Theory’s Empire

Our anthology, Theory’s Empire, appears at a moment when not only have theoretical discussions of literature become stagnant but articles and books are published in defense of the conceptual stalemates that have led to this very immobility. In the early years of the new millennium, theorists are busily writing about the impasse in which theory finds itself, discoursing on the alternatives as portentously as they once wrote about the death of the novel and of the author. But there is one revealing difference between the predictably cyclical revisions of theoretical notions before structuralism and those present developments that can today be referred to simply as Theory, emblazoned with a capital T: the proponents of the latter tend to avoid acknowledging their own role in creating and dispersing the very theorizing that increasingly seems to lead to a dead end. To be sure, the nineties witnessed the beginning of a few mea culpa. But this repentance has yet to distinguish between “a theory” as one approach among many, “theory” as a system of concepts employed in the humanities, and Theory as an overarching “practice” of our time. This failure, in turn, has led to endless reassertions as critics vie for recognition that they are still “doing theory,” understood as a superior and demanding labor. A few years ago Christopher Ricks wrote that “Theory’s empire [is] an empire zealously inquisitorial about every form of empire but its own…,” and that is where we still are in 2006.

From its inception, what is now called Theory aroused strong reactions. As early as the 1960s, caveats were heard regarding its foundations and practices. Yet such was the excitement generated by Theory as it promised to revitalize first literary study and, then, other humanistic fields that skeptical and dissenting voices went largely unheard, or created no more than a brief stir destined soon to fade as the march of Theory continued. This was the milieu teachers of literature inherited, and that still surrounds them in this new century.

In the past few decades, however, vigorous critical challenges have been raised to Theory as it has come to be routinely practiced and taught. So numerous are these objections that it is impossible to represent in a single volume all the incisive and sensible adverse views that have surfaced since at least the time of the Picard-Barthes controversy of the 1960s. Yet so little impact has this dissidence had that compendia celebrating Theory continue to be published and to function as important vehicles for conveying to new generations of readers reigning ideas of what literature is and how it should be studied. These volumes are defined by the presumption that theory matters more than the literature it once interpreted, and that certain key figures, concepts, movements, and texts are beyond question. Meanwhile, the challenges that have been offered to this presumption are widely scattered in scholarly journals, books by individual authors, and a few small and little-known collections; hence they have been practically unavailable to students and teachers.

Hazard Adams, one well-known critic and anthologist, wrote in the preface to the 1992 revised edition of his Critical Theory since Plato of “the tendency among recent academic critics to spend far less time discussing what . . . used to be called ‘literary’ texts and more time debating each other’s theories.” As if to bear out this observation, a conference on the present state of theory, held in April 2003 at the University of Chicago, saw some of the founders and promoters of Theory at pains to reinvigorate their propositions, including, in particular, their claims to be politically relevant. Their attempts to either absolve themselves of responsibility for their own excesses or to marshal forces to allow them to continue to claim centrality for the ideas they have long espoused simply confirmed our sense of the by-now entirely established nature of assertions about Theory. As Emily Eakin points out in her report for The New York Times (April 19, 2003) on the Chicago meeting: “If theory’s political utility is this dubious, why did the theorists spend so much time talking about current events?” The recent Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (the first major compendium of this century) corroborates our perspective of Theory’s still grandiose ambitions when it ends its introduction with the following assertion:

There are very good reasons that, as Jonathan Culler observes, contemporary theory now frames the study of literature and culture in academic institutions. Theory raises and answers questions about a broad array of fundamental issues, some old and some new, pertaining to reading and interpretive strategies, literature and culture, tradition and nationalism,
genre and gender, meaning and paraphrase, originality and intertextuality,
authorial intention and the unconscious, literary education and social
hegemony, standard language and heteroglossia, poetics and rhetoric,
representation and truth, and so on.[1]

If even recent handbooks and reference works such as The Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Modern Criticism and Theory (2002) fail to acknowledge views opposing such inflated expressions of the purview of theory, it should come as no surprise that existing anthologies rarely include or even mention work that contests not only the applicability but also the very foundations of the theories presented and the claims made in their name. This failure is evident in most anthologies currently in use in theory classrooms, and now persists in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, whose aspirations are evident in the absence of the limiting term “literary” from its title. In his review of the Norton Anthology for The Kenyon Review (Spring 2003), Geoffrey Galt Harpham addresses the great gaps, arbitrariness and presentism of that volume, noting the tendentious introductions to the essays included and the celebratory tone of the risky business of Theory. Harpham also includes a list of omitted critics and theorists, and it is interesting to note who the major missing figures are. While his list in some particulars varies from our own, what can one say about the exclusion of Shklovsky, Empson, and Trilling from a volume of over 2,500 pages in which ample space is given to a host of trendy but ephemeral contemporary figures? Certainly a truly comprehensive survey of theory would contain essays by Booth, Abrams, Ellis, Tallis, and Vickers (all absent from the Norton Anthology), critics whose work appears in the chapters of Theory’s Empire.

