The Crying Child (A Translation)
Author(s): Mark R Smith
Copyright holder(s): Mark R Smith
This document contains strong or offensive language
The first views I will look at are some of the views put forward by several different feminist thinkers. Jane Tompkins in her essay ‘Me and My Shadow’, which is a response to an essay by Ellen Messer-Davidow, writes:
“There are two voices inside me answering, answering to Ellen’s essay. One is the voice of a critic who wants to correct a mistake in the essay’s view of epistemology. The other is the voice of a person who wants to write about her feelings (I have wanted to do this for a long time but have felt too embarrassed). This person feels it is wrong to criticize the essay philosophically, and even beside the point: because a critique of the kind the critic has in mind only insulates academic discourse further from the issues that make feminism matter. That make her matter. The critic, meanwhile, believes such feelings, and the attitudes that inform them,
are soft-minded, self-indulgent, and unprofessional.” (1)
Tompkins highlights the fact that, if she is writing in an academic way, she must adhere to the conventions of the imposed language and keep her personal feelings out of what she writes. This is what the academic code demands; students are always told that they should not state too strongly that they actually like the book they are writing about. Feelings, enthusiasm, praise for literature are not supposed to enter too much into the kind of analysis carried out in the university. Tompkins, in her essay, highlights this fact of academic discourse - that the personal is not supposed to be found in a piece of critical writing - and goes on to subvert that same idea. But this introduction of the personal voice is not easy. Tompkins writes:
“I find that when I try and write in my ‘other’ voice, I am immediately critical of it. It wobbles, vacillates back and forth, is neither this nor that. The voice in which I write about epistemology is familiar, I know how it ought to sound.” (2)
She ‘knows how it ought to sound’ because it is the voice imposed by the academy, the voice sanctioned by the critical establishment, the impersonal voice, the objective voice, the voice that doesn’t speak about feeling unsure of oneself, the voice that will not say whether you like a poem or not, the voice that shouldn’t speak about needing to go to the bathroom. Tompkins, in this essay, does manage to introduce the personal and this, I would suggest, makes her essay readable and enjoyable, but in no way takes away from the persuasiveness and validity of her argument.
Some of the same kind of ideas can be found in Barbara Christian’s essay ‘The Race for Theory’, but Christian introduces the idea of race into the equation. She writes:
“For people of color have always theorized - but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic. And I am inclined to say that our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than forced ideas seem more to our liking.” (3)
Christian, I would suggest, argues persuasively for the idea that the western academic / critical tradition excludes alternative forms which are associated with an ethnic minority group. The academic norm, according to Christian, is an exclusive, white, western tradition. Black traditions are not admitted; perfectly valid kinds of theorising that do not fit the imposed white, western, male imposed language are not permitted into the academic club. So, to get on in academia, Christian suggests that many black thinkers adopt the alien medium. She writes:
“Some of our most daring and potentially radical critics (and by our I mean black, women, third world) have been influenced, even coopted, into speaking a language and defining their discussion in terms alien to and opposed to out needs and orientation.” (4)
Members of a certain linguistic group are forced to speak in a language which has nothing to do with them. Henry Louis Gates Jr. engages with the same idea in his essay ‘What’s in a Name?’. He writes:
“I think that many of us [black academics] are trying to work, rather self-consciously, within the [white academic] tradition.” (5)
The academy only permits people of colour on its own terms. Just like Jane Tompkins above, in their professional context black academics have to allow an alien medium to be imposed upon them. The exercise of power is exactly the same in both situations: a linguistic group, whether it be women or a non-white ethnic group, are forced by the institutions and traditions in which they work to speak a foreign language. The same process of assertion of one language over another, which we stated happens even in primary school, occurs at the highest levels of academia: power is asserted through language. Olivia Frey in her essay ‘Beyond Literary
Darwinism’ sums up this idea when she writes:
“Those who have power define and maintain these standards and use them to wield power, although they may not think that they are repressing someone or even exercising power. What they think they are doing is maintaining excellence.” (6)
The academy is a structure where power is exerted unconsciously. When a marker comments that a students essay is being too enthusiastic, they are no doubt trying to help the student receive better marks in the future; but what is actually occurring is the enforcement of the officially sanctioned language of academia.
