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1997, 2000 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit
Contemporary Literary Theory is not a single thing but a collection of theoretical
approaches which are marked by a number of premises, although not all of the theoretical
approaches share or agree on all of the them.
1. Meaning is assumed to be created by difference, not by "presence," (that is, identity
with the object of meaning). As the revisionist Freudian Jacques Lacan remarks, a sign
signals the absence of that which it signifies. Signs do not directly represent the reality to
which they refer, but (following the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure) mean by
difference from other words in a concept set. All meaning is only meaning in reference to,
and in distinction from, other meanings; there is no meaning in any stable or absolute sense.
Meanings are multiple, changing, contextual.
2. There is no foundational 'truth' or reality in the universe (as far as we can know)--no
absolutes, no eternalities, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history.
There are only local and contingent truths generated by human groups through their cultural
systems in response to their needs for power, survival and esteem. Consequently, values
and identity are cultural constructs, not stable entities. Even the unconscious is a cultural
construct, as Kaja Silverman points out in The Subject of Semiotics, in that the unconscious
is constructed through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo is
culturally formulated.
3. Language is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we ordinarily suspect,
and what we take normally to be our meanings are only the surface of a much more
substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and cultural operations, of which operations we are
not be fully aware. Contemporary theory attempts to explore the implications (i.e., the
inter-foldings, from 'plier', to fold) of levels of meaning in language.

4. Language itself always has excessive signification, that is, it always means more than it
may be taken to mean in any one context; signification is always 'spilling over', especially
in texts which are designed to release signifying power, as texts which we call 'literature'
are. This excessive signification is created in part by the rhetorical, or tropic, characteristics
of language (a trope is a way of saying something by saying something else, as in a
metaphor, a metonym, or irony), and the case is made by Paul de Man that there is an
inherent opposition (or undecidability, or aporia) between the grammatical and the
rhetorical operations of language.
5. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is central to
culture and meaning. Humans 'are' their symbol systems, they are constituted through them,
and those systems and their meanings are contingent, relational, dynamic.
6. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through various means
such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking and bad faith, the meaning that is:
the world of meaning we think we occupy is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world
we do occupy is a construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that
shapes our world, including our 'selves', for our use.
7. A text is, as the etymology of the word "text" proclaims, a tissue, a woven thing (L.
texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts, echoes of which it continually evokes
(filiations, these echoes are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices,
and woven of the play of language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it
properly be reified, said to be 'a thing'; a text is a process of engagements. Literary Theory
advocates pushing against the depth, complexity and indeterminancy of this tissue until not
only the full implications of the multiplicities but the contradictions inevitably inherent in
them become more apparent.

8. The borders of literature are challenged by the ideas

a) that all texts share common traits, for instance that they all are constructed of
rhetorical, tropic, linguistic and narrative elements, and
b) that all experience can be viewed as a text: experience insofar as it is knowable is
consequently symbolically configured, and human activity and even perception is
both constructed and known through the conventions of social practice; hence as a
constructed symbolic field experience is textual.
While on the one hand this blurring of differentiation between 'literature' and other texts
may seem to make literature less privileged, on the other hand it opens those non-literary
(but not non-imaginative, and only problematically non-fictional) texts, including 'social
texts', the grammars and vocabularies of social action and cultural practice, up to the kind
of complex analysis that literature has been opened to.
9. So the nature of language and meaning is seen as more intricate, potentially more
subversive, more deeply embedded in psychic, linguistic and cultural processes, more areas
of experience are seen as textual, and texts are seen as more deeply embedded in and
constitutive of social processes.

None of these ideas shared by contemporary theories are new to the intellectual traditions
of our culture. It appears to many, however, that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental
values of literature and literary study: that it attacks the customary belief that literature
draws on and creates meanings that reflect and affirm our central (essential, human, lasting)
values; that it attacks the privileged meaningfulness of 'literature'; that it attacks the idea
that a text is authored, that is, that the authority for its meaningfulness rests on the activity
of an individual; that it attacks the trust that the text that is read can be identified in its
intentions and meanings with the text that was written; and ultimately that it attacks the

very existence of value and meaning itself, the ground of meaningfulness, rooted in the
belief in those transcendent human values on which humane learning is based.
On the other hand, 'theory people' point out that theory does is not erase literature but
expands the concept of the literary and renews the way texts in all areas of intellectual
disciplines are or can be read; that it explores the full power of meaning and the full
embeddedness of meanings in their historical placement; that it calls for a more critical,
more flexible reading.
It is the case that Literary Theory challenges many fundamental assumptions, that it is often
skeptical in its disposition, and that it can look in practice either destructive of any value or
merely cleverly playful. The issue is whether theory has good reasons for the questioning of
the assumptions, and whether it can lead to practice that is in fact productive.


