Heuristics for Analysis

According to Vincent B. Leitch, a heuristic “involves the use of routine questions, texts, and frameworks (diagrams, charts, maps) to produce knowledge.”

Here are four heuristics to help writers produce knowledge through the analytical languages of rhetoric, poetry, film, and literature. Click on each graphic for an interactive diagram of the corresponding heuristic.

Scroll down for a more thorough discussion about what the term “heuristic” means.

Rhetorical Triangle
Rhetorical Triangle
Lyrical Rectangle
Lyrical Rectangle
Cinematic Star
Cinematic Star
The Literary Web
Literary Web


Heuristics for Studying Theory

Vincent B. Leitch, all rights reserved

“Heuristics” involves the use of routine questions, texts, and frameworks (diagrams, charts, maps) to produce knowledge. One well-known heuristic device is the journalist’s “Five W’s,” that is, the habit of asking of an object or phenomenon “who, what, where, when, and why.” Another standard heuristic is the question “what might have been excluded or minimized?” Both of these all-purpose tools are useful in coming to understand contending literary and cultural theories. In this penultimate section we shall touch upon a selection of general and specialized heuristic devices helpful in studying theory.

It is often revealing in studying a specific theory to ask hypothetically what some other disciplines might think of the theory. This can be a productive routine for generating wide-ranging knowledge and understanding. If a particular theorist argued that literature imitated life, one might ask, for example, how a biologist, sociologist, historian, psychologist, or art historian would respond. This should lead us to see that “life” needs further elaboration to take into consideration nature (biology), society (sociology), tradition (history), consciousness and the unconscious (psychology), and representation or imitation itself (art history). Other disciplines, say anthropology, philosophy, women’s studies, or theology, might be added here to produce further understanding and refinement. It is wise to be venturesome in applying this and other heuristics.

A widely used heuristic technique, as you know, is “comparison and contrast.” In the field of criticism and theory, it typically takes the form of finding on a given topic the similarities (comparison) and differences (contrast) between any two or more theorists-for instance, Plato and Aristotle on mimesis or genres; or schools like Marxism, formalism, and feminism on reading or tradition. To elaborate a bit, “reading” for many Marxists means “ideology critique,” for formalists “textual explication,” and for some feminists “resistance to patriarchal codes.” We might further the inquiry by exploring a range of permutations, which, in this case, might be investigations concerning the role of ideology in formalism; the presence of patriarchy in Marxism; the pertinence of explication for feminist criticism. Such comparison and contrast is often a powerful discovery mechanism for students and scholars of theory, even in the few cases where it leads to a blind alley, which is an informative endpoint.
A productive heuristic question to pose when studying aspects of theory is “what institutions and social agents are involved?” For example, it helps in understanding ancient or Renaissance theory of tragedy to know about the institutional status of the theater, of acting, of playwriting, of audience composition, of reviewing, of publishing, of financing, of censoring and control, of education, and of government’s relation to the theater. Asking routinely about institutional factors can illuminate the dynamics of theory as well as literature and culture.

Theory courses and textbooks usually offer heuristic maps, charts, or graphic models of the field. The standard one, developed by M.H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953), pictures the “work” at the center of a pyramidal structure with the outer three points being occupied by the “universe” at the top and at the sides the “artist” and the “audience.” Let us consider this famous map and generate some heuristics in our elaboration and critique of it. To emphasize the relations between the work and the universe, according to Abrams, is to stress mimetic theory. The links between work and artist foreground expressive theory, while those between work and audience highlight didactic and receptionist theories. Focus on the work itself stresses formalist theories, which characteristically deemphasize connections between text and universe, artist, and audience. Up until the early Romantic era, notes Abrams, literary theory dealt largely with the poem’s relationship to the universe and the audience; then in the nineteenth century it added the artist; and in the twentieth century it turned to the work itself. Most theories of criticism and literature, argues Abrams, juggle these four major elements and orientations, privileging one.

In studying theory, this taxonomy and its lessons have proven highly useful, especially in illustrating basic theoretical orientations and in delineating broad historical trends. It is gospel in many classrooms. But the map has limitations. It leaves out or minimizes such major topics as language and critique, which have always been important in the history of theory and criticism, but particularly in more recent times. It lodges the work at the center of attention as though the “work” were autonomous and disconnected from constitutive linguistic and social codes as well as from the audience, artist, and universe. The map valorizes each of the four fixed points and not the unnamed circuits that link them, despite its arrows going out from the work to the three points at the edges of its triangular structure.

Perhaps the main problem today with Abrams’ diagram is that, without being able to say so, it stops with modernism. It was drawn up before the onset of such influential theoretical movements as structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, postcolonial theory, and cultural studies, to name just a few postmodern trends. Latter-day theory and criticism have arguably come at the end of a progression from mimesis and didacticism to expressionism to formalism to cultural critique. This progression entails complex shifts of focus from imitation of reality and its lessons and impacts to inner truths and visions to poetic techniques and their orchestrations to sociohistorical and political representations and their values. In this development none of the “old” problems disappear, rather they recede from view, undergoing reconfiguration and occupying new spaces. Thus Abrams’ diagram has pertinence and heuristic value for students studying theory today, but only when its limitations are set against its strengths. This is true of all heuristics.

