Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Criticising Literary Criticism

Written by johnleemk on 2:46:23 pm Jul 2, 2007.

I have occasionally indulged myself in dissecting pieces of art — one of my personal favourites was analysing the link between Dickens and Marxism.

Throughout my analyses, I have tried to maintain an objective viewpoint and stick as far as possible to the facts. But the problem with literary analysis is that it necessitates going beyond the facts.

I find my mind inclined to treating a problem by examining its objective results; free trade is good because it means lower prices for consumers.

People are often inclined to look at one's intentions instead of the results of acting on those intentions; as a result, they may be sympathetic to protectionism because it protects inefficient industries at the expense of the consumer.

But this sort of thinking just doesn't cut it when you look at art, because in art, the result is the intention.

When you examine a piece of art, your analysis is based on your response to that art — how it makes you think, how it makes you feel. That is the result.

However, there is no way to say for sure that the result arises because of the artist's intention. You may respond to David Copperfield by thinking that it is a puff piece for Marxism, but there is no way to be certain that this is what Charles Dickens had in mind when he wrote it, unless Dickens actually said somewhere that this is so.

One may think that it is sufficient to discard the intention and look only at the results of the artist, but the fact is, analysing art is about looking at the artist's intentions. You are seeking the result that the artist intended to create — and so you find yourself entangled in a web of intention and results that cannot be unmeshed.

Thus, we often end up in a situation where our viewing of something hinges both on how the artist intended things to be, and how we superimpose our own perception of things on top of this intention.

For example, there are passages in King Lear which are often performed today in a way Shakespeare never intended them to be, simply because the connotations of the same words and phrases have changed over the centuries. Every generation finds a different interpretation of the same work based on that own generation's preconceptions and biases.

This is what makes analysis of art so maddeningly frustrating for me — its utter subjectivity makes it impossible to come anywhere near an objective answer.

This ludicrosity is perhaps encapsulated best in the story of the acclaimed Japanese director who was lauded by a critic for his brilliant cinematography in a particular battle scene. The director responded that he was forced to shoot the scene that way because if he moved the camera a little to the left, he saw a parking lot, and moving it a little to the right showed a shopping complex.

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