Literary Criticism and Theory--Notes on Barry's Beginning Theory
Introduction to Critical Schools:
Specific Articles:
General Article on Criticism

Literary Critical Approaches:
Basic Precepts, Attitudes, and Strategies

     There are plenty of booksmart people who like disagreeing about abstract things. Some of the current critical theories are intellectually intriguing or useful. Others are, at the worst, like mental viruses, making our perceptions of literature go all wonky.
     These critical approaches, at best, are useful tools that help us to understand lit'rature better.  However, it may be that limiting ourselves to a single approach is a "prison we choose to live in," to borrow a phrase from Doris Lessing--limiting ourselves from an objective and open-minded view of what the author intends.  Many theories, in fact, hold the author to be irrelevant or even "dead."  
     I am sure, however, that if an author has written something that is considered worthy of the name "literature," if the author had something to say that was worth months or years of work to say it in just that way, he was trying to communicate something to his or her readers.   In such a situation, a writer who is in earnest would hardly appreciate a critic saying that his work's meaning is not fixable and there is an infinitely viable myriad of ways that we may 'correctly' understand the work.  I don't mean that all literature is written so purposely to make a concrete statement, or that the writer always knows just what he means.  Some writing is aleatoric or frivolous, or dependent upon inspiration, for example.  But I don't want to do a serious writer a disservice by saying that the words on his novel's page are not relevant to his life and culture.  Hard Times or "To Sid mouth and Castlereigh" can hardly be understood in that way, not at least in a reasonable way.  That kind of thinking would be obtuse, and I can hardly expect that reasonable people really would stand by that way of thinking.  Keep in mind that even though these theories are sometimes meant to be universally useful, some approaches specialize.  In other words, they typically choose what works they apply them to in order to find a better 'fit.'  
     Since it is generally agreed that there can be no single definitive or "correct" reading of a work, being a "x-ist" makes even less sense.  I prefer an eclectic, or some might say a 'cubist' way of looking at a work, and using theoretical approaches and tools from them as ways of revealing to readers what the author himself, or herself, intended:  so readers can share the author's, or at least the first readers', conception and understanding of what the book said and was about.  
     But it is necessary to understand these approaches--partly to pass the comprehensives, but more importantly in the long run, to see how  theoretical and critical tools and strategies can be used to help me relate to the work itself.  Basically, I feel that the mindset should be--as New Critics would do, pay attention to "the words on the page" because artists put specific words on the page deliberately, in order to stimulate or provoke a specific kind of response in readers.  And in order to grasp the kind of response the writer expected his readers to give, we must contextualize--know about the writer's life, times, and culture--a more New Historicist approach, without the Marxist, stratified and economic proclivities of British Cultural Materialists.  
     One distinction between a theory and a critical approach is that with theories, such as psychoanalytical theory, there is a lot of jargon, and specific paragons that are necessarily used, but with an approach, it is more general, with less jargon and less procedural too, kind of like a mindset or attitude about literature than a cookbook.  I appreciate Dr. Wang's help in pointing the distinction out to me, and I hope I grasp the meaning more or less accurately.
     So anyhow, here're my notes on my most steadfast theoretical guidebook, Beginning Theory by Peter Barry, Manchester UP, 1995 (1st Ed).  At first, I intend to be very general, in the interest of merely passing, and in the interests of time--which there are only six days of at this point.  That might be what "a passing familiarity" with criticism really means anyway!  In time I, probably, will fill out this set of notes with more details.  

 Now then.  

