“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell from 1984
Are we all really a blank canvas? Critical Theory as I understand it, applies rules and structures to the human experience. The human experience that is, based upon cultural situation. Instead of seeing a very one-directional view of the world, Critical Theories offer readers new structures and guidelines to aid in reading a text against the grain.
It is a great starting point for viewing and reading a text in a different way. It opens up new sides of the brain. A student is taught up until college to analyze a piece of literature based on feeling and emotions. “How do you feel about the text? Do you like the text? Can you relate to this text?” are the questions often asked in high schools and undergraduate programs. Americans are used to a self-centered of method of reading and to only applying art (in the context of this paper art is referring to fine art, as well as literature as art) to their own life, but there is much more to art. Such an analysis of a piece does not particularly allow for a text to speak for itself in the realm of literature as an art; or based upon its own individual merit.
New Criticism clearly sought to remedy this problem. But how could a piece of art stand alone, unattached or unrelated to the world that shaped its entire being? “What sort of a footprint might a piece of art leave on the world behind it?” is something that the New Historicist would ask. Texts and stories that arise in a specific time period can tell a reader a lot about the time periodin which it was written. The viewer/critic should always ask himself/herself what role that piece plays in the great scheme of art in the world, and what factors influenced the writing of such a piece. With this in consideration, it seems natural to analyze a text first and foremost through the New Historical perspective. Even while using New Historicism as a guideline, it is important to keep in mind that it also is based upon and controlled by other theories. Without the cultural experience in which a text was written, a text would simply not be written the way that it is.
History books are based on decided facts. A historian decides that for any given time period certain facts are more important than others to share. This allows many occurrences to slip through the cracks of history, only to be forgotten. This underlines the importance of power and Post-Colonial theory. The concentration camps for Japanese citizens in the U.S during world war II are casually left out of books because certain events are considered more important in the time frame, and it is an embarrassing comparison with the Nazi Camps in Germany, which the government would rather not mention. Certain facts can easily be left out if they are deemed politically taboo. In Arizona/Southwest history books, where the majority of these camps were located, events about the Spanish history of Arizona take precedence. Many students and people from the area have never heard of the occurrence. That story was never mentioned in my schoolbooks as a child growing up Arizona. The more events are left out of history books, the more easily they are forgotten and can be written out of history, further shaping the following the generation. It is an uncomfortable and sad side effect of time turning into a virtual re-writing history.
A person’s perception of the world starts at a very young age and will affect him for his entire life. As soon as Jaques Lacan’s notorious Mirror-Stage occurrence happens, a child’s world is changed forever. Thus, with the beginning of the imago, which allows the child to break out of living in his innenwelt (organism; world inside of him) into the Umwelt (reality; world outside of him), which then sets the series of pressures upon the developed ego, he is then further fragilized through the structures of the world around him, he is now bound to these as strongly as he is the language that is imposed upon him. The child from this moment is forced to accept that he looks like the image he sees in the world, which already has numerous assumptions and preconceptions towards it which he does not yet know, and from this moment on, within the language he speaks, he will follow suit into the structures that come with that language. Indeed his language will be influenced by the people he surrounds himself with and the experiences that he has. Through this experience, he creates his own image, his own habits become a concoction of pieces of his own uniqueness and individuality. But these are also never fully unique, they are tainted with hints of all the previous experience and existence of those before him, he is perhaps unknowingly imitating their life and art and recreating it with his own style.
It seems crucial then to take the history of a story into consideration when analyzing it. A text cannot stand alone as one brilliant piece of the “best of the best” as New Critics states. The Great Gatsby would not be The Great Gatsby unless the lavish flapper culture of the 1920’s existed, which arose out of the idealist movement that spiked in popularity during the flapper culture in the Roaring Twenties. As far as other theories are concerned, many often fall simply into overruling theories such as Deconstruction, Structuralism and New Historicism or even Marxist theory which take the broader picture of life into consideration and deem the underlying structures of the world the basis for all aspects of life. Unless the story is particularly geared towards feminist, queer theory etc., then it may not particularly apply. Psychoanalytic criticism can be applied in most situations, as it is a basis for the human experience and one’s interpretation of their perceptions of the world around them. These perceptions are then further supplemented by the theories of Marxist Criticism and underline the fact that human perceptions are based upon the economy and a greater superstructure, which is based on culture. This requires an underlying structure; a theory mostly developed by Ferdinand de Saussure in accordance to its application to the science of language; linguistics. When the notion of structure is applied to other forms of theory, it does in fact apply. In fact, in life the signs and signifiers that are encountered in daily interaction within language or otherwise are based solely upon the experiences that a person has had, in relation to the situations and stories that were read as a person grew up. Different cultures have different traditions, different storybooks, as well as some shared ones, as in the Grimm Brothers tales which is just as popular in American culture because of Disney’s recreations of many of the stories, as they are in German Culture. In order for a little girl to understand the concept of why a “damsel in distress” might want to be rescued by a Prince on a white horse, or even have that sort of a notion of a fairy tale, she must have read Rapunzel as a child, a common western culture fairytale. A girl in another faraway country without such notions of fairytales wouldn’t sit around waiting for a prince charming to come rescue her. The discursive community in which a text is produced produces the way of thinking and also the language and thought of the text being produced. Because the text was written in a specific language, some overruling community conquered some other culture in order for that language to remain the prevalent language spoken. Thus, Post-Colonial theory can be applied to really any text as well. By simply writing the text in a language, it is participating in the discourses of power.
