Monday, July 11, 2005
Theory’s Empire - Making Sense of the Theme
Our Theory's Empire event started early, with Mark Bauerlein's B&W article and Michael Bérubé's vigorous riposte. Let me join the discussion by way of introducing my general thoughts on the value and coherence of the volume's theme. (John McGowan posted his review just as I was finishing writing this. He takes sort of the same line as Bérubé. Later I'll respond to some of his specific points.)
Bauerlein’s complaint about theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory, except when—and this is a remarkable escape clause—“one school of thought in the grouping reproves another.” For some reason, this kind of “criticism” is not enough: it simply doesn’t count when a feminist criticizes a deconstructionist or a queer theorist criticizes a feminist. But why not? And why doesn’t it count when a feminist criticizes a feminist or a postcolonialist criticizes a postcolonialist, as happens roughly ten or twenty times a day?
The reason it doesn’t count is that Theory is monolithic—indeed, a monolith made up of monoliths. Theory, as Bauerlein argues toward the end of his essay and as Patai and Corral argue in the introduction to Theory’s Empire, does not admit of criticism; and likewise, the different schools of Theory do not permit dissent from their premises. Thus, the only way a student can get a reliable assessment of what’s what in Theory is to read the work of people who are hostile to every branch of it. This is a strange view of the theoretical enterprises of the past thirty years, and as I’ll explain in a moment, it seems to me to be driven more by the curious phenomenon of theory-celebrity than by the actual theoretical-critical work on the ground.
Theory-celebrity is indeed curious and discussion-worthy. In TE, Geoffrey Galt Harpham's "The End of Theory, the Rise of the Profession: A Rant in Search of Responses", is a good place to start: "the bad effects of "the star system", by which a few conspicuously useless queen bees absorb vast resources that might go to building the institution" (p. 381). Maybe we'll talk about it later.
Bérubé's thesis is that global indictments of 'theory' tend to be mistargeted complaints about institutional deformations, not proper critiques of intellectual formations. I will argue this is mistaken. The anti-Theory line Bauerlein is pushing on the volume's behalf is sound. But Bérubé makes reasonable points. He faults Bauerlein for succumbing to the temptations of the telling anecdote. The woman on the bus. In comments, Bauerlein cops a plea to 'hasty historicizing' and mixing serious and side issues. So no need to argue more about that. But it's still true that the problem with theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory.
To explain in shamelessly self-promoting fashion, Bérubé's thesis almost inverts the argument of my good ol' magnum opus "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Theory For Life" (PDF). At the very tail end I poke myself with Nietzsche, to let a little air out of the balloon: "At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid." In my case, the anti-Theory cause. As Michael puts it: "So now it’s the anti-Theorists who are the smart kids." He doesn't think so, obviously, but his reasonable point is that - were it so - what would it prove? Point taken. But the main argumentative burden of my dialogue is that this precisely isn't, or at least shouldn't be, the MAIN issue. Insipidity aside, Theory suffers from a pernicious incapacity for self-criticism. Yes, even though Theorists are a perennially squabblesome lot, as Bérubé points out. That's not good enough because they don't squabble in the right way.
Let me restate main elements of my dialogue's argument to this conclusion. (If you want the mock-Platonic full dress version, please do consult the original.) This will amount to a defense of the editorial wisdom of an anthology entitled Theory's Empire, an Anthology of Dissent. This is a book that will be judged by its cover. And rightly. The title lodges, by implication, a sweeping charge. If that turns out to be invalid, misguided, or just plain over the top - a too-cute transvaluation of values (they think theory is a site of dissent! we're dissenting from them! ha-HA!) - then the sum will probably be less than the parts; although perhaps still reasonably priced at $29.95.
This seems to be Michael's view, though we await the verdict of his full review. "The volume’s lineup is quite strong." And, in comments:
No doubt a future edition of the Norton will include some Theory’s Empire contributors; at the same time, I have to remark that TE—and Bauerlein’s essay about it—practically invites that response. What’s more, some of the contributors, like Anthony Appiah, are already considered to be people who helped to build the theoretical edifice.
Michael's sense is that, at the end of the day, it is absurd to posture as if you are 'outside theory' - let alone part of a small band of scrappy rebels, darting nimbly past the rigid defenses of some sinister monolith. Whatever is intellectually valuable in a book like Theory's Empire will eventually be acknowledged and taken up, and not in some nightmarish 'you-will-be-assimilated' way either.
This is wrong for a reason so simple it is hard to take seriously. But it should be taken seriously.
Let capital-T 'Theory' - as in Theory's Empire - denote a moderately culturally coherent cluster of philosophically-inflected academic writings. Certain figures, arguments and ideas; theme and variation on an intellectual style and sensibility, interlocking with shifting but not totally unsettled sets of questions, issues and subjects. Theory was born around 1965 and anything written before then is 'Theory' only in a somewhat strained, anachronistic sense. (To adapt Nietzsche, 'some Theory is born prenatally,' if you simply must shoehorn in Adorno, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Raymond Williams, Novalis, or whomever you insist 'did Theory' before anyone really did. For that matter, Heraclitus was the first Romantic.) Despite its philosophic and academic character, Theory has never exerted significant influence on Anglophone academic philosophy. But Theory achieved considerable dominance of English departments, especially in America, by about 1985; after which its influence declined to some degree.
Nothing new here, and feel free to quibble. I don't want to insist on more than the following: 'Theory' is a name for an academic movement, or school or style of thought, or cluster of them. As such, it is prima facie reasonable to consider that a different school or style might be superior, or at least might be worthy of consideration as a competitor. The problem is that defenders of Theory have gotten into the bad habit of foiling the formulation of this thought.
The easy, one-step procedure: misinterpret anti-Theory arguments as if the target were theory in a lower case sense; what we might call 'Coleridgean theory': "The meanest of men has his theory; and to think at all is to theorise". Terry Eagleton's Introduction gives us the classic formulation of the T-to-t fallacy.
