Contemporary Literary Theory

Swamped as I was with photocopied readings in college, I never imagined I’d want to peruse another such softbound volume after graduation. Apparently, I do. Maki’s book interested me enough to make me plow through its first Xeroxed chapters. Luckily, the Rizal Library also had a copy, so I was able to read the rest of the book without feeling like an undergraduate.

As G. Douglas Atkins promises in his preface, Contemporary Literary Theory delivers a rich “diversity of perspective” from its various contributors. The essays themselves, however, comprise a series of hits and misses. While most are well-structured and easy to approach, one chapter (“Like the Glaze on a Katyid-Wing: Phenomenological Criticism”) stands out for its horrible pedantry, especially in its opening paragraphs; it seems as if the author prefers talking to himself than to an actual reader. Still there are other essays that—in fifteen lengthy pages—barely skim the surface and feel too thinly spread. Theories are naturally expansive, yes, but certain expectations come with reading these sorts of texts. I wanted to walk away with something.

Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed this book for its inviting complexity, which “raises more questions than it offers answers.” Although, like Atkins, I do not subscribe to the idea that “all theories are equally valid,” I recognize their value in that they chart the multiple ways in which we come to appreciate a text. The twelve theories presented here differ on many grounds, but they also agree on some fundamental notions: the finitude of language, the universality (and particularity) of human experience, the versatility of truth. Distinctions lie in the willful primacy of one element or aspect over another; nevertheless, all contribute towards the expansion of ideas, and all maintain a clear pursuit of the inexhaustible.

Contemporary Literary Theory closes with a chapter on genealogical critique, which explains Foucault’s idea of the episteme, and the abrupt transitions that occur between them: “The [epistemological] break…rearranges certain elements of the methodology through which humans gain in understanding of reality and try to justify their attempts to establish their control over it.” I found this an appropriate way to end the book, for struggling with reality and grappling with text represent the same vital issue of interpretation. And while reality may have Foucault’s episteme, in literature we have theory, which guides our knowledge of the uncountable ways in which texts may be unraveled.

Archetypal Criticism (Richard F. Hardin)

It is a revealing fact about the state of literary criticism, especially in English, that…Cambridge school theories are periodically resurrected like the dying and rising gods of which Frazer, Harrison, and Cornford were so fond. The persistence of this idea attests to the strength of the kindred idea, romantic in origin, that the aesthetic has somehow supplanted the religious in human life.

Creating the World: Structuralism and Semiotics (Lori Hope Lefkovitz)

…what we take for granted at one moment as universal, explicable, reasonable, and natural may be easily explained away as the mistaken notions of the past a moment later, only to resurface still later as partial rediscovered truth.

The job of criticism is not art appreciation but demystification.

Hermeneutics (Joel Weinsheimer)

Interpretation operates in the ambiguous space between the hidden and the open, the concealed and the revealed.

…understanding is possible only insofar as understanding has always already begun.

Deconstruction: Critical Strategy/Strategic Criticism (Danny J. Anderson)

‘To keep a poem in mind is to keep it there, not to resolve it into available meanings.’ (Geoffrey Hartman)

Political Criticism (Michael Ryan)

For rhetoric entails struggle; it is a matter of different contending ways of constructing the social world.


2 thoughts on “Contemporary Literary Theory

  1. ivanlabayne

    Hi! This is very rare, doing sort of reviews of academic books. Literary theory is really fun most of the times (well, I am a literature person) and from my readings, they are relatively more enjoyable, and engaging to read than say, continental philosophy books (although the former inevitably transposes a lot of ideas from the latter). But the fact that literary theory more usually keeps itself latched on materially existing artifacts and phenomena (i.e. poetry, or film) makes it easier for us to relate to it. Although, Derrida could be another thing. Hehe.

    1. Mich Post author

      Hello! This is actually my first time to read a book on theory. I really enjoy philosophy too (although so far I’ve only read one book that wasn’t required for class). I agree that theory usually grounds itself on more concrete things, but philosophy has a much larger scope, and that’s what pulls me to it. I’m not completely sure which I find more engaging (right now I’m leaning towards philosophy). I definitely like both!


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