Readers of the standard anthologies would not know that, since the late 1960s and in particular from the 1980s to the present, forceful efforts have been launched by scores of scholars to identify and analyze the gaps and wrong turns in the reigning approaches to criticism and theory. When noted at all, these critics have usually been dismissed with personal attacks and political tags designed to discredit them.

Far from responding with reasoned argument to their critics, proponents of Theory, in the past few decades, have managed to adopt just about every defect in writing that George Orwell identified in his well-known 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” It is worth noting that Orwell was writing at a time when criticism seemed incapable of giving “an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” as he said about political language. By the early 1980s, self-appointed to the progressive side of the political spectrum, theorists projected a nihilistic tone for which “everything is language” became a central tenet.

The result is that we continue, today, in a state that M. H. Abrams described more than three decades ago:

Each critical theorist, it can be said, pursuing his particular interests and purposes, selects and specializes his operative and categorical terms, and in consequence sets up a distinctive language-game whose playing field overlaps but doesn’t coincide with that of other critical language-games and which is played according to grammatico-logical rules in some degree special to itself.[2]

The ensuing language games have usually been played by people lacking the necessary philosophical foundations but nonetheless eager to participate. One of the major lacunae we have encountered in the conventional theory anthologies of today is a direct discussion of the problem described by Abrams, specifically in terms of the contradictions between poststructuralist nihilism and the political agenda of much contemporary theory. If language creates reality, then we need only change our language to bring about political change. But, obviously, the proponents of postcolonialist, feminist, and queer theorizing do not endorse such a view in practice. The contradiction should be plain to all.

Because these and other paradoxical strands have not been untangled, many alert students of Theory have realized the arbitrariness of readings based on the theorists they study. When students notice that some theories work much better than others on particular texts, they will suspect that these theories aren’t really theory but approaches, among which they – like the books that serve them as models – can pick and choose. True, dictionaries often list “idea” as the last definition of “theory,” but clearly it is not this weak sense that proponents of Theory have in mind. Terms such as “approaches” or “perspectives” don’t suggest the scope, explanatory power, or level of generalization one expects from a theory. Most theory anthologies and guides to the practical application of Theory, do not address the incoherence of their use of the operative term. And, indeed, the incoherence exists only if one takes the work of theory seriously. If one replaces “theory” by “approach” — a word that lacks grandiose connotations — the problem vanishes, though the question of the legitimacy of a particular approach certainly remains. But if one uses the word “theory” in all its present high signification, and believes its power to be on a par with (or superior to) that of theory in the sciences, then it’s absurd to think one is free to pick and choose among theories, each of which purports to explain the same sort of object (a “text”).

In our experience, independent-minded students can sense that something is amiss with these shifting applications of theory to literary works. They detect the overdetermination in the selection of poems. In the case of novels and plays, students perceive how the critic strains to make the text compatible with each theory in the list of –isms (occasionally skipping one if the task seems too difficult). They quickly catch on to the truth of an observation made by Frank Lentricchia a few years ago in his “Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” (1996). Having decided to read literature as literature instead of as a vehicle for Theory, Lentricchia noticed that the Theory game was played by the formula “Tell me your theory and I’ll tell you in advance what you’ll say about any work of literature, especially those you haven’t read.”

* * *

A quarter of a century ago Christopher Ricks, in his search for a thoughtful alternative to literary theory as practiced around 1980, wrote an illuminating review for the London Review of Books (April-May 1981) of several books by Geoffrey Hartman and Stanley Fish. Ricks noted an interesting contradiction. Theorists insist that we all do theory whether we recognize it or not (a point exemplified by Paul de Man’s convenient statement that the resistance to theory is theory). At the same time, they are so eager to spread the Theory gospel that, as Ricks put it, they “practice baptism with a hose” — which suggests there aren’t enough theorists to go around. Ricks was proved right: the inevitability of Theory persists as an article of faith, and the proselytizing spirit nonetheless continues as well. The result has been the publication of ever more reiterative and derivative theories.

The sheer mass of this self-perpetuating glut has had the result that scholars skeptical of particular theorists (whether the latter are French maîtres à penser or their younger successors such as Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler), or of entire schools of them (such as New Historicists) have been largely dismissed as politically conservative and out of touch, traditional, self-interested, exclusionary, and – ironically (given the generally unyielding tone of Theorists) — intransigent. Labeling them thus has functioned, in turn, as a pretext for neglecting a whole range of complex, scrupulous, and often inspiring writings on theory, some examples of which appear in the chapters of Theory’s Empire.

We believe that in the thirty years between the publication of the first edition of Hazard Adams’ Critical Theory since Plato and the appearance of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, much has been lost with respect not only to theory and criticism that actually illuminate literary texts, but also to the appreciation of criticism’s actual contributions to academic discourse. That time span also saw the dissemination of theoretical principles in innumerable books aiming to ease readers’ way into the arcane world of Theory, while in no way encouraging a love of literature. In Teaching Literature (2003), Elaine Showalter reminds us of the result of these developments: “These days you need the chutzpah of a Terry Eagleton to have a stab at defining ‘literature’ at all, and even he concedes that ‘anything can be literature, and . . . any belief that the study of literature is the study of a stable, well-definable entity, as entomology is the study of insects, can be abandoned as a chimera.’”

The essays included in Theory’s Empire do not propose a return to an ideal past (non-existent, in any case) of literary studies. Nor do we support a retrogressive or exclusivist view of a canon, classics, traditions, or conventions (the predictable charges hurled against critics of Theory). Rather, we have selected essayists who see the need – more urgent now than ever – to question today’s theoretical orthodoxies and to replace them with open discussion and logical argumentation. Our authors also thoroughly examine the background and tenets of currently accepted Theory, and do so in language most readers will understand. They do not represent a new version of what Harold Bloom has called a “School of Resentment,” nor do they chime in with what Robert Hughes examined in 1992 as the “culture of complaint.” Indeed, what is particularly noticeable in our authors’ writings is the general lack of ad hominem attacks, even when confronting some of the more preposterous and unreadably convoluted theories. They focus not on personality – as central an issue as Theory’s stars have made this in cultivating their public personae – but instead on logic, reason, and evidence, concepts without which it is impossible to have any sort of fruitful intellectual exchange. They are mindful of the point made by some of our contributors that the habit of many theorists to make claims without showing any awareness of the highly contentious nature of their premises and reasoning is a symptom of the poor standard of argumentation prevailing in modern literary theory.

* * *

When we began graduate work in literature in the late 1960s and 1970s a Marxist or, more generally speaking, sociological approach to literature was a new and promising area of study, excitingly different from the linguistic models of structuralism and formalism. North American scholars were (belatedly) discovering Gramsci, Brecht, Lukács, Adorno, Benjamin, and similar theorists, who quickly became icons of a critical establishment that pervaded literature departments and, to a lesser extent, related fields. In the years that followed, figures such as Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Jameson (an intellectual “client of Europe,” according to his fellow Marxist holdout, Terry Eagleton) became touchstones of the craft of literary analysis. “Power,” “hegemony,” “the Other,” “the mirror stage,” “deferred meaning,” “the logic of late capitalism,” and similar terms and phrases – by then inseparable from the authority of Theory – turned into the preeminent themes for exploration in and through literary texts.

At the same time, a feminist perspective became indispensable for literary scholars, starting with the work of such figures as Kate Millett and Shulamith Firestone, and passing through French feminist critics, mainly Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray. Putting such figures on pedestals, however, also led to the elevation of lesser lights whose contributions were not so much to theoretical issues as to the promulgation of increasingly abstract (and often abstruse) forms of expression. Over the years, this tendency has grown apace.

In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, reception aesthetics, narratology, critical theory (basically the Frankfurt School), postcolonialism, and an all-encompassing preference for political approaches (grounded in the theorists’ own presumptively correct opinions), became the norm. Though not often cohering with an accelerating postmodernist rhetoric that saw the whole world as a “text,” these approaches devolved into specializations and sub-fields such as subaltern studies, cultural studies, and, more recently, queer theory – all of which have spread beyond the area of literature – as is only to be expected once most everything has been reconceived as a “text.”

