Archive for the ‘Literary Theory’ tag

Intertwingularity: Schools of Literary Theory   no comments

Posted at 5:15 pm in Uncategorized

Intertwingularity: Schools of Literary Theory

In short: “We all disagree”

Following on from my last post, here I outline some of the better-known schools of thought in Literary Theory – or more precisely Western Literary Theory. This is a diverse eco-system of different schools of thought, often created by rejection of contemporary views, or by dividing off within existing schools. As little in common exists outside the individual schools of thought, these discrete loci of theory provide the real ontology and epistemology of this discipline. It also shows why authors struggle to provide an overview of the discipline, given the fragmentation. In looking at schools of thought, notice that Literary Theory and Literary Criticism are deeply intertwined.

Romanticism (Late 18C to c.1850) and Aestheticism (19C – Romantic Period)

This movement represents both a revolt against the social and political norms of an aristocratically directed society and the emerging rationalist scientific approach towards Nature. The aesthetic experience was linked to strong emotion and valued spontaneity, looking to engage the power of imagination. Clearly liberalist in approach, unsurprisingly it was linked to political radicalism and nationalism, feeding into the unification movements of Europe at the time. Jumping forward to the present era there are some contemporary voices, such as Harold Bloom, echoing this movement by protesting against the modern mode of political and social ideologies being projected back onto literature and thus obscuring its aesthetics.

(American) Pragmatism (Late 19C)

Pragmatism emerged as a school of thought in the United States around 1870. For pragmatists, the thought is a functional method for achieving action, problem solving and prediction. Thus the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences rather than in terms of representative accuracy.

Formalism, New Criticism, Russian Formalism (1930s-present)

Formalism looks at the structural purpose of a text, setting aside outside influences. It rejects, or sets aside during analysis, the notion of cultural and societal influences. It looks at the ‘literariness’ of the text, the verbal/linguistic strategies used to make it literature. It is in part a reaction to preceding Romanticism, seeking to take deliberately different viewpoint.

Russian Formalism started in St Petersburg in 1916 but almost immediately fell foul of the ideals of new Soviet Communism, although its ideas seeded later schools of thought.

Meanwhile in the United States, Anglo-American ‘New Criticism’, emphasised ‘close reading’ (sustained interpretation of brief texts) to see how literary items function an aesthetic objects. This process of close reading has since been inherited by many later schools of Literary Theory and Criticism.

Phenomenological Criticism (early 20C)

Whilst more closely linked to Literary Criticism than pure Theory, the Phenomenological approach has influenced later schools of thought. It avoids ontology and epistemology, concentrating on a meaning residing in the consciousness within which the work resides. This is to understand its experience rather than to explain its structure – an existential interpretation. Notable in this area are Martin Heidegger, John-Paul Satre and the study of existentialism.

Structuralism/Semiotics (1920s-present)

Structuralism’s roots lie in early 20C with the writings of Ferdinand de Saussure (who laid the foundations of semiotics) and the linguistic circles of Prague and Moscow at that time. However, it later gained momentum in the 1950-60s as an intellectual movement in France. It argues literature can be understood by means of a structure distinct from the ideas within the literature. It uses the language of semiotics (‘signs’) for this structured analysis of texts. Indeed, although Structuralism and Semiotics are different studies they are, to the general observer, close enough to consider as facets of the same thing. Both sit in counter-point to the Existential/Phenomenological approach.

Post-Structuralism/Deconstruction (1966-present)

As structuralism became more formalised, people found reason to distance themselves from it. One reason was that Structuralist works didn’t conform to the idea of structuralism. As theories interact with the things they describe, they maintain it is impossible to completely describe a complete semiotic system as the described subject is ever-changing.  Theorists such as Lacan, Barthes and Foucalt identify themselves as post-structuralists.

