On the Teaching of Literary Theory

Originally published in Philosophy and Literature 18 (October 1994): 326-336.

My title is intended to evoke Lionel Trilling’s famous essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” And my theme is similar to his. But where Trilling was convinced that modern literature is betrayed by the teaching of it unless students are not left in the dark about their teacher’s commitment to it, fear of it, ambivalence to it, I believe the only way to teach literary theory is to take issue with it. Although many teachers of theory claim to engage in “oppositional pedagogy,” their opposition falters at theory itself. Much of what gets taught under the name of literary theory these days is anything but theory.

If the available materials are any indication the most common approach to the subject is the taxonomical survey, with lessons or units on Saussurean linguistics, structuralist anthropology, la nouvelle critique, deconstruction, Rezeptionästhetik and reader response, Marxist criticism, psychoanalysis, feminism, the New Historicism, etc.[1] Here theory is represented as theories, and what is imparted in the classroom are the propositional contents of various and differing bodies of doctrine. Students are instructed that language, meaning, and the self are socially constructed, that discourse is ideological, that il n’y a pas de hors-texte, that paradigms shift, that the author is dead. The ideas of literary theory, in short, are treated as accomplished facts. Such an approach has something to recommend it. It is a convenient way to organize a syllabus; it acknowledges and conveys the significance of theory as a historical movement; it is founded upon the sound educational precept that learning can take place only where there is something in particular to be learned. But pretty clearly the teaching of literary theory as a set of facts is not the teaching of it as theory.

Although theorists like to speak of solving problems, although their followers act upon occasion as if the achievement of recent theory has been to settle certain issues and close off certain inquiries, it is a betrayal of literary theory to teach it with this attitude, reducing it to received ideas. For one thing, the attitude is untheoretical. Traditional humanists are abused for believing in the normative force of preexisting standards, when “post-modernist lit profs by definition recognize that ‘literary standards’—literatures themselves—are socially constructed and therefore ideological."[2] But to speak so confidently of what is “therefore” the case is to insist without further argument that true statement p entails true statement q, and this is not (in Gilbert Ryle’s words) a “theory-constituting sentence”: such expressions belong not to players on the field of theory but to spectators and cheerleaders.[3] If teachers really believe that theory has solved some of the traditional problems of criticism and interpretation it would be dishonest of them not to drill students in the solutions, perhaps with the aid of mnemonic rhymes. But if literary theory means anything by definition it is that all verdicts about literature and literary standards—and not only humanists’—are open to interrogation. Otherwise the culture of humanism is merely being unseated by the culture of theory, and theory is misunderstood as the authoritative source of a New Wisdom. The original hope that theory would offer defiance to just such a moral and literary education based on cultural authority is thwarted.

Most teachers would probably agree that genuine learning has not been attained with the ability to recite that-sentences ("Derrida says that . . ." or "feminists assert that. . ."). It also involves the knowledge how to carry forward a specific inquiry for oneself. Is theory then a set of methods and probative techniques?

R. S. Crane once proposed such an approach, in which critical theories would be treated heuristically, “not as doctrines to be taught, but rather as more or less useful tools of our trade. . . .”[4] Instead of boggling at the word trade, which may seem to imply a bourgeois conception of teaching and critical activity, it might be worthwhile to consider this heuristic approach, while holding the question of its class consequences in abeyance. For it too is a favored approach to the teaching of literary theory, perhaps only slightly less common than the taxonomical survey. Here different theories are abridged and combined into a “strategy” for the interpretation of texts—a strategy which is “immensely rich in its critical potential” and destined to become “a basic part of the critic’s repertory, likely to endure even the excesses of its current vogue.”[5]

There is something to recommend this approach too: it produces results, in the form of readings. It gives teachers something to say about a text, which is the nagging worry in all classroom teaching of literature. And so it appeals to what J. Hillis Miller has described as the “impatience to get on with it, that is, not to get lost in the indefinite delay of methodological debates. . . .”[6] For Miller, however, this impatience with the “impalpabilities of theoretical abstractions”—an impatience felt by so many teachers—goes far to explain the reaction against theory and the turn to history in recent literary study. And so once again it should be clear that, whatever else it is, the heuristic approach—the use of theory in the production of readings—is not the teaching of literary theory as such.

