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English 302: Critical Reading

Fall, 2008


(See also: Assignments and Updates )


(This page will be used for miscellaneous postings over the course of the quarter)


(Click on Title to Jump to Article)

1. A Conceptual Frame for English 302 and Critical Practice

2. Mapping the History of Western Critical Practice

3. Reading Difficult Texts

4. Link to Plato's Ion

5. from Aristotle's Poetics

6. Critical Practice Course Portfolio

7. Midterm Rewrite


1. A Conceptual Frame for English 302 and Critical Practice

As you wrestle this quarter for control of issues that come up again and again in the critics and theorists we read, it may help if you think of our texts as each taking part in a centuries-long struggle for cultural position and authority. For poetry, or literary “making” (the Greek root for “poetry” is poiein, “to make”), is only one cultural enterprise among many, and as the enactors of a set of practices its partisans tend to do what the partisans of other cultural enterprises also do: look for ways to justify both the products of their energies, and, through those products, their own lives. But both because any culture’s material and intellectual resources are limited, and because one cultural enterprise’s claims may conflict with those of another enterprise, poetry’s partisans have also often defined themselves against other arts, arguing that they, and not philosophy, or history, or oratory (for example) can best offer the culture truth, or an understanding of nature, or wisdom, or pleasure.

You can see this intra-art competition already well formed as early as the first of the writers we read. For Plato (certainly NOT an advocate for poetry, but, as he saw it, for philosophy instead) effectively argues that in his culture poetry already has too much cultural authority. He sees poetry as in contest with philosophy for control of truth, and he declares that poetry’s claim is finally invalid. Worse yet, Plato sees poetry as endowed with great power, and, because it is powerful, also (since in his view poets tell lies and create immoral models for action) harmful.

Aristotle, by contrast, develops the conversation by writing what is in many ways a defense of poetry against Plato’s attack. He offers a different understanding of truth, one within which poetry can both be morally and philosophically “true” without having to imitate reality with historical exactness. This in turn constitutes an argument on behalf of poetry, and is part of an allocation to the poet of a certain amount of power: a power to provide pleasure, a power to provide a certain moral edification, a power to effect the psychologically useful and satisfying process of catharsis. Poetry for Aristotle is thus culturally beneficial and deserving of respect and authority.

Other things could be said here about how each of these writers positions poetry in the on-going competition for cultural authority and value. But it is clear in their works that that positioning is going on, and that it is part of what has given their writings on poetry such lasting interest. Indeed, those early texts set the terms of a debate which is no less alive now than it was then. For poetry and the arts are still in a contest for cultural value and authority. That debate plays out in terms of respect (does the culture respect the writers, the teachers, the performers, who practice the literary arts? does it listen to what they say? does it take seriously the discourses they offer the culture?) and materially as well (what resources does the culture provide to the literary arts? do we value them by employing them? buying their products, whether poems, novels and plays, or classes, essays and theories?)

Many would now argue that, while the current culture certainly values the literary arts (and the English majors who study them) in some degree, it doesn’t value them as highly as it should. Literary-artistic practices, many now would say, can do more for the culture than the culture thinks. Indeed, in the early 21st century the field has even raised questions about whether it is only a “literary” field at all. Especially in its turns towards post-colonial studies and cultural studies, what once seemed a fairly straightforward field of study—the literatures of England and America—has become immensely broadened, and one cause of this, as well as the primary site for the articulation of alternatives to traditional understandings of “English studies,” has been “theory.”

For a while, traditionalists could simply ignore theory. But that’s no longer true. Moreover, it’s by no means the case that theory just popped up out of nowhere and has trashed the family home. Sure, it’s had its upstart moments, but there are many, many continuities over the many centuries of reflections on the nature and cultural role of texts and writers. Indeed, the argument of this course will be that the issues over which the current contest about the cultural role of the arts is being fought have a long history. We have begun with two of the most productive of early voices, and we will see echoes of and allusions to their arguments all quarter long.

With these issues of poetry’s cultural authority as a context, then, in this course we will be asking of each of the works we read: what position does this work take on the question of poetry’s struggle for cultural power and authority? And that question leads in turn to sub-questions. Exactly how, for example, does each of these works define the powers and functions of English studies? What does each think English can do, positively or negatively? How extensive do they think its reach? How do they each explain the means by which poetry has those powers?

