Positive and Negative

Negative and Positive

In the rush to get things done at the end of the semester, some thoughts have been avalanching at me regarding the research I’ve done. I feel like I should note them in a brief and unsupported way.

I moved from “literature” to rhetoric in a long and twisted way. What bothers me about the current state of literary studies is the emphasis on political-cultural-gender-race-economic studies. I’m really not all that interested in treating texts as tea leaves where issues about the greater society can be read like a fortune. Of course, similar things are going on in Rhet/Comp, but the emphasis on productive discourse (new writing, not just old) and the wider variety of condoned “texts” for study attracts me more.

I’m interested in how we can say anything at all. Of course we do, all the time—but what makes one way of reading (or writing) a text preferred outside the contexts of politics-culture-gender-race and economics? The quick response is usually to say that a preferred reading cannot exist outside these contexts. I don’t think that is true. There is such a thing as “common sense” which is not “community sense”—without it there would be no such thing as community sense. I suppose this pegs me as an anachronistic humanist, but so be it.

I’ve been forced to defend my resistance to cultural theory numerous times in the past few months. It isn’t because I don’t see the value in it—or that I have not read it or understand it. It is simply because what interests me is how human beings put words or images on page or screen and seek to communicate using these tools. I don’t think that cultural theory has the answers I seek. It is deeply implicated in it, yes—genre conventions and modes of discourse arise due to cultural factors, but these cultural factors do not construct discourse alone. I think that the way that we process language and images (cognitive theories and language philosophy) has more to do with it. Many of these theories are positive and generative in nature, rather than negative.

After reading a lot of queer theory, feminist theory, Marxist theory, etc., I really got tired of the entirely negative approach—language is filled with “gaps” economics is constructed around power transfer (which usually results in the poor getting shafted, etc.). Life isn’t sales. Language isn’t hopelessly flawed—it works, and it works in really magical ways—at least in my opinion.

I think the “flaws” in language can also be thought of as features. We express ourselves with incredible economy and speed. I’m interested more in how it works rather than doesn’t work. I feel like I have developed a conceptual framework for considering how communication works, which although it involves cultural and political issues, is not culture or politics in the larger sense of these terms. I am interested in issues of representation, which are never neutral. But neither are they entirely social, psychological, or economic. Each mode of study has something to contribute; but I am interested in the positive core of it all—the concept that we can make meaning through representation, not just regenerate existing structures. Otherwise, there is no potential for meaningful change.

4 thoughts on “Positive and Negative”

  1. An “anachronistic humanist”? Say it isn’t so. I agree with everything you say here. Your recent re-reading of Matthew Arnold hasn’t infected your thinking, has it?

  2. In a word, no.
    There is a big difference between saying that preferred interpretations exist, and saying that they are right. Preferred carries with it the unfortunate connotation of “better” but I did not mean it in that sense at all.
    There is a tension between natural language philosophy and belles lettres. Arnold’s claim that we should study the “best and brightest” to find their common center is quite a different thing than looking at ordinary discourse and trying to figure out where that center is. The first is couched in cultural assumptions, whereas the latter is constructed around cognitive ones.

  3. I quite agree with you. I’m not an Arnoldian in any way (or few ways). Compared to Arnold, I’m a thoroughgoing postmodernist.

  4. Criticism & Rhetoric

    Like Jeff Ward, I’m more interested in the practice of writing than the theory & I’ve worked over the last couple of years toward a clearer understanding of rhetoric. As a poet I’m interested in the nuts & bolts of language as it gets used. And when Wa…

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