I took a couple theory courses as an undergrad because my mentor told me that this was what practically all literature graduate schools focused on these days. I was quickly turned off from theory and by extension lit grad school because, at the time, I thought it was some of the worst-written stuff I'd ever encountered: jargon-y, unnecessarily convoluted, pretentious, and so on. I was also taught by a "true believer" who I felt occasionally made the books fit the theory instead of finding a theory that fit the books. Since then I've wondered how much of my reaction was fair -- of course you couldn't know if my professor was actually misusing theory, but does that often happen? And is a lot of theory (like, say, Derrida and Foucault) as badly written as it seemed, or had I just not spent enough time learning the jargon?I was going to write back in the comments, but I felt myself composing a lengthy answer in my head, and so I thought that this deserved its own post.
To begin, I think that the claim that theory is "what practically all literature graduate schools [focus] on" is a misleading one. I think it implies that when one goes to graduate school to study literature that one doesn't actually study literature but theory. This is not, for the most part, true, as far as I am aware. For example, I was in a very "theoretical" sort of PhD program and I only took one - that's right, ONE - seminar that focused on theory. My other 7 seminars focused on literary texts.
With that being said, however, I think it is fair to say that graduate programs expect that students will be engaged with the discipline as it now stands, and the discipline as it now stands involves theoretically oriented criticism, i.e., part of what graduate school teaches a student is that literary scholarship (not love of literature, note) is about an ongoing conversation that forces one to reckon with theoretical approaches. Now. Some programs, and some specializations within literary scholarship, are more theoretically oriented than others. Moreover, some research paths depend more on theory than do others. I do tend to be a very theoretically oriented scholar. Part of that has to do with my specialization, and part of it has to do with my training. (My PhD program was one that did emphasize theoretical approaches almost exclusively.) But I've never done archival or textual research. People whose scholarship veers in that direction don't "need" theory in the way that I "need" theory. They're still participating in the discipline as it now stands, and sure, they've encountered theory at some point, but it's not central to their work in the way that it is to mine.
Now, you may be wondering about my description of my scholarship as "needing" theory when I claimed that I don't conceive of myself as a "theory person." Well, see, this is why I have ended up being the theory teacher in my department. See, I really am a theoretically oriented critic. I don't do criticism without theory. I find it exciting when I can use theory to see texts in new ways and to ask the questions that I want to ask. I like theory. But I am not Slavoj Zizek. I am not Judith Butler. I am not Trinh T. Minh-ha, nor am I Terry Eagleton. I am certainly not Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, or Jacques Derrida. And I do not aim to be nor will I ever be. I am not a theorist. Theory is not the point of my work. The point of my work is to understand literature better. That is what I mean when I say that I am not a "theory person." I do not mean that I think that theory is not central to the discipline - because I think that people who believe that are either 100 years old or they are delusional, and seriously, this ship has sailed and pretending that we can just do away with theory and go back to some prelapserian past before theory at this point is just stupid - but rather I think that while theory is centrally important as an influence on how we might approach literary texts, it is not, nor should it be, the raison d'etre of the scholar of literature.
Nevertheless, I think Annalies's response to theory when she encountered it as an undergraduate is a common one. Her criticisms of theory - it's filled with jargon, its argumentative structure is often convoluted, the tone can feel pretentious - are valid. But, for what it's worth, while I'm willing to grant that much theory is a bad read, I'm not sure if that's the same thing as it being badly written. Here's what I mean.
First, there's the jargon issue. Yes, there's a ton of jargon. Yes, it's alienating, and can make actually reading the stuff tough going for the uninitiated, but also, I wonder why we expect not to encounter technical language in the context of literary studies. Nobody complains when physicists use technical language - they need it in order to talk in precise ways. I actually think the same about jargon in literary studies. It's the technical language of our discipline that allows us to talk with precision about abstract and complex concepts. That's what scholars of literature need to do. And just because you can read, enjoy reading, and are a smart person, it doesn't make you a scholar of literature. I think in our culture, we often assume that anybody who is literate could be an English professor. That's just not true. It is a discipline, and it requires terminology that is unfamiliar to the average reader. That's not something that detracts from the study of literature. Indeed, it's something that facilitates the advanced study of literature.
