THEORY CHECKLIST: A Working Document

© 1997, 1999 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.
As are all pages for my course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me.

One is faced at the very outset, when approaching literature theoretically, with considerations such as the following. You should build your own checklist of theoretical considerations as we go through the course. For some other formulations of these issues, see my pages Some Factors Affecting/Effecting the Reading of Texts and The Problem of Meaning.

  1. What is the Nature of and What Are the Functions of Literature?

  2. What is the Nature of the Subject?

  3. Who is the Reader?

  4. What is the Relation of the Author to the Text?

  5. What are the Relations of the Author and the Text to Society?

  6. Where (and How) Does 'Reality' Exist?

  7. What is Representation (Mimesis)?

  8. What is the Nature and Status of Language?

  9. What is the Relation of "Form" and "Art" to Meaning?

  10. Where is Meaning?

  1. What is the Nature of and What are the Functions of Literature?

    The question of what "Literature" in fact 'is' is a difficult one. Why might a seventeenth century treatise on religion be Literature, and scads of poems about love not be Literature? Is this Literature, or not -- ?

    Nobody knows,
    How cold my toes,
    How cold my toes,
    Are growing.
    Well, if it isn't Literature, what is it? It's part of our culture, our heritage; it's in verse; it's in all the bookstores.

    Does literariness reside in the idea of quality (in which case a well written book on brain surgery might be Literature), or in conventions (but many works which follow the conventions faithfully are not Literature), or in fictionality -- that is, to be Literature it can't be true -- well, not literally, at least? (The latter question points of course to a further, serious problem: the truth status of narratives. Is an autobiography true, or is it someone's imagination of 'real' events, moulded to tell a certain story of the self?)

    Or, on quite another hand, is "Literature" merely what your professor (as a local manifestation of the power of the ruling class) says it is?

    1. One might think of Literature as, for instance,

      1. a body of texts marked by the imaginative verbal recreation of the world as we experience it

      2. relying upon the powers of form, allusion, poetic qualities of language and tropes to intensify and render complex such representation of experience

      3. and both drawing on and referencing the forms, the genre and discourse conventions, and specific examples, of previous literature

      4. whose function is not simply to represent our experience but to offer possible worlds which may expand and/or critique our vision of or understanding of human life.

      Then again, on might have quite other ideas about what constitutes this cultural practice, or classification, that we call "Literature," for instance....

    2. And/or is Literature an institution: that is, "Literature" as a creation of the joint workings of publishing houses, professional critics, prize-awarding bodies, anthologizers, and the designers of curricula in universities and schools. As such, its form and its definition or nature, as well as its 'body' of works, may be said to represent the interests of the professionals involved, and to represent their political agenda and sense of their place in the society.

      Consider a comment from a recent supplement on literacy, in the Canadian middle-brow, wishing it were-highbrow, weekly magazine Saturday Night, a supplement decorated with corporate logos and paid for by the literacy organization ABC Canada, "a joint initiative of business and labour." In it the writer reports approvingly, surveying attitudes toward literacy,

      Pity and scorn intermingle in the voice of [award-winning and financially successful] novelist Carol Shields when she talks about the businessmen who tell her that their wives love her books, but they don't read fiction themselves because they have to wade through reports all day at the office.

      Pity and scorn. Wow. Those barbarians!

    3. Is Literature, to raise another problem, or the same one in a different way,

      1. a self-contained body of knowledge which refers primarily to itself,


      2. one instance of the ongoing engagement of writers in the historical and cultural aspirations, anxieties and crises of the time, consequently responsive to and formed by the immediacies of history and implicated in the forms and discourse practices of their time?

    These questions lead us to ask, among other things, what the role of 'aesthetic' value or force as opposed to representational value and force are in literature, what the real functions of "literature" and "Literature" are (that is, works which we characterize as literature, and literature as a social structure and practice), what the ideological and/or moral force of literature may be said to be.

    There are some suggestions for the nature of literature on my page On the Uses of Studying Literature and on my page on some considerations regarding quality.

