Literary Theory Pwr Pt. - Garnet Valley School District

Literary Theory
Looking at the conditions that
make meaning possible.
Access to a text
A writer is never in complete control
of what he/she says.
The writer never really has complete
control over language. Language has
meaning and logic of its own.
Reading a Text
You should not read a text only
to uncover the author’s intent,
but read it from your own point
of view. In other words, from
the perspective of how it affects
You can read a novel from many
different perspectives and it can
generate different impressions.
Interpreting a Text
 Access to a text is always
mediated by a theory.
 All interpretation is theory
 The whole explosion of theory is
actually a recognition.
Two Ways to Look at Literary
 An intrique into debates in cultural
 An entry into engaging in
philosophical questions.
Meaning does not reside in the text. It is
produced for the text.
19th Century Approaches
Literary Theory was “Authored-Centered.” If
you understood the author, then you
understood the text.
Looking at the piece through a psychoanalytical profile of the author. (i.e. Dickens –
analyzing why there are so many villians in his
19th Century Approaches
In this approach the text is isolated from the
author and concentration is on the internal
dynamics. What makes the meaning work is
based solely on the text.
Emphasis is on the role played by the reader
in constructing a meaning for the text.
 The theory is that the act of reading is to bring
in all kinds of conventions to make it have
meaning in the first place.
19th Century Approaches
This theory looks at the way a country’s culture
shapes a text.
In this theory meaning does not reside in the text. All
you have is meaning effectively spread across the
surface of the text. This is based on the belief that
language is essentially unstable due to the fact that all
works carry more than one (1) meaning and that the
same words have different associations for people. In
essence, the meaning of the text is essentially
Evaluating Text
Certain features make a work more literary:
Packaging – the way certain writers are marketed.
Implicit evaluation of the work of different writers.
Withstanding the test of time – more substance.
Political dimension – i.e. Shakespeare has been deified
(canonized). Who counts and who doesn’t count is more
than just what the critics think.
Writers can be de-canonized. Some fall and new
ones enter.
There is no stability in a writer’s reputation.
Intrinsic Approaches
 Focus on the mechanics of the text. Internal.
i.e. How does irony, methaphors, etc. work?
How does the writer use syntax?
In other words, examining the formal
properties of the work.
 Intrinsic Critics: Russian Formalists, New
Critics, Structuralists and Deconstructionists.
They all look at the text as if it exists in a
social vacuum.
Extrinsic Approach
The focus is on the circumstances of the writing
 Psychobiographers, Culturalists and Historical Criticism
look at what is psychologically, socially & culturally, and
historically specific about the text. What is it about this
time and this society that make it possible to write at all?
 Feminist, Marxist and Sociological Criticism look at the
cultural, social and political implications of the text.
In essence, there is no final reading of a text. No
one has the last word.
Literary Criticism
Sociological Criticism
Sociology through literature – The way of looking in how
a literary work is entangled in the process that
surrounds its production, its inception.
Factors that influence literature – Writers in the middle
ages were paid by the page. That is why so many of the
works are so long. “The vulgarity of the market shaped
this literature that we revere.” (Dr. Paul Maltby) For
example: Political constraints - Blake’s symbolism is as
a result of being jailed for his remarks, so he wrote in
Literary Criticism (continued…)
Russian Formalists – (between 1915 – 1930)
Instead of questions of interpretation, they considered what
makes a work specifically literary. Looking for criteria – literariness
and defamiliarization. They are asking if it helps you see the world
in a new way? This would be a good sign for the Russian
Formalists. It is a way in which to desensitize us to the world, our
surroundings, i.e. to make it look strange again.
For the Russian Formalist, literature has to perpetually renew
itself to remain literary. They look at the way in which the material
is arranged – shaped. For example, flashbacks may be a way in
which a story is arranged. The literary devices are used to create
effects. For the Russian Formalist, literature is the kind that goes
beyond the cliches.
