JUSTDOLIT: a single tool to analyse all texts

A very short introduction

A short introduction for a very short introduction

This is a very short introduction to JustdoLit. It covers the three-step build-up of JustdoLit, which is the core of the tool and designed to lead you to the successful analysis of literary (and other) texts. I have had to omit some things to ensure that this introduction remains short and easily understandable. If you feel the introduction is too easy, or want to know more at any point, go back to the index or click where indicated at the end of every section.

Student need

At a very basic level, the tool can be understood as an answer to a need (my) undergraduate students have: the skills most of them bring to text analysis are above all plot-telling, theme telling and character analysis. These skills are not enough for literary and cultural analysis. If my students want to learn more, they can usually read up on literary analysis by working their way through their primers to literary analysis, all of which present the classic approaches to literary analysis (e.g. feminist, postcolonial, marxist approaches). These approaches are undoubtedly important, but

  1. there are many approaches, which means students first have to choose which one to use in each specific case
  2. they are bits-and-pieces approaches, for they tend to look at certain aspects of reality.

Thus students don't often know which approach to select, are often bewildered, and in the end 'afraid' of analysing.

Step 1: a whole world

Students should not be afraid of analysing, but this requires that we simplify things for them. JustdoLit simplifies by not looking at bits-and-pieces, but by always looking at the whole in the text: our experience of literature is like our experience of life, we want it to be as full as possible. This is why JustdoLit focuses on the whole world of a text. In itself, the idea is not new, for two famous philosophers, Wolfgang Iser and Paul Ricoeur, have argued that literary texts create fictional worlds which provide alternatives to the real world we live in (this is by now a literary commonplace).

Focusing on a whole world, however, ushers in another problem, which is that all understanding and interpretation is necessarily accompanied by abstraction and reduction. How can we focus on a whole world, if we necessarily have to reduce it to understand it?

To meet this double demand (a whole world, its reduction), JustdoLit works in both directions at the same time, that of extreme abstraction and that of extreme fullness of a world: it cuts up the world into four abstract parts or dimensions, but in such a way that nothing can escape these dimensions:

Fictional world

 

This allows us to analyse every element of a text, for there is nothing beyond the universe outside and inside us (nature), the things we make and relationships we engage in (society), our uniqueness and freedom (individual), and the fact that we are born and die (metaphysics).

What do students have to do at this stage? The only thing that is expected of students is that they decide which element in the text belongs to which dimension.

For more information on step 1, CLICK HERE

For more information on Ricoeur and Iser, CLICK HERE

For some information on a necessary pedagogical mediation that this tool still requires, CLICK HERE (Sorry, I'm working on it)

Step 2: a flexible world

Step 2 develops the model by making it more flexible. To understand the need for flexibility, look at the following picture and connect it with one of the 4 dimensions:

 

 

Without wanting to impose on you, if we had to choose we would say that the picture shows nature. But mark how the landscape we see is also very beautiful, perfect (notice the way the lake mirrors the mountains), and provides peace of mind. It therefore has a whiff of the eternal about it, and that means metaphysics rather than nature.

The consequences of this movement between dimensions is a double one:

  1. the diagram of step 1 is too static, for when we interpret there seems to be movement from one dimension to another
  2. the movement seems to start somewhere [we identify the landscape as nature], and end somewhere else [metaphysics in the case of the landscape]

Point 1 thus requires that our diagram be more flexible:

 

Fictional world

 

Point 2 requires that we take into account that when we read, we come to the text with our stereotyped views about reality, which the text can confirm or correct. This means that there is a direction in the shift of dimensions, it starts somewhere and ends somewhere else.

