Tuesday, October 10, 2017

I Just Lacan't: Postmodernism at is best

In this chapter of Hans Bertens book, we cover the different aspects of postmodern theory, starting with Foucault's Panopticism. This is a strange and difficult concept, but it has to do with the fact that we are constantly under surveillance--not in an Enemy of the State kind of thing, although, I am sure that falls into this category. Bertens uses a great example from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Many of the patients at the mental hospital are there voluntarily because they saw something abnormal in themselves. In other words, they scrutinized their behavior against a backdrop of "normalcy" somehow defined by societal standards. We deeply invest in certain ideologies which then retain a certain amount of power over us.
Pretty fun, right?

So, we are looking carefully at ourselves and others for signs of abnormalities. It reminds me of when I worked as a 911 dispatcher. In the post 9-11 world, people were on their toes about everything. And Carmel and Fishers in Indiana were some of the most affluent towns in the state. Paranoid rich people with too much time on their hands would call to report a suspicious person in their backyard looking at their gas meters, with a yellow vest that read "meter reader" on the back. They were constantly on the alert for something abnormal in their neighborhoods. Within this standard of normalcy sits a large amount of power. Foucault explains that people adhere to what they are told is to be normal, thus a strong connection between knowledge and power. This is old news, right? Whoever wields the knowledge has the power. That's why teachers are so highly paid!

According to Bertens, "Foucauldian criticism focuses on the role of literary and other texts in the circulation and maintenance of social power."(147) Foucault is therefore tied up with deconstruction because in this literary theory, you look for the discourses of power in literary texts and break them down.  Not that this approach will break any chains of power but will certainly expose them. And in an ideal world it might "release us from our stilted social norms."

Lacan also concerns himself with ideology. He builds upon Freudian theories but is careful to avoid some of the blatant sexist ideas put forward by Sigmund. Without going into much detail (because you know how much I LACAN'T STAND PSYCHOLOGY), Lacan explains that when the "mirror-stage" is broken, we are left with a ruined illusion of what we thought the world was supposed to be, thus a desire for something that will never be fulfilled. Lacan says that even love is a temporary fix for this longing! He knows me so well!!
Ideology, then, is a temporary fix that fills this empty hole left behind from our mirror stage. Literary texts can be read, looking for these escapes or temporary fixes. Don't ask me how, it all sounds like a bunch of baloney to me!

Moving right along, we come to Helene Cixous and the French feminists. Coming off of the post-structuralism binary opposites, Cixous and the French feminists of the 1970s point out that the binary oppositions can be categorized as basic male/female opposites. The inferior is always associated with the feminine, while the positive and superior is consistently male. Cixous theorized that writing could perhaps expose and somewhat undo this "phallocentric" system. I think this is certainly a helpful tool. Old Norse literature often praises the masculine and uses the feminine for insults and putdowns. A lot of work has been done in this field by scholars like Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir who are digging further into gender roles and masculine system of repression expressed in the sagas.

These ideas and writers have been more or less lumped into the category of postmodernism. But what Bertens eventually tells us is that postmodern writing plays around and escapes reality. By borrowing characters from other fictional stories, refusing to give a story closure, or other various tinkering, postmodern authors are knowingly playing with understood and traditional motifs and genres in order to "deconstruct and unsettle traditional modes of fiction." (Bertens 145). It opens the audiences eyes to the construction and illusion of certain settings. This is perhaps where postmodernism because entangled with cynicism, as these authors purposefully break the rules in order to show that rules have been constructed. It's an eye roll, a goof.

Monday, October 2, 2017


Finally, we have come to post-structuralism! I love all of the post-subjects. Post-modernism, post-traumatic stress disorder, Post cereal, and most of all, playing the low post!

And, not unlike Shaquille O'Neal's career, the literary criticism has made some sense so far, but suddenly we are in some murky and difficult waters as if we too were old, slow and trying to keep Cleveland a contender.

