critical thought and in continuing critical debate. His innovative and meticulous readings illuminate not only literary texts but also questions of language, philosophy, and politics. In fact, much of what is now taken for granted in literary studies came about as the result of ground-breaking work by de Man. Perhaps most often associated with deconstruction, which will be discussed in detail below, de Man was one of the first generation of literary critics to introduce explicitly theoretical ideas into literary criticism. From the 1920s to the 1960s, literary studies in North America and the UK had been dominated by New Criticism, which thought of itself as a ‘common sense’ approach to reading. This type of criticism emphasises the importance of form in contrast to content, meaning, or context and thinks of the literary text as a self-contained aesthetic object comprised of formal unities, which make texts ‘great works’. Several New Critics created their own canon of literary works to exemplify the eternal truths of great literature. During the 1950s a number of Anglo-American literary critics began to engage with contemporary European philosophy, finding that they shared common interests in such questions as language, perception, and identity. They also began to question conventional ideas about history and the concept of the human self. They looked to Europe, and in particular to French intellectual activity during the 1960s and 1970s, as source of inspiration, rather than looking to the AngloAmerican tradition. In this context, then, ‘theory’ refers to the body of knowledge that is now called post-structuralism, which develops an understanding of the literary from certain works of European philosophy and psychoanalysis. The concentration on the canon characteristic of the New Critics provides a focus for the other dominant strand within Anglo-American literary criticism, the writing of literary history.

By 1970 Paul de Man was based at Yale University in America, along with several other like-minded thinkers now credited with significant contributions to the ‘theoretical turn’ in literary studies. These academics contributed to the development of literary studies through their individual publications, but also became, as a group, the subject of furious debate. The interest in post-structuralism generated by the pioneering work of de Man and others led to considerable friction within the academic institution. Traditional forms of literary criticism felt threatened by the radical implications of this new body of knowledge and an often acrimonious debate ensued between old and new, in

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