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Theory of Literature

Theory of Literature

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Theory of Literature
    Book Description:

    Bringing his perennially popular course to the page, Yale University Professor Paul H. Fry offers in this welcome book a guided tour of the main trends in twentieth-century literary theory. At the core of the book's discussion is a series of underlying questions: What is literature, how is it produced, how can it be understood, and what is its purpose?

    Fry engages with the major themes and strands in twentieth-century literary theory, among them the hermeneutic circle, New Criticism, structuralism, linguistics and literature, Freud and fiction, Jacques Lacan's theories, the postmodern psyche, the political unconscious, New Historicism, the classical feminist tradition, African American criticism, queer theory, and gender performativity. By incorporating philosophical and social perspectives to connect these many trends, the author offers readers a coherent overall context for a deeper and richer reading of literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18336-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: The Prehistory and Rise of “Theory”
    (pp. 1-11)

    Let me begin with a few remarks about the title of our course because it has some big words in it: “theory” and “literature,” clearly, but it’s worth saying something about the word “introduction” as well.

    The word “theory” has a complicated etymological history that I won’t linger over except to point out what can make its meaning confusing. The way the word has actually been used at certain periods has made it mean something like what we call “practice,” whereas at other periods it has meant something very different from practice: a concept to which practice can appeal. This...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Introduction Continued: Theory and Functionalization
    (pp. 12-24)

    In the first lecture we discussed the reasons why literary theory in the twentieth century is shadowed by skepticism, but as we were talking about that we actually introduced another issue that isn’t quite the same as skepticism—namely,determinism. In the course of intellectual history, we said, first you encounter concern about the distance between the perceiver and the perceived, a concern that gives rise to skepticism about whether we can know things as they really are. But then as an outgrowth of this concern in figures like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, you get the further question, not just...


    • CHAPTER 3 Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle
      (pp. 27-38)

      Despite the intimidating sound of the word, “hermeneutics” is easily defined as the science of interpretation. You would think hermeneutics had always been a matter of interest, but in fact it’s of continuous interest only fairly recently. Aristotle did write a treatise calledDe Interpretatione, and the Middle Ages were much concerned with interpretation, so I suppose what I’m saying in part is that the word “hermeneutics” wasn’t then available; but it’s also true that at many times the idea that there ought to be a systematic study of how we interpret things wasn’t a matter of pressing concern.


    • CHAPTER 4 Configurative Reading
      (pp. 39-52)

      In this lecture we continue discussing approaches to interpretation. Before we talk further about E. D. Hirsch and then move to Wolfgang Iser, I want to go back to Gadamer and say something more about his implied taste in books, about the kind of literary and intellectual canon that his approach to hermeneutics establishes. You remember that Gadamer is concerned with the norm of classicism, which later in your excerpt he begins to call “tradition.” The reason tradition is so important for him is not quite the same as the reason tradition is important for a political or cultural conservative;...


    • CHAPTER 5 The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork
      (pp. 55-67)

      In this lecture we begin a series of approaches to twentieth-century “formalism.” That’s a big word, and has often been a pejorative one. At the end of our series of discussions, I hope it won’t seem quite as daunting and that its varied settings and implications will have been made clear to you. The topic we take up now belongs as much to the history of criticism as to literary theory. I’ve said there’s a difference between the history of criticism and theory of literature, one difference being that the history of criticism involves literary evaluation: the question of why...

    • CHAPTER 6 The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms
      (pp. 68-81)

      In the last lecture, I started giving examples of what might happen if one takes seriously that extraordinary footnote in Wimsatt’s “The Intentional Fallacy,” where he says “the history of wordsaftera poem was composed may well be relevant to the overall structure of the poem and should not be avoided owing simply to a scruple about intention.” Thatshouldbe truly shocking to hear, not just for anyone with a scruple about intention, but for anyone simply wondering what counts as evidence. Just imagine aphilologistbeing confronted with the idea that the meaning of words at a...

    • CHAPTER 7 Russian Formalism
      (pp. 82-94)

      We now start a sequence that takes us through deconstruction, a sequence that has genuine continuity. I don’t have to stretch to point out similarities and divergences because the ensuing series of theorists are themselves retrospectively working with all the interconnections I could see fit to mention. Nevertheless, for later developments, the relationship between the foundational Russian formalists and the foundational work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is a rather complex matter that I’m going to postpone summing up for some time. Much will become clearer when we actually get into what’s called “structuralism” and you read the essay...

    • CHAPTER 8 Semiotics and Structuralism
      (pp. 95-107)

      Let me begin by repeating my intention to postpone a comparison and contrast of the Russian formalists with Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of semiotics until we discuss Roman Jakobson’s “Linguistics and Poetics,” at which time I think the relationship between the two movements in which he himself was involved will come into focus more naturally than if I tried now to outline what the connection between the two movements is.

      Semiotics is not in itself a literary theory. As we’ll learn from Jakobson, the study of literature can be understood—that is, “poetics” can be understood—as a subfield of...

