As this new edition of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism amply demonstrates, literary criticism has its historical roots in the cultures of classical antiquity. Though foregrounded in contemporary debates, a reference work of this magnitude also clearly reminds us that however different the vocabularies and claims to authority over this long history, the theory and practice of criticism are marked by recurrent basic plot structures. The most striking of these, and perhaps the most obvious motor for historical change, is an insistent need to frame major engagements in the form of polemical contests. Thus our contemporary strategies can conveniently be traced back to ancient battles.
Searching for a plausible point of origin for the strategies and contests chronicled here, one could turn to a "critical exchange" embedded within the canon of ancient comedy. Aristophanes won the first prize at the Lenaia of 405 B.C.E. for his comedy The Frogs. We may conveniently take this date as the historic inception of literary criticism. This is not to deny that there was an antecedent tradition in the West of performing and interpreting the Homeric poems (as well as a just emerging tradition in China of commenting on the Confucian texts). The date has, however, some heuristic value in locating a play that concludes in its final agon with a five-round contest between the two heavyweight tragedians, Aeschylus and Euripides, for the minds and hearts of Athens. The play was itself a part of a civic and poetic contest in a parlous time, and the historic moment of its performance records a number of significant endings, as well as some equally epochal beginnings.
Historically, The Frogs marks the brilliant end of both Attic Old Comedy and the Athenian political imperium (the final defeat at Aigospotomai was only months away). The play also memorializes the passing of a great cultural institution: the tragic drama. Euripides and the aged Sophocles had died within the year. (Tragedy's founder, Aeschylus, had died fifty years earlier.) The Frogspresents the comic journey of an imperfectly disguised Dionysos, patron of the drama, to the underworld in search of a civic hero among the tragedians who can restore virtue and poetry to Athens. The play, despite this sense of belatedness, is also a place of beginnings: the entrance on the stage of the first New Comedy slave and of extended literary satire. The contest of the poets, however, inaugurates an even more unruly traditionthe ongoing argument of literary criticism. And it is a striking reminder that, early and late, criticism has been a matter of highly polemical, agonistic exchange. Pólemoswar, battle, single combatlies at the heart of the critical enterprise, in the contest between texts, between the old and the new, and in the patriarchal struggle for authority.
Within the play, the climactic contest is between standards represented by the old mythic order of Aeschylus and the new psychological realism of Euripides. In the series of five agonistic exchanges that range from the subtle to the burlesque, the tragedians contest issues of dramaturgy, style, metrics, "elevation," poetic "heft" (in the broadly comic "weighing of the lines," a kind of touchstone approach to literary merit), and ultimately the civic utility of the poets. While the struggle is often parodic, the issues are neither trivial nor transient. That Aristophanes should award the victory to Aeschylus is consistent with his most deeply held political and aesthetic convictions.
The polemical spirit informs the critics who succeed Aristophanes. In the next generation Plato decisively shapes the future of critical discourse in his agon with the founding poet of his culture, Homer. The philosopher mounts his critique of the poet in various dialogues from a number of angles of attack: epistemological (the argument of the three beds), psychological (the furor poeticus as source and the pedagogic corruption of the emotions as effect), and political (the potential for disordering the ideal state). And however deep Plato's distrust of representational art, he vies with the tragedians in his creation of agonistic dialogues. To cite only the monuments, the polemical character of criticism in antiquity famously continues in the struggle over the mimetic arts that Plato's pupil Aristotle opens with his master in the Poetics. Longinus begins his luminous tractate Peri Hupsous with a polemical engagement of Caecilius. And even so urbane and avuncular a poet as Horace laces his Ars Poetica with some blistering polemics, ranging from the attack on the misbegotten work at the beginning to the pillorying of the verse-monger at the end ("Why does he write? Has he pissed on his father's ashes?").
The polemical tradition does not abate with the end of classical antiquity. The criticism of the Italian Renaissance had its famous "Quarrels." Neoclassicism renewed the battle between the Ancients and the Moderns. Classical versus Romantic defined another bloody terrain. Philologists from J. C. Scaliger to A. E. Housman were renowned for their virtuosity in verbal abuse. Friedrich Nietzsche, who belonged to this tradition by training, carried polemical invective into the realm of art. Certain Marxist critics specialized in animal epithets, while in our own time opponents of deconstruction have found its practice responsible for everything from neo-Nazism to rotting teeth.
