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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Theory of everything

Hello again, everyone.  I have nothing on the Supreme Court or on Rove-Plame today.  Today, it’s time to get back to Mark Bauerlein’s Butterflies and Wheels essay on “Theory’s Empire.”

But first, the bad news:  as hideously long as this post is (over 3500 words, nearly Holbonian in heft), this is only a warmup.  I’ve agreed to participate in The Valve’s distributed-intelligence review of Theory’s Empire sometime between July 12 and July 14, and I told John Holbo that I would confine myself to commenting on Bauerlein’s essay, “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace.” Mark your calendars, or don’t.  I’m also slated to review the entire volume for The Common Review later this year, so I’ll attend to the other 700 pages of the book then, in 2000 words or less.  And last but not least, Bauerlein’s B&W essay raises a number of interesting points about the institutional status of literary theory these days, and I’m going to save those questions for another post.  I’ll explain why as I go.

To the text, then.  Bauerlein opens by explaining why we need Theory’s Empire:

Why another door-stopper volume on a subject already well-covered by anthologies and reference books from Norton, Johns Hopkins, Penguin, University of Florida Press, etc.? Because in the last 30 years, theory has undergone a paradoxical decline, and the existing anthologies have failed to register the change. Glance at the roster of names and texts in the table of contents and you’ll find a predictable roll call of deconstruction, feminism, new historicism, neopragmatism, postcolonial studies, and gender theory. Examine the approach to those subjects and you’ll find it an expository one, as if the job of the volumes were to lay out ideas and methods without criticism (except when one school of thought in the grouping reproves another). The effect is declarative, not “Here are some ideas and interpretations to consider” but “Here is what theorists say and do.”

I’ll start with the trivial point first. Thirty years? Literary theory has been in decline for thirty years?  That would take us back to . . . let me think . . . 1975.  How strange!  In 1975, deconstruction was still just a-rumbling in a few seminar rooms at Yale; feminism was still larval; New Historicism had not been invented; nobody except Fredric Jameson was doing Marxist anything on these shores; postcolonial criticism was still on the horizon; the work of Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall was still largely unread in the U.S.; and queer theory would have to wait another decade to be invented.  In 1975, the hottest items in the theory store were reader-response criticism (Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader, 1974), and structuralism (Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics, 1975; Robert Scholes, Textual Power, 1975 [update:  what a lousy memory I have!  Scholes’ book was published in 1985.  Iser and Culler must suffice to make the point, then]).  Oh yes, and Susan Sontag was reading Roland Barthes.  But that’s about it.  Now, of course it’s possible to lament the appearance of deconstruction, feminism, New Historicism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and cultural studies, and possible to say that theory ruined everything (whatever you imagine “everything” to be).  But it’s quite odd to characterize the explosion of theory as always already the decline of theory.  It’s a little like saying that the Beatles were all downhill after 1962.  (I choose my analogy carefully: after all, it’s entirely plausible to say that the Beatles peaked in 1966, though of course the point is worth arguing.)

Now for the more important point.  Bauerlein’s complaint about theory anthologies is that they are not sufficiently critical of theory, except when—and this is a remarkable escape clause—“one school of thought in the grouping reproves another.” For some reason, this kind of “criticism” is not enough: it simply doesn’t count when a feminist criticizes a deconstructionist or a queer theorist criticizes a feminist.  But why not?  And why doesn’t it count when a feminist criticizes a feminist or a postcolonialist criticizes a postcolonialist, as happens roughly ten or twenty times a day?

The reason it doesn’t count is that Theory is monolithic—indeed, a monolith made up of monoliths.  Theory, as Bauerlein argues toward the end of his essay and as Patai and Corral argue in the introduction to Theory’s Empire, does not admit of criticism; and likewise, the different schools of Theory do not permit dissent from their premises.  Thus, the only way a student can get a reliable assessment of what’s what in Theory is to read the work of people who are hostile to every branch of it.  This is a strange view of the theoretical enterprises of the past thirty years, and as I’ll explain in a moment, it seems to me to be driven more by the curious phenomenon of theory-celebrity than by the actual theoretical-critical work on the ground.