The economist J. M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory. This is also true of literary students and critics. There are some who complain that literary theory is impossibly esoteric – who suspect it is an arcane, elitist enclave somewhat akin to nuclear physics ... Some students and critics also protest that literary theory ‘gets in between the reader and the work.’ The simple response to this is that without some kind of theory, however unreflective and implicit, we would not know what a ‘literary work’ was in the first place, or how we were to read it. Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people’s theories and an oblivion to one’s own. One purpose of this book is to lift that repression and allow us to remember. (p. vii-viii)
But when we plug in the relevant, distinct senses of the word we get: those opposed to one particular style of thought must think there is some other way of thinking that is preferable (or at least worthy of consideration). As a defense of Theory, let alone as a proof of false consciousness, this is a non-starter. Yet it is advanced as a decisive objection to 'resistance to Theory'.
Am I saying Keynes is making a bad argument as well? No. Keynes is not employing 'theory' as a proper name for one school of thought. This point is a bit more complicated, admittedly. We'll return to it below.
When Bérubé describes Eagleton's Literary Theory, an Introduction, as "a book so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student," I despair of time I've wasted teasing out implications of Eagletonian claims, which I fear are of little or no interest to their own author. But then I read in comments to Michael's post: "The best thing in [Eagleton], iirc, is his Keynes quote or paraphrase, to the effect that those who claim to be theory-free are just in the grips of some theory they’re unconscious of. And that’s at the very beginning, so you can skip the rest of the book." So there is at least one soul in need of saving. And whoever wrote the introduction to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism volume makes two. (Leitch, I guess.) I just discovered this passage the other day.
In recent decades, theory and criticism have grown ever more prominent in literary and cultural studies, treated less as aids to the study of literature and culture than as ends in themselves. As Jonathan Culler notes in Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions (1988), "Formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but ... now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism." This dramatic reversal, which occurred gradually over the course of the twentieth century, means that the history of criticism and theory increasingly provides the general framework for studying literature and culture in colleges and universities. Some literary scholars and writers deplore the shift toward theory, regarding it as a turn away from literature and its central concerns. These "antitheorists," as they are called, advocate a return to studying literature for itself - yet however refreshing this position may at first appear, it has problems: it itself presupposes a definition of literature, and it promotes a certain way of scrutinizing literature ("for itself"). In other words, the antitheory position turns out to rely on unexamined - and debatable - theories of literature and criticism. What theory demonstrates, in this case and in others, is that there is no position free of theory, not even the one called "common sense. (p. 1)
The problem here is the same as for Eagleton. The first sentence notes the growth of Theory. The last notes that the incidence of 'thinking at all' is probably pretty constant. The impression is generated that to oppose Theory would be to stand athwart the train of thought yelling 'halt'! Obviously this is confused.
In an earlier post, I suggested that Theory's Empire fufills its function of being a beam in the eye of the Norton. The above paragraph underscores this. If you honestly believe what this paragraph says, you will think that the 'antitheorists' are an intensely simple, naive, unreflective, philosophically untutored, anti-intellectual tribe. To open Theory's Empire, then, could be nothing less than a staggering revelation. Not one page of this 700 page volume is remotely like what the Norton leads you to believe every page of it must be like! Oh Brave New World!
On the other hand, if you did not believe what this paragraph says; if you already knew perfectly well this is a not a dispute between those who think and those who don't - and if you wrote that paragraph anyway? Well, that would be a tad ... imperialistic.
It may be helpful, for comparison purposes, to consider how absurd the following would be: a volume entitled The Norton Anthology of Analysis and Philosophy, containing classic works of philosophy from the presocratics down to the 20th Century; and then, starting in the 20th Century, nothing outside the core 'analytic' tradition that starts with Moore, Russell and Frege. If anyone wants to argue that Analytic philosophy has general shortcomings, the introduction has a canned response: to think is to analyze. So to be opposed to the Anglo-American philosophical tradition is to be convicted of absurd delusion. No criticism of Analytic philosophy allowed, you say? But see here is David Lewis arguing with W.V.O. Quine. And some people think Kripke is terribly important, while others think he is less so. Why doesn't that count as 'criticizing Analytic philosophy'?
The point that Theory anthologies are insufficiently critical of Theory is sound because it is analogous to the sound points that would be made against this hypothetical anthology.
Let's now attempt an experimental blunting of the anti-Theory point. Sticking with my silly hypothetical, if analytic philosophers were to ignore, say, Heidegger on the basis of bad puns on 'analytic', this would add insult to, but perhaps be no more injurious than, the situation we've got: analytic philosophers ignoring Heidegger. So: how much extra damage does it really do if Theorists are in the habit of defending themselves with bad puns, rather than just plain ignoring their critics like any normal person?
From Mill's On Liberty, chapter 1:
Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer.
In theory, Theory is self-critical; keenest of the keen when it comes to emphasizing epistemological limits, etc. etc. In practice, Theory is appallingly imperial. Well, it's not so bad as that. Apart from a few celebrity Theorists who really do seem to think they are entitled to unlimited deference, ordinary practitioners are willing to be set right now and again, by others within the circle of those who 'do Theory'. But they still assume those outside their little circle, 'antitheory' types, must be wrong. Bog-standard dogmatism of our species, in short.
This may seem like a pretty good argument that Theory is not especially un-self-critical. But let me sharpen the anti-Theory point back up again. Making bad puns on 'theory' in fact causes significant injury, over and above the insult. By habitually misrepresenting their critics, defenders of Theory end up obliged to misrepresent themselves.
If your first move is to elide the distinction between membership in a particular academic tribe and 'thinking at all', there are no good second moves when it comes to discussing that academic tribe. Any sharp or insightful observation you make will expose the absurdity of the first move. So you don't. J. L. Austin quips somewhere that 'in philosophy, it is usually all over by the bottom of page 1'. Eagleton never really gets clear about what he's talking about, having gotten off on the wrong foot with Keynes. The Norton Anthology introduction is sunk by its first paragraph. To be fair, introductions to big anthologies are doomed to a certain stiffness; they can't afford much intellectual excitement. But they needn't be so muffled and uninformative as this one manages to be, swaddling its subject in ersatz necessity.
