The Reception of “Literary Theories” in Higher Education from the 1950s to the 1980s

The theoretical approach to texts is now an integral part of literary studies at all levels. However, this type of approach did not always have its place in education or in reviews. How did what we call today “literary theories” enter the teaching curriculum? Who brought in this approach to literature and in what conditions? The aim of this research project is to shed light on the processes by which literary theories that developed in the wake of structuralism were legitimized and institutionalized between the 1950s and 1980s. Initially developed in relatively marginal academic spaces for standard disciplines (EHESS, CNRS, Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes, etc.) these theories existed mainly in literary criticism, structural linguistics, psychoanalysis and dialectical materialism, and were in conflict with previous French literary studies, since they claimed an intellectual genealogy issuing from the Russian formalists and to some extent, from American “New Criticism”. Although Roland Barthes and Gérard Genette are probably its best-known figures, this research aims to restore other main figures of the group that came together under the label of “Nouvelle Critique” in the context of a transversal theoretical moment that enveloped the human and social sciences. 

The gradual adoption of the theoretical corpuses by academic sectors gave the theories of these avant-garde intellectuals a true legitimacy in literary studies. These theories are also heavily politicized, in both their production and reception contexts. Lastly, the fact that theoreticians traveled internationally, presented here mainly in the context of Franco-American transfers, contributed to a remodeling of transatlantic intellectual content and institutional landscapes. From the point of view of the historical sociology of intellectuals and of the social history of the human and social sciences, we therefore examine the emergence and evolution of theories, in particular through the lens of their politization, their international circulation and their contribution to the empowerment of the literary studies that make use of them. This work is based on archive studies, on interviews with individuals who played a key role during that period, on a study of the principal reviews and publishing points that contributed to the emergence of the group of theoreticians which rapidly turned into an intellectual avant-garde, built on and received as were historical esthetic avant-gardes.