Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory
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Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory

Evan Gottlieb

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Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory

Evan Gottlieb

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About This Book

Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory is a wide-ranging but accessible introduction to the key thinkers and theories integral to the study of literature. Organized thematically, the book provides historical introductions and uses a variety of relevant contemporary examples to illuminate the field.

Evan Gottlieb contextualizes the latest developments with regard to forms; discourses; subjectivities and embodiments; media, networks, and machines; and animals, affects, objects, and environments. Each chapter elucidates its concepts through in-depth discussions of major contemporary theorists, including Giorgio Agamben, Sara Ahmed, and Catherine Malabou, and uses engaging examples from a canonical novel, a contemporary text, and a new-media artifact to demonstrate theoretical applications. Additional text boxes regularly introduce emerging or overlooked theorists of interest, including Fred Moten and Sianne Ngai.

An ideal guide forstudents of literary and criticaltheory, this book will give readers the background they need to continue their own explorations of this vibrant field of study.

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The casual reader of a book, especially fiction, is likely interested primarily in its content, or what it says; contemporary literary critics and theorists, however, are just as likely to focus on its form, or how it says what it says. Starting in the early twentieth century, formal features and questions figured prominently in a lot of critical writing on literature. Nevertheless, the recent resurgence of interest in questions of form bears some marked differences from those earlier iterations. As I aim to show in this chapter, these differences reflect not only the expansion of literary and critical theory into an unprecedented range of cultural domains, but also the power of previously unavailable digital technologies to provide literary critics and theorists with unprecedented tools of large-scale data analysis.
Like all of my chapter’s titular terms, “form” is a capacious, multivalent concept. In a literary critical or theoretical context, it generally refers to the choices authors make about the presentation of their ideas. The most specifically literary of these choices usually regards the genres in which an author chooses to work; more generally, formal choices concern all elements of the arrangement and structure of the author’s ideas and words. From classical times up to the mid-twentieth century, questions of form were at the forefront of arguments about what constitutes the power of a text to move or influence its reader or audience. As “practical criticism” and the New Criticism fell out of favor, however, formal and aesthetic matters were increasingly seen as marginal or superficial, and were set aside in favor of supposedly deeper analyses of texts’ ideological and socio-historical affiliations and arguments. But in the twenty-first century, formal analysis has returned to the center of many methodological approaches to textual and cultural criticism, not to displace political investigations but to extend them (see, e.g., Levine). To see how these new approaches differ from their predecessors, we need to review the rise of formalism in twentieth-century literary criticism.

