Classical criticism refers to a conception of the nature and function of poetry and of verbal art generally whose principles were first theorized by the sophists in 5th-century bce Greece. In contrast to traditional views, they held that eloquence was no less a product of conscious design than a house or a sculpture, and that skillful speech was an art (τέχνη) that could be learned. The expertise they claimed centered on style rather than content, and the qualities they valued tended to be formal ones: clarity, orderliness, and balance, with a sense of decorum governing all elements. Their project was repudiated by Plato in a series of searching critiques, but after being refined by Isocrates and systematized by Aristotle, the study of rhetoric—which encompassed the study of poetry in an ancillary role—constituted the backbone of higher education in the liberal arts. Classical principles determined which works would be “canonized” in the Hellenistic libraries, where literary scholars began to call themselves “critics” or judges; after Greek literary culture was imported into Rome, the exemplary authors came to be called “classic” or “of the first rank.” Classical criticism retained a central place in European education and culture that would not be undermined until the 18th century. Although Romanticism rejected 18th-century classicism as excessively rationalistic and narrowly formal, its basic concepts and terms continue to be useful because of deep dialectical tensions built into them at the time of their formation.
Close reading describes a set of procedures and methods that distinguishes the scholarly apprehension of textual material from the more prosaic reading practices of everyday life. Its origins and ancestry are rooted in the exegetical traditions of sacred texts (principally from the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic traditions) as well as the philological strategies applied to classical works such as the Homeric epics in the Greco-Roman tradition, or the Chinese 詩經 (Shijing) or Classic of Poetry. Cognate traditions of exegesis and commentary formed around Roman law and the canon law of the Christian Church, and they also find expression in the long tradition of Chinese historical commentaries and exegeses on the Five Classics and Four Books. As these practices developed in the West, they were adapted to medieval and early modern literary texts from which the early manifestations of modern secular literary analysis came into being in European and American universities. Close reading comprises the methodologies at the center of literary scholarship as it developed in the modern academy over the past one hundred years or so, and has come to define a central set of practices that dominated scholarly work in English departments until the turn to literary and critical theory in the late 1960s. This article provides an overview of these dominant forms of close reading in the modern Western academy. The focus rests upon close reading practices and their codification in English departments, although reference is made to non-Western reading practices and philological traditions, as well as to significant nonanglophone alternatives to the common understanding of literary close reading.
So strong is the cultural desire for an independent and original theory of comedy that Aristotle is imagined to have penned, aside from his glancing treatments of comedy in the Poetics, a critical assessment of the genre, now lost. The symbolic absence of this presumed Aristotelian treatise speaks volumes for the near unattainability of such a critical endeavor. Comedy is at times conceptualized as a generative “umbrella” genre that subsumes other adjoining modes of literary figuration—satire, parody, romance, irony, joke, word play, farce, and stand-up—all while being routinely subject to cultural and theoretical conflation with humor, laughter, amusement, wit, and other physiological as well as intellectual triggers or responses to the comic. The generic contours of comedy are ever-expanding and helplessly slippery. Comedy embodies divergences and dualities. Its anthropological association with fertility rituals at its generic inception suggests privilege and respectability, but Plato’s prejudice against comedy as fit for slaves and outcasts, together with Aristotle’s identification of comedy with lowliness and ugliness, conditions the perception of the genre as relatively vulgar, inferior, and base when examined alongside its nobler counterpart, tragedy. Comedy’s capacity to channel expressions for behavioral deviation in the Feasts of Fools qualifies the genre as a social subversive, but that comedy is conducive to societal stability as a safety valve for discontentedness and insurgence proves that the genre wields the potential of a social fixative. Comedy is said to be grounded on malice and superiority, but playwrights throughout the ages have used it to advance virtue. It is in and between these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions that theoretical abstractions of this elusive genre may be attempted.