John Lye

The article addresses contemporary theory in its more post-structural mode, and were I to
rewrite it today I would put more emphasis on the cultural studies model, on the growth of
gender studies, and on New Historicism. I believe however that what I have to say here is
still relevant and describes the fundamental paradigm shift which has altered the direction
and mandate of literary study.

Literary Theory is part of a wide-spread movement in the culture which has affected a
number of disciplines, occasioning similar disputes in some, a movement which has
explored and elucidated the complexities of meaning, textuality and interpretation. Literary
Theory is not a single enterprise but a set of related concepts and practices most
importantly deconstruction, post-Althusserian ideological or 'political' criticism, postLacanian psychoanalytic criticism, New Historicist or 'cultural' criticism, some readerresponse criticism and much feminist criticism. The aim of this essay is to define the issues
that ground these contemporary literary theories.

There have always been literary theories about how literature works, what meaning is,
what it is to be an author and so forth. The central interpretive practices in force and in
power in the academy which are being challenged by Theory were themselves
revolutionary, theory-based practices which became the norm. The two main critical
practices in the mid portion of the century have been the formalist tradition, or 'New
Criticism', which sees a text as a relatively self-enclosed meaning-production system which
develops enormous signifying power through its formal properties and through its conflicts,
ambiguities and complexities, and the Arnoldian humanist tradition exemplified most
clearly in the work of F. R. Leavis and his followers, which concentrates evaluatively on
the capacity of the author to represent moral experience concretely and compellingly. Many
readers have in practice combined the values and methodologies of these traditions,
different as their theoretical bases are.
Contemporary theory: the issues at stake
Theories and interpretive practices change with time, reflecting changing world-views and
uses of literature, and each theoretical perspective tends to find fault with the one before
apparently a normal evolutionary pattern, an orderly changing of the paradigm guard, the
child rebelling against the parent as a way of proclaiming its identity. Literary Theory
challenges this orderly developmental premise, suggesting that this continual cultural
change reflects an inherent instability, fault lines in cultural imagination which demonstrate
the impossibility of any certain meaning which could have any ultimate claim on us.
Contemporary Literary Theory is marked by a number of premises, of which I will present
nine, although not all of the theoretical approaches share or agree on all of them.
1. Meaning is assumed, in Saussure's seminal contribution, to be created by
difference, not by "presence" (the identification of the sign with the object of
meaning). A word means in that it differs from other words in the same
meaning-area, just as a phoneme is registered not by its sound but by its
difference from other sound segments. There is no meaning in any stable or
absolute sense, only chains of differences from other meanings.

2. Words themselves are polysemic (they have multiple meanings) and their
meaning is over-determined (they have more meaning potential than is
exercised in any usage instance). They thus possess potential excess
meanings. As well, rhetorical constructions enable sentences to mean more
than their grammar would allow irony is an example. Language always
means more than it may be taken to mean in any one context. It must have
this capacity of excess meaning in order for it to be articulate, that is,
jointed, capable of movement, hence of relationship and development.

3. Language use is a much more complex, elusive phenomenon than we

ordinarily suspect, and what we take normally to be our meanings are only
the surface of a much more substantial theatre of linguistic, psychic and
cultural operations, of which operations we are not fully aware.

4. It is language itself, not some essential humanness or timeless truth, that is

central to culture, meaning and identity. As Heidegger remarked, man does
not speak language, language speaks man. Humans 'are' their sign
systems, they are constituted through them, and those systems and their
meanings are contingent, patch-work, relational.

5. Consequently there is no foundational 'truth' or reality no absolute, no

eternals, no solid ground of truth beneath the shifting sands of history. There
are only local and contingent 'truths' generated by human groups through
their cultural systems in response to their needs for power, survival and
esteem. Consequently, both values and personal identity are cultural
constructs, not stable entitles. As Kaja Silverman points out even the
unconscious is a cultural construct, as the unconscious is constructed
through repression, the forces of repression are cultural, and what is taboo
is culturally formulated.

6. It follows that there is no stable central identity or essence to individuals: an

individual exists as a nexus of social meanings and practices, psychic and
ideological forces, and uses of language and other signs and symbols. The
[end page 91] individual is thus a 'de-centered' phenomenon, there is no
stable self, only subject-positions within a shifting cultural, ideological,
signifying field.

7. The meaning that appears as normal in our social life masks, through
various means such as omission, displacement, difference, misspeaking
and bad faith, the meaning that is: the world of meaning we think we occupy
is not the world we do in fact occupy. The world we do occupy is a
construction of ideology, an imagination of the way the world is that shapes
our world, including our 'selves', for our use.

8. A text is, as Roland Barthes points out, etymologically a tissue, a woven

thing (from the Latin texere, to weave); it is a tissue woven of former texts
and language uses, echoes of which it inherently retains (filiations or traces,
these are sometimes called), woven of historical references and practices,
and woven of the play ('play' as meaning-abundance and as articulability) of
language. A text is not, and cannot be, 'only itself', nor can it be reified, said
to be 'a thing'; a text is a process. Literary Theory advocates pushing
against the depth, complexity and indeterminacy of this tissue until not only
the full implications of the multiplicities, but the contradictions inevitably
inherent in them, become apparent.

9. There is no "outside-of-the-text," in Derrida's phrase. Culture and individuals

are constructed through networks of affiliated language, symbol and
discourse usages; all of life is textual, a tissue of signifying relationships. No
text can be isolated from the constant circulation of meaning in the economy
of the culture; every text connects to, and is constituted through and of,
other texts.
Contemporary Theory as part of the 'Interpretive Turn'
Contemporary literary theory does not stand on its own; it is part of a larger cultural
movement which has revolutionized many fields of study, which movement is often known
as the 'interpretive turn'. The 'interpretive turn' was essentially introduced by Immanuel
Kant two centuries ago through the idea that what we experience as reality is shaped by our
mental categories, although Kant thought of these categories as stable and transcendent.
Nietzsche proposed that there are no grounding truths, that history and experience are
fragmented and happenstance, driven by the will to power. Marx and Freud theorized that
what passes for reality is in fact shaped and driven by forces of which we are aware only
indirectly, if at all, but which we can recover if we understand the processes of
transformation through which our experience passes. What is new in the interpretive turn is

that the insights of these and other seminal thinkers have coalesced into a particular
sociological phenomenon, a cultural force, a genuine moment in history, and that they have
resulted in methodological disputes and in alterations of practice in the social sciences and
the humanities.
There are a number of ideas central to the interpretive turn:

the idea that an observer is inevitably a participant in what is observed, and

that the receiver of a message is a component of the message;
the idea that information is only information insofar as it is contextualized;
the idea that individuals are cultural constructs whose conceptual worlds
are composed of a variety of discursive structures, or ways of talking about
and imagining the world;
the idea that the world of individuals is not only multiple and diverse but is
constructed by and through interacting fields of culturally lived symbols,
through language in particular;
the related idea that all cultures are networks of signifying practices;
the idea that therefore all interpretation is conditioned by cultural
perspective and is mediated by symbols and practice;
and the idea that texts entail sub-texts, or the often disguised or submerged
origins and structuring forces of the messages.
Interpretation is seen not as the elucidation of a preexisting truth or meaning that is

objectively 'there' but as the positing of meaning by interpreters in the context of their
conceptual world. Neither the 'message' nor the interpretation can be transparent or
innocent as each is structured by constitutive and often submerged cultural and personal
forces. In the interpretation of culture, culture is seen as a text, a set of discourses which
structure the world of the culture and control the culture's practices and meanings. Because
of the way discourses are constituted and interrelated, one must read through, among and
under them, at the same time reading oneself reading.
The 'dangers' of Literary Theory
It appears to many that Literary Theory attacks the fundamental value of literature
and of literary study. If everything is a text, literature is just another text, with no particular
privilege aside from its persuasive power. If there are no certain meanings or truths, and if
human beings are cultural constructs not grounded in any universal 'humanness' and not
sustained by any transhistorical truths, not only the role of literature as the privileged

articulator of universal value but the existence of value itself is threatened. If interpretation
is local and contingent, then the stability and surety of meaning is threatened and the role of
literature as a communication of wisdom and as a cultural force is diminished. If
interpretation is dependent upon the interpreter, then one must discount the intention of the
author. The stability of meaning becomes problematic when one suspects the nature of the
forces driving it or the goals it may attempt to attain. Imaginative constructs such as
literature may in fact be merely culturally effective ways of masking the exercise of power,
the bad faith, the flaws and inequities which culture works so hard to obscure. Ultimately
Theory can be seen to attack the very ground of value and meaning itself, to attack those
transcendent human values on which humane learning is based, and to attack the centre of
humanism, the existence of the independent, moral, integrated individual who is capable of
control over her meanings, intentions and acts.
The Canon itself, that collection of texts considered worthy of study by those in
control of the curriculum, is under attack as ethnocentric, patriarchal and elitist, and as
essentializing in that it tends to create the idea that canonical works are independent entities
standing on their own intrinsic and transcendent authority and not rooted in the agencies
and contingencies of history.
The issues however must be whether Theory has good reasons for its questioning of
traditional assumptions, and whether it can lead to interpretive practices that are ultimately
productive of understandings and values which can support a meaningful and just life. In
order to further elucidate Literary Theory's reasons for its stands, it would be useful to
examine and illustrate three main areas of meaning in literature: context, ideology and
discourse, and language itself.
The issue of meaning: context and inter-text
The process of meaning in literature should, one thinks, be clear: authors write
books, with ideas about what they want to say; they say it in ways that are powerful,
moving, convincing; readers read the books and, depending on their training and capacities
and the author's success, they get the message. And the message is, surely, the point. It is at
this juncture however that this simple communication model runs into trouble. An author

writes a text. But the author wrote the text in at least four kinds of context (note the
presence of the text), not all of which contexts the author is or can be fully aware of. There
are, first, aesthetic contexts the contexts of art generally, of its perceived role in culture,
of the medium of the text, of the genre of the text, of the particular aesthetic traditions the
artist chooses and inherits, of the period-style in which she writes. Second, there are the
cultural and economic conditions of the production and the reception of texts how the
'world of art' articulates to the rest of the social world, how the work is produced, how it is
defined, how it is distributed, who the audience is, how they pay, what it means to consume
art, how art is socially categorized. Third, there is the artist's own personal history and the
cultural interpretation of that personal history and meaning for her as an individual and an
artist. Lastly and most essentially, there are the larger meanings and methods of the culture
and of various sub-cultural, class, ethnic, regional and gender groups all of them
culturally formed, and marked (or created) by various expressions and distinctions of
attitude, thought, perception, and symbols. These include how the world is viewed and
talked about, the conception and distribution of power, what is seen as essential and as
valuable, what the grounds and warrants of value are, how the relations among individuals
and groups are conceptualized.
These are the most basic considerations of the context of the production of a literary
work. Some of them are known to the author explicitly, some are sensed implicitly, some
are unrecognized and virtually unknowable. Every context will alter, emend, deflect,
restructure the 'meaning'. This would be easier to handle interpretively if the same
constraints of context did not apply also to the reader. Both author and reader are 'situated'
aesthetically, culturally, personally, economically, but usually differently situated. The
reader has the further context of the history and traditions of the interpretation of texts.
When we read Hamlet, we read it as a text that has been interpreted before us and for us in
certain ways, not simply as the text that Shakespeare wrote or that his repertory company
performed, whatever that was experienced to be.
An essential, central and inevitable context of any text is the existence of other
texts. Any literary work, even the most meager, will necessarily refer to and draw on works
in its genre before it, on other writing in the culture and its traditions, and on the discourse-

structures of the culture. This creation of meaning from previous and cognate expressions
of meaning is known in Literary Theory as "intertextuality." Anything that is a text is
inevitably part of the circulation of discourse in the culture, what one might call the intertext: it can only mean because there are other texts to which it refers and on which it then
depends for its meaning. It follows that 'meaning' is in fact dispersed throughout the intertext, is not simply 'in' the text itself. The field of the inter-text extends not just to the
traditions and usages of the genre, and to literature generally, but to intellectual traditions,
language and argument, to emotional experiences, to cultural interpretations of experience,
to central symbols, to all expressions of meaning in the culture: it is a network of allusion
and reference. This is the ground of the question of the extent to which an individual can
author a text. Many of these intertextual meanings may not be apparent to readers, who
must be situated themselves in the inter-text in order to participate in the meaning. All
meanings of a text depend on the meanings of the inter-text, and our interpretations of texts
depend on our contextualized perspective and the norms of what Stanley Fish refers to as
our "interpretive community," our socially-determined interpretive understandings and
The issue of meaning: discourse and ideology

The second general area of meaning is that of discourse and ideology. 'Discourse' is
a term associated most closely with Michel Foucault; it refers to the way in which meaning
is formed, expressed and controlled in a culture through its language use. Every culture has
particular ways of speaking about and hence conceptualizing experience, and rules for what
can and what can not be said and for how talk is controlled and organized. It is through
discourse that we constitute our experience, and an analysis of discourse can reveal how we
see the world in the case of Foucault, particularly the changing and multiple ways in
which power is distributed and exercised. As language is the base symbol system through
which culture is created and maintained, it can be said that everything is discourse, that is,
that we only register as being what we attach meaning to, we attach meaning through
language, and meaning through language is controlled by the discursive structures of a
culture. There is no outside-of-the-text; our experience is constructed by our way of talking
about experience, and thus is itself a cultural, linguistic construct.

