Barnes & Noble, Marlton
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
M.A.R. Habib

In this talk, I hope to show that what we call literary criticism has some fairly fundamental and important uses, not only for life in the academic world but in social and political terms and even on a domestic level. I think that when most non-academic people think of literary criticism, they perhaps remember a high school teacher who told them exactly what was meant by a passage in Shakespeare or a poem by John Donne. Or, at a slightly higher level, college students might think of literary criticism as an academic exercise whereby they interpret and write about literary texts. Many of them wonder why they are required to do this, and are sceptical about the benefits and rewards of such an exercise. After all, how can interpreting Shakespeare or Milton advance our careers? How can reading texts which are difficult and often ancient help us in any aspect of our lives?

These doubts about the relevance of literary criticism to our lives were deepened by the kind of criticism which was predominant in schools and colleges from the 1930s and 1940s. This was the so-called New Criticism, which said that when we look at a work of literature, all we need to look at is the text itself, the words on the page. We did not need to consider the author’s background or beliefs, or the political climate, or larger social issues. This kind of criticism encouraged students to look at literature in isolation from everything else; and it is hardly surprising that they could not see the broader implications of literary criticism.

In recent years, these questions of relevance have been addressed by some newer, controversial kinds of literary criticism which include Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, new historicism and postcolonial criticism. These controversial modes of criticism have fallen under the label of literary theory. Literary theory has encouraged us to reaffirm the connections between literature and other aspects of our lives, such as gender and class relations, political power, ideology and religion. For example, if we are to understand how Shakespeare portrays the character of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, we need to know something about the actual status of Jews in Europe at that time. Literary theory has also attempted to show that the techniques of interpretation that we use on a Shakespeare text can be extended to other kinds of text; for example, a political speech, the presentation of the local news, advertising, and even the coverage of a sports event. In a sense, each of these comprises a “text” which can be analysed. The point about literary criticism and theory is that it is a kind of reflection on our practice, on the underlying assumptions and principles and motivations that guide our practice. And it is important to realise that there is no kind of practice which does not have some kind of theory behind it.

Let’s consider a somewhat personal example, of practice or experience, the act of kissing. I’m sure that when we’re kissing someone, the last thing on our minds is theory. But even this practice is full of theories and is meaningless without them. Why is it that we kiss only a member of the opposite sex on the mouth? There is a centuries’ old theory behind this and it’s a theory which doesn’t apply to every society. There are societies where it’s quite natural for a man to kiss a man and even walk down the street holding hands. Again, there’s a lot of difference between kissing someone in Church on your wedding day and kissing someone in a sleazy bar: it’s exactly the same action, exactly the same practice, but is has very different meanings. Also, why do we elevate kissing to such a prominent position in our romantic and emotional lives? According to Freud, we have largely repressed other expressions of our sexuality. We can see, then, that if we take away the theories behind it, even a simple act like kissing loses its significance. So, next time you kiss someone, it’s worth remembering that you’re engaged in a highly theoretical activity, and you are not going to understand it without some knowledge of literary criticism and literary-critical techniques. So you really need to buy my book.

To return to our initial question, what is theory?, we might say that theory is a systematic explanation of practice or a situation of practice in broader framework; theory brings to light the motives behind our practice; it shows us the connection of practice to ideology, power structures, our own unconscious, our political and religious attitudes, our economic structures; above all, theory shows us that practice is not something natural but is a specific historical construct.

Literature might be considered as one form of practice. But a literary text is not the only type of text. It is part of a vast network of texts which surround us daily: a movie, an advertisement, a newspaper article, or even a piece of music could be regarded as a text.