The term daemonic—often substantivized in German as the daemonic (das Dämonische) since its use by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early 19th century—is a literary topos associated with divine inspiration and the idea of genius, with the nexus between character and fate and, in more orthodox Christian manifestations, with moral transgression and evil. Although strictly modern literary uses of the term have become prominent only since Goethe, its origins lie in the classical idea of the δαíμων, transliterated into English as daimon or daemon, as an intermediary between the earthly and the divine. This notion can be found in pre-Socratic thinkers such as Empedocles and Heraclitus, in Plato, and in various Stoic and Neo-Platonic sources. One influential aspect of Plato’s presentation of the daemonic is found in Socrates’s daimonion: a divine sign, voice, or hint that dissuades Socrates from taking certain actions at crucial moments in his life. Another is the notion that every soul contains an element of divinity—known as its daimon—that leads it toward heavenly truth. Already in Roman thought, this idea of an external voice or sign begins to be associated with an internal genius that belongs to the individual. In Christian thinking of the European romantic period, the daemonic in general and the Socratic daimonion in particular are associated with notions such as non-rational divine inspiration (for example, in Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder) and with divine providence (for example, in Joseph Priestley). At the same time, the daemonic is also often interpreted as evil or Satanic—that is: as demonic—by European authors writing in a Christian context. In Russia in particular, during a period spanning from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century, there is a rich vein of novels, including works by Gogol and Dostoevsky, that deal with this more strictly Christian sense of the demonic, especially the notion that the author/narrator may be a heretical figure who supplants the primacy of God’s creation. But the main focus of this article is the more richly ambivalent notion of the daemonic, which explicitly combines both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritages of the term. This topos is most prominently mobilized by two literary exponents during the 19th century: Goethe, especially in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his Notebooks and in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Both Goethe’s and Coleridge’s treatments of the term, alongside its classical and Judeo-Christian heritages, exerted an influence upon literary theory of the 20th century, leading important theorists such as Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Hans Blumenberg, Angus Fletcher, and Harold Bloom to associate the daemonic with questions concerning the novel, myth, irony, allegory, and literary influence.
Literacy: A Literary History
Literacy is a measure of being literate, of the ability to read and write. The central activity of the humanities—its shared discipline—literacy has become one of its most powerful and diffuse metaphors, becoming a broadly applied metaphor representing a fluency, a competency, or a skill in manipulating information. The word “literacy” is of recent coinage, being little more than a century old. Reading and writing, or effectively using letters (the word at the root of literacy), are ancient skills, but the word “literacy” likely springs from and reflects the emergence of mass public education at the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th century. In this sense, then “literacy” measures personal and demographic development. Literacy is mimetic. It is synesthetic—in some languages, it means hearing sounds (the phonemes) in what is seen (the letters); in others, it means linking a symbol to the thing symbolized. Although a recent word, “literacy” depends upon the emergence of symbolic sign systems in ancient times. Written symbolic systems, by contrast, are relatively recent developments in human history. But they bear a more complicated relationship to the spoken language, being in part a representation of it (and thus a recording of its contents) while also offering a representation of the world, the referent: that is, literacy involves an awareness of the representation of the world. Reading and writing are tied to millennia of changes in technologies of representation. As a term denoting fluidity with letters, literacy has a history and a geography that follow the development and movement of a phonetic alphabetic and subsequent systems of writing. If the alphabet encodes a shift from orality to literacy, HTML encodes a shift from verbal literacy to a kind of numerical literacy not yet theorized.
