literary theory: a summing upOverview

From a humanist perspective, literary theory seems a chaotic assemblage of elements borrowed from linguistics, psychiatry, semiotics, Structuralism, Poststructuralism and left-wing political thought. To varying extents, it suffers from these weaknesses:

  • 1. theory has replaced appreciation, with poems being valued more for what can be read into them than any literary qualities they may possess.

  • 2. important aspects of literature — sensibility, generous tastes, wide experience — have been subverted by speculative model-building.

  • 3. critics do not have the proper training in the disciplines they borrow from: evidence is quoted out of context and/or misunderstood.

  • 4. often the reasoning is circular, theory employing as evidence what it needs to prove.

  • 5. many elements of theory are no longer accepted by their parent disciplines.

  • 6. theory has been pushed to the furthest edge of abstraction, and evacuated of meaning, reference and example.

  • 7. a fissile and convoluted prose makes evaluation difficult, perhaps intentionally so.

  • 8. though theory is tenaciously entrenched in the newer universities, is widely quoted by critics and writers in serious magazines, it is essentially a "levelling down" to unexamined standards of political devising: a local currency.

Specifically, the various approaches:

  • 1. psychiatric methods invoke an unconscious that doesn't exist, and call as supporting evidence a treatment that doesn't work.

  • 2. structuralism is simplistic, reductive and wholly at odds with the larger findings of anthropology, hermeneutics and biology.

  • 3. political colouring enters into all aspects of language, but there is little evidence that wholesale political repression exists in the arts, and many reasons for supposing that it does not — notably heteroglossia, metaphor theory and the careers of its theoreticians.

  • 4. poststructuralism is self-defeating, offers no explanation as to how language actually operates, and seems purposefully ignorant of Anglo-American philosophy and the relevant sciences.


Current literary theory may be logical continuation of issues that have underlain European thought for centuries. Most fundamental was a divorce between the emotional and rational in human nature. Galileo and Descartes mark the decisive western shift, but the split is an age-old dispute: the Academy versus the Sophists, Legalism versus Daoism, Sufism versus the Sharia, etc. Poetry has naturally championed the instinctive, imaginative and emotional side, as it shares with music and some painting the distinction of being the preeminently creative art. Even behind the decorum of Augustan poetry, in the themes and the lives of its better writers, there was a strong current of dissatisfaction with the politeness of the age, and this repressed energy welled out in Romanticism and then into the various strains of Modernism and Postmodernism. All are protests against excessive rationalization. The Romantics sought new areas of feeling — in the past, wild landscapes, the hallucinations of drugs. The Symbolists cultivated unusual states of mind with a fluid and often musical allusiveness. Imagists pared down poetry to a few striking pictures. The Futurists were stridently iconoclastic. Dadaists and Surrealists extended the irrational. The Modernists turned themselves into an exclusive caste — since taken over by academia — who intellectualized their superiority over the conventional majority. The New Critics concentrated on how intricately a poem worked, and were largely unconcerned about what was meant or said about the larger context. Post modernists have retreated further, and claimed that poems exist — and perhaps even reality itself — only in the words themselves.

Such extreme views are hard to credit, but popularity is not what the avant garde craves. Perhaps the linguistics, anthropology, Marxist economics, psychoanalysis and continental philosophy quoted has not been properly understood, still less practised in any formal or practical way, but the overriding purpose has been to keep out mathematics, science and the commercial world. If literary theory is not true, then it ought to be true, and by refashioning language that happy state of affairs can be brought about. If Coleridge was confused over German metaphysics, and the Symbolists espoused some very nebulous theories, no one doubts the role played by these ideas in the rich poetry that resulted. The end will justify the beliefs.

Much was made of semiotics, particularly the theories of de Saussure, without it being realized that the profession had long ago absorbed the approach, that Anglo-American philosophy deals with reference and meaning much more comprehensively, and that all too often an elementary confusion existed between ends and means. Structures of language do not constrain our view of the world in any simple binary fashion, any more than a computer's hardware exactly predetermines what text, graphics or sound will be produced. In fact, the world's four thousand languages exhibit diverse grammars and vocabulary groupings, but they do not carve up the world so differently that translation is impossible.

