Adam Ash

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Deep Thoughts: the practice of Lit Theory with a big T

The Fragmentation of Literary Theory
It has held sway in the humanities for nearly four decades, surviving even the great culture wars. But it is being used in surprising ways.

Either literary theory is dead, or it's invincible. It all depends on who's talking. When Jacques Derrida died last year, The New York Times declared the end of the era of "big ideas." In April 2003, the Times had run an article about a University of Chicago symposium on the state of theory headlined "The Latest Theory Is Theory Doesn't Matter." More recently, a November 17 essay in the online magazine Slate mourned "The Death of Literary Theory."

Others say that theory has never been more perniciously alive. These critics persist in arguing that it is no longer possible to study literature for its own sake.

Just this summer, Columbia University Press published Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. The volume collects 30 years' worth of contrarian arguments with theory — make that Theory with a capital T — and takes as its premise the notion that "the rhetoric of Theory has been successful in gaining the moral and political high ground, and those who question it do so at their peril."

To find out what's happening in theory these days, over the past few months The Chronicle reviewed syllabi from some 20 colleges and universities with prominent English and literature departments and talked with a score of professors who teach literary theory. Theory, those reports make clear, is far from dead. But neither is it a unified kingdom. Theory today is a loose federation of states with permeable boundaries, no universally recognized constitution, and not much in the way of a lingua franca. It looks less like a superpower, in other words, and more like the fractious and ever-expanding European Union.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University and a contributor to Theory's Empire, describes the current situation as "a free-for-all. Theory has no material coherence, only an attitude. That is, if you claim to be a theorist, you say little about what your interests and materials are, only how you approach them," he wrote in an e-mail message. "I just checked the latest issue of Critical Inquiry and spotted articles touching upon homeland security, the American toy industry, microcinematography, and Wired magazine. Anything, it seems, is fair game for theorization.

"I think that the 60s theorists would have considered much of this application unserious," he continues, "but times have changed, and people are bored by a reading of a paragraph in [Heidegger's] Being and Time. "

1968 and All That

Literary theory of one sort or another goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. But it has had a particularly busy hundred years or so. (See timeline. )

If contemporary literary theory had a British Invasion moment (or, perhaps, a French Invasion), it took place in 1966 at the Johns Hopkins University. At a conference there on "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," what has come to be known as Theory crashed onto American shores. Derrida presented a paper, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," that marked the beginning of deconstruction — "if deconstruction can be said to have a clear beginning," according to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism .

In that context, theory is the impenetrable postmodernist stuff that has given many a canon-loving student the heebie-jeebies since the French critic Roland Barthes declared authorship dead amid the intellectual and political tumult of 1968. And since that moment, wave upon critical wave has swept through literature departments: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, feminism, postcolonialism, cultural studies.

Along the way, as progressives abandoned the barricades for the faculty lounge, certain currents of literary theory became identified with leftist politics. The phrase "identity politics" evokes the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, when conservatives accused postmodernists of making all things relative, to the detriment of the canon, critical values, and the culture at large.

Daphne Patai, a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Theory's Empire, argues that theory-driven tendencies in the profession have fed an obsession with "ersatz politics" among students and done lasting damage to their literary education. "We're teaching theory to students, we talk to them about Barthes reading Balzac, and they don't know who Balzac is," she says. "They don't have a background in literature because that isn't anything that anyone thinks is of value anymore."

Of her own students she says: "They can very easily see the political bottom line in everything they read, and that's what they read for. They don't seem to know how to read any other way."

One no longer need be an avowed opponent of theory to comment publicly on its excesses. As Amanda Anderson, chairwoman of the English department at Johns Hopkins, puts it in the introduction to her new book, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (forthcoming in January 2006 from Princeton University Press), poststructuralism and multiculturalism have led to a state of affairs in which "the concept of critical distance has been seriously discredited."

In the 40 years since Derrida paid that visit to Johns Hopkins, succeeding generations of scholars have had time to fall in love with theory, fall out of love with it, and learn how to live with it. As in any long-term relationship, there's a continuing re-evaluation and reimagining of what works and what does not. Rei Terada, chairwoman of comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine, says: "As the 60s becomes a historical period... we can make finer distinctions and groupings among things that seemed all of a piece closer to the time. ... People are starting to sort out such legacies." No one still believes, for instance, "that all French theory is politically progressive," she says.

