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Critical Theory

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on March 4, 2019 • ( 3 )

Critical Theory is, by and large, concerned with the critique of modernity, modernization, and the modern state. The first generation of critical theorists – Max Horkheimer , Theodor Adorno , Herbert Marcuse , Walter Benjamin , Erich Fromm – came together in the early 1930s from different disciplines within the humanities and social sciences in order to analyze and critique ideologies, institutions, discourses, and media as well as to research the social psychology of disturbing new trends like fascism and the “administered society.” All of these figures, except Benjamin, were officially connected with the Institute for Social Research which was founded by Felix Weil in the years following the First World War and became part of Frankfurt University in 1923. They were dedicated to studying society from a Marxian perspective, but diverged from classical Marxism in their emphasis on “superstructural phenomena” (e.g., problems of culture, class formation, and ideological hegemony) as opposed to the modes of production and economic forces that for classical Marxism determine such phenomena more or less mechanistically. Though rooted in Hegelian or Kantian traditions, Frankfurt school theorists were critical of the visions of totality (social, political, historical, and aesthetic) associated with these two philosophers.

The aim of the Institute in its early years (1930–64) was to develop a comprehensive social theory that would both describe relations of power and domination and facilitate and encourage radical social transformations. Adorno’s main concerns, like Horkheimer’s, were for the quality and value of human life, for the preservation of happiness, leisure, and aesthetic experience. The most important work of this period was their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), a critique of modernity in the form of “philosophical fragments,” critical analyses of Enlightenment thinking, anti-Semitism, the “culture industry,” and the administered society. The Enlightenment is here regarded as incorporating within its dialectical trajectory the very thing it seeks to overcome: mythology. “Mythology itself sets off the unending process of enlightenment,” and “[j]ust as the myths already realize enlightenment, so enlightenment with every step becomes more deeply engulfed in mythology” (11–12). This dialectical interaction is already at work in Homer, whose epic organization is at variance with mythic reality: “The venerable cosmos of the meaningful Homeric world is shown to be the achievement of regulative reason, which destroys myth by virtue of the same rational order in which it reflects it” (44). The disenchantment of the mythic unity of nature ultimately led to the alienated subjectivity of modernity and the rationalization and commodification of culture. It also created the conditions in which anti-Semitism and the “final solution” could flourish amid all of the advances of human science, philosophy, and art.


In this environment, consumers of culture become the primary producers, but they are limited to the reproduction of existing social conditions. Thus, “ ‘consumer culture’ can boast of being not a luxury but rather the simple extension of production” (Prisms 26). The culture industry thus produces popular forms of entertainment in order to lull individuals into conformity with dominant ways of thinking and consuming. Adorno’s later critique of jazz, which he rejected as commercialized and debased, indicates the extent to which even marginal cultural forms reproduce dominant values and tastes. For Horkheimer and Adorno, people in administered societies no longer have aesthetic experiences; there is only the spectacle of consumption itself, the never-ending round of entertainments that never satisfy and also never fail to manufacture the desire for more. To feel these desires is to conform to the consumerism that has transformed the way political and economic interests determine increasingly complex, technological societies. In a consumerist society, competition and the logic of the marketplace infiltrate all levels of social, cultural, and political practice.

Adorno’s work underscores the new emphasis in Marxist theory on art, aesthetics, and the artist’s commitment to social change. The Holocaust underscored the limits both of culture and of critique: “The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today” (Prisms 34). In other words, it is difficult to reflect on the impossibility of art, because even that critical reflection is tainted by the barbarism latent in Enlightenment visions of progress. The rationalization of culture makes it difficult for Adorno to see any emancipatory potential in humanism, which means that he must turn to the radical innovations of anti-humanist, avant-garde artists like Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka. For Adorno, the negative aesthetics exemplified in their work proffers the only authentic alternative to the administered culture of advanced capitalism. Adorno’s theory of Negative Dialectics is one of the most important tools for analyzing social and cultural problems without becoming entrapped in traditional concepts of subjectivity and identity. Negative dialectics preserves the “negativity” of the NEGATIVE, which resists being appropriated by the positive term of dialectical processes. It is not a reversal of standard dialectical operations. As Adorno warns, “a purely formal reversal” of the formula “identity in nonidentity” merely reinscribes conventional dialectical relations (154). Negative dialectics avoids such a reversal by rescuing nonidentity from a dialectical process that would subsume it in the production of identity. Nevertheless, the process of rescue remains tied “to the supreme categories of identitarian philosophy as its point of departure” (147).

Adorno’s friend and colleague, Walter Benjamin , was less committed to dialectical method. He is best known for his work on the Parisian arcades and the flâneur, the quintessential figure of modernity, adrift in the city, in thrall to a constant barrage of people, objects, and commodities. He combined the sociological and philosophical rigor of the Institute with a messianic point of view best illustrated by his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” For Benjamin, historical determinism is not a dialectical process but rather a form of mystical simultaneity in which the “angel of history” faces the past, which is piled like wreckage at its feet, its back to the future towards which it is irresistibly propelled.

Benjamin was, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “the most peculiar Marxist ever produced” by the Frankfurt school (qtd. in Benjamin 10). In line with other Critical Theorists, Benjamin regarded the vast array of cultural productions – popular music and films, literature, fashion, consumer products – in terms of how they reproduced the logic of capitalism. But unlike them, he attempted to identify what had been gained in the process of commodification. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction , Benjamin argues that traditional works of art were “one of a kind,” that they possessed an “aura” of authenticity inseparable from a ritual function. However, there is at least partial compensation for the loss of aura that occurred once works of art were mass produced. Film and other new art forms could now create an emancipatory popular culture in which the once-sacred artwork would be “de-sacralized” and “de-aestheticized,” its infinite reproducibility making it both more democratic and less tied up with mystifying ritual: “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). The loss of aura signals an ambivalence at the heart of modern culture, for the very means by which traditional culture is robbed of its authenticity are the means by which art becomes available to the masses. With the loss of aura came the loss of the idea that the work of art is a timeless, unified structure. For this reason Benjamin explored new avenues for expressing his views about literature and culture. Because he was drawn to the materiality of things, to the telling detail, he became adept at the use of quotation. “In this,” according to Arendt, “he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency. ‘Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions’ ” (qtd. in Benjamin 38). Benjamin developed a model for critical understanding based not on a conception of organic or synthetic unity, but on a constellation of texts, concepts, and ideas that constitutes a provisional and effective totality as well as a mode of social practice.

