Academic journal article ARIEL

The Future of Literary Theories: Exclusion, Complementarity, Pluralism

Academic journal article ARIEL

The Future of Literary Theories: Exclusion, Complementarity, Pluralism

Article excerpt

Looking back on the development of literary theories over the past century, one tends to get a picture of mutual exclusion, with one school emerging for the purpose of supplanting an existing one, or with one kind of theoretical climate triumphing over another. Interestingly, theoretical exclusion takes various, though often overlapping, forms: ideological, philosophical, focal, or whatever. Through an examination of the major forms of exclusion, we may see that many theoretical schools are more or less complementary to each other, and that the coexistence of different theories is both necessary and desirable. I would argue that the future of literary theories will benefit from complementarity and pluralism rather than exclusion, from more openness or more tolerance towards the Other or Others.

It is understood that different theories or different specific contexts have multiple different consequences. The present paper, however, is not concerned with fine-grained analysis of each theory or context but rather with the big picture that emerges by attending to the macro-level. This macro-level discussion of both Western and Chinese literary theories may shed interesting light on certain issues that tend to be obscured in micro-level analysis of a specific theory or context.

I Three Major Forms of Exclusion

A. Ideological Exclusion

Ideological exclusion found an extreme form of itself in China during the Great Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). In that period, literary theory and criticism were treated only as political tools. In order to reinforce the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, there emerged, in terms of literary creation, the "Triple Prominence" theory: to make prominent the positive characters; among the positive characters, make prominent the proletarian heroes; among the proletarian heroes, make prominent the central hero. The characters thus created are usually "flat" and the central character is always a great revolutionary hero, meant to be a model for people to follow. Once established, such a theory acquires the status of the only politically correct principle for everyone to obey, leaving no room for different theoretical voices. Aesthetic studies were regarded as a form of reactionary bourgeois ideology and were completely purged from the scene. Literary theory and criticism, as sheer tools for political struggle, totally lost their freedom and academic status. With the emphasis placed on its fighting power, literary criticism was used by the ultra-"Leftists" as a tool to overthrow or criticize some state leaders. During that period not only were Western literary theories excluded, but also the study of Western literary works was completely at a standstill.

Nineteen seventy-seven saw the end of the Great Cultural Revolution and the eradication of the ultra-"Left" trend of thought. The dominating principle that literature should be at the service of politics was soon abandoned. In 1978, China adopted an economic reform policy, opening her door to the outside world. The 1980s saw the sudden rush into China of various schools of Western literary theory and criticism, such as new criticism, structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism and cultural studies. Interestingly, all these schools, whether fashionable or out of fashion in the West, were invariably new and "contemporary" to Chinese scholars. Having been subjected to political criticism for decades, many Chinese scholars became particularly interested in text-oriented critical theory and criticism, since formal and aesthetic studies gave them a sense of liberation and freedom.

In the West, the trends of development seem to have gone in the opposite direction. When Chinese literary scholars were confined to political criticism, Western scholars were enjoying formal and aesthetic studies and the coexistence of various contending schools. But the scene seems to have become increasingly political since the late 1970s, with 'political correctness' gradually figuring as an implicit norm of measurement. …

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