Wednesday, December 1, 2010

History of Literary Criticism

20th Critical Perspectives and Approaches
The social, cultural, and technological developments of the 20th century have vastly expanded the Western critical tradition. Indeed, many critics question just how “Western” this tradition can or should remain.

Modern critics in the established cultural centers of Western Europe must heed not only Central Europe and North America but also areas once considered remote, including RussiaLatin America, and, most recently, the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. At a growing number of universities, professors of literature and related fields pay increasing attention to long-neglected areas of study—for example, works by women and by non-Western writers. The following sketch of various 20th-century approaches names few living critics because it is impossible to predict who among the tens of thousands of writers publishing criticism today will ultimately outshine the others.
A text-based critical method known as formalism was developed by Victor Shklovsky, Vladimir Propp, and other Russian critics early in the 20th century. It involved detailed inquiry into plot structure, narrative perspective, symbolic imagery, and other literary techniques. But after the mid-1930s, leaders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its subsequent satellites in Eastern Europe demanded that literature and criticism directly serve their political objectives. Political leaders in those countries suppressed formalist criticism, calling it reactionary. Even such internationally influential opponents of extreme formalism as the Russian Mikhail Bakhtin and the Hungarian Georg Lukács would often find themselves under attack.
The geographical center of formalist orientation started to shift westward in 1926 when scholars of language and literature, most of them Czech, founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, adopting and refining some of the methods of formal analysis developed by their Russian colleagues. Beginning in the late 1940s anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, critic Roland Barthes, and other mid-century thinkers and scholars initiated French structuralism by applying linguistically inspired formal methods to literature and related phenomena. Structuralism attempted to investigate the “structure” of a culture as a whole by “decoding,” or interpreting, its interactive systems of signs. These systems included literary texts and genres as well as other cultural formations, such as advertising, fashion, and taboos on certain forms of behavior.
The text-centered methods of the formalist critics were also welcomed in the United States because they meshed well with the concerns of so-called New Critics, who focused on the overall structure and verbal texture of literary works. By the 1940s, when Russian linguist Roman Jakobson and Czech literary theorist René Wellek settled at Harvard and Yale universities, respectively, the study of literature in North America had been greatly influenced by the work of Cleanth Brooks and other New Critics. Like his British contemporary Sir William Empson, Brooks applied the skill of close reading chiefly to the analysis of ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies in individual texts.
Many New Critics looked at metaphor, imagery, and other qualities of literary language apart from both a work’s historical setting and any detailed biographical information that might be available about the author. Other New Critics, however, were more historically or philosophically inclined. New Criticism as a whole was therefore meaningfully supplemented by the work of German-born literary historian Erich Auerbach and of American philosopher Susanne K. Langer, who sought to place individual texts into larger historical and theoretical contexts. Auerbach emphasized historical development in his 1946 book Mimesis, which chronicled changing styles of the literary representation of reality from Greek poet Homer to English author Virginia Woolf. Langer in turn argued that the significant emotions depicted or aroused by literature and other arts are universal human feelings symbolized by the work rather than personal sentiments expressed by a particular writer or artist.
In and after the 1920s American-born British poet T. S. Eliot explored how well individual European writers measured up to his aesthetically liberal but politically conservative view of the Western tradition. Canadian critic Northrop Frye, in contrast, opposed any viewpoint narrowed by regionalism or specific ideologies; he attempted to find common elements in the worldwide multiplicity of literary traditions in his book Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Frye and like-minded critics around the globe saw literature and other art forms as manifestations of universal myths and archetypes (largely unconscious image patterns) that cross cultural boundaries. In advocating this view they took cues from British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer and Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.
