7 jul. 2005

Michael Bérubé has a good, though a bit longwinded, post about theory.

People who resisted "theory" in English and Foreign Language Departments in the 1980s and 90s were, for the most part, intellectually incurious folks, as Michael points out. To cling to some love of "literature" in a purely reactionary formation is not helpful at all. On the other hand, there was a kind of theorizing that did indeed suppppress the "literary," and, indeed, the "theoretical" itself. That is to say, defenders of the literary did have a point; their problem was that they identified the "literary" per se with a single school of criticism ("New Criticism") in a profoundly ahistorical way. "Theory" is not a single thing, but the inevitable result of intellectual curiosity. While I may not be sympathetic to every direction theory has gone, I wouldn't want to put any pre-established limits on this curiosity.

There is a kind of fantasy that if theory somehow disappears, we can get back to the good old days. There were no good old days, however. Even the establishment of the "literary" was the result of a theorization, and came at the expense of other kinds of knowledge and erudition.

The negative aspect of theory has to do with a sort of bland eclecticism that takes every theorist of a certain renown as a valid starting point. That is, you can't just take for granted that a theorist has "demonstrated" something to be the case. You can't mix your Foucault and Derrida without taking into account the potential contradictions between the two thinkers. You can't just say, "It's all good." Some of it may be bad.

Michael makes a good point about the Eagleton book that is used in many courses for graduate students. He calls it "a book so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student." I agree, but the fact is that such books have been used countless times to promulgate a sort of short-hand, glib, paint-by-the-numbers approach to theory. When I teach theory I only assign primary texts. Of course the students hate me for this!

There is also the demand that theorists demonstrate their literary bona fides. Yes, I really do love literature, even though I never talk about it in my work! I always get suspicious of a Frank Lentricchia who discovers that he really likes literature, after having tried to suppppppress literature for years!

3 comentarios:

Joseph Duemer dijo...

But with Theory, can't you "start anywhere"? Don't all roads lead to Rome in this case? Different routes to the same flatening of the literary?

I am probably not qualified to opine on this subject, having been introduced to Theory by that Eagleton book. And I can read a few pages of Derrida or Hartman & then a certain sameness sets in. This may very well be my failure, not that of the theorists. Still, I can go back to Wordsworth, say -- either the poems or the prefaces -- & find what he says has a texture & detail & relationship to the ways in which language is used that is actually useful to me as a writer. I'm not interested in theory for theory's sake, though I guess I might be if I were working in an regular sort of English department, which I'm not.

I don't think that we can go back to a time "before theory," despite the fact that I have invoked Wordsworth above. Wordsworth was a sophisticated theorist. (I find some of his views useful, others not.) I just tossed in the trash an invitation to join from that group -- what is it? The American Literature Association? -- that broke away from the MLA over the Question of Theory several years ago. I tossed it in the trash because, as Dylan sings, "You can always go back, but you can't go back all the way."

And Berube is the last person in the universe who should be calling anybody glib.

Roger Mexico dijo...

The very last? In the universe? Well, that'll set me straight.

Jonathan dijo...

I don't find Bérubé glib, myself. He can be a bit facetious, but then again I can be facetious as well.