In modern parlance, midrash (Hebrew root drš, “to investigate, seek, search out, examine”) refers to any act of interpretation, but in its strictest and most precise sense it refers to ancient rabbinic biblical interpretation. Midrash is both the process and product of interpretation contained in vast compilations of midrashim (plural) as well as in other rabbinic works such as the Talmud. Compendia of midrashim not only preserve interpretations and teachings but also reveal a curiously postmodern, polysemic approach to scriptural exegesis. These compilations are often categorized according to three (problematic) descriptive binaries: halakhic or aggadic; tannaitic (70–200 ce) or amoraic (200–500 ce); and exegetical or homiletical. Through the midrashic process, the Jewish sages of antiquity made the Bible relevant to their contemporaries, taught moral lessons, told fanciful stories, and developed as well as maintained theological beliefs and ethical codes of behavior. The study of midrash provides a portal into the cultural world of the rabbis of late antiquity; it also serves to highlight their approach to and assumptions about scripture, and their guiding hermeneutical practices and principles. Midrashic interpretation employs a variety of exegetical techniques that are often tightly connected to the language of scripture. In addition to wordplay, the rabbis occasionally use gematria, whereby the arithmetical value of Hebrew letters is used to interpret a word or verse. Intertextuality and the atomicization of scriptural words, phrases, and verses are fundamental characteristics of the midrashic method. Although the term midrash applies specifically to rabbinic biblical interpretation, it is sometimes used more broadly as a synonym for aggadah, which includes rabbinic stories, maxims, and parables. Critical editions of midrashic compilations as well as digital advancements and translations give scholars in cognate fields the necessary tools to understand rabbinic literature and undertake comparative studies.
The Politics and Aesthetics of Utopian Literature: From the “Golden Age” Myth to the Renaissance
From its earliest beginnings in the Western world to the end of the Renaissance, utopian literature has developed in four primary ways: as myth about the blissful but vanished past of humanity; as prophecy about a future state of bliss, particularly in millennial visions of the post-apocalyptic kingdom of God; as explicitly posited philosophical and rationalist speculation on how an ideal or at least plausibly better city and society could be attained; and as full-blown fiction, which deploys a range of fictional speech acts. Though in certain ways its ideational origins lie in a rich interplay of topoi derived from mythic antiquity and from the Hellenistic, Roman, and early Christian cultural world, utopian literature in its most formally complex form—that of the utopian fiction—only arises in the Renaissance. In this form, which will ultimately yield the utopian novel of the 19th century, the literary utopia occupies an idiosyncratic position between realism and fantasy fiction, lacking grounding in verisimilar space or time, but also eschewing the ahistoricism and escapism of fantasy. Utopian literature has been mostly understood in terms of moral and sociological functions, ranging from its utility as an instrument of anticipation, or at least fertile speculation about the possible and desirable, to its ability to posit norms and regulatory ideals or, more negatively, its penchant for dogmatism and the abstractions of blueprint and method. A different picture emerges, however, if one considers utopias from the standpoint of how they produce social meaning—an approach that foregrounds the role of textual and semiotic factors without making ethical assumptions about the better or worse character of utopian textual worlds. At stake, rather, is the grasp of utopian literature in terms of an organizational imaginary, according to which society is something that can be beneficially re-formed and rearranged after first being critically analyzed as to its constitutive elements and institutions. At their earliest, utopias were the repository of myths about a world free from the pains of labor and the horrors of war, from greed and often from private property as well. By the time of Plato’s philosophical writings in the 4th century bce, utopian vision had become at once more modest and more realistic and technical, most prominently in its connection to social engineering. The earliest elements of playful fictionality emerge in the Hellenistic world, which incorporates the theme of travel and the element of the marvelous, often in a satirical vein. The early Christian world tends toward a divide between allegorical abstraction, particularly in elite versions of Christian Neoplatonism, and the more heterodox possibilities of divinely mediated subversion of established social forms and structures in the millenarianism of the lower classes. The Renaissance utopia, finally, emerges after Sir Thomas More’s homonymous text of 1516 as a complex synthesis and mediation between elite and subaltern pursuits, antiquity and modernity, Christian morality and scientific materialism, constituting utopists themselves as mediators and guarantors of social harmony in an otherwise rapidly changing and turbulent world.
