Presentation Portfolio | Essay 2: Summary and Evaluation


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Abstract of Iser’s How to Do Theory

Iser, Wolfgang. Introduction. How to do Theory, Blackwell, 2006, pp. 1-13.

Iser explains how literary theory came about in historical terms and its importance, hard-core and soft theory, why there are multiple modes of theory, and method and discourse. The introduction of theory became necessary when it came time for critics to analyze the meaning of art rather than simply make it. People turned away from pluralism toward holism, beginning to consider both the elements of art’s aesthetics and its spiritual nature. In this way critics started “conceiving art as a medium for the appearance of truth” (2). Theory then served as a way to rectify the mass confusion caused by impressionistic criticism. Finally, the myriad of viewpoints concerning interpretation created confusion, ultimately leading professors to define for everyone what was deemed academic literature. As a result, critics developed the predisposition to analyze a work for the “correct meaning. Next, Iser explains that hard-core theory is composed of predictions and facts that can be tested and “aims ultimately at mastering something.” Meanwhile, soft theory creates “maps” of textual relationships and “strives to discern something” (5). Iser then explains that there are different modes of theory, because literature transcends all limits of thinking. While there are numerous frameworks to theorizing literature, each concept is guided by three principles: structure, function, and communication. Finally, Iser explains the basic distinctions between theory, method, and discourse.


Keyword Search of Graff’s Taking Cover in Coverage

Graff, Gerald. “Taking Cover in Coverage.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, gen. ed. Vincent Leitch, 2nd ed, Norton, 2010, pp. 1962-70. Subjects: curriculum; literary theory; antitheorists; theorists; high school; university; reforms; departmentalization of literature; specialization; field-coverage model; departmental organization; literature courses; faculty; positivistic methodology; New Critic; theoretical consensus; curricular innovation; humanities; individual courses.


Summary of Eagleton’s Introduction: What is Literature?

Eagleton, Terry. Introduction: What is Literature? Literary Theory: An Introduction, anniversary ed, U of Minnesota P, 2008, pp. 1-14.

In Introduction: What is Literature?, Eagleton argues that literature cannot be objectively defined, because such assessments are based upon individual value-judgments that are dependent on ideology, or the circumstances relating to contemporary social power. He explores the wide-ranging variables that influence the perspectives of literary scholars and the public alike, pointing out the importance of taking into account the differing cultural and historical viewpoints of all who encounter literature. Eagleton examines what terms could be used in an attempt to define literature in its basic form, as well as the ways in which it is meant to be read. More specifically, he explains the non-pragmatic style of interpretation practiced by the Russian formalists, whose manner of criticism entirely rejects the ways more popularly accepted by society. Eagleton urges readers to seriously consider whether anything written is literature. And, if not then with what ruler do we measure whatever works we deem as “literary?” Even if whatever essence of a literary work could be successfully identified, it is extremely unlikely that everyone could agree on whether or not the same work is valuable. This brings Eagleton to the question at hand: What is literature?

Eagleton begins by describing the many ways in which others have already attempted to define literature. Some cite all fiction as literature. However, it serves well to point out that, in fact, a wide range of fictional and nonfictional works are currently considered literature including plays, letters, historical accounts, poems, stories, autobiographies, and more. Because literature encompasses so many types of writing, it is easy to understand why exactly literature is so difficult to define. For instance, although used in modern terms to describe fiction, the word “novel” once was used interchangeably to mean either fact or fiction. This aims to demonstrate that what is and is not fact can be troublesome to separate. Depending on the disposition of the reader, the same written work may be interpreted in a variety of ways and taken as either fact or fiction. A prime example is the book of Genesis found in the Bible, whose events can be read by liberal believers as being historically true or taken by others as metaphor. If all fiction was considered literature, then technically works generally not considered literature would then indeed be literature, such as the Superman comics. Likewise, if any written work that is called “creative” or “imaginative” is categorized as literature, then many “non-creative” factual works such as historical documents would not be included under this umbrella.

Next, Eagleton begins his discourse about the definition of literature proposed by the Russian formalists. He considers that perhaps literature may not be classified as having literary merit due to its imagination, but rather its use of peculiar language. In other words, literature could be defined as any written work that lies outside the realm of what is considered normal speech. To further argue his point, he even borrows a quote from Russian critic Roman Jakobson, who referred to literature as “‘organized violence committed on ordinary speech’” (2). In the midst of everyday language, this “fancy speech” catches one’s attention and stands out. Dissenting from the previous approach to analyzing literature, the formalists focused on the structure and devices within the text itself rather than inherent expression and meaning. According to Eagleton, the formalists would describe literature as “made of words, not of objects or feelings… Content was merely the ‘motivation’ of form” (3). For example, under approach George Orwell’s famous novel Animal Farm would not be considered a statement about Stalinism, but such an assumption could be made from the connection of individual devices within the novel. In this way, literary devices were recognized for their ability to transport meaning through the use of “deviant” language.

