Introduction to critical theory in Literature …a sampling of critical lenses: Part Three


This week we continue summarising the major tenets of the remaining selection of critical lenses.

DECONSTRUCTION is, by far, the most difficult critical theory for people to understand.
It was developed by some very smart (or very unstable) people who declare that literature means nothing because language means nothing.
In other words, we cannot say that we know what the ‘meaning’ of a story is because there is no way of knowing.
For example, in some stories that do not have tidy endings, you cannot assume you know what happened.
According to Biddle and Fulwiler (1989: 75) deconstructionists oppose the ‘metaphysics of presence’, that is, the claim of literature or philosophy that we can find some full, rich meaning outside of or prior to language itself.
Like formalists, these critics also look “at the relation of a text’s ideas to the way the ideas are expressed.
“Unlike formalists, though, deconstructionists find meaning in the ways the text breaks down: for instance, in the ways the rhetoric contradicts the ostensible message.” (ibid: 78).
Deconstructive criticism, “typically argues that a particular literary, historical, or philosophical work both claims to possess full and immediate presence and admits the impossibility of attaining such presence,”– that texts, rather than revealing the New Critic’s ‘unities’, actually dismantle themselves due to their intertwined, inevitably opposite ‘discourses’ (ibid) (strands of narrative, threads of meaning).

Historical Criticism
Using this theory requires that you apply to a text specific historical information about the time during which an author wrote.
History, in this case, refers to the social, political, economic, cultural, and/or intellectual climate of the time.
For example, William Faulkner wrote many of his novels and stories during and after the Second World War, which helps to explain the feelings of darkness, defeat, and struggle that pervade much of his work.
Historicism considers the literary work in light of ‘what really happened’ during the period reflected in that work.
It insists that to understand a piece, we need to understand the author’s biography and social background, ideas circulating at the time, and the cultural milieu.
Historicism also, “finds significance in the ways a particular work resembles or differs from other works of its period and/or genre,” and therefore may involve source studies.
It may also include examination of philology and linguistics.
It is typically a discipline involving impressively extensive research.
This is different from structural criticism, which looks at the ‘universal’ qualities of a piece of literature.
Structuralism is a theory that concentrates completely on the text, bringing nothing else to it.
It depends, in large part, on linguistic theory, so it is difficult to do without some background.
On the most basic level, however, structuralism investigates the kinds of patterns that are built up and broken down within a text and uses them to get at an interpretation of that text.
For example, most Shakespearean tragedies begin with conflict, followed by complication, then climax, then anticlimax and then resolution.
This pattern indicates that the play is not actually the slow movement through the lives of some standard characters, but a journey of human suffering and final resolution.

Post-Colonial Theory
Post-Colonial Theory is a sustained attention to the imperial process in colonial and neo-colonial societies, and an examination of the strategies to subvert the actual material and discursive effects of the process. 
It begins from the very first moment of colonial contact, and is the discourse of ‘oppositionality’ which colonialism brings into being. 
Although it is almost hopelessly diverse, there are some identifiable characteristics of Post-Colonial Theory such as:
Rejection on master-narrative of Western imperialism.
Concern with the formation (within Western discursive practices) of the colonial and post-colonial “subject”.
 In both conquest and colonisation, texts and textuality play a major part. 
European texts wrote the non-European subject as having, in the words of Bill Ashcroft (1995) “an alterity” (having something lacking). 
European texts and representations were seen and thought of as normative. 
These texts were not accounts of people and societies, but a projection of European fears and desires, under the guise of ‘scientific’ or ‘objective” knowledge (eg. explorer narratives). 
These texts were then projected onto the colonised through formal education or cultural relations.

Post Colonialism and Post-Modernism
The rise of theoretical interest in post-colonialism has coincided with the rise of post-modernism in Western society. 
This has led to a considerable amount overlap and confusion between the two, largely because the major project of post-modernism is the deconstruction of the centralised, logo-centric master narratives of European culture. 
This is similar to the major project in post-colonialism of dismantling the central/margin binarism of imperial discourse.
Some other overlaps of the two theories are:
De-centering of discourse.
Focus on significance of language.
Focus on writing in the construction of experience.
Use of subversive strategies of mimicry/parody and irony.

Cultural Criticism
This theory questions traditional value hierarchies and takes a cross-disciplinary approach to works traditionally marginalised by the aesthetic ideology of white European males.
Instead of more attention to the canon, cultural studies examine works by minority ethnic groups and postcolonial writers, and the products of folk, urban, and mass culture.
Popular literature, soap opera, rock and rap music, cartoons, professional wrestling, food, etc, all fall within the domain of cultural criticism.
We are focusing on it particularly as it concerns questioning the ways Western cultural tradition expressed in literature defines itself partly by stifling the voices of oppressed groups or even by demonising those groups.
We will focus on how literary tradition has constructed models of identity for oppressed groups, how these groups have constructed oppositional literary identities, and how different communities of readers might interpret the same text differently due to varied value systems.
This understanding brings us to re-examine these theories which have been generated in the West in terms of their applicability to the African experiences.
To be continued


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