Skip to main content
Select Source:

Literary Criticism


When the definitive account of post-1960s intellectual technologies is written, the history of literary movements will constitute a key chapter. Perhaps paradigmatic of the closing decades of the twentieth century in its dramatic shifts and realignments, literary criticism at the opening of the twenty-first century shows all the earmarks of specialized knowledge, professionalization, and market maneuvering that have successfully permeated the precincts of human activity in advanced industrial society since the end of World War II. Virginia Woolf's "common reader," for all intents and purposes, has disappeared, replaced by professional practitioners trained in the efficacies of "close reading" and highly conscious of a critical landscape represented by "schools" of criticism, from mythic to Marxist, from structuralist to feminist, from psychoanalytic to poststructuralist. Deconstruction and postcolonial critiques have joined a range of cultural studies that encompass race, gender, and sexual orientation. With allied movements in linguistic, rhetorical, narrative, and semi-otic theory, criticism at the turn of the twenty-first century accommodates the study of ethics regarding nonhuman species as well as conduct toward the environment. English and American literature at the university level cut across interdisciplinary formations; thus, the English department, situated in the humanities, could as easily play host to the analysis of legal documents, congressional legislation, aspects of the medical archives, and the fashion modes of hairdressers, as to the recurrence of images of senescence in William Shakespeare's sonnets, or the irreality of closure in Toni Morrison's novels, or the rhythm of repetition in William Faulkner's fiction. The field of literary criticism is a growth industry, its latest paradigm shift related to global transformations brought on by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Regarding its susceptibility to change, then, the critical field offers a good example of centrifugal movement.

Literary criticism had rather complicated beginnings, apparently unrelated to the project of literary study. Richard Ohmann argues in English in America: A Radical View of the Profession that the "technology of the Industrial Revolution gave knowledge a new and central place in the business of making a living" (p. 264; emphasis added). The modern American university is dynamically linked to the centrality of knowledge, "the regularizing of technical innovation, and the bending of knowledge to profit" (p. 266). An older technological model, with industries localized in the domestic sphere and skills transmitted from generation to generation, through hands-on experience, was displaced onto the site of the factory, which brought the worker together with the organizational talent of the manager and the stochastic innovations of the entrepreneur. As Ohmann explains, this new model required "a high concentration of special and theoretical knowledge, of the capacity to create more knowledge as needed, and of the managerial skill to bring this about." If these changes necessitated the systematization of knowledge, as well as its spread across "a large and diverse corps of people whose main work is generating, communicating, and developing ideas" (p. 271), then the modern university of the late nineteenth century would become fully complicit with the new social order and its growing market demands. The university would answer both the will and the imperative to knowledge and the demand for skills in an increasingly national population.

According to Ohmann, then, the humanistic project and its situation in the modern university springs from material grounds. Ohmann's work is subtitled "a radical view," playfully reinforced by the book's original cover collage, which superimposes the facial images of Edgar Allan Poe and Karl Marx. The graphic conveys the interarticulations of the aesthetic and materialist realms, and poses the conditions by which it is possible to understand not only the role of the university and the ascent of ideas in a market economy, but also the specific performances of criticism and theory. Not at all an oppositional movement to a "business civilization," the view usually taken by humanists, the "business" of the English department, for Ohmann, is compatible with the rationalizations of the "technostructure" and owes its prosperity to that structure's interventions.

Terry Eagleton pursues the provenance of literary criticism and theory back to the "rise of English" and the modern sense of literature that emerged with the English Romantics of the nineteenth century. A counterweight to the alienation of workers bred by the ravages of the industrial revolution, the literature of the Romantics "appears as one of the enclaves in which the creative values expunged from the face of English society by industrial capitalism can be celebrated and affirmed" (p. 19). The Romantics' "creative imagination" was enlisted on the side of the "intuitive, transcendental scope of the poetic mind" (p. 19) and marshaled in the interest of a "living criticism of those rationalist or empiricist ideologies enslaved to 'fact'"(p. 19). The literary work as a "mysterious organic unity" was opposed "to the fragmented individualism of the capitalist marketplace," and whereas the latter yields rational calculation, the former offers spontaneity. In time, the literary artifact would emerge "as an ideal model of human society itself" (p. 22).

