Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Louis Menand has an essay on Paul de Man, occasioned by the new de Man biography, in the March 24th issue of The New Yorker. It's a juicy overview of de Man's career that manages to disentangle the unsavory life from the literary and theoretical movements in which de Man participated; it's also a useful corrective to the dismissive and eye-rolling ways "literary theory" gets caricatured by journalists and nonspecialists.

Here are the article's first two paragraphs:

The idea that there is literature, and then there is something that professors do with literature called "theory," is a little strange. To think about literature is to think theoretically. If you believe that literature is different from other kinds of writing. . . if you have ideas about what's relevant and what isn't for understanding it. . . and you have standards for judging whether it's great or not so great ([e.g.] a pleasing style or a displeasing politics), then you have a theory of literature. You can't make much sense of it without one.

It's the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and to disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. . . . [It's] part of an inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means, and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.

I've blogged about this before, but my own training in literary theory was pretty close to nonexistent. I did not take a theory course in college or grad school, and though I was assigned a small amount of theory among the secondary readings in a few of my graduate seminars, we barely discussed them. Theorists must have come up in class discussion from time to time, but no one held forth about Butler this or Foucault that. I had the nagging sense that I should know theory better, but it was like never having studied statistics: faintly embarrassing and probably something I should correct, but not anything I needed on a daily basis.

(When asked, I described my own theoretical approach as "close-reading, I guess" or "historicist, but not really New Historicist." I knew those weren't good answers, but when you work on religious prose, no one expects a better one.)

A couple of years after getting my Ph.D., I got serious about teaching myself theory. I read a lot over the course of several years, from general introductions and readers to articles and maybe a dozen book-length works. I wasn't prepared for what I discovered. First, my mind was blown. Like, daily. And I couldn't figure out how anything this urgent and interesting had gotten a reputation for irrelevance and impenetrability.

But second, and almost as surprisingly, I realized that I. . . kinda knew this stuff already. I was using much of it in my work. I hadn't had a name for what I was doing and I couldn't talk about it in detail or trace its conceptual lineage, but my methods and assumptions about how texts work (and the relationship between texts and their authors or between texts and their historical periods) were indebted to a number of very specific figures and movements. Presumably, this is because my own teachers were so deeply steeped in theory that they just hadn't bothered to talk about it.

On the one hand, it was a great relief to realize that "theory" wasn't some mysterious or alien field of knowledge. But I was pissed that no one had made explicit to me that what we'd been doing in the classroom all those years wasn't just reading stuff and talking about it more or less as people had done since the beginning of time. As Menand says, any way of reading a text that isn't totally naive--indeed, the very criteria for deciding which texts are worth reading in the first place--involves a theory of literature. And all such approaches have a history, and are indebted to their time and place and the values of their age.

I'm still not a particularly "theoretical" scholar, if by that you mean someone who can talk at length about the influence of this dude or that on her work. I would be reluctant to teach an intro theory course. But I teach bits and pieces of theory in many of my classes--and you'd better believe that I let my students know that the ways we think about and value works of art aren't any more static or timeless than the ways we think about or value human beings or the ways we organize our societies.


Sapience said...

One of the things I'm most grateful for from my undergraduate degree is the year-long theory course everyone had to take. First half was "historical theory" (Plato through Eliot) and the second half was contemporary theory (thematically organized to cover almost every major school of theory). I was far more prepared for grad school than a lot of my colleagues who had come from schools that didn't have a theory requirement, but I was also at a grad school where a significant number of the courses were things like "Shakespeare and Theory" and "The Bible and Literary Theory" and even if it wasn't in the title, you better assume you'd be reading theory and discussing it.

That said, I think theory got its reputation as being "irrelevant" because of a significant minority of literature faculty who were studying theory for its own sake--people who worked on Derrida, rather than using Derrida to work on literature. That could feel rather useless to those who cared more about the literature, and would otherwise see any particular theory as one more tool in the toolbox. But we don't see much of the theory-for-its-own-sake anymore, and I personally think that's a good thing.

