Anastasia had a couple of posts a few days ago, in which I should note that she wasn't talking about theory explicitly, but rather about how her educational background prior to her grad program has left her with lingering insecurities and doubts about her ability to "belong" in academia (and Anastasia, feel free to jump in if that distillation of what you wrote about isn't accurate). Between that and the hullabaloo of last week (to which I will not link, as if you don't know what I'm talking about you probably don't want to know) and then the material that I was teaching in my one class, I've been thinking a lot, first about what it means to enter into academic discourse and second about who has the authority to speak in that discourse (which actually brings Pierre Bourdieu to mind, particularly what he has to say in Language and Symbolic Power about the production and reproduction of "legitimate" language.... at which I just took a brief glance, which has my notes from when I read it in graduate school, which I suspect many readers might find interesting given my arguments about the potential for class mobility, as apparently my positions were comfortably in line 10 years ago with the ones that I've developed and have today.) There's a reason I just did that name-dropping thing, and a reason why I did it parenthetically in the precise way that I did it. But I'll get to that later.
So there is the first introduction for this post. Now I'm going to offer a second introduction. It takes a certain kind of student to choose to attend a college or university with an actively crappy reputation (and when I'm talking about reputation here I'm not talking about U.S. News and World Report, where such schools tend either not to be ranked or to rank so low on the list that nobody thinks to consult U.S. News when choosing them). Such institutions often have funny names or catch phrases that locals use when describing them, like "Can't read? Can't Write? Blank State," or "No Education University." You might think that it takes a student who couldn't get in anyplace better to choose a school that is widely known (among everybody, even those who themselves have not finished college) for its lack of rigor, but if you think so, you clearly *don't* understand where some (not all) students are coming from in making their decision about where to attend college. And so this is the second introduction, which may not seem to have anything to do with the first on the surface, but I promise, I am going someplace with this.
And now a third introduction. I do theoretically oriented criticism in my own scholarship, but I don't use literature to demonstrate theories. What do I mean? Well, for me, literary criticism begins with the literary text. When I use theory, I use it to help illuminate my understanding (and I hope others' understanding) of the literature, as opposed to the converse operation, in which one uses literature to illuminate a theoretical approach or ethical concern. In other words, what I do more than anything is *practical* literary criticism that is rooted in close reading of literature. And what I'm interested in doing in my scholarly work is not anything more or less than in finding new ways to think about whatever literary text it is that I am examining in a given moment. I would never call myself a cultural critic (although obviously what I might say may suggest cultural critique), and I do not think of myself as a "theorist." I don't *do* theory: I *use* theory. Some would say that this violates the spirit of how theory should be engaged, that it shouldn't be "applied." Now, I would agree that one shouldn't just overlay theory onto a literary text, but I think that this divide demonstrates a real divide in literary scholarship. And I know people who use literature to understand theory, and they do interesting work, so I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but rather just trying to describe my own relationship to theory. Another divide that I think my approach to theoretically oriented criticism may illuminate is that some people who do literary criticism think that literary criticism has activist potential, and I just don't, or, perhaps more generously, the only thing that I think literary criticism does is potentially offer new way of reading literary texts, and that's all I aim to do when I do literary criticism. I do not aim to change the way that people think about bigger theoretical or ethical issues. If that is one result, grand, I suppose, but it's not how I conceive the purpose of the criticism that I do. So if somebody reads an article I write or my book or whatever, the only result for which I hope is that they come away thinking about the literature differently.
The fourth (and last) introduction: I tend to approach literary criticism from a feminist theoretical perspective, which probably isn't exactly a news flash, but whatever. Now, to do so is an inherently political project, which may seem to contradict what I said above about the way that I situate myself as a theoretically oriented literary critic. The politics of choosing to situate oneself within feminist theory are complicated, precisely because it requires that the critic negotiate a difficult terrain between insider status (as a woman in the academy, I am on the inside, and there's nothing particularly radical about doing feminist theory in the academy or about identifying oneself as a feminist in the academy) and outsider status (as somebody doing criticism from a feminist theoretical position, I do think that one of the challenges is to try to imagine and practice a critical language that refuses or attempts to refuse to reproduce certain systemic hierarchies). If one "does" feminist theory without thinking about how doing so can serve to perpetuate those hierarchies, or if one fails to come to terms with her insider status even as she challenges the status quo, I believe that results in bad criticism.