Under the impact of scientific development and the related decline of religious sentiment, literature became in this context a decisive moral and aesthetic regimen: according to one of Eagleton's sources, English literature would in time be solicited "'to save our souls and heal the State'" (p. 23). From Matthew Arnold on, "English," in a period of religious decline, "is constructed as a subject to carry the ideological freight of social cohesion" (p. 24). The "poor man's Classics," English literature marked the route to a liberal, humanizing education, first institutionalized as an academic course of study in unexpected venuesnot in England's great universities, Eagleton contends, but in the "Mechanics' Institutes, working men's colleges and extension lecturing circuits" (p. 27). Installed in the British curriculum during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, English literary studies commenced as a "subject fit for women, workers, [and, given England's colonial project] those wishing to impress the natives" (p. 29).

Though Eagleton's and Ohmann's respective accounts of the development of English critical studies are contrastive, what they have in common is the attempt to put in perspective the relationship between manifestations of the creative and imaginative impulses as curricular objects and the material and political bases on which the former are predicated. Not some glorious abstraction, English, which will become the place of habitation of literary criticism and theory, belongs, one way or another, to the industrial phase of capital. Either as a preserve of creative values or as an elaboration of a radically transformed scene of labor, English in the twentieth century would supersede the old, time-honored trivium of the curricula of the Middle Agesgrammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The New Criticism

In 1930 Harper and Brothers published I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners, which might be considered the central doctrinal statement of the Fugitives literary circle and advanced the names of some of the founding personalities of what became the New Criticism in the United States. John Crowe Ransom, whose New Criticism (1941) named the movement, the poet Allen Tate, the fiction writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, and the critic and fiction writer Robert Penn Warren, among others, contributed essays to this collection, and there is a good deal of justification to support the view that the New Criticism, running conceptually parallel to Russian formalism, did not exhaust itself for decades to come; if one concludes that "close reading," or concentration on the text of a literary work, constitutes a minimal condition for the performance or practice of literary criticism, then its strategies would be adaptable to all the "schools" of criticism. In other words what began as a value peculiar to a certain social formulation was transformed into standard operating procedure: the practitioner is no longer focused on "close reading," but does it automatically. Close reading is considered so "natural" a posture to the work of the critic that whatever else he or she might do with a conceptual object or "hermeneutic demand" is predicated on its facilities. Terry Eagleton argues that close reading involves both a "limiting" and a "focusing of concern"both because it excises superfluitiesconsiderations such as the length of Tennyson's beard, for exampleand because it enforces, among other things, "the illusion that any piece of language can be adequately studied or even understood in isolation" (p. 44). In any case, for some critics, close reading is an act of reification, or the treatment of the literary work "as an object in itself" (p. 44).

M. H. Abrams describes the autonomous object as a "heterocosm," or "second nature": it is "an end in itself, without reference to its possible effects on the thought, feeling, or conduct of its readers" (pp. 35, 327). If, as Eagleton suggests, the poetic object for the New Critics "became a spatial figure rather than a temporal process" (p. 48), then the texts that one associates with the heterocosm, "chartered" by the Coleridgean imagination, makes the critical process itself as demanding as the thing it is interpreting: irony, ambiguity, paradox, and ambivalence are highly valued poetic practices for the New Critics and will yield, in turn, an appreciation for textual "density" and "complexity" as the watchword of value. The idea is that the poem, in rendering disparate things to harmony, in Shelley's formulation, achieves a dynamic stillness among competing linguistic and imagistic elements.

