An Introduction to Criticism: Literature - Film - Culture

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They tend to do so, however, neither by adding books and movies and television sitcoms to the old list of texts that every "culturally literate" person should supposedly know, nor by substituting for it some kind of Counterculture Canon. Rather, they tend to combat the canon by critiquing the very idea of canon. Cultural critics want to get us away from thinking about certain works as the "best" ones produced by a given culture and therefore as the novels that best represent American culture. They seek to be more descriptive and less evaluative, more interested in relating than rating cultural products and events.


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It is not surprising, then, that in an article on "The Need for Cultural Studies," four groundbreaking cultural critics have written that "Cultural Studies should. Perhaps most important, critics doing cultural studies should counter the prevalent notion that culture is some wholeness that has already been formed. Culture, rather, is really a set of interactive cultures , alive and growing and changing, and cultural critics should be present- and even future-oriented.

Cultural critics should be "resisting intellectuals," and cultural studies should be "an emancipatory project" Giroux The paragraphs above are peppered with words like oppose, counter, deny, resist, combat, abandon, and emancipatory. What such words suggest--and quite accurately--is that a number of cultural critics view themselves in political, even oppositional, terms.

Not only are cultural critics likely to take on the literary canon while offering political readings of popular films, but they are also likely to take on the institution of the university, for that is where the old definitions of culture as High Culture and as something formed and finished and canonized have been most vigorously preserved, defended, and reinforced. Cultural critics have been especially critical of the departmental structure of universities, for that structure, perhaps more than anything else, has kept the study of the "arts" more or less distinct from the study of history, not to mention from the study of such things as television, film, advertising, journalism, popular photography, folklore, current affairs, shoptalk, and gossip.

But such a suggestion, cultural critics would argue, keeps us from seeing the aesthetics of an advertisement as well as the propagandistic elements of a work of literature. For these reasons, cultural critics have mixed and matched the most revealing analytical procedures developed in a variety of disciplines, unabashedly jettisoning the rest.

Some initially loose interdisciplinary networks have, over time, solidified to become Cultural Studies programs and majors, complete with courses on comics and surveys of soaps. As this has happened, a significant if subtle danger has arisen. Cultural critics, Richard Johnson has warned, must strive diligently to keep cultural studies from becoming a discipline unto itself--one in which students encounter cartoons as a canon and belief in the importance of such popular forms as an "orthodoxy" The only principles that critics doing cultural studies can doctrinally espouse, Johnson suggests, are the two that have thus far been introduced: namely, the principle that "culture" has been an "inegalitarian" concept, a "tool" of "condescension," and the belief that a new, "interdisciplinary and sometimes antidisciplinary " approach to true culture that is, to the forms in which culture actually lives now is required now that history and art and media are so complex and interrelated Johnson, ironically, played a major part in the institutionalization of cultural studies.

The fact that the Centre was founded in the mids is hardly surprising; cultural criticism, based as it is on a critique of elitist definitions of culture, spoke powerfully to and gained great energy and support from a decade of student unrest and revolt. The fact that the first center for cultural studies was founded in England, in Europe, is equally unsurprising.

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Although the United States has probably contributed more than any other nation to the media through which culture currently lives, critics in Europe, drawing upon the ideas of both Marxist and non-Marxist theorists, first articulated the need for something like what we now call cultural criticism or cultural studies. Indeed, to this day, European critics are more involved than Americans, not only in the analysis of popular cultural forms and products but also in the analysis of human subjectivity or consciousness as a form or product of culture. Among the early continental critics now seen as forerunners of present-day cultural critics were those belonging to the Annales school, so-called because of the name of the journal that Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre launched, in France, in Annales: Economies, Societes, Civilizations.

Both firstand second-generation Annales school critics warn against the development of "topics" of study by cultural critics--unless those same critics are bent on "developing. At the same time, interested as they are in cohesion, Annales school critics have warned against seeing the "rituals and other forms of symbolic action" as "express[ing] a central, coherent, communal meaning. Michel Foucault is another strong, continental influence on present--day cultural criticism--and perhaps the strongest influence on American cultural criticism and the so-called new historicism, an interdisciplinary form of historical criticism whose evolution has often paralleled that of cultural criticism.