So what do these four disparate introductions have to do with the larger topic of "access to theory," you may be wondering? Well, to me, the first two introductions hint toward a consideration of who, in terms of real people in the real world, is awarded a VIP Pass that gives them access to theory, and who has the moxie to use that pass in order to get attention (much in the way of Rock of Love II). See, not everybody gets the pass (though luckily the pass isn't dependent on having lips that make one look like this). Students at different kinds of universities* receive very different introductions to the world of theory. For example, my introduction was a one semester literary criticism course in which we spent approximately 75% of the semester covering Aristotle through New Criticism. This was in the early- to mid- 1990s people. When I entered graduate school, I'd never *heard* of Derrida. In other words, when I entered graduate school, I was the equivalent of Kristy Joe. And the Destiny types of the world used their VIP passes right when I thought it was my turn to shine. I was out of my depth. And my instructors, I think, thought that this signified a lack of sophistication on my part (in fact, they said so) rather than a lack of experience. And it was on me to learn, independently, how to read this stuff and to talk about it in ways that didn't out me as stupid. Luckily, I am bizarrely overconfident when presented with such challenges, so it didn't occur to me what a difficult thing that would be to do. And so I did it. And obviously I came out on the other side.
Now, you may be thinking that surely students today, regardless of institution, don't face these same barriers. I mean, it's over 30 years since, for example, the English translation of Of Grammatology was published. Surely everybody has "access to theory" now. If you think that, you are wrong. At my current institution, students have, as I did, just one, one-semester theory requirement, and it is rare that they are exposed to theory in contexts other than in that course. (To be fair, this course does a better job of exposing them to theories from 1960 onward, and it does not take on the History of Thought from Aristotle to the Present.) While there is a topics course in which students can study theory, it is rare that the course is offered because it counts only as an elective and fulfills no other requirements in the major, which means it rarely will make the minimum enrollment in order to "go." And so when the best students from my institution are admitted into graduate programs, whether in literature or in writing or whatever, they often return to tell us, their mentors, that they are entirely at sea. And yet, there are people in my department who are shocked when they hear those reports. There are people who think that we shouldn't even require the one Survey of Theory course.
Now what does it mean if students don't get access to theory as undergraduates? Is it really such a big deal? I would say it's a big deal on two levels. First, it's a big deal because the jargon of this discipline, the specialized language that we use to discuss literary texts, is theoretical. If one has not been exposed to that language, entering a classroom where it is engaged can be like entering a class where everybody else is speaking, say, French, and you only know English. This is profoundly alienating and intimidating. (Note: for the bulk of majors, this is not a major issue, as they do not go on to graduate school. So I'm not saying all majors need the theoretical language for discussing literary texts for their future professional or personal lives. That said, if at least a handful are going on each year from our programs to graduate school, we do them a disservice if we ignore the need. Moreover, there is a benefit even for those who will not go on to have been introduced to theory and given access to it, as I do think that it can change the way that we perceive the world around us in ways that are positive. In other words, the "necessity" argument is not all here, as it's also not "necessary" to read Wordsworth's Prelude but that doesn't mean we can't get something out of doing so.) The second reason it's a big deal, and I would say this is for all majors regardless of grad school ambitions, is it means that they're not learning how to engage theoretical, critical, and literary texts simultaneously in their writing, which I think constitutes a major cognitive leap from writing your basic 8-10 page research paper or a traditional 3-5 page analysis essay. In other words, they are not getting an equivalent education to students at more elite institutions. They are not being taught to think in ways that are as sophisticated; they are not being taught certain procedures for integrating disparate kinds of complex material and for producing a coherent whole. Nor are they equipped to interpret what's going on when others do that very thing. This is a liability.
This liability can color the way that one is perceived in the broader world. It can make a person appear to be "stupid" or at the very least lacking in sophistication. And this brings us back to choice of university: why would a student choose a university that is known for its lack of academic rigor? Does that signify "stupidity"? Actually, I think the answer to this is quite similar to what I'm discussing when I talk about access to theory. Students who could do better who choose this sort of university do so because they have not been acculturated to the language of prestige and they make their choice about where to attend school based on other criteria than quality of education. They assume that they'll do just fine choosing the school that's closer to home, that costs less money, that isn't intimidating. I mean, they'll come out with a college degree at the end, right? What's the difference? So what we're talking about here isn't stupidity. It's inexperience. And ultimately, students who make those choices can be penalized for that inexperience. (And this is only if we're talking about traditionally aged college students without other life issues that might structurally prohibit them from going to a "better" university. Students with children, for example, often are in a position where they truly *can't* make another choice, and so if they do not have access, it is because there are very real impediments to access that they have no hope of negotiating.)
But so one of the things that I'm committed to doing at my job is to try to offer my students access to theory, inasmuch as this is possible within the constraints of the curriculum, student expectations, and my other teaching responsibilities. And as I've been teaching one course in particular this semester, I've been thinking a lot about what it means that these students are gaining access to theory through me. We're solidly underway now, and many of the students are frustrated. They are frustrated because they feel like they have no idea what is going on in the reading. They are frustrated with the jargon - "why can't they just spit it out?" - and they are frustrated with the elitism - "where are real people in all of this?" - and they are frustrated with the complexity of the structures of the pieces that they are reading and with the discursive frame that determines (overdetermines?) what they are reading. And these are legitimate criticisms (at least I think so), but the students are feeling stripped of authority, as if they must not be getting something if they are so resistant and if they feel so lost. What's most interesting about this is the fact that all of these "theories" that they are reading are loosely about authorizing voices that don't normally get heard. But because the theories are being articulated in "legitimate language," students are experiencing these theories that are so invested in empowerment (and the institutionalization of empowering theories) as ultimately stripping them of their subjective agency. Ah, theory is not for the faint of heart.