Bauerlein continues:

If the theories represented were fresh and new, not yet assimilated into scholarship and teaching, then an introductory volume that merely expounded them would make sense. The same could be said if the theories amounted to a methodological competence that students must attain in order to participate in the discipline, or if the theories had reached a point of historical importance such that one studied them as one would, say, the utopian social theories surrounding communist reform, no matter how wrongheaded they were. But Theory lost its novelty some two decades ago, and many years have passed since anybody except the theorists themselves took the latest versions seriously.

Actually, most of the introductory volumes began to appear in the early 1990s.  Before then, all we had was Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, a book so glib and unreliable that I would not inflict it on any serious student.  But as I’ve learned from Theory’s Empire, the event that inspired the volume was actually the publication of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, which was published in 2001 and which is, if anything, the least expository volume in the business.  That’s the reason I’ve assigned selections from the Norton in my “Intro to Graduate Study” course over the past two years: as opposed to dreary introduction-to-theory volumes that offer chapter after expository chapter on how Queer Theory Says X and New Historicism Does Y, the Norton simply gives students excerpts from the primary texts themselves, accompanied by detailed headnotes.

But, it turns out, that’s precisely what Bauerlein et al. are objecting to—not the expository nature of the Norton Anthology, but the Norton Anthology nature of the Norton Anthology.  That’ll become clearer in a moment.  In the meantime:

And as for disciplinary competence, the humanities are so splintered and compartmentalized that one can pursue a happy career without ever reading a word of Bhabha or Butler.

This is quite true, and I’ll say more about it in my followup post.  One of my first-year students said much the same thing to me as we were reading the Norton last year—or, rather, she informed me that one of her other professors had said much the same thing.  Why bother with Derrida, she asked, when three-quarters of the faculty in the English department know next to nothing about Derrida?

A fine question, and it could be asked of the work of Bhabha and Butler as well.  But then that would mean that Theory doesn’t quite have the kind of stranglehold on the study of literature that the term “empire” is clearly meant to suggest.

Finally, while the historical import of Theory remains to be seen, indications of oblivion are gathering. Not only are the theorists largely unread outside of graduate classrooms, but even among younger scholars within the humanities fields the reading of them usually doesn’t extend beyond the anthologies and a few landmarks such as Discipline and Punish.

This, by contrast, is palpably untrue.  The people in my wing of the enterprise have witnessed a very different phenomenon, one related to the splintering and compartmentalizing Bauerlein noted above: almost every young assistant professor at Illinois or Penn State, over the past ten years, has been thoroughly conversant in one or two areas of theory. They didn’t pray to a specific Theory God every morning and evening, but they were generally familiar with debates in one or another area of the field, and often contributed to those debates themselves.

This is a phenomenon worth remarking on in more detail, so again, I’ll save it for the followup post.  But I’ll say this much for now: beginning in the late 1970s, the University of Illinois had a “Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory” (it was responsible for the 1983 Marxism conference and the 1990 cultural studies conference) and when I arrived in 1989, the Unit simply invited assistant professors to “affiliate” with the Unit if they had any interest in matters theoretical.  By the late 1990s, however, a good number of new hires in Communications, History, Anthropology, Sociology, and even Kinesiology—as well as the stalwarts from English and the modern languages—were affiliating with the Unit as a matter of course.  This is not a triumphalist narrative; on the contrary, it underscores Bauerlein’s next point.  Theory had in fact “declined” at Illinois between the late 1970s and late 1990s, but only because one or another of its aspects had become another name for business as usual.

One wouldn’t realize the diminishing value of Theory by perusing the anthologies, though. In fact, one gets the opposite impression—and rightly so. For, while Theory has become a humdrum intellectual matter within the humanities and a nonexistent or frivolous one without, it has indeed acquired a professional prestige that is as strong as ever. This is the paradox of its success, and failure.

