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Clemens: Ruthner Lit. Theory Essay

1672 words - 7 pages

In Class With Bertens & Co.:
A Very Brief (Comparative, Critical,
and Casual) Homage
Clemens Ruthner
Trinity College, Dublin

In fall 2006, during my visiting professorship in Canada, I had the pleasure of teaching MLCS / C. LIT/ EASIA 507, an introductory course in literary theory. It looked
a bit complicated as the course was meant for a very heterogeneous group of graduate students. This group consisted of MAs and PhDs deriving from three different
departments: Modern Languages, Comparative Literature and East Asian Studies.
“Heterogeneous” meant that not only were the backgrounds of students diverse, but
so was their previous knowledge of literary theory—and their ...view middle of the document...

The Norton Anthology
is so multi-functional that it invites its employment in several courses and not only
in critical theory. Second, I very rarely agree with the choices Wolfreys has made.
Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée


Central theoretical texts are missing—perhaps due to copyright issues?—and/or
are replaced by texts less representative of a certain theoretical school. In general,
Wolfreys’s reader is too partisan poststructuralist. This is made visible when it comes
to the “Cultural Studies” section, in which the theory of John Hillis Miller becomes
authoritative in an essay excerpt. To me this seems akin to somebody who, before
going on a longer vacation, is looking for a professional pet sitter and chooses the
local knacker for this job. Mais bon, this should not be my major point of concern
here. But perhaps this should: my students were merciless in almost univocally suggesting on my reading evaluation forms that I remove Wolfreys’s compilation from
the future course syllabus.
What I found even more interesting was the “race” that took place between the
introductory works of Hans Bertens (U of Utrecht, Netherlands) and Lois Tyson
(Grand Valley State U, US). In the long run of their tour de force through the manifold
schools of literary and cultural theory—which is, if you excuse the pun, something
like the Tour de France for the authors of introductory textbooks—Bertens took the 235
lead. Whereas Tyson passes the various schools, approaching them more arbitrarily
(his intention might have been a chronological ordering), Bertens develops a more
convincing structure: he starts with the chapter “Reading for Meaning” (1-29) and
then proceeds to “Structuralism,” which allows him to mention in passing several
micro- and macro-structures of literary texts such as signs, tropes, fabula / syuzhet,
binary oppositions, genres, etc. (even with a brief introduction to narratology). Thus
the reader is (re-)introduced to the basics of literary studies and interpretation before
s/he is thrown into the cold pleasures of pure theory. This didactic approach to theory
draws the reader’s attention to the very literariness of literature from the beginning,
to the fact “that we are dealing with language and not with the real world” (Bertens
34), the crucial secret of representation that stays alien to many of our students
throughout their careers.
There are stages where Tyson gains ground in the CompLit 507 theory race.
Bertens, for instance, has no special section on reader-response theories in his book
(like Tyson, 153-96), and is a bit short on approaches that focus on gender and sexuality (such as queer theory, cf. Bertens 217-36). Bertens does not say much either
about the...

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