“The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics.”
It is widely acknowledged that at least the second half of the twentieth century; the field of English literary studies has come to be increasingly characterized by the use of words either ending in the suffix-ism or starting with the prefix-post, which today inform the study of literature. There is no available definition of the term that is universally accepted; therefore it is a scholar’s task is to analyze the various available discourses about literary theory and to arrive at a working definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term theory means “the conceptual basis of a subject or area of study”. This conceptual basis is understood in opposition to the notion of practice. Literary criticism takes up the practical part of literary studies. In other words, Literary deals with the broad picture attempting to give a comprehensive vision of what constitutes the field of literary studies, and literary criticism concerns itself with the practice of reading individual texts by transforming abstract concepts of literary theories into analytical tools. The location of the scholar crucially determines the approach to the subject. The definition of literary theory that we can construct from the dictionary meaning of the term “theory” does not take us very far and the reason for that is literary theory usually appears to be self-contradictory to most of the students of English Literature and there are several reasons for this, for a start, most of the intellectuals that we normally study as part of any standard syllabus of literary theory are not literary critics. For instance, Jacques Derrida, one of the most common names that we encounter in any study of literary theory was, in fact, a professor of philosophy. Jacques Lacan, another important name, was a practising psychoanalyst. Claude Lévi-Strauss one of the founding figures of Structuralism which is an integral part of our study of literary theory today, in fact, taught social anthropology in France. For someone situated within the framework of English literary studies, most of what is discussed under the rubric of literary theory seem to be concerned not primarily with literature but with other things; with things like philosophy for instance, or psychology, or sociology, or history. Indeed for someone like Jonathan Culler the two words that compose the term “literary Theory” appears to be so distinct from each other that he insists on calling it simply “theory”, without the objective “literary” attached to it, in his book Culler defines theory in literary studies as a self-contained genre, which might be concerned with anything and everything under the sun, but not with the “nature of literature or the methods of its study”. In Culler’s account, this kind of theory, which originates outside the discipline of literary studies and remains an alien presence within it, is associated with a particular date and with a particular decade rather, and that particular decade is a decade of the 1960s, repeatedly mentioned as a moment of origin for what we now consider as a literary theory.
A scholar studying literary theory will be struck by the number of French authors that he encounters throughout, for instance Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques, Lacan, Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and etcetera. These are figures a permanent part of any syllabus of literary theory within the field of English studies. But they were scholars who worked from within the French intellectual tradition and are, therefore, in some sense, outsiders to the world of English literary studies. In fact, most of their works were available to the English speaking world only after a very significant delay. For instance, Michael Foucault’s famous book Folie et déraison, which was published in French in 1961, was available to the English speaking world all after a delay of 4 years when R. Howard translated it and brought it out under the title Madness and Civilization. However, this 1965 English version translated by Howard was a highly abridged edition of Foucault’s original text and in the English version, about 300 pages of the original text along with 800 footnotes were left out. Indeed the first unabridged edition of the text by Foucault was not available to the English readers before 2006, 45 years after the original text was published in French. Similarly, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s celebrated translation bearing the title Of Grammatology was published 11 years after Jacques Derrida’s French original, De la Grammatologie. Thus, the very core authors and texts who are studied as part of literary studies, in the English speaking world reaches the Anglophone readers from outside and only after a very significant delay. This notion of literary theory arriving from outside to the universities of the English speaking world is translated into a devastating, but witty metaphor by Terry Eagleton in his book Literary Theory: An Introduction. Eagleton, located in England as a Professor of English literature describes how the job of a section of British literary critics was reduced to waiting at the port city of Dover to receive the latest shipment of theory dispatched from Paris, which on an average took a decade or so to sail across the channel separating France and England. For those, who study literary theory within the English departments of India or other places in the global south like Africa and Latin, America, the texts and theorists appear to be even more foreign and the delay in accessing them is much longer. Waiting to acquaint them with the latest literary theory not only means waiting for these works to be first conceptualized by theorists sitting in the continent then translated into English, but it also involves waiting for the publishers to bring out affordable editions for local Asian markets, so, they can be purchased and readily studied by students.
