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.