Sexually explicit images are among the oldest known representational artifacts, and yet none of these were ever understood as “pornography” until the word and concept began to emerge in Western European languages during the 19th century. At that time, it was used equally to refer to written texts and visual representations. The word has since entered into much more widespread usage, often referring to any and all sexually explicit material, more often to material that appears specifically designed “to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings” (Oxford English Dictionary). Since the popularization of internet pornography in the late 20th century, the term has even come to be applied to any image considered to emphasize the pleasure and seduction of the viewer over realistic representation (as in “food porn,” “real estate porn,” etc.). Many attempts have been made to define pornography more specifically, but little consensus has been achieved. Courts of law have generally avoided defining the word “pornography,” preferring to categorize sexually explicit or arousing representations in terms of “obscenity.” Feminist scholars have disagreed on the definition of pornography to the extent that the conflict became known as the “Porn Wars” of the last several decades of the 20th century. Sexually explicit or sexually stimulating representations can elicit powerful emotional responses that vary widely, and they are inextricable from questions of social power. Thus, the very act of defining pornography is implicated in political struggles over some of the most fundamental issues of human life: gender, sexuality, social equality, and the nature and power of representations. There remains no general or stable agreement concerning what it is, what effects it may have, or even whether it exists at all.
Although Freud’s key claims regarding unconscious processes are pervasive in psychoanalytic theory, psychoanalysis is not a singular unified system. Early originating frameworks have evolved to adapt to changing clinical practices. In Britain, Freud’s work was complicated by the work of Klein, and later by the British Object Relations school, and still later by the inclusion of empirical research from John Bowlby’s attachment theory. In France and Latin America, Lacan gained dominance; in the United States, early work in “ego psychology” was supplemented by Kohutian “self-psychology” and later by “relational psychoanalysis.” In the academy, the work of Slavoj Zizek, synthesizing Lacanian and Marxist theory, has had wide influence. All these perspectives offer different accounts of the legacies of the past in their impact on unconscious expression. Early applications of psychoanalysis to literature were concerned with the origins of creativity and the neurotic conditions of literary characters or authors. Subsequent interests have focused on the nature of literary language and the dynamics of readerly engagements. In the early 21st century, use of psychoanalysis as an analytic tool follows the model of a conversation. The goal is not to apply a theory to a text to illustrate a psychoanalytic truth but to tease out the “unsaid” of a text or set of texts. Psychoanalysis in literary engagements, as in clinical engagements, is not about establishing a truth; instead it is used in “dialogue” with another discourse to discover implicit or unacknowledged dimensions of that articulation. The diversity of psychoanalytic schools and concepts allows scholars to give attention to wide-ranging interests: to the grip of ideology on subject, to the unconscious thematics of authors, to the symptomatic conditions of culture. Popular subjects for the psychoanalytic study of literature or film are psychic conflict, suffering, anxiety, enjoyment, the uncanny, and the repressed. Following World War II, the Frankfurt school synthesized Freud with Marxist thought, laying out enduring parameters for the psychoanalytic study of social processes. Adorno and Horkheimer sought to understand totalitarian character and mass culture and explored literature as a response to ideological enlistment. Recent work by “the Lacanian Left” in political theory explores libidinal and affective dimensions of discourse. “Psychosocial studies” scholars in Britain utilize psychoanalytic principles to gain more complex information from interviews and social research designs. Contemporary work in neuropsychoanalysis develops empirical evidence to document psychoanalytic processes in the organizational patterns of the brain, particularly in the dynamics of dreaming, memory, and nonconscious behavior. All these newly emerging engagements with psychoanalytic thought offer opportunities for contemporary research.
The topic of rhythm in literary theory draws both on discussions of poetry and prose and on much broader currents of thought in the natural sciences and philosophy. In Western thought, rhythm was a central focus of attention in ancient Greece, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when theorists and practitioners of literature and the other arts often referred back to classical models. This is also the case in more recent theorizing of rhythm in the context of everyday life in advanced modern or, as some would say, postmodern societies. Nietzsche, who constantly circled around the term and with frequent direct and metaphorical references to dance, is in many ways the central figure in these discussions. He was massively influential after his death in 1900, both in Germany and more widely, for example, in Britain and North America, and he was taken up again, along with Heidegger, in much French thought after World War 2. Contemporary debates around rhythm and its relation to meter continue to refer to classical Greece, and in Chinese and Indian thought there is a similar continuity of attention to issues of rhythm.
