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Theory in chaos

Viewing literature through the lens of some "ism" seemed revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, many are calling it an irrelevant approach.

By David KirbyContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2004

A n old joke used to ask, Where are the last bastions of Marxism? Answer: the Kremlin and the Duke University English department. But now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, the last defenders of Karl Marx's ideas may indeed reside on a pretty, Gothic-style campus in the pinewoods of North Carolina.

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For literary traditionalists, the riddle is apropos. They have long bemoaned the effete nature of postmodern literary theory, calling it as hopelessly out of touch with both reality and literature as was Lenin with real-life economics.

But theory's impact on the study of literature in the US has been pervasive if nothing else. Large numbers of the last two generations of English majors have been instructed not to experience novels and poems directly, but rather to view them through the lens of some kind of theory - Marxism being one of the most popular.

The idea was to move away from viewing literature as having any innate "truth" of its own, and rather to study it in relationship to larger schools of thought. But the approach left many students complaining they spent more class time with dry theoreticians than with the great authors they had hoped to encounter.

Today, however, such complaints may be on their way out.

Postmodern literary theory is now transforming itself so rapidly that Marxist, feminist, deconstructionist, and psychoanalytic critics (and others) are flocking back to the drawing board in droves as they search for new approaches to writing and teaching.

Indeed, some academics say that postmodern theory is on the way out altogether and that the heady ideas that once changed the way literature is taught and read will soon be as extinct as the dodo and the buggy whip.

According to some, theory has been losing its grip on academia for years now. "For me, theory reached its apogee in the early 1980's and has since been declining," says Roger Lathbury, professor of American fiction at George Mason University. Today, he says, it's a matter of "the pendulum swinging toward the center."

Some of the biggest names in the field would seem to agree. In Chicago last spring at a discussion sponsored by the journal "Critical Inquiry" cutting-edge thinkers such as Stanley Fish, Frederic Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent two hours saying that postmodern theory was ineffective and no longer mattered in the world outside academe, if it ever did.

And in his new book "After Theory," Terry Eagleton of Manchester University argues that postmodern literary theory (which he defines as "the contemporary movement of thought which rejects . . . the possibility of objective knowledge" and is therefore "skeptical of truth, unity, and progress") was relevant in its heyday, but no more.

In other words, theorists say of the world what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: there is no there there.

Of course antitheorists have been saying that very thing about theory itself for decades. To an old-school humanist, there's plenty "there" in literature; Shelley's poems are incomparably beautiful, Shakespeare writes about the truths of the mortal condition, and so on.

But Eagleton has never been a tweedy, pipe-smoking purveyor of the humane verities. What makes his new view so startling is that for years, he was one of theory's most committed apologists. Indeed, his 1983 book "Literary Theory: An Introduction" has long been a standard text in university classrooms and will no doubt continue to be, at least until Eagleton's recantation of all he once held holy becomes the new orthodoxy.