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398 Theoretical Concepts

Page history last edited by Eric Leonidas 11 months, 3 weeks ago


The following are terms and concepts take from our various theoretical texts and introductions.  You'll need to learn all of these.



  • Tragedy: a narrative in which a character's fall results of his or her own actions and reveals tensions between or among a culture's values, beliefs, and/or practices.
  • Epic: A long narrative poem, usually detailing heroic exploits that require unusual courage and long exertion and that ultimately assert values central to a society or culture.
  • Masque: aristocratic entertainment in which disguised participants perform for an identified host and then join together for a ceremonial dance. Often, masked performers accompanied by torchbearers arrived at a social gathering to dance and converse with the guests. The masque could be simply a procession of such persons introduced by a presenter, or it could be an elaborately staged show in which a brief lyrical drama heralded the appearance of masquers, who, having descended from their pageant to perform figured dances, reveled with the guests until summoned back into their pageant by farewell speeches and song.
  • Romantic Comedy: A narrative whose events humorously test social values, patterns of behavior, and institutions, often exposing cultural tensions and contradictions; ultimately, the narrative enacts reconciliation and resolution through a literal and symbolic pursuit of marriage and offspring (“regeneration”).
  • Romance: A quest narrative involving a heroic knight or group of knights and set in a chivalric age; demonstrates highly developed civil and courtly ideals, such as spiritual love, gracefulness, loyalty, faith, and self discipline.



  • Mode of production: A society’s total means of producing and distributing goods and services.
    • Means of production: The physical and non-human resources used to generate economic output (e.g., factories, tools, raw materials, farmland, etc.)
    • Relations of production: The relationship between capital (factory and business owners, investors, creditors) and labor.
  • Bourgeoisie: The social class or classes within a society that has amassed political and cultural power and that controls the production and dissemination of goods, services, and ideas.
  • Proletariat: The social class composed of laborers and other wage-earners.
  • Class consciousness: A person’s beliefs and awareness regarding his or her social circumstances, including social class and economic power, and his or her interest in the status quo or the pursuit of change.
  • Alienation: The condition, produced by the capitalist mode of production, on individuals in which they see themselves as separated from the products of labor, from labor itself, from other laborers, and ultimately from themselves.
  • Base/Superstructure: the economic mode of production and the cultural apparatus erected on top of it to ensure its ideological acceptance.
  • Hegemony: The social dominance of a ruling group or class, reinforced by both institutional power and cultural forms of persuasion.
  • Ideology (in early Marxism): A distorted or illusory set of explanations or representations intended to convince people that the current state of production is justified, warranted, "natural" or anything else that encourages acceptance and compliance.

    • Althusser (late Marxism): "The imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” where "imaginary" indicates that the relationship is created in and mediated by language, and thus there is no "outside" of ideology.


  • What seems to be the prevailing economic form of organization in a text?
  • What classes can be seen, how do the classes relate to one another?
  • What content/discontent do you see among members of different classes?
  • What hegemony exists in a text?  Who benefits by it, and who is “subject” to it?
  • What conflicts are ignored, glossed over, or easily settled?  What role does labor play?
  • What “apparatuses” exert influence in a text?  How are characters “hailed” to these, and how do they emerge as subjects to a dominant ideology?


"Materialisms" (Cultural Criticism and New Historicism)

  • Ideology:
    • Althusser: The beliefs, values, patterns of feeling, habits of thought through which we perceive, explain, and justify reality.
    • Kavanagh: A rich "system of representations" worked up in specific material practices, which helps form individuals into social subjects who "freely" internalize an appropriate "picture" of their social world and their place in it.  Ideology offers the social subject not a set of narrowly  "political" ideas but a fundamental framework of assumptions that defines the paramters fo the real and the self.... (310)
  • Discourse:  a system of representation and meanings linked to a specific discipline, institution, practice, or pattern of belief, and that limits what can be expressed and understood.  Foucault: "ideology in action."
  • Culture: The ensemble of beliefs and practices that define a particular community and "serve as a pervasive technology of control, a set of limits within which social behavior must be contained, a repertoire of models to which individuals must conform" (Greenblatt)
  • Subversion: Any effort to expose, resist or overturn a dominant ideology.
  • Containment: the limiting and confinement of transgression to a dominant power, either through the destruction of resistance or a return of the resisting agent to the dominant order, or both.


  • What kinds of behavior or social norms and conventions does the text reinforce?
  • Why might readers at a particular place or point in time find the text compelling?
  • Who has power in the text?  How is power exerted?  What restrains subjects from resisting the effects of power?
  • Where does power borrow from other modes of “discourse” (such as art, theater, economics, history, psychology, medicine, biology, etc.)?
  • Whose freedom of thought or movement in constrained in the text?  Does anyone manage to “transgress” against such constraint, and are there lasting effects of resistance or is it ultimately “contained”?



  • Patriarchy: political, social, familial, religious, economic, legal, artistic realms centered on and controlled by men
  • First, second and third (or "post") wave feminism: historical "periods" in feminist activism and criticism, in which emphasis changes from practical rights, to identity, to the social constructedness of gender and the various interests and communities within feminism.
  • Objectification: the tendency of men (and women) to regard and value women as objects, whether as sources of pleasure, commodities, objects of beauty, displays of status, etc.
  • Subjectivity: the one doing the looking (as opposed to the object being looked at); the gazer understood as an independent and autonomous agent.
  • Misogyny: hatred and, consequently, mistreatment, misunderstanding, and misvaluation of women.



  • What kind of ideas, social structures and institutions, or language influence women in a text?
  • Who benefits by various constructions of femininity and masculinity in a text?
  • Where do women resist conventional classification, responsibilities, or other expectations, especially those established within the text itself?
  • What do women writers/speakers do with “masculine” conventions of writing/speech?
  • How are women divided from/united with other women through identifications of race, class, or ethnic identity?  What social outcomes result from this division, what are the stakes involved?
  • Where is women's "work"--contributions to economy, society, culture, family, political life--ignored, suppressed, or denied recognition?  What might the effects be of revaluing it?



  • Racialism: The belief in racial superiority, inferiority, and purity based on the conviction that moral and inetllectual characteristics are biological properties that differentiate the races.
  • Racism: Unequal power relations that grow from the sociopolitical domination of one race by another and that result [and grow from] systematic discriminatory practices.
  • Structural racism: Racial bias rooted in the largest social systems--language, foundational myths and narratives, symbolic associations, social gestures and rituals.
  • Institutionalized Racism: The incorporation of racist policies and practices in the institutions by which a society operates (education, judicial, all levels of government, health, business, etc.)
  • Eurocentrism: The belief that European culture, past and present, is superior to all others.
  • Racial Idealism: The conviction that racial equality can be achieved by changing people's (often unconscious) racist attitudes through such education and other cultural interventions.
  • Racial Realism: The conviction that racial equality can never be achieved in the US; nonetheless, the struggle is itself a moral end, and as such must be continued absent the illusion that it will be completed.



  • How is race "constructed" in a text? What qualities are assigned to different races? What are these based on (appearance, behavior, history, etc.)?
  • What interests are served in assigning a race a particular set of qualities--in other words, who benefits?
  • To what extent are racialized perspectives connected to larger social structures or institutions?
  • Who does the interpreting of race: characters in the text? Narrators or speakers? What other characters or narrative forms confirm or undermine these interpretations?
  • Are there tensions or congruence between the races and racial qualities represented in a text and its form--such as classical or traditional form, or folk elements, etc.?
  • Does a text challenge or reinforce historical or contemporary constructions of race?



[Post Colonialism: I haven't assigned this one, but it's useful for Spanish Tragedy and Othello]

  • Colony: territory under control of a distant state
    • Occupational: foreign state remains a minority—French Algeria, South Africa
    • Settler colony: colony grows to become permanent and natives become minority--United States
  • Orientalism: the fashioning of a stereotypical East as “other,” such that the differences are constructed as exotic and less developed, and the gazing "self" is constituted as superior.
  • Hybridity: the idea that identities created from meeting of colonizer and colonized are fluid and shifting, and mutually influential.
  • Mimicry: the colonized expose and critique behaviors of colonizers through adoption, parody, artificiality, ultimately revealing identities of colonizers to be conflicted and unstable.
  • Subaltern: powerless (really, degrees of powerlessness, eg women in colonized culture)



  • In what terms does a text figure a “clash” of cultures: is one superior and inferior? “Advanced” and “backward”?  Civilized and savage?  Pious and impious?
  • What is privileged or valued in each culture?  What is devalued?
  • Who in a text is identified as “other,” what are the markers of that “otherness,” and how does the identification of such benefit or otherwise affect the dominant identity?
  • What is the source of the colonizing culture’s power?  How does it enforce its values?  Where, if anywhere, do you see the colonized resisting?
  • Over the course of a text, what changes in the colonizer or colonized’s self-image?






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