Understanding literary theory

I never took a literary theory class in undergrad and I didn’t even read much literary criticism until about a year ago, sweeping through Literature Resource Center and MLA International Bibliography so I could better answer literature reference questions. So, as I have started reading extensive literary criticism in working on this project, and have been trying to write it myself, I realized I needed a better background.

To that end I picked up a few books on it, so I’ll write out what I’ve learned here. Then hopefully what I learn will translate into better and more insightful reactions.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. Print

Chapter 1: Theory before “theory”–liberal humanism

This chapter provides a brief historical overview of the institution of English studies in UK universities in the mid 19th century, and the concomitant variant approaches to literature criticism developed during the next century.

The term liberal humanism wasn’t widely used to refer to this style of criticism until the 70s; and disparagingly at that. Liberal, as in not politically radical, and humanist (similarly) as in not Marxist/feminist/theoretical.

Principles behind the founding of English studies (1820s-1900s) include:

  • Studying English literature for a sense of rootedness to past heritage and values (viz., middle class Englishness), especially useful in the face of declining religious faith [which the fearful worried would lead to revolt a la the French Revolution]–read this as “ideological control”
  • Victorian-style class guilt
  • A “genuine desire to improve things for everybody”
  • Desire to spread culture & enlightenment

The “Cambridge pioneers” (I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis) in 1920s developed some innovations leading to the liberal humanist approach:

  • Isolating the text from history & context
  • Attending closely to the text itself
  • Moralistic approach, reading the text to teach the reader of criticism about life & transmit humane values

Barry distills the core elements of doing English in this traditional way into the “ten tenets of liberal humanism:”

  1. Fostering an attitude that good literature transcends time and place and “speaks to what is constant in human nature”
  2. Because it is the enduring which is meaningful in literature, socio-political, literary-historical, and autobiographical context are not required for understanding that value
  3. Indeed, the text must be studied in isolation, as these contexts interfere with the task of engaging in verbal analysis of the text
  4. “Human nature is essentially unchanging…[so] continuity in literature is more important and significant than innovation”
  5. Individual human character is largely static–the subject transcends his environment/social context, etc.
  6. The purpose of literature is to transmit humane values–artistically rather than overtly (which risks being propagandandistic rather than artistic)
  7. Form (e.g., imagery) must be integrated with content (substance) otherwise it risks being mere ornamentation
  8. The language of a work should convey the sincere emotion intended, emerging implicitly from the presentation of events
  9. In the same way, ideas must be enacted–represented concretely–rather than discursively explained or explicitly stated in the work
  10. Preconceived notions and big picture theories (e.g., the nature of reading) do not belong in criticism, whose job it is to “interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader”

So that’s liberal humanism. Critical theory, on the other hand, grew from the 1930s and increasingly since the 1960s. Although there has been several approaches, they share a common bedrock:

  1. Anti-essentialism: Much of human existence is socially constructed–contingent on social/political/ideological forces and thus dependent on circumstance rather than absolute and concrete; therefore truth itself is malleable
  2. Prior ideological commitments largely determine all thinking, making disinterested investigation into literature impossible. Taken to its logical conclusion, all arguments are relativistic
  3. Language itself conditions, limits, and predetermines what we see; all reality is not just recorded, but is constructed, shaped, and created by language and text. Meaning in literature is not objectively “there,” but is jointly constructed by writer and reader
  4. There are no definitive readings or fixed meanings in literature; deconstruction reveals all texts to be independent linguistic structures whose authors are always “dead” or “absent”
  5. There is no absolute “great” category of books transcending all others. All texts arise of particular socio-political contexts. Likewise there is no generalizable “human nature” as any definition will marginalize other, usually disadvantaged groups.

Chapter 2: Structuralism

Structuralist critics find that meaning resides not inherently in a phenomenon, but is attributed to it by the human mind. The phenomenon can never be detached from the various contexts in which it arose; one regards the “containing structures” as metaphorical chickens hatching from the “individual example” egg. Whereas liberal humanists analyze the egg, structuralists determine the precise nature of the chicken.

The late 19th century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure developed some key insights related to the establishment of meaning in language and functions of grammar:

  1. Words are unmotivated signs: the connection between a word & its meaning is arbitrary and maintained only by convention, indicating that language is a system standing apart from the actual world
  2. Meanings of words are relational, not intrinsic or fixed: a word’s definition is dependent upon its relation to adjoining words. This connection can vary in nature (e.g. paired opposites (dyads) or like characteristics (e.g. paradigmatic chain, like hut-house-mansion))
  3. Language constitutes our world: the words we use construct our perceptions and even sensations
  4. Langue (language) indicates the larger structure and ruleset, whereas parole (remark) indicates the example which may only be understood with reference to the larger structure.

These insights gave structuralists “a model of a system which is self-contained, in which individual items relate to other items and thus create larger structures.”

