Critical Methods and the 20th-Century's "Theory Wars"

        Anglo-European literary criticism traces its roots to Greek and Roman classical thinkers' attempts to explain how their drama, epic, and lyric poetry affected its hearers.  Much of the earliest writing about literature was done by philosophers, but some poets occasionally turned to explaining their craft.  All tended to concentrate on the "form" or physical structure of literary works, hence they were called "formalist" critics.  (Exceptions are Plato's Ion and Republic, which consider the work's effects on the audience and the author's state of mind during composition.)  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European scholars studying languages and history sought to add scientific methodological rigor to the insightful but sometimes incoherent work of their predecessors, and they gave us a view of language change, and of history, that was strongly influenced by their contemporaries' notions of cultural "progress" and "sophistication."  They believed their own eras' and nations' literatures were the logical result of progressive cultural refinement.  The "progress" model of history is fatally flawed because it refuses to see evidence that cultures can decline, and that changes which benefit one part of the population may do so at the expense of another.  Nevertheless, those early philological scholars also helped to dispel the many myths about authors' lives and mistaken interpretations of their works.  By skeptically viewing the linguistic evidence, they were able to identify works mistakenly attributed to major authors, and to establish plausible sequences of composition.  Their methods were mainly descriptive, however, and they could rarely explain why the works they described had been made, or what they might mean beyond a paraphrase of their content/action into Modern English.  The interpretive methods used by these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics could be called philological and textual, historical, and belletristic.

        In the twentieth century, the "Theory Wars" overturned older methods of interpretation by reinterpreting the Greek and Roman classics, and by treating contemporary English and American literature as worthy subjects of professional scholarship.  After the turn of the 20th century, the struggle to control this emerging new branch of academic scholarship produced a series of revolutions in academia.  Critics trained in one interpretive method, based upon one theory of interpretation, came to recognize its deficiencies, rebelled against their teachers and founded new methods of interpretation on new theoretical bases.  As the "rebels" did so, they revolutionized departments of language and literature in colleges and universities where they worked.  Careers were made and broken based upon extremely serious debates about what works and authors were essential to the study of literature (canon formation), what critical methods were acceptable and which were no longer logically consistent or politically tolerable, and (ultimately) who controlled the means to determine the answers to those questions by publishing and rejecting scholarship in literary journals and university presses, and by hiring and firing in the big universities that trained future literature scholars.

        Three socio-historical factors helped to produce the enthusiasm and rancor which drove this battle.  The nineteenth-century collapse of religious faith among elite English and American scholars, under the impact of biological, geological, and astrophysical research, left them despairing and in search of some source of anchoring or "foundational" life doctrine.  Simultaneously, or perhaps as a result (?), the rise of communism and fascism challenged intellectuals to see their work as part of a world-changing political enterprise, rather than a cloistered, contemplative retreat.  Meanwhile, Anglo-European followers of Sigmund Freud spread the interpretive doctrines of psychoanalysis which taught that the hidden significance of all cultural productions arose from unconscious drives in their creators and consumers.  Secular literature was enlisted by all of these groups, and critical theories arose to explain how to make that literature relevant to their needs.  Aesthetic "truths" inspired a kind of religion of literature, in which great authors were the prophets whose oracular works must be interpreted to save humanity from faithless emptiness (Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlysle, Virginia Woolf, and the New Critics).  The sciences of linguistics and anthropology produced Structuralism, a kind of scientific religion that sought to excavate "deep structures" in literature that were empirically defensible, fundamental "truths" about human culture (Saussure, Levi-Strauss, and Culler).  Political "truths" similarly were extracted from the same great authors by critics with fascist-nationalist or Marxist-globalist beliefs (Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis; Georg Lukacs, Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Pierre Macherey).  Psychoanalytic critics followed Freudian ("individual") and Jungian ("cosmic" or "race-memory") theories, as well as a variety of interpretive methods taught by their American and British descendents    After all these forces had battled fiercely for decades to control of academic English literature studies during the period bounded by the two World Wars, American college and university faculties were especially politicized by the Cold War (1947-89) and the Viet Nam War (1957-75).  New Criticism successfully fought a 40 year campaign to control American university literature departments, until critiques of their "formalism" by feminists, deconstructionists, Marxists, and cultural critics broke their grip on faculty appointments and editorships of learned journals.  Each critical method arose in personal struggles of generations of scholarly readers as they fought to establish their careers and to claim authority for their own theoretical perspectives.  Some methods are "syncretic" or "eclectic," combining their methods sympathetically with prior and subsequent scholars' theories, but many arose in matricidal, patricidal or fratricidal combat as mutually hostile theories of interpretation found that their only safety appeared to rest in the destruction of their adversaries' careers.

