From its emergence and early evolution in and through the writings of Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, critique established its parameters very early on as both porous and dynamic. Critique has always been, in this sense, mutable, directed, and both multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, and this very fluidity and flexibility of its processes are possibly among the central reasons for its continuous relevance even when it has been dismantled, rebuffed, and attacked for embodying traits, from gender bias to Eurocentrism to neuro-normativity, that seem to indicate the very opposite of that flexibility. Indeed, once it is examined closely as an apparatus, the mechanism of critique will invariably reveal itself as having always contained the tools for its own opposition and even the tools for its own destruction. Critique has in this way always implied both its generality as a form and autocritique as an essential part of its process. For the past two centuries this general, self-reflective, and self-dismantling quality has led to its constant reinvention and re-adaptation by a wide range of thinkers and writers and across a broad range of disciplines.
In the case of literature and literary theory, its role can often best be grasped as that of a meta-discourse in which the nature and purpose of literary criticism is shadowed, reflected upon, and performed. From this perspective, from the 18th-century origins of critique in its gestation in the fields of theology and literary criticism to its formalization by Kant, the literary expression of critique has always been bound up with debates over the function of literary texts, their history, their production, their consumption, and their critical evaluation. In the early 21st century, having evolved from its beginnings through and alongside various forms of anticritique in the 20th century, critique now finds itself in an age that favors some variant or other of postcritique. It remains to be seen whether this tendency, which suggests its obsolescence and superseding, marks the end of critique as some would wish or merely its latest metamorphosis and diversification in response to the multivalent pressures of digital acceleration and ecological crisis. Whatever path or paths contemporary judgment on this question may follow, critique as the name of a series of techniques and operations guided by a desire for certain ends is likely to remain one of the most consistent ways of surveying any particular field of intellectual endeavor and the relations between adjacent or even divergent fields in terms of their commonalities and differences. As Kant and Voltaire understood so well of their own age, modernity is characterized in the first instance by its will to criticism and then by the systematic criticism of the conditions for that criticism. By the same token now in late or post- or neo-modernity, if contemporary conversations about literature and its pleasures, challenges, study, and criticism require an overview, then some version of critique or its legacy will undoubtedly still come into play.
In the early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber famously argued that Western modernity was “disenchanted.” He meant that modernity was defined by the growth of rationalization, which evacuated the shared spiritual meanings and purposes that had characterized premodern societies oriented toward supernatural worldviews. Rather than relying on “mysterious, incalculable forces,” Weber maintained that modernity relied on reason, science, and bureaucracies to manage existence. Weber’s disenchantment paradigm influenced thinkers throughout the 20th century, but since the turn of the 21st century, it has been substantially revised. Critics note that traditional “enchanted” worldviews continued to thrive within modernity, and varieties of specifically modern “re-enchantments” arose as well, consistent with the rational, secular, and consumerist currents of the modern world. Critics also observe that the paradigm was too one-sided in its stress on rationalization as the guiding principle of modernity. The paradigm’s binary opposition between reason and the irrational, or the dialectical transformation of the former into the latter, have been largely replaced by an emphasis on the complementary nature of reason and the imagination. (Indeed, contrary to Weber’s assertion, the imagination itself is now perceived as a “mysterious, incalculable force” within modernity, appealing to the secular and the religious alike.) The new paradigm highlights the intertwined nature of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, reason and the imagination, disenchantment and enchantment. Modernity is characterized less by outright disenchantment than by “disenchanted enchantment.”