That a poem could be imagined to body forth such a beautifully orchestrated outcome makes it the model of a perfected world, well out of reach then and now. But I'll Take My Stand sketches the social and political presuppositions against which some of the early New Critics were operating and how poetic perfection might have provided them with a strategy of retreat from the realm of realpolitik in an era of global depression. These southern intellectuals were on the cultural defensive, given the South's defeat in the Civil War; General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox had occurred in 1865, only sixty-five years before the appearance of the manifesto. It is not difficult to imagine that the "political unconscious" of the "twelve southerners" could engage with, up close and personal, their own historical memory: Robert Penn Warren's contribution to the volume, "The Briar Patch," bristles with all the energy of revelation, illuminating Penn Warren's great anxietythe industrial/technological transformations homing in on the South: "The chief problem for all alike [the Negro and the white] is the restoration of society at large to a balance and security which the industrial regime is far from promising to achieve" (p. 264). Although what appears to be nostalgia for the full range of social relations imagined as complementary to the "agrarian tradition" runs through the entire volume, the unsigned "statement of principles" (the introduction) could easily be read in concert with "The Briar Patch," or even anticipatory of it. Written in opposition to the "American industrial ideal," I'll Take My Stand argues boldly in its introduction that the "capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome" (p. xi). Labor relations in this new order also fall under the microscope, as do the new means of production: "The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned, and is practiced solely for its rewards" (p. xiii). Just so, the apologists for industrialism "have been obliged to admit that some economic evils follow in the wake of the machines," yet the remedies that they propose "are always homeopathic," insofar as they "expect the evils to disappear when we have bigger and better machines, and more of them" (p. xiii).

A series of consequences follow from the new relations, and a crucial number of them point toward the cultural indices: "We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent" (p. xiv). If the delicate balance between humans and nature has been upset by the "machine in the garden," then it follows that for the Fugitives, art, as well as religion, is dependent on "a right attitude to nature" (p. xv). "Neither the creation nor the understanding of works of art is possible in an industrial age except by some local and unlikely suspension of the industrial drive" (p. xv). "Under the curse of a strictly-business or industrial civilization," life's amenities "suffer." Furthermore, a community must find a way to extricate itself from the toils of industrialism, the "evil dispensation," as the failure to do so is not only the mark of pusillanimity, but the loss of political genius and the embrace of impotence (p. xx). Despite themselves, context insistently bore down on the New Critics, although, surprisingly, some of them would be keenly attuned to it: "We cannot recover our native humanism by adopting some standard of taste that is critical enough to question the contemporary arts but not critical enough to question the social and economic life which is their ground" (p. xvi).

Bill Readings argues that F. R. Leavis in England and the New Critics in the United States would have "an enormous impact on the educational system" transatlantically (p. 84). According to Readings, the radical claim "for the benefits of literary scholarship was accompanied by a massive attention to the training of secondary school teachers who went out from the University entrusted with a sense of their mission to uphold literary culture" (p. 84). The impact of the new literary scholarship was hardly limited to teacher training, but profoundly altered the exercise of reading by removing the tasks of evaluation and canon-making from the precincts of common sense; in other words, pronouncements on the modern textthe poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the fiction of James Joyce, for examplewould become the vocation of the professional critic, who would read literary passages not only against the context of the text in which it was embedded, but with attention to the "total context provided by the [author's] work" (Brooks and Warren, p. 1616). Because criticism would become the province of the professionally trained, canonicity and how to determine the canonical would take on capital significance for American criticism. Readings contends that the New Criticism generated disagreement about the canon precisely because the latter was, in fact, "the surreptitious smuggling of historical continuity into the study of supposedly discrete and autonomous artworks" (p. 84; emphasis added). The New Criticism brought to fruition a development that quite probably began with the proliferation of "little magazines"Harriet Monroe's Poetry, which Venture launched in 1912, became a promoter of modern poetryand the culture of literary salons on both sides of the Atlantic, flourishing as early as the 1910s. The artistic entrepreneurial spirit of Bloomsbury, the London intellectual circle dominated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, as well as the intense collaborative energy central to some literary masterworks, such as Eliot's Waste Land (1922), strongly shaped by Pound, prepared the basis of reception for the very notion of the art work as autonomous. In fact, the stirrings across the range of the "seven arts"in literature, painting, music, modern dance, drama and the stage, photography, and the new kid on the block, cinema, all heralded the heady transformation and new persuasions at work. For poetry and literary criticism, the New Critics would give the impulse a name: modernism.

