Pleasant words are as an honeycomb,
sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.
The most important thing in life, the number one priority, is to protect your own soul and the soul of those around you.
Truly my soul waiteth upon God:
from him cometh my salvation.
The soul, its imprint in the universe of things, is eternal. Every word, every act — and every act of omission — is recorded for posterity leaving an indellible mark upon the soul-record of the universe. That record follows you wherever you go. That imprint necessarily comes back onto you by defining the milieu — an echochamber of sorts — from within which you act.
Bless the Lord, O my soul:
and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Do good, and you get good back. Do bad, and bad is what comes back to greet you.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. It is easy, in the heat of the moment, to lose control and let out an expletive or to do the wrong thing in a moment of frustration.
For thou hast possessed my reins:
thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
marvellous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well.
That’s why it’s in those moments, when the heat is on and frustrations high, that we need to contain and control ourselves somehow.
That somehow is the strength of Messiah in us.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
A good reminder is to recall that “anything you say or do can, and will, be used against you” — in life as in law.
This is part 2 of the discussion, concentrating on twentieth century theory following on from psychoanalysis. Part I can be found here.
I will follow, in outline, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd Edition) for the main schools and periods of literary critique.¹
Formalism focused on the work at the expense of the author, audience, and the universe. An early twentieth century approach, it took a more objective eye to text structure and form in response to the subjectivism of the earlier critical impressionism. Two schools of formalism arose, the Anglo-American New Criticism and the Russian Formalism of linguist Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) and literary historian Boris Eichenbaum (1886–1959). Formalism decontextualised from the sociopolitical and depersonalised from the poet to a persona — “an abstract dramatic character internal to the work”. It focused on “close reading” of texts looking for the “organic” relationship between internal elements. It became the dominant mode from which later postmodern theory defined itself against.
The starting point for this approach is the variety of different reader types that interact with any text and from which are drawn different theories of meaning — from the real-time experience of a first reading to subsequent reflection and criticism to interpretations based on pre-existing social codes and protocols. The New Critics’ lament paraphrasing, suggesting that neither the emotional response of the reader (“affective fallacy”) nor the author’s intent (“intentional fallacy”) is where the true meaning of a text lies. Rather, meaning is somewhat less importantly an abstraction based on inherent textual inconsistencies. The American critic E D Hirsch (1928– ) invoked the concept of significance, a reader-dependent response to a text to contrast and build onto the more fixed view of meaning based on an author’s intent.
The reader therefore operates on two levels, one subjective and the other objective, with the latter seen as higher.
Contemporary hermeneutics (theory of interpretations) was heavily influenced by twentieth century German philosophy — Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Again, two branches of thinking developed. The one giving importance to fixed objective historically contextual meaning, the other to multiple intimate interpretations.
Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) developed the contradistinction between the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and that of “positive restoration“. Informed by Marxism, psychoanalytic theory, and post-structuralism, the hermeneutics of suspicion aims at textual demystification, deconstruction, and revelation. Positive restoration, on the other hand, taps into the free energy utopian impulses of a text. American critic and political theorist, Fredric Jameson (1934– ), extended this view by adding also to the mix the future-oriented political reader.
Finally, vernacular interpretive responses, such as women’s reading clubs and fan subcultures, have also brought to bear on literary and cultural theory, suggesting that no single-approach can suffice.
Structuralism and Semiotics
Semiotics, the study of meaning-making through a system of signs, emerged from Saussurean structural methodology to explore also the subject and subjectivity of literature and culture.
Most stories can be reduced to one of a few underlying basic plots, and most characters are variations in a few types, which structuralist narratology aims to inventory.
Post-structuralism and Deconstruction
Following from Saussure’s idea of meaning as relational, that no words have a meaning in and of themselves apart from how they relate to other words, and combined with the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, that the word and the concept it stands for have no inherent link except by convention, post-structuralists emerged in 1960s France to go for a joy-ride in a relational sea of ambiguity and subjectivity.
The linguistic sign was made up of the word or sound impression (signifier) and the concept it evoked (signified) – both signifier and signified are no more than psychological impressions (for the actual thing they stand for is called the “referent”). Not only arbitrary and relational, the linguistic signs was in a state of flux termed the “floating signifier”.