Jürgen Habermas ’s emergence in 1964 as the chair in philosophy and sociology at the Institute marked a second phase of Critical Theory. He and his followers, especially Seyla Benhabib , carried on a tradition of social theory associated with the Frankfurt school. At this time, we see a shift away from a critique of modernity as the dead-end of capitalism to a critique in which the emancipatory potential of the “unfulfilled” project of modernity could be realized in new strategies for social transformation. Something of Benjamin’s hope for new cultural technologies is evident in Habermas’s belief that new forms of “communicative action” could provide a means of achieving social and political consensus. These were noncoercive, rational forms of consensual action based on a principle of mutual criticism and a shared acceptance of the values and risks entailed in rational consensus. By 1975, with the publication of Legitimation Crisis , Habermas was able to offer a systemic alternative to Adorno’s view of society. Along with Hans Blumenberg , Claus Offe , and Ernest Mandel , Habermas argued that crises in advanced, “technocratic” capitalist societies provided critical opportunities for social change. In this context, the welfare state theorized by Offe is a symptom of a capitalist system that is far from exhausted, that is simply taking risks in producing social programs that contribute to a de-commodification process in which, contrary to the logic of commodity production and consumerism, the State gives away resources without a commensurate enrichment in the form of capital or other commodities.

In the late 1970s, Habermas entered into a debate with Jean-François Lyotard , who argued, in The Postmodern Condition (1979), that the project of modernity was indeed finished and a new one had already begun. Habermas’s claim to the contrary, in his oft-cited 1979 essay, Modernity versus Postmodernity – that the “project of modernity has not yet been fulfilled” (12) – can be regarded as an expression of Critical Theory’s optimism with respect to modernity. His Lectures on the Discourse of Modernity (1987) reinstates modernity as the “positive” force, the philosophical ground and material condition for Critical Theory and social practice. Many other theorists at this time were writing on modernity, though not from a Frankfurt school perspective. Anthony Giddens , for example, in The Consequences of Modernity (1990) and Modernity and Self- Identity (1991), put forward a social theory grounded in the idea of reflexivity, a social process in which identity is conceived as a dynamic process involving the individual’s access to and management of information. While Postmodernists concentrated on the nature and effect of language games and media simulations, Giddens focused on the way individuals acquired competence within information environments. He distinguished between the self (a “generic phenomenon”) and selfidentity, which “is not something that is just given, as a result of the continuities of the individual’s action-system, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual” (Modernity and Self-Identity, 52).

The renewed interest in modernity marks a third phase of Critical Theory, one very much influenced by the revisionist Marxism of Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser . In some respects, this phase responds to the very problems that the study of modernity made evident. What is to be done, asks Wendy Brown , when the “constitutive narratives of modernity” are “tattered,” when challenges to such concepts as “progress, right, sovereignty, free will, moral truth, reason” have not yielded any alternatives? (3–4). One response to this question was a greater openness to Postmodern and poststructuralist theories and to ideas coming from Feminism , Lacanian psychoanalysis , Deconstruction , Postcolonial Studies , and Cultural Studies . Critical Theory at this time sought to redefine social totality as “the totality of conditions under with social individuals produced and reproduced their existence” (Benhabib 2). For Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe , the hegemony of dominant classes in capitalist societies is grounded on inauthentic totalities – that is to say, the particular and limited interests of a dominant group are represented as the universal foundation for justice, morality, and politics. They advocate the production of a counter-hegemony in the form of strategic coalitions of political groups mobilized to exploit weaknesses, contradictions, crises, and other gaps in the hegemony of advanced capitalism. Laclau has advocated the use of “quasi-transcendentals,” which can serve as the starting point for cultural and political discourses that seek consensus across broad audiences or constituencies, and Judith Butler, in her analysis of feminist politics, calls for “contingent foundations” to allow for coalition building and political activity. In 2000, Laclau and Butler joined Slavoj Žižek in publishing a volume of polemical essays – Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left – whose general warrant was to explore the possibility for social theory of contingent or provisional totalities and to “account for the enigmatic emergence of the space of universality itself ” (Butler et al. 104).

WORKS CITED Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New York: Seabury Press, 1973. ——. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981. Benhabib, Seyla. Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London and New York: Verso, 2000. Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991. Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity versus Postmodernity.” New German Critique 17 (Spring 1979): 3–22. Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Source: Castle, Gregory. The Blackwell Guide To Literary Theory . Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2007.

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Categories: Critical Theory , Philosophy

Tags: Anthony Giddens , C. Wright Mills , Chantal Mouffe , Claus Offe , Critical Theory , Cultural Materialism , Cultural Studies , Dialectic of Enlightenment , Erich Fromm , Ernest Mandel , Ernesto Laclau , Frankfurt School , Habermas , Hannah Arendt , Hans Blumenberg , Herbert Marcuse , HISTORICAL DETERMINISM , Lectures on the Discourse of Modernity , Literary Criticism , Literary Theory , Lyotard , Marxism , Max Horkheimer , Modernity and Self- Identity , Modernity versus Postmodernity , negative dialectics , Seyla Benhabib , Sociology , The Consequences of Modernity , The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction , Theodor Adorno , Thorstein Veblen , Walter Benjamin. , Wendy Brown

