The need for a theoretical re-turn

by rightscholarship

Within English studies, a discipline from which many trends in the humanities have emanated, the dominant form of literary criticism is Theory. (I follow the example of Valentine Cunningham in the anthology Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent in using the capitalized “Theory” to signify a range of dominant approaches, from critical theory to deconstruction and beyond [Cunningham 25].) For those unfamiliar with it, Theory is a hodgepodge of different modes of analysis derived largely from French post-war literary and cultural criticism. It is an exclusively left/liberal form of analysis with roots in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (but especially Marx) that has produced such academic superstars as Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Judith Butler. Feminist criticism, queer studies, postcolonial criticism, and a host of other approaches are firmly situated within the world of Theory. When English professors refer to “theory,” this is usually what they are talking about.

Although Theory has been subjected to much ridicule by conservatives over the last few decades (most of it deserved) its influence shows no sign of waning. The reason for this is that Theory has permeated English studies to such an extent that its ideas, methods and politics have become the unquestioned common knowledge and common sense within the discipline. If you enter an MA program in English, you will either submit to its power (as many enthusiastically do) or find yourself adrift with no lifeline. You may be able to find refuge in the classes of ‘traditional’ scholars, but they have largely been sent into retirement or have halfheartedly gone over into the world of Theory. Even in undergraduate studies, it often functions as the intellectual backdrop to the way literature is discussed. Discussions of the ‘cultural context’ of works of literature, although essential to good criticism, are too often exercises in watered-down Theory.

When young people (or mature students for that matter) register in English classes of their own volition, they often do it because they are genuinely interested in prose fiction, poetry or drama. They have become invigorated by the world of experience, emotion and insight that literature provides access to, even if they’ve only accessed this world through the bestsellers at Chapters. What they find in their classes is the sterile world of Theory, even if Theory is not explicitly addressed in the course, and they find their own experience of literature condemned as ‘naive.’ What proponents of Theory forget is that the naive experience of reading literature (that lighting of the neurons we experienced when reading our first Dr. Seuss book, or later, our first Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel) is the stuff that sophisticated criticism is, or should be, built upon. As we grow older and read more, we develop taste, which allows us to distinguish between good and bad literature. Part of the task of criticism is to determine why a particular work is good. Personal and cultural prejudices will come into play, but some proponents of Theory will tell you that there is nothing outside of such prejudices, and that value judgements are worthless. They see works of literary art as mere ‘texts’ that are the products of larger cultural (and especially political) discourses. Considerations of literary quality are, to them, irrelevant.

It is the mission of Right Scholars to recover and re-explore the naive experience of literature. They must not abandon theory, but rather facilitate a theoretical ‘re-turn.’ This may involve a sort of ‘deconstruction’ of Theory itself, or a re-tracing of the development of Theory to discover the tendencies that led to the current leftist hegemony in academia. Some of this work has been carried out by the thinkers featured in Theory’s Empire, and I encourage anyone interested in this problem to read it.

Cunningham, Valentine. “Theory, What Theory?” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 24-41.