Online Edition: Winter 2005/2006

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Theory's Empire

An Anthology of Dissent

edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral

Columbia University Press ($29.50)

by Raphael Allison

Theory's Empire announces itself as a long awaited and much belated response to the repressive orthodoxy of Theory, Theory "emblazoned with a capital T." Theory with a capital T refers in this case to a generalized reduction of the ideas of writers like Ferdinand de Saussure, Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Emile Benveniste, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Edward Said. This list could be extended in many directions, but the editors wish to localize it around a few basic principles: the decentering of subjectivity, the politicizing of literary and aesthetic artifacts, the undecidability of meaning, and the recent professionalization and institutionalization of these ideas to the point of intransigence. As the epigraph to this volume by Christopher Ricks aphorizes: "Theory's Empire [is] an empire zealously inquisitorial about every form of empire but its own." Once proclaimed as an ambitious form of cultural revolution, Theory has become what the editors of this volume call a "tedious obligation" for students interested in literature, inspiring just the thing it hoped in its grandiose and arrogant way to avoid, "the passive assent to established routines." With this collection of 47 essays, written by a wide variety of academic insiders and outsiders—there are considerate essays by eminent scholars like Tzvetan Todorov and Marjorie Perloff as well as screeds by journalists like the hysterical Lee Siegel—the editors hope to offer a counterstatement to this "empire" of intolerance which is ruling universities, limiting a full-blooded engagement with literature, and generally traducing a much-maligned tradition that longs for a phoenix-like return.

It is true that Theory can turn to dogma in about the time it takes to say "phallogocentrism." In her contribution to the volume, "Feminism's Perverse Effects," Elaine Marks relates an experience common to many university professors of what could be called the tyranny of the under- or partially-informed undergraduate Left. In a class on Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, Marks was shocked to find that the students could not tolerate the fact that "Hurston's narrative did not focus sufficiently on what the students expected to read: the unrelieved story of Hurston's oppression as a black woman growing up in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." Raised on a crash-diet of highly politicized Theoretical corn, Marks's class could only read Hurston's narrative in ideological terms, and they even had difficulty confronting the very fact of this surprising discrepancy. "In a sense," Marks explains, "the students were denying Hurston the right to write in a certain style, the right to write against the doxa and the discourse of her time and place. They could read Dust Tracks on a Road only in terms of racism and sexism. And because they could not find in it what they were looking for, they denied themselves the pleasures of discovering a new and different text, another mode of writing and reading."

In a similar vein, Valerie Cunningham suggests that the "domestication" of Theory by a cottage industry of critical Baedekers has led to what might be called "Theory tourism," the notion that there are a series of "approaches" one might choose from, and the job is simply to visit each and then decide which one to "apply." From this consumerist perspective, students gas up their chosen theoretical SUV and then plow it through every possible textual terrain, ever missing great vistas for the dogged asphalt. Many essays in this volume address this real problem, and are often eloquent and weary pleas for a "return" to a kind of literariness or aesthetics that guards the literature as a special and unique kind of writing. It is hard to read as informed a scholar as Marjorie Perloff without sympathy as she reviews studies of Conrad's and Joyce's complicity with "power" and concludes that in the "zeal to unmask the hidden ideologies of these and related novels, critics seem to have forgotten what brought them to Ulysses or Heart of Darkness in the first place—namely, the uniqueness of these novels as works of art."

Yet while some such arguments are reasonable, reading through 47 of them over roughly 700 pages raises a few problems. The first is the problem of the discarded baby: with so much dirty bathwater to discharge, few of these writers seem to recognize the many healthy theoretical correctives to a problematically un-theorized professional field that, say, overlooked women and writers of color, or promulgated cultural and aesthetic norms that concealed political suasions. It is easy to dismiss baldly politicized identity politics, as Todd Gitlin does in his essay "The Cant of Identity." Kwame Anthony Appiah's entry, "Battle of the Bien-Pensant," is a more measured critique not of academic moralism as such, but "moralism run amok," which gets to the main issue more clearly and fairly. But so bent are many of these essays on jettisoning Theory's missteps and blunders that they rarely acknowledge any of its successes.

Another glaring issue is repetitiveness. One thing that can be said for Theory is that it is rarely dull. Perhaps, as many here claim, Theory holds in common a certain set of basic ideas and assumptions—what body of work doesn't?—but one of the "joys" of reading Theory is that it is continuously surprising, challenging, different, elusive, maddening, frustrating, devious, wrong, right, insane, other, ugly, contradictory, queer. You don't step into the same river twice reading Theory in the way that you do reading Theory's Empire, which feels more like a thin trickle of harassments, repeated over and over again with righteous outrage and exasperation. Perhaps most problematically, only a few cartoonishly abstracted and simplified claims—ideological critique only carries us so far, there are absolutes we can agree upon after all, literature is special, etc.—stand in for the immensity of theoretical discourse. Yet only a dogmatist or ideologue would contradict such claims.

