“Theory’s Empire”

This spring, Columbia University Press published an anthology of literary and cultural theory, a 700-page tome entitled Theory’s Empire and edited by Daphne Patai and Will Corral. The collection includes essays dating back 30 years, but most of them are of recent vintage (I’m one of the contributors).

Why another door-stopper volume on a subject already well-covered by anthologies and reference books from Norton, Johns Hopkins, Penguin, University of Florida Press, etc.? Because in the last 30 years, theory has undergone a paradoxical decline, and the existing anthologies have failed to register the change. Glance at the roster of names and texts in the table of contents and you’ll find a predictable roll call of deconstruction, feminism, new historicism, neopragmatism, postcolonial studies, and gender theory. Examine the approach to those subjects and you’ll find it an expository one, as if the job of the volumes were to lay out ideas and methods without criticism (except when one school of thought in the grouping reproves another). The effect is declarative, not “Here are some ideas and interpretations to consider” but “Here is what theorists say and do.”

If the theories represented were fresh and new, not yet assimilated into scholarship and teaching, then an introductory volume that merely expounded them would make sense. The same could be said if the theories amounted to a methodological competence that students must attain in order to participate in the discipline, or if the theories had reached a point of historical importance such that one studied them as one would, say, the utopian social theories surrounding communist reform, no matter how wrongheaded they were. But Theory lost its novelty some two decades ago, and many years have passed since anybody except the theorists themselves took the latest versions seriously. And as for disciplinary competence, the humanities are so splintered and compartmentalized that one can pursue a happy career without ever reading a word of Bhabha or Butler. Finally, while the historical import of Theory remains to be seen, indications of oblivion are gathering. Not only are the theorists largely unread outside of graduate classrooms, but even among younger scholars within the humanities fields the reading of them usually doesn’t extend beyond the anthologies and a few landmarks such as Discipline and Punish.

One wouldn’t realize the diminishing value of Theory by perusing the anthologies, though. In fact, one gets the opposite impression—and rightly so. For, while Theory has become a humdrum intellectual matter within the humanities and a nonexistent or frivolous one without, it has indeed acquired a professional prestige that is as strong as ever. This is the paradox of its success, and failure. Intellectually speaking, twenty-five years ago Theory was an adventure of thought with real stakes. Reading “Diffèrance” and working backward into Heidegger’s and Hegel’s ontology, or “The Rhetoric of Temporality” and sensing the tragic truth at the heart of Romantic irony, one apprehended something fundamental enough to affect not just one’s literary method but one’s entire belief system. No doubt the same was true for an earlier generation and its interpretation of Wordsworth or T. S. Eliot. But this time it was Derrida and Baudrillard, and the institution was starting to catch up to it with “Theory specialist” entries in the MLA Job List, Introduction to Theory and Interpretation courses for first-year graduate students, and press editors searching for theory books to fill out their next year’s catalogue. In an inverse way, the public seemed to agree when William Bennett initiated the academic Culture Wars with To Reclaim a Legacy, an NEH report that decried Theory for destroying the traditional study of literature with politicized agendas and anti-humanist dogma. He was right, and a public outcry followed, but that only confirmed to junior theorists the power and insight of their practice.

Ten years later, however, the experience had changed. As theorists became endowed chairs, department heads, series editors, and MLA presidents, as they were profiled in the New York Times Magazine and invited to lecture around the world, the institutional effects of Theory displaced its intellectual nature. It didn’t have to happen, but that’s the way the new crop of graduate students experienced it. Not only were too many Theory articles and books published and too many Theory papers delivered, but too many high-profile incursions of the humanities into public discourse had a Theory provenance. The academic gossip in Lingua Franca highlighted Theory much more than traditional scholarship, David Lodge’s popular novels portrayed the spread of theory as a human comedy, and People Magazine hired a prominent academic feminist as its TV critic. One theorist became known for finding her “inner life,” another for a skirt made of men’s neckties, another for unionizing TAs. It was fun and heady, especially when conservatives struck back with profiles of Theorists in action such as Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, sallies which enraged many academics and soundly defeated them in public settings, but pleased the more canny ones who understood that being denounced was better than not being talked about at all (especially if you had tenure).

The cumulative result was that the social scene of Theory overwhelmed the intellectual thrust. Years earlier, the social dynamic could be seen in the cult that formed around deconstruction, and a comparison of “Diffèrance” with the section in The Post Card in which Derrida ruminates over a late-night call from “Martini Heidegger” shows the toll celebrity can take on a brilliant mind. By the mid-Nineties, the social tendencies had spread all across the humanities, and its intellectual consequences surfaced in the desperation and boredom with which Theorists pondered the arrival of The Next Big Thing. When a colleague of mine returned from an MLA convention in Toronto around that time, he told a story that nicely illustrated the trend. One afternoon he hopped on a shuttle bus and sat down next to a young scholar who told him she’d just returned from a panel. He replied that he’d just returned from France, where he’d been studying for a semester.

“What are they talking about?” she asked.


“Is there any new theory?”

“Yeah, in a way,” he answered. “It’s called ‘erudition.’”

“What’s that?” she wondered.

