Cultural Criticism

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Poststructuralist and postmodern cultural criticismCriticism;postmodern

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An important step toward expanding the scope of studies by cultural critics occurred during the 1960’s. Academics influenced by Marxist and other leftist ideologies began highlighting the unspoken ideology behind mainstream ideas about high culture, exposing its inherently elitist, racist, and gender-biased view of society that privileged certain elite groups while marginalizing most others. The study of culture as a critique of mainstream society was the principal aim of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, established in 1964 by Richard Hoggart at the University of Birmingham in England. Hoggart and his colleagues applied a variety of new and traditional theories to examinations of literary works to expose the ideology behind them. In the view of these new cultural critics, any literary work had value as a cultural text. As a consequence, the academic study of poetry changed not only in its methodology but also in its selection of subject matter. Practitioners of the then-new cultural studies, for example, were as apt to study song lyrics as they were sonnets.

This new form of cultural criticism had been influenced by numerous philosophical studies of culture, largely European in origin. The Frankfurt School, a group of writers and thinkers guided by Marxist ideology, produced a series of leftist tracts on the inherent weaknesses of Western society and its principal institutions; their work came to be known as critical theory. Writings by members Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin began to have an influence on literary studies shortly after the end of World War II. Another impetus for a revaluation of the idea of culture was provided by the Italian critic Antonio Gramsci, who promoted the notion that critics should be engaged directly with social issues and should use their work as weapons for social change.

Cultural commentary by such French theorists as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, as well as by the Belgian theorist Paul de Man, have had perhaps the greatest impact on American cultural critics, who have been strong in replacing old-style literary criticism with a more broadly based, interdisciplinary form of inquiry. The application of Marxist-style critiques of the Western canon in literature has had a profound effect on the study of poetry during the final four decades of the twentieth century, and has continued to shape literary criticism within academic institutions into the twenty-first century.

As Terry Eagleton explains in The Idea of Culture (2000), postmodern cultural critics have substituted Arnold’s definition of cultural criticism as a search for the best that has been thought and said with a mandate to provide a critique of a given society’s dominant ideology. Hence, rather than celebrate works that seem to uphold traditional humanist and Western values, they often point out the inadequacies, prejudices, or other shortcomings represented, often unconsciously, in such works.

Poststructuralist cultural critics, for example, see themselves at odds with two important critical traditions: humanism, with its totalizing morality disguised as aesthetics, and New Criticism, which insists on removing a literary text from its context (historical, political, or sociological) to consider the text exclusively as an aesthetic object. Poststructuralist critics examine poetry to determine the influence of cultural biases on the production and understanding of texts, often constructing radically new interpretations or revealing hidden subtexts that reshape conventional thinking about a poem’s meaning. Often applying theories of deconstruction and other poststructuralist theories, they champion readings of poems that highlight the indeterminacy of meaning. Poststructuralist cultural critics investigate the connections of individual poems with other realms of knowledge—literature, history, sociology, economics, science, and technology—to expose the ideology or belief...

(This entire section contains 890 words.)

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systems at work within the culture that influenced the poet either overtly or unconsciously. Hence, any critical enterprise that attempts to apply methodologies of historical, political, ethical, economic, scientific, or sociological inquiry on poetry can be viewed as cultural criticism. One of the important by-products of cultural criticism has been to explain how poems written in the past can take on cultural significance to contemporary readers.

Although not strictly a postmodern critic, the figure who most influenced cultural criticism in England during the second half of the twentieth century was Raymond Williams. Approaching literary study from a sociological perspective, and heavily influenced by Marxist theory, Williams treats art (including poetry) as part of the process by which a society creates conventions and institutions and communicates shared values. Williams also explored the differences between high culture (the kind Arnold, Leavis, and the New Humanists touted) and mass culture. In numerous books published between the 1950’s and his death in 1988, Williams examined the power structures at work behind individual texts that helped shape a work’s aesthetic appeal and its social or political message. For example, in The Country and the City (1973), Williams provides readings of a number of celebrated “country house” poems of the seventeenth century. Earlier readings of these poems tend to stress the poet’s desire to celebrate the house and its owner, usually a wealthy nobleman, and to contrast the serenity of country life with the hustle and bustle of public affairs. Williams’s leftist readings demonstrate how authors of these poems use a number of rhetorical strategies and literary tropes to gloss over the inequities of the social system that sustained the maintenance of these estates for the pleasure of the wealthy and elite.


Cultural criticism and the canon


The roots of cultural criticism