In Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler comments on the dilemma of determining meaning: "If we must adopt some overall principle or formula, we might say that meaning is determined by context, since context includes the rules of language, the situation of the author and reader, and anything else that might conceivably be relevant. But if we say that meaning is context-bound, then we must add that context is boundless: there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant, what enlarging of context might be able to shift what we regard as the meaning of a text. Meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless" (67). Peter Barry suggests that the following five premises are shared across many perspectives in contemporary critical theory: 1) Politics is pervasive; 2) Language is constitutive; 3) Truth is provisional; 4) Meaning is contingent; 5) Human nature is a myth (Beginning Theory, second edition, Manchester UP, 2002).

Here is a list of points and ideas that I typically address in introductory courses in literary/critical theory and practice, such as English 310 (drawn initially from series of essays in Critical Terms for Literary Study, with page references omitted).
1. Specific discourses, language practices shape how we understand, construct/construe identities to produce meaning .
2. Because the terms (words as well as larger relations of texts/contexts/institutions) through which we make meaning develop out of social use and are themselves part of our inquiry (interpretation), we are engaged in larger cultural debates and exchanges.
3. a) literature is not an autonomous object of knowledge but a writing practice/activity; b) debate continues over whether we can determine meaning—how does meaning exist and how is it produced?
4. Because literature is not purely aesthetic—separate, distinct from qualities and connections shared with cultural contexts, we always occupy positions from which we read/interpret.
5. Meaning comes into being through socially conditioned and constrained interpretative processes.
6. Through interpretation we act rhetorically, taking positions with interests to persuade, exchanging texts with others, and reconstructing the meanings of texts as well as the meaning of ourselves.
7. Signs and representations presume a kind of social agreement and never occur in isolation: there is always a context invoked for interpretation.
8. But representations cannot be controlled completely or desire articulated fully: it is as if the text eludes attempts to determine its meanings, prompting us to repeat interpretive strategies familiar to us as a way of trying to understand or to master the text’s “otherness.”
9. Moreover, there are gaps between one’s intention and its textual realization, and among writers, texts, and readers. Yet gaps also invite the production of unforeseen and uncontrolled meanings—perhaps even to include a glimpse of alternatives to the past and to the present and to invoke utopian futures.
10. One way of trying to understand literature is in terms of its relation to history. If one could assume that history is comprised of knowable facts/events/attitudes, then a particular cultural and historical setting and its predominant ethos/meaning could be seen to shape and to inform its literature.
11. Formalists resist this privileging of history over literature by claiming that literary language and practice evince unique qualities and structures (forms and techniques) that do not function primarily with reference to the world or to its representation but with reference instead to literature, with this distinct and self-referential character used as a basis for formalists’ claims about both the nature of literature and the human condition. Moreover, formalists are concerned with how things are done or executed distinct from what a story is about.
12. Deconstruction (or more broadly, poststructuralism), however, challenged the assumption that literary language is unique by showing how (all) discourse makes claims to “truths” and meanings through interpretive conventions and (differential) relationships: these reading practices turn upon the figurative aspects of language—upon the figuration of tropes and metaphors—and are thereby understood to participate in a futile effort to stabilize or ground interpretation (upon, for example, the privileging of one term over another, or metaphysical/philosophical assumptions that seek origins/ends and bases of authority to account for and to determine meaning).
13. Deconstruction suggests that meanings are always in play, detached from claims of referentiality or direct correspondence to the world; but the premises of deconstruction also resituate literature as a form of cultural practice and production that has a material life and effects.
14. If the meanings of “individual” texts are now made problematic—situated in relation to culture and to the uncertain play of language and signification—then “individuality” and one’s assumed autonomy and the possibility of self-recognition or understanding also are called into question (the traditions of “liberal humanism” are thereby questioned). Such attempts to identify cultural positions and identities alert us to the heterogeneity within and across cultures—to conflicting positions—and to the possibility of significant actions and agency because of the limits or lack of wholly successful determinations of meaning and identity.
15. If literature puts our identities into play, sometime precariously, it may be understood as enabling us to experiment with possible selves and to instruct us about what positions or places we (should/might) take in the world.
16. Fictions thus not only reflect but make culture, with consequent effects that may police behavior or that may challenge the reigning assumptions of a given culture, to test alternative ways of being or seeing.
17. Familiar, repeated stories (plots) may reassure us about the order/relations /values (ideology) those stories represent and enact.
18. We need such repeated plots because in some way the stories do not fully satisfy our desires or accomplish their functions and goals. Each story contains some loose end that unravels its effect, and often this unraveling occurs because the text depends upon a figure or system of figurative language that can be analyzed to show how the text’s figures and rhetorical aims attempt to contain and occlude conflicts that the text cannot fully resolve.
19. Language is a system of figures through which our ideas and knowledge become possible, and through which we “agree” upon what is “true.” Yet this awareness of the social and systemic nature of meaning also enables us to challenge received and practiced values and meanings.
20. This awareness of how meaning can be both “determined” by some groups and then made “indeterminate” by others, and the notion of exploring how texts fail to fulfill their purposes, undermines our confidence in being able to determine or to control meaning—or to agree upon interpretation and to reach mutual understandings as we choose and negotiate among “relevant” contexts for deciding upon particular meanings.
21. Furthermore, not only are the contexts and premises to which we appeal to settle differences subject to dispute, intentions themselves are “shadowy and unstable,” riddled with repressed desires and meanings.
22. Hence, we seek to find ways to relate determinacy and indeterminacy, to mediate or confer among different contexts and positions (see opening quote from Jonathan Culler above).

Further observations:
23. One strand of interest in the points made above has to do questioning/exploring relations with others, with concepts of identity/difference/otherness and what this may mean for understanding others (other texts) and living with (in relation to) others—questions about to what extent social relations are possible or are comprised by “community.”
24. For example, Herman Rapaport writes: “In Grundrisse, Marx writes that capitalist society is contradictory in that ‘The mutual and universal independence of individuals who remain indifferent to one another constitutes the social network that binds them together.’ In short, the social relation within bourgeois society amounts to the fact that there really is no social relation at all. ‘Social coherence,’ Marx wrote, is ‘expressed in exchange value’ (Rapaport, The Literary Theory Toolkit).
24. Following Rapaport’s review of social relations further, Lacan’s conceived of alterity/big otherness in terms of a radical difference of someone unknowable/unfathomable whose singularity somehow manages to demand recognition/submission from us in terms that break the very social relation in which that demand is related to us. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, for example, offers an example of a story of a relation of non-relation.
25. Following and yet departing from Husserl and Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas posited an Other whose asymmetrical and nonthematizable difference interrupts our consciousness and ethical complacency to put in question (demand?) what should constitute our ethical responsibility to such radically unknowable others.
26. Such ideas led George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot to ponder whether community itself is comprised of such non-relationships of singularities interrupting one another. Jean-Luc Nancy uses the phrase “inoperative community” to suggest how “communication” may work against cohesion to produce what Jacques Rancière calls dissensus, or what Derrida takes up in his writings on pardon, the gift, hospitality, the promise, forgiveness, and the signature—all essentially about a “relation/non-relation of the social relation and how this ultimately bears upon notions of community that are predicated on assumptions of a contractual nature, which all societies share, to some very great extent” (Rapaport 284). See also Giorgio Agamben’s writings on when societies make exceptions to what constitutes social relations or what constitutes being human.
27. What is at stake therefore in understanding literature participates in (what is at stake in) determining what comprises our identities and relations to others, to concepts of community, to ethical obligations and rights, and to the problems (or virtues) of positing others or indeed ourselves as singular, unknowable.

Put differently or in reprise/addition, here is how Michael Ryan sums up theory, through a series of claims in the last chapter of An Introduction to Criticism: Literature/Film/Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
1. Culture is nature: culture and our cognitive abilities have evolved, and have adaptive value; stories that work to sustain group survival (a prerequisite for individual survival), may inculcate cultural self-regulating norms such as ethical reciprocity.
2. Words make things: groups with power seek to promote norms that preserve their power, often along opportunistic rather than principled lines—for example, the word “terrorism” may determine what we take to be things, what we purport to know about the world of Islam, or even the world. We project order onto the world (as Foucault argues, this includes how such power produces the categories of “knowledge” that identify sexual identities/practices and what constitutes “madness.”)
3. We know what we know: we impose order onto the world that is not there, and we do so with limited perspectives and experience. If, however, other perspectives are given credibility, the stories we tell about the world change, and typically those with power and material interests are reluctant to afford to allow that to happen.
4. Learn Arabic: we often react to the uncertainty of multiple perspectives, incomplete knowledge, and complexity by composing (or aligning with) a particular sense of order imposed onto the face of uncertainty and the unknown/other. We avoid assuming, taking up, the perspective of a presumed adversary because that might undermine our feeling of control.