Let me take this opportunity to let Michael B off the hook. Bérubé's post is lively and interesting, isn't it? I am very grateful to him for accepting my invitation to be part of this conversation, and I think he has already done a lot to ensure that an intellectually productive tone is set. Aren't the comments good? Even Kevin Drum says it's interesting! For starters, no bad puns. But that's just a warm-up. Michael is refreshingly frank when it comes to recalling and reconstructing for his audience some main aspects of the history of Theory - some strange twists and turns and odd dynamics that have gotten us where we are. Theory anthologies and introductory discussions are consistently bad at that. The obligatory, habitual pretense that somehow Theory is automatically superior to the only alternative - gross naivete - is herbicide to serious, critical consideration of Theory, should such a thing attempt to spring up in the cracks.
Which gets us back to Theory's Empire. The volume is useful not just because it refutes the notion that everyone in it must be a naive idiot, but because it turns out to be on the whole pretty good at this thing theory introductions and anthologies are pretty bad at: being intelligently frank about Theory; being canny and clear-eyed about a most peculiar product of academic culture. The volume contents are not uniformly successful. Sometimes it tips over into over-aggression and gets too hot under the collar. We'll talk about it.
Anticipating a couple objections will get me to stage two of my argument.
First, there are many more than two senses of 'theory'. Talking as if there are just two - Capital-T and Coleridgean - is pretty confused. Yes, but multiplying senses of 'theory' won't save Eagleton's bad argument, which is also the Norton's. It is important to see this argument is bad, and see the bad effects it really does have.
Second, by this late date Theory - i.e. that cluster of more or less distinctive academico-philosophical literary formations - is too tangled and heterogeneous to be usefully subjected to global critique. Saying 'this is what's wrong with Theory' is inevitably going to be intellectual injustice. But that's exactly why what you want is something like - well, like Theory's Empire. Something hefty enough that you can hope it begins to achieve coverage of this sprawling subject. Because even if global criticism risks overreach, piecemeal criticism will surely fall short. Because it isn't just the pieces. It's how they fit together, and what brought them together. The issue is not a figure or idea or argument or book or article but a distinctive style and intellectual sensibility - yes, hard to pin down, but the attempt simply must be made.
A nice passage from Valentine Cunningham's Reading After Theory which appears in Theory's Empire:
Theorists have indeed managed to pull off what is, by any standards, an astounding coup, or trick; have managed to wedge together a great many various subjects, concerns, directions, impulses, persuasions and activities that are going on in and around literature, and squeeze them all under the one large sheltering canopy of ‘Theory’. They have managed to compel so many divergent wings of what they call Theory under the one roof, persuaded so many sectional variants of interpretative work to sink their possible differences around a common conference table, in the one seminar with the sign Theory on its door. So while setting their faces, usually, against Grand Narratives and Keys to All Mythologies, as delusive and imperialist, and all that, Theorists have managed to erect that Grandest Narrative of all – Theory – the greatest intellectual colonizer of all time. How this wheeze was pulled off, how you can have the political and the personal subjects of literature – representations of selfhood and class and genre and race: the outside-concerns, the outward look of writing, the descriptive and documentary, the reformist intentions and the ideological instrumentality of writing – envisioned and envisionable as absolutely part and parcel of the often quite opposite and contradictory functions of writing – the merely formal, or the technically linguistic, or (as often) a deeply inward, world-denying, aporetic writing activity – rather defies ordinary logic. Foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, shall we say roughly the Marxist reading on the one hand, and the deconstructionist on the other, make awkward bed-partners, you might think. But Theory deftly marries them off, or at least has them more or less cheerfully all registered as guests in the same hotel room. (p. 27-8)
When it comes to analyzing this trick, the last thing we should do is fall for the trick. If any sense of inevitability and necessity attaches to Theory, in the above sense, we missed the pea as it passed under the other cup. Theory anthologies always fall for the trick by picking the 'theory is necessary' cup. Oddly enough, Cunningham himself falls for the trick. Or very nearly. He more or less reconciles himself to living in Theory's Empire, per the above passage, on the grounds that the alternative is naive idiocy. Here is a passage from Reading After Theory that didn't make it into Theory's Empire.
There is, of course, a common fantasy of the independent, the natural reader, of men and women quite alone with the text, making sense of it by their own unaided efforts, uncontaminated by givens and presuppositions, by prejudices and doctrines, especially not anything that might be called theory, or (especially) Theory. This dream fires many a whinge against current literary education. But no one ever did read de novo, raw, naturally; understanding never came that easily. (p. 5)
Here is a sentence that makes it in: "No simple return to prelapsarian theoretical innocence is ever possible, for that never existed. There never was such a theory arcadia as Theory's opponent's allege." (p. 38).
This is a variant on the Eagleton fallacy, a.k.a. the Norton fallacy. The error is twofold. First, it is absurd on the face to suggest that this allegedly 'common fantasy' has a significant subscription rate. Those who criticize Theory do not do so because they suffer some epistemological delusion. (Poke Helen Vendler with a stick she may emit something about wanting to recover 'the taste on the tongue'. But this is a figure of speech, not bad epistemology. It's shorthand for a set of preferences that is not delusional, though it is debatable.)
Second, if anyone simply insists on fantasizing that this fantasy is common, it ought to be clear that one could - potentially - object to Theory on other grounds. If proof is needed, Theory's Empire contains, for the record, exactly zero fantasies about cavorting with texts in the epistemological nude. 'Theory's Empire or delusions of textual arcadia' is emphatically not an exhaustive catalogue of the options.
Cunningham will retort that he wants to underscore how Theory's concerns are not discontinuous with those of previous critics. "The offensive concerns of Theory have always been present in some form or another, muted often, differently loaded frequently, but still there. Theory has always been fallen, as it were. What worries some and excites others, about our recent Theory is by no means its innovativeness, but only what are in effect its strong renovations" (p. 38).
But no. This is a plainly inaccurate account of what excites some and worries and offends others about the Higher Eclecticism, as we might call it. What worries and offends is a strong sense that there is nothing higher about it. (Pardon me, what follows is obvious. But since it is denied, it apparently needs to be said.) Intellectually, Theory looks like unseemly irrationalism, an excuse for simple absence of discipline. Stylistically, it looks like metaphysical mannerism - kitsch. I'm not saying this is obviously right. But this is obviously the complaint.