  2. What is the Nature of the Subject?

    1. Questions of the nature of the reader and the author, and of their place in the process of meaning and significance, lead us to the question of the nature of the subject—that is, the experiencing self. Is the subject (here are some possibilities)...

      1. an integral entity existing independently of language, cultural meanings, or the contexts of experience

      2. an entity which is created through one or more of: language and other symbol systems; social interaction; responses to contexts; such that the 'subject' might be said to be a social formation

      3. a being distributed across different meaning frames and discursive practices, a 'de-centered' subject, as the phrase is.

    2. If the subject is in some manner an amalgam of physical and mental being, what implications does this have for ethical existence, for the nature of consciousness and knowledge, and (hence) for the nature and functions of modes of communication such as literature?

    3. If the subject is an entity or a continuum of experience which has an unconscious and a conscious component, what is the balance between and the relation between the two, what is the unconscious and how is it formed, and to what elements of the unconscious and conscious self does literature appeal?

  3. Who is the Reader?

      In brief,

      1. is the reader an individual affected only incidentally by history and social judgment, or is the reader the product of a 'reading formation', a set of cultural understandings and expectations and a set of conventions for reading literature?

      2. is the reader outside of and independent of the text, or is the reader in fact a formation of the text, a 'self' created through interaction with it?

      The first of these questions has implications for interpretation and evaluation, the second has implications for the role of literature, especially in the socializing processes of the culture.

      One must ask what the implications are of the apparent fact that one must be 'educated in' the reading of 'good literature' in order to appreciate and understand it. Does this mean merely that appreciating literature is a complex process, or does it mean that the reader is only a 'proper reader' after a socializing process, so that 'literature' is regulated and its interpretations patrolled by guardians of correct reading? This of course gets us back to many previous questions, including the nature of 'aesthetic' experience.

  4. What is the Relation of the Author to the Text?

    1. Is the text the intentional production of an individual, or

    2. Is the text an only partially intentional production whose unintended determinants are one of or a combination of

      1. the psyche of the author,

      2. the psyche of the culture,

      3. the ideology of the culture,

      4. the particular socio-economic conditions of the production (the placement and role of the artist in the culture, who pays for the production, who consumes it, what are the rewards of successful production, how are they decided and, what are the material conditions of production)

      5. the traditions of writing which pertain to the text

      6. the traditions of the treatment of the particular subject-matter in the culture and in the genre

    3. Or is the text in fact almost entirely the production of the ideological and cultural realm, in which realm the author is merely a function, whose role, aspirations, ideas and attitudes are created by the society in which she lives. In this case, the text is a complex structure of cultural and aesthetic codes, none of which the author has created, arranged around traditional cultural themes or topoi -- whereas the author herself, while an existent being (her existence and effort are not denied), has little to do with the 'meaning' of the text, as she herself is simply part of (or, constructed by) the circulation of meanings within the culture.

      [For some considerations on the 'death' of the author, a thesis of poststructural theory, see my page The 'death of the author' as an instance of theory.]

  5. What is the Relation of the Author and the Text to Society?

      This issue is implicitly addressed in the preceding questions. As the author is operating within a certain cultural milieu,

      1. In what ways does she represent in her text, deliberately and/or unconsciously, the understandings of the world that the culture holds?

      2. In what ways does she represent in her text, again deliberately and/or unconsciously, the understandings of what art is and does, the aesthetic ideolog(ies) of the time?

      3. In what ways are the ideologies of the culture, and of the 'educated classes', embedded in the conventions, traditions, canons, style and subject matter of the text?

      Moreover the text not only will be an outcome of this situated imaginative process, but will be structured in its production and in its reception by various material social forces; consequently one must ask questions such as these:

      1. Who is the intended audience, and how does that shape the production of (the imagination of, the writing of, the editing of, the sale of) the text?

      2. Who has a say in the text's final form, directly (e.g. editors), or indirectly (who will pay for it and why, who will produce and distribute it)?

      3. How is it paid for, and how it is distributed, who has access to it, under what conditions, and what effects might these conditions produce?