It may be neither fair nor accurate, decades after Theory hit its high-water mark, to keep using it as a whipping boy for everything that has gone wrong with literary studies. "The problem of the humanities is funding, lack of institutional support, lowering enrollments, lowering numbers of hires, the rise of part-time labor," says Andrew Parker, a professor of English at Amherst College. "This is the real crisis, not whether we have theory with a capital T or a small T."

Many others interviewed for this article echo those sentiments. "I was astonished when Theory's Empire was published," Paul H. Fry, a professor of English at Yale University, writes in an e-mail message. "Literary theory is now a topic that interests a few people as a matter of intrinsic importance and matters to a few more as an object of historical research. Why continue to view it as a national threat? What empire?"

Beyond Politics

Whether one sees theory as a present danger or a historical relic, two points emerge from an examination of how theory is taught in colleges and universities today.

First, theory has become so much part of the literary profession that one needs to have some familiarity with the "isms," no matter which (if any) one embraces most closely.

Being labeled a theorist does not advance a career the way it might have 10 or 15 years ago, but theoretical naïveté is a luxury that few aspiring professors can afford. James F. English, chairman and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in an e-mail message that while "it's become very rare for literature departments to hire so-called pure theorists," the theoretical movements of the past four decades have "created an intellectual climate in which a whole range of writers (from Kant and Hegel to Lacan and Kristeva) is now part of the conversation within literary study as such." It is almost impossible to imagine a newly minted Ph.D. going on the job market without some grasp of structuralism as well as of Shakespeare.

"It's really not something that can be excised through surgery," says Amherst's Mr. Parker. "It's something far more biochemically complex. It's changed the DNA of literary study from within."

The second point concerns theory's fragmentation. Theory is everywhere, but no one strand — let alone a consensus about what constitutes it — dominates. Those "isms" are mixed and matched, used as research tools or as implements to help extract meaning from texts, or as lures to get students to read those texts in the first place. And in the devolution from high Theory to hands-on theory, the supposedly dead author and his or her texts have reclaimed a place at the seminar table.

In a forthcoming essay, "Theory Ends," which will appear in the Modern Language Association's Profession 2005, Vincent B. Leitch, general editor of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, reports that "theory in the current framework has at least a half-dozen different meanings, each of which has a distinct reception history and set of effects."

But this definition, set forth by Mr. Leitch, most closely mirrors what one hears from those who teach theory: "Theory is widely considered a toolbox of flexible, useful, and contingent devices, judged for their productivity and innovation."

Mr. Leitch refers to that as "pragmatic theory." And it has a growing number of practitioners.

For instance, when Amherst College's Mr. Parker taught his "Victorian Novel I" class to undergraduates this past spring, he says that it resembled "a very traditional Victorian-novel course": six big novels, including Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, and Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil. The choice of novels is not radical, but "the questions I ask of this material are not the traditional literary-critical ones," the professor says. "Although what I do is based on literary form, on sensitivity to the literary particularities of a novel. ... I'm also interested in theoretical questions about what the Victorian novel is about."

Alongside Sybil, then, Mr. Parker's students read Karl Marx and Frederick Engels's "Speeches on Poland" from The Revolutions of 1848, a selection from Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England, and part of Thomas Carlyle's Chartism.

And with Dombey and Son, Mr. Parker focuses on how "you can see Dickens using the novel to address political questions that are addressed in other kinds of writing," he says. "If you put those writings alongside the novel, you get a very different reading of the novel. ... That's the kind of thing I can do in a classroom now, post-theory, that is exciting to me and the student."

Used this way, politics does not stand in the way of appreciating a classic, but enhances it, say Mr. Parker and others — and the politics in question are as much of Dickens's time as our own. Students enrolled in such a class may not even know they're being exposed to theory.

"If you don't tell them it's theory, they won't know it's theory," Mr. Parker says, "but the questions are theoretically informed. ... Their sense of enjoyment can be amplified by having a critical relation as well as a fan relation to this work. I think that's what happens with the Victorian novel."

Graduate-level courses tend by their nature to be more theoretically sophisticated than those aimed at undergraduates, but there, too, a certain pragmatism and adaptability prevail.

When she plans her graduate-level classes, Lynn Enterline, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, tends to "organize the course around texts and problems they might raise." If Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is on the syllabus, for instance, she'll draw on "theories of the performative" in the work of such thinkers as Derrida and the feminist-psychoanalytic critics Barbara Johnson and Shoshana Felman.

