Contemporary Literary Theory (2023)

  • Contemporary Literary Theory is not a single thing but a collection of theoretical approaches which are marked by a number of premises, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of the them, most importantly deconstruction, post-Althusserian ideological or 'political' criticism, post-Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism, New Historicist or 'cultural' criticism, some reader-response criticism and much feminist criticism.
  • Meaning is assumed to be created by difference, not by "presence," (that is, identity with the object of meaning). As the revisionist Freudian Jacques Lacan remarks, a sign signals the absence of that which it signifies. Signs do not directly represent the reality to which they refer, but (following the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure) mean by difference from other words in a concept set. A word means in that it differs from other words in the same meaning-area, just as a phoneme is registered not by its sound but by its difference from other sound segments. There is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense, only chains of differences from other meanings. All meaning is only meaning in reference to, and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense. Meanings are multiple, changing, contextual.
  • Words themselves are polysemic (they have multiple meanings) and their meaning is over-determined (they have more meaning potential than is exercised in any usage instance). They thus possess potential excess meanings. As well, rhetorical constructions enable sentences to mean more than their grammar would allow — irony is an example. Language always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context. It must have this capacity of excess meaning in order for it to be articulate, that is, jointed, capable of movement, hence of relationship and development.
  • It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture, meaning and identity. As Heidegger remarked, man does not speak language, language speaks man. Humans 'are' their sign systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, patch-work, relational.
  • Consequently there is no foundational 'truth' or reality in the universe (as far as we can know)--no absolutes, no eternities, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent truths generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, values and identity are cultural constructs, not stable entities. Even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as Kaja Silverman points out in The Subject of Semiotics, in that the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated.
  • It follows that there is no stable central identity or essence to individuals: an individual exists as a nexus of social meanings and practices, psychic and ideological forces, and uses of language and other signs and symbols. The individual is thus a 'de-centered' phenomenon, there is no stable self, only subject-positions within a shifting cultural, ideological, signifying field.
  • Language is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not be fully aware. Contemporary theory attempts to explore the implications (i.e., the inter-foldings, from 'plier', to fold) of levels of meaning in language.
  • Language itself always has excessive signification, that is, it always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context; signification is always 'spilling over', especially in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature' are. This excessive signification is created in part by the rhetorical, or tropic, characteristics of language (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else, as in a metaphor, a metonym, or irony), and the case is made by Paul de Man that there is an inherent opposition (or undecidability, or aporia) between the grammatical and the rhetorical operations of language.
  • It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture and meaning. Humans 'are' their symbol systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, relational, dynamic.
  • The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use.
  • A text is, as Roland Barthes points out, etymologically a tissue, a woven thing (from the Latin texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts and language uses, echoes of which it inherently retains (filiations or traces, these are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play ('play' as meaning-abundance and as articulability) of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminacy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities, but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them, become apparent.
  • There is no "outside-of-the-text," in Derrida's phrase. Culture and individuals are constructed through networks of affiliated language, symbol and discourse usages; all of life is textual, a tissue of signifying relationships. No text can be isolated from the constant circulation of meaning in the economy of the culture; every text connects to, and is constituted through and of, other texts.
  • The borders of literature are challenged by the ideas
  • that all texts share common traits, for instance that they all are constructed of rhetorical, tropic, linguistic and narrative elements, and
  • that all experience can be viewed as a text: experience insofar as it is knowable is consequently symbolically configured, and human activity and even perception is both constructed and known through the conventions of social practice; hence as a constructed symbolic field experience is textual.
  • While on the one hand this blurring of differentiation between 'literature' and other texts may seem to make literature less privileged, on the other hand it opens those non-literary (but not non-imaginative, and only problematically non-fictional) texts, including 'social texts', the grammars and vocabularies of social action and cultural practice, up to the kind of complex analysis that literature has been opened to.
  • So the nature of language and meaning is seen as more intricate, potentially more subversive, more deeply embedded in psychic, linguistic and cultural processes, more areas of experience are seen as textual, and texts are seen as more deeply embedded in and constitutive of social processes.
  • None of these ideas shared by contemporary theories are new to the intellectual traditions of our culture. It appears to many, however, that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental values of literature and literary study: that it attacks the customary belief that literature draws on and creates meanings that reflect and affirm our central (essential, human, lasting) values; that it attacks the privileged meaningfulness of 'literature'; that it attacks the idea that a text is authored, that is, that the authority for its meaningfulness rests on the activity of an individual; that it attacks the trust that the text that is read can be identified in its intentions and meanings with the text that was written; and ultimately that it attacks the very existence of value and meaning itself, the ground of meaningfulness, rooted in the belief in those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based.
  • On the other hand, 'theory people' point out that theory does is not erase literature but expands the concept of the literary and renews the way texts in all areas of intellectual disciplines are or can be read; that it explores the full power of meaning and the full embeddedness of meanings in their historical placement; that it calls for a more critical, more flexible reading.
  • It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often skeptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issue is whether theory has good reasons for the questioning of the assumptions, and whether it can lead to practice that is in fact productive.