In reality it is the abandonment of theory. One reason for the ascendancy of theory in literary study has been the success of its attacks on established norms of interpretation. Deconstruction, for instance, has successfully called into question the New Criticism’s presumption of unity, coherence, and pattern in the literary text. It is now apparent that these are primarily significant methodologically—they are injunctions of what to look for in a text, revealing the ways that critics claim to know something rather than nailing the truth of their claims.[7] On this view deconstruction is superior to interpretation. Since it places the methodological presumptions of interpretation under scrutiny, its own epistemic procedures are more advanced. Deconstruction is a reminder that literary inquiry is always already conditional; it is not itself the provision of a new, more “correct” set of conditions.[8] To study literary theory for the purpose of extracting from it a useful interpretive strategy, then, is to turn aside from the adventure of questioning and trace one’s steps back to an earlier stage of unquestioned norms. It is to mistake theory for an ersatz, which Frederick Crews calls theoreticism.[9]

The larger trouble with both the taxonomical and heuristic approaches is that they subtly encourage a pedagogical régime of authoritarianism. To learn about theorists—even a theorist as deeply committed to creative freedom as Bakhtin—is to be instructed in their authority to propound a vision. And to be taught how to do a new method of literary interpretation is to acquiesce in the security of its findings, for that semester at least. Whether it is handled taxonomically (as schools of doctrine) or heuristically (as repertories of technique), where theory is conceived largely or exclusively as a body of materials—to be passed on in the shape in which it was received—the very structure of the transaction between teacher and student is one of supervision and correction, entailing authority and deference.[10] It may be that the exercise of authority is unavoidable or even necessary in the teaching of certain subjects. Challenges to the validity of a technique or questions about the meaning of “life” in the immediate context would be out of place in a course on lifesaving. But theory is not such a subject.

A pedagogy of authoritarianism comes into office when theory is studied and taught on the grounds of its being the dominant genre of knowledge at present. A dominant genre lures those who would be better off (or at least happier) doing work in another field. And bound to it not by a love of theorizing but by a sense of professional obligation, these experts on good scholarly behavior arrest theory in a condition of mere instrumentality, because for them it is no longer subject to investigation. Good teaching by contrast demands that questions remain open, because this is the spirit in which teachers approach the subject when they themselves are studying it; and if the question has been closed, if further challenges are unwelcome, students may respond to the teacher’s commands but not to be subject.[11] Students who have learned about theory may reproach those who unselfconsciously sustain traditional assumptions; students who know how to do a new mode of interpretation may be scornful of those who know only the old, discredited ways. But this is not evidence of theory’s oppositional role. As the late John Passmore observed, “Authoritarian systems of education very commonly produce pupils who are extremely critical, but only of those who do not fully adhere to the accepted beliefs, the accepted rules, the accepted modes of action. . . .”[12]

Now it is sometimes said that if theory is to perform an oppositional role it must emphasize the relation between politics and such cultural practices as criticism and interpretation. And on this view any approach to teaching is fundamentally flawed which relaxes into an uncritical pluralism. This is the radical objection to either a taxonomical or heuristic approach. The many-sidedness of recent theory, the reluctance to pass up any of its sweets, may be just what attracts some teachers to the subject. But when it becomes the principle of organization behind a syllabus such unselective craving merely “reproduces the political pluralism that conceals the relation of domination by representing the elements of power as sovereign, individual, and equal, each element operating within its own ‘truth.’ ”[13] To a disinterested observer the field of theory may look as if it were divided pluralistically among many different schools and isms, but an attitude of scholarly disinterestedness only serves the interests of dominant cultural powers. It sweeps into a corner the political conflict which is at the bottom of theoretical disagreements. It compares school to school, contrasts ism with ism, rather than pitting theory as a whole against the entrenched interests of cultural production. Obviously the radical alternative to pluralism in the teaching of literary theory is a monistic one. Here theory is conceived to have but one goal and anything else is a stopping short; it is “calculated to lead not just to theoretical interpretation, but to radical change.”[14]

The radical approach draws its inspiration from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). From this perspective—an openly Leninist one—the teaching of theory must empower students by showing them how to disclose the ideological conditions behind any cultural performance, and then leading them to re-politicize their newfound knowledge by placing it in the context of the class struggle. At a stroke this removes the barricade between theory and practice, between academic inquiry and political agitation, because “what universities pay us to do—teach—is our main political praxis.”[15] Thus the radical approach reattaches the knowledge of how to do theory to knowledge that theory is about something in particular. And aside from the fact that it promises a way for many teachers of literature and theory to salvage their political commitments, this is its greatest strength.

But there are objections to a radical monist approach; questions not about how it should be put into practice, but whether it even can be. And perhaps these merit consideration. The objections come from both the Right and the Left (or, rather, to adopt a less emotive vocabulary, questions about radical monism are raised both by those who are sympathetic to it and those who are not). On one side is the argument that radical teachers are themselves a politically privileged elite whose position in the university (and the freedom it entails to teach as they wish) is contingent upon the very distinction between academic and political activities that they want to subvert.[16] Either they fail to achieve their goal, in which case the effect of their teaching is the conservative one of maintaining traditional distinctions; or they succeed in destroying the basis of academic freedom from outside interference, creating an opening for state reprisal. Besides, the empowerment of students is a weirdly timid and roundabout means of political resistance. Any talk about empowerment has things backwards.[17] If the state has abused its power it ought to be resisted immediately and courageously, not by training a later generation to act in their teachers’ stead. And this leads to the argument that, whatever its educational goals, radical teaching is of little consequence as political praxis when set against the massively greater powers of the state.[18]

The deeper objection to the political teaching of theory is not political, however, but theoretical. Radical teaching calls into question the ways in which cultural practices are traditionally represented—it makes them problematical—in order to substitute an account of the real relations between culture and politics, which are rooted in class. It is obvious, though, that such a procedure is only half-theoretical. Some notions are problematized (the special category of literature, individual authorship, the claim to social autonomy), but not others (class, real relations, social constructedness). In as far as it is monist, then—in as far as it dedicates itself tirelessly to the goal of radical change—oppositional pedagogy passes beyond the stage of theory to a new understanding of culture, but this understanding may in turn be exceeded by further theorists who raise doubts about its assumptions. The very monism of radical teaching gives it the advantage over pluralistic approaches. Besides being easier to apply, a single mode of analysis verifies its results to at least that degree of corroboration which is provided by self-consistency and integration. But a claim of self-consistency is an invitation to interrogate it further. And where a mode of analysis has asserted its universality, it becomes itself the system of beliefs which must be deconstructed.

We are now in a position to begin saying what a genuine teaching of literary theory might be. Although we have found much to fault in the three approaches that are most commonly taken, there is something of value to be retrieved from each of them. The customary approaches to the teaching of theory, we might even say, all are based on genuine insight; but each of them misinterprets it. The taxonomical survey recognizes that literary theory is a substantial historical achievement that ought to be apportioned a share of every serious student’s literary education. The heuristic method—applied theory, as it might be called—discerns that literary theory is something that must be engaged in, not passively learned about. Radical monism is a summons to remember always that the role of theory is to be oppositional. But each of these principles must be understood more adequately.

Theory is first of all a substantial historical achievement. Paul de Man explains:

The advent of theory, the break that is now so often being deplored and that sets it aside from literary history and from literary criticism, occurs with the introduction of linguistic terminology in the metalanguage about literature. . . . Contemporary literary theory comes into its own in such events as the application of Saussurean linguistics to literary texts.[19]But whatever this may be as a historical statement, when construed as a curricular imperative it is the locus classicus of a pedagogical mistake. The study of theory must contain a historical that which is predicated in such sentences as “Derrida has said that . . .” or “feminists have asserted that. . . .” And yet, whatever their historical consequences, theoretical statements are illocutionary not perlocutionary acts. In arguing for p a theorist may achieve the unintended effect of convincing some literary critics to apply his or her conclusions in the interpretation of texts. But it is not by arguing for p that a theorist establishes the conclusiveness of these interpretations.

It is a blunder to distribute theoretical readings as if they were perlocutions that had had the consequence of establishing the correctness of certain ideas, altering the academic landscape forever. Such a style is not even native to theory, for one would never say “I establish that . . .” or even “I apply that. . . .” What is more, to conceive of theory’s historical achievement as a paradigm shift that has radically transformed what counts as “literature,” “criticism,” and “interpretation” is to resign ourselves to the present impasse at which theory is either zealously embraced or scoffingly rejected.[20] There is no third way in which theory becomes an occasion neither for applause or catcalls but merely for reflection. In teaching and studying theory, then, perhaps we need to return from historical and institutional effects to the particular and sustained feat of intelligence that is performed within every theoretical utterance. Instead of taking up arms for or against it, we might just read and reread theory. And without going any further, what this would require is a conception of theory’s historical content, not as solutions to be committed to memory, but as problems to be reconsidered.