To illustrate how we might use literary criticism and theory beyond the classroom, I will choose a seemingly trivial example, an ad which you may have seen some time ago on T.V. This is the ad for a skiing machine called “Easy Glider.” I’d like you to picture the following scenario: imagine that our world has been destroyed and some future civilisation came across a DVD of this ad. This DVD is the only piece of information left about our world. The future people would have to reconstruct the whole of our world on the basis of this one ad. They would have to work out the various theoretical assumptions underlying this ad. Let me remind you briefly of how the narrative of this ad develops. First of all we encounter a man facing the camera who tells us: “I watched what I ate, worked out on my easy glider and lost 50 pounds.” Above the man in a boxed inset is a speeded-up tape of the man on his easy glider losing weight. You actually see his stomach go down in seconds from a prominent bulge to complete flatness. Another voice comes in, assuring us that this is actual footage. The camera then moves to a young woman and a young man, both wearing outfits which reveal their perfect physiques, working out on their easy gliders; the voice tells us that, unlike other exercise machines, this one exercises the entire body and has been demonstrated to be the most efficient aerobic exercise. The camera swings across the living room, where the couple is exercising in front of the couch. As the camera moves across, they turn and smile at each other. A less attractive woman now dominates the screen and tells us: “I tried bikes, jogging and even raquet-ball but Easy Glider is definitely the best.” Another shot shows the young attractive woman folding up the easy glider and putting it away under her bed, an action which shows even more the suppleness of her body. A much older woman then appears, saying: “Easy glider works my arms, my tummy, my shoulders, I get it all.” We are now subjected to the 800 number and a voice telling us that we can make three easy payments of $19.95. The ad finishes with the less attractive woman urging us: “Call toll-free, like I did, to shape up and slim down with easy glider.”

Would it possible for the future people to piece together our world and its values from this ad? Let’s assume that these future people are literary critics and theorists: one is a feminist/psychonalytical critic, one is a Marxist, one is a structuralist, one is a deconstructionist and one is a reader-response critic. In other words, each of them represents a major branch of modern literary theory. The feminist/psychonalytical critic might say something like this: what’s central to this ad is its symmetrical construction of sexuality. The fact that two men are included in the ad, one of whom is very physically appealing, shows us that female sexuality has been colonised. In other words, the ad plays on the sexual longings of women as well as of men. This shows us not necessarily that men and women are equal but that the ideal of such equality has permeated mass society. Although the verbal message is that you can become fit and healthy, the erotic visual images convey the unconscious message that you can be a sexual being, you can make your body into a vehicle of power over the other sex. What is presented here is a dream, a fantasy where we, who are not so attractive, can see a satisfying image of ourselves. So, in fact, it is the ad, playing on our prelinguistic drives and our already conditioned reflexes, which unconsciously obtains power over us. But whoever put together this ad knew his or her psychology: many people nowadays are aware that some of the images presented on TV are impossible to attain. And so, the less attractive woman represents the ordinary person who acts as a liaison between the stars of the ad and ourselves. Since the ad stresses instant, effortless gratification, and since our deepest psyche is governed by the pleasure principle, the desire for immediate pleasure, we willingly submit ourselves to it.

A structuralist might look at the way in which words are played off against each other, and how the meaning of individual words depends on their interaction with other key words. For example, the connotations of “easy” and “gliding” move in the same direction. By slimming down, you will shape up: you will move up an imaginary ladder of sexuality or attractiveness. In fact, “easy,” as an adjective, usually describes a noun like “task.” We can speak of an easy task or an easy job but we don’t normally speak of an easy machine or an easy shoe. So, in a sense, the ad creates its own language: also, you can get the Easy Glider by making easy payments. A Marxist might go further with this idea: what kind of society would place such emphasis on easiness? Democratic, feudal, religious, totalitarian? There is an interesting paragraph on the concept of “difficulty” in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France: difficulty, Burke says, “has been the glory of the great masters in all the arts to confront and overcome; and when they had overcome the first difficulty, to turn it into an instrument for new conquests over new difficulties; thus to enable them to extend the empire of their science; and even to push forward, beyond the reach of their original thoughts, the landmarks of the human understanding itself.” Burke was a conservative who opposed democratic government. In Burke’s view, difficulty is associated with the great masters, not the masses. Coleridge, Yeats and T.S. Eliot made the same association and they were all, in their ways, conservative. A Marxist would certainly conclude that our ad was designed for mass consumption in a relatively affluent society, a society where the importance of effort had been minimised, and where the aspirations of the majority of the population had been deadened. And of course, a Marxist would add that what we see in these easy to digest images is the power of commodity: everything in this society, whether it be poetry, religion, or health, is turned into a commodity with a cash value. Like all other commodities, it must compete on the open market with other fitness machines and present itself as naturally benefiting the consumer; that is partly why it appeals to our unconscious impulses. “Health” can sell itself by associating itself not only with sexuality but with the image of a happy, contented household: the beautiful young man and woman smiling at each other as they glide effortlessly back and forth in their living room. Also important to a Marxist critic would be the ad’s distortion of reality in this respect: we all know that the majority of marriages in this society fail, perhaps because of this devotion to the body. The Marxist would also focus on contradictions: this very ad, which promotes health, will be followed by another advertising food, such as MacDonald’s burgers, which will have the opposite effect. When the consumer fails to see the contradiction, ideology is earning its keep. From a Marxist viewpoint, ideology is a set of beliefs and values that is handed down by those in power, under the pretense that those values will benefit the whole society rather than just the ruling class. The ruling class tries to pass off those beliefs as natural and universal rather than constructs which serve its own interests. Again, the Marxist might say the ad was a form of control over the population: by chanelling all your frustrated desires and ambitions into exercise, you’re less likely to be using your mind, which could be a dangerous thing. But the ad certainly has aspirations towards democracy, in terms of both the effort required and method of payment.

