Theorists Like Pictures, Too

20 Jul

Whilst meandering through the empty and cob-webbed hall of the Rhodes College English Department, I found some really great, though dust-covered, tomes of apparently used up or slightly soiled essays within the realm of Critical Theory (you know, that strange bastard child whose birth parents could be philosophy, literary study, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and maybe even economics). Being the tireless and insatiable intellect that I am, I left one of these books lying on the countertop of my bathroom sink, right by the toilet.

Little did I know how unshitty of a read it would be. The anthology is called THE CRITICAL TRADITION: CLASSIC TEXTS AND CONTEMPORARY TRENDS. It goes everywhere from old-school classics like Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus to such new wave theorists as Julia Kristeva or Roman Jakobson (who’s slowly becoming a smouldering crush of mine, but tell this to no one). But wait, I haven’t gotten to the best part. It’s normally the part that most readers skip, or that good readers normally hate because it gives away all the best parts of the book before they’ve even had the chance of reading it.

The introduction’s got pictures galore, at least, more pictures than I had ever expected to be in a book on critical theory. Although, a nota bene, these pictures are all in reference to different classificatory systems that theorists have tried to apply to the study of Critical Theory.  One such theorist is M.H. Abrams, who in 1953 drew this beautiful schematic:

Abrams' ClassificationWithin the spaces between Work and Audience, Work and Artist, and Work and Universe lie different functional theories. Expressive Theories explain (or at least seek to elucidate) the relationship of the artist to the work or the special characteristics an artist brings to her/his work, such as genius, or soul, or “emotion recollected in tranquility” (Wordsworth). These theories were really en vogue during the 18th and 19th centuries, which means poets like Wordsworth or Shelley and maybe even Byron were drinkin the punch. Mimetic Theories, in Abrams pictorial description, are ones that explain the relationship between the Universe and the Work, most of which mainly came down to whole philosophical treatises on how the Wok is an imitation of the Universe and a debate on whether it was a good copy or not. These theories were found mainly in antiquity (Aristotle coined the term mimesis in his POETICS). Then, of course, there are Rhetorical Theories, theories which state either how a work should be written to influence an audience or what qualities an audience must have to truly appreciate said Work. Rhetorical Theories were most prevalent in the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance with hip cats like Samuel Johnson and maybe even John Milton.

Last, but certainly not least, is the surprise classification of theory– that which deals with the Work itself in all its various parts, with all its supposed schemes and motifs. It seeks to analyze the thing, the Work I mean, in and of itself as an object separate from all other things. This realm of theory is called, understandably, Formal Theory, because it deals only with the form of the Work itself. Most book club discussions and quite a few high school English courses are basically exercises in Formal Theory. Hence the reason why you never got to talk about how the author wrote the work, or how good of an imitation of real life it is, or why you may/may not understand everything in the work and you only discussed what happened in the book itself, or the book’s symbolism, maybe. If you were lucky…

Anyway, the question arises (right at the end of this post) why even bring this up? This picture and its attempt at classification. Well one on-the-spot reason is that these classifications do help to bring a certain order to what can feel like a rather topsy-turvy world. Critical Theory is immense in its production of stuff, some good some bad, all intimidating in its quantity. This is kinda the same feeling that Franz, a professor in Milan Kundera’s THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, tries to explain to his (and, actually, another character’s) lover, Sabina in a discussion of books:

“Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by universities.”

But the real reason I bring it up is because the idea that there are multiple ways to attack something like understanding Literature or Art only reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the Elephant, and its ambiguous though ingenious lesson.  I’ll leave you with the picture.

The Elephant and the Blind Men


2 Responses to “Theorists Like Pictures, Too”

  1. Andrew July 20, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Great post.

    • Dev Varma July 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

      Thank you, sir.

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