These literary elements described by the formalists made literature language “intensified…turned on its head… It was language made ‘strange’” (3). This “estrangement” creates a dramatic feeling that jars readers, causing them to halt and take notice of the apparent divergence from normal speech. Nonetheless, this concept brings up the question: What functions as ‘normal’ language? “Normal” is perceived differently from one person or group of people to another, and no two languages carry the exact same meaning and grammar. In addition, the meaning of words can change as they transcend time and geographic location. People today would probably not be able to tell the difference between early slang and poetry. As Eagleton states, “‘poetry’ in this sense depends on where you happen to be standing at the time” (5).

It should also be noted that there are a few problems with the “estrangement” case, especially when the text is read non-pragmatically. First, being different does not necessarily mean being formal. That is, if everyone spoke “proper” literary language in everyday speech, then it would cease to deviate from the norm and thus would no longer be considered literature. However, many pieces of literature are known for being expressly plain and eloquent. Second, language can be interpreted in several—and sometimes incorrect–ways. For instance, if a sign says “‘Dogs must be carried on the escalator’” (6), someone could misread it to mean that one absolutely must carry a pooch in order to be permitted on the escalator. This is what is meant when formalists practice what is called a “non-pragmatic” style of reading. When reading pragmatically, the text itself is read for its literal meaning in a practical sense. However, when reading non-pragmatically the text is referring to a higher meaning or the way in which something is talked about. In this way language is “self-referential, a language which talks about itself” (7).

Notwithstanding, there are also some flaws with this definition of literature. When read non-pragmatically, literature can possess a variety of meanings depending on how a person reads it. Therefore, any appraisal of literature is made from a subjective value-judgment. This means that many people may interpret the same work of literature in several ways aside from its literal meaning. Case in point, most classic philosophers did not intend for their works to be classified as literature when writing them, but, regardless, over time they did become known as literature. As Eagleton writes, “If they decide that you are literature then it seems that you are, irrespective of what you thought you were” (8). This is a valid argument, whereas there is no single essence or characteristic that can be pinpointed within all works of literature. Under these conditions, the rules for defining literature become more simple: literature is whatever one values.

With that said, the amount of value attributed to a work depends on one’s background and the historical time they live in. After all, it is quite possible that in years from now Shakespeare will become irrelevant and too confusing for future generations to consider as fine literature any longer. This means that there is no “‘literary canon’” (10) under which a work can stand the test of time to be permanently considered as literature. In addition, a work may be considered literature for many years, but only because each generation holds its value for a different reason that relates to their lives at that moment in time.

The way in which our society contributes to how individuals perceive literature, as previously described, is what Eagleton calls “ideology,” or “the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in” (13). How one responds to a work of literature is dependent on their status and relationship to society. For instance, a white, upper-class male of the 1920’s would have had much different education, biases, and perspectives than perhaps a young woman in modern day.

Overall, ideology transcends every aspect in terms of defining literature. Literature cannot be defined by whether it is fact or fiction. Most importantly, it cannot be examined objectively due to the differences in value-judgments among people, which are dependent on one’s position in the social structure of their society, the time they live in, their personal values, and the way they choose to define literature. Essentially, Eagleton has concluded his discourse (which, ironically, has come to be considered literature itself) in a similar open-ended way he began by asking the reader: What is literature to you?


Evaluation of Eagleton

Influence of Homogeneous Power Structures on Definition of Literature

In Introduction: What is Literature?, Terry Eagleton argues that ideology, or one’s power-relationship in the social hierarchy, affects his or her value-judgment in defining literature. He explains that because each individual comes from a different historical and cultural background, all people’s interpretations and appreciation for the same work of literature will differ from one another; therefore, literature cannot be objectively defined. One’s perception of literature can also be heavily influenced by the ideology of the social structures above them in the ranking, such as the education system they are taught and raised in. I agree with Eagleton’s claim that because of the existence of ideology literature cannot have one true definition, as demonstrated by the corruption within the power structures of the education system that attempt to define literature for modern students, as I have personally experienced.