Discourse is not, however, a unitary phenomenon. One of the great contributions of

the Russian theorist of language and literature, Mikhail Bakhtin, is the concept of
multivocality. The concept of multivocality might be likened to meteorology: the sky looks
like a unitary entity, but if one attempts to measure it or traverse it, it turns out to be full of
cross-winds, whirls, temperature variations, updrafts, downdrafts, and so forth. Similarly
the language of a culture is full of intersecting language uses those of class, profession,
activity, generation, gender, region and so forth, a rich profusion of interacting
significances and inter-texts.
As discourse constructs a world-view and as it inscribes power relations, it is
inevitably connected to ideology. As used by Marx, the term referred to the idea that our
concepts about the structure of society and of reality, which appear to be matters of fact, are
the product of economic relations. More recent thinkers, following Gramsci and Althusser,
tend to see ideology more broadly as those social practices and conceptualizations which
lead us to experience reality in a certain way. Ideology, writes Althusser, is our imagined
relation to the real conditions of existence; our subjectivity is formed by it we are 'hailed'
by it, oriented to the world in a certain way. Ideology is an implicit, necessary part of
meaning, in how we configure the world. But ideology is always masking, or 'naturalizing',
the injustices and omissions it inevitably creates, as power will be wielded by some person
or class, and will pressure the understanding of the culture so that the exercise of power
looks normal and right and violations appear as inevitabilities. It was clear in time past, for
instance, why women were inferior. Women were physically weaker, more emotional, not
as rational. The Bible said they were inferior and Nature said so too. Men did not think that
[end page 96] they were oppressing women; women's inferiority was simply an obvious
matter of fact, as was the inferiority of blacks, of children, the handicapped, the mad, the
illiterate, the working classes. The theorist Pierre Macherey showed that it is possible by
examining any structure of communication to see its ideological perspective through the
breaks, the silences, the contradictions hidden in the text, as well as through all its implicit
assumptions about the nature of the world.

The concept of ideology is part of structuralist and, consequent to that,

poststructuralist thought. Structuralism was a broad movement which attempted to locate
the operative principles which ground activities and behaviours; its importance to Literary
Theory is substantial, although Literary Theory has rejected a number of its premises. Two









economic/political theories. What marks these theories as structuralist is their locating of

generative forces below or behind phenomenal reality, forces which act according to
general laws through transformative processes. In structural theories, motive, or generative
force, is found not in a pre-text but in a sub-text; the surface is a transformation, a re-coded
articulation of motive forces and conditions, and so the surface must be translated rather
then simply read. From the rise of the whole rich field of semiotics to the theorizing of the
history of science to the revolutionizing of anthropology to the creation of family therapy,
structuralism has been a central, pervasive force in the century. The idea of decoding the
depth from the manifestations of the surface, that what appears is often masking or is a
transformation of what is, is a key tenant of Literary Theory.
Poststructuralism carries on with the idea of the surface as a transformation of
hidden forces, but rejects structuralism's sense that there are timeless rules which govern
transformations and which point to some stable reality below and governing the flux
what poststructuralism refers to as an essentialist or totalizing view. Poststructuralism sees
'reality' as being much more fragmented, diverse, tenuous and culture-specific than does
structuralism. Some consequences have been, first, poststructuralism's greater attention to
specific histories, to the details and local contextualizations of concrete instances; second, a
greater emphasis on the body, the actual insertion of the human into the texture of time and
history; third, a greater attention to the specifies of cultural working, to the arenas of
discourse and cultural practice; lastly, a greater attention to the role of language and
textuality in our construction of reality and identity. Literary Theory is a poststructural
practice. [end page 97]
A demonstration reading: ideology

Perhaps we should take a moment to examine some of these concepts in art at work,
with the warning that Literary Theory represents a broad range of practices and emphases,

and no one kind of reading can be fully exemplary. Take, however, just the first lines of
Shakespeare's Sonnet 129:
Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame.

This looks like a clear moral point: lust is bad stuff. There is, however, more to
'read' in these lines. As there was no standardized spelling in Shakespeare's time, the
spelling of "waste" is an editorial decision. It could have been spelled "waist;" the force of
the pun is inevitably present. A "waist of shame" is a female waist, particularly when
"spirit" is expended there, as "spirit" was a euphemism both for semen and for (as "sprit")
the penis. So we have here lust in action indeed, genital intercourse. But notice the
valuation of the sexes. The male is associated with the spirit with the 'good', with nonmaterial value; the woman is associated with the lowest of material being, waste. He is
'above' her in every sense. As in modern advertising, the male is coded for action, the
woman is coded as body parts. It is to the woman, not to the man, that shame is attached;
woman is the waist/waste of shame. There is in the line as well a metaphysical
discrimination, as the world of 'spirit' is valued over the world of the body; it is not to the
spirit but to the body that waste and shame are attached. There is an economic ideology
here, as the sexual act is an economic transaction "expense" and "waste" with the
male having the power of the purse, economic, moral, sexual power tied together. This
economic language not only again privileges men, but places the imagination of the poem
within the bourgeois mercantile culture. Shakespeare's lines can be analyzed to reveal not,
or not only, a lucid and moving moral perspective, but an ideological construction which
privileges male over female and spirit over matter, which uses moral terms in an oppressive
manner, and which in the end shares and shows bad faith in many ways. The very language
of the line undermines the certainty and centrality of the moral perspective the poem is
This undermining is continued in the bland assumption of the second line that action
is naturally consequent upon lust, an assumption which has been used against women for
centuries, and in the third line's linking sex and violence together as if that were natural. It

is, shockingly enough, to the devilment of the gap between lust and release, "till action,"
that the word "blame" refers; while shame is attached to the woman, blame is attached to
the bad things men do in the heat of needing to get it off. Further, the moral perspective
within the poem is placed in a neutral, remote way as if it were inevitable, unassailable:
while "blame" requires an agent, a blamer, it is spoken of as if it were inherent ("full [end
page 98] of blame"), and the tone is authoritative. Finally, the poem uses language from
various realms of discourse moral, physical, social, economic and seams them
together in a seemingly benign and normal, but damaging way.
The issue of meaning: language

The third large general area to be addressed is that of language. Contemporary

theory rejects the commonplace belief that language functions by establishing a one-on-one
relationship between a word and an object or state which exists independent of language.
Among the assumptions behind this rejected belief are that reality is objective and is
directly and unequivocally knowable; that words have a transparent relation to that reality
one can 'see through' the word to the reality itself; and that that meaning is consequently
fixed and stable. Contemporary theory accepts none of this. 'Reality' is too simple a
formulation for the collection of acknowledgments of physical entities and conditions, of
concepts of all kinds, and of all the feelings, attitudes, perceptions, rituals, routines and
practices that compose our habited world. Medieval medicine was based in large part on
astrology, and astrology was based on the known fact that the (not too distant) planets each
had a signature vibration which impressed the aether between the planets and the earth,
which in turn impressed the malleable fabric of the mind of the newborn, and which thus
created the person's disposition through the combination of and the relation between the
characteristics of the dominant planets at the time of birth. To what reality, do we think
now, did the language of medieval medicine refer? We could say that the medievals were
'wrong', but the conceptions involved so structured their imagination of human nature and
motivation, so suffused their attitudes, were so integrated with values which we still hold,
that such a statement would be meaningless. Language exists in the domain of human
conception, and is dependent not on 'reality' but on how we see relations, connections, and
behaviours. In turn how we see these things are, of course, dependent on our language.

Since the work of Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the century, language
has been seen by many to signify through difference: words mean in that, and as, they differ
from other words, which words in turn mean in that they differ from yet other words.
'Meaning' becomes a chain of differentiations which are necessarily at the same time
linkages, and so any meaning involves as a part of itself a number of other meanings
through opposition, through association, through discrimination. As a word defines itself
through difference from words which define themselves through difference from words,
language becomes a kind of rich, multiplex sonar that carries the cognitive, affective and
allusive freight of meanings shaped by and reflected off other meanings, full of
dimensionally. Derrida's famous coinage diffrence, which includes both [end page 99]
differing and deferring, catches something of the operation, although Derrida's concept
penetrates to the very structure of being, to the differing and deferring without which space
and time are impossible and which are thus fundamental to 'being' itself.
Language has many 'levels' or currents of meaning, shifting, interrelating, playing
off one another, implicated (from L. plicare, to fold) and pliant (from F. plier, to bend,
ultimately from plicare). Some currents carry us back as in cultural memory to the
etymological roots of the words, as just illustrated. Some currents carry us back to the time
and the way in which, as infants, we entered the symbolic order, the world of signs and thus
of authority, power and socially (Lacan), and even before that to evocations of our infantile
immediate, inchoate experiences (Kristeva). Some currents tie us in to experiences and
symbols that involve and evoke our repressions, our fears, and our narcissistic needs. Some
currents tie us in to the various worlds of "discourse," socially constituted ways of
conceptualizing and talking and feeling judicial, economic, domestic, theological,
academic and so forth (Foucault). Some currents tie us into key cultural symbols, to ways
we see and feel the world as constructed, to our imaginary world of hope, trust, identity, to
our projection of ourselves into the future and into our environment. Many currents carry
affective weight, as words are learned in social contexts from people who are usually close
to us, and there is thus an intrinsic sociality in the very acquisition of the meanings and
hence to the meanings themselves (Volosinov). Meaning in language is highly contextsensitive. Words are not little referential packages, they are shapes of potential meaning
which alter in different meaning environments, which implicate many areas of experience,

which contain traces of those differences which define them, and which are highly
dependent on context, on tone, on placement.
A further demonstration reading: language and meaning