Russian Formalists are exclusively intrinsic. They lack social
Literary Criticism
New Critics – In the 1930’s, Capitalism fell
into crisis. In the environment Marxist
theory came into dominance.
The new critics, many from the southern
U.S., wanted to form a new criticism--something like Marxist literary theory
(which should be used as a weapon in
class war, the ideal of Marxist literature).
Literary Criticism
New Critics – Flourished during the 1930’s
and 40’s. A text-centered criticism.
We don’t know the author’s intentions 99% of the time.
Close reading – looking at the words on the page and
how they behave.
Language is public property.
All a critic needs is a knowledge of how language
Even author’s can’t give a definitive account of their
Literary Criticism
New Critics (continued…)
What new critics value about literature is the
extent to which it deviates from scientific
discourse which is unequivacal---clear and to the
Literature goes to the other extreme. It
exploits to the full extent, i.e. ambiguity, irony,
etc. It can be treated totally independent of the
world around it.
Literary Criticism
New Criticism (continued…)
Deficiencies of this approach to
* No relationship between time
and place.
* The reader is not able to read
like scholars and have a grasp of how
parody etc. are used in the text.
Literary Criticism
New Criticism
* You lose the interconnections between texts. We
learn from the text---we read certain kinds of codes and
bring this to the next text.
* Meaning resides inside the text. You dig down
into the text and pull it out as if timeless. However, this
does not work because it does not take into account the
different interpretations of different readers and how
language has different meaning over time. The word on
the page can change its meaning over time. No two
people read the same text in the same way.
Structuralism overthrew the
model of objects existing
independently of language.
Barthe – “It’s impossible to
write a narrative without an
implicit set of rules. According
to Barthe, “The reader is a
repository of the rules of
conventions insofar as they
are aware of the rules.”
The goal of all structuralism
activity is to reconstitute the
meaning---discover how
meaning is possible in the first
Codes (can apply to all
Engine code – recognize
what counts as a mystery and
the clues that lead to a
Recognize Character
Cultural Code – need
knowledge to make sense of a
Codes collectively make up
the language. There is not
“langue” without the codes.
Structuralists believe they are the most
As structuralists, what makes us human is
that we generate meaning.
Reading is an institution that produces
meaning for the text.
Saussure – If words stood for pre-existing concepts,
they would all have exact equivalence in meaning
from one langue to the next. Different languages
chop up reality in different ways. It is language that
structures what we take to be reality.
There can never be an ultimate classification. The
way we perceive the world is structured for us by the
language we use.
Language does not reflect the word---it constructs an
image of it.
Semiotics is the study of sign systems in
which linguistic sign systems serve as the
Chomsky –
/ Parole
Competence / Performance
Competence – Innate ability; how produced.
Parole – what is spoken
Langue – the underlying system of rules, grammar.
Saussure says language is a system of differences
without positive terms. The relationship between a
word and object is arbitrary – the sign itself has no
intrinsic meaning.
There is no meaning without an underlying
system of rules. All meaning is dependent on
The linguist who introduced Post-Structuralist
Signifier (SR) (Meaning or Words)
Signified (SD) (Meaning or Concept)
Saussure says that the SR and the SD are as inseparable
as the 2 sides of a piece of paper.
Post Structuralism – SR & SD continued…
For Saussure SR & SD are as follows:
Break down to sound or the markings. What they
signify is a 4-legged farm animal.
Post Structuralism – SR & SD continued…
Derrida argued that, in fact, SR & SD are not
Below is an example of how the signifier can be
the same but have a different signified.
not cow
fluffy creature
Biblical reference (lamb of God)
The Silence of the Lamb
All different meanings, shifting meanings, meanings
changing over time.
Post Structuralism – SR & SD continued…
Derrida – The term he used to denote what he saw
as shifting meanings was deferred. The meaning is
deferred; in other words there is no fixed, stable
meaning behind words.