Stay tuned!

2. Towards a Concept Map of Western Critical Practice

We actually have two whole courses (303 and 304) surveying the history of Critical Theory. English 302 serves only an an introduction to the study of critical theory, so what we do here will necessarily be simplified. Still, we will supply basics enough to ensure that you will be able to make sense of what is really new and interesting about recent developments in theory, and be well prepared for upper division work of all sorts.

1. The old days: Key figures: Plato and Aristotle.

Out of these critics’ writings emerge 4 theoretical perspectives on literary discourse:
• Theory focused on notions of Imitation (Imitation, or Mimetic, Theories)
• Theory focused on notions of Effect (Pragmatic Theories)
• Theory focused on the writer (Expressivist Theories)
• Theory focused on the work of art itself (Aesthetic/ Formalist Theories)

2. The age of National Literary History and Taste (late 1800's)

Who? Matthew Arnold. Key phrases: Taste, “Touchstones,” “the best that has been thought and said.”

Historical, Philological, Textual, Hermeneutical
Establishing the Canon(s) of national literatures

3. The New Criticism (mid-1900's)

Who? I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, W.K. Wimsatt, and Cleanth Brooks. Key terms: language, complexity, irony, ambiguity; “the poem itself and its own structure.”

4. The New Age of Theory: post 1970. (Very abbreviated!)

• Structuralism

• Post-modernism/post-structuralism

• Post-colonialism

And along with these developments in theory we’ll also include “Cultural Studies,” a special expansion of what we do when we do English that draws from a number of different theoretical perspectives.

The job of filling out each of these entries on the map will occupy us through the first two thirds of this course.


3. Reading Difficult Texts: Five Principles

1. Patience: develop a capacity for suspending a thought until you’ve gotten enough to put it together. Correlative: insofar as possible, don’t let an inability to comprehend something stop you from plowing on through! Expect, too, to have to re-read in order to assemble the parts you've managed to unscramble.

2. Bracketing: break a tough sentence into its crucial parts, bracketing off as much of it as you already understand so you can work out the sense of the remaining bits.

3. Tolerate incompleteness: these are hard ideas, with a lot of allusiveness, and (truth to say) few readers can understand everything, especially on a first or second pass. So don’t worry too much if there are bits and pieces you don’t quite get. They may come into focus as you get the basic structure; they may never fully make sense for you. But you may still be able to get what is crucial to a given piece in any event.

4. One, Two, Three: Get one, then two, then three things straight. One step at a time.

5. Contextualize. Work to understand how this piece is a move in a larger conversation. You can think of this process as having three steps:

  • What, as clearly as you can figure out, is the argument (or at least part of the argument) of this piece?
  • Why might someone ever decide to write about this subject in this way? What is it trying to do, really? To whom does it respond? With whom is it in conflict? What work do you already know that can be brought to bear to help explain this piece? (If you don’t know, then search on the internet, ask your teacher, or call the library information desk.) And finally, see if you can figure out:
  • So What? What difference does this argument in fact actually make? What does it do both in terms of your understanding, and in terms of the critical conversations that surround it? (It may be very useful to you without necessarily being a big contributor to an on-going conversation—and vice-versa!


4. Link to Plato's Ion


5. From: Aristotle’s Poetics (350BCE)

Translated by S. H. Butcher (online at


... Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions....


These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy.

Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long. As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory….

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen,-- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with metre no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal, I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is—for example—what Alcibiades did or suffered. In Comedy this is already apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines of probability, and then inserts characteristic names;--unlike the lampooners who write about particular individuals.

But tragedians still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is credible: what has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be possible: but what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened. Still there are even some tragedies in which there are only one or two well known names, the rest being fictitious. In others, none are well known, as in Agathon’s Antheus, where incidents and names alike are fictitious, and yet they give none the less pleasure. We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly follows that the poet or ‘maker’ should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take an historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker….

…A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes,--that of a man who is not eminently good and just,-yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous,--a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families….

Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means [i.e., by means of staging a scene that features a spectacle]; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.

Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful. Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention, --except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another—if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done---these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends—the fact, for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon but he ought to show invention of his own, and skilfully handle the traditional material….

