Prospects for Theorizing
Do not cite without permission of the author.
The retrospective tendency built into this occasion, the thirtieth
MLA meeting of the Society for Critical Exchange, is both great and
grave, and therefore, given the somewhat contrarian nature of this
organization, worthy to be resisted. I will, however, succumb to it
for long enough to sketch out a frame for the remarks that will
follow. In 1975, I spent part of a year on leave from the University
of Rochester as a visiting fellow at Princeton to study with Thomas
Kuhn in the Program for the History and Philosophy of Science—and to
pursue work on a book project on the philosophical history of
criticism, an early partial draft of which had been destroyed in a
fire that took with it, in addition to the top floor of our house,
most of my library. The conjunction of a disaster and an opportunity
to restart was, to say the least, energizing. What was lost was work
stemming from my Ph.D. dissertation at Iowa, one of an early trickle
of dissertations not on literary authors and texts but “theory,” a
subject which at that epoch was simply not available for study
except at a small handful of places, including Iowa.
In broad terms, the project was to ascertain, as seriously and comprehensively as I could, what a “theory” in literary study would have to explain. I came at the question not as a humanities graduate student who didn't know math and couldn't do science, but on the contrary, from having chosen a fellowship in English over one in genetics because the intellectual problems in literature seemed to me both harder and more interesting. Like many others, I had started out with the belief that the work of Northrop Frye, as a natural and bracing advance over the speculative incoherence of the New Criticism, had already reached a level of theoretical plausibility that simply could not be found in earlier Anglo-American criticism.(1) That sanguine view did not survive even a close reading of the first of Frye's four essays in Anatomy of Criticism , much to my surprise (and the consternation of my dissertation director). The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, was that the traditional way of forming concepts in literary criticism generally didn't quite reach as high as the seat of the pants.(2)
By 1972, I had already rejected the idea of trying to publish my dissertation, even though the deluge had already begun, of books in the humanities (mainly reworked dissertations) that would scarcely ever be read and would make a difference primarily to the author who needed to have it published to earn tenure. This was less a case of misguided virtue or a premature attack of ‘standards' on my part than it was a genuine sense of excitement and perplexity over the development of “theory” as not just another episode in the institutional history of the academic humanities, but undeniable evidence that a crucial phase of that history had already played itself out. The option of treating this as just another change of fashion, wherein one picked “theory” as just a new “approach to literature” that would allow one to go on publishing polite essays and “readings” of texts seemed a particularly stark variety of denial. That response to theory is now fairly common, but in the mid ‘70s, “theory” felt like a shaking of the foundations in which fundamental philosophical issues were at stake, with very real political and social consequences.
The core idea of SCE was very simple: if such an assessment were even partly right, most people with literary Ph.D.s and established positions were not very well prepared to engage the issues, and even if they were, it was not the kind of undertaking that could prosper by the isolated and idiosyncratic work of individuals. What was needed then—and, I will argue, is even more urgently needed now—was genuine intellectual exchange, a willingness to argue and to reason through complex problems at whatever length and to whatever depth was necessary or possible.
There is no need to dwell on the political and social climate of those times, with civil rights, feminism, and anti-colonial wars of liberation structuring and inflecting every conversation and public debate. It is sufficient to note that when Paul de Man addressed the relation between crisis and criticism in 1971 (in Blindness and Insight ), his particular focus on calling into question the “specific intent” of “the act of writing” could not very well be confined to an issue in the “rhetoric of criticism.” In many ways, it was not even a literary question at stake, but rather a dramatic enlivening of a discourse of Justice with roots as old as the Book of Job and Plato's Republic that still supplies whatever urgency and legitimacy there is in the practice of theory. Over these thirty years, the institutional trajectory of “theory” has followed practical and political exigencies, from principled objections to the exclusivity of the literary curriculum, to the now canonical status of “theory” as one among the subjects, topics, or themes that one simply has to study in an English or Literature department. “Theory” is now represented in everyone's curriculum and has taken its place on all of the standardized tests. To put it mildly, it was not always so.