   Very quick summary of theory before this time.  
  1. Ovid--Literature is to teach by delighting.
  2. Sir Philip Sydney--"Apology for Poetry" in 1580 or so.  Giving of pleasure first; moral or didactic purposes are secondary at best.  This was at a time when there was  suspicion of fiction, and there was a very religious society.  Not treating specific works or writers.--and therefore critical theory, not practical criticism, which is more active.
  3. Samuel Johnson, 1700s.  Lives of the Poets and Prefaces to Shakespeare.  Start to treat a specific writer, so moving on to practical criticism.  This examination of specific works was up till then reserved for the Bible--Barry says this is evidence of the development of secular humanism.
  4. Wordsworth, the ever-lovin' "Preface" to the 1800 and 1802 Lyrical Ballads.  Immediate aim:  to provide a rationale for the critic's own poetic work, and to educate the audience for it.  People disliked the eschewing of lofty language.  Proposes a difference between poetic and ordinary language; between lit and other writing.
  5. STC, Biographia Literaria..  Col retracts or rejects the Preface in some ways, esp. that the language of "real men" i.e. hicks is the best for poetry.  
  6. Shelley, 1821.  A Defence of Poetry He says that poetry "strips the veil of familiarity from the world."  This is what Wordsworth suggested before, giving us delight in the commonplace, seeing the old in a new way.  
  7. Keats, around 1817 ish too.  Letters.  Stresses "negative capability," a way of suggesting the unconscious that can be better than the conscious.  Again, Wordsworth's echoes:  spontaneity over artifice.
  8. Matt Arnold, 1850s.  Lit as replacement for religion for middle classes, idea of the best that has been known and thought in the world, and importance of being 'disinterested,' attaining pure knowledge without the urge to take political or any other action.  Also the 'touchstone' method of identifying new greats by testing them against acknowledged greats, without a taint of historic or personal estimation of poetry.
  9. TSE.  Major critical ideas:
Theory before "theory" and basic concepts behind more modern theory.   Before "theory" liberal humanism was in control.  Before the 1820s there were only 2 universities, Oxford and Cambridge, and students were all male, single Anglicans.  By extension, that meant that only these people could get into the "professions."   University College in 1826 offered degrees to any sex or religion of student.   In the 1830s the Chartist agitation was rife, and that was the time that literature study began at the university level, as a kind of religion placebo.  Part of the reason for the Chartist trouble, people thought, was that the lower classes didn't 'have' religion, so they started to study what was "enduring" about literature--and instituted a canon.  I will quote Mr. Barry, p. 14.  "There was behind the teaching of Early English, a distinctly Victorian mixture of class guilt about social inequalities, a genuine desire to improve things for everybody, a kind of missionary zeal to spread culture and enlightenment, and a self-interested desire to maintain social stability."  That is a good summary of some Victorians' priorities.  
     1887-Oxford tried to start a Chair in English, but was stopped because of a speech by prof. Freeman of the History department, who demanded empiricism:  "we cannot examine tastes and sympathies."  So English majors had to study language as well as literature, including pre-English languages like Anglo-Saxon, Gothic, Middle English, and the like.

     1920s, at Cambridge English.
     Basic assumptions of Liberal Humanism.  Good literature is timeless, "news that stays news" as Pound said.  Literature should be examined in a human vacuum, ignoring socio-political, literary-historical, and autobiographical information about the writer and his world.  Literature can say timeless because people are seen as timeless, unchanging in their essence.  Literature is meant to enhance life and propagate humane values in an unpalpable way.  Good literature has organic form that can be seen as sincere and will help to enact the story, showing us what it means instead of telling us.  "The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader."
Recurrent Ideas in Critical Theory
  1. The "givens" in our lives, like gender identity, etc. are socially constructed, and therefore they're contingent, not absolute.  So theory is anti-essentialist:  denying that there an unchanging, fixed, reliable essence to people and things.  
  2. All thinking is based on a prior theoretical commitment, so no one can be objective.  This is relativism, saying that nothing is right, and that everything you know is wrong.
  3. Everything is in a linguistic context, so that "there is no getting outside the text" and everything is linguistically or socially constructed.
  4. Definitive readings cannot be done, because of this relativism.  Once the text is published, the writer, even a living one, is considered absent or dead.  Bleah.
  5. Distrust totalizing notions, or glittering generalities such as human nature--it's usually tainted, being Eurocentric, androcentric, or otherwise biased by the winners or the majority.  Everything is interested.  
Here is Barry's summary:
"Politics is pervasive, / Language is constitutive, / Truth is provisional, / Meaning is contingent, / Human nature is a myth."

     It began in the French 1950s, first seen in Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes.  "Its essence is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation--they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of."  (39)  The structuralists' ideas were imported into Britain in the '70s, getting more influential in the '80s.  Meaning is not essential, inherent in things, but instead it is outside, attributed by the human mind, not contained in the things.  Understand a poem by first seeing its genre, the history of the genre, etc. . . .ad nauseam.  With structuralism, these layers of context take us farther and farther away from the text itself.  Barry's conceit is that the egg is the work, and the context is like the chicken--assuming that the hen has not yet laid the egg, I would guess.  "For structuralists, determining the precise nature of the chicken is the most important activity, while for the liberal humanists the close analysis of the egg is paramount.  
     Influential figure was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).  He said that words are unmotivated signs, with no inherent relationship between the word and the thing it is describing, save onomatopoeia.  Meaning is arbitrary, and so are words.  He also said that words are relational--words can only be defined by comparing it with other words.  A paradigmatic chain like "hovel shed hut house mansion palace" shows this relativism.  Opposite pairs of words can be called binarisms or dyads.  He further said that words constitute our world, not only describe it.  More terms:  Langue (a language system or structure) and parole, an utterance.  Kind of like the chicken and the egg Barry suggested above.  
     In the 1950s, structuralists thought that Saussure's ideas were transferable and that his ideas would be able to explain any kind of sign system.  Claude Levi-Strauss applied the ideas to myth, taking the Oedipus story as an example of stories about Thebes for some reason.  Fashion can be read as a signifying system or language, too.  
     Barthes, Mythologies did lots of this kind of analysis such as the difference between boxing and wrestling, and the meaning of a photo of an Algerian soldier who, it was implied, was saluting the French flag.  (I caught Barry on that one!)  Barthes did more, including aspects of lit, and by the 1970s structuralism was getting worldwide attention.  Jonathan Culler and Terence Hawkes did some translations and interpretations of Barthes for English speaking readers.  Frank Kermode also wrote on Barthes.  
This is an interesting way to show what structuralists do:  They look for


