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张在新

John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Fallacies in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today (Updated)  

2017-05-18 01:57:13|  分类: +文论 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Fallacies in Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today

(Updated, May 2017)

John Zaixin Zhang

 

       Fallacies are logic errors in reasoning. The following are six types of fallacy identified in Lois Tyson’s book on literary theory, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, fallacies that could be avoided in our writing with a little training in critical thinking. I am sure they are unintentional; they have just escaped Tyson’s attention.

       Fallacies of shared characteristic, equivocation, and inconsistency have been identified in my blog article on Tyson’s misreading of deconstruction and poststructuralist cultural criticism. (See http://bfsutheory.blog.163.com/blog/static/322936832014422111039594/)

Fallacy 1. Shared characteristic: a fallacy stating that qualities of A are inherently qualities of B, merely by an irrelevant association. For example, a box contains a chicken and a sparrow. It is fallacious to say that once you see a two-legged bird in the box, then you assume it is the chicken (not the sparrow) you’ve seen in it because both birds share the characteristic of having two legs.

       (1) Since classism and colonialism share the characteristic of othering social groups different from the dominant ones, Tyson assumes that the two critical approaches are the same. So she analyzes the othering project in classist psychology as if it was the same as one in colonialist psychology, as demonstrated in her colonialist reading of The Great Gatsby: “And as we shall see, colonialist psychology is self-perpetuating: it encourages the personal insecurity that facilitates its operations. Because othering is the activity that both fuels and expresses it, colonialist psychology depends heavily on racism and classism, two very successful forms of othering” (434). So, in her discussion about how Gatsby is “unhomed,” Tyson uses only class attributes to describe its cause: “Gatsby lacks the proper bloodline, class origin, upbringing, and education for Daisy’s set,” and as a result, “he feels he belongs nowhere because he is caught between two antagonist cultures, that into which he was born and that to which he aspires” (439).

       (2) In her analysis of “A Rose for Emily,” Tyson intends to study Emily’s sexuality, but she ends up saying something about the gender roles Emily plays: “the text constructs Emily’s gender as a vacillation between the feminine and the masculine” (337). Since Judith Butler has liberated gendered sex (both sex and gender in traditional thinking) from the body, anyone (male or female) can play any sexual (heterosexual and/or homosexual) and gender roles (masculine and/or feminine) throughout his/her lifetime. The fallacy of a “shared characteristic” lies in Tyson’s assumption that since Emily plays both gender roles (masculinity and femininity), a characteristic shared by both straight and nonstraight people, then an analysis about one’s gender roles is one about one’s sexuality. So Tyson argues that “the characterization of Emily exceeds the opposition between homosexual and heterosexual” (337).

Fallacy 2. Equivocation: it refers to the use of ambiguous expressions, especially in order to mislead or hedge.

       Apart from the cases of equivocation I mentioned in my other blog article on Tyson about switching shades of meaning of a given term, here is another equivocation from her book.

When talking about the lost object of desire or objet petit a in Lacan, Tyson explains that “in separating us from our preverbal world of idealized union with our mother, the Symbolic Order changed our mother into an other (someone separate from me) just as it changed everything else in our preverbal world of union into a world of people and things separate from ourselves” (28). One example of this lost object of desire or “fantasy union” with one’s mother in infancy is the ending of The Awakening, a “fatal union with the sea,” where Edna drowns herself: “her last experiences are sensory, not verbal, memories of her youth: she hears the barking of a dog, the clanging of spurs, the hum of bees, and she smells the odor of flowers” (34). Here, Tyson has used the ambiguous term not verbal to refer to preverbal. As she tells us, the union with mother (as a lost object of desire or objet petit a) happens in the Lacanian Imaginary before the infant acquires language (27). That’s why it is preverbal or prelinguistic. But Edna’s memories of youth or childhood as innocence (“the barking of a dog, the clanging of spurs, the hum of bees” and fragrances of flowers) in Tyson’s analysis have nonverbal meaning in language (in the Symbolic Order), serving as a contrast with the heroine’s final moments before death.

