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English 302: Winter, 2010


(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. Barthesian Passages

8. Talking Theoretically: Term Project

9. from Subliminal

10. Passages from "Boys and Girls"

11. Wordsworth Poems

12. Mapping Bayard



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) implicitly 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—sometimes almost explicitly so. 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: the power to provide pleasure, to provide a certain moral edification, to effect the psychologically useful and satisfying process of catharsis. Poetry (or tragedy, more exactly, but traditionally the Poetics' talk of tragedy has been seen as a kind of synecdoche for poetry in general) for Aristotle is thus culturally beneficial and deserving of respect and authority.

Other things could be said here about how each writer 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, these 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?)

Indeed, 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 even now would say, can do more for the culture than the culture thinks. And as cultural studies has developed, the field even raises questions about whether it is only a “literary” field at all—a move other disciplines might see as a form of academic imperialism. 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.”

Oddly enough, as old as this argument is, for a good part of the 20th century many traditional literary critics more or less ignored theory. Some remained aware of and interested in its questions, but up until the mid 1960's theory was primarily a matter of critical practice and not of explicit discourse. Indeed, theory was so remote from consciousness in those days (even if theoretical constructs were still at work, undergirding and implicit in practice even if rarely explicitly addressed) that at its advent at midcentury many in the field felt as if theory had more or less just popped up out of nowhere and trashed the family home.

But obviously, and as much as some continue to resist the change, that wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. Sure, theory has 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, as we've already suggested, 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 literary studies? What does each think poetry/literature can do, positively or negatively? How extensive do they think its reach? How do they each explain the means by which literature has those powers?

(And having said all that, we will also need to pay attention to the even more recent shift in the way many of us imagine the discipline of literary study: the shift of power from writers to readers. Barthes had his tongue at least somewhat in cheek when he annouced the death of the author; what is extraordinary is the place to which the next forty years of theoretical exploration have taken his argument. Stay tuned!)

2. Towards a Concept Map of Western Critical Practice

The English Department actually has 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 (the middle 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 locate “Feminism,” “Gender Studies,” and “Cultural Studies,” this last a special expansion of what we do when we do literature 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

Key Passages:

A. Soc. Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things; and that almost all poets do speak of the same things?

Ion. Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?

Soc. The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole.

B. Ion: I cannot deny what you say, Socrates. Nevertheless I am conscious in my own self, and the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man.  But I do not speak equally well about others- tell me the reason of this.

Soc. I perceive, Ion; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine to be the reason of this. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone.  In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.... For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.


Socrates. ... But, indeed, Ion, if you are correct in saying that by art and knowledge you are able to praise Homer, you do not deal fairly with me, and after all your professions of knowing many, glorious things about Homer..., you are only a deceiver, and so far from exhibiting the art of which you are a master, will not, even after my repeated entreaties, explain to me the nature of it. You have literally as many forms as Proteus; and now you go all manner of ways, twisting and turning, and, like Proteus, become all manner of people at once, and at last slip away from me in the disguise of a general, in order that you may escape exhibiting your Homeric lore. And if you have art, then, as I was saying, in falsifying your promise that you would exhibit Homer, you are not dealing fairly with me. But if, as I believe, you have no art, but speak all these beautiful words about Homer unconsciously under his inspiring influence, then I acquit you of dishonesty, and shall only say that you are inspired.  Which do you prefer to be thought, dishonest or inspired?



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....

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character. The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character; and of poets in general this is often true. Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents....

The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action.


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 [hamartia] . 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. Barthesian Aphoristic Passages

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”(1977)

1. [W]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. 253

2. For him [Mallarmé], for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality... to reach that point where only language acts, “performs,” and not “me.” Mallarmé’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing (which is, as will be seen, to restore the place of the reader). 254

3. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, [Proust] made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model... . 254

4. [L]inguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I. 255

5. [T]he modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no time other than that of the enunciation, and every text is eternally written here and now. 255

6. We know now that a text is not of a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. 256

7. [T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner “thing” he thinks to “translate” is itself only a ready-formed dictionary…. 256

8. [S]ucceeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred. 256

9. Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. 256

10. [W]riting ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say “writing”), by refusing to assign a “secret,” an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law. 257

11. [A] text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. 257

12. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature…. [T]he birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author. 257


Talking Theoretically: Term Project

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form)

We’ve talked this quarter about the way reading any kind of theoretical discourse requires being aware of one or more ongoing conversations about key theoretical topics. Over the quarter’s first weeks we’ve focused on several of these topics, and a part of what we’ve done is follow the way different writers have taken turns in the ongoing conversation about those topics. The topics we’ve focused on include the canon, the status of the author and his or her intention as a goal for the interpretation of texts, the status of the reader, and what a reader is supposed to do when reading—and a few others besides.

