RARA-AVIS: 20th Century Literary Theory

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 18 Sep 2006

I ran out of steam on the conclusion, and in general on the whole thing, but here goes:

Postmodernism has been the parole of the literary world for several decades now. For one who enjoys reading but dislikes literary theory and doesn't understand the term, it presents a constant potential for irritation because it is likely to turn up in even the most plebeian literary discussion. There are several other catchwords and catchphrases that relate to postmodernism and other schools of thought. It is the intention of this short text to present a brief introduction to some of the major literary theories of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on postmodernism, in as quick and painless a manner as possible. The reader will walk away with the ability to wisely discuss the reflexive nature of a novel, discourse knowledgeably on the dangers of a close reading, and hold forth on the deconstruction of the latest postmodern offering. If the thought of this doesn't leave you running to the bathroom to upchuck dinner, read on.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, literary criticism was oriented towards one of two processes, either extracting the historical relevance of the text, or else an analysis of the author's life. This methodology was referred to as extrinsic because it looked for the meaning of a text outside the text itself, and its premise was that the purpose of criticism was to identify these influences in relation to a text. Thus, the text was seen as having a secondary importance, its value relative to its reflection of the history of the era and the life of the author. The method has remained popular throughout the century. Even today, an examination of Hammett's Red Harvest would likely reference Hammett's experience with the Pinkerton agency, and if the critic wished to invoke Marxist themes in the novel, he would recall Hammett's later Communist activity.

In 1918 Russian Victor Schlovsky ushered in the modern age of theory with his Art as Device. He argued that familiarity with life deadens the capability to see it with insight and perception, and the significance of literature is that it frames life in language that makes the familiar unfamiliar. Metaphor, simile, and other stylistic embellishments couched objects and experience in unusual ways, accenting it and allowing the reader to view the world in a different light. In Chandler's "Trouble is My Business," an ordinary elevator ride is transformed by, "It rose as softly as the mercury in a thermometer." The literary school that emerged from Schlovsky's thinking was called Formalism. There were two other characteristics of Formalism, besides their concept of
"defamiliarization," that are worth noting. First is their rejection of aesthetic concerns in favor of a more analytic approach to the study of literature. This is not to say that they denied the aesthetic aspect of literature, but that they simply did not consider it a concern of literary criticism. The study of art had become a science. Second, the formalists rejected the extrinsic analysis that came before them, believing instead that the focus should be on the text itself, separated from the environment it was written in. Their insistence in the isolation of the text is called intrinsic.

The New Critics came along a few years after the Russian Formalists. Like the Formalists, they thought that the essence of a work should be found within it, not outside it. Their rejection of the extrinsic philosophy brewed for years in the writing of British writers T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards, finally finding solid footing in the literary world with American John Crowe Ransom's The New Criticism in 1941. Like a chemical element such as gold or lead, the New Critics agreed with the Formalists that a work has characteristics that can be analyzed, revealing properties which are consistent and invariable. The New Critics appreciated the concept of defamiliarization, but they shied away from the Formalists' purely analytic methods. They believed literature to be an aesthetic quest for poetic truth, and that the purpose of criticism is to discover that truth by a careful analysis of the structure and symbolism within the text, referring to their method as a "close reading." They thought that literature is intimately involved in posing moral questions.

In 1916 the collected lectures of Saussure were published posthumously in a thin volume titled Course in General Linguistics. Called structuralism, it introduced a revolutionary concept into the field of linguistics. Formerly, the study of language emphasized the history of words, a field called etymology that examined the slow evolution of word similarities and derivatives. Structuralism stressed differences instead, stating that words are defined by difference rather than similarity. Saussure referred to words as signifiers, the idea or thing that it stood for as the signified, and the word and idea together was the sign. Saussure's book on linguistics lighted a slow-burning fuse that took over forty years to make the transition into literary criticism. In the sixties, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida seized upon structuralism's emphasis on differences and extrapolated it out to binary opposites, concentrating on constructs such as light and dark, good and evil, male and female.