"Since I'm interested in questions of gender, sexuality, and the body," she says, "I tend to work mostly with rhetorical and psychoanalytic theory."

Her colleagues in the Vanderbilt English department employ a similar strategy in the classroom, she says, even though their research interests vary widely in topic and theoretical affinity. "They're all deeply theoretically informed," she says, "but the choices they would make depend on the problems they're addressing."

Jeffrey J. Williams, a professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University and one of the editors of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, calls himself "very topic oriented" when it comes to teaching. Carnegie Mellon has what he describes as a fairly heavy emphasis on theory, and "the students kept coming to me and complaining that they weren't reading any literature," he says.

His solution? "Now I try to teach hybrid courses." In a recent course on "narratives of profession," for instance, he mixed sociology and theories of professionalism with half a dozen novels, and taught Anthony Trollope's Dr. Thorne alongside a history of the medical profession.

Conflicts and Resolution

Daphne Patai, who edited Theory's Empire with Will H. Corral, an associate professor of Spanish-American literature at California State University at Sacramento, decries what she calls the ism-by-ism approach in theory anthologies like the Norton and its many competitors — and, one might guess, in intro-to-theory courses that use them.

"That's why 'teaching the conflicts,' as Gerald Graff recommended years ago, sounds better than it actually is, because you have to make hard decisions ... about how to spend that precious time," observes Ms. Patai. "If you want to spend all your time discussing whether Conrad was a racist, you're not going to be able to have too much time to study Conrad."

But those charged with introducing students to theory don't appear to be trying to throw out Conrad and company. The University of California at Santa Cruz is not known for its aversion to theory. Even there, theory "is never taught in the absence of literary texts, and it's never taught as if it's gospel," says Richard Terdiman, a professor of literature and the history of consciousness. "What we try to do when we teach it is demystify it.

"Everyone who teaches the intro-theory course required for undergraduates in the major chooses a focus, whether it's Marxism or queer theory or whatever it is, and tries to get students to see the relevance of the interpretative strategy for their own reading."

At the University of Virginia, Rita Felski, a professor of English, teaches a course called "Contemporary Literary Theory" to about 70 undergraduates every year. Her syllabus reads like a hit parade of the last hundred years or so of theory, with one or two pieces by noted proponents of most of the major movements: New Criticism, Russian formalism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, feminism, race and postcolonial theory, queer theory, cultural studies.

But Ms. Felski's course "assumes no prior knowledge of these areas," and its thrust is the "application of specific theories to literary examples." After her class samples the work of Georg Lukacs and Theodor Adorno, they turn to Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (surely an invitation to Marxist critique if there ever was one). And so on. Derrida probably goes down a little more easily when accompanied by a Jorge Luis Borges chaser (in this case, the short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote ").

"I suspect most undergraduate theory classes are pretty similar to the one I teach," Ms. Felski writes in an e-mail message. Some might add a section on New Historicism, say, or on philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger who have strongly influenced certain aspects of literary theory. Graduate-level theory classes, she adds, might include deeper reading in full-length theoretical works such as Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Derrida's Of Grammatology, and Edward Said's Orientalism.

Postcolonialism in general, and Mr. Said's work in particular, are alive and well at most of the colleges and universities surveyed. At the State University of New York at Binghamton, according to Joseph Keith, an assistant professor of English, "postcolonial theory is of particular concern." One of Mr. Keith's colleagues, Monika Mehta, teaches a course on "Globalization & Literary Culture," in which students read Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir Persepolis alongside critical readings on global capitalism and fundamentalism.

Meanwhile, at the University of California at Berkeley, Ian Duncan, a professor of English and the department's chairman, reports via e-mail that "postcolonial, national/transnational, race and comparative ethnicities studies are flourishing" while New Historicism "does not exert the hegemony it did 20 years ago, although I think it's fair to say it's been digested by many of us and maintains a strong presence."

John Kucich, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, alternatively notes "some kind of a formalist revival going on these days. But I don't think the people practicing it would call themselves theorists," he says. "There's a new interest in doing ... projects that are concerned with the formal dynamics of text but which connect themselves up with some sort of larger thematic project."

Mr. Duncan confirms that "there's a vibrant formalist wing" in his department, as well as "a strong sentiment among faculty" that the department should institute a formal theory requirement for its undergraduates.

