Final Preparation: Literary Theory Hypothetical Identification


Looking at three different theories of literary criticism discuss the concept of identity and how each theory addresses this idea

Regardless of the way a theory looks at literature, all literary criticisms in some way emphasize the concept of identity–either in the characters, the author, or the reader–and the role of identity in the interpretation of a text. Formalism argues that there is no identity in the text and that the text stands alone. Dialogism demonstrates the character’s role in creating his own identity. Marxism argues for identity as a construction of capitalism. While I could look at these three theories, I find a trend among the theories of identity in Postcolonialism, Feminist, and Reader Response theory rather intriguing and will focus on these in this essay. Through these three theories it becomes apparent that identity plays a major role in all of our literary theories and that the emphasis on identity is at the heart of all our literary theories.

Postcolonialism is largely focused on the idea of identity and the construction (or deconstruction) of the identity of the Other in literature. Edward Said’s Orientalism looks specifically at the construction of the Other in relation to the dominant culture’s identity and how this construction was perpetuated throughout the Western world. Said’s argument is that the identity of tribes colonized by more dominant countries, namely England, has been skewed by the colonizers. Colonists noticed odd traditions in a tribe and used these differences to stereotype the identity of the Orient when the trait may only belong to an individual tribe. Said’s argument is that we need to revise the idea of the Other based on the culture, not on the stereotype. Gayatri Spivak, on the other hand, argues that our construction of our own identity is largely influenced by the construction of the Other’s identity. Following in the ideas of Bakhtin, Spivak asserts that we can not truly know ourselves without the Other because it is through the variations between ourselves and the other that we identify ourselves. Spivak does not call for an elimination of the stereotypes that Said does, but rather for an emphasis on the cultural traits that were stereotyped as a means of understanding our own culture. For instance, Spivak looks at the characterization of the Other as barbarian as coming partly through our view of widow burning as a barbaric ritual. For Spivak, this means that we need to look closely at how our own death rituals play into our identity.

In some cases, the idea of a foreigner as Other comes from the language they speak. Feminist theory looks specifically at the idea of woman as an Other based on her language. Virginia Woolf argues for the need for female authors to become androgynous to be a successful writer. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf argues that “good” literature is as much based on the subject and the language as the writing. Books written on women’s feelings in a drawing room are “trivial” compared to a books written on war. Woolf’s argument is that women must learn to write like men in both their choice of subjects and their actual word choice. In short, she is arguing that female writers have been forced to give up their  identity to become successful authors. Helene Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” emphasizes the need for women to find their own language in order to realize their identity. Gloria Anzaldua expands on this idea in Borderlands where she demonstrates the construction of identity not just through language, but through the divergent dialects we speak. Through these theories, it becomes obvious that language is a key to our identity. For women, language is also an indicator of her status as an Other; male language is the dominant in Western patriarchal societies and if a woman does not assimilate and speak the language of men, she is different and, therefore an other. Anzaldua, whose many divergent dialects indicates how each dialect we speak relegates us further into the realm of the Other. Anzaldua is not just an Other in America because her primary language is Spanish, but is also an Other in specific communities of immigrants based on which specific dialect she does and does not speak.  As Spivak demonstrates with the stereotyping of minority cultures, language readily becomes a marker used to distinguish a person as an Other.

Together it is easy to see how the construction of identity relies on the idea of the Other, but it is less clear how the construction of identity works in a literary setting. Reader Response theory best exemplifies this connection between identity and literature. Reader Response arose directly in response to Formalist theory and the argument that there is no identity in a work of art. In fact, the strongest argument made in Formalist theory is that of the Affective Fallacy. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s article “The Affective Fallacy” argues that to examine a piece of literature for the response it has on the reader is an unfit way to undertake literary criticism. Cleanth Brooks furthers this argument in The Well Wrought Urn by arguing that an emotional reading has no support and is therefore invalid. However, to look at Reader Response theory and the reader’s identity in the construction of the truth demonstrates that identity does play a major role in the way a reader interprets the words on a page, therefore giving credibility not only to the reader’s identity as a role in literature, but also to the entire realm of Reader Response theory.

Roland Barthes’s theory of Reader Response proposes that the author is dead and the reader is the author. Barthes’ argument is based on the fact that each individual takes something different to the text because each reader’s life experiences is different. In other words, our identity effects the way that we read a text. Stanley Fish, in “Literature in the Reader: Affective Fallacy” furthers this argument with his concept of the interpretive community. Fish examines the fact that people with similar social markers (e.g. religion, class, race) will read a work in a similar manner. However, Fish still argues for the individual reader and the fact that we must look not at the emotional effect of a work on a reader, but the mental effect of a work on a reader. For example, an avid mystery writer may figure out the murderer early in the novel because of his extensive reading of mystery novels. On the other hand, a reader unfamiliar with the mystery novel may continually change his reading of the text as he progresses through the novel. Fish argues that we must look at how this author changed his reading to understand the role of the identity in constructing the novel we are reading. While similar social markers may lead to a similar interpretation of a text, no individual has the same identity as another, so no two people read the novel in the same way. This gives credence to Reader Response theory and helps explain the continual emphasis on identity in various theories.

Postcolonialism argues both for and against a return of identity for the Other. Feminism demonstrates the impact of language on our identity and Reader Response helps us to understand how our identity plays into the reading of a text. Marxism, then, looks at the construction of identity through Capitalism and the effects of money and class on our identity. Dialogism also looks at identity, only this time the filter between author and character. With such emphasis on identity in theory, it seems that the majority of our literary theories are less divergent than they seem at first. Instead, many of our theories emphasize the role of a certain aspect (language, money, mental health, etc.) in the way we read literature.

After Note

1300 words in 60 minutes. It’s not too bad, but I know I could have done better. This has me realizing that I’m going to be more drained than I first expected when I get towards the end of the second prompt. I need to revise my comps attack strategy to make sure I have the energy to give each of the questions all I can. More on that later :)

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About smartykatt

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University where I specialize in rhetoric, composition, digital literacy, and information literacy. My research focuses on the intersections of student engagement with digital and information literacy and their relation to student research and writing. I am an ACES Fellow at Lamar and, with Janice Walker (Georgia Southern), I am a Principal Investigator on the LILAC Project.

Posted on March 30, 2009, in Exams, Literary Theory. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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