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Deconstruction

A poststructuralist theory mainly based on the writings of the French intellectual Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction posits that meaning, as accessed through language, is indeterminate because language itself is indeterminate. It is a system of signifiers that can never fully “mean”: a word can refer to an object but can never be that object. Derrida developed deconstruction as a response to certain strains of Western philosophy; in the United States, deconstruction was the focus of a group of literary theorists at Yale, including Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman. Used as a method of literary critique, deconstruction refocuses attention on a work as open-ended, endlessly available to interpretation, and far beyond the reach of authorial intention. Deconstruction traces how language generates meaning both within a text and across texts, while insisting that such meaning can only ever be provisional.

Feminist theory

An extension of feminism’s critique of male power and ideology, feminist theory combines elements of other theoretical models such as psychoanalysis, Marxism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction to interrogate the role of gender in the writing, interpretation, and dissemination of literary texts. Originally concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and representations of women in literature, feminist theory has recently begun to examine ideas of gender and sexuality across a wide range of disciplines including film studies, geography, and even economics. Feminist theory emerged from the struggle for women’s rights, beginning in the 18th century with Mary Wollstonecraft’s publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Important feminist theorists of the 20th century include Betty Friedan, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, Elaine Showalter, Carol Gilligan, and Adrienne Rich.

Gender studies

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of gender, sexual categories, and identity. As a discipline, gender studies borrows from other theoretical models like psychoanalysis—particularly that of Jacques Lacan—deconstruction, and feminist theory in an attempt to examine the social and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity as they relate to class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Like gender studies, queer theory also questions normative definitions of gender and sexuality. As approaches to literary texts, gender studies and queer theory tend to emphasize the power of representation and linguistic indeterminacy.

Language poetry

Taking its name from the magazine edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), Language poetry is an avant garde poetry movement that emerged in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a response to mainstream American poetry. It developed from diverse communities of poets in San Francisco and New York who published in journals such as This, Hills, Tottels, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and Tuumba Press. Rather than emphasizing traditional poetic techniques, Language poetry tends to draw the reader’s attention to the uses of language in a poem that contribute to the creation of meaning. The writing associated with language poetry, including that by Michael Palmer, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, Susan Howe, Rae Armantrout, and many others, is often associated with deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the Objectivist tradition. Browse more Language poetry.

Mimesis (imitation)

Greek for “imitation.” In aesthetic theory, mimesis can also connote “representation,” and has typically meant the reproduction of an external reality, such as nature, through artistic expression. Plato disparaged mimesis for merely providing inferior copies of original forms; Aristotle, in his Poetics, recuperated the idea, alleging that mimesis is “natural” to humans. For Aristotle, mimesis in part both recreates the objects of reality and improves them; it provides humans with a special kind of symbolic order. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers and writers such as Rousseau and Lessing began to emphasize the relationship between mimesis and inner experiences and emotions, not just objective reality or nature.  

By the 20th century, the term housed a number of theories, theorists, and schools of thought. Erich Auerbach’s highly influential book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) attempted to chart the history of culture through representational practices in literature. Thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, on the other hand, described mimesis as fundamental to human experience, a practice that precedes language but is suppressed or distorted by society. Rather than mimesis as the process of reproducing copies of nature, reality, or experience, these theorists suggested that mimesis has to do with social practices and inter-subjective relationships. Jacques Derrida also claimed mimesis for deconstruction, focusing on texts as “doubled” objects, which can never refer to an original source.

Postmodernism

Defined variously as a reaction to modernism or merely the movement that followed it, postmodernism remains a controversial concept. As a term, it tends to refer to an intellectual, artistic, or cultural outlook or practice that is suspicious of hierarchy and objective knowledge and embraces complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, and diversity. It includes other 20th-century theoretical movements such as poststructuralism and deconstruction, mainly through a common emphasis on discourse and the power of language in structuring thought and experience. Because it attacks traditional concepts of history, knowledge, and reality itself—arguing that “truth” is culturally and historically specific—postmodernism has often been accused of relativism. Many of the central postmodernist theorists are French and include Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean-François Lyotard.

Poststructuralism

A school of thought that responded negatively to structuralism’s insistence on frameworks and structures as access points to “truth.” Poststructuralism, like deconstruction, emphasized the instability of meaning. While structuralism regarded language as a closed system, poststructuralism identified an inevitable gap between signifier and signified. In poststructuralism, the reader and not the writer became paramount: the author’s intended meaning, because it could never be truly known, was less important than the reader’s perceived meaning. Like other postmodern theories that interrogated cultural assumptions, poststructuralists believe in studying both the text and the systems of knowledge that produced that text. Poststructuralism is associated with many French writers and thinkers, namely Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.

Psychoanalytic theory

A critical approach influenced by Sigmund Freud’s work on the unconscious and human behavior. Freud believed that the existence of three competing impulses in the psyche—the ego, id, and superego—and the conflict inherent in child-parent relations structured human responses to the world. Initially, psychoanalytic literary theory consisted of applying psychoanalysis to either the author or the main character of a work, seeking unconscious or latent meaning underneath the manifest language and analyzing the symbols contained in a given work. Freud himself wrote many essays in this vein, applying his theories to characters such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ibsen’s Rebecca West. Influenced by Jacques Lacan, later psychoanalytic theory focused on the unconscious and language and shared some concerns with deconstruction and poststructuralist theory. Psychoanalytic theory has been enormously influential on a number of other theories, such as reader-response and feminist theory, as well as on individual thinkers. For example, critic Harold Bloom’s theory of the struggle between “strong” and “weak” poets owes much to Freud’s Oedipus complex.

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