Death, retirement, and attrition have pretty much taken care of the old style foes of theory, for whom the very notion that one would teach courses on abstract models and methods in criticism was somewhat akin to dragging a pig into the parlor and butchering it before the hostess. Political reactionaries, foes of another sort, we will of course always have with us—or against us, as the case will prove—who detest theory because it is, in all essential respects, a determined continuation and complication of the traditions of liberalism, at least since John Stuart Mill's resounding caution against the tyranny of the majority in On Liberty. But the worry now is that in the institutional domestication of theory it has become as tedious and dogmatic as the critical practices it opposed thirty years ago, and that, I would suggest, partly explains the spate of books and articles over the last five years or so pronouncing the end, the collapse, or the death of theory. In a manner of speaking, we now have the Gospel according to Foucault, the Epistles to the Capitalists and Colonizers, the Canticles concerning Race and Gender, and the Acts of the Deconstructionists against which to measure the rhetorical sophistications of our own critical practices and procedures. In keeping with my trope, it is not just that “theory” has become predictable and boring, but that it has become theoretically complacent, unwilling or unable to call itself or its own most cherished commonplaces into question, and systematically prone to mistaking the further exploitation or elaboration of an old idea as something new, even when the shortcomings of the core conception are known to be fundamental and very likely incurable. How many times can we revive Marx, or Nietzsche, or Freud, without taking seriously the uncontestable fact that these are three of our standbys whose theories have never yet failed to fail? Can “theory” survive its own institutional incorporation on the strength of the incessant recirculation of a very limited set of dialectial commonplaces?
In one way or another, SCE and all of us on this panel have contributed to the now entirely obvious domestication of theory as a set of canonical texts and doctrines. Two of us on this panel have had a more than usually pronounced role in this result, as the editors of anthologies of theory—my work, with Hazard Adams, in one of the earliest anthologies of contemporary criticism, Critical Theory Since 1965 (1986), along with Critical Theory since Plato , 3 rd edition (2005); and Vincent Leitch, in his monumental accomplishment as the General editor of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001)—that have shaped the field, created (and dominated) a market that in the 1970s simply didn't exist. But as Jim Sosnoski has observed in his paper for this occasion, that is not exactly what we thought we had in mind.
When we took steps to actually start SCE as a not for profit corporation, my idea at least was not that it should replace the MLA, but simply make use of it, to allow for a kind of guerrilla theater within the institutional framework of the profession, to try to put a little—or a lot—more pressure on the idea of intellectual discipline without the addition of a lot of superstructure. It was definitely a basement and garage operation, using donated paper, a surplus printing press, and a lot of cheap trailing edge technology to create occasions for discussion. The leading thought was that if any of us were right, the emergence of theory represented if not a rupture then at least a serious break within both the dialectical traditions of continental philosophy and the logical complacency of analytical philosophy, precisely at the point where the linguistic turn ran into the problem of the imaginative. It seemed obvious to us then, as it still seems obvious to me, that the magnitude of the undertaking represented by theory was not something tractable by single individuals, no matter how brilliant and tireless they might be. I am not entirely convinced that the problem suggested can be explained in terms either of the charisma of the great teacher foregrounded in John Guillory's incisive critique of Paul de Man in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993), or in the model articulated by Jim Sosnoski in Token Professionals and Master Critics : A Critique of Orthodoxy in Literary Studies (1994). While these are cogent descriptions of the syndrome of the Superstar, which like the Romantic idolization of the Genius, trades on a radically impoverished idea of human agency, I believe the fundamental problems are, and always have been, intellectual, and the belief that new ideas are individual creations is among the hardest of human conceits to dislodge. It is a good deal easier to see that ideas prosper only as they spread than it is to see that the mere fact that an idea spreads does not necessarily make it a good idea.
I would venture that some of the frustration or disappointment—both words may be too strong—that has attended the various and largely ingenious doings of SCE over the last three decades are connected to a correlative point, that attacking institutional problems head on is largely a way to bruise your skull. Part of the change theory has brought is a displacement of attention, away from individual agency to systemic effects, ranging from ideological entailments to the broad thematic of positionality, wherein we recognize not only that our power to effect change personally is limited but that if we do not act together, other forces, from circumstance and inanition to sedulous or even inimical opposition, will actually carry the day.
For our students, still blithely under the sway of a Romantic conception of the self and strongly, sometimes pathologically given to any form of acting out that will force others to look at them , to acknowledge them, a first serious encounter with theory is by no means empowering, but exactly the reverse. The main effect is to deprive them of the cherished illusion that not only is their destiny in their own hands, but the apparent belief that they have so far succeeded in creating themselves as Unique Individuals, unencumbered by history or obligation, who ought to be loved and cherished for their uniqueness alone, prior to their going out to change the world, end poverty, or it may be, just to advance the virtuous cause of Free Trade Coffee. In short, after the first flush in which Derridean deconstruction seems like a nifty strategy of revolt, and avowedly relishing the imaginary drama of Foucault sticking it to the powerful, the crucial texts of “theory” show them unmistakably their powerlessness, the scope of the over-determination of their opinions, preferences, and actions, and the evidently unlimited extent to which they can be exploited and suppressed economically, politically, psychologically, culturally, sexually, and so on.
