Literary Criticism and Theory in the Twentieth Century

Twentieth-century literary criticism and theory has comprised a broad range of tendencies and movements: a humanistic tradition, descended from nineteenth-century writers such as Matthew Arnold and continued into the twentieth century through figures such as Irving Babbitt and F. R. Leavis, surviving in our own day in scholars such as Frank Kermode and John Carey; a neo-Romantic tendency, expressed in the work of D. H. Lawrence, G. Wilson Knight, and others; the New Criticism, arising initially in the 1920s and subsequently formalized and popularized in the 1940s; the tradition of Marxist criticism, traceable to the writings of Marx and Engels themselves; psychoanalytic criticism, whose foundations were laid by Freud and Jung; Russian Formalism, arising in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution; structuralism, which emerged fully in the 1950s, building on the foundations established in the early twentieth century by Saussure and Lévi-Strauss; and the various forms of criticism which are sometimes subsumed under the label of “poststructuralism”: Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, which rewrote Freudian concepts; deconstruction, which emerged in the 1960s, as did feminism; reader-response theory, whose roots went back to Husserl and Heidegger; and the New Historicism, which arose in the 1980s.

At the end of the nineteenth century, criticism in Europe and America had been predominantly biographical, historical, psychological, impressionistic, and empirical. With the establishment of English as a separate discipline in England, many influential critics, such as George Saintsbury, A. C. Bradley, and Arthur Quiller-Couch, assumed academic posts. In America, influential theories of realism and naturalism had been propounded by William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, and Frank Norris. An important concern of American critics such as John Macy, Randolph Bourne, and Van Wyck Brooks was to establish a sense of national identity through tracing a specifically American literary tradition. In France, the most pervasive critical mode was the explication de texte, based on close readings which drew upon biographical sources and historical context. In the humanist tradition of Matthew Arnold, much of this fin-de-siècle criticism saw in literature a refuge from, or remedy for, the ills of modern civilization. In both America and Europe, the defenders and proponents of literature sought to preserve the humanities in the educational curriculum against the onslaughts of reformists such as Harvard University President Charles Eliot and John Dewey, who urged that the college education system should be brought into line with prevailing bourgeois scientific and economic interests.

The vast political and economic developments discussed above provided the broad context in which the literature and criticism of the twentieth century arose. The humanist tradition of the late nineteenth century, reacting against the commercialism and philistinism of bourgeois society, was continued and intensified in the polemic of the New Humanists. Led by Harvard professor Irving Babbitt and including figures such as Paul Elmer More, Norman Foerster, and Stuart Sherman, the New Humanists were conservative in their cultural and political outlook, reacting against what they saw as a relativistic disorder of styles and approaches characterizing early twentieth-century America. They rejected the predominant tendencies stemming from the liberal bourgeois tradition: a narrow focus on the present at the expense of the past and of tradition; unrestrained freedom in political, moral, and aesthetic domains; a riot of pluralism, a mechanical exaltation of facts, and an uninformed worship of science.

Also reacting against the industrialism and rationalism of the bourgeois world were the neo-Romantic critics in England, including D. H. Lawrence, G. Wilson Knight, John Middleton Murry, Herbert Read, and C. S. Lewis. Lawrence (1885–1930) was an avowed irrationalist, who saw the modern industrial world as sexually repressive and as having stunted human potential. In his own highly idiosyncratic way, Lawrence anticipates the stress on the unconscious, the body, and irrational motives in various areas of contemporary criticism. In general, these critics attempted to reinstate a Romantic belief in pantheism and the organic unity of the world (Murry), and an organicist aesthetic which saw poetry as an organic totality transcending reason and the possibility of paraphrase in prose (Murry, Read). Their literary analyses subordinated intention and biography to artistic concerns (Wilson Knight). Before the debates about authorial intention and the affective dimensions of literature arose in the New Criticism, the scholar E. M. W. Tillyard (1889–1962) engaged in a debate with C. S. Lewis in The Personal Heresy (1939). New Critical trends were also anticipated in America where W. C. Brownell attempted to establish literary criticism as a serious and independent activity, and where James Gibbons Huneker and H. L. Mencken insisted on addressing the aesthetic elements in art as divorced from moral considerations.

