To begin, literary criticism is the study, evaluation and interpretation of literature. Literary theory is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals. While modern criticism uses aspects of literary theory, the two are not synonymous.

The foundation of modern literary criticism and theory (which began as we now recognize it in the 20th century), were the ideas of Aristotle and Plato in ancient Greece, thinkers in the Renaissance and the ideas of the Romantics in the 19th century.

The ancient Greeks developed the concepts of mimesis and catharsis, which we still use today. Renaissance critics focused on interpreting religious texts (the practice is called hermeneutics) and the Romantics decided that authors did not have to write about things that were perfect, but they could elevate normal things to the realm of the sublime through technique.


1910s - 1930s, Russian Formalism

This way of looking at a text downplays the message or characters and places importance on the structure and form of the storytelling instead. To a formalist, characters are mere devices for producing an effect of the author's intention.

Formalism was a way of making literature into a science by measuring the lingustic content as well as syntax to see what outcome was produced.

The reaction to this would obviously be the idea that a text cannot be seperated from external history.

The Russian Formalists laid out their credo with this idea at the center: Literary history is moved forward by new ways of defamiliarization. To them, defamiliarization is presenting the world in a way that makes the reader see it differently after having read the book. The innovation would be in storytelling technique, not the style.


1920s-1960s, New Criticism

Rejected the use of extra-textual sources (like the author's biography, historical documents of the same era, etc.) to deduce meaning or influence interpretation.

Save for a few "innovations," literary interpretation basically fluxuates back and forth between deciding the author's biography matters and doesn't matter. Currently we are in a time where people want to put everything into a context, but historically there has been a backlash against that kind of thought.

New Critics emphasize the ambiguity in texts and reject the idea that they can be parables of specific concepts or truths. They took Freud's idea of overdetermination, or the idea that there are multiple meanings present in each element of language, to mean that there are infinite interpretations of a text.

The two tenets of this criticism are that readers should avoid the intentional fallacy, or avoid focusing on the author's intentions, and the affective fallacy, or the idea that a text's worth can be quantified by the emotional effect it has on the reader. To them, this is leaving too much to emotional subjectivity, and it therefore makes a consensus among critics impossible.


1930s-1950s, The Chicago School

Sometimes called the Neo-Aristotelian school because of its emphasis on plot, character and genre, it was a reaction against the New Criticism's subjectivity.

Sometimes this is considered an off-shoot of the New Criticism, but with more of a classical foundation.


1940s-1970s, U.S. Formalism

Formalism became the dominant mode of interpretation in the U.S. long after it was influential in Russia.

American Formalists believed in the inherent feature of a text - just as the Russians did - but were just another swing of the pendelum in the eternal indecision over whether or not context matters. Awesome.


The New Criticism

Developing slightly after Formalism, this American criticism encouraged close reading (the best example I can think of is someone writing an entire thesis on a single use of "yes" in "Ulysses") and discouraged the use of the author's biography to determine meaning.


1960s France, Structuralism

This mode of thought, started by Ferdinand de Saussure (the father of modern linguistics), examines texts as "structures" in which elements of the text are determined by their position within the overarching system.

Major structuralists include Jacque Lacan (the savior of psychoanalysis) and Michel Foucault.

From Saussure came the concepts of the signifer (linguistic act) and the signified (concept or meaning conveyed) which was revolutionary in lingusitics, but also extremely valuable to those who wanted to address texts as systems that work like language.

Like the Formalists, structuralist thinkers thought the characters of a story were less important than the story being presented. Unlike the Formalists, the Structuralists thought there was something beyond the inherent value of a text -- that the story was a parable or a mask that covers a deep, hidden structure. This would be influential in the development of Freudian and Marxist reading because both types of readers see texts as parables for battles (life and death insticts, different classes).


1970s, Deconstruction

It is important to understand that, contrary to its deriders, deconstruction is not "about nothing" or "creating havoc."

Deconstruction is about finding the presumptions that create an argument and exposing them. It is about demonstrating problems or contridictions.

It was popularized by Jacque Derrida in the 1960s. For example, a deconstructionist might point out that another's theory is based on the metaphysical assumption of "being as presence." By the deconstructionist's criticism of criticism, we can become more aware of how we draw conclusions.

Deconstuction was huge among the Yale School of thinkers in the '70s. Harold Bloom was notably among those influenced by Derrida's post-structural deconstruction.


1980s-1990s, New Historicism

Started by Stephen Greenblatt, this returned literature to its context.

This view, which became popular in the 1990s, was that society consists of texts that relate to each other.

The New Historicist often attempts to find example of power being dispersed in a text and deduce historical facts about the era in which a book was written by noting details the author left about the views of the common man.

This requires no knowledge or understanding of literary structures or modes of interpretation. For this reason, the New Historicism is often criticized for being, well... "too historical." Go figure.


Modern Day

Paul de Man once said that because literature does not "mean" anything (because we understand it as fiction), English departments now "teach anything but their subject" and attempt to apply other disciplines to literary texts and imbue them with meaning.

We see that now with the rise of Marxist, Cultural, Feminist, Postcolonial, Queer and Psychoanalytic criticism.

Literary theory, with its influence of structuralism, post-structuralism and contintental philosophy, reached its peak in academia in the 1980s. However, there is still a philosophical bend in English departments today.

While arguments are abound between "theorists" and "critics," most English departments are a place where more philosophically minded readers and more traditional readers can co-exist.

Things are incredibly diverse today, and today's English students do not simply work within the canon. Interest in what is traditionally considered literature still exists, but other scholars have placed an emphasis on minority writers or specialized programs in comics studies, film studies or literary history.


Copyright 2008, Alexandra Conti, University of Florida