Matters of form in the twentieth century

Literary criticism has always been formal. Long before the disciplinary professionalization of literature as a discrete subject, scholars interested in distinguishing various types of writing turned to matters of form almost as readily as content for constructing different categories of literary production. Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy is especially noteworthy:
Nowhere in this definition does Aristotle say anything about what determines or delimits the specific content of a tragedy; instead, he characterizes tragedy by its tone (“serious”), scope (an “action which has magnitude”), language (“embellished speech”), vehicle of representation (“acting”), and aim (“catharsis”). Granted, he’s already argued that tragedy is distinguished from comedy by the type of people represented therein (superior in tragedy, inferior in comedy), so content clearly matters. Nevertheless, of the six elements of tragedy that Aristotle subsequently identifies – “plot, characters, diction, reasoning, spectacle, and song” – none is determined by content, and plot (“the structure of the incidents”) is clearly the most important (2010: 92–93).
It was largely in the twentieth century that critics began seriously to consider questions of form as central not only to the interpretive process but also to the specifically literary quality of a given text. Writing in the 1910s and 1920s, for example, the Russian Formalists devised a series of markers to differentiate literature from others kind of writing. To do so, they ruled out the text’s mimetic and expressive qualities, as well as the authorial intentions and biographical information they felt led away from the text rather than deeper into it (Jefferson, 1986: 24–25). Instead, they focused on the specific literary quality they called defamiliarization: the ability to make the familiar seem new and strange, in “opposition to the habitual” modes of perception that dominate our daily lives (1986: 27). Such freshness was achieved primarily by formal devices like elevated language, unusual or elaborate metaphors and images, and self-conscious transgressions or mutations of generic conventions. Whereas from Aristotle onward form had usually been understood as a container into which content was poured (Klarer, 2013: 106), for the Russian Formalists and their fellow travelers – including the innovative critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin – this dichotomy was reversed and then largely erased. It was no longer enough to say that form preceded or even generated content; rather, form was content in as much as the determining elements of a text were formal and structural all the way down.
This radical privileging of form over content sets the Russian Formalists apart from others – like the Leavises, I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and the New Critics – who also addressed literature’s formal features in the first half of the twentieth century, but without excluding more traditional considerations of content. Richards’s resolutely utilitarian attitude, for example, led him to promote “practical criticism,” and his book of the same name states unequivocally that since poetry is neither more nor less than “a mode of communication,” it follows that “What it communicates and how it does so and the worth of what is communicated form the subject-matter of criticism” (Richards, 1929: 6). Here, the question of form – the “how” of poetic communication – is sandwiched between those of content and value. Likewise, for the American New Critics, formal matters were important – certainly more than historical or biographical contexts, which they rejected as unnecessary for aesthetic appreciation – but still needed to be subordinated to the more pressing concerns of meaning. In the final chapter of The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947), Cleanth Brooks initially asserts that “it is in terms of structure” – previously defined as “the ordering of the material” – that we must define poetry, only to add immediately that “The structure is obviously everywhere conditioned by the nature of the material which goes into the poem” (1947: 194). “Conditioned” is not as strong as “determined,” but the upshot is unmistakable: once again, form is definitively distinguished from and then subordinated to content. Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941, 2nd ed. 1957) is thus something of an exception to this mid-century trend, as Burke’s idiosyncratic approach focuses on the “situations” and “strategies” of literature rather than form and content.
In the second half of the twentieth century, formal questions mutated, thanks to the importation of structuralism into literary criticism. Emanating from Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theories (reviewed at greater length in Chapter 2), and popularized by Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology and Roland Barthes’s applications of semiotics to literary criticism, structuralism importantly recognized that meaning – whether of a sentence, a kinship web, or a short story – is produced at least as much by the relations between elements as by the elements themselves. (A parallel track, although arrived at via the study of folklore, Jung, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, was forged by Northrop Frye’s ambitious attempts to systematize literary criticism along the lines of mythological plots and archetypal characters; one might also include Harold Bloom’s early books in this category, albeit with Freud standing in for Jung.) As the well-known story goes, however, the North American reception of structuralism was complicated by the simultaneous arrival of post-structuralism. In particular, historians of theory point to a 1966 conference hosted by Johns Hopkins University which was intended to introduce structuralism to North American academics, but which instead saw Derrida disrupt this plan. His instantly famous talk, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” radically challenged structuralism’s basic claim that systems of signs, properly interpreted, produced stable and ahistorical meanings. The following year, Derrida published three books, including his magnum opus Of Grammatology (an English translation by Gayatri Spivak would appear in 1974), and from then on poststructuralism – especially its Derridean version, deconstruction, which I’ll touch on again in Chapter 2 – would remain dominant, at least in North America, for most of the rest of the century. Even once deconstruction’s influence began to wane after Derrida’s death, its primary operational and interpretive insights – that meaning is a process rather than a final product, and that seemingly stable linguistic and conceptual oppositions and hierarchies are in fact always unstable and even self-contesting – continue to deeply inform much literary and critical criticism.
