Literary Criticism and Postmodernism


“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

Words Strain and Crack
Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence…
Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering
Always assail them.

Thus wrote T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton V from The Four Quartets. Eliot describes the breakdown of meaning that occurs as words and their meaning die under the limitation of time. In these lines, especially if one reads them out loud and in the context of the entire poem, the breakdown of meaning hits us in a way that is startling, disconcerting, and palpable.

Eliot’s Four Quartets, published in 1944, were masterful because they vividly depict so many of the struggles, challenges and agonies characteristic of the late modern (or early postmodern) period in which he wrote. Precisely because of this, the hope of redemption held out by Eliot at the end of The Four Quartets is all the more powerful.

The agonizing words of Eliot’s poem are a good lead-in to what I want to discuss in this article, which is the Postmodern approach to language in general and literary texts in particular. (If you do not already know what Postmodernism is, then you may want to read my brief overview of Postmodernism or buy Gene Veith’s book Postmodern Times.)

Deconstructing texts
Since the advent of mass printing, and possibly even before, texts have been second only to speech as the primary means by which human beings communicate with one another.

The very existence of texts presupposes that communication is possible. Words have meaning, and while the meaning of words can often be misunderstood or change with time, the possibility of genuine, objective communication remains a reality.

At least, that was the prevailing assumption until the 20th century. Though all generalizations have exceptions, by and large people just took it for granted that it was possible to read and understand texts, even as they knew it was also possible to misread and misunderstand texts.

All this began to change in the mid-1900s, when literally thousands of intellectuals began deconstructing the legitimacy of the text as a vehicle of communication. This deconstruction did not happen overnight, but was the result of at least three important factors. We will explore each of these three factors in turn, before looking at the implication this had for literary criticism.

All readings are misreading: the influence of German hermeneutics
One of the factors leading to the deconstruction of textual meaning occurred because of innovations made by the Germans in the field of hermeneutics. (Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and deals with questions like, “What is the appropriate way to interpret a text?” and other related questions.)

Ever since Martin Luther, Germans have retained a keen interest in hermeneutics, but in the 20th century the questions they were asking started to shift. Instead of asking about the appropriate way to interpret a text, they began exploring whether the notion of a ‘correct interpretation’ was even a viable concept. Do texts even communicate, let alone offer us objective insight, into the mind of the author?

One important thinker in this process was the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 –2002). In his book A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley Grenz summarizes Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutics:

“…the goal of hermeneutics is not to discover the ‘one meaning’ of the text. The meaning of the text is not that strictly circumscribed: the limits of a text’s meaning are not confined to just the author’s intent or the reader’s understanding. In fact, we can never claim that any one interpretation is correct ‘in itself.’”

While Gadamer denied that his view led to relativism, or that it excluded the possibility of genuine communication, many others would say exactly that. After all, if we can never claim that a given interpretation of a text is correct, if we can never say that a text’s meaning is limited to what the writer may have meant, then can a text mean anything? And if a text can mean anything, is there another sense in which it also means nothing? Are all interpretations which claim to have grasped the author’s meaning therefore false? If so, are ‘readings’ actually misreadings?

These were only some of the unsettling questions raised in 20th-century Germany.

Nothing outside the text: the influence of French philosophy
During the mid-20th century, the French were dealing with a similar network of questions to the Germans, but in the field of linguistic theory.

French philosophers have always taken an interest in the relationship between words and reality. During the 20th century, French philosophers began asking whether there was any correspondence between language and the reality language describes. I am over-simplifying things here, but many philosophers began pointing out that because the meaning of any word is anchored by its definition, and because a definition is only as good as the other words which make it up, the entire network of verbal signs collapses in self-referential circularity. But if the entire network of verbal signs is self-referential, then any term has a potentially infinite semantic range. Put another way, any word can drift anywhere in the ocean of meaning, a notion known as ‘free play.’