Contemporary Theory as part of the 'Interpretive Turn'

Contemporary literary theory does not stand on its own; it is part of a larger cultural movement which has revolutionized many fields of study, which movement is often known as the 'interpretive turn'. The 'interpretive turn' was essentially introduced by Immanuel Kant two centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is shaped by our mental categories, although Kant thought of these categories as stable and transcendent. Nietzsche proposed that there are no grounding truths, that history and experience are fragmented and happenstance, driven by the will to power. Marx and Freud theorized that what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by forces of which we are aware only indirectly, if at all, but which we can recover if we understand the processes of transformation through which our experience passes. What is new in the interpretive turn is that the insights of these and other seminal thinkers have coalesced into a particular sociological phenomenon, a cultural force, a genuine moment in history, and that they have resulted in methodological disputes and in alterations of practice in the social sciences and the humanities.
There are a number of ideas central to the interpretive turn: the idea that an observer is inevitably a participant in what is observed, and that the receiver of a message is a component of the message; the idea that information is only information insofar as it is contextualized; the idea that individuals are cultural constructs whose conceptual worlds are composed of a variety of discursive structures, or ways of talking about and imagining the world; the idea that the world of individuals is not only multiple and diverse but is constructed by and through interacting fields of culturally lived symbols, through language in particular; the related idea that all cultures are networks of signifying practices; the idea that therefore all interpretation is conditioned by cultural perspective and is mediated by symbols and practice; and the idea that texts entail sub-texts, or the often disguised or submerged origins and structuring forces of the messages.
Interpretation is seen not as the elucidation of a preexisting truth or meaning that is objectively 'there' but as the positing of meaning by interpreters in the context of their conceptual world. Neither the 'message' nor the interpretation can be transparent or innocent as each is structured by constitutive and often submerged cultural and personal forces. In the interpretation of culture, culture is seen as a text, a set of discourses which structure the world of the culture and control the culture's practices and meanings. Because of the way discourses are constituted and interrelated, one must read through, among and under them, at the same time reading oneself reading.

The 'dangers' of Literary Theory

It appears to many that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental value of literature and of literary study. If everything is a text, literature is just another text, with no particular privilege aside from its persuasive power. If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if human beings are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal 'humanness' and not sustained by any transhistorical truths, not only the role of literature as the privileged articulator of universal value but the existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation is local and contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and the role of literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural force is diminished. If interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter, then one must discount the intention of the author. The stability of meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain. Imaginative constructs such as literature may in fact be merely culturally effective ways of masking the exercise of power, the bad faith, the flaws and inequities which culture works so hard to obscure. Ultimately Theory can be seen to attack the very ground of value and meaning itself, to attack those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based, and to attack the centre of humanism, the existence of the independent, moral, integrated individual who is capable of control over her meanings, intentions and acts.
As theory has become more central in English departments, literary studies have in the view of many turned away from the study of literature itself to the study of theory. And as attention moves to literature as the cultural expression of lived life, and to the textuality of all experience, the dividing line between 'literature' and more popular entertainment is being challenged; such things as detective fiction and romances are being treated to as serious and detailed a study as are canonical works. The Canon itself, that collection of texts considered worthy of study by those in control of the curriculum, is under attack as ethnocentric, patriarchal and elitist, and as essentializing in that it tends to create the idea that canonical works are independent entities standing on their own intrinsic and transcendent authority and not rooted in the agencies and contingencies of history.
It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often sceptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issues however must be whether Theory has good reasons for its questioning of traditional assumptions, and whether it can lead to interpretive practices that are ultimately productive of understandings and values which can support a meaningful and just life. In order to further elucidate Literary Theory's reasons for its stands, it would be useful to examine and illustrate three main areas of meaning in literature: context, ideology and discourse, and language itself.