Metaphysics of Presence – to believe there is a
meaning that is fully present behind a word. Derrida
says this is an illusion. There is no stable meaning.
Words continue to attract new meanings. The word
Derrida uses is “play.”
Post Structuralism – SR & SD continued…
Transcendental Signified – Derrida argues
that core terms cannot serve as a foundation
because that term is subject to the “play” of
language like any other word.
Foundational Terms – i.e. God, Mind, Spirit,
Freedom. They could only truly be
foundation if they actually stood outside of
the “play” of language, yet they cannot do
that because all words impact on others.
Post Structuralism – SR & SD continued…
“Play” – As a result of Derrida’s use of this word, it can be
seen why Structuralism is sometimes referred to as antifoundational.
Western philosophy was built on the foundational
philosophies that there is an abiding meaning under every
signified that is the same for all of us.
Derrida says we have meaning effects; no fixed meaning, but
superficial play of signifiers. The consequence of Derrida’s
belief is that it undermines the scientific text. For example,
the Bible. A debate can be ended if you say the Bible was
written by God---the ultimate “transcendental signified.”
Post Structuralism – SR & SD continued…
Post Structuralism is
sometimes explained as
a “decentralizing
Post Structuralism
Saussure & Derrida
Saussure – When he spoke of the SR and the
SD and their inseparability, he was not
thinking about cultural differences and
different periods of time. Linguistics at the
time were not thinking that way, even though
to us it may seem evident.
Derrida – “There is nothing outside the text.”
We can only know the world through text.
Post Structuralism-Derrida
Derrida – We do not have meaning. We
have meaning effects (constant change
of meaning)
In other words, it is how cultures
understand a word, not individuals.
We are not in control of language,
language is in control of us.
Post Structuralism-Derrida vs Structuralists
We want to make sense of the world so we
need these transcendental signifieds --- as a
people --- that’s why we put fixed meaning to
them. However, per Derrida, it really does
not exist. No center core, ultimate meaning or
According to Derrida, our concepts are
generated by the “play” of language. It is not
that the concepts were already there and we
applied language to them.
Derrida vs Structuralists
Derrida says we can only know the
world through language.
Structuralists Views – Scientific
approach to understanding a text.
Language is stable. There is a
center; some sort of foundation.
How Do All
These Ideas
Relate to Literary
Deconstruction – A Particular
Way to Read a Text
For Deconstructionist Critics
there can never be absolute
knowledge of anything
because language can never
say what we intend it to mean.
A Deconstructive Reading of a Text
Undecidability – They highlight the
undecidability of a text - how indeterminate
its meanings are. Prior to
deconstructionism, the whole premise of
literary criticism was to discover the
meaning of the text.
Once you have done away with author and
decisive meaning, you have opened it up to
a plurality of meaning.
A Deconstructive Reading of a
A Deconstructionist reading tries
to bring out the logic of the text’s
writing as opposed to the author’s
intent. Can do this because the
author has no control of how the
language behaves on the page.
The Deconstructionist View
Their readings avoid closure. They
advocate a freedom to interpret and
reinterpret meaning.
We need not live with restricted definitions
of things.
Deconstructionists are only interested in
the words on the page and how they
operate (a text-centered approach).
Deconstructionists are playing with
The “hayday” of
Deconstructionism was
during the late ’70’s. It
has been in decline since
the ’80’s.
A Deconstructionist View
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
pg.219(para 2) – Hillis is saying
there is no ultimate voice in the
narrative that can serve as the
guarantor of the meaning.
pg.19 (6 lines from the bottom) –
glow is to haze as story is to meaning.
Seems like that is what he is trying to
A Deconstructionist View
Deconstructionism - expose the
illusionaryness of meaning.
Why do this?
Can be seen as annalistic.
Is it irresponsible to reduce a text to
simply a play of words when could
interpret its intended meaning?
