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    Tuesday, December 13, 2005

    Fragmentation of Literary Theory

    Jennifer Howard discusses "The Fragmentation of Literary Theory" in the Chronice of Higher Ed:

    If contemporary literary theory had a British Invasion moment (or, perhaps, a French Invasion), it took place in 1966 at the Johns Hopkins University. At a conference there on "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," what has come to be known as Theory crashed onto American shores. Derrida presented a paper, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," that marked the beginning of deconstruction — "if deconstruction can be said to have a clear beginning," according to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.

    In that context, theory is the impenetrable postmodernist stuff that has given many a canon-loving student the heebie-jeebies since the French critic Roland Barthes declared authorship dead amid the intellectual and political tumult of 1968. And since that moment, wave upon critical wave has swept through literature departments: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, feminism, postcolonialism, cultural studies.

    Along the way, as progressives abandoned the barricades for the faculty lounge, certain currents of literary theory became identified with leftist politics. The phrase "identity politics" evokes the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, when conservatives accused postmodernists of making all things relative, to the detriment of the canon, critical values, and the culture at large.

    Daphne Patai, a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Theory's Empire, argues that theory-driven tendencies in the profession have fed an obsession with "ersatz politics" among students and done lasting damage to their literary education. "We're teaching theory to students, we talk to them about Barthes reading Balzac, and they don't know who Balzac is," she says. "They don't have a background in literature because that isn't anything that anyone thinks is of value anymore."

    Of her own students she says: "They can very easily see the political bottom line in everything they read, and that's what they read for. They don't seem to know how to read any other way."

    One no longer need be an avowed opponent of theory to comment publicly on its excesses. As Amanda Anderson, chairwoman of the English department at Johns Hopkins, puts it in the introduction to her new book, The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory (forthcoming in January 2006 from Princeton University Press), poststructuralism and multiculturalism have led to a state of affairs in which "the concept of critical distance has been seriously discredited."

    In the 40 years since Derrida paid that visit to Johns Hopkins, succeeding generations of scholars have had time to fall in love with theory, fall out of love with it, and learn how to live with it. As in any long-term relationship, there's a continuing re-evaluation and reimagining of what works and what does not. Rei Terada, chairwoman of comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine, says: "As the 60s becomes a historical period... we can make finer distinctions and groupings among things that seemed all of a piece closer to the time. ... People are starting to sort out such legacies." No one still believes, for instance, "that all French theory is politically progressive," she says.

    It may be neither fair nor accurate, decades after Theory hit its high-water mark, to keep using it as a whipping boy for everything that has gone wrong with literary studies. "The problem of the humanities is funding, lack of institutional support, lowering enrollments, lowering numbers of hires, the rise of part-time labor," says Andrew Parker, a professor of English at Amherst College. "This is the real crisis, not whether we have theory with a capital T or a small T."

    Good old Daphne Patai. You'd think one Camille Paglia would suffice, but apparently the world needs two.

    My general hope is that theory doesn't get dismissed, but that the good stuff, the stuff you can't possibly throw out (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Butler, Lacan, Said, etc) gets mixed in with a more historicist literary criticism. People seem to fear that reading a literary text in conversation with any other text (theoretical, historical, etc) will somehow dilute or obliterate the literary text. They fear this because they've watched it happen in the work of bad critics. But bad critics will exist with or without theory. In fact, I'd rather read a bad critic with a legitimate polemic than some fool simply listing the uses of some metaphor in a particular text and then deciding that's the "theme". Thank God for deconstruction.


    1916: Ferdinand de Saussure revolutionizes linguistics with his idea of language as a system of signs (the signifier and the signified) in The Course in General Linguistics, a book compiled from students' notes at the University of Geneva after his death, in 1913. Saussure's new science of "semiology" paves the way for structuralism and poststructuralism and for the so-called linguistic turn that will mark the work of such future stars as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes in literary studies, Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology, and Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis.

    1941: In essays collected in The New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom articulates some of the formalist principles behind the New Criticism and its emphasis on the close reading of a text.

    1957: Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism challenges the New Critics by emphasizing the roles that archetype, myth, and genre play in creating the meaning of a literary work.

    1963: Richard Hoggart founds the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, in Britain. Much of the seminal work in cultural studies — by Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and others — will come out of the center in the 1960s and 70s.

    1966: "The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," a conference at the Johns Hopkins University, marks the debut of structuralism and poststructuralism on the American academic scene. Jacques Derrida presents a paper, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," that becomes one of the founding documents of deconstruction.

    So, that was a fun article, but the little chronology at the bottom is fun too:

    1968: The French structuralist Roland Barthes pronounces "The Death of the Author" in an essay written during the May 1968 uprisings in Paris.

    1969: Michel Foucault attacks a fundamental premise of literary studies — that individuals produce texts — in his essay "What Is an Author?"

    1973: The Yale School rules: Harold Bloom publishes The Anxiety of Influence, and Paul de Man describes how to read deconstructively in his essay "Semiology and Rhetoric."

    1978: Edward Said's Orientalism puts postcolonial studies on the map.

    1979: Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination marks a milestone in the popularization of feminist literary criticism.

    1982: The "neopragmatists" Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels argue, in their essay "Against Theory," that "the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned."

    1986: J. Hillis Miller, then president of the Modern Language Association and a key figure in American deconstruction, delivers an address, "The Triumph of Theory," to the group's annual gathering.

    1987: The posthumous discovery of anti-Semitic wartime journalism by Paul de Man (who died in 1983) undermines the influential Yale deconstructionist's lingering influence.

    1990: A queer-studies classic arrives: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.

    2001: The first edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism appears, coming in at 2,524 pages, not including notes and indexes.

    2004: Jacques Derrida dies.

    2005: The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, famous for his notion of reality as simulacrum, tells The New York Times, "Nobody needs French theory."


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