Tuesday, February 15, 2005

How to read a text for matriculation

Over at troppo armadillo, Sophie Masson describes the latest demand on her son to produce an essay on Cloudstreet. His English teacher supplied instructions, which included an introduction to critical theory. Xavier Masson was asked to apply various theories to the text. Apparently he resents this because he liked the book - whatever that means. To help Masson fils and his friends do it properly, here is a text with sample analyses.

Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on
Polly put the kettle on,
We'll all have tea.

Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again
Sukey take it off again,
They've all gone away

Gender-based: you can't tell what gender the speaker is, which is good, and the other two persons in the text are both female which is also good. (Until the total number of females and males in all texts everywhere are equal it's OK to play catch-up.) But it is probable that the speaker is male because of the objective power-balance of patriarchy. So there he is ordering them about (no 'please' even) and they don't speak. So there are Silences, even after the third line in each section where the comma signifies a chance to break in. The kettle could be male or female, depending on whether you consider the container part or the spout. According to queer theory however (which is my chosen ideology for this paragraph) everything I've said so far is a crock.

Socio-political: the society implied by this poem is incredibly privileged. One person has two servants to put on and take off the kettle (respectively) and the reference to 'all' shows that a lot of people are coming so the servants will have to wait on them hand and foot. Nothing is said about the event itself. This shows that the event is actually seen through the eyes of the servants. For them the 'party' or whatever is just more lifting and carrying. This shows that the writer is on the side of the servants. I'm not, because in this paragraph my ideology is fascist.

Post-colonial: This is a blatant example of Western appropriation. The stolen text is an ancient legend from China. 'Polly' is of course 'Po Li' and Sukey 'Soo Chi', a guest-worker from 'Burma'. The mandarin's wife who gives the orders has been effaced (rubbed out) by the '(era)-sure of difference' (Spivack) and her place is taken by a figure we can't identify. That is how power is perceived by the colonised, as a free-floating set of orders which must be obeyed. The hopeful side of this text is that the 'ordering' person has to say things three times before anyone does anything. Powerless people resist indirectly by behaving 'lazily'. In this text, they have also failed to send out the invitations, so nobody comes to tea which is why the story lacks a middle part. I am between ideologies this afternoon so all I can say is I might have believed what I just wrote, or might believe it tonight, but just now I haven't a clue.

Psychoanalytical: Notice here first the repeated lines, fixed, rigid behaviour which betrays the anxiety of the speaker. (We shall see that the anxiety is fully justified.) Will Polly and Sukey do as they are told? (issues of control). Evidently someone has 'put the kettle on' but it could just as well have been the speaker, desparing of being obeyed. Are Polly and Sukey really there? Perhaps we have here a game in which the young, anxious speaker consoles herself (in my experience, most people are female) by murmuring the rituals she heard in her bourgeois childhood. The tragic depths of the case come out in the silence between the two parts of the text. It is tempting to imagine people arriving, tea being consumed, cheerful conversation, but this reading would make the text 'normal' which is not theoretical. I reckon the speaker will not tell us about the incident (if there was an incident - see above). It will have to be got out of her. She could be someone recalling a trauma: no-one came to the tea-party. The kettle boiled dry many times, so many times that Polly is too exhausted to go, and another servant has to replace her. The cakes withered on the plate. Hope dried in the young woman's heart. Everybody hated her, it was all true what her mother had said. It's really, really sad.

My ideology with ten minutes to go is a bit of all these theories (including all the ones I did not mention) because they all contain important insights and tools which can be applied to texts to get anything you want out of them, so I agree with everything I've just written and so must you. Pretty good handwriting, huh?


At 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One is reminded of Ern Malley. Funny, but tragic as many read and write stuff like this as if it was serious.


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