Nihilism, in short, is “the loss of all sense of contact with anything that is ultimately true or meaningful.” (The Banalization of Nihilism)
Other Critical Theories
Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction (~360 BC-present)
In Book X of his Republic, Plato may have given us the first volley of detailed and lengthy literary criticism. The dialog between Socrates and two of his associates shows the participants of this discussion concluding that art must play a limited and very strict role in the perfect Greek Republic. Richter provides a nice summary of this point: “…poets may stay as servants of the state if they teach piety and virtue, but the pleasures of art are condemned as inherently corrupting to citizens…” (19)….
In Poetics, Aristotle breaks with his teacher (Plato) in the consideration of art. Aristotle considers poetry (and rhetoric), a productive science, whereas he thought logic and physics to be theoretical sciences, and ethics and politics practical sciences (Richter 38). Because Aristotle saw poetry and drama as means to an end (for example, an audience’s enjoyment) he established some basic guidelines for authors to follow to achieve certain objectives. (Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism)
An intellectual movement utilizing the methods of structural linguistics and structural anthropology. Where linguists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure, study the underlying system of language rather than concrete speech events, and where anthropologists, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, examine cultural phenomena in terms of the underlying formal systems of which they are manifestations, structuralist literary critics, such as Roland Barthes, seek not explication of unique texts but an account of the modes of literary discourse and their operation. The border separating such study of the structures of literature from semiotics, the study of signs, is nebulous and frequently crossed. (Handbook to Literature)
New Criticism/Neo-Aristotelian (1930s-present)
In a strict sense the term applies to the criticism practices by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, and Clench Brooks; it is derived from Ransom’s book The New Criticism (1941), which discusses a movement in America in the 1930s that paralleled movements in England led by critics such as T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and William Epson…. Not even the group to which the term can be applied in its strictest sense has formed a school subscribing to a fixed dogma; when to this group are added others, such as Yvor Winters and Kenneth Burke, it can be seen that the New Criticism is really a cluster of attitudes toward literature rathe than an organized critical system. The primary concern of these critics has been to discover the intrinsic worth of literature…a protest against certain conventional and traditional ways of viewing life and art. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism(1930s-present)
The emphasis in criticism on the values of symbols and language that, often unconsciously, explain meanings or unconscious intention. (Handbook to Literature)
Lacanian Criticism (1930s to present)
Language as expressing absence. You use a word to represent an absent object but you cannot make it present. The word, then, like the unconscious desire, is something that cannot be fulfilled. Language, reaching out with one word after the other, striving for but never reaching its object, is the arena of desire. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Marxist Criticism (1930s-present)
The most insistent and vigorous historicism through most of the twentieth century has been Marxism, based on the world of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marxist criticism, like other historical critical methods in the nineteenth century, treated literature as a passive product of the culture, specifically of the economic aspect, and, therefore, of class warfare. Economics, the underlying cause of history, was thus the base, and culture, including literature and the other arts, the superstructure. Viewed from the Marxist perspective, the literary works of a period would, then, reveal the state of the struggle between classes in the historical place and moment. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Reader-Response Criticism (1960s-present)
The conventional notion of reading is that a writer or speaker has an “idea,” encodes it that is, turns it into words—and the reader or listener decodes it, deriving, when successful, the writer or speaker’s “idea.” The reader-response critics assume, however, that such equivalency between sender and receiver is impossible. The literary work, there, does not exist on the page; that is only the text. The text becomes a work only when it is read, just as a score becomes music only when it is played. Eric Kandel takes this further with his theory of the “beholder’s share.” (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Feminist Criticism (1960s-present)
Like Marxist criticism, feminist criticism derives from firm political and ideological commitments and insists that literature both reflects and influences human behavior in the larger world. Feminist criticism often, too, has practiced and political aims. Strongly conscious that most of recorded history has given grossly disproportionate attention to the interest, thoughts and actions of men, feminist thought endeavors both to extend contemporary attention to distinctively female concerns, ideas and accomplishments and to recover the largely unrecorded and unknown history of women in earlier times. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Ecocriticism (1960s to present)
A study of the intersections between humanity and nature including focuses on the pastoral, the frontier, gender position, ethnicities, communities, urbanites, industrialization and technology. (Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism)
Postmodernism/Post-Structuralism/ Deconstruction (1966-present)
For the deconstructionist, language consists just in black marks on a page that repeat or differ from each other and the reader is the only author, one who can find whatever can be found in, or be made to appear in, those detached, isolated marks. The deconstructionist conception of literature is thus very broad—almost any writing will do. While this may seem “subjective” in that the critical reader has great freedom, it is the object—the black marks on the blank page—that is the sole subject/object of intention/attention. Jacques Derrida, its most famous proponent, saw language and narrative as not an “answer” but rather a “journey” toward an impossible “truth.” The concept of Differance, to both defer and differ, then encourages the reader to not search for what an author intended, or even what the work intends, but rather what the reader experiences within the reading. The postmodern deconstructionist critic’s tools, therefore, are textual analysis of the black marks on the page and how they relate to other black marks on the page. In this approach, whatever the author originally experienced or intended for the work as it was written is irrelevant. The focus is on the reader’s current experience of the text as the different aspects of the text are broken down, analyzed and put back together again in order to form meaning. It might be suggested that deconstructionism is the most fundamental and widely applicable critical approach as it can be used both separately and as layered affect upon other critical approaches. (The Norton Introduction to Literature)
Gender/Queer Studies (1970s-present)
Gender studies and queer theory explore issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations (woman as other) in literature and culture. Much of the work in gender studies and queer theory, while influenced by feminist criticism, emerges from post-structural interest in fragmented, de-centered knowledge building (Nietzsche, Derrida, Foucault), language (the breakdown of sign-signifier), and psychoanalysis (Lacan). (Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism)
Critical Race Theory (1970s to present)
Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice. (Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism)
New Historicism/Cultural Studies (1980s-present)
This school, influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theories, seeks to reconnect a work with the time period in which it was produced and identify it with the cultural and political movements of the time (Michel Foucault’s concept of épistème). New Historicism assumes that every work is a product of the historic moment that created it. Specifically, New Historicism is “…a practice that has developed out of contemporary theory, particularly the structuralist realization that all human systems are symbolic and subject to the rules of language, and the deconstructive realization that there is no way of positioning oneself as an observer outside the closed circle of textuality” (Richter 1205). (Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism)
Neoformalism (1980s to present)
Heavily influenced by film critique, neoformalism suggests that art and literature seek to defamiliarize the beholder so to defamiliarize the beholder/reader within the context of the work. (Handbook to Literature)
Post-Colonial Criticism (1990s-present)
Post-colonial criticism is similar to cultural studies, but it assumes a unique perspective on literature and politics that warrants a separate discussion. Specifically, post-colonial critics are concerned with literature produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized. Post-colonial theory looks at issues of power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony (western colonizers controlling the colonized). (Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism)
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The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Eric Kandel.
The Banalization of Nihilism: Twentieth-Century Responses to Meaninglessness. Karen L. Carr.
A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.
“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.
Cognitive Neuropsychology Section, Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.
Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Lynne Truss.
The Elements of Style. William Strunk.
Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Peter Barry.
Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Stephen Eric Bronner.
Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Lois Tyson
The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. David H. Richter.
A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.
Literary Theories and Schools of Criticism. Purdue Online Writing Lab.
New Oxford American Dictionary. Edited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg.
The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Martin Puchner, et al.
The Norton Introduction to Philosophy. Gideon Rosen and Alex Byrne.
Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Patricia T. O’Conner
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.
Writing the Other. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.