Teaching Critical Theory: A Personal Context

Reply Thu 27 Nov, 2014 03:33 am
Have you had any experience teaching critical thoery? Here is some of mine found below.-Ron Price, Australia


Part 1:

One of Shakespeare’s defining knacks, so it’s said, is and was his ability to render his own time and place more or less irrelevant to the appreciation of his art.1 In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as I was settling into the last college in which I would spend my teaching career, there was a theoretically informed return to history in Renaissance/early modern studies.

Part of that return to history was the result of Stephen Greenblatt who is regarded as, arguably, the major founder of New Historicism, a set of critical practices that he often refers to as "cultural poetics." I became aware of this New Historicism because it frequently came-up in my reading of literary theory and literary criticism in the field of English Literature in which I was a lecturer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I was required to know about literary theory and literary criticism.

Part 2:

New Historicism consolidated critical theory2 into easier forms of practice for academic literary theory and criticism as well as sociological theory where it was found. It gained widespread influence in the 1990s at the same time as I had come to teach both sociology theory and literary criticism as part of the English Literature syllabus. I taught these subjects to matriculation students wanting to go to university the following year, and to human service students working on their Certificate IV as well as on their Associate Diploma at what is now the Polytechnic-West, Thornlie Campus in Perth Western Australia.

This New Historicism first developed in the 1980s, primarily, as I say above, through the work of the critic and Harvard English Professor Stephen Greenblatt. In the 1990s it gained widespread influence. New Historicists aim simultaneously to understand literary works, like novels and plays, through their cultural context and to understand intellectual history through literature. In some ways it followed the 1950s discipline of History of Ideas. It often referred to itself as a form of "Cultural Poetics." In the 1990s I was also teaching a course in the History of Ideas, and so it was that for several years my reading was embedded in New Historicism.

Part 3:

New Historicism is a form of postmodernism applied to interpretive history. Postmodernism is a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a departure from modernism. Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, history, art, literature, philosophy, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought.

For students and teachers, lecturers and tutors, professors and academics like myself many of these terms and theories, frameworks and paradigms which aimed to understand elements of human culture in terms of their relationship to larger, overarching systems, structures, and their inter-relationships, these modes of reasoning gave rise to ambiguity and complexity. To put this simply: all this was very complex to say the least.

Part 4:

Greenblatt's works have been influential since the early 1980s when he introduced the term 'new historicism'. Greenblatt has written and edited numerous books and articles relevant to new historicism, the study of culture, Renaissance studies, and Shakespeare studies. He is considered to be an expert in these fields. He is also co-founder of the literary-cultural journal Representations which often publishes reviews and articles by new historicists.

His most popular work is Will in the World, a biography of Shakespeare that was on the New York Times Best Seller List for nine weeks.] He won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2012 and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2011 for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The larger issue in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt(Cape, 430 pages, 2004), and it’s an issue which arises from the whole genre of literary biography as it is often currently practiced, is the heuristic poverty of biographical explanations of works of art. Writing might come from lots of places: reading, complex emotions, dying fathers, splendid daughters, chance encounters, grandparents, memory, fantasy, pressing need, friendships, enmities, financial pressures, local faction, drink, religious discord, demons, darkness, aliens, synaptic mis-firings, a sound in the street, modes of land tenure, the muse. -Ron Price with thanks to 1 Michael Dobson, "A Furtive Night’s Work" in The London Review of Books, a review of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, Faber, 430 pages; and 2 See 'Critical Theory' below.

Part 5:

My own time and place is
highly relevant to what I
write, unlike the works of
Shakespeare, at least that
is the view of some of the
literary theorists & critics.

I can appreciate the ideas
of those New Historicists,
and have attached some of
their ideas to my own way
of trying to understand my
own time and place and the
times and places of all those
whom I come across in the
long and complex history of
human society on our planet.

1 Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks "to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them." I first came across this subject matter in the early-to-mid-1990s. For more go to:

Ron Price
25/11/'14 to 27/11/'14.
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