Two issues must be addressed to reduce the feeling of alienation and confusion that usually surrounds the concept of literary theory. The first is how what is labelled as “theory” is connected with the idea of literature. The second point is how the students of English literary studies in non-European countries are connected with the evolving story of literary theory. Here again, the general impression is that they are at least twice removed from the main source of action. To answer the first, one needs to go back to the decade of the 1960s. In the month of May in the year 1968, the streets of Paris were on fire. The open battle was going on between graduate students and the police. The ranks of the students were swelled by workers and they were putting up barricades in the famous university area in Paris known as the Latin Quarter, and the graffiti on the walls read anti-authority slogans like “Il est interdit d’interdire” (It is forbidden to forbid).
Many of the French intellectuals who were prominent theorists including the two most famous names Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, were student participants in the events of May 1968. And it is generally agreed that these events which came to a head in Paris in the May of 1968 have had a transformative influence on how literature is read and theorized, but why were these anti-establishment riots taking place in Paris, and what is the connection between these scenes of violence and anti-establishment protests with how literature is read and theorized?
To answer this question we need to look beyond 1968. In fact, the story of the events of 1968 actually starts after the end of the Second World War. In spite of the huge amount of devastation that was wrecked by this war the years following it saw significant economic growth and all-around prosperity, especially in the developed capitalist countries, but also in the communist-ruled Soviet Bloc. America whose economy had got a great fillip in the war years continued to grow even after the war was over. But it was the economy of the non-communist countries in Europe that were more successful, and they were almost completely transformed by 1960. The USSR was also faring equally well in terms of economy and grew at a rate that was comparable to the developed capitalist countries. But this prosperity was not just confined to the USA, or Europe, or the USSR. Rather it was a worldwide phenomenon and as a historian, Eric Hobsbawm, for instance, observes in his book Age of Extremes, between the end of world war 1945 and 1970 there was spectacular growth in world population but at the same time, there was no mass starvation except as a product of war and political madness as in China of 1958. And this was because there was a boom in food production, which rose faster than the population. The average life expectancy also shot up by an incredible 7 years and this is the global average. So, there was all-around prosperity in the years following the Second World War. And one of the key social features that characterize the changing times after the Second World War was a sharp decline, in the number of people engaged in farming and this in spite of the fact that food production actually increased. And this decline in the number of people engaged in farming was complemented by a parallel trend – a dramatic rise in occupations that required higher education. And this requirement for higher education in turn was matched by a growing number of families worldwide, who because of the economic boom could afford to send their adolescent children to secondary schools and then to universities, rather than forcing them to go to work early to support the family income. So, from the 1960s to say the 1980s, the student population in different parts of the world multiplied by anything between 3 to 9 times. In France alone, the student population which was roughly around 100,000 at the end of the Second World War grew to become 651, 000 by the end of the 1960s, and most of this increase was noticed in the departments of humanities and social sciences. This enormous rise in a student population had profound consequences because most of these new students were first-generation learners and had a very different class profile from the group of social elites who attended universities till the Second World War. There was, therefore, a sense of a natural class resentment that most of these students felt towards the university authority which was geared for hundreds of years to serve only the social elite. This class resentment felt by the students found an echo within the ranks of the workers and so in the May of 1968 we see students and workers coming together to build barricades and to resist authority in general. However, these anti-authority, anti-establishment unrests were not just limited to Paris. Paris was indeed the epicentre. But similar student revolts were witnessed all over Europe as well as in America where it usually took the form of the anti-Vietnam war movement protesting against the American military action against Vietnam. And these student protests and the erosion of the social status quo that it is represented had a deep-reaching impact in the field of humanities and social sciences, and this, of course, includes the field of literary studies. In countries that witnessed student unrest during the 1960s, the socio-cultural vantage point from which literature was read and analyzed till the pre-Second World War era was not the point of reference that was shared by the new students in the post-war generation. This resulted in a breakdown of the meaning-making process that is necessary for communication. The social and cultural norms which had stabilized the meanings of words and which had structured them, structured the process of meaning-making till recently, were now put under question. The old figures of authority who had fixed the meaning were now being dismantled. This crisis of meaning was most powerfully put forward by Jacques Derrida in a 1966 lecture which later became the essay, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”. In this essay Derrida posited, or in fact, posits the idea of discourse as a de-centred structure that is devoid of any central figure of authority.
