Friday, July 9, 2010

The Anxiety of Influence

I was reading an article called Nancy Armstrong's "What feminism did to novel studies" and one of the things it mentioned early on in the article was something called the "anxiety of influence."  As always when I hear something that I don't know about, I go out in search of answers.
It also seems that, based on a lot of the modern poetry I read, that a lot of people are influenced by Wallace Stevens.  I actually like Stevens a lot, but a lot of critics have complained over the years that he was "willfully difficult."  I think there is some truth to it, but it's always struck me as a good thing, because then you have to work to understand his poems.  You have to read them more than twice.  Most of the other good poets I read now are like this, some to a greater degree than others.  And I like this.  I was tickled to discover the article summarizing Harold Bloom's theory mentioned Stevens, because he's the first person I thought of when I read the basic definition of the anxiety of influence. 
One of my professors once mentioned that some people are more into theory than others.  I am into theory, though I like to see it applied to works of literature, especially the kind I am familiar with, because then I have a much easier time seeing what theorists mean when they assert a particular claim.  Seeing them apply an idea demonstrates they have thought the idea out and illustrates for readers how they should similarly apply the idea.  
To this end, I then wanted to do a little research into Gilbert and Gubar's feminist response to Bloom's idea.  According to Armstrong's article, Bloom had imagined literature as a product of the oedipal struggles between father and son.  Gilbert and Gubar, naturally, imagined how women fit into theory, since women have been producing literature too.  Gilbert and Gubar decided that women's literature was always struggling with the male tradition of literature: they can't outright rebel from it but instead must demonstrate they can work within it. 
One of the many complaints I've heard of women's literature over the years is that it never does anything new or daring.  Maybe it's because we are forced into a defensive position, much like when dealing with something like the gaze.  We're never able to just create art for the sake of creating art for ourselves or the way we want it.  We have to create art that will earn the respect of our male colleagues.
I'm hoping, as women fight to have a better place within society, that these problems will (and hopefully already have) dissipated.   
I am also wondering if there is a way to complicate Gubar and Gilbert's response in some way involving something like race or sexuality.  I think it would be easy to say that many people of color have also felt the need to earn their male (and also white) colleagues respect by working within the traditional rules of art.  For example, I took a class a couple of years ago on the African diaspora, and the majority of things we read were written in a traditional novel or essay form.  I'm wondering if those mediums were chosen not because they were necessarily the best mediums to communicate the message in or the because they were the creator's first choice, but because they were the forms that white men would respond best to.  Sometimes we watched things that were avant garde in form, and some of my fellow students reactions were masked by their dislike of a medium they were unfamiliar with, covering up how uncomfortable the messages of the piece were. 
I took a class on African history, and we read an essay by an African author who complained about how white American and European authors dominated the educational lives of Africans.  When some of these Africans decided to be writers, they felt forced to write not in their own native languages but in their oppressor's language, just to have their ideas heard.  It seems like, at least in this case, authors of color weren't creating the art they wanted to, they were were creating it based on the traditions and rules of the dominant power, similar to what Gilbert and Gubar talk about. 

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