A deconstructionist might argue that the ad pretends to express reality when in fact it defines reality in a highly arbitrary way, equating happiness with bodily perfection. The ad is not a reflection of reality but is itself a form of production; the deconstructionist also will treat the ad as an artificial construct and will deconstruct it into its presuppositions. It is a part of reality which reproduces certain stereotypes as natural and healthy, urging us to conform to these stereotypes. It pretends to give us a coherent purpose and identity, to provide some framework in which our eroticised images of ourselves can have some significance and direction. A reader-response critic will ask what is the function of the audience in helping to make up the meaning of the ad? He or she might point to the fact that this function is pre-empted by the fact that there is already an audience in the ad itself; the less attractive lady who has already called toll free. She, as a previous audience to the ad, has already responded and what we react to is the drama of her complete satisfaction.

What did our literary critics learn about us? They learnt that our society is secularised, that we live in a cult of the body, that we as mass consumers don’t like difficulty, that we respond more to rapidly changing images than to sophisticated uses of language, that overt sexuality governs the connection between the sexes, that women’s equality is seen in physical rather than mental or spiritual terms, and, finally, that we are overweight, which provides the market for Easy Glider. As a literary critic, I have to remind you that everything I have said about the Easy Glider ad is not objective but reflects my prejudices. And this is an important function of Literary Criticism, to help us confront the fact that our views are conditioned by our particular backgrounds. If you think about the interpretations I’ve given, you can work out a lot about me: you would immediately identify me as an academic person because of certain ways in which I use language; you would also guess pretty quickly that I was not American or at least that I had experienced some other culture; you would know that I have many quarrels with modern culture: the depreciation of mental and spiritual life, the emphasis on profit, the commercialisation of health and the degradation of women. If someone else were to analyse this ad, say a twenty year old athlete, you would be offered a very different interpretation. What is the basic message, then, of literary criticism? It’s surely that literature or any kind of text must be analysed in connection with the other important elements in our lives.

But it’s not only the newer forms of literary criticism that could comment on this ad or the social significance of literature. Numerous writers, from Plato and Aristotle down to the present would have had definite perspectives toward this ad. Plato, for example, would have been concerned about the moral effects of the ad, its appeal to baser desires, its privileging of the body over the mind, and he would certainly have seen all of these traits as integral to democracy, of which he did not approve. Augustine and Aquinas might have been shocked by the degradation of beauty to an exclusively physical dimension, emptied of any spiritual content. Even the happiness between the married couple is reduced to a function of their figures, achieved by exercising.

The example of the Easy Glider may seem trivial; but of course, the interpretation and understanding of advertising and its ideological role is an immensely important task. Equally, the techniques of literary criticism can be applied to many other kinds of “texts.” In terms of issues which are of international significance, these texts would include the Bible, the Qur’an, as well as interpretations of Islam and the connections between Islam and democracy. Throughout much of the world, we are witnessing right now a struggle to define and represent Islam. I want to show the potential value of literary critical techniques in understanding and resolving this struggle.

