Remember how you always wanted to take a crash course in critical theory? Well, here’s your chance. I’ve compiled the most comprehensive hyperlinked glossary of modern and postmodern literary theory terms ever assembled. Consider it an early birthday present. (Non-Mother others, feel free to use as well.)
Before we start, you’ll want to read through this very short but concise introduction to the major schools of critical theory (courtesy of Purdue University). Now as I walk you through this, I want you to keep in mind that a) my system of classification is somewhat arbitrary, as many of these categories overlap, and b) I’ve used Wikipedia only when absolutely necessary.
OK. Here we go. I’ve classified the critical orientations into the following ten clusters:
Cluster 1: Marxist, Marxian, New Historicist and Postcolonial Theories
Cluster 2: Formalists, Conservatives, and Anti-Structuralists
Cluster 3: Structuralists and Semiotics
Cluster 4: Post-structuralists and Deconstruction
Cluster 5: Reception Theory
Cluster 6: Narratology
Cluster 7: Pschoanalytic Criticism
Cluster 8: Postmodernism
Cluster 9: Feminism and Gender
Cluster 10: Miscellany
Remember, I’m not here to explain things in any detail; the linked sources will take care of that. Think of me as a kind of Virgil leading you, Dante, through the fiery rings of hell.
Cluster 1: Marxist, Marxian, New Historicist and Postcolonial Theories
Let’s start with Marxism and its key terms: historical materialism, alienation, commodity fetishism, reification, base and superstructure, mediation, praxis, literary mode of production (Terry Eagleton’s term), cultural materialism (Raymond Williams’s term), dialectics, and commodity.
Next, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and his notion of hegemony.
Then there’s the Frankfurt School (1930-1960s), which began in Germany before the war and was absorbed into the American New Left in the 1960s. Its chief task was to apply Marx’s economic theories to the realm of culture: from this we get “cultural Marxism.” Key members included Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Jurgen Habermas and Leo Lowenthal. The school contributed to the rise of cultural studies and the sociology of literature.
Among German-born Adorno’s important notions are the culture industry, authoritarian personality, and negative dialectics.
Next we have the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, who expanded upon Marx’s notion of reification, and helped to develop the Soviet theory of montage.
You’ll also want to take a look at French Marxist Pierre Macherey’s writings on “ideological horizons” and absence.
Next is French philosopher Louis Althusser, whose key terms include “structure in dominance,” overdetermination (originally Freud’s term), ideology and apparatus, problematic, interpellation (subject, subjectivity of ideology), ideological state apparatus (in contrast to repressive state apparatus), and “symptomatic reading.”
We’ll also want to review the aesthetic theories of socialist realism, and the “epic theater” and “distancing [or alienation] effect” (Verfremdungseffekt) of Bertold Brecht:
Now before we move to New Historicism, we’ll want to quickly review the “old historicism” of Hegel, Marx, and Franz Boas. We’ll also want to look at Karl Popper’s critique of historicism.
Also key to understanding New Historicism is American anthropologist Clifford Geertz and his notion of “thick description,” which the New Historicists would later borrow.
Chief among the New Historicists is Stephen Greenblatt, whose key concepts include: [the circulation of] social energy, subversion and containment, negotiations, and the anecdote.
There’s also New Historicist Louis Montrose, who developed the idea of “historicity.”
Next, there are the postcolonial critics. They argue that our notions about the “Orient,” or, more broadly, about the non-Western world, are largely constructions of the Western imperial imagination. Edward Said uses the term “Orientalism” to refer to the discourse employed by Western scholars to explain the non-Western world. Because postcolonial critics argue that this discourse arose out of particular material, social and historical conditions (e.g., Western imperialism, economic and technological domination, etc.), I’ve placed postcolonial theories in this cluster alongside Marxian theories. Aside from Said, other key proponents of this school include Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha.
You’ll also want to review some of the key terms of postcolonialism, including abrogation and appropriation, hybridity, primitivism, the noble savage, slave narratives, and Spivak’s writings on the “subaltern.”
