It took me forever to read this, but mainly because I was taking fairly detailed notes; it’s not too tricky a read really. I took notes because I knew I’d forget so much of it straight away, but I’d like some of it to stick, or at least be ready to hand for when I forget. It was a good grounding for someone like me whose English Literature study stopped at sixteen.
Introduction: What is Literature
2-5 The Formalists, Russia, 1910s. “Lit language is a set of deviations from a norm … a ‘special’ kind of language, in contrast to the ‘ordinary’ language we commonly use.” Ordinary lang is different for different classes, regions, ages, etc. Lit lang is an assemblage of devices (sound, rhythm, narrative techniques, etc) and the lit content is merely present as the reason to use these in a particular way.
6-7 However, it’s possible to read anything as literature, giving the text a more general significance beyond its pragmatic purpose (reading it “non-pragmatically”). So whether something is lit depends on how one reads it. Lit is a “functional rather than ontological” term; “it tells us about what we do, not about the fixed being of things.”
8-9 Lit is often what we think of as good. As this is a value judgement there can be no objective category of writing that is literature; it’s whatever we say it is.
10-14 But what we say it is is shaped by inescapable social ideologies. Our value judgements “refer in the end not simply to private taste, but to the assumptions by which certain social groups exercise and maintain power over others.”
1. The Rise of English
15-16 During 18C, and by the Romantic period (19C), lit began to refer only to imaginitive works.
17 Utilitarianism and early industrial capitalism are dominant in England. State reacts to working class protests with “brutal political repressiveness”. The literary work is seen as spontaneous and creative, unlike society, and ‘poetry’ as an idea has political force.
18 But the creative artist and his ideals were isolated from society, and it was only at the time of William Morris “that the gap between poetic vision and political practice was significantly narrowed”.
18 Art/lit past and present began to be seen as an unchanging object, the ‘aesthetic’, ‘art’, no purpose but an end in itself above ordinary life.
19 The Symbol was at the centre of aesthetic theory at turn of 18C. Conflicts in ordinary life were resolved within it, away from the middle-class’s crass empiricism. It was irrational and couldn’t be explained — you saw it or you didn’t — and it brought together the concrete and universal, motion and stillness. [Examples of what this means would have been good.]
21 By mid-Victorian period religion was ceasing to be the unifying and pacifying form it had been. Eng lit was seen as something that could “heal the State”. Matthew Arnold saw the middle class as harsh and unintelligent and unable to lead and educate the working class in order to prevent anarchy. They needed to be shown “the best culture of their nation”.
22-4 Lit could impart universal ideals, putting its readers’ “petty” concerns in perspective, and let them experience lives they couldn’t afford. Arnold, Henry James and FR Leavis are exponents of the idea that lit is an imparter of morality — or “is moral ideology for the modern age”.
24-26 Eng lit was seen as feminine and an amatuerish subject Oxbridge tried to avoid, but also a way of promoting English values in an imperial age. WW I created a “spiritual hungering” and Eng lit provided the answer.
26-27 Eng lit was transformed at Cambridge after WW I under FR Leavis, QR Leavis and IA Richards, as the offspring of the provincial petty bourgeoisie entered universities for the first time. Leavises launched Scrutiny in 1932 and Eng lit became the important subject and established how it is discussed today.
29-30 Scrutiny was “the focus of a moral and cultural crusade”. But it didn’t seek to change (apart from through education) mechanized society and its withered culture, just to withstand it. Closely reading lit would not turn Eng into an organic and moral country. They disapproved of those who didn’t have their knowledge. But if lit made you better how, after WW II, to explain away educated Nazis? Scrutiny became an isolated elite.
31-2 “Organic societies are just convenient myths for belabouring the mechanized life of modern industrial capitalism.” The organic society lived on in good lit for the Leavisites, “rich, complex, sensuous and particular”. “Dramatically concrete” writers like Donne and Hopkins manifested the essence of Englishness unlike the “latinate or verbally disembodied” Milton and Shelley.
33 In 1915 TS Eliot came to London from St Louis and
began to carry out a wholesale salvage and demolition job on [England’s] literary traditions. The Metaphysical poets and Jacobean dramatists were suddenly upgraded; Milton and the Romantics were rudely toppled; selected European products, including the French Symbolists, were imported.