5. Reality is a fabrication: we help to construct a shared perception of reality that papers over what is contingent and made-up. “When we see the reality of commercial culture, we do not think ‘This is a camp; we work hard and get life sucked out of us so that a small coterie of wealthy investors can live lives of leisure.’ Instead, we think ‘We are all free; we can all consume whatever we want if we work hard to get money to pay for consumer goods.’ . . .We are offered toys instead of truly free lives.” “The ‘real’—that particular cultural construct that we hold in our minds and that is often quite different from physical reality—is of our own making.
6. Not all stories are true: we narrate/tell stories, most typically in a linear order from beginning to end, such as the U.S. national narrative of a government devoted to freedom, established by the founding fathers versus many historians’ counter-narrative of a national government established to reduce democracy and to increase the power of a monied elite. “Contemporary critical theory distrusts national narratives of the kind I just described that create a single subject out of complex multi-perspectival situations and a single transcendent theme out of complexly articulated flows of experience.”
7. Power is belief: contemporary cultural theory argues that when we believe such national stories, we help those in power to remain in power. And power here is primarily commercial in character; it is not political power, although the two often coincide. Modern life, at least since the Renaissance in the West, has been organized around commerce.
8. You are not who you think you are: Contemporary critical theory disputes the belief that we are ‘free’ selves whose actions originate in wills over which we exercise complete control. As Freud explains, we control our instinctual drives in order to be civilized , but they manifest themselves nevertheless in displaced, indirect forms (as symptoms of our unconscious yearnings and fears displayed in symbolic form). We are not fully self-determining selves because each of our selves is constructed in part through interactions/relations with others, from childhood on. We internalize these social relations so that our self is relational; in particular, our socio-economic class/location conditions our preferences and tastes, rather than such preferences originating with some distinct, interior self.
9. You have to learn to be yourself: we tend to adapt ourselves to our culture’s prevalent ideals by repeatedly adopting, performing models of identity; yet according to neuroscience, not all gender identity, for example, is a learned performance; men and women are driven by similar but different genetic programs that are realized through the language of culture. The drives or fuel is physical but the forms and shapes it takes are culturally coded.
10. Capitalism is bad for you: if by capitalism, one refers to the economic subordination of the majority of the world’s population to the will and power of a minority. Capitalism consists of making wealth for some by convincing a lot of people to work for less than the market value of the goods they make. Workers have in a sense to be underpaid for capitalism to work. So if you are a member of the owning class, congratulations. Capitalism is good for you. But if not, capitalism is probably bad for you.
11. Effects are sometimes causes: contemporary theory is concerned with mistakes in thinking, such as mistaking effects for causes; racist social discourses may be based on “common sense” perceptions that accept surface notions rather than invisible structures—for example, by taking the effects of racism on a population that has suffered discrimination and subsequent disenchantment, and then taking such disenchantment (an effect) as evidence that the population is unworthy of equal opportunities or any redress for discrimination
12. Identity is difference—and is therefore contingent: terms/identities, are defined in differential, dependent relation to other terms; a thing named by “terrorism” or by “rebellion/treason” is constituted in its identity by its difference from other things that it is not. “Illegitimate” violence is defined in relation to what is considered “legitimate” violence. “Because things relate in an essential way to other things . . . because they are connected, you can’t separate them into neat identities that serve one’s self-interested purposes for long without the contingency, the insubstantiality and impermanence, of those acts of identity-making becoming evident.”
13. We all live in the past: most things are the end result of previous events and they are often more like echoes than things. But too often some focus instead on the present as what is real, and may even assert that no archeology can be performed to show how the present derives from the past or rests on its ruins.
14. The world is all there is: sometimes certain kinds of thinking are overly empirical or speculative, and contemporary theory seeks to see connections not apparent in an empirical mode of thinking, and seeks as well to counter overly speculative beliefs in hidden expressions of spirit behind events/people, as if there were some ultimate cause.
15. Nature is culture: literature provides us with a way of understanding how our social life works, and the same evolved and adaptive cognitive processes that allow humans to organize social life in particular ways are at work in the construction of literary and cultural narratives. Human social life consists of a choice of narratives for living, with ‘narratives’ being understood here as an actual life experience spread over time and guided by cultural stories that justify it to participants. Both the cultural and real-world narrative can change; both use frames to exclude norm-dissonant perspectives and values and to ensure that the meanings that support the continuity and homogeneity of the lived process are stable, predictable, and enforced. Who tells the stories in the culture thus largely shapes how that cultural world will be organized. Stories are what people believe and how they believe, and how people believe determines how they act and how they live. Stories can change how people think, perceive, believe, and act. The analysis of the work they perform is thus an important endeavor. And that is what criticism is all about.

Further summary/review, in progress.