In order to look at how language might be approached in contemporary theory

again with the caveat that there are many approaches and understandings within the domain
of theory let us take the first sentence from this first quatrain of Shakespeare's Sonnet
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters where it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken,
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth s unknown, although his height be taken.
Loves not Times Fool., though rosy lips and cheeks
Whithin his bending sickles compass come;
Love alters not with his briefs hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

One might ask, does the word "admit" mean "confess" or "allow to enter?" Is
"impediment" a legal or a conceptual term here, or a term from the world of physical
manipulation, a stumbling block? An impediment is something that gets in the way of
pedes, the foot, and while the word "impediment" as a moral or social hindrance is taken
from the marriage ceremony, that explanation does not [end page 100] consum exhaust the
meaning potential "impediment" also meant a physical defect or impairment, a speech
defect, and baggage. Its use must include these possibilities through the operations of
difference. Why, one might go on to wonder, are the worlds of morality ("admit") and of
fault ("impediment") immediately entered into the world of "true minds"? And is it chance

that, on the levels of both conceptualization and enunciation, the smooth rhythmic flow of
the first line is suddenly interrupted by two tough Latinate words? These words not only
need to be stumbled over and figured out but introduce worlds of opposition on several
levels: criminality vs. innocence, fault vs. wholeness, social/legal vs. moral/philosophical.
Hasn't the poem just admitted a number of impediments while saying it wasn't going to
admit impediments?
The phrase itself "the marriage of true minds" implicitly admits an impediment.
This impediment is the body. The body is admitted but denied by the word "impediment"
with its root reference to stumbling feet but its abstract usage, and the body is implied by
"marriage". The phrase "marriage of true minds" raises the whole question of the body by
being explicitly about minds, whereas marriage itself as an institution is a union of bodies
and property. The body is admitted by "marriage" most strongly through the fact that
marriage is a social act (sanctified by the Church, the Body of Christ, and only legal when
witnessed by others, bodily presences), through the realm of the legal, the control of bodies,
and through the legitimation of marriage, as a marriage which was not "consummated," an
interesting concept in itself, was considered not to be a marriage.
There is yet another impediment in the sentence. The word "true" in reference to
"minds" suggests of course straightness or levelness, body values, but it suggests by
exclusion the unstraightness of mind that the "true" is structured against and includes by
difference. If the speaker has to say "true minds" then there are untrue minds, so we have to
ask what the 'mind' is here that is being married, what the nature of 'mind' is. The word
cannot refer to some abstract, non-physical value or being if 'mind' can be unstraight,
morally unsound, not on the level, therefore fallen, therefore (as fallen) in the world of
action and conflict and thus of the body. But 'mind' is obviously explicitly opposed to the
body, and the body is an impediment. The sentence's play of meaning forces us inexorably
back to the centrality of the body, and questions the status of 'mind'.
There is another impediment that the poem admits from the very beginning: "Let me
not ....." Who is to let or not let the speaker admit impediments? (A "let" was, incidentally,
a hindrance, an impediment). There is someone who can stop him from not admitting

impediments, otherwise he would not have said "Let me not:" a world of power and
restriction peeks forth, qualifying the apparent freedom the line claims. As well, "Let me
not," with its implicit emotional appeal, takes us back psychically to the world of
restriction, prohibition, [end page 101] forbidding, and in its colloquial force and its
imperative, demanding tone to the two-year-old's universe, its evocation therefore of
narcissism, of the taboo, of the root conflict of social life and personal identity; it thus
enters us into a world of meaning which on the surface sorts oddly with the social/legal
language that follows.
There is in the sentence as a counter-current a narcissism, the juvenile selfaggrandizement of a speaker who thinks he could in fact stop the marriage of true minds.
But if anyone can stop the marriage of true minds, as obviously he believes that they can
(or he can), then it is probably because the marriage of true minds does depend on the
powers of property, the body, physical and social force, and so the line really does not in
fact claim the power or liberty of the spiritual nature of humans, as an unsuspecting reading
might assume, but claims instead the power of the physical and judicial. This may well be
what the line really confesses or, to put it another way, the reality that the ideological
structure masks: that the social, judicial, physical elements of our world do in fact have the
force over a union of persons that the line denies that they do, and perhaps that in point of
fact a 'person' is comprised of these physical, social, legislative elements, these worlds of
discourse, of the constitutive imaginary. The case could be made that the idealism of the
apparent meaning of the line, which idealism depends on there being real, isolable,
inviolate "minds," is what is ultimately put in question; on the other hand, the 'obvious'
meaning of the line remains in force, creating a challenge, a contest of meaning, an
Not only does this short sentence launch us on a strange journey of oppositions and
contradictions, but it enters us into whole arenas of cultural discourse and concern, the
long-standing philosophical debates about the relation of and values of mind and body, the
place of the power of the judicial in the world of body and mind, the sociality of the
individual, the nature of marriage and what it entails, the physically of marriage both
sexually and legally and the relation of that physicality to the moral world, issues of moral

