Friday, April 23, 2010

Critical Theory: Glossary

Jean-Fran├žois LyotardImage via Wikipedia

Alienation: Many contemporary thinkers and artists claimed that a sense of alienation from other human beings is the natural human condition. Marx, the father of the doctrine of communism on the other hand, argued that individuals were alienated from each other by the tedious, boring, and dehumanizing work that workers had to perform in the factory.

Archaeology: The french philosopher Michel Foucault gave a new meaning to the word 'archaeology.' He used the term for his historical studies into the hidden discourse of Western society.For example, he claimed that traditional historian suppressed the true history of homosexuality. The purpose of Foucault's archaelogies was to show that Western culture was based on power relations rather than such idealistic notions as truth or natural justice.

Aura: This term was coined by Walter Benjamin to signify the unique quality tha differentiates a work of art from its reproduction. The fact that the work of art belongs to a definite tradition within a culture and its history, makes it an original piece with a distinguishable aura.

Base/Superstructure: According to classical Marxist theory, society is made up of an economic base or infrastructure and a superstructure which comprises all other human social and cultural activities. The base dictates the form of those activities (religion, the law, politics, education, the media, the arts, and others).

Body-wihtout-organs: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used the term 'body-without-organs' to describe the complex forces in our society which strive to repress the expression of individual desire. Capital, for example, is treated as the body-without-organs of the capitalist.

Carnival: the Russian writer Mikhail Bakhtin saw the institution of carnival as a model for subversion of socio-political authority in the way that it parodied the ruling class. The comic genius Rabelais was for Bakhtin an excellent example of the application of the carnival spirit to literary narrative.

Chaos theory: Chaos theory emphasizes how sensitive systems are to changes in their initial conditions, and how unpredictable this makes their behavior. One of the most disturbing aspects of the theory is that it allows for the simultaneous presence of randomness and determinism within systems.

Class consciousness: The sense of belonging to a specific social class, whose common interests crate a sense of solidarity in its members. Marxists believe that when the proletariat, for example, reaches an awareness of its exploited status, then there is the basis for a social revolution.

Complexity theory: Complexity theory argues that physical systems can evolve to higher levels of development through spontaneous self-organization. This phenomenon can be seen at work in organisms as diverse as human consciousness or the entire universe - possibly even within the more sophisticated computer.

Compulsory homosexuality: The contention that heterosexuality is viewed as the sexual norm in Western societies, with all other sexual practices being treated as deviations. Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and the queer theory movement have argued that this inhibits the full expression of our sexual natures.

Critical realism: Georg Lukacs's term for literary narratives that demonstrate how the economic system shapes human character. In the case of capitalism, this is assumed to encourage the development of competitiveness and self-interest. Lukacs did not require the author to condemn this practice, merely make it apparent to the reader.

Cyborg: The combination of human and machine (the term is a contraction of "cybernetic organism"). In the work of Donna Haraway, this notion is celebrated as a way of escaping human, and most particularly gender, limitations.

Death of the author: A concept derived by Roland Barthes to describe the process by which texts take on a life of their own after they leave the author. Henceforth, they become the province of the reader, who is in no way bound by whatever the author's intentions may have been.

Deep structure: In structuralist theory, systems are held to have deep structures which dictate how they operate. Roland Barthes, for example, assumed an underlying structure of rules to narrative. Another way of thinking of deep structure is as something similar to a genetic programme.

Defamiliarization: The process by which literary language renders the everyday unfamiliar to the reader. By "making strange" the aspects of our world, authors force us to notice what we normally take for granted. The concept was coined by Viktor Shlovsky.

Desiring machine: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari see individual human beings as motivated by the need to find an outlet for the libidinal energy: in their terminology, as "desiring machines." Much of modern society, in their view, is dedicated to suppressing this drive.

Deterritorialization: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari regard institutional authority as inherently territorial in mentality. Attempts to constest the boundaries that institutions set therefore count as acts of deterritorialization. Nomadic thought is an example of such transgressive behavior.

