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Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Brief Introduction to Twentieth Century Critical Traditions

The twentieth century was marked by many diverse ideas and traditions in criticism. Certain colossal events have profoundly shaped the worlds of literature and criticism. These events included the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, World War I (1914-1918), the great economic depression of the 1930s, World War II (1938-1945), the Cold war between the capitalist nations and the communist bloc, decolonization of many nations, fall of Soviet Union, change of bipolar world into a uni polar world, emergence of the so-called "Third World" etc. Also the student movements attained strength and became more active during this period. The consequent psychological and material devastation after the World Wars led thinkers in all domains to question both heritage of the Enlightenment and the very foundations of Western civilization. The two World Wars, the rise of Fascism, the depression, and decolonization had a profound impact on literature and criticism. A long period from 1947 to 1973 witnessed a considerable growth and prosperity, which harboured the greatest and most rapid economic and cultural transformations in recorded history. Modern criticism and theory has broadened to encompass all these devastation and developments the twentieth century world experienced.

The two dominant intellectual literary traditions of this time were the German Tradition and the French Tradition. One of the main philosophical idea from the stream of German tradition is 'Phenomenology'. Phenomenology  is the philosophical study of the structures of subjective experience and consciousness. As a philosophical movement it was founded in the early years of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl and was later expanded upon by a circle of his followers at the universities of Gottingen and Munich in Germany. In Husserl's conception, it is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This ontology can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another. This theory was later followed and developed by other philosophers like Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Emmanuel Levinas etc.

From the French tradition  there came Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure (A Swiss linguist but deeply rooted in French ideas) and major theories like psychoanalysis, structuralism, post structuralism etc. Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called "the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud". He influenced many leading French intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially those associated with post structuralism. Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytical theory is another important theory in French tradition that has brought significant changes in the twentieth century. This school of thought emphasized the influence of the unconscious mind on behaviour. It has influenced French feminism and other dominant traditions of feminism. The two keywords those were dominant all around twentieth century were 'sign' and 'subject'. Levi Strauss(America), Prague school of linguistics(Russia), Roland Barthe (France), Lacan(France), feminists, Derrida etc were strictly adhered to the term 'sign'. The term 'subject' was very much used by Lacan, Derrida and feminists. Lacan brought together both the terms 'sign' and 'subject' together for the first time.

Pinto, Anil. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 07 Nov.                 2013. 

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 07 November. Prepared by Anantha Narayanan)

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