freedom, issues of what constitutes the good. These differing but implicated worlds, with
their differing assumptions, language uses and emotional resonances importantly
including the poetic expressions of these debates become part of the meaning of the line.
Different Literary Theory approaches would concentrate on different aspects of
these considerations, give them different weight:

A deconstructive approach would concentrate on the way that the sentence

works against itself, proving for instance the dominance of law and the body while
apparently proclaiming the freedom of the mind it might be claimed that what I have
done is to "deconstruct" the sentence. Typically too deconstruction would begin with
something that seemed extra, or marginal, or unchallenged, the presence of the lowly foot
in "impediment', or the absent presence of the body, and might show how the meaning
ultimately depends on that exclusion or marginalized element.

An ideological approach might concentrate on the complex of linguistic and

social meanings which attempt to but ultimately fail to support the ideological construction
of an independent autonomous immaterial self, and might tie that in with, say, the
development of the (false) identity of the inviolate 'self' in the western capitalist regime. It
might also want to look at the conditions of production and consumption of the line who
wrote it for whom, under what conditions, with what social implications and class
exclusions, for what kind of payment and reward, and how those things shape and are
subtly present in the line itself. This form of poetry was written for the leisure class, the
world which had power over the bodies and discourses of others, by the leisure class or
those who wished to profit by them, and was circulated to privileged individuals in
manuscript form, not (basely, popularly) published.

A psychoanalytic approach might well head straight for the narcissistic

demand and assumptions of the first words, on the currents of projection, denial and presymbolic conflicts that swirl through the line, and on the issues of subjectivity, identity (or
loss of identity) and displacement that the line suggests.

A reader-response reading would concentrate on how the line structures our

responses, and on the larger issues of how our horizons of meaning can coincide with those
of the author, writing in a different time with different preconceptions.

A cultural criticism or new historicist reading might want to work hard to

see how the linguistic, ideological, cultural constructs present in the line tied in with those
of other texts and with the cultural practices of the time, and to thus articulate the sentence
in its culturally embedded implications, meanings and conflicts. It would be most interested
in the lines of power that the sentence suggests and how they reflect the social structures of
the time, and in the power of the discourses themselves (the areas of for instance personal
demand, philosophy of love, judicial and confessional legislation and experience, social
institutions) and how they work with and against each other.
What these approaches would not do is merely affirm that the lines support the
ideals of the freedom and independence of love and the wonder of the human spirit,
although most would grant the presence and power of these meanings in the line. These
approaches would not seek closure, trying to resolve into a neat package the various
conflicts and centrifugal tendencies of the line (a "reader response" reading would include
the natural human demand for closure as part of its reading and therefore as part of the way
the line 'makes' its meaning). Most of these readings would focus in some way on the
disparities in our imaginations and our practices that the line reveals, the contingency of our
lives, the hidden exercises of social power that the line finally confesses. They might well
think that the line means more, humanly speaking, than the humanistic reading would
This previous analysis has been carried out on the first four lines of the poem;
now take the remaining lines and write your interpretation taking into account
language, context and ideology. You may choose to lay emphasis on any of the above
mentioned approaches.

A Guide to Further Reading

There are hundreds of books on Contemporary Theory. This guide gives texts one might begin with of
theorists mentioned in the essay, introductions to contemporary theory , and major movements.
I Theorists mentioned
Althusser, Louis. 1971. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin and Philosophy. London: New
Left Books.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas
Press. See Volosinov
Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Glasgow: Fontana Collins.
de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1959. Course in General Linguistics. New York: The Philosophical Library.
Derrida, Jaques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, and 1992. Acts of
Literature, ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge. Derrida is very difficult; see "Deconstruction" for some
introductions to his work.
Fish, Stanley. 1980. Is There a Text in This Class?. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Foucault, Michel. 1984. Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon.
Kristeva, Julia. 1986. A Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Mol, New York: Columbia University Press.
Lacan, Jacques. 1982. Ecrits: A Selection. New York: Norton. A difficult theorist and writer, Lacan might
best be approached through secondary sources such Madan Sarup's brief and lucid Jaques Lacan, 1992.