round "Terminologisation" - Currie's book is more specialised than the others and so where they will slot easily into any English course, his is more relevant for modules on the novel or postmodernism.

Lots of students and some lecturers will be grateful for Rob Pope's The English Studies Book . This multi-purpose tome offers brief histories, concise definitions, cues for discussion and practical activities for seminar work. In addition, it is supported by a website and lists the addresses of relevant journals. I would not have bought it, but am glad to have it and will probably use it. It is very practical, very functional, very balanced and very revealing about the state of English studies today.

What these books suggest, in sum, is that the study of "literature" trains the student to apply different techniques without regard for the object on which they are employed. It does not matter whether you use King Lear or karaoke ; it is the proper application of the method that is important. What has disappeared over the past 30 years is the idea that a literary work is a created world whose insistent particularity demands we adjust our perceptions if we are to experience it. There is no sense in these books that "literature" has anything to offer, that it may be, in the words of Raymond Williams, "enriching, liberating and refining". If these terms seem ridiculous, then that is an index of how much we have lost. The professionalisation of criticism, which is an interesting aside in Brannigan, Currie and Widdowson, belies its radical claims. There is no crisis, only conformity and to that end criticism has done, and continues to do, the state some considerable service.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

New Historicism and Cultural Materialism and Postmodern Narrative Theory . First Edition

Author - John Brannigan
ISBN - 0 333 68780 9 and 68781 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - Gary Day
Pages - 249

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments