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This was a report of mine in class. Maybe someone can make use of it here.

A Short Introduction to Literary Theory: From the Fugitives to the Neo-Aristotelian Formalists in the Philippines


Marius D. Carlos Jr.



NEW CRITICISM (1920s-1970s)


Historically, this was the period after World War 1. A decade after 1920, the first worldwide depression occurs. On 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. Four years later, the United Nations was formed. The seventies in world-historic time was the period of decolonization in various parts of the world, including Algeria.


New Criticism as a strain of Anglo-American critical tradition was influenced heavily by critics like Matthew Arnold, who emphasized the value of poetry and a kind of “humanity” against the anarchy of a vastly globalizing and modernizing world. T.S. Elliot, responsible for works such The Waste Land was a looming figure in the New Critical tradition.


It was during this time that specifically literary critics put forth categories that differentiated high literature from low literature. True literature, according to Elliot could be part of a period’s “tradition”. The artist or writer is seen as a bearer of his milieu’s tradition; as if a person consciously reaches out to grab hold of his predecessor’s thoughts and intentions. A more recent English critic, Harold Bloom also used the concept of tradition to explain “the anxiety of influence”, whereby a poet or artist is always in the shadow of a master-poet or a master-artist. The aim of the poet and artist is to always supersede the achievements of the artistic Father, effectively slaying him in the end. Harold Bloom is the author of various small guides to reading Shakespeare and of course, the seminal work The Western Canon.


The literary work is an objective existence; New Criticism preaches ‘objectivity’ and ‘science’ in the way it approaches literature. American New Criticism, taking off from the ‘tradition’ left by Elliot, continued with the work of members called the Southern Agrarians (or the Fugitives). Key figures include John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Mark Schorer and Wayne C. Booth.




About the same time as American New Criticism was laying waste to the student body of the United States as a Cold War weapon, the proponents of Russian Formalism, which included Victor Shklovsky, Boris Tomashevsky and Boris Eichebaum began their work.


The Russian Formalists delved into the intricacies of literary works by placing importance of the specific usage of language in poetry and in other literary forms. The language of literature, which included metaphor, was a distortion or deviation of practical language. Literariness, a quality of works of poetry and fiction, precisely came about because of specific literary structures.


The concept that is most associated with the Russian Formalists is ‘defamiliarization’ (ostranenie). Victor Shklovsky explained this at length in his essay ‘Art as Technique’, and he was able to locate Tolstoy’s own manners of defamiliarization in War and Peace in the same essay.


          Years later, defamiliarization would experience a revival under the hands of Bertolt Brecht (in the forties), with his version of defamiliarization in theater, the A-effect or alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt). The alienation effect was primarily a means to disrupt the normal consumption of theater. Actors, according to Brecht, fail miserably in their craft if the audience thought that they were indeed the fictional characters they portrayed. The alienation effect is explained at length in Brecht’s essay “Short Organum on the Theater”.


          Another concept that is of importance tot eh Russian formalist is the plot or the sjuzet, which is the organizing structure of a literary work. The placement of events is the plot, while the story itself is considered merely the raw material that is to be transformed to literature when emplotted. Plots serve to delay the story and disrupt the linear flow of time.




          Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, a Russian thinker and linguist, inspired literally schools of linguists and critics during his time. The Bakhtin Circle, which emerged after the Russian Formalist circles, was testament to the lasting influence that Mikhail Bakhtin had with critics like Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev. Voloshinov, like contemporary Marxist critics, critiqued formalisms on the ground that even language itself was inseparable from ideology; and therefore, even literary texts were sites of class struggle. Bakhtin was born in November 1895 to a landowning family in Orel. His time was an exciting time for both the production of literature and its critique; small towns that he stayed in were cross-cultural sites that no doubt influenced his later formulations on dialogism, carnivalization and heteroglossia.


          The principle of dialogue or dialogism is present in nearly all of Bakhtin’s works, early or late. Dialogism is quite unthinkable without language. Even human existence itself is a vast web of interconnections each and all of which are linked as participants in an event whose totality is so immense that no single one of us can ever know it in its entirety. That event manifests itself in the form of a constant, ceaseless creation and exchange of meaning. Carnival, or carnivalization on the other hand is the loosening of authorities or ideals; kings are turned on their heads, fools become seers and wise men, etc. It emphasizes the relativity of things depending on their period in time and in their own unique histories.




Structuralism is a very, very broad category in literary theory that attempts to draw relations between the developments in formalist criticism, linguistics and some parts of the social sciences. By ‘structuralism’ we are delving into a period of literary theory where the literary work is viewed as a system of signs. Saussurean linguistics played a large part in developing further the criticism of structuralist critics such as Jonathan Culler, Roland Barthes and the like. In France, structuralism was nearly simultaneous in the social sciences and in literature.


Roland Barthes was a particularly well-known musicologist and cultural critic. His seminal work, Mythologies tackled the most mundane things in everyday life such as toys, soap and wrestling and revealed the sign systems and hierarchical assignations.


Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure on the other hand, laid down a solid foundation for the study of sign systems (language). On a basic level, Saussurean linguistics is founded on the belief that the sign (or picture, word, symbol) has an arbitrary relation with the signified. Language is a system of relations; objects and things have no real placed in it.


SIGN = signifier



The study of phonemes was also integral to structuralist studies. Phonemes are elements of the lowest level in a sign system. Phonemes are meaningful sounds whose variations produce words or signs that people recognize and understand. Phonemes are binary in nature: nasalized/non-nasalized, vocalic/non-vocalic. These are all binary oppositions; later on, critics like the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss would study myths, folklore and rituals in the same manner; by studying the constituent parts. the logic of different sign systems are revealed. An example of Levi-Strauss’s application of phonemics to culture would be his study of the tattoo systems of Caduveo Indians. He concluded that the tattoos on the bodies of the Caduveo Indians were a means to repress the antagonisms between individuals in the community. Hierarchies were laid down and followed, and were signified by the variations of tattoos on the Caduveo Indians’ bodies.




“Marxism” itself is also a broad category that spans the early works and political activities of the German revolutionary thinker Karl Marx himself, to the pivotal events that would follow the First International, which Marx himself had been part of, to the current world order of corporate globalization.


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels did not directly deal with literature and the arts in their writings. However, some scattered writings had been compiled, and from the volumes of critique regarding society and political economy, one can already move into literary criticism with much ease.


There are as many strains of Marxism as there are nations and sub-regions in the world. Some strains have transformed to alter-ideologies. For example, the syndico-anarchists (such as Noam Chomsky) profess to be socialists (the Marxist kind) and yet do no completely align themselves with Marxist revolutionaries and national liberation movements. French thinker Jean Paul Sartre, who wrote about committed literature or literature engagée was one of the few known French Marxists who did not join the French Communist Party.


Attempts to formulate a specifically Marxist/Communist aesthetic have been undertaken by various critics of different nationalities. Christopher Caudwell, for instance, had studied Shakespeare and theorized that Shakespeare had been writing for Victorian patrons who were in the period of “primitive accumulation”. English cultural critic Terry Eagleton would come out in the seventies to say that theater was not a transformation of a text, but the text itself. Different modes or approaches, all professing to come from the same ideological line of Marx.


          Two passages from Marx remain embedded in nearly all variants of Marxist criticism. The first passage is “Being determines consciousness”, which stipulates that all impulses, desires and whims come from the existence of the self or the being and not the other way around. The second passage concerns the possibility of transformation: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in many ways; the point is to change it.”


          The most basic entry into Marxist theory would of course be through the base and superstructure theory. The economic base determines the legal, ideological, educational and religious superstructure. The superstructure is dependent, but not completely dependent on the economic base. Engels himself would say that mechanistic determinations of society using the base and superstructure theory would be “vulgar Marxism”.


          Frankfurt School Marxism was founded by the largest names in European cultural theory: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and others. Theodor Adorno would be best known for his excursion into the muddled and often formulaic world of popular culture. His examination of popular culture in his work The Culture Industry would pave the way for similar studies in contemporary times. Max Horkheimer, one of the first Frankfurt School Marxists or Critical Theorists would engage in sociological critiques of the production of literature. Walter Benjamin, the most enigmatic and mystical of the bunch, would be forever remembered for his poetic treatise on history and his analysis of the European city development in his work The Arcades Project. Herbert Marcuse on the other hand, was unique in his “return to Freud”. In an attempt to unite Hegelian philosophical inquiry with Freud’s theory of Eros, Marcuse wrote Eros and Civilization, where he inquired and examined the status of man and the burdens that civilization bestowed upon man through the reality principle. Marcuse had also authored a critical work regarding the state of man in industrial society in One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse’s main thesis in One-Dimensional Man was very much Freudian: the pleasure principle was repressed by the performance principle and the reality principle.


          Louis Althusser, a French Marxist intellectual who had been Secretary-General of the Ecole Normal in Paris during the time of Jacques Lacan led the wave of thinkers who focused specifically in the objective structures of society. Althusser’s A Letter on Art to Andre Daspre specifically located art and literature as being “in between” science and ideology. According to Althusser, literature is bathed in ideology, but is not completely enmeshed because it “freezes” ideology for everyone to examine and possibly, to undermine. Althusser’s essay Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses (in his books Lenin & Philosophy and Other Essays) tackled the mechanisms of economy and ideology, and identified two specific levels of the state that are used to maintain the status quo: The ISA or the ideological state apparatuses (cultural ISA, religious ISA, educational ISA, labour union ISA) and the RSA (military apparatus and policing).




          After strictly structuralist poetics, a new wave of theories emerged from cultural studies and the social sciences, to revamp once again the landscape of literary criticism. Michel Foucault, a student of Louis Althusser put forth a different discourse regarding society. Discourses, according to Foucault, or pseudo-scientific statements, codes or rules were actually the way power was exercised over subjects or people. Knowledge, any form of knowledge was discursive formations that can be studied in depth to undermine their seemingly unbroken logic. Althusser’s study of the asylum in Madness and Civilization, medicine in Birth of the Clinic and his excursion into the cultures of the self, or technologies of the self in Technologies of the Self all served to trace the various networks of discourses that are formative of Western society.


            Jacques Lacan would conduct his seminars on psychoanalysis for ten years (until he was removed from his post from the university from jealous older professors) to discuss the vicissitudes of Freudian theory. His concept of symbolic violence, which is enmeshed in ideological structures and in language would form the basis for Lacanian inquiry for contemporary Lacanians. Lacanians today, such as the Slovene Marxist critic Slavoj Zizek would employ eclectic Lacanian concepts in an attempt to re-frame the logics of late capitalist society. Other Lacanian critics such as Catherine Belsey would later bash Zizek on the head for his rock star status in the literary circles.


          In philosophy and linguistic inquiry, Jacques Derrida would be well known for his On Grammatology and later on, The Work of Mourning. Other works include Archive Fever, where Derrida “deconstructs” the process of knowledge acquisition in archives. “Deconstruction” as a mode of criticism would be attributed to Derrida’s contributions to philosophy. Deconstructionists like Gayatri Spivak would later use the methods of Derrida in postcolonial inquiry in the eighties.


          Alongside national liberation movements and the decolonization transpiring in the poor nations throughout the world, postmodernism began to emerge in the tumult of late capitalist society. Distrustful of Marxism and just about any other kind of –ism, the giants of postmodernism began to reshape once again critical approaches to the current world order. Jean Francois Lyotard, in his major work Postmodernism would question Marxism and other “grand narratives” of the world for their utter failure to come to the aid of the economic classes that they were supposed to be protecting. Lyotard used the Holocaust as an example of how a human event can elide the full comprehension of man.


