Sunday, 17 January 2010

What a mistake to ever have said ‘Literary Theory’…

I don’t appropriate the language of Anti-Oedipus lightly, mainly because I don’t understand it. If only I could be at the stage in reading Deleuze where I could be flippant with it (much like Slavoj Zizek is with Lacan, or indeed, anything), but the problem seems to be, there isn’t a great deal of flippancy in Theory. What’s Deleuze and Guattari’s basic problem with psychoanalysis? The familial thing, sure, the emphasis on lack, blah blah blah, but surely it’s much simpler – they think it’s BORING, that it always ends up saying the same things. Theory gets the fun taken out of it by not only its serious critics (the ‘anti postmodern theory’ people Michael mentions above) but, much more worryingly, also by its most dreadfully earnest exponents.

There is a problem with Theory. Part of it comes from having a capital ‘T’. Freud, for instance – psychoanalysis is a critical toolbox for many (I would count myself among such people) – but do we do a disservice to Freud’s work if we just teach and read it as ‘Theory’, as a kind of answer to critical problems? I even find the very pragmatic term ‘toolbox’ a little troubling – it suggests wrenching and repairing texts so that they do the right kind of work, because they’re not playing the game properly. Freud’s writing is vast, varied, inconclusive, and haunting, and is no more coherent than any of us are, really. The same goes for the other ‘serious theorists’ – Foucault, Derrida, and even the productive anti-theory of Deleuze, the place where concepts “are exactly like sounds, colours, or images, they are intensities which suit you or not, which are acceptable or aren't acceptable”. Michael mentioned Adam Phillips, but the most wonderful thing that he has shown me is to read, as he puts it, for sentences, for pleasurable moments that provoke a passionate redescription.

When Gilles Deleuze writes this in Dialogues II, he notes that there is “no question of difficulty”. This must be the most serious issue for anyone who isn’t the ‘theory’ crowd – this apparent difficulty, or inaccessibility, or impenetrability. It’s unfortunate that theory is so often seen as a kind of insurmountable precipice or obscure jungle, because it takes away the warmth and poetry from writing that can be an experience of the everyday. I’m not a cynic at all, quite the opposite – I’m a naïve idiot that actually believes in what I say – and I tend to think reading Freud or Deleuze or whatever is much more than some kind of academic allegiance, and an ethics in itself, a critical disposition that extends into your experience of the world. Two examples from recent seminars: “Well, I’ve never been trained in Theory, so I don’t really know what it’s all about”. “I just don’t really understand Lacan or whatever, so I find it too intimidating to engage with”. I wish I knew the solution to this situation, because it’s a sentiment I often share, though I should know better. One has to ask: what exactly would training in Theory involve? Surely the most radical thing about some of these writers would be an absolute resistance to that kind of process itself? I can’t remember the exact remark, but Foucault said somewhere in ‘The Subject and Power’ or something like that his work constituted neither a theory nor a methodology.

The serious theory problem seems to be one of preposition use – how do practice literary criticism? Do we do it ‘with’ theory, ‘through’ theory, ‘around’ theory? Do some of us even write to get ‘towards’ theory, or ‘beyond’ it, or ‘behind’ it? The problem of theory seems to be a spatial one as well as a temporal one, us always locating ourselves in relation to the work, either gazing up at it in supplication like frightened children or trying to straddle it to put it in its place. It almost seems dreadfully old fashioned to be raising these kinds of questions, as if I’m living in the eighties, because EVERYBODY knows the big theory meta-narratives are dead. (I am incredibly conservative in this respect - my secret, perverse project is that I really do just want to write about Lacan, but have to use the Middle Ages to do it, in a kind of ridiculous obsessional economy in which I do everything I can to put off the act but do it nonetheless). Undergraduate and postgraduate discussions seem revolve around the utility and problems with ‘applying’ theory (a completely vulgar term that I despise, partly because it makes literary critics sound like plasterers or dodgy builders) rather than thinking about how we arrived at describing certain things as, or why we might want to call such things, ‘Theory’ in the first place. Where, for instance, would John Ruskin, or Walter Pater stand – men who wrote passionately and particularly about their particular passions – in relation to Theory? Freud, of course, merely writes about the pleasures of a specific kind of conversation, or the surprising pleasures in the act of dreaming. It would perhaps be better if we just make new machines with theory, surprising alliances that change the whole plane on which we conduct our reading practices. To go back to Deleuze and Guattari for a moment, perhaps we ought to realize that ‘Theory’ is not the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, but rather:

Everywhere it is machines-real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.