And so Theory's Empire shreds a straw man. This straw man is constructed of almost willfully blind ignorance and reductiveness, paradoxically revealed in the very places where Theory is charged with being vague, empty, and misinformed: "What precisely is an interpretive community?" asks one critic. "It's just one very loose cannon of a notion knocking about the Theoretical field." In fact, the "interpretive community," whether you agree with it or not, is an idea carefully articulated by Stanley Fish in his essay "Interpreting the Variorum" and elsewhere. Others may use it irresponsibly, but that's not a sufficient critique of Theory. And if Fish is anything but dull, the shrill refrain that Theory is misguided, misinformed, and misused over and again is excruciatingly dull. Also, the books editors, Daphne Patai and Will Corral, often come off as sloppy and biased guides, citing their classroom experiences with "the student who asserts that any interpretation of a literary work is as valid as any other" as self-evident proof against Theory in general. It doesn't take a Frederic Jameson (or a Leo Strauss, for that matter) to realize that the fault here is not with the stars, but with ourselves. Rather than castigate relativism out of hand, they might do better to castigate students who misread and misuse complex relativistic positions out of ignorance and intellectual immaturity. By Patai and Corral's standard, we might as well blame Shakespeare if a student thinks MacBeth advocates regicide.

But perhaps the most glaring problem with this volume is that for all its outrage and urgency, Theory's Empire reads like a belated commentary on a stale zeitgeist. Most of the essays here were written in the 1980s and the early 1990s (to be precise: two essays are from the 1970s, six from the 1980s, 27 from the 1990s, and 12 from the 2000s). At the risk of seeming faddish, it could be said that times have changed. For instance, we get D.G. Myers's essay on "bad writing," originally published in 1999 in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which hauls out the clichˇ that academicians like Judith Butler are stylistically obscure. Turning to this familiar punching bag as a way to condemn "Theory" tout court not only seems to ignore how Butler's language is unrepresentative of current critical discourse, but also makes it clear that Myers is unaware of how often this dismissive strategem has been invoked. Alan Spitzer's essay about the contradictions between deconstruction's commitment to antifoundationalism and its "fact"-based defense of Paul de Man's pro-Nazi writings is at once an excellent article and somewhat of a museum piece. The subsection titled "Linguistic Turns" contains some excellent writing, in particular John Searle's detailed rebuttal of Derrida. It's a wonderfully reasoned piece, but—if one may be so bold as to play weatherman—the wind doesn't blow that way anymore. Derrida is dead, quite literally, and the controversies this volume dredges up do not seem to dominate the work being done in current academic scholarship, which has by and large moved on.

One nagging issue with this volume, as mentioned earlier, is the unavoidable suspicion that there really is no such thing as Theory, at least not in the ways in which this anthology supposes. Many of the book's early essays spend a lot of time defining the term, and the amount of energy it takes to do so should suggest how fraught such an enterprise really is. It is reductive and misleading to say that there is some monolithic, unified movement afoot, some conspiratorial group of leftist academics arrogantly protecting their cultural capital. Yes, theoretical language is often deployed to obscure scant knowledge of and engagement with literature, and yes, part of "professionalizing" oneself in academia includes becoming conversant in a torrent of discursive regimes. One of the frustrating elements of Theory's Empire, however, is that it doesn't allow for the existence of this discipline at all, just a simplification of it. For example, a common tactic many writers use is to condemn certain theoretical positions because they fail to conform to other theoretical positions. Raymond Tallis's attack on Derrida (again with the Derrida) relies on the charge that Derrida "misreads" Saussure by failing to distinguish between langue and parole, eventually dismissing the French philosopher as not Saussurean enough: "Most of the errors in . . . post-Suassurean thought derive, paradoxically, from thinkers overlooking Saussure's fundamental doctrines." Well, it depends on whether you see Of Grammatology as "overlooking" Saussure's doctrines or challenging them. After all, they call it post-structuralism for a reason. Tallis's argument tautologically rejects post-structuralism because it is, well, post-structuralist. Does Tallis understand that Derrida meant to overturn Saussure?

Of course, it is difficult not to agree with some of what is said in this volume about the abuses of Theory. But you might say that Theory is like fire: it can destroy a village, or be used wisely in a control burn to avoid the destruction of a village. Or it is like a sword: it can be plunged into an innocent victim's chest, or it can defend an innocent victim's life. Perhaps the NRA's traditional argument in defense of the Second Amendment might come in handy here: theory doesn't kill literature, people kill literature. There were bad, reductive readers before Wimsatt and Beardsley came along, and there are surely more to come. But with the turn of the new millennium, which begins a period that falls beyond the moment of all but a quarter of these essays, things have started to change. It might even be said that Theory's "empire" has already begun the long, slow process of attrition experienced in the preceding century by other empires of even greater consequence. If so, this book is a little much, and a little late.


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