English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Four Coordinates of Literary Theory: Abrams / Adams

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The four coordinates of literary theory in Meyer Abrams and in Hazard Adams' Critical Theory since Plato. Further elaborations developed from notes for a seminar with Professor Albert O. Wlecke of UC Irvine.

universe (mimetic)
author (expressive)
audience (pragmatic)
text (objective)

Mimetic: The first theoretical coordinate is the mimetic concern. How does the poem relate to a model of external reality? Terms that fit within this approach are imitation, representation, mimesis, and mirror. Pay attention to metaphors -- the term "mirror" is the subject of Meyer Abrams' iThe Mirror and the Lamp. See also Hamlet's speech about art -- art "holds the mirror up to nature." Painting is another common mimetic term. Realism is also a mimetic theory, but it sometimes insists that art conveys universal truths, as opposed to merely temporal and particular truth. Dreiser and Hemingway may or may not render their own times and circumstances accurately, but Freud's reading of Oedipus Rex (and Ernest Jones' reading of Hamlet) claims insight into something universal about the human psyche. Samuel Johnson makes the same sort of claim when he argues that Shakespeare portrays universal character traits and moral values. Aristotle's take on mimetics is sophisticated-he argues that the universal can be found in the concrete. Sidney values art as an accurate representation of moral ideals and excellence. Plato, by contrast, says that poetry fails on mimetic terms-it has no access to the world of forms.

Pragmatic: This second coordinate deals with the relationship between text and audience. The concern for the moral effects of art is often drawn from mimetic theory. Plato invokes the flawed mimetic capacity of poetry as the source of its moral contagiousness. "Psychological" critics like Wordsworth and Aristotle are pragmatists; they lay great stress on art's supposed therapeutic value. Freud does the same. Another version of this psychological pragmatism is the one practiced by early aestheticians like Baumgarten and Kant, who wrote about the "aesthetic emotions." They theorized about the effects of poetic language on the mind, as does Krieger today. Aside from moral and psychological pragmatism, there is ideological or political pragmatism: cultural studies-oriented critics focus on gender, race, and class issues. They inquire into the extent to which works support or undermine particular ideologies. This is moral criticism with a political bent. One might ask, for example, what the effects of the portrayal of African-Americans were in "Gone with the Wind."

Expressive: This third coordinate has to do with the relationship between poet and work. Expressive theory would be the appropriate title here. Biographical criticism is expressive, as is romanticism and Freudian analysis. (See Ernest Jones on Hamlet's Oedipal feelings, which turn out to be none other than Shakespeare's own repressed Oedipal conflicts -- he attempts, says Jones, to deal with these conflicts by creating Hamlet.)

Objective: The fourth coordinate emphasizes the integrity and ontologically sound status of the work itself, without immediate reference to audience, poet, or external reality. Formalists practice this type of criticism. See the "New Criticism" of Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, Wimsatt and Beardsley, and others. See also Trotsky's rebuff of the Russian Formalists as counterrevolutionaries.