What do students have to do at this stage? This possibility of dimensional shifts in texts means both that readers have to

  1. see if there are dimensional shifts in the text they are reading
  2. be aware of the direction of the shift (where it starts [reader's/cultural stereotype], and where it ends)

Our most common stereotype is derived from modern individualism and a scientific world view. The pattern is very simple and looks more or less as follows:

  1. It associates the INDIVIDUAL with the NATURAL dimension

    e.g. a hero(ine) who is special and follows her/his own [natural] feelings

  2. It opposes the SOCIAL dimension

    e.g. an oppressive group with vested economic or political interest

  3. To this social dimension can be added the METAPHYSICAL dimension

    e.g. this group may appear as a religious group

 

Let me provide an example of what I mean here: the stereotype alluded above can be found in the first book of Harry Potter: Harry is defined by his individuality - he is uncommonly and instinctively good at magic - and by his nature - he acts by following his feelings, which turn out almost always to be correct. He opposes the Dursleys, who clearly stand for boring middle-class society, and Voldemort, who, at least initially, stands for evil connected to metaphysics.

Harry Potter thus seems to conform quite nicely to stereotype. But there is a deviation from this stereotype which involves a dimensional shift. This deviation concerns magic. Magic is initially a metaphysical concept, and yet in Harry Potter, magic turns out to be part of nature, both because it is practiced in a culturally more backward environment - remember the medieval castle, the carrier-owls, the flying broomsticks - and also because, the text reminds us that Harry Potter is quite literally "a natural" where magic is concerned: he is good at it without having to learn it.

For more information on step 2, CLICK HERE

For more information on the threatend status of dimensions, CLICK HERE

Step 3: evaluation

The stereotype I have just described shows that dimensional patterns do not just describe the world, but also evaluate it in terms of "I like" and "I dislike". To understand these likes and dislikes, I have opted for including a a pyschoanalytic model which is very similar to the tool as developed in steps 1 and 2. This model was developed by the German Psychoanalist Fritz Riemann, who posits two pairs of basic and antithetical demands each individual puts on life, and which the individual sees as the potential sources of fear.

 

At its most basic, Riemann assumes that a sound individual has four basic desires bundled into two groups: [1] he or she wants to be unique (individual), but also be loved by those around (society), and [2] he or she wants to feel secure (eternity), but also feel the thrill of life (change). These desires threaten to cancel themselves out:

 

the more unique I am, the less will the group accept me
BUT
the more I am integrated in the group, the less may I display my uniqueness
the more I need to feel secure, the less will I accept change in my life
BUT
the more I am looking for change, the less will I accept things to stay the same

 

The problem is that, as soon any of the four demands starts to dominate its peer the individual experiences this as a fear which throws him off balance.

Riemann offers an interesting variation with regard to steps 1 and 2: instead of the opposition nature / metaphysics (step 1 & 2), it offers the related opposition eternity / change (Riemann). Initially we might say that metaphysics has more in common with eternity, as in eternal life after death. That would mean that nature has more to do with change, and indeed it does if we look at our own feelings, which are part of our nature and often succeed each other with astonishing speed. At the same time, face the sea, face the desert, and you will see that nature is also connected to eternity.

Task: At this stage, the analysis centres on finding out what texts yearn for/are afraid of. This can be done if you locate Riemann's mutually excluding sets of yearnings and fears in the text.

For more information on step 3, CLICK HERE

Recapitulation

Summarising, JustdoLit can help you go beyond appearances and interpret fundamental aspects of a text's content:

  • Step 1 enables you to take seriously a fictional world as a whole world. Through its division of the fictional world into four dimensions, it helps you to interpret the different elements of the text as belonging to this or that dimension.
  • Step 2 makes it possible to go beyond our initial expectations as regards stereotypes (common dimensional patterns) by finding dimensional shifts in the text.
  • Step 3 finally helps us to understand the text as a way of expressing fears and yearnings, and interpret the dimensions in terms of these fears and yearnings.

 

acknowledgement of pictures:

Aegeri lake (Switzerland): http://www.bigfoto.com/sites/main/aegeri-lake-switzerland.JPG

 

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann