critical theory

Types of Literary Criticism

NEW CRITICISM, or: “READ THE FUCKING TEXT”


  • Also known as ‘practical criticism’.
  • This theory was dominant in the US and UK between the 30s and 70s. 
  • A formalist, decontextualised approach to literature where the text is examined independently of other influences.
  • Explores the essential elements of language, imagery, symbolism, figures of speech, ambiguity, irony, paradox.
  • Pretty huge span of approaches - for example, within Shakespearean new criticism you had A.C. Bradley’s character-based critique, Harley Granville-Barker’s study of stagecraft, G. Wilson Knight’s exploration of image and theme, and L.C. Knights’ suggestion that Bradley is a douche and Shakespeare was a poet, not a dramatist. (Yeah, fuck you, Knights.)


HISTORICIST CRITICISM, or: “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT, DUH”

  • Funnily enough, this approach believes that historical context influences interpretation.
  • Stuff like: religion, political idealism of the time, cultural shifts, social attitudes, war, colonialism (although that’s a whole other bag of cats, see below), pop culture references and in-jokes, and anything that might have influenced the text during the era in which it was written.
  • Within historicist criticism there should be a distinction between text and context; history is the background that the text passively reflects.
  • Buuuut often this approach reveals more about the critic’s political/social/personal values than the period they are studying. Natch. 


LIBERAL HUMANISM, or: “STORIES ARE JUST A REFLECTION OF THE AUTHOR, DUDE”

  • Popular at the beginning of the 1900s - literature and art are timeless, revealing a universal truth about humanity.
  • Like, writers are totally free agents whose intentions shape the meaning of their writing, man. 
  • Like, human consciousness shapes language, culture and society, NOT the other way around.


MARXISM, or “WE’RE ALL SLAVES TO THE ECONOMY” 

  • A criticial theory systemised in the 20s, based on the materialist philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95) whereby the material circumstances of life are determining factors in the individual’s experience.
  • So, like, the economic organisation of society shapes culture, politics, philosophy, religion, education, law and art.
  • So, like, fuck liberal humanism; people are shaped by their environment, NOT the other way around. Authors and their works are basically products of society. 
  • These guys believe that art reflects changing economic conditions and class values. There’s a little cross-over with historicist criticism in the approach that literature should be interpreted within the context of the period and its political inflections - often with a focus on the lower classes.
  • Get yourself familiar with the Marxist concept of ‘ideology’ - a function which ‘naturalises’ the inequalities of power through a complex structure of social perceptions which renders class division invisible. 
  • Yeah. It’s heavy, dude.


STRUCTURALISM, or: “LANGUAGE IS EVERYTHIIIING!”

  • Based on the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)
  • The belief that language shapes humanity, culture, communication, and the way we perceive the world. Yay, go language.
  • Structuralism was a radical theory during the second half of the 20th Century whose central argument opposed liberal humanist ideas (Recap: lib-humans reckoned that human consciousness creates language and culture - structuralists reckoned the complete opposite. At this point everyone is basically being completely contrary for the sake of it.)


POST STRUCTURALISM, or “WE’RE SORT OF ON THE FENCE ABOUT LANGUAGE SO JUST GO WITH IT”

  • A critical theory prominent in France in the 1960s, primarily associated with philosopher Jacques Derrida and critic Roland Barthes - a reaction against structuralism as well as a development of it. <sigh>
  • Ok, so this language thing? How about we agree that reality is constituted through language BUT language itself is unstable and beyond our control. Like, language is an unreliable narrator, yeah? Yeahhh.
  • Essentially, it’s language that speaks, not the author. So let’s call it THE DEATH OF THE AUTHOR because we are needlessly dramatic. 
  • So, like, literary texts don’t present a single or unified view and the author cannot claim authority on interpretation. (The curtains are blue…)
  • You can trace a whole thread of critical development here from formalist criticism to structuralism to post-structuralism and later to deconstruction - all of which are concerned with the ambiguity and contradictions within text and language. To make it even more confusing, new historicism (see below) can also be seen as post-structuralist since it places stress on a text’s connection to culture rather than relying on the autonomy of the text itself.
  • Time for a stiff drink.