The Write Stuff

"We believe in a broad intellectual training," says Toril Moi, a professor in the literature program and the Romance-studies department at Duke University. "So that means students should know some theory, right?" In practical terms, she observes, theory has become "part of a cultural-social-historical conversation."

But that conversation has a notorious history of excluding anyone not steeped in theory's jargon and syntactic complexities. Indeed, what Ms. Moi calls "theorese" has long been a target of theory's opponents, as well as a subject for parody in the nonacademic world.

Theory's Empire reprints a 1999 Weekly Standard essay by D.G. Myers, an associate professor of English and religious studies at Texas A&M University, on "Bad Writing" of the academic variety. "Academic writing in our own time," Mr. Myers commented, "exhibits a disregard, not merely for style, but for truth." To illustrate his point, he fastened onto a sentence by Judith Butler that begins: "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure. ..."

Mr. Keith, of Binghamton, cautions that "trying to map out alternative ways of knowing is going to be inherently difficult and demanding." Complex concepts sometimes require complex terminology, and hurling abuse at theory for its "excessive difficulty has been used too often as an overly quick strategy of dismissing and not engaging."

Still, he writes via e-mail, "I think there has been a turn back to history ... and away from the more pure textuality of deconstruction at its peak — which lent itself to rhetorical pyrotechnics or overindulgence."

That raises the question of whether that historical turn, and the general devolution of theory, will translate into more accessible work. As literature reasserts itself alongside theory in the classroom, will academic writing shake off the formulations and jargon of "theorese"?

Jennifer Crewe, associate director and editorial director of Columbia University Press and the editor who acquired Theory's Empire, sees many revised dissertations that have been submitted in hopes that the press will publish them. Lately, in "writing style and method of presentation," she says, "it's getting back to being a little more traditional, going back to looking at the literature itself and not only writing about the theory."

Although "it's still very hard for people to wean themselves from the jargon," she says, "I think people have gotten the message they have to make themselves clear. If you're clear, you have a chance of having a broader audience."

There are signs, too, that literary theorists are actively seeking to redefine theory in a way that reconnects it to bigger ideas.

Amanda Anderson's The Way We Argue Now highlights, among other evolutions, what she sees as a push beyond the restrictions imposed by identity politics. "Contemporary theory is already pursuing a less constrained understanding of first-person experience (singular and plural)," she writes, "one which finds expression in ways that consistently exceed the sociological grid. This is evident in what many have hailed as a general turn to ethics, but it is also evident in recent forms of theory for which ... a kind of cultivated ethos or characterological stance seems central, if not fully theorized."

That's not exactly generalist parlance, but it gestures toward concerns — ethics, for instance — shared by people outside academic literary circles.

In branching out, or reaching out, theory risks losing some of what made it powerful and seductive in the first place. In his essay "Theory Ends," Mr. Leitch offers up one final definition of theory: "a historically new, postmodern mode of discourse that breaches longstanding borders, fusing literary criticism, philosophy, history, sociology, psychoanalysis, and politics." The result, he says, is a "cross-disciplinary pastiche" that falls under the increasingly wide banner of cultural studies.

Mr. Williams, of Carnegie Mellon, who is 46 and came of age professionally during theory's heyday (as did most of the people interviewed for this article), says that everyone his age or younger "does a cultural project, and everyone says they do cultural studies."

This is not, as he points out, your father's cultural studies — not the pathbreaking stuff that the British were doing in the 1960s and 70s, for instance — and it may not even be theory in any classic or intellectually rigorous sense. "I think there's a common practice," Mr. Williams says, "but common practice is not theory." What he sees in action is "a kind of generalized and vague sense of cultural history adapted for literary criticism. It's like literary cultural history. I think that's what most people are doing."

Mr. Williams points out that as universities lose funds, the humanities have come under more pressure, external and internal, to justify themselves, "not by saying that we do this high-research thing called theory, which nobody seems to care about, but to deliver the goods in a way that engineering does. ... People might not always like what we say about culture, but it's a very traditional, tried-and-true rationale for humanities and literary criticism."

So the devolution and fragmentation of theory may well be a survival strategy, an adaptation to the new realities of academic institutions. An optimist might see it as something nobler, a turn from linguistic grand gestures and outdated ideological gambits toward measurements taken on a more humanistic scale.