He thought Eng lit was on the right track in early 17C but “language drifted loose from experience” resulting in the “literary disaster” of Milton.
34 Liberalism, Romanticism, protestantism, economic individualism were perverted dogmas and a right-wing authoritarianism was Eliot’s solution. Literary works were only acceptable if they were part of the Tradition, or the “European mind”, which was a largely arbitrary definition.
35 “Poetry was not to engage the reader’s mind: it did not really matter what it actually meant.” “A language closely wedded to experience.” Meaning was just to distract the reader while the poem worked on him “in more physical and unconcsious ways”. Maybe there are deep roots that poetry can reach, going beyond history and the crisis of European society.
36 Eliot’s ideas about the need for language to become more primal was shared by Ezra Pound, TE Hulme and the Imagist movement. Middle class liberalism was finished — like Eliot, they were more right wing.
37-8 Leavis is associated with “practical criticism” (assessing the qualities of passages and ignoring historical context) and “close reading”.
38-40 Cambridge critic IA Richards was a major link between Leavis and the American New Criticism. He thought that modern science was the model of true knowledge [unlike Leavis’s technophobia] but that poetry was needed to balance the human psyche, something religion could no longer do.
40-42 New Criticism, 1930s-50s: Eliot, Richards, maybe Leavis and Empson, with American movement of John Crowe Ransom, WK Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Monroe Beardsley and RP Blackmur. Roots in a US South that was being industrialised. A poem was internally coherent but not cut off from reality; reality was somehow included within it making the poem a self-sufficient object in itself. New Critics broke with the Great Man theory (works are ways to access the author’s soul): “the poem meant what it meant, regardless of the poet’s intentions or the subjective feelings the reader derived from it”.
42-43 New Critical methods offered a method of dissecting poetry. These critical instruments were a way of competing with hard sciences on their own terms and by 1940s and 1950s New Criticism was part of the Establishment, perfectly natural.
44-46 Empson seems like a New Critic because of his analysis and unravelling of meaning but he has an old-fashioned liberal rationalism. Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), The Structure of Complex Words (1951), Milton’s God (1961). He treats poetry as something that can be paraphrased, and takes into account what the author probably meant. The reader brings social context and assumptions to the work.
2. Phenomenology, Heremeneutics and Reception Theory
47-49 German philosopher Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of the European Sciences (1935). Rejected the “natural attitude” that we reliably know about objects in the world. We only regard things as “intended” by consciousness and we must “put in brackets” anything beyond our immediate experience. The “phenomenological reduction”. The phenomena in our minds are a system of universal essences, not just the experience of something, an “eidetic” abstraction. Attempts to lay bare the structure of consciousness and of phenomena, it’s neither empiricism or “psychologism”.
50 “The subject was to be seen as the source and origin of all meaning” and was not part of the world and its history and society because these flowed from him.
51 Phenomenological criticism ignores a text’s historical context. One can only know the author’s mind from what is manifested in the work itself.
52 “A wholly uncritical, non-evaluative mode of analysis … a kind of pure distilliation of the blind spots, prejudices and limitations of modern criticism.” “For Husserl … meaning is something which pre-dates language: language is no more than a secondary activity which gives names to meanings I somehow already possess.”
52-53 This goes against the “linguistic revolution” of 20C which recognises that meaning is dependent on language and [I think] the language’s society.
53-54 For Husserl man stamps his image on the world. His pupil Heidegger moves on from this: the world is not “out there”, we are bound up in it. Understanding is not an “act I perform, but part of the very structure of human existence.” A human is constituted by history, or time, the structure of human life. Being and Time (1927) Existentialism.
55 Language is the dimension in which human life moves, we are only human by participating in language’s existence. Being includes both subject and object. We should be humble before Nature; Heidegger was another proponent of the organic society and briefly a supporter of Hitler.
56 For Heidegger art is the only means through which phenomenological truth manifests itself, where we see things as they really are. We don’t do literary interpretation, we let it happen to us.
