Literary Theory in Crisis. yawn

Either literary theory is dead, or it’s invincible. It all depends on who’s talking. When Jacques Derrida died last year, The New York Times declared the end of the era of “big ideas.” In April 2003, the Times had run an article about a University of Chicago symposium on the state of theory headlined “The Latest Theory Is Theory Doesn’t Matter.” More recently, a November 17 essay in the online magazine Slate mourned “The Death of Literary Theory.”

Others say that theory has never been more perniciously alive. These critics persist in arguing that it is no longer possible to study literature for its own sake.

Just this summer, Columbia University Press published Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. The volume collects 30 years’ worth of contrarian arguments with theory — make that Theory with a capital T — and takes as its premise the notion that “the rhetoric of Theory has been successful in gaining the moral and political high ground, and those who question it do so at their peril.”

A long article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education (the college and university trade mag) on “What Happened” to literary theory. As someone who actually studied this stuff fairly seriously back in my college days, I have to wonder, “Who the hell cares?”

I mean, we might just as well spend our time worrying about the crisis in pigeon fancying for all it means even to me–someone who has actually read (God help me) Derrida and De Man and Baudrillard and Barthes. Someone who knows the name Shoshana Felman and has some idea what she’s about. Someone who is not particularly scandalized by anything these folk have to say. Even I am utterly indifferent to literary theory and its possibly being in a crisis.

Of course, I no longer have any direct involvement in the field, but any field that has no importance to anyone not directly involved should seriously think about pigeon fancying and why the government doesn’t give comparable funding to that hobby.

The only thing one is inspired to wonder reading this Chronicle piece is “Why are we paying people to research this stuff?”

Well, no that’s wrong, one might also wonder “Why are we requiring students to study this stuff?”

It’s hard for me not to look on people who still tool away at this stuff as nothing more than thieves of education funding that would be far better spent on primary school kids. But maybe that’s just me.



2 thoughts on “Literary Theory in Crisis. yawn

  1. Oh, well, the end of literary criticism, the end of history, the end of irony, and so on. All these loose ends. It would be a different story if this last wave of lit theory were really learned by anyone, but it is the most impenetrable mass of assumptions and interpretations I ever ran into and even when I could partly figure it out, I couldn’t figure out what it was good for except arguments.

    Lately I’ve been running into a little pocket of books, for instance: “Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose” by Francis Noel Thomas & Mark Turner and “Realist Vision” by Peter Brooks. Both address just plain accuracy, clearly stated, honestly depicted. I can only hope the trend spreads.

    Prairie Mary

  2. One wornders is such an approach would do enough to protect literary criticism as a profession. After all, anyone can be accurate and clear. It takes a genius to obfuscate and confuse as well as some of those old theorists.


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