The issue of meaning: context and inter-text

The process of meaning in literature should, one thinks, be clear: authors write books, with ideas about what they want to say; they say it in ways that are powerful, moving, convincing; readers read the books and, depending on their training and capacities and the author's success, they get the message. And the message is, surely, the point. It is at this juncture however that this simple communication model runs into trouble. An author writes a text. But the author wrote the text in at least four kinds of context (note the presence of the text), not all of which contexts the author is or can be fully aware of. There are, first, aesthetic contexts — the contexts of art generally, of its perceived role in culture, of the medium of the text, of the genre of the text, of the particular aesthetic traditions the artist chooses and inherits, of the period-style in which she writes. Second, there are the cultural and economic conditions of the production and the reception of texts — how the 'world of art' articulates to the rest of the social world, how the work is produced, how it is defined, how it is distributed, who the audience is, how they pay, what it means to consume art, how art is socially categorized. Third, there is the artist's own personal [end page 94] history and the cultural interpretation of that personal history and meaning for her as an individual and an artist. Lastly and most essentially, there are the larger meanings and methods of the culture and of various sub-cultural, class, ethnic, regional and gender groups — all of them culturally formed, and marked (or created) by various expressions and distinctions of attitude, thought, perception, and symbols. These include how the world is viewed and talked about, the conception and distribution of power, what is seen as essential and as valuable, what the grounds and warrants of value are, how the relations among individuals and groups are conceptualized.
These are the most basic considerations of the context of the production of a literary work. Some of them are known to the author explicitly, some are sensed implicitly, some are unrecognized and virtually unknowable. Every context will alter, emend, deflect, restructure the 'meaning'. This would be easier to handle interpretively if the same constraints of context did not apply also to the reader. Both author and reader are 'situated' aesthetically, culturally, personally, economically, but usually differently situated. The reader has the further context of the history and traditions of the interpretation of texts.
An essential, central and inevitable context of any text is the existence of other texts. Any literary work, even the most meager, will necessarily refer to and draw on works in its genre before it, on other writing in the culture and its traditions, and on the discourse-structures of the culture. This creation of meaning from previous and cognate expressions of meaning is known in Literary Theory as "intertextuality." Anything that is a text is inevitably part of the circulation of discourse in the culture, what one might call the inter-text: it can only mean because there are other texts to which it refers and on which it then depends for its meaning. It follows that 'meaning' is in fact dispersed throughout the inter-text, is not simply 'in' the text itself. The field of the inter-text extends not just to the traditions and usages of the genre, and to literature generally, but to intellectual traditions, language and argument, to emotional experiences, to cultural interpretations of experience, to central symbols, to all expressions of meaning in the culture: it is a network of allusion and reference. This is the ground of the question of the extent to which an individual can author a text. Many of these intertextual meanings may not be apparent to readers, who must be situated themselves in the inter-text in order to participate in the meaning. All meanings of a text depend on the meanings of the inter-text, and our interpretations of texts depend on our contextualized perspective and the norms of what Stanley Fish refers to as our "interpretive community," our socially-determined interpretive understandings and methods.

The issue of meaning: discourse and ideology

The second general area of meaning is that of discourse and ideology. 'Discourse' is a term associated most closely with Michel Foucault; it refers to the way in which meaning is formed, expressed and controlled in a culture through its language use. Every culture has particular ways of speaking about and hence conceptualizing experience, and rules for what can and what can not be said and for how talk is controlled and organized. It is through discourse that we constitute our experience, and an analysis of discourse can reveal how we see the world — in the case of Foucault, particularly the changing and multiple ways in which power is distributed and exercised. As language is the base symbol system through which culture is created and maintained, it can be said that everything is discourse, that is, that we only register as being what we attach meaning to, we attach meaning through language, and meaning through language is controlled by the discursive structures of a culture. There is no outside-of-the-text; our experience is constructed by our way of talking about experience, and thus is itself a cultural, linguistic construct.
Discourse is not, however, a unitary phenomenon. One of the great contributions of the Russian theorist of language and literature, Mikhail Bakhtin, is the concept of multivocality. The concept of multivocality might be likened to meteorology: the sky looks like a unitary entity, but if one attempts to measure it or traverse it, it turns out to be full of cross-winds, whirls, temperature variations, updrafts, downdrafts, and so forth. Similarly the language of a culture is full of intersecting language uses — those of class, profession, activity, generation, gender, region and so forth, a rich profusion of interacting significances and inter-texts.
As discourse constructs a world-view and as it inscribes power relations, it is inevitably connected to ideology. As used by Marx, the term referred to the idea that our concepts about the structure of society and of reality, which appear to be matters of fact, are the product of economic relations. More recent thinkers, following Gramsci and Althusser, tend to see ideology more broadly as those social practices and conceptualizations which lead us to experience reality in a certain way. Ideology, writes Althusser, is our imagined relation to the real conditions of existence; our subjectivity is formed by it we are 'hailed' by it, oriented to the world in a certain way. Ideology is an implicit, necessary part of meaning, in how we configure the world. But ideology is always masking, or 'naturalizing', the injustices and omissions it inevitably creates, as power will be wielded by some person or class, and will pressure the understanding of the culture so that the exercise of power looks normal and right and violations appear as inevitabilities. It was clear in time past, for instance, why women were inferior. Women were physically weaker, more emotional, not as rational. The Bible said they were inferior and Nature said so too. Men did not think that [end page 96] they were oppressing women; women's inferiority was simply an obvious matter of fact, as was the inferiority of blacks, of children, the handicapped, the mad, the illiterate, the working classes. The theorist Pierre Macherey showed that it is possible by examining any structure of communication to see its ideological perspective through the breaks, the silences, the contradictions hidden in the text, as well as through all its implicit assumptions about the nature of the world.