As Gerald Graff has pointed out, the recent history of literary theory has been a series of controversies over such questions as value, meaning, social function, and canonicity.[21] And if it is true that theory is something that must be engaged in—something a theorist and a student of theory must do—it follows that studying theory means to re-engage in these controversies. Theory is not a methodology or paradigm or “strategy” that one puts on, in order to dress for academic success. It is an argument. It is an implacable reflective struggle to work out a vexing tangle in literary experience. Nor can a theoretical argument be easily applied, as if it were an ointment; it must be thought through, point by point and in detail; it must be interlocked with, in a reflective struggle. Theoretical arguments are often so difficult that merely to follow them is a rigorous undertaking. Only a fool would claim to understand everything in Derrida or Lotman or Ricoeur. To accept a theorist’s argument in toto because it is daring or stylish, or because others have hailed it as unanswerable, is to be neither a theorist nor a student of theory. “Read Foucault” is not a reply to an objectionable argument. To struggle with a literary theory is to entertain the possibility that it might contain defects. It is to scramble for counterarguments, to test the theory for logical soundness by submitting it to refutation. To do anything else is not really to know literary theory, but to remain ignorant of it.

It will be objected, however, that any criticism or interpretation “presupposes” a theory.[22] From this angle of vision, a knowledge of theory has been acquired when the presuppositions have been reduced to reason. This would seem to imply that interpretive presuppositions can be written down in black and white and revised where necessary. The study of theory would then seem to be a relatively simple matter of refining one’s conceptual achievement. Now it is probably true that the study of theory can improve any critic’s performance. But theory is not merely this performance reexpressed in different (and perhaps more abstract) terms. In effect, it is to understand what the performer has not yet understood, because he or she has exchanged the effort to understand for the opportunity to perform. Hence “theory” in the sense intended here cannot be “presupposed” by a critical or interpretive performance. It has not yet come into being. It is itself an achievement, though of a different order. It is the controversial maneuver by which any solution that is proposed to a critical or interpretive problem is not applied to a fresh text but converted into a fresh problem; one that has no ready solution.

And this is the true regard in which theorists and teachers of theory are oppositional. They join with Anne Elliot in Persuasion “to oppose the too common idea”—the commonly mistaken idea—behind much literary thought. That is their driving motive, although it is a question of epistemic policy rather than preemptive conviction: literary criticism is usually wrong, and usually needs to be rethought. Especially since Barthes and Derrida and Foucault, the special role of theory has been to let the air out of critics’ assurance that the terms and categories of their discipline refer to things that self-evidently exist. Literary theory is a demand for proof and further defense. Its advantage as a course of study, then, is that it introduces students into the rough-and-tumble of critical argument, the open-endedness of genuine inquiry, where the only sure way to go wrong is to decline to meet the challenge.

And for this reason the best approach to the teaching of theory may be to presume that the texts on one’s syllabus are in error. They are to be swallowed only if, upon consideration, they succeed in making their case. Theoretical texts cannot be taught as if the truth or falsehood of their contents were not in question, and to teach them as prima facie true is to foreclose the question. One has allegiances, of course, and it is absurd to pretend that these ought to (or can) be suppressed. Then perhaps it is smarter to assign one’s antagonists. If we are serious in believing that the role of theory is to oppose cultural authority, if we are sincere in our objective of putting self-evident certainties under interrogation, what better way than by leading our students to struggle against the authorities that we ourselves have placed in their hands? Surely the theorists can withstand rough handling, and if nothing else the class sessions will be lively. Although this approach may not be for everyone, it should appeal to those of us who enjoy the contention of theory. As Montaigne once said,I could stand to be rudely jarred by my friends: “You’re a fool, you’re dreaming.” I like to see people speak up bravely among gallant men, and to see the words go where the thought goes. We should strengthen and toughen our ears against this tenderness toward the ceremonious sound of words. I like a strong, manly fellowship and familiarity, a friendship that delights in the sharpness and vigor of its intercourse, as does love in bites and scratches that draw blood. It is not vigorous and generous enough if it is not quarrelsome, if it is civilized and artful, if it fears knocks and moves with constraint. For there can be no discussion without contradiction.____________________

[1] Consider the plan of organization in Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); Ann Jefferson and David Robey, eds., Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction (London: Batsford, 1986); Rick Rylance, ed., Debating Texts: Twentieth-Century Literary Theory and Method (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987); K. M. Newton, ed., Twentieth-Century Literary Theory: A Reader (Basingstroke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1988); Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); David H. Richter, ed., The Critical Tradition: Classical Texts and Contemporary Trends (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989); K. M. Newton, Interpreting the Text: A Critical Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Literary Interpretation (New York: St. Martin’s, 1990); Stephen Bonnycastle, In Search of Authority: An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory (Peterborough, Can.: Broadview, 1991); and the series Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism published by St. Martin’s under the general editorship of Ross C. Murfin.

