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A Note from the Editor: The Role of the Critic

Melanie Ramey

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A Note from the Editor:

The Role of the Critic

 

What is comparative literature? How to define a field of study whose boundaries vary so vastly depending on the person delineating them? In general it is a field that examines the overlaps, differences, interactions, and oppositions among national literatures, individual works of literature, and the theoretical foundations driving all of their creations. More simply put, comparative literature is the study of literature at the international level, with particular emphasis on how the varied and circumstantial origins of its subjects affect them and how they relate to other works because of that variation. The difficulty of the comparatist’s task often lies in finding a way to reconcile the text’s inherent “nationality,” its inextricable connection to the national literature that formed it, with the international context in which it is now displayed and examined. The internationality of the discipline places its critics and scholars in an interesting position, a position where more than one culture and context is at stake, and where often the critic cannot claim complete knowledge of both or even either.

            In his essay “The World, the Text, and the Critic,” Edward Said points to the traditional activities of the critic as “scholarship, commentary, exegesis, explication de texte, history of ideas, [and] rhetorical or semiological analysis” (Said 278). Added to this for comparative literature is the study of translation and literary movements and developments around the world. The bite of his essay, however, moves beyond this to question the actual position of the critic, what he calls the critic’s “place” in a worldly and temporal context. This position directly concerns us as comparative literature scholars, as it shows us where we stand and what our role really is. 

            The tendency over the past century has been to view literature as simply a product of the past and thus as somehow separate from the current world and context, whatever context that may be. The role of the critic would thus be the translation of that temporally distant work into modern cultural terms and understanding. As Said comments, this reduces the critic into a position of merely looking backward and never quite reaching the present or providing anything concrete with which to move forward; the critic becomes a powerless promoter of the past. We must, Said argues, find a new and more productive way of looking at texts and at ourselves as critics.

            Moving back to a notion of “place” and “worldliness,” Said redefines the text as more than just a production of a particular time, place, and circumstance. This modified presence is due to the fact that once a text is released into the world—once it moves beyond the author’s mind, imagination, and control onto paper—it becomes a separate entity of its own; it is independent and a part of the world (hence “worldliness”), subject to its own form of growth and development. A text, in this sense, is more like a social movement than a monolithic tome. It is not pinned down to the context in which it was created, but rather morphs through its interaction with the world, changes with the times of which it continues to be a part. Why should we attempt to pin down a text that continues to have a presence in our modern, changing world to a past in which it is necessarily inactive?

            Criticism helps to define and understand the ever-evolving role and influence of literature. The critic is not merely a translator of old, crystalized, and hermetic worlds into a contemporary idiom—criticism instead should be a part of Foucault’s archive, which Said calls a “text’s social discursive presence in the world” (Said 279). This transforms criticism from simple commentary on a text to active engagement with it, at which point criticism becomes integral to the way in which the text works.

            If ever you asked yourself, What is the point of studying literature? you can find the answer in Said’s analysis of the essay. “What the essay expresses,” he writes, “is a yearning for conceptuality and intellectuality, as well as a resolution to the ultimate questions of life” (Said 280). These “ultimate questions” are intimately tied to the intention of the critic and the author in general. In fact, the critic and the author are not so different in their pursuits; they simply proffer different manners of expressing and playing with ideas about life and existence, different circumstances with which humanity is forced to grapple. The author creates an imagined or perceived scenario with which to play out his or her views or ideas about life, while the critic responds to those ideas and compares them with others in a shorter, more explicit format. The critic then takes these proposed scenarios and analyzes them in accordance to his or her view of their accuracy, efficacy, and adequacy. This analysis sparks more proposed scenarios that are forever in dialogue with each other, a never-ending loop of question and response. This dialogue is what others might refer to as the more “traditional” critical attempt at valuations of art or literature, but the important thing is the act of eliciting and spawning a response. Thus, criticism moves beyond its chains to the past, its backward-looking position to which others have tried to relegate it, and toward a continued dialogue with the text, both of which reside in the present. This dialogue between text and critic is comparative literature.

            All of this leads me to the purpose of Xenophile and its aims as a journal of comparative literature. In our mission statement, we assert our goal to “respond to literature on a global scale” and “to be on the forefront of comparative scholarship,” but the underlying motivation behind this is to generate dialogue, to create a response. The papers that we chose for this, our premiere issue, did just that: elicited a response. They got us talking and thinking, made us question and evaluate. We may not have agreed with every argument they proposed, but they brought the texts examined into the present and through their analyses sparked our own reexamination. The papers in this issue helped to create the dialogue that I, at least, see as the heart of comparative literature.

            In an attempt to further clarify the dialogue between literature and criticism, we have divided the papers based on the overarching style of their approach: theoretical or philosophical. The first, the theoretical, delves into the more traditional role of the critic: the critic as analyzer of efficacy, structure, and validity as well as the classifier and commentator on the position of the text and author. Emil Archambault, for example, analyzes the effects of temporal distance on Keats’s and Kierkegaard’s interaction with the Grecian Urn and the story of Abraham, respectively. This analysis asks not what each author is attempting to elicit from these pieces of art, but rather how some foundational aspect of their existence, their temporality or their “place,” affects their interaction with the world and the authors. By contrast, El Habib Louai addresses two completely modern works, both released within the past decade, and instead discusses the theoretical framework which, he asserts, biases and obscures their validity, that of a Eurocentric New-Orientalism. The theoretical is not limited by time or context, but rather delves into the text as an entity, as an independent being whose component parts and history affect its own existence. It deals with the text as such.

            The philosophical, on the other hand, represents the more active, transformed role elucidated above: the critic as a dabbler in the questions of life, a decipherer of implications and suggestor of some of his or her own. This is prominently displayed in the multiple works that call into question human adaptive strategies, whether they be the negotiation of space as a survival mechanism as discussed by Dominique Hétu, the reliance on language as a way to find refuge and evade oppression under a totalitarian regime as explored by Megan Hong, or Sophia Sunseri’s elaboration on cathartic methods of dealing with trauma in Ovid. While the theoretical deals with the text as a figure, the philosophical uses evidence from that figure to suggest an answer to some issue outside of it, to elicit a meaning or an answer to a question of life that is independent of the text.

            While these boundaries are certainly not mutually exclusive and are, in some ways, an oversimplification of the papers that are to follow, our division helps to illustrate the diversity of the critic’s task, which is to elicit a response that then moves on to spark more work and discussion. The method by which that discussion is sparked varies as widely as the works and subjects encountered by this field. The critic’s task is never-ending, but it is the aim of this journal to facilitate the process. Through these papers, we begin.

 

                                       Melanie Ramey

                                       The University of Georgia

 

 

 

 
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