Furthermore, Theory looks dogmatic. A passage from the introduction to the standard anthology, Cultural Studies (Grossberg, Nelson, Treichler, eds.): “It is problematic for cultural studies simply to adopt, uncritically, any of the formalized disciplinary practices of the academy, for those practices, as much as the distinctions they inscribe, carry with them a heritage of disciplinary investments and exclusions and a history of social effects that cultural studies would often be inclined to repudiate.” Ergo, “no methodology can be privileged or even temporarily employed with total security and confidence, yet none can be eliminated out of hand. Textual analysis, semiotics, deconstruction, ethnography, interviews, phonemic analysis, psychoanalysis, rhizomatics, content analysis, survey research – all can provide important insights and knowledge.” That's Theory to a T. The rhetoric hints at elevated critical awareness. Many theories sounds like many layers of critical defense. But peel these back and what one finds - by the editors' own admission - is a group of critics who "would often be inclined" one way, rather than another. The theories constitute no check on these inclinations but instead provide flexible assurance they will not be frustrated.
Getting back to Cunningham - yes, the prospect of critics trusting their noses without theoretic checks is nothing new. But if Theory turns out to be, as it were, a 'strong renovation' of anti-theoretical genteel amateurism - amateurism on stilts, speaking with a mouthful of metaphysical marbles - then this circus-act quality of what goes on under the Big Tent of Theory is no defense, merely another way of stating the case for the prosecution.
In his contribution to Theory's Empire, "Changing Epochs", Frank Kermode discusses a book that would appear to represent the frozen limit of Theory's Empire:
One of the books recently published by Routledge is Thomas Docherty's After Theory (1990). Docherty, as his blurb expresses it, contends that the Enlightenment project of emancipation through knowledge has ended in failure by allowing the academy to "become a prison-house for the institutionalization of critique." The agent of this imprisonment is Theory, so he contends that Theory needs to be liberated in its turn. After theory there needs to be a post-modernism that "questions every manner of binding or framing," which valorizes transgression and "error," "error" being 'criminal' in the eyes of the white fathers, the acknowledged legislators behind the law of the imperialist enlightenment of the dark tropics of discourse; but the criminality remains fully justified if we wish to reject the parameters of an imperialist mode of politics and an imperialist mode of conversation or social understanding." Finally Docherty wants thought to be liberated from all theory. "It is only in the refusal to be answerable to a governing theory that thought, and above all theoretical thought, becomes possible once more." The dismissal of theoretical thought by means of posttheoretical thought in order to make theoretical thought possible, with the consequence adumbrated in the argument (theory liberated by posttheory, in order to be liberated again, and so on for ever) is a characteristically "oppositional" proposal. The association of older modes of thinking with imperialism simply goes without saying, and what used to be thought of as a "primary" text is at no stage involved in the argument. Why should it be, when there simply is no such thing? It is a sign of the times that Docherty is described as a professor of English. (p. 613-4)
I haven't read Docherty, so I really can't say, but it's not hard to connect the dots with Cunningham. The semantic elastic of 'theory' is overstretched and not snapping back into any sort of shape. The obvious reason for suspecting the Higher Eclecticism is not a good idea is that it looks doomed to go somewhere shapeless and dull, not that it seems to be leading away from textual arcadia.
Having now made the case against Theory as bluntly as I can, let me emphasize that it is not open-and-shut. The one think Docherty is clear about is that his approach aims at a thorough-going rejection of Enlightenment intellectual values and methods. I always quote Friedrich Schlegel at this point in the discussion. He's a little more delicate about it than Docherty: "It is equally deadly to the spirit to have a system and not to have one. One must resolve to combine the two." Now there is your positive recipe for Theory - the Higher Eclecticism - in one line or less. Theory is a late-Romantic formation, a true child of the counter-Enlightenment. I say this not to dismiss but to clarify and give Theory credit for its deep intellectual, literary and cultural roots.
Explaining why Theory might be good - that is, why Higher Eclecticism might be a positive value, rather than just some ongoing academic accident - would mean saying why Schlegel is right. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the question of the value of Theory is the question of the value of the counter-Enlightenment. Calculate the extent of that value and you have surveyed the outermost possible boundaries of Theory's rightful Empire. Period. No more bad puns.
Which brings us back to Keynes, who I imagine has been an itch in the back of some heads. Keynes says those who resist theory are simply in the grips of an older theory. As J.S. Mill says: "whoever despises theory, let him give himself what airs of wisdom he may, is self-convicted as a quack." This is an expression of Enlightenment intellectual ideals. I won't try to spell out what these are, because it would be difficult. A commitment to reason and reason-giving, but not necessarily an aggressive scientism. In the context of the relatively recent history of literary criticism, a number of paired names suggest themselves: Ogden and Richards; Wellek and Warren; Wimsatt and Beardsley. In Theory's Empire we get some more. (Why they travel in pairs I couldn't say.) Freadman and Miller; Lamarque and Olsen. And a couple individual names: Paisley Livingston, John M. Ellis. They theorize literature but they most certainly don't 'do Theory'.
The antonym of 'theorist', in this more or less traditional sense, is probably 'genteel amateur'; the critic who refuses to admit the eclectic and probably contradictory cluster of notions he calls his 'sound instincts' might be inadequate, or amenable to systematic improvement. Like the editors of Cultural Studies, the amateur knows better than to let any 'theory' get in the way of what he has decided, in advance, are the proper conclusions.
I am making fun of Theory, yes. But it is important to see that I don't think my alignment of Theory with genteel amateurism is utterly decisive. What I do take to be decisive is this: it is deadly to the spirit of the discussion of theory to let Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment wires get crossed (yes, even though F. Schlegel says it is deadly not to cross your wires. He didn't actually mean to excuse bad puns. The day Romanticism needs puns to keep itself alive is the day it ought to be decently buried.)