Influenced by early Annales critics and contemporary Marxists but neither an Annales critic nor a Marxist himself , Foucault sought to study cultures in terms of power relationships. Unlike Marxists and some Annales school critics, he refused to see power as something exercised by a dominant over a subservient class. Indeed, he emphasized that power is not just repressive power: a tool of conspiracy by one individual or institution against another.

Power, rather, is a whole complex of forces; it is that which produces what happens. Foucault tried to view all things, from punishment to sexuality, in terms of the widest possible variety of discourses. As a result, he traced the "genealogy" of topics he studied through texts that more traditional historians and literary critics would have overlooked, looking at in Lynn Hunt's words "memoirs of deviants, diaries, political treatises, architectural blueprints, court records, doctors' reports--applying consistent principles of analysis in search of moments of reversal in discourse, in search of events as loci of the conflict where social practices were transformed" Hunt Of the British influences on cultural studies and criticism as it is today, several have already been mentioned.

Of those who have not, two early forerunners stand out. One of these, the Marxist critic E.

Literature - Film - Culture

Thompson, revolutionized study of the industrial revolution by writing about its impact on human attitudes, even consciousness. He showed how a shared cultural view, specifically that of what constitutes a fair or just price, influenced crowd behavior and caused such things as the food riots and rick burnings of the nineteenth century. The other, even greater, early British influence on contemporary cultural criticism and cultural studies was the late Raymond Williams. In works like The Long Revolution and Culture and Society: , Williams demonstrated that culture is not a fixed and finished but, rather a living and changing; thing.

One of the changes he called for was the development of a common socialist culture. Like Marxists, with whom he often both argued and sympathized, Williams viewed culture in relation to ideologies, what he termed the "residual," "dominant," or "emerging" ways of viewing the world held by classes or individuals holding power in a given social group.

But unlike Thompson and Richard Hoggart, he avoided emphasizing social classes and class conflict in discussing those forces most powerfully shaping and changing culture. And, unlike certain continental Marxists, he could never see the cultural "superstructure" as being a more or less simple "reflection" of the economic "base. A believer in the resiliency of the individual, he produced a body of criticism notable for what Hall has called its "humanism" As is clear from the paragraphs above, the emergence and evolution of cultural studies or criticism are difficult to separate entirely from the development of Marxist thought.

Marxism is, in a sense, the background to the background of most cultural criticism, and some contemporary cultural critics consider themselves Marxist critics as well. Of particular importance to the evolution of cultural criticism are the works of Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin was a Russian, later a Soviet, critic so original in his thinking and wide-ranging in his influence that some would say he was never a Marxist at all. He viewed language--especially literary texts--in terms of discourses and dialogues between discourses.

Within a novel written in a society in flux, for instance, the narrative may include an official, legitimate discourse, plus another infiltrated by challenging comments and even retorts. In a book on Dostoyevsky and a study Rabelais and His World , Bakhtin examined what he calls "polyphonic" novels, each characterized by a multiplicity of voices or discourses.

In Dostoyevsky the independent status of a given character is marked by the difference of his or her language from that of the narrator. The narrator's voice, too, can in fact be a dialogue. In works by Rabelais, Bakhtin finds that the profane language of the carnival and of other popular festivities play against and parody the more official discourses, that is, of the magistrates or the Church.

Bakhtin influenced modern cultural criticism by showing, in a sense, that the conflict between "high" and "low" culture takes place not only between classic and popular texts but also between the "dialogic" voices that exist within all great books.

An Introduction to Criticism: Literature, Film, Culture

Walter Benjamin was a German Marxist who, during roughly the same period, attacked certain conventional and traditional literary forms that he felt conveyed a stultifying "aura" of culture. He took this position in part because so many previous Marxist critics and, in his own day, Georg Lukacs, had seemed to be stuck on appreciating nineteenth-century realistic novels-and opposed to the modernist works of their own time. Benjamin not only praised modernist movements, such as Dadaism, but also saw as hopeful the development of new art forms utilizing mechanical production and reproduction.


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These forms, including radio and films, offered the promise of a new definition of culture via a broader, less exclusive domain of the arts. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist best known for his Prison Notebooks first published as Lettere dal caracere in , critiqued the very concept of literature and, beyond that, of culture in the old sense, stressing not only the importance of culture more broadly defined but the need for nurturing and developing proletarian, or working-class, culture.

He suggested the need to view intellectuals politically--and the need for what he called "radical organic" intellectuals. Today's cultural critics calling for colleagues to "legitimate the notion of writing reviews and books for the general public," to "become involved in the political reading of popular culture," and, in general, to "repoliticize.

