We are grateful to "loyal reader" Linda Hedrick for today's Guest Editorial....
I wish I could remember the author of an essay I read years ago. I believe it was in the dearly lamented Lingua Franca, and I am liberally paraphrasing the opening paragraph. The author mused that perhaps the reason Pol Pot went nutso and killed the Kampuchean intelligentsia was because he was educated at the Sorbonne, and thus was forced to study critical theory. This sentiment echoes some of my thoughts on the subject.
Critical theory involves using knowledge from a cross section of disciplines in an effort to examine and critique elements of culture and society. The variety of insights used to examine the structure and formation of our perceptions reveals to us the influences that have formed our beliefs, thus disclosing how we can both broaden and enlighten our ways of “seeing”. Putting aside Marxist theory, which we will look at collecting another time, modern critical theory is born of the Frankfurt School (another future post), but let’s focus first on a collection of general books that introduce and acquaint readers with the various concepts of critical theory.
Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction gets right to the crux without oversimplification. The 152 pages have merit mainly in eschewing obfuscation and simply identifying the issues that critical theory seeks to understand. This summarization is very helpful in demystifying the process.
Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry has been reprinted nine times (and is now in its Third Edition), attesting to its validity as an intro. It takes away some of the terror and nausea a lot of people feel when they read or even hear the names of Foucault, Derrida, and some of the other major hitters. Barry includes short analyses, bullet points, and recommended readings that are annotated.
Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide not only explains the many approaches to literary analysis (feminism, postcolonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, etc.), but also offers interpretations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as viewed by each one. Although Gatsby is the example used, these methods could easily be applied to other genres besides literature.
The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, by no less than seven authors/editors, was published in its second edition in February of this year. Concentrating mostly on the 20th century, when indeed most criticism was written, this is an anthology and not as comprehensive as some might like. It is also printed on the thin paper for which Norton is infamous, which can be irritating. But all in all, a good read on the subject.
A Dictionary of Critical Theory by Ian Buchanan, published this year, has a wide selection of entries covering the entire range of critical theory. Entries are cross-referenced and contain suggestions for both further reading and web links when relevant. This is a good introduction to the range and breadth of critical theory, and one that can tame the confusion, although there is plenty here for advanced theorists.
Once you have a decent grasp of the nature of the beast, you may like Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle’s Critical Theory Since Plato. This weighty and costly tome is a chronological anthology of the field beginning with Plato and continuing through the post-structuralists. Used as a textbook, each selection has an introduction and then proceeds to work from an original source, serving as a guide to the developing concepts and history of critical theory.
If all of this is too much of a cerebral boinkfest for you, kick back and enjoy the work of Brian Morton who went through the trouble of analyzing “Gilligan’s Island”, or rather, L’isle de Gilligan, for an article for Dissent magazine entitled How Not to Write for Dissent. (And likewise, check out Postmodern Pooh by Frederick Crews!)