    • CHAPTER 9 Linguistics and Literature
      (pp. 108-122)

      In preparation for a discussion of structuralism, I need to provide a fuller account of synchrony and diachrony, the binary pair with which we ended the last lecture. This pair, which maps onto the coordinates of our diagram as a vertical and a horizontal axis, corresponds with a feature of the Russian formalists’ thinking about literary historiography. You may remember from your reading that the formalists understood the “function” of a device in a literary text to have two facets. There is thesyn-function, which is the relationship between that device and all of the other devices in a given...

    • CHAPTER 10 Deconstruction I
      (pp. 123-136)
      Jacques Derrida

      In this lecture we confront one of the most formidable and influential figures in our reading. In the years preceding and since his recent death (2004), Jacques Derrida has enjoyed a second vogue on the strength of having turned to ethical and political issues. He never repudiated his earlier thinking or his notoriously involuted style, but he adapted these signatures to the interests of progressive humanists. Together with the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in particular, late Derrida is associated with what’s called “the ethical turn” in theoretical approaches to literature and other matters that is very much of the current...

    • CHAPTER 11 Deconstruction II
      (pp. 137-150)
      Paul de Man

      I’m going to forego what for me would have been fun, though perhaps not for you: an explication of the astonishing passage that concludes Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” (926), but I’ll quote it so you can think some more about it, considering how it picks up earlier motifs, returns the essay to its beginning, and reflects on its own metaphors:

      Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we are only glimpsing today, theconception, the formation, the gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the business of childbearing—...


    • CHAPTER 12 Freud and Fiction
      (pp. 153-165)

      In this lecture we mark a transition. We have completed our survey of theory that makes form and language its focus. We move now to an emphasis on the psychological profile of literature, and from there to the social and cultural determinants of literature.

      So far we have reviewed ways of arguing that thought and speech are brought into being by language and are inseparable from their linguistic milieu. Our transition from language-determined ideas about speech, discourse, and literature to the psychological determination of discourse will be a smooth one, though, because Peter Brooks and Jacques Lacan, two of the...

    • CHAPTER 13 Jacques Lacan in Theory
      (pp. 166-178)

      There is an obvious link between the work we reviewed of Peter Brooks and this particular essay of Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” that I’d like to begin by emphasizing. It concerns the part of Lacan’s argument that is probably most accessible to you after your tour through structuralism and offers perhaps the best means of understanding the relevance of Lacan for literary theory.

      Brooks treated the arabesque toward completion in fictional narrative as the sustaining of desire through a series ofdétours, inadequate or improper endpoints risked and avoided, resulting in a continuation of desire...

    • CHAPTER 14 Influence
      (pp. 179-191)

      Those of you who are chiefly familiar withHow to Read a Poem, the books on religion, andShakespeare and the Invention of the Humanmay be surprised to find Harold Bloom on a literary theory syllabus; but the great outpouring of work that began withThe Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Poetry and Repression, and many other books in the 1970s put Bloom in the very midst of the theoretical controversies then swirling. He was associated with the so-called Yale school, and although even at the time he expressed disaffection with many aspects of his colleagues’ work,...

    • CHAPTER 15 The Postmodern Psyche
      (pp. 192-204)

      In this lecture, we’re still focused on individual consciousness, even though the authors you read are known for their political engagements. We shall still be considering the psychological genesis of the text or film as the site, or model, for the symbolic patterning of a text, undoubtedly in the case of Žižek, to some extent also in that of Deleuze. This is actually our farewell to the psychological emphasis, and it is so arranged—with the consequence of separating Žižek from Lacan—because today’s authors make sure we understand that there are political stakes in art and interpretation.

      In his...


    • CHAPTER 16 The Social Permeability of Reader and Text
      (pp. 207-219)

      As we turn now to theories that are concerned chiefly with the social context and milieu of literature, we begin with a pairing that’s perhaps as odd as that of Deleuze and Žižek: Mikhail Bakhtin and Hans Robert Jauss. The most egregious difference between your authors for today is that Bakhtin’s primary concern is with the life world that produces a text, and Jauss’s primary concern is with the life world, or perhaps better succession of life worlds, in which a text is received. I think you can tell from reading both excerpts, however, and will find in the materials...

    • CHAPTER 17 The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory
      (pp. 220-232)

      As we move into social perspectives on literature and art, you may ask yourself, “Why Marx? Why so much Marx? Why is it Marx who seems to stand behind the idea that the social criticism of art is the best and most relevant way to approach this subject matter?” Well, it’s because whatever the outcome of Marxist thought may have proven to be or yet prove to be historically, it remains nevertheless the most devastating critique we have of social delusion as it both inspires and conditions works of art historically. When we turn to Fredric Jameson in the next...

    • CHAPTER 18 The Political Unconscious
      (pp. 233-245)

      Last time I reviewed four possible options for an aesthetics of Marxist approaches to literature and art. I paused over realism, both objective realism as it accorded with the tastes and historical agendas of Engels and Lukács, and also tendentious realism as it pervaded the Soviet world, especially after 1934, with the participatory aesthetic of Walter Benjamin in 1936–1937 considered as a way of lending theoretical interest to tendentious realism. I then mentioned two ways of turning away from realism once it has become a cornerstone of bourgeois ideology. The first of these is the high modernist aesthetic of...

