(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:
(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.