In respect of Character there are four things to be aimed at. First, and most important, it must be good. Now any speech or action that manifests moral purpose of any kind will be expressive of character: the character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless. The second thing to aim at is propriety. There is a type of manly valour; but valour in a woman, or unscrupulous cleverness, is inappropriate. Thirdly, character must be true to life: for this is a distinct thing from goodness and propriety, as here described. The fourth point is consistency: for though the subject of the imitation, who suggested the type, be inconsistent, still he must be consistently inconsistent. As an example of motiveless degradation of character, we have Menelaus in the Orestes: of character indecorous and inappropriate, the lament of Odysseus in the Scylla, and the speech of Melanippe: of inconsistency, the Iphigenia at Aulis,--for Iphigenia the suppliant in no way resembles her later self.

As in the structure of the plot, so too in the portraiture of character, the poet should always aim either at the necessary or the probable. Thus a person of a given character should speak or act in a given way, by the rule either of necessity or of probability; just as this event should follow that by necessary or probable sequence. It is therefore evident that the unraveling of the plot, no less than the complication, must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the ‘Deus ex Machina’—as in the Medea, or in the Return of the Greeks in the Iliad. The ‘Deus ex Machina’ should be employed only for events external to the drama—i.e., for antecedent or subsequent events, which lie beyond the range of human knowledge, and which require to be reported or foretold (for to the gods we ascribe the power of seeing all things). Within the action there must be nothing irrational. If the irrational cannot be excluded, it should be outside the scope of the tragedy. Such is the irrational element in the Oedipus of Sophocles.

Again, since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level, the example of good portrait-painters should be followed. They, while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet, in representing men who are irascible or indolent, or have other defects of character, should preserve the type and yet ennoble it. In this way Achilles is portrayed by Agathon and Homer.

These then are rules the poet should observe. Nor should he neglect those appeals to the senses, which, though not among the essentials, are the concomitants of poetry; for here too there is much room for error. But of this enough has been said in our published treatises....


6. Critical Practice Course Portfolio

A portfolio for an English class is like many other portfolios:  a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course.  This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective.  Your  portfolio should include:

1) A detailed listing of the contents of the Portfolio. 

2) All of the writing you have done for this class over the course of the quarter. 

3) A two to three page Self-Reflective Essay.

The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class.  You should prepare for it by reviewing your writing for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms.  It may, for example, discuss the writing you have done this quarter, describing what  you take to be your work's strengths, how they may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve.  Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course:  why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them.  Or it may discuss how your attitudes about reading literature have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter:  what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since? 

However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it. 

The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total).   The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as  follows (30 points total):  

Fully responsive and thoughtfully undertaken               = 30   
Responsive but less completely thought through           = 20
Marginally responsive, or not well thought through       = 10
Unresponsive                                                             =  0

The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope.  Its presentation should  be neat, ordered, and careful. And please INCLUDE A SECOND COPY OF YOUR SELF-REFLECTIVE ESSAY!! To have it returned, be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty pages or so you will have submitted!

7. Midterm Rewrite

As I told you earlier, the rewrite version of the exam includes a new paragraph for you to write on. Remember the criteria for success include being responsive (on point), accurate, full, and specific.

First thing you'll find here are two strong answers to the first part of the question, along with some comments about why I think they were each strong answers. The second thing you will find is the new paragraph to use for your re-write.

1. The trick to writing well about a paragraph like those on the midterm is to represent its argument as it is presented in the paragraph itself. As I said when returning exams, some writers used the paragraph as an occasion to offer a general summary of Barthes’ view either of the reader or of the writer (depending on the paragraph chosen), but not to explore the argument made by this particular paragraph itself.

In the review session I suggested that the best way to ensure that you do attend to the argument itself is to read the paragraph with an eye to key phrases—the phrases the author chose to make his points. In the first paragraph on the exam, for example, some of those key phrases included “Author-God,” “a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” and “[T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.” There are of course others; but you won’t have to explain all the possible key phrases—just the three to five that seem to you to be essential to your understanding of how the paragraph articulates its case. Once you’ve sorted out which of the phrases you think most important in generating your understanding of the passage’s argument, your essay can then first explain the point of the paragraph as you see it, and then go on through the key phrases to clarify and justify that explanation.

