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Евразийский Национальный Университет им. Л. Н. Гумилева


Выполнила: Кусаинова А. А. M059

Проверила: Оспанова Ф.А.

Нур-Султан, 2021

Anthropological method in literary criticism

Anthropological criticism refers, broadly speaking, to a form of criticism that situates the making, dissemination and reception of literature within the conventions and cultural practices of human societies. Such an undertaking has become increasingly suspect in the twentieth century as critiques of the idea of the centred subject and of a stable field of knowledge have been voiced. Anthropology is seen as upholding a privileged position whereby the dominant codes of western culture, including patriarchy and imperialism, survey, classify and govern the cultures of the east, the third world, of people of colour, women and those of different sexual preferences. As such, the discipline appears to perpetuate the same/other binary that is a part of the logocentric tradition of western culture.

Anthropological criticism came into sharp prominence during the early years of the twentieth century. The Cambridge school of classical anthropology took up the work of Sir James Frazer and applied the methods of his magnum opus, The Golden Bough, to the study of Greek drama. The conclusions of this loosely knit group of scholars and writers, sometimes known as the ‘ritualists’ (Jane Harrison, F. M. Cornford, A. B. Cook and Gilbert Murray), were that a pre-history of myth and ritual is present in Greek drama. Classical drama was thus read as a displaced narrative of much older, pagan ceremonial forms.

In 1957, the Canadian critic Northrop Frye published Anatomy of Criticism, a text that blends the moralism of Arnold with the speculative insights of the Cambridge ritualists. The sheer inclusiveness of Frye’s work, together with the close and rigorous readings which he presents, have given this work the status of a twentieth-century classic, a ‘masterwork of modern critical theory’. Frye’s system projects the seasonal cycle on to the four narrative categories of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony. These generic markers are crossed with patterns of isolation (the tragic) and integration (the comic). In western literature, these narrative and thematic elements are the territory of a hero who is, respectively, mythic, romantic, tragic, comic and ironic; this ‘ironic’ hero (as created by Joyce and Kafka for instance) is seen as a renewer of the cycle: ‘Irony . . . begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily towards myth and dim outlines of sacrificial ritual and dying gods begin to reappear in it.’

As this brief account indicates, Frye’s scheme theorises the literary imagination in terms of mythic archetypes, a communal consciousness that shuttles between the poles of utopian longing and dystopian fear. The slippage between literature and myth appears to disconnect Frye’s theory from the social issues which are frequently raised in his writings. Consciousness of this disconnection is reflected in Mary Douglas’ attacks on the ritual and social myths centred around purity and pollution. As she puts it, ‘myth sits above and athwart the exigencies of social life. It is capable of presenting one picture and then its opposite.’ Frye, for his part, stresses the ‘sequence of contexts and relationships in which the whole work of literary art can be placed’.

In terms of twentieth-century critical methodologies, one of Frye’s greatest achievements lies in his steady resistance to the insidious lure of New Criticism with its promise of a safe, technically proficient literary method. His object has been to maintain and elaborate the links between social structure and literary artefact: ‘criticism will always have two aspects, one turned toward the structure of literature and one turned toward the other cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature’.

Frye’s method was quickly overtaken in European literary theory by the rise of a structuralist literary criticism. This model of analysis, stemming from Russian formalism and the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, received a new lease of life through the post-war anthropological texts of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi-Strauss seeks to demonstrate that the language system, like other sign systems, reveals the structure of culture, that the linguistic model can be applied in a wide variety of contexts including those of food and clothing. This structure is regulated, as is language, by rules and usages which seek to enculturate the natural, to produce ‘human’ meanings. Language ‘constitutes “at once the prototype of the cultural phenomenon (distinguishing men from the animals) and the phenomenon whereby all the forms of social life are established and perpetuated”’. The structuralist movement sought to identify the ‘codes’ of literature; instead of close reading, the task of criticism was to note the ‘mythologies’ (Barthes) and patterns (Greimas) inscribed in the processes of reading and writing. The value-laden term ‘literature’ is replaced by the objective term ‘écriture’ in the cultural poetics of this group of (mainly) French thinkers.

The last forty years of anthropologically based criticism owes much to the seismic shift in literary theory that the rise of poststructuralism and, in particular, postcolonialism has brought about. In his 1973 collection, The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz suggested that the term ‘thick description’ (a coinage of Gilbert Ryle) offered a powerful means of articulating a new model of anthropology. ‘Thick description’ seeks to outline ‘the multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit’. For Geertz, human behaviour represents a dense signalling system which can only be comprehended through an imaginative engagement with the cultural contexts of its occurrence. The toolkit of the observing anthropologist includes the kinds of linguistic and visual sensitivity that belong to artistic practice: ‘. . . the line between mode of representation and substantive content is as undrawable in cultural analysis as it is in painting’.

Geertz’s position, rooted in the semiotics of the 1960s, unsettles the subject/object relationship that was a founding doctrine of the anthropological discipline, and initiates that shift toward the discourse theory of the social sciences that is current today. The literary critic Edward Said, in a series of illuminating texts, also interrogates the foundations of anthropology and has suggested that the examination of cultural practices is inevitably tainted with the ‘sameness/difference’ binary that produces a cultural value for self/other, man/woman, west/east, and civilised/primitive.

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