Monday, October 3, 2016

Theory of Literature and Theory of Criticism, Now Distinctly Different?

One of the things that happened during the 1970s and 1980s is that the distinction between the theory of criticism and the theory of literature collapsed and simply became Theory. In thinking of my recent essay, Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature [1], I’m wondering if it’s possible to distinguish them. Though I don’t talk of naturalist criticism and ethical criticism in that essay, the distinction is implicit in it [2]. And that distinction, it seems to me, belongs to the theory of criticism.

The three principles–Dynamic Form, Sharability, and Elasticity–from the second section (Form: Macpherson & Attridge to Latour) certainly belong to the naturalist theory of literature. As do the accounts of the text (section 4, Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Text) and performance (section 5, Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy as Performance) of Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy, which serves as an example. In the fourth section we see an example of dynamic form while the fifth section has the foundations for sharability and the sixth section (Coda: Form and Sharability in the Private Text) extends sharability to the world of private readers of written texts.

Of course, the account of ring-composition in the eulogy is also practical naturalist criticism, along with the account of the performance. The fragment of the cognitive account of of Sonnet 129 is also practical naturalist criticism. But the sixth section, Meaning, History, and Attachment, is mostly ethical criticism, with the suggested interpretations¬–theological, performance (Loury-McWhorter), attachment–being practical ethical criticism.

The theory of criticism, of course, is not about literature. It’s about how we study literature. When I assert that the literary work is both Latourian intermediary and mediator (second section) that assertion could be considered to be within the theory of literature, but, given the Latourian pedigree, it might be more natural to think of them as belonging to the theory of criticism. Certainly the juxtaposition of the naturalist criticism of sections 4 and 5 against the ethical criticism of section 6 belongs in the realm of theory of criticism.

Would we then say that explicating the distinction between naturalist and ethical criticism is one of the basic, if not the foundational, issues in the theory of criticism? Perhaps, perhaps. The four-way distinction between description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation that Sharon Marcus makes in her Auerbach essay [2], that too belongs in the theory of criticism. More generally, recent interest in surface reading and description (think of the special issues of Representations) and various discussions of interpretation and critique, all betoken the rise of a new theory of criticism, as does the rise of computational criticism.

[1] Sharing Experience: Computation, Form, and Meaning in the Work of Literature, URL:

[2] Some, but only some, of my various remarks on naturalist criticism can be found at this link:

Most of my various remarks on ethical criticism can be found at this link:

Many of those posts will discuss both ethical and naturalist criticism. Here’s two of them:

[3]Sharon Marcus, “Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of Scale,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, No. 3 (2016), 297-319.

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