Let 'Theory' stand for the counter-Enlightenment side; let 'theory' stand for the Enlightenment side; Theory is anti-theoretical; theory is anti-Theoretical. Neither side is opposed to human mentality, per se, so we need another term for the fact that people think. Maybe: thinking. Last but not least, there are a great many critics who are not terribly preoccupied with either theory or Theory. This is not any sort of demonstrable epistemological error, merely a preference. Valentine Cunningham's epigraph comes from Virginia Woolf: "To read on a system ... is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading." I am a little puzzled at this choice because I can only think that Cunningham sees it as confirming his thesis that a rejection of 'theory' can only mean retreat into delusions of purity. But it seems to work better as a reductio on his conclusion, because surely we give Woolf credit for being cannier than that.handy, dandy technorati tag for our little event
Thanks a lot, John. Really, I didn’t need that thunder anyway. (By which I mean: as a similar but more specific justification for the necessity of Theory’s Empire, I’ve unwittingly written a companion piece.)
Let me speak on behalf of John Holbo before he does and remind you that the thunder is still your thunder, even though Holbo now “owns” the Creative Commons rights to it by virtue of his having published it first. Your subsequent, stolen-thunder post, should you still publish it “as is” (or will be), will now simply reflect the fundamental fact of the citationality of all linguistic expression (i.e., what the thunder said).
Now I am not, sitting here, as much the expert as ninety percent of the people who will be heard from in this and related threads, having spent most of my writing until recently under Fiction’s cool sombrero. Up until maybe a year ago, I could say of t/Theory, with Dylan’s promoter, “Well I never engaged in that kind of thing before.”
But it seems to me where I sit, that Theory, like any other (albeit big) model, has created for itself a front or a face that it positions to the world, on which it displays what it measures. But, unlike, say, General relativity or the SSSM, it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the “man behind the curtain,” inner workings and motions, and, more importantly, Theory insists that the only valid responseto theory is to ponder its face, not its workings.
And Theorists know this, so they know how to criticize other Theorists, walking up to each other’s concepts like they would to a kind stranger’s slow clock. So Butler will say, your bezel’s just too small to admit a dial that will read the experience of women, and Said will say, you’ve shaped your hands so they cannot count the experiences of non-European culture.
But should a non-Theorist walk up, and start talking about the differences between a quartz movement and a mechanical one, or say you’ve wound it too tight, or suggest the gears be replaced or given some graphite, Theorists react with horror because to even check to see whether critics’ suggestions have merit, they would have to unhinge the casing and open the clock. That would be pure heresy (not to a defender of General Relativity against String Theory, but nonetheless) to a Theorist who are certain that the face “is the whole, and more than all.”
Amardeep, actually I “own” the thunder, since I posted my “response” over a week ago. Of course, it’s not the same thunder, only nearly so. (If I remember correctly, I set my first contribution to publish here at 2 a.m. tomorrow morning. One day I’ll figure out why the whole It Appears While You’re Asleep thing appeals to me. For now I’ll live with the fact that it does.) Anyhow, I don’t want to respond to much to what John’s written here because I cover much of the same territory in my article, but a couple of quick notes:
1. I eventually land in the same non-argumentative place John does, i.e. a kind of absolute theoretical pluralism (or, as I call it, “theoretical ecumenicalism") that John advocates at the tail end here: “Theory is anti-theoretical; theory is anti-Theoretical.” I bristled when I read that because what it means is that the alternatives for what John calls “thinking” is an expansion of which disciplinary appropriations fly. In short, if the legitimacy of Theory is undermined, we’re left with competing “theories” (a good thing) but we’ve lost whatever ground we could’ve used as a basis for excluding some of loonier appropriations (a bad thing). An astrological reading of a literary work isn’t possible right now, but un-capitalize Theory’s t and it not only becomes possible, it becomes plausible in a way that’s difficult to refute.
2. Which brings me to the second problem I have with both John’s post and my own: namely, that we both advocate the “toolbox” approach even though we know the “toolbox” approach is often little more than windy rhetoric intended to defend currently regnant Theoretical approaches. Ugh. Of course, maybe what the next two weeks of discussion will discover is that I have to defend the “toolbox” approach and deal with the consequences, i.e. the continued appeal to and usage of all those Theoretical models which so deeply disturb me.
John Holbo’s T-vs-t fallacy is an important concept, even if simple, yet I still somehow feel that it doesn’t quite capture whatever force is found in the adaptation of Keynes’ / Mill’s statements. On the principle that you should look at an opposing argument as charitably as you can, perhaps Theorists aren’t really saying that without Theory what you have is unthinking naivete, perhaps they’re saying that without Theory what you have are specific, earlier academic theories, which, while poorly articulated, can still be described.
Then the challenge becomes to describe what they’re disagreeing with. Is it only earlier fashions? If Theory simply means “anything later than the New Criticism” than certainly one might expect that writers in _Theory’s Empire_ are themselves (mostly) Theorists. Then the imperialism of Theory would be much like the assignment of single names to historical periods. If there is some unifying principle behind individual theories that can be used as a test to see whether they are part of Theory or not that is not purely historical, then Theory can claim to not be imperial in this sense, and there is also the possibility of really distinguishing it from supposed competing explicit or implicit theories.
All of this requires clarity and honesty if you’re going to get anywhere. That’s why Bérubé is invaluable. For most Theorists, the standard answer to any question is an oblique reference, a joke, or a sneer.
Rich, as I discuss, um, tomorrow, the transformation of theory into Theory occurs when the anti-foundationalist assumptions of post-structuralist thought become justification for all manner of textual practices...even ones wholly divorced from post-structuralist thought, as are many variations of identitarian politics. Once the anti-foundationalism need no longer be argued, i.e. once it could be safely assumed, what you have is a situation in which theories can all coexist under the conveniently unassailable--for the reasons John outlines above and you point to here--aegis of “Theory.”
Also, I second the importance of Berube, who’s been writing intelligently about theories and Theory for a popular audience since the early ‘90s. (In The Village Voice, I believe.)
Sorry about starting early! I got no manners, that’s what I got.
Well that’s why they say about Singapore: ‘the dawn came up like thunder’. It refers to people posting first on a given day, taking advantage of their pole position on the international dateline.
I eagerly await your companion piece, sir. In the meantime, I don’t quite understand one thing you wrote above: “In short, if the legitimacy of Theory is undermined, we’re left with competing “theories” (a good thing) but we’ve lost whatever ground we could’ve used as a basis for excluding some of loonier appropriations (a bad thing). An astrological reading of a literary work isn’t possible right now, but un-capitalize Theory’s t and it not only becomes possible, it becomes plausible in a way that’s difficult to refute.” Well, maybe I understand that. But I would appreciate you restating your point so I can be sure.
On to your next point: yes, the toolbox approach is a moral hazard, because there is simply no way around its dual use as a generator of windy rhetoric. But there’s no ruling it out. Pluralism not something we could or should eliminate. So the English department is going to be, structurally, a place of many winds. Nothing fundamental to be done about that.
Rich is right that there is something to Keynes that I don’t quite get, and he think he sort of puts his finger on it. Maybe the Keynes argument has specific targets. But then - here’s the rub - what are they?
This is related to something both Berube and McGowan talk about: how back in the day the smart kids were all attracted by Theory because there really were a bunch of tweedy, unimaginative time-servers cluttering up the department. I wasn’t there, so I’ll just grant for the sake of argument that quite possibly - perhaps even as late as 1983, when Eagleton published - Keynes could be brandished against this lot with some legitimate effect. The Higher Eclecticism had not decisively set in, so the fact that Keynes wasn’t advocating Theory wouldn’t yet be a clear objection to Eagleton’s way of framing the issue. (I think there is an argument against this way of seeing Eagleton. But let it pass.)
Then the problem with the standard gestures of Theory defense is not quite T-to-t, but simply that they are at least a quarter century out of date, and probably more like 35 years out of date. Maybe once upon a time the opposition just didn’t want to bother its poor weak head with all this soulless abstraction. Who understands it? But that’s no excuse for pretending we’re still in that situation today.
Not a problem, Ophelia. I truly didn’t mean to imply that somehow you were stepping on our toes.
Is a Habermassian criticizing a Foucauldian a theorist attacking a Theorist, or a theorist attacking a theorist, or maybe it’s a case of Theorist attacking a theorist? I’m having a hard time defining what counts as Theory with a capital T. Is it defined, tautologically, as everything perceived as institutionally dominant at a certain point in English Departments? A monstrous amalgam of Freud, Marx, and Derrida? By the same token, what counts as being “outside” of theory? For example, Perloff’s Russian formalism cum Wittgenstein is clearly at odds with a lot of academic “Theory,” but it is a theoretical position in its own right. This anthology attempts to throw the kitchen sink at Theory, from a variety of position supposedly outside of theory. I take Michael B’s point as valid, to the extent that what is at stake is the right to decide what counts or doesn’t count as “Theory,” and thus what counts as a critique (or not) of Theory. Is there some kind of list I might consult to see which theorists count as theorists? I’d really like to know, because if I’m quoting, say, Gadamer, as an example of theorist, I don’t want to be corrected and told that no, he’s in the camp of anti-Theory theory.
Jonathan, it’s clear that there is something to be said for defining ‘Theory’, rather tautologically, as whatever the English department needs to give itself a sense of disciplinary integrity. That helps to keep your eye on the institutional politics of it. But obviously that’s no good for purposes of understanding anti-Theory, which isn’t an attempt to deprive English of a sense of its integrity, but to substitute a different sense.
Monstrous amalgam of Freud, Marx and Derrida isn’t far off the mark. It’s glib, but the question of the value of Theory is, in a sense, the question of whether certain mash-ups make good metaphysical poetry.
You won’t be shocked to hear that I don’t like my own theory/Theory opposition very much. It’s an ugly kludge for dealing with the unhappy fact that ‘Theory’ has been taken as the name for a school. It isn’t intended to provide a permanent, let alone fine-grained map of the terrain. It’s supposed to sweep aside a few persistent misrepresentations. You can’t project my distinction even 20 years in the past and still make sense of what you see. But I hope it sort of works in 2005.
If called upon separate folks out, I would say that Habermas and Gadamer are not Theorists. They have theories but they don’t ‘do Theory’, and this fits with their suspicions of the likes of Derrida. Habermas is on the Enlightenment side, Derrida on the counter-Enlightenment side. Perloff? I think of her as someone who is really not interested coming up with theories even though she likes reading philosophy; but certainly she is against the specific cluster that is designated ‘Theory’. She doesn’t ‘do Theory’.
Problem for my binary division: it is possible to be highly sympathetic to the counter-Enlightenment and be stongly opposed to Theory. Example: me. I try to slip around this in the post by not identifying Theory with the counter-Enlightenment but just saying it is, at most, a proper subset of counter-Enlightenment philosophical positions. It is less, but it can’t be more. (Obviously it’s less because the counter-Enlightenment is at least two centuries old, and Theory has only been around a couple decades.)
My little division is not useful for constructing pidgeon holes, only for preventing puns.
Oh, I know, John, that was just my little joke. On the contrary, what with ALD and NRO and Michael and Kevin Drum and who knows what else, I figure my intervention or was it a transgression ended up getting you two or three readers you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
NRO? I missed that one. Better go check it out.
Although my copy of ´Theory´s Empire´ hasn´t arrived yet, it seems to me that this discussion ultimately raises the question of what we consider to be theory. I, for one, think that the “anti-theorists” are attacking a specific type of theory rather than the project of theory as such. More specifically, they seem to target those views on literature that are inspired by continental philosophy and are often used to defend a certain political agenda (the table of contents suggests that the only theories under consideration are deconstruction and feminism/postcolonialism). Interestingly, the anti-theorists seem to defend a political programme as well; ´let´s get rid of theory´s imperialism´ sounds very much like certain theories. But that´s not the point I want to make here.
