Sunday, September 19, 2010

Critical Practice by Catherine Belsey - A General Introduction

About the Book

What is poststructuralist theory, and what difference does it make to literary criticism? Where do we find the meaning of the text: in the author's head? in the reader's? Or do we, instead, make meaning in the practice of reading itself? If so, what part do our own values play in the process of interpretation? And what is the role of the text? Catherine Belsey considers these and other questions concerning the relations between human beings and language, readers and texts, writing and cultural politics.
Assuming no prior knowledge of poststructuralism, Critical Practice guides the reader confidently through the maze of contemporary theory. It simply and lucidly explains the views of key figures such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, and shows their theories at work in readings of familiar literary texts.

Critical Practice argues that theory matters, because it makes a difference to what we do when we read, opening up new possibilities for literary and cultural analysis. Poststructuralism, in conjunction with psychoanalysis and deconstruction, makes radical change to the way we read both a priority and a possibility.
With a new chapter, updated guidance on further reading and revisions throughout, this second edition of Critical Practice is the ideal guide to the present and future of literary studies. 

In an attempt to become at least a bit more familiar with contemporary debates about critical theory, I recently finished reading two introductions recommended by one of my professors, Dr. Scott Crider. They were Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler and Critical Practice by Catherine Belsey. Both were accessible (a quality rarely found even in an introduction), yet neither appears to oversimplify. So what is theory? Jonathan Culler includes the following items:

1. Theory is interdisciplinary–discourse with effects outside an original discipline.
2. Theory is analytical and speculative–an attempt to work out what is involved in what we call sex or writing or meaning or the subject.
3. Theory is a critique of common sense, of concepts taken as natural.
4. Theory is reflexive, thinking about thinking, enquiry into the categories we use in making sense of things, in literature and in other discursive practices.

Culler also includes a very helpful appendix, which offers brief paragraphs on each of the major theoretical movements from Russian Formalism to Queer Theory–quite a handy little reference. Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice is a bit less accessible than Culler, but effectively traces the challenges to what she terms “common sense criticism.”
One major question in literary theory concerns meaning. What is meaning, and how does it function? Is it within or outside a text? Does it dwell with the author or the reader? Here’s a crude illustration of “meaning” I made while reading Belsey:
So meaning lies at the intersection between these four criteria: 1) Authorial Intent; 2) The reader’s perception; 3) The text itself; 4) Historical and Traditional Context. Though I am sure more criteria exist (perhaps the graph should be made three-dimensional?), I find the above illustration quite helpful. I also made a similar illustration for the human self, one that is equally crude yet somewhat helpful.
Like meaning, the self lies at the intersection between two dichotomies: Individual/Social and Made/Given. Again, this graph is taken from my reading of Belsey, who handles the issue of the human self with a great deal more subtlety and precision than my illustration.
When I was an undergraduate in Canada encountering literary and cultural theory for the first time, my teachers pointed me towards two introductions, Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980) and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Each in their fashion, these books stirred the blood, inviting students to a struggle waged over the literary text (as I remember it). There was never any doubt as to where these texts stood: they told us what to distrust and firmly put us on a new path. Belsey armed her readers with Althusser and Lacan and sent them out to slay ‘common sense’ and the ‘classic realist text’ wherever they found them.
What is poststructuralist theory, and what difference does it make to literary criticism? Where do we find the meaning of the text: in the author’s head? in the reader’s? Or do we, instead, make meaning in the practice of reading itself? If so, what part do our own values play in the process of interpretation? And what is the role of the text? Catherine Belsey considers these and other questions concerning the relations between human beings and language, readers and texts, writing and cultural politics. Assuming no prior knowledge of poststructuralism, Critical Practice guides the reader confidently through the maze of contemporary theory. It simply and lucidly explains the views of key figures such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, and shows their theories at work in readings of familiar literary texts.
Critical Practice argues that theory matters, because it makes a difference to what we do when we read, opening up new possibilities for literary and cultural analysis. Poststructuralism, in conjunction with psychoanalysis and deconstruction, makes radical change to the way we read both a priority and a possibility. With a new chapter, updated guidance on further reading and revisions throughout, this second edition of Critical Practice is the ideal guide to the present and future of literary studies………In this now classic exposition of critical theory, Catherine Belsey explores the possibilities for a new critical practice that draws on semiotics, Marxist theory and psychoanalysis.

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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

That's an elaborate assessment of Belsey's work.
Thanks.

NeoEnglish System said...

You are most welcome. Keep visiting. There's more to come in this line...

Anonymous said...

best guideline to understand Belsey work

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