Critical Approaches to Literature

Main Page

I. Literary Studies And The Theory Of Science

I.1. Preliminary problems: definitions, scientific expectations

I.2. Ontological problems: the way literature exists

1. Semiotics

2. Literary communication

I.3. Methodological problems: the way we understand texts

1. Meaning and context

2. Interpretation

II. An Overview Of Major Trends In Literary Theory

II.1. Preliminaries

1. Textual Scholarship (philology)

2. Traditional Approaches

II.2. Formal Critical Trends - From Authorial Intention to Text

1. New Criticism

2. Russian formalism

3. Structuralism

4. Phenomenology

III. Contextual Approaches - From Text to Context

III.1. Reader-response Criticism

III.2. Post-structuralism

1. The Semiotics of the Sign and the Subject

2. Psychoanalysis

3. Deconstruction

4. New Historicism

5. Feminist criticism

IV. Post Semiotics - From Sign to Subject

IV.1. Culture as Signification

IV.2. Cultures and Signification

IV.3. The Cartesian Heritage of Modernism

IV.4. The Constitution of the Speaking Subject

1. The microdynamics of the subject

2. The macrodynamics of the subject

IV.5. The Critique of Structuralism

III.2. Post-structuralism

Key words: subject, subject as split and heterogeneous system, poststructuralism, signifying chain, metaphysical, supplement, technologies of power, power/knowledge, subversion, regimes of truth, phallic position, patriarchal, ideology, logic of negativity, structuralist anthropology, simulacrum, hyperreality, grand narratives, Cartesian subject, Mirror Stage, Oedipalization, repression, interpellation, genotext, phenotext, chora, readerly text, writerly text.

1. The Semiotics of the Sign and the Subject

  • Saussure: language is a system of differences where elements attain (a negative) value only in relation to all the other elements, and not to reality. Value, meaning is not inherent in the signifier, the signifying unit can only operate because it is different from all the other elements, thus it can be identified and distinguished from other elements, and subsequently a value (code) can be assigned to it. The relationship between the signifier and the signified is conventional, arbitrary: reality, the referent is not part of the signifying system.

  • Poststructuralism: the signifier's arbitrariness and instability determines signification. The signifier has an uncontrollable capacity to refer to various signified, the text has an uncontrollable signifying potential. A signifier does not refer to a signified in the first place, but to other signifiers: the signified is sliding on the chain of signifiers. The fundamental characteristic of language is this free play which the subject cannot control, we only try to fix this chain when we (momentarily) produce, posit meaning, but the meaning is always unstable.

    Since the signifier is not tied to the signified, the author cannot have power over the writing after the point of creation: this semiotic realization resulted in announcing "the death of the author" (Roland  Barthes).

  • Emile Benveniste: language is constitutive of subjectivity, "ego is he who says ego". Human subjectivity is produced in a social "symbolic order" (language!) where the signifiers that work in meaning-production are always ideologically determined.

  • It follows that the signifier is constitutive of the subject, the human being who is positioned in society. Semiotics studies how the codes setting up possible relations between signifiers and signified are determined by historically specific social/political strategies.

2. Psychoanalysis

  • The "Freudian revolution": the subject is a heterogeneous system. The signifying process has two modalities, the unconscious and the conscious are both participating in the production of meaning.

  • The concept of the unconscious: the repressed region of primary processes (attachment to the mother, identification with the outside, desire). The fundamental drive in the psychic apparatus of the human being is to identify with the outside, with reality, with the mother’s body. The social subject is constituted by the successful repression of these drives.

    1. Primary repression: the child has to accept the condition that the mother is not unconditionally available, the demand for the mother has to be repressed. The repression establishes the unconscious.

    2. Secondary repression of desire for the mother through the realization of the Father's (phallus: key-signifier) power. Fear of castration and acceptance of the Father's ( = the social patriarchal symbolic order) rule: Oedipalization. Recanalization of desire: the child learns that the way to the object of desire (Mother) is through the position of the Father (the key signifier of the Social Symbolic Order, which is a network of interrelated hierarchical positions of power).