The meanings of words, therefore, do not get fixed but in a free play continues to lead from word to word. For students of literature, this crisis in meaning-making due to lack of an authority figure was perhaps even more clearly stated by Roland Barthes. Barthes in his famous 1967 essay, announced the death of the author, the figure who was assumed to be the ultimate authority on what his words on the printed paper might mean. Refusal to accept any authority meant refusing to accept the power that an author might have in controlling the meaning of his words – a central tenet that would inform the school of Post-Structuralism literary theory. Erosion of authority which erupted in the form of violent riots in the 1960s in Europe and America was, however, not merely confined to the university campuses and streets but was also felt within the intimacy of the family structure. In the years following the Second World War, the number of women in the higher education section rose considerably. Till the Second World War women constituted only fifteen to thirty per cent of the student population enrolled in higher education, by the end of 1970 the number had risen to almost fifty per cent in most of the developed countries. The wave of a new student population that we have been discussing so far also had a large number of women in the – women who were as disaffected, if not more, at least as disaffected with the authority and with the old established order as their male counterparts. The rise in the women student population across Europe and America was complemented by another trend. It was complemented by an equally dramatic rise in the participation of women in the workforce. And such an expansion of the social group of educated and economically independent women resulted in obvious tensions within the family structure which was inherently patriarchal, and within which the superiority of men over women was almost taken for granted. This tension gave rise to the social and intellectual movement that is referred to as a second-wave of feminism – a movement that took up issues of female sexuality, reproductive rights and position of women both in the workplace as well as within the family and in the field of literary studies this movement manifested in the form of a quest to find new parameters for writing and reading literature as a woman. Women were, however, not the only marginalized section of the society who gained prominence in the changing scenario after the Second World War. Another previously marginalized social group now enjoyed a similar kind of emancipation and a similar kind of foregrounding. The inhabitants of the vast stretches of the colonized area in the global South which gained independence in the decades immediately following the Second World War are being referred to here. It started with the independence of countries like India and Pakistan, but soon it spread across to Africa, and most of this continent, most of Africa, was decolonized during the 1950s and 1960s. There was again a huge impact of this emancipation on how literature is read and analyzed. So, by the 1960s the literature produced by authors from erstwhile colonies managed to carve out a niche in the global book market. In England for instance the publisher Heinemann started bringing out the African Writers Series which published and brought to the metropolitan readers the work of authors like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta, and so on. And these are authors, that we will have to remember, they would not be considered part of mainstream English literature even say 50 years ago. Also, just as the second-wave feminism gave rise to various intellectual debates regarding how women as a reader should engage with literature, the new sense of emancipation and prominence gained by the people in the global South gave rise to a whole new field of literary theory concerned with how the once colonized subject should intervene in the field of literature.
The world changed radically between the end of the Second World War and the end of 1970 beginning of the 1980s. This meant that not only the context in which literature is studied and made sense of underwent a very significant transformation, but also this means that the profile of producers of literature as well as the students who critically analyzed these literary texts within the classroom setting they changed dramatically. The new prominence that literary theory enjoyed in the second half of the twentieth century was, therefore, a result of students and scholars trying to connect their study of literature with this changed context – an effort which involved redefining the very conceptual basis of literary studies and connecting it with the new streams of thought in the sister areas of humanities and social sciences.
One of the reasons that the post-1960s boom in literary theory is often regarded, as an alien intervention within the field of literary studies is because the scholars who made use of these new theories who still make use of these new theories are actually challenging the prevalent ways in which literature was being read and understood, till, say the Second World War. However, no matter how alien theory might appear at a particular historical moment no reading of literature can be ever bereft of theory altogether. So, those who portray the literary theories that have emerged in the post-1960s often forget those existing ways in which literature was being read and understood till that point in time, were themselves underlined by certain conceptual basis which echoed certain other philosophical or sociological or historical outlooks of that time. And therefore, with each major shift in the economic social and cultural context fresh attempts to put literary studies on a new conceptual basis can be seen. That is not only more in tune with the changing world, but also in tune with the changing perspectives in other academic disciplines. Reading of literature has never been an isolated practice that is cut off from other disciplines of human enquiry.