The implication these theories had for literary criticism was realized by Jacques Derrida (1930– 2004) who famously remarked that “there is nothing outside the text.” In his discussion of deconstructionism in A Glossary of Literary Terms M.H. Abrams explains the significance of Derrida’s oft-quoted remark:

“Like all Derrida’s key terms and statements, this has multiple significations; but a primary significance is that one cannot get beyond the sequence of verbal signs to anything that stands outside of, and independent of, the language system that constitutes a text – for example its referents, or else the intention of its speaker or writer to express a determinate signification.”

Put in layman’s terms, what Abrams is saying is that for French deconstructionists like Derrida, there was a radical separation between our words and the things we think the words refer to. We are thus trapped in what Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) called “an infinite plurality of language games” since we cannot assume that our words actually refer to an independent reality that is ‘out there.’ All language thus collapses into radical subjectivity.

Shattering all metanarratives: the influence of American social sciences
The Germans and the French were not alone in deconstructing the objective status of language. The Americans also contributed to it, but in the arena of the social sciences.

During the mid to late 20th century, American public life began to be characterized by numerous groups all competing for public attention. Each group wanted to carve out a bigger share in the political, cultural and educational systems that made up America’s national life.

Whether the groups in question were feminists, Christian activists, racial minorities, gay activists, environmentalists, etc., it seemed that the best each of these groups could do was to talk past each other.

Whereas at one time all Americans participated in common national meta-narratives that gave a shared reference point, as the 20th century wore on these various groups came to be characterized only by their own mini-narratives, rendering futile even the possibility of inner-communication.

Isolated in our own groups, all hope of intelligible interaction across the ideological divide becomes lost. What this leaves us with is only “Shrieking voices/Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering.”

American theorists explained this phenomenon by saying that it is impossible to transcend the limitations of our own interpretative communities. The only story that is worth any of us telling – indeed the only story that any of us can ever tell - is either my own personal story or that of my group. Sociologists went even further and pointed out that when each of us tell our own stories, we cannot do it in reference to any larger narratives, because (and this is key) there are no larger stories that are true for everyone.

This being the case, we can only see ourselves in reference to ourselves. To try to make sense of our world with reference to any larger framework is invariably to impinge on someone else’s reality.

American social scientists thus replaced universal metanarratives with small local or individual narratives. All the big stories are broken up into billions of little stories with no relation to each other. This emphasized the multiplicity of valid theoretical standpoints and the relativity of our beliefs. Jean-Francois Lyotard described this well in The Postmodern Condition when he suggested that we have moved “from the muffled majesty of grand narratives to the splintering autonomy of micronarratives.”

To put all of this more crudely: what is true for you need not be true for me. Living under the canopy of the postmodern metanarrative that there are no metanarratives (yes, I know), we are freed from the constraints of consistency. We no longer have to relate our lives to any larger meaning or outside purpose. David Wells grasped this mood in his book Losing Our Virtue, when he wrote

“It means that people have nowhere to stand cognitively in the world, no way to get their bearings, that life’s experiences fall like pieces of confetti with no relationship to each other. Life is made up of a multitude of separate experiences that are without interconnections or meaning.”

Dispensing with authorial intent
We could explore the implications of German hermeneutics, French language theory and American Social Sciences in so many areas. Or we could profitably explore how all these theories inevitably presuppose some of the very categories they dispute.  However, in the remainder of this article I want to consider what the implications of postmodernism has been for the science of literary criticism.

Postmodernism has brought us to a position where many academics truly believe that the meaning of a text remains completely inaccessible to the reader. Literary criticism is thus plunged into an abyss of relativity since, to quote again from Abrams, “the meaning of any text remains radically ‘open’ to contradictory readings.”

Not only does it become impossible ever to know what the author truly meant, but it becomes presumptuous even to try. Even in those cases where the author has clearly explained his meaning, we cannot bridge the inaccessible chasm between his mind and ours. All we find is isolated words that echo back to us our own stories, like someone projecting his own emotions onto Mona Lisa’s smile.

You might expect that these postmodern theories would have brought the entire discipline of literary criticism to a standstill. After all, what is the point of reading, let alone commenting about a book if the author’s meaning is inaccessible to us as readers? In practice, however, these postmodern theories did quite the opposite of bringing literary criticism to a standstill. Indeed, throughout the late 20th century, the field of literary criticism has exploded into an almost endless amount of different directions.

