Importance of ‘centredness’ in literature analysis


MY dear students, I am aware you have been looking forward to Part Four and Five of the In the Continuum and other plays, but allow me to put these in abeyance for a while in order to respond to an avalanche of calls from your colleagues from different parts of the country.
They have been pestering me to explain the role of theory, ideology or centred-ness in critical analysis.
I am sure this brief interjection will be of instructive importance as well.
Literary theories were developed as a means to understand the various ways people read texts.
The proponents of each theory believe their theory is the theory, but most of us interpret texts according to the ‘rules’ of several different theories at a time.
All literary theories are lenses through which we can see texts.
In the final analysis you are better off interpreting texts from a variety of philosophical and ideological positions than from a particular single perspective. This unit introduces critical theory to you.
Perhaps the main entry point to an understanding of the dynamic relationship between text and reader is to analyse the central role of theory in the construction and interpretation of texts.
Granted, literary theory is at the centre of any literary criticism, whether applied consciously or unconsciously.
To conceptualise theory fully there is need to explore the dynamic relationship between literary criticism and informing ideologies (theories) of both writer and reader as they interact with the text, as writer and interpreter respectively.
Literary criticism is basically the process and product of appreciating different forms of literature, where literature refers “to oral, written and/or visual forms of art.”
Historically, literary criticism established itself first as the main activity associated with the academic study of literature.
It was associated with the reading, interpretation and commenting on specific texts by professional critics; professional in the sense that they had been trained in the application of literary theory on literary texts; a practice they passed on to students of literature at various academic levels.
Over the years this view made criticism the sole domain of scholars and their mentors.
The 19th century poet and cultural critic, Matthew Arnold (1967), used the term ‘criticism’ with this emphasis.
Similarly, Richards (1982) used the term ‘practical criticism’ with the same emphasis on formal teaching and assessment activities.
Many other critics such as Leavis followed in this particular tradition.
Literary theory is the centre from which any work of art is perceived; while literary criticism is the resultant ‘imposed’ meaning on the text.
Theory is a systematic body of knowledge used by critics to analyse text.
It helps to define the action space for both the writer/sculptor/orator/painter/musician (etc) and the critic.
Theory is expected to provide information that should guide the practice of criticism (appreciation).
In doing so, theories condition the way both writers and critics perceive social problems and how they choose solutions to those problems.
The way we understand theory determines the choice of questions we ask, hence theory controls the worldviews of both artists and critics.
A worldview is a view of the world (the entire cosmos) from a particular position. A worldview is one’s mental picture of the world, what one makes of the world (meaning), projected from a particular position.
To view the world, one requires ‘centredness’; to be rooted in a particular operating system of ideas that determines how you see and interpret what you see. An African worldview is therefore a view of the world from an African perspective (ie centredness).
Put simply, a perspective is a position or angle that yields a particular view of the world.
To comprehend worldview fully we need to understand the creative force behind it. Ideology is that creative force.
It is a term associated more with some scholars than others although its essence defies such appropriation.
Different scholars place different emphases on its meaning.
Marx (in Feur: 1989: 39) calls it ‘an instrument of social reproduction’ by which he implies that ideology is used by the ruling group to legitimise the status quo through widespread teaching and social adoption of ruling class ideas, controlling the consciousness of the people in such a way that the subject accept the way things are as ‘natural’.
Note that ideology in Africa generally refers to a system of shared ideas which determine how we see and interpret the world.
A people’s culture is the source of all systems of ideas, thoughts and practices (ideologies).
Ideology in the African context cannot be understood outside African culture, hence the need to define how Africans understand culture.
According to Ngugi (1972: 4), culture, in its broadest sense:
“…is a way of life fashioned by a people in their collective endeavour to live and come to terms with their total environment.
“It is the sum of their art, their science and all their social institutions, including their system of beliefs and rituals.”
Put simply, culture is the way we do things around here.
It refers to a people’s shared bundle of assumptions about the way the world works, beliefs, values, symbols, rituals and practices that consciously or unconsciously drive the thoughts, feelings and actions of its members.
Put differently, both the artist and the critic need to embrace the sensibility of the subject if they are to fulfill the supreme aim of art: the truth.
Otherwise both end up imposing other people’s values on those being written or theorised about.
A critic is a philosopher deriving intellectual authority from the ideologies and experiences that shape him or her.
Much as it can be argued that there is no universal philosopher, it can also be said that there is no universal set of ideas or experiences.
All knowledge (wisdom) is as a matter of fact confined to time and space.
Social reality varies over time in the relationships among individuals, groups, cultures and societies.
This fact acknowledges the uniqueness of Africa as of any other geo-cultural entity; insisting that to understand any phenomenon from an African perspective one has to use an African theory.
The above assertion does not mean that we must throw away western theories of literature.
African philosophy is perhaps the first theory to acknowledge the importance of cohabitation and sharing.
The point is we need to be aware of the values that informed the theories, thus acknowledging the strengths and also limitations of each in terms of relevance to explaining African realities and experiences.
But as we celebrate this diversity of thought in the world, let us remember to do so as Africans for that is what we are and will be forever.



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