57 Heidegger: “hermeneutical phenomenology”. Husserl: “transcendental phenomenology”.
58 For Husserl meaning was an “intentional object”, fixed and identical with whatever the author “intended”. ED Hirsch Jr (Validity in Interpretation (1967)) agrees but also thinks a work can have many valid interpretations, all within the system the author’s meaning permits. For Hirsch and Husserl meaning is pre-linguistic, althoguh we’re not sue how that is supposed to work.
61-64 Han-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method), following from Heidegger, says we can never know the author’s work “as it is”; our interpretation always depends on our current situation. The prejudices we bring to the interpretation are OK because they have been formed by the tradition itself and so connect us with the work. This is hermeneutics. But it assumes a single artistic tradition through history without conflicting ideologies.
64 Most recent development of hermeneutics in Gemany is ‘reception theory’ which also concentrates on recent works (unlike Gadamer), and it examines the reader’s role in lit.
Three stages of modern lit theory, focusing on different things: author (Romanticism and 19C); text (New Criticism); reader.
65-67 For reception theory reading is a dynamic process
As we read on we shed assumptions, revise beliefs, make more and more complex inferences and anticipations; each sentence opens up a horizon which is confirmed, challenge or undermined by the next. … All this complicated activity is carried out on many levels at once, for the text has ‘backgrounds’ and ‘foregrounds’, different narrative viewpoints, alternateive layers of meaning between which we are constantly moving.
67-68 Wolfgang Iser (The Act of Reading (1978). Texts deploy ‘codes’, sets of rules which govern the ways it produces meanings. We apply codes to interpret works, but there may be a mismatch. For Iser the most effective work is forces the reader to examine their customary codes and epectations.
69 He says a reader with a strong ideology will be inadequate as they won’t be open to a text’s tranformative power. But this means a reader should be open to change, so any transformation is less profound. And what you define as a ‘literary’ work is one that is open to these methods of enquiry, so what you get out of the work depends on what you put in.
70 Iser says readers are free to interpret a text in different ways but they must construct it in such a way as to render it internally consistent. An ‘open’ work must become coherent, indeterminacies must be ‘normalized’.
70-71 Roland Barthes (The Pleasure of the Text (1973), also a reception theorist, looks at modern works. The reader cannot make a coherent whole but must revel in the glimpses of meaning, textures of words. Barthes and Iser both largely ignore the reader’s social and historical position.
72-73 A work is written for an ‘implied reader’ (Iser) who has the correct understanding to make some sense of the subject and language.
73-74 If a work is only the many readers’ interpretations, in what sense are we reading the same work? Stanley Fish says we aren’t, a novel is the sum of its interpretations. What then is it that is being interpreted, “the text in itself”? Fish says he doesn’t know, there is nothing “immanent” in the work waiting to be released.
75-76 We cannot make a text mean anything we like, “the idea is a simple fantasy bred in the minds of those who have spent too long in the classroom”. A text belongs to language as a whole, has relations to other linguistic practices. “Its meaning is to some extenr ‘immanent’ in it.” Also “the stock of socially legitimated ways of reading works … operates as a constraint.”
3. Structuralism and Semiotics
79-81 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), moved on from New Criticism. Created a detailed system of how lit functioned, and said that over the years it cycles through four phases: comic, romantic, tragic and ironic. Lit exists within a history, but it is purely the history of lit; it has no reference to the wider world. “Lit is not a way of knowing reality but a kind of collective utopian dreaming”, a kind of substitute religion.
82-83 In structuralism images in a text only have meaning in relation to each other, not to external things. The content is much less relevant than the form; items in the text could be changed and it would still be structurally the same.
83 Structuralism is indifferent to the cultural value of the text. It refuses the ‘obvious’ meaning and looks to ‘deep’ structures within. The narrative is about itself, the ‘content’ is its structure.
84 Structuralism in all subjects is based on Ferdinand Saussure’s structural linguistics (Course in General Linguistics (1916) but lit struc flourished in 1960s). Language is a system of signs, each “made up of a ‘signifier’ (a sound-image, or its graphic equivalent), and a ‘signified’ (the concept of meaning)”. eg the word “cat” and the idea of the animal. Relation between the two is arbitrary. The relation between this whole sign and the object it refers to, the ‘referent’ is therefore also aritrary.
