Critical Concepts & Critical Theory

From Criticism to Critical Theory

In literary studies – and in the humanities at large – the critic plays a crucial role. But what does it mean to be a critic?

In academia, the idea of criticism is closely connected to certain points of view. Some of these are quite accessible and broadly defined. One example of this is the notion that texts are not “just entertainment” and not just artistic expression in a vacuum. Instead, texts present social commentary.

Looking at texts in this way, obviously, will affect our interpretations. Looking at texts in this way will even define a text’s meaning for us, transforming a detective novel into a commentary on violence and uncertainty in the modern age.

The critical concepts and critical theories that inform academic writing have this framing function in common. They help us decide what to look for in a text. They help us decide what our interpretations and analysis should focus on.

Framing – the function of providing a specific context to the interpretation of a text or work of art; the limitation of one’s perspective to a set of predetermined parameters

Applying critical concepts and critical theory can be fun. It’s like joining a video game with a character that has specific powers and abilities. Yes, we are somewhat limited by our character’s profile, but we’re also empowered to play the game a certain way.

Exploring Critical Concepts

What’s the point of applying critical concepts and critical theory?

In applying these critical theories we see that there are multiple ways to analyze complex texts. We also see that our own perspectives can be informed by these developed critical approaches. Our own perspectives and interpretations end up being nuanced, complex and flexible.

We develop some “critical distance” between ourselves and the text. 

Critical Distance: a situation where a space exists between the reader/viewer and a text.

The space is “filled” with numerous ideas as to how to approach a text, analyze a text, and construct meaning from a text.

When we apply a critical theory, we are intentionally narrowing our reading of a text.

  • We are applying a very specific point of view.
  • This focuses our interpretations and leads to certain conclusions about a text.
  • This also limits the possible arguments we will make about a text.

Put another way, the theory we choose to apply will determine the kinds of questions we pose when analyzing a text.

Exploring Critical Theory

Critical Approaches

There are many ways to read a text. Schools of critical theory provide distinct (and often overlapping) ways of framing literature and art. In academics, critical theory is often applied to help contextualize a work of art and so shape the conversation around that text in meaningful, albeit rather highly determined ways.

For instance, Jungian Psychoanalytic critical theory looks at literature in light of symbols and archetypes, using Carl Jung’s views on psychology as the basis for literary interpretation. Other schools of critical theory approach literature from a social-political standpoint, looking for ways that power, gender, class and race function within a text. These schools of theory include Marxist critical theory, Feminist critical theory, and Post-Colonial critical theory.

Aristotle’s Aesthetic Theory: Tragedy

Some of the oldest critical theories take an approach that beginning college students are already somewhat familiar with, assessing the traditional literary qualities of the text: story, structure, character, climax, language, etc. These last critical theories fall into the general category of Aesthetic Theory or Formalist critical theory.

Critical Discourse Analysis, Semiotics, & Rhetorical Analysis
When we take popular culture like films, television, and advertisements as texts for analysis, we are engaging what is broadly called in cultural criticism. This branch of study is informed by overlapping critical ideas relating to the ways that values are communicated on various levels through signs, symbols, and iconography.

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