Hence, the critical movements of the early twentieth century were already moving in certain directions: the isolation of the aesthetic from moral, religious concerns, and indeed an exaltation of the aesthetic (as transcending reason and the paradigms of bourgeois thought such as utility and pragmatic value) as a last line of defense against a commercialized and dehumanizing world; and a correlative attempt to establish criticism as a serious and “scientific” activity. This broadly humanist trend is far from dead; it not only has persisted through figures such as F. R. Leavis but also has often structured the very forms of critical endeavors which reject it.

Most of the critical movements associated with “literary theory” – ranging from formalism and the New Criticism to poststructuralism – arose in the shadow of the calamitous historical events discussed earlier. It should be remembered that such historical developments bear a complex and often contradictory relation to literary practice and theory. For example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 eventually adopted an official aesthetic of “socialist realism,” whereby literature was seen as politically interventional and as expressing class struggle. But the atmosphere of the revolution also spawned other aesthetics such as symbolism and formalism; the latter exerted a considerable influence on structuralism which usually bracketed the human “subject,” whether the latter was conceived politically or otherwise. In other words, some movements retreated from political involvement into a preoccupation with form, and this retreat itself had political resonance.


World War I generated verse written by poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who depicted their direct experience of its horrors and devastation. But the so-called “modernists” of this time, such as Pound, Eliot, Woolf, and Lawrence, referred to the war only tangentially in their writings: it is arguable that their work registered the impact of the war on the profounder level of literary form rather than overt content (though such aesthetic distancing and mediation has been viewed also as evasive). T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) might be said to enact both the disintegration of Western culture and a search into previous mythology and tradition for forms of reintegration and spiritual regeneration. Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse (1927) registers the impact of the war in the sense of loss and destitution that pervades the last third of this novel. It is significant that much modernism draws upon an aesthetic of symbolism, which itself was a reaction against nineteenth-century scientism and materialism, and which sought a pure poetic language divested of any pretensions to express the real world. Twentieth-century modernism embodied an acute self-consciousness with regard to language and its limitations in expressing human experience. It was marked by a crisis of belief, by a questioning and exploring of the categories of subjectivity, objectivity, and time, as well as by a withdrawal into preoccupation with literary form, into the past, into tradition and myth.

The Bloomsbury Group, composed of a circle of writers and art critics centered around Virginia Woolf, fell under many of the influences that had shaped modernism, such as the notion of time advanced in the philosophy of Bergson. In its own way, this group also, under the influence of the philosopher G. E. Moore, exalted what it saw as an “aesthetic” approach to life. It was during this period that the foundations of the New Criticism were laid by figures such as William Empson and I. A. Richards; the latter’s Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929) were widely and enduringly influential. Here, too, the literary artifact was treated as an autonomous and self-contained verbal structure, insulated from the world of prose, as in Richards’ distinction between emotive and referential language. In France also, the somewhat positivistic earlier mode of criticism, the explication de texte, was opposed by influential figures such as Bergson, whose novel conceptions of time and memory, and whose view of art as uniquely transcending the mechanistic concepts of bourgeois society, profoundly influenced Proust and other modernists. Paul Valéry (1871–1945) formulated a criticism drawing on the earlier French symbolists, one which prioritized the aesthetic verbal structure over historical and contextual elements.


With the Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of fascism, literature and criticism in both Europe and America took a turn away from formalism and humanism toward a more socially conscious mode, as in socialist and Marxist criticism, and in the work of many poets. The humanists were challenged by more liberal-minded critics such as Edmund Wilson, Allen Tate, and R. P. Blackmur, by philosophers such as George Santayana who pointed to their inconsistencies, as well as by the left-wing and Marxist critics discussed below. Other schools of criticism also rejected the New Humanism: the Chicago School, the New York intellectuals, and the New Critics reacted against the New Humanists’ subordination of aesthetic value to moral criteria and their condemnation of modern and innovative literature.