NEW HISTORICISM, or “IT’S THE CIIIIRCLE OF LIIIIIIFE - ART AND HISTORY ARE STUCK IN AN INFINITY LOOP” 

  • A term coined by Stephen Greenblatt (Shakespeare-critic-extraordinaire) in the 80s - a reaction against old historicism (where text is a reflection of historical background) and a move away from Marxist and post-structural theories.
  • New historicism asserts that the text is an active participant in historical development.
  • So, like, art and literature help to create the cultural values of the period in which they are produced. BUT, we are also formed and tied to cultural ideologies, so it ain’t all about the text. 
  • Involves close reading of the text, taking into account political ideology, social practice, religion, class division and conflict within society.
  • A pessimistic take on Foucault: the belief that we are ‘remarkably unfree’ of the influence of society and socio-political power operates through the language of major institutions to determine what’s normal and demonise ‘otherness’.
  • Seriously. Fuck society. 


CULTURAL MATERIALISM, or “WE NEED A BRITISH VERSION OF NEW HISTORICISM”

  • We can’t let the Americans monopolise this kind of criticism.
  • Goddamn Greenblatt.
  • So consider this: how much freedom of thought do we actually have? Does culture shape our identities or can we think independently of dominant ideologies? Huh? Huh? Are we saying anything new yet? 
  • Basically, a historicist approach to political criticism with a revised conception of the connection between literature and culture. 
  • Culture is a complex, unstable and dynamic creature which offers an opportunity for the radical subversion of power and society.
  • Unlike historicism or Marxism, cultural materialists believe the author is able to achieve a degree of independence from prevailing structures of power and discourse. 
  • Often demonstrates optimism for political change - once again, critical theory reflects the critic’s personal opinions and hopes for change in present day society. Literary criticism can change the world, man.
  • Some crossover into feminist/queer/post-colonial theory, because FUCK ALL THOSE OLD WHITE GUYS.


FEMINIST THEORY, or: “LET’S RECONSIDER 100 YEARS OF CRITICISM FROM A PERSPECTIVE THAT ISN’T CIS/MALE”

  • Following the women’s movement of the 1960s, feminist theory was established in the 70s and 80s and founded on texts Le Deuxieme Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and Sexual Politics by Kate Millett.
  • Explicitly political – similarities to new historicism and cultural materialism - challenging the subordinate position of women in society and deconstructing/contesting the concept of essentialism, whereby men and women have intrinsically separate qualities and natures. 
  • Often seen as an attack on the Western literary canon and the exclusion of female writers throughout history. Focuses on female characters and authors, exploring the influence and restrictions of patriarchy, and constructions of gender, femininity and sexuality (both in text and culture).
  • Feminists influenced by post-structuralism tend to disregard the positive discrimination of women writers, claiming “it is language that speaks, not the author.”
  • Feminism and psychoanalytical theories (esp Freud and Lacan) contributed to the erosion of liberal humanist ideas, redefining human nature and the concept of child development, and exploring the psychology of patriarchy and male-dominated culture. 


GAY/LESBIAN CRITICISM AND QUEER THEORY, or: “LET’S RECONSIDER 100 YEARS OF CRITICISM FROM A PERSPECTIVE THAT ISN’T CIS/MALE/STRAIGHT”

  • During the 80s, queer theory was influenced by post-structuralist ideas of identity as being fluid and unstable, and investigates the role of sexual orientation within literary criticism from a social and political viewpoint.
  • An opposition to homophobia and the privilege of heterosexual culture and an exploration of themes that have been suppressed by conservative critical theory.
  • A look at LGBQTA, non-binary characters and authors and their influence within a historical, political, religious and social context.
  • The end of ‘gal-pals’ and ‘no-homo’, fuckboys.