What theorists of all these persuasions have in common, whatever their individual differences, is a decisive turning away from literature as literature and an eagerness to transmogrify it into a cultural artifact (or “signifying practice”) to be used in waging an always anti-establishment political struggle. This view of theory as practice, rooted in the political activism of the 1960s and acclaimed repeatedly in Theory texts from that time on, has by now found its way even into such standard anthologies (published by presumably capitalist publishers) as the Norton, as we shall see below.

At the same time an unmistakable grandiosity entered the discourse of literary theory. Professors trained primarily in literature began to claim for themselves a commanding position from which to comment importantly on any and all aspects of cultural and political life (and even on scientific research, which stood as the last bastion untouched by Theory), and thereby rise to stardom in the academic firmament. The eminence of these celebrities helps explain why little scrutiny is given to propositions articulated by fashionable theorists whose terminology has been embraced and reiterated by their many followers. Claims to postmodernist relativism notwithstanding, the Theory world is intolerant of challenges and disagreement, which is perhaps why its rhetoric has been so widely parroted in the academy. A very recent demonstration of such intolerance is the irate protest against Jonathan Kandell’s critical obituary of Derrida (in the New York Times, 10 October 2004), By late November, just as our book was going to press, more than four thousand individuals, ranging from graduate students to senior theorists, had signed on to the protesters’ website, affirming their unqualified faith in the theorist’s work and objecting to the tone of the article (actually, one of many), which they found blasphemous. Evidently, proclamations of the death of theory are premature.

The results of these developments have been unfortunate in many ways. As intellectual claims that at one time seemed new and exciting became ossified – reduced to the now-predictable categories of race, class, gender and, later, sexuality – criticism and theory turned endlessly repetitive and hence otiose. A style of reading emerged that, when not denying meaning altogether or seeing literary texts as inevitably about themselves, condensed complex works to an ideological bottom line drawn on their authors’ perceived “subject position” and on the political leanings that could be teased out of, or imported into, their texts. By now this has become a pervasive mindset, producing interpretations that invariably end at the same point: a denunciation of authors for their limitations vis-à-vis the orthodoxies of our historical moment and its preferred “voices,” or, alternatively, a celebration of authors or texts for expressing the favored politics or for merely embodying the requisite identity. In view of all this, it is worth recalling a sane observation made by Frank Kermode (also a contributor to our volume) in a recent essay entitled “Literary Criticism: Old and New Styles,” now collected in his Pieces of My Mind (2003): “Despite the carping and the quarrels, despite the great variety of critical approaches that were becoming available – the American New Criticism, the Chicago Critics, the maverick Winters and the maverick Burke and the maverick Frye – there was still a fundamental consensus: literary criticism was extremely important; it could be taught; it was an influence for civilization and even for personal amendment.”

Most graduate students, we believe, and even many undergraduates, in literature programs today would have little truck with such a viewpoint. For they have not failed to pick up some of what Theory is purveying. Even as newcomers in graduate programs, they have little difficulty producing the anticipated analyses in short order. Meanwhile, they acquire scant or no knowledge of formalist or stylistic criticism and have no acquaintance with aesthetics. Even if they suspect that not everything they are taught is beyond question, they are too often caught up in a mimicry of the contemporary theorists whose views they accept with more blindness than insight. Pondering such impoverishment in the study of literature, even theory enthusiasts such as Elaine Marks (who more than two decades ago was among the first to introduce French feminist theorists to an American audience) was writing toward the end of her life with alarm and disappointment about what has happened to the academic study of literature (her essay, published in 2000, is among our selections).

The fantasies underlying much that goes on in the name of Theory are readily detectable in the declarations found in Theory anthologies. The preface to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, on its very first page stakes its claim to relevance by equating theory with “engaging in resistance.” And Rice and Waugh, coeditors of Modern Literary Theory, inform their student readers, in an introduction to one part of their book, that “scientific knowledge can be no more ‘objective’ than aesthetic knowledge.” These are typical assertions made in major Theory anthologies.

Yet such claims have been subjected to criticism for decades. More than twenty years ago, in an article entitled “On the Teaching of Literature,” published in Philosophy and Literature (October 1984), D. G. Myers, one of our contributors, concluded that “If we are serious in believing that the role of theory is to oppose cultural authority, if we are sincere in our objective of putting self-evident certainties under interrogation, what better way than by leading our students to struggle against the authorities that we ourselves have placed in their hands?” Instead of which, as another contributor, Mark Bauerlein, puts it in his Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997), today’s political criticism is distinguished from earlier variants merely by the “broad methodological shift it brings about. Specifically, what political criticism does is center criticism on political content and render formal, disciplinary, methodological considerations secondary.” Frank Kermode makes a similar point in the essay cited earlier, comparing criticism half a century ago with what is written at the present time. Today’s criticism, he notes, involves principles that “actually prevent it from attending closely to the language of major works (in so far as that description is regarded as acceptable) – to the work itself, rather than to something more congenial, and to some more interesting, that can be put in its place.”