Dialectic materialism: In the Hegelian dialectic, thesis generates antithesis, with the conflict between the two resolving itself into the creation of a new thesis or synthesis. Marx took over this scheme, but located it in the material world where it manifested itself in the struggle of one class against another. Resolution would come about in our own era when the proletariat overcame the bourgeoisie.

Dialogism: Mikhail Bakhtin conceived of meaning as in a constant process of negotiation between individuals in a given society; that is, as "dialogic." Rather than being fixed, meaning is plural and always open to interpretation - and the same can be said of any narrative.

Differance: The neologiam coined by Jacques Derrida to describe the way in which words fail to achieve fixed meaning at any one point. Meaning is always indeterminate to Derrida - both "differed" and "deferred" - and differance is the movement within language that prevents it from being otherwise.

Difference: In postructuralist and postmodernist thought, difference is always emphasized over unity, and is taken to be an inescapable aspect of human affairs. Systems and texts, are held to be internally marked by difference and incapable of achieving unity: rather lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

Differend: Jean-Francois Lyotard's term for an irresolvable dispute, in which each side starts from incommensurable premises. An employers and an employee debating employment rights would be one example; colonizer and colonized debating property rights another. Traditionally, what happens is that the stronger side imposes its well on the weaker.

Discourse: In the work of Michel Foucault, discourse constitutes a social practice governed by an agreed set of conventions. Medicine is a discourse, as is law, or any academic discipline. Discourses are founded on power relations, and function something like paradigms (Thomas Kuhn).

Double coding: Charles Jencks's term to describe how postmodern architecture ought to work; that is, to appeal to both a specialist and a general audience. Modernist architecture had signarlly failed to do so, in his opinion, restricting its appeal to specialist practitioners only.

Ecriture Feminine: French feminists such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray have argued that women should develop a style of writing uniquely their own, self-consciously distancing themselves from patriarchal modes of expression. Other than a certain fluidity of meaning, however, it is difficult to specify what the style actually involves.

Enlightenment project: The cultural movement, dating from the Enlightenment period in the 18th century, that emphasizes the role of reason in human affairs and is committed to material progress and the liberation of humankind from political servitude. Modern culture is based on these premises.

Epic theatre: A theory of drama developed by the playwright Bertolt Brecht, which demanded that, rather than providing an illusion of real life, theatre should make its artifice visible by "alienation effect" to the audience. Theatre that did so, Brecht thought, would then become a critique of the dominant values of its society.

Grand narrative: In the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard, a grand narrative constitutes a universal explanatory theory which admits no substantial opposition to its principles. Marxism is one of such example, liberal humanism another, with ideology in general tending to operate in such an authoritarian manner.

Gynocriticism: According to Elaine Showalter, the proper object of feminist critics is texts that concentrate on the female experience, or "gynotexts." The concern of gynocriticism is to trace the development of a specifically female literary tradition, thus challenging patriarchal accounts of literary history.

Hegemony: In Marxist theory (particularly the work of Antonio Gramsci), hegemoney explains how the ruling class exerts domination over all other classes by a variety of apparent "concensus" means, including the use of the media to transmit its system of values.

Heroinism: Literature by female authors in which the female protagonists are placed in situations which test their characters and require them to display heroic behavior in order to survive. The term was devised by Ellen Moers, for whom 18th-century Gothic novels were an example of "travelling heroinism."

Heteroglossia: Mikhail Bakhtin's term to describe the intertextual nature of novels. The novel is a very flexible and open form, capable of referring to a multitude of cultural discourses. Bakhtin saw this as subversive since it resisted the unifying (that is, conservative) forces operating within most cultures.

Homology: Lucien Goldmann's work explores the way in which literary texts can express the world view of certain influential social groups contemporary with those texts. There is, in other words, a "homology" between text and group, with the former articulating the latter's beliefs more clearly than they can.

Hybridity: The concept of hybridity figures large in postcolonial theory. For Homi K. Bhabha, it represents a condition between states (somewhere between working class identity and gender, for example) whose virtue is that it escapes the control of either. As such, it has considerable subversive potential.