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  • BRIEF CONTENTS 1. An Introduction, Theoretically 2. Critical Words: A Selective Tour 3. Unifying the Work: New Criticism 4. Creating the Text: Reader-Response Criticism 5. Opening Up the Text: Structuralism and Deconstruction 6. Connecting the Text: Historical and New Historical Criticism 7. Minding the Work: Psychological Criticism 8. Gendering the Text: Feminist Criticism, Post-feminism, and Queer Theory
  • COMPREHENSIVE CONTENTS PREFACE 1. An Introduction, Theoretically Textual Tours Checking Some Baggage "Is There One Correct Interpretation of a Literary Work?" "So, Are All Opinions About Literature Equally Valid?" Anything to Declare? Theory Enables Practice You Already Have a Theoretical Stance This is an Introduction Here's the Plan Works Cited and Recommended Further Reading
  • 2. Critical Worlds: A Selective Tour Brendan Gill, from Here at "The New Yorker" New Criticism Reader-Response Criticism Structuralist and Deconstructive Criticism Historical, Postcolonial, and Cultural Studies Psychological Criticism Political Criticism Other Approaches Works Cited and Recommended Further Reading
  • 3. Unifying the Work: New Criticism The Purpose of New Criticism Basic Principles Reflected Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica" Radicals in Tweed Jackets How to Do New Criticism Film and Other Genres The Writing Process: A Sample Essay Gwendolyn Brooks, "The Mother" Preparing to Write Shaping Drafting Practicing New Criticism Stephen Shu-ning Liu, "My Father's Martial Art" Questions Ben Jonson, "On My First Son" Questions The Parable of the Prodigal Son Questions Useful Terms for New Criticism Checklist for New Criticism Works Cited Recommended Further Reading
  • 4. Creating the Text: Reader-Response Criticism The Purpose of Reader-Response Criticism New Criticism as the Old Criticism The Reader Emerges Hypertextual Readers How to Do Reader-Response Criticism Preparing to Respond Sandra Cisneros, "Love Poem #1" Making Sense Subjective Response Receptive Response The Writing Process: A Sample Essay Preparing to Respond Ernest Hemingway, A Very Short Story Preparing to Write Shaping Drafting Practicing Reader-Response Criticism Michael Drayton, "Since There's No Help"
  • Questions Judith Minty, Killing the Bear
  • Questions Tom Wayman, "Did I Miss Anything?"
  • A. Williams "deep as space"
  • Questions Useful Terms for Reader-Response Criticism Checklist: Using Reader-Response Criticism Works Cited Recommended Further Reading
  • 5. Opening Up the Text: Structuralism and Deconstruction The Purposes of Structuralism and Deconstruction Structuralism and Semiotics Poststructuralism and Deconstruction How to Do Structuralism and Deconstruction William Butler Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium" The Writing Process: A Sample Essay Amy Clampitt, "Discovery" Preparing to Write Shaping Drafting Practicing Structuralist and Deconstructive Criticism Questions Cut through the anxiety, the unknown, the hassle ... William Blake, "London" Questions Linda Pastan, "Ethics" Questions John Donne, "Death Be Not Proud" Questions Useful Terms for Deconstruction Checklist for Deconstruction Works Cited Recommended Further Reading 6. Connecting the Text: Historical and New Historical Criticism The Purposes of Historical and New Historical Criticism Biographical and Historical Criticism John Milton, "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent" Cultural Studies New Historicism History as Text Marxist Criticism Postcolonial and Ethnic Studies How to Do Biographical and Historical Criticism The Writing Process: Sample Essays John Cheever, Reunion A Biographical Essay Preparing to Write Shaping Drafting A New Historical Essay Preparing to Write Shaping.
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Believing Is Seeing: The “Lens” Metaphor in Critical Theory

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Thomas L Martin, Believing Is Seeing: The “Lens” Metaphor in Critical Theory, Literary Imagination , Volume 21, Issue 3, November 2019, Pages 289–295,

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Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone speak of literary theories as so many lenses one pulls from the metaphorical camera bag. Or maybe they are from the optometrist’s shop as professionals select from a variety of lenses to correct our vision. In any case, figuring literary theories as lenses appears to be the metaphor that embodies a widespread understanding of the role of theory today.

Before this was the critical toolbox. For several decades leading up to the appearance of the first edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism in 2001, critics referred to the concepts and ideas in literary theory as tools. The assortment of those tools taken together represented a toolbox the reader might carry from one text to another. The toolbox perhaps signaled a level of training and know-how that distinguished a “professional” reader trained in various methods of investigation from the lay reader who lacked such formal training.

That metaphor drops out of use around the turn of the century. The MLA Index clearly demonstrates the shift in the metaphor when in the 2000s the toolbox metaphor trends down to nearly nothing, while the lens metaphor begins and in the later 2010s rises to a peak. The publication of the canonical Norton Anthology may or may not have something to do with the changing of the metaphorical guard, but a debate arose at the time of the book’s release in which the editor Vincent Leitch argued that theory is not a toolbox, but, as a concern and understanding of the world, theory is an end in itself. If it is indeed an end in itself, where does that leave the literature?

This is not the place to rehearse that debate, but Leitch’s argument seems to have won the day. Or perhaps he was out front of a major shift in our thinking about the role of theory and its relationship to the arts. New paradigms require new metaphors. Does the paradigm behind the lens metaphor assume that the literature is just another commentary on, or exemplification of, the theory? Does that paradigm relegate the primary source to a secondary status? It is significant to note that the adjective Literary in the titles of competing anthologies is absent from the Norton volume.

Leitch’s primary objection to the toolbox metaphor seems to be the idea that criticism serves as an ancillary activity to the once more central work of literary analysis. That is what the toolbox metaphor essentially suggested: meaning resides in the literary text, and some application of tools might be effectively used to recover that meaning. One does not need a phenomenological theory of the tool as equipment (Heidegger: das Zeug ) to get there. The toolbox metaphor may be more ad hoc and informal than Heidegger’s notion of a tool as “ready-to-hand,” though the two might overlap. The idea of an array of tools suggests that they might even be interchangeable as long as they accomplish the job. A screwdriver can be used as a gouge or pry bar, a pipe wrench used as a lever or hammer. There are only seven simple machines, after all. The toolbox metaphor may be completely too mechanical in its implications to apply to the nature of meaning, but the idea that one tool may be as useful as any other to extract meaning does shift the attention from the tool to the meaning.

