We take language for granted. We assume that it is naturally a stable, reliable means of communicating our thoughts and experience. As we saw in Structuralist Criticism, language doesn’t refer to things in the world, but rather only to our concepts of things in the world. Deconstruction suggests that even those concepts are beyond the grasp of language, and all we can hope for instead are a series of signifiers––references upon references––and the only meaning we can hope to derive from it is “the result of the differences by which we distinguish one signifier from another.”
In other words, everything you think you know is actually a continually changing combination of signifiers that mean different things to us and the people around us when presented in context. Furthermore, according to Deconstructive Criticism, the language that mediates our experience is wholly ideological, consisting of numerous conflicting systems of beliefs and values.
So why use language at all if it pretends to refer to a stable meaning that doesn’t actually exist?
During this discussion, we’ll review Chapter 8, Deconstructive Criticism, from Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today.
Critical Theory tries to explain the various forms of Literary Criticism and the assumptions and values upon which they rest. The focus of this chapter is to outline those areas of Deconstructive Criticism––concepts such as signs, the combination of a signifier (a sound, image, or gesture) and the signified (the concept to which the signifier refers)––that are useful to literary criticism and to show how this view of human behavior is relevant to our experience of literature.
Chapter 8 – Deconstructive Criticism by Lois Tyson
We request that our participants read the text in advance if possible, however, all are welcome to attend even if it wasn’t possible to read the text in advance. The first portion of our discussion will focus on understanding the text.
The second portion of the discussion will be devoted to answering the following question: What do we learn about the ideology or ideologies operating in the text by analyzing the text’s self-contradictions rather than by trying to resolve those contradictions into some overarching theme?
People’s Dialogues: Reading Critical Theory
Literary Criticism tries to explain the work to us in terms of its production, its meaning, its design, and its beauty. Critical Theory (or Literary Theory), tries to explain the assumptions and values upon which various forms of Literary Criticism rest. By familiarizing ourselves with the language each theory speaks, with the key concepts on which each theory is grounded, these discussions will prepare us to understand the ongoing debates both within and among critical theories.
With Lois Tyson’s Critical Theory Today as our textbook, we will study a number of theories in succession, not just because it’s important to consider multiple viewpoints if we want to see the whole picture, but also because grasping the process of understanding that underlies human experience can increase our ability to see both the value and the limitations of any method of viewing the world.
Theory, Criticism, and Society: 10/2018 – 3/2019
During this semester, we’ll explore ideas from theory and criticism focusing on art, literature, music, and culture, with the further intention of applying such ideas to the creation and organization of society. Our goal is to deepen our understanding of theory and criticism, and to broaden our perspective of the world we live in—and the possibilities open to us.