The word “tree” (signifier), for instance, gives a mental impression (signified) of an actual tree (referent).
Independently reacting and responding against traditions of phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger) and structuralism (the concepts, language or signs, that make experience possible), they included philosophers like Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), American feminist Judith Butler (1956– ), psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1959–2007), and Julie Kristeva (1941– ).
Post-structuralism argues that founding knowledge either on pure experience (phenomenology) or systematic structures (structuralism) is impossible. This impossibility … was cause for “celebration and liberation.”²
In 1967, literary theorist Roland Barthes (1915–1980) announced “The Death of the Author” as any authentic source of meaning arguing, instead, that literary texts have multiple meanings irrespective of authorial intent. The author’s death marked the “Birth of the Reader” as the source of the proliferation of meanings of the text.²
Through a Deconstruction, post-structuralism invoked the concepts of centre and binary opposition.
Deconstruction involves the critical “slippage” of dissemination (floating signifiers), rhetoricity (figurative language), and intertextuality (invoking historical literary precedent). Each of these characteristics affords elements of ambiguity to any critical analysis.
The linguistic, rhetorical, and intertextual properties of language undermine or deconstruct stable meaning. Post-structuralist theories of language, whether they focus on floating signifiers, rhetoricity, intertextuality, dissemination, ecriture feminine, or elsewhere, bring traditional mimetic, expressive, didactic, and formalist theories into crisis but do invalidate their claims.
The pursuit is that of insight rather than truth, of persuasion rather than proof, and rests upon human interrelatedness espoused by US Neopragmatism and the structural “difference“ through slippages.
“A deconstruction involves inversion and re-inscription of traditional philosophical opposition”, transforming the temporal and hierarchical relations within any binary, which Derrida famously did for writing with respect to the more favoured speech.
The fusion of approaches, disciplines, and movements can be confusing, but it [post-structuralism] has produced some extremely interesting and original criticism and theory, and is arguably the leading trait of postmodern culture.
Standing for a sisterhood once behoved upon its male counterpart, the likes of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar produced an “anxiety of authorship” against Bloom’s own. Women had long been disengaged and alienated and suffered from maladies neurotic. Judith Fetterly showed how the sexes read (and write) differently, suggesting women become “resistant readers” against the overwhelming preponderance of male authorship. Within such bounds are also included the focal points of identity politics, black women, third-world women, lesbian women.
Criticising the dominant heterodoxy, queer theory embraces divergent sexualities and genders such as transgressive phenomena in opposing the normal–pathological binary (The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault) and deconstructing the polysexual pre-Oedipal sphere of the Imaginary order to rail against socially-imposed heteronormative constraints.
Postcolonial Studies and Race and Ethnicity Studies
From the 15th century, hegemonic cultural influence upon discourse continues to power project across the polarity from the European centre to the periphery of the colonies, exposed by Edward Said’s Orientalism and carried on through Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education“. The issues naturally harmonise with those of race and ethnic studies.
Minorities seek to write counter-historities that challenge the orthodox view. Powered through linguistics, philological cultural discourse developed during the Enlightenment under the auspices of Itallian political philosopher and rhetorician, Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), and Schleiermacher and through Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) and Hans Robert Jauss (1921–1997), Said and Jameson. New Historicism, a term coined by Stephen Greenblatt in the 1980s, studies literary texts as material artifacts made in interaction with specific social, cultural and political forces. Texts interrogate Foucaultean social questions of authority, agency, and institutional power to expose dynamics of social containment and subversion.
Only in recent centuries has criticism focused on anything other than elite culture, with pop-culture and popular literature gaining increasing attention in recent decades in particular. Methods and forms include institutional analysis and ideology critique while discussions continue about what constitutes literature. Within the paradigm of cultural studies, literature “consist of popular, mass, and minority genres as well as elite canonical works … and a “wide array of discourses” — ultimately always reflecting the state of its society. Within the same paradigm, interpretation works on the understanding that subjectivity involves three variables:
operations of our unconscious
effects of surrounding socio-historical forces
multiple subject positions that each individual occupies
The term post-theory, first used in the 1990s, refers to the concurrent decline in post-structuralism with the rise of a disaggregated cultural studies.
Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2010.
Formalism (pp. 17-18)
Reader-Response Theory (pp. 18-21)
Structuralism and Semiotics (pp. 21-22)
Post-structuralism and Deconstruction (pp. 22-24)
Feminism (pp. 24-26)
Queer Theory (pp. 26-27)
Postcolonial studies and Race and Ethnicity Studies (pp. 27-29)
I will follow, in outline, the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd Edition) for the main schools and periods of literary critique.¹
Though dating back to antiquity, literary and cultural criticism underwent wholesale change over the course of the 20th century. Where it once was subsumed, it came to subsume the history of literature. It’s key feature, interpretation, the complex interaction between reader and text, connotes textual analysis, moral assessment, emotional response, literary evaluation, and cultural critique.¹ Apart from perhaps the Romantics (1770–1850) and Modernists (late 19th and early 20th centuries), authors of literature historically mirrored nature in pursuit of poetic effect.
A useful conceptual critical paradigm is one developed by the late American critic, M. H. Abrams, in 1953.
Recalling Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, Abrams noted that any work retains an intimate connection with audience. One any student of rhetoric will never forget.
Classical Theory and Criticism (500 BC – 500 AD) — Plato, Aristotle, Horace
Mimesis (imitation) or representation, in antiquity, was considered the essence of poetry. Plato (427–347 BC), through Socrates (470–399 BC) in Republic, felt mimesis was essentially fraudulent, an unfaithful representation based on man’s easily deceived senses. Rather, Plato accorded truth in the metaphysical existence of ideal “forms” as perfect representations and reference points — the blueprints to nature. Ostensibly, Plato reacted to the earlier Sophist penchant for using language to persuade rather than to truly imitate (represent) reality. Language, for Sophists, helped form reality rather than simply construe it. Aristotle, also of the Platonic School, was more of a realist than his mentors and held to the belief that poetry, particularly through plot, could guide toward a fuller understanding of the nature of things — to universal truths. Indeed, the Roman poet Horace saw the role of the poet to that of infotainment: to combine morality with decorum; “pleasure with usefulness”.¹
Medieval Theory and Criticism (500 – 1500 AD) — Plotinus, Augustine, Quntilian, Virgil, Dante, Geoffrey of Vinsauf
This period remains defined through a necessary Christian constraint. Plotinus (204–270 AD) and Proclus (412–485 AD) interpreted the Bible as “divinely authorised representation of God’s Works (nature)”.² Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD) further suggested language also reflected a divine impartation of the Word. Despite God’s wrath at the Tower of Babel, the window of language, according to Augustine, affords view to pre-existing (divine) meaning. The Platonic mistrust of figurative language held sway in early medieval times, trying to account for biblical poetry as means to reflecting one world through another. Critical interpretation, or exegesis, manifest primarily through the grammarian’s allegorical glosses (defining words and phrases in the margins of scripture) and commentaries (more extensive interpretations). Those who followed combined the figures of speech of Qunitilian (35–100 AD) with Augustinian hermeneutics (interpretation) to describe four levels of allegorical interpretation of scripture. Consider, for instance, Massiah’s raising of Lazarus from the dead:
Historical (literal) — Messiah’s actual raising of Lazarus from the dead
Spiritual (allegorical) — e.g. prefiguring Christ’s death, descent, resurrection
Moral (tropological) — representing the sacrament of Penance, an individual soul raised from the death of sin
Mystical (anagogical) — resurrection of the body after the Last Judgement
Later medieval writers extended these hermeneutics onto pagan and other works of antiquity, such as the Aeneid of Virgil (70–19 BC), and to contemporary writings, such as the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321 AD). A grammarian prescriptivist approach showed itself also in rhetoric and style, such as the adaptation of Horace’s Ars Poetica by Geoffrey von Vinsauf (ca. 1200). The poet, then, took an exegetical role of translating and reinterpreting, rather than that of inventing.