This is a pretty long-winded way to get things going, really.

Much Love!



  1. I've put more thought into the whole issue of "literary theory" off and on throughout the break, and I think the biggest problem is the word "theory" itself. For sciences, theories are are things to be proven using concrete methodologies that can be replicated, but in literature, it will never yield the same result, particularly because our readings are the sum of our experiences and no two are ever the same (whether we talk about readings between two different people or even two readings of the same text ourselves). We may think we have achieved a similar understanding or reading, but even as we read "theory" we move beyond it, applying our own perspective and experiences to that text, in such a way that we can never truly replicate either someone else's reading or even limit ourselves to their understanding of a given text.

    The other major problem with the word "theory" is that it conjures up a metaphorical straight jacket with which to bind a text, but as you and Mike have often argued, the purpose of theory is to free a text, or at least to remove some/many of the limitations of it. In this sense, "theory" has become, if you will, innately hypocritical, and for people who have not thrown themselves into it whole heartedly such as yourself or your Hetero-Life-Partner, working around this pseudo-hypocrisy is daunting and intimidating. For the undergraduate, their interpretation of theory will be grounded in the perspectives of their profs and the understanding of their teachers. For those of us who still don't understand it, how can we teach it to the next fledgling group of academics? For those of us afraid of it, how can we teach anything but fear? For those who avoid it or feel contempt for it...well, you get the picture.

    It was Kenneth Burke who coined the phrase "Terministic Screen," which I find rather helpful in this situation. To him, the very choice of words creates a lens through which we look at whatever is being described, that allows us to see things a certain way BUT also rejects other ways of looking at things. And this is where "theory" has taken the turn for the worse in my opinion. That it is so shrouded in mystery for fledgling and experienced academics alike that it is reserved for only the truly elite sectarians of the "theory genre" (Butler, Derrida, Foucault, etc) and inaccessible to others (at least those without a good Thesaurus). My opinion, I could be wrong.

    In the end though, I think another word would be better appropriated rather than "theory," and the word that comes to my mind is "Prospectus." To me, this frees "Literary Theory" from the chains that shackle it amongst the lay-people who reject it, opens up the very notion of aims and objectives rather than necessarily pigeon-holing and defining (two issues that "theory" can do and again generate this static confinement of reductionism). It gives me, at any rate, a sense of freedom in translation, for really, theory can be a form of translation, of re-reading a text with a new lens.

    The problem is, the lens should open up new views without closing others off.

  2. I am a member of the History department not the English department so I am not engaged in your Med Lits MA programme at all.

    However I recognise what you are saying – and admire the way that you are saying it. For ‘Theory’ with a big T, read philosophy? In History we engage our undergraduates in historical theory or philosophy a great deal. One third of their degree, at least, will be engaged in modules with deal explicitly with the nature of History and its relationship to other disciplines. There is thus at least one compulsory ‘theory’ module in every year of their degree culminating with their last module which is a 40 credit (full term) module in comparative history which not only demands a great deal of theory but which also directly tackles in depth the notion of time by demanding a thematic rather than periodised treatment of the past. My own, Utopias, deals broadly speaking, with what Karl Popper called the ‘spell of Plato’ drawing examples from over two millennia of social writing and experiment. Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas on ‘space and time’ and on ‘functional identity’ are obviously useful in thinking about the role of utopia and the need for utopia.

    Two things emerge (for me) out of this – the first is that students are people and not surprisingly vary hugely in their opinions of what they enjoy and respond to, and in how hard they work and how much they read, and in how confident they are about discussing their reading in class. In almost every module I teach we end up having debates about whether we are being sufficiently historical, or perhaps we are being instead too philosophical, or too literary, or too archaeological. I always welcome this kind of discussion because it provides such an excellent way of getting to the heart of whatever we are discussing and why we are discussing it. So I disagree with Jeffrey Cohen’s comment to Mike’s post. These debates should not only be part of the formal instruction or institutionalised into particular programmes or classes. Taking the initiative yourselves and setting up an extra reading group because you want to is a fantastic and very desirable source of enrichment for all who participate in it. Some years ago we used to have another student-run reading group in ‘Critical Theory’ run by people such as John Arnold and Katherine Lewis because they wanted more than was provided in class, and because they wanted their own and a sharper focus on particular critical theories. It was hugely successful for them and all who participated in it: in developing new work and shaping new books, life-long friendships, careers and new curricula. It ran for several years until replaced by something else, as these informal groups rightly do. We need BOTH/AND institutionalised spaces and informal discussion. A blog, of course is exactly a ‘BOTH/AND’ kind of space.

    continued in next comment ...

