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 , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The idea behind "Literary Theory" was to interrogate and refute what Eagleton and others thought of as lazy, received notions of what is true.

A Marxist himself, Eagleton would have been more interested in the relations between social classes in a Dickens novel, say, than a single character's suffering and redemption.

Still an unreconstructed champion of the lower classes (he writes movingly of his impoverished childhood in his 2001 memoir, "The Gatekeeper"), Eagleton has always enjoyed the gadfly role and boasts that Prince Charles once called him "that dreadful Terry Eagleton."

Toying with the esoteric

All the stranger, then, that, according to Eagleton, "cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver." Eagleton now accuses theory of toying with esoterica while ignoring the real issues of life dealt with by literature.

Specifically, says theory's reformed bad boy, "[theory] has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil..." And that, as Eagleton says, "is rather a large slice of human existence to fall down on."

But if theory is so profoundly flawed in its inability to address the ideas and emotions that not only make us individual but also allow us to marry, build communities, and undertake the countless transactions that would be impossible without basic shared assumptions, how did it ever become so popular in the first place? How did the notion that There Is No Truth become The Truth?

Postmodern literary theory is rooted in mid-century European philosophy, though it didn't begin to catch on in America until the late '60s; the Johns Hopkins University conference on "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" which featured Jacques Derrida and other master theoreticians took place in 1966 and is generally regarded as the theoretical equivalent of the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock.

These were, of course, revolutionary times: The initial phase of the civil rights struggle was peaking, and serious opposition to the Vietnam war was getting underway. College students were chucking out their parents' ideas about race, class, patriotism, sex, music, and recreational drugs the way they might toss a faulty toaster oven out an open dorm window: If it doesn't work, ditch it.

Theory played right into this mind- set; it challenged lazy notions about what's right and what isn't and brought fresh air into a classroom full of mildewed literary practices.

The problem is that by the time theory's anticapitalist, antibourgeois assumptions became standard fare in colleges and universities, the consumer revolution was in high gear.

Before theory came along, most people shopped in department stores and paid in cash; then the malls went up, banks started sending credit cards to people who didn't want them, and television became a 24-hour-a-day advertising medium.

By sometime in the 1980s, the 1960s mantra "If it feels good, do it," seemed more likely to apply to buying a fully-loaded minivan than staging a revolution. Subversive ideas about theory simply didn't belong.

The rediscovery of literature

A second problem for theory is theorists themselves. Fundamentalism is always ugly, and many of the secondgeneration professors who followed famed theoreticians like Derrida merely applied their ideas dogmatically, thus guaranteeing that theory would became static and stale. Eventually, theory's freewheeling skepticism became as one-dimensional as the celebrations of objective truth it sought to replace.

Somewhere in the 1980s, says Prof. Lathbury, "Eagleton began to be a hero to some" and "theory became the object of study more than the works it purportedly was designed to explicate."

But for some academics, what the rejection of theory is really about is the joyous rediscovery of literature itself. There is today "a renewed appreciation of the irreducible particularity of an art work, an author, an historical moment, a particularity that theory may illuminate but never fully explain," according to Dennis Todd, professor of British literature at Georgetown University.

Theory is also notoriously hard to anchor in the concrete world of books. A longstanding complaint about theoretical writing is that it contains so few examples.

And because it is vague, charge some, it allows teachers to shrink from admitting to personal views. "It presents itself as a way of thinking that exists by itself, and not the product of personal choices," says Edward Mendelson, professor of literature at Columbia University in New York. "Most people outgrow it when they stop feeling insecure or threatened."

But there are also those who suggest that theory is not dead but simply seeking new directions - some of which may prove as esoteric as the old.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. - star Ivy League academic who was recently the object of a turf battle between Harvard and Princeton Universities - is soon to publish "The Third World of Theory," a book that promises not only to extend literary study into uncharted pluralist and multicultural domains but also, according to the current Oxford University Press catalog, offer "a unifying statement about the future of theory."

At the same time, Franco Moretti of Stanford University is raising academic eyebrows with what some are calling the ultimate "anti-theory," a math-based or "text-free" scholarship that, rather than relying on a close reading of, say, the 200 canonical novels of the Victorian era, will attempt to quantify precisely the total number of novels published in that period (estimated at 20,000 or more) and categorize them according to genre.

Farewell, Karl Marx

Of course, no change is likely to occur at lightning speed. "Universities are remarkably conservative institutions," says S. E. Gontarski, professor of Irish studies at Florida State University.

"After some 20 years of careful hiring, they are now heavily packed with what we might now call old-line theorists." Before any real change can take place, he predicts, "it will take the retirement of that group."

But in the meantime, where Marx once ruled, today more down-to-earth literary explorations seem to be on the throne once more.

The Duke University English department's spring courses include such homey-sounding subjects as "Victorian Literature," " 'Ulysses' and Irish Modernism," and "Music in Literature and Philosophy, 1800-1945." The on-line list course offerings run to nearly 35 pages, and Karl Marx isn't mentioned once.

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