But the second trend, of making the study of literature more systematic and rule-based, naturally followed the example and prestige of the sciences. Once literature became an academic subject, the need arose for a body of information to impart, and practical skills to deploy that information. With specialization came terminology, very dense indeed in medicine and the descriptive sciences, and literary study in its turn has developed a vocabulary to rival that of Renaissance rhetoric. But there was a difference. Whereas terminology is closely policed in the sciences, and offending papers returned to their authors, a much more creative attitude prevails in literary studies. It is not unusual for terms to be used in an undefined, shifting and sometimes wholly arbitrary manner within the one article, as though by being cast about in this fashion a word may drop into its most useful role.

And the terminology? Do the words refer to real things? Ultimately such questions are ontological, calling on philosophy to spin its demanding skeins of thought, but the matter can be pursued into rules of communal behaviour. Much in linguistics is descriptive, but the Chomskians in particular have tried to formulate rules to explain how children acquire language, and adults instinctively fashion alternative sentences. Deep mental processes are thought to exist beneath our surface facility. Unfortunately, and despite an immense amount of work, deep grammar has fragmented into rival schools and approaches, so that a theory of meaning cannot now be built by such means. But the questions raised are important. What are these rules, and in what sense do they exist? Are they hardwired into the brain, innate pre-dispositions, or cultural habits that shift with usage?

Historians talk soberly about trends and movements, and literature itself came to be regarded as the surface expression of deep social structures. The Russian formalists argued that fairy tales, and probably also novels and poems, had a small number of simple underlying plots. Jung envisaged archetypes around which man's instinctive and intellectual nature coalesced. Northrop Frye categorized literary genres as the product of man's primordially mythic nature. And Lévi-Strauss discovered binary codes under kinship and marriage acts in primitive societies, perhaps in all societies whatsoever.

Much was greatly overstated, and some plainly false. The Poststructuralist counter-reaction demoted language to tenuous systems that referred only to themselves. Words bred more words, and there was no final interpretation. No evidence for such a striking reinstatement of man's irrational and playful nature was provided because language itself effaced any evaluation by outside reference. If circumstantial matters are allowed, then psychoanalysis could be called to the stand, or a rich body of Existential thought. Both demonstrate that reason is subsequent to feelings, that we act on impulse as entities whose full nature is hidden from us, though we may rationalize our actions later with high-sounding justifications. Indeed, to act instinctively is to behave authentically, bravely accepting that there are no moral prescriptions or guiding principles. Surely our bloodstained century has shown us the real nature of man, and literature is not valued for being more skilled, or by attempting more lofty aims, but for seeing through the bewitchment of words and facing truth.

But many things can be perverted. Language is not an hermetic system of self-reference, but something constrained by reality and serving human needs. We often act in thoughtless and perplexing ways, but Freud's unconscious does not exist. Still less is there any evidence for Lacan's view that the unconscious is structured like a language, or that its natural state is a libidinous fantasy only partly reigned in by the superego. Psychologists and linguists dislike these views very much, and the popularity that attends them. Of course the unconscious is a useful scapegoat, and the deity of a immense therapy industry, but the notion is a reductive and trivializing myth. Freudian analysis does not combat serious mental illness and is no better than countless others of differing conception in the alleviation of minor mental dysfunction. Psychoanalysis reflects Freud's own paranoid nature, just as Foucault's later attacks on the bourgeoisie were a self defence. Language carries authority, but it is not riddled with state repression, indeed cannot be or none of the Poststructuralists would have risen in their professions.

Even the continental philosophers need to be seen in context. Hegel is a subsuming reaction to Kant and the Enlightenment. Kierkegaarde and Nietzsche had passionate natures which their societies could not accommodate. Husserl is a strikingly original thinker, but his pupil Heidegger went off in a contrary and much more predictable direction, for all that Heidegger is cited as the Poststructuralist champion. Intellectual systems are no different from social: they arise in response to perceived needs and take on the character and conflicts of their time. Extract them from that context, apply them to other matters and other disciplines, and their urgency fades: they become as Aristotle in medieval scholasticism: an authority to be quoted but not properly read or understood.

