Wednesday, January 28, 2004
Literary theory is dead and I feel fine
Literary “theory” was pronounced dead today by the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Interpretation. “The news should come as no surprise,” said longtime theory-critic John Hollander at yesterday’s CSI press conference. “Theory has been dying for years—the only problem is that the ‘theorists’ themselves have been in a state of profound denial about the fact.” In a separate statement, eminent Yale critic Harold Bloom added, “alas.”
Hollander pointed to the infamous 1997 “Paris video” in which postmodernist-deconstructionist-nihilist literary theorist Jacques Derrida is seen swimming in the Seine, but in which only his head is visible above water. “The members of the Branch Derridean cult managed to convince themselves that they could keep blathering on about the contradictions between the ‘literal’ and ‘rhetorical’ meanings of words, even though their leader was obviously unable to distinguish fantasy from reality,” said Hollander. “But now that even Marxist theorist Terry Eagleton has renounced ‘theory,’ it’s time for Derrida’s acolytes to give up the ghost—so to speak.”
Speaking from beyond the grave, deconstructionist and former Nazi collaborator Paul de Man agreed with Hollander. “I was wrong from the start,” said de Man. “And I want to give you all an example of precisely how wrong I was. Remember that reading of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’ I did many years ago? The one that took the closing couplet of the poem?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
-- and suggested that ‘It is equally possible to read the last line literally rather than figuratively, as asking with some urgency the question . . . how can we possibly make the distinctions that would shelter us from the error of identifying what cannot be identified?’ Then I went on to say, as you might recall, that ‘the figural reading, which assumes the question to be rhetorical, is perhaps naive, whereas the literal reading leads to greater complication of theme and statement.’ Well, I must have been high,” de Man admitted. “Frankly, there’s no way to read that line literally. The whole premise of my argument was flawed, because, in the end, language just isn’t that ambiguous. Obviously, Yeats’s point is that you can’t tell the dancer from the dance, because—if you’ll pardon the analogy—there’s no difference between the words on a page and the way they might be read, or ‘performed,’ by any given reader.”
Responding to reporters who found this “confession” too damn confusing, de Man tried again to simplify matters. “OK, I understand that rhetorical questions in Yeats’s poetry might be a bad place to start if you’re looking for interpretive certainty. Very well, then, take the simple question ‘what’s the difference?’ For a long time, I convinced people that you could read this utterance in two different ways—as a question that asserted a ‘difference’ when taken literally, and as a question that denied that very difference, or insisted on its irrelevance, when read rhetorically. But that’s so much horseshit. I mean, come on. Words aren’t all that hard to understand, are they? Really, we all know how to distinguish real from rhetorical questions, especially when they occur in written texts, don’t we?”
British Marxist theorist Raymond Williams, dead since 1988, concurred with de Man. “I didn’t care all that much for deconstruction when I was alive,” said Williams. “But I agree with Paul now—most of what we theorists were doing was bunk. Take for example my book Keywords, where I provided a series of historical analyses of words like art, class, criticism, culture, experience, literature, masses, society, and work. I predicated that book on the claim that ‘some important social and historical processes occur within language, in ways which indicate how integral the problems of meanings and of relationships really are.’ And I insisted on understanding these words not in terms of their origins or their current usages, but as records and palimpsests of social change; I really thought that I was undertaking ‘an exploration of the vocabulary of a crucial area of social and cultural discussion, which has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions and which has to be made at once conscious and critical—subject to change as well as to continuity—if the millions of people in whom it is active are to see it as active.’ But who was I kidding, really? Words like ‘culture,’ ‘class,’ and ‘original’ have never changed their meanings, and most reasonable people know that those meanings have always been pretty clear. I know it, you know it, everybody in the English-speaking world knows it. I was just blowing smoke, and I’m sorry.”
Perhaps most strikingly, Eve Sedgwick has come forward to second the confessions of Williams and de Man. “Queer theory is hogwash,” Sedgwick insisted at a recent conference, “Queer Theory: Nonsense or Hogwash?” “If you think about it seriously for a second, the homo/hetero divide isn’t an important conceptual division for contemporary thought in any sense of the term. I know I made a big deal out of this in Epistemology of the Closet, but between you and me, I was just out of my bird. Every sane person knows that gender and sexuality are pretty straightforward affairs—that is, I mean, we all know that people are pretty rational about these things. They know what they want, and they work to maximize their interests, sexually speaking. Cognitive science proves this. And listen, while I have you here,” Sedgwick added, “I have to say that the literature of the past two centuries offers a pretty clear record of the facts. Please don’t listen to these people who go on about the ‘homosocial-homoerotic’ dynamics in Victorian fiction, and please don’t read too much into poets like Walt Whitman or Hart Crane, either. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since leaving Duke University, it’s that words and things generally are just what they seem to be.”
Blogging from a remote undisclosed location, literary critic and cultural studies theorist Michael Bérubé testified to his sense of relief at the news of theory’s demise. “Irony died a few years ago,” he said, without “apparent” “irony.” “So it’s about time that these bizarre, elaborate queer-Marxist-deconstructionist theories about ‘meaning’ died too. From here on in, things will mean just what people say they mean—and they better mean it this time.”