In order to understand the deconstruction theory, it is necessary to go back a little bit to look at structuralism, not only for the reader's sake but also because I probably understand it a little bit better. See, structuralists were obsessed with language. Remember the denim mogul Levi-Strauss and his anthropological structuralism and the obsession with language? In the late 1960s and 70s, Jacques Derrida continued this line of thinking into foreseeable and also strange yet necessary ideas. Structuralism believed that language was the key to understanding ourselves, and, using Propp's folktale themes, the structuralists claimed that even though languages differed, there were certain structures that we all were a part of. There were similarities that bonded us together through the use of language.

The issue that Derrida and the post-structuralists saw was that the structuralists did not appreciate the gap between language and the real world, a word and the thing to which it refers. Additionally, the structuralists talked about the structures that make up our world without considering that they were also part to this same structure! It's like Inception! What Derrida says is that whatever is inside you, your "presence," as it were, is the last piece of true knowledge, according to Hans Bertens, and language allows you to convey that knowledge. However, Derrida says that language cannot be trusted. Because of the gap between word and the thing it notates and because each language takes its own course towards these things, language is incredibly vulnerable. The authenticity inside us that is so treasured by structuralists disappears as soon as language is initiated; and since we cannot express ourselves without using language, nothing is real and we are all doomed to die.

So how to solve this problem? Derrida more or less suggested deconstructing the structures that hold us in place--not a Marxist theory but in a way that discovers the "center" of a text and breaks down the binary oppositions that exist to expose certain ideas in order to better understand texts and therefore ourselves. Let me explain: in every text there is something explicit, usually something explicitly positive but not always. For these explicit themes, there is, implicitly, an implicit! For instance, a novel about good will without doubt also contain evil. A nationalistic text that discusses what "we" as a people are will inevitably deal with an "other." Therefore, according to Derrida, binary opposites exist within texts and very often one side is not represented. Deconstruction aims to hollow out the text to reveal these whispers of the other side.

Hans Bertens puts it best: "Deconstruction is analyzing and dismantling texts in order to reveal their inconsistencies and inner contradictions. At the heart of deconstruction is the effort to dismantle the cover-ups that texts use to create the semblance of stable meaning: their attempts to create privileged centers - implicit or explicit binary opposites - with the help of all sorts of rhetorical means." (115)

This approach, then, has tremendous advantages. For instance, in the sagas, the effort to define the Icelandic identity inevitably discusses others without explicitly saying that "this person means it is not us." This would appear to also lend itself to investigating gender roles, as the sagas are very vocal on the masculine and manly and, apart of the occasional insult, are somewhat mum on feminine concepts. Deconstructing what is there in order to find what isn't there, however, can be not so much dangerous as it can be misleading. Using this approach, critics can find just about whatever they like in texts. In fact, picking out a small detail and claiming this as the center, then pairing it with a binary opposite is rather indicative of the faulty projections of modern ideals into the medieval world.

This means that, though incredibly powerful, and to some extent helpful, deconstructionism can also be a burden and a weakness in scholarship. Much like an old, slow Shaq on the Cavs.

Death of the Author

Continuing on the road from intertextuality, we come to this concept of the death of the author.
This theory is attributed to a 1986 article by Roland Barthes with the same title. This was sort of the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism, which we will get into more fully in the next post.

Barthes's famous proclamation was, "Who is speaking anyway?" His basic argument was that giving a text an author was limiting the text's independence. Pulling from the same sort of concepts as intertextuality, he claims that a text "does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single theological meaning...but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture." Pulling the author into this equation creates an enormous amount of confusion. The examples he gives consist of the questionable narrations of texts. Do we suspend our knowledge that J.K. Rowling certain is not in the magical world of Harry Potter? Keeping her in mind, however, ruins the aesthetic of a secret wizarding world. And when the narration speaks, is it her voice or Harry's? Is it Rowling, or someone else who experienced these events? WHO IS SPEAKING ANYWAY!?!? Barthes argues that only by eliminating these questions and the source (author) are we really capable of seeing the text for what it is.

