A Lexicon of Critical Terminology—American Literature 2130

from The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty

eds. Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue


Ambiguity     A term for multiple meanings, which at times seem to be at cross purposes. It is generally used to refer to something in the text itself; i.e., “this word is ambiguous.”


Archetype      Archetypes are enduring, universal symbols which arise from what the psychologist Carl Jung calls the “collective unconsciousness,” that body of shared experiences not restricted by culture but common to humankind: natural cycles, growth, family relationships, physical surroundings. As with other symbols, the concrete object or experience stands for the abstraction associated with it: thus fire represents warmth, both physical and emotional; blood passion; gardens fertility; deserts sterility; and the wilderness the unknown terror. All these and many others appear and reappear with virtually the same significance in folklore and literature from cultures around the world. Although common these archetypes are often well internalized; an effort may be required to bring them to conscious awareness. Once recognized, however, they may be seen everywhere in fairy tales, in TV shows, in figures of speech, in color association, in patterns of human experience.


Binary / Binarism / Binary opposition     In literary study, the term is used to describe the relationship between two concepts, in which one is understood to be antithetical to the other (i.e., good/evil or us/them). In a binary opposition, the concept first listed is considered normative in some way, while the second concept is its deviation or negation. For example, in the binarism “good/evil,” good is privileged over evil—it is the standard by which evil is defined; thus, evil signifies the absence of good, or a turning away from it.


Canon       “Canon” refers to a body of literary texts that, because of their unusually high aesthetic qualities, are presumed to have passed “the test of time” and thus merit considerable attention and study (Shakespeare’s plays, for example. In recent years, the issue of “canon formation” has become a deeply contested one. Who decides which texts are or are not canonical? What constitutes “quality”? How do canons change, and why? What role is played by class, race, ethnicity, and gender in the formation of canons at particular historical moments?


Discourse      A key term in contemporary theory. It can refer to: 1) a genre, e.g., dramatic discourse or the discourse of narrative fiction; 2) a kind of language, written or spoken, e.g., poetic discourse or prose discourse; 3) the organized and systematic use of language within a discipline. A discourse can also be understood as a system of rules, implicit and explicit, determining who has the authority to speak within a particular discipline and what problems can be formulated and addressed.


Grand (or master) narrative            A story a culture tells about itself. Often, a reassuring mechanism about the future; i.e., the “narrative of progress,” Manifest Destiny, or narratives of “how the west was won.”


Intertextuality           The idea that any text is infused with memories, repetitions, transformations, and echoes of other texts.


Paradigm       A term originally proposed by Thomas Kuhn to refer to the framework of understanding that guides the process of scientific inquiry at a given moment in history. It is now used more broadly to refer to any framework of understanding or interpretation.


Sign / Signified / Signifier We can draw an understanding of these terms from the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued for the inadequacy of a referential theory of language (where language is believed to reflect a pre-existent reality). Saussure substituted for this theory one organized around the idea of “sign” as consisting of signifier (a word or image) and a signified (the concept it represents) that come into existence simultaneously (signifier is to signified as one side of paper is to the other). From Saussure’s perspective, a signifier does not so much describe a concept as construct it. Saussure’s theory of the verbal sign has been extended by other theorists to nonverbal signs, such as clothing (think of what is “signified” by different brands of jeans).


Subjectivity    A highly complex term, which, in its simplest sense, can be said to refer to notions of identity as culturally and historically constructed and subject to change.


Contemporary Criticism: Recommended website, http://mesastate.edu/~blaga/theoryindex/theoryhomex.html