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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Critical Approaches to Literature: A Brief Overview
Anthropological: Tends to focus on aspects of everyday life in various cultures (i.e. folklore, ritual, celebrations, traditions). You might ask, “What is the everyday social function of this text? How has it been transmitted (orally/written)? Does it reflect folk culture?”
Archetypal: Relates to Psychoanalytical Criticism in some ways(see below). Developed by Carl Jung, this approach accepts the idea of the unconscious mind. However, unlike Sigmund Freud and other critics, Jungians argue that part of the unconscious is shared by all people. From this perspective the term “collective unconscious” developed, a term representing the memories of human products and activities (found in myths, symbols, rituals, literatures) and reproduced as archetypes.
Archetypes are figures or patterns recurring in works of the imagination, and can be divided into three categories. Archetypal characters include (but are not limited to): the hero, the villain, the outcast, the femme fatale, and the star-crossed lovers. Archetypal situations include (but are not limited to): the quest, the journal, death and rebirth, and the task. Archetypal symbols and associations include polarities: light/dark, water/desert, height/depth, spring/winter.
It is important to note two things. First, works may contain multiple archetypes. Second, not everything is an archetype. A balance between these two extremes can be very difficult to achieve. Looking for recurring patterns within a piece or within a collection of related stories can be useful in using this approach.
Biographical: Relates the author’s life and thoughts to her works. As these tend to reflect the period in which she lived, biographical criticism may be an important aspect of the (New) Historical approach (see below). The biographical approach allows one to better understand elements within a work, as well as to relate works to authorial intention and audience. You might ask, “How does the text reflect the author’s life? Is this text an extension of the author’s position on issues in the author’s life?”
Biographical criticism has two weaknesses that should be avoided. First, avoid equating the work’s content with the author’s life (or the character with the author); they are not necessarily the same. Second, avoid less-than-credible sources of information, particularly works that tend to be highly speculative or controversial unless verified by several sources. (Some of the recent biographies on Thomas Jefferson might serve as an example of this pitfall.)
Narratological: Concerns itself with the structure of narrative–how events are constructed and through what point of view. You might ask, “How is the narrative of this work (fiction, poetry, film) pieced together? Who or what is narrating?” This considers the narrator not necessarily as a person, but more as a window through which one sees a constructed reality. This can range from someone telling a tale to a seemingly objective camera: “To what extent is the narrative mediated?”
New Criticism: Unlike biographical and historical approaches, a New Critic approach contends that literature need have little or no connection with the author’s intention, life, or social/historical situation. Everything needed to analyze the work is contained within the text. New Critics also tend to examine the physical qualities of the text in a “scientific matter” that examines language and literary conventions (e.g. rhyme, meter, alliteration, plot, point of view, etc.). It is similar, though not identical, to Structuralism in its emphasis on the text itself (see below).
(New) Historicism: May approach a text from numerous perspectives, but all perspectives tend to reflect a concern with the period in which a text is produced and/or read (including contemporary work). No “history” can be truly objective or comprehensive because history is constantly written and rewritten; however, studying the historical context of a work, particularly in contrast with that in which it is read, can illuminate our biases and hopefully enable us to understand the text (and the culture, context, ourselves) better.
New Historicism is concerned with relating the idea of a text to other key concepts: culture, discourse, ideology, the self, and history. New Historicists examine intersections of text, reader, and history and with a special emphasis on literature as a cultural text. New Historicists also examine the relationship of literature to the power structures of society.
Historical research might include Biography (see above), reception studies, influence studies, or even a technological approach to the medium (filmmaking, printing, the music industry, computers and the WWW). It has also been utilized with Reader-Response criticism (see below). You might ask, “How does the text embody a history of its time? Is this text a useful historical document?”
Post-Structuralism: While accepting Structuralism and Sausseure’s analysis of language (see Structuralism below), post-structuralism considers the relationship between language and meaning, ultimately rejecting any certainty of meaning. Jacques Derrida, one of the most influential post-structuralism, called his critical method “deconstruction.” Using deconstruction, the reader analyzes the text and especially its language to expose its ambiguity and upset the connection between the text and the “real world.” You might initially ask, “How does the language/meaning in this text contradict itself? How can a work be interpreted in multiple ways?”
Psychoanalytic: Such criticism aims at uncovering the working of the human mind–especially the expression of the unconscious. Possibilities include analyzing a text like a dream, looking for symbolism and repressed meaning, or developing a psychological analysis of a character.
Three ideas found in the work of Sigmund Freud are particularly useful: the dominance of the unconscious mind over the conscious, the expression of the unconscious mind through symbols (often in dreams), and sexuality as a powerful force for motivating human behavior. Psychoanalytic criticism can be applied to either the author/text relationship or to the reader/text relationship. You might ask, “How is this text use or represent the unconscious mind: of the author, the characters, the reader?”
Reader-Response Criticism: Studies the interaction of reader with text, holding the text as incomplete until it is read. This critical approach can be, and often is, combined with other approaches (such as Psychoanalytical and Historical) but challenges the self-contained focus of New Criticism or the claim of meaninglessness embraced by Post-Structuralism.
Semiotics: Critiques the use of language, preferably in texts that comment on the nature of language (see Structuralism). To the semiotician, language is an arbitrary but shared system of assigned meanings. You might ask, “How does this text critique language? Does it break the rules of language usage? Why?” Or if the text doesn’t seem to comment on its own language, “How does the language used reflect an unawareness of language as an ideological tool?“
Social Criticism: Concerns itself with the social function of texts, thus consisting of several categories, and analyzes social structure, power, politics, and agency. Social criticism is similar to historical criticism in recognizing literature as a reflection of environment. There are several social movements, but Marxism, Feminism and Gender Studies, and Green Theory are prevalent.
Marxism is concerned with labor practices, class theories, and economics, especially as concerned with the struggles of the poor and oppressed. A Marxist might ask, “How are classes stratified/defined in this text? Does this text reflect an economic ideology? What is the attitude toward labor furthered by this text?“
Feminist Criticism examine works by and about women. Gender Criticism evolved out of feminism to address issues of masculinity/femininity as binaries, sexual orientation, hetereosexism, and differences in sexes. Both are political activities concerned with fair representation and treatment of people. A critcic using Feminist Studies or Gender Studies (sometimes also known as Queer Studies) might ask, “How is gender constructed or deconstructed in this text? Is the view of the text gendered or sexist?”
For further reading: The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter, and The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader, edited by Henry Avelove, et al.
A Green Critic might ask, “Of what priority is conservation in this text? What is the relationship between humankind and Nature?”
Structuralism: Like New Criticism, Structuralism concentrates on elements within works of literature without focusing on historical, social, and biographical influences. Structuralism, however, is grounded in linguistics and developed by Ferdinand de Sausseure. Sausseure’s work argues that language is a complete, self-contained system and should be studied as such. Sausseure also claimed that language is a system of signs. When applied to literature, this form of criticism is generally known as Semiotics.