If we want to trace a scene in a literary work to the preverbal Imaginary Order in Lacanian psychoanalysis (as in a discussion about the lost object of desire or as in Kristeva’s semiotic, also in the Imaginary Order, where meaning collapses), we need to go beyond a mere description of sensory experiences (colors, sounds, movements, etc.). We need to focus on how such preverbal experiences render meaninglessness in language (in the Symbolic Order). But nonverbal meaning may reinforce verbal meaning in language, rather than disrupting its logic (as in the Imaginary Order). For example, the girl’s nonverbal language in the following dialogue is clearly meaningful in language—a nonverbal way of saying “Yes” to the boy’s proposal.

Boy: (Holding engagement ring in hand). Will you marry me?

Girl: (Extending hand to boy).

Boy: (Putting ring on her finger).

In short, Tyson’s not verbal is an ambiguous reference to preverbal, but the two terms do not have the same meaning.

Fallacy 3. Slippery slope: a course of action that seems to lead inevitably from one action or result to another with unintended consequences.

About transgressive (hetero)sexuality as a practice paving the way for transgressive homosexuality, Tyson states that “a text’s focus on transgressive sexuality, including transgressive heterosexuality (such as extramarital romance), throws into question the rules of traditional heterosexuality and thus opens the door of imagination to transgressive sexualities of all kinds” (340). It is a slippery slope to argue that transgressive heterosexuality “opens the door of imagination to transgressive sexualities of all kinds” (including transgressive homosexuality). She needs to prove that the transgressive heterosexual characters she has analyzed in her reading of The Great Gatsby, like Daisy, Tom, and Myrtle (343), would grow to be (transgressive) homosexuals, but they are not.

Fallacy 4. Non sequitur: meaning “it does not follow,” also known as irrelevant reason: use of evidence irrelevant to a conclusion.

(1) To support her claim about punishment of “Myrtle’s sexual vitality, that is, her aggressiveness,” Tyson says “the description of her death closes with a reference to her vitality: ‘The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long’” (127-8). This is a non sequitur, because her conclusion about Myrtle’s sexual vitality does not follow from the evidence about the woman’s remaining life signs indicating “tremendous vitality” right at the moment of death. Tyson seems to assume that if a woman lives a life full of vitality, it means that her life can be characterized by sexual vitality or aggressiveness. If anything, the description of Myrtle’s death, I would argue, may stir up the emotion of pity on the woman, rather than intending a punishment of her sexual vitality as “her real crime” (127).

(2) Tyson argues that Nick in The Great Gatsby “inhabits a transgressive subculture” at West Egg because “Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village [West Egg].” Nick compares this Long Island fishing village, West Egg, to Broadway probably because of its vitality and glamor (because Gatsby lives there too). If it is because of its “transgressive subculture,” Tyson needs to prove it with substantial evidence. But the point is supported only by an assumption: “Nick’s observation that Broadway is responsible for this subculture is noteworthy both because Broadway was a gay cruising area in New York City at this time (Chauncey 146) and because the theatrical profession has always been associated, whether accurately so or not, with sexual tolerance and experimentation” (348).

Tyson’s argument is a non sequitur, because the point about Nick living in a sexually transgressive subculture at West Egg (being compared to Broadway) does not follow logically from the fact that “Broadway was a gay cruising area” and that “the theatrical profession has always been associated” with “sexual tolerance and experimentation.” Such an argument is similar to this fallacious point: since a friend of mine lives in a small town near Guangzhou which he likens to Broadway in New York City, then I argue that he lives in an area full of cultural activities because I know Broadway has been associated with theatrical productions (assuming he uses Broadway to imply nothing but its cultural activities). But in fact, the reason he likens that town to Broadway may be because he thinks the price of housing there is as expensive as it is in Broadway (or may be what Tyson has said about its transgressive subculture), or because of any reason other than its cultural activities.

Fallacy 5. Suppressed evidence: the omission from an argument of known relevant evidence (or the failure to suspect that relevant evidence is being suppressed).