Formalism and Beyond.

It might come as a matter of surprise for some readers that according to Lee Lemon and Marion J. Reis, "During the 1920s a group of Russian critics urged the separation of literature and politics [which] challenges our popular clichés about Soviet control of literary theory" (p. ix). In their succinct account of Russian formalist criticism, Lemon and Reis go on to observe that the early work of the Russian formalists and the America New Critics demonstrated certain concepts and strategies in common, among them: (1) "an attack against traditional academic scholarship"; (2) a critical theory that drives a corridor between literature and other disciplines of the human sciences, such as history, philosophy, and sociology; and (3) a strategy of literary investigation that would advance the "analysis of structure" in the place of discourse about "background, social usefulness, or intellectual content" (p. x). Literary critical performance would later annul the breach with related disciplines, not so much by "going over" to them, but by "translating" their content, in effect, into literary values and analogues, as is the case with poststructuralism, which gained ground from the 1970s on. But the isolation of structure, beginning with the formalists and the New Critics, enables the emergence of a conceptual object that gains a precision of focus comparable to the scientific object.

The wedding of formalism and the New Criticism, never officially pronounced as such, provided a merger called "formalism" that dominated literary study on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1930s through the late 1960s. The aims of this prolific period of theorization are perhaps most poignantly captured in the titles of certain works that attempt to configure literary study as a "system"René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1942) and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), for example. More pointed investigations in genre theorythe meaning of poetry, the development of the novel and short story, studies in allegorical, symbolic, and mythic modes, as well as inquiries into the "grammar of motives," the "rhetoric of motives," and the "philosophy" of literary formall mark this period as one of the most distinct and distinguished chapters in the history of the modern humanities, but they also help to establish the foundations of what was referred to earlier as a centrifugal movement in literary study. In other words, formalism brings about the institutionalization of the study of literature and language, both in the academy and in the marketplace of ideas. But it also opens onto the possibilities of a broader application of literary method across the universe of signs. The not entirely playful or lighthearted complaint from scholars outside the field that personnel in English believe that they can "read" anything is not exactly misplaced; there is an ascendant logic operative here that grants primacy to the word/words. If the Russian formalists, as early as the period of the Russian Revolution, had been influenced by the enormous impact of the science of modern linguisticsprimarily by way of Roman Jakobsonthen the "structuralist turn," via Parisian intellectual circles, would integrate linguistic method and ideas into new systems of thought.

It would appear to the graduate student in English in 1968 that something quite astonishing was happening on the ground. Change was in the air and coming from a number of different directions, not the least of them political. The ramifications of those changesthe presence of larger numbers of minorities and women, on faculties and in student bodies, at American colleges and universities, as well as the commencement of "multiculturalism" as a mode of scholarly study and addresswould reverberate right through the contemporary period. The year 1968 might be regarded as a time of rupture, on the one hand, brought on by the transatlantic youth movement (in the United States, the Vietnam War protest movement ran parallel to the black nationalist movement and the continuation of the civil rights struggle, while in Europe, particularly in the big cities, students, demanding transformation in the educational system and allied with Labor, especially in the French instance, threatened political order). On the other hand, the literary object, destabilized by a reinvigorated debate on the canon, would seem to displace continuity with formalist and neoformalist persuasions onto questions that had not been asked before, such as How does one read as a woman, or a black person, or a post-colonial subject? Though it appears from the vantage of the early twenty-first century that these transformations occurred all at once, it is fair to say that they systematically unfolded over the last three decades of the twentieth century, falling out in a kind of domino pattern. As new legislation had been required to reinforce equal protection for minorities in public accommodations and at the ballot box, rights initially secured by the "citizenship" amendments (the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments) to the U.S. Constitution, gender equality in access to higher education followed by legislative mandate. The entire panoply of multicultural occasions swam in its wake. While it would be appropriate to regard the 1960s protest movements in light of global development subsequent to the end of World War II, the isolation of intellectual currents in this sea of change is instructive.

