Thursday, October 11, 2007

Me and Theory
(down at the Burgess Shale...?)

A little while back I read this post at my friend Ecce Equus Pallidus' blog. And laughed when I read:
That's not to say I can't think of examples of theory used, and used truly well, truly creatively, by medievalists. Michael Drout's paper at Kalamazoo this past May is, I think, an example of exactly this. How frequently, though, is this sort of approach employed?
I was being used as an example of someone using Theory!!! (chortle, chortle).

Then today, my new course from Recorded Books came out: A Way with Words Part II: Aproaches to Literature, which is, in fact, a course on literary theory and interpretation, as you can see from the list of lectures:
Lecture 1 Understanding Literature: Some Big Questions
Lecture 2 Language
Lecture 3 The Text
Lecture 4 The Author
Lecture 5 The Audience
Lecture 6 Genres
Lecture 7 Formalism and Forms: Primarily Poetry
Lecture 8 Form, Pattern, and Symbol: Prose
Lecture 9 Literature and the Mind
Lecture 10 What Is Postmodernism and Why Are People Saying Such Horrible Things About It?
Lecture 11 Identity Politics
Lecture 12 Culture and Cultural Production
Lecture 13 The Literary Canon
Lecture 14 What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Literature?

More chortling, because at one point in my department it was decided (mostly, I think, by people who have now since retired) that it was important to keep me away from the students in our English 298: Approaches to Literature course because I was a theory skeptic. Now I'm being used as an example of someone who uses Theory and I've written a short book on it for the course. What's going on? Have I sold out and given up my skepticism?

Not hardly (which is why this is so funny to me). My skepticism towards French post-structuralist theory (the dominant mode when I was coming through undergraduate) is not merely undiminished. I even more firmly believe that huge edifices of work based on Lacan and Derrida* are flat wrong in great part because these thinkers and their followers got Saussure so incredibly wrong and tried to build too much on -- or deconstruct too much away from -- linguistic structuralism. And, to beat my favorite dead horse, these fundamental errors arose because people did not know their linguistics. In particular, they did not know, and certainly did not understand, Chomsky (despite some hand-waving in the direction of "deep structure"), so they did not understand how he had shown that Saussurean structural linguistics was inadequate to explain the workings of language -- you need at least transformational generative grammar (even if that hasn't worked out quite as well as, I think, people thought it would in the 1960s).

So I am anti-Theory in the sense that if someone quotes Derrida or Lacan as an authority, I am inclined to say "hogwash" or, more politely, "interesting idea, but lacks logical consistency and plausible mechanism" or, "you'd be much better off with cognitive neuroscience than with Lacan."

But, I do agree that you need some kind of theory (just not capital-T French Theory) when reading literature. Because there are a whole host of very complicated, inter-related problems (which, by the way, are far more evident and easy-to-teach in medieval literature than in the 20th-century texts that are usually used to teach them) about which a scholar needs to have some kind of coherent opinion. For example, if you're going to talk about the apparent psychology of characters, you need to have some kind of psychological theory (I'd recommend Piaget over Lacan any day, if we have to stay French). But I think it is a mistake, hemming you in and forever making you dependent upon things argued 40 years ago and long since ossified, to believe in French post-structuralist Theory. You can use it, if you're callous about it, by saying "hey, this thinker can jump from A to L to Q to Y. Now I need to go back and try to figure out how to get to that interesting Y insight by explaining how to get from A to B to C to D to E... Y." But you shouldn't buy into it. It's either wrong, or it doesn't rise to the dignity of being able to be wrong (yes, I hang out with scientists).

So you should use theory, but you should go looking for it outside the traditions of Theory. I have had great luck with the Anglo-American philosophers (Dennett, Searle) the linguists (Chomsky, Labov) the biologists (Dawkins, Mayr), the neuroscientists (Kandel, Kosslyn and Koenig) and the social scientists (Sperber, Roehner and Syme, Douglas, Boyer). You can find really useful theories there, and they have the benefit of a) not being done to death by English professors and graduate students b) having a better chance of being right than eloquent speculations of 20 and 30 years ago; c) being beautifully written and a pleasure to read (I was going to say 'even the philosophers,' but instead I'll say 'especially the philosophers').

Or, even better, you should read How Tradition Works and then use that theory (which is mine -- apologies to Anne Elk, Miss) or adapt it for your own needs.

[btw, this all came up because today I did a faculty lunch talk entitled "Rules, Adaptation and Stasis: 10th-Century Benedictine Monasticism as a Model System for Cultural Evolution. It was a revised and updated version of the seminar I gave at the Santa Fe Institute this summer. More on this when I have a chance.]

*What about Foucault? You ask. What about Barthes? Foucault is a weird one. He is almost always wrong when he makes historical claims, noting as he did that almost every phenomenon in which he is interested arose in the French classical period. This is also never true: you can find medieval antecdents for most of Foucault's putatively later operations of power. So in the one sense his entire historical argument fails: these institutions and practices don't just arise when he says they do, and that blasts a huge hole in his larger theory. But, Foucault's insights into these practices almost always hold up even when applied back to medieval texts and practices that his theory says should not be influenced by them (just to give one example, the Anglo-Saxon penitentials). So I find Foucault very useful at times. Barthes is more difficult. On the one hand, his "bourgeoise values are bad, bad, bad, and look at the culture enforcing them" is unbelievably tedious. But Barthes had more literary sensibility than any of the other big guns of Theory and actually took time to learn some underlying linguistics, though his semiology collapses as the science he originally wanted for it because he did not understand how Saussure is explaining the phoneme.


Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

Hey, neat--I don't know that I've even been linked before!

I suspect that your distaste for unquestioning or rote use of French/post-structuralist Theory is a large part of why I so enyojed your approach to theory in the Burgess Shale paper.

And it's so funny to me that it came up just now--we just finished reading Graphs, Maps, Trees and I was again reminded of that paper.

squire said...

Thanks for yet another explication of the mysterious Ins and Outs of Theory.

Perhaps someday I will actually read a paper that uses theory to explain to me a work of literature that I am familiar with, so I can see how it all works. Since I am not an English grad student, the chances of that happening are low, I'd guess.

On a point of clarity, did you recently give a paper that referred to the Burgess Shale? I would like to hear more about that, being an old sideline fan of the Gould/Conway Morris duel.

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