Intertwingularity: Schools of Literary Theory   no comments

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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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