Monday, June 27, 2005

And another thing that's wrong with theory...

Richard Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard comments in
this post on this post on Butterflies and Wheels by Mark Bauerlein on "Theory's Empire." The thesis of the article is that at one time theory was exciting and ground breaking, but now it is institutionalized and boring. Richard comments that
Like a lot of cutting-edge work, theory has always had a strongly smug narcissistic quality about it, and to suggest that in the 90s "the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature" ignores that theory has always been strongly institutional -- else it would never have gained the slightest foothold in the Academy. The very nature of universities prevents them from ever studying (or observing) anything that is not institutionally oriented. French theorists gained prominence not because they were saying particularly smart or interesting things (though of course some were), but because academe happened to be institutionally headed by francophiles, in the same way that 19th-century German philologists ruled before two world wars made German politically suspect

I wish I had said it as well myself. If the original impulse of theory was to shatter orthodoxies and challenge hierarchies (it wasn't all that, but that's the mythology), the current incarnation is tediously hegemonic. Yes, and your academic father's (or grandfather's) theory is never as interesting to you as it was to him. I'm sure deconstruction was really exciting back in the day, but, well, I don't live back in the day, and I don't care.

Bauerlein writes that "the cumulative result was that the social scene of Theory overwhelmed the intellectual thrust." That's certainly true, but there's a deeper problem: the theory evolved into elaboration for its own sake, turning a corner of literature departments into Philosophy-Lite ("Just as much deep meaning, but a third less logical rigor"). You can see how theory for its own sake could take over ("we have to get the theory right first, before we move on to the interpretation. If you interpret with an incorrect theory, there's no point"),
And there's certainly a lot of intellectual fun to be had in arguing the kind of abstractions that go along with literary theory. But in the end theory has alienated people from literature rather than drawing them in with all the cool new tools of analysis. Why? Because theory, as it is currently constituted, is no longer about finding things out but rather about obscuring them.

Last year I read a paper by a very, very smart student who had become a theory-head. He talked and talked about "imbricated discourses," and I could see that he understood what the theory he was using said. But he could not, when asked, explain why "imbricated" was a better description of these discourses than, say, "overlapping." "Why does one metaphor have more explanatory power," I asked. This wasn't a trick question. I was giving him a chance to show his stuff. But he seemed incapable of realizing that "imbricated discourses" aren't things--they're metaphorical descriptions of things. And that if "imbricated" is a better description than overlapping, you should explain why either metaphor has more explanatory power. "Imbricated" things overlap like shingles on a roof or scales on a butterfly's wing (I knew the word from entomology before it showed up in theory). We finally broke through this problem by talking about the actual things he was talking about -- the Battle of Maldon and Beowulf -- and how each poem treats concepts of honor and duty.

It's certainly possible that the student got something out of labeling these "imbricated discourses," but I think he got a lot more out of telling me, in his own words, how he thought the poems both touched upon and used the same conventions and ideas.

Theory is dying a long, slow death because it has become boring and opaque. When it comes to praxis, it's predictably pseudo-radical. When it comes to literature, it's predictable. Theory won't die out entirely because there is a quorum of young scholars who have staked their careers on it (I know someone who says "I am the person who does Lacanian analysis of female saints' lives; That's my niche" -- and a tiny niche it is...). But until something new comes along that opens up new avenues of though, that isn't bogged down in academic politics, and that has the capability of overthrowing the people who are currently on top (it doesn't always happen, but the frisson of a good Terror always motivates interesting work), theory will remain the kind of tedious thing it is: a rite of passage and a series of empty rituals that people perform without believing.

That is until my theory comes along in How Tradition Works and crushes all rival theories beneath its knobbed and armored claws....

Sorry. Summer cold and too much robitussin...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Prof. Drout, I am glad you exist. I just discovered this post via a series of links to older posts and it brought me great pleasure. I agree with it %100.