Ten years later postmodernism was born. The movement originated with the restoration of peace after the violent student rioting in France during the late sixties. A transmogrification of structuralism, postmodernism declared the binary opposites of structuralism as non-neutral constructs that supported a philosophic bias, with one end of the spectrum seen as more desirable or privileged than the other. By an often contrived process, the postmodernists revealed the privileged construct and proceeded by a process called deconstruction to use minor or obscure details to demonstrate conflicts in the underlying philosophy of the text. The bottom line was an established methodology for demonstrating that the validity of absolutely everything can be denied. This, of course, is not an original school of thought but rather a rehash of the Greek sceptics. Postmodern scepticism is founded upon a conclusion drawn from two premises. First, human perception of reality is based almost exclusively on language. As Roland Barthes's dramatically stated, "There is nothing outside the text." Second, language is a notoriously unreliable media for portraying reality with any degree of accuracy.

So what do you find in postmodern fiction? A standard theme is the purposeful disruption of any sense of realism. Postmodernism considers realism to be bogus because they consider language to be an inadequate tool for conveying reality. Therefore, realism in writing is dishonest, and a writing style that brings attention to the contrivance of the story is desirable. Authorial intrusion upon the text is one technique used to disrupt realism. The story is interrupted by editorial commentary from the author in a manner that accents the artificiality of the text. It might be a discussion of a possible event in the author's life that inspired the story, like in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, or the author might talk about his price negotiations for the novel at hand, like in Nick Tosches's In the Hand of Dante. Another technique commonly used to impart a postmodern flavor is manipulation of the narrative. Narrative structure with the usual suspects moving through a reasonably contolled timeline is old school. The narrative might be scattered, perhaps with many different characters doing inconsequential bit parts, sometimes so convoluted and confused that it simply doesn't carry much of anything identifiable as a story.

Another common postmodern theme is the deconstruction of ideals and absolutes. Around the mid-twentieth century there was a strong belief that moral right and wrong were founded on immutable and absolute principles. Postmodern scepticism eschews any kind of certainty, and denies the validity of these absolutes.
 In postmodern fiction, any character with strong moral beliefs will likely be proved to be a fool or a fraud. Julian Barnes demonstrates this in his Arthur and George. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories, appears as a character in Barnes's novel. What first appears to be respectable motives and upright Victorian morality is deconstructed into pathetic hypocrisy and stupidity by the end of the book. There is an exception to their objection to absolutes. In postmodernism, the United States typically stands as a symbol for many of the ideals that it disdains. As a result, the moral stance of anti-American characters is likely to be bolstered, without being subjected to the usual postmodern criticism.

Another theme found in postmodern fiction is marginalization. Although language is deemed undependable, it can nevertheless wield great power. Foucault identified certain schools of thought that centered around the favoring of some binary opposites.
 Calling them discourses of power, he noted that they empower particular groups of people while isolating others in a marginalized state. Originally, Foucault concentrated on crazies and criminals as marginalized by the social mores of the eighteenth century, but eventually Western democracy was targeted by postmodernism as a dominant discourse of power, and the portrayal of those marginalized by it became a popular theme. So instead of a bastion of freedom and the epitome of Enlightenment philosophy, Western democracy is deconstructed into an expansionist tyranny. Pamuk's Snow demonstrates how deeply religious Muslims are pressured by Western oppression into terrorist acts of liberation. Barnes's Arthur and George portrays Victorian society as racist and sexist.

The establishment of the sanctity of the individual was the supreme philosophical achievement of the Renaissance, and a philosophy of natural rights and a structure of government that supported it was the apogee of the Enlightenment. In postmodernism, the individual loses importance and becomes little more than an arbitrary intersection of varying and dubious discourses, so debunking the value of the individual is a primary postmodernism theme. Postmodern characters are often drab, uncommitted, uninspired, and lifeless, often little more than text on the page.
 In postmodern thought, this is not bad writing; it is the intended effect. Generally, the characters accomplish little. Any significant accomplishment would have the suspicious aura of mattering, a dangerous flirting with the obviously bogus concept of an ideal worth working towards. In a postmodern mystery novel, the mystery most likely won't get solved, and if it is solved, it won't matter to anyone. If it's a crime novel, nobody will pay for the crime, but on the outside chance that somebody does, it won't be the person who committed the crime and, again, it won't really matter.

Wittgenstein suggested that a definition is not always a hard and fixed description, but sometimes a collection of potential characteristics. That's the best the above can provide for what is found in postmodern fiction. It's obvious that there is very little that is new, nothing that is original. Authorial intrusion only became undesirable when realism became popular. Marginalization stretches further back than Moses and the Egyptians. Stressing the insignificance of the individual is a Marxist theme.


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