Second, the style of argumentation in much theory is convoluted, but I would argue that in the best theory this is not unnecessary. Let's take Foucault as an example. Foucault typically engages a structure of argumentation that is somewhat circular. He does not lead with his thesis statement, but rather he leads with the accepted premise. So, for example, when Foucault talks about the repressive hypothesis, he engages our standard ideas about our prudish forbears the Victorians, about how they wanted to "silence" the truth of sex, and about how we are now so awesome and liberated. Then, he knocks us on our asses and says, "um, by the way, that's all crap, and here's how it's crap." Now, this can be irritating the first time one reads Foucault, but ultimately, the way he structures his argument mirrors the discursive operations that he describes. He's describing ways of conceiving of how discourse works in oppositional terms, and what he's arguing is that this a construct. He shows us this through the way he sets up the argument. So is it convoluted? Sure. But I would claim that the structure helps us to understand the complicated claims that he makes - that form and content work together in the theory.
To note the "pretentious" tone of theory, however, I think is more a reaction that's about the reader's subject position than the writer's. I felt the same way about Jane Austen when I was 17, in fact, not because Jane Austen is or was actually "pretentious" but because I wasn't ready for Jane Austen yet or because the text for whatever reason felt alien to me. When I first encountered theory, I think that I also called it "pretentious," but I think what that meant was that I was insecure and I felt like I didn't speak the right language. Looking at it now, I feel like it is just complicated, but its complexity isn't an attack on me personally. I don't think that the point of theory is to exclude or to alienate readers, to put them down or to put the theorist above the reader. Or at least that's not the point of all theory. Indeed, when you look at Roland Barthes, his point is the exact opposite - he gives the reader the power. Also, I think we have to be careful with all of the above criticisims - the criticism of jargon, of convoluted argumentation, of pretentiousness - because so much theory is translated. If it is translated, the theory is always at one remove from us, and yes, that makes a difference in our reception of it. There are words in French that have no equivalent in English. That can make for some clunky phrasing in translated texts.
So, why did I just go on and talk about this in such an extended way? I'm seriously not some Theory Guru or something, so it's doubtful I really have the authority to do so. Well, because I think that when students are alienated from theory, it often is the case that nobody bothers to take their complaints seriously. Some students can survive this by taking on an acceptable persona, by stifling their criticisms and pretending that they're getting everything and that they're not frustrated. This was the kind of student I was. Other students, though, can't perform that way, or choose not to perform that way. In my experience, those are the ones that either don't go to graduate school or don't finish graduate school.
So can a person "misuse" theory? Well, that's a tricky one. I believe that you've got to show me in the text why your use of the theory is reasonable. What does it help you to see? Sometimes I think that people don't do that. I think that they are in love with the idea of Marxist theory, or Feminist theory, or Queer theory or Deconstruction or whatever, and they just apply that over any text they encounter. Example: I knew a person in grad school who couldn't stop talking about characters as incubuses and succubuses. It didn't matter what the text was. Henry James? Totally populated with incubuses and succubuses. Shakespeare? Well, obviously incubuses and succubuses. Romantic poetry? Yep, incubuses and succubuses all over the place. At a certain point, you've got to wonder whether this is a useful way of thinking new thoughts about literature. That said, even if I disagree with a use of theory, if the writer substantiates it, well, I don't think that's a misuse. I just think the person is wrong :)
The thing is, professors need to give students the tools to think that professors are wrong when they offer an interpretation of a text. I think that's the thing that a theory class is supposed to do - and that's actually what I see myself as doing when I teach theory - but I think the problem in some contexts is that students perceive the theory as dogma, and the professor who teaches theory, the sage on the stage and the subject who knows, reinforces that perception by acting as if their own understanding of the theory is the only right one or acting as if they are the only ones who know the password to theory. By refusing to acknowledge students' frustrations or to take their criticisms seriously, or by setting theory up as this Awesome Thing - and implying that if students resist against the Awesome Thing that is theory that they are losers - well, I just think that kind of misses the point of what such classes are supposed to do.
And are texts by Derrida and Foucault as badly written as they seemed to be? Well, clearly, the answer is yes for Derrida and no for Foucault. (Hehe. We all have our biases :) )