The Autonomy of Literature

The Autonomy of Literature

The Autonomy of Literature

The Autonomy of Literature

Synopsis

In the aftermath of the theory wars, the imaginative, formal, and moral features of literature have been substantially marginalized, downgraded, and neglected. Yet for many readers such elements will always be central to the experience of reading, just as for writers they are central to the experience of writing. This provocative study argues that literature has an abundant life of its own, and reconsiders that life in the contexts provided by three influential contemporary groups of critics: some North American philosophers; some psychoanalysts; and some theorists of history.

Excerpt

Any future historian of literary criticism and theory in the English-speaking world during the second half of the twentieth century will have a long and complex tale to tell, no doubt. But the basic lines of development will be clear enough. In Britain and its erstwhile colonies and in the United States two very different but generally dominant critical practices – the school of Leavis and the New Criticism – came increasingly under pressure from traditions of thought and analytic procedures essentially new to both of them, and derived from Continental philosophy and social science. In the years after the Second World War certain Continental intellectual traditions, of French origin particularly, re-invented and re-deployed themselves, with lasting effect on ‘the languages of criticism and the sciences of man’.

The words just quoted are taken from the title of a famous conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, where the structuralist revolution was formally introduced to American academia. Essential to Leavis himself and the New Critics had been the arriving at judgements of moral and aesthetic value by way of ‘close reading’ of literary texts. The structuralists, by contrast, had little patience with those concerns; they concentrated instead on trying to illustrate the general laws through which all systems of communication – languages, literatures, styles of clothing, indeed all modes of human expression – sought to order experience. Subsequently structuralism of this kind, associated with Lévi-Strauss, Roman Jakobson, and the ‘early’ Barthes, gave way to the post-structuralism that had been at work within and alongside it for many years and which, with its even more radical scepticism about any conceivable stability of meaning, selfhood, or ‘closure’, looked back to such thinkers as Nietzsche and Heidegger.

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