Hyperreality: Jean Braudillard's concept to describe the condition beyond meaning that, for him, sumps up postmodern life. A cultural phenomenon like Disneyland no longer means anything: it is neither the real thing nor a representation of the past. Rather, it is hyperreal - beyond meaning or analysis.

Ideological State Apparatus: Louis Althusser's term for all those insitutions, such as the legal and educational systems, the arts and the media, which serve to transmit and reinforce the values of the dominant ideology.

Imaginary: In Lacanian theory, the pre-self conscious state of young babies aged up to six months or so. Lacan identifies this state with the mother, and we leve it when we move into the symbolic realm of language and social existence at the age of around eighteen months.

Inhuman: For Jean-Francois Lyotard, all those processes which conspire to marginalize the human dimension in our world. Examples would include the growth of computerization, and particularly the development of sophisticated, and eventually authonomous, systems of Artificial Intelligence.

Interpellation: The process by which ideology manipulates us to conform to its values. For Louis Althusser, it was a cade of ideology "hailing" us, almost like a policeman calling us to attention. We respond to such signs in reflex fashion, thus revealing how successfully ideology has conditioned us.

Interpretive community: For Stanley Fish, an interpretive community constitutes the body of scholars working in a critical discipline whose collective practices set the criteria for interpretation. These practices can change over time, and the community might be thought of as similar to Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigm.

Intertextuallity: A term which describes the way in which all texts echo other texts, and are, as theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva have pointed out, the "mosaics of quotations" and references from an extensive variety of sources.

Linguistic model: Ferdinand de Saussure's model of how language works - a system with its own internally consistent rules of grammar - was appropriated by the structuralist movement which applied it to any and all phenomena. The main concern of structuralist analysis then came to isolate and catalogue the grammar of whatever system was being studied.

Literariness: The quality that differentiates literary language from other forms of language-use. This quality largely derives from the lighly self-conscious use of literary devices in literary texts, and according to Roman Jakobson is the proper object of study of literary critics.

Little narrative: The opposite of grand narrative, little narrative comprise groups of like-minded individuals who attempt to subvert the power of grand narratives. Little narratives remain at an oppositional level and refuse to allow themselves to be turned into authoritarian ideologies of the kind they are rejecting.

Metanarrative: Another name for grand narrative. Jean-Francois Lyotard uses the terms interchangeable in this best known work, the Postmodern Condition (1979).

Metaphysics of presence: Jacques Derrida argues that all discourse in Western culture is abased on the assumption that the full meaning of words are immediately "present" to us, in our minds, as we use them. For Derrida, this "metaphysics of presence" is illusory: meaning is always indeterminate.

Narratology:The study of how narrative works in terms of the relations beteween its structural elements. Structuralists like Barthes, in the their desire to establish a general grammar of narrative, reduced narrative to a set of functions, specifying how these applied in each literary genre.

Negative dialectics: Both the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic feature a conflict between thesis and antithesis which resolves itself into the creation of a new thesis. For Theodor Adorno, however, the dialectic failed to resolve its internal contradictions, with new theses simpky starting another cycle of conflict. Dialectics were negative rather than positive in quality.

Nomadism: Thought which does not follow established patterns or respect traditional boundaries (such as disciplinary ones). For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, nomadism is a transgressive activity which challenges institutional authority given that the latter is invariably committed to protecting its own particular "territory."

Orientalism: Edward Said's term for the way in which the Middle East has been construed (by writers and artists, for example) as the "other" to Western culture. In the process, the "Orient" is presented as mysterious, sensuous and irrational: qualities which tend to be looked down upon in the West.

Paganism: Jean-Francois Lyotard argued that paganism was the state in which judgements were reached without reference to pre-existing rules and conventions, but on a "case by case" basis instead. Judgement in any one case established no precedent for another.