Reread this passage slowly if you want to figure out what’s going on.  The first sentence tells us that theory’s value is heading south, and the anthologies mask this fact; the second tells us that the masking itself gives us the right impression, and the third that theory’s prestige is as strong as ever.  Theory’s value, then, remains high in the humanities—but only because the humanities as a whole have been so devalued.  How have the humanities been devalued?  By Theory.

And then things get confusing.

Intellectually speaking, twenty-five years ago Theory was an adventure of thought with real stakes. Reading “Différance” and working backward into Heidegger’s and Hegel’s ontology, or “The Rhetoric of Temporality” and sensing the tragic truth at the heart of Romantic irony, one apprehended something fundamental enough to affect not just one’s literary method but one’s entire belief system. No doubt the same was true for an earlier generation and its interpretation of Wordsworth or T. S. Eliot. But this time it was Derrida and Baudrillard, and the institution was starting to catch up to it with “Theory specialist” entries in the MLA Job List, Introduction to Theory and Interpretation courses for first-year graduate students, and press editors searching for theory books to fill out their next year’s catalogue.

Five years into its decline, in other words, theory was an adventure of thought with real stakes—and Bauerlein’s examples are Derrida and de Man. One apprehended something fundamental enough to affect not just one’s literary method but one’s entire belief system: jeez, you know, it sounds as if this stuff might just be worth teaching to people today, even if only to say, “here’s what Theory was like when Theory was worth doing.” But then the very next passage casts its lot with Bill Bennett:

In an inverse way, the public seemed to agree when William Bennett initiated the academic Culture Wars with To Reclaim a Legacy, an NEH report that decried Theory for destroying the traditional study of literature with politicized agendas and anti-humanist dogma. He was right, and a public outcry followed, but that only confirmed to junior theorists the power and insight of their practice.

Now, I know enough of Bauerlein’s work to know that he hates it when people simply declare things that they need to argue, so I have to think that the pat announcement that Bennett was right is simply a mistake.  And as for that public outcry: well, actually, there was no “public” outcry.  There was an outpouring of right-wing screeds that eventually gave us the P.C. controversy of the early 1990s and the full flowering of the career of Dinesh D’Souza, yes, but most of the general public did not actually rise up and say, “see here, we liked reading ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’ and sensing the tragic truth at the heart of Romantic irony, but this anti-humanist dogma has to go.”

And then I come around to agreeing with Bauerlein’s account of things again:

Ten years later, however, the experience had changed. As theorists became endowed chairs, department heads, series editors, and MLA presidents, as they were profiled in the New York Times Magazine and invited to lecture around the world, the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature. It didn’t have to happen, but that’s the way the new crop of graduate students experienced it. Not only were too many Theory articles and books published and too many Theory papers delivered, but too many high-profile incursions of the humanities into public discourse had a Theory provenance. The academic gossip in Lingua Franca highlighted Theory much more than traditional scholarship, David Lodge’s popular novels portrayed the spread of theory as a human comedy, and People Magazine hired a prominent academic feminist as its TV critic.

I think this is really the heart of Bauerlein’s complaint.  In the early 1990s, the profession witnessed for the first time the phenomenon of theory-celebrity, and it was weird and often odious.  Some theorists hated it, and some reveled in it.  It was actually weirder than Bauerlein lets on, too: for one thing, the machinery of theory-celebrity was put together, in part, by the workings of the P.C. scaremongering itself, as more and more academics came forward to explain just what it was that they were doing.  That machinery put Henry Louis Gates on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and it produced Hurricane Camille Paglia at the same time.  It was kind of indiscriminate that way.

And then, oddly, just when Bauerlein gets to the celebrity phenomenon (where he can score any number of points, having written perceptively in the past on epigonism and territorialism in the field), there are a couple of false notes.

One theorist became known for finding her “inner life,” another for a skirt made of men’s neckties, another for unionizing TAs. It was fun and heady, especially when conservatives struck back with profiles of Theorists in action such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, sallies which enraged many academics and soundly defeated them in public settings, but pleased the more canny ones who understood that being denounced was better than not being talked about at all (especially if you had tenure).