POST COLONIAL THEORY, or: “LET’S RECONSIDER 100 YEARS OF CRITICAL THEORY FROM A PERSPECTIVE THAT ISN’T WHITE”

  • A critique on the English canon and colonial rule with a focus on canonical texts written during periods of colonisation.
  • An exploration of cultural displacement/appropriation and the language and cultural values thrust upon/developed by colonised people.
  • Post-colonial theory gives voices to colonial ‘subjects’ and looks at the impact on individual and collective identity, as well as the complexity of colonial relationships and interaction.
  • Gonna have a lot to do with politics, history, social ideology, religion and international/race relations, obvs. Stay woke.
Our elders have been warning us about this for generations now—they saw the unsustainability of settler society immediately. Societies based on conquest cannot be sustained, so yes, I do think we’re getting closer to that breaking point for sure. We’re running out of time. We’re losing the opportunity to turn this thing around. We don’t have time for this massive slow transformation into something that’s sustainable and alternative. I do feel like I’m getting pushed up against the wall. Maybe my ancestors felt that 200 years ago or 400 years ago. But I don’t think it matters. I think that the impetus to act and to change and to transform, for me, exists whether or not this is the end of the world. If a river is threatened, it’s the end of the world for those fish. It’s been the end of the world for somebody all along. And I think the sadness and the trauma of that is reason enough for me to act.
—  Leanne Simpson, Nishnaabeg writer and theorist
Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.
—  John Berger, Ways of Seeing (47)
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.
— 

Samuel P. Huntington, cited on the ‘Where is Raed?’ website, a day-to-day journal of everyday life in Baghdad under bombardment.

Extract in Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism, A Very Short Introduction (UK: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 32.

A disturbingly large amount of theory seems explicitly to undertake the proliferation of only one affect, or maybe two, of whatever kind – whether ecstasy, sublimity, self-shattering, jouissance, suspicion, abjection, knowingness, horror, grim satisfaction, or righteous indignation. It’s like the old joke: ‘Comes the revolution, Comrade, everyone gets to eat roast beef every day.’ ‘But Comrade, I don’t like roast beef.’ “Comes the revolution, Comrade, you’ll like roast beef.’ Comes the revolution, Comrade, you’ll be tickled pink by those deconstructive jokes; you’ll faint from ennui every minute you’re not smashing the state apparatus; you’ll definitely want hot sex twenty to thirty times a day. You’ll be mournful and militant. You’ll never want to tell Deleuze and Guattari, ‘Not tonight, dears, I have a headache.
— 

Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” in Touching Feeling, p. 146

This continues to be one of the most incredible things ever said about theory/theorizing

Foucauldian morality

So Michel Foucault, arguably the best thinker and philosopher of the 20th century and original gangster of critical theory, had a set of morals all of his own that we should all consider paying mind to.

Foucault lived and achieved success through a moral code of only three steps.

1. The refusal to accept as self evident the things that are proposed to us.

  •  Don't accept anything as fact. Everything can and should be questioned.
  • Why should we believe that which is presented to us as fact, for most societal recommendations or instructions are norms, not rules.
  • A perfect example of this is gender norms. “you’re a boy so you can’t/shouldnt wear a skirt” (but like why?, thats not a rule, thats not a fact, thats nonsense.)

2. The need to analyze and to know, since we can accomplish nothing without reflection and understanding thus, the principle of curiosity.

  • research, understanding and falling on your own conclusions. most of what we know and believe has been told to us not achieved through self discovery or experience. 
  • most of the time when we believe we’re thinking were actually listening and repeating. So what have you not heard before and why?

3. The principle of innovation, to seek out in our reflections those things that have never been thought or imagined.

  • Again, figure out what have you not heard, been taught, or seen, and why you haven’t heard, been taught, or seen this.
  • what is it? and why can it or can it not come to be?
  • get a new perspective.

SO Basically…

Refusal~ Curiosity~ Innovation

and remember. “The enlightenment that inspired the liberties also invented the disciplines” M.F. (the OG)