In the first answer below, the writer does this pretty well. It’s a midterm, so it’s hard to get it perfectly organized, so the answer begins with a series of key phrases, sometimes just quoting, sometimes explaining. Then in paragraph two the writer turns to explaining the significance of the paragraph, or what it upshot of the passage is.

In Excerpt 1Barthes says that the author is not writing a message as “from God” (irony). The text is a coming together of many conversations, cultural writings and environmental influences. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture….” The writers are not writing anything original but enter into an ongoing conversation The issue that Barthes wants the reader to understand is that we are the product of our environment. We are born into a culture at a specific time and place. Language is a part of what constructs us, but also constrains us since we are limited by the patterns of our culture, or the “ready-formed” dictionary. Even if a writer thinks that he is “expressing” himself, he should realize that it is still within the constraints of the language and culture he is a part of. “Its works are only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely” means that there is no original writing to be done. The writer according to Barthes is a scriptor who writes what the culture and language he understands [allows]: “…the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather his immense dictionary…” The scriptor then draws his writing from the environment around him, as did Thomas de Quincey who created a modern way of translating ancient Greek (the dead language according to Barthes) with complex and extensive explanation. But even explaining dead languages comes from the overall knowledge that the writer is born into and develops.

Barthes’ idea is that the author as God is a dead idea—and limits literature’s progression. His theory is that humanity is in the midst of a discourse and language (old or modern) and that culture constructs who we are, rather than that we construct culture. His idea that there is no original thought but only a “ready-formed dictionary,” cultural structures, and languages means that we create a text as “a tissue of quotation,” rather than “releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning, a God-like message. Since Barthes kills the author, the reader is the destination and focus of his theory in the essay. The reader brings in his/her world and perspective, and also the product of the environment and experience. The reader has to be a “good reader,” interacting with the text and conversing with what the text is saying….

In this second example, the writer does less with specific phrases, though still gives a coherent and full account of the paragraph’s argument:

In Barthes’ argument in excerpt 2, which examines the nature of Greek tragedies and how they relate to his theory of the reader, he observes the decidedly ambiguous nature of the texts, in which words and phrases have double meanings, only one of which is heard by the characters in the play. Both meanings, though, are heard by their intended target, the audience. The reader, or listener, is taken into account in these writings—if that engagement with the audience were not undertaken, the plays would have long since lost their power. It is the reader/listener who engages with the work and allows its multiple levels of meaning to come forth, not the author. A text contains a multiplicity of meanings and dialogues, but only within the sphere of a reader are they realized.

Of course, Barthes intends not an individual reader, with unpredictable tastes, backgrounds, and habits. Rather, he insists that the “reader” is a role, an idea which we enact (or reenact) as we engage with a text. His reader is not a person but an idealized theory; much like the famed frictionless plane: it is excellent for conceptualizing, but no one will actually get there. To borrow from Plato, we are but flawed copies of that perfect reader that exists somewhere else entirely, on another planet of existence. This was, and still is, a pretty radical concept. The idea that neither the author nor the text are of great importance, that the reader’s experience with the text and whichever of its meanings appeared in that examination is the whole of the work—these fly in the face of continental literary thought, especially at the time this was written. It is anti-authoritarian at its heart, on multiple levels, encouraging revolution and the overthrow of old ways of thinking about literature ….



2. Rewrite: Due anytime up to and including December 2. (For your rewrite I give you a new paragraph to work through. You can take as much time as you'd like on this, but try not to spend more time than you had for the inclass write.)

Working with the excerpt below from Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” write an essay in which you explain as best you can the argument he is making, and for which you also explain how Barthes’ position constitutes a response to issues raised by Arnold. Finally, explain what, if anything, you see in Barthes’ argument that Radway draws upon to explain and justify the project she describes in her piece, the “Introduction” to her book titled A Feeling for Books. In working with Arnold and Radway, be sure to include some sense of what Arnold would respond to Barthes’ argument, and what Barthes would say about what Radway has drawn from his work.

(As I explain above, you’ll do best if, before you begin to write, you read through the paragraph, and, having decided what you think its argument is, decide what 3-5 phrases are key to its argument. That will give you what is in effect a conceptual outline for your essay.)

…[I]n ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman, or relator whose “performance”—the mastery of the narrative code—may possibly be admired but never his “genius.” The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, as it is more nobly put, the “human person”…. The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produce it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.



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