How should one go about analyzing a text? Alas, a worthy question, one we have spent the semester addressing. In my attempt to answer it, I have decided to focus upon a single aspect of the grander picture, a constituent of the overall question: what decides literary and artistic value? Is there something inherent in a text for which analysts should search, or does the reader decide meaning? Let’s say, just for the moment, that literary value is measured in the ability of a text to relay gender stereotypes. Who is to say, then, that a silly YouTube advertisement—“Why men run away: 10 mistakes that women frequently make”—does not hold literary value? The advertisement is trashy; chances are, the author didn’t put a whole lot of thought or effort into writing it. Regardless, I think that such an advertisement does hold literary value; and in this way, I am a true advocate of new historicism.
The advertisement itself does not deconstruct gender stereotypes. Perhaps the kinds of texts that do are in a way more valuable than those that simply relay them. But we cannot deny that throughout history, literature has performed both functions—relaying and deconstructing. The job of a literary critic is not to decide the value or intelligence of an author. Our job is to understand a text within its context—the context of the author’s emotional heartbreak, the context of a warring England, or the context of gender stereotypes in the United States. This is literature in its essence: a contextualized mirror, with the capacity to reflect or deconstruct culture. The YouTube advertisement reflects culture: it appeals to perceived female insecurities, reinforces the notion of men’s emotional disconnect, broadens the gap between the sexes.
“The historicity of texts and the textuality of history”: such is the mantra of new historicism. This YouTube advertisement shall not (nor should it) do down in history as a masterpiece. But the ad has meaning. It should be contextualized within its purpose, if known (to redirect YouTube-goers to, within its intended audience (probably teenaged to middle-aged women) within culture (gender relations), and of course, within other texts. Let’s look at the ultra-famous novel He’s Just Not That Into You, and this internet ad, and a recently-published thesis on social culture at Dickinson College.
As I continue on in my literary travails, I would like to keep in mind the idea of perspective. For any piece of work, there are probably hundreds (okay, maybe not quite hundreds) of different contexts in which I could view it. I feel that my job is to keep looking, because culture, like meaning, is everywhere. It is the sub-context of the words all around us, even the words we’ve learned to ignore, like those constituting YouTube ads. Potential meaning, however, is locked up in isolation; the job of the critic is to contextualize it, and thus to liberate it.