If you want to talk about what's happening in the theory of language and literature these days -- and if you want to hold your head up high while you're at it -- here's a quick course in the "isms":
THE NEW CRITISM, born in the 1940s, was a revolt against the traditional stress on source materials, historical and biographical context, and explanations of the author's message. The New Critics thought these things were a kind of undergrowth that had gradually come to strangle the plant of literature itself.
In the 1950s and '60s, the New Critism and its call for "close reading" of individual works became the rage on campuses from coast to coast. Not that the business of saying what a book or a poem "meant" was abandoned, but the New Critics called their version of meaning "organic unity" and claimed to find it by a rigorous process that barred all conclusions not derived directly from the "naked" text.
In Walter Jackson Bate's view, the New Criticism paved the way for most of the movements that have come since (including some that have had little good to say for the New Criticism) -- with its claims to objectivity and its tendencies toward overspecialization.
STRUCTURALISM was the broad way of looking at human behavior and culture derived from the work of the French philosopher/anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Using linguistics as his model, Levi-Strauss examined eating, kinship, myth-making and other compartments of behavior as structures or sign-systems that transcend (and mold) the actions of individuals.
Beginning in the early 1960s, literary critics saw structuralism as the instrument of a truly scientific approach to writing -- something the New Criticism had advocated without quite being able to say how it was to be done. The structuralist (or semiological) critic would identify the recurring elements, and particularly the opposites, that give unity to literature as a whole, thus placing the quirkiness of individual works within a system that could be analyzed -- it seemed -- scientifically.
Some critics looked forward to the day when their mushily humanistic profession would join ranks with what Roland Barthes called "a single, unified science of culture." But the search for pattern created a new generation of skeptics -- including Barthes himself in his later years -- who doubted the possibility of reducing criticism to a science, or thought it should have more ambitious aims than the simple description of structure.
POST-STRUCTURALISM is the umbrella term for a number of recent approaches that reflect both the influence of structuralism and the resistance to it. The most conspicuous of these is deconstruction, derived from the writings of Jacques Derrida, who has combed through the works of major western philosophers from Rousseau to Levi-Strauss, and found in all of them the same continuing conspiracy to assume the existence of meaning in the world independent of language.
Derrida's ideas have had a strong influence on other current schools of criticism, although none seems quite so devoted to the unearthing of disorder.
STYLISTICIANS analyze the minutiae of writing and the frequency of certain words and phrases (sometimes with computer assistance) as keys to what writers are up to.
FEMINIST CRITICS and MARXIST CRITICS use deconstruction-style methods to unearth the "structures of domination" implied by literature -- or by prevailing attitudes toward it.
Reader-Response Critics assume that meaning is to be found in the interplay of the reader and the text. Johns Hopkins' Stanley Fish, for example, sees writing and reading as processes governed by "interpretive communities."
"Let's say we're sitting around in a classroom," he explains, "and someone raises his hand. Now everyone in that room -- the students and the instructor -- knows what that means." And "we're always in some such institutional situation."
Finally, there is Yale's Harold Bloom, who sees a poem's creation as an act of aggression -- if not patricide -- against its predecessors. The poet must misinterpret someone else's poem, says Bloom, and thus create a space for himself and his own work. And "a theory of poetry," according to Bloom, "must be poetry, before it can be of any use in interpreting poems."