Last month I wrote about online continuing education options. When I titled the post “Alternative Classrooms” I had no thoughts of the stir of alternate reality that would descend upon the media and political culture throughout the next weeks. I chose the title “Alternative Classrooms” probably a year or more ago, and there have been several drafts of the essay that I finally posted last month. Since then, revoked official twitter accounts have been supplanted by the resistant “Alts”–the defiant and determined reappearance of the banished accounts–unofficial and unverified but in the spotlight as the public attempts to distinguish facts from “alternative facts,” as the administration of the current President has phrased their understanding.
As I mentioned in January’s post, I have developed an inclination to attempt to apply literary theory to my interpretations of such current events, and the whirlwind surrounding January’s inauguration is no exception; however, instead doing so within the sphere of the “alternative” educational atmosphere that I mentioned previously, I attempted to draw upon this thinking in a traditional (though still online) Constitutional law course discussion. I have recently diverted from the niche of continuing education and delved back into accredited courses in introductory legal studies in order to add Bluebook citations to my repertoire of writing and editing services. The first assignment asked us to reflect on the ideas and wording of the Federalist Papers authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. As I read through these documents, in the context of Women’s Marches and protests, it seemed almost impossible for me to separate past voices from current events, and I wrote a response to her discussion prompt in the vein of the relevance of their discussion in an altered context. Yes, the inspiration for my thinking was literary thinking, but I thought I was staying relevant to the parameters of the assignment.
My efforts were not well received. The professor told me (kindly but decidedly) that in her class I was to stay focused on the law and legal application.
Well, all right. When I taught there were subjects that I awkwardly told my students to leave outside the classroom also (and instances when I didn’t but probably should have). I’ve been out of traditional school for a while, I haven’t re-found my sea legs. I’m also new to legal studies. She encouraged me to rethink the approach to my discussion and then described the difficulty she had changing from a background in English to a legal degree. Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not seeking a legal degree and only expanding my familiarity with citation styles. But I am moving my rejected original piece to this “alt” reality of my own blog because I still like it.
In Alternative Classrooms I discussed a literary theory course available through Open Yale taught by Prof. Paul Fry. In Lecture Five of his course he speaks of New Criticism and the “Intentional Fallacy” essay of Wimsatt and Beardsley. For those unfamiliar with literary theory terminology, the abridged definition from the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory follows:
The error of criticizing and judging a work of literature by attempting to assess what the writer’s intension was and whether or not he has fufilled it rather than concentrating on the work itself.
Professor Fry selects a footnote from section IV of the essay to demonstrate its boldness. The footnote states, “And the history of words after a poem is written may contribute meanings which if relevant to the original pattern should not be ruled out by scruple about intention.” Thus, Wimsatt and Beardsley are suggesting that to read a text containing words that have taken on new meanings across the spanning decades or centuries with their current connections, rather than the one(s) the author would have understood at the time and era the document was written, is a relevant approach to textual interpretation (*ahem., unless you are in a legal studies course). This is what happened when I did just that last month as I read the Federalist Papers the week of the inauguration (revised somewhat since my original attempted post for that class). I have removed my commentary and instead provided selected text with the words in question in [my] italics.
AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of
the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are reallycapable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may
with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. ~Alexander Hamilton, Federalist, No.1
Perhaps my application of this passage would be too bold even for Prof. Fry–I have not lost sight of the fact that I’m stretching the boundaries of theoretical literary interpretation also, by including persuasive political writings discussing approaches to governance in a conversation about poetry. I’m also stretching the boundary of the point of the footnote by placing my attention on the evolved context of the wording rather than word meaning. Judge for yourself whether I have done justice to Wimsatt and Beardsley or the Founding Fathers–though you might be guilty of an intentional fallacy if you do ;).
© Melanie Demmer, 2017
Paul Fry, Introduction to the Theory of Literature (Yale University: Open Yale Courses), http://oyc.yale.edu (Accessed August 2011). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Theory. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1998.