I am so impressed with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. BISR offers courses around NYC and elsewhere on topics ranging from philosophy to literature to politics. The common thread seems to be critical thought. For me, the currency of such academic avocations is knowledge and context. BISR’s return of such currency on my invested effort has been huge. The latest course I took was Literary Theory: A Critical Introduction, led by the inimitable Rebecca Ariel Porte. If you’re like I was when I signed up, you’ve never heard of literary theory.
If you’re one of my technically inclined readers, you’re possibly even dismissing the notion as so much ivory tower self-satisfaction. So often through the years, people have said, “let’s face it, it’s easier for you to pick up literature than for an English major to pick up physics.” BISR has convinced me that this opinion grossly underestimates the sophistication of the humanities. Even the staunchest physics supremacists I encountered in grad school would get riled up over religion or politics. This is an admission that questions revolving around the human condition are worthy ones. No surprise, the humanities have been developing highly sophisticated perspectives for approaching these questions.
Over the course of Literary Theory at BISR (emphatically a cursory introduction, given only four short weeks at hand) we read and discussed primary texts to address such questions as, “How do our material conditions affect our being?”, “How do we understand the structure and semiotics employed by a text?”, “Is all knowledge mediated by language?”, “What role should subjectivity play in interpreting the world?”, “How much of our supposed knowledge is actually contingent on culture?”, “To what extent are the forces and/or legacies of Western colonialism echoed in what we read today?”, “How have depictions and understanding of gender evolved over the centuries, especially recently?” These are all pertinent to reading text, but also pertinent to understanding the modern world.
The epistemologies of physics, math, or computer science are not suited to addressing these questions. Humans are uncountably various amongst each other and even within themselves. There is no Standard Model of Human Physics to be found. Humans process information entirely differently from Turing machines. Within the humanities, however, we find several rich analytical traditions ranging from psychoanalysis to queer theory, each with its contributions and shortcomings.
These theories and traditions do not provide elegant, concise mathematical expressions, and they’re fluid, evolving continually. That is, of course, a reflection of their aim. It’s a feature, not a failure. Rather than attempting to conquer nature through universal understanding as with the natural sciences, perhaps the questions of the humanities will benefit more from embracing inherent ambiguity and subjectivity. The unit on Post-Structuralism made this most explicit. These readings and discussions were the most difficult, but also the most rewarding as they laid foundations for Postcolonial theory, Queer theory and Feminist theory, each of which I found so relevant to understanding present life. In these units, the Post-Structuralist moves of deconstruction, defining something by what it is not, and elevating subjective experiences proved their value by giving voice to those experiences at the margins and boundaries which force us to reconsider our received notions.
I want to close as our class closed: A reading of Emily Dickinson through the various literary traditions we had covered. Copied here from the Poetry Foundation:
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -
And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -
To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -
We started parsing the content. Who’s the speaker? The gun? A woman? A man? Is the “Loaded Gun” a potential to damage? A pregnant woman? The Owner “carried Me away”. Do we read this literally? “We hunt the Doe”—Perhaps in a Postcolonialist reading the speaker is the agent of the oppressive Owner/colonizer as He slaughters the docile natives. Perhaps in a feminist reading, the speaker is accomplice to sexual conquests. “Yellow Eye … emphatic Thumb”—the sight and hammer of a gun? Cat’s eye, human thumb? Grotesque supernatural imagery? “Without - the power to die -”—because a gun is a lifeless object? Why “power” here?
We interpreted line by line together in this manner, but then I tried queering the poem to see where that might go. How much innuendo can I inject, and how would that change the meaning? What if I decide the gun is a sexually voracious woman? A sexually voracious man? The imagery can fit both—a Loaded Gun, roam, hunt, Vesuvian face, Yellow Eye, emphatic Thumb, live, the powers to kill and die.
And there’s the brilliance! This poem lends itself to such a variety of readings, and even within the sexual reading, its gender ambiguity expands its multivalence. A younger me would be frustrated by the absence of a correct answer, but how human (and not algorithmic) it is to be able to study such a sententious poem, excavating signs and symbols, interpreting from several contexts without a need to assign a ranking of the best or most probable readings. Indeed, accepting all readings simultaneously. The ambiguity is precisely the source of its richness. I hope that my technical readers can truly appreciate this. As Jacob Bronowski said, “The symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry.”
I put as much effort into this class as for particle physics back in the day. I didn’t have to. BISR understands we’re working professionals. But the rewards for my effort: I think I know what literary theory is now. I know that I know more about the world. Here’s to more BISR classes in the future.