This struggle to define and represent Islam depends considerably on strategies of reading and interpretation, as well as attitudes toward both tradition and modernity. Fundamentalists essentially reject both; it goes without saying that they reject what they see as interpretations of the religion inspired by or compromised by modern developments; but equally, it should be stressed that they reject tradition, the vast and rich tradition of theological and philosophical interpretation which has given the lie to any facile notions of “literal” meaning. The fundamentalists posit a primordial, “literal” truth which somehow timelessly pre-exists the actual historical process of interpretation. The struggle, then, is between fundamentalists rejecting history, and those more enlightened minds who wish to resituate their religion within its actual historical conditions and to re-open the doors of interpretation, doors which in recent history have been so violently flung in their faces by those to whom reading poses a profound threat.

The most important texts of Islam, the Qur’an and the ahadith (the traditions or sayings of the prophet) need to read and appreciated in their status as literature. This reading needs to complement, not supplant, any other status (theological, epistemological) hitherto enjoyed by these texts. What does it mean for the Qur’an, or any text, to be read as literature, to be appreciated for its literariness? To begin with, its language must be assessed not only in terms of transparent meaning but also in terms of its material qualities: its sound patterns, its rhythms, its rhymes and its consequent emotional impact. The text will also be valued in its potential for metaphor and symbolism, and its consequent richness and plurality of meaning, which will be seen as resistant to closure. In short, the text will be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities, whereby its overall impact is far profounder than anything that can be reductively ascribed to its “literal” meaning. The Qur’an itself states that Allah (S) speaks in parables: perhaps we should re-examine the notion of literal meaning. It is presumptuous for us to pretend that we can understand easily the Word of God; rather, we might acknowledge that the Word of God is infinitely rich and infinitely profound. Reading a text in a literary-critical mode will also entail recognising its dialogic nature, whereby it subsists always in interaction with its audience. The Qur’an, in fact, is highly conscious of its audience, in terms of race, gender and religion, and often addresses or comments on it. Finally, reading a text as literature will entail a broader perspective whereby we consider its place in history, and specifically in its intellectual and literary traditions; in short, we will acknowledge the historicity of the text.

The fundamentalist enterprise is precisely to deny all of these attributes of literature and to reduce scripture to an ahistorical and timelessly intelligible text, divorced from interaction with audience or language. The Qur’an itself repudiates such a reductive approach via: its emphasis on parable and metaphor; its attention to its audience; its self-consciousness of its own position in history and the historical import of its own message; its awareness of its own history as a text; and its consciousness of its linguistic force, and of its own potential confusion with other discourses, such as poetry. It is literary criticism which does foreground these repressed qualities, and encourages a reading of the text as harmonising its material, aesthetic and semantic dimensions.I would argue that the reading and re-reading of the Qur’an, in the light of the accumulated knowledge of the past and present, both Eastern and Western, is one of the most important tasks confronting the twenty-first century.

These are two examples, then, of the broader uses of literary criticism. In summary, we might say that literary criticism is not merely a set of techniques or a history of techniques for the reading of literature. Those techniques can be applied to create a narrative of our personal lives, our political and religious identities and all of the phenomena of mass culture, ranging from the construction and effects of advertising to the ideological interactions between Islam and Western democracies. The narratives that we create using literary-critical techniques will allow us to view our own lives and broader events within a larger historical context, that includes consideration not only of present circumstances but of the past and future, not only economic conditions and circumstances of gender and ethnicity but deeper psychological circumstances and motivations. Above all, literary critcism has often served the task of reminding us that reading – not only of literary texts but of all the texts around us – is not merely an intellectual process but an activity which must engage moral responsibility. Literary criticism reminds us that merely utilitarian and pragmatic purposes are insufficient for a true attainment of fulfilment and for a genuine understanding of our lives and our manifold problems. Finally, in a democratic society, we pride ourselves on our ability to think independently as individuals. But to achieve any independence of thought is a long and complex task, a task for which literary criticism furnishes the foundations. The events of September 11 and their aftermath have shown us that the humanities are indispensable to our survival as an enlightened civilisation; I would argue that literary criticism, which is based on the practice of careful, contextualising reading, is an integral component of the humanities in this newly awakened role.