During this decade of economic collapse, Marxism became a significant political force. Socially and politically conscious criticism had a long heritage in America, going back to figures such as Whitman, Howells, and Emerson and running through the work of writers such as John Macy, Van Wyck Brooks, and Vernon L. Parrington. Notable Marxist critics of the 1920s and 1930s included Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, V. F. Calverton, Philip Rahv, and Granville Hicks. Eastman and Dell edited the important radical journal the Masses and then the Liberator (1918–1924). Calverton interpreted the tradition of American literature in terms of Marxist categories such as class and economic infrastructure. This period saw the growth of a number of other radical journals as well as the voicing of revolutionary views by non-Marxist critics such as Kenneth Burke and Edmund Wilson. The latter’s most influential work, Axel’s Castle (1931), traced the development of modern symbolist literature, identifying in this broad movement a “revolution of the word,” which might open up new possibilities of thought and literature. The tradition of socialist criticism in Britain went back to William Morris, who first applied Marxist perspectives on the theory of labor and alienation to artistic production. In 1884 the Fabian Society was formed with the aim of substituting for Marxist revolutionary action a Fabian policy of gradually introducing socialism through influencing government policy and disseminating pamphlets to raise awareness of economic and class inequalities. The dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) was a leader of this society and produced one of its first pamphlets, A Manifesto (1884). Shaw edited Fabian Essays in Socialism (1899) and advocated women’s rights, economic equality, and the abolition of private property. George Orwell (1903–1950) in his later career saw himself as a political writer and a democratic socialist, who, however, became disillusioned with communism, as shown in his political satire Animal Farm (1945).

With the menace of fascism and the threat of war, several writers began to engage in Marxist criticism. In Germany, a critique of modern capitalist culture was formulated by the Frankfurt School, whose major figures included Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). Some of these thinkers drew on Hegel, Marx, and Freud in attempting to revive the “negative dialectics” or negative, revolutionary potential of Hegelian Marxist thought. They sharply opposed the bourgeois positivism which had risen to predominance in reaction against Hegel’s philosophy, and insisted, following Hegel, that consciousness in all of its cultural modes is active in creating the world. These thinkers had a large impact on the New Left and the radical movements of the 1960s.

In Britain, Marxist writers included the art historian Anthony Blunt and the economist John Strachey. A group of Marxist thinkers was centered around The Left Review (1934–1938). The poets W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis at various times espoused and propagated left-wing views. The most significant Marxist theorist of this generation was Christopher Caudwell (1907–1937), who died in Spain fighting in the International Brigade. Caudwell’s best-known work is his Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry (1937). Here, Caudwell offered a Marxist analysis of the development of English poetry, somewhat crudely correlating the stages of this development with economic phases such as primitive accumulation, the Industrial Revolution, and the decline of capitalism.

Liberal critics such as F. O. Matthiessen employed a historical approach to literature, but insisted on addressing its aesthetic dimensions. This formalist disposition became intensified in both the New Criticism and the Chicago School. The American New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate aligned themselves with the values of the South, and, despite their insistence on isolating the literary artifact, were in this very gesture retreating into the aesthetic from what they saw as the vulgar commercialism of the North, viewing in literary form models of unity and a harmony between conflicting forces that was allegedly absent in the world. In this respect, the major English critic F. R. Leavis (1895–1978) stood on common ground with the New Critics: like them, he believed that literary criticism should be a serious and separate discipline. And, as expressed during his editorship of the journal Scrutiny from 1932 to 1953, he repeatedly insisted that literature should be approached as literature and not as a social, historical, or political document. Moreover, like the New Critics, Leavis attempted to foster an elite which might safeguard culture against the technological and populist vulgarities of an industrial society. What separated him from the New Critics, however, was his equally forceful counter-insistence – in the moralistic and humanistic tradition of Matthew Arnold – that literary study cannot be confined to isolated works of art nor to a realm of purely literary values. Leavis invoked Eliot’s notion of tradition as representing “a new emphasis on the social nature of artistic achievement.” This social nature, for Leavis, is grounded in what he calls an “inherent human nature.” Hence, the study of literature is a study of “the complexities, potentialities and essential conditions of human nature.” The apparent contradiction in Leavis’ approach between viewing literature as literature and literature as inseparable from all aspects of life seems to be “resolved” by an appeal to the assimilating capacity of intuition and a maturing experience of literature, for which no conceptual or theoretical subtlety can substitute.

The Chicago School of critics, drawing on Aristotle, also propounded a formalist conception of criticism, and shared the New Critics’ emphasis on the aesthetic and on the organic unity of a literary text. These critics included R. S. Crane, Richard McKeon, and Elder Olson. The New York intellectuals included Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, and Susan Sontag. Drawing on the work of Edmund Wilson, these writers considered themselves aloof from bourgeois society, commercialism, Stalinism, and mass culture; they viewed themselves as liberals or democratic socialists and wrote criticism with a social and political emphasis. They promoted literary modernism, and valued complexity, irony, and cosmopolitanism in literature.


