Commentary - A new way of reading

Antony Easthope defends critical theory from its author-obsessed detractors

Lola Young, chair of the Orange prize committee, recently announced that there was only one English writer on the shortlist because the mainstream English novel was "piddling" and "very British". Noting that Young was a professor of cultural studies, Beryl Bainbridge said: "Well, that damns her." The gulf between the literary academy and the literary establishment has never been so wide as it is today. And the reason? In a word: theory.

You can ignore theory but you can't escape it. A play has to be performed on a stage; a novel or a poem is not real until it is read. You can't bring a work to life without interpreting it. And you can't interpret without making assumptions about what you are interpreting and why. Those assumptions are theoretical.

When I went to university a generation ago I didn't know much about sex, but I did know how to read a poem. My job was to enter into the "imaginative experience" of the author and use this to understand the words. For example, one of Wordsworth's so-called Lucy poems: "A slumber did my spirit seal;/I had no human fears:/She seemed a thing that could not feel/The touch of earthly years.

"No motion has she now, no force/She neither hears nor sees;/Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,/ With rocks, and stones, and trees."

So it would seem that Wordsworth loved someone so passionately he thought she was almost immortal. When she dies, his only consolation is the one you couldn't argue with until this century: matter can be neither created nor destroyed, and she lives on with the rock, stones and trees. Who was Lucy? One of Wordsworth's very few lovers? Was she perhaps the spirit of nature? Or - daring suggestion - his sister, Dorothy? If you want to understand a work, ask the author, which is what Melvyn Bragg has always done in his television programmes.

In 1968 Roland Barthes published a notorious but little-read essay, The Death of the Author. It was linguistics that killed the author, not Barthes. Language theory showed that meaning was the product of a system. If you know the rules of modern English - how to discriminate "has" from "had" and "no" from "neither/ nor" - you don't need Wordsworth at all. As Barthes says, "it is language which speaks, not the author". Which is a very good thing, because Wordsworth has not been available for comment since he died in 1850. And all that stuff about him and his sister Dorothy - letters, diaries, laundry lists? Just more texts that we read now, even if they are biographical.

Linguistics led to a crucial break with "author theory". But it was stuck with an empty formalism, unable to address questions of history and power. The Lucy poem hardly seems historical at all. Except that the idea of the universe invoked by the last line was not discovered until the 17th century, this seems to be just an intense, personal lyric. Arguably that escapism is exactly what gives it its ideological force. It imagines a transcendent, private life. It wishes for a world of value, not fact; nature, not society; love and death, instead of the smoke-stack capitalism that was actually taking over England when the poem was written.

It is extraordinary that before the 1970s hardly anyone thought about literature in relation to gender. Gender theory can be divided into three main forms: gender and the author; images of men and women as represented in the text; and the intriguing possibility that the text itself may be gendered, perhaps even as "feminine writing". A principle of feminist theory is that when gender is not specifically pointed out, you can safely assume it's masculine. So it is here, I think, in this poem, even leaving Wordsworth out of it. A male speaker talks about a woman. He presents himself as a subject, while she's an object. He is part of culture, she is part of nature. Even alive she seemed "a thing", and now she is at one with rocks and stones and trees. The brief way to introduce the gender question into discussion of this poem is to ask: "How was it for you, Lucy?"

During the 1930s psychoanalytic theory was hugely popular, and it has come back with new vitality. It can highlight parts of the text other theories can't reach; here, for example, a startling contrast between the first and second verse. Before he saw her only through the eyes of love; now he recognises her for what she is, a part of nature. This is a conventional version of masculinity. To be able to distinguish absolutely between the apparent (verse one) and the real (verse two) shows that you yourself are a "real" man.

Traditional also is the fantasy of the man and his feelings for a corpse (Petrarch and Laura, Romeo and Juliet). Now, with her securely inert, he can say whatever he wants without being troubled at all by her interests, her desires.

Edward Said's theory of "orientalism" invites us to read the poem in relation to postcolonial theory. How does it present cultural and ethnic differences? Well, perhaps this one doesn't. Yet one could point out that the poem does claim to be universal - universal in feeling (and romantic love certainly isn't), universal in imagining the earth in its "diurnal course". Is it unfair to remark that this can only be the point of view of God, a modern satellite, or a late-18th-century European gentleman who knew about Newton?

What's wrong with "reading for the author's experience" is that it is now so familiar that no one thinks of it as a theory any more. It is a theory nevertheless, and in fact Wordsworth did a lot to invent it. Author theory closes down the possibility of criticism or change. It leaves everything as it was, which is bad when lots of other theories are around. The death of the author means that the text belongs to its reader to interpret now. And Lola Young? Well, she's right, I'm afraid.

Antony Easthope's new book is "The Unconscious" (Routledge)

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture