Thursday, January 15, 2009

More on Theory

In the comments to my post from a couple of days ago, Annalies, a new commenter, writes:

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 :) )


Shane in SLC said...

I'm glad you pointed out the translation issue. Not only are there words in French which have no equivalent in English, but French is just a language much more comfortable with abstraction and ambiguity than English, and when even the best translators grapple with those abstractions, the results come out sounding awkward.

Annalies has a point about the jargon and convolution, though. I recently paired an essay by Stuart Hall with some excerpts from Homi Bhabha's Location of Culture. Hall's essay is so lucid and clear and beautifully written. As far as I could tell on my 14th reading, Bhabha is simply recycling Hall's ideas and adding an unnecessary layer of verbiage on top. I don't really get why that guy continues to be so influential and oft-quoted...

Anyway, Crazy, I'm glad you're having this discussion this week. My department has a 3000-level theory class that has heretofore been required for Lit Studies majors, but we're about to phase it out of the curriculum, over my strenuous objections. Right now I'm teaching a senior seminar on Literary and Cultural Theory, and it's illustrating why a lower-level course introducing students to theory is so useful. I just taught Jameson's essay on Postmodernism, and rather than spending the entire class period discussing postmodern space and cognitive mapping, as I would have liked, I had to take 20 minutes to explain structuralist theories of signification. I didn't even bother trying to explain his discussion of Althusserian ideology. Frustrating!

Anonymous said...

well, you know I'm with you on the Derrida/Foucault bit, since Foucault is my boyfriend.

I might also defend Homi Bhabha, actually. I work with him quite a bit and I actually like that he doesn't spend a lot of time mapping his own intellectual genealogy. It makes his essays quite brief at times, which is useful. His argumentation is circular, which can be frustrating, but I think that allows him to convey quite a bit of complexity in a brief amount of space. He may not be saying anything profoundly different from other theorists--Fanon also comes to mind--but the way he's saying it is compelling, at least to me.

That isn't to say he's accessible, exactly. I had no idea what he was on about the first time I read him. But once I had a stronger framework for what he was talking about, I find his thinking quite appealing.

Gayatri Spivak, as you know, makes me want to throw things.

Meanwhile, I've given some thought as to how I might introduce my particular brand of theory to an undergraduate audience and I'm not at all sure.

Last thing--my undergraduate adviser actually told me the same thing about grad school in english, that it was all about theory and that if I didn't like theory, I shouldn't go to grad school. I think he was trying to discourage me from going on out of a love of literature without realizing that I don't actually love literature with any kind of zeal. I like literature. I might love it a little. But that's all. On the other hand, I loved the theory I read, despite not understanding any of it, but I didn't at all see how Derrida was applicable to Coleridge, for instance, so I couldn't make the leap.

negativecapability said...

I think graduate school in literature is, and should be, to some extent, all about theory, but that doesn't mean it's all about high Theory with a capital T (Derrida, Foucault, etc.). Archival and textual research is also, when done well, built on some kind of theoretical framework. Any kind of historicism, when done well, requires some kind of theoretical framework. Even just "sticking to the text" is particular kind of theoretical orientation.

I suppose what I'm saying is that in order to do quality literary research and scholarship, one has to think through one's orientation to the object of study (literature). It's a shame, I think, that people automatically equate the word theory with a certain historical moment in the academy dominated by the names of a handful of postmodern theorists.

Then again, I came from the Land of Theory...however, we weren't in any way trained to become disciples of any particular school, rather, we were trained to think through how literature itself theorizes.

Shane in SLC said...

Anastasia wrote: "I actually like that [Bhabha] doesn't spend a lot of time mapping his own intellectual genealogy."

But isn't that kind of a problem in terms of the justification that Crazy offers for teaching theory (with which I agree): that "literary scholarship (not love of literature, note) is about an ongoing conversation that forces one to reckon with theoretical approaches"? And if you aren't "mapping your own intellectual genealogy," aren't you really just plagiarizing in an exceedingly elaborate way?

Anyway, Spivak also makes me want to pull my hair out, but at least I feel like I leave her essays thinking about questions in a new way. I mostly just leave Bhabha wishing I had spent more time with Hall and Fanon instead...

Bardiac said...

Nice post :) I think your point about the technical language that's necessary to make very specific points is especially important and well-made.

I think it's also helpful to be culturally aware in terms of essay expectations. French essayists don't tend to write in a US thesis, point, point, point, point, conclusion form, but often more in a thesis, antithesis, synthesis mode. (And, I'm sure in other forms, too.)

Anonymous said...

"if you aren't "mapping your own intellectual genealogy," aren't you really just plagiarizing in an exceedingly elaborate way?"

He has an intellectual genealogy--everyone does--but when I say he doesn't map it, I mean he doesn't spend a lot of time explicating his reliance on this or that predecessor. Neither does Foucault, honestly.

does that amount to plagiarism? I would say no.

Non Tenured Assistant Professor said...

I am coming from TheoryLand myself but my experience was that theory was not explained nor taught: we, as students, were supposed to understand everything and "use" it right away (the more complicated the better). This was a big problem because I don't think it's fair that we assume that students understand everything. We should explain theory, engage with it and discuss with students why we do that.

In my personal experience it did change how I see, explain and understand literature but on the other hand this particular department was not teaching literature anymore but only theory. Most of the students were coming out it with a huge baggage in theory but they never read works of literature, which for me was missing the point of it all.

I guess it depends on how we use and teach theory after all.