Approaches to Literature Wednesday, January 18th

Making Meaning



Literary Theory

Literary Criticism

How do we make meaning?

Bressler's eavesdropping scenarios are an attempt to illustrate how we make meaning.

  • What is being said, and how it is said, and what isn't being said
  • Circumstances of the "characters"
  • Elements that are involved, such as author, reader, speaker or narrator, etc.

To describe these overlapping "voices" of the author, speaker, reader and so on, Bressler introduces Mikhail Bakhtin’s term dialogic heteroglossia

“multiple worldviews and a variety of experiences are continually dialoguing with each other, resulting in multiple interactions, some of which are real and others of which are imagined” (307).

Aside from these kind of elements, which focus on the characters that are involved in creating meaning, other elements that factor in when we interpret texts, as seen in the classroom scenario, could include:

  • Language
  • Cultural and social dynamics
  • Gender
  • Historical context

We make meaning through...

  • individual experiences, cultures, beliefs, values, ideals, etc. that constitute our mental framework or worldview (Bressler 9)
"the set of assumptions or presuppositions that we all hold, either consciously or unconsciously, about the basic makeup of our world"

But other than personal philosophies or worldviews, how can we approach texts? What hermeneutics are involved in analyzing texts?

Hermeneutics: the theory and practice of interpretation

Hermeneutical principles: the rules that govern interpretation of text

Hermeneutics of recovery: the process of investigating how a text was received and evaluated by its contemporary readers

Hermeneutics of suspicion: the process of investigating the implied assumptions of a text (political, religious, cultural, linguist, etc.)

What is Theory?

  • Theory is interdisciplinary–a discourse with effects outside an original discipline.
  • Theory is analytical and speculative–an attempt to work out what is involved in what we call language or subject or history or meaning, etc.
  • Is a critique of common sense, of concepts taken as natural.
  • Is a reflexive—a thinking about thinking—inquiry into the categories we use in making sense of things, in literature and other discursive practices.

Theory can be frustrating

  • Can appear elusive
  • Can also make you want to seek more; "theory makes you desire mastery" (Culler 16).
  • There are many ways to analyze a text, some that contradict one another and some that can be used simultaneously

What is Literature?

Made up of at least these four components (Bressler 15):

  1. The work itself / the text
  2. The artist / author
  3. The world created within the work
  4. The reader

Functions of Literature

  • Exclude / suppresses?
  • Liberates?
  • Catalyst for solitary reflection?
  • Dangerous?

The paradox of literature—it is an institution that lives by exposing and criticizing its own limits

Why do we seek to define literature? Why is that important?

“because critics and theorists hope, in saying what literature is, to promote what they take to be the most pertinent critical methods and to dismiss methods that neglect the most basic and distinctive aspects of literature.”

What is Literary Theory?

Essentially, literary theory is a methodology for approaching literature, or

“the systematic account of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing it” (Culler 1)

Literary theory forces us to question our assumptions, beliefs, and feelings of a reading in order to challenge a "commonsense interpretation of a text" (Bressler 9) in order to force a deeper and richer analysis of the text.

What is Literary Criticism?

Difference between Literary Theory and Literary Criticism?

Bressler defines literary theory as "the assumptions (conscious or unconscious) that undergird our understanding of art, culture, aesthetics, and ideologies" (8)

Our text defines literary criticism as "the act of studying, analyzing, interpreting, evaluating, and enjoying a work of art" (Bressler 5).

“Whereas literary criticism involves our analysis of a text, literary theory concerns itself with our understanding of ideas, concepts, and intellectual assumptions upon which rests our actual literary critique” (Bressler 8)

We become critical readers when we use literary theory when reading a text. We become literary critics when we use the language of literary criticism to create a rich analysis of the text.

Function of Literary Criticism and the Literary Critic?

What is the function of literary criticism? Or that of the literary critic, what Bressler calls a “judge of literature” (6)?

“And it is through this discerning activity of criticism that we can knowingly and deliberately explore the questions that help define our humanity, critique our culture, evaluate our actions and feelings, or simply increase our appreciation and enjoyment of both literary work and our fellow human beings” (Bressler 6).

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