In the 1960s and 1970s German philosopher-critic Hans-Georg Gadamer and French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault offered contrary models for addressing literary and cultural traditions in literary criticism. Gadamer sought to engage past texts in fruitful dialogue with the present by examining different interpretations of literature throughout history; so do German critic Wolfgang Iser and other proponents of Aesthetics of Reception, which examines readers’ responses to literature in a cultural and historical context. In contrast, Foucault wanted to challenge certain basic notions about the Western tradition that most Westerners take for granted. He hoped to discredit Western heritage and its powerful institutions by exposing, or “demystifying,” the repressed origins and oppressive applications of that power. Among literary critics, American Stephen Greenblatt and other so-called New Historicists have similar objectives.
Today’s widespread tendency to interpret texts as hiding rather than revealing what is most significant about themselves has three major sources: the writings of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Influential studies along Marxist lines of the social and economic underpinnings of culture were undertaken by German critic Walter Benjamin before World War II and by Welsh critic Raymond Williams between the late 1950s and the early 1980s. Marxist and Freudian methods of literary criticism were productively combined from the 1920s on by several American writer-critics, including Edmund Wilson and Kenneth Burke. Viewing humans as symbol-using and symbol-misusing animals, Burke approached literary works as often deceptive or self-deceptive symbolic actions that should be critically reenacted, rather than passively contemplated, by their readers.
In a comparably skeptical spirit, current feminist critics in many countries draw attention to literary evidence of ingrained prejudice against women or stereotypic views of women. Their methods often emulate Marxist critiques of oppressive ideologies or Freudian excavations of repressed desires. Contemporary feminist writings are also influenced by the gender-conscious essays of English novelist Virginia Woolf and by The Second Sex (1949), a book-length plea by French thinker and novelist Simone de Beauvoir against the second-class treatment of women. Feminist criticism explores issues relevant to women as authors, as readers, and as fictional characters, and also raises the controversial question of the possible existence of distinctly female writing—recognizably different in the character of its language from discourse shaped by male patterns of thought.
Like feminist, Marxist, and some Freudian critics, nonwhite Western critics and critics emerging in countries newly freed from colonial rule also have challenged many aspects of European and North American culture as socially and psychologically oppressive. Although these so-called multiculturalist critics are united in their opposition to Western domination, they take many different positions on particular issues of race, class, gender, language, and national or ethnic identity.
The frontal attack, initiated by Nietzsche, on any use of language as an instrument of mystification and domination has its most unwavering advocates today in scholars who practice the interpretive technique known as deconstruction. Following French philosopher Jacques Derrida and Belgian-born American critic Paul de Man, deconstructive critics assume that attributing even the most complex single meaning to a text violates the boundless signifying potential of language in a world where there are no facts but only indeterminate meanings and unresolvable conflicts of interpretation. Proponents of deconstruction elaborate on textual ambiguities and paradoxes that most earlier interpreters (including the New Critics) attempted to resolve. For deconstructors and other so-called postmodern critics, special difficulties in the interpretation of complex literary works forcefully suggest the general resistance of all texts to definitive meanings.
Recent nontraditional criticism does not represent a complete break with a critical tradition that has always proven hospitable to challenges to its principles. In fact, so-called Western criticism has already begun absorbing the insights of its best contemporary challengers. Undergoing transformation once again, it prepares to encounter what German writer and critic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hoped would eventually emerge as Weltliteratur: the diverse but intertwined literatures of the world.

Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory


This perspective is an outgrowth of the women's movement that followed WWII to pursue a "feminist critique" of works by male authors that depict female characters and their relation to women readers, but this broad term now encompasses strict gynocriticism (focussing on the study of female-authored texts and women as writers), gender and identity construction, and a more general study of how literary texts present women and the role of women in culture and society. 13 responses in this study are based loosely on this perspective.

Psychological or Psychoanalytical (Freudian)

The emphasis of this approach is to discover symbols and language that, often unconsciously, explain meanings or unconscious intention, including the motives and actions of characters. Freudian criticism specifically employs the concepts of id (unconscious, instinctual drives), ego (consciousness which mediates between the pressures of reality and libidinal demands), and the superego (an internal censor produced by socialization). 15 responses in this study are based loosely on this perspective.

New Criticism

From the 1930s through the 1960s in American critics such as John Crowe Ransom and I. A. Richards concentrated on the verbal complexities and ambiguities of short works such as lyrics and short stories considered as self-sufficient objects without attention to their origins or effects. Related approaches include "Text-based Criticism, "Explication de text, Close Reading, and "Practical Criticism."

New Historicist

The study of literary works within their historical, political, social, and cultural contexts; developed in the 1980s in reaction to ahistorical orthodoxies.

Formalist or Structuralist

Influenced by Saussurean linguistics, Russian Formalists emphasized the study of form (including genre and its conventions) over content; a key concept here is "defamiliarization," any device that restores freshness to language. Structuralists such as Roland Barthes regard literary contentions as a system of codes that contribute to and convey meaning, especially in prose fiction.

Archetypal or Jungian

This approach originated in the early 20th c. with anthropologist J. G. Frazer and psychologist C. G. Jung as a means of interpreting literary symbols as residues of ancestral memory preserved within the collective unconscious. It is related to "Mythic Criticism."


Based on the work of Jacques Derrida (1967 on), this perspective draws attention to the instability of language; a text unravels because of the presence of one or more aporia, internal contradictions that undermine the text's claim to coherent meaning. It assaults previously unquestioned postulates of order in binary, hierarchical pairs such as nature-culture, work-play, man-woman, with the first element always being the privileged one.


This critical approach analyses the devices and elements employed in a literary work to impose on the reader the author's view of the meaning, both denotative and connotative, of the work. Those aspects of a work that persuade or otherwise guide the response of the reader are called "rhetorical."


According to theorists such as Stanley Fish, a literary text exists only to be read; therefore, certain features of the text are intended to shape and guide a reader's reading, so that the hypothetical reader is part of the fiction itself and may be said to inhere in the work. Rosenblatt distinguishes between informational ("efferent") and artistic ("aesthetic") texts and modes of reading.

Marxist or Sociological

Based on the social, political, and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this literary theory emphasizes the economic determination of all social actions and institutions and the class struggle as the basic pattern of history. Included in this perspective are kinds of audience, modes or conditions of publication and dramatic presentation (including publishers and magazines), and the class positions of authors and readers (consumers).


The original scientific and modern method of criticizing literature in late nineteenth-century America and Britain, this term is associated with Historical Criticism, which often paid attention to the life of the author as it was reflected in the text. Just one response in this study is based on this perspective.

Some Characteristics of Contemporary Theory

Contemporary Literary Theory is not a single thing but a collection of theoretical approaches which are marked by a number of premises, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of the them.
1. Meaning is assumed to be created by difference, not by "presence," (that is, identity with the object of meaning). As the revisionist Freudian Jacques Lacan remarks, a sign signals the absence of that which it signifies. Signs do not directly represent the reality to which they refer, but (following the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure) mean by difference from other words in a concept set. All meaning is only meaning in reference to, and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense. Meanings are multiple, changing, contextual.
2. There is no foundational 'truth' or reality in the universe (as far as we can know)--no absolutes, no eternalities, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent truths generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, values and identity are cultural constructs, not stable entities. Even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as Kaja Silverman points out in The Subject of Semiotics, in that the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated.
3. Language is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not be fully aware. Contemporary theory attempts to explore the implications (i.e., the inter-foldings, from 'plier', to fold) of levels of meaning in language.
4. Language itself always has excessive signification, that is, it always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context; signification is always 'spilling over', especially in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature' are. This excessive signification is created in part by the rhetorical, or tropic, characteristics of language (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else, as in a metaphor, a metonym, or irony), and the case is made by Paul de Man that there is an inherent opposition (or undecidability, or aporia) between the grammatical and the rhetorical operations of language.
5. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture and meaning. Humans 'are' their symbol systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, relational, dynamic.
6. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use.
7. A text is, as the etymology of the word "text" proclaims, a tissue, a woven thing (L. texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts, echoes of which it continually evokes (filiations, these echoes are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it properly be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process of engagements. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminancy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them become more apparent.
8. The borders of literature are challenged by the ideas
a)    that all texts share common traits, for instance that they all are constructed of rhetorical, tropic, linguistic and narrative elements, and
b)    that all experience can be viewed as a text: experience insofar as it is knowable is consequently symbolically configured, and human activity and even perception is both constructed and known through the conventions of social practice; hence as a constructed symbolic field experience is textual.
While on the one hand this blurring of differentiation between 'literature' and other texts may seem to make literature less privileged, on the other hand it opens those non-literary (but not non-imaginative, and only problematically non-fictional) texts, including 'social texts', the grammars and vocabularies of social action and cultural practice, up to the kind of complex analysis that literature has been opened to.
9. So the nature of language and meaning is seen as more intricate, potentially more subversive, more deeply embedded in psychic, linguistic and cultural processes, more areas of experience are seen as textual, and texts are seen as more deeply embedded in and constitutive of social processes.
None of these ideas shared by contemporary theories are new to the intellectual traditions of our culture. It appears to many, however, that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental values of literature and literary study: that it attacks the customary belief that literature draws on and creates meanings that reflect and affirm our central (essential, human, lasting) values; that it attacks the privileged meaningfulness of 'literature'; that it attacks the idea that a text is authored, that is, that the authority for its meaningfulness rests on the activity of an individual; that it attacks the trust that the text that is read can be identified in its intentions and meanings with the text that was written; and ultimately that it attacks the very existence of value and meaning itself, the ground of meaningfulness, rooted in the belief in those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based.
On the other hand, 'theory people' point out that theory does is not erase literature but expands the concept of the literary and renews the way texts in all areas of intellectual disciplines are or can be read; that it explores the full power of meaning and the full embeddedness of meanings in their historical placement; that it calls for a more critical, more flexible reading.
It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often skeptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issue is whether theory has good reasons for the questioning of the assumptions, and whether it can lead to practice that is in fact productive.

