From T.S. Eliot and modernism, to structuralism, post-structuralism, and now back to T.S. Eliot and modernism.
The way in which the major developments of literary theory in the last half of the 20th century were presented to me, by a mentor who I hold dear in my heart, went something like this: T.S. Eliot had monopolized criticism so much in the fifties that 1) it was now being used to buttress his own poetic style and 2) it left no room for something other than a radical attack on it in order to try to return things to normal. Structuralism was then needed.
What was Eliot's point of view? Eliot was one of the few synthesizers of a theory of modernism which held up; modernism began by acting on a critical space between the mind of the author and the writing put down on the page which had been opened up by the rejection of romanticist priveleging of the intensely felt emotion over contemplation. The critical distance left room enough for extensive experiments with meaning which could be more and more detached from the immediate poetic awareness of the individual reading the work; alternately, it provided a space whereby consciousness itself, and states of consciousness, could be examined in a way which opened up the door for authors to try to get to the roots of our consciousness of the world which, in the case of Joyce for instance, meant pursuing consciousness to the origins in history, language, literature, and thought which generated what we normally think of as everyday reality.
The two approaches were not mutually exclusive and indeed the exploration of consciousness and meaning was buttressed by the addition of artificially introduced works of literature and thought which the artist could then use to flesh out ideas which, in the language of consciousness and social reflection alone, could not be adequately presented. Ezra Pound is the prime example of this, with the enourmous extra-textuality of his Cantos being put into place in order for otherwise impossible communication to occur.
T.S. Eliot struck a mean between the two approaches; on the one hand a modernist, he turned the project of supplying fire for the modernistic approach into a recognition of a conservative tradition of literature which, he thought, formed the reasonable collective means for educated western people to understand literature and the world through it.
On the other hand he insisted that the critical detachment which was the hallmark of modern literature and poetry was essential for any serious work of literary art, so that analysis of literature became a question of how an author was trying to create meaning, using this critical distance, drawing on the extensive tradition of the western cannon.
Not that bad but, unfortunately, not the only way to concieve of art as being made.
Whether through emphasis on the artist's concsiousness or through emphasis on the extratextuality of his works, this brand of criticism focussed on how meanings were to be reconstructed through careful examination of everything outside of the text, while deprecating the actual mechanics of the text beyond the minimum accorded to decent writing.
Structuralism stepped in with a theory which, in contrast, put all the emphasis on the construction of meaning by the reader from within the mechanics of the text itself.
Post-Structuralism modified this by including a critical emphasis on the origins of the writer's background, along with that of the reader, which nevertheless excluded the criteria which Eliot and company had erected for extra-textual subject matter.
So what now?
I find myself drawn back to the modernists, but with the knowledge that, from structuralism, a great deal of meaning of the text comes from the actual workings of it as a mechanism, and that, from post-structuralism, a great deal of that meaning is actually representative of social issues and structure rather than purely dealing with the artist's intention or lack thereof.
Modernism, while extremely aware, didn't posses the critical understanding of itself which has been made possible by the successive waves of anti-modernist criticism. It can now do it.
The implications of this are, of course, that the importance of the individual consciousness and his or her dealings with literary tradition are somewhat downgraded, but with relativity we can take the actual production of meaning which is the heart of literature farther than we could have before.