The Field of Critical Theory

The term "critical theory" was coined as early as the 18th century, but most scholars now think of it as a 20th-century phenomenon that emerged from the Frankfurt School of philosophy and the writings of Kant.  It is often used synonymously with the term "literary theory."  It is inherently highly interdisciplinary.

Critical theory involves the study of the theoretical basis of such fields as literature, philosophy, art, history, and the social sciences, particularly social theory, politics, and anthropology. It is significant that the works of critical theorists such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler do not fit into any one discipline. Critical theory is inherently interdisciplinary and permeates most disciplines in humanities and social sciences, so the material in the Critical Theory Archive--as well as that in the other critical theory collections at the UCI Libraries -- crosses many disciplines and programs.

"Critical theory" is an ambiguous term. For some it is synonymous with continental philosophy (as opposed to analytical), literary theory, or theory done by literary critics. For others it is the theoretical approach of the continental philosophers and social and cultural thinkers of the Frankfurt School of Social Research which, inspired by the Enlightenment, contrasted it with traditional theory; the latter takes the disinterested natural sciences as its paradigm. According to that School, a rational basis of social existence has not yet occurred. Critical theory is resolute in its interest in human emancipation and therefore is committed to seeking radical social change. Although the latter is the true origin of the term "critical theory", there is no question that at the moment it is a theoretical approach to various problems in the human sciences, particularly of traditional literary theory, aesthetics, and literary criticism, as well as problems of social and cultural theory, history and politics.

Critical Theory at UCI

Critical Theory has occupied a prominent space on the University of California, Irvine Campus since the school’s establishment in the mid-1960s. In 1966, a year after the University’s dedication, Dr. Murray Krieger left his post as the M.F. Carpenter Chair in Literary Criticism at the University of Iowa, and came to the UCI with the ambition of creating a unique program in his specialty. Unlike more traditional courses of study in English and Comparative Literature, Krieger’s would, at its heart, be devoted to the study, application, and development of critical theory. Initially, the Critical Theory Program, the precursor to the Critical Theory Emphasis and Institute, was limited to a concentration for graduate students in the department of English. However, the interdisciplinary nature of UCI’s early curriculum, as well as the growing popularity of critical theory outside the literary field, led to the expansion of the emphasis to all departments within the School of Humanities. UCI became, at that time, the only university in the country to offer a Ph.D. in this field.

In 1975, Krieger and the dean of the School of Humanities, Hazard Adams, inaugurated a UCI hosted, summer program for junior faculty and advanced graduate students. The School of Criticism and Theory, supported in part by the National Endowment of the Humanities, was administrated by a board of ten fellows composed of the most distinguished thinkers in the field, among them Geoffrey Hartman, Wolfgang Iser, Fredric Jameson, Louis Marin, and Hayden White. The School brought nationwide recognition to UC Irvine, produced some of the next generations leading critics, and led several influential teachers of theory, including Wolfgang Iser, Jacques Derrida, and J. Hillis Miller, to join the faculty. The program currently resides at Cornell University, and is occasionally referred to as “The Irvine School.”

In the early 1980s, members of the growing critical theory faculty formed what was initially an informal reading group, but by 1987 had transformed into an organized research unit closely allied with the Critical Theory Emphasis. The Critical Theory Institute was created to support interdisciplinary work amongst different scholars in the humanities and social sciences, and to share expertise on theoretical methodologies intrinsic to research in the humanities. Today, the Institute continues to serve “as a center for critical theory for the larger academic community,” hosts lecture series, and organizes research projects every three to four years focusing on a particular theme.

The UCI Libraries, always eager to provide the greatest amount of support possible for the work of both students and faculty in all disciplines, collaborated early on with critical theory faculty to build a robust collection that would serve their needs. In 1981, Special Collections and Archives acquired the René Wellek Collection of the History of Criticism, and worked with the Critical Theory Institute to host and publish an annual “Wellek Library Lecture.” The Wellek Collection on the History of Criticism, however, was only the foundation of a collecting focus on critical theory and critical theorists. Special Collections opened the Critical Theory Archive in 1996, and continues to collect manuscripts from leading theorists. The Archive has since acquired the personal papers of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Stanley Fish, Ihab Hassan, Wolfgang Iser, Murray Krieger, J. Hillis Miller, and others.