So where do I fit into all of this? Well, as a student I struggled with these same difficulties, though for the most part I went it alone in that struggle. So a lot of what I've been doing as a teacher is supporting them through their resistance and their anxiety, doing my best to make the class a safe space to express such things. I've also been trying to respond to their criticisms as best I can, and to try to situate those criticisms within broader debates within the discipline. And when they ask a question about where I stand on a particular issue, I've done my best to give straight answers as opposed to obfuscating and turning the questions back around on them, which is a technique I found disturbing when I myself was in their position.
Am I succeeding? Too soon to tell. I am providing them with "access to theory," broadly speaking, in that I've assigned them theoretical texts to read. But more specifically, "access to theory" isn't just about putting the texts in front of them. It's also about, more specifically, attempting to give them access to theoretical language and structures of argument, and this project is somewhat contradictory, both for them and for me. Because see, as someone who positions herself as a feminist, isn't the point that we value a multiplicity of voices, of ways of making meaning, of ways of expressing the meaning that we make? I'd say it is. Except it isn't. Because if you can't speak in the "legitimate language" then you don't get heard. And so what a lot of the reading thus far in the course does is it attempts to argue against theoretical discourse that ultimately performs in ways that are exclusive, elitist, and marginalizing even as it uses that very discourse in which to do so. As you might imagine, the students, they are not fans of this approach.
To be honest, I'm not a fan of this approach. Even though, as a graduate student, I was intrigued (as I wrote in the margins of my copy of Language and Symbolic Power) about the potential to use " 'legitimate' language for other (illegitimate) ends," I wonder now about how such attempts make us complicit in a system that is profoundly conservative in the way that it authorizes some voices and silences others, in the way that it accords value to some subject positions and marginalizes others. One of the things that I found most troubling about the hullabaloo of last week was the way that certain kinds of support for arguments were privileged over other kinds, as if quoting from a literary text was more authoritative than citing personal experience, for example. As if one form of argument were "objective" - and thus "true" - and another form was "subjective" or personal - and thus in error. Ultimately, this had little to do with the actual positions that were being espoused. Rather, it was about reifying one kind of discourse and excluding another, valuing one kind of discourse as legitimate and dismissing the other as being merely "the tyranny of personal experience."
In this post that I'm now about to conclude (and I'm sure you're thinking, "finally!"), you will notice that I've referred parenthetically or obliquely to theoretical texts, but I've not cited any. This has been intentional. What I'm playing with is the idea that while theory does give us access to new ways of thinking, for I couldn't have written this post without being theoretically engaged, it may not authorize our opinions. Perhaps, it is possible, that authorization depends not on what one can cite or how often or how compellingly, but rather how one can engage with theory while maintaining a voice that stands outside of the totalizing procedures of academic discourse. The problem with that, though, is that things like tenure, or passing one's dissertation defense, or getting an article published depend on being able to enter into that academic discourse. Only on a blog, where I don't write with my professional name, do I get to experiment in the way that I've done in this post. Perhaps if I were a superstar of some kind that wouldn't be true, but from where I stand in the hierarchy, the fact of the matter is that I have to talk the talk in order to be taken seriously and for my work to get an audience.
But so I started thinking about this post last night, as I was rereading Gayatri Spivak's In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, thinking that it might be useful for the article I'm apparently writing. It was published 20 years ago, and yet, as I read, I came across a passage, in an article from 1980 no less, that really was the inspiration for this post. And so, in closing, I'll leave you with it. I'm not sure that it really serves as an adequate ending, but it is, nevertheless, where I'll end:
"The fiction of mainstream literary criticism - so generally "masculist" that the adjective begins to lose all meaning (on this level of generality you could call it 'capitalist,' 'idealist,' or 'humanist,' as long as you show how) - is that rigorous readings come into being in a scientific field, or in the field of legalistic demonstration of validity. The other view, coming from a mind-set that has been systematically marginalized, may just as well be called "feminist": that the production of public rigor bears the strategically repressed marks of the so-called 'private' at all levels. [. . .] Women must tell each other's stories, not because they are simpleminded creatures, but because they must call into question the model of criticism as neutral theorem or science." (16)
*I actually revised this statement as I thought it through in response to comments from readers. I *should* have written that this varies depending on *specific institutional context*, though I do think the underlying *reasons* for why some students get theory and others don't vary by *kind* of institution. For a deeper discussion of this, do check out the comment thread.