Does that lessen their importance? If linguistics, for example, helps little with theories of meaning or literary aesthetics, should we not write off the discipline and look elsewhere for the philosopher's stone? Why? It is natural to wonder how language developed, what mechanisms, physiological and cerebral, are employed, and how those mechanisms may assist in the creation and learning of new languages. Linguistics provides structures of understanding, and through stylistics the discipline brings a powerful lens to bear on the detail of individual poems. What linguistics cannot do, and does not attempt to do, is provide recipes for the writing of poetry. Nor its evaluation, as both require, first and foremost, a highly developed literary sensibility. Art is something larger and other than its constituents. It helps not at all to lump rhythm, tone, imagery etc. in broad generalizations, as it is precisely that acute subtlety which makes for aesthetic success. Exhaustive analysis does not provide a final answer. Poetry may be an emergent property of various procedures. Certain themes, styles and working methods are more likely to produce the required result, but the matter is never certain, which indeed distinguishes poetry from versified prose.

A Hopeless Muddle?

Learning is meant to be difficult, and academics do not like seeing their subjects popularized. Perhaps there is little advantage in writing in a clear, cogent and engaging manner, and a good deal to be risked — attacks from rivals, ready assessment from other disciplines, astonishment among the laity that these matters need such protracted treatment. And given the extent of knowledge today, and the pressures on tenure, each work is no doubt advancing over minefields imperceptible to the common reader. But to the usual grey language, hair-splitting and endless qualification, an altogether new tier of difficulty has been added by current theory. Is it truly written to defeat summary, analysis or even comprehension?

It is written to keep understanding within rules of its own devising. All professions have their defensive terminologies, their jargon to keep out questions of the emperor's new clothes variety, but literary theory aims at a metalanguage, a Newspeak, that will render impossible any troublesome reference to practical examples, or to other authorities.

And if so, then far from protecting the arts, theory is assisting in their decline. Ever since the medieval corpus of the humanities was fragmented by the new philosophy, and then overridden by commercial interests, literature has been playing wallflower in the great spectacle of life. Gradually it relinquished its claim to truth, handing this over in the eighteenth century to philosophy. Then it gave up its modest claims to make imaginative recreations of the human affections. Modernist poetry does not deal with the everyday triumphs and afflictions of the human heart, and the mood of most contemporary poetry — the little that is good, and some is very good — is quiet, arcane and self-posing. Generally, leaving aside performance poetry, current literary theory allows the overwhelming emotions and commonplaces that carry the great majority of plain folk through life to be approached only ironically, obliquely, and with pastiche. Not for real poetry are articulating rhythms, compelling imagery or serious treatment of popular issues.

The Postmodernist Response

Of theory's shortcomings the Postmodernists are only too aware. Since few of the tenets would survive a month of impartial investigation, the strategy is to emphasize what cannot be hidden. Does science, politics and commerce look for regularities, evidence and practicality? Very well, Postmodernism will champion the opposite, making a feature of self-contradictions, and holding resolutely to views that no one in the respective professions now takes seriously. Did poetry once emphasize the resolution of issues, bringing a vast number of thoughts, feelings and observations into a single pregnant phrase? Then that was by cheating, by passing over and repressing the alternative meanings, which our new analysis will dig out. Do some of their theories appear unsupported? Well, science is a myth too, a self-enclosed set of procedures that happens to have some practical benefits. Are the poor better off than fifty years ago? Ah, but the gap between the rich and poor has increased, and there is still the Third World. And if we appear rather narrow, anxious and negative that's because we see the world clearly, beyond the political rhetoric and the slick images of advertising.

The Rationale

What is the public to do with some of the thinner examples of contemporary poetry? Or older scholars faced with articles bristling with jargon, non sequiturs and name-dropping? Perhaps to accept that Postmodernism was inevitable. The Modernists championed the individual, the difficult, the iconoclastic, and their poems are still taught at high school and university. What is Postmodernism but a natural progression, an argument taken to absurdity? Modern literature had a hard time establishing itself as a serious university discipline, and so constructed a small, over-defended canon of good taste. It never professed to have any utilitarian purpose — indeed scoffed at the notion that it might teach the crafts of writing — and some time in the 1960s, the inevitable arrived. Practically everything noteworthy and praiseworthy had been said. A new range of books, or new ways of talking about them, had to be found.