The young Edward Gibbon, fresh from his Calvinist cure in Lausanne, published his first book, Essai sur l'étude de la littérature, in 1761. He had early learned, as he remarks near the end of his life, to be sententious. Thus he began this apprentice work with the following observation: "L'Histoire des Empires est celle de la misère des hommes. L'Histoire des Sciences est celle de leur grandeur et de leur bonheur." The history of literary theory, a sprawling subset of the history of institutions, seems to fall somewhere between that of Empires and that of Sciences (or Knowledge), reflecting both the splendeurs and the misères of academic ambition. As the present Guidegraphically illustrates, literary theory always bears the impress of larger political and cultural debates but also aspires, from Aristotle to Hans-Georg Gadamer or Jacques Derrida, toward a systematic statement of the principles and methods governing interpretation and evaluation. These polemical tensions mediate between the imperial claims of what the editors of the present volume call the "underlying social, historical, or ideological interests and presuppositions" and the scientific quest for an objective and eternal system. It is perhaps the most striking paradox of contemporary critical theory that recent speculation on the side of "system" has been profoundly antitheoretical and antifoundational in character. A "hermeneutics of suspicion" with considerable theoretical subtlety challenges the Enlightenment legacies of positivism, progress, humanism, and rationalism. (Thus Richard Rorty portrays epistemology as a failed experiment in theorizing ultimate foundations, and philosophical critics as diverse as Gadamer, Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean-François Lyotard counterpose "universal questionability" to traditional philosophical universalism.) The vitality of this pervasive phenomenon underscores the timeliness and utility of a comprehensive survey of critical theory both before and after the great doubting.
The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, in this second edition as in the first, inevitably reflects the agonistic concerns and polemical urgencies of its time, a millennial moment when the boundaries of critical theory and practice are particularly permeable to influences from other disciplines and cultural hegemonies. While recognizing the imperial character of the traditional claims of literary theory, the editors have also embraced the ambition of a scientific surveythe possibility of organizing in a single volume an overview of the major landmarks of criticism from classical antiquity to the present day (seen, it should be added, from a very specific, "postmodern" historical moment). In this latter ambition they join a history of guides, surveys, prolegomena, and handbooks from the Renaissance to the modern classroom.
Unlike influential guides of earlier periodssay August Boeckh's posthumous Encyklop&aauml;dia or René Wellek and Austin Warren's Theory of Literature this survey is presented not as a series of lectures or a master narrative but as an inventory of key critics and dominant "schools" organized under the oldest and simplest of principles, the alphabet. It is a considerable accomplishment to have faced the fearsome problems of selection and to have comprehended, in this new edition, a complex and vagrant itinerary of the critical battlefields within 241 entries. It is a comparable achievement, in the interests of what the editors call the "multivocal" and "inclusive," to have disciplined more than 270 contributors, by the nature of their trade both polemical and dilatory, into something like an investigative team observing common rules of exposition and citation. Their goal of inclusiveness is also reflected in the decision to include a substantial number of entries for theorists whose affiliation or discipline is not primarily literary studiesphilosophers, political theorists, anthropologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. The disciplinary boundaries of the empire of criticism have always been notoriously unstable. As we have seen, the earliest battles belonged to a comic playwright and a pair of philosophers; at other points in the history of criticism, authority has been vested in theologians, historians, and practitioners of the emerging social sciences. (What we know as the academic literary critic emerged, in fact, only in the twentieth century.)
The editors have also included synoptic surveys of groups, schools, and movements (largely concentrated on contemporary practice), as well as some historical accounts of major national or ethnic bodies of criticism. All the entries are bound together by a system of internal and terminal cross-references, primary and secondary bibliographies, and a comprehensive set of indexes allowing the reader to pursue topics and figures throughout the volume.
By the nature of this organization, the Guide invites the reader to participate in the Shandean construction of multiple histories. Where he or she fails to find a significant critic or influential topic in the budget of entries, a trip to the apparatus will often reveal the missing element or connection. (A reader with a formalist bias, for example, will discover on consulting the indexes that apparently neglected figures from American New Criticism are in fact discussed from several critical angles.) And like that most self-reflexively "critical" of novels, Tristram Shandy,the volume has no simple, unambiguous beginning or ending. Its "plots" depend upon an ongoing collaboration between the texts and their readers.
The most striking thing about their selections is that the editors have quite deliberately chosen to "foreshorten" their entries on twentieth-century critics. This is not a decision grounded in any muzzy notion of "scientific progress." Rather it is, as they confess, partially in deference to what they conceive as user needs and partially because so much contemporary speculation in fact comprises fresh rereadings of critical ancestorswhether from antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, Longinus) or from more recent theoretical initiatives (Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Ferdinand de Saussure). This principle should, of course, invite the reader who begins with contemporary debates to make selective sorties into much earlier entries.