Life experiences shape meaning of a text. Each
time one reads is different.
 Interpretation is situational. Thus, the different
approaches to criticism based on perspective are
the following:
Meaning resides with the
The purpose is to uncover
the author’s intention.
Meaning resides exclusively in the text. There
is no concern with who the author is or the
historical backdrop.
This approach deals with the mechanics within
the text, i.e. metaphors, etc.
The Literary Theories fitting into this approach are
Russian formalism, Anglo-American New
Criticism , Structuralism and Deconstruction
History is put first.
The historical context is established first.
It reflects the world around it.
It can be subjective because read from their own social position.
Relatively new form of criticism perspective.
 Began with Structuralists.
 Cultural response on the part of the reader.
 Text’s literary repetoire influences the reader’s
 How the reader reacts to the text and how the
literary devices of the text manipulate the reader’s
Cultural Criticism
Challenging the idea of the canon.
Identify the cultural forces that
make a literary text formidable.
Challenges New Criticism and
Formalism attitude that meaning
lies only within the text.
A Cultural Critic is concerned about
for whom the author is writing.
Cultural Criticism
Continued . . .
Cultural Critics re-established the
history of the text.
Cultural Critics reject the idea that
meaning is the product of an isolated
Cultural Critics look at all things to get
a network of meanings.
Cultural Critics look for what made the
consciousness of the author in the first
Cultural Criticism
Continued . . .
Overview of Cultural Theory
Cultural Criticism recovers the cultural space out of
which a literary work rose.
Cultural Criticism examines texts in relation to other
Cultural Criticism is more thorough than critiques of
the past.
Cultural Criticism believes that society is an arena in
which a plurality of cultures compete for cultural
Cultural Criticism acknowledge that subjectivity is
understood as a cultural construct.
Cultural Criticism supports the idea that consciousness
is culturally constructed.
Cultural Criticism
Continued . . .
The Cultural Critic is a political
being. Why?
Because we are dealing with a classstructured society
Because we have conflicting ideologies.
Cultures are competing thus the critic cannot stay
Cultural Criticism
Continued . . .
A Cultural Critic needs to do
The Cultural Critic has to know
the author and the context
(time) in which the author is
New Historicism
Stephen Greenblatt coined this term.
He was a professor at Berkeley in
California and is currently at
This is an approach to reading
literature in an historical context.
History is written by the conquerors
and the victors.
History is always competing for the
state of being official.
New Historicism
What counts as history is always
Different generations come along
and rewrite history according to their
Counter-Memory – A counter view to
the official memory.
Literary Artifact – Ways something
could be considered.
New Historicism
New Historicists see certain problems
with the recording of history:
History is received in the form of narratives- it is
 Often times there is narrative commentary.
There is a selection process, i.e. on t.v. one is
dependent on the camera location. At a miner’s
strike the cameraman is behind the police, thus
only see miner’s charging the police and never
the other way around.
You only experience any event through your own
culture’s prevailing discourses.
New Historicism
Representational model of History
Not necessarily accurately reflected. A version
of something.
 Institutions determine how history is written, i.e.
Warren Commission or Academia, thus will get a
different point of view.
 No truth is universal.
 Literature cannot be understood outside of
You only experience any event through your own
culture’s prevailing discourses.
New Historicism
An Interactive Model
Literature can itself shape events.
 Literature feeds off of other texts.
 New Historicists try to locate a literature
text in relation to institutes, beliefs and
power relations.
 Subjectivity – Historical critiques are shaped
and formed by discourses of their own time.
They can only read a literary text from their
social position.
You only experience any event through your own
culture’s prevailing discourses.
New Historicism
There will always be different versions of
history competing to be the official history.
A story or poem needs to be located within its
social circumstances.
Ex. Heart of Darkness – Conrad’s book was set in the
colonial period. What was the accounting given for?
Civilizing this other culture
Enlightening this other culture
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