At first, the critical lens metaphor seems functionally equivalent to the critical toolbox metaphor. Both, for instance, can be used in isolation or combination with others of its kind. But whereas the tool serves a temporary usefulness, a lens suggests a permanent way of seeing, a way of seeing perhaps not otherwise available. The lens metaphor likely succeeds because it relies on the figure of vision for understanding. As such, it also suggests a perspective on the object viewed. But after this, the metaphor runs into problems. In fact, both metaphors do. One might naturally ask, can we uncover meaning without a tool, and how many lenses are required to see a literary work? As we further consider both metaphors, we might wonder the degree to which either is really useful or clarifying .

The current usage suggests that many “lenses” of critical theory are necessary to “see” the work of literature. But if we follow the logic of the metaphor, clearly only one lens is needed. That would be the lens that brings the object into sharp focus. All other lenses, to the extent that they deviate from those optics, would distort the object. For those wearing glasses to bring objects into the correct focus, using other lenses proves defeating and futile. This is where the metaphor fails and fails quite spectacularly. The idea behind the metaphor might be that multiple perspectives are needed to understand a work of art, but lenses are not perspectives. A single lens can be moved around an object to generate all kinds of perspectives. But, opthalmically, lenses are corrections to faulty vision, focusing or orienting eyes in need of correction to a standard, optimal vision.

Do those who use the metaphor mean optical filters like those photographers use? Photographically, these lenses render an object in various pronounced color tones. Many of the color-bathed images they produce might presumably be added together to create a single composite image. Yet, filters by definition strain out portions of the available light to create such effects. We know that filters miss important details, intentionally deviating from what is available to create varied effects.

Or we might expand the lens metaphor in the direction of vision augmentation devices. Maybe that is the sense in which those who use the metaphor mean it. That would include technological innovations like infrared, heat imaging, and more. The advantage of understanding the metaphor this way is that it captures a sense of the progress of knowledge to which we in the university long ago committed ourselves. But these cannot be critical “lenses,” either, in the sense of multiple incompatible perspectives. These technologies open the wider spectrum of light radiation to human observers. They nonetheless view the same light band, and the object they illumine is still the same object. So these devices cannot be “lenses” in the current sense of the metaphor used in critical contacts.

As we sort through possible meanings, it becomes apparent that critics who talk about the literary “lens” seem to mean the metaphor to signify multiple perspectives. But this is also problematic, as multiple perspectives have little to do with lenses since, as noted, any single lens can generate multiple perspectives. As deficiently thought through as the metaphor is, the underlying idea of multiple incompatible perspectives is troublesome. It raises the specter of interpretive relativism—which may not in itself sound objectionable—but the perpetual ambiguity and confusing chaos that relativism creates inevitably leads to textual interventionism.

Maybe it is not a lens but more like a recipe. Maybe critics mix in ingredients to make new concoctions. Maybe they make something new with a different look, taste, and texture. Why not stir some dogma into our reading? Why not revolutionary fervor or the sensibility of another place and time? For one thing, there are very good hermeneutical reasons not to do so. For another, there are good alchemical reasons not to do so. Lye when mixed with one ingredient makes a mild cleanser for the skin; with another it dissolves human flesh. Don’t we still need to listen to and understand one another, not only if we are to be educated people, but if we are going to live with one another in society? Otherwise, we are all just revolutionaries who continue to batter one another in every classroom, every social media encounter, every time we talk to one another or pick up a book.

Or if not like a recipe, maybe a lens is a kind of medical enhancement device. Doctors prescribe lenses. Maybe the prescribed lens uses digital augmented reality to overlay a preferred form and message. Or maybe it is more like a pharmaceutical pill or ointment that when applied makes me feel like the text agrees with me? But before we begin the work of criticism, we must certainly read a work to understand it. I find that too many students who adopt this reading-with-a-lens approach are losing the ability to read literature. They do not know how literary conventions convey meaning and that literature is a unique use of language that speaks a meaning over and above ordinary language. Too many students have been taught how to use a lens to find the oppressor, for instance, but somehow that singular focus leads away from other matters of which the text speaks.

At a sentence and discourse level, too many university students cannot engage a literary text. They are taught to favor partisan simplicity over complexity. They are taught to pass over the ways authors use tone and a variety of viewpoints to explore complex issues that confront us as human beings. Sometimes those issues they can immediately relate to; sometimes not. But as they lose the ability to have a primary experience in their reading, they lose what other minds and other cultures offer them. They miss the richness of figurative language that captures all kinds of ambivalences and intersections of human will and aspiration they might find there. Sometimes I wonder if what the critics call a lens really is a lens at all. I find it interesting that these students don’t need a lens to read what the critics say. If that is the case, maybe the lenses critics advocate for are lenses after all: maybe they are cyborg lenses that sketch the barest outline around objects to find that one thing they are programmed to find. “Must find John Conner!”

But this is not so much seeing as it is critical monomania. Whatever it is, it is hardly critical anymore since to see the same thing every time we read is as critical as taking a ride on Uncle Toby’s hobby horse. Is a lens a kind of tunnel vision? Maybe the purpose of the lens is to conceal? Maybe it is like the card sharp’s colored lenses that screen out the ornate designs on the backs of cards to display instead a hidden code.

In this connection, I think of the critic Christopher Norris, who says in effect that we can’t read texts anymore, but we can read ideologies. Is this looking at a work of literature through a “lens,” or is it a surreptitious switching of meanings in which literature is treated as appearance and the critical theory reality? Maybe all writers of texts produce only “surface” and all writers of theories only “depth”? In this case, what the critic says is more “real” than what the text “appears” to say. Consequently, does the critical lens “write the text,” in Stanley Fish’s sense, or does it rewrite it? Perhaps a lens is a set rose-colored glasses or maybe a terministic screen. Maybe it is one of those mood spectacles or illusion glasses we find at parties. How about a kaleidoscopic lens with bits of sea shell, glitter, and tiny shapes rattling at one end to produce a captivating image at the other? Maybe our chosen lens produces an Escher pattern that tessellates across the field of vision, covering everything in sight? All sorts of lenses are available to us, and the Dutchman’s interlocking angels and demons explain an awful lot, after all.