Suddenly it’s time for Spot the Theorist!  The one with the inner life is Jane Tompkins.  The one with the necktie-skirt is Jane Gallop.  And the one having heady fun by unionizing TAs is, I think, Cary Nelson.  Now, I’ve seen people sneer at the idea of graduate student unionization before this—I recall Alan Wolfe describing it most alarmingly, in the pages of the New Republic, as “advocating class struggle within the university,” and I was grateful at the time that Professor Wolfe did not call out the Pinkertons to begin busting heads.  But I have never seen it likened to Gallop’s or Tompkins’ forms of “self-actualization” (or whatever that’s called).  I leave it to you, O readers, to make of this what you will.

As for Roger Kimball, the idea that he soundly defeated anyone in a public setting is absurd—unless you mean “public setting” more or less as a synonym for “public outcry” above, in which you’re probably invoking an obscure sense of the term in which “public” means “the forums of the American Enterprise Institute.” But Louis Menand’s New Republic review of Tenured Radicals was sufficiently devastating to persuade most intelligent readers that Kimball was a less than reliable guide to the contemporary scene.

On a side note, keep Bauerlein’s complaints about academic celebrity in mind when, a bit later on, he speaks of the “growing isolation of humanities professors from American society.” You would think that the phenomenon of humanities professors working with unions, writing for the popular press, and being the subject of magazine gossip would suggest, both for good and for ill, that humanities professors were less isolated from American society than were their predecessors in 1975.  As it happens, these days Bauerlein himself is doing (by all accounts) terrific work as a researcher with the National Endowment for the Arts when he’s not teaching at Emory.  So perhaps he meant that humanities professors are increasingly isolated from American society with one notable exception.  But I think he meant that he doesn’t like the way humanities professors are isolated from American society and he doesn’t like the way they aren’t.

And now it’s time for the Telling Anecdote. 

When a colleague of mine returned from an MLA convention in Toronto around that time, he told a story that nicely illustrated the trend. One afternoon he hopped on a shuttle bus and sat down next to a young scholar who told him she’d just returned from a panel. He replied that he’d just returned from France, where he’d been studying for a semester.

“What are they talking about?” she asked.


“Is there any new theory?”

“Yeah, in a way,” he answered. “It’s called ‘erudition.’”

“What’s that?” she wondered.

“Well, you read and read, and you get your languages, and you go into politics, religion, law, contemporary events, and just about everything else.” (He’s a 16th-century French literature scholar who comes alive in archives.)

She was puzzled. “But what’s the theory?”

“To be honest, there isn’t any theory,” he said.

“That’s impossible.” He shrugged. “Okay, then, give me the names, the people heading it.”

“There aren’t any names. Nobody’s heading it.”

A trivial exchange, yes, but it signals the professional meaning and moral barrenness Theory accrued in the Nineties.

Hmm.  Either this is a trivial exchange, or it signals the professional meaning and moral (!) barrenness Theory accrued in the Nineties.  I think Bauerlein wants to go with (b), myself.  But I’m not going to fault him for predicating this part of the argument on a story that a colleague told him, for, as it happens, I was on that very shuttle bus, and I can tell you that the conversation unfolded almost exactly this way.  If anything, Bauerlein is being too kind to this jejune young woman, for as I recall, she couldn’t even spell “erudition.” She didn’t simply ask, “what’s that?”; she asked Bauerlein’s colleague to write the word on a pad of paper for her.

Now, seriously.  Why would Bauerlein relay this trivial exchange as a sign of moral barrenness and so forth?  What is gained by portraying young would-be Theorists as blithering idiots, and non-Theorists as distinguished, erudite folk who come alive in archives?

