The Problem with Theory
Or maybe this should be "A Problem with Theory."
When I was discussing Chaucer's Retraction with my class on Thursday we ended up using little bits of theory here and there. For example, one student argued that if Chaucer only made his Retraction because he was worried about the Church being angry about his works, then she was disappointed in his not standing up for his art. I asked her if she thought that there was some specific priest standing by Chaucer's deathbed, pressuring him. No, she said, but it's more that he took in Church teaching and then let that teaching control him. I then brought up Foucault on the internalization of discipline. Yes, the said, that's what I mean. But isn't the point of Foucault that the imposition of that kind of discipline and its internalization produces identities? So isn't Church discipline, assuming, arguendo, that this was really the reason for the retraction (I'm not so sure), a part of Chaucer's actual identity? Why isn't that internalized discipline part of the Chaucer. I tried the following though experiment, suggesting to the student that she has been disciplined by parent, school, culture, etc., to hate racial prejudice. She agreed. Could I take away the "hating racial prejudice" part of you without taking away part of your identity? No. So can we take away internalized Christian penitential discipline without taking away from Chaucer's identity?
The student still felt that perhaps we could, and I realized that this was a perfect example of Dennett's "if you make yourself really small, you can externalize anything" comment. But there wasn't time to explain all of Dennett, so we just muddled through ourselves.
It was an excellent, deep, literary/philosophical discussion, and I wondered why such discussions don't happen enough in some of my classes, and came to the tentative conclusion that one of the problems is the use of theory. Theory, as it is taught and imbibed by students, tends to provide pre-packaged answers (yes, I know, one important reason people developed theory, was to avoid pre-packaged answers). But the way theory is written, the way students have to "master" it and "accept" it (both quotes from Profs. at Carnegie Mellon when I was an undergrad), creates an impression that the texts and the problems are the questions, and theory is the answer. There's a plague of dissertations by people around my age who just run through Anglo-Saxon poetry or medieval lit applying their chosen theory to a whole variety of texts: The Written Body in Elene, The Written Body in Wulf and Eadwacer, The Written Body in Resignation, etc. There are people in my cohort who have done this for all their published work (and it does get published). I did some of the same during my dissertation time but then stopped (thank God). I think that this approach, which shows up all over the place (Reading the Built Landscape in Morrison, Reading the Built Landscape in Faulker, Reading the Build Landscape in Vonnegut...), has re-invented exactly what everyone hated about the New Criticism (Dark, Light and Ambiguity in Beowulf; Dark, Light and Ambiguity in Andreas; Dark, Light and Ambiguity in The Dream of the Rood).
I'm not actually anti-theory, just anti- the way theory is applied. Ok, I am anti-theory, but that's because I think people should start using different theories. Like mine, which I'll discuss in another post. But first it's time to talk about Kalamazoo. Stay tuned.