The problem with lenses is that with them students don’t know what they know. A friend who went to medical school said he worked in the clinic his first year. When I asked, “Isn’t there a danger that might lead to malpractice,” he answered, “They trust us to know what we don’t know.” Our students in literary studies outfitted with lenses don’t have that same epistemic circumspection. This kind of awareness is greater than that which any lens could provide. I don’t blame these students as much as I do the critics and others in the profession who promote the lens as an interpretative carte blanche. Is a lens simply what the text would say if someone with my philosophy or political persuasion wrote it? To metaphorize what they want to say about a text as a lens is to make it official. Henceforth, it is unquestionable. Since we’re searching for metaphors, maybe we should include those characters in Tolkien whose superior minds seek lower intelligences to carry out their will, a chief difference between wizards and orcs. Or maybe reading is a kind of ventriloquism act? Metaphors abound for the kind of reading practiced in our profession today.

Do those who replace the meaning of a literary work with some understanding of the world they favor regard the new meaning as somehow communicable and stable? Do they then present this “real” meaning to the rest of us to see without the aid of “lenses”? Or do they argue that all not only literary works but also literary interpretations require lenses, so we might as well adopt their lens as well as any other? Should we expect a battle of the lenses, a hermeneutic ground war where perspectival possibilities multiply and clash because other new critics with their respective lenses insist on the primacy of their visions? In the end, how many acts of lens-viewing are a matter of withdrawing the veritable message in the bottle and simply inserting our own?

Of course, the pluralism we espouse as critics need not be a tendentious process of self-validating and unquestioned perspectives that turn the text into something other than it is, nor a competition for recognition in Kojève’s “struggle to the death for pure prestige.” For Coleridge’s definition of beauty as “multeity in unity,” plurality in Western philosophy and art was heretofore seen as the complex variety of things integrated in a much larger whole, even if the identity of the whole was unknown. Only in the postmodern did that change. Deleuze was the principal philosopher for the “fundamental” nature, as he described it, of discontinuity. But even though the discourse of discontinuity currently dominates academia, there is a pressing need for a semantic-cognitive opening in which evidence and the remaining laws of logic help us sort through the teeming plurality that overruns us even on a practical level each day. Or does our egalitarianism extend to every idea and impression we have irrespective of its plausibility and moral payoff? Truth is not so much plural as things manifesting themselves in a variety of ways, and individual perceivers with their various histories and values multiply perceptions as they interact with the world and one another. In such cases, we rightly respect plurality as a means to access larger unified truths and discern broader patterns. When we do so, we account for the narrowness of singular viewpoints.

In the matter of the interpretation of art, we take these “perceptions” or “perspectives”—not lenses—and we add them up to see what greater understanding they offer. Otherwise, we might as well have one eye on one side of our head arguing with the other about which one is right. Even two lenses on a single pair of spectacles provide this function in the most obvious of ways. Each vantage point is partial, knows its vision is partial, nor will and does not insist its one lens is true, as if that ended the story. Instead, each coordinates its lesser information with the lesser information of the other as it seeks areas of agreement. Insofar as their lesser information overlaps, they reconcile what they know with one another to attain more knowledge. Their divergence exists for the sake of convergence, their multiplicity for the sake of unity.

Even in our fractious age, perceivers seek to reconcile the various inputs of their five senses. Scientists seek a unified field theory. And can we literary critics still seek a unified understanding of our subject matter as well, even as we allow for the personal response of the individual viewer, which can be integrated in some larger account? When we find that information in one place does not square with that in another, we search for a deeper unity that connects them. Is that unity not requisite to the knowledge toward which we aim in our institutions of higher learning?

The destructive legacy of a poststructuralist insistence on fundamental discontinuity has locked us in the untenable position of Borges’s Funes, for whom “[n]ot only was it difficult … to see that the generic symbol ‘dog’ took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the ‘dog’ of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally.” The effect of the doctrine of fundamental discontinuity has been to disregard the fertile dance of the one and the many. Yet, neither understanding nor complexity exists without that dance. Our best contemporary artists still move effortlessly with it. As the poststructuralist doctrine of discontinuity ill disposes us toward two thousand years of our civilization’s art and philosophy that coordinates the one with the other, it also ill disposes us to other persons as genuine sources of knowledge, treating us all as discontinuous points of either opposition or assent. I think rather of the great game theorist John Nash who in our time used one bright corner of a diseased mind to leverage his remarkable understanding of the world, adding some perspectives and subtracting others, as he eliminated blind spots and repudiated illusions.

Is there something in this metaphor of the lens that can isolate us from one another and from the past? Not if it is meant as clarifying sight rather than radical reinterpretation and unquestioned alternativeness. But these latter meanings and not the former seem to be advanced and even celebrated in our time. I am afraid that the thinkers who gave us ideology in the place of ideas now give us lenses instead of sight. Critical intervention passes too quickly over what is said to what the critic believes ought to be said. If this is so, the lens metaphor goes a long way to replace both ideas and seeing, thinking and sight—the organic processes of observation, comparison, and patient interpretation of what literary works convey.

Is there a better metaphor than either lens or tool? While it tempting to think of others, perhaps this is one time in literary studies we should reflect on the literal. Literature requires literacy. Literacy at a minimum means the ability to generate meanings out of all manner of texts ourselves. Therefore, insofar as criticism usurps this role and interjects its own meanings, it functions as a substitute for literacy. While literacy comes at the end of a long process of learning that culminates in complex crossroads of cognitive awareness, certain critical lenses offer to short-change the process with quick answers and interpretive schemes that explain far too much away as it foregrounds the critic’s own view of the world. Immersive and reflective readers ought to move not only across texts but equally among ideas in the history of thought, not simply reduce the variety of what they find there to the sameness of the critic’s singular vision in our own time. Increasingly, many students and authors of manuscripts who come to me for review treat criticism as a perfectly legitimate blinder to the things that literate readers of literature ought to know. We appear to be approaching a place in Western intellectual tradition far beyond earlier tendencies either to allegorize or syncretize, where to read a text is to shift the ground of discussion and translate what it says into our own preferred critical idiom and worldview.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the truth value of lenses rarely comes up in the metaphor, whether these interpretations and accounts are hermeneutically sound or not. The same critical lens keeps seeing the same thing over and over, or as overzealous students say, “It’s everywhere I look!” Interesting in this regard is how the metaphor of the lens stands as the perfect inverse of the traditional tale of the four blind men and the elephant. In that tale, narrow perspectives mean limited information, and limited information takes the logical misstep of mistaking the part for the whole. Saramago’s Blindness updates the tale in a horrifying parable that shows how deep the mistake still runs in our nature. The synecdoche error dogs us too much these days as we grapple with the meaning of the postmodern and what might await us after it.