The stage of rebellion, of opposition for opposition's sake, we should never forget, cannot last forever without making a shambles of the rebel's life whilst contributing exactly nothing to defeating the oppression against which the rebellion was evidently aimed. This is true even when opposition advances, dialectically, to the forming of interest groups, coalitions, or even conspiratorial cadres bent on carrying out some kind of Gramscian war of position, at least until the numbers in the group are sufficient to carry out a coup d'état—even if the ‘state' being taken over is just a curriculum committee, an academic department, or a professional society. This is school ground politics, but it is still serious in the sense that it inhibits thought, stops genuine theoretical speculation in its tracks, and fetishizes oppositions under the sign of righteous doctrine.
The further assimilation of theory, however, hinges on the subtler recognition that the shock of discovering the pervasiveness of ideology, the ubiquity of linguistic mediation, the paradoxical impossibility of a unified self, does not mean that we are under attack, being suppressed, disrespected or demeaned. It only means that we have been operating under one or more illusions, and the sooner we lose them the better. Militant theory, like religious fundamentalisms of all sorts, treats the moment of disillusion on the contrary as a call to arms, of renewed vigilance or more determined action to act against an oppressor that is everywhere and nowhere, neglecting to notice that any attempt to go out in search of an enemy will in fact create an enemy who may very well be capable not only of kicking your ass but trashing your ambitions and perhaps, even putting an end to you.
By this escalation of my own rhetoric I mean only to mark a path back to the questions of moment today for SCE, as still the only professional organization devoted exclusively to theory. For I do think that at this juncture, thirty years on, the central purpose of the Society for Critical Exchange remains if anything more important than any of us could have imagined when in our salad days we launched it. It is critical exchange . We still need it, not in the form of launching prematurely ambitious projects that directly intend institutional change, but as a means for discriminating much more seriously, more professionally, more philosophically, the difference between ideas that spread for contingent reasons we may not be able to discern, and ideas that spread because they work, because they respond to actual needs and are supported not just by a handful of smart people, but by an entire professional network committed to the belief that the dissemination of a bad idea, the publication of a stupid article, or the launching of an ill-conceived project actually hurts people.
In many ways, SCE has contributed to the accomplishment of a first, shall we say, Romantic phase of theory, in the sense that we leapt ahead of our own collective and even individual understandings in the confidence that the traditional intellectual and practical grounding of literary study was changing, and indeed, absolutely had to change, without any sufficient idea of what that would entail. The multiple experiments, from sessions done under the cover of MLA, to conferences, memorable, unrepeatable—not that we would necessarily want to repeat them—to large and wooly collaborative projects done without sufficient planning or resources, have at once expanded and curtailed our sense of possibilities. But what has happened all too rarely is the kind of sustained critical exchange that makes it possible for people not to have to reinvent the wheel every time they want to go down the street. In one sense, we need simpler and more reliable instruments—and I do not mean more insipid instruments—in the first place, that will allow us to track the progress of our inquiries, and to evaluate each others' work on a better and more circumspect basis than conformity to the fashion of the moment.
Many years ago, I asked a colleague, a distinguished entomologist, what advice he would give to a beginner in his field to avoid messing up his or her career. His reply was instant and unambiguous: “Don't ever publish a dumb article.” I hooted with laughter, since the application of that standard to us would pretty much decimate any English department in my acquaintance. But that is exactly the standard that we ought to hold ourselves to. As a dialectical discipline, the hard thing for us is to articulate the grounds on which we would judge an article or a book or a conference paper to be “dumb” without hesitating to assert such a judgment because of the perceived frangibility and dubiousness of all value judgments that are made on the basis of dialectical commonplaces. Thirty years of theory has, on this score, made us more than a little gun shy from seeing the ease with which such judgments can be shot down and exposed as ideologically determined and culturally preconditioned. Our desire not to do this kind of wrong only masks our fecklessness on any axiological question whatsoever. Ethical arguments are mainly the ones we care about, but are exactly the arguments we are reluctant to make. Quite clearly, this response misses the philosophical and historical point almost completely: it merely shows the extent to which our discipline is not theoretical but practical in its commitments, not rigorous or scientific but resolutely dialectical in its methods. We will wrap ourselves into very pretzels of evasion to avoid admitting that the arguments we care about are practical, ethical, and political, and represent what we do as the creation of “knowledge” or a critique of traditional epistemology so as not to have to confront the inconsequence or incoherence of the actual arguments we do make.