Is Postmodernism much out of kilter with the contemporary world? Look at television, advertising, even the Internet. What is presented are billboards, images of no depth or substance, but vivid, up-to-date and immediately appealing. Postmodernism is simply deploying what is already given. Consider the critics. Do they speak with knowledge, taste and authority? We hope so. They take the appropriate university course, attach themselves to some institution, write a book or two, and then enter the swim of instant opinions with a gallery directorship or newspaper column. And we accept their opinions, at least until we happen to know what is under review, or see some particularly atrocious piece of writing held up for approval. Then the penny drops. Reviews are not to evaluate or provide a guide to the best. They are to provide an insecure and hard-pressed middle class with literary chit-chat, something with which they may pay their entrance into intelligent society. The literary production of the world is enormous, staggering, but only the smallest amount is needed to act as the lingua franca of the media world.

We shouldn't be surprised. We all need badges of membership, and there are duplicities everywhere in modern life. Politics is increasingly stage-managed, and no one gets to the top in public life, in high finance, in the big companies or even in academia without cultivating the correct impression amongst those who count. Unswerving ambition and an innate feel for advantage are essential. In a world that devalues honesty, sensitivity and a sense of proportion, is it unethical to maintain a fragile independence from the big battalions?

Alternatives: Aesthetics

But the truth is something else. The Postmodernists do not generally form an intelligentsia in a continental sense, but a ramifying group that associates with other correct-thinking and influential parties. Whatever their protests, and their claim to intellectual reality, the Postmodernists are part of a pre-packaged consumerist society, and the poetry they approve, write and promote is often standardized. Individuality is certainly prized, but only as it navigates a narrow and largely unexamined code of practice. Free verse is the reigning orthodoxy, and its results can be neither free nor verse. The Modernists are freely quoted, but not usually the poetry of an earlier age. Bibliographies are packed with references to friends and presiding gurus, but are silent on larger issues.

We do not expect to find, outside the pages of a very amateur poetry periodical, such remarks as: "poetry is essentially self-expression," or "the mark of good writing is the ability to show, not to state." An evening spent with an introductory account of aesthetics will show that these remarks do not take us far. But much of what appears in leading periodicals, though phrased more astutely, displays a similar ignorance of the appropriate literature. Perhaps linguistic philosophy is dry and technical, and few home-grown theories of reference are going to hold the interest of professionals. But the wholesale neglect of aesthetics suggests either that something is very wrong with the educational system, or that sounder views are being suppressed. No doubt principles are subsequent to response: we need to appreciate a poem before we can refer it to broader issues. No doubt judgement and experience also enter into the picture: no poem is entirely without some autonomy, structure, emotive expression and significance. But aesthetics does map out the ground of our responses, and suggests why we like or do not like a particular poem. It protects us from the merely fashionable or fraudulent, and opens doors to work of other epochs and cultures.

By asking general questions: What is art or beauty? What do we mean by aesthetic distance? In what sense does emotional content enter into music or painting? and so on, aesthetics also draws the various arts closer together. Educationalists lament literature's fall from preeminence, and much that passes for writing today is certainly not attractive or encouraging. But music and the visual arts have also been woefully overshadowed by the printed word, by a commercial attitude that links texts to facts, and facts to earning money — in short, to art as entertainment when the more important tasks of the day are over.

Alternatives: Experimental Psychology

What is literature? Current theory, to its credit, does indeed try to answer the question. And a similar attempt to find the unique ingredient, the clarifying definition, the quintessential essence of things is seen in the twentieth century's analysis of truth, meaning, mathematics and science. The search has been very long and very unsuccessful. At the heart of all such disciplines lies an immense mystery. Each approach fulfils its duties, often amazingly well, but also resists a more fundamental formulation.

But then no system starts out afresh. Hermeneutics studies the dialogue between present needs and past contexts: how we inherit attitudes, expectations, meanings of words and social behaviour. Anglo-American philosophy attempted to use a small part of our faculties to understand the whole, and has comprehensively failed. The sciences of chaos and complexity show the interdependence of small and large, and how the smallest change can have enormous and unexpected consequences. Our brains function through complex linkages. Everywhere there are ramifications and complicated feedback systems, the nervous systems being intimately connected with bodily tissues. Humans are emphatically not reservoirs of psychic energy under the cold repression of the ego. Nor are they puppets jerked into life by the brain's activities. Body and brain and consciousness are partners in an entity whose behaviour is partly innate and partly socially conditioned. And this unremarkable observation has a crucial bearing on academic study. Much of our thinking sinks into unconscious bodily behaviour, and some indeed takes a long journey through society before returning to us, making a total understanding by our rational faculties difficult or impossible. We know very well that appreciation is a learned skill, that our own response to what we have written shifts as we work on the drafts, that some poems work well on the page but never rise to public performance, that we are affected in our responses by moods, personal circumstances, the most irrelevant details, and yet we still believe that the whole situation can be represented in simple words. The very different contexts or structures of experience being invoked should caution us against believing that a literal language will encompass the whole.