Regarding our professional pursuits, then, perhaps such errors and faulty metaphors follow naturally from critical orthodoxies when they are uncritically retained. If metaphors are supposed to sharpen our understanding, not obfuscate it, then the lens metaphor falls short. The toolbox metaphor was beset by its own problems, too, but not for the reasons that gave us the lens metaphor. Still, we literate readers, to the degree we consider ourselves such, should be more aware of our metaphors. Not swept along by them. Least of all, blinded by them.

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23.9 Applying Literary Theory and Critical Perspectives

Now that we’ve examined a variety of critical perspectives and literary theories, we’ll take a closer look at the following perspectives to see how they can be applied in analyzing literature:

Reader-response Criticism

Psychoanalytic literary criticism, feminist theory, postcolonial, racial, and ethnic theory.

This approach focuses on the reader (or “audience”) and their experience of a literary work, in contrast to other schools and theories that focus attention primarily on the author or the content and form of the work.

Reader-response theory recognizes the reader as an active agent who imparts “real existence” to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation. Reader-response criticism argues that literature should be viewed as a performing art in which each reader creates their own, possibly unique, text-related performance. It stands in total opposition to the theories of formalism and the New Criticism.

The Purpose of Reader-Response

Reader-response suggests that the role of the reader is essential to the meaning of a text, for only in the reading experience does the literary work come alive. For example, in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s  Frankenstein  (1818), the monster doesn’t exist, so to speak, until the reader reads  Frankenstein and reanimates it to life, becoming a co-creator of the text. Thus, the purpose of a reading response is examining, explaining, and defending your personal reaction to a text.

Your critical reading of a text asks you to :

  • explore why you like or dislike the text;
  • explain whether you agree or disagree with the author;
  • identify the text’s purpose; and
  • critique the text.

There is no right or wrong answer to a reading response. Nonetheless, it is important that you demonstrate an understanding of the reading and clearly explain and support your reactions. Do not use the standard approach of just writing:  “I liked this text because it is so cool and the ending made me feel happy,” or “I hated it because it was stupid and had nothing at all to do with my life and was too negative and boring.”  In writing a response you may assume the reader has already read the text. Thus, do not summarize the contents of the text at length.  Instead, take a systematic, analytical approach to the text.

Criticize with Examples

If you did not like a text, that is fine, but criticize it either from:

Is the text racist? Does the racism come from the narrator, character, or the text itself?

Does the text unreasonably put down things, such as religion, or groups of people, such as women or adolescents, conservatives or democrats, etc.?

Does the text include factual errors or outright lies? It is too dark and despairing? Is it falsely positive?

Does the text lack clarity?

Does it contain too much verbal “fat”?

Is it too emotional or too childish?

Does it have too many facts and figures? (e.g., in nonfiction)

Are there typos or other errors in the text?

Do the ideas wander around without making a point?

In each of these cases, do not simply criticize, but give examples.

The Structure of a Reader-Response Essay

Choosing a text to study is the first step in writing a reader-response essay. Once you have chosen the text, your challenge is to connect with it and have a “conversation” with the text.

In the beginning paragraph of your reader-response essay, as with any essay you’re analyzing, be sure to mention the following:

  • title of the work to which you are responding;
  • the author; and
  • the main thesis of the text.

Then, do your best to answer the questions below. Remember, however, that you are writing an essay, not filling out a short-answer worksheet. You do not need to work through these questions in order, one by one, in your essay. Rather, your paper as a whole should be sure to address these questions in some way.

  • What does the text have to do with you, personally, and with your life (past, present or future)? It is not acceptable to write that the text has nothing to do with you, since just about everything humans can write has to do in some way with every other human.
  • How much does the text agree or clash with your view of the world, and what you consider right and wrong? Use several quotes as examples of how it agrees with and supports what you think about the world, about right and wrong, and about what you think it is to be human.   Use quotes and examples to discuss how the text disagrees with what you think about the world and about right and wrong.
  • What did you learn, and how much were your views and opinions challenged or changed by this text, if at all?   Did the text communicate with you? Why or why not?   Give examples of how your views might have changed or been strengthened (or perhaps, of why the text failed to convince you, the way it is). Please do not write “I agree with everything the author wrote,” since everybody disagrees about something, even if it is a tiny point. Use quotes to illustrate your points of challenge, or where you were persuaded, or where it left you cold.
  • How well does the text address things that you, personally, care about and consider important to the world? D oes it address things that are important to your family, your community, your ethnic group, to people of your economic or social class or background, or your faith tradition?  If not, who does or did the text serve? Did it pass the “Who cares?” test?   Use quotes from the text to illustrate.
  • What can you praise about the text? What problems did you have with it? Reading and writing “critically” does not mean the same thing as “criticizing,” in everyday language (complaining or griping, fault-finding, nit-picking). Your “critique” can and should be positive and praise the text if possible, as well as pointing out problems, disagreements and shortcomings.
  • How well did you enjoy the text (or not) as entertainment or as a work of art?  Use quotes or examples to illustrate the quality of the text as art or entertainment. Of course, be aware that some texts are not meant to be entertainment or art: a news report or textbook, for instance, may be neither entertaining or artistic, but may still be important and successful.

For the conclusion, you might want to discuss:

  • your overall reaction to the text;
  • whether you would read something else like this in the future;
  • whether you would read something else by this author; and
  • if would you recommend read this text to someone else and why.

In general, there are four ways to focus a psychoanalytical interpretation:

  • You can analyze the author’s life.
  • You can analyze the thematic content of the work, especially the motivations of characters and the narrator(s).
  • You can analyze the artistic construction of a text.
  • You can analyze yourself or the reader of the literary work using reader-response theory, which is discussed earlier in this chapter.

Here is a quick overview of some psychoanalytical interpretations that demonstrate these approaches.