Post-Structuralism and Deconstruction
     Post-structuralism can be seen as a continuation of structuralism, but also a rebellion against it.  The post-structuralists "accuse structuralists of not following through the implications of the views about language on which their intellectual system is based." (61)  "The post-structuralist maintains that the consequences of this belief are that we enter a universe of radical uncertainty, since we can have no access to any fixed landmark which is beyond linguistic processing, and hence we have no certain standard by which to measure anything."  (61 again!)  This is called the "decentred universe" with no center, no standards or absolutes.  The center and the margins have been deconstructed.  Here's Barry's rundown on how Structuralism and Post-Structuralism stack up.
  • Derives from linguistics:  confident about establishing objective knowledge, scientifically, able to establish reliable truths.
  • Tone is detached, cool, professional, like scientific writing.
  • Knows that the world is constructed through language and accepts it, knowing that language is orderly.
  • Meaning is transmitted in a controlled way.
  • Structuralism questions our way of structuring and categorizing reality, prompting us to break free of habits of categorization, in order to attain a more reliable view of things.
  • Derives from philosophy, difficult to achieve any secure knowledge, sceptical, sure that we cannot know anything for sure.
  • Tone is urgent, euphoric, flamboyant, showy, with titles that feature puns or wordplay, writing about some 'material' aspect of language such as a metaphor or the etymology of a word.
  • Insists on the consequences of reality being textual, full of anxiety.  
  • Meaning is disseminated with some randomness, partly because  words' meanings cannot be fully pure.
  • Post-structuralism distrusts the idea of reason, and says that the individual is just a product of social and linguistic forces, not an essence at all.

     Barthes and Derrida are the primary voices of post-structuralism.  Barthes, as we have seen, started as a structuralist.  But then. . .Barthes wrote "the Death of the Author" in 1968, which I want to read and understand--it seems like a structuralist would want to keep the author alive as part of the work's context!  But in fact, here's what he said.  The text is independent and immune to the possibility of being unified or limited by any notion of what the author might have intended, or 'crafted' into the work (66).  The death of the author is also the birth of the reader.  Trying to decipher a text is futile.  So it seems that a time of free play has opened, in which meanings can be played with at will, with no textual authority.  A word can mean whatever you want, Alice, if you're master.  However, this time did not last, and post-structuralism moved to a time of "disciplined identification and dismantling of the sources of textual power, as Barbara Johnson has said. (66)  
     Derrida's "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966) was a starting point of post-structuralism.  It provided the idea of a decentered universe, whereas before "man" was the measure of all things.  In the 20th century the centers were eroded by historical events sometimes--for instance, WWI destroyed the illusion of steady material progress, and the Holocaust destroyed the notion of Europe as the source and centre of human civilization.  (67)  Sometimes it was eroded by scientific discoveries and sometimes by artistic or intellectual revolutions.  (I would point to the Romantic period as the start of these!)  Derrida sees this decentered universe, a kind of Nietzschean universe of free play, as liberating.  No guaranteed facts, but only interpretations.  Derrida didn't do lit, but others borrowed terms and techniques.  His Of Grammatology states, that "there is nothing outside the text."  In 1967 he put out that book, plus Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference.    Barry says that "reading and interpretation are not just reproducing what the writer thought and expressed in the text.  This inadequate notion of interpretation Derrida calls a 'doubling commentary' that tries to reconstruct a pre-existing, non-textual reality to lay alongside the text.~"  What reading should do is to produce the text, since there is nothing behind it to reconstruct in this way of thinking, so the reading must be deconstructive.  
     Deconstruction is applied post-structuralism--an action.  Post-structuralism is the theory, and deconstruction is the actual reading or critical practice or method.  This jargon is hard to get clear in my mind.  Deconstruction is called by Terry Eagleton "reading against the grain" or "reading the text against itself" so that we can know the text more completely than the text, or the writer, can have done.  Barb Johnson in 1980 calls it "the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text."  I'd like to try some of that.  