The point is rather that the anti-theorists seem to have a rather limited view of what theory is or should be. At the risk of sounding naive, I would argue that theory is the attempt to provide literary study with a methodological and theoretical framework. That may take the form of the Marx-Freud-Derrida-mix targeted by anti-theorists, but that may also take other forms. On the one hand, there are systems-theoretical and empirical approaches to literature. These approaches do not simply offer a specific methodology, but also underline the importance of their theoretical presuppositions (most obviously, perhaps, in systems theory). On the other hand, there is the growing work on literature in analytic philosophy (cf. http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/contents.asp?ref=1405112085&site=1).
It seems to me, therefore, that most criticism against theory focuses on (a specific type of) theory, while disregarding other views. And I would argue that these views are part of theory as well.
Seeing that my copy hasn´t arrived yet, by the way, I was wondering as to how the editors of ´Theory´s Empire´ ultimately try to ´redefine the role and place of Theory in the academy´, as Amazon´s synopsis puts it. For I seem to have missed that part in the various introductions and excerpts the net has to offer. Maybe I should wait till my copy arrives.
Just a quick comment. I was educated in the heart of Theory country, but turned away from it. I did my undergraduate and master’s work at Johns Hopkins in the late 60s and early 70s and then went off to SUNY Buffalo for my Ph. D. I was OK with the notion that, for example, Western metaphysics was in trouble, but I didn’t think that Derrida & Co. knew what to do about. Plus I just didn’t like that intellectual style. I liked the quasi-mechanistic style of linguistics, and I liked developmental psychology, and Karl Pribram had just written a fascinating article on neural holography in Scientific American.
So, when I was in Buffalo I hung out in the Linguistics Dept. with one David Hays and went deep into cognitive science, ending up writing a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory.” I figured cognitive science was up and coming and I would be the literary point man for it. And perhaps I was, but no one was listening back then.
Anyhow, while capital-T Theory may be an eclectic mix of stuff, it does, nonetheless, appear to be all of a piece, at least from the outside. But it’s not the only kind explicit theory available, as Trickster points out. Other modes of theory and investigation were available back then, and are available now. But Theory is was took hold in English. That this would happen was by no means obvious back in the late 60s and early 70s. Folks who now look like Dominate Dinosaurs were acting like Scurrying Mammals back then.
It seems to me that Theory has changed things irrevocably. But it’s moves have become long in the tooth and cannot continue indefinitely into the future. We’re going to need some new theories, and some new kinds of theories.
P. S, At Johns Hopkins the tweedy conservatives were an interesting bunch. I studied Milton with John Cameron Allen. He had a comic delivery like W. C. Fields and almost succeeded in convincing me that Miltona had, indeed, justified the ways of God to man.
I like a lot of things in your defence of “Theory’s Empire” (and also in your mock-Platonic dialogue), and I’m ready to be persuaded that theory/Theory equivocation is rife. But I’m not convinced that the book is very successful, as it stands.
Your post takes up the obvious challenge: how can there be a critique of Theory, as such, as opposed to particular theories? Isn’t theory inevitable? And is it more than a historical accident that the targets of the collection are grouped together?
Without answers to these questions, “Theory’s Empire” will be easy to dismiss. And while you begin to provide answers here (e.g. in suggesting that Theory with a capital “T” is a mish-mash of Freud, Marx and Derrida), there’s very little of this in the book itself. The Introduction proceeds as though we all know what Theory is, and how it is (more-or-less) unified. Individual essays mostly address one theory or another. But this won’t work. In order to do its job, the book would have to begin by justifying the treatment of Theory as a single approach (or related family of them) - by indicating, at least in outline, what its (optional) assumptions are.
In short: the kind of defence you are giving in your post (and dialogue) needed to appear at the beginning of “Theory’s Empire”. This doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good in many ways, or that it is not a useful pedagogical balance to the Norton Anthology. What it doesn’t do well is to argue for the existence of Theory, as a coherent something we are better off without.
Kieran Setiya, isn’t a bit difficult to require that detractors give a rigorous definition of Theory when Theoreticians do not? How do you think that the Norton Anthology defined what Theory was when they chose selections?
I mean, look at the introduction to the Norton Anthology that John Holbo quotes above. “In other words, the antitheory position turns out to rely on unexamined - and debatable - theories of literature and criticism. What theory demonstrates, in this case and in others, is that there is no position free of theory, not even the one called “common sense. (p. 1)” But the critics before Theory were not using a theory called “common sense”. I would guess that many of them were using a theory called “the New Criticism”. And since the Norton Anthology doesn’t include the New Criticism, it clearly doesn’t think that this theory is part of Theory. Does it ever say why?
No, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that detractors explain what they mean by “Theory” with a capital “T”.
If the proponents of Theory sincerely believe that it is not a unified movement to be distinguished from theory (with a lower-case “t"), they are entitled by their own lights to give only vague generic definitions (e.g. “the systematic examination of how literary texts work"). They don’t need to say what is special about Theory, because they don’t think anything is.
In order to argue against this orthodoxy, one needs to show that “Theory” is not just a name for a bunch of recent theories, but involves substantive, disputable assumptions or methods. I wouldn’t ask for rigorous definition. (So, for instance, I liked John Holbo’s very brief remarks.) But the Introduction to “Theory’s Empire” contains virtually nothing.
To clarify: I’m not sympathetic to much of what gets called “Theory”. But I’m not yet convinced that it’s a unified thing/family, and I’m not sure this collection does much to show that it is.
I’m sorry: the limitations of a Norton Anthology does not justify a huge, book-length “review essay,” which is how *Theory’s Empire* is being justified around these parts.
What the limitations of one anthology call for is a better anthology, an *Theory’s Empire* isn’t that beast. It is, at best, a critical supplement to other theory anthologies (and please, let’s not get into “the supplement” here!). Pedagogically, asking students to buy one more scholiosis-inducing tome on top of the one they normally buy for their “Intro to Theory” course is ridiculous.
Now an anthology of “alternative methodologies and theories” would be great, covering territory often ignored, overlooked, or underrepresented in current theory/methodology collections. This follows the normal institutional logic of anthologies. One poetry anthology pretends that Language Poetry never happened, so Ron Silliman puts together an anthology that pretends that confessional, plain-language, and new formalist poetry never happened. Then Ishmael Reed puts out a collection of multicultural experimental poetry because Silliman left those folks out. Then, say, a latina lesbian feminist with one leg and one eye puts out an anthology of other latina lesbian feminist poets missing various limbs. That’s good stuff, and that’s why I spend time requesting desk copies of anthologies I know I’ll never actually teach.
