Theory Bytes

Square Wheels: Why ‘Theory’ does not Exist

This week, I wrote down some of the things that my postgraduate students said about literary theory. We talk about these matters because I teach an Honours course here at Stellenbosch called “Contemporary Literary Theory”. Perhaps the sentiments will sound familiar to you; I have certainly heard them before:

“I am worried that my thesis doesn’t have enough theory. I’m going to read through the final draft and see where I can stick in some theory.” Let’s call this the Christmas tree idea of theory: instead of writing down ideas that work in the service of a particular theory, theory serves as a sort of decoration. This is not just a pine tree, it’s a Christmas tree! This is not just an argument, it is a proper academic argument!

“I am so glad that literary criticism is so much less theoretical these days. I hate all that theory”. This is the plain-language-is-not-theory hypothesis. It is wrong, but more about that later.

“It is time we moved away from theory and back to our own disciplinary specialisation, namely a close engagement with literary texts.” Now this is a tricky one, because the student was summarising a rather sophisticated and persuasive argument advanced by Leon de Kock recently, and getting it wrong. De Kock used the image of a boxing ring, with critic and writer slugging it out for primacy. Let’s adapt the image to the student’s misinterpretation, change the actors and the sport, and call it the wrestling match fallacy, with apologies to De Kock: on the one side of the ring, the unctuous theorist, and on the other, the defending champion: literature itself.

I have a problem with these formulations. It is not really a problem in the sense that I find the logic of the assertions off beam, although I suppose there is that as well. Rather, I find the claims fundamentally meaningless, as if someone is trying to convince me that wheels are square. Conversations about ‘theory’ have always induced that same sense of bafflement I feel when people talk to me about Illuminati plans for world dominance or something similar: I wonder whether we are we even on the same planet here. In this blog, I want to describe something of my perplexity in a language that does not borrow so heavily from the language of theory itself, but simply describes why I feel this way. Maybe it is not quite possible – to speak “plainly” and personally about theory, but this is my attempt at realising this rather oxymoronic goal.

To start, the obvious point: what would a “non-theoretical” reading look like? It seems like an axiom to me that people at universities always have theories about the things that they study. I guess it is technically possible to practice the skill of close reading purely in order to enjoy the play of meaning in a text, but that seems to me an activity both anodyne and somehow masturbatory. There are better ways of hitting the brain’s pleasure centres than poring over a text in an autistic interpretative trance, and I don’t see why anyone should pay you money to do that in any case.

No, we study the world with some short- or long-term objective in mind, and the objective has a generic name: it is called “a theory”. Way before the advent of what we now call “theory”, The New Critics had a theory about literature, and they devoted an enormous amount of time and energy trying to legitimise it. Their theory was that literature is a self-contained, autonomous artefact that can be studied in relative isolation from its social and historical contexts. They also had a theory about how one should read, and what one should be looking for in a text, which was derived from this conjecture. Before “theory”, F.R. Leavis had a theory that the form of a great novel is somehow directly contingent on its author’s moral attitudes and engagements. His critical career is essentially a vociferous and notoriously contentious defense of this (theoretical) scheme. Romantic critics had a theory (boy, did they ever. I won’t even try a summary here) – and so on and on all the way back to antiquity.

There was no moment “before theory” because nobody has ever read literature in a serious way without a theory about it. So this “Theory” we are talking about must be something different, and we can indicate the difference by capitalising it from now on. Perhaps you are jiggling on the edge of your seat by now to point out that it refers to a certain kind of theoretical jargon that entered the academy in the 1960s: all those impenetrable French and German terms, the shift towards greater and greater abstraction, the devaluation of the text in favour of the increasingly byzantine languages of philosophy, linguistics and anthropology.

Fair enough. If one is not used to this “new” kind of Theory, it takes a while to acquire the vocabulary and the habits of thought. Some of it is really incorrigibly obscure, and perhaps wrong, and perhaps even (shudder) posturing. But let’s return to an earlier example and ask: how is this not true of F.R. Leavis? Jane Austen is a great novelist, he tells us, because “the formal perfection of Emma... can be appreciated only in terms of the moral preoccupations that characterise the novelist's peculiar interest in life.” Indeed, great artists are in general distinguished by “a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity”. On the surface, a plain use of language – but really, terms such as “formal perfection”, “interest in life” and “reverent openness” are not transparent at all, but instead based on a whole way of life, a culturally inflected understanding of formal and moral hierarchies. A stint in an Edwardian public school and a sustained immersion in upper-class early 20th century British life, with all its contradictions and complexities, would undoubtedly facilitate our understanding of the exact meaning of these terms.

