Cultural studies and literary criticism



The history of literature as practiced before has been called into question. The relationship between “literature and national life” and “literature and society” was abandoned

The succession of theories – structuralism, post-structuralism, post-colonial – profoundly marked literary criticism from the 1960s onwards.

After so many decades of loose impressionist interpretations almost always attached to the “author's psychology”, literary criticism initially aligned itself with the structuralist crusade in favor of a rigorous posture, attentive to the immanence of the text. As a pilot science, structural linguistics was the starting point: to it was added Russian formalism, the Prague linguistic circle, Jakobson's studies and many other contributions that came to inform literary studies.

In this new record, the rupture of relations between literature and society was proclaimed, thus opposing the Marxian legacy and sociologism. “Literariness” would no longer be in the relations between the text and the social content, but in the language itself and its organization. The form thus became autonomous: there is nothing outside it, everything is language. To do science is to study structures. With this conviction, the decentering of the subject was carried out, a process known as the “death of the subject”. The recently deceased, as was believed, had been just a creation of humanism, a bourgeois ideology that intended to crown the individual, the bourgeois citizen, placing him at the center of reality.

The decentering of the subject, therefore, intended to put an end to the privileges that existentialism granted to subjectivity. On the literary level, such a conception turned against personal testimonies and against the very idea of ​​“author”. Let us remember that Sartre saw in the autobiography and in the “choices” that man makes from early childhood one of his interpretive keys. In that spirit, he wrote a biography of Flaubert (the family idiot).

Foucault, on the contrary, prefers to speak of the “author function”: the writer is no longer a creator, a demiurge, but only an initiator of discourse. In the words of Foucault: “the author function is linked to the legal and institutional system that encloses, determines and articulates the universe of discourses”. Spokesperson for the ideology or the various institutions, the author, structuralists believe, died along with the concept of man and other inventions of humanism. For this reason, Foucault advised us to hold back the tears…

As a result of the structuralist influence, literary criticism came to be tutored by linguistics, becoming self-referential, ignoring the ties between literature and social life and emptying the role of the author (his psychology, personal choices, ideological influences, etc. ).

The radical criticism of structuralism will be made by Derrida when he shows how the “structurality of the structure” presupposed a center, a fixed reference, which, in his words, limited the “play of structures”. “It has always been thought”, he says, that “the concept of a centered structure is, in effect, the concept of a founded game, constituted from a founding immobility and a reassuring certainty, itself subtracted from the game”.

Derrida proposes the overcoming of structuralism, the “declared abandonment of all reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference”. In its place, he puts “the Nietzschean affirmation, the joyful affirmation of the play of the world and the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without error, without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation. This affirmation then determines the non-center without being as a loss of the center. And play without security (…). In the absolute case, the statement also surrenders to genetic indetermination, to the seminal adventure of the trait”.

Thus, post-structuralism was born, in this return to Nietzsche and the attachment to a game that does not recognize rules, in which everything is discontinuous and unstructured, from which reason – and reason etymologically means relationship – was definitively expelled. This radical project was realized in the strategy of deconstruction that Derrida applies in the reading of philosophical and literary texts. The deconstructivist reading is conducted under the sign of suspicion: it finds that a text is constructed by the author through a game of oppositions aimed at fixing a meaning. But, this is done through sub-understandings, silences and dissimulations. Deconstructivist criticism thus seeks to implode the arbitrary fixation of meaning, bringing to light what the author has repressed.

There is, therefore, no belief in unity, as this presupposes totality, a structural center that generates coherence and gives meaning. This implosion of totality gives rise to the cult of difference. Derrida plays on words by distinguishing the difference com a, da difference (difference). Such a distinction has the function of showing that simple difference puts the different from the same in a necessary relationship, which presupposes a totality that encompasses both. A difference, on the contrary, is an indifferent difference that denies the possibility of fixing any definitive meaning. In its place, the “infinite game of differences” appears, and also the new words that start to frequent Derrida’s texts: “undecidable”, “margins”, “between-place”, “ex-centric”, etc.

Derrida's critique of structuralism and the new words put into circulation had a profound impact on literary studies departments, cultural studies, and postcolonial theorists, especially in the United States.

Postcolonial: literature as a cultural text

Born in literary studies and suffering the direct influence of Derrida, postcolonialism turned against the humanist tradition and the defense of universals, mainly the existence of a “universal literature”, proclaimed by Goethe. Against this background, he strove to politicization of literary studies.

