This week we think briefly about the role of critical theory in the humanities. “Critical theories” are theoretical frameworks that scholars use to help them analyze and evaluate texts. They are most often discussed within the area of literary criticism, but these theories can be used to analyze any product of human expression, from literature to visual art to music to advertisements to fashion to video games and so on. A critical theory such as feminism or psychoanalysis can help us see and understand the causes and effects of these phenomena by giving us a particular framework or perspective from within which to interpret texts and see beneath the surface.
In order to complete this discussion, begin by reading the document “Literature – Critical Theory & Critical Perspectives” available online here http://www.stjohns-chs.org/english/mgelso_courses/literature_critical_theory.pdf. This handout explains various theoretical perspectives currently popular in the humanities, including Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and historicism. Within interdisciplinary humanities research, one or more of these theories might be relevant to almost any topic. In fact this is how most humanities research is conducted. Scholars take a theory and apply it to a specific case and see if that theory helps illuminate the text in new ways, thereby extending our understanding of humanity.
You’re not going to become an expert in any of these critical theories this week. You won’t be able to give your own psychoanalytical readings, for example. The point is to be aware of the main types of readings, so that you will recognize them when you see them at work in the sources you read during your research.
Each of these theories were developed at various times in the 20th Century. Together we might call them “modernism”, with the exception of historicism which is also called “postmodernism” because it questions the other theories’ claims to have discovered the single “true” interpretation of everything. Nowadays most critical theorists are postmodernists. They no longer assume that any single theory can or discover the final meaning of a text once and for all. Instead, today’s theorists generally accept that there are many useful perspectives to take and therefore many good interpretations of any text. The handout illustrates this fact by interpreting the story of Cinderella from each of the five critical perspectives.
Questions for discussion: Looking at the five interpretations of Cinderella given in the handout, is one of these critical perspectives on Cinderella more convincing than the others? Can more than one of these interpretations be “true” at the same time? In general why might it be helpful to utilize more than one interpretation of the same text? Is it possible to understand the text without any theory at all?
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