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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Why I love theory / Why I hate theory

Posted by Jonathan Mayhew, Guest Author, on 07/13/05 at 11:41 AM

Why I love theory

Theory is a large subject for me, because it has been a part of my intellectual life in the profession for more than twenty years.  In graduate school I took several theory classes:  narrative theory, theory of the lyric--even a course just on the work of Roland Barthes.  I have been heavil influenced, at one time or another by theorists like Barthes, Kenneth Burke, Maurice Blanchot, Walter Benjamin, Charles Bernstein.  I have pondered the question of why so many theorists have last names starting with B.  (Any ideas, Michael Bérubé?) I have taught courses in theory as well.  I have spent many profitable hours with Epistemology of the Closet, a work inflected with Derridean interpretive modes and devoted to the close reading of canonical texts of literature.  I think the story of the development of theory from Russian Formalism (which I love) to the present day is fascinating.  It is the story of how intellectuals have incorporated the ideas of their time into the study of literature.  I love watching how Kenneth Burke uses Freud and Marx to develop an idea of literature as symbolic action.  How Barthes in his brilliantly dilettantish way tries to develop a “science” of literature from whatever intellectual currents were available to him.  I love how current theorists use Wittgenstein or Gadamer to explain how we understand poetry. 

So I love theory.  How could anyone be against theory in general?  Il n’y a pas de hors théorie. 

See below the fold for why I hate theory. 

Why I hate theory

Despite my love for theory, I hate many aspects of “theory” as academic practice.  The decontextualized name-dropping, the arguments from authority, the intellectual stagnation that views Paris ca. 1968 as the “last word.” Barthes at least was using the best ideas available to him at the time from structuralist linguistics and anthropology.  The same could be said for Kenneth Burke in the 1930s.  I am not attracted to the fashionable pastiches that mix Lacan, Said, Baudrillard, and whatever other convenient names occur to the writer, in pell-mell fashion, but ignore serious intellectual history since 1968.  Theorists shouldn’t just cite Freud as an authority without taking into account the biographical, historical, and theoretical critique of Freud of the past 20 or 30 years.  Literary critics shouldn’t sit down and translate Faulkner into a dull, Lacanian metalanguage.  Derrida should be taken as an interesting avant-garde writer in a particular literary tradition, not as some authority who lays out the agenda for literary study for ever after. 

Theory’s Empire

This anthology throws the kitchen sink at theory.  We have representatives of an older critical consensus like Abrams and Wellek.  A proponent of Russian formalism and avant-garde poetics (Perloff).  We have complaints about the spread of cultural studies, with its diplacement of literature itself as object of study.  I’ve always enjoyed Richard Levin’s intricate take-downs of exaggerated claims and leftist pieties about literary studies.  I like Searle’s careful explication of priinciples of analytic philosophy that someone like Culler doesn’t have a clue about.  I am a Wittgensteinian at heart, but without enough real training in philosophy to do it right.  My sympathy, generally, is with this camp, though I think they still need to bring up their game to the next level.  (For example, that anthology that came out a while back Ordinary Language Criticism was a bit disappointing, although superior in some ways to Theory’s Empire

I can applaud many “anti-theoretical” arguments, to the extent that they echo all the reason I hate theory.  At the same time I wouldn’t trade Richard Levin for Eve Sedgwick.  In other words, I still think there needs to be a way to preserve what I love about theory while working to solve some of the problems that make me hate theory.  I don’t know whether this is possible.  I don’t think this particular anthology is really the answer.  Whatever the merits of the individual contributions they don’t convince me as a global case against theory with a capital T, or much less against theory with a capital B.  Isn’t what we really need a return to theory, in the best sense?  That is, knock-down-drag-out battles in the pages of Critical Inquiry about ideas?  The end of sacred authorities, theoretical demi-gods? 

I’ll be posting a little later in the week on the Perloff essay.  Since I know Perloff’s work in some detail and have been following her intellectual development for some time, I might be more competent to judge this essay than I am the volume as a whole. 