Flavia said...


Yes, I think that's right. I also think theory has in some ways been a victim of its own success (dude, I was at YALE in the NINETIES and I wasn't taught theory explicitly!); I suspect my professors were just over it, or tired of the theory wars, or assumed we all knew it already. It had already changed them and the discourse, so there was no need to talk about it.

It's like Freud: it's easy to dismiss him and carp about everything he got wrong--and, obviously, he got a lot wrong--but literally impossible to talk about human experience, feelings, or motivations without the language and insights that Freud gave us. We live in a world made by Freud just as we live in one made by theory.

That said, I do wish I'd been required to take a damn course at some point.

Anonymous said...

As an English undergrad, I was never taught theory either. It was many moons ago (late 70s) so maybe they did not think it was necessary as "everything" was in the text? The closest we had was a senior seminar type class on "archetypes" in literature. I remember we read King Lear but that was about it. So while I was a very good student in college, I have always been intimidated by references to Focault and Derrida(?) and others. But I am a whiz at close reading of the text and often act as resource for current undergrads struggling with some of their reading.


Withywindle said...

A world of sins is covered under the word "theory"--and the polemical use of the term does have some analytical value in describing, and denouncing, 1) a conception of theoria more appropriate to scientific understanding of the natural world; and 2) a reductionist approach that regards text as so much flesh for an unfalsifiable, universal, simplistic theory.

To the extent that theory is universal, I think it is better described by some other technical synonym for "understanding" and "intelligent reading" that gestures more explicitly to the human dimensions of writing and reading. I think the scientizing connotations of the term do render it irretrievably problematic.

Historiann said...

Thanks for the memories of your grad education. I started grad school in 1990, the peak at which historians were scrambling to catch up with the lit departments on lit. theory and cultural studies. So I took a number of courses (3-4?) in which we read Bordieu, Bakhtin, Foucault (but no Paul de Man, alas), Butler, etc. It was bewildering to me at the time, at ages 22 and 23 with no previous exposure and no really clear understanding as to how historians were supposed to use their insights. However, I'm grateful in retrospect, although also grateful that I don't need to read that stuff any more.

Historians in the early 2000s or so finally got the point you describe for your professors: we've digested that stuff & now we just assume what we've learned rather than talking about it or debating it any longer. (Although I still think that Foucault is worth reading and discussing among historians, for obvs. reasons.)

Flavia said...


If your objection is to the term theory, well. . . the horse has left that barn!

If you're unhappy with the way some people take any critical theory as totalizing and absolute, and applicable to any text ever, then of course I agree; however, as Sapience suggests, this is both a real problem and, at this particular moment in the history of literary study, a bit of a straw-man argument.

These days, the kinds of people who insist that EVERYTHING is explainable with reference to the writings of the one high priest Foucault (or Derrida, or Butler, or whoever) are mostly the pretty young, who are still in an early stage of their engagement with theory. It's the same phenomenon one sees with young people who have just found religion, or a new politics, or taken their first econ course. We all get enamored of systems that seem to take us behind the veil, and any one can appear complete and perfectly explanatory when you first encounter it (and especially in the reductive way one usually first encounters it). The application is where the rubber meets the road, and that's where most literary and cultural critics are these days.

Withywindle said...

1) Since the pretty young are disproportionately the exploited TAs teaching massive numbers of students, this might mean that an awful lot of undergrads are getting subjected to this stuff. But one needs a proper survey ...

2) As for the term having left the barn, possibly so. But I still think the technical connotations have an unfortunate effect, and we should try to come up with a new term of art.

3) As for it being a straw man ... getting back to the need for surveys. I don't automatically believe or disbelieve such accusations, but it's a long time since I've been an undergrad, so I'm out of touch. That theoryheading is down from it's highwater twenty years ago seems likely; but that doesn't mean there aren't pernicious shoals out there.

Withywindle said...

John Locke is relevant, by the by:

2. The difference of wit and judgment. How much the imperfection of accurately discriminating ideas one from another lies, either in the dulness or faults of the organs of sense; or want of acuteness, exercise, or attention in the understanding; or hastiness and precipitancy, natural to some tempers, I will not here examine: it suffices to take notice, that this is one of the operations that the mind may reflect on and observe in itself It is of that consequence to its other knowledge, that so far as this faculty is in itself dull, or not rightly made use of, for the distinguishing one thing from another,- so far our notions are confused, and our reason and judgment disturbed or misled. If in having our ideas in the memory ready at hand consists quickness of parts; in this, of having them unconfused, and being able nicely to distinguish one thing from another, where there is but the least difference, consists, in a great measure, the exactness of judgment, and clearness of reason, which is to be observed in one man above another. And hence perhaps may be given some reason of that common observation,- that men who have a great deal of wit, and prompt memories, have not always the clearest judgment or deepest reason. For wit lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy; judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another. This is a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and allusion; wherein for the most part lies that entertainment and pleasantry of wit, which strikes so lively on the fancy, and therefore is so acceptable to all people, because its beauty appears at first sight, and there is required no labor of thought to examine what truth or reason there is in it. The mind, without looking any further, rests satisfied with the agreeableness of the picture and the gaiety of the fancy. And it is a kind of affront to go about to examine it, by the severe rules of truth and good reason; whereby it appears that it consists in something that is not perfectly conformable to them.

Flavia said...


FWIW, people do use other terms. Many courses are called something like "critical approaches to literature," and we frequently speak of someone's "critical framework" or "methodology" or their "theoretical commitments," all of which suggest many approaches might be possible.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I took theory three times in grad school (once MA and twice PhD) because I found it interesting and fascinating. However, I don't feel like I use it tons in my own research. I use criticism from other scholars who are working on the same ideas as me, but I never use Derrida, for instance, because I just don't think he's relevant for what I'm doing. I do think Foucault is useful for me, but I don't write about Foucault so much as I write about plays.

I worry that our literature students at HU don't get enough theory and criticism in their classes, but maybe an undergrad degree in literature needs to work more on close reading first so that the students have the foundation to move on and add another level to their work later, if they go to grad school. I don't know. I'm torn about it.

EHA said...

Hi Flavia,

Heh as a member of your same graduate cohort, I share your experience. I just wanted to share an anthology edited by David Richter, called _Falling into Theory_, that I've found really useful for teaching undergrads. I like it more than the traditional Eagleton _Intro to Theory_ in part because Richter very much takes Menand's (and your) approach: on some level theory is something we have all always been doing already…now here is some of the history and terminology surrounding it. I find it really demystifies things for students--even empowers them. And unlike the Eagleton approach, or the approach presented by critical editions offered through Bedford St. Martins, it doesn't encourage students to categorize themselves or the work they read so rigidly: otherwise I find they try to identify themselves or a work explicitly with one approach--I'm a psychoanalytic critic!--without appreciating the intersections that exist between theoretical approaches. I, and my students, also like the mini-essays Richter uses to introduce each subsection (the book is broken into 3 parts: How We Read, Why We Read, What We Read), in which he tracks a cultural history of developments in theory against developments in the academy.

Flavia said...


Ooh, thanks for the rec! That sounds right up my alley.

I do think the question of when & how to introduce students to theory can be a vexed one, and some approaches probably inspire as much resistance as enthusiasm. I'm quite sure I would not have responded well to a key-to-all-mythologies approach myself, especially as a young undergrad when I was just trying to get a handle on major authors, genres, and movements. But introducing it late is also problematic, insofar as critical approaches are tools that are meant to be used, not something apart from the rest of literary study.

(Also, hi! Good to hear from you.)

Withywindle said...

"Hermeneutics," I suppose, is more up my alley. Even more bewordling, but more what I think literary study should be. Interpretation, not theory. Not to chop definitions or anything.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

What I try to instill in my grad students and post-docs is the idea that theory-talk is just another tool for trying to make sense of the complicated shitte you are trying to understand. On the one hand, it is impossible to examine any object--a text, organism, physical system, etc--without having some conceptual framework, and so talking about theory is just making explicit that which would otherwise be implicit. On the other hand, if you excessively reify your theory, you blind yourself to empircal reality that is inconsistent with your theory.

So theory is a tool, and one needs to be careful about how that tool is used, and be aware of the limitations of the tool.

undine said...

Took courses in and read lots of theory in grad school, but since fashions in theory change pretty rapidly, I feel as though I've been catching up or failing to catch up adequately ever since. Sometimes it absolutely changes the level of your understanding and what you can write, often by giving you terms for something you've discovered already.

Flavia said...


talking about theory is just making explicit that which would otherwise be implicit. On the other hand, if you excessively reify your theory, you blind yourself to empircal reality that is inconsistent with your theory.

I think both parts of this are exactly right, and go equally for the application of critical approaches to literary texts (or historical evidence, or whatever). To the extent that a particular conceptual framework can help a scholar understand some features of a work--and not reinvent the wheel by wasting a lot of time trying to describe standard features or phenomena that have been discussed a million times before--it's useful. But one has to be skeptical of any theory, and the object of analysis has to be the most important thing. Features that don't fit the theory can't be discarded or ignored.

Renaissance Girl said...

Your parenthetical paragraph smack in the middle of this post made me laugh out loud. Then feel rueful. And self-conscious. Then laugh out loud again.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Your account sounds familiar to me, too (undergrad and then grad in English at very similar institutions, '80s to early '90s; didn't go to Brown for grad school in part because I went on a post-acceptance visit and all the grad students seemed to be talking about the theorists they were working on instead of the literature/authors. At least one of those grad students later migrated to my grad institution as an assistant prof and turned out to be doing work considerably more interesting to me than that lunch suggested, but so it goes). I'd also be hard-pressed to articulate my theoretical approach (but "historicist" and "close reading" would definitely come up; simply by nature of the texts I study, I'm also usually looking at at least two of race/gender/class, but don't really do anything otherwise recognizable as a Marxist, or perhaps cultural studies, approach. I'd nominate Marx as another theorist who got a lot wrong, but also got enough right that his questions have pretty much permeated the critical discourse -- and, mostly, usefully so).

The course Sapience took sounds great, and I think I've had parts of it at various points in my education, but never the whole thing in a concentrated way. At some point, I probably need to embark on a course of reading similar to the one you describe (beyond Eagleton, whom I read for generals because everybody seemed to think one should, but could have easily gotten away without doing so, since I don't remember theory coming up, or being needed). I'll have to check out Menand and Richter (which is probably about at my level, and also embodies my philosophy, conscious or unconscious; I do at least have a sense of when I think someone is using theory well -- when the theory is subordinate to the larger project -- and when I think they're doing it badly -- basically, when the theory tail seems to be wagging the project dog). Additional reading suggestions would be welcome.

Flavia said...


I know you feel me on this. But at least you've always had your EQUESTRIAN TRAINING to fall back on.


I found French Theory a really interesting history of the rise & fall of theory, though it's not an introduction to theory per se. After I'd read around in a few readers, including the Norton, I just starting buying or checking out books by some theorists who seemed important or whose work interested me from the shorter selections I'd read.

So I guess I recommend just reading around. I didn't finish all the books I started, and some I just skimmed, and in some cases I found one book by a given author to rock my world while another was dullsville. Mostly, I read the works I read because they were interesting and good to think with, and gave me a perspective I valued, even when not related to anything I work on or expect to work on (I read a number of works of gender theory, for example).