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in the review mentioned above, notes that even ostensible critics of Theory, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Christian, and Jane Tompkins, who appear to have found the theory-obsessed academic scene to be repressive and alienating, do not actually suggest a turn to literature. To make their escape, Harpham points out, they chose “to focus on other things, such as themselves, the way it feels to be them, how people ought to be if they want to be like them.” Nonetheless, they typically attempt to remain within the glow of Theory by expanding its definition so as to include the writings of their favorites (mostly themselves and/or hitherto “marginalized voices”). Thus, poems, journals, commentaries, novels – when created by the right identity group — become “theory.” In other words, Theory today is something everybody can lay claim to be “doing”; just expand its meaning, to suit your predilections.

* * *

More than eighty years ago, Boris Eichenbaum expressed the fear that formalism might degenerate and become the work of academic second-stringers who “devote themselves to the business of devising terminology and displaying their erudition.” At least in the United States, this state of affairs (although unrelated to formalism, of course) is now commonplace. We think it is telling that critics such as Frank Lentricchia, Edward Said, and Terry Eagleton in recent years started to question the practical implications of the theory they once preached and promoted. For despite the surface diversity, the many schools of thought, the variety of sexual and textual politics, what we really encounter today is the routine busy work of “dismantling,” “unveiling,” “demystifying,” and so on, whether of the “unwitting” biases of an author, a group, or an entire culture, or of the spurious nature of disinterest and objectivity.

Part of our sense of urgency about the need for Theory’s Empire comes from our participation in academic searches to fill faculty positions, ostensibly in literature, over the past few decades. We see applicant after applicant present dossiers, dissertations, and job talks that are interchangeable and entirely predictable (in the last few years preferred themes have been the “construction of national identity,” “globalization,” “epistemic violence” and various versions of “border” crossings, while “transgressive sexuality,” has remained in favor only by extending its boundaries to include ever new identity groups it purports to speak for and to). Largely untrained in historical method, sociology, philosophy, and other human sciences, these young scholars often produce distressingly reductive readings – when they turn their attention to literature, that is. They may call their approach multi- or interdisciplinary or label it “cultural studies.” But their writing is strong primarily on up-to-the-minute theory rhetoric, dutifully paying homage (if only in passing) to their chosen theory or theorist, while resolutely displaying political commitment and zeal. Such performances rarely suggest that these future teachers are inclined, or even equipped, to question their own conceptual templates, or that they have made themselves aware of the problematic aspects of the theory they have embraced.

In various essays published in France and in his Le Démon de la théorie: Littérature et sens commun (1998) Antoine Compagnon has addressed students’ fear of being out of fashion, noting the grave consequence of thereby producing generations of conformists. This is a point that many of our contributors also make as they observe how the inexact and rushed oscillation among disciplines creates a “drifting” (the term is Compagnon’s) that jettisons expertise for opinions that sound far more substantial than they actually are.[3] A phenomenon seen by many humanists and social scientists as a major source of today’s theoretical drifting is the spread of postmodernism’s aggressive vocabulary of subversion, demystification, transgression, violence, fissures, de-centered subjects, fragmentation, dismantling master narratives, and so on. This lexicon may promote an illusion of revolutionary upheaval (though in the name of what cause remains notoriously unclear). But it is hard to see how such militant rhetoric contributes to an understanding, much less to the solution, of the real political and social struggles going on in the world. Perhaps because it is so gratifying to display, this sort of political grandstanding seems to have no end. Thus, in the proceedings of the Chicago meeting referred to above, we read that one participant said: “What I’m suggesting is that the apparent collapse of theory and the distrust of cultural studies was already prefigured by endorsements that sought to place it within the system and make it a part of normal professionalization that had, and would have, no relationship to the world outside of the academy.”[4] Apart from the clotted prose, this statement is a problem for innocent readers of Theory, because its author seems to think he has invented the wheel while in fact he can offer nothing beyond the weary charges of scholars’ “complicity” in the problems they seek to expose. Reading “outside the box” of incestuous journals, books, and conferences would reveal that similar “discoveries” have long been thoroughly scrutinized by other critics, among them our contributors J. G. Merquior, Brian Vickers, John Ellis, and Stephen Adam Schwartz.

