Problems Associated with Literary Theory

It has been argued by many critics, especially those who come from the pre-Theory world, that Critical Theory violates the principal importance of literature and of literary study. If everything is a text, literature is just another text, with no particular privilege aside from its persuasive power. If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if human beings are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal 'humanness' and not sustained by any trans-historical truths, not only the role of literature as the privileged articulator of universal value but the existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation is local and contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and the role of literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural force is diminished. If interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter, then one must discount the intention of the author. The stability of meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain. Imaginative constructs such as literature may in fact be merely culturally effective ways of masking the exercise of power, the bad faith, the flaws and inequities which culture works so hard to obscure. Ultimately, Theory can be seen to attack the very ground of value and meaning itself, to attack those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based, and to attack the centre of humanism: the existence of the independent, moral, integrated individual who is capable of control over her meanings, intentions and acts.

As Theory has become more central in English departments, literary studies have in the view of many turned away from the study of literature itself to the study of Theory. And as attention moves to literature as the cultural expression of lived life, and to the textuality of all experience, the dividing line between 'literature' and more popular entertainment is being challenged: such things as detective and romantic fiction are being treated to as serious and detailed a study as are canonical works. Since the study is of text rather than art, it matters little whether the target of study is perceived to show artistic merit at all. The Canon itself - that collection of texts considered worthy of study by those in control of the curriculum - is under attack as ethnocentric, patriarchal and elitist, and as essentializing in that it tends to create the idea that canonical works are independent entities standing on their own intrinsic and transcendent authority and not rooted in the agencies and contingencies of history.

It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often sceptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issues however must be whether Theory has good reasons for its questioning of traditional assumptions, and whether it can lead to interpretive practices that are ultimately productive of understandings and values which can support a meaningful and just life. In order to further elucidate Literary Theory's reasons for its stands, it would be useful to examine and illustrate three main areas of meaning in literature: context, ideology and discourse, and language itself.

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