It is a mistake to characterize Theory’s Empire as an anti-Theory or anti-theory volume. Although some of the older contributions do fit the mold, younger ones do not, and the editors didn’t intend or expect the volume as a whole to dispense with theory. What motivates them is, as you say, to knock down some of the standard assumptions about theory, the complacent citations, the customary canon of the prominent anthologies. It is also an attempt to inject some energy into the field.

I would add that a side advantage is to show that the relation between theory and Leftist politics is not as neat and congenial as the race/class/gender focus in the humanities for the last 25 years suggests.  Many of the contributors are Leftists who regard Theory with hostility, while many theorists in the volume are cultural conservatives.

By on 07/13/05 at 01:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan M.,

I’d be curious to hear more about your enthusiasm for Eve Sedgwick. Her writing is often cited as being among the most difficult American “theory” writing around. Moreover, she is disliked by people who object to the politicizing trend in literary studies.

Sedgwick is also attacked at length, and with relish, by Lee Siegel in Theory’s Empire ("Queer Theory, Literature, and the Sexualization of Everything"). How do you feel about what Siegel has to say about Sedgwick?

I personally think there are some breathtakingly brilliant passages in the close readings in Epistemology of the Closet, but there are also a number of sections where I can’t really make sense of it, or don’t at all see what she sees.

By Amardeep on 07/13/05 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I like difficult writing, and I like her close readings, and the fact that she IS a close reader.  I remember reviewers of her work complaining that they had to look up words in the dictionary!  The use she puts deconstructive theory to are genuinely “productive,” that is, they lead to insight that can be used in other contexts.  Her analysis of the mechanism of the closet is quite brilliant, and applicable both to literary texts and to real life as well. 

Yes, there are times when she seems to push an interpretation too far and to “oversexualize” everything.  There is a certain “excess” to her interpretive style.  I view it as the counterpart to a certain interpretive silence surrounding such issues previously.  I don’t think you have to defend every conclusion or interpretation she makes to view her book as both groundbreaking and brilliant.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 07/13/05 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Theorists like Barthes, Kenneth Burke, Maurice Blanchot, Walter Benjamin, Charles Bernstein.  I have pondered the question of why so many theorists have last names starting with B.  (Any ideas, Michael Bérubé?)

Good question.  I passed it along to Mikhail Bakhtin, Etienne Balibar, Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, Seyla Benhabib, Emile Benveniste, Sacvan Bercovitch, John Berger, Harold Bloom, Wayne Booth, Pierre Bourdieu, and Judith Butler.  I even asked R. P. Blackmur, whose unclassifiable Old School work has been all but forgotten, being both unclassifiable and Old School.  But these wankers told me they didn’t have a clue.

By Michael on 07/14/05 at 12:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t forget Baudelaire, Brecht, Bergson, Barth, Bergman, Beckett and Borges (although I guess they don’t all fit the narrow definition of “theorist” operating here).

God, there really are a lot, though.

By Matt on 07/14/05 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

...and there are Bachelard and Badieu.

Does anybody know whether the “b” thing is statistically significant?

By on 07/16/05 at 09:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The decontextualized name-dropping, the arguments from authority [etc.]

Thank you, thank you. It’s such a relief to hear people finally admit that these were commonplace. Coming from a background in analytic philosophy, I found it astonishing how little introspection there was among the Theorists I met, how little receptivity to criticism.

This does not mean, of course, that Theory hasn’t produced any good work. But it always amazed me how little willingness there was among my acquaintances to try to distinguish the good work from the bad.

By on 07/18/05 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think people are scared to try to criticize theory because a lot of it is really difficult to understand...but the truth is, that’s what the worst of these theorists are trying to do.  They are using a whole lot of words to say a whole lot of nothing, in order to disguise the fact that ultimately, they don’t know any more than you do.  I thinking academic writing should serve a practical purpose...it should make the writer’s point as clearly and concisely as possible.  Encoding simple thoughts into obscure academic language creates an elitist gateway to knowledge.  Creating that kind of gateway is something I want nothing to do with.  I would rather be a decoder, not an encoder.

By on 08/15/09 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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