Monday, December 15, 2008

A silly pop at theory

Over at the Ready Steady Blog, Mark Thwaite mistakes my seven theses about the history of literary theory for a “silly pop at Theory” (the capital-T is his). They are silly, he explains, because “attacking Theory (which is so capacious) in such a bluff way always strikes as fatuous.” Ah, yes, the capaciousness of theory. Just about as capacious as the soft-drink aisle in a supermarket, and just about as varied.

Oops. That was an attack, and despite Thwaite’s assertion to the contrary, my intention in the earlier post was historical rather than polemical.

To propose, for example, that literary theory was neither a school nor a style nor a movement is not to attack it, but to notice a historical problem. Theory was understood by some people to form something distinct and distinguishable in the past, but if I am to narrate its history, I must be able to say what distinguished it from other similar things. Capacious or not, theory was treated as a unity; and if—like Thwaite—I speak of Theory rather than theories, and if I see it as an intellectual event or grouping of intellectual events, I ought to be able to define its conceptual unity. If there is nothing unique to theory capable of accounting for the popular description of it as a genuine departure in literary criticism then there is small reason to speak of it at all. To accept its adepts’ account of it is not to write as a historian, but as a publicist. And to reject that account is not to polemicize against the adepts. Their account will have a place in the story too—just not pride of place as a necessary and sufficient condition.

If I were going to “pop” anyone it would not be theory’s adepts, but its historians. Look, the problem that confronts any historian of criticism is how to proceed. Given a capacious miscellany of writings, should the historian emphasize individual critics or collective ideas? How, in short, do you organize the story? The usual solution is to adopt the school-and-movements approach with separate chapters (or sections) on structuralism, deconstruction, reader response, feminism, New Historicism, queer theory, etc. You might as well write a textbook: an admission of failure, that is, a submission to the miscellaneousness of the subject.

Another possibility would be to write something like Wimsatt and Brooks’s Short History of criticism (1957). At least then you wouldn’t be a bore. In their Introduction, the authors acknowledge that their book “could be called ‘polemic’ or ‘argumentative.’ Call it An Argumentative History of Literary Argument in the West.” In fact, it was a retelling of criticism’s history from the New Criticism’s point of view.

Such an attitude strikes me as profoundly unhistorical. Approval or disapproval of his subject entails a fundamental error on the historian’s part. “My concern,” as I wrote in The Elephants Teach, my first attempt to write a history of criticism, “is not that of the debater, who argues the status quo ante must be altered or preserved, but that of the historian, for whom the present situation arouses a curiosity to know how things got to be this way.” I read someone like Thwaite, and I wonder how something can be both capacious and unified by a capital-T at the same time. If I end up concluding that the thing is neither I have not joined the debate, but sought to translate the question into a different idiom altogether.