American Critics at Work: Examinations of Contemporary Literary Theories

By Victor A. Kramer | Go to book overview

CRITICISM AS THE SITUATING OF PERFORMANCES:
OR WHAT WALLACE STEVENS HAS TO TELL US ABOUT OTHELLO

by
Charles Altieri

Literary theorists have become so serious about their work, or so pretentious, that they spend a good deal more effort justifying themselves philosophically than proving their utility for practical criticism. On other occasions I would defend this tendency in my own work, 1 but now I want to take advantage of being invited to contribute to this collection by focusing on the question of what consequences my theoretical work has for reading and enjoying literary texts. This means I shall not try to ground or defend my ideas in conceptual terms. Instead I shall concentrate on three practical concepts-performance, situating, and identification. Moreover I shall derive them here from a literary work, Stevens' "Of Modern Poetry," so that the terms I use shall be closely tied to an actual performance. I hope this will both deepen the theory and illustrate some of the basic existential stakes involved in getting such ideas straight. By staying close to texts, I will necessarily be submitting my claims to one obvious form of testing. But it is very difficult to formulate tests for how representative or universal theoretical concepts are. Representativeness is not merely a matter of extension across cases; it involves questions of significance which, in turn, involve complex, circular arguments. Criticism then must seek representativeness much as literary works do, that is by the power of examples to create types and to suggest possible uses. As an attempt to meet such a test I shall try to extend Stevens to Othello in order to show the general heuristic value of specific formulations spawned by modernism. And rather than simply apply my critical ideas to a second text, I shall assume that the application is obvious in order to show how Shakespeare's play is a richer meditation on Stevens' subject than is

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