Paradigm: A framework of thought which dictates what counts as acceptable inquiry in an intellectual field. Thomas Kuhn saw scientific history as consisting of a series of paradigms, each incommensurable with its predecessor, with periodic revolutions when one paradigm replaced another.

Pluralism: The commitment to multiple interpretations and the rejection of the notion of an unquestionable central authority, whether in critical or political matters. Pluralists refuse to privilege any one interpretation of a text or ideological position, and encourage diversity.

Readerly fiction: Roland Barthes's term for fiction which imposes a particular reading of the text on the reader, and attempts to close off alternative interpretations. 19th century novelistic realism, with its carefully worked-out plots and explicit moral messages, is a prime example of this style of writing.

Reception theory: Reception theorists concentrate on the interaction of reader and text (reader-response being another name for the approach). Textual meaning is seen to emerge from the reader's engagement with the text, with some theorists claiming that the reader is almost entirely responsible for the creation of that meaning.

Reflection theory: Reflection theorists assume that artistic artefacts reflect the ideology of their culture. Thus, for the Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, the art of a bourgeois culture could not help but reveal the character of that culture. Art has a rather passive cultural role from this perspective.

Repressive State Apparatus: Louis Althusser's term for those forces, such as teh police and the army, which the ruling class relies on to enforce its control over a society - by violent means if necessary.

Rhizome: For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the rhizome became a model for how systems ideally should develop. Rhizomatic structures (such as tubers or moss) can make connections between any two points on their surface; a process which these thinkers considered to be inherently creative and anti-authoritarian.

Schizoanalysis: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's attack on Freudian psychoanalysis led them to develop the concept of schizoanalysis, in which schizophrenia was taken as a model of how to resist the methods of the psychoanalyst. The multiple personalities of the schizophrenic frustrated the psychoanalytic desire to turn us into socially conformist individuals.

Seduction: Jean Baudrillard's method for subverting systems is based on the notion of "seducing" or "beguiling" them into submission, rather than resorting to the more usual means of overt political action or revolution.

Semiology: Ferdinand de Saussure predicted the development of semiology - "the science of signs" - in his Course in General Linguistics (1916). Language itself, in Saussure's formulation, was a system of signs which operated according to an underlying grammar. All sign-systems were assumed to work on this linguistic model.

Semiotics: Although it is sometimes used interchangeably with semiology to mean "the science of signs," semiotics has also come to refer to the operation of signs as a given system. Thus one speaks of the semiotics of film or fashion.

Sign/Signified/Signifier: For Ferdinand de Saussure, language is made up of signs, which consist of a signifier (word) and a signified (concept) joined in an act of understanding in the individual's mind. The sign communicates meaning, which in Saussurean linguistics is held to be a relatively stable entity.

Simulacra: According to Jean Baudrillard, signs no longer represent some deeper or hidden meaning (such as the class struggle), but only themselves. We live nowREaderl in a world of simulations which have no deeper meaning to be discovered. Disneyland ia s good example of such simulation.

Socialist realism: An aesthetic theory imposed on artists in the Soviet Union from the early 1930s onwards. This demanded that works of art appleal to a popular audience and, where possible (as in the visual and literary arts), contain an explicit socialist message.

Strange attractor: In chaos theory, the underlying force which controls any given system. The weather, for example, is assumed to have a strange attractor which dictates its patterns. The most extreme example of a strange attractor is a black hole, which absorbs all matter with which it comes into contact.

Subaltern: To be in the subaltern position is to be in an inferior position culturally, thus subject to appression by groups more powerfully placed within the dominant ideology (as women so often are by men, or the colonized by their colonizers).

Symbolic: In Lacanian theory, the state that succeeds the imaginary at around eighteen months in a child's life. The symbolic is the realm of language and social existence. Lacan identifies it with the "masculine" world of adulthood. Feminists see this as the entry into repression.

Writerly fiction: Roland Barthes's term for fiction which does not impose a particular reading of a text on the reader, and which invites alternative interpretations. In Barthes's canon, modernism is the style of writing that best achieves this desirable objective.

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