Critical Approaches
Post-Structural and postmodern

'Life imitates art far more than art imitates life'

Wilde, Oscar. 'The Decay of Lying'. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, p. 943.
Post-structural and postmodern theory are closely intertwined. They exhibit similar attitudes to conceptual thinking, but while postmodern criticism focuses primarily on the cultural ramifications of concepts and literature, post-structural criticism focuses on the semiotic aspects, i.e. aspects relating to language, signs and and the process of meaning.

Post-structural Criticism

multiplication of signs
Post-structural criticism is the study of how language generates signs and suggests meaning. The generation of signs and the process of deriving meaning from them is potentially infinite. Ultimately, no definitive or central meaning is to be had; it is perpetually postponed.

Post-structural theory in effect denies the possibility of determinate communication, as signs may multiply ad infinitum; we cannot say what we want to say or, at least, we cannot expect that our intention comes across.

concepts have no fixed meaning
In a philosophical sense, post-structuralism asserts that concepts are nothing but words with multiple associated meanings, determined by cultural and subjective perspective. Thus concepts such as Truth, Knowledge, self and reality are constructs with no fixed meaning and therefore not universal nor reliable referents.

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Postmodern Criticism

postmodern theory
Postmodern theory addresses the concerns, mechanics and expression of postmodernity, i.e. our contemporary cultural situation.

no absolutes
The postmodern expands the post-structural position on universal concepts to the extent of entirely rejecting them. Another word for these concepts is meta-narratives. A meta-narrative constitutes a narrative which transcends time and cultures, such as ideologies, like Marxism, God, or a prevailing concept perceived as universally or eternally valid, such as objective knowledge.

The postmodern position is that ultimately there are no absolutes or conditions, values or narratives which are not constructed. What we consider natural is in fact cultural. Made by us, not natural to us. In effect, fictions. In particular, the rejection of knowledge as objective, universal, available and verifiable is an important point held by the postmodern. The postmodern asserts that only the micro-narrative, i.e. a relative, particular perspective, is a potential source for any knowledge. There is no single truth, but many, as according to the postmodern concept of difference, i.e. the proposition that all perspectives are equally valid. There is, seemingly, no norm any more, no standard of reality.

literary realism undermined
In effect, postmodern and post-structural theory undermine many of the principal attitudes of literary realism which may with but few exceptions be construed as meta-narratives. Not only do they deny a potentially objective, knowable reality, but also that it is communicable. This suggests that literary realism is not feasible.

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Postmodern anti-realism

realism naturalises fictions
The postmodern and post-structural critique does not merely undermine literary realism. Many postmodern and post-structural critics have voiced the concern that realism in the arts, because it presents itself as a representation of reality, implies a norm of accepted reality and effects a naturalisation of fictions which encourage narrow-mindedness and perpetrate continued fictionalised categories of mankind and culture. The public are exposed to ideas about reality, society and human inter-relations, which are portrayed as truth, and the public accept this portrayal as truth and continue believing in outdated and potentially detrimental fictions.

realism is limiting
What is also suggested is that realism in the arts caters to our insecurities in an arguably unstable and unknowable world, by creating a fiction of a world which is stable and knowable, diverting our (willing) attention away from the potential possibilities which a fixed perception of the world denies. In effect, realism in art is charged with imposing a limitation on cultural development and we are charged with complicity.

Arguably, modern literary realism does not (always) claim to be a direct reflection of reality, and, indeed, has subverted existing perceptions of reality, revealing flaws and inconsistencies in those perceptions. But if communication is as uncertain as post-structural theory suggests, how can one be certain that the reader understands this?

Notwithstanding, there are works which have attempted to address the perception and representation of reality in a postmodern context.

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Suggested Further Reading

  • Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.
  • Agosti, Hector P. 'A Defense of Realism'. Documents of Modern Literary Realism, edited by George J. Becker, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 489-505.
  • Barthes, Roland. 'The Reality Effect'. French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, edited by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by R. Carter, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 11-17.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Impossible Exchange. Translated by Chris Turner, Verso, 2001.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Power, Polity Press, 1988.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant, Sage Publications, 1993.
  • Docherty, Thomas, editor. Postmodernism : A Reader. Pearson Education, 1993.
  • Eagleton , Terry. Literary Theory : An Introduction. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1996.
  • Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The John Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  • Morris, Pam. Realism. Routledge, 2003.
  • Wilde, Oscar. 'The Critic as Artist'. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, pp. 963-1016.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Modern Fiction'. Collected Essays, vol. 2, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 103-110.
  • Woolf, Virginia. 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown'. Collected Essays, vol. 1, Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 319-337.
Table of Contents


Difficulties of a Definition

Terminology and Aesthetics
- What is in a Word?
- the Real and the Realistic
- Reality and Fiction

a History of Literary Realism
- Introduction
- Early Literary Realism
- Late Literary Realism

What is Literary Realism?
- Approximating a Definition
- Attitudes
- Conventions

Critical Approaches
- Introduction
- Formalism
- Reader Response Theory
- Aesthetics
- Marxist Criticism
- Post-Structural Criticism
- Postmodern Criticism
- Postmodern Anti-Realism

Practical Appreciation
- Madame Bovary
- Everything is Illuminated

Study Proposals




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