4.21.2010

Discuss

From Catherine Garrett's article, "Weal and Woe: Suffering, Sociology, and the Emotions of Julian of Norwich":
"...for most people, literature has more power than theory: that is, narrative reaches more people than metanarrative, even though behind every story is an earlier, greater story which gives it form (Game & Metcalfe, 1996). The power of narrative... comes from its ability to generate emotions to which theory can only refer."
Pastoral Psychology, 49.3, 2001. pp. 187-203.

6 comments:

pure_sophist_monster said...

How does this inform your teaching, Casey? Do you require students to write about what they read? I am not just being snarky here?

Casey said...

No, that's a good question. At this point, it sorta doesn't inform my teaching very much... although, the idea seems to be that the very act of reading narrative generates the important emotions. So I do everything I can to get them to actually read, from begging to quizzing to discussion and so on.

But--coincidentally?--today I am having students each read a personal reflection paper (~300 words) that is based on an excerpt or quote of their choice from our anthology. It's a kind of exam review exercise, to remind them of things we haven't touched on in a while, but it also forces them to weave someone else's narrative into their own.

Theoretically. Any other ideas?

Jon Sealy said...

I think Garrett's comments are fair. Do theorists believe their role is to generate emotion? The same holds true in politics: there's the power of rhetoric, which generates emotion, and then there's the dull theorizing in the chambers of the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO has an important function, but its members aren't meant to persuade the same way a politician in front of constituents is.

It's a bit insulting to theorists when she talks about the "power" of narrative, because the implication is that theorists are powerless. (That may be true, but it's still poor form to bring it up.)

What I'm more interested to hear, Casey, is why you bring this up. Painful as it is to a serious thinker, it seems obvious that a narrative (such as TWILIGHT or HARRY POTTER) reaches people on a visceral level that no theory can, just as Redskins fans are more interested in whether their team wins than in the racist overtones of their team's name. But there's your function of theory: to keep the world in check, to analyze the dangers of raw emotion to ensure that power isn't too far corrupted.

Casey said...

Jon, that's a really great and difficult question.

It has to do with our definition of education (and liberal arts). As I see it, reading Moby-Dick cannot be defended as an end in itself. The same goes for reading Derrida. But, taken alongside other liberal arts and given historical context(s), etc., it's my contention that Moby-Dick can facilitate a kind of inner transformation.

This is harder to explain, obviously. Put as unobjectionably as possible, it's about transforming from adolescence to adulthood (in an "American" way, maybe?).

So then I'm just arguing that reading Melville and Hawthorne does the trick better than reading Derrida.

It's my impression that there are too many graduate students who are reading Deleuze but still pining for the stamp of institutional authority at the end of graduate school. In other words, it seems that the "Theory" isn't ever coming to fruition in action.

I've gotta go to lunch -- but let me come back to this in a soon-future post.

Jon Sealy said...

It's interesting that you say Moby-Dick can't be defended as an end in itself. Can any book? Could you read a Dan Brown thriller without having at least some cultural knowledge (such as the English language, a rudimentary understanding of Christianity)? Unless we're going to accept that no book could be read as an end in itself without a certain degree of context (cultural, historical, theoretical, whatever), I'd argue that you can view Moby-Dick or Derrida as an end in itself.

I'm going to be somewhat hypocritical, given that I've been to graduate school, and say one problem seems to be that academia has institutionalized texts, and made it seem as though we need a lot of serious context to understand a book. Moby-Dick is a damn fine read, and maybe in today's world (Kids today!) having more of a liberal arts background can help bring about a transformation in the reader, but I also think my dad could read that book and get something out of it, even though he only took the required freshman English in college some thirty years ago.

I'm sure he'd enjoy Moby-Dick more than Derrida, so that might speak to your point that certain works lend themselves to transformation more easily, but I still cling to this (possibly romantic) view of some everyman reading a book, whether Derrida or Melville or Walt F-ing Whitman, and getting something out of it.

Talk to me more about what you mean by "the stamp of institutional authority."

Casey said...

Jon, you said "...getting something out of it."

And in that way, the book isn't an end in itself, but a means to that something.

See for me, if books aren't going to change (ideally for the better) the way we live, then they seem a tragic waste of time to me. Like internet porn, then. But if they are a "way" to some kind of psycho-spiritual reorientation, then they're good...

...IF, if, the psycho-spiritual reorientation isn't just learning to use new words, but actually changes the way you live your life with regard to things like values, ethical conduct, etc.

---

By "stamp of institutional authority" I just meant getting a Ph.D., which is official recognition of something. It seems to me that the whole point of Deleuze in particular, but postmodernism in general, is in large part to undermine our regard for those kinds of institutional stamps. Nevertheless, droves of graduate students are completing Ph.D.s -- and ultimately seeking tenured department chair positions -- in what is essentially an "anti-discipline. It's the height of absurdity, from my vantage point.

The reason I don't feel that I've fallen trap to that particular hypocrisy is that I think of literature as a discipline, and I think of a discipline as a means to... something "higher," or better, or more noble, or whatever. I'm still ironing out the kinks when it comes to naming the end (but you are too, as I quoted above: calling it only "something").

I'm still here, if you want to continue following up. This is fascinating to me. But, note: baby could come any time.