Finally, and most important, Gramsci related literature to the ideologies of the culture that produced it and developed the concept of "hegemony," a term he used to describe the pervasive, weblike system of meanings and values--ideologies--that shapes the way things look, what they mean and, therefore, what reality is for the majority of people within a culture.

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Gramsci did not see people, even poor people, as the helpless victims of hegemony, as ideology's idiotic robots. Rather, he believed that people have the freedom and power to struggle against ideology, to alter hegemony. As Patrick Brantlinger has suggested in Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America , Gramsci's thought is unspoiled by the "intellectual arrogance that views the vast majority of people as deluded zombies, the victims or creatures of ideology" Of those Marxists who, after Gramsci, explored the complex relationship between literature and ideology, the French Marxist Louis Althusser also had a significant impact on cultural criticism.

Unlike Gramsci, Althusser tended to see ideology in control of people, and not vice versa. He argued that the main function of ideology is to reproduce the society's existing relations of production, and that that function is even carried out in most literary texts, although literature is relatively autonomous from other "social formations. In many ways, though, Althusser is as good an example of where Marxism and cultural criticism part ways as he is of where cultural criticism is indebted to Marxists and their ideas.

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For although Althusser did argue that literature is relatively autonomous--more independent of ideology than, say, Church, press, or State--he meant by literature not just literature in the narrow sense but something even narrower. He meant Good Literature, certainly not the popular forms that present-day cultural critics would want to set beside Tolstoy and Joyce, Eliot and Brecht. Those popular fictions, Althusser assumed, were mere packhorses designed however unconsciously to carry the baggage of a culture's ideology, mere brood mares destined to reproduce it.

F R Leavis and Raymond Williams - Two Very Different Positions on 'Culture'

Thus, while cultural critics have embraced both Althusser's notion that works of literature reflect certain ideological formations and his notion that, at the same time, literary works may be relatively distant from or even resistant to ideology, they have rejected the narrow limits within which Althusser and other Marxists have defined literature. In "Marxism and Popular Fiction" , Tony Bennett uses "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and another British television show, "Not the 9 o'clock News," to argue that the Althusserian notion that all forms of popular culture are to be included "among [all those] many material forms which ideology takes.

Although there are Marxist cultural critics Bennett himself is one, carrying on through his writings what may be described as a lover's quarrel with Marxism , most cultural critics are not Marxists in any strict sense. Anne Beezer, in writing about such things as advertisements and women's magazines, contests the "Althusserian view of ideology as the construction of the subject" qtd. That is to say, she gives both the media she is concerned with and their audiences more credit than Althusserian Marxists presumably would.

Whereas they might argue that such media make people what they are, she points out that the same magazines that may, admittedly, tell women how to please their men may, at the same time, offer liberating advice to women about how to preserve their independence by not getting too serious romantically. And, she suggests, many advertisements advertise their status as ads, just as many people who view or read them see advertising as advertising and interpret it accordingly.

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The complex and subtle sort of analysis that Beezer has brought to bear on women's magazines and advertisements has been focused on paperback romance novels by Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, in Loving with a Vengeance and Reading the Romance , respectively. Radway, a feminist cultural critic who uses but finally exceeds Marxist critical discourse, points out that many women who read romances do so in order to carve out a time and space that is wholly their own, not to be intruded upon by their husband or children. Also, Radway argues, such novels may end in marriage, but the marriage is usually between a feisty and independent heroine and a powerful man she has "tamed," that is, made sensitive and caring.

And why do so many such stories involve such heroines and end as they do? Because, Radway demonstrates through painstaking research into publishing houses, bookstores, and reading communities, their consumers want them to be that way. They don't buy--or, if they buy they don't recommend--romances in which, for example, a heroine is raped: thus, in time, fewer and fewer such plots find their way onto the racks by the supermarket checkout. Radway's reading is typical of feminist cultural criticism in that it is political--but not exclusively about oppression.

The subjectivities of women may be "produced" by romances--that is, their thinking is governed by what they read--but the same women also govern, to some extent, what gets written or produced, thus doing "cultural work" of their own. Rather than seeing all forms of popular culture as manifestations of ideology, soon to be remanifested in the minds of victimized audiences, non-Marxist cultural critics tend to see a sometimes disheartening but always dynamic synergy between cultural forms and the culture's consumers.

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