“They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior.” – 40 years of Theory talking to itself

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/30/2013

It’s curtains for the gadfly of the piece… – Mark Bauerlein

Tradition, history and art were subordinated to a collection of thinkers and arguments that went under the name of “theory”. They provided abstract rules and explanations for how human events unfolded and artistic creation happened. Theory had all the attractions of being conjecture-clean, clever, overarching – but it squeezed the vitality and unpredictability from human achievement like juice from a lemon. Instead of reading classic poems and novels, scholars mastered theories of literature. Instead of learning the details of a historical record, they acquired a theory of historical change. Forty years on, the results are in. Learning has declined and the humanities are an impoverished field. The outcome could have been foreseen, for what is the theory of history and art, or of love, gardening or health, for that matter, compared with present and past realities? But the enthusiasms of the moment were too strong.

It didn’t take long to realise that other idols ruled the graduate programmes. Yes, we read Shakespeare, Hume, Austen and Lovejoy, but what we did with them depended on an entirely different group: the theorists.

Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Adorno, Rorty, Paul de Man… they set a powerful agenda for humanistic study. Their work was complex and diverse, but what made all of them theorists was a focus on method. Instead of studying directly the contents of history and thought, they said we should examine the tools of study – terms, evidence, values and practices. Biographers, for instance, aim to record a human life; theorists step back and ponder the narrative structure of that life (or any life), the nature of historical evidence and so on. The sceptical tenor was spreading in schools from Aberdeen to Berkeley to Sydney, and those of us who enlisted out of inspiration had to change our attitude. Theory was hyper-analytical and against common sense, leaving no ordinary enjoyment untouched. The beauty of Keats’s verse, the truth of Nietzsche on herd morality, the heroism of Lincoln… well, you couldn’t esteem such things any more. By their own declaration, the theorists probed the basic elements of language, culture and ego, and to affirm something as conventional as beauty was to be pitiably square and naive.

Some were turned off, but many were intoxicated by the approach. Indeed, it is hard for non-academics to grasp how heady those conversations in the seminars and the student lounge could be. The classic writers were still essential, but the theorists were daring and radical, and the mention of them made the energy level in class discussions jump. If a fellow student spoke about Gulliver’s Travels by borrowing from Swift’s life, one could cite Derrida on how outside materials don’t reveal the meaning of a work but close off multiple meanings to “privilege” just one. Or one could steer the talk towards Lacan on aggression, then apply it to the world of the Houynhnms and Swift’s portrayal of mankind as yahoos. Or one could take a postcolonialist tack and recount Gulliver’s efforts to “go native” (ridiculous, to be sure, but one heard much worse). At that point, the colloquy would turn theoretical, with people taking sides.

Usually, the theorists would win. Traditional scholars fell back on custom and textual evidence, while theorists and their disciples enjoyed the thrill of roguish poses and weighty topics – Derrida on Western thought, Foucault on madness and civilisation, de Man on irony and death. They made our lives in the library seem adventurous and superior. Think, for instance, how Foucault flattered the student ego. In a series of books, he argued that the freedoms we cherish in bourgeois society, along with the liberal reforms of the Enlightenment, were in fact subtle forms of social control working through heightened surveillance and low-intensity coercions. The compliment this outlook paid to weary junior scholars struggling to find a place in the world was hard to withstand. While the rest of society accepted modern life and muddled through, the clear-eyed minds we fancied ourselves to be understood what was really going on.

When it was a minority endeavour, it functioned as a gadfly, obnoxious sometimes, but useful for testing assumptions. When theory became a dominant habit, it lost its rationale. With nobody around to defend untheoretical positions, it had nothing more to say, no more bunk to debunk. As the numbers of old-fashioned scholars dwindled, theoretical interventions became pointless and predictable. A recent book by another president of the MLA spent pages blaming the poor reading habits of students on the New Critics, figures whose influence waned back in the 1960s. The antiquated target shows how empty theory’s victory was. How many times could you “call into question” a basic assumption or “problematise” a term without sounding like a cliche?

The test of time was undeniable. The simple truth was that the accomplishments of theory mocked its claims. Derrida and the rest spoke in grandiose terms about the implications of theoretical acumen, and their votaries echoed the tone in portentous statements. When de Man declared that “the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations”, his followers repeated it as if it marked a leap in the course of human intelligence. But nobody appeared to benefit from the insight except its practitioners. Theory infiltrated the humanities, theorists found jobs and changed the curriculum, new journals and programmes were founded. But the effect beyond the campus was negligible. A few psychiatrists remained Lacanians, and some architects practised a version of deconstruction, but the influences were scattered. To proclaim theory’s social impact was nothing more than a pretence.

Still, theory’s influence in the university has been enormous. Even among people who’ve pulled away, certain axioms remain a matter of principle – for instance, the notion that sexual identity is a social construct with no biological determinants. In the absence of support from the outside world, theory has become an insider activity. And with the anti-theorists routed long since, all theory can do is rehearse the arguments made 40 years ago, the same interpretations and same conclusions. The pretexts change – Milton yesterday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer today – but the outlook doesn’t.

Professors have profited from theory for a long time, and they’re too comfortable and invested to have second thoughts.

The arrogance was self-defeating, of course. Theory couldn’t sustain the humanities by itself, and the exhilaration that brought us into the habit struck outsiders as a self-congratulatory joy carried out in an affected tongue. With the public estranged from our practice and with younger scholars not replenishing the reserves of knowledge, the humanities are a guild imploding. Theory is dead, but it has taken something much more valuable with it: higher learning.


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