      4. What status does that kind of writing have in the culture (e.g. what is its caché, what is its authority, where in the education and enculturation system is it placed, how does it relate to entertainment and to the cultural practices that distinguish the elite)?

      5. What cultural powers does the (successful) author have?

  6. Where Does 'Reality' Exist?

    1. If art represents reality, as Aristotle argued (and most theorists since him have agreed), then to theorize art we need to theorize 'represents' and 'reality'. At a very basic level,

      1. does reality exist 'out there', independent of humans? --- in which case knowledge must be homomorphic with (essentially the same structure as) reality, else we couldn't know reality.

      2. or on the other hand is 'reality' (or are some aspects of the conglomerate of conceptions we clump together under the heading 'reality') a product of the human mind, of our systems and methods of knowledge, and of our symbols systems, including language? How culture-specific is reality?

    2. Can we ever know reality, or is what we think is reality just a construct?

    3. If we can know it, what is it we are knowing? After all, we know symbolically, so all we know are our symbols; and we know according to constructs of the relations of things, so what we know are those relations. The post-structuralist (or, structuralist, depending on your definitions) marxist Louis Althusser wrote that, in effect, what we know is our imaginary relations to reality -- that we live in ideology, not in 'reality'.

  7. What is Representation (Mimesis)?

      One must consider what it is to represent something, what gets represented, what relation such representation might have to 'reality' (see the issue of what 'reality' is, below).

      Most compellingly, is literature a means of representing reality, or it is a means of representing particular imaginative constructions that we take to be reality but which may have ideological, cultural, political meanings which ground and shape the 'reality' we think we are looking at?

  8. What is the Nature and Status of Language?

    1. What is the status of language and rhetoric in literature? Is the language of literature in any way privileged, intrinsically or culturally? -- Is it different from other discourses? -- If so why and how?

    2. Is there a particular literariness to some uses of language, as Roman Jakobson, for instance, argues? Are there particular forms of language use, such as ambiguity or irony, which forms mark a work as literary ( for instance one school of contemporary theory, lead by the late Paul de Man, maintains that rhetoric, by which de Man means essentially tropes, ways of saying something by saying something else, are the hallmark of literary language)?

    3. Is language composed of signs which have their meaning only in reference to, and through difference from, other signs, as in the popular Saussurean model? Or is language an actual indicator of the 'real world'?

    4. Do we speak language, that is, is language subject to our will and intention, or does language speak us, that is, are we implicated in a web of meaning located in and maintained by language?

  9. What is the Relation of "Form" and "Art" to Meaning?

    1. What is the role of Form in the meaning of the text? Is form anything at all, and if it is, what is it?-- A means of constructing reader responses?-- A means of putting meanings into particular relationships with each other?

    2. And what is what we call 'art'? Is art an inherent property of human existence, or is it a set of learned conventions? Does 'art' have a privileged role in representing experience, or is Pierre Bourdieu correct when, after the exhaustive analyses in Distinctions, he concludes that 'art' and taste in art are merely class markers, so that what we think of as 'art' does not have any privileged representational force or qualities (other than social ones)?

  10. Where is Meaning?

      Does 'meaning' reside in the author's intentions, in the text, or in the reading?

    1. If it is in the text, is it in the text now, or in the text as an historical, culturally situated document, so that to fully understand the meaning we might best understand the cultural and aesthetic codes and the traditions and the meanings of the particular time of writing?

    2. If it is in the author's intentions, is that in the conscious, or the unconscious intentions? --In the intentions before or after the writing, or somewhere in between? Can, in this case, the text have meanings of which the author was not aware?

    3. If meaning is in the reading, is that an informed reading, or any reading, and what difference does that distinction really signal? Is it in an ideal non-historical reading, or in a historically and culturally placed reading? (See my handout The Problem of Meaning for slightly more elaboration.)

  11. In Conclusion

      These are some of the issues that are raised by the theorists on the course, and some of the basic questions any consideration of the nature and function of literature, and of the meaning and function of particular works of literature, must address