Let me be blunt: Leavis has always been meaningless to me. He says “reverent openness before life”, and I draw a blank. “Reverent” as in religious? Or respectful? Respectful of what, exactly? “Life” is clearly some sort of abstraction, poised between personal experience and the ineffable presence of a world out there, but blow me over if it makes any immediate visceral sense to me, beyond the pleasing and solemn-sounding oratory. “Reverent” in this context is in any case something I associate with those serious-minded outsiders in Victorian novels, a word imbedded in a highly specific epistemological frame that probably originates with the Romantics and ends with Lawrence. Do I need to be religious to understand this, perhaps? Or even more specifically, a Christian? Can a group of people experience this reverence together, or is it an essentially solitary pursuit? I am not attacking Leavis now, but making the rather obvious point that although his language seems “plain” to the kind of audience he had in mind, it is not at all plain: it is dense and opaque, shot through with highly specific associative concepts that are actively misleading to people who think they understand the words, but lack access to the philosophies, rituals, habits, practices, conversations and preoccupations that breathe real sense into them. The “plainer” the language, it seems to me, the more inseparable it becomes from the historical moment that it derives from, and the more difficult it becomes to translate meanings across cultures and across time. The most highly specialised language often turns out to be the plain language of everyday life, because the terms have meaning only in the full presence of the historically located texture of the everyday that engendered them. In fact, I would argue that “Theory” with a capital T commutes better between divergent cultural situations and forms of understanding than this sort of “plain speaking”, an impression that is substantiated by the now almost-universal reach of “Theory” in the academy.

So let us humour me for now and change the objection. Let us say that the problem is instead with the turn away from the text towards all these interloper disciplines that seem only spuriously connected to literature, and a concomitant neglect of close reading – the wrestling match fallacy. Baloney, I say. Talk about making and attacking a straw man. Think back to that arch-theorist, Roland Barthes, and his supposed cross-over to poststructuralism with his analysis of Balzac’s “Sarrasine” in S/Z. It is an obsessively close analysis of a short story – 273 pages of analysis of a story that runs at most to 40 pages or so in print. And it is all written in quite clear language, really. Have a look at it again if you do not trust me. Frankly, I find it simpler to understand than, for instance, I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism, and curiously close to the latter text in its theoretical and practical aims. Take a random chapter from Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight: how is this not an example of rigorous close reading? Conversely, to help us put things in perspective, pick up a copy of G. Wilson Knight’s tome on Shakespeare, The Shakespearian Tempest, published in those supposedly theory-free halcyon days of 1932, when well-read scholars still knew how to produce close criticism without all the nasty jargon. Wilson Knight’s “close reading” more often than not consists of lengthy quotes from Shakespeare punctuated by earnest affirmations of Shakespeare’s genius, or the general importance of storms, or a bit of pondering about “essences”. It is not, to my mind, a close reading at all, but a vast web-like taxonomy held together by platitudes.

Since I have introduced I.A. Richards, the doyen of New Criticism, let me point out that the man insisted that it is impossible to study literature on its own: that is, he made the perfectly sensible claim that literature should be studied alongside its allies, namely philosophy, rhetoric, psychology, sociology and so on. Let me repeat: this is I.A. Richards, practically the inventor of the kind of practical criticism that is so often and so mistakenly invoked as the antidote to “Theory”. How can we study literature – a communicative act between human beings in a society, and also a commodity that is traded on the market – without these contexts? In what bizarre world does literature have some reified existence completely autonomous from the world inhabited by human beings? It is like studying lizards by looking at their atoms, or trying to understand the social behaviour of ants by looking at dead ants. Not even the New Critics thought this was a good idea. Again, I have simply never understood the idea that the literary object should somehow be severed from its contexts. Does anyone really think this? Surely not.

Is there something inherent to what we call “Theory”, then, that allows us to name it in such a determinate way, to defend it or reject it? A particular premise, say, that we can call faulty? This strikes me as yet another piece of naiveté, given the enormous scope of the many critical traditions that we reduce under this meaningless banner. Saussurian linguistics is certainly a common point of reference for many critics, but then it is generally in order to correct the theory, or supplement it, or even to reject it completely, as many Marxist critics have done. Social and literary criticism is in a constant, restless state of ferment, powered by the one characteristic that the diverse theories do in fact share in common, namely an insistence on self-reflexivity and self-reinvention. If Freudians insist on the primacy of the Oedipal myth, they are immediately mobbed by Deleuzians, analytic philosophers, historicists... if historicists insist that the unconscious is a cultural invention, a phalanx of neo-Lacanians swoop in to insist on the unconscious as the singular Event that actually drives the historical process, and so on and so on.

Now, here is my appraisal of the issue. There is no such thing as “Theory”. It does not exist. When “Theory” is highlighted as a concern, we are, in fact, talking about the people who practice it – the faculty members who identify with the term, a designation which is in fact completely empty of meaning in any other respect. My colleagues who have an “aversion to Theory” have an aversion to theorists: it is a human thing, and we can talk about it at the level of anthropological behaviour rather than of a conflict of abstract ideas. Among us, in our tribe of academics in departments of literary studies, we have identified a certain kind of person, and we have formed an opinion about him or her, and we are strategising around our relationships with people like this. The question is not “what is the role of Theory?” but rather “who are the theorists, and what are they up to?” It is this query that I will turn to in my next blog entry.

Daniel Roux
Stellenbosch, 8 March 2011

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