This model is generalizable, so e.g. a particular novel is the parole to the literary genre of novel as langue. Or, as developed by Levi-Strauss in the 1950s, motifs and themes in a particular myth are the parole to the same patterns found in the langue of a series of myths. The wider signifying system (langue) can be found anywhere there is an “organized and structured set of signs which carries cultural meanings” which constitute networks, each of which “operate through codes as a system of signs” that can make statements and be read and decoded by structuralists/semioticians. During the same time, Roland Barthes took structuralism deeper into cultural and literary studies, helping to spread the tradition from France into Anglo-America.

What structuralist critics do:

  1. Analyze (mainly) prose narratives, relating the text to a larger containing structure, e.g. genres, intertextual connections, “universal” narrative structures
  2. Interpret literature in terms of a range of underlying parallels with the structures of language
  3. Treat systems of signs within Western culture and across cultures

Structuralists classify codes representing the underlying structure of a text–or for some writers, generating all narratives just as grammatical structure generates all sentences. They then scan the text in search of instantiations of the code (Barthes called these lexies); this analysis of structure, symbol, and design is the focus of the commentary.

Parallels, Echoes, Reflections/Repetitions, Contrasts, & Patterns

are sought in

Plot, Structure, Character/Motive, Situation/Circumstance, & Language/Imagery

Once a common set of contrasts, parallels, etc. is found within the text, these may be further reduced to “a set of more generalized ones: the contrast between light and art, male and female, light and dark (in the sense of enlightenment and moral benightedness, as well as in purely physical terms), looking and doing, reality and representation. The thesis of the structuralist is that narrative structures are founded upon such underlying paired opposites, or dyads, so that contrasts such as these are the skeletal structure on which all narratives are fleshed out.”

The cloze procedure is a structuralist technique: words are deleted from the text and readers fill the gaps by drawing inferences from the structure. This demonstrates how textual hints feed the process of characterization and thematicization on a smaller scale.

Structuralists also look to how the text encourages/forces readers to inquire into the events of the narrative, speculating on outcomes and enigmas and predicting the patterns of events and motives.

Chapter 3: Post-structuralism and deconstruction

If language shapes the way we perceive the world, and we have no control of the linguistic system, then there is no certain, fixed standard whereby to measure anything. And because we are so dependent upon language for communication, we experience uncertainty and anxiety that our feelings/thoughts/message will not be interpreted correctly when we are engaged in any but casual, familiar linguistic exchange. post-structuralist literary criticism mines this uncertainty for deeper revelations into the work and the work’s implications.

Differences between structuralism and post-structuralism

  1. Origins. Structuralism is derived from the empirical, data-based, scientific field of linguistics an”inherits this confidently scientific outlook: it too believes in methods, system, and reason as being able to establish reliable truths.” Post-structuralism derives from philosophy and inherits that field’s skepticism, avoidance of proclaiming absolute knowledge, and tendency to dig behind things to discover what’s hidden.
  2. Tone and style. Structuralist writing tends towards abstraction, generalization, scientific (detached) coolness, order, and neutrality. Post-structuralist writing tends to be emotive, urgent, flamboyant, and warm.
  3. Attitude to language. Structuralists acknowledge that the world is constructed through language and humans may only access reality through the linguistic medium; but, they find language to be an orderly system and therefore find secure conclusions to be reachable. Post-structuralists find that we cannot be in control of language, so the meanings of texts are uncertain, and the meanings of words are also “contaminated” by their opposites (i.e. you cannot define a word without referencing what it does not signify) and by their own etymological histories.
  4. Project. Structuralists believe we can attain a measure of knowledge by inquiring into the way we structure and categorize reality and our habitual modes of perception. Post-structuralists find the individual (the subject) to be “dissolved” or constructed by social and linguistic forces–a “tissue of textualities”–and their inherent distrust of the notion of reason translates into burning “away the intellectual ground on which the Western civilization is built.”

Barthes 1968 essay “The Death of the Author” asserted “the independence of the literary text and its immunity to the possibility of being unified or limited by any any notion of what the author might have intended, or ‘crafted’ into the work.” This implies that the reader attributes his own meanings, and is not deciphering the author’s “authoritative” meanings. Derrida’s 1966 lecture “Structure, Sign & Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” described the modern intellectual tendency–growing out of the thought of Freud, Heidegger, & Nietzsche–to “decenter;” that is, to quit measuring and judging all things against fixed (Western) standards. These standards were in any case undermined by events like the world wars and Holocaust, by scientific discoveries, and by intellectual and artistic revolutions. The implication here is that just as the death of the author frees the reader to ascribe meanings, the decentered universe frees us to interpret phenomena according to our own standards (which are of course themselves uncertain, as the post-structuralist acknowledges).

