Critical Practice
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Critical Practice

Catherine Belsey, Catherine Belsey

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Critical Practice

Catherine Belsey, Catherine Belsey

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What is poststructuralist theory, and what difference does it make to literary criticism? Where do we find the meaning of the text: in the author's head? in the reader's? Or do we, instead, make meaning in the practice of reading itself? If so, what part do our own values play in the process of interpretation? And what is the role of the text? Catherine Belsey considers these and other questions concerning the relations between human beings and language, readers and texts, writing and cultural politics. Assuming no prior knowledge of poststructuralism, Critical Practice guides the reader confidently through the maze of contemporary theory. It simply and lucidly explains the views of key figures such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, and shows their theories at work in readings of familiar literary texts.

Critical Practice argues that theory matters, because it makes a difference to what we do when we read, opening up new possibilities for literary and cultural analysis. Poststructuralism, in conjunction with psychoanalysis and deconstruction, makes radical change to the way we read both a priority and a possibility.

With a new chapter, updated guidance on further reading and revisions throughout, this second edition of Critical Practice is the ideal guide to the present and future of literary studies.

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In David Lodge’s novel, Changing Places, Philip Swallow finds, when he arrives as Visiting Professor of English at an American university, that he has been put down to teach a course on novel-writing. A student called Wily Smith is eager to take the course.
‘I have this novel I want to write. It’s about this black kid growing up in the ghetto….’
‘Isn’t that going to be rather difficult?’ said Philip. ‘I mean, unless you actually are….’
Philip hesitated. He had been instructed by Charles Boon that ‘black’ was the correct usage these days, but he found himself unable to pronounce a word associated in Rummidge with the crudest kind of racial prejudice. ‘Unless you’ve had the experience yourself’, he amended his sentence.
‘Sure. Like the story is autobiographical. All I need is technique.’
‘Autobiographical?’ Philip scrutinized the young man, narrowing his eyes and cocking his head to one side. Wily Smith’s complexion was about the shade of Philip’s own a week after his summer holiday, when his tan would begin to fade and turn yellow. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Sure I’m sure.’ Wily Smith looked hurt, not to say insulted.
(Lodge 1978:67)
Whatever difficulties of intercultural communication are involved, professor and student share an assumption that novels are about life, that they are written from personal experience and that this is the source of their authenticity. They share, in other words, the commonsense view of literature, which proposes a practice of reading in quest of expressive realism, and the only alternative offered in Changing Places is the literary imperialism of the encyclopaedic Morris Zapp, entrepreneurial descendant of Northrop Frye. Common sense assumes that valuable literary texts, those which are in a special way worth reading, tell truths —about the period that produced them, about the world in general, or about human nature—and that in doing so, they express the particular perceptions, the individual insights, of their authors.
Common sense also offers this way of approaching literature not as a self-conscious and deliberate practice, a method based on a reasoned theoretical position, but as the ‘obvious’ mode of reading, the ‘natural’ way of approaching literary works. Critical theory accordingly appears as a perfectly respectable but to some degree peripheral area, almost a distinct discipline, a suitable activity for graduate students, or perhaps to be got out of the way as an introductory ‘isms course’ for undergraduates, while having no necessary connection with the practice of reading itself. To a few diehards, it seems misleading, interfering with the natural way of reading, perplexing the minds of readers with nice speculations of philosophy, and so leading to over-ingenuity, jargon and a loss of direct and spontaneous contact with the immediately perceptible reality of the text.