Also see this general glossary of Spivak’s terms, and this summary of Spivak’s seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
Cluster 2: Formalists, Conservatives and Anti-Structuralists
What binds together the varied schools of this cluster is their underlying “formalism,” i.e., a critical orientation toward the text itself, rather than toward the world, author or reader. By my count, the earliest formalists (excepting Aristotle, of course) were the Russian formalists (1914-1930s), whose key members included Roman Jakobson, Victor Shklovsky and Mikhail Bakhtin, each of whom was associated with the Moscow linguistic circle (active from 1915-1924). Key concepts developed by this group include: skaz, heteroglossia, foregrounding, thematology, literariness, defamiliarization, fabula (story) and sjuzhet (plot), and deviation (from normal speech).
Bakhtin, the most influential critic of this group, developed the following key concepts: dialogic/dialogism, polyphony, assimilation, microdialogue (i.e., internal dialogue), utterance, popular culture, polyglossia, polyphonic, Menippean satire, monoglossia (heteroglossia), and embedding. Make sure you read each of those articles carefully, Mother.
The American version of the Russian Formalists— the New Critics, who reigned from the early 1920s through the 1960s— emphasized close reading, unity, intrinsic criticism, explication, analytical criticism, impersonality, organicism, and irony. Two of the school’s key proponents, William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, warned us not to fall prey to the intentional fallacy. Also associated with this school were F.R. Leavis (his followers are called Leavisites), Cleanth Brooks, and I.A. Richards.
Brooks is remembered for his work The Well-Wrought Urn, in which he explains the importance of paradox.
I.A. Richards is remembered for, among things, his advocacy of practical criticism, and for his division of the metaphor into two parts: tenor (eg, world) and vehicle (eg, stage).
We should also keep in mind that it was proto-New Critic Irving Babbitt who revived the liberal humanist tradition of Matthew Arnold, sparking the movement that came to be known was as New Humanism. The works of Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis can be seen as extensions of this earlier movement.
As mentioned, Aristotle was a sort of proto-Formalist. His division of the elements of tragedy into mythos (plot), peripateia (reversal), anagnorisis (recognition), hamartia (tragic flaw), catharsis (purification), mimesis (imitation), and subplot served as a sort of rulebook for dramatists during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. However, in the 19th century the Romantics began to question some of his assumptions, and by the 20th century many modernist writers came to reject two of Aristotle’s key concepts, plot and mimesis. Formed in the mid-1930s, the Chicago School of Critics sought to revive Aristotle’s reputation and re-implement his theories.
The most prominent critics of the Chicago school were Ronald Crane and Wayne Booth. In his The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth develops some of his key concepts regarding rhetorical criticism, including his notions of pluralism and the unreliable and naïve narrators.
Finally, I should point out that, unlike their Russian counterparts, the American Formalists (i.e., New Critics, Chicago School critics) emphasized pragmatic and practical criticism over theoretical criticism.
Cluster 3: Structuralism and Semiotics
Now on to Structuralism, which began with the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. A member of the Geneva School of Structural Linguistics, Saussure’s ideas about signified and signifier, referrer and referent, langue (linguistic system) and parole (verbal utterance), and diachronic and synchronic relations revolutionized the way we view language. It might even be said that all subsequent developments have been but extensions of his theories.
One American semiotician particularly under the influence of Saussure was Charles Peirce, who developed his own theories about the index, icon and symbol.
Founded in 1929 and disbanded in 1938, the Prague linguistic circle included Russian émigrés Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, as well as Czech literary scholars Rene Wellek and Jan Mukarovsky.
For now, you’ll want to focus on Jakobson’s key ideas about poetic function, metaphor and metonymy (aka, synecdoche; metaphor being typical of romantic and symbolist writers, metonymy of realist writers), and contiguity.
Finally, there’s French critic Roland Barthes, who’s a little harder to pin down. Some say he’s more post-structuralist than structuralist, others say he’s equally both. I’ll put him right here on the border: at the end of the structuralist cluster and the beginning of the post-structuralists (continued in my next post). For now, Mother, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with his work, S/Z, as well as with some of his more important terms such as doxa, demythologizing, death of author, play, text, ecriture, readerly text vs. writerly text, closure (closed text vs. open text), writing degree zero (or, zero degree of writing), narratology, ecrivant, and lexia (i.e., arbitrary excerpts).
In the next post, Mother, we’ll continue with Clusters 4, 5, and 6.
Your dutiful son,