Here is another pairing-up.
The structuralist seeks:


Effect:  To show textual unity and coherence.
The post-structuralist seeks:
Shifts/Breaks in:                    Tone
Linguistic quirks

Effect:  To show textual disunity.

     The three stages of the deconstructive process are called the VERBAL, the TEXTUAL, and the LINGUISTIC.  The first, the VERBAL stage, is similar to Richards and Empson:  looking for verbal difficulties and contradictions, looking just at words.  Then comes the cute TEXTUAL stage, at which the deconstructionist looks at the poem or whatever more as a whole, looking for shifts or breaks in continuity, and the lack of a fixed and unified position--showing paradox on a larger scale.  The last stage is the LINGUISTIC stage, or have you forgotten already?  The adequacy of language itself as a medium of communication is called into question.  For example, saying that something is impossible to say, and then saying it, or saying that something is misrepresented, and then using the misrepresentation anyway.  Or the feelings expressed are not the same feelings as those that are verbally professed--some kind of irony, sounds like.  

     In order to understand Postmodernism we have got to get an idea about artistic modernism first, so Barry starts there.  It basically constitutes the first half of the twentieth century, and set out to revise or destroy basically all the arts.  "Melody and harmony were put aside in music; perspective and direct pictorial representation were abandoned in painting, in favour of degrees of abstraction; in architecture traditional forms and materials were rejected in favour of plain geometrical forms, often executed in new materials like plate glass and concrete.  In literature, there was a rejection of traditional realism (chronological plots, continuous narratives relayed by omniscient narrators, 'closed endings', etc.) in favour of experimental forms of various kinds."  (81-2)  Writers of modernist school in English were TSE, Joyce, Pound, VA Woolf, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein.    Avant-garde is a useful term from Jeremy Hawthorn's Concise Glossary  and it means the front troops in a battle.  Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Constructivism are avant-garde movements (120).  
     Hawthorn adds a useful feature:  for the most part, Modernists tend to be sceptical about scientific developments and disgust over commercialism.  Also see the modern world pessimistically, fragmented and decayed, in which communication is impossible, and commercialism is a cheapening factor that is a barrier to cultural or human betterment.  Humans wish to be delivered from this situation (121).

Back to Barry for a bit.  Five characteristics of literary modernism include:
  1. Impressionism and subjectivity--how we see, rather than what we see--stream of consciousness is a good example of that.
  2. Movement away from seeming objectivity (isn't that the same?)--avoiding omniscient external narration, fixed narrative POVs, clear-cut moral positions
  3. Blurring of the distinctions between genres--novels became more lyrical, and poems became prosier
  4. Fragmentation, discontinuous narration, random-seeming collages of seemingly disparate materials
  5. Reflexivity, or meta-ness:  lit raises issues concerning its own nature, status, and role.
     The high point of modernism was the decade of the twenties, and after that there was decrease in experimentation.  Some modernism returned in the 1960s, but also.. . . . .. . . . ... . ..

     Hawthorn has some useful points.  The term "postmodernism" only began to be used significantly in the Anglo-American critical world of discourse in the 1960s.  (122)  Barry disagrees with that, saying that it started to be used in 1979 with Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition.  (86)  Hawthorn again.  Postmodernism is "art or culture which, in the years after the Second World War, extends or even breaks with modernist techniques and conventions without reverting to realist or pre-modern positions."  . . .  the term is used not just for art, but for the social world in general, often. . .the term is used in "a number of different ways:
  1. To refer to non-realist and non-traditional literature and art of the post-WWII period,
  2. To refer to literature and art which takes certain modernist characteristics to an extreme stage;
  3. to refer to aspects of a more general human condition in 'late capitalist' world of the post-1950s which have an all-embracing effect on life, culture, ideology and art, as well as (in some usages) to a generally more welcoming attitude toward these aspects. (122)
     Modernists are generally rather gleeful--Hawthorn has a nice image:  "if one cannot prevent Rome burning then one might as well enjoy the fiddling that is left open to one."  It's a more welcoming, celebrative attitude towards the modern world.  Many modernists are fascinated rather than repelled by technology, do not reject the popular as being  beneath them, and are very much concerned with the immediate effects of their works.  (123)
     Barry mentions Habermas, Lyotard and Baudrillard as being landmarks in postmodernism but I don't have time to care now.  Habermas said that postmodernists wanted to "liquidize the heritage of the avant-gardes" and said that modernism is simply "incredulity towards metanarratives".  Metanarratives purport to explain and reassure by showing overall unity, like people tried to do in the Enlightenment.  Baudrillard is related to the "loss of the real." (86-7)   OK, enough.

Psychoanalytic Criticism
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