          Jean Baudrillard, another postmodern thinker rocked the world with his pronouncements that “the Gulf War did not happen” and we live in a world where we are surrounded only with “copies of copies” or “simulations of simulations”. Baudrillard’s analysis of popular media is comparable to Adorno’s own achievement; the difference is that Adorno was comparing the culture industry to the Nazi totalitarian regime.




          Postcolonial criticism can be seen in a variety of ways; but chiefly, it is the reaction of intellectuals from the Third World to First World intellectuals who wanted to speak about the Third World. Edward Said, in his work Orientalism tackled the large ideological project of Orientalism, using Britain and Egypt as one of his examples. Orientalism forms “the Orient” as an abstract entity; it is a way for the colonizers to legitimize their claim on territory and resources. The “Oriental” is the savage and barbaric force that needs to be civilized.


          Gayatri Spivak on the other hand, would be publishing nearly alongside Said, but in a different mode. She had been a proponent of the Subaltern Studies group, before this group in historiography ceased from continuing their research. Her most well known essay The Subaltern Cannot Speak examined the conditions of widows and women in general, and she concluded that in a male-driven society, women were muted. In a lecture years later at the UCLA in Berkley, she would clarify that she had read Antonio Gramsci after she had written the essay (which means she was not opportunistic by using Gramsci’s term subaltern) and that what she meant by “the subaltern cannot speak” was actually “the subaltern can speak, but cannot be heard”- which was a passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.


           Other critics from the West engaged in postcolonial criticism. Harvard-trained Homi Bhabha would come out at roughly the same time as Spivak to sell his idea of mimicry and hybridity. Both critics have been engaged by other critics for using too much jargon in their works. Both are unapologetic, claiming that it was their way of eliding dominant ideologies.




          Genuine literary theory in the Philippines is almost non-existent. One of the earliest examples of literary criticism in the Philippines would be some of Salvador P. Lopez’s essays in Literature and Society, where he somehow explains what proletarian literature is, without really explaining what it is. Early critics like Edilberto Tiempo would busy themselves with finding “organic unities” in poetry and other forms of literature, the same way that the New Critics were doing it decades before. For the older generation of critics, Formalism had been an escape or an excuse not to engage in genuine research of the literary field.


          A small section of the literati in the Philippines, which include Bienvenido Lumbera and Elmer Ordonez arrogated to itself the title of “nationalists”. The works of Ordonez have some vague traces of Althusser in it, especially in his essays in Diliman: Homage to the Fifties.


          In the nineties, most of the published literary criticism in the Diliman review would reveal that many old critics were still trapped in the fatal dialectic of form and content. Some younger critics, like Ruth Pison were experimenting with other ideas, including those of Foucault and Spivak.


          There is only one recognizable queer critic in the small literary circles, and that would be Jose Neil Garcia, whose current work involves compilations of gay writings in the Philippines, as well as proving that Jose Rizal was homosexual.


          Caroline Hau, author of Necessary Fictions would be contributing to the discourse regarding the alienation of the Chinese in the Philippines. Neferti Xinia Tadiar on the other hand, would be using orthodox Marxism and her own “return to Freud” to study Philippine society from afar.


          Marxists are in terribly short supply. Edel Garcellano, for one, had been able to publish a few critical pieces and a book. Critics like Jose Duke Bagulaya had been one of the few who had used the progressive Marxist line in mode of production analysis of literary works. Gelacio Guillermo and his wife, Alice Guillermo were also rare gems in a field of mostly dead air. Both are staunch critics of the US imperial rule and are progressive intellectuals pursuing the National Democratic line. Harvard trained Epifanio San Juan would be doing most of his writing away from the Philippines.