Post-structuralist method generally consists of deconstructing the text: readers are not “reconstructing” something built by the author–it is not possible for a writer to construct anything permanent with text. Instead “critical reading must produce the text;” or, “the deconstructive reading uncovers the unconscious rather than the conscious dimension of the text, all of the things which its overt textuality glosses over or fails to recognize.” The writer himself may be unconscious of what he hath wrought; his text has many meanings and implications underneath the surface. These meanings are not just sought in the plot, structure, etc. of the story, but in the whole structures in which the text lies. Post-structuralists particularly look for internal contradictions and inconsistencies and subversion, “aiming to show the disunity which underlies its apparent unity.” Hence as structuralists seek parallels, balances, repetitions, symmetry, contrast, and pattern–textual unity and coherence–post-structuralists seek contradictions, paradoxes, breaks in tone/view, conflicts, omissions, linguistic quirks, and aporia–textual disunity.

What post-structuralists do:

  1. “Read the text against itself” to expose meanings potentially contrary to the surface meaning
  2. Highlight surface features of words, e.g. sound, root meanings, dead metaphors as crucial to the overall meaning
  3. Seek to show the text is characterized by disunity rather than unity
  4. Analyze single passages intensively for “multiplicities of meaning”
  5. Seek breaks in the text (aka discontinuities, or “fault-lines”) as evidence of unconscious repression/glossing over/passing over in silence


In terms of cultural studies, modernism is a phenomenon ranging from the late 19th to the early 20th century, with another spike in the 1960s. It is characterized by experimentation and innovation:

  1. Emphasis on impressionism & subjectivity: how we see rather than what we see
  2. A movement away from apparent objectivity (e.g. omniscient external narration, clear moral positions)
  3. Blurring of distinctions between genres
  4. New liking for fragmented forms, discontinuous narrative, collage
  5. Tendency towards “reflexivity;” i.e. the arts question their own nature, status, role

Whereas both modernism and postmodernism use “fragmented form,” randomness (“aleatory form”), parody and pastiche (i.e. assaulting narratory omniscience), they do so with a different orientation or reaction, as well as different moods or attitudes. The latter registers nostalgia for the past–before so much fragmentation–and possibly notes of despair about the present. “For the postmodernist, by contrast, fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, sympotmatic of our escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief.” Modernists were reacting to the over-elaboration of the 19th century, but their reaction was characterized by scaling-down, asceticism, and minimalism. Postmodernism retained neither the restraint nor the “high” tone, opting for excess, gaudiness, and “bad taste.”

What past did modernists revere? To Habermas, modernists were part of the Enlightenment project of solving social problems by replacing obedience to tradition with the scientifically neutral application of reason and logic. He lamented the “lost sense of purpose, a lost coherence, a lost system of values” heralded by the growing dominance amongst intellectuals of post-structuralism. This stance was challenged by Lyotard, who regarded the Enlightenment project as yet another metanarrative like Christianity or Marxism, preferring instead “mininarratives, which are provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative and which provide a basis for the actions of specific groups in particular local circumstances.”

Baudrillard pointed out the hyperreal nature of modern reality, where signs do not indicate an underlying reality, but merely other signs. Signs may:

  1. represent the basic reality of their depictions
  2. misrepresent or distort the reality (e.g. romanticization, glamorization)
  3. conceal or disguise the fact that there is no corresponding reality underneath (“masks the absence of a basic reality”)
  4. bear no relation to any reality at all (e.g. abstract art)

The third point is the key to postmodernism.* In postmodernism, everything is a model or image, all is surface without depth, there is no underlying meaning to anything, what you see is all you get.

*All of society is imprisoning, but we have prisons. So prisons are symbols of incarceration, ostensibly contrasting with the freedom of what is outside the prison. Prisons are there to convince us that the rest of society is free, they “point” to a freedom that does not in fact exist. A “free” society is actually created by the very act of instituting a prison. Likewise, the canvas in Magritte’s painting The Human Condition paints a reality that does not have an independent existence. The alternate reality is itself created by the sign. Disneyland is there to conceal that all of America is adults, machines, childishness. The “scandal” of Watergate created moral accountability to obscure the scrupulousness of capital/power. And as advertising creates representations of people who do not exist, and real people strive to become that representation, “the image tends to become the reality, and the two tend to become indistinguishable.” A free society, the view out the window, Disneyland, Watergate, and perfect masculinity/femininity: all are themselves signs, not reality. But modern society is inundated with signs pointing to signs which point to nothing, so we exist in a state of perpetual dream. This is hyperreality. How easy it is to find examples: the presidential election, the ostensible liberation of consumerism, the addicted mind. What happens to the individual who chases something that does not exist? What happens to the society that is constructed on artifice? Note very carefully here the distinction between simulation, which bears no relation to a reality, and the pretense that there is a reality underneath the sign when there is none.


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