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