The concept of ideology is part of structuralist and, consequent to that, poststructuralist thought. Structuralism was a broad movement which attempted to locate the operative principles which ground activities and behaviours; its importance to Literary Theory is substantial, although Literary Theory has rejected a number of its premises. Two central structural theories were Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Marx's economic/political theories. What marks these theories as structuralist is their locating of generative forces below or behind phenomenal reality, forces which act according to general laws through transformative processes. In structural theories, motive, or generative force, is found not in a pre-text but in a sub-text; the surface is a transformation, a re-coded articulation of motive forces and conditions, and so the surface must be translated rather then simply read. From the rise of the whole rich field of semiotics to the theorizing of the history of science to the revolutionizing of anthropology to the creation of family therapy, structuralism has been a central, pervasive force in the century. The idea of decoding the depth from the manifestations of the surface, that what appears is often masking or is a transformation of what is, is a key tenant of Literary Theory.
Poststructuralism carries on with the idea of the surface as a transformation of hidden forces, but rejects structuralism's sense that there are timeless rules which govern transformations and which point to some stable reality below and governing the flux — what poststructuralism refers to as an essentialist or totalizing view. Poststructuralism sees 'reality' as being much more fragmented, diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does structuralism. Some consequences have been, first, poststructuralism's greater attention to specific histories, to the details and local contextualizations of concrete instances; second, a greater emphasis on the body, the actual insertion of the human into the texture of time and history; third, a greater attention to the specifies of cultural working, to the arenas of discourse and cultural practice; lastly, a greater attention to the role of language and textuality in our construction of reality and identity. Literary Theory is a poststructural practice.