       After a lengthy discussion about George Chauncey’s gay history of New York City, Tyson uses the ambiguous term transgressive sexuality (another equivocation) to refer to the City in Nick’s eyes in The Great Gatsby that resembles gay New York in Chauncey’s writing: Nick “goes to New York City, which both he and Jordan associate with transgressive sexuality. Nick says of New York, ‘I began to like… the racy, adventurous feel of it at night’ (61; ch. 3) and Jordan observes, ‘There’s something very sensuous about it—overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands’” (348). In her use of the term transgressive sexuality as the implied meaning of transgressive homosexuality with which New York City is associated in Chauncey, Tyson has suppressed the evidence of Nick’s heterosexuality in this comment on the City. Nick’s heterosexuality is clear to Tyson, at least in this part of the novel, shown in the same passage she has cited elsewhere in more detail (273, 350). When Nick “began to like… the racy, adventurous feel” of the City, he was telling us a much clearer message about the transgressive (hetero)sexuality than the term Tyson has used to render here, but she has failed to point out his explicit heterosexual reference to the City by suppressing the following evidence about his heterosexual orientation: “Nick seems to go out of his way to be sure we see him as an active heterosexual.” “… Similarly, when he describes his evenings in New York City, ‘loiter[ing] in front of windows’ (62; ch.3) with other young men like himself, Nick deflates the homoerotic potential of the scene by relating in detail his fantasies about following ‘romantic women… to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets’ (61; ch.3)” (350).

Fallacy 6. Inconsistency: the use or acceptance of contradictory statements to support a conclusion or conclusions.

Tyson has used the same passage on 61; ch. 3 in the novel (see the highlighted page numbers above) to support her point about homosexuality and then about heterosexuality two pages later in her discussion, which is an inconsistency.

Another inconsistency occurs when Tyson offers new historicist readings. She is absolutely right when she says (290),

“The writing of history is a matter of interpretations, not facts.”

“All historical analysis is unavoidably subjective.”

And it is clear in her following contrast between traditional historical criticism and new historicism: “As you may have noticed, in all of the above examples of traditional historical criticism, history…is an objective reality that can be known and against which the subjective literary work is interpreted or measured. In contrast, in the new historical examples, the focus is on how the literary text itself functions as a historical discourse interacting with other historical discourses…” (294).

       But when she reads texts from a new historicist perspective, she seems to be inconsistent, contradicting her own new historicist readings with a traditional historical undertone. For example, she argues that “The Great Gatsby reflects this same desire [Andrew Carnegie’s desire to “focus on his own transcendence of historical reality"] to transcend history in Gatsby’s efforts to deny his true origins… That is, Gatsby wants to deny the historical realities of socioeconomic class to which he had been subjected all his life” (307). Here, according to Tyson, in transcending history Gatsby wants to hide his real family background, an objective fact that may only be revealed in a traditional historical critique, but not in a new historicist reading such as hers here in the chapter.

       Tyson makes the same logic error when analyzing self-made-man manuals. “The discourse of the self-made man also ‘erases history’ in choosing to ignore or marginalize the enormous character flaws of many famous self-made men while simultaneously defining self-made success as a product of one’s character rather than of one’s environment” (308). “Yet some of the moral failings of self-made millionaires were the very factors that enabled them to rise to the top by enabling them to ruthlessly and often unethically destroy their business rivals. Of course, this aspect of historical reality was absent from the proliferation of texts that extolled the virtues of the self-made man…” (308). What Tyson implies here is that self-made-man discourses are distorted accounts about the true picture of history. The objective harsh realities of ruthless competition and exploitation, as in traditional historical criticism, become the standard against which the discourse of the self-made man is measured. Such realities, in a new historicist reading, however, would be as subjective or as “distorted” as any interpretation of them.

 

Work Cited

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

 

References

Logical Fallacies. http://www.logicalfallacies.info.

The Sceptic’s Dictionary. http://www.skepdic.com.

张在新(主编),《大学英语写作教程——从创新思维到批判思维》,外研社,2014年。

张在新(编著),《英语写作教程——从创新思维到批判思维 4:批判思维与议论文》,外研社,2011年。

 

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