Theory? What Theory? Where?

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is hilarious. Oh, Theory is so over, what empire, it’s all fragmented, what a silly fuss everyone is making, it says. Then it offers a comment backing up the claim.

First, theory has become so much part of the literary profession that one needs to have some familiarity with the “isms,” no matter which (if any) one embraces most closely. Being labeled a theorist does not advance a career the way it might have 10 or 15 years ago, but theoretical naïveté is a luxury that few aspiring professors can afford. James F. English, chairman and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in an e-mail message that while “it’s become very rare for literature departments to hire so-called pure theorists,” the theoretical movements of the past four decades have “created an intellectual climate in which a whole range of writers (from Kant and Hegel to Lacan and Kristeva) is now part of the conversation within literary study as such.” It is almost impossible to imagine a newly minted Ph.D. going on the job market without some grasp of structuralism as well as of Shakespeare.

Understand? It’s over, but you’re not allowed to not have it – you’re not allowed to wonder what is meant by a ‘range of writers’ that includes Kant – and Lacan and Kristeva. You’re not allowed to have theoretical naïveté – oh god no! But it’s over, you know, so there’s nothing to see here, go home.

Then the article offers example after example after example of how over Theory is.

When she plans her graduate-level classes, Lynn Enterline, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, tends to “organize the course around texts and problems they might raise.” If Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is on the syllabus, for instance, she’ll draw on “theories of the performative” in the work of such thinkers as Derrida and the feminist-psychoanalytic critics Barbara Johnson and Shoshana Felman. “Since I’m interested in questions of gender, sexuality, and the body,” she says, “I tend to work mostly with rhetorical and psychoanalytic theory.”

Ooh! Wish I could take that class! Questions of the body – I do love those. Especially when they got psychoanalytic theory, and the performative, and rhetoric – I can almost hear Judy Butler off in the distance. No theory here, folks.

Her colleagues in the Vanderbilt English department employ a similar strategy in the classroom, she says, even though their research interests vary widely in topic and theoretical affinity. “They’re all deeply theoretically informed,” she says, “but the choices they would make depend on the problems they’re addressing.”

Deeply. Deeply. Because they’re a deep crowd, you know. And informed. Deeply.

Jeffrey J. Williams…calls himself “very topic oriented” when it comes to teaching. Carnegie Mellon has what he describes as a fairly heavy emphasis on theory, and “the students kept coming to me and complaining that they weren’t reading any literature,” he says. His solution? “Now I try to teach hybrid courses.” In a recent course on “narratives of profession,” for instance, he mixed sociology and theories of professionalism with half a dozen novels, and taught Anthony Trollope’s Dr. Thorne alongside a history of the medical profession.

His solution? He declared himself a sociologist pro tem by way of giving the students the more literature they wanted. Of course he did! Because Theorists are all so Deeply Informed that they are experts on all subjects and can teach anything and everything the moment they decide to. Remember Judith Halberstam? Like that.

But those charged with introducing students to theory don’t appear to be trying to throw out Conrad and company. The University of California at Santa Cruz is not known for its aversion to theory. Even there, theory “is never taught in the absence of literary texts, and it’s never taught as if it’s gospel,” says Richard Terdiman, a professor of literature and the history of consciousness. “What we try to do when we teach it is demystify it. Everyone who teaches the intro-theory course required for undergraduates in the major chooses a focus, whether it’s Marxism or queer theory or whatever it is, and tries to get students to see the relevance of the interpretative strategy for their own reading.”

What empire? What empire? Do you see any empire? I don’t see any empire around here. Do you? All I see is a lot of people quietly and omnisciently teaching Theory and sociology and politics and Theory, so where’s the empire?

God, it’s a riot, and it goes on and on like that. I’m out of time, I have to go, but I’ll have to make more fun of it tomorrow. It’s the silliest thing I’ve seen in awhile.

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