Meanwhile, recent work in Europe and in the United States, stimulated above all from France, has called in question not only some of the specific assumptions of common sense, some of the beliefs which appear most obvious and natural, but the authority of common sense itself, the collective and timeless wisdom whose unquestioned presence seems to be the source and guarantee of everything we take for granted. This work may be labelled ‘poststructuralist’, but I have identified it here as ‘post-Saussurean’, to emphasize its line of descent from the radical elements in the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. Post-Saussurean theory proposes that common sense itself is ideologically and discursively constructed, rooted in a specific historical situation, and operating in conjunction with a particular social formation. In other words, it is argued that what seems obvious and natural is not necessarily so but that, on the contrary, the ‘obvious’ and the ‘natural’ are not given but produced in a specific society by the ways in which that society talks and thinks about itself and its experience.
It follows that the propositions of common sense concerning the practice of reading are also in question. Post-Saussurean work on language has challenged the whole concept of realism; Roland Barthes has specifically proclaimed the death of the author; and Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser and Jacques Derrida have all from various positions questioned the humanist assumption that the individual mind or inner being is the source of meaning and truth. In this context, the notion of a text which tells a (or the) truth, as perceived by an individual subject (the author), whose insights are the source of the text’s single and authoritative meaning, is not only untenable, but literally unthinkable, because the problematic which supported it, the framework of assumptions and knowledges, ways of thinking, probing and analysing that it was based on, no longer stands.
In practice, common sense betrays its own inadequacy by its incoherences, its contradictions and its silences. Presenting itself as non-theoretical, as ‘obvious’, common sense is not called on to demonstrate that it is internally consistent. But an account of the world which finally proves to be incoherent or non-explanatory constitutes an unsatisfactory foundation for the practice either of reading or of criticism. Empiricist common sense, however, effaces this problem by urging that the real task of the critic is to get on with the reading process, to respond directly to the text without worrying about niceties of theory, as if the lack of any systematic approach or procedure were a guarantee of objectivity. In this way, empiricism evades confrontation with its own propositions, protects whatever values and methods are currently dominant, and so guarantees the very opposite of objectivity, the perpetuation of unquestioned assumptions.
But there is no practice without theory, however much that theory is suppressed, unformulated or perceived as ‘obvious’. What we do when we read, however natural it seems, presupposes a whole theoretical vocabulary, even if unspoken, which defines certain relationships between meaning and the world, meaning and people, and finally people themselves and their place in the world.
Common sense appears obvious because it is inscribed in the language we speak. Post-Saussurean theory, therefore, starts from an analysis of language, proposing that language is not transparent, not merely the medium in which autonomous individuals transmit messages to each other about an independently constituted world of things. On the contrary, it is language which offers the possibility of constructing a world of distinct individuals and things, and of differentiating between them. The transparency of language is an illusion.


Partly as a consequence of this theory, the language used by its practitioners is usually far from transparent. The effect of this is to alert the reader to the opacity of language, and to avoid the ‘tyranny of lucidity’, the impression that what is being said must be true simply because it is clear and familiar. The modes of address of post- Saussurean writers like Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, though different from each other in important ways, share this property of difficulty, and not simply from a perverse desire to be obscure. To challenge familiar assumptions and familiar values in a vocabulary which, in order to be easily readable, is compelled to reproduce these assumptions and values, is an impossibility. New concepts, new theories, necessitate new, unfamiliar and therefore initially difficult terms.
For instance, I shall introduce the word ideology in a way which may be unfamiliar, associating it with common sense rather than with a set of doctrines or a coherent system of beliefs. My use of the term, derived from Althusser, assumes that ideology is not an optional extra, deliberately adopted by self-conscious individuals (‘Conservative party ideology’, for instance), but the very condition of our experience of the world, unconscious precisely in that it is unquestioned, taken for granted. Ideology, in Althusser’s use of the term, works in conjunction with political practice and economic practice to constitute the social formation, a term designed to promote a more complex and radical analysis than the familiar term, ‘society’, which often evokes either a single homogeneous mass or, alternatively, a loosely connected group of autonomous individuals, and thus offers no challenge to the assumptions of common sense.
Ideology is inscribed in language in the sense that it is literally written or spoken in it. Rather than a separate element which exists independently in some free-floating realm of ‘ideas’ and is subsequently embodied in words, ideology is a way of thinking, speaking, experiencing. These usages will, I hope, become clear and familiar in the course of what follows.
The danger is that their unfamiliar vocabularies render the new theories inaccessible, or not worth the effort of learning to understand them. (Learning theory is much like learning a language.) And, of course, the last resort of common sense is to dismiss as unnecessary ‘jargon’ any vocabulary which conflicts with its own. This is an effortless way of evading conceptual challenges, of course (and eliciting reassuring sneers), but it negates the repeated liberal-humanist claim to open-mindedness and pluralism. Of course jargon exists, but from a perspective in which ideology is held to be inscribed in language, so that no linguistic forms are ideologically innocent or neutral, it follows that terms cannot be seen as unnecessary simply on the basis that they are new. To resist all linguistic innovation is by implication to claim that we already know all we need to know.


