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Formalism and New Criticism Essay

“Formalism” is, as the name implies, an interpretive approach that emphasizes literary form and the study of literary devices within the text. The work of the Formalists had a general impact on later developments in “Structuralism” and other theories of narrative. “Formalism,” like “Structuralism,” sought to place the study of literature on a scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions” that comprise the literary work. The Formalists placed great importance on the literariness of texts, those qualities that distinguished the literary from other kinds of writing. Neither author nor context was essential for the Formalists; it was the narrative that spoke, the “hero-function,” for example, that had meaning. Form was the content. A plot device or narrative strategy was examined for how it functioned and compared to how it had functioned in other literary works.

Of the Russian Formalist critics, Roman Jakobson and Viktor Shklovsky are probably the most well-known. The Formalist adage that the purpose of literature was “to make the stones stonier” nicely expresses their notion of literariness. “Formalism” is perhaps best known is Shklovsky’s concept of “defamiliarization.” The routine of ordinary experience, Shklovsky contended, rendered invisible the uniqueness and particularity of the objects of existence. Literary language, partly by calling attention to itself as language, estranged the reader from the familiar and made fresh the experience of daily life. The “New Criticism,” so designated as to indicate a break with traditional methods, was a product of the American university in the 1930s and 40s. “New Criticism” stressed close reading of the text itself, much like the French pedagogical precept “explication du texte.”

As a strategy of reading, “New Criticism” viewed the work of literature as an aesthetic object independent of historical context and as a unified whole that reflected the unified sensibility of the artist. T.S. Eliot, though not explicitly associated with the movement, expressed a similar critical-aesthetic philosophy in his essays on John Donne and the metaphysical poets, writers who Eliot believed experienced a complete integration of thought and feeling. New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and W.K. Wimsatt placed a similar focus on the metaphysical poets and poetry in general, a genre well suited to New Critical practice.

“New Criticism” aimed at bringing a greater intellectual rigor to literary studies, confining itself to careful scrutiny of the text alone and the formal structures of paradox, ambiguity, irony, and metaphor, among others. “New Criticism” was fired by the conviction that their readings of poetry would yield a humanizing influence on readers and thus counter the alienating tendencies of modern, industrial life. “New Criticism” in this regard bears an affinity to the Southern Agrarian movement whose manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, contained essays by two New Critics, Ransom and Warren. Perhaps the enduring legacy of “New Criticism” can be found in the college classroom, in which the verbal texture of the poem on the page remains a primary object of literary study.

Structuralism and Post Structuralism

Like the “New Criticism,” “Structuralism” sought to bring to literary studies a set of objective criteria for analysis and a new intellectual rigor. “Structuralism” can be viewed as an extension of “Formalism” in that that both “Structuralism” and “Formalism” devoted their attention to matters of literary form (i.e. structure) rather than social or historical content; and that both bodies of thought were intended to put the study of literature on a scientific, objective basis. “Structuralism” relied initially on the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. Like Plato, Saussure regarded the signifier (words, marks, symbols) as arbitrary and unrelated to the concept, the signified, to which it referred.

Within the way a particular society uses language and signs, meaning was constituted by a system of “differences” between units of the language. Particular meanings were of less interest than the underlying structures of signification that made meaning itself possible, often expressed as an emphasis on “langue” rather than “parole.” “Structuralism” was to be a metalanguage, a language about languages, used to decode actual languages, or systems of signification. The work of the “Formalist” Roman Jakobson contributed to “Structuralist” thought, and the more prominent Structuralists included Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Tzvetan Todorov, A.J. Greimas, Gerard Genette, and Barthes.

The philosopher Roland Barthes proved to be a key figure on the divide between “Structuralism” and “Poststructuralism.” “Poststructuralism” is less unified as a theoretical movement than its precursor; indeed, the work of its advocates known by the term “Deconstruction” calls into question the possibility of the coherence of discourse, or the capacity for language to communicate. “Deconstruction,” Semiotic theory (a study of signs with close connections to “Structuralism,” “Reader response theory” in America (“Reception theory” in Europe), and “Gender theory” informed by the psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva are areas of inquiry that can be located under the banner of “Poststructuralism.”

If signifier and signified are both cultural concepts, as they are in “Poststructuralism,” reference to an empirically certifiable reality is no longer guaranteed by language. “Deconstruction” argues that this loss of reference causes an endless deferral of meaning, a system of differences between units of language that has no resting place or final signifier that would enable the other signifiers to hold their meaning.

The most important theorist of “Deconstruction,” Jacques Derrida, has asserted, “There is no getting outside text,” indicating a kind of free play of signification in which no fixed, stable meaning is possible. “Poststructuralism” in America was originally identified with a group of Yale academics, the Yale School of “Deconstruction:” J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartmann, and Paul de Man. Other tendencies in the moment after “Deconstruction” that share some of the intellectual tendencies of “Poststructuralism” would included the “Reader response” theories of Stanley Fish, Jane Tompkins, and Wolfgang Iser.

Lacanian psychoanalysis, an updating of the work of Sigmund Freud, extends “Postructuralism” to the human subject with further consequences for literary theory. According to Lacan, the fixed, stable self is a Romantic fiction; like the text in “Deconstruction,” the self is a decentered mass of traces left by our encounter with signs, visual symbols, language, etc. For Lacan, the self is constituted by language, a language that is never one’s own, always another’s, always already in use. Barthes applies these currents of thought in his famous declaration of the “death” of the Author: “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” while also applying a similar “Poststructuralist” view to the Reader: “the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”

Michel Foucault is another philosopher, like Barthes, whose ideas inform much of poststructuralist literary theory. Foucault played a critical role in the development of the postmodern perspective that knowledge is constructed in concrete historical situations in the form of discourse; knowledge is not communicated by discourse but is discourse itself, can only be encountered textually. Following Nietzsche, Foucault performs what he calls “genealogies,” attempts at deconstructing the unacknowledged operation of power and knowledge to reveal the ideologies that make domination of one group by another seem “natural.” Foucaldian investigations of discourse and power were to provide much of the intellectual impetus for a new way of looking at history and doing textual studies that came to be known as the “New Historicism.”


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