Renaissance and Neoclassical Theory and Criticism (16th, 17th, and 18th centuries)
Renaissance humanists, initially moving away from scriptural certitude, and with works of antiquity increasingly available with the migration of Arabic Byzantine scholars fluent in Greek, made concerted efforts to re-examine original classical sources. They did this in the spirit of the age, revealing the ancient Greek and Latin languages were as imperfect idealisations themselves deficient and for which individuals, like Cicero (106–43 BC), had to help massage into a medium of distinction and renown. This alerted Renaissance scholars, of various regions, to the intrinsic value of their own vernacular language — the Italian of Dante, the French of Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) and Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585), the English of poet, courtier and scholar, Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) and writer and critic George Puttenham (1529–1590). Some espoused Aristotle’s Poetics, re-contextualised in the “three unities” adaptation of Italian critic Ludovico Castelvetro (1505–1571): action, place, and time. These were adopted by neoclassical French dramatist, Pierre Cornielle (1606–1684) and English poet John Dryden (1631–1700). A Horatian Christian preference for “verisimilitude” was accepted by the Italian critic Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484–1558) and later, the eighteenth century English poet, Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Meanwhile, Ludovico Ariosto, Edmund Spenser, and Giacopo Manzonni forged new paths diametrically opposed to the neoclassicists receiving acclaim from critics like Giambattista Giraldi (1504–1573). By the time of Sidney, the poet had assumed unbounded creative powers.³
Romantic Theory and Criticism (1770–1850)
Inspired in part by the revolutions in France and America, the Romantic movement, under the influence of philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and his focus on the individual, peaked in the early nineteenth century. The Romantic poets were bards of personal expressivity going for the most part against the grains of genre — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) — sensibilities of whom were acclaimed to readers by critics like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Artists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1718–1800) reawakened an appreciation for the quixoticisms of Shakespeare. Avoiding allegory, the Romantic poet expressed universal ideas organically in symbolising humanity in an ever-dehumanised world. This was done through the lyric poem (in contradistinction to the epic poem of neoclassicists), the most amenable to individualistic expression. Simultaneously, the novel, especially the Gothic novel, thrived as a literary expression and the works of American essayist, philosopher, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), came to the fore. Romanticism also emphasised historicity inviting the philosophical thoughts of Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), German G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), and Germaine de Stael (1766–1817), the a French woman of letters of Swiss origin.
Societies have always been and will always be stratified according to class, divided along lines of wealth. Contemporary class criticism is heavily dependent on Marxism for its glossary and themes. Marxism is the product of nineteenth century German philosopher and economist, Karl Marx (1818–1883), and his compatriot and colleague, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). Marxism divides human history into seven successive and hierarchical “modes of production”, suggesting that nascent societies move each sequentially from tribal hordes, Neolithic kinship, oriental despotism, ancient slaveholding, feudalism, capitalism, and finally communism. Marx suggested a common manifestation to class conflict across all these periods. In the final transition, from capitalism to communism, the working class (proletariat) will rise up against — and defeat, according to Marx — the owners to the means of production (the bourgeoisie) while other classes remain mostly peripheral to the exchange. Marx was adamant that socio-economics defined the foundation, upon which was built the superstructure (culture) of any society. The ideology of a society will be the formulations of that society’s ruling class and its hegemony projected through social institutions, the so-called “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs) of Louis Althusser. Within this context sit the ideological orientations of literary works: “a text often contains mixed and contradictory messages that reflect its broad social milieu rather than its author’s personal philosophy.” These social conflicts, according to Russian philosopher, critic, and semiotician, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), organise society into groups defined by heteroglossia, a complex and distinct “slang” for each group. Cultural critique of capitalism identifies commodities (the products of labour that are sold rather than put to immediate use), commodity fetishism (fascination with the end product at the expense and alienation of the labour that manufactured it), and in its mercantilist entirety described by commodification and its tendency for reification. More recently, the very sources of social resistance (arts and pop-culture) have themselves been co-opted by market forces thereby appropriating them back into the purview of the dominant class hegemony.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and the psychoanalysts mind-mapped the subconscious and in so doing provided the field of literary and cultural criticism with new terms and concepts. Free associations, fantasies, slips of the tongue, and dreams all help uncover the deeper and denser subconscious from the veil of the superficial conscious brain. The dream-work censors the unconscious wishes through four deliberate tactics of avoidance and distortion, thereby rendering the deep thoughts unrecognisable at the level of the conscious:
condensation: multiple dream-thoughts are often combined and amalgamated into a single element of the manifest dream (e.g. symbols)
displacement: in dreams the affect (emotions) associated with threatening impulses are often transferred elsewhere (displaced), so that, for example, apparently trivial elements in the manifest dream seem to cause extraordinary distress
symbolisation: capability to define individual’s actions in group through terms and pictures, either images or words.