These influences have a subconscious effect on the author of the text. To emphasize the importance of an author on the text he creates, to quote Oscar Wilde, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” For critics of art and literature, it is important to consider the text separate from how it makes him/her feel, taking into consideration that the critic also cannot rid of certain biases from his/her own cultural experiences and background. As every experienced creative writer knows, fiction is the art of creating a story either inclusive of his/her own personal story and experience, or completely exclusive from it. It can be created as a purposeful witty attack such as Voltaire’s Candid to make a point and criticize the world around him, or as creative fiction disguised in many guises such Leo Tolstoy’s work, who can switch from various character points of view quite interchangeably. That in mind, Tolstoy’s and Voltaire’s settings and the concepts that remain in the texts are what are based on an overlying superstructure, these are based on the world they lived in and by the way in which they understand and perceive their worlds as a Russian writer and as a French philosopher in the Enlightenment. Even if a person wrote a short story about an alien family living on Mars, creating a complete work of fiction about a world no one knows, most likely that story would tend to create foreign creatures in the familial setting based on the one in which the author knows, imposing the authors own superstructure within an “alien” world. These structures; the Grundeis of life as Karl Marx would say, whether humans like it or not, rule the human experience and all actions. Jacques Derrida’s theory emphasizes, as completely opposite and binary as two people or situations might seem, share similarities and experiences, wants, needs, and structures. To apply the theory that Structuralism, Deconstructionism and New Historicism might in fact all work together, one might take a more modern story such as Make Way for Ducklingsand consider it in the context of the year 900 BC, just as language as a written entity was beginning to exist. It was being used to tell stories usually about God and actions in life should celebrate and please God. These stories relate the basic needs and wants of a person crucial to their being, and thus a text could not technically stand alone as an entity because it was so simple and matter-of-fact and existed before the world was overruled or overly colonized, or controlled by capitalistic economies. Their world began the structures that the current generation of people based their theories and structures upon. Thus, a story such the heroic lay poem The Lay of Hildebrand from the year 900 BC written in Old High German and created in a monastery in Germany can still be told and understood today in the year 2013 in not only Western culture, but probably many others as well. It tells the story of two warriors in battle, a concept that can be applied to the modern day world very easily. Men in 2013 still fight battles to defend their basic needs and wants. Even simple stories, such as the children’s story Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClosky, are based on the underlying structures of a patriarchal society, capitalistic society. The most basic scenes such as the ducks holding up traffic or a police officer having to stop traffic in order for ducks to cross would be foreign to a person from 900 BC. A person from that time would on the other hand understand the idea of leading a family to happiness and safety. In order to enjoy the text, the reader does not have to know and understand all of the factors, structures and signs that are being recognized and perceived within the text, and these don’t all even have to be understood to deem the text and/or art as “good.” These theories are there in order to interpret the text in a critical way. An understanding or knowledge of critical theory fleshes out the reader’s own understanding of the text. Reading texts with their historical context in mind elaborates on the reader’s understanding of the time period. This should occur regardless of the author’s intention and without holding the author’s personal experience against a text, which would judge it solely based on the author’s experience and his understood intention. This sort of analysis of a text’s significance is completely unfair to the merit of the text.
As one further explores the theories within Critical Theory, the recurring theme of imitation becomes prominent, recurring themes arise in short stories as well as in history. So does the art imitate life, or does life imitate the art? According to Aristotle’s Poetics and Plato’s idea of the perfect form, mankind is all trying to reach the perfect ideal of everything, and there exists a perfect version of everything. Humankind is always trying to reach something better, a higher status, a better happiness. Thus the question is drawn back to, “are we imitating the art and the world and the culture that we see around us?” or “is our art and culture imitating the world that we live in?” Everyone is in such a rush to find something better, because it seems that there is always a person that has something better. In order to answer this question, it must be understood that the entire human experience is based upon the culture that surrounds it. In order for a person to be “strange”, or “weird”, or to be classified as such, there must be an opposite to that, as in Aristotle’s poetics, there must binary opposition. The human race consists of artists imitating the structures that surround it. As Derrida’s argument explains, there can be no “best of” anything because nothing is ever static, everything is discursive.