Background to Critical Theory
A Background to Critical Theory places
current approaches in the wider context of aesthetics, science and
political economy. Written as 45 evaluative, jargon-free and largely
self-contained chapters, this 170,000 word study surveys the theories
of art and writing, linguistics, the theories of meaning, the concept
of truth in science, literature, mathematics and logic, the
rational and irrational philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche,
Barthes, Derrida, etc., suggestions from brain functioning and many
other matters that have a tangential but important bearing on how we
judge literature: both how we did in the past and how we do so today.
What Is Critical Theory?
Critical theory, the approaches and parent philosophies with which we evaluate literature, has definite limits. English departments and writing schools generally provide their students with a theoretical background to their future labours. But once exams are over, most students happily dispense with theory and take to the practical application of what has been taught them, i.e. the craft that will earn them standing in their community and a modest (usually very modest) income. Good writers are intuitive creatures, and they come to know instinctively when something has to be recast, shortened or bolstered with argument. Theory is there to help them should they need it, but its wider reaches and philosophical implications are not generally of interest.
Theory does not deal with absolutes but with interpretations, speculations, elusive chains of thought. Those who write 'now Derrida has shown that. . .' or 'with our better understanding of post-colonial issues. . .' are laying claim to what does not exist. These are philosophical positions, with insights and modes of argument. It is perfectly possible to believe that the senses consistently deceive us, for example, and to argue that this world is a delusion. And that position, respectable and with a long history behind it, brings certain consequences that philosophy explores. But the issues remain speculative, and expounding Berkeley's theories to the magistrate's bench will not get us off a speeding fine. Much in life is conducted by shared values, tacit assumptions, unsupported codes of behaviour, and these are only dug up and examined when the unexpected happens.
But today much is being questioned, particularly in avant-garde poetry, painting and music. The more progressive arts wish to be challenging and experimental, free to represent the world in their own way. Sometimes their explorations are guided by theory, or by deductions from current theory, but more usually the theory acts in a consulting or supporting role. To explain themselves, obtain employment and get their work sold, their protagonists extract what they can from notions and fashionable opinions that float round the art world. The result may be a patchwork of inconsistent ideas imperfectly understood, but critics, gallery owners and writers of concert notes ask for these viewpoints, and artists find it comforting to have them.
Many twentieth-century poetry movements boil down to very dubious notions, as they have over the centuries. Poets issue statements which are vague, wildly inconsistent and hardly followed through. Manifestos urge crusades to claim aesthetic new ground, which exists only through their own misunderstandings. Critics announce new associations of poets, who themselves deny such a movement exists. More vexing still is radical theory. Even if largely a tangled mass of assertions and misunderstandings of technicalities, it is still necessary reading. For all its deficiencies, theory can focus attention on what writers should be trying to do, act as a prophylactic against the false and stultifying, and open up disciplines that support writing and are fascinating in their own right. As simple introductions, I hope these pages will help readers navigate contested waters and select the areas most useful or congenial to them.