What is the difference between the Formalist and Deconstructionist schools of literary criticism?

The difference between the Formalist and Deconstructionist schools of literary criticism is that the former emphasizes finding the unity or coherence in a literary text while the latter focuses on the contradictions, silences, and disunities in a text.

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Formalism and Deconstructionism are both schools of literary criticism, but they look at texts in completely different ways. Formalism focuses on the text itself in its various elements without regard to its context. It pays no attention to author, era of creation, or historical setting. Formalists believe that everything necessary to understand a text is found within the text itself. Therefore, they concentrate on elements like structure, imagery, unity, figurative language, rhythms and rhymes, ambiguity, tension, argument, contradictions, tone, content, and quality of writing. Formalist scholars closely examine all of these elements—and whatever else they find of interest in the text—to determine how they work together to affect readers and produce meaning.

Deconstruction, on the other hand, denies that texts have fixed meanings. Language, according to this theory, produces various images in different people and therefore is not stable. The text cannot mean merely what its words, or signs, mean. Deconstructionists, therefore, take texts apart to examine their contradictions and “mutually irreconcilable positions,” as critic Paul de Man put it. Deconstructionists look at texts' historical contexts in order see how the texts are rooted in culture processes but also to break down the notion of authorship—texts escape their authors' control and cannot be owned—and to show how a text is an instrument of power. To deconstructionists, texts will always be elusive, contradictory, and uncontrollable.

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Formalism refers to schools of literary interpretation that arose in the early twentieth century in opposition to what many scholars at the time believed was undue dependence on tracing connections to an author's biography or investigating allusions to other texts. The New Critics and Russian Formalists wanted to bring the focus back to the words of the text itself and interpret them apart from any distorting outside influences. This approach, with its emphasis on close reading, is still a core aspect of criticism today. In high school English classes, for example, students close read literary texts, discerning plot, theme, setting, characterization, literary devices, and ambiguity. This approach often looks for unifying symbols, words, and themes that make sense of the text as a whole and point to a coherent, overarching meaning.

Deconstruction is based on the opposite idea that texts are inherently self-contradictory and that their meaning lies as much outside the words on the page—in the margins, silences, or unquestioned assumptions a text makes—as in the words themselves. When texts like the Iliad, for example, remain silent about the moral horror of slavery or rape, that silence can be interpreted as a tacit reflection of ancient Greek moral codes. Deconstructive readings are also often interested in identifying and critiquing the power structures at play in a text, such as those that would condone the aforementioned practices in the Iliad.

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One way to look at formalist criticism is to see it as a modern version of the kind of rhetorical criticism that has a long and valuable tradition in the history of western literature. Rhetorical criticism was very prominent, for instance, during the age of William Shakespeare. Goerge Puttenham'sThe Arte of English Poesie, for instance, is just one of many such treatises written during the so-called English Renaissance. Puttenham and other writers like him are interested in the nitty-gritty details of poetic phrasing to a degree that is still astonishing. Thus, one standard charge against formalism -- that it is ahistorical and anachronistic, an invention of the twentieth century that has been imposed on literature of the past -- is difficult to accept.

It is true that formalism was revived and more thoroughly articulated in the 1920s and 30s by the so-called "New Critics," who merely argued that literature should be read as literature-- that is, as writing that calls attention to itself as writing. For a magisterial defense of this position, see the book titled Theory of Literature, by Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, which remains impressive decades after it was first published.  

One main objection to formalism by later schools, including deconstruction, is the assertion that formalists look for (and inevitably find) "unity" in works of literature and that this unity is imposed rather than genuinely present in "the work itself" (a favorite New Critical phrase). In contrast, deconstruction (as the very term suggests) looks for ways in which any work inevitably lacks unity and is riven by contradictions. Deconstructors also try to collapse neat distinctions, such as the distinction between "fiction" and "history," showing how such terms cannot be easily distinguished from one another.

Most of the standard charges against formalism -- such as the claim that it tends to ignore historical and social contexts -- are not entirely fair, and in any case it is easy enough to imagine a kind of formalism that avoids such charges. Thus, so-called "historical formalism" has been one response to these kinds of allegations. In general, formalism seems to be making a bit of a come-back these days after having been attacked for half a century. People once again seem increasingly interested in reading literature as language that calls attention to itself as language.

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The term "formalism" is normally used by post-modernist or post-structuralist critics to refer to structuralist or New Critical approaches to literature. It is often used in a reductionist manner, and refers to the practice of what I. A. Richards called "practical criticism" and is pedagogically termed "close reading" of looking carefully, word by word, at a work (usually a poem) and analysing its stylistic and formal characteristics (meter, figures of speech, patterns of imagery, etc.) with looking at such matters as historical or cultural background. Under this definition, deconstruction, unlike new historicism or gender theory, is actually a type of formalist criticism, despite deconstructionists' habits of critiquing and distancing themselves from New Criticism.

Deconstruction is a post-structuralist movement associated with Jacques Derrida, that searches for hidden assumptions or binary oppositions in texts and attempts to invert or collapse them.

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