Some Characteristics of Contemporary Theory

© 1997, 2000 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.
As are all of my posts for this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me.

Contemporary Literary Theory is not a single thing but a collection of theoretical approaches which are marked by a number of premises, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of the them.

1.   Meaning is assumed to be created by difference, not by "presence," (that is, identity with the object of meaning). As the revisionist Freudian Jacques Lacan remarks, a sign signals the absence of that which it signifies. Signs do not directly represent the reality to which they refer, but (following the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure) mean by difference from other words in a concept set. All meaning is only meaning in reference to, and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense. Meanings are multiple, changing, contextual.

2.   There is no foundational 'truth' or reality in the universe (as far as we can know)--no absolutes, no eternalities, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There are only local and contingent truths generated by human groups through their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, values and identity are cultural constructs, not stable entities. Even the unconscious is a cultural construct, as Kaja Silverman points out in The Subject of Semiotics, in that the unconscious is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is culturally formulated.

3.   Language is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are not be fully aware. Contemporary theory attempts to explore the implications (i.e., the inter-foldings, from 'plier', to fold) of levels of meaning in language.

4.   Language itself always has excessive signification, that is, it always means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context; signification is always 'spilling over', especially in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature' are. This excessive signification is created in part by the rhetorical, or tropic, characteristics of language (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else, as in a metaphor, a metonym, or irony), and the case is made by Paul de Man that there is an inherent opposition (or undecidability, or aporia) between the grammatical and the rhetorical operations of language.

5.   It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to culture and meaning. Humans 'are' their symbol systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their meanings are contingent, relational, dynamic.

6.   The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use.

7.   A text is, as the etymology of the word "text" proclaims, a tissue, a woven thing (L. texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts, echoes of which it continually evokes (filiations, these echoes are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices, and woven of the play of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it properly be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process of engagements. Literary Theory advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminancy of this tissue until not only the full implications of the multiplicities but the contradictions inevitably inherent in them become more apparent.

8.   The borders of literature are challenged by the ideas

    a) that all texts share common traits, for instance that they all are constructed of rhetorical, tropic, linguistic and narrative elements, and

    b) that all experience can be viewed as a text: experience insofar as it is knowable is consequently symbolically configured, and human activity and even perception is both constructed and known through the conventions of social practice; hence as a constructed symbolic field experience is textual.

While on the one hand this blurring of differentiation between 'literature' and other texts may seem to make literature less privileged, on the other hand it opens those non-literary (but not non-imaginative, and only problematically non-fictional) texts, including 'social texts', the grammars and vocabularies of social action and cultural practice, up to the kind of complex analysis that literature has been opened to.

9.  So the nature of language and meaning is seen as more intricate, potentially more subversive, more deeply embedded in psychic, linguistic and cultural processes, more areas of experience are seen as textual, and texts are seen as more deeply embedded in and constitutive of social processes.


None of these ideas shared by contemporary theories are new to the intellectual traditions of our culture. It appears to many, however, that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental values of literature and literary study: that it attacks the customary belief that literature draws on and creates meanings that reflect and affirm our central (essential, human, lasting) values; that it attacks the privileged meaningfulness of 'literature'; that it attacks the idea that a text is authored, that is, that the authority for its meaningfulness rests on the activity of an individual; that it attacks the trust that the text that is read can be identified in its intentions and meanings with the text that was written; and ultimately that it attacks the very existence of value and meaning itself, the ground of meaningfulness, rooted in the belief in those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based.

On the other hand, 'theory people' point out that theory does is not erase literature but expands the concept of the literary and renews the way texts in all areas of intellectual disciplines are or can be read; that it explores the full power of meaning and the full embeddedness of meanings in their historical placement; that it calls for a more critical, more flexible reading.

It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often skeptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or merely cleverly playful. The issue is whether theory has good reasons for the questioning of the assumptions, and whether it can lead to practice that is in fact productive.