Take note that heuristic devices can get you into trouble. Also keep in mind that conflicts and problems structure the field of theory and criticism, and that mastery of the discipline requires familiarity with such points of contention. Moreover, among the talents most prized by theorists are the abilities, first, to discover and explore problems and, second, to propose convincing and imaginative solutions.

We shall consider another broad schema here, dreamt up by one of our editors. There are several approaches regularly used in both constructing and studying the history of criticism and theory. Look at your own syllabus. According to this diagram, you may study (a) leading figures, or (b) key texts, or (c) significant topics and problems, or (d) important schools and movements, or (e) some combination of the above approaches. How is your syllabus organized? Each method of organization has strengths and weaknesses, which we shall touch upon here, using this frame to uncover problematics and generate heuristic protocols. Study of major figures usually examines the careers of a relatively few “geniuses,” offering productive case studies of people who over time have elaborated nuanced theories significantly shaping the field. This approach implies, however, that cultural history and value stem from gifted individuals, not minor figures or wider movements. It also tends to foreground intellectual biography, leaving social foundations and cultural history in the background. It is as though the genius springs out of nowhere. In studying theory, remember to examine presuppositions, looking at what is privileged and what is devalued, including in your syllabus and textbooks.

The study of key texts positively deemphasizes heroic biography while opening spaces for outsiders who work in other fields, but have made important contributions to theory and criticism. There are quite a number of such outsiders. Key texts in their density often communicate a great deal of information and a profound understanding of central aspects of theory. Unfortunately, this approach suggests that intellectual history consists of a string of blockbusters. Like artworks in a museum, great works of theory appear cut off from the people, places, and events that swirled about them in their time. The category itself of “great work” needs to be interrogated for the values it promotes and the institutions it depends on. Historical context is part of the history of theory, and this is a heuristic principle..

Studying theory by examining significant topics and problems-for example, the concepts of “literature,” “interpretation,” “culture,” or “gender”-offers the twin virtues of coherence and variety. Also it takes the spotlight off great works and major figures. The reflections of numerous authors on specific issues provide broad coverage and in-depth analysis of the field. However, it too dwells in the rarefied intellectual realm of concepts severed from sociohistorical contexts. Moreover, it privileges innovation over continuity and philosophically-oriented theory over more mundane critical routines. It portrays theory as fixated around a core of unchanging perennial problems. And it invariably promotes a “critical pluralism” in which respect for multiple points of view wins over the rigors of position taking.

As you study theory, be attentive to the place accorded to the everyday and the normal in relation to the extraordinary. And keep an eye on origins and endpoints. These can be helpful heuristic protocols. Study of schools and movements, a favorite among contemporary teachers and students, assembles within coherent boundaries numerous major and minor figures, influential texts, key problems, and institutional issues. In the latter case, it frequently takes into account such factors related to theory as the formations of new fields and projects, of publications outlets, of organizations and associations, and of support structures. Since this approach studies an array of competing schools and movements, it usefully dispenses with simple notions of historical evolution, continuity, cyclicality, devolution, or teleology. However, it excludes mavericks and independents, examining coherences and loyalties among school members, sometimes construing differences as problems or anomalies. It values new waves, and devalues normative practical criticism as well as traditional scholarship. It has little or no applicability to earlier eras. And finally, it too risks disconnecting criticism and theory from political, economic, and related sociohistorical contexts.

For many theorists, part of the task of studying theory requires the self-reflection on curriculum, especially the theory curriculum. Theory students are implicated in this process. The mission of theory to ask questions does not stop at the covers of the book. The contents and forms of the syllabus, your syllabus included, deserve consideration. What are the problems and limitations of your syllabus and program of study? The ways we organize the syllabus, textbooks, the curriculum, and the history of criticism and theory are important matters for understanding the field.

Let us list the heuristic devices touched on in this section. When you are studying a figure, or text, or problem, or critical school:

-Inquire into the Five W’s.
-Consider what might be excluded or minimized.
-Contrast different disciplinary viewpoints.
-Compare and contrast concepts, figures, and schools.
-Compose permutations and grafts of concepts.
-Take into account institutional factors.
-Apply Abrams’ pyramid.
-Examine presuppositions.
-Assess point of view.
-Look at what is privileged and what devalued.
-Extrapolate conditions of possibility.
-Consider changes, especially recent developments.
-Look at context.
-Try to rearrange parts and elements.
-Seek out problems.
-Create solutions to problems.
-Evaluate effects.
-Locate the space allotted the everyday and the normal.
-Analyze origins and endpoints.
-Study the conflicts of the field.

It goes without saying that studying theory today means always asking about concepts of language, literature, interpretation, experience, society, and ideology. We can formulate all this into additional heuristic protocals to be used in studying criticism and theory:

-Examine theory of language.
-Isolate theory of literature.
-Scrutinize accounts of interpretation and reading.
-Consider the definition and place of experience.
-Factor in society.
-Do critique of class, gender, and race matters.

We could go on here and list further heuristics related to recurring problems in theory, but the two dozen already given provide enough material to get you started and to enable you to generate your own heuristics. Amongst theorists “to theorize” means, in part, to create your own heuristic procedures and routines.