“Well, you read and read, and you get your languages, and you go into politics, religion, law, contemporary events, and just about everything else.” (He’s a 16th-century French literature scholar who comes alive in archives.)

She was puzzled. “But what’s the theory?”

“To be honest, there isn’t any theory,” he said.

“That’s impossible.” He shrugged. “Okay, then, give me the names, the people heading it.”

“There aren’t any names. Nobody’s heading it.”

A trivial exchange, yes, but it signals the professional meaning and moral barrenness Theory accrued in the Nineties. The more popular Theory became, the less it inspired deep commitments among searching minds. The more Theory became enshrined in anthologies ordered semester after semester, the more it became a token of professional wisdom. The only energy Theory sustained during those years issued from a non-philosophical source: the race/gender/sexuality/anti-imperialism/anti-bourgeois resentments tapped by various critics giving different objects of oppression theoretical standing.

This raises another discrepancy between Theory’s intellectual content and its institutional standing. Theory in its political versions claimed to be subversive, egalitarian, anti-hegemonic, and ruthlessly self-critical, but in their actual working conditions theorists presided over one of the most hierarchical, prestige-ridden, and complacent professional spaces in our society. Theory promised to bring a fruitful pluralism to the field, yet the proliferation of outlooks created the opposite, a subdivision into sects that didn’t talk to one another. Theory purported to supply intellectual tools to dismantle the contents of humanities education and undo the power structures of institutions, but while the syllabus and curriculum changed, the networking, factionalism, and cronyism only intensified. No doubt the infusion of corporate approaches into the university, along with the growing isolation of humanities professors from American society, played a role in the process, but while Theorists critiqued moneyed interests and bourgeois conventions, they enjoyed the perks of tenured celebrity as much as anyone. One can’t blame them for that, but one can blame them for enlisting Theory in the service of social justice while insulating themselves from genuine social problems.

The personality rituals, the routine discoveries of radical approaches, the abhorrence of dissent, the discordance of word and deed—they enervated Theory and the intellectual stakes evaporated. The outcome shouldn’t surprise anybody. It isn’t the first time a philosophy rose to prominence in an institution at the same rate that it lost its power to inspire. But only recently, and far too late, have theorists begun to admit it, for example, at the April 2003 Critical Inquiry symposium in Chicago. Even their hesitant admissions, though, differ from previous reactions to criticism, for while others have made these points for years, Theorists and their votaries managed to make their charges look random and eccentric, outside the principal scholarly dialogue. Theory may appear at first to be a diverse collection of psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, and the like, but while the different schools were allowed to spar with one another (feminists criticizing psychoanalysis, political critics chastising deconstruction, and such), whenever a non-theorist tackled a Theory (Fred Crews on psychoanalysis, John Searle on deconstruction), his or her arguments were denounced as anti-intellectual bile. Theory quickly seized the vanguard terrain and cast its detractors as merely anti-Theory—retrograde, bitter, superseded.

What the latter group lacked, among other things, was a potent and lively volume such as Josué Harari’s best-selling early collection of programmatic and illustrative essays, Textual Strategies, or a bulky anthology suitable for a survey of all the reigning approaches such as The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Individual critiques such as Eugene Goodheart’s Skeptic Disposition might punch holes in one theoretical premise and another, but the institutional might of Theory remained firm. Only when an anti-or counter-Theory expression found a medium with sufficient institutional heft would the lock of Theory upon the humanities begin to loosen.

This is, of course, a heavy burden to place upon Theory’s Empire. The purpose of the anthology, however, is not to replace existing collections but to complement and contrast with them. Despite its apparent pluralism, Theory has become a set of Establishment factions, and while in ordinary circumstances factions maintain their vitality by rivaling one another for influence, the protections of the academy permitted academic sects to coexist and turn inward. The loss of real intellectual challenge followed the time-tested laws of human nature; as John Stuart Mill put it: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.”

In the past, yes, Theory thrived on enemies, the “anti-Theorists,” but they were conveniently interpreted as outsiders. Theory needs new antagonists whose intelligence is unquestioned—not the conservative and (classic) liberals in the public sphere who unite in despising academic Theorists for their posturing and abstractedness, and not the isolated traditionalist professors who lament the hijacking of their profession with cartoon jibes on their office doors. Essays by a broad array of critics, philosophers, social scientists, and public intellectuals who question Theory’s logical and empirical contents and diagnose its institutional status, gathered into a single, course-friendly volume, will restore some respect and vigor to the field. The second thoughts of preeminent theorists of the past are inadequate, and we require more to make metacriticism interesting once again.

Theory’s Empire is a start. It is weighty enough to preempt the anti-intellectual tag and count as more than idiosyncratic musings on the subject. The contributors are diverse enough in their interests, training, and politics to escape the standard labels applied to critics. The contributions are informed and broad enough to bring a wider perspective to fundamental problems. Some of Theory’s premises will be expelled, some names discredited, but others will be strengthened. That is the natural and healthy evolution of a discipline, and Theory has been able to resist it for too long. In a few weeks, the anthology will be the subject of a weblog discussion at The Valve, where several distinguished voices and lots of commentators shall initiate a process long overdue.

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