Many things, surely, but this above all—the one thing about the history of the profession that Bauerlein neglects to mention.  In the 1980s, most of the literature professors who were most horrified by theory were not, despite a Christopher Ricks here and a Frederick Crews there, a very impressive bunch.  On the contrary, in those days, we upper-level undergraduates and graduate students had a whole mess of people who’d gotten tenure in the 1960s back when there was a severe shortage of college professors (I know it sounds strange) and the standards for tenure were, shall we say, quite low.  Some of those professors didn’t produce any scholarship of note between 1970 and 1985 (some didn’t produce any scholarship at all), and guess what?  Assistant professors came up for tenure who were working in feminism or deconstruction, and some of their elders had the task of reviewing their work even though they didn’t even know how to distinguish a good feminist or deconstructive argument from a bad one, or a derivative one, or a brilliant one.  Meanwhile, graduate students like me were not inspired by faculty members who complained that New Historicist readings of Wordsworth were destroying the integrity of “Tintern Abbey” (a real example) or that feminists were interested in nineteenth-century British novels only because they were hostile to marriage (another real example).  We decided, on the basis of a preponderance of the available evidence, that the “anti-Theorists” of the 1980s consisted largely of dodderers and deadwood.  (And we knew what “erudition” was, too!) So when Bauerlein writes that “Theory quickly seized the vanguard terrain and cast its detractors as merely anti-Theory—retrograde, bitter, superseded,” he surely does so in the knowledge that twenty years ago, a good number (though not all!) of literature professors who denounced every kind of theory as “froggy nonsense” (yet another real example) were simply not the most intellectually active or curious people in the department.  They certainly weren’t reading “Différance” and working backward into Heidegger’s and Hegel’s ontology.

Bauerlein registers this only indirectly, by insisting that “Theory needs new antagonists whose intelligence is unquestioned,” and that Theory’s Empire is just what the doctor ordered.  For the record, the volume’s lineup is quite strong (though I wouldn’t call all of these folks “new antagonists”), and it was sometimes true, as Bauerlein charges, that “whenever a non-theorist tackled a Theory (Fred Crews on psychoanalysis, John Searle on deconstruction), his or her arguments were denounced as anti-intellectual bile.” The charge of anti-intellectualism was thrown around especially carelessly, as I recall, just as the charge of “elitism” is thrown around with abandon today.  (Imagine being charged with anti-intellectualism one decade, and elitism the next.  It must be vexing.) And so now, it appears, the charges will be reversed: “The more popular Theory became,” Bauerlein writes, “the less it inspired deep commitments among searching minds.” So now it’s the anti-Theorists who are the smart kids, the searching minds.  People still reading and writing about Theory are just camp followers.

Which reminds me that there’s one other thing missing from Bauerlein’s account, and it’s central to his argument that Theory brooks no dissent: namely, the work of many of the scholars of his and my generation (he earned his doctorate a year before I did).  Let me put it in the form of a challenge.  Anyone who thinks that theory has lost its power to inspire searching minds simply hasn’t read, or hasn’t heard of, books like Amanda Anderson’s The Powers of Distance:  Cosmopolitanism and the Cultivation of Detachment, John Frow’s Cultural Studies and Cultural Value, Rita Felski’s The Gender of Modernity, or Grant Farred’s What’s My Name?  Black Vernacular Intellectuals.  (And if it’s stinging dissent from Theorists you want, check out Anderson’s “Debatable Performances: Restaging Contentious Feminisms” or Tim Dean’s “On the Eve of a Queer Future”).  Sometimes I wonder if I’m simply leading a charmed life: how is it that I happen to hang out with people like Amanda and Grant, and how is it that I’m surrounded by books like Bill Maxwell’s New Negro, Old Left or Rachel Adams’s Sideshow U.S.A. or my esteemed co-blogger’s Democracy’s Children or essays by James Berger and Joseph Valente and Janet Lyon?  Am I just lucky in my choice of friends and associates, or do the anti-Theorists have their radar tuned exclusively to the Celebrities and their Epigones?

Probably both.  Hey, I am leading a charmed life!

More to come whenever I can manage it.  In the meantime, remember, tomorrow is Thursday, and Thursday is John McGowan Day.  I’ll be back on Friday with a Fun List.

Posted by Michael on 07/06 at 04:27 PM
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