Just as John Crowe Ransom's New Criticism in 1941 heralded a paradigm shift that had been well under way for at least two decades, Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato's The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy (1971), which introduced to an English-speaking scholarly audience many of the themes that would come to dominate critical inquiry for the next few decades, pointed to a radical shift in the humanities repertoire. Macksey and Donato's table of contents contains the names of many of the major continental thinkers whose projects would model the new scholarship, from René Girard, Georges Poulet, and Lucien Goldmann to Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. Though the volume was not published, originally, until 1971, the event that engendered it had taken place during the fall of 1966 at the Humanities Center of the Johns Hopkins University. Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, this international symposium brought together more than one hundred humanists and social scientists from the United States and eight other nations. According to Macksey and Donato, the symposium initiated "a two-year program of seminars and colloquia which sought to explore the impact of contemporary 'structuralist' thought on critical methods in humanistic and social studies" (p. xv). The purpose of the symposium was not to consolidate an orthodox view on structuralist method and thinking, but, rather, "to bring into an active and not uncritical contact leading European proponents of structural studies in a variety of disciplines with a wide spectrum of American scholars" (p. xv). The 1966 convocation marked a turning point in the way that literary studies would be configured, and it also enabled the interdisciplinary extension of the latter in the direction of "cultural studies."

Perhaps the single most radical mark of the "structuralist turn" is the "death" of the subject, which opened the way to critical practices, deconstruction prominent among them, in the contemporary era. But the fate of the subject might be thought of as the consequences, or end results, of a series of premises that begin with the concept of "system," which Culler describes as "behind the event, the constitutive conventions behind any individual act" (1975, p. 30). If the prestige and success of the science of linguistics had had an enormous impact on literary study, then it would find application to other cultural and material phenomena on two fundamental grounds: First, cultural phenomena are constituted of objects and events that are riddled with meaning. Such events are, therefore, signs, and signs, as Ferdinand de Saussure (one of the preeminent founders of modern linguistics) contended, are made up of signifiers (auditory images that match a concept) and signifieds (strings of signifiers that yield meaning). Because cultural phenomena behave like language in yielding meaning, one can, then, in Culler's words, "investigate the system of relations that enables meaning to be produced" (p. 4). The science of signs, or semiology, was therefore enabled by the insights of linguistics. Second, the event in question is not only rule bound, but its rules cohere in an entire ensemble of relations: According to Culler, "Rules do not regulate behavior so much as create the possibility of particular forms of behavior" (p. 5). The best example, interestingly enough, comes out of lived experience: the English speaker has unconsciously mastered a host of complex operations called language competence; but the utterances that she will speak over a lifetime do not exhaust the possibilities of sentence formation in the English language (or any other), nor do such utterances even use up the potential formations that this individual speaker could generate. Following on the distinction between la langue ("a system, an institution, a set of interpersonal rules and norms") and la parole ("the actual manifestations of the system in speech and writing"), structuralism was able to posit systematicity across the universe of signs, from fashion modes and food consumption to the conduct of poems, novels, and films (Culler, 1975, p. 8). By investigating the rules behind material manifestations and events and what ensemble of relations they were configured in, the structuralist, at least in theory, could reconstruct how things come to mean.

When the French theorist Michel Foucault argued the "death" of "Man," or his "end," he was not talking about a nuclear holocaust, but, rather, the displacement of an anthropomorphic centrality onto theories of the constructed character of human and social events; in other words, the human subject, though events pass through him and have meaning for him by way of institutional and conventional practices, is not the autonomous being that Hegelian metaphysics had posited; he is instead the outcome of cultural forces and processes not only beyond his control, but beyond his knowledge. The radical nature of this proposition is perhaps most poignantly demonstrable in language itself: As Culler attests, "Individuals choose when to speak and what to say but these acts are made possible by a series of systems which the subject does not control" (1975, p. 29). Therefore, "I" do not speak so much as "I" am "spoken," or enter into a system of human and social relations on which the individual "I" is entirely dependent. When these influences are juxtaposed with the innovations of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic practice and theorization in the wake of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and its revelation of the symptom in dreams and the neurosis, then we reach the Lacanian synthesis of psychoanalysis, heavily influenced by structuralist thought. In the Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, Jacques Lacan would assert that the unconscious (the privileged site of the Freudian mental theater) is "structured like a language" (p. 20). Moreover, even "before strictly human relations are established, certain relations have already been determined" (p. 20). Lacan calls these preestablished or prior relations "supports," offered by nature and "arranged in themes of opposition."