Although modern criticism, like that of antecedent periods, has seemed to flourish in a climate of continuing crisis (real or staged), and although the polemical edges of the critics discussed in this volume are all too obvious, it may prove useful for the reader exploring the Guide to consider a few irenic observations about the issues that underlie this warfare. Simply put, despite the intrinsically polemical character of literary criticism, there is not quite so much disagreement among conflicting critical theorists as there might seem to be, if only the following metacritical tasks are faced: (a) the discrimination of the major critical questions that emerge from the polemical welter; (b) the situation of primary subject of study (whether it be the "work," text or context, creative pretext or postconstructive consequences); and (c) the patient discrimination of which critical languages or lexicons are being invoked. In the manner of Georges Perec's preliminaries to his La Vie: Mode d'emploi, these few comments about the issues common to all modes of critical discourse may be taken as a sketchy "user's manual" for readers exploring the Guide. While they skirt the truly difficult problems exposed within the volume, they can grosso modo offer some sense of direction and continuity to those just starting out. By the very nature of their limitations, these schematics can also suggest the complexity of the recurrent issues and the difficulty of navigating with only a compass and map.
The recurrent critical questions seldom, of course, occur in isolation, but one reason for the total deafness of many critics to one another, even as they attend to the same text, is often that they are primarily concerned with addressing very different though equally complex problems. A preliminaryand admittedly partialinventory of basic critical questions would include the following baker's dozen of queries directed to either textual parts or wholes. (For the sake of rapid recognition, each critical attitude can be tagged with a familiar pejorative label.)
Ontological:What is the literary work's nature and mode of existence? This question inevitably raises consequent questions about the philosophy of language and mimetic representation. The response may also involve the discrimination of strata in reading and implicate a number of the other critical questions noted below. ("Metaphysical Gas")
Epistemological:How can we "know" the work (or process); what is its "cognitive content," its kind of "truth" (or uncertainty)? ("Jesting Pilot")
Teleological: What is the function and purpose of the work (or literature)in, for example, the good society, the Marxist state, the constitution of gender, the ideal university? ("Philistinism")
Archaeological: What is the source or origin (archè) of the workin the individual or tradition, in the response of the person or societyand how can we describe its genesis? ("The Hen or the Eggs")
Descriptive: What can be said formally about the intrinsic characteristics of the work itselfabout (a) its phonetic aspects; (b) its semantics of either simple or complex units; (c) the relations of phonetics and semantics? This question is usually extended to include most semiotic, stylistic, and rhetorical analysis. ("Lemon Squeezing")
Interpretive: What can be said about the extrinsic relations of the work to the "real" worldabout (a) thematics and (b) thesis statements? The relations of hermeneutics traditionally move from question 5 to question 6. ("Heresy of Paraphrase")
Performative: How can the critic reenact or "perform" the work in its richest sense? This approach generally involves related questions about competency, "optimal" reading, and the critic's identification with the text. While in its simplest form this involves Ion's trade, combined with historical and cultural concerns (questions 9 and 10), it can raise issues of reader's response accounts and cultural conditioning. ("Critical Histrionics")
Normative: How is literature to be judged by the application of explicit or implicit standards, by criteria such as unity, complexity, originality, moral seriousness, and so on? The act of judging an individual work can also implicate normative issues such as the authority of artistic canons, traditions, hierarchies of genres, and so on. ("Praising and Blaming")
Historical: How can the work as an "event" be related to other events, artistic or otherwise? In contemporary practice, this is clearly one of the most complex and divisive questions; but taken simply, the principles of organization for a historical account may be any of the following: (a) annalistic, a simple chronological sequence of works, authors, or schools; (b) organic, integrating each text to a governing value, norm, convention, unit-idea, or analogue considered diachronically; (c) dialectical, introducing another level of necessity where the work is related to an underlying causal factor or factors, such as determining economic, social, political, linguistic, or psychological structures; (d) narrative, the construction of a coherent story (in the words of R. S. Crane, "a continuity of a sequence of distinct events connected causally by whatever individual men or groups of men, through a period of time, happened to do with respect to the element constituting the continuum of change"); this construction specifically involves selection and the discovery of "plots" and agents in the changing relationships between the author and his materials, forms, or objectives. This last version may include a history of artistic "kinds" as well as of devices, conventions, preoccupations, and usesall implicating other questions in this budget. ("Pre-artistic Antiquarianism")