The term poetics designates both a field of study and the practice of a particular author or group of authors. Aristotle’s Poetics, the most important work of literary theory in the Western tradition, undertakes to describe in systematic fashion the major forms of literature, the components of each, and how these elements contribute to the effects desired. Aristotle proceeds on the assumption that there is a comprehensive structure of knowledge attainable about poetry, which is not the experience of poetry, but poetics. Such a poetics treats literature as an autonomous object of knowledge, whose major genres or forms it seeks to analyze. This is an explicit poetics; but we also speak of the poetics implicit in the work of an individual writer, or of a group of writers, or of the literature of an era, as in The Poetics of Dante’s Paradiso, or even The Poetics of Postmodernism, which focus on the characteristic techniques, compositional habits, and ways of treating subjects in the literary practice under consideration. As the latter title indicates, the term poetics is used even when the literature treated does not include much poetry. Poetics can be distinguished from literary history, in that it focuses on literature as a system of possibilities rather than as a historical sequence or a practice in history, although categories from poetics will be important for any study of the evolution of literature. In literary theory, poetics is set apart for concentrating on intrinsic characteristics of literature as a system, as opposed to treating it as a phenomenon to be explained in social, historical, economic, or psychological terms. Poetics is particularly distinguished from hermeneutics or interpretation, in that it does not attempt to determine the meaning of literary works but asks how they function: What are characteristics of different literary genres and their constituents? How do their various elements work together to produce the effects they do for readers? Many contributions to the theory of literature can be seen as contributions to poetics, insofar as they try to explain the nature of literature and describe some of its major forms, even if they are presented as arguments about the literary practice of a particular period or literary mode. Western poetics begins with Aristotle, whose poetics is based on drama: literature is defined an imitation of action, in which plot is central. In Chinese and Japanese cultures, by contrast, foundational poetics have been drawn from lyric poetry and have focused on affect and expression rather than on representation. In the history of Western poetics mimesis has remained fundamental, despite changes that, from time to time, treat literature as the expression of the experience of the author or the attempt to create certain experiences for the reader.
Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.
Benito Rial Costas
At the end of the 15th century, printed books were known and read throughout Europe, and the modern structure of this new product was defined. However, in many Spanish cities, printing and selling books depended on the work of itinerant printers with scarce economic and technical possibilities and professional skills. The limited industrial, technical, and economic development and the lack of good communications produced a map of Spain with small and dispersed printing offices spread over many different places. Spanish printing quality could not compete with that of other countries. These limitations determined the character of the works that the Spanish printing offices produced. On the one hand, many Spanish printed books were made by and for the local clergy and royal officials, and, in many senses, they followed objectives and productive patterns that were not distant from the purposes of handwritten books. On the other hand, Spanish literature and translations into Spanish and Catalan of important Latin and Italian texts were the other main feature of Spanish 15th-century printing history. The Spanish printing offices could not offer anything to the European book market, and they could not even offer certain books to the Spanish market that booksellers brought from abroad.
Alexander S. Wilkinson
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain was the most powerful nation in the world, controlling territories across Europe and much of the newly discovered lands west of the Tordesillas line. Although its influence would wane in the 17th century, as its empire became overstretched, and as the home nation itself was forced to confront major financial and demographic challenges, overall these centuries would represent the high point in Spain’s political and global hegemony. This was a great age—a Golden Age—in Spain’s history, and one which would see too the unleashing of powerful creative energies, especially in the fields of literature, drama, and the visual arts. Among a host of other notable figures active in this period were Miguel de Cervantes, Félix Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, El Greco, and Diego Velázquez. Given such intense artistic vitality, it has seemed almost paradoxical to scholars that the publishing industries of Spain and Portugal should have remained so underdeveloped. In the broader historiography of the European book, Spain and Portugal are presented as examples of peripheral print regions. Mention is frequently made of the relatively late arrival of print to the Peninsula, as well as the unexceptional quality of its book production—particularly its rudimentary typography and uninventive ornamentation and illustration. Surveys usually point out that so poor was the caliber of printing in the Peninsula that printers in the Low Countries, France, and elsewhere saw clear opportunities for filling the void, producing both scholarly and vernacular editions to be sold to eager and grateful purchasers in Spain and Portugal. However, this established and rather somber portrait of the industry is exaggerated and misleading in some key respects.
The gradual development of national copyright laws during the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in quite different and culture-specific understandings of the nature and scope of protection provided for literary and artistic works. The lack of international standards of regulation meant that literary works could be freely reprinted, translated, and appropriated abroad. As a result of the increasing internationalization of literature, bestselling authors of the 19th century began to call for a universal copyright. Their activism proved an important catalyst of the first international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention, signed in 1886 by ten nations.
The Berne Convention has since been revised many times and is currently ratified by over 170 signatories. In its current form, it grants relatively strong rights to authors who produce works that can be categorized as “originals.” It determines the minimum standards of protection which bind the national legislation of its member states, for instance by setting the minimum length of copyright protection at fifty years from the death of the author. The development of international copyright agreements since the latter half of the 20th century has resulted in a network of mutually reinforcing treaties and an increased awareness and control of copyrights on a global scale. At the same time, such treaties and the national laws they govern can offer only partial solutions to the multiple conflicts of interest relating to the uses of literary works beyond their countries of origin.