85 Roman Jakobson was a Russian Formalist and modern structuralism was born out of him meeting Claude Lévi-Strauss. For Jakobson, in poetics “the sign is dislocated from its object” and the sign is allowed value in itself.
87 Structuralism is a method of enquiry and semiotics is the study of a system of signs (like struc. lit theory). But structuralism tends to use semiotics and struc reduces all things to systems of signs.
87-88 Founder of semitiotics CS Peirce
distinguished between three basic kinds of sign. There was the ‘iconic’, where the sign somehow resembled what it stood for (a photograph of a person, for example); the ‘indexical’, in which the sign is somehow associated with what it is a sign of (smoke with fire, spots with measles), and the ‘symbolic’, where as with Saussure the sign is only arbitrarily or conventionally linked with its referent. Semiotics takes up this and many other classifications: it distinguishes between ‘denotation’ (what the sign stands for) and ‘connotation’ (other signs associated with it); between codes (the rule-governed structures which produce meanings) and the messages transmitted by them; between the ‘paradigmatic’ (a whole class of signs which may stand in for one another) and the ‘syntagmitic’ (where signs are coupled together with each other in a ‘chain’). It speaks of ‘metalanguages’, where one sign-system denotes another sign-system (the relation between literary criticism and literature, for instance), ‘poysemic’ signs which have more than one meaning, and a great many other technical concepts.
88-89 For Yury Lotman a poetic text is a ‘system of systems’ with every tension, parallelism, repetition, opposition continually modifying all the others. Eg the poem’s rhythm may be interrupted by its syntax. what is a ‘device’ is decided by the reader: “one person’s poetic device be another’s daily speech”.
90 Structuralism had a big impact on the study of narrative. Eg for Lévi Strauss there were a few basic themes behind all myths, and these had their own rules, a grammar. These are inherent in the human mind so in looking at myths we are looking at the mental operations that structure it. “Myths have a quasi-objective collective existence, unfold their own ‘concrete logic’ with supreme disregard for the vagaries of individual thought, and reduce any particular consciousness to a mere function of themselves.”
94 Structuralism said “reality was not reflected by language but produced by it. The world is not simply how we perceive it. “It undermines the empericism of the literary humanists — the belief that what is most ‘real’ is what is experienced, and that the home of this rich, subtle, complex experience is literature itself.”
98-99 Structuralism sees language as an object rather than a practice with human subjects, ignores the practical conditions in which a language operates.
101-102 Mikhail Bakhtin reacted against this “objectivist” linguistics. Signs weren’t fixed units but changed depending on who said them to who and in what social and historical context.
102-103 JL Austin, How to Do Things With Words (1962). Speech act theory. All language is “performative”. Lit may describe the world, state facts, but its real function is bringing about certain effects in the reader (although as a lit text is not a speech act he dismisses it as defective).
104-106 “In reading, we build up a sense of what kind of effects this language is trying to achieve (‘intention’).” “None of this need be identical with the intentions, attitudes and assumptions of the actual historical author.” The reader was someone who could understand the work “as it was”, although such an objective reader, free of class, gender, cultural influences, etc does not exist.
110-111 The signified (the concept of a boat) is not only what it is because of its signifier (“boat”) but also because of all the signifiers it isn’t (“moat”, “boar”, etc). Look up a signifier in a dictionary and the signified (the definition) is made up of more signifiers, etc. “Structuralism divided the sign from the referent”, post-structuralism “divides the signifier from the signified.” “Meaning is not immediately present in a sign.” The meaning of a word in a text is affected by those before and after it.
111-112 “It is difficult to know what a sign ‘originally’ means” because its context is always different. I can never be fully present to you through what I say or write because the meaning of the signs is always in flux. I can also never have a pure meaning or intention myself as I am made up of language.
113 Western philosophical tradition “has consistently vilified writing” because it is always at one remove from one’s consciousness, whereas speech is more immediate. But this ignores the mutability of the signs in speech too.
114-116 There can be no transcendental, original meaning to a thought-system as we always want to go beyond it. First principles can always be “deconstructed” as products of a particular system of meaning. They are often defined by what they exclude, are part of the binary opposition beloved of structuralism (and ideologies in general).