Michael Foucault, who seems to run through all of these readings, also adds to the conversation with an essay, What is an Author? His claim that the author is outside of the text, someone who precedes it. This adds considerable influence to the text when it need not be there. In Foucault's mind, the author exists for categorical purposes. Prior to actual, living authors writing their own texts, certain works were lumped under one name. This is particularly interesting for Old Norse studies because the sagas are for the most part anonymous and the closes we come to this phenomenon is Snorri Sturluson. While The Edda is the only work that can truly be attributed to the name Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla has also been attributed. Some author also suggest that Egils saga is also a Snorri work, based solely on writing style. Could this have been a similar move in early literary history? If so, what does that name do to the text? What does it hinder or solve?

All in all, this theory has one purpose: to yank whatever meaning or message lies inside of a text from the author and put in the hands of the readers. Only by divorcing the two can the text be fully appreciated. Barthes eloquently claims that the death of the author is the birth of the reader. And yet, as we have seen, eliminating the author loses certain context. This theory takes us a little bit back towards New Criticism and the power of the singular, independent text. It would be difficult indeed to remove Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse Five, as it is his most biographical novel. It is still a fine text without him, but in this humble student's opinion, the living author and the additional questions are part of what makes critical analysis interesting.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


For this week, I read selections from Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette and Graham Allen, all discussing the complex theory of intertextuality. Genette goes into quite some detail that makes the entire idea incredibly complicated, but I will attempt to break it down here because to a certain extent I believe in this theory, or at least I think that this theory holds some truth to it.

Julia Kristeva is generally acknowledged as one who coined the term intertextuality, though it is tied to some of the French post-structuralist and other theories that had been floating around in the 1960s. For her, authors do not create new texts; instead, they compile and build upon what has already been created and so on. This is somewhat true in all art. One cannot escape their inspirations or sources. Yet Kristeva seems to suggest that there is nothing new to say or do.

Incidentally, this song is a direct influence upon one of my own songs, perhaps proving Kristeva's point.

One of the points made by Graham Allen, however, is that intertextuality means that an individual text cannot have meaning, that it is part of a larger whole, a continuum of sorts. This is certainly partially true. Today's modern indie rock music could not have existed without its grunge predecessors, who in turn formed out of the 80s rock who can trace their paths back to the late 70s punk, etc, etc until we get back through the initial rock and roll movement that developed from the blues and we are on the back porch of a West Virginia farm house listening to a family jug band. Does that mean that the songs in themselves are without significance?

While I do agree that individual pieces of art or literature cannot have stable interpretations, to say that they cannot have significance or meaning on their own is misleading. A piece of good writing can be that regardless, but it becomes a great piece of writing when placed in the line of other good writings and within the social and cultural time and context. No matter how terrific a piece of literature is, there will always be something that came before it that made it possible. Kurt Vonnegut, my favorite author, could not have created his masterpieces without the influence of Mark Twain, who, likewise, is indebted to those before him. Even the standout geniuses are on the continuum. The Beatles, original and amazing though they are, were majorly influenced by the early rock and roll singers. Today, we have become aware of this fact, and this incites some interesting reactions. When we become aware that nothing is new, people began to attempt a newness in hopes that they can cross a virgin threshold. Art, music and literature that to the trained eye and ear feels odd, offensive or ridiculous. Take for instance Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. Many would argue that this is not art but simply something offensive floating in a jar of his own piss. Is this art? It certainly hadn't been done before, except when unsuspecting artists dropped valuables in the toilet.

Genette sets down a long list of what he calls "transtextuality" that helps to understand the subtleties surrounding the concept of intertextuality. I will skip most of these for now, as they don't necessarily help us understand this idea much better. Suffice to say that there are many different ways to see a text's relationship to the wider textual world. Chapter titles, commentaries, awareness of its genre and many other things force a reader to acknowledge the necessity of the continuum of literature. 