  3. continued from last comment ..

    The second thing that emerges (for me) from reading and teaching Theory – or philosophy – or critical thinking – is that there is a great deal of it (!) and many voices, many philosophies to choose between. I am sure that I will eventually get around to reading D&G properly and enjoy engaging with them – maybe your reading group will be the place I do that. My main interest at the moment is social theory. I am desperately disappointed that most mainstream social critics assume it originated in the enlightenment – because like all pre-modernists I know that not to be true and would love our ‘expert knowledge’ to have more impact in that field. But I am also aware – through friends and relations working in the ‘History of Science’ and ‘History and Science’ – that we might need to be not only creative but also careful about how we use words and the meanings we give to them – recognising when we are being inventive and why and that there is an aesthetics of precision as well as an aesthetics of feeling. So I think that engagement with Theory also should ideally be critical and argumentative, with room for many different points of view and influence, and room for interaction between them.

    Sadly I cannot attend the group because I am teaching my Utopias module at the same time in a different place - (two concrete realities, not constructs!) – but I will have fun keeping up with the blog. All power to you!!

  4. At GW we call our compulsory course on theory for undergraduate majors "Critical Methods." We do emphasize the debates in it -- in fact I've often used a book that frames introductions to various schools via disagreeing pieces. Here I thrive on staging debate.

    I'm not against such an approach at postgraduate level, but at that point I personally find the "Should we even do theory?" agonizing a little tiresome at this point. Every approach is a theory; every mind should be open enough where exploration is a first impulse rather than closure or boundary drawing. So as you can see I'm not the best teacher of skeptics when it comes to advanced study. I have colleagues who are much better at it, and usually let them teach the graduate intro theory course.

    BUT having said that I want to emphasize that I understand the impulse to foreclose's origin: advanced study places so many burdens on the scholar and challenges one's feelings of competence at every turn, so learning the history and culture out of which "theory" emerges (can we really study D&G etc. without knowing a little about France in 1968?) seems like the back-breaking straw when you are also charged with, say, learning the details of manuscript hands.

  5. I think this is true. One of the most productive things to have come out of our discussion in the seminar Ben and I both mention was that we began to question whether there could even be a non-theoretical approach?

    Ben's comments on the Theory/theory dichotomy (one which is strengthened by Rob's repeated use of inverted commas!) is key here, I think. Whenever we approach a text, in the broadest sense of the word, we bring with it the sum of all our previous readings. Whether those readings happen to have been Derrida, Freud, Foucault; or even Gaimar, Geoffrey of Monmouth or even historians like Keynes, shouldn't (doesn't) really matter. Each of us will see in a text something slightly (even entirely) different.

    What's most reductive is when any one person is totally closed off to certain kinds of reading, to bringing certain texts together. In the introduction to a collection of Zizek's works, 'Interrogating the Real', Zizek uses the interesting example of Leninists meeting Dadists in a Zurich cafe (!) as something which 'structurally cannot take place; more radically, revolutionary politics and revolutionary art move in different temporalities - although they are linked, the are two sides of the same phenomenon which, precisely as two sides, can never meet.' This, of course, is the insurmountable parallactic gap which we are facing with bringing together, for example, 'Beowulf' and Freud. These texts are discursively inextricable, but can never quite meet structurally.

    It is as though we deal with two texts which are on either side of a mobius strip: always tied together, but always with a distance between them. It is what we can do with, and in, the tiny space in between that is really important, and it's where I'd like to situate myself (for now, at least!).


  6. Ah, but if your intention is to make mahcines with theory, theory-machines of whatever description, then what you need more than anything is a critical toolbox.

    (I imagine Zizek would look something like this:

  7. And then there is also this wonderful rumination from Foucault on why we need "thought on thought":

    ". . . what is philosophy--philosophical activity, I mean--if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself; in what does it consist, if not in the endeavor to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently instead of legitimating what is already known."

    And that, in a nutshell, is why we always need theory, which is to say, critical thought, or thought upon thought.

    Cheers, Eileen