        As new waves of critical "rebels" stormed the academies, they sought to publish their criticisms of previous critical methods and their founding theories in the journals that carried the most prestige.  If the prestigious journals, in the hands of editors trained in those earlier methods, resisted by rejecting the articles, the rebels could do two things.  They either started their own journals (e.g., Signs, Diacritics and New Literary History), or they maneuvered their careers until they could force out or replace retiring editors of long-established journals who once rejected their work (e.g., Modern Philology, Speculum and PMLA).  Gaining control of journals also enabled rebel scholars to infiltrate tenured positions on literature department faculties, although some departments mounted resistance so fierce that administrations were forced to allow the creation of separate programs or even separate departments of semiotics or critical theory (e.g., Brown's Semiotics Program).  At times, departments were wracked by "purges" that usually erupted over decisions about whom to hire to replace retiring or departing specialists, an opportunity for rebels to advance their cause, increasing their vote count in faculty meetings where such decisions were made, and also an opportunity for the "Old Guard" to mount counter-attacks, hurling the rebels from their ranks and restoring their control over what kinds of theory shall be taught their graduates.  In those days, graduate students choosing dissertation committees routinely were warned about which professors could not work together because of theoretical differences and sometimes notorious public disagreements.  One learned to pick one's way through professors' strongly held theoretical and methodological practices like dancing through an intellectual minefield.  (The metaphor is Annette Kolodny's, and it was while watching her work in my first semester of graduate school at U.N.H. that I first learned some of what is contained on this page--the rest came from grad school at Brown, my "pledge class"'s experiences on the job market, and life as a scholar at Goucher.  This, too, has been one of the dark places of the earth.)

        Theories of interpretation and their attendant critical methods seem too abstract to cause such terrible strife, and one might well wonder what made the stakes so high that old friends would become enemies and elder scholars would turn upon the protégés they had, themselves, trained (and vice versa, of course!).  The battles connected directly to the political situations of the time, and their personal costs are easily explained by the way literature, and the right to say what literature means, constructs and represents our culture to itself.  Today you might not imagine that once it was possible for scholars to debate the following questions, and for the negative side to win more often than the affirmative: Do African-Americans have a "literature" or only "folklore"?; Can women write "serious novels" and be scholars of literature, or are they biologically and temperamentally incapable of the mental, spiritual, and social skills required?;  Does homosexuality exist, and if it does, do gay and lesbian artists write in spite of or because of their homosexual identities?; Can non-English literatures be as valuable as literature in English for the English speaking reader/scholar, or are non-English literatures inherently inferior or merely irrelevant to readers/scholars of English literature?; Are the social orders of current capitalist states capable of improvement by reformation or outright overthrow, and does literature and literary interpretation play a role in those tasks, or is capitalist, "democratic" society the pinnacle of cultural evolution and are literary works and scholarship merely non-functional adornments of its leisure time?

        These are some very broad stages in the Theory Wars' evolution linked to cultural events they supported: the early 20th-century emergence of bourgeois/middle-class values as national aesthetic "norms" in England and America (1800-present), the development of Freudian psychoanalysis (and its descendents) to reinterpret the psychological malaise of the bourgeoisie (1880-present), the challenge of Marxism and Feminism to Freudian analysis and to those bourgeois aesthetic and cultural norms (1890-present), the rebellion against nationalism following World War I (1917-30 and beyond), the struggle against Fascism before and during World War II (1930-45), the struggle against totalitarian Communism (as distinguished from Marxist interpretation) during the Cold War (1945-89), the American Civil Rights Movement and African Americans' search for self-definition in a multi-cultural world (1961-present), the opposition to the Vietnam War (1966-75), the re-emergence of Feminism as a critical methodology (1972-present), the post-Stonewall gay and lesbian rights movement that produced "Queer Studies" (27 June 1969 ["the Stonewall Tavern 'Riot'"] to the present), the post-Movement (civil rights, anti-war, feminist) and Post-Structuralist skepticism about politically motivated or "scientific" scholarship (1970-present).

