Against Theory (?)

Summer vacation is winding down, and as I plan the Fall senior seminar for English majors, I find myself with the task of assigning chapters of the literary theory textbook to the students.  Now, these are senior English majors, so they’ve encountered some theory before.  Nevertheless, someone will inevitably complain about reading and writing about theories of literature.  “How can I enjoy and appreciate reading when I have to use these crazy ideas on it?” they will ask.  “This ruins literature for me!” they cry.  “I just want to talk about the books!”

These notions and fears are not new.  Back in the eighties, when I was in graduate school, the same cries were raised on campuses everywhere.  Creative writers, in particular, resisted theory because they were convinced that reading Jacques Derrida or Julia Kristeva or even Terry Eagleton would destroy the “beauty” of writing, would somehow infect the “real” study of writing.  This was the height of the so-called “theory wars,” of course, when anti-theorists were called naive and theorists were derided as the enemies of the humanities.  It was a brutal time to be studying literature.


And yet, what came out of those conversations, debates, and sometimes fights was the understanding that theory is something we all do when we read, unless we are just skimming without understanding.  What can we talk about when we talk about books if we don’t have ideas about them?  And what do we call systems of ideas?  Theories.  Many of the anti-theorists claimed that they were only interested in “talking about literature,” but in fact as soon as we call something “important,” “beautiful,” or “resonant,” we are using theory.  As soon as a student asks “why?” or a reader begins to evaluate–“I like this novel/poem better than that one because . . .”–we are using theory.  When I look back, I realize that the anti-theorists in fact had latched on to a particular moment in the development of contemporary theory, usually the New Critics like John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, as their theory.  But they didn’t call it theory.  They called it “close reading.”

Is “close reading” theory?  Of course it is.  But what later theorists discovered is that those early theorists in America, who jettisoned conversation about politics, history, culture, and gender, in fact marginalized most writers who were not white males.  Sure, a few token women and writers of color appeared in the canon, but what later theory did was expose the biases and assumptions of that very theory-based canon–and of our often invisible, unreflective, and derivative notions of what makes literature “great.”

So when I hear students complain about theory, I remind them that they are already doing theory.  We’re happily long past the time of rhetorical extremes.  I certainly remember the bad old days, when anti-theorists labeled their peers “theory-heads” and claimed that theory would destroy the humanities, while some radical theorists predicted that Shakespeare would no longer be taught after the turn of the year 2000.  Nowadays, we understand that not all theories are useful to all readers, but that all readers who ask “why?” and can formulate a “because” use theory–cultural critique, feminism, queer theory, new historicism, psychoanalysis, Marxism . . . or something else.  Am I against theory that claims it will supplant literature?  Sure.  Am I against writers and critics who pretend that they are somehow too “pure” for theory?  Absolutely.

Why?  Because every act of reading is an act of interpretation.  Interpretation requires a set of criteria.  Every set of criteria requires a theoretical model for its formulation.

The humanities themselves, as my students discover, are theory, based on the ideas that thinkers of the Renaissance created out of their new understanding of old theories:  those of the Greeks and the Romans.

And it happens every year:  my seniors begin to read, to argue, to talk about how one might use this or that theory in a discussion of this poem or that play and suddenly they see it:  they’ve been doing theory all along.  And now that they can articulate what they do when they read and write, they can, in fact, do it better.

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