But the more crucial consideration is this. Even the human brain, disregarding the bodily and social contexts, does not operate in invariant, sequential procedures that logic, linguistic philosophy, Structuralism, semiotics and a whole host of academic disciplines have supposed. Computers can be made to mimic human thought, but the brain is not a computer. The brain is larger and more elusive than any conception we can form of it, and its interactions with the world are not to be contained in abstract conceptions. Models are useful, but in all branches of thought there appear gaps and paradoxes that tell us the full picture is something else. Science advises that its powers are limited, though eminently practical, and not to be misused.

Alternatives: Metaphorical Language and New Science

Language, for example, though we pretend otherwise, is metaphorical at base. We do not think entirely by logic, but also by analogy, vague association, by unconscious responses, learned or innate. If Wittgenstein thought the task of philosophy was to see through the bewitchment of words, we need very much to see through the imposing specializations of the modern world. Science works unexpectedly well, but its practice is very far from the logical and objective activity of the popular imagination. The deep strangeness of its conceptions are no longer restricted to the very large or the very small. Theories of complexity apply to all our lives, and have put an end to determinism. Computers and their codes will play an increasingly role, and no one should underestimate their power, but the language that most closely reflects our essential natures, with all their reflections, responses and oddities, is that which makes sense of the world and gives us a place in it.


Much can be understood in the squeeze on academic tenure, take-overs in the publishing trade, pre-packaging by the culture industry, widening social inequalities, deepening distrust of big business, politics and public life, a general downgrading of intellectual standards and the difficulties most writers currently experience in making even a modest living. But very much better theory has been available in aesthetics for some fifty years, and advances in our understanding of metaphor, hermeneutics, brain function and complex systems are underlining these earlier insights. Scientific theories — abstract, objective, seeking exterior regularities — do not make good models for literature. They work badly for the social sciences, and entirely overlook what is essential for art: a specially thickened and enriched language that models itself on the whole human functioning, in all its aspects: physical, social, historical. Literary theorists tried to make their own theory by borrowing some of the scientific approaches — the search for laws, derivation of context-less generalities of depth and power, the development of a thin, abstruse language that modelled itself on logic and mathematics — but the venture was not only optimistic, but wholly wrong-headed. Mathematics, Anglo-American philosophy and science will continue to explore the abstract and general, even though their hopes of finding a bedrock of logic and unquestionable procedures have been widely disappointed. Art should return to understanding that the intellect does not give the whole picture. The language closest to what we essentially are, with all our bodily responses, infatuations, fears and inchoate thoughts, is poetry, not by ancient edict but by the findings of contemporary science. Other languages are less authentic, less precise and less encompassing — are an abstraction for mental reckoning, or an abbreviation for practical purposes. Long ago, Aristotle grasped the essential greatness of poetry, and that insight has been enriched by the newer sciences.  

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.

Internet Resources

Not resources for the above, but a mixed bag of sites providing background and/or light relief.

1. The History Guide. Steven Kreis. 2001. Lectures on modern European history: currently extends to Nietzsche.
2. Psychohistory. Lloyd DeMause. Another approach: a science of historical motivation based on psychotherapy and the social sciences.
3. Canadian Journal of Communication. NNA. Articles and book reviews.
4. Other Voices. An e-journal of cultural criticism.
5. Intellectual History Newsletter. Book reviews and articles: exerpts free but otherwise $10-11/issue.
6. Literary History. Index to 19th and 20th century American and British writers.
7. Today in Literature. A calendar of stories about books, writers, and events in literary history.
8. Literary Traveller. Short articles on writers and places lived or travelled in.
9. Wordtrade. Commercial site, but with newsletter and reviews of books in the humanities.