For instance, near the very end of the eighteenth century William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge two friends and literary collaborators significantly changed the ways in which literature is created, is conceived, and is read. Looking deeper we will see that this re-conceptualization of literature also had a broader, social, political and cultural context. On the one hand these urge to think about literature a new was fuelled by the great political and intellectual changes that were brought about by the French revolution. Indeed Wordsworth was present in Paris immediately after the most iconic act of French revolution the storming of the Bastille Prison had been performed and a republic had been declared in place of a monarchy in France. And the revolutionary political change that was worth witnessed in France had such an impact on him that he sought to express this paradigm shift in poetic form in his autobiographical piece The Prelude. “It was in truth an hour of universal moment, mildest men were agitated and commotions, strife of passion and opinion, filled the walls of peaceful houses with unique sounds. The soil of common life was at that time, too hot to tread upon.” It was not just this political agitation that led to a re-conceptualization of literature within the domain of English literary studies both Wordsworth and Coleridge in their efforts to rethink the very process in which literature is created and consumed also drew significantly from French philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, and also a German idealists like Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. It can be seen through this comparison 1960s was not the only moment when English literary studies was opened up to external influences, and theories were imported from other disciplines to arrive at a new conceptual basis for literature. The theory of literature forwarded by the English Romantic Movement was in fact, equally dependent on the ideas of intellectuals who were firstly, neither literary critics, secondly, nor were they working from within any English tradition. Literary theory in the field of English studies, therefore, does not start in the 1960s. The 1960s is just one watershed moment one of the watershed moments in the evolving history of literary theory. A scholar of English literary studies can point out numerous watershed movements; one of them being of course the emergence of the English Romantic Movement, another watershed moment at the beginning of the eighteenth century can be witnessed when the English word “literature” started acquiring its modern meaning the meaning that we understand now. As Raymond Williams notes in his book Marxism and Literature, the term which, the term literature, which has its origin in the Latin word “littera” started being used in English from around the 14 century and in its earlier forms which was by the way spelt with a doublet, so the spelling was l-i-t-t-e-r-a-t-u-r-e and this was because the Latin word “littera” was also spelt with a double “t”, right. So, in this earlier form it signified just someone’s ability to read. So when the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century English scholar Francis Bacon for instance mentioned someone being “learned in literature”, he was actually simply referring to the fact that the person was able to read.
We still retain something of this earlier use when we use the term literacy for instance which was initially connected with the word literature right. Now that connection, of course, has been lost, the connection between literature and literacy. William Caxton, if you know your English history you will know that William Caxton had introduced the printing press in England in the fifteenth century. So, by the end of the 17th century when printed reading material was available in sufficient abundance literature had come to signify not only one ability to read, but also more specifically the ability of someone to read printed books or the practice of reading printed books.
Moreover, literacy and the availability of printed books, whereas is, I think, obviously limited to a small section of the elite within society. By the 18th century, literature was also associated with this with a kind of elitist aura. Why? Because literacy and availability of printed material was restricted to only to a group of social elite. By the 18th century literature was also associated with a certain degree of cultural sophistication. It was associated with everything that social elite is associated with. Engaging with literature therefore, was a way of gaining as well as displaying cultural values and civilizational attainments. Raymond Williams also notes that by the 18th century the use of the word literature changed in another fundamental way. During this time it acquired the meaning of imaginative composition or imaginative writing and while it gained this meaning it subsumed within itself the earlier category of poetry or poesy which had signified imagined imaginative composition before then. Now, with the development of the term literature poetry was confined primarily to metrical composition. Even now we associate poetry primarily with metrical composition, but it is important to remember that at one point in time, it was not just one kind of literature, but poetry or poesy signified a much broader thing. It signified imaginative composition in general. Terms like poetics, which actually signifies more than just a commentary on poetry. It signifies more than that. It signifies a commentary on literature in general as we understand the term now.
The early 18th century is the point from where discussion of literary theory should begin because the very concept of literature was absent within the field of English studies before that. . It is only when certain works started being identified and thought as literature that we encounter the growth of theories to sustain it as a field of studies as a separate field of independent studies. But, in practice, in actuality it goes far back in time and this is because ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato for instance, or Aristotle, or Horace, or Longinus had a very significant impact on the theorists of the 18th century and these philosophers, therefore, form an integral part of the history of literary theory as it is taught and studied within the academic discipline of English literature.