elaboration: mental process occurring partly during dreaming and partly during the recalling or telling of a dream by means of which the latent (relatively disorganized and psychologically painful) content of the dream is brought into increasingly more coherent and logical order, resulting in the manifest content of the dream.
Psychoanalytic decoding of symbols illuminate critical concepts such as inventories of archetypes of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875–1961), the universal symbols, such as the garden desert, water / fire, hero / monster, the river journey and the ordeal, birth / death, believed to be stored in the human unconscious. These gave rise to critical literary theories such as the “anxiety of influence” of Harold Bloom and the French ecriture feminine. Before the Romantic and Neoclassical period, literary influence was beneficial but since has become also competitive, according to Bloom. The ecriture feminine of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), through compatriot feminist Helene Cixous (1937– ), disrupt the symbolic patriarchal social Oedipal order in reverting to an apparent pre-symbolic way of seeing.
With the rise of the subjective lyric poem as a major genre, influence became baleful, involving the aspiring poet’s primal repression of the precursor plus a series of later psychological defenses against this parent figure, including masochistic reversals, sublimations, introjections, regressions, and projections.
Bloom’s appropriation of these two psychoanalytic concepts of distortion and unconscious repression through “misprision” (mistaking, misreading, misinterpretation) have found widespread use in critical theory. Finally, apart from ecriture feminine, the other anti-Freudian move came from the Anti-Oedipus from the French philosophical pair of Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Felix Guattari (1930–1992), allowing for multiple contradictory positions and roles.
Part II will look at Formalism, Reader-Response Theory, Structuralism and Semiotics, Poststructuralism and Deconstruction, Feminism, Queer Theory, Postcolonial Studies and Race and Ethnicity Studies, New Historicisms, and Cultural Studies.
Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2010.
Classical Theory and Criticism (pp. 7-8)
Medieval Theory and Criticism (pp. 8-10)
Renaissance and Neoclassical Theory and Criticism (pp. 10-11)
In 1995 French anthropologist, Marc Auge, coined the term “non-place” for more-or-less spaces of anonymity outside usual places of abode; the fabrications of a post-modern “super-modernity”.
If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of “places of memory”, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position. 
These spaces where the hospital or clinic, the supermarkets and mega-malls, the motorways, the airports and ports, the parking stations. Spaces of largesse at the intersections of moving bodies. Non-places, then, are defined by movement and flows. And in the post-modern age they developed a life and character their own.
Supermodernity has altered our view of the world and, more importantly, the world’s view of us.
These [features of supermodernity] subject the individual consciousness to entirely new experiences and ordeals of solitude, directly linked with the appearance and proliferation of non-places. 
What links the individual with the space of non-place is ideology — words, images, text.
But the real non-places of supermodernity – the ones we inhabit when we are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or sitting in an airport lounge waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille – have the peculiarity that they are define partly by the words and texts they offer us: their “instructions for use”, which may be prescriptive (“Take right-hand lane”), prohibitive (“No smoking”) or informative (“You are now entering the Beaujolais region”). 
Though subjected to great surveillance and security, people in non-places paradoxically remain anonymous, like the Quidam, the headless body said to embody both everyone and no-one at the same time. The Quidam is the man who travels down France’s autoroutes amused by the scenery.
But it is the texts planted along the wayside that tell us about the landscape and make its secret beauties explicit. Main roads no longer pass through towns, buts lists of their notable features – and, indeed, a whole commentary – appear on big signboards nearby. In a sense the traveller is absolved of the need to stop or even look. 
Traveller, passer-by, interloper, or man of no-fixed, the non-place, for twenty-first century man, is a place of increasing visitation. One that fills him with fear and awe. A space of vertiginous excess and at the same time great nothingness.
The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude.