Critical theory sucks life from pop culture classes
Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Updated: Thursday, July 5, 2012 15:07
The Phoenix (UBC Okanagan)
(CUP) KELOWNA, B.C. - As an English student with a focus on the contemporary, I've always looked to pop culture classes as a means to easier credit. There are a number of reasons for this: I feel like I might recognize the texts studied in pop classes.
I'd rather study Toni Morrison and Timothy Findley than William Shakespeare. I can relate to characters and grasp thematic concepts more quickly. Perhaps, most importantly, I enjoy reading about places and things, and then connecting those places and things to Kevin Bacon, and eventually, to myself.
Unfortunately, pop culture study has a dark side. It has the potential to be downright excruciating. This happens when cultural texts are hammered into frames for literary, psychological, or sociological theories. Suddenly a film's mise en scene, a novel's mention of the colour red or a musical track's white space cease to exist as independent acts of creative expression and become expressions of a cultural theory.
Interpreting text using the work of theorists like Foucault or Lacan (just to name two who seem fairly well used in academia) is neato. When a professor actually took the time to explain Lacan's ideas about lack to me, I felt really excited. Suddenly I had a new perspective that I could apply to things.
But, more often than not, there isn't time to explain - only to summarize books of innovative thought into three or four fatally reductive bullets on an overhead or handout. It's in these cases that I feel frustrated, because I'm being taught a Dummies version.
Teach it or don't. That's what I want. When a class on culture consists of little more than using bits of theory, I get the feeling that the professor is still trying to convince herself/himself that pop culture deserves to be studied.
The problem is that many theories merit entire courses, and cannot be crammed into the spaces between novels, film, or poems in an English class. Many professors only have time to present a vague, paint-by-number summary of one topic, one idea, out of context.
For people like me, who are actually interested in learning more about these theorists, these incomplete forays into lit/crit theory are irritating because they are too specific and reductive to be useful outside of the course. For example, I would have gladly spent a semester studying the work of Lacan, Derrida, Butler, Sartre, Delueze, Haraway, Levinas ... I like theory. But lately I feel like I'll only ever learn it with any comprehension on my own, outside of university.
As a solution to my complaint, I'd love to see more pop culture profs with enough confidence in the texts they teach to move forward without depending on theoretical crutches that are too often contrived and little more than tenuous.
I would rather see a more basic treatment of pop culture texts - a near-sighted approach, one that gives creative power to the author rather than writing off the artist's work as little more than flesh on the bones of an intellectual theory.
Secondly, classes could be described more precisely so that students can make better choices before they register. For example, I would not take a class called "A Lacanian analysis of Rave" but I might sign up for "Levinas and 21st century desire".
The near-sighted approach I favour is pretty much a historicist's approach. I'm not sure why historical context has become so secondary in some courses. The knowledge I take from pop culture is largely composed of specific information I've learned about particular artists. Facts about production, the strange habits of writers, influences, sources of inspiration, causes of death, the budget of a film and its subsequent success/failure - not paradigms of analysis.
So, what it all comes down to is: if I want to understand a theorist I will find their work and read their words. If I want to learn about 20th or 21st century literature and Derrida shows up more than Joyce, there had better be a damned good reason.