About the author:
I’m Julie! In four semesters of Literature at Dawson, throughout almost 30 classes and an immeasurable number of essays I’ve written, this may be my favourite. It was written during my Literary Theory course and inspired by the mass confusion my peers and I experienced on the topic of poststructuralism. As one of my old teachers professed: it’s baloney! However, don’t take my word for it. Read about it and Susan Sontag’s opposition to interpretation in my essay. Sidenote: I would have never written it without the freedom my professor, Lorne Roberts, allowed.
“An Erotics of Art”: Rejection of Theory
By Julie Jacques
For Literary Theory and Criticism, with Prof. Lorne Roberts
Poststructuralist criticism examines, amongst other things, the Death of the Author, and the “instability of meaning” (Poetry Foundation). Authorial intent as well as historical context are dismissed by subscribers to this school of thought. The criticism aims to put the “very notion of reason” into question, and challenges “the intellectual ground” on which our society is built (Barry 63). Whilst poststructuralism posits a deep dive into a work’s content, Susan Sontag argues that this excessive analysis should be avoided. In fact, in “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag entrusts her reader with “an obligation to overthrow any means of defending art … which becomes particularly obtuse” (Sontag 2). In my opnion, poststructuralist criticism is not only undesirable, reactionary, and impertinent but also, by definition, reads a work “against itself” and actively destroys art (Barry 68).
Poststructuralist criticism, by creating an instability of meaning, fosters an undesirable conclusion. Humans seek meaning in works of art. – we long for meaning. This is shown by the complex history of interpretation– the beginnings of an understanding of art, which Sontag describes as the “old style” of interpretation (3). This style would create new meaning based on the literal meaning of a text. The problem appears when that idea evolves and one “digs” into a work “to find a sub-text which is the true one” (Sontag 3). This is exactly what poststructuralists set out to do: they try to unearth a “repressed unconscious,” and decenter a work, removing all bases (authorial intent, historical context) that it is built upon (Barry 68). For those individuals who enjoy constructing ideas of disunity and paradox whilst ignoring context, poststructuralism could be desirable. However, there’s a reason the poststructuralists are self-declared “oppositional readers”; they oppose! The (perhaps, structuralist) reader will not want to deconstruct a text – they will find contentment in what sits in plain sight rather than in what may sit “behind” a work. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas are used to propel poststructuralism, did not believe in a meaningless world. His refutation of God denies modern ideas of meaning, but he posits new, different ways for humanity to once again know meaning in his idea of the “over human,” a concept humanity can strive for and prescribe meaning to. In a world which has long set up the contrast of mind (intellect) and body (emotion), a poststructuralist, reactionary interpretation is the “revenge of the intellect upon art” (Sontag 4). Hence, poststructuralism is undesirable due to its conclusion that our world is meaningless.
In its omission of form, poststructuralist criticism exudes impertinence. Critics will examine the body, the content of a work so thoroughly to find etymological inconsistencies, or verbal paradoxes, only to justify, through the idea of ‘the Death of the Author,’ ignoring obvious patterns put into place by the writer of a work. This refusal to accept that authorial intent can affect meaning violates (or, as Roland Barthes puts it) “transforms” the modern text. Barry shows this in his poststructuralist analysis of Dylan Thomas’ “Refusal to Mourn.” However, to stray from Barry’s work, let us analyse another of Thomas’ poems, even more popular than “Refusal to Mourn.” “Do not go gentle into that good night” has become a universally known phrase in the western world since the poem’s publication. If a poststructuralist were to examine its content alone, searching for paradox, perhaps they would focus on the title. “Good night” here can be construed as a paradox. Since good can be associated with light, and night can be associated with dark, already, in his title, Thomas presents us with a disunified work. The repeated phrase, “dying of the light,” could be given this same poststructuralist treatment. Death is associated with darkness, so its association with light here rejects modern understanding of language and creates fissures in the poem’s exterior. Of course, by focusing on content alone, a poststructuralist may fail to recognize – or assign meaning – to the poem’s form. It is one of the most popular English villanelles – surely, Thomas’ tightly respected structure cannot be dismissed so easily? Would “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, another famous villanelle, be subjected to the same form of criticism– its tonal inconsistencies analyzed at the price of ignoring its less-strict pattern of repetition? Sontag once again rejects the poststructuralist method. “Against Interpretation” purports that the defense of art treats content as necessary and form as accessory (Sontag 2). However, form should be priority. Understanding form over content will breed a more accurate understanding of a work. One might make the connection to Marshall McLuhan’s famous words, “the medium is the message” may pop into your brain as you make the connection. It seems to me that that is exactly what Sontag intended. Poststructuralism’s insistence on content ignores the implications of form and renders the criticism impertinent.
Poststructuralism destroys art; its inherent meaninglessness as well as its mindless dedication to content work together to destroy a work of art. This form of criticism is undesirable and impertinent. Following, as we have, Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” the next logical step is to wonder which theory, if not for poststructuralism, is valid? Even Levi-Strauss, heavily quoted by Derrida in his famous “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” does not throw away “the tools” which he uses to analyze literature. These tools are, of course, schools of thought which came before his poststructuralist views. So, would structuralism be a better frame of reference for Sontag? Decisively, Sontag says no. Structuralist abstraction is as unwanted as poststructuralist meaninglessness. What is needed, as Sontag famously states, is “an erotics of art” which focuses on what and how art is what it is and not on figuring out what it means (Sontag 10). Sontag doesn’t want you to take all art at face value. Rather, she encourages readers to accept surface level meaning; allow yourself to “recover [your] senses” and experience art before dissecting it (Sontag 10). Then, and only then, can you dive deeper and attempt to know the how and the what.
Barry, Peter. “Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction.” Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press, 2009.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Accessed on UbuWeb Papers Nov. 23, 2020.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “One Art.” poets.org. Web.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” 1970. Accessed through http://www2.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f13/drrdassp.pdf on Nov. 23, 2020.
Poetry Foundation. “Poststructuralism.” Glossary of Poetic Terms. Accessed on Nov. 23, 2020. Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” Against Interpretation. London: Picador, 2001. 1-10.
Thomas, Dylan. “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” poets.org. Web. Thomas, Dylan. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” poets.org. Web.