Analyze the Author’s Life

In  The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe  (1933), Marie Bonaparte psychoanalyzes Poe, concluding that his fiction and poetry are driven by his desire to be reunited with his dead mother (she died when he was three). This desire leaves him symbolically castrated, unable to have normal relationships with others (primarily women). Bonaparte analyzes Poe’s stories from this perspective, reading them as dreams reflecting Poe’s repressed desires for his mother. While such an interpretation is fascinating—and can be quite useful—you probably won’t attempt to get into the mind of the author for a short paper. But you will find, however, that examining the life of an author can be a fruitful enterprise, for there may be details from an author’s life that might become useful evidence in your paper.

Analyze the Thematic Content: The Motivations of Characters and the Narrator(s)

An example showing a psychoanalytic focus on literary characters is Frederick Crews’s reading in  The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes (1966). Crews first provides a psychoanalytical reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life: he sees reflected in Hawthorne’s characters a thwarted Oedipus complex, which creates repression. Furthermore, Hawthorne’s ties to the Puritan past engenders his work with a profound sense of guilt, further repressing characters. Crews reads “The Birthmark,” for example, as a tale of sexual repression. Crews’s study is a model for psychoanalyzing characters in fiction and remains a powerful and persuasive interpretation.

Analyze the Artistic Construction

Jacques Lacan shows us how a psychoanalytical reading can focus on the formal, artistic construction of a literary text. In other words, Lacan believes that our unconscious is “structured like a language” and that a literary text mirrors this sense of the unconscious. In “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” , Lacan argues that Edgar Allan Poe’s tale is not necessarily about the meaning of the message in the stolen letter; rather, the tale is about who controls the letter, who has power over the language contained in the letter. You can read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” here.

Analyze the Reader

Finally, a psychoanalytical reading can examine the reader and how a literary work is interpreted according to the psychological needs of the reader.

Feminism is a powerful literary theory that is dedicated to social and political change. “How to define feminism? Ah, that is the question,” a befuddled Hamlet might ask. A useful definition of feminism can be found in Michael Kimmel and Thomas Mosmiller’s Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776–1990: A Documentary History (1992). They focus on four central points:

  • There is evidence that women are treated differently and unequally.
  • Women are not treated equally in the private and public sphere.
  • If these points are true, then that’s wrong and becomes a moral problem.
  • Thus feminism is a commitment to change.

Two other definitions will be useful to you: In Kory Dicker’s A History of U.S. Feminisms , Barbara Smith argues that “feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”

In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center , noted feminist author bell hooks adds, “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganize society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

Feminist literary criticism is also about this commitment to equality, to change, and it works its way by arguing that literature is a powerful cultural force that mirrors gender attitudes. Feminist literary criticism can be categorized into three stages: patriarchal criticism, gynocriticism, and feminine writing.

Patriarchal criticism examines the prejudices against women by male writers. Such criticism analyzes the way that canonical authors—mostly men—create images of women. This criticism is often focused on close textual study since it will examine how men and women are depicted in literary texts.

Gynocriticism is concerned with women writers, particularly in the ways that women writers have become included within the canon. In American literature, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God are classic examples; these texts, now part of the canon of American literature, have only been seen as such for the past twenty-five years or so. Another interesting example is the evolution of The Norton Anthology of English Literature , which reflects the insertion of women into the canon. The edition for 1968, which covers the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century, the Restoration and the eighteenth century, the Romantic period, the Victorian age, and the twentieth century, includes no women. That’s right—not one single woman! The eighth edition of this anthology, published thirty-eight years later, in 1996, includes the following women writers:

  • Middle Ages: Marie De France and Margery Kempe
  • Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: Queen Elizabeth, Mary (Sydney) Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Wroth, Katherine Philips, and Margaret Cavendish
  • Restoration and eighteenth century: Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Frances Burney
  • Romantic period: Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Felicia Dorothea Hemans
  • Victorian age: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Christina Rossetti
  • Twentieth century: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro, and Anne Carson

What does it mean, consequently, when there are no representations of women? Historically, if women didn’t exist in the canon, then we did not—we could not—study them. But with the rise of the field of women’s studies in the 1960s, which introduced the idea of feminist literary criticism, we now value the study of women and their accomplishments, as well as thinking about how gender is constructed and perpetuated generally. This evolution of thought about women and literature is mirrored in the evolving contents of the Norton anthology, which also reflects the evolving canon that is more inclusive, particularly to women writers.

Feminine writing explores the notion that women may write differently than men, suggesting that there may be a “women’s writing” that is an alternative to male writing. Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own , traces women’s writing into three stages. The first stage is Imitation or Feminine (1840–80), where women imitated men. The classic examples of this are Charlotte and Emily Brontë (of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights fame, respectively), who took on male names—Currer Bell and Acton Bell. To give another famous example, George Eliot, who wrote the Victorian classic Middlemarch , was actually Mary Ann Evans. The second stage of women’s writing is Protest or Feminist (1880–1920), which sees women becoming much more political as writers, reacting directly to male domination in society and literature. Kate Chopin is an example of this stage, as is Virginia Woolf. Finally, the third stage, Self-Discovery or Female (1920–), becomes more radical as women turn inward toward the female, toward the body, creating works that mirror a writing particular to women.

As you can see, to narrowly define feminist literary criticism is difficult, for there are a myriad of approaches to take. Feminism is often referred to in the plural—feminisms—because there is such diversity within feminism about core terms and philosophies. A useful starting point is Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism , edited by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl.

The field of English or literary studies has changed significantly through the years. At one time, to study English meant to study only literature from England. In fact, it meant to study, almost exclusively, poetry from England. The poetry that English students read for the majority of the field’s history was almost exclusively written by men. It may not surprise you to learn that the majority of the men that English students read came from Western cultures and were white. The experiences of minorities (within Western culture) and non-Western people were largely excluded from the canon. When their experiences did appear in widely read books, poems, plays, and essays, their experiences were usually filtered through perspective of a white author.

