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The Crux Project Archives: Academia

The Death of Theory

For 25 years or more, the humanities have been in thrall to postmodern theory. Now its empire seems to be breaking up.

by Michael Cook

The Australian state of Queensland, three times the size of France and mostly flat, arid, and empty, is an odd place to brawl over French-inspired literary theory. But after a campaign by a national newspaper, the state’s education minister felt compelled to vow to remove postmodern "mumbo-jumbo" from its classrooms.

The Australian presented to the scandalized minister a child’s essay about the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale "Rapunzel"—of "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair." Here is how this macabre little story was analyzed:

"Even the title Rapunzel is not left without the gender assumption. For example, the story title Rapunzel is in fact the name of a vegetable, therefore reinforcing the gender roles of women as a vegetable, and linked with cooking chores deemed to be a woman’s profession."

With reading, especially amongst boys, in a losing race against video games and TV, wringing feminist morals out of classic children’s literature looked like an utter waste of time to Mr. Welford. The literary criticism underpinning this deconstruction was a "marginal theory," he fumed: "Nothing will leave this department that I don’t understand." Without a report on the minister’s IQ, it is hard to tell whether this is good news for the Queensland education system. Nonetheless, his determination to expunge postmodern literary theory was greeted with whoops of joy by many parents and teachers.

At first glance, postmodern literary theory might seem merely a fusty academic interest. In fact, apart from the Iraq war and Rafael Palmeiro’s steroids, there is almost nothing more inflammatory for lovers of the humanities. Let me explain why the decision by a minister in Queensland is good news and why this literary bunfight really is important.

The key concepts

Since the 1980s, literary Theory (always written with a capital T, like the G in God) has captured English department after English department in universities throughout the English-speaking world. The fact that high school students in rural Queensland are regurgitating it now reflects a generation of indoctrination in colleges and universities.

Theory resists definition. It is not monolithic but fissured and fractured into scores of squabbling schools. But here are ideas that nearly all of them share:

  • All reality is constructed. That is, since we cannot, with any certainty, know what exists outside our own experience, we cope by constructing frameworks that we project upon reality. Consequently, a text does not contain the author’s meaning; it merely reflects the reader’s prejudices.

  • There is no such thing as truth; all opinions are relative. Living in a world with no fixed boundaries, no absolute definitions, and no ultimate truths could be a fearful burden. The ingenuity and playfulness of Theory teaches us to cope.  

  • The job of the reader-critic is to identify the prejudices inherent in a text. The task of analyzing a text in this way is called "deconstruction." The critic’s job is to dismantle it and show what it really means—which may be a far cry from the author’s intention.

  • Everything is a text, from Shakespeare and the Bible to "South Park" and Harry Potter to billboards in Las Vegas and the New York skyline. One of the best-known shibboleths of Theory is the French phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-texte": there is nothing outside of the text.

  • Theory’s usefulness is not exhausted by literature. Since everything is a text, it can be deployed to analyze everything in our culture. Ultimately, it is a political commitment.

   • The author’s intention is irrelevant. In its most radical form, Theory proclaims the death of the author. Persons literally disappear, becoming merely relations of intersecting texts in a vast cultural conversation. Most theory is resolutely anti-humanist.

No doubt the accuracy of my account would be described as bumptious ignorance by an academic Theorist. But it’s close enough, especially for a theory in which it is axiomatic that there are no definitions.

The roots of Theory stretch back to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who demolished the stifling rationalism of great 18th- and 19th-century thinkers like Kant, Mill, and Hegel. He defied what he regarded as their smug confidence that all of reality could be ordered and grasped by the human mind and asserted that there are no truths, just interpretations. "Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn-out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency," he wrote.  

Nietzsche's heirs

Nietzsche was an obscure and contradictory figure but independent, poetic, and insightful. His offspring unto the fifth and sixth generations inherited mostly the obscure and contradictory bits. They first emerged in the "Anglo-Saxon" (to use a French turn of phrase) literary world as figures like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Paul De Man. Initially, the main players were French, which was an enormous handicap amongst the Colonel Blimps of English academe. But the adroitness with which they interpreted texts, the startling freshness of their insights, the secret language of their Gallic jargon, their sexual adventurousness and political rebelliousness appealed to a younger generation of critics. In what seemed a blink of the eye, their disciples stormed the ramparts of English departments everywhere.