Cultural: How may literary documents (and popular culture generally) illuminate our understanding of cultural groups, ethnic and gender interests, "marginalities," and so on? This is an approach, related to the question of history and of much recent currency, that shifts the focus of inquiry away from the institution of literature toward an account of these collective bodies. Against the formalist emphasis on the "work" as independent entity (implicit in the way many of the other questions in this budget are framed), the cultural question attends to calibrating issues such as the degrees of exclusion and inclusion, of domination and sufferance, of complicity and resistance in the social sphere. It also tends to extend the notion of the textual well beyond traditional notions of "literature." ("The New Illiteracy")
Psychological: Another complex question or congeries of questions asks how the text is related to mind (feelings, ideas, obsessions, repressions). Apart from studying the representation of "psyches" or "types" within the work, this inquiry is usually directed toward two quite different aspects of the artistic process, one preconstructive and the other postconstructive, namely:
Genetic: How did the author's (or group's) mind operate in the creation and the shaping up of the work? (See question 4.) ("The Intentional Fallacy")
Affective: How does the mind of the reader or the audience respond to the work and contribute to its completion? (See question 7.) ( "The Affective Fallacy " )
Appreciative: How does it grab you? The celebration of the work through the appreciative response of the criticperhaps the most Longinian strain in criticism, and always in danger of lapsing into narcissism. ("Unfettered Impressionism")
Metacritical: How does the critical work (a second-order object) reveal certain implicit or explicit critical assumptions, metaphysical presuppositions, and controlling methodologies in approaching the sphere, limits, and uses of art? Like the initial questions, this is in fact the domain of the philosopher. ("The Shadow of a Shadow, or Plato's Fourth Bed")
Not all of these questions have in any given period been considered interesting, appropriate, or even decentas some of the pejorative labels may indicatebut clearly the choice of critical language and the vector of the critic's attention will in part be a function of which question or complex of questions is being valorized. And since not all texts respond equally generously to individual questions, the same matter of privilege may well help to determine the choice of text or canon (though for an ideal critic the text should probably dictate the questions).
The fact remains, however, that in traversing the Guide a discrimination of the executive critical questions and a situation of the relevant critical subject can go a long way in helping us to recognize significant continuities and changes in theoretical postures.
Finally, the vexed problem of discriminating critical " languages " is far too complex to address in a brief liminal note. Each major critic shapes a discourse that inflects the language of the tribe with a special and privileged body of terms. Even more fundamentally, from the time of the Cratylus, the viscosity of language has been a daunting problem for philosophical criticism. In our own time, the antifoundationalist critics have attempted to turn this embarrassment into a critical asset. Thus, to take but the most familiar contemporary statement of this allegedly " happy fall " from absolutes into language ( " the home of contingency " ), Jacques Derrida has argued (in the strategic vocabulary of warfare):
Yet as Horace L. Fairlamb has forcefully argued in
However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogenous discourses, diverse and heterogenous in their intention, method, and ideology. . . . [An] historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. (
Of Grammatology 6)
If a formal consideration of the place of language in the definition of these conditions is beyond the scope of these remarks, at a more trivial level the reader can attend to the constantly changing contours of the critical lexicon. Writing of " critical gamesmanship, " I have elsewhere argued that in the lower reaches of academic criticism it is not so much a matter of pursuing an argument or exploring a text as invoking the right words. The journeyman critic's theoretical posture and " nowness " is almost immediately revealed by his or her choice of sanctified words and familiar constellations of phrases. Schools and charters of critical privilege are, however, as the Guide can remind us, frequently dissolved or reorganized, so it is important that the aspiring critic not be caught on the ledge of yesterday's discarded lexicon. While the central problems persist, the critical vocabularies can change with the rapidity of Parisian haute couture.
All this should serve to remind us of what was implicit in critical theory's long history of agonistic disputation. Much that is original and insightful in genuine criticism depends upon the angry response to what is perceived as bad criticismthe mindless, repetitive, and pretentious. Put somewhat more cynically this dynamic could be stated as The First Law of Relativity: earlier schools of criticism are trivial (i.e., ridiculous); later schools are deliberately opaque (i.e., infuriating).
Against atrabilious comments such as these, the selectivity, range, and expository clarity of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism should serve as a timely antidote or pharmakon. The volume can be a therapeutic counter to the babel of rebarbative, derivative, and opaque language that too often passes for critical discourse. The editors speak of their effort to suppress " programmatic bias. " Every reader, turning the volume to local use, can supply this.