In this book I shall try to make the new theories as accessible as possible, without recuperating them for common sense by transcribing them back into the language of every day. The undertaking is in a sense contradictory: to explain is inevitably to reduce the unfamiliarity and so to reduce the extent of the challenge of the post-Saussurean position. On the other hand, I hope that it may prove to be a useful enterprise if it facilitates the reading of the principal theorists themselves.
For this reason, I shall not evade post-Saussurean terminology where it seems to me necessary and, in addition, I shall attempt to show post- Saussurean theory in action, rather than merely to encapsulate in more accessible form a reduced version of the theoretical positions in question. I shall explain those aspects of the theory that seem to me necessary as a basis for a new critical practice, and I shall tend to concentrate on what post-Saussurean theories have in common, rather than on what divides them.
If there is no practice without theory, if common sense presupposes a theoretical basis, however unformulated, it is important to begin by examining some of the propositions of common sense. Thereafter, in chapter 2, I shall give a brief account of the major theoretical assaults on the critical assumptions of common sense which, because they fail to move outside the familiar empiricist-idealist problematic, or framework of ideas and concomitant problems, fail to provide a genuinely radical critical theory and practice.
Common sense, then, proposes a humanism, based on an empiricist-idealist interpretation of the world. In other words, common sense urges that ‘man’ is the origin and source of meaning, of action and of history (humanism). Our concepts and our knowledge are held to be the product of experience (empiricism), and this experience is preceded and interpreted by the mind, reason or thought, the property of a transcendent human nature whose essence is the attribute of each individual (idealism). These propositions, radically called in question by the implications of post-Saussurean linguistics, constitute the basis of a practice of reading which assumes, whether explicitly or implicitly, the theory of expressive realism. This is the theory that literature reflects the reality of experience, as it is perceived by one (especially gifted) individual, who expresses this perception in a text which enables other individuals to recognize its truth.


Expressive realism belongs roughly to the last two centuries. It coincides, therefore, with the period of industrial capitalism. I shall suggest in chapter 4 that the procedures of expressive realism have certain ideological implications which may indicate that their development during this period is in practice more than coincidental.
In the mean time, in order to come to terms with expressive realism, it might be helpful to find a clear and explicit formulation of the position which is still so widely taken for granted. Definitions of commonsense positions are found most often in periods when the position in question is new, and in the process of displacing an earlier position, or when it is under attack. At times when the same position is widely shared, its principles are more commonly implicit than explicit. The Aristotelean concept of art as mimesis, the imitation of reality, was widely current throughout the early modern period and during the eighteenth century. Expressive realism resulted from the fusion of this concept with the new Romantic conviction that poetry, as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, expressed the perceptions and emotions of a person ‘possessed of more than usual organic sensibility’ (Wordsworth 1974, 1:126).
By the mid-nineteenth century the expressive-realist theory had become widely established in relation to literature, but painting, and particularly landscape painting, found its first major post-Romantic theorist in John Ruskin. When, in Modern Painters in the 1840s, Ruskin set out to defend landscape painting in general, and the paintings of J.M.W.Turner in particular, he did so by invoking in relation to the visual arts the theory already widely current in discussions of poetry. He uses, he says, ‘the words painter and poet quite indifferently’ (Ruskin 1903–12, 5:221), ‘treating poetry and painting as synonymous’ (3:88). His account of the landscape painter’s obligations offers, therefore, a particularly clear and striking formulation of a position which was then relatively new and to some degree embattled (3:133–9). Ruskin insists that
the landscape painter must always have two great and distinct ends: the first, to induce in the spectator’s mind the faithful conception of any natural objects whatsoever; the second, to guide the spectator’s mind to those objects most worthy of its contemplation, and to inform him of the thoughts and feelings with which these were regarded by the artist himself.
In other words, the artist must both represent (re-present) faithfully the objects portrayed, and express the thoughts and feelings they evoke in him or her. There is no doubt, in Ruskin’s view, that the second aim is the more important, because it leaves the spectator more than delighted —
ennobled and instructed, under the sense of having not only beheld a new scene, but of having held communion with a new mind, and having been endowed for a time with the keen perception and the impetuous emotion of a nobler and more penetrating intelligence.
But this creates a difficulty. Whereas truth to nature is universally pleasing—the representational aspects of art will delight everyone—the expressive aspects are apparent only to the few, ‘can only be met and understood by persons having some sort of sympathy with the high and solitary minds which produced it—sympathy only to be felt by minds in some degree high and solitary themselves’. To avoid this difficulty, Ruskin’s criticism will concentrate first on the question of truth to nature, since,
although it is possible to reach what I have stated to be the first end of art, the representation of facts, without reaching the second, the representation of thoughts, yet it is altogether impossible to reach the second without having previously reached the first.
Mimetic accuracy is the foundation of all art: ‘nothing can atone for the want of truth’; ‘no artist can be graceful, imaginative, or original, unless he be truthful’. And so, in the first instan...

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Citation styles for Critical Practice
APA 6 Citation
Belsey, C. (2003). Critical Practice (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2003)
Chicago Citation
Belsey, Catherine. (2003) 2003. Critical Practice. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Belsey, C. (2003) Critical Practice. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2003. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.