Some Elements of Structuralism and its
Application to Literary Theory

Meaning occurs through difference. Meaning is not identification of the sign with object in the real world or with some pre-existent concept or essential reality; rather it is generated by difference among signs in a signifying system. For instance, the meaning of the words "woman" and "lady" are established by their relations to one another in a meaning-field. They both refer to a human female, but what constitutes "human" and what constitutes "female" are themselves established through difference, not identity with any essence, or ideal truth, or the like.
Relations among signs are of two sorts, contiguity and substitutability, the axes of combination and selection: hence the existence of all 'grammars', hence all substitutions, hence the ability to know something by something else, or by a part of it in some way -- hence metonymy and metaphor. The conception of combination and selection provides the basis for an analysis of 'literariness' or 'poeticality' in the use, repetition and variation of sound patterns and combinations. It also provides keys to the most fundamental elements of culture.
Structuralism notes that much of our imaginative world is structured of, and structured by, binary oppositions (being/nothingness, hot/cold, culture/nature); these oppositions structure meaning, and one can describe fields of cultural thought, or topoi, by describing the binary sets which compose them. As an illustration, here is a binary set for the monstrous
Structuralism forms the basis for semiotics, the study of signs: a sign is a union of signifier and signified, and is anything that stands for anything else (or, as Umberto Eco put it, a sign is anything that can be used to lie).
Central too to semiotics is the idea of codes, which give signs context -- cultural codes, literary codes, etc. The study of semiotics and of codes opens up literary study to cultural study, and expands the resources of the critic in discussing the meaning of texts. Structuralism, says, Genette, "is a study of the cultural construction or identification of meaning according to the relations of signs that constitute the meaning-spectrum of the culture."
Some signs carry with them larger cultural meanings, usually very general; these are called, by Roland Barthes, "myths", or second-order signifiers. Anything can be a myth. For example, two-story pillars supporting the portico of a house are a mythic signifier of wealth and elegance.
Structuralism introduces the idea of the 'subject', as opposed to the idea of the individual as a stable indivisible ego. Toquote from Kaja Silverman in The Subject of Semiotics,
The term 'subject' foregrounds the relationship between ethnology, psychoanalysis, and semiotics. It helps us to conceive of human reality as a construction, as the product of signifying activities which are both culturally specific and generally unconscious. The category of the subject thus calls into question the notions both of the private, and of a self synonymous with consciousness. It suggests that even desire is culturally instigated, and hence collective; and it de-centers consciousness, relegating a purely receptive capacity. Finally, by drawing attention to the divisions which separate one area of psychic activity from another, the term 'subject' challenges the value of stability attributed to the individual.
The value of the conception is that it allows us to 'open up', conceptually, the inner world of humans, to see the relation of human experience to cultural experience, to talk cogently of meaning as something that is structured into our 'selves'.
There is no attempt here to challenge the meaningfulness of persons; there is an attempt to dethrone the ideology of the ego, the idea that the self is an eternal, indivisible essence, and an attempt to redefine what it is to be a person. The self is, like other things, signified and culturally constructed. Post-structuralism, in particular, will insist that the subject is de-centered.
The conception of the constructed subject opens up the borders between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious itself is not some strange, impenetrable realm of private meaning but is constructed through the sign-systems and through the repressions of the culture. Both the self and the unconscious are cultural constructs.
In the view of structuralism our knowledge of 'reality' is not only coded but also conventional, that is, structured by and through conventions, made up of signs and signifying practices. This is known as "the social construction of reality."
There is, then, in structuralism, a coherent connection among the conceptions of reality, the social, the individual, the unconscious: they are all composed of the same signs, codes and conventions, all working according to similar laws.