117-118 Roland Barthes. A “healthy” sign draws attention to its own arbitrariness. Signs which pass themselves off as “natural” and the only way of seeing the world are authoritarian and ideological. Realist literature has this “natural attitude”, tries to give us reality “as it is” and denies the productive character of language. The “double” sign “gestures to its owm material existence at the same time as it conveys a meaning”. Formalists, Czec structuralists, German Weimar Republic (including Brecht), Bolshevik Futurists.
119-120 A lit work is no longer something to be read but something writable. It is not a stable structure and the critic is now a producer not just consumer. A “writable” text has no set meaning, “an inexhaustible tissue or galaxy of signifiers”. Barthes’ S/Z (1970), a study of Balzac’s story Sarrasine.
122-125 [Stuff about Paris in 1968 etc. Can’t quite fathom the exact relationship between that and post-structuralism.]
125-130 [More stuff about politics and post-structuralism that leaves me wanting a definition of what post-structuralism actualy is. It sounds important but is very vague. Feminism. Michel Foucault.]
131-132 Freud. We must work to survive and in doing so we repress the “pleasure principle”, our tendencies to pleasure and gratification. We might “sublimate” unfulfilled desires by directing them to a more socially valued end.
132-135 As children grow, become aware of sexuality. Oedipus complex. Acceptance of and adoption of masculine/feminine roles. “We turn from incest to extra- familial relations; and from Nature to Culture”.
136-137 The child now has an ego, identity, but only by repressing its guilty desires into the unconscious. Dreams are our main access to the unconscious. They are “symbolic fulfilments of unconscious wishes” but filtered by the ego and confused by the unconscious — metaphor, metonymy.
137-138 We may have unconscious desires that won’t be denied but find no outlet. “The desire forces its way in fro the unconscious, the ego blocks it off defensively, and the result of this internal conflict is what we call neurosis.” Psychoanalysis sees unresolved conflicts behind neuroses which stem from the Oedipal moment. If the ego cannot partly repress the unconscious desire psychosis occurs, the unconscious builds up an alternative, delusional reality.
142-146 Jacques Lacan’s take on Freudianism. Reinterprets him in the light of structuralist and post-structuralist theories and looks at the relationship to language.
146-147 The unconscious and dreams, for Lacan, is composed not of signs but of signifiers, and it is not obvious what they signify. Language is slippery and we can never say exactly what we mean or mean what we say. When we use “I” in a sentence we can never fully represent ourself.
147-148 Literature draws attention to how something is said, not just what is said, unlike, say a textbook. The work will not be taken for the absolute truth and the reader is encouraged to think about this particular representation of reality. Bertolt Brecht. Avant-garde film-making vs Hollywood.
148-150 Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy (1971). Individuals are merely products of several social structures. But we experience ourselves as free, autonomous individuals. How? We feel that society is not an impersonal structure but something that addresses us personally, as though the world is centered on ourselves. Ideology is the set of beliefs and practices that does this centering. It is things like going to church, voting, letting wome through doors first, how I dress.
150 For Lacan the unconscious is not just within us but an effect of our relations with one another. Language is similar. Language, the unconscious, parents, the symbolic order — the ‘Other’.
159 Harold Bloom rewrote literary history in terms of the Oedipus complex. A poet is overshadowed by a previous poet, like a son is a father, and tries to disarm that strength by revising and recasting the earlier poem. A return to Protestant Romanticism of heroic battling giants.
160-161 Classical narrative for Freud, something is lost, it is distressing but exciting, but we know the object will be restored. But also what we have might one day disappear forever.
162 Naturalistic theatre, eg Shaw: the discourse may urge change and criticism but the form enforces the solidity of this social world. To break with these ways of seeing it would need to move beyond naturalism (later Ibsen and Strindberg), jolting audience out of the reassurance of recognition. Brecht’s “estrangement effect” makes the most taken-for-granted aspects of reality unfamiliar to unsettle the audience’s convictions.
163 Julia Kristeva, La Révolution du langage poétique (1974). [Don’t understand the description of the “semiotic”.]
Conclusion: Political Criticism
169-170 Literary theory is always political. “The great majority of the literary theories outlined in this book have strengthened rather than challenged the assumptions of the power-system some of whose present-day consquences [nuclear stockpiles, poverty] I have just described.”
