Saturday, May 19, 2012

Review: Literary Theory, Part I

As I’ve mentioned, I’m beginning graduate study this fall.  In preparation for that, I’m doing a lot of reading and studying for the eight diagnostic exams that I’ll have to take this August.  I’m not actually worried about these exams.  Apparently, nobody passes them all the first time, and I can retake them every few months.  But I digress.  The point is, I’m very much looking forward to a summer spent reading.  And as my job finished today, that summer has just begun.  Thus, while at the coffee shop this afternoon, it seemed appropriate to tackle the first of many academic books I plan to read as background for the research I’ll do at Duke, namely, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

I heard of this handy little book by Jonathan Culler from Jillian over at A Room of One’s Own (  Why literary theory?  Because the same ideas can be applied to musical works just as well as books.  I’ve recently become interested in learning what schools of theory exist so that I can self-consciously choose among them in my graduate work.

The book is not quite what I expected.  I imagined various chapters each describing a school of theory.  Instead, the author attempts to do exactly the opposite: rather than separating literary theory into many disparate parts, he analyzes what all these approaches have in common, and the conflicts with which they seek to engage.  He recommends right at the start that the reader turn to the appendix if he or she needs brief descriptions of each school.  So that’s where I started, and it was a highly educational read.  I’d no idea that these different approaches to a work were so formalized.  It was very eye-opening.  I’d always thought that my research to date was fairly homogeneous: I look at musical works in their historical context.  It turns out that my papers have actually utilized a number of different theories.  The majority of my senior thesis on Barbara Strozzi’s sacred music falls under the purview of cultural materialism.  A paper comparing the reception of two anthems on the same text by Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Weelkes employed phenomenology.  I took a structuralist approach to a paper on the implications of masks and other visual elements in two pieces by George Crumb.  And so on.

Here are my notes on each school of theory.  My engagement with the appendix included consideration of ways in which to employ these theories when practicing musicology.  This might be a really boring blog post from here on, but a valuable one for me in the future.  It would be a fascinating exercise when first engaging with a piece of music to think about it from all of these different angles, asking all of these questions and seeing what unexpected avenues of research come from the process.

Russian formalism – examines the language, form and technique of literature.  Looks at verbal devices rather than content itself.

What musical language is employed, and how are musical devices used?  How is the piece put together?  What does a strict theoretical analysis of a musical work tell you?

New criticism – examines the work as an aesthetic object in itself, looking at the interaction of its features rather than the work in its historical context.  How each element of a work contributes to a unified structure and meaning.  Close reading.

What sort of imagery, paradox, irony, ambiguity, and other aesthetic elements are present?  How do they all fit together to create a unified whole?  What can you learn by looking at music and text as an object in itself, independent of context?

Phenomenology – concerned with consciousness and the separation of subject and object.  Aesthetics of reception.

How does the author’s consciousness manifest in his/her works?  How have readers responded to the work?  How do readers respond to the work now?  What is the work’s reception history?

Structuralism – looks at underlying structures that make meaning possible, seeing the reader as the site of unconscious codes.  Systems of signification.  Semiotics is the science of signs, to understand behavior and communication.

How does the work have the meaning and effect that it does?  What cultural codes does it tap into?  Does it follow the rules of musical composition accepted at its time?

Poststructuralism – meta-structuralism.  Criticizes structuralist analyses, demonstrating the inadequacies and errors of structuralism since the theories get tangled in the phenomena they try to describe.  Since systems are always changing, it is impossible to define a complete and coherent system.

No idea how to apply this school of thought to musicological research.

Deconstruction – examining the hierarchical oppositions structuring Western thought, such as inside/outside, mind/body, literal/metaphorical, speech/writing, presence/absence, nature/culture, form/meaning.  All of these are culturally constructed oppositions produced by discourses that rely upon them.

How do these dualities play out in the work?  What tensions exist in the work itself, or how does the work contribute to larger cultural tensions?

Feminist theory – includes deconstructing the man/woman opposition, searching for the identity of women and the woman’s experience, criticizing the heterosexual normativity that creates the man/woman opposition, and analyzing male assumptions and the male gaze.  French feminism studies any radical force that undermines patriarchal discourse

How are women presented in the work?  How are men presented?  What does the work say about the relationship and balance of power between the two?

Psychoanalysis – the truth in a work emerges not from the analyst’s interpretation but from the way that analyst and work are replaying the text itself

Hermeneutics? : How is my interpretation of this musical work colored by my own experiences?

Marxism – interpreting cultural patterns by relating them back to the base of culture.  Social formation as a loose structure in which different levels or types of practice develop at different times.

How does the work reflect different (unconscious) social and ideological structures?

Cultural materialism – examines the historical context of a work, how it is situated within the discursive practices and institutions of the period

How was the work produced?  Under what conditions?  How did culture affect it?  How does it reflect social realities?  What connections does it have to other texts?

New historicism – sort of the opposite of cultural materialism.  Not how a work reflects its culture, but how it opposes it

How is the work a product of antagonistic practices?  How does it critique or subvert ideologies of its day?

Postcolonial theory – examining the consequences of European colonization, and attempting to restore the independent histories of postcolonial societies.  Looking at the hybrid nature caused by conflicting languages and cultures.

Is the work the product of a postcolonial society?  How does it reflect or subvert European hegemony?  What is the relationship between Western and non-Western discourses within it?

Minority discourse – reviving, promoting, and studying the cultural identity and discourse of minority groups.

How is the minority experience lived out in this work, and how does it relate to the dominant tradition?  What are the assumptions of the majority?

Queer theory – analyzing the cultural construction of heterosexual normativity.  Questioning sexuality and culture’s denial of homoerotic relations.  Contesting identity.  Contesting the systematization of difference.  Attempting to determine whether differences should be normalized or celebrated.

What does the work say about sexuality and relationships?  How does this make a statement about its culture?  What value judgments are implied or explicitly stated about gender and sexuality?  Does the work reinforce or undermine traditional identities?

Ecocriticism – studying representations of nature and the environment.  Ethical considerations regarding these representations.

What does the work say about nature and the environment?  What does it say about man’s relationship to nature?  Does it reinforce propensities to dominate and exploit nature?  Does it imply desire or need for change in humans’ relationship to the environment?

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