Useful Introductions to Theory
By Kristopher A. Nelson
in September 2007
800 words / 4 min. The “Introductory Guide to Critical Theory” (which I extract from and link to below, along with other useful reference sites) provides an excellent basic introduction to some of the main points of contemporary critical theory (which I encountered as part of historical, literary and “textual” studies). It has amazed me so far in law school […]
Note: this post is from 2007. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.
The “Introductory Guide to Critical Theory” (which I extract from and link to below, along with other useful reference sites) provides an excellent basic introduction to some of the main points of contemporary critical theory (which I encountered as part of historical, literary and “textual” studies). It has amazed me so far in law school that these theories have made barely a dent on the scholarship or teaching of law, despite the purported existence of so-called “Critical Legal Studies.” Not that people aren’t applying them; merely that they are non-existent in the classroom.
Reading through this introduction has helped remind me of the value of these theoretical approaches, and so I am sharing snippets here to hopefully spark some future scholarship (on my part, on anyone’s part) in applying these theoretical approaches to the law.
Gender and Sex
[S]ex and gender theorists can be divided into various sub-schools that bring together the insights of disparate approaches (eg. materialist feminists, Foucauldian theorists of gender, postmodern and poststructuralist theorists of gender, and psychoanalytical feminists; psychoanalytical feminists can, in turn, be divided among Freudian, Lacanian, and Kristevan thinkers).
Players include: MICHEL FOUCAULT, JUDITH BUTLER.
The major distinction in Marxist thought that influences literary and cultural theory is that between traditional Marxists (sometimes, unfairly, called vulgar Marxists) and what are sometimes referred to as post-Marxists or neo-Marxists. The major distinction between these two versions of Marxist thought lies in the concept of ideology: traditional Marxists tend to believe that it is possible to get past ideology in an effort to reach some essential truth (eg. the stages of economic development). Post-Marxists, especially after Louis Althusser, tend to think of ideology in a way more akin to Jacques Lacan, as something that is so much a part of our culture and mental make-up that it actively determines what we commonly refer to as “reality.”
Players include: KARL MARX, LOUIS ALTHUSSER, FREDERIC JAMESON.
Narratology examines the ways that narrative structures our perception of both cultural artifacts and the world around us. The study of narrative is particularly important since our ordering of time and space in narrative forms constitutes one of the primary ways we construct meaning in general. As Hayden White puts it, “far from being one code among many that a culture may utilize for endowing experience with meaning, narrative is a meta-code, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted” (Content 1).
Players include: PETER BROOKS, ROLAND BARTHES, ALGIRDAS GREIMAS.
New Historicists are, like the Cultural Materialists, interested in questions of circulation, negotiation, profit and exchange , i.e. how activities that purport to be above the market (including literature) are in fact informed by the values of that market. However, New Historicists take this position further by then claiming that all cultural activities may be considered as equally important texts for historical analysis: contemporary trials of hermaphrodites or the intricacies of map-making may inform a Shakespeare play as much as, say, Shakespeare’s literary precursors
Players include: MICHEL FOUCAULT, STEPHEN GREENBLATT.
I will attempt to be consistent in using “postmodernism” to refer to a group of critics who, inspired often by the postmodern culture in which they live, attempt to rethink a number of concepts held dear by Enlightenment humanism and many modernists, including subjectivity, temporality, referentiality, progress, empiricism, and the rule of law. “Postmodernism” also refers to the aesthetic/cultural products that treat and often critique aspects of “postmodernity.”
Players include: LINDA HUTCHEON, JEAN BAUDRILLARD, FREDRIC JAMESON.
Psychoanalytical criticism aims to show that a literary or cultural work is always structured by complex and often contradictory human desires. Whereas New Historicism and Marx-inspired Cultural Materialism analyze public power structures from, respectively, the top and bottom in terms of the culture as a whole, psychoanalysis analyzes microstructures of power within the individual and within small-scale domestic environments. That is, it analyzes the interiority of the self and of the self’s kinship systems. By analyzing the formation of the individual, however, psychoanalysis also helps us to understand the formation of ideology at largeâ€”and can therefore be extended to the analysis of various cultural and societal phenomena. Indeed, for this reason, psychoanalysis has been especially influential over the last two decades in culture studies and film analysis.
Players include: SIGMUND FREUD, JACQUES LACAN, JULIA KRISTEVA.