“Romance” is a term that has been variously applied to long-form verse narratives, episodic prose narratives, drama, stories from late Greek antiquity, and a popular subgenre of contemporary mass market fiction. In the 18th and 19th centuries it vied with “novel” as the standard term for the genre (before the latter won out to become part of our common vocabulary). Romance has also become a standard division of Shakespeare’s works, a dramatic genre that, beginning in the 19th century, stood alongside comedy, tragedy, and history as one of the cornerstones of the canon. Indeed, readers and scholars use “romance” so promiscuously as to suggest the near impossibility of drawing its definition with any clarity or meaning. Is the word merely an empty signifier for an incoherent concept? A vague label that is “generic” in the most unhelpful sense? Perhaps, contrarily, “romance” has power as a label because of its variability and range. On a practical level, understanding the pliant ways that readers, publishers, and writers have used this term provides insight to one of the richest (and perhaps oldest) veins of storytelling. Romance also gives us a view of how those same traditions ultimately derive from more ancient and esoteric forms. As it relates to a theory of genre, too, romance has been indispensable. Two of the most important treatments of genre theory, by Northrop Frye and Fredric Jameson, center on romance as a literary and historical practice. To study romance is therefore to study the shapes and traditions of genre itself; to theorize romance is to provide a history and conceptual framework for how genres have worked and continue to work within storytelling practices.
Although scholars generally agree that satire cannot be defined in a categorical or exhaustive way, there is a consensus regarding its major features: satire is a mode, rather than a genre; it attacks historically specific targets, who are real; it is an intentional and purposeful literary form; its targets deserve ridicule on the basis of their behavior; and satire is both humorous and critical by its nature. The specificity and negativity of satire are what separates it from comedy, which tends to ridicule general types of people in ways that are ultimately redemptive. Satire is also rhetorically complex, and its critiques have a convoluted or indirect relation to the views of the author. Satire’s long history, which is not straightforwardly linear, means that it is impossible to catalogue all of the views on it from antiquity through to modernity. Modern criticism on satire, however, is easier to summarize and has often made use of ancient satirical traditions for its own purposes—especially because many early modern theorists of satire were also satirists. In particular, modern satire has generated an internal dichotomy between a rhetorical tradition of satire associated with Juvenal, and an ethical tradition associated with Horace. Most criticism of satire from the 20th century onward repeats and re-inscribes this binary in various ways. The Yale school of critics applied key insights from the New Critics to offer a rhetorical approach to satire. The Chicago school focused on the historical nature of satirical references but still presented a broadly formalist account of satire. Early 21st century criticism has moved between a rhetorical approach inflected by poststructural theory and a historicism grounded in archival research, empiricism, and period studies. Both of these approaches, however, have continued to internally reproduce a division between satire’s aesthetic qualities and its ethical or instrumental qualities. Finally, there is also a tradition of Menippean satire that differs markedly in character from traditional satire studies. While criticism of Menippean satire tends to foreground the aesthetic potential of satire over and above ethics, it also often focuses on many works that are arguably not really satirical in nature.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.