Deconstruction and Beyond

It would be difficult to overstate the implications of (1) the recession of the subject of the humanities, (2) the emphasis on systematicity and process, and (3) the flattening out of the literary object in a vast sea of textual properties and equalities; in the aftermath of structuralism, between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, "literary criticism" would become one of a number of critical foci that joined a textualized universe wholly explicable by a generous term called "theory." Texts of philosophy, history, anthropology, and psychoanalytic practice, among other writings deemed to have powerful explanatory value, mixed and mingled in the corridors of criticism with uncustomary abandon, "guests," as it were, of the English department and the departments of comparative literature and modern languages. Bridges between these allied disciplines were supplied by a widespread importation of the writings of continental thinkers, particularly the French contingent. Of prime importance to these developments were the philosophy and methodology of deconstruction, articulated through a critique of modern philosophy by Jacques Derrida, in his De la Grammatologie (1967; Of Grammatology ), a work that was enormously influential to the development of theory in the poststructuralist period.

Deconstruction casts its gaze at the dominant trend lines of metaphysical philosophies that posit the centrality of the logos (the word) and the presence of speech/voice; through a "double gesture," as Jonathan Culler explains it, the deconstructionist project seeks to reverse the classical oppositions of philosophical writings at the same time that it exploits or uses them. By way of such reversals, deconstruction effects a displacement of the philosophical system. Deconstruction is carried out primarily as paradoxical procedure because it undermines "the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies" (1982, p. 86). One might think of deconstruction, then, as "the story of reading" writing (1982, p. 35), insofar as it ultimately holds that writing is a "writingin-general," an "archi-écriture," or a "protowriting which is the condition of both speech and writing in the narrow sense" (1982, p. 102). It seems that the key displacement executed by deconstruction is that of the "origin," or "beginnings"; as origin recedes, "transcendence" follows in its wake. If the "origin" of the "word" is taken as leading figures of thought to be displaced in the classical schemata, then a universe of oppositions opens up, splitting off positives and negatives, truth and falsity, presence and absence, good and bad, superior and inferior. The negatives can be lined up under one rubric and the positives under another, or the degraded class of objects over and against the transcending ones. By contending that these punctualities are the result of the manipulations of language, or the effects of the play of signification, rather than the hallmarks of truth, deconstruction posits différance (a French neologism) as the condition of meaningan interminable interpretation and analysis, or in Culler's words, an "act of differing which produces differences" (p. 97). Différance, as a paronomastic device, contains deferral (or cancellation of closure), as well as difference, in the sense of differing from. From Sausserian linguistics, the deconstructionalist reinforces the notion that meaning works by signification, but the latter is driven not by the meeting of opposites, but by the annulment of the latter. In other words, we can only account for the bombardment of differing elements. For example, a "tree," the sign vehicle, is a "tree" because something else is "not-tree," and so on, ad infinitum.

Interestingly, some of the best examples of the play of difference are presented in the "Sense-Certainty" segment of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (1807), and in the vertiginous exceptions of Plato's Parmenides. The "now" that Hegel turns over, for instance, is not something under the thumb and pinpointed, since it is a continuity that "grows" into the present, ever passing into the "not-now," both the future and the has-been (p. 152). That simple "now," according to Hegel, is "therefore not something immediate, but something mediated." It might appear that this tedious activity of discrimination would sustain only esoteric appeal, but in truth, it seems convertible into a powerful heuristic tool or "speculative instrument," insofar as it also calls into question the entire repertoire of the mundane, of the domination and dogma of "common sense," "reality," "what we all know and believe," and the limitless orthodoxy of "what is ""that which everywhere, that which always, that which by all." Furthermore, if truth no longer has a guarantor in an undivided origin, then we are doomed to, or liberated from, essences or the gold buried beneath the dross, as the philosopher Louis Althusser would have itto the entanglements of existence.