The ideology of the dominating social powers that impact one’s daily life can have an enormous influence on the way in which one is enabled to interpret a text, specifically in terms of those who create the educational curriculum for all students. If these powers are composed of homogenous groups of people with the same educational and cultural backgrounds, then this situation may result in the enforcement of an inflexible mandate as to how everyone else should read the same text. By creating a right and wrong way to perceive a text, the opportunity for people to make their own value-judgments becomes nonexistent and independent, divergent thought is made obsolete. Soon enough, students of diverse cultural backgrounds are expected to deny their own intuition to share what they find valuable in a text, sacrificing their opinions in order to get the “correct answer” as stated by educators so they can simply pass their classes. For example, students often write essays on classic novels such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Particularly, they are asked to analyze the theme of ‘darkness’ or ‘evil’ in the world and humanity from targeted quotes such as Kurtz’s final line, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad). More importantly, what students are not asked to do is give their interpretation, but rather prove how such a given quote reflects the theme stated in the prompt argued in the way the teacher expects. This trickle-down effect of ideology causes society to accept one demographical group’s interpretation of what they decide is deemable as literature, rather than analyze the text in a variety of ways that leads to multiple understandings from a range of diverse sources. Just as Eagleton notes that in an experiment from the 1920s only white, privileged, educated males were studied and produced the same opinions about a text, if the members of the governing body who set the perceived standards for literature are too similar in identity then other perspectives will be underrepresented in their assessment (Eagleton 13). This “Big Brother-like” control can be seen in the current curriculum within high schools.

As a recent high school graduate, I can attest to the fact that the current curriculum of secondary schools is structured in a way that makes analysis of literature objective rather than subjective. It is common knowledge for a typical American high schooler that no matter which high school he or she attends, there is a predetermined list of commonly-studied books that which decides what they and their peers will be reading for the next four years. Typical titles include Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, to name just a few. Because the mysterious, unknown groups of educators and academics decided that these works are literature, they appear on almost every high school student’s reading list. Not only does that same group tell them what books they will be reading, but they also enforce a general consensus among high school teachers that they must all educate students how to interpret these novels in the same exact way.

Therefore, students in turn are expected to read and answer questions about these books in the way their teacher expects them to. My high school English teachers taught me how to find the “correct” meaning of a novel by analyzing books using specific tactics, such as stating the meaning of colors and identifying symbols like the “green light” in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, that lead me to the theme. In my study guides there was almost always a right answer as to what the theme of the text was and the elements of the text that evidenced that particular meaning. As Iser stated in How to Do Theory, in my classroom there became an “awareness of the fact that the presuppositions governing interpretation were to a large extent responsible for what the work was supposed to mean” (Iser 4). Teachers also determined which books students should consider literary, regardless of their personal opinion, as such was my personal experience.

In high school I was taught by my teachers, who selected the novels we read, that the reason we read them was because they were deemed to have literary value. But, who exactly is in charge of deciding for my teachers what books are valuable? And, what about what I value? Indeed, “The professor was a kind of feudal lord or at least an arbiter in the existing hierarchy, and he decided what a work had to mean” (Iser 4). I can remember vividly the book I dreaded reading most in high school: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The thought of this book made me so angry, because I simply could not find any literary value in it. In my personal opinion, there was nothing special or “estranging” (Eagleton 3) about the language–in fact, it was poor! Nor did the plot serve to produce any meaningful theme that was worth my time of reading the wretched thing. However, because I was told it was “literature,” I was forced to ignore my own value-judgment and read on until I found the “correct answers.” Had the educators in charge of my curriculum not convinced my teachers that this book was literature, then perhaps I could have asserted my own value-judgment in the matter.

Eagleton’s claim that ideology, or one’s relational status in society’s power structure, prevents the possibility of defining literature; therefore, today’s educational leaders should not define literature for students, preventing them from forming their own opinions and interpretations of literature as when I was recently a high school student. The groups in power at the top of the academic hierarchy influence how those below are educated and institutionalize the way in which society interprets and values literature. The homogeneity of such groups create a structure composed of rigid, biased viewpoints that suppress individual, diverse thought about a work and encourage the false importance of finding a single “correct” answer. In this way, the educational systems of society are failing to teach students the principles of literary theory, but instead promote objectivity rather than subjectivity. While no one has the power to define literature for society, individuals should have the right to try to do so for themselves.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph, and Robert Kimbrough. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1988. Print.

Graff, Gerald. “Taking Cover in Coverage.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, gen. ed. Vincent Leitch, 2nd ed, Norton, 2010, pp. 1962-70.

Iser, Wolfgang. Introduction. How to do Theory, Blackwell, 2006, pp. 1-13.

Eagleton, Terry. Introduction: What is Literature? Literary Theory: An Introduction, anniversary ed, U of Minnesota P, 2008, pp. 1-14.