171 Modern literary theory has ignored modern ideologies and history in favour of a flight into the poem, the human mind, myth, language, etc.
171-173 There is no common method that defines literary theories, and no common object (impossible to define what literature is). Many methods are mutually exclusive. One may choose to work without a method, using only intuition, but this “will depend on a latent structure of assumptions”.
173-175 Liberal humanism is part of the “official” ideology of modern capitalism, but in practice its values are only paid lip service. Departments of literature, due to their funding, are part of the “ideological apparatus of the modern capitlalist state”. As a student
nobody is especially concerned about what you say, with what extreme, moderate, radical or conservative positions you adopt, provided that they are compatible with, and can be articulated within, a specific form of discourse. It is just that certain meanings and positions will not be articulable within it. Literary studies, in other words, are a question of the signifier, not of the signified.”
175 “Certain pieces of writing are selected as being more amenable to this discourse than others, and these are what is known as literature or the ‘literary canon’.”
175-178 This is an arbitrary definition and should be an embarrassment to literary criticism. Lit crit tries to keep itself alive by adding, say, historical analysis or structuralism, but this only makes it obvious that other objects can have literary theory applied to them too. Literary theory, like literature, is an illusion, and should not be a discipline distinct from philsophy, linguistics, psychology, etc. This book is an obituary.
179-180 He wants to return literary criticsm to the paths of traditional Rhetoric, which analysed, and produced, all kinds of discourse.
180-183 We should not ask what lierature is or how to approach it but why we should want to engage with it. The liberal humanist response is reasonable but useless (it overestimates the power of literature to make you a “better person” and ignores social context).
183-184 With rhetoric (or “discourse theory” or “cultural studies”) you decie what you want to do and choose the appropriate methods and objects.
187-189 There are four occasions when culture “becomes newly relevant, charged with a significance beyond itself”: “In the lives of nations struggling for their independence from imperialism”; the women’s movement; the “culture industry” [I think he’s saying something about fighting the dumbing down of the media’s discourse]; working-class writing. It would be good if the study of traditional literary subjects “could become as charged with energy, urgency and enthusiasm as [these] activities”.
190-192 In late 1960s and early 1970s there were more students for whom the supposedly universal values of literature were alien. So the Russian Formalists, French structuralists and German reception theorists came into fashion. As structuralism revealed the same codes traversed both high and low cultures, a new field of enquiry, “cultural studies”, emerged.
192-194 End of 1970s, revolutionary movements faded, capitalism reasserted itself. Feminism and post-structuralism came to the fore. There have been few breakthroughs in feminist theory since the 1970s but it has become “the most popular of all the new approaches to literature.”
195-196 Marxist criticism languished since late 1970s. Western capitalism proved too strong for the mass movements that fought against it. So maybe new, smaller organisations and theories were needed. “There was no longer a coherent system or unified history to be opposed, just a discrete set of powers, discourses, practices, narratives.
196-197 Foucault and Lacan popular during 1980s. Derrida and deconstruction faded.
197-198 New historicism focused on the Renaissance. Ignored many topics, often if they didn’t crop up in Foucault or if they had little bearing on present-day US culture.
198-199 In Britain, Raymond Williams’ “cultural materialism” took hold. A way of examining culture as being thoroughly social and material. [Not sure what this actually means.]
199-200 During 1980s many of the political areas that post-structuralism ignored became more important. It couldn’t compete with the German tradition of philosophical enquiry from Hegel to Habermas. A resurgence of interest in Russian Mikhail Bakhtin.
200-202 “Postmodernity means the end of modernity, in the sense of those grand narratives of truth, reason, science, progress and universal emancipation which are taken to characterize modern thought from the Enlightenment onwards.” Postmodernism is “the form of culture which corresponds to this world view. The typical postmodernist work of art is arbitrary, eclectic, hybrid, decentered, fluidm discontinuous, pastiche-like.” Spurns metaphyisal profundity. Ironic. Relativist. Suspects all hierarchies of value as privileged and elitist.
204-206 Post-colonial theory has been second only to feminist criticism by mid-1990s. The “other” as groups written out of history. Over-emphasizes cultural dimension of life in overreaction to previous biologism, humanism or economism.