    • CHAPTER 19 The New Historicism
      (pp. 246-258)

      In this lecture, we turn to a way of doing literary criticism that swept the academy, beginning in the late 1970s, through the 1980s and into the 1990s, that is called the New Historicism. It began, or at least had its first intellectual center, at the University of California at Berkeley under the auspices of Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt and others (Thomas Lacqueur, Svetlana Alpers, Howard Bloch) founded a journal, still one of the most important and influential journals in the field of literary study, calledRepresentations, which has always been a headquarters for New Historicist thought. The new attitude taken...

    • CHAPTER 20 The Classical Feminist Tradition
      (pp. 259-271)

      Quite a bit of this lecture consists in preliminaries, yet like the rhetorical device called “prolepsis” in literary texts, they are preliminaries that cover for the first time topics to be revisited later.

      First, let it be said that in entering upon the phase of this course that concerns particular human identities as theoretical focal points, we shall find ourselves engaged with critical approaches that are, in practical terms, remarkably rich and productive. It is simply amazing how, as Jonathan Culler once put it, “reading as a woman,” or reading as an African American, or reading in any other “subject...

    • CHAPTER 21 African American Criticism
      (pp. 272-284)

      The African American literary tradition is rich and long-standing. As Henry Louis Gates tells you, the first important poet in the tradition, Phillis Wheatley, lived during the American colonial period. The flourishing of the slave narrative form begins in the eighteenth century and continues into the nineteenth. In the twentieth century, most conspicuously in the Harlem Renaissance but throughout the century in gathering volume, there has been remarkable work done in all genres. This extended tradition contrasts in duration with the equally rich but also very recent tradition of African American literary theory and criticism.

      Certainly there were contributions in...

    • CHAPTER 22 Postcolonial Criticism
      (pp. 285-298)

      Postcolonial studies is by far the most varied of the identity fields we review in this part of the course: necessarily varied because of the immense variety of the materials and cultures covered, but also because of controversies that swirl within postcolonial studies, or “po-co,” as it’s affectionately known. In this lecture we are concentrating on one developmental strand in postcolonial studies, a progression from the work of Edward Said to that of Homi Bhabha that can be presented as a matter of contrasting intellectual agendas, each widely influential in turn.

      I should mention in passing certain not unrelated topics...

    • CHAPTER 23 Queer Theory and Gender Performativity
      (pp. 299-311)

      Although there’s much that’s new in the reading for this lecture, we’ll pause at the end over a review and summing up of what we’ve done recently, and then continue with that retrospect at the beginning of the next lecture. Let me start, though, with what’s new, challenging, and perhaps also subject to criticism in today’s materials.

      During the course of this lecture, I’ll be talking about the slipperiest concept in Judith Butler’s essay. It’s what she calls “psychic excess,” the charge or excess from the unconscious that in some measure unsettles even the many aspects of gender that can...

    • CHAPTER 24 The Institutional Construction of Literary Study
      (pp. 312-326)

      We’ve now completed a sequence of theoretical approaches to identity, always with a view—though rather often lately a view from afar—to the way identity is constructed in literature. I’ll return to what may have seemed at times the missing link, literature, in a minute. In the meantime, I just wanted to point out something I’m sure you’ve noticed even when I haven’t mentioned it: namely, that each of these approaches to identity has a history in two chapters. Each history arrives at a second chapter that is something like a deconstructive moment, signifying on theory itself, on the...


    • CHAPTER 25 The End of Theory? Neo-Pragmatism
      (pp. 329-341)

      This lecture concerns an essay written to immediate widespread acclaim and controversy by two young scholars, one of them then untenured, who were still making their way in the academic world. They certainly succeeded with this essay, which was published inCritical Inquiry. The editors ofCritical Inquiryquickly decided to publish in book form, together with “Against Theory,” a series of responses to the essay. It’s well worth reading in full if you take an interest in the controversies that the article generated—as I hope to persuade you to do.

      Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels are “neo-pragmatists,”...

    • CHAPTER 26 Conclusion: Who Doesn’t Hate Theory Now?
      (pp. 342-354)

      In the last lecture, we offered theory a reprieve from its banishment by Knapp and Michaels, and we did so by saying that there really is a difference between language and speech. That’s a claim that I want to continue investigating in today’s concluding lecture. In the meantime, when I keep saying we saved theory, you may well be asking why anybody would bother saving it. We began to wonder last time, especially in view of the neo-pragmatists’ claims about the common agency of language and speech—understood on their view to be one and the same thing—whether we...

  11. APPENDIX: Passages Referenced in Lectures
    (pp. 355-362)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 363-364)
  13. The Varieties of Interpretation: A Guide to Further Reading in Literary Theory
    (pp. 365-378)
  14. Index
    (pp. 379-384)