Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Seven theses about the history of literary theory

(1.) Literary theory was not a philosophical or critical “school,” because it did not arise from the articulation of specific theoretical views. Nor was it a style, despite the weakness of many theorists for verbal jawbreakers and clouds of rhetorical incense; there was no constancy of form; there were too many differences of manner among the different theorists ranging from the downright argumentative behavior of Stanley Fish to the imperious condescension of Fredric Jameson. Literary theory was not a movement, because it had no common ideology (although it did have a common suspicion of other people’s ideology). Its conceptual unity was a mirage, disappearing the closer anyone came to it. What there was was a common enemy. Whether abused as “formalism” (Geoffrey Hartman), “intrinsic criticism” (Paul de Man), New Criticism with its “fixed object” and “plodding dullness” (Frank Lentricchia), or the “reign of interpretation” (Jonathan Culler), the status quo ante in American literary criticism was everywhere reviled. Theorists were united by their antipathies. Theory was a reaction.

(2.) Theory did not arrive with Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Tzvetan Todorov, Georges Poulet, Jean Hippolyte, and Lucien Goldmann to attend the conference on the “Languages of Criticism and Sciences of Man” held at Johns Hopkins University on October 18–21, 1966. This get-together belongs, as François Cusset says in French Theory, to its prehistory. Theory arrived when American literary academics began voluminously quoting Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, Todorov, Poulet, Hippolyte, Goldmann (and Foucault!), substituting for argumentative logic, as Cusset says, a “newly enchanting crisscrossing of names. . . .”

(3.) Where theory did not break with the previous generation of Anglo-American critics was in assuming that literature was a school subject, and treating it as such. Literary theorists were less interested in breaking down and reassembling literary texts in their lectures, however, than in reciting the dazzling shibboleth of Barthes-Derrida-Lacan-Foucault. Where poems were once self-moved, now theoretical discourse was.

(4.) When asked by the Carleton Miscellany in 1964 to define “Graduate Training in English,” J. V. Cunningham wrote:

If I read books I should know how books are made and where to find them. If I read Shakespeare I should know it may not be Shakespeare. We call the one bibliography, the other textual criticism. If I read a language I should know the language, whether it be of Tudor London or contemporary Western American. We call this philology. If what I read has any real reference I should know something of the referent. We call this history. If the referent is, in part, as it is in Lycidas, prior literature, I should know that. We call this literary history. These are the disciplines of graduate study. . . .Twenty years later the disciplines were new and went by new names—“print culture,” “the death of the author,” “intertextuality,” l’arbitraire du signe, “Always historicize!” and the “reconstruction of the canon.” Perhaps these were more like doctrines than disciplines, but graduate students were nevertheless expected to be trained in them.

(5.) It is off the mark to characterize theory, like Harold Fromm in Academic Capitalism and Literary Value (1991), for example, as the “reduction of literature to politics.” The theorists were never serious about their politics. It was merely how they ornamented—or, as the fashion magazines might say, how they accessorized—their critical prose. Ornamentation is not a style but a pretense to one. This is not to say that the theorists did not have a recognizable style, only that the “reduction of literature to politics” was not it. Their politics revealed their social origins: the theorists sprang from the Left. It was their class background, the relations into which they entered through their schooling, the old neighborhood for which they were nostalgic.

(6.) Although not especially political, theory was a tool that was well-designed for the academic Left. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” permitted the theorist to know better than everyone else—general readers, earlier critics, the author himself.

(7.) Politics also provided the terms by which theorists defended the value of theory, when they bothered to argue for it at all. Theory stood against the entrenched interests of cultural production. It was “calculated to lead,” said Robert Con Davis, “not just to theoretical interpretation but to radical change.” It prepared students for the revolutionary struggles ahead. The defense was silly and self-serving, of course, appealing mainly to the theorists’ idealized image of themselves. But it was also telling. It was an acknowledgment that theory could hardly be defended from within. Its value was to society at large. Thus did the latter-day Platonists carry the fight to aging Aristotelians.


Jonathan M said...

Good work.

I love the idea of presenting Theory as a kind of artistic form with only tenuous connections to a) reasoned argument, b) politics and c) the texts Theorists were commenting upon.

Also love the Platonist vs. Aristotelian comment. Reminiscent of Bertrand Russell's suggestion that while Aristotelians were rational and insightful commentators on the world, Platonists were essentially crooks and self-serving bullshit merchants who shouldn't be trusted around children or small animals :-)

Daniel M said...

I enjoyed reading this, and think many of your observations strike home. On the other hand, I am also sympathetic to some of the authors you seem to me to dismiss here, and so ask if I might be permitted to muddy the waters a bit.

Ultimately, it seems to me that you are writing of "theory" in the terms of a genre. There may be such a genre, but if there is, it is not a discrete one. The language of theory as nominal criss-crossing may be especially subject to the criticisms you mount here, but it is not the only language, or even perhaps the best language, for deploying analogous operations. In particular, the cogent observations you make about "politics as ornamentation" are not restricted to people writing in a theoretical jargon: this same procedure occurs in journalistic prose.