The conclusion of World War II formalized the opposition between the Western powers and the Soviet bloc of nations. While some literature participated in the ideological implications of this conflict, much writing retreated into a longer-term contextualization of the confrontation as futile and resting on debased values. This retreat from an “objective” reality reached a climax in philosophies such as phenomenology, which parenthesized the objective world, viewing it as a function of perception, and existentialism, which called into question all forms of authority and belief, as well as literary developments such as the Theater of the Absurd, whose proponents such as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco dramatized the existential absurdity, anguish, and ultimate isolation of human existence. The Italian thinker Benedetto Croce formulated an aesthetic which revived Hegelian idealist principles as against the tradition of bourgeois positivism and scientism. The German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) increasingly saw poetry as transcending the discursive and rational limitations of philosophy. In France, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) formulated a phenomenological and surrealist account of poetry, while the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) advocated a literature of political engagement. The phenomenological emphasis was further elaborated by Georges Poulet (1902–1991), Jean-Pierre Richard (b. 1922), and Georges Bataille (1897–1962), and given a linguistic orientation in the work of Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003).

It was in the 1950s that structuralism – another tendency which parenthesized or diminished the agency of the human subject by situating it within a broad linguistic and semiological structure – began to thrive through figures such as the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the narratologist A. J. Greimas, who drew upon Saussure and the earlier Russian Formalism. Roland Barthes analyzed the new myths of Western culture and proposed a revolutionary oppositional discourse which was aware of its own mythical status. Barthes proclaimed the “death of the author,” and his later works moved in poststructuralist directions. Notable among the formalist thinkers of this period were Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), Émile Benveniste, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gerard Genette.

It was, ironically, the period of relative economic prosperity after World War II that eventually gave impetus to the civil rights movements and the women’s movement. The revolutionary fervor of the 1960s gave Marxist criticism a revived impetus. A group of Marxist critics was centered around the New Left Review, founded in 1960 and edited first by Stuart Hall and then by Perry Anderson. Its contributors included E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Terry Eagleton. This was also the period in which the radical journal Tel Quel, established in 1960 in France, fostered an intellectual milieu in which the writings of Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, Lacan, who reinterpreted Freudian concepts in linguistic terms, and several major feminist thinkers such as Julia Kristeva were fomented, eventually displacing the prominence of French existentialism. Drawing on the insights of Bachelard, Barthes, and others, Tel Quel moved from an initial aesthetic emphasis toward activism. Its general aim was to draw on literary texts and new critical approaches to redeem the revolutionary power of language. Significantly, many of the thinkers associated with the journal challenged the categories and binary oppositions which had acted as the foundation of much Western thought since Plato and Aristotle, oppositions which represented political and social hierarchies. Lacan’s understanding of the unconscious as linguistic was seen by some as having revolutionary implications, though some feminists, notably Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous, indicted both Freud and Lacan’s own discourse, which they saw as privileging the male and even misogynistic. Feminists such as Monique Wittig and Julia Kristeva reflected on the possibility of an écriture féminine.

In the next era, the political mood in both Europe and America swung to the right. The increasingly unchallenged predominance of capitalism in the 1980s and 1990s oversaw the emergence or intensified popularity of New Historicism, which called for the literary text to be situated not, as in Marxist criticism, within the context of an economic infrastructure, but within a superstructural fabric of political and cultural discourses, with the economic dimension itself given no priority and indeed treated as another superstructural discourse. One of the prime influences on New Historicism was Michel Foucault, who saw knowledge as a form of power and analyzed power as highly diffused and as not distinctly assignable to a given set of political or ideological agencies. Reader-response theory, whose roots went back to the reception theories of the German writers Hans Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser, engaged in a recognition of the dialogical nature of textual production, redefining the meaning of the text as the product of an interaction between text and an appropriately qualified community of readers.

These movements drew on the previous challenges to binary oppositions and on the “textual” nature of all phenomena, viewing even history and economics as interpretative narratives. Marxist critics in this era, notably Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, have been obliged to define the connections and divergences between their own stances and the various other branches of criticism; they have drawn on the analyses of Althusser as well as Adorno, Horkheimer, and Benjamin in attempting to account for various phenomena of a mass consumer society and the spectrum of ideas falling under the labels of poststructuralism and postmodernism. Writers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and Jean Baudrillard have variously offered powerful analyses of capitalist society in terms of psychological categories and drives, as well as of the symbolic processes that structure consciousness, and the lack of foundations for arriving at intellectual or moral judgment. More recent thinkers such as Clement Rosset, Jacques Bouveresse, and Richard Rorty have turned away from the tenets of poststructuralism, such as its reductive view of reality as ultimately linguistic. Vincent Descombes has returned to the principles of early twentieth-century analytical philosophers such as Wittgenstein, and whereas many poststructuralists drew heavily on Hegelian notions, thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard have turned instead to Kant. Lyotard has theorized influentially about the “postmodern condition,” seeing it as marked by an absence of totalizing schemes of explanation, and the dissolution of human subjectivity.

