Liberal humanism vs critical theory.
There are many ways why people study literature, one being that it emancipates us from the notions and habits of our every day life but instead, gives us something fixed and enduring. It was also believed that literature was studied to spread middle class values all around the world.
There are two tracks of literary theory, one being created by I.A Richards in which he discussed ‘practical criticism’ or close reading as we know it. This theory insists that the best way to study literature was to study the text itself, disregarding anything outside of the text, including the author, historical context or any reviews of critics of the text. In summary, this meant the text should be an isolated subject. The second track of literary theory looks at the text as a key to understanding questions and ideas beyond the text. Rather then centring on the text alone, it looks at the ‘big picture’ questions.
Current liberal humanism ideas come from both tracks, we begin the understand how the ‘words on the page’ are the foundation for any critical analysis. Both ‘tracks’ shared certain fundamentalist ideas called the tenets of liberal humanism. The tenets are as follows; Good literature is timeless, texts contain meaning within itself, texts should be studied in isolation, texts hold universal truths, in texts, form and content are fused together, literary works speaks truth about the human condition.
Although in the 1960’s, liberal humanism started to lose its credibility. Literary critics responded to the social and political questions arising about society, race, gender and sexuality by asking weather these ‘timeless universal truths’ were really timeless or universal. They asked is shake spear really universal or did he write as a white male in the 16th century, can everyone relate to his work?
Many writers in the 20th century questioned the tenets of liberal humanism. This included Marxist and psychoanalytic theorists who payed attention to how society, class and sexuality function in producing literature as well as authors and readers who challenged liberal humanism constantly. These critical theories throw all of the liberal humanism assumptions up in the air. The first critical theory is the idea that things we have thought as a constant, including our own identity are not stable or fixed but rather are fluid. Theorists also discuss objectivity, the idea that everyone someone thinks or does is in some degree the product of one’s past experiences, their beliefs and ideologies. Critical theorists agree that language is the most important factor in shaping all of our ideas about life, literature and the world. But rather then language reflecting the ‘real world’ language actually constructs our perspective of reality. Another theory is because all truth is relative, all supposedly ‘essential’ constants are fluid and language determines reality.
These critical theories conclude that there is no such thing as definite meaning, there is only ambiguity and multiple meanings in literary texts and because of the idea of ‘relativism’ there is no such thing as a ‘total’ theory.