Tom Leonard, in both his poetry and his prose, sees this same idea in terms of class. Leonard writes, with reference to an exam question that asks students to ‘discuss’ the metaphysical poets, ‘Well, discuss, but not in a Glasgow accent’ (7). Again, for somebody at university, or in any academic situation, they are subject to a power relationship articulated through the medium of language. But, and at this point the discussion widens out, this idea is not restricted to the university, it can be seen in all parts of society:
[CENSORED: Tom Leonard poem beginning "right inuff"] (8)
Power is exercised through language at nearly every turn. Working class speech is constantly seen as inferior to a linguistic standard imposed by groups higher up the social scale. In other words, by exerting power via language, the divisions in a class based society are upheld; the working classes with their course, barbaric speech which is full of awful swear-words are told from all angles that they are inferior because of the way in which they talk. As well as this imposition of a linguistic norm, and therefore linguistic hierarchy, the university is complicit in other ways in the reinforcement and perpetuation of an unequal class structure. Leonard writes:
“The university (and I here speak specifically about the arts faculties) is a reification of the notion that culture is synonymous with property. And the essentially acquisitive attitude to culture, “education”, and “a good accent” is simply an aspect of the competitive, status-conscious class structure of the society of the whole.” (9)
The exam is the main method the university uses to enforce the idea of knowledge as a thing to be acquired. This is especially pertinent to a student of literary theory as the closure of theory is not supposed to be possible, but applies to all sections of a university degree. An exam forces the student to consume or posses as much of a chosen subject as they can. For example, here is a question taken from the Glasgow University Literary Theory exam of 2003:
“Put in context and discuss any one of the following terms: Differance; dialogism; abjection; interpollation; the subaltern; rhizome; authorship; Orientalsim; hysteria; the subject.” (10)
Now, the student sitting the exam will have a reasonably good idea that a question of this kind will come up so will arrive in the examination hall with chunks of Derrida, Said, or Kristeva committed faithfully to memory. In addition to this, the student may have ingested some secondary criticism to provide some different approaches to the material. In other words, the student will have consumed enough material to get through the examination. After the exam is over (unless the student has to resit) they need never look at another page of Derrida again as long as they live. Derrida has been consumed by the student - the M.A. certificate is the
document of ownership - intellectual property has been acquired thus enhancing the status of the consumer. This method does not encourage the student to really think about anything; all it does is reinforce the idea of property that is inherent in a class based, and therefore unequal, society.
So, the academy, according to the three lines of thought we have looked at, is a hierarchical power structure which imposes its power through the medium of language. But is there a way out of this oppressive schemata? Perhaps a way out can be found in the last two lines of Tom Leonard’s poem:
“all livin language is sacred
fuck thi lohta thim”
No one language has an inherent superiority over another. Critical or academic writing, and this applies at the level of the undergraduate right up to the hallowed heights of respected and published academics / critics / theorists, should be opened up to alternative forms, alternative languages, diverse ways of writing. We can term this idea creative criticism or creative theory. Writing like Gloria Anzaldua’a “Borderlands” would come into this category; writing that crosses borders, writing that allows the personal, writing that does not try and force an alien(ating) or foreign form on to anyone. Another writer which I would include in this category is the American “beat” writer William S. Burroughs. I read Burroughs before I came to university but I only realise now that when reading Burroughs, I was in fact reading theory. Burroughs writes about language as a virus, about the inadequacy of language, about language as an ideological tool; in other words, Burroughs engages with many of the same ideas that post-structuralist theorists like Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari also write about, but Burroughs includes the techniques of the creative writer. Creative theorists like William Burroughs, Tom Leonard and Gloria Anzaldua are serious and valid thinkers but are working outside the confines of the academy. They are not subject to the imposition of an officially sanctioned voice and so are free to find their own way of writing. Henry Louis Gates Jr. points to Toni Morrison as an example of the same idea when he writes about Morrison’s novel “Beloved”:
“Toni Morrison’s genius is that she has found a language by which to thematize the very unspeakability of slavery.” (11)
Morrison is a theorist of the horrors of slavery but is writing outside the confines of the academy or critical establishment. In “Beloved” she finds a voice that is suitable for speaking about the time when black people were enslaved and turned into animals. Morrison, like Burroughs, like Anzaldua, like Leonard, is a creative theorist. These writers are engaged with serious theoretical issues of language, of class, of slavery, of gender, but are also writers who wish to use language in a creative, interesting, humorous and entertaining fashion. Creative theory can achieve a synthesis between the supposedly opposed languages of critical writing and creative writing. This, I would suggest, makes writers like the ones mentioned here more interesting (in terms of style) and more pleasurable to read than many, more academic, theorists, and also makes theory accessible to interested parties outside the university gates. Through creative theory different voices are allowed to be heard.