Derrida was hardly the lone representative of poststructuralism’s theoretical dominance. Also formidable during the final decades of the twentieth century was Barthes’s sensitive, semiotically informed criticism; Michel Foucault’s post-structuralist historicist work; Jacques Lacan’s revisionary applications of post-structuralist insights to Freudian psychoanalysis; and the deconstructive “French feminism” of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. Add to this the growing influence of New Historicism, whose practitioners frequently worked explicitly from the premise that formal distinctions between literary and non-literary works didn’t matter, and we can see the irony of how structuralism’s attention to form begat post-structuralism’s declaration of the impossibility of formal stability. By the last decades of the twentieth century, paying attention to form was frequently viewed as old-fashioned at best and dangerously naïve at worst.
At least one major area of literary criticism and theory proved to be a surprising exception to this general rule: Marxist theory. In its earliest incarnations, neither Marx nor his followers paid literature or literary criticism much attention; although Marx famously writes about Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in the first book of his Capital (1867), he saw literature primarily as part of the cultural “superstructure” that’s determined by and merely reflective of a given society’s economic “base.” Further, the official literary style of communism in the mid-twentieth century, Socialist Realism, was infamously suspicious of anything that smacked of formal experimentation; even the largely apolitical Russian Formalists were persecuted for their “bourgeois” sensibilities.
Nevertheless, in an important sense the Marxist interest in formal questions can be traced directly back to Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s most important formal invention: the commodity. In the first chapter of the first volume of Capital (1867/1990), Marx demonstrates at length that any commodity – which he initially defines as “a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (1867/1990: 125) – can embody several different kinds of value. When used for the purpose it was created, for example when a shovel is used for digging a hole, it has “use-value”; but when it’s traded or sold on the open market, it has “exchange-value.” There’s also a third form of value, which Marx felt the mainstream economists had neglected: its labor-value, or the amount of work needed to produce the item in question.
The important point for our purposes is that Marx’s analysis of the commodity is essential formal: it pertains to the structure of things-as-commodities, regardless of their specific properties or contents. When people buy or exchange commodities, they forget that what they’re really exchanging is the value of the labor that went into producing each commodity; instead, they mistake these social relations for relations between things. This leads Marx to formulate his famous theory of commodity fetishism:
Here, the material nature of the commodity – solid, natural-seeming, innocuous – is revealed as its most cunning feature, since it’s by virtue of labor-power’s transformation into material form that the exploitation of workers (in the form of their alienated, perennially undervalued labor) is most effectively realized; by misrecognizing the form our own labor takes in the fetishized commodity, we unwittingly facilitate our own exploitation. In this light, paying attention to form is not only expedient, according to Marx; it may also be the best way for us to make sense of our lives.
Marx’s investigation into commodities as formal structures bore fruit in a series of “Western Marxist” theoretical interventions during the mid-twentieth century. In the domain of literary studies, Georg Lukács’s interests in the mimetic capabilities and political functions of different genres, and Bakhtin’s analyses of language’s inherent “dialogism,” or polyphonism, stand out; with regard to the ways that superstructural cultural phenomena not only reflect a society’s dominant mode of production but also actively promote them, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s analyses of the formal effects of modern cultural media such as radio, television, and Hollywood movies are notable, as is Walter Benjamin’s inquiry into the ramifications of technological changes on the “aura” surrounding original works of art. In the British Marxist tradition, Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977) added much-needed nuance to Marx’s oversimplified view of the one-way relationship between socio-economic relations and cultural productions; Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies pioneered cultural materialism, which took seriously the analysis of cultural forms for their class functions; and E.P. Thompson made urgent the strategy of writing history from the perspective of the working classes. In France, where structural Marxism became intellectually fashionable, Louis Althusser developed his concept of interpellation to explain how ideology is e...

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Citation styles for Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory
APA 6 Citation
Gottlieb, E. (2019). Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1560743/engagements-with-contemporary-literary-and-critical-theory-pdf (Original work published 2019)
Chicago Citation
Gottlieb, Evan. (2019) 2019. Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1560743/engagements-with-contemporary-literary-and-critical-theory-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Gottlieb, E. (2019) Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1560743/engagements-with-contemporary-literary-and-critical-theory-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Gottlieb, Evan. Engagements with Contemporary Literary and Critical Theory. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2019. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.