Structuralism, Culture and Texts

Structuralism enables both the reading of texts and the reading of cultures: through semiotics, structuralism leads us to see everything as 'textual', that is, composed of signs, governed by conventions of meaning, ordered according to a pattern of relationships.
Structuralism enables us to approach texts historically or trans-culturally in a disciplined way. Whenever we have to look more objectively, when we are transversing barriers of time, say, or of culture or interest, then the structural method, the search for principles of order, coherence and meaning, become dominant.
This sort of study opens up for serious cultural analysis texts which had hitherto been closed to such study because they did not conform to the rules of literature, hence were not literature but 'popular writing' or 'private writing' or 'history' and so forth. When the rules of literary meaning are seen as just another set of rules for a signifying arena of a culture, then literature loses some aspects of its privileged status, but gains in the strength and cogency of its relationship to other areas of signification. Hence literary study has expanded to the study of textuality, popular writing has been opened up to serious study, and the grounds for the relationship between the meaning-conventions of literature and the way in which a culture imagines reality have been set, and we can speak more clearly of the relation of literary to cultural (or, 'human', or 'every-day') meanings.
Everything that can be known, can be known by virtue of its belonging to a signifying system, then everything can be spoken of as being textual.
1.    All documents can be studied as texts -- for instance, history or sociology can be analyzed the way literature can be.
2.    All of culture can be studied as text. Anthropology, among other fields, is revolutionized through ethnography; qualitative rather than quantitative study becomes more and more the norm in many areas of social science.
3.    Belief-systems can be studied textually and their role in constructing the nature of the self understood.
Consequently much greater attention is paid to the nature of language-use in culture. Language-use relating to various social topics or areas of engagement has become known as "discourse." Although "discourse" is a term more prevalent in post-structuralist thinking, it is of its nature a structuralist development.

Structuralism and literature

In extending the range of the textual we have not decreased the complexity or meaning-power of literature but have in fact increased it, both in its textual and in its cultural meaningfulness. If the reader and the text are both cultural constructions, then the meaningfulness of texts becomes more apparent, as they share meaning-constructs; if the cultural is textual, then the culture's relation to the textuality of literature becomes more immediate, more pertinent, more compelling. Literature is a discourse in a world of discourses, each discourse having its protocols for meaning and typical uses of language, rhetoric, subject area and so forth.
The thesis that what seems real to us is coded and conventional leads to a consideration of how 'reality' is represented in art -- what we get is a 'reality effect'; the signs which represent reality are 'naturalized', that is, made to seem as if we could see reality through them -- or in another way of saying, made to seem to be conforming to the laws of reality. This is achieved through 'vraisemblance', truth-seeming, or 'naturalization'. Some elements of vraisemblance (from Culler, Structuralist Poetics) are as follows.
1.    There is the socially given text, that which is taken as the 'real' world -- what is taken for granted. That we have minds and bodies, for instance. This is a textual phenomenon. (Every term of "we have minds and bodies", the relations between most of these terms, and what we mean by them, in fact codify culturally specific assumptions.)
2.    There is the general cultural text: shared knowledge which would be recognized by participants as part of culture and hence subject to correction or modification but which none the less serves as a kind of 'nature'. This is the level at which we interpret motive, character and significance from descriptions of action, dress, attitude and so forth. "Jake put on his tuxedo and tennis shoes" will provide an interpretation of Jake or will look forward to an explanation of why he broke the cultural code, in this case a dress code. "Harry gazed for hours on the picture of Esmeralda" is a culturally coded statement: we read Harry's attitude, and so forth. We 'imitate' 'reality' by recording cultural codes.
3.    There are the conventions of genre, a specifically literary and artificial vraisemblance -- "the series of constituent conventions which enable various sorts of works to be written." The lines