1 Jane Tompkins, ‘Me and My Shadow’ in “The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp.2129-2143 (p.2130).
2 Tompkins (2001), p.2133.
3 Barbara Christian, ‘The Race for Theory’ in “The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp.2257- 2266 (p.2257).
4 Christian (2001), p.2257.
5 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘What’s in a Name? Some Meanings of Blackness’ in “The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism” ed. by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey & Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp.135-150 (p.148).
6 Olivia Frey, ‘Beyond Literary Darwinsm: Women’s Voices and Critical Discourse’ in “The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism” ed. by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey & Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp.41-65 (p.45).
7 Tom Leonard, “Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983” (Devonshire: Etruscan Books, 2003), p.64.
8 Leonard (2003), p.134.
9 Leonard (2003), p.64.
10 Exam Question taken from University of Glasgow, Degree of M.A. With Honours in English, Paper 12: Literary Theory (Question 19).
11 Gates, Jr. (1993), p.146.
Christian, Barbara, ‘The Race for Theory’ in “The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp.2257-2266.
Eagleton, Terry, “Literary Theory: An Introduction in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp.2243-2249.
Foucault, Michel, ‘The Means of Correct Training’ in “The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought” ed. by Paul Rainbow (London: Penguin, 1991), pp.188-205.
Freedman, Diane, P., Frey, Olivia & Zauhar, Frances, Murphy, ‘Introduction’ in “The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism” ed. by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey & Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp.1-10.
Freedman, Diane, ‘Border Crossing as Method and Motif in Contemporary American Writing, or, How Freud Helped Me Case the Joint’ in “The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism” ed. by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey & Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp.13-22.
Frey, Olivia, ‘Beyond Literary Darwinsm: Women’s Voices and Critical Discourse’ in “The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism” ed. by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey & Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp.41-65.
Gates Jr., Henry, Louis ‘What’s in a Name? Some Meanings of Blackness’ in “The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism” ed. by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey & Frances Murphy Zauhar (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), pp.135-150.
Graham, John, J. “The Shetland Dictionary” (Lerwick: The Shetland Times, 1999).
Graham, Laurence, ‘Introduction’ in “A Shetland Anthology: Poetry from Earliest Times to the Present Day” ed. by John J. Graham & Laurence I. Graham (Lerwick: Shetland Publishing Company, 1998), pp.xv-xxiii.
Leonard, Tom, “Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983” (Devonshire: Etruscan Books, 2003).
Leonard, Tom, ‘Introduction’ in “Radical Renfrew: Poetry from The French Revolution to The First World War, by Poets Born or Sometime Resident in the County of Renfrewshire” ed. by Tom Leonard (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1990).
Miller, Nancy K., “Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts” (New York & London: Routledge, 1991).
Murphy, Timothy, S., “Wising up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs” (Berkley, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1997).
Tompkins, Jane, ‘Me and My Shadow’ in “The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism” (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp.2129-2143.
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