  • Jacques Lacan: "The unconscious is structured like language."

    The agency of the Signifier is constitutive of the subject both on the conscious and the unconscious level. The psychic apparatus is formed by signification, subjectivity is produced by the emergence of the signifier which separates the subject from the Real. The Signifier emerges as a compensation for the losses through which the split subject is produced (loss of the mother, the breast, etc.): the engine of signification is the Desire continuously emanating from the core of our repressed primary desires.

    The unconscious makes itself manifest through linguistic symptoms: word play, slippages, failure of communication, puns, ambiguities, metaphors.

3. Deconstruction

  • aims at uncovering the logic of Western metaphysics behind our discourses: signification is always meaning- or truth-production, but the elements participating are dependent on a hierarchy of value (soul / body, good / bad, masculine / feminine) which is always metaphysical (i.e., socially conventional, not inherently true). The inequality and metaphysical nature of these binaries and the structures constituted by these binary oppositions is in the focus of deconstructive criticism in general, in order to rehabilitate the suppressed pole of the binary,  the disprivileged supplement.

    Process of deconstructive analysis:

    1. showing the metaphysical hierarchies that constitute the (ideological) framework in which the text participates (e.g., the patriarchal, male-dominated Western social establishment and its cultural myths);

    2. reversing the hierarchy, showing that the system has no inherent fixity, there is no "central, key signifier" or a "transcendental signified" (e.g., God in theology) that determines or guarantees in an objective, a priori, natural way the values and "the one and only meaning" of things (it is not "written in nature" that a woman should not publish, that the aboriginal has no cultural values, that the homosexual is a disease in the body of society);

    3. allowing the free play between the two orders rather than setting up one as prior to, better than the other.

4. New Historicism

  • rejection of traditional (positivistic) historicism which studies literary history as a linear development reflecting the nation's evolution and the "spirit of the age".

  • Michel Foucault: social discourses (e.g., literature) are governed by historically specific technologies of power which determine what can be part of our language, i.e., our knowledge. Power/knowledge is a social functioning setting up regimes of truth, systems of exclusion that shape our reality through ideological discourses and institutions.

  • Ideology is the most extensive technology to set up relations of power in society: certain marginal or subversive discourses may try to undermine this dominance of ideology.

  • Literature often fulfills this subversive role: it questions the legitimacy, the working of the ideological apparatuses, the position of rulers, etc. BUT: resistances like this may always be pre-scripted and contained by ideology itself. The "safety-valve theory": every ideological establishment is grounded in the continuous production (and, thus, immediate pre-calculated containment) of its own subversion.

  • New Historicism studies how texts reflect the antagonisms, struggles, ideological tensions and discontinuities of a historical era, always bearing in mind that our interpretations inevitably contain our own historical positionality. We cannot have an "objective" approach to history, which is always our interpretively created discourse, our own version of  past.

5. Feminist Criticism

  • Western society is a patriarchal, male-dominated structure, with the constitutive male / female binary, which sets up technologies suppressing women and assigning them to definite social roles and categories (psychoanalysis: the Phallus is a key-signifier according to which the human subject is constituted and enters society's symbolic order);

    The critique of the ideological canon:

    • canon-formation and editorial policy have been determined by these patriarchal rules in the Western literary institution;

    • the male perspective usually organizes the fabric of the LWA: the male GAZE working in the text assigns a predetermined role, an ideologically prefabricated position to the reader. Feminist criticism aims at showing these biased strategies and inherent prejudices in literature through the application of a different, feminine perspective;

    • literature as a semiotic practice is also "feminine" (Julia Kristeva) in the sense that it plugs the subject back into (repressed) psychic drives attached to the MOTHER (mainly through rhythm and deviation): this practice resists the patriarchally determined identity-formation of the main social discourses (psychoanalysis again!).