If you think about it, this is not surprising. If a text can have no determinate meaning (since no one can really understand what an author means anyway), then the floodgates are opened for going back and reinterpreting the canon of Western literature in new and creative ways. Since the meaning of a text is no longer constrained by authorial intent, interpretation becomes unbounded.

Thus, throughout the 20th and 21st century we have witnessed Jungian interpretations of Homer’s Odyssey, Marxist interpretations of Plato’s Republic, poststructuralist interpretations of the New Testament, post-9/11 readings of Milton’s Samson Agonistes, socialist interpretations of the American constitution, etc., ad infinitum.

Did Homer actually intend for the journey of Odysseus to be an allegory of Jungian archetypes? Did Saint Paul really intend that his words to the Corinthians would not be de-coded until the 21st century? Were the framers of the American Constitution really proto-Marxists without realizing it?

After Postmodernism, the answer to these questions is that it doesn’t matter. Since postmodern literary criticism does not have to be anchored to the intent of the writer, there is no longer a court of appeal by which we may adjudicate between the vista of competing interpretations that now accompany any single text.

Unhinged from authorial intent, the science of literary criticism is collapsing into merely another instrument for furthering political agendas and ideologies.

Implications for the Church
What are the implications this has for believers? One important implication has to do with our approach to scripture.

As Bible-believing Christians, we know that genuine communication is possible. When God gave us His Word, He was not giving us a text that was inaccessible to us.

When Luke opened his gospel, he said he was writing “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4)  Similarly, when John was writing his gospel he said “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13) If the meaning of the Biblical text was inaccessible to us, it is hard to see how certainty and knowledge could derive from it. Though the Holy Spirit’s assistance we are able to truly understand what the Biblical authors meant, even though we cannot always understand it completely. Words do not “strain/crack and sometimes break, under the burden...”

But if this is true, then (contrary to the claims of Postmodern theorists), when we read the Bible it is our responsibility to constantly ask, “what did the original writers [ultimately, God Himself] intend for this to mean?” This forces us to be attentive to questions of context, genre, language and history.

Sadly, many Christians have succumbed to a Postmodern approach to scripture. You may have been at a Bible study before where it is the custom to go around the room sharing what this passage means to me. Having been influenced by Postmodernism, we think that any interpretation of a passage is just as legitimate as any other, while the question of what Moses, Luke or Paul may have actually meant is completely neglected.

At the same time, however, we need to be careful not to fall into the opposite ditch. The Holy Spirit is free to apply scripture in a variety of ways.  In the New Testament we see some of the writers taking verses from the Old Testament and applying them in new and creative ways. Similarly, sometimes the Holy Spirit will take a verse and apply it uniquely to our situation. But there is always an important difference between interpretation and application.

In this regard, what is true of scripture is true of other literary texts. Using Milton’s play Samson Agonistes to give us insight into religiously motivated violence in the post 9/11 world is one thing; claiming that doing this helps to clarify the actual meaning of the text is quite another. The meaning of a text is always and only what the author meant by it. That is why there can only ever be one correct interpretation of a text, even though there may be any number of legitimate applications.

In a future article I hope to continue to explore the implications this has for us as Christians.

Next steps

Check it out for yourself: Ask some of your friends – Christian and non-Christian – whether there are any truths that are true for everyone in all places and times. If they say yes, ask for some examples. If they say no, ask how they know that. Do you think postmodernism has affected the way people think about their lives?

For further insight into this topic, read Robin’s article "Solzhenitsyn Against Postmodernism." Also consider buying Gene Veith’s book Postmodern Times from our online store.


1 Comment

  1. Quote from above "...Unhinged from authorial intent, the science of literary criticism is collapsing into merely another instrument for furthering political agendas and ideologies." The powerful are imposing their stories, their desires (which their stories "magically" justify as right) on the rest of us. Maybe this the next step from the boat adrift of Postmodernist thought to some kind of top down Control? (Thinking of the recent move past "Celebrate diversity" to "Conform and go to Sensitivity Training" for those not conforming))
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