"Achieved Unity of Meanings" vs. "A Galaxy of Signifiers"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. New Criticism
2.1. Definition and features
2.2. T. S. Eliot
2.3. R. P. Blackmur
2.4. Cleanth Brooks

3. Deconstruction
3.1. General views
3.2. Jacques Derrida and Ferdinand de Saussure
3.3. Hillis Miller
3.4. Paul de Man

4. “An Achieved Unity of Meanings” vs. “A Galaxy of Signifiers”- Comparing New Criticism to Deconstruction

5. Conclusion – Personal Notes

6. Consulted works

1. Introduction

The term “modernism” is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the present century, but especially after World War I (1914-1918). The specific features signified by “modernism” vary with the user, but many critics agree that it involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of Western art, but of Western culture in general. This radical break is also to be seen in the literary theories and methods of critical analysis since World War I. The cronological order in which the major new forms of criticism appeared is approximately as follows: Russian formalism(1920s and 1930s)/ archetypal criticism(1930s and 1940s)/ New Criticism; phenomenology( as applied to literary criticism); stylistics(1940s and 1950s)/ structuralist criticism and modern forms of feminist criticism( 1960s)/ theory of the anxiety of influence; deconstruction ; discourse analyses; forms of reader-response criticism; reception theory; semiotics; speech-act theory( 1970s)/ dialogic criticism; new historicism; cultural studies(1980s). The new forms of criticism I’m going to introduce and to discuss in this paper are New Criticism and Deconstruction, but before introducing New Criticism, I would like to first define “criticism”. What is the meaning and the function of “criticism”? Why do we need literary criticism? The answers to these questions are important to me in order to understand the modern theories of literature.

“Criticism, is the overall term for studies concerned with defining, clasifying, analysing, interpreting, and evaluating works of literature.”[1] What I’m going to analyze in this work is not criticism, but “theoretical criticism”. Theoretical criticism proposes a theory of literature, in the sense of general principles, together with a set of terms, distinctions and categories , to be applied to identifying and analyzing works of literature, as well as the “criteria”[2] by which these works and their writers are to be evaluated. Since the 1970s there has been a flood of writings, Continental, American and English, proposing diverse novel and radical forms of critical theory.

Why do we need criticism? In order to understand texts or to give them the “right interpretation”[3]. But can one speak about a right interpretation? In order to find a plausible answer to this question, I will focus on two of the most important modern literary theories, namely New Criticism, defined as “an achieved unity of meanings”[4] and Deconstruction as “a galaxy of signifiers”[5], comparing the two ones by means of the consulted essays on New Criticism and Deconstruction.

But before comparing the two theories, I will first introduce you into the meaning and features of both theories, presenting you some of the most important critics and their essays and critical theories referring to New Criticism and Deconstruction. I will dedicate the last two units of my paper to an ample comparison between New Criticism and Deconstruction, showing you, that there are both similarities and differences to find in the two theories, and that in spite of all the differences, the former survives in the last one. Moreover, I will point some personal conclusions concerning my own point of view to the topics mentioned above.

2. New Criticism

2.1. Definition and features

New Criticism as made current by the publication of John Crowe Ransom’s book “The New Criticism” in 1941, came to be applied to a theory and practice that dominated American criticism until late in the 1960s. According to Abrams’ “Glossary of Literary Terms”: “the movement derived in considerable part from elements in I.A. Richards’ “Principles of Literary Criticism” (1924) and “Practical Criticism” (1929) and from the critical essays of T.S. Eliot”. New Criticism opposed itself against the prevailing interest of scholars and critics who were more concerned with the biographies of authors, the social context of literature, and literary history, than with the text itself, by insisting that the proper concern of literary criticism is not with external circumstances or effects of a work but with a detailed consideration of the work itself.

The New Critics differ from one another in many ways, but the following points of view and procedures are common to many of them. The first point is that a poem should be treated as such-in Eliot’s words, “primarily as poetry and not another thing”[6] - and should therefore be regarded as an independent and self- sufficient verbal object. The first law of criticism, John Crowe Ransom said, is “that it shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object” and shall recognize “the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake”[7]. The New Critics warn the reader against critical practices which divert critical attention from the object itself. In analyzing and evaluating a particular work, they eschew reference to the biography of the author, to the social conditions at the time of its production, or to its psychological and moral effects on the reader; they also tend to minimize recourse to the place of the work in the history of literary forms and subject matter. Because of this critical focus on the literary work in isolation from its attendant circumstances and effects, the New Criticism is often classified as a type of critical “formalism”.

The second point is that the distinctive procedure of a New Critic is “explication”, or “close reading”- as mentioned above- : the detailed and subtle analyses of the complex interrelations and ambiguities (multiple meanings) of the components within a work. The third feature of New Criticism is that its principles are basically verbal. That means that literature is conceived to be a special kind of language whose attributes are defined by systematic opposition to the language of science and of practical and logical discourse, and the explicative procedure is to analyze the meanings and interactions of words, figures of speech, and symbols. The emphasis is on the “organic unity” of overall structure and verbal meanings, and we are warned against separating the two by what Cleanth Brooks has called “the heresy of paraphrase”[8].