The issue of meaning: language

The third large general area to be addressed is that of language. Contemporary theory rejects the commonplace belief that language functions by establishing a one-on-one relationship between a word and an object or state which exists independent of language. Among the assumptions behind this rejected belief are that reality is objective and is directly and unequivocally knowable; that words have a transparent relation to that reality — one can 'see through' the word to the reality itself; and that that meaning is consequently fixed and stable. Contemporary theory accepts none of this. 'Reality' is too simple a formulation for the collection of acknowledgments of physical entities and conditions, of concepts of all kinds, and of all the feelings, attitudes, perceptions, rituals, routines and practices that compose our habited world. Medieval medicine was based in large part on astrology, and astrology was based on the known fact that the (not too distant) planets each had a signature vibration which impressed the aether between the planets and the earth, which in turn impressed the malleable fabric of the mind of the newborn, and which thus created the person's disposition through the combination of and the relation between the characteristics of the dominant planets at the time of birth. To what reality, do we think now, did the language of medieval medicine refer? We could say that the medievals were 'wrong', but the conceptions involved so structured their imagination of human nature and motivation, so suffused their attitudes, were so integrated with values which we still hold, that such a statement would be meaningless. Language exists in the domain of human conception, and is dependent not on 'reality' but on how we see relations, connections, and behaviours. In turn how we see these things are, of course, dependent on our language.
Since the work of Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the century, language has been seen by many to signify through difference: words mean in that, and as, they differ from other words, which words in turn mean in that they differ from yet other words. 'Meaning' becomes a chain of differentiations which are necessarily at the same time linkages, and so any meaning involves as a part of itself a number of other meanings — through opposition, through association, through discrimination. As a word defines itself through difference from words which define themselves through difference from words, language becomes a kind of rich, multiplex sonar that carries the cognitive, affective and allusive freight of meanings shaped by and reflected off other meanings, full of dimensionally. Derrida's famous coinage différence, which includes both [end page 99] differing and deferring, catches something of the operation, although Derrida's concept penetrates to the very structure of being, to the differing and deferring without which space and time are impossible and which are thus fundamental to 'being' itself.
Language has many 'levels' or currents of meaning, shifting, interrelating, playing off one another, implicated (from L. plicare, to fold) and pliant (from F. plier, to bend, ultimately from plicare). Some currents carry us back as in cultural memory to the etymological roots of the words, as just illustrated. Some currents carry us back to the time and the way in which, as infants, we entered the symbolic order, the world of signs and thus of authority, power and socially (Lacan), and even before that to evocations of our infantile immediate, inchoate experiences (Kristeva). Some currents tie us in to experiences and symbols that involve and evoke our repressions, our fears, and our narcissistic needs. Some currents tie us in to the various worlds of "discourse," socially constituted ways of conceptualizing and talking and feeling — judicial, economic, domestic, theological, academic and so forth (Foucault). Some currents tie us into key cultural symbols, to ways we see and feel the world as constructed, to our imaginary world of hope, trust, identity, to our projection of ourselves into the future and into our environment. Many currents carry affective weight, as words are learned in social contexts from people who are usually close to us, and there is thus an intrinsic sociality in the very acquisition of the meanings and hence to the meanings themselves (Volosinov). Meaning in language is highly context-sensitive. Words are not little referential packages, they are shapes of potential meaning which alter in different meaning environments, which implicate many areas of experience, which contain traces of those differences which define them, and which are highly dependent on context, on tone, on placement.

Different Literary Theory approaches would concentrate on different aspects of these considerations, give them different weight. A deconstructive approach would concentrate on the way that the sentence works against itself, proving for instance the dominance of law and the body while apparently proclaiming the freedom of the mind — it might be claimed that what I have done is to "deconstruct" the sentence. Typically too deconstruction would begin with something that seemed extra, or marginal, or unchallenged, the presence of the lowly foot in "impediment', or the absent presence of the body, and might show how the meaning ultimately depends on that exclusion or marginalized element. An ideological approach might concentrate on the complex of linguistic and social meanings which attempt to but ultimately fail to support the ideological construction of an independent autonomous immaterial self, and might tie that in with, say, the development of the (false) identity of the inviolate 'self' in the western capitalist regime. It might also want to look at the conditions of production and consumption of the line — who wrote it for whom, under what conditions, with what social implications and class exclusions, for what kind of payment and reward, and how those things shape and are subtly present in the line itself. This form of poetry was written for the leisure class, the world which had power over the bodies and discourses of others, by the leisure class or those who wished to profit by them, and was circulated to privileged individuals in manuscript form, not (basely, popularly) published. A psychoanalytic approach might well head straight for the narcissistic demand and assumptions of the first words, on the currents of projection, denial and pre-symbolic conflicts that swirl through the line, and on the issues of subjectivity, identity (or loss of identity) and displacement that the line suggests. A reader-response reading would concentrate on how the line structures our responses, and on the larger issues of how our horizons of meaning can coincide with those of the author, writing in a different time with different preconceptions. A cultural criticism or new historicist reading might want to work hard to see how the linguistic, ideological, cultural constructs present in the line tied in with those of other texts and with the cultural practices of the time, and to thus articulate the sentence in its culturally embedded implications, meanings and conflicts. It would be most interested in the lines of power that the sentence suggests and how they reflect the social structures of the time, and in the power of the discourses themselves (the areas of for instance personal demand, philosophy of love, judicial and confessional legislation and experience, social institutions) and how they work with and against each other.
What these approaches would not do is merely affirm that the lines support the ideals of the freedom and independence of love and the wonder of the human spirit, although most would grant the presence and power of these meanings in the line. These approaches would not seek closure, trying to resolve into a neat package the various conflicts and centrifugal tendencies of the line (a "reader response" reading would include the natural human demand for closure as part of its reading and therefore as part of the way the line 'makes' its meaning). Most of these readings would focus in some way on the disparities in our imaginations and our practices that the line reveals, the contingency of our lives, the hidden exercises of social power that the line finally confesses. They might well think that the line means more, humanly speaking, than the humanistic reading would suggest.