I witnessed this generational change myself in a small provincial university where I was scraping and bowing and tugging the forelock in the hope of securing a badly-paid tutoring job. When I made my first approach, greybeard members of the Department were still teaching survey courses in the American novel, Shakespeare, Jacobean tragedy, Modern Poetry from T.S. Eliot to Robert Lowell, and things of that sort—a conventional historical approach to the classics. I warmed to the environment, because it was very much like the department where I had done my undergraduate work. "Don’t read the critics," my tutor had told me. "They soften the brain. You can read them in graduate school." I investigated one survey course in great critics, but it looked suspiciously like hard work, and I decided he was right. I gorged myself on novels instead.

By the time I actually landed a job a year later, nearly all the greybeards had vanished, and the survivors were scrambling for places on life boats. A younger set of lecturers had set a new syllabus, with critics and works I had never heard of: "recuperated" women writers, American slave writers, gay and lesbian writers, etc. The classics, now gently mocked as "the canon," seemed to have been shelved. Instead of gorging themselves on literature, the students were gagging on criticism. (Some confirmation of this can be found in Google. Type in "Michael Foucault," and you will get 729,000 hits. "T.S. Eliot" scores 634,000. "Jacques Derrida" produces 363,000 and "Alfred Lord Tennyson" 149,000. "Roland Barthes" produces 338,000 and "William Butler Yeats" only 246,000.)

Meanwhile, the staff were filling critical journals with disputes over the latest applications of Jacques Baudrillard’s hyper-reality and Judith Butler’s notion of gender performativity as citationality. It was 20th-century scholasticism—mediocre minds bickering over the choicest morsels of less mediocre minds. At least the original scholastics speculated about useful things like angels dancing on the head of a pin. These guys were hairsplitting the precise meaning of Derrida’s pun on the French word "différance." It was all rather dreary. It had taken the medieval scholastics 300 years to lapse into decadence; it took the postmodern scholastics only 30. The flatness, aridity, and emptiness of the state of Queensland turns out to be a good metaphor for the state of Theorized English.

It has always seemed to me that the principal purpose of Theory was ultimately to give English departments a sense of purpose and keep at bay the terrifying thought that humanities didn’t really matter in cash-strapped universities. But if Theorists also wanted to make literature more relevant and to persuade their students to read more, they have failed. According to a survey released by the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half of American adults now read literature. Overall, there has been a 10% decline in literary readers, with the steepest fall amongst the youngest age groups—28%.

Reports of the death of Theory

So you can see why rumors of the death of Theory have been greeted by reactions ranging from I-told-you-so smirks to delirious joy. Apparently, the slide began a few years ago. At a 2003 conference sponsored by the journal Critical Inquiry, some of Theory’s American hotshots—including Stanley Fish and Frederic Jameson—concluded that it no longer cut the mustard in the real world. The great era of theory was over and its practitioners had entered a period of timidity, backfilling, and empirical accumulation.

But not being an habitué of the warrens of Theory, the first news of its dissolution came to my attention with the publication last year of After Theory, by the English critic Terry Eagleton. His 1983 book Literary Theory: An Introduction was a textbook for several generations of students and has sold 800,000 copies worldwide. That’s small change for J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown, but for a literary critic, it is very impressive. But Eagleton, it seems, thinks that there has been a big mistake:

"Cultural theory as we have it promises to grapple with some fundamental problems, but on the whole fails to deliver. It has been shame-faced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals and foundations, and superficial about truth, objectivity and disinterestedness."

Well said, Terry. It’s just what I would have written about the anti-humanizing, anti-intellectual blight of Theory, if I could write as well as Eagleton.

And the second bit of good news came a few weeks ago with the publication of an anthology of antagonists of Theory, Theory's Empire. This is a door-stopper of a book with essays by eminent and often angry critics, philosophers, and social scientists. The selection is a bit uneven, with some contributors dating back to the 1960s. But it is sure to give ammunition to Theory’s opponents and to sap the confidence of its defenders. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa calls it "a magnificent collection of essays that returns sanity and rationality to literary criticism, rescuing it from the esotericism, jargon, and delusions under which it had been buried."

My guess is that the Empire of Theory is breaking up much as the Evil Empire of Communism did, to filch a phrase from Ronald Reagan: suddenly and noiselessly, like a sand castle melting into the beach. The question is what will follow it. Something will. Something must, for man is an interpretive animal and cannot abandon the habit of interrogating what he reads. Theory has not been completely useless. As Eagleton rightly observes, the door is now shut on the naïve belief that language is transparent or that interpretation of texts can be completely impartial. And thanks to Theory, too, readers’ minds have been scoured clean of the foolish Romantic belief that literature is a kind of mystical, redemptive experience that introduces us to Higher Truths.

I don’t know what will follow. And at the moment, I don’t care. It’s time once again to gorge myself on novels and leave the critics for later. If I wait long enough, I might not have to read them at all. •

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