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; The center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
require certain conventions of reading. If we were to read it as part of a paragraph in Dickens they would make less sense. One convention of literature is that there is a persona who is articulating the text -- that it comes from some organizing consciousness which can be commented on and described. Genre is another convention: each genre designates certain kinds of action as acceptable and excludes others.
1.    There is what might be called the natural attitude to the artificial, where the text explicitly cites and exposes vraisemblance of the kind directly above, so as to reinforce its own authority. The narrator may claim that he is intentionally violating the conventions of a story, for instance, that he knows that this is not the way it should be done according to the conventions, but that the way he is doing it serves some higher or more substantial purpose -- the appeal is to a greater naturalness or a higher intelligibility.
2.    There is the complex vraisemblance of specific intertextualities. "When a text cites or parodies the conventions of a genre one interprets it by moving to another level of interpretation where both terms of the opposition can be held together by the theme of literature itself." -- e.g. parody, when one exploits the particular conventions of a work or style or genre, etc. Irony forces us to posit an alternate possibility or reality in the face of the reality-construction of the text. All surface incongruities register meaning at a level of the project of interpretation itself, and so comment as it were on the relation between 'textual' and 'interpretive' reality.
In short, to imitate reality is to represent codes which 'describe' (or, construct) reality according to the conventions of representation of the time.
The conventions of reading. We read according to certain conventions; consequently our reading creates the meaning of that which we read. These conventions come in two 'layers':
1.    How we (culturally) think that reality is or should be represented in texts, which will include the general mimetic conventions of the art of the period, which will describe the way in which reality is apprehended or imagined, and
2.    The conventions of 'literature' (and of 'art' generally), for instance,
1.    The rule of significance whereby we raise the meaning of the text to its highest level of generalizability (a tree blasted by lightning might become a figure of the power of nature, or of God);
2.    The convention of figural coherence, through which we assume that figures (metonyms, metaphors, 'symbols') will have a signifying relationship to one another on a level of meaning more complex than or 'higher' than the physical;
3.    The convention of thematic unity, whereby we assume that all of the elements of the text contribute to the meaning of the text. These are all conventions of reading.
The facts that some works are difficult to interpret, some are difficult to interpret for its contemporaries but not for later readers, some require that we learn how its contemporaries would have read them in order fully to understand them, these facts point to the existence of literary competence, the possession by the reader of protocols for reading. When one reads modernist texts, such as The Waste Land, one has to learn how to read them. One has in fact to learn how to read Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and so forth. Culler remarks that reading poetry is a rule-governed process of producing meanings; the poem offers a structure which must be filled up and one therefore attempts to invent something, guided by a series of formal rules derived from one's experience of reading poetry, which both make possible invention and impose limits on it.
Structuralism is oriented toward the reader insofar as it says that the reader constructs literature, that is, reads the text with certain conventions and expectations in mind. Some post-structural theorists, Fish for instance, hold that the reader constructs the text entirely, through the conventions of reading of her interpretive community.
In joining with formalism in the identification of literariness as the focus on the message itself as opposed to a focus on the addressee, the addresser, or the referential function of the message, structuralism places ambiguity, as Genette points out, at the heart of the poetic function, as its self-referential nature puts the message, the addresser and the addressee all in doubt. Hence literary textuality is complexly meaningful.
Structuralism underlines the importance of genre, i.e., basic rules as to how subjects are approached, about conventions of reading for theme, level of seriousness, significance of language use, and so forth. "Different genres lead to different expectations of types of situations and actions, and of psychological, moral, and esthetic values." (Genette)
