Thursday, January 17, 2008

practical theory

I began my academic career as a student of literature. I went into English because I like reading and I like writing – and it also dove-tailed with my interest in theatre, in which I obtained a minor. In the end, though, English was maybe not the best subject for me. When I look back over the essays I wrote during my undergrad, almost every single one is about situating the work in its social or historical context. I never got into heavy theoretical analysis and, in fact, it drove me insane. It has always seemed to me like nothing more than games that we play in our heads, looking for meaning that isn’t there and laying our after-the-fact interpretations on the text as if it’s something definitive. I recently had a conversation with a friend who studied art history, and found the same thing.

When I was almost done law school, someone finally explained the point of theory to me – that we use it not because it gives a full and real picture of the subject we are analysing, but because it gives the researcher a structure framework in which to conduct the analysis. While I still maintain that psycho-analysing Hamlet (a fictional character with no sub-conscious) is of limited value, that explanation made sense to me. I wish that someone had told me that when I first started university – I think it would have made the whole game make at least a bit more sense.

4 comments:

Wheatsheaf said...

I think you are exactly right that theory provides context and structure to examining a topic. For fictional characters, it is important to remember that they would have been real in the creator's mind and that there is much subtext and depth in a character than what ends up on the page. For example, the fact that Dumbledore was gay has no relevance to the HP series, but it was important for the author when she was framing the character. Theory also works for actual figures as well - using personality theory to conclude that Diefenbaker had an inferiority complex helped to explain his decisions (or sometimes his lack there of). One day, I hope that there is a theory that explains Stephan Harper in a way that will make him human to me.

el Maggie said...

But if JK Rowling hadn't said Dumbledore was gay, and we just sat around and decided we thought he was - is that a useful conversation? And Shakespeare probably wasn't applying Freudian analysis in developing Hamlet, considering the timeline (though I guess if you believe that Freudian analysis is an iteration of a fundamental truth, then maybe you could say Shakespeare was applying it without knowing it . . .).

Simone said...

"Steven Harper has plans for Canada, scary plans, scary, evil plans. We cannot make this up, we’re not allowed to. Steven Harper owns a dragon. He keeps it in his shed. Seriously, Steven Harper drinks his own blood. We saw him. We’re not allowed to make this up."

(I studied science, this is all I have to contribute ;-)

el Maggie said...

when in doubt . . . reference Rick Mercer.