Tag Archives: EN290

From formalism to rhetoric


To open discussion today, I want to start with a quote from Brooks’ “The Formalist Critics” that seems to offer an excellent transition into a useful consideration of rhetorical analysis:

Literature is not inimical to ideas. It thrives upon ideas but does not present ideas patly and neatly. It involves them with the “recalcitrant stuff of life.” The literary critic’s job is to deal with that involvement. (Rivkin & Ryan 23, 26-27)

And in Ryan’s Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction, he describes rhetorical analysis as first depending on the awareness that the stuff of life is being shaped–what choices have been made in shaping this representation, this character, this plot, this description, and what is their effect? What has been represented, and what has not been represented? What do we expect to appear, and what actually appears? How does representation work on the reader to “change behavior, mold perception and belief, or challenge assumptions” (Ryan 49)? He notes,

The makers of cultural works do not simply seek to inspire belief in an imaginary world in their audiences. They seek to create a particular kind of belief, one characterized by positive and negative judgments and feelings. […] The field of rhetoric includes not only the choices and valuations that go into the selection of elements that shade audience perceptions and judgments in different ways, but also the way selected elements are arranged logically in a narrative sequence. (Ryan 47)

This should get us into a discussion of the other ways that texts acquire meaning–not just through the selection and arrangement of words or images, but also through broader cultural and interpretive predispositions that are themselves what we might call accretions of belief. How are our “interpretive communities” formed (Ryan 49)? Along what lines does our lived experience shape how we come to a text, and therefore what a text is, does, or causes us to believe? Finally, Austin’s concept of speech acts works as a way to concretize the rhetorical power of language (Ryan 49).


Formalism, Using Blogs in Class


I just received the MLA edition on teaching contemporary theory to undergraduates I ordered in preparation for my courses this term, and on a quick browse, it looks less useful than I thought it would be–that is, more theoretical. Which is not bad, but telling…. Why do we assume that if a text like this doesn’t have direct, hands-on suggestions for engaging students in the material that it’s “less useful”? Framing theory, helping students see how and, more importantly, why it’s in the curriculum in the first place, is one of the most challenging facets of this kind of class, and I think we get around it by divvying up the syllabus according to arbitrary sets of critical approaches while ignoring the conceptual relations between them. I have to admit, I’m guilty of it, too, though I try to historicize the approaches as best I can. I was skimming through John Kucich’s piece (random side note: I took a class from him on Victorian literature and masochism at the University of Michigan, and I remember vividly a few faculty student parties at which wonderful conversations were had, so I figured I’d start there!) and I have to say I’m looking forward to playing with ways to select a handful of complete primary texts to share with undergraduates throughout the term. By the way, if anyone has good recommendations for more contemporary texts like that MLA options for teaching, please comment!

But, today we’re going over formalism.

We’re also going to spend some time today dealing with student blogs–I’m asking everyone to keep a personal online journal, where each student will respond to the day’s readings and periodically comment on their peers’ work, too. We didn’t have a tutorial on setting up a blog before I assigned it; rather, I wanted to see how they would go about it, where the problems were, and whether they could discover how to overcome those problems–whether through trial and error or by looking up an online tutorial, asking questions of friends, and so on.

It occurs to me that this presents an opportunity to connect some of the theoretical issues to a very practical, very everyday context. If form is meaning, and meaning is form, then what are some of the meanings generated by the particular formal features of Marymount’s WordPress install? What habits of reading will be created? How will those habits of reading–and of writing–be reinforced, limited, or enabled by the formal features of the tool? One starting question to ask would be: “what do you have to do, physically, to read a peer’s blog and comment on it?” We can take a few moments to do it, then reflect on how the formal features of the install are canalizing our behavior.


Is It Literature?


My first meeting of Literary Theory and Practice is today at 12:30, and I’m super excited about it! I’ve taught the class once before, using the same basic materials, and this term I’m fleshing it out a bit more with some excerpts from primary theoretical sources. FSG also recently republished the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop with a wonderful new section of facsimile drafts, so we’ll be able to take a look at those sometime in the next 15 weeks. One of my goals for teaching this class the second time around is to create some effective videos and discussion activities that will bring home the central theoretical concepts we’re working on. First up is formalism, though today we’re starting with a general conversation about the class, the work of the critic, the nature of literature, and how it’s changed over time.

So, today I want to start with an activity I’m calling “Is this Literature?” I’ll give students a selection of excerpts from a variety of texts, and they’ll have to organize them into a couple categories: is it literature? is it good literature? is it something a literary critic can talk about? The idea is to get students thinking about some of the criteria that make a text “literature” and the extent to which those criteria are fungible and contingent. Here are my excerpts, if anyone is interested. If you have good ideas you want to share, please comment!