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About the Book

What is poststructuralist theory, and what difference does it make to literary criticism? Where
do we find the meaning of the text: in the author's head? in the reader's? Or do we,
instead, make meaning in the practice of reading itself? If so, what part do our own values play
in the process of interpretation? And what is the role of the text? Catherine Belsey considers
these and other questions concerning the relations between human beings and language,
readers and texts, writing and cultural politics.
Assuming no prior knowledge of post structuralism, Critical Practice guides the reader
confidently through the maze of contemporary theory. It simply and lucidly explains the views of
key figures such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, and
shows their theories at work in readings of familiar literary texts.
Critical Practice argues that theory matters, because it makes a difference to what we do when
we read, opening up new possibilities for literary and cultural analysis. Poststructuralism, in
conjunction with psychoanalysis and deconstruction, makes radical change to the way we read
both a priority and a possibility.
With a new chapter, updated guidance on further reading and revisions throughout, this second
edition of Critical Practice is the ideal guide to the present and future of literary studies.
In an attempt to become at least a bit more familiar with contemporary debates about critical
theory, I recently finished reading two introductions recommended by one of my professors, Dr.
Scott Crider. They were Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan
Culler and Critical Practice by Catherine Belsey. Both were accessible (a quality rarely found
even in an introduction), yet neither appears to oversimplify. So what is theory? Jonathan Culler
includes the following items:
1. Theory is interdisciplinarydiscourse with effects outside an original discipline.
2. Theory is analytical and speculativean attempt to work out what is involved in
what we call sex or writing or meaning or the subject.
3. Theory is a critique of common sense, of concepts taken as natural.
4. Theory is reflexive, thinking about thinking, enquiry into the categories we use
in making sense of things, in literature and in other discursive practices.
Culler also includes a very helpful appendix, which offers brief paragraphs on each of the major
theoretical movements from Russian Formalism to Queer Theoryquite a handy little reference.
Catherine Belseys Critical Practice is a bit less accessible than Culler, but effectively traces the
challenges to what she terms common sense criticism.
One major question in literary theory concerns meaning. What is meaning, and how does it
function? Is it within or outside a text? Does it dwell with the author or the reader? Heres a
crude illustration of meaning I made while reading Belsey:
So meaning lies at the intersection between these four criteria: 1) Authorial Intent; 2) The
readers perception; 3) The text itself; 4) Historical and Traditional Context. Though I am sure
more criteria exist (perhaps the graph should be made three-dimensional?), I find the above
illustration quite helpful. I also made a similar illustration for the human self, one that is equally
crude yet somewhat helpful.
Like meaning, the self lies at the intersection between two dichotomies: Individual/Social and
Made/Given. Again, this graph is taken from my reading of Belsey, who handles the issue of the
human self with a great deal more subtlety and precision than my illustration.
When I was an undergraduate in Canada encountering literary and cultural theory for the first
time, my teachers pointed me towards two introductions, Catherine BelseysCritical
Practice (1980) and Terry Eagletons Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Each in their
fashion, these books stirred the blood, inviting students to a struggle waged over the literary text
(as I remember it). There was never any doubt as to where these texts stood: they told us what to
distrust and firmly put us on a new path. Belsey armed her readers with Althusser and Lacan
and sent them out to slay common sense and the classic realist text wherever they found them.
What is poststructuralist theory, and what difference does it make to literary criticism? Where
do we find the meaning of the text: in the authors head? in the readers? Or do we,
instead, make meaning in the practice of reading itself? If so, what part do our own values play
in the process of interpretation? And what is the role of the text? Catherine Belsey considers
these and other questions concerning the relations between human beings and language,
readers and texts, writing and cultural politics. Assuming no prior knowledge of
poststructuralism, Critical Practice guides the reader confidently through the maze of
contemporary theory. It simply and lucidly explains the views of key figures such as Louis
Althusser, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, and shows their theories at
work in readings of familiar literary texts.
Critical Practice argues that theory matters, because it makes a difference to what we do when
we read, opening up new possibilities for literary and cultural analysis. Poststructuralism, in
conjunction with psychoanalysis and deconstruction, makes radical change to the way we read
both a priority and a possibility. With a new chapter, updated guidance on further reading and
revisions throughout, this second edition ofCritical Practice is the ideal guide to the present and
future of literary studiesIn this now classic exposition of critical theory, Catherine Belsey
explores the possibilities for a new critical practice that draws on semiotics, Marxist theory and
psychoanalysis.