My question is this: when did something called “Theory” emerge? I found out Theory existed only in the atmosphere of the early 90s culture wars, and it seemed that only its critics wrote about some baggy monster called Theory. As Berube wrote, otherwise we read postcolonialists attacking other postcolonialists for eliding cultural context or for ignoring cross-cultural hybridity; we read feminists attacking deconstructions, and deconstructionists criticizing Marxists, and Marxists criticizing Marxism and calling themselves marxists.
It makes no sense to me to be “against Theory,” and I think most of us here agree with that to some extent. But I’ll go even further and add that “weak Theory” is a great thing. One day I’m gonna write an essay called “What I Learned from Theory,” and it’ll say things like:
-New Criticism taught me that every word matters
-Deconstruction taught me that every word really matters, especially those words you KNOW you’re ignoring in order to make your reading coherent. You KNOW you’re doing it, so why don’t you STOP doing it.
-Structuralism taught me to keep my eye out for sets of binary oppositions organizing a text.
-Marxism taught me that these binary oppositions might very well be social contradictions resolved or held in suspense by a literary text.
-Diaglogism taught me that one could potentially read literary texts as debates over the meaning and uses of certain key words.
-Semiotics taught me that all social phenomenon could be fruitfully studied as networks of interconnected sign systems
-Feminism taught me that the binary oppositions located by structuralists and the anomalous signs and excessive significations identified by deconstructions might have something to do with gender. They also taught me that certain cultural traits set up in binaries in literary debates ("hard and soft modernism") might also have something to do with gender.
And so on. And to respond to Scott’s critique of eclecticism, I don’t necessarily think these weak versions of theory are incommensurable; in my own work, they often play different roles over the course of an extended argument about one or a small group of literary texts.
Basically, another entire anthology criticizing Theory didn’t seem all that necessary to me. Now that the earlier generation of “high theorists” are already criticizing the barbarians at the gate (race, class, gender folks), *Theory’s Empire* fails to take into account even these major tensions within the idea of Theory. In fact, the collection might have been much stronger if it had focused on either: (a) the philosophical/language-centered Theory; or (b) the political-centered Theory. While the two cross wires often, I do think they are fairly distinct strands, both philosophically and institutionally. Also, students should be encouraged to think critically about everything they read, whether it’s Stowe or Derrida. Giving them pre-digested critiques of theory just furthers the danger that students will simply mimic what they are reading in class, either pro- or anti-theory. Intro to Theory courses should not be taught by having students “apply” theory to various novels or poems. Instead, students should learn how to read theory rhetorically: paraphrase it accurately, learn various ways of defending or criticizing certain positions, evaluate evidence, etc.
I would argue that Derrida is actually on the Enlightenment side. The decrease in hostility with Habermas later in life is largely a result of Habermas coming to see that (because Derrida was making it more clear).
I don’t find your Englightenment/counter-Enlightenment distinction very helpful, ultimately, but I fault much “postmodern” thought (of which Derrida is not a member, as he himself stridently opposed the term “postmodern") for rendering it a possible move to make.
But then, all I do in these debates is talk about how everyone gets Derrida wrong.
What Luther said.
“it’s clear that there is something to be said for defining ‘Theory’, rather tautologically, as whatever the English department needs to give itself a sense of disciplinary integrity. That helps to keep your eye on the institutional politics of it.”
So it’s institutional politics that are the real focus, then?
“But obviously that’s no good for purposes of understanding anti-Theory, which isn’t an attempt to deprive English of a sense of its integrity, but to substitute a different sense.”
We’re waiting for it...does it flat-out deny the progress made since 1965? If not, why risk indulging this impression?
“Monstrous amalgam of Freud, Marx and Derrida isn’t far off the mark. It’s glib, but the question of the value of Theory is, in a sense, the question of whether certain mash-ups make good metaphysical poetry.”
Huh? So the question is one of metaphysical poetry? Talk about shifting the goalposts. Forgive me if I am just not following fast enough...Might it be possible that students deserve precisely such a mash-up, at this moment, even if it remains up to them finally whether or not to pursue such thinkers more deeply for themselves? Are you suggesting every English professor either need be an expert in Freud or not mention him at all?
As someone mentioned earlier, this whole after-the-book defense has a bizarre wiff of preemption to it. I don’t mean to be rude, but one could reasonably suggest that such a squirrely defense of a grossly irresponsible book amounts to no more than an elaborate straw man beat-up, beginning and ending (though chock full of promises and deferrals) with a glib, and hardly original, diagnosis. In short, it strikes one as the work of a gifted politician. And God help us to save literature from them!
How facile it is to accuse an entire generation of thinkers of “misrepresentation,” (and of a position that still has not been positively stated, unless I missed it?), while simultaneously and rather conveniently conflating great thinkers with anyone who has ever deigned to speak in their name, however indiscreetly. Did Derrida suffer from a “pernicious incapacity for self-criticism”? Really? Isn’t this the very definition of Theory?
Bbenson, should we wake up some morning to find world history changed in such a way that you’re head of a suitable department and I have sufficient funds to drop my day job, expect my application.
Ray Davis, had I a department, we’d be looking for various sorts of folks:
Someone interested in simply analyzing and describing how things—like texts, films—are put together. What this is, concretely, is not easy to characterize, but I do have something rather specific in mind here. I’ve got articles online in PsyArts on “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” that exemplify some of what I’m up to.
Someone interested in empirical investigation of reader response, particularly, someone skilled in the Five-Factor model of personality.
Someone interested in manga and anime, preferably someone who speaks Japanese. There’s a suspicion that manga and anime may do for the visual culture of the 21st century what African-American music did for, well, music in the 20th century.
Someone interested in large-scale cross-cultural studies of texts (for example, like Franco Moretti reported in New Left Review in the last year or so).
Background in the newer psychologies —cognitive, neuro, biological—would be helpful in all cases.