Deconstruction (1980s-present)

Deconstruction takes the latter further by decrying the Western social constructs surrounding much of extant theory. Even in description, it makes the concepts above look easy and approachable.  The best, accessible, short summary I’ve seen is in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “a theory used in the study of literature or philosophy which says that a piece of writing does not have just one meaning and that the meaning depends on the reader” [1]. Most descriptions are recursively obscure, though seemingly part of Deconstruction is to be inaccessible to the casual reader.

Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)

This school focuses on the reader of the work as focus of analysis. Within this context, some focus on the individual reader’s experience (‘individualists’), others assume a generality of response across all readers (‘uniformists’) and a third group prefer to abstract and look at defined sets of readers (‘experimenters’).

Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present)

A completely different angle of approach is to come at Literature from the perspective of Psychology, and the role of consciousnesses and the unconscious. In turn, this has let to derived schools like Archetypal theory and Jungian studies. In each case the school of thought clusters around a narrower focus of analysis and criticism within a Psychological viewpoint.

Politico/Social Schools of Thought

A different strand of schools of thought arose from situating the theory within a particular political or sociological context. The trajectory, as with other schools above is to keep re-partitioning. Feminist studies, lead to consideration of gender and in turn to the Gay community.  Then come race and colour, the role of colonialism, and further minority cultures. Following a consistent theme of rejection of the status quo, Darwinian study tries to distance itself from post-structural and post-modernist viewpoints and take into account the imperatives of evolutionary theory.  Eco-criticism reflects a new awareness of the interrelationship of humans with their habitat; what ‘Nature’ and an examination of ‘place’. Below are just some of these schools

  • Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)
  • Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
  • Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present)
  • New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present)
  • Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)
  • Minority Discourse (!980s-present)
  • Darwinian study (1990s-present)
  • Eco-criticism (1990s-present)

…and so it goes on. No field can be too small, that the discipline doesn’t offer scope for even more tightly scoped study.

Is there consensus?

Whilst the list above shows a dizzying range of approaches to Literary Theory, and some derive from broader predecessors, it is plain that there is no consistent viewpoint between the differing schools of thought. In my next post I will attempt to summarise this in context of the overall topic – does Literary Theory have anything obvious to offer in improving the structure of hypertext.


  1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Deconstruction

Primary Sources:

  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford : Blackwell, 1996.
  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold, 1997.
  • Webster, Roger. Studying Literary Theory: An introduction. London: Arnold, 1990. 2nd Edition 1996.

Further web references:



Written by Mark Anderson on November 9th, 2013

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Interwingularity & Literary Theory   no comments

Posted at 6:56 pm in Uncategorized

In short: “It’s what I say it is”

The idea of looking at this discipline is to see if the study of Literary Theory offers up insights as to better ways to structure hypertexts, thus improving the richness of the overall Web experience. I am not thinking directly of hypertext literature so much as hypertext in general. Might we improve the way we describe and learn things, by borrowing from literature? At distance, this seems a reasonable hypothesis.

What is Literary Theory?

Beyond describing it as the study of literature this has proved a somewhat slippery definition – references are inconsistent. The best consensus is that it encompasses the body of ideas and methods used in practical reading of literature. However, most references go on to then ask is “What is literature?” and consensus begins to weaken and rapidly arrives at a conundrum akin to defining Art, and Duchamp’s “Urinal”[1]. Thus what is defined as Literature, or there terms used to define it actually tends to vary slightly depending on which school of Literary Theory being studied. It is perhaps a reasonable working definition to say that today, most Literary Theory schools of thought see Literature in terms of ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ writing as opposed to all forms of writing. This is worth noting, in light of the opening paragraph, as much of Hypertext is not expressly literary.

It is also clear that Literary Theory and Sociology are closely intertwined, with literary schools linked to many of the genres within Sociology. Literary Theory doesn’t see it’s purpose to explain Literature to a general audience, as I’d supposed before investigating the discipline. Rather it provides methodologies for introspection, these varying depending on the school of though being applied. This makes for difficult study as such genres are broadly interpretive and introspective and I have a cognitive impairment that makes ‘normal’ introspection extremely difficult. So if my perspective of the discipline seems to take an external viewpoint it is by necessity rather than choice.