Textual studies describes a range of fields and methodologies that evaluate how texts are constituted both physically and conceptually, document how they are preserved, copied, and circulated, and propose ways in which they might be edited to minimize error and maximize the text’s integrity. The vast temporal reach of the history of textuality—from oral traditions spanning thousands of years and written forms dating from the 4th millenium bce to printed and digital text forms—is matched by its geographical range covering every linguistic community around the globe. Methods of evaluating material text-bearing documents and the reliability of their written or printed content stem from antiquity, often paying closest attention to sacred texts as well as to legal documents and literary works that helped form linguistic and social group identity. With the incarnation of the printing press in the early modern West, the rapid reproduction of text matter in large quantities had the effect of corrupting many texts with printing errors as well as providing the technical means of correcting such errors more cheaply and quickly than in the preceding scribal culture. From the 18th century, techniques of textual criticism were developed to attempt systematic correction of textual error, again with an emphasis on scriptural and classical texts. This “golden age of philology” slowly widened its range to consider such foundational medieval texts as Dante’s Commedia as well as, in time, modern vernacular literature. The technique of stemmatic analysis—the establishment of family relationships between existing documents of a text—provided the means for scholars to choose between copies of a work in the pursuit of accuracy. In the absence of original documents (manuscripts in the hand of Aristotle or the four Evangelists, for example) the choice between existing versions of a text were often made eclectically—that is, drawing on multiple versions—and thus were subject to such considerations as the historic range and geographical diffusion of documents, the systematic identification of common scribal errors, and matters of translation. As the study of modern languages and literatures consolidated into modern university departments in the later 19th century, new techniques emerged with the aim of providing reliable literary texts free from obvious error. This aim had in common with the preceding philological tradition the belief that what a text means—discovered in the practice of hermeneutics—was contingent on what the text states—established by an accurate textual record that eliminates error by means of textual criticism. The methods of textual criticism took several paths through the 20th century: the Anglophone tradition centered on editing Shakespeare’s works by drawing on the earliest available documents—the printed Quartos and Folios—developing into the Greg–Bowers–Tanselle copy-text “tradition” which was then deployed as a method by which to edit later texts. The status of variants in modern literary works with multiple authorial manuscripts—not to mention the existence of competing versions of several of Shakespeare’s plays—complicated matters sufficiently that editors looked to alternate editorial models. Genetic editorial methods draw in part on German editorial techniques, collating all existing manuscripts and printed texts of a work in order to provide a record of its composition process, including epigenetic processes following publication. The French methods of critique génétique also place the documentary record at the center, where the dossier is given priority over any one printed edition, and poststructuralist theory is used to examine the process of “textual invention.” The inherently social aspects of textual production—the author’s interaction with agents, censors, publishers, and printers and the way these interactions shape the content and presentation of the text—have reconceived how textual authority and variation are understood in the social and economic contexts of publication. And, finally, the advent of digital publication platforms has given rise to new developments in the presentation of textual editions and manuscript documents, displacing copy-text editing in some fields such as modernism studies in favor of genetic or synoptic models of composition and textual production.
From Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics onward, tragedy has loomed large in the genealogy of literary theory. But this prominence is in many regards paradoxical. The original object of that theory, the Attic tragedies performed at the Dionysian festivals in 5th- century bce Athens, are, notwithstanding their ubiquitous representation on the modern stage, only a small fraction of the tragedies produced in Athens, and are themselves torn from their context of performance. The Poetics and the plays that served as its objects of analysis would long vanish from the purview of European culture. Yet, when they returned in the Renaissance as cultural monuments to be appropriated and repeated, it was in a context largely incommensurable with their existence in Ancient Greece. While the early moderns created their own poetics (and politics) of tragedy and enlisted their image of the Ancients in the invention of exquisitely modern literary and artistic forms (not least, opera), it was in the crucible of German Idealism and Romanticism, arguably the matrix of modern literary theory, that certain Ancient Greek tragedies were transmuted into models of “the tragic,” an idea that played a formative part in the emergence of philosophical modernity, accompanying a battle of the giants between dialectical (Hegelian) and antidialectical (Nietzschean) currents that continues to shape our theoretical present. The gap between a philosophy of the tragic and the poetics and history of tragedy as a dramatic genre is the site of much rich and provocative debate, in which the definition of literary theory itself is frequently at stake. Tragedy is in this sense usefully defined as a genre in conflict. It is also a genre of conflict, in the sense that ethical conflicts, historical transitions, and political revolutions have all come to define its literary forms, something that is particularly evident in the place of both tragedy and the tragic in the dramas of decolonization.