But understanding the bases of a given conversation, along with the role-takings of a series of writings within that conversation, is just one goal of this course. A second goal is to help you to find a way to take a conversational role yourself. So that’s what this assignment will ask of you.

Our late-quarter reading for this course is Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books you Haven’t Read. We’ve looked at the opening two chapters and seen how this book, too, engages topics we’ve seen before. For this project I want you to read the rest of Bayard’s book, locate a chapter on which you want to work, and find a way to enter into the conversation he engages. This means you’ll begin by looking at his chapter to define its key subject, as you see it, to summarize his argument accurately and fully, and in doing so to explain the ways you see Bayard’s argument engaging conversations that have emerged in the critics we have already read. I then want you to go on to take a turn of your own.

I imagine that you’ll easily enough see that this is another version of a What, Why, So What paper; this time the So What isn’t just an estimate of how Bayard’s book has been or might be significant as a contribution to one or more of theory’s ongoing conversations. Rather it asks that you add something to the conversation yourself. Among the several strategies you can use in taking your turn, here are three:

• a) extend what Bayard argues
• b) object to what he does, either in whole or in part
• c) write self-reflectively about your own understanding of that argument

As an example of extending, suppose this assignment had asked you to write on the piece by Janet Radway that we read last week. There you could extend her argument by taking one of her key points—the notion of “transubstantiation” as a pragmatic effect of reading middlebrow texts, say—and explaining how that might apply to a particular text you had read. Or you might take her description of her ambivalence about the canon and go on to explain as specifically as you could your own relation to such thinking in your own educational career.

If you chose to object to Radway’s argument, you might question the way she seems to be both for and against a canon, and therefore to be making an argument that in some important way was self-contradictory. She is trying to have her cake and eat it, too, you might argue, and then go on to explain and support that claim.

And if you chose to write self-reflectively about your own difficulties in understanding her argument, you might pick either of the subjects outlined in the preceding two paragraphs, but instead of making an argument about either, you might first outline what you do and what you do not understand about what she says, and then develop an explanation of where exactly your difficulties in making sense of the text come.

Or, to change examples, perhaps you’d want to reflect on your understanding of Said’s notion of “worldliness.” He seems to be creating an idea of the role of literature that is very much like that described by Englishman Matthew Arnold living 100 years earlier, and written in the heyday of the British Imperialist period. Given how surprising it seems that someone with Said’s ethnic and political identity could actually end up agreeing with Arnold this way, you might wonder if you were actually understanding this argument properly. Accordingly you would want to explain as fully as you could what you did see, and where you were not sure you were fully understanding his position.

The assignment will be done in two stages. Stage one asks you to submit a Full Proposal for the project on November 19th. Stage two asks for a Final Full Draft to be submitted on December 5th.

The Full Proposal: This will be a 3-4 page essay in which you give: 1) a brief summary of your chosen chapter's argument, 2) who among those writers we've read this term might be in conversation with it and how, and 3) a brief account of what your turn in the conversation will likely be.

You might fairly ask how a “Full Proposal” so described differs from a rough draft. My answer is that it will be shorter than a full draft for the paper, but it should be more than just a proposal. I want to see not just what you want to do, but how you are developing your thinking. So yes, I am essentially asking for an early draft, but the point is that I don’t want a "first draft" so much as an early draft that will help you get your ideas out without feeling as though they have to be complete or polished. I want you to have a strong working start on the paper, yet also something that you know will need substantial upgrading, whether in terms of expansion or of rethinking—something that can be thrown out entirely if need be—before it is to be submitted as a Full Final Draft on December 5th.

The Full Final Draft:

Due: Wednesday, December 5, 12:30pm.
Length: 1400-2000 words (5-7 pages)

Grading Criteria:

(Generally, the SOFA criteria apply: Specific, On Point, Full, and Accurate. Below I stress some of these more in one section of your paper than in another.)

• Specificity of your summary of Bayard’s argument, extent to which it is On point, Accurate and Full.
• Accuracy and fullness of your explanation of how Bayard’s argument connects with other readings we’ve done this quarter—other role-takings in the conversation around your chapter’s subject.
• Specificity, critical insightfulness and effectiveness of your turn-taking.

Note: It is not necessary to understand Bayard fully to be successful with this assignment. Obviously it will help if you do understand him fully. But that isn’t the real goal of the turn-taking described above. If you opt for option c), however, it IS necessary for you to explain as fully as you can just what it is you don’t understand, why you think it is that you don’t understand it, and what you think you DO understand.