The idea that literature is an institution is another structuralist contribution; that a number of its protocols for creation and for reading are in fact controlled by that institutional nature.
9. Through structuralism, literature is seen as a whole: it functions as a system of meaning and reference no matter how many works there are, two or two thousand. Thus any work becomes the parole, the individual articulation, of a cultural langue, or system of signification. As literature is a system, no work of literature is an autonomous whole; similarly, literature itself is not autonomous but is part of the larger structures of signification of the culture.
The following are some points based on Culler's ideas about the advantages of structuralism, having to do with the idea that literature is a protocol of reading:
Structuralism is a firmer starting-point for reading literature as literature than are other approaches, because literariness and/or fictionality does not have to be shown to be inherent in the text, but in the way it is read. It explains, for instance, why the same sentence can have a different meaning depending on the genre in which it appears, it explains how the boundaries of the literary can change from age to age, it accommodates and explains differing readings of a text given differing reading protocols -- one can read a text for its 'literary' qualities or for its sociological or ideological qualities, for instance, and read as complex a text in doing so.
One gains an appreciation of literature as an institution, as a coherent and related set of codes and practices, and so one sees also that reading is situated reading, that is, it is in a certain meaning-domain or set of codes. It follows that when literature is written, it will be written under these codes (it can break or alter the codes to create effects, but this is still a function of the codes).
Consequently one can be more open to challenges to and alterations of literary conventions.
Once one sees that reading and writing are both coded and based on conventions one can read 'against the grain' in a disciplined way, and one can read readings of literature -- reading can become a more self-reflexive process.
Structural Analysis
As structuralism is so broad a theory with such extensive ramifications, there will be different ways of doing structural analysis. Here are some possible approaches.
The study of the basic codes which make narrative possible, and which make it work. This is known generally as narratology, and often produces what might be called a grammar of narrative. Greimas, Barthes, Todorov and others investigated what the components and relations of narrative are. This gives rise to such things as Barthes division of incidents into nuclei and catalyzers, and his promulgation of five codes of narrative, given briefly here, as adapted from Cohen and Shires:
proairetic -- things (events) in their sequence; recognizable actions and their effects.
semic -- the field where signifiers point to other signifiers to produce a chain of recognizable connotations. In a general sense, that which enables meaning to happen.
hermeneutic -- the code of narrative suspense, including the ways in which the story suspends closure, structures parallels, repetitions and so forth toward closure.
symbolic -- marks out meaning as difference; the binaries which the culture uses/enacts to create its meanings; binaries which, of course,but disunite and join.
reference -- refers to various bodies of knowledge which constitute the society; creates the familiarity of reality by quoting from a large assortment of social texts which mediate and organize cultural knowledge of reality -- medicine, law, morality, psychology, philosophy, religion, plus all the clichs and proverbs of popular culture.
diegetic (C&S's addition) -- the narration, the text's encoding of narrative conventions that signify how it means as a telling.
The study of the construction of meaning in texts, as for instance through tropes, through repetitions with difference. Hayden White analyzes the structure of Western historical narrative through a theory of tropes; Lodge shows how metaphor and metonymy can be seen to form the bases respectively of symbolic and realist texts.
The study of mimesis, that is, of the representation of reality, becomes i) the study of naturalization, of the way in which reality effects are created and the way in which we create a sense of reality and meaning from texts; ii) the study of conventions of meaning in texts. Texts are also analyzed for their structures of opposition, particularly binary oppositions, as informing structures and as representing the central concerns and imaginative structures of the society.
Texts can be analyzed as they represent the codes and conventions of the culture -- we can read the texts as ways of understanding the meaning-structures of the cultures and sub-cultures out of which they are written and which they represent. 

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!