The main concerns of the 19th-century authors who lobbied for universal copyright are still relevant today, albeit in somewhat different forms. With the advances of technology that allow for effortless storing and distribution of works in digital form, and given the economic gap between content-producing industrialized countries and the less-developed countries that use that content, book piracy still exists and is often a symptom of a dysfunctional or exclusive local market environment. In addition to the abolition of piracy, another core concern for the Berne Convention was the regulation of translation rights. The treaty divides the copyright in translated works between authors of originals and translators, which challenges the notion of originality as the criterion for protection since translations are by necessity derivative. The division of authors into two groups meriting different types of protection is further complicated by the rise of the so-called “born-translated literature” which effectively blurs the distinction between originals and translations. The international framework of copyright has harmonized many aspects of copyright, yet left others unregulated: appropriations, such as parody, have proven problematic in an international setting due to differences in how national laws justify the existence of derivative and transformative works.
International copyright thus remains an oxymoron: it is promulgated in and through national laws, and the disputes are settled in national courts although literature, especially translated literature, has multiple countries of origin and is increasingly distributed by international booksellers to a potentially global audience.
Lars Boje Mortensen
Medieval European literature is both broader and deeper in its basis than what is usually offered in literary histories with their focus only on a narrow canon and on vernacular languages. One way to see this bigger canvas is to consider technical and statistical book-historical factors together with the authority of the two Roman Empires (Western and Eastern) and of their religious hierarchies (the papacy and the patriarchate). A coordinated reading of developments in the Latin West and the Greek East—though rarely directly related—brings out some main features of intellectual and literary life in most of Europe. With this focus, a literary chronology emerges—as a supplement to existing narratives based on either national or formal (genre) concerns: the period c. 600 to c. 1450 can be considered a unity in book-historical terms, namely the era dominated the hand-written codex. It is also delimited by the fate of the Roman Empire with the Latin West effectively separated from the Greek Empire by c. 600 and the end of Constantinople in 1453. Within this broad framework, three distinctive phases of book- and intellectual history can be discerned: the exegetical (c. 600–c. 1050), the experimental (c. 1050–c. 1300), and the critical (c. 1300–c. 1450). These three headings should be understood as a shorthand for what was new in each phase, not as a general characteristic, especially because exegesis in various forms continued to lie at the heart of reading and writing books in all relevant languages.
Tuija Laine and Kirsti Salmi-Niklander
Vernacular literacy began in Finland with the Reformation. Michael Agricola, the first Finnish reformer, studied in Wittenberg, and, after returning to Finland, translated the first books into Finnish. The books were originally intended for priests, but in the middle of the 17th century a literacy campaign was conducted throughout the Swedish realm, one that was quite effective in expanding the reading audience. A number of bishops in the diocese of Turku were also active in writing basic religious material for the common people, including primers, catechisms, and hymnals. The church also examined its parishioners’ reading skills. People could not acquire the status of godparent, attend the Eucharist, or marry without proper reading skills and a knowledge of basic Christian doctrine. In the first phase of the campaign, reading was only learning by rote, but by the last decades of the 17th century bishops and priests were emphasizing the importance of reading from books and understanding their content. Literacy progressed further in the 18th century, and literature published in Finnish became more varied.
During the 19th century, Finland’s literacy rate continued to rise gradually. For the vast majority of the rural population, however, “literacy” meant only the very basic reading skills required and examined by the Lutheran Church. The statute for primary schools was laid down in 1866, but the law on compulsory primary education was not enacted until 1921. The Russian government began to promote the Finnish language in the 1860s. The consequent growth of Finnish-language literature and the expansion of the press allowed for reading by large segments of the population. The popular movements established during the final decades of the 19th century (the temperance movement, agrarian youth movement, and labor movement, for example) provided further opportunities for literary training. Among the lower classes in rural Finland, many self-educated writers submitted manuscripts to the Finnish Literature Society and sent news of their home parishes to newspapers. Some of them became professional writers or journalists.