Theorizing “Pre-Theory” Texts

The title of this post bugs the hell out of me, but I felt I needed to use the term “pre-theory” to express some of the reticence towards theory I still see in the academy. I think there are still some professors who actually tell their students that theory cannot be used to analyze, for example, renaissance texts, which is patently not true. I mean, seriously, someone tell Stephen Greenblatt and Michael Warner quick!

Michael Warner

However, rather than simply being facetious, I’d like to address this concern. I should add that a few of my students have felt like there is some kind of barrier to using theory to explore, for example, Othello. This illusory barrier has been instituted, I believe, by ISAs (Institutional State Apparatuses) that designate certain stories as “literary,” a term of value designed to artificially separate certain narratives from their cultural work. The fact is that there are only certain ways that humans communicate with each other and storytelling, in various forms, is one of those ways. Early forms of literature can be studied using linguistic, visual, economic, and cultural forms of criticism in order to sort out what these stories are trying to speak to and shape within a particular context (and even outside of contextual boundaries).

One of the conventionally acceptable ways to look at texts from historically “distant” periods is through study of the historical context. Because history is seen as being “found” rather than “made,” historical analysis is credited with having some sort of truth-value; however, we need to heed Linda Hutcheon’s warning that history is not Truth, but a perception of events, which means that history is MADE and not “DISCOVERED.” We may know an event happened, but the framing of the event changes that event profoundly.

The late Dr.Cynthia Marshall explains that theories like psychoanalysis offer a way to think about the place of the individual in social contexts. While understanding the social order and class structure of a specific historical context can inform a Marxist or psychoanalytic reading, the language of the text exists (and can be tracked via the OED), and is, therefore, open to scrutiny (for the ways in which subjectivity is built and organized, for example). We know, for example, that the Duke of Venice in Othello is a patriarchal figure who bestows a title upon Othello, thereby interpellating Othello as a figure of power, who can use state-sanctioned violence in certain situations. However, Iago uses words to poison (like the literal poison in the ear of the King in Hamlet)  Othello’s mind by playing on his difference from a perceived “norm.” The biopolitics of race play a huge role in Iago being able to poison Othello and “dis-interpellate” him from the social and cultural strata of Venice. There, I used theory. I didn’t transgress; I just used theoretical language to think through and express ideas. That’s all.

Much of theory, to my mind, is based on rhetorical analysis, which has been around for thousands of years. For hundreds and hundreds of years, those who could go to various types of schools studied some form of rhetorical analysis, which explores the relationship between self, other, culture, language, and its use. Therefore, because rhetoric undergirds most theoretical approaches in one way or another, there can be no argument that various forms, fields, and schools of theory offer an excellent means to analyze texts of all kinds, even those labeled as “literary.”

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