Is Literary Theory bad for us

There is a certain self-satisfied celebration among people opposed to Literary Theory who see that the practice of deconstruction, the most metaphysically-based and in some ways the most oppositional and intricate of the contemporary critical theories, is apparently on the decline. It is unlikely, however, that its methodology and its insights will be wholly left behind, or that the issues it raised or faced will disappear. Deconstruction de-limited linguistic performance and critical thought and has afforded the most astute critique of our failure to question the assumptions and the complexities of our uses of language and discourses. Deconstruction has furthered the work of existential and hermeneutic thought in attempting to locate meaning in a world which has no permanent or ultimate metaphysical realities to underwrite its meaningfulness, and it has most refreshingly challenged both the pieties of humanism and the rigidities of structuralism. The other kinds of Literary Theory, enriched by poststructural theory and deconstructive practice, are still in force, coalescing most effectively at the moment in the cultural analyses of New Historicism and in the work of ideological criticism with both 'high' and popular culture in penetrating to the motives and mystifications of cultural meanings. Contemporary critical theories may or may not be 'right,' given that there is a 'right,' but the issues that they address are genuine and considerable, as is their contribution to and place in contemporary thought, and the practice gives rise to serious and at times telling interpretations and revaluations.

Works Cited:

Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy. London: New Left Books.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press. See Volosinov
Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Glasgow: Fontana Collins.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in General Linguistics. New York: The Philosophical Library.
Derrida, Jaques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, and 1992. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge. Derrida is very difficult; see "Deconstruction" for some introductions to his work.
Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is There a Text in This Class?. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1984. Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon.
Kristeva, Julia. 1986. A Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Mol, New York: Columbia University Press.
Lacan, Jacques. 1982. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: Norton. A difficult theorist and writer, Lacan might best be approached through secondary sources such Madan Sarup's brief and lucid Jaques Lacan, 1992, Toronto: University of Toronto Press or, as an interesting alternative, Slavoj Zizek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, 1991, Boston: MIT Press.
Macherey, Pierre. 1978. A Theory of Literary Production. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Silverman, Kaja. 1983. The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Silverman gives a good introduction to psychoanalysis and semiotics.
Volosinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. New York: Academic Press. Originally published in 1929 and said to have been written in whole or part by Bakhtin, it contains one of the finest and earliest critiques of de Saussure.

Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983;
Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice, London: Methuen, 1980.

Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1982;
Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, New York: Routledge, 1982;
Vincent B. Leitch, Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983;
Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, Deconstruction and Criticism, New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Making a Difference, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn, New York: Routledge, 1985. General Introduction to Feminist Criticism.

Francis Mulhern, Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism, Harrow, Essex: Longman, 1992. Ideological or Political Criticism.

Aran Veeser (ed.) The New Historicism, New York: Routledge, 1989. New Historicism.

Vincent B. Leitch, Cultural Criticism Literary Theory, Poststructuralism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Poststructuralism.

Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice, London: Routledge, 1984. Psychoanalytic Criticism.

Susan R. Suleinian and Inge Crossman (eds.) The Reader in the Text. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1980. Reader Response.

Wolfgang Iser's The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, London: Metheun, 1977.
Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

© This is a summary taken from the essay published by John Lye in the Brock Review Volume 2 Number 1, 1993 pp. 90-106 and found at several locations in the World Wide Web.


If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly. Fair use is a limitation and exception to the exclusive right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work. In United States copyright law, fair use is a doctrine that permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, search engines, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, unlicensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author's work under a four-factor balancing test. (source:

The information of medicine and health contained in the site are of a general nature and purpose which is purely informative and for this reason may not replace in any case, the council of a doctor or a qualified entity legally to the profession.

The texts are the property of their respective authors and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to share for free to students, teachers and users of the Web their texts will used only for illustrative educational and scientific purposes only.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Last Updated: 01/07/2023

Views: 6105

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (44 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Birthday: 1992-08-21

Address: Apt. 237 662 Haag Mills, East Verenaport, MO 57071-5493

Phone: +331850833384

Job: District Real-Estate Architect

Hobby: Skateboarding, Taxidermy, Air sports, Painting, Knife making, Letterboxing, Inline skating

Introduction: My name is Saturnina Altenwerth DVM, I am a witty, perfect, combative, beautiful, determined, fancy, determined person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.