        Those enormous social events each shaped strains of interpretive theory and their concomitant critical methods, though some theories' methods were preserved even after the dominance of their most rigorous principles had ended (e.g., New Criticism's "close reading analysis," which still is a staple of interpretation even among Post-Structuralists who deny all of New Criticism's basic theoretical assumptions.)  As each new theory of interpretation ascended by means of its critique of prior theories, the reach of theory and claims for it importance increased.  At their furthest extremes today, theories of literary interpretation cover making sense of things as "non-literary" as recipes in gourmet magazines, presidential speeches, and public ceremonies like marriages and parades, and they embrace such goals as making model citizens (like the classics), healing the reader, decoding the linguistic structure of human thought, and overthrowing the ruling powers that govern our minds and bodies. 

        However, the cost to disciplinary coherence of this constant revolution has been enormous.  Whereas in the natural sciences, differences in "theory" do not fundamentally affect scientific method, the way experiments are conducted and results reported, literary analysis in one theory presumes critical methods and styles of writing that are totally unacceptable in some other theories.  The result has been the emergence of a large, amorphous core of "pluralist" agreement that certain theories and attendant methodologies are widely accepted and may be practiced (with great care!) in most scholarly journals and English departments, and that others have become so marginalized that they only can be practiced in schools and published in journals specially created and endowed to preserve them (e.g., some unreconstructed Freudian psychoanalytic criticism, and doctrinaire Marxist criticism, sometimes called "intuitional Freudianism" and "vulgar Marxism" by their disdainful Post-Modern cousins).  Most English departments, wearied and deeply hurt by these divisive battles, have tacitly ceased to allow theoretical debate, preferring to let broader market forces determine who succeeds by publishing their way to tenure and fame. 

        This is the scholarly world you find yourself joining.  No one can tell whether the Theory Wars really are over, or merely in a temporary "truce."  The most promising/threatening source of new theoretical activism comes from the American Neo-Conservative movement.  As recently as the 1990s, English Departments in Ivy League institutions experienced a spate of "revenge" attacks in which politically Liberal or Radical Leftist scholars who had triumphed in the 1970s and '80s suddenly found themselves under attack by scholars energized by the "New Conservatism" that was announced by backers of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.  These conservative scholars continue to have strong political backing and research funding via conservative "think tanks" and lobbying organizations, and they tend to specialize in revisionist literary history of the 1960s-1980s which depicts the reaction against New Criticism as something akin to a Communist plot to take over the universities.  Unable to command respect in or to tolerate the practices they saw in the Modern Language Association and other ruling bodies governing the practices of literary scholarship, they have created their own parallel and hostile bodies, the "Association of Literary Scholars and Critics" and the more broadly-focused "National Association of Scholars," with parallel conventions, publications, conferences, funding channels (The American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford U.), etc.  If you find English 215's approach to critical methods too "leftist," I encourage you to research scholars working with these groups, though I must admit I have no sympathy for most of their basic assumptions.  If you think the battles of Movement politics are over and the "good guys/gals" won, I also urge you to challenge your complaisant theoretical position by checking out the opposition and its funding.  You can get some idea of the money behind these organizations by using Media Transparency's search engine to check on the foundations that routinely give them operating funds and hire the theoreticians that develop their ideas.  We are talking about big money here, millions and millions of dollars, spent to influence the way interpretation is taught. 

        In the end, what you decide to do with what you learn in English 215 will affect the shape of the English major, including what courses are required, which are offered as electives, what courses are unthinkable to teach, and what counts as excellent performance from teachers and students.  Please take care.