Ms. Moi describes an evolution that is at least as cerebral or conceptual as practical. She has noted "a tendency to take a broader cultural view" in the field generally and, among her graduate students at least, a new and noteworthy ambition. "We do not need intellectuals to be disciples ... ," she says. "I'm seeing quite a lot of dissertations that want to change our understanding of, say, modernism or Romanticism or postcolonialism or what film is." Their reach may exceed their grasp, she says, but "it gives them the salutary feeling that they will never, ever know it all."


Certain names and texts turn up regularly in courses in literary theory, but the context varies from college to college. Here is how undergraduates in such courses are introduced to poststructuralism and deconstruction at Dartmouth College, the State University of New York at Binghamton, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of Virginia:

Dartmouth: English 15, "Introduction to Literary Theory": Main text, Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Blackwell, 2004). Specific readings: Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense" and The Will to Power; Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences," "Différance," and selections from Of Grammatology.

Binghamton: English 572R, "Introduction to Theory & Criticism" (taught at undergraduate and graduate levels): Main texts, Modern Criticism and Theory, edited by David Lodge with Nigel Wood (Longman, 1999), and Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, by Jonathan D. Culler (Oxford University Press, 2000). Specific readings: Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author" (graduate students also read a selection from Barthes's Mythologies ); Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; Jacques Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play ..." (graduate students also read "Différance").

Michigan: English 486.001, "History of Criticism": Main texts, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism, by Jonathan D. Culler (Cornell University Press, 1983); Literature After Feminism, by Rita Felski (University of Chicago Press, 2003); Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Specific readings: "A Short Course in Post-Structuralism," by Jane Tompkins; "Wuthering Heights: Repetition and the 'Uncanny,'" by J. Hillis Miller; and "Wuthering Heights: At the Threshold of Interpretation," by Carol Jacobs.

Virginia: ENCR 300, "Contemporary Literary Theory": A course pack serves as the main text. Specific readings: selections from "Différance," by Jacques Derrida; "The Death of the Author," by Roland Barthes; "The Critic as Host," by J. Hillis Miller; and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," by Jorge Luis Borges.


1916: Ferdinand de Saussure revolutionizes linguistics with his idea of language as a system of signs (the signifier and the signified) in The Course in General Linguistics, a book compiled from students' notes at the University of Geneva after his death, in 1913. Saussure's new science of "semiology" paves the way for structuralism and poststructuralism and for the so-called linguistic turn that will mark the work of such future stars as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes in literary studies, Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, and Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis.

1941: In essays collected in The New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom articulates some of the formalist principles behind the New Criticism and its emphasis on the close reading of a text.

1957: Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism challenges the New Critics by emphasizing the roles that archetype, myth, and genre play in creating the meaning of a literary work.

1963: Richard Hoggart founds the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, in Britain. Much of the seminal work in cultural studies — by Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and others — will come out of the center in the 1960s and 70s.

1966: "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," a conference at the Johns Hopkins University, marks the debut of structuralism and poststructuralism on the American academic scene. Jacques Derrida presents a paper, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," that becomes one of the founding documents of deconstruction.

1968: The French structuralist Roland Barthes pronounces "The Death of the Author" in an essay written during the May 1968 uprisings in Paris.

1969: Michel Foucault attacks a fundamental premise of literary studies — that individuals produce texts — in his essay "What Is an Author?"

1973: The Yale School rules: Harold Bloom publishes The Anxiety of Influence, and Paul de Man describes how to read deconstructively in his essay "Semiology and Rhetoric."

1978: Edward Said's Orientalism puts postcolonial studies on the map.

1979: Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination marks a milestone in the popularization of feminist literary criticism.

1982: The "neopragmatists" Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels argue, in their essay "Against Theory," that "the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned."

1986: J. Hillis Miller, then president of the Modern Language Association and a key figure in American deconstruction, delivers an address, "The Triumph of Theory," to the group's annual gathering.

1987: The posthumous discovery of anti-Semitic wartime journalism by Paul de Man (who died in 1983) undermines the influential Yale deconstructionist's lingering influence.

1990: A queer-studies classic arrives: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

2001: The first edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism appears, coming in at 2,524 pages, not including notes and indexes.

2004: Jacques Derrida dies.

2005: The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, famous for his notion of reality as simulacrum, tells The New York Times, "Nobody needs French theory."


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