22973Most of the literary-critical movements cited above saw themselves as “oppositional,” as undermining and challenging the prevailing power structures and ideologies of late capitalism and, in some cases, of communism. In philosophy, this tradition of “heterological” thought can be traced back to Schopenhauer’s critique of Enlightenment philosophy and of a totalizing Hegelian vision, a critique that has continued through Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Saussure, Heidegger, and Sartre to modern literary and cultural theory. This entire tradition has tended to view art and literature as a kind of bulwark against the crude consumerist values of an industrial society. It should be remembered, however, that these movements do not represent the mainstream impetus of liberal-humanist Western thought, which does derive from the Enlightenment and which continues through the utilitarianism of J. S. Mill, the pragmatism of John Dewey and Henry James, the positivism of Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and Herbert Spencer, as well as through the new realism, analytic philosophy, and logical positivism of the early twentieth century, not to mention the modes of literary and cinematic realism which have persisted into our own day, alongside the postmodernist descendents of symbolism. Indeed, it could be argued that even the oppositional tendencies of modern literary theory are internally structured in their very form by the prevailing liberal-bourgeois notions descended from the Enlightenment. For example, the impulse to make literary criticism a scientific discipline – as in Northrop Frye, much structuralism, and New Criticism – is part of a widespread positivistic trend in bourgeois society: science achieved an exaltation whereby other disciplines, including psychology, sociology, philosophy, and literary criticism, sought to found themselves on scientific principles. The desire of New Criticism to treat not only literature but also the discipline of literary criticism as autonomous is part of a larger impetus toward specialization and separation of disciplines. Marxists have argued that deconstruction, notwithstanding its genuinely and profoundly radical gestures, effectively reproduces a liberal-humanist ethic of non-commitment. Hence, as feminists are well aware when they are obliged to utilize a language inherited from patriarchal theory, institutions, and practice, the oppositional nature of much twentieth century criticism and theory is marked by a deeply structured complicity with prevailing power structures.

Notwithstanding their extraordinary richness and diversity, many of these modern critical tendencies tend to converge in one aspect, namely, their recognition of the importance of language in structuring our world. Derrida has expressed this exquisitely in his statement that our epoch “must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon.”2 We can read this statement as an indication that language has been instituted at the heart of every philosophical problem or inquiry. For example, where neo-Hegelian philosophers in the later nineteenth century were exploring the connections between thought and reality, what is now investigated is the connection between thought, language, and reality: language is viewed as integral to both the process of thought and the construction of reality. Language has been similarly instituted within the connections between “man” and “woman,” between social classes, between conflicting moral and political systems, between various ideological perspectives, between present and past, and between differing readings of “history.” Since the beginning of the twentieth century (and even before this, in the work of Locke, Hume, Hegel, and others), there has been an increasing recognition that, for example, “man” and “woman” are not fixed categories but represent our ways of conceiving the world: gender is at least in part a social and historical construct that is embodied in the concepts expressed by language. “Woman,” then, does not somehow designate a reality; it is, rather, a sign existing in complex and multifold interaction with other signs, as part of a system of perception. The increasing primacy attached to the role of language is effectively an acknowledgment not only of the constructed nature of all of the above terms, but also of the need to examine our own perceptual apparatus and the constitution of our own perspectives. In this, we are as much the heirs of Kant as we are of Saussure.

Hence, the twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented preoccupation with, and self-consciousness concerning, language, in a vast range of disciplines, as expressed in a wide range of ideological perspectives. This preoccupation and obsession is the most comprehensive manner in which literature, criticism, and theory have been molded by the economic and political transformations discussed earlier. The work of modernists such as Proust, Pound, Eliot, Faulkner, and Woolf was marked by an intense awareness, derived from the French symbolists, of the limitations of language and its inadequacy for expressing the highest truths and the most profound strata of experience. The work of Marx, Freud, Bergson, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein was informed by an understanding of language as a system of concepts and signs whose referential value, whose capacity to refer to or represent the real world or the human self, is merely conventional and practical. Many of Saussure’s insights into language had long been anticipated and were hardly new; what was new was perhaps the fact that Saussure based an entire theory of language on its relational and conventional nature, as a system of signs. Such a view of language was not only applied by anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss to the analysis of cultures, but also acted as a model for his study of the language of myth.

