Monday, 16 May 2005

How Not to Open, Close or Anything In-Between an Academic Essay, Part II: Welcome to Your New Low Opinion of Me When I published the first chronicle of my undergraduate stupidities, I mentioned that Seven months after completing my magnum micturientem I officially forswore Theory in an essay on the current state of Hawthorne Studies. Why I forswore there instead of forswearing somewhere else or appropriate even escapes me. A few readers have asked whether I would post that as well. I wrote them back, insisting that it's nowhere near as amusing as my Honors Thesis. I told them, "It's not funny, and because it more closely resembles my current positions, I'd be limited to mocking its tedious self-righteousness." But they insisted. I played coy, saying "I don't think I have it anymore." They insisted, correctly, that I lied. I feigned anger, shouting "I don't want to!" They insisted, correctly, that I did. I hid under the covers, whispering "I see dead people." They insisted, correctly, that I didn't. They wore me down. I can no longer keep from them the oral presentation during which I renounced my idiotic, incoherent theoretical assumptions in favor of some sound ones. (Unfortunately, I had yet to renounce the prose tics of the contemporary theorist. Ugh.) I warn you: this rant is most notable for its actual vs. assigned length, as oral presentations consisting of eight single-spaced pages aren't ever really "short." Despite the insistence of some prominent (and some not-so-prominent) literary critics on the value of criticism for criticism’s sake, literary criticism ought to abhor a vacuum. If nothing else, literature ought to provide the occasion for the critic’s labored prose and tangled syntax. Evidence of what I deem the proper mode of literary criticism abounds in The Scarlet Letter’s critical canon. Neither superior nor subservient to Hawthorne’s romance, these essays engage in an interactive dialogue with The Scarlet Letter as a work of literature. This may seem simpleminded or wrongheaded of me: if you believe it the former, forgive me my stupidity; if the latter, I welcome your new low opinion of me. This brief, highly directed reading of critical history of The Scarlet Letter demonstrates the proper role of literature in literary studies, as an occasion for critical enterprise (irrespective of the theoretical allegiances of the critic undertaking it). Of course, this little polemic of mine concerns only what falls under the aegis of literary criticism or literary studies. Cultural studies, media studies, intellectual histories and the like serve a purpose, but one distinct from literary studies (if only by virtue of their primary object of investigation). The Scarlet Letter’s status as a canonical work of American literature assures its treatment by each and every (earth-shatteringly significant but ultimately) fleeting critical fancy. Determining (or, I’m tempted to say, limiting) the focus of The Scarlet Letter’s critical apparatus is then either frighteningly easy or impossibly complex. In a reductive sense, the criticism’s focus is on the narrative and the events that occur therein (what we as undergraduates referred to as “the plot”). Regardless of their theoretical orientation, all critics address the issues addressed...

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