One point I would like to discuss is what Genette calls "paratext."  For an example he mentions the chapter titles that James Joyce originally had developed for his book Ulysses but later removed. Does the reader ignore this insight into the text since it is not part of the end result? If this is true, every mistake, every edit would contain some sort of significance for the text. It reminds me a little of Dave Egger's book, You Shall Know Our Velocity! In the first edition, there is a thirty-page interruption by one of the side characters, named Hand. Hand is painted as a mischievous and unreliable friend to the main narrator. But in his interruption, Hand contradicts some of the points the narrator made, asking the reader to reconsider the entire story. This added so much to the story, so many interesting ideas that require another reading to decide what you want to believe. Yet in the subsequent editions, Eggers removed the interruption, leaving him determinately as the unreliable friend, and lending credibility to the original narrator. Do I now ignore the interruption because it was removed? 

Intertextuality is a very interesting way to view things. While I cannot fully commit to some of the ideas put forth by Kristeva and Genette, I do believe there are many valid points that one has to acknowledge in the literary world. But it does beg the question if nothing is new and nothing can truly be created, why do we try to create at all?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Structuralism is spawned from language. The brain behind the movement was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. There appear to be many different aspects of a structuralist approach to literature, some of which are still useful, some that have become outdated. In a nutshell, the idea that language is all encompassing, that it stretches over nearly every part of human life, is essential. Saussure also breaks down this concept of symbolism so much that even words themselves are merely symbols for what they refer to. Simple, right?

But the main point of structuralism for us in Old Norse studies is the latching onto patterns. Lévi-Strauss, the founder of the wonderful denim company, developed his anthropological structuralism into a literary theory. This is rather straightforward. Lévi-Strauss was studying the differences in cultural signs, but with the help of Vladimir Propp's book on myths, he began to see connections. Myths from different cultures and different times worked along the same underlying principles and even shared some of the same structures, even if the settings and characters were completely different. This, then, is transferred into narratives in general. Certain underlying structures of narratives can be gleaned, and how well the narrative uses these structures reveals more or less its value.

Or, on the other hand, we can use this concept to look at the sagas, which are, after all, rather repetitive and formulaic. The introductions to stories, the building up of characters, and even the action sometimes reflects that of other sagas and even of other continental literature. Studying these common structures within the narratives can tell us more about the individual texts and about the genre as a whole. This can be of great assistance when trying to discover variances in texts or outside influences. When the introduction of characters begins every time with, "there was a man called _____ and he was _______.

A structuralist approach to Njals saga also reveals certain patterns. Many scholars such as Joseph C. Harris, Jesse Byock, and Andrew Hamer have reached very different conclusions from their view of the structure of this one particular saga. Patterns can be found throughout literature and no doubt certain aspects of structuralism can be of use, but that is not the end all. And, just as with Njals saga, over-enthuisasm for the particulars can lead to overexposure and beating a burned down horse.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


I have to admit that in the last couple years of high school I read, nearly back to back, The Communist Manifesto and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. I never had the guts to tackle Atlas Shrugged. I know what you are thinking....but I promise I was not one of those kids. I have worked through Marxist theory before but never thought to apply it to the Icelandic sagas. This leads to some very interesting theoretical discussions.

Marxism, of course, deals with the class struggle. And reading something like A Tale of Two Cities or Sinclair Upton's The Jungle, a Marxist point of view lends itself extremely well to how the author thought or how the text itself may have been developed. What is so interesting, though, is many of the Íslendingasögur takes place in the so-called Common Wealth era of Iceland's history--a time before government structure. Iceland was more or less settled by independent and free farmers with very little governmental infrastructure. According to Louis Althusser, however, any kind of ideology is an instrument of the state that keeps an individual suppressed. With the development of the Alþingi and the intense legal system (though no executive branch), then could the ideology of keeping the peace have turned into the kind of thing Althusser mentions?