The contemporary women's movement or the critique of knowledge undertaken by the black studies project, and de-construction, are not customarily spoken of in the same breath, but if the latter is thought of as the inscription of an attitude toward the symbolic enterprise, then it might be seen as the perfect context for a radically altered humanities academy. If origin is questionable, then it follows that canons will be, as well, and once canons are toppled, then an entire ensemble of hierarchical operations (one gender over another, one dominant race and its "others") might be rendered moribund, or at least brought down to size.

The curricular objects of women's studies and African American, Marxist, and postcolonial critiques are the newest epistemologies of the humanities academy, both enabled by poststructuralist methodologies and going well beyond them. The repertory of critical inquiries on sexuality, the New Historicism, and a range of cultural studies constitute the most exciting developments in a field generally known in the opening years of the twenty-first century simply as "theory." From Chicago to China, one of the languages that speaks across the cultures is that of "theory," now a global language of scholars in the humanities.

See also Continental Philosophy ; Formalism ; Literary History ; New Criticism ; Postmodernism ; Psychoanalysis .


Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Adams, Hazard, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1979.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Selected and translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. Preface by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. "The Reading of Modern Poetry." In American Poetry and Prose, edited by Norman Foerster. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945.

. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

. A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950. Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982.

De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Drake, William, ed. The First Wave: Women Poets in America 19151945. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. 2nd ed. London: Chatto and Windus, 1947.

. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York: New Directions, 1974.

Feldstein, Richard, and Judith Roof, eds. Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1973.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Gasché, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro- American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Goldberg, David Theo, ed. Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader. Oxford, U.K., and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler, eds. Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Guha, Ranajit, ed. A Subaltern Studies Reader, 19861995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Translated by J. B. Baillie. 2nd ed. London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Macmillan, 1931.

Hirsch, Marianne, and Evelyn Fox Keller. Conflicts in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.

Jakobson, Roman, and Morris Halle. Fundamentals of Language. 2nd rev. ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.

. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

Kester-Shelton, Pamela, ed. Feminist Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978.

Lemon, Lee T., and Marion J. Reis, trans. Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Macksey, Richard, and Eugenio Donato, eds. The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

Napier, Winston, ed. African-American Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Nicholson, Linda J., ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Richards, I. A. Speculative Instruments. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Reidlinger. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Spillers, Hortense J. Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Wall, Cheryl A. Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

Warren, Robert Penn. "The Briar Patch." In his I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, by Twelve Southerners. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1930.

Wellek, René, and Austin Warren. Theory of Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

Wheelwright, Philip. The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Wimsatt, W. K., Jr. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.

Hortense J. Spillers

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Literary Criticism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 25 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Literary Criticism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 25, 2017).

"Literary Criticism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from

literary criticism

literary criticism Discipline concerned with literary theory and the evaluation of literary works. It effectively began with Plato's comments on the role of poets in his Republic; Aristotle's response to this, the Poetics, represents the first systematic attempt to establish principles of literary procedure. Notable later contributions to the debate include Sir Philip Sidney's The Defence of Poesie (1595); Dryden's Of Dramatick Poesie (1668); Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798); Shelley's A Defence of Poetry (1820); and the critical works of Matthew Arnold, in particular, Culture and Anarchy (1869). The 20th century witnessed an explosion of literary criticism, such as the writings of T. S Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, and F. R. Leavis; also important are the writings of structuralism and post-structuralism, notably Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The late 20th century saw the beginning of new critical approaches such as deconstruction and feminism.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"literary criticism." World Encyclopedia. . 25 Jun. 2017 <>.

"literary criticism." World Encyclopedia. . (June 25, 2017).

"literary criticism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 25, 2017 from