Friday, September 30, 2005

Theory ( *shudder* )

Scott Nokes and I have been having a running discussion about our profession and its problems. His latest post references a discussion at in which someone characterizes me as "largely anti-theory" (Scott says I'm not). Scott goes on to explain why he thinks "theory" is important and comes up with a very good metaphor likening literary theory to the foundation of a house: you need it to be there, but you're not particularly interested in looking closely at it every day:
All of which leads us to the purpose of foundations (or in the obvious metaphor here, theory). Foundations need to be applied to buildings. What would we think of architects who fetishized foundations to the point that they were laying foundations around the landscape, refusing to sully them by placing buildings over them? Naturally, we would think such a person mad or a fool. Yet there are those who refuse to apply their theories to actual works of literature. In some quarters (though it has gone out of vogue), you can still find people who haughtily reply that they "do theory," not literature, or even more pretentiously, "high theory." As a colleague of mine said recently, "We already have people who do that, and do a better job. We call them philosophers."

I don't disagree with Scott; I just want to add a few things about why theory has such a bad odor among all but its most ardent practitioners (and in passing, plug a book idea I've been brooding about).

Theory deals with important philosophical problems (as applied to literature) that often get passed over by "untheorized" approaches. For example: when attempting to figure out the 'meaning' of a text (scare quotes because different people mean different things by 'meaning,' and I'm not interested in getting into that argument right now), many people appeal to the authority of the author: The Beowulf poet put a specific meaning into the poem, and it's our job to figure out what it is. But, says the literary theorist, how do you know what the Beowulf poet put in? By reading his text, of course? Isn't that circular: the text tells you about the poet which tells you about the text, which you can use to create your idea of the author.

Ok, what about an author, like Tolkien, who left criticism behind? The theorist points out that you still have to interpret the words that author wrote, whether they are criticism or literature, and when you make decisions about how to interpret them, you are often relying upon an idea of what the author "was really like" that is shaped in no small part by the author's texts.

You can see a possible source for that tiresome "X is impossible" cliche that I mocked in a previous post criticizing President of the MLA Domna C. Stanton. These are irritating philosophical problems about literary interpretation (and they've been around since Plato in one form or another).

But on the other hand, these are interesting problems: in my experience, smart, non-English-professor people are happy to debate these different approaches in informal circumstances if the questions are framed this way. The same goes for the "political" types of criticism: how much of Chaucer's creation is a work of his own, unique, individual genius and how much is a reflection of certain political and social structure of his time (Did Chaucer really hate Jews, or is the Prioresses' Tale just a reflection of 14th-century English culture, or is Chaucer criticizing this mindset by attributing the Tale to the Prioress, whom he perhaps is satirizing, etc.

Nevertheless people are alienated by theory, and for good reason, I think. Theory is taught and communicated as a series of quotations from authorities. First you master what X said, and then Y's critique, and then Z's development... it is just like those incredibly annoying rambles through the authorities that we read in The Wife of Bath's Prologue or The Nun's Priest's Tale or the Tale of Melibee: Seneca says this but Macrobius says this but The Philosopher (Aristotle) say another thing and here's a quote from Paul's Letter to Timothy and here's another from Ecclesiasticus... you get the idea. For those in the know this may be (and I am not actually conceding this point, but arguendo...) an efficient means of communication, but it also serves to exclude everyone who has not mastered the authorities even when those people might have something very interesting and relevant to contribute to the discussion if it were framed properly.

Also, at this stage in its development, theory doesn't provide any answers, or, more accurately, the only answer it provides is that everything can have a political interpretation. If that's the case, then, as you'd expect, each political school latches on to theory to undercut their opponents and support their positions.

So why, you ask, do academics stick to theory? Are they all wannabe politicial scientists or half-baked sociologists ("sociology without all that pesky data" is what I called one school of Tolkien criticism in an honest but perhaps impolite moment)? Theory supplies "method" to replace the philological method that was politically discredited after WWII and the New Criticism, which ran out of steam after the five millionth celebration of "ambiguity." If there's one thing that all the branches of contemporary theory seem to agree upon (and Scott hits upon this in an another post) it's that one can go gigging for binary oppositions (light/dark, good/evil, male/female, hot/cold) and then "deconstruct" them by showing that the first, priviledged term requires the other term to make sense.

This was probably exciting the first couple of hundred times people did it, but now it is tedious beyond belief, and I immediately begin to do Anglo-Saxon calligraphy on my notepad when someone starts going on about binary oppositions.

But I do think that the big questions theory raises are interesting, and answers to them (and yes, I am a positivist, if we can figure out how to explain quantum tunneling, we can figure out how to deal with 'author intent') would be really desireable. But "Theory" doesn't have an answer, and I don't think as it is now configured, it will ever have one.

Which leads to two desiderata: First, a book that takes on all the big theoretical questions and lays them out for people without the whole gloppy mess of citation of authorities and academic jargon. Instead of trying to give a reader a grasp of who said what, the book should attempt to show the problems: For example, there's a continuum between universality (this book means that same thing to very reader) to solipsism (this book is about me) and we have no good way of carving up that continuum into philosophically defensible chunks. Or: various theorists assert that 'meaning' is constructed by social relations in the culture (i.e., all the authorized people decide that Beowulf is about "wisdom and strength" in balance, and so everyone thiks that), but there are obviously some formal characteristics of a work which limit the freedom of interpretation (an interpretive community can be as strong and it wants and people aren't going to be believe that Beowulf is about cheese). I'm talking to a colleague about writing such a book, first for our students.

Second, a theory that actually can provide some new answers or can give a different take on various played-out questions. That's what I tried to do in How Tradition Works and if the press would ever get around to sending me my galley proofs, you could see for yourself if it was successful.

[Nota: it's somewhat ironic that someone would call me "anti-theory." When I started out in medieval studies everyone thought I was too theory-focused because of my academic pedigree (Allen Frantzen was my dissertation director and mentor, and he was the first person to being theory to Anglo-Saxon studies). But I don't take "anti-theory" as an insult, since I'm hoping that the person who wrote this had picked up that I'm skeptical of theory's claims and that I'm willing to criticize the way too many people in my profession use it]


J said...

Um, where's the rest of the post?

Erik said...

I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. Generally, I think of theory as a toolbox: the more tools you have, the more prepared you are for any situation—but you might not use the hydrospanner very much, unless your Chewbacca or Han Solo. And knowing how to use the basic tools, even if you don’t “own” them, can come in useful when you’re confronted with a new problem or need to understand a tool you haven’t used before.

I’d suggest, though, that the analysis of binaries is an incredibly useful tool—as long as one is careful not to push it to the deconstructive stereotype. If “darkness” means “absence of light,” does the idea of that absence add anything to the conversation? If not, this shouldn’t prompt some inane “impossibility of interpretation” problem; maybe something else is at play instead, or in conjunction with that binary.

Oh, and for the useful “intro to theory” book, I used Reading Lessons by Scott Carpenter, which was explained theory in applicable ways, rather than in the masturbatory mode in which most theory seems written.

John said...

I think Rob Pope's The English Studies Book does a good job of presenting theory (and much more) without getting caught up in the mess of citation and jargon.

I can't wait until How Tradition Works comes out. It looks like it would be useful for my dissertation on social memory and Old English literature.