Certainly much of Sturlunga saga lends itself to a Marxist lens. Here, at least, there is a sense of class disparity. Now that I think about it, however, the foundation myth of fleeing Norway from King Harald's tyranny falls into the same category! Nevertheless, a pre-state Iceland that existed long before the industrial revolution throws some wrenches into the Marxist machine. Throughout much of the sagas, however, there is discernment between small farmers, big farmers, outlaws and royalty. The production of the sagas themselves was more often than not overseen by the ecclesiastical class. And its intended audience was originally part of the upper tiers of society. Yet again, the question comes to hand, just how divided was Icelandic society? Even during the Sturlunga Age, as the families of big farmers collected the power, how tangible were the class differences?

Now, I am very aware that to read something with a Marxist theory, the text does not need to have a deliberate class struggle present. The Icelandic sagas, though were pseudo-historical, which means that this power dynamic is extremely important to the reading. I think much more can be said about a Marxist reading of the sagas, especially as manuscripts vary through the centuries. Looking at differences from early writings to late, post-reformation versions, when Iceland left the Common Wealth and entered the world economy through its cod industry can reveal some very interesting differences and insights.

Then again, sometimes the theory just doesn't quite fit.


I will not pretend that I don't have very little patience for psychoanalytical interpretations of literature. This may perhaps stem from my inability to grasp the entire field of psychology, which I nearly failed in high school. "A bunch of dumb names for things that we all have in common!" I would bellow at the D on my report card. Thus, I am one of those whom Maud Ellman claims "snorts with disbelief." It's not that I think psychology and psychoanalysis has no place or value; it is that I simply have no patience to wade through what sexual stages I went through as a toddler that are not haunting my relationships today. That, plus a lot of this is beyond my comprehension. According to Ellman and Freud, then, I am repressing a lot of garbage and am resistant to discovering the nature of my issues. Hey, Freud, kiss my ass!

In reality, I think the psychoanalysis can be of some use but I think it has the tendency to create a tunnel vision. Ellmann says that the focus is on a person. And that is true. Whether it is the author (which makes the most sense) or character or reader, to understand the the text, the focus shifts from the text to a person. I find this incredibly problematic. Though, as many have shown, this focus on the person and the elements paining and assisting him can be of extreme help in better understanding the text as a whole.

Psychoanalysis has found a home in Old Norse studies, most recently with a former classmate and all around wonderful human being, Suzanne Valentine. Her approach is to use Freud's theory and Carl Jung's theory concerning dreams and apply them to dream sequences throughout certain saga texts. You can read it here. Not to disregard my colleague's work, but I believe that this approach can only work in isolation. Viewing Guðrún's dreams throughout Laxdæla saga through a Freudian lens may help develop a more acute understanding of the text; however, dream sequences are so frequent throughout the saga corpus and so repetitive that it is difficult to see them as formulaic rather than informative. The same is true with many characters. Often in the sagas, a character is introduced with immediate associations: big, handsome, good at sports, i.e. a hero. Or, on the other side, dark, shrewd, taciturn and a trouble-maker. Applying a theory to these types of characters seems to be a little forceful.


That is not to say it is not appropriate. Egill Skalagrimsson is a great example of a complicated character, something Torfi Tulinius has written about. One of my all time favorite saga character is Kálfr Árnason from "Saint Olaf's Saga" in Heimskringla. I have written extensively on Kálfr here, and I think that an approach to the character may only be available through a Freudian or other type of psychoanalytic lens. This landed man is tempted by King Cnut, betrays King Olaf, raises and rouses an army of farmers who have their doubts, leads a battle agains the king and his four brothers, comes out victorious only to be betrayed by King Cnut. Kálfr then works with an old adversary to clean up his mistake by finding Olaf's son and bring him back to the throne from exile. In short, Kálfr is messed up and has a lot of issues and things going all at once. His situation that leads to defiance and then remorse is atypical of saga formulaic writing. This, then, can lend itself to a more psychoanalytical approach.

Now I realize that I am being extremely narrow and that psychology is a lot broader than Freud's obsession with sex. But when the text is anonymous and the characters often follow specific patterns, I find a lot of the psychoanalytical approaches to be helpful but not all that concrete.