Over the past decades, many literary scholars have begun working to change this reality. Drawing from a range of disciplines, including history, anthropology, and sociology, these scholars have demonstrated how the literary canon excludes the voices of minority and non-Western writers, thinkers, and subjects. They have exposed attitudes of prejudice within canonical works. They have also worked to recover and celebrate works by writers from previously ignored or denigrated racial and ethnic backgrounds. Though their subjects vary widely—from the African American experience in the United States to those of Indians living under British colonial rule—scholars interested in racial, ethnic, and postcolonial studies share a conviction that literature is not politically neutral. Instead, they argue that literature both reflects and shapes the values of the cultures that produce it and that literary critics have a duty to analyze and often critique the cultural values embedded in the texts we study.

Looking at literature through the lens of social and cultural identity often requires that critics read beyond the surface meanings of texts and think about the ethnic, cultural, and social implications of the words on the page. When you read with an eye toward racial, ethnic, or postcolonial issues, you should consider the following questions:

  • How does this work represent different groups of people? Does it valorize one particular culture at the expense of another? Are characters from particular groups portrayed positively or negatively? Does the work employ stereotypes or broad generalizations?
  • How does this work present political power and/or domination? Are there clear lines drawn between conquerors and conquered people in the work? Does the work seem to argue that these lines are appropriate, or does it challenge the divisions between colonizer and colonized?
  • What is the historical or cultural context of the work? Is the story set during a time of conflict or peace? Is the story set in a location where one culture colonized another? Does the story unfold before the colonial period, during the colonial period, or after the colonial period?
  • Can you discern any particular political agendas at work in the text? That is, does the novel, story, poem, play, or essay seem to make an argument about racial relations, ethnic identity, or political oppression?

Continue Reading: 23.10 Writing About Literature

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10 Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism


A very basic way of thinking about literary theory is that these ideas act as different lenses critics use to view and talk about art, literature, and even culture. These different lenses allow critics to consider works of art based on certain assumptions within that school of theory. The different lenses also allow critics to focus on particular aspects of a work they consider important.

For example, if a critic is working with certain Marxist theories, s/he might focus on how the characters in a story interact based on their economic situation. If a critic is working with post-colonial theories, s/he might consider the same story but look at how characters from colonial powers (Britain, France, and even America) treat characters from, say, Africa or the Caribbean. Hopefully, after reading through and working with the resources in this area of the OWL, literary theory will become a little easier to understand and use.

Please note that the schools of literary criticism and their explanations included here are by no means the only ways of distinguishing these separate areas of theory. Indeed, many critics use tools from two or more schools in their work. Some would define differently or greatly expand the (very) general statements given here. Our explanations are meant only as starting places for your own investigation into literary theory. We encourage you to use the list of scholars and works provided for each school to further your understanding of these theories.

We also recommend the following secondary sources for study of literary theory:

  • The Critical Tradition: Classical Texts and Contemporary Trends , 1998, edited by David H. Richter
  • Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide , 1999, by Lois Tyson
  • Beginning Theory , 2002, by Peter Barry

Although philosophers, critics, educators and authors have been writing about writing since ancient times, contemporary schools of literary theory have cohered from these discussions and now influence how scholars look at and write about literature. The following sections overview these movements in critical theory. Though the timeline below roughly follows a chronological order, we have placed some schools closer together because they are so closely aligned.

Timeline (most of these overlap)

  • Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present)
  • Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present)
  • Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Structuralism/Semiotics (1920s-present)
  • Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction (1966-present)
  • New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present)
  • Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)
  • Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present)
  • Critical Race Theory (1970s-present)

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Posthumanism by Pramod K. Nayar LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023 LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0122

Posthumanism is a mode of thinking about the intersecting human, nonhuman, and technological worlds that has gained theoretical currency in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially in the wake of ecological consciousness and environmental campaigns that call into question the role of humans in shaping the fate of the Earth. The interconnectedness of humans with other life forms and the planet has been a commonplace in Asian, African, and Aboriginal thought as embodied in Yoruba, the subcontinent’s tribal myths, folklore, creation stories of the Native Americans, and literatures from these continents. Posthumanism as a school of theory in the West draws on a Eurocentric tradition of humanism and its critique—some of which emerges from critical race theory—and disciplines as diverse as animal studies and social studies of technology. Euro-American posthumanism calls for a reevaluation of traditional humanistic myths, such as the human as the center of the universe, or the instrumental attitude toward other life forms and nonliving matter. A contribution of posthumanist thought has been to decenter the human and to demonstrate how all matter is interlinked, mutually dependent and co-evolved, whether this is the animal forms on Earth or the impact humans have on technology and vice versa. Gender, sexuality and social relations, and families and communities have all been reconfigured through the arrival and incorporation of technology. Posthumanism demolishes the Nature/Culture binary as it has been enshrined in the Euro-American tradition. Technologies and humans, it argues, co-evolve, just as humans and nonhumans do. It also examines the prospects of human enhancement, the expansion of artificial intelligence (AI), and the ethics of these developments as they affect humans, the law, concepts of “personhood,” and the social order. Popular culture, performance arts, and even architectural styles have been known to incorporate posthuman themes. Popular culture, in particular, has made cyborgs, chimeras, human-animal hybrids, and techno-dystopias—dwelling on rampaging artificial intelligence and cyborgs, usually—a commonplace motif. Finally, posthumanist thought treats animals and plants as companion species to humans, and numerous studies now explore “vegetal thinking,” animality, and the entanglements of humans with other life forms as well as nonliving matter. More recent work in posthumanism and the fiction of NK Jemisin and others seeks to link race in history with the history of particular practices that dehumanized humans (such as colonialism and slavery). Introducing race into the debate when speaking of, say, the Anthropocene or technology enables a provincializing of posthumanism.

Contexts and Genealogies

Works in this section explore the contexts—intellectual and cultural as well as technological—of posthumanism as a school of thought. Contexts: Technologies includes essays and books that treat biotechnological developments, genetically modified foods, technological innovations, and automatons. In the Environment and the Anthropocene , works not only examine the link between anthropocentric technologies and ecological collapse, but also propose new ways of thinking through human-nonhuman connections. Grouped under Contexts: Critical Genealogies and Surveys are essays and books that trace the early texts and thought that mark the origins of posthumanism. Two subsections deal with Extinction studies and Conservation and Sustainability themes.

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