How did Literary Theory Arise?

Whilst literature has long been studied, the formal discipline of Literary Theory is a comparatively modern field and mainly based in the Western Cultural tradition (I’ll return to a dissenting view later). Modern Literary Theory’s roots appear in the 18C. At this time, Literature was was taken to mean many forms of writing valued by society (or the more privileged classes thereof); poems, essays, letters, history and philosophy. Note that these forms include both the  literal and fictional. During the 18C gradually the concept of Literature coalesced as a notion of whether writing conformed to a standard of etiquette, of being ‘polite letters’. As such, the literal forms began to be left aside as Literature began to take a more explicitly idealogical form. In turn, Literature thus became an expression of its exponent’s ideology. As access to literature and the opportunity to discuss it passed from an elite to a larger middle class, so the field broadened and fragmented.

During the 19C that modern (Western) notions of Literature develop. Come the Romantic period, Literature becomes essentially a synonym for ‘imaginative’ writing. The field is still broad but many forms of literal writing are now excluded. In this same period, an burgeoning middle class (and some educated working class) seize on this imaginative writing as a way of expressing their aspirations and political views. It also offers an alternative to the newly popular empiricism. Literature moves from belles lettres to being a conduit for radical expression. It may be argued that Literature and ideology were no longer usefully regarded as separates. This duality seems to underpin modern Literary Theory. The discipline should not be seen as a disembodied set of ideas, rather it is embodied as a force within institutions and schools of thought.

Approaching the discipline in search of its raison d’être, but lacking the power of introspection, Literary Theory’s aggressive need for inwardly focussed self-justification offers little clear purpose. This is hard to process – so much intellect in harness, but to what useful end? It has proved difficult, with the time/depth available to study to draw a line from Literary Theory to actual advances. Instead, the focus seems to be a retrospective approach of justifying–within it’s own lexicon–existing works, like a parent parent daring one to say that the daubing attached to the fridge is anything but impressive.

Do not rush to suppose this suggests I see nothing of merit in Literary Theory. Far from it, it cannot be the case that so much intellectual effort hasn’t but adding to the sum of human knowledge. But exactly what is so far evades me at this (depth of) level of study. It also shows a disinterest by Literary Theorist for engaging with a wider audience, which again is worthy of note in the context of the Web and its aspirations for openness.

Origins of Literary Theory – a dissenting view

It seems mainstream Literary Theory doesn’t like to acknowledge older study of literature, or indeed non Western/English language literature. The reasons for this distain I’ve found hard to trace as practitioners care not to elaborate. Hogan[2], holds a mirror to this pointing out pre-existing strands of literary scholarship in a number of other parts of the worlds and which predate Literary Theory’s supposed start date. He also cites other (Western) papers that look beyond the narrow confines of Western literature, indicating his position is not singular even if in a minority.

The mainstream’s insular scope for Literary Theory seems an odd position to take, in scholarly terms. However, the deeply introspective nature of the subject may mean they simply don’t feel the need to justify the position. In essence the “it is because I say it is” approach to definition. I’m still researching this aspect, as its exclusionary nature sits at odds with the Web’s inclusive nature and thus pertinent to the central thrust of this exercise. Assuming for a moment that notions of Western Literature may help structure better hypertext, how inclusive is that of a readership that extends beyond Europe and North America?

What now?

This article, now written, feels remarkably light in content and unreflecting of the scope of my reading for it. But it has revealed that the term ‘Literary Theory ‘doesn’t describe a coherent whole, but rather it exists as an umbrella term for an ecosystem of differing and often opposed schools of thought.  Therefore the next step is to review the major schools of thought within Literary Theory.


Primary book sources for this period of study are listed below. What’s harder to show is the disproportionately large amount of online research investigating these start points: listing places that didn’t offer new light on the topic seems self-serving.