What is curious is that postcolonial theorists were former third-world intellectuals based in universities in Europe and the United States. And these countries were colonial powers that received millions of immigrants committed to asserting their cultural identity in the new environment. At the same time, westernized bourgeoisies emerged in the former colonies. Debates about multiculturalism then emerged in full force: the so-called minorities began to claim public recognition of cultural differences, thus opposing the universalism of the Western world.

Theoretically, postcolonial thinkers can be considered post-Marxists, as they seek to reconcile the heritage of culturalist Marxism (Gramsci, in the first place) with a conceptual repertoire drawn from post-structuralism (Derrida, Foucault and Lacan – authors who do not dealt with the colonial question).

There is a visible enthusiasm with the new terms put into circulation by Derrida, such as “margins”, “in-between”, “ex-centric”, which were used as tools used in the critique of Eurocentrism, logocentrism and universalism. The periphery thus revolted against the idea of ​​a referential center which, however, is no longer to be confused with the former colonialism or imperialism.

Influenced by Derrida, postcolonial theorists made a distinction between the time of colonialism, marked by differences, binarisms and contradictions, and postcolonial time, marked by different temporalities and the slippery difference. The independence of the colonies, according to them, replaced the question of cultural identity in another register. Massive immigration to central countries led to a reaffirmation of cultural pluralism and the right to differences – now conceived on a global scale.

Globalization, therefore, does not mean cultural homogenization from the center, as Jameson and his theory of the “cultural dominant” thought – on the contrary, it gave birth to a wide range of differentiated and volatile systems. In this way, globalization is seen through mass immigration that brought the periphery to the center, in an unexpected movement of interpenetration of the global with the local, generating what some authors have christened “glocal”.

The “portrait of the colonized” and the “portrait of the colonizer” are no longer spoken of as fixed positions, but of a complex proliferation of floating identities spread around the world and in a constant process of hybridization, as Stuart Hall states, or establishing “nomadism” ” as the defining condition of the present, as intended by postmodernism.

There are other words in the academic discourse: before, there was talk of colonialism, domination, imperialism, Third World, dependency; now, there is talk of transculturalism, multiculturalism, hybridity, diaspora, margins, etc. – expressions that seek to capture the new position of the off-centered subject and the complex influences suffered by him in the construction of new identities.

In short, the old national question gave way to the analysis of the subject's fluctuating position in an equally volatile world. Economic and political issues became problems of subjectivity for social actors, as they would no longer express the former economic domination of colonialism: power, like individuals, is decentralized and therefore spread throughout all the pores of social life. , as taught by Foucault.

This decentering of postmodern discourse merited the following comment from Canadian professor Linda Hutcheon: “When the center begins to give way to the margins, when the totalizing universality begins to deconstruct itself, the complexity of contradictions that exist within conventions – as , for example, gender ones – start to become visible. Cultural homogenization also reveals its cracks, but the heterogeneity claimed as a counterpart to this totalizing (even if pluralizing) culture does not take the form of a set of fixed individual subjects, but is instead conceived as a flow of contextualized individualities: contextualized by gender, class, race, ethnic identity, sexual preference, education, social function, etc.”.

Finally, we must remember that these theorizations are contemporary with both the black movement and the feminist and gay movements. The old monolithism of social movements is replaced by the emergence of differences (differences) of the various segments that lived on the margins and that now begin to assert their ex-centricity. The center generated binarisms (man/woman; white/black), the postcolonial affirms the multiplicity of differences. It is no longer about multiculturalism celebrating cultural diversity. This emerged shortly after the decline of Black Power, feminism and peace movements. The revolutionary potential of these movements, in a moment of ebb, was diluted in multiculturalism. Instead of antagonism towards the social order, multiculturalism pleaded for peaceful coexistence based on tolerant pluralism that peacefully accommodates differences. These lose their structural determination and dissolve in culture.

If multiculturalism celebrated diversity, postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha prefer to speak of cultural difference.

Cultural hybridism

The most important book Bhabha is the place of culture. What would that location be anyway? Traditionally, such a location transited through different places. For some, it's about Nation – it is she, with her settled language and customs, who gives meaning and gives the letter of citizenship to symbolic productions. For others, social stratification protests against an alleged national identity that can overlap the divided social fabric – different social classes are the reference. There is also the humanist perspective that understands culture as a heritage (not of the nation or social class), but of humanity – it, therefore, is a common heritage of men.

Speaking about literature, Bhabha stated: “Perhaps we can now suggest that transnational stories of migrants, colonized or political refugees – these border conditions and borders – might be the terrain of world literature, rather than the transmission of national traditions, once the central theme. of world literature. The center of such a study would not be the "sovereignty" of national cultures nor the universalism of human culture, but a focus on those "anomalous social and cultural dislocations" that Morrison and Gordimer represent in their "weird" fictions.

The new social context created by globalization brought “a range of other dissonant, even dissident voices – women, colonized, minority groups, those with policed ​​sexualities” – it is these voices that now emerge in postcolonial migration and make up “the narratives of cultural and political diaspora”.

A sentence by Heidegger, placed as an epigraph, announces to the reader the understanding of the border as the place from which “something begins to be present”. It is about the frontier work of culture, an “insurgent act of translation”, which shifts the focus to the contingent “between-places”, to the celebration of the hybridity that left behind the traditional bonds that held culture in fixed positions. . Nation, humanity, class, gender – the former fixed points are now swallowed up by the vertigo of the changing postcolonial subject position.

The “positional” – and therefore mutant – character of the subject protests against any “universalist” claim and any binarism. “No culture is ever unitary in itself, nor simply dualistic in the relationship of the Self with the Other”. The new place of culture would be in the articulations of differences, in the interstices, in the intersubjective experiences to be negotiated punctually.

The word negotiation thus appears to occupy the place formerly belonging to negation, a central term of dialectical logic. The negation and, in particular, the “determined negation” – which presupposes an identity and a difference – set in motion, turns into opposition and contradiction. Negotiation, on the other hand, states that subjects are discontinuous, divided and subjected to the game of conflicting interests. There is, therefore, “no room for the unitary or organic political objective”. The concept of hegemony, in Gramsci, pointed to a collective will, an image rejected as an Enlightenment and rationalist heritage. Negotiation, on the contrary, seeks interaction and differentiation to bring out the in-between place and expel the processes that intend to “contain the effects of difference”. These do not lead to unity, but to “syncretism”, “juxtaposition”, “hybridity”, “mixtures”, “confluences”, “crossed and interstitial intersubjectivities”.

Perhaps the word negotiation can also be used to understand the “translation” carried out in classic concepts such as hegemony mentioned above. The strong presence of linguistics has led postcolonial theorists to resort frequently to catachresis to explain the translation of concepts originating from Western culture. Marcelo Topuzian, writing about Spivak observed: “the names that are the legacy of the European Enlightenment (sovereignty, constitutionality, self-determination, nationality, citizenship, including culturalism) are catachretic voices, since they “borrow” them from another context to make them play on a different (economic, but also social, or cognitive) value encoding system. It is within this framework of substitutions that the postcolonial intellectual operates…”.

Catachresis, as is known, is a metaphor already absorbed in common language and which has the function of supplying the lack of a specific word to designate an object: “arm” of the chair, turning something “upside down” etc. In the same spirit, postcolonialism appropriates the “western” vocabulary to name, that is, translate into new terms the objects it intends to study. One should not expect fidelity from this anthropophagic procedure: the entire theoretical arsenal, like the vase, is “upside down” in postcolonial translation.

the colonial narrative

A starting point for us to delve into the specificity of the colonial narrative can be found in a passage by Roland Barthes that served as a reference for Homi Bhabha not only to criticize logocentrism (here equated with structuralist linguistics), but also to point out the new place of culture.

Barthes, in The pleasure of the text, narrates a daydream that occurred in a Moroccan market. Half-asleep at a table in a bar, he began to list the languages ​​that reached his ear: music, conversations in French and Arabic and the noise of chairs and glasses. This set of sounds suggested to him the existence of a new language characterized by the discontinuity in which no sentence was formed, resulting in a total subversion of predicative syntax and, therefore, of all linguistics. Hierarchy, sentence subordinations, language structure, etc. give way to the discontinuity of the “heard” text, of “written aloud”. What matters now is the text as the minimum meaningful unit and not the sentence and its hierarchy. Or, as Barthes says, “the articulation of language, not the meaning of language”.

The structural linguistics presented in the minimal unit of the sentence is thus left behind, so that Bhabha, from Barthes, can read the text of the post-colonial narrative – the narrative of the diaspora, of the subaltern, which is formed in the cauldron of diversity through permanent negotiation.

The cultural approach thus seeks to destabilize the fixed points of the Western cultural tradition and relativize the criteria. Bhabha says: “The natural(lized), unifying discourse of the “nation”, of the “peoples” or of the authentic “popular” tradition, these embedded myths of the particularity of culture, cannot have immediate references”. In this way, the “unifying discourse” that is particularized is replaced by indetermination, by the incessant “translations” operated in the “interstices” and by the “infinite game of differences” (Derrida).

The impact of this conception on literary studies was enormous. Strictly speaking, the history of literature as it was practiced until recently is questioned. The relations between “literature and national life” (Gramsci), “literature and society” (Antônio Candido) were left behind. The nation and the class are no longer inclusive spheres, as literature written by women, by blacks, by gays does not “fit” in these spaces. For this reason, postcolonial critics have a special attraction for comparative studies, because they believe that they break with boundaries and allow the game of differences to develop freely. Borders – let us remember Heidegger – “are not the point where something ends”, but the “point from which something begins to be present”.

And what is present is the hybridity, the cultural encounter, the transnational, the differential identities. In short: the “discourse of indeterminism”. At this moment, the critique of Eurocentrism and logocentrism meet.

One of the results of this meeting, in terms of literature, is the critique of the canon. Culturalist relativism and the emphasis on the particular turn against the defenders of the universal, those who, like Harold Bloom, intend to establish the referential works of universal literature.

The canon defense occasioned an illustrative controversy at Stanford University. One of the school's professors, concerned with the preservation of Western culture, proposed a change in the curriculum to guarantee a year of study dedicated to reading 15 works by classical thinkers (Plato, Homer, Dante, etc.). Taken to a referendum, the proposal was defeated and in its place, another was approved that favored works from non-Western cultures, as well as literature produced by women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and American aborigines.

Amy Gutmann commented on this episode showing the division of opinions into two groups: the essentialists, defenders of the canon, and the deconstructivist, those who criticize it.

The former stated that “education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is Truth. Truth is everywhere the same. Therefore, education should be everywhere the same”.

The defense of a universalism that only contemplates the canonical works of Western literature gained supporters in the literary debate. The American writer Saul Below, in a derogatory and sarcastic tone, said: "When the Zulus produce a Tolstoy, then we will read them".

Nothing could irritate the deconstructivist more: the defense of an abstract universalism, blind to differences and with homogenizing pretensions, wants to impose a literary form on all cultures – critical realism – that not even the West produces anymore!

But the deconstructivist proposal denies the possibility of understanding by rejecting en bloc that culture of “dead white men who wore wigs”. The establishment of a canon and the existence of norms shared among scholars are considered “masks of the will to political power of dominant and hegemonic groups”. But this argument, according to Amy Gutmann, "reflects the will to power of the deconstructivist themselves".

A reader of Bourdieu would see in this dispute one more of the clashes that cross the “intellectual field”. The fundamental question, however, – the establishment of criteria for the canon – is part of the quarrel between universalism and culturalist particularism and therefore goes far beyond the politicization of literary studies.

It is understandable, to some extent, the deconstructivists' aversion to established artistic models. After all, as dictionaries teach, the word canon emerged as a rule established by an ecclesiastical council or as a “set of books of the Bible accepted by the Church as genuine and inspired”. This religious origin already makes the word suspect of authoritarianism. Furthermore, comparison with the “high” culture of the West has always left Third World scholars in an inferior position. Reacting to the canon, postcolonial deconstruction began to give a sometimes exaggerated value to new literature in tune with emerging social concerns. The politicization of literary studies rebelled against the consecration of the classics. After all, what does Plato have to say to those who fight slavery? And Monteiro Lobato, for those who fight against racial prejudice?

A conciliatory position was defended by Beatriz Sarlo in a text in which she raises the question of “aesthetic values, of the specific qualities of the literary text”. As she argues, there should be a productive interchange between cultural studies and literary theory, from which both would benefit. But what distances her from the deconstructivist is her defense of the specificity and value of the literary text, which should not be diluted in cultural relativism.

The title of the essay talks about “evaluative crossroads”, understanding that a crossroads “is a place where paths meet and separate”. Bhabha, as we have seen, prefers to speak of the border, a place from which “something begins to be present”. The words used point to opposite meanings. What is present is something new that escapes existing criteria; Sarlo's crossroads, on the contrary, is the point at which the literature that until then had gone hand in hand with cultural analysis, separates from it.

At the beginning of the 60th century, in Latin America, debates on national literature and culture had an enormous social impact, as literature, the national language and history were considered central to a republican education. During the politicization of the XNUMXs, aesthetic values ​​and politics were brought together.

This situation, however, did not resist the presence of the media and the hegemony of the audio-visual in the modern world. Literary criticism, inheriting the technicist bias from linguistic structuralism, moved away from the general public and became a subject for specialists. At that moment, cultural studies helped literary criticism, providing them with a public space of reference and a language accessible to the general public.