Michael-MapesMuch modern theory was founded on this recognition of the internally constitutive role of language. Russian Formalism and New Criticism held that poetic language was unique and untranslatable into prose. The New Critics tended to view poetic language as non-referential, not somehow expressing or describing any real world but erecting a self-contained verbal structure which had emotive impact. Bakhtin, who combined insights of formalism and Marxism, regarded language as the site of ideological struggle. Structuralism examined literary texts and broader cultural phenomena as patterned after language, as a structure of sign systems. In other words, the very form of those phenomena was linguistic. The analysis of language has been central to the work of feminists, who have seen it as embodying male modes of thought and oppression, and as potentially transformable to express feminine experience. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan effectively rewrote much Freudian theory in linguistic terms, and held that the unconscious was linguistic in its structure and operation. For Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, there was no possible externality to language, nothing beyond the textual nature of all phenomena. For much reader-response theory, the language and meaning of a text were dialogic in their very nature, arising from an interaction of authorial and readerly registers. The New Historicism not only sees literature as one discourse among others, but also, following Foucault, Derrida, and others, views the social and historical context of literature as itself composed of a network of discourses, of ways of signifying and understanding the world.

If, as Derrida says, our era has instituted language at the foundation of its inquiries, it is evident that much of the literature, criticism, and theory of our era enacts a retreat from referentiality, recognizing “reality” as an intellectual and even ideological construct. But once again, we might remind ourselves that the perspectives of the academy, rich and astute as they are, do not always coincide with the mainstream traditions of thought or with popular practice. The tradition of liberal-humanist philosophy has often displayed an equal, if not quite as obsessive, concern with language. Following Descartes’ insistence on employing only “clear and distinct” ideas, John Locke held that language should be made more precise, more denotative, and less figurative in order to achieve clarity of understanding. Comte, Durkheim, Spencer, and the entire positivistic tradition well into the twentieth century insisted on expunging what they saw as vague metaphysical terminology from the vocabulary of philosophy and science. Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore also saw clarity of language as indispensable to the formulation and solution of philosophical problems. Hence, the main streams of liberal-humanist thought in both philosophy and literature have been more inclined toward various kinds of realism, insisting on clarity and accuracy of reference.

Many of the traditions of twentieth-century criticism and theory, in retreating from referentiality, might be said to perpetuate in their own ways the Romantic and late nineteenth-century reaction against bourgeois ideals and practice by exalting the category of the aesthetic, elevating the aesthetic itself into a vehicle of perception both higher than the mechanical plane of reason, and able to incorporate the sensuous and bodily aspects of human existence which were traditionally scorned by reason as institutionalized within philosophy and theology. Even the insistence of much modern theory on the artificiality of the distinction between the literal and the metaphorical, the philosophical and the aesthetic, and indeed on the metaphorical nature of all language (even that of science), might be seen as a return to a Romantic exaltation of the aesthetic to a mode of perception (rather than merely an object of study), a mode that is more comprehensive than reason, accommodating both intellectual and sensuous dimensions, both conscious and unconscious impulses, a particular disposition of subjectivity through which the world can be viewed and analyzed. The aesthetic, in this new elevation, is distinguished by an overarching self-consciousness whose irreducible medium is language. It is aware of itself as a historical and social product and of the world as its creation; language is integral to the creation of both. Alternatively, we might say that the aesthetic embodies a consciousness that the worlds of both subjectivity and objectivity are internally structured by language.

Nearly all of these critical movements see human subjectivity as a function of language, as a position within a network of signs which spreads ultimately across numerous registers – of culture, politics, aesthetics, ethnicity, class, and gender – in both time and space. Recent discourses, however, have reacted somewhat against this institution of language at the heart of our inquiries, returning to notions of social subjectivity, empirical analysis, and a resignation to the possibility of theorizing on the basis of exclusively localized concerns and interests, whether these be grounded in ethnicity, race, or region.

1 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York:
Pantheon, 1994), p. 6. Hereafter cited as AE.
2 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and
London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 6.

Source: A History of  Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present Editor(s): M. A. R. Habib


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