I do not in any way mean to intimate that making practical reasoning accountable to fact, logically consistent, perspicuous and convincing is or ought to be easy. That is the whole point: it is the most difficult intellectual task there is, and it cannot be accomplished by rummaging around in the tool bag of contemporary theory for the terms and examples that would make it seem easy, just as it cannot be addressed at all by the endless repetition of the phrase ‘always already' relative to the tropes of formalist metaphysical realism. That is because what I have provisionally called the “Romantic phase” of theory has been entirely engaged with the negative or privative showing that Western metaphysics from its very inception is paradoxical, self-contradictory, and fundamentally, as opposed to accidentally, incoherent. But that has not moved us a millimeter closer to a more robust, generous, or avowedly dynamic theory of reality. We have taken ample recourse to Aristotle's term for getting stuck, aporia , so as to avoid having to admit that we are, and have been for a very long while indeed, not for thirty years, but more like thirty centuries, stuck . Transfixed by a version of Saussurean linguistics so impoverished that it will not even allow for the formulation of the idea of syntax, we persist in the error of supposing that because the relation of the signifier to the signified is arbitrary, the whole of language must be so too. In exactly the same way, because we are the heirs of a magnificent though problematic tradition of writing that has sought justice, not in the manner of trying to find the molecular weight of potassium, but imaginatively, poetically, and literarily, the showing that our curriculum has been exploited as a sanctuary of an exclusionary elitism has led us on a fool's errand of trying to codify the curriculum of theory as authoritative compendium of doctrine pertaining to social justice, without measuring the extent to which the very literary curriculum we have come close to putting under erasure in the process is the principal instrument we have to revitalize, in every generation, the imaginative assent to justice as an ideal without which the idea of justice is simply vacuous. Elsewhere, I have made the point more economically in the assertion that without poetic justice, there is simply no justice at all.(3)
Clearly, if this is the scope of what theory in its next phase, if it is to have a next phase, will have to encompass, we cannot expect to make any headway on the strength of the already thoroughly depleted ideas of what is now institutionally dominant—which is the Romantic phase of theory. But just here, I think the ambiguous history of SCE might help us to see not only about what not to do, but how to move forward, how to get un- stuck. It is not by laying down the outlines of a massive metaphysical project, or embarking upon a series of utopian schemes for institutional renewal via the internet, reposing our faith in whiz-bang technology to inaugurate the “digital humanities”, for which we have neither the resources nor the requisite expertise. The category mistake built into the very idea is that we can create composite, multi-genre, multi-media, interactive texts , works, venues , without building into the design the undetected limitations of perspective and imagination that we have right now. If we really want to go forward, what sense does it make to forget completely what the current Romantic phase of theory has taught us? What we need are archives, digital libraries, with clear guidelines insuring permanence and open access to digitized documents, images, algorithms—not coffee-table books cum interactive video games in which will be hard-wired all the critical limitations of our present understanding, or lack thereof, about what is important, what connections are revealing in what ways, and so on.
My guess is that what I take this to imply is by no means obvious, so to spell it out a little, it is just this. We cannot, and therefore should try not to leap ahead to imagine the shape of a future that is exclusively shaped by the tools and ideas that we have already reduced to formulas. What is decisive is not the dramatic, large scale project that everyone can see, but attention to the tools, the procedures, the instruments of evaluation in and through which intellectual communication can actually take place. Nothing would please me more than to see SCE take on three quite modest and undramatic initiatives that easily could take thirty more years to bring off.
The first is an extension of experiments with the form of scholarly communication . We have learned a good deal about this from experiments already undertaken, but the profession of literary and cultural studies today may be closer than any of us think to a tolerably complete meltdown of our current arrangements of publication, not only for articles, but especially for books and manuscripts. Perhaps we can explore this issue in further detail in the MLA session itself, but the current arrangements concerning intellectual property, library subscriptions to professional journals, the production, warehousing, marketing, and archival preservation of monographs and books is so obviously not sustainable that we appear to have the choice of ignoring it until the meltdown actually happens, or trying to get a little ahead of the curve by examining and testing things we can actually do to use the internet and digital archiving technology to track our own progress.