But literature and culture are not the same thing. Literature cannot be equated with other cultural texts such as, for example, journalistic reports, publicity reports, medicine inserts, cake recipes, etc. In a school, a high school student was confronted with several of these texts and a poem by Drummond. Asked why Drummond's text was considered a literary text, he replied: “it is literate because you say it is, and I don't agree. I think he's boring. Why is Zé Ramalho not literature? They're both poets, aren't they?" Without much awareness, he expressed suspicion of Foucauldian knowledge/power and cultural relativism…

And, in fact, cultural studies always end up in relativism, since they understand that values ​​vary according to the cultural contexts in which they are inserted. Beatriz Sarlo contests this view, saying that “values ​​are relative, but not indifferent. Cultures can be respected and, at the same time, discussed”. This is because, in a globalized world, different cultures meet and values ​​are debated. Internal criteria lose their former priority. When, for example, I read in the newspapers that the practice of stoning adulterous women continues to exist in some cultures, I am not indifferent to the cultural difference.

But let's go back to literature. Against the dilution of literature in culture, the question of the specificity of this form of objectification is raised. In addition to differing from other non-artistic texts (journalistic, advertising, etc.), they are not equivalent: Machado de Assis is not equivalent to Paulo Coelho. Where would the specificity of art be? What is the secret of the canonical work?

We enter here a difficult and nebulous subject. The romantics liked to use the word “ineffable” to express the mysterious and enigmatic character of essences in general and of art in particular. Theorists who intended to explain a work scientifically stood up against this mystical characterization, such as, for example, those who translate it based on the linguistic resources employed in its composition.

But art is a wild animal that never allows itself to be fully tamed. She always resists simplifying and reductive explanations. Sarlo, like everyone else who has discussed this topic, cannot give a definitive answer to the question of the specific value of artistic value, but suggests an approximation: “… we should openly recognize that literature is valuable not because all texts are equal and can be culturally explained. But, on the contrary, because they are different and resist unlimited sociocultural interpretation. Something always remains when we explain literary texts socially, and that something is crucial. It is not an inexpressible essence, but a resistance, the strength of a meaning that remains and varies over time. (...). Literature is socially significant because something, which we grasp with difficulty, remains in the texts and can be activated again once they have exhausted other social functions”.

Although still imprecise, Sarlo's approach suggests time as a criterion (“remains over time”), pointing out a way to think about the specificity of literature. But, in post-modern times of simultaneity and superficiality, and also apology for the cultural industry, the slow tempo of literature coexists with an adverse situation of clear hostility to art.

Reflections of this state of affairs in Brazil can be seen in the National Curriculum Parameters for High School which, since 2000, have guided the teaching of literature. Until then, literary teaching had been based on authoritarian and arbitrary criteria, the result of “classification struggles” and “social legitimations” that valued certain works (the canonical ones), as they would represent the economic and symbolic power of certain social groups.

In the new guideline, “the diversity of points of view” came into force. Therefore, “the teacher's work focuses on the objective of developing and systematizing the language internalized by the student, encouraging the verbalization of the same and the mastery of others used in different social spheres. (...). The study of grammar becomes a strategy for understanding/interpreting/producing texts and literature is integrated into the area of ​​reading”. Thus, with the dilution of literature in language studies and the excessive appreciation of the students' “point of view”, it is no longer possible to talk about objective criteria for teaching literature. This would only be the bearer of “cultural contents”.

The dilution of the literary in language and in the different cultural spheres leads not to a crossroads (“place where paths meet and separate”), but to the denial of one of the paths, literature. stricto sensu. It seems to me that this was the spirit that guided the Swedish Academy to award the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature to composer Bob Dylan.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).


Amy Gutmann, “Introduction”, in Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the “recognition policy” (Mexico: Fund for Economic Culture, 2009

Beatriz Sarlo, “The cultural studios and literary criticism at the crossroads of values”,  in Cultural Critics Magazine, number 15, 1997.

Harold Bloom, The western canon. Books and the school of time (Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 1995, third edition).

Jacques Derrida, Writing and difference (São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2011).

Bhabha, the place of culture (Belo Horizonte: EUFMG, 2010).

Linda Hutchton, Poetics of Postmodernism, (Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1991).

Marcelo Topuzian, “Apostille”, in Gayatri C. Spivak, Can I speak to the subaltern? (Buenos Aires: Cuadernos de Plata, 2011),

.Mavi Rodrigues, Michel Foucault without mirrors: a proto postmodern thinker (Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ, 2006).

Michel Foucault, What is an author? (Lisbon: Passages, 1992).

 National curriculum parameters for secondary education. Part 2. Languages, codes and their technology

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