What I have learned is that Literary Theory doesn’t reward the skeptic. Like a religion, it’s essentially accessible only to those who believe – another experience I’m ill equipped to understand.

Primary Sources:

  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford : Blackwell, 1996.
  • Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1997


  1. Duchamp’s Fountain. (accessed 26 Oct  2013)
  2. Hogan, Patrick Colm. Ethnocentrism and the very idea of literary theory. College Literature v23, n1 (Feb, 1996)

Written by Mark Anderson on November 3rd, 2013

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Improving Intertwingularity   no comments

Posted at 10:44 pm in Psychology,Uncategorized

In the 1987 revision of his book Computer Lib [1], Ted Nelson wrote:

EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no “subjects” at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly. Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial. Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged—people keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t.

I’m not sure the Web has yet caught up with Nelson’s vision of  Project Xanadu, or the degree to which it is practical to do so. But, he makes a good point about the weakness of relying too much on hierarchy. Hypertext makes possible a wonderfully interconnected Web which has been a daily source of improvement and enjoyment. However, much of it feels like moving around a big box-and-line diagram, merely mapping nodes and links. Frequently, web usage is continuous a loop in and out of search tools (like Google) between individual or small clusters of pages, rather than following richly linked data strands.

Richer linking is less common. Although many links may be present in a document many are simply in-page/site navigation links or SEO-aiding faux page breaks. Also, the paucity and sterility of links may reflect the economic approach of finding and trapping eyeballs – why send people to your competitors, by linking to them? Links to, or through, paywalls are also of suspect value. Meanwhile, given the node-and-link model, we tend to envision the web as hierarchy – or a directed graph at least. A less intertwingled reality, it seems.

My experience from writing documentation and software community support has shown it surprisingly hard to achieve sticky knowledge transfer except when working at or close to one-to-one scope; not  very efficient. The lazy reaction is to blame the learners, but I’m open to the thought that as authors of hypertext, maybe we’re not doing this right. Perhaps we need to use a different tack and be less shallow in our weaving of the Web, offering the reader more routes to their goal of knowledge. More intertwingularity, applied with some thought, might move us forward. Approaches like spatial hypertext and techniques from hypertext fiction may help, even if currently egregious compared to standard practice.



Figure: Early stage planning in Tinderbox

Serendipity strikes, as now I’m being asked to look at a Web issue through the eyes of two different disciplines. Those I’ve selected as showing promise in providing a useful alternative view to the above, are:

  • Psychology. This studies the human mind and behaviour, seeking to explain how we feel, act and reason. The intuited relevance to my topic is that a better understanding of our reasoning – and motivation for behaviour – might allow us to make smarter choices about how we author hypertext, to meet and reward those motivations.
  • Literary Theory. This discipline seeks to describe the methods and ideas we use in the – reading and understanding of literature. A set of tools, if you will, by which we may understand literature. It will be interesting to see how the non-linearity of Hypertext fiction fits current theory.

I’m unsure as yet how narrow we may set our disciplinary scope here as, within the above, Cognitive Psychology and Narrative seem sensible sub-topics. Within the Literary Theory and indeed Narrative, culturally-based sub-sets with doubtless exist: does one size fit all? However, my plan is to start wide and winnow to find an appropriate breadth of coverage.

Starting Texts

Thus far my research has been a reconnaissance, more browsing than structural study, to help me pick some starting research references. So, these are my selections for initial study at least in terms of published books. Disclosure – I’ve not yet read these, rather they are what I plan to start reading:

  • Psychology / G. Neil Martin, Neil R. Carlson, William Buskist.
  • Cognitive psychology : a student’s handbook / Michael W. Eysenck, Mark T. Keane.
  • Literary theory : a very short introduction / Jonathan Culler
  • Literary theory : an introduction / Terry Eagleton


  • [1] Nelson, Theodor (1987), Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Rev. ed.), Redmond, WA: Tempus Books of Microsoft Press, ISBN 0-914845-49-7

Written by Mark Anderson on October 13th, 2013

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