A propos of my post yesterday, on English in school, I’d like to present to you the assignment my son brought home yesterday afternoon from school, an assignment which exemplifies everything I’ve been talking about. he was, by the way, in a state of wild revolt about it.
It’s on Cloudstreet, Tim Winton’s extraordinary saga of the Lambs and the Pickles, which Xavier loved. It comprises an assignment sheet plus a positive blizzard of densely boring ‘explanatory’ texts. I’ll have to extract from it all as there’s far too much of it to fit on even ten posts.
Assignment: Readings of Cloudstreet
What message(s) does Cloudstreet convey to you?
What do you see as the important themes or issues within the text?
Does it privilege a certain set of values?
CONTEXT: The circumstances surrounding a text’s production and publication, including its historical and political milieu.
It is important for you to have your own clear understanding of the text’s concerns and the values underpinning it. Your reading is based on your particular context. Other readings of the text will be based on individuals’ contexts and ideologies (!!!). Refer to the notes from mETaphor by Steven Cooper and the sheet Ways of Reading Texts.
Consider the following readings in your groups:
1.The approach from genre
(here follows some points to ‘consider’)
2.A gender based reading (ditto)
3.A socio-political reading(ditto)
4.Text as an examination of social identity(ditto)
5.A post-colonial reading(ditto)
6.A spiritual reading(ditto)
7.A psychoanalytical reading(ditto)
(In all these pseudo-scientific, theoretical readings, there’s not one shred of allowing for the ‘Xavier Masson-Leach reading’ , or the ‘Sophie Masson’ reading, or the ‘enter someone’s individual name here’ reading, let alone poor Tim Winton’s own. Someone said in a comment or post that all this stuff is anti-human, and it’s hard to argue with that, on the evidence of this.)
Now here follow extracts from the ‘explanatory notes’:
From ‘Ways of Reading Texts’:
‘Critical Theory’–profiles Historicism, New Criticism, Archetypal; Psychoanalytical; Psychoanalytical; Feminist; Marxist;; Cultural; New Historicism; Reader-Response; Deconstruction..
Here’s just a couple of ‘gems’, from ‘Reader-Response’ followed by ‘Deconstruction’. While reading, imagine yourself in the position of a class of bright, articulate 17 year old lovers of good books and haters of convoluted sentences and pompous, make-work gobbledygook:
‘Reader-Response criticism insists that all literature is a structure of experience, not just a form of meaning, and therefore focusses on finding meaning in the act of reading itself and examines the ways individual readers or communities of readers experience texts. These critics examine how the reader joins with the author to ‘help the text mean.’ They determine what kind of reader or what community of readers the work implies and helps to create..
(well, well; so everyone reads differently–what a world-shattering insight in so few words!)
‘Deconstruction is a recent school of criticism which ventures beyond the structuralists’ assumption that all aspects of human culture are fundamentally languages–complex systems of signs: signifieds(concepts) and signifiers: verbal or non-verbal–and that therefore a quasi-scientific formalism is available for approaching literature, and food, fashion etc. Deconstructionists oppose the metaphysics of presence, that is the claim of literature or philosophy that we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or propr to language itself. Like formalists, these critics also look at the relation of a text’s ideas to the way ideas are expressed…’
(and so on and wearily on. Long ago, you’ve lost the kids. And when you boil down the message of this, deconstruct it in fact, it is so fundamentally anti-literature, not ‘with rich full meaning’ but thin, narrow, prissy and shabby, that it beggars belief as to why it’s being given out in English literature. Unless all it’s become is an attack on literature, which I’m strongly beginning to feel.)
Extracts from more bumf: this is ‘A reading of Cloudstreet,’ by Steven Cooper, referred to in the assignment sheet. In a dozen closely printed, tedious pages, this screed takes you through all the approved ways of reading Cloudstreet, as enumerated in the assignment sheet, in language which is just as easy to follow as the preceding stuff I extracted. It also has many ‘helpful’ little sidebar issues. Here’s how it starts:
‘This text is an approach to the study of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. It offers a consideration and contemporary literary theory as well as a detailed analysis of the text and so may be of use in studying the text in preparation for examination. (you have been warned, kids, if you don’t conform!!)
What is literary theory and what is itsrelevance to text?
Late 20th century literary theory refers to Textuality. This explains literary texts as multiplistic; the single written entity is in fact a series of multiple writings that exist as a contestation rather than a simplistic and smoothly integrated whole. (silly author, thinking that might be what he was doing!) Does this apply to Cloudstreet? Certainly the stylistic form within the text, the shifting character viewpoint, the appearanceof unidentified narrators might be construed as beingevidence of a variety of strands of writing that we are contesting to produce a whole. Composers(!!) of text may also be said to be creating a text for aesthetic reasons or be unaware of the possibilityes of alternate readings of the text. (my, those creative writers are thick hicks, aren’t they!)..
With all this to wade through, with all these awful ‘ways of reading’ to digest, I think we’re going to have trouble restraining Xavier from doing what one of his friends, who did the HSC last year, ended up doing in his exam: he did the creative part of it, happily, then wrote on his ‘ways of reading text’ paper, that he refused to do it, and walked out. It’d be good if the whole Extension English cohort from every school in NSW did that then maybe the Department, and the Board of Studies, would realise what it’s done. And yet, how can you expect most kids to do it? They are trapped–if you want a decet UAI, you’ve got to do as they say, however much you hate it.
I’m not saying that in the past things were necessarily better. There were orthodoxies and narrow-minded pedadogues then too. But we were still not so corralled into ‘interpretations’ which are mee ideological frameworks, closing down all individual response.