[2] Patrick Brantlinger, "EngLit at Wayne State, at Indiana, at Harvard, at Sea," Criticism 31 (1989): 336.

[3] See Gilbert Ryle, "‘If,’ ‘So,’ and ‘Because,’" in Collected Papers (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1971), 2: 234-49.

[4] R. S. Crane, "Questions and Answers in the Teaching of Literary Texts," in The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays Critical and Historical (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 2: 180.

[5] Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 4. Scholes is speaking of the binary oppositions in structuralism and their critique in deconstruction, which he pursues throughout his book.

[6] J. Hillis Miller, "The Triumph of Theory, the Resistance to Reading, and the Question of the Material Base," PMLA 102 (1987): 283.

[7] See Nicholas Rescher, Dialectics: A Controversy-Oriented Approach to the Theory of Knowledge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), pp. 37-41, esp. n. 23. Some of my terminology in this passage (and elsewhere in the essay) is plucked from Rescher.

[8] See Joseph Margolis, "Deconstruction: A Cautionary Tale," Journal of Aesthetic Education 20 (Winter 1986): 91-94.

[9] See Frederick Crews, Skeptical Engagements (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 164-77. David H. Hirsch uses the same term to denote the widespread current preference for devising an abstract interpretive strategy to "knowing what a given poet (or poem) is saying." See The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991), pp. 23-68.

[10] See Ian Hunter, "The Occasion of Criticism: Its Ethic and Pedagogy," Poetics 17 (1988): 185-205.

[11] See Judith N. Shklar, "Why Teach Political Theory?" in Teaching Literature: What Is Needed Now, ed. James Engell and David Perkins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 151-60.

[12] John Passmore, The Philosophy of Teaching (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 17.

[13] Mas‘ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton, Theory, (Post)Modernity, Opposition: An "Other" Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (Washington: Maissonneuve, 1991), p. 213.

[14] Robert Con Davis, "A Manifesto for Oppositional Pedagogy: Freire, Bourdieu, Merod, and Graff," in Reorientations: Critical Theories and Pedagogies, ed. Bruce Henricksen and Thaïs E. Morgan (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 263. For a critical inspection of the monistic impulse in teaching and study see Kenneth R. Minogue, The Concept of a University (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 76ff.

[15] Richard Ohmann, Politics of Letters (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), p. 131.

[16] See Edward Shils, "Academic Freedom and Academic Obligation," in Sidney Hook, Philosopher of Democracy and Humanism, ed. Paul Kurtz (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1983), p. 136.

[17] Heather J. Gert points out that the empowerment of victims is secondary to the redress of wrongs, which must be done whether or not victims have any power to insist upon it for themselves. See "Rights and Rights Violators: A New Approach to the Nature of Rights," Journal of Philosophy 87 (1990): 692.

[18] See Richard A. Brosio, "Teaching and Learning for Democratic Empowerment: A Critical Evaluation," Educational Theory 40 (1990): 69-81.

[19] Paul de Man, The Resistance toTheory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 8.

[20] Gerald Graff, "Taking Cover in Coverage," in Teaching the Conflicts: Gerald Graff, Curricular Reform, and the Culture Wars, ed. William E. Cain (New York: Garland, 1994), p. 11.

[21] See Gerald Graff, "Other Voices, Other Rooms: Organizing and Teaching the Humanities Conflict," in Teaching the Conflicts, pp. 17-44.

[22] See Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction to Poetics, trans. Richard Howard (Minnespolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p. xxii. Cited by Joel Weinsheimer, "Suppose Theory Is Dead," Philosophy and Literature 16 (1992): 254, who finds this view tautological and vacuous.

[23] "Of the Art of Discussion," in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 750. Montaigne’s last sentence, italicized in the original, is lifted from Cicero.