The fourth feature is that the distinction between literary genres, although recognized and used, does not play an essential role in the New Criticism. The essential components of any work of literature, whether lyric, narrative or dramatic, are conceived to be words, images, and symbols rather than character, thought and plot. These linguistic elements are often said to be organized around a central and humanly significant theme, and to manifest high literary value to the degree that they manifest “tension”, “irony” and “paradox” in achieving a “reconciliation of diverse impulses” or an “equilibrium of opposed forces”. The form of work, whether or not it has characters and plot, is said to be primarily “a structure of meanings”, which evolve into an integral and freestanding unity mainly through a play and counterplay of “thematic imagery” and “symbolic action”, with other words, an “achieved unity of meanings”[9].

The basic orientation and modes of analysis in the New Criticism were adapted to the contextual criticism of Eliseo Vivas and Murray Krieger. Krieger defined contextualism as “the claim that the poem is a tight, compelling, finally closed context, which prevents our escape to the world of reference and action beyond and requires that we judge the work’s efficacy as an aesthetic object”[10]. The revolutionary thrust of the new mode had lost much of its force by the 1960s, when it gave way to various newer theories of criticism, but it has left a deep and enduring mark on the individual work and in the variety and subtlety of the devices that it made available for analyzing the structure of its internal relations.

2.2. T. S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot suggests in his essay “The Frontiers of Criticism” (On Poetry and Poets, 1957), that in order to understand poetry, it is not relevant to understand the poet himself, but only the poem, because “there is in all great poetry, something which must remain unaccountable however complete might be our kowledge of the poet, and that is what matters most”[11]. Eliot’s explanation to this statement is that “when the poem has been made, something new has happend, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before”11, and that is what he means by “creation”. Futher on he focuses on the explanation of poetry by examination of its sources as not being a method of all contemporary criticism by any means, but as being a method which responds to the desire of a good many readers that poetry should be explained in terms of something else. As he received letters from persons unknown to him, concerning his own poems, and consisting of requests for a kind of explanation, he could not possibly give one. In this context, Eliot sees dangers and limitations in this method, like in every other one and focuses on the two important ones. The first danger is “that of assuming, that there must be just one interpretation of the poem as a whole, that must be right”[12]. Eliot continuous by asserting that, “there will be details of explanation, especially with poems written in another age than our own, matters of fact, historical allusions, the meaning of a certain word at a certain date, which can be established, and the teacher can see that his pupils get these right. But as for the meaning of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.”[13] The second danger –a danger to which the reader is exposed- is that “of assuming that the interpretation of a poem, if valid, is necessarily an account of what the author consciously or unconsciously was trying to do”[14].


[1] Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, Sixth Edition, Cornell University, 1993, “Criticism”, Page 39

[2] The term „criteria“ is defined by standards or norms. Abrams, M. H., A glossary of literary terms, Sixth Edition, Page 39

[3] In this paper I will try to find an answer to the question, if we really can speak about a “right interpretation”.

[4] The expression „achieved unity of meanings“ is based on Abrams’ explanation of New Criticism in “A glossary of literary terms”, pg. 247, as an “organic unity”. The new critics have seen the form of a work to be primarily “a structure of meanings”, which evolve into an integral and freestanding unity. I’ll focus on this point again later on.

[5] „A galaxy of signifiers” is the expression Roland Barthes uses for Deconstruction in his essay “Interpretation”, S/Z, 1970, when speaking about the “ideal text”: “In this ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds.” (Source of quotation: Prof. Dr. Dietmar Claas, The Importance of Reading, -A Reader- , Heinrich- Heine- Universität Düsseldorf, Roland Barthes, S/Z,1970, Interpretation, Page 67)

[6] Eliot, Thomas S., On Poetry and Poets, 1957, The Frontiers of Criticism, Page 112

[7] This affirmation is taken from M.H. Abrams’ “Glossary of Literary Terms”, sixth edition, New Criticism, Page 247

[8] Brooks, Cleanth, The Well Wrought Urn, 1947, Chapter Eleven, The Heresy of Paraphrase

[9] See Introduction, explanation 4

[10] This quotation is taken from Murray Krieger, The New Apologist for Poetry, 1956 and Theory of Criticism, 1976 and used from M.H. Abrams in “A Glossary of Literary Terms”, New Criticism, Page 247

[11] Eliot, T. S., On Poetry and Poets, 1957, The Frontiers of Criticism, Page 112

[12] Eliot, T. S., On Poetry and Poets, 1957, The Frontiers of Criticism, Page 113

[13] Eliot, T. S., On Poetry and Poets, 1957, The Frontiers of Criticism, Page 113

[14] Eliot, T. S., On Poetry and Poets, 1957, The Frontiers of Criticism, Page 113- 114


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University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine" – Anglistics
Achieved Unity Meanings Galaxy Signifiers Contemporary Literature Theory Criticism




Title: "Achieved Unity of Meanings" vs. "A Galaxy of Signifiers"