The second is closely related: a concerted effort to clean up and make credible the idea of “peer review” for scholarly publications . While I might be able to get some handful of people to rant right along with me about how much unredeemable trash gets published—even with “peer review” evidently in play—that would have no more meaning than a late night gripe session. So long as we are content to have “peer review” mean nothing more than the finding of three people who will say yes to an article or book, then the long standing recognition that getting articles published is more a testament to endurance and persistence than a proof of the adequacy or importance of an argument will not change, and the credibility of what we publish will continue to slide. For years it has been the case that most books published in the humanities would never make it to print without one or more subventions somewhere along the line, but it is still evidently not widely known that the average sales of university press books in the humanities before the press run is offered for remainder is just above 300 copies. It used to be that book publishers could rely on library sales to break even on a book or monograph published in an established series. That is gone. Not only are library budgets sufficiently strapped that they cannot afford to keep up with the flood of pretty good dissertations turned into mediocre books, they wouldn't have the shelf space to house them if they did.
We clearly cannot wait for the MLA or the Association of University Presses or the local sheriff to rationalize our publication practices, but an organization like SCE can, if it will, focus attention on models that do not fall into the error of mistaking the form of publication—an article or book in print —for the function—the scholarly communication of arguments and the dissemination of ideas that really are worth disseminating and do not consist of someone saying in a slightly different register the same thing that has already been said innumerable times before. What is critical is the evaluation, not the appearance of our very own words in print. The fact that we have pretty much lost our public audience from having spent so much time talking only to one another and our aspiring graduate students does not at all mean that what we study and what we care about is irrelevant to the public. In the first place, our students—and I mean our undergraduate students are our first and most important “public” audience; but beyond that, the proliferation of redundant books and the acceptance of merely gnarly rhetoric as the epitome of intellectual sophistication serves no one, and it is killing this profession.
Finally, I would urge SCE to renew its long standing commitment to critical exchange in the field of theory, not by restricting attention to theory as a form of writing but by taking up the relation of the theoretical to the imaginative. The frustration of theory in the humanities lies in the fact that it reveals a history of unfinished revolutions, projects that falter or stumble for various reasons, which are not taken up again once those reasons are clarified. Did “theory” emerge out of the New Criticism and Structuralism, indelibly characterized by Bob Scholes some twenty years ago as having devolved into the practice of “a clever graduate student interpreting the daylights out of a poem before thirty stupefied freshman” only to become itself a practice of a new clever graduate student instructing forty stupefied freshmen how to apply the idea of the panopticon to any social or discursive practice whatsoever? Right now, the most salient differences appear to be only that our classes are larger, the exploitation of graduate students to teach them is still more vicious, and the number of teachers in actual, bona fide tenure track positions is at an all time low.
I am not arguing for some putative “return” to literature, since I have grave doubts that we were ever there to begin with. On the contrary, I am talking about taking up the failed revolution of teaching students how to read imaginative writing not as a precious object to be venerated, bound in leather, tooled with gold, but as a fundamental form of reasoning that, in conjunction with criticism, is and always has been engaged with the vital process of cultural legitimation.
These are none of them problems that can be proposed and carried out in a couple of months or even a couple of years. And I would want to stress in particular that they should not be cooked up by one person, speaking ex cathedra, or even by a panel as congenial and distinguished as this one. They should be planned, discussed and modeled, quarreled over and tested carefully under the bracing discipline of genuine critical exchange.
(1) This was, of course, not a new opinion, as I. A. Richards, arguably the first critic in English to take even the idea of theory in criticism seriously, had wickedly characterized the state of the field prior to his Principles of Literary Criticism in this memorable sentence: “A few conjectures, a supply of admonitions, many acute isolated observations, some brilliant guesses, much oratory and applied poetry, inexhaustible dogma, no small stock of prejudices, whimsies and crotchets, a profusion of mysticism, a little genuine speculation, sundry stray inspirations, pregnant hints and random aperçues: of such as these, it may be said without exaggeration, is extant critical theory composed.”
(2) To be a little more precise, the problem lies in the fact that virtually all critical debates are dialectical in character, not following the pretensions to science from Hegel through Marx to Lukacs and Goldmann, for example, but precisely Aristotle's verdict that dialectic is arguing from commonplaces: propositions not proved or verified, but merely what happens to be believed or accepted by the arguers of the moment. See “Introduction: The Modern Era,” in Critical Theory since Plato, 3 rd ed. ( Boston : Thomson-Wadsworth, 2005), esp. 629-631.