Sunday, May 01, 2005

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.


Kate Marie said...

An excellent post, Professor. The pre-packaged answers of theory have had the tendency of making the primary "texts" (the actual literature) recede into the background, such that -- as you said -- theory becomes a "way in" to the literature, rather than a way of analyzing the problems that we emerge with on the way out.

My sense of the hopelessness of it happened in a graduate seminar in my first year of graduate school. The seminar was meant to exmine/deconstruct the concept of "heroism" and was conducted by a very good Shakespearean scholar who had recently become more interested in "theorizing" about certain cultural constructs than in King Lear.

As it turned out, despite an extensive reading list which included, among other things, one Shakespeare play a week, we invariably ended up discussing the theory on its own or as it applied to movies like The Wizard of Oz, Field of Dreams, and Patton. Shakespeare was an afterthought. I suppose at the graduate level, there's nothing wrong with this approach, except that I got the impression that some of my fellow students had never actually read Shakespeare.

I wrote an insincere paper on gangster films (that I mocked to myself as I wrote) for the course and got an "A" for my dishonesty. I hadn't really "mastered" theory, and I hadn't "accepted" it, but I made it look as if I had. I think that's easier to do once the literature itself becomes secondary to the theory, once "mastering" theory becomes more important than "mastering," say, Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Natalia said...

I think the problem with theory is that it isn't really "theory." It's usually writing from another discipline that literary critics appropriate for their own use, often impoverishing the theoretical text in the process. Derrida was a philosopher; Foucault was an historian; Lacan was a psychoanalyst (though I'm damned if he ever cured anyone, but that was, I suppose, his point).

Nonetheless, I do think we gain some important things from theory. Deconstruction as practiced at Yale led to some pretty tiresome criticism, but on the other hand, literary studies did learn to proceed with caution when encountering a binary, which I can only think is a good thing. Is that a prepackaged answer? I don't think so, personally. It's more like a prepackaged question, and though it shouldn't constitute the core of one's argument, there's something useful in it. It's like in math: it's always worth checking to make sure your theorem works in the trivial case.

It sounds like what's irking you, and it irks me too, is that mediocre or bad literary criticism can pass for good criticism if it has some shiny French names in the footnotes. But this is not a problem with theory; it's a problem with the culture of literary studies and the disciplinary insecurity that continues to plague the humanities.

Fred said...

Pedagogically speaking, the use of theory tends to teach students not to trust their own readings of the text, to seek out hidden meanings, and to rely on expert opinion. It seems to me that instead of fostering critical reading and judgement, the use of theory causes students to lose confidence and become tentative. When students don't take a stand on the meaning of a work of literature, we downgrade them, but as instructors we don't always model this kind of judgement. I think that we owe it to our students to help them discover meaning in a text -- while at the same time presenting methods for critically examining the text, the critics, and their own sense of what they read.