Lecture: How Critical Theory Works - Deconstructive, African American, Postcolonial, LGBQ, and New Historical Criticisms
Lecturer: Ian Hayes
Teacher bio: http://peoplescolloquium.org/teacher-bios/
Why do we read literature? George Eliot suggested that art “is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow people beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” What we read has an enormous impact on the way we think about ourselves and interact with others. It can inspire us to perform great or terrible deeds; however, that’s not exactly why we read.
We read, simply because “it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on––because it is alive and we are alive”, not for any real proscriptive purpose. Some books have the high-minded aim of making their readers better people while others are focused solely on being a joy to read. A great book does both––it’s pleasant and beautiful in a way that makes us stay with it so that by the end we learn something about ourselves, or about human nature, or the universe in which we live.
Some literature does the opposite; it encourages us to look down on each other, fills our heads with misinformation, and stirs up conflict between us, even though it may be an enjoyable read. How do we know which is which, and what sort of effect it’s having on us? Can we choose books that we know would improve our character?
Plato lamented the static nature of literature, saying, “you’d think [the words] were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, they continue to signify just that very same thing forever.” The author was already dead in Plato’s mind, and he saw no way to learn about a text’s motivations and capabilities without one.
Fortunately for us, the intervening years have brought a useful tool to help us understand a given work in terms of its production, its meaning, its design, and its beauty––without the author present. Literary criticism enables us to uncover the meaning of what we read, and understand its effect on us. This lecture on critical theory will attempt to explain the assumptions and values upon which various forms of literary criticism rest. Specifically, this lecture will focus on Deconstructive, African American, Postcolonial, LGBQ, and New Historical Criticisms. By familiarizing ourselves with the key concepts composing these theories, we will be able to broaden our perspective on how literature affects us and why.
 George Eliot, The Natural History of German Life (1856), 2.
 James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York: Farrar, Starus, and Giroux, 2008), 170.
 Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-e.