Finally, in working to understand Bayard, I highly recommend that you consult reviews of his book. It appeared in 2007, and was reviewed widely. You can find a list of links to reviews at:


9. from Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (2012) 

"As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, there are two ways to get at the truth:  the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer.  Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, for theories explaining their observations, and test them.  Attorneys begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.  The human mind is designed to be both a scientist and an attorney, both a conscious seeker of objective truth and an unconscious, impassioned advocate for what we want to believe.  Together these approaches vie to create our worldview"(p. 200)   

10. Passages from "Boys and Girls"

    My father was a fox farmer. That is, he raised silver foxes, in pens; and in the fall and early winter, when their fur was prime, he killed them and skinned them and sold their pelts to the Hudson's Bay Company or the Montreal Fur Traders. These companies supplied us with heroic calendars to hang, one on each side of the kitchen door. Against a background of cold blue sky and black pine forests and treacherous northern rivers, plumed adventurers planted the flags of England and or of France; magnificent savages bent their backs to the portage.


    The winter I was eleven years old we had two horses in the stable. We did not know what names they had had before, so we called them Mack and Flora. Mack was an old black workhorse, sooty and indifferent. Flora was a sorrel mare, a driver. We took them both out in the cutter. Mack was slow and easy to handle. Flora was given to fits of violent alarm, veering at cars and even at other horses, but we loved her speed and high-stepping, her general air of gallantry and abandon. On Saturdays we went down to the stable and as soon as we opened the door on its cozy, animal-smelling darkness Flora threw up her head, rolled here eyes, whinnied despairingly, and pulled herself through a crisis of nerves on the spot. It was not safe to go into her stall, she would kick.


    Instead of shutting the gate, I opened it as wide as I could. I did not make any decision to do this, it was just what I did. Flora never slowed down; she galloped straight past me, and Laird jumped up and down, yelling, "Shut it, shut it!" even after it was too late. My father and Henry appeared in the field a moment too late to see what I had done. They only saw Flora heading for the township road. They would think I had not got there in time.


…. I had never disobeyed my father before, and I could not understand why I had done it. … And when my father found out about it he was not going to trust me any more; he would know that I was not entirely on his side. I was on Flora's side, and that made me no use to anybody, not even to her. Just the same, I did not regret it; when she came running at me I held the gate open, that was the only thing I could do.


    My father made a curt sound of disgust. "What did you do that for?"

    I didn't answer. I put down my fork and waited to be sent from the table, still not looking up.

    But this did not happen. For some time nobody said anything, then Laird said matter-of-factly, "She's crying."

    "Never mind," my father said. He spoke with resignation, even good humor, the words which absolved and dismissed me for good. "She's only a girl," he said.

    I didn't protest that, even in my heart. Maybe it was true.


A different kind of text for literary Analysis:

We can see figurative texts in two broad categories—texts that seemed intended to be read figuratively, or at least lend themselves easily to such readings, and texts that were clearly not so intended, but which have been read in such ways anyway.  “Boys and Girls” is an example of the first. 

As an example of the second, here's a short short story about a classroom interchange I heard of a few years ago:

In a geography class the teacher was talking about the rivers of Europe, and at a certain point referred to the river that runs through London.  She called it the Thames, and pronounced it "Temz" [tεmz]. 

One of her students interrupted by saying, “you mean the Thames, don’t you?” pronouncing it "Thames"   [θemz].

(And what would you as the teacher have said here?)

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
---Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

Mapping Bayard

Mapping Bayard

This book is deceptively simple.  Bayard’s jaunty prose belies the complexity of the case he makes about what we do when we read.  Other critics talk about reading in ways that seem complex, but none of them actually considers (or knows much about) the phenomenology of reading (even those who talk about reader response seem to know next-to-nothing about this). 

But that—the phenomenology of reading—is what this book is finally about.  Readers see themselves as independent agents, but Bayard claims that every move readers make is within a set of expectations/conventions/constraints that are themselves invisible to our normal conscious reflections but which nevertheless structure, limit, and enable whatever we do as readers.  His book is thus a cheerful, but very seriously undertaken, tour of what we do when we read. 

Bayard’s levels of reading and book creation: 

Library                       Book
Collective Library     Screen Book
Inner Library              Inner Book
Virtual Library           Phantom Book

Chapter 1:  On being located within, and therefore dependent upon, a world of books we haven’t read.

Chapter 2:  How reading can be an act of submission and loss of self.

Chapter 3:  On whether you have actually “read” the book you have just read. 

Chapter 4:  On whether you have still “read” the book you don’t remember. 

Chapter 5:  On how our “inner books” shape and restrict our reading.

Chapter 6:  On the cultural relativity of reading, and whether there are in fact universals.

Chapter 7:  On the failure of writers to communicate with readers. 

Chapter 8:  On the value of tensions between “inner books.” 

Chapter 9:  The virtual library, or what happens when we talk about books we’ve read. 

Chapter 10:  On “classics,” the “mobility of the text” and the “power relations woven around it.” 

Chapter 11:  Talking about phantoms:  creating the book that no one has read. 

Chapter 12:  Oscar Wilde and how (not) reading is the very best way to invent oneself. 




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