Our volume, however, is not making an appeal to readers on political grounds – as has been done in recent years by Martha Nussbaum (in her criticisms of Judith Butler), Terry Eagleton (on Fish, Bloom, and Spivak), and others who have grown impatient with the kind of theorizing they find politically ineffective or plain frivolous. We believe that intellectual work in the humanities needs no strained justification – least of all the pretense that it can solve the problems of globalization or gender identity or racial divisions. But something larger is at stake here than the futility of such political pretenses. What the languages of present-day criticism and theory unmistakably do is undermine what should be a protected intellectual space – that of classroom teaching and learning – in which ideas can be explored and tried out with an extraordinary measure of freedom and safety. Such an environment, for the few short years that it is available to students, ought to be cultivated and cherished, rather than turned into an arena for waging ersatz politics. From frequent journalistic reports, and our own and many of our colleagues’ observation of the prevailing modes of instruction and critical writing in the humanities, it is evident that today’s theoretical vocabulary has led to an intellectual void at the core of our educational endeavors, scarcely masked by all the posturing, political zealotry, pretentiousness, general lack of seriousness, and the massive opportunism that is particularly glaring in the extraordinary indifference to or outright attacks on logic and consistency. In fact, the necessity of a common, direct language in learning has been pointed out throughout the last half century by humanists such as Jacques Barzun in his 1959 essay “The Language of Learning and of Pedantry.”

* * *

Nothing we have written above should be taken to express an expectation, on our part, that Theory as currently conceived will meekly go out of fashion. Indeed, its status as accepted doctrine is pretty well secure. This in itself, however, creates a situation in which change is both inevitable and desirable. One sign of changes underway is the fact that, as we and some of our contributors observe, more and more students these days approach theory as a tedious obligation, no longer as an exciting subject they wish to explore. In other words, theory in the classroom is, today, often little more than a routine practice, as predictable and dull as cafeteria food. Many professors, on the other hand, are still so wedded to the arcane rhetoric and turgid terminology that have characterized the Theory scene (and that, as some of our contributors suggest, account in no small measure for the mystique it exudes) that they are reluctant to let go of it. We strongly believe that the next decades will see the emergence of more and more open criticism of sanctioned theory in academic settings, and we hope Theory’s Empire will contribute to it.

Having culled from a wide range of available sources materials that can help readers break out of the passive assent to established routines, we have brought together an intelligent and intelligible collection of essays, to be used as primary readings for those interested in theory debates, and as a complement and corrective to anthologies such as the ones whose conceptual faults and gaps we have summarized above. Our chief aim is to provide students and interested readers with effective intellectual tools to help them redeem the study of literature as an activity worth pursuing in its own right. By subjecting Theory to sustained critical examination, they will – we believe – acquire a much more realistic sense of the place of theory in the world of intellectual and creative endeavors.

Our contributors do not conceal the strong passions and deep commitment to reason and logic they bring to their critiques. Some take on the invocatory rhetoric of Theory; some provide historical and cultural explanations for its dominance; others analyze the problematic philosophical foundations on which much fashionable Theory rests. Many point out the contradictions, the paucity of evidence, the address to particular constituencies, the flagrant identity politics, and the ultimate incoherence of certain fashionable theorists. Some express their own second thoughts about theories that they had embraced at an earlier time; still others vigorously defend reason and science. And a few even reopen the subject of aesthetics, so neglected by Theory. All share an affection for literature, a delight in the pleasures it brings, a respect for its ability to give memorable expression to the vast variety of human experience, and a keen sense that we must not fail in our duty to convey it unimpaired to future generations.

This article is a slightly shortened version of the Introduction to Theory’s Empire which is republished here by permission of Columbia University Press. Theory’s Empire was extensively discussed at The Valve in July 2005. Daphne Patai is professor of Brazilian literature and literary theory at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of a number of books on literature, utopian studies, and the culture wars, most recently Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies, Revised Edition (with Noretta Koertge). Will H. Corral teaches Spanish American literature and culture at California State University, Sacramento. He is the author or editor of several books in Spanish, the most recent of which is El error del acierto (contra ciertos dogmas latinoamericanistas); he lives in Davis, California.

1. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 28.

2. M. H. Abrams, “What’s the Use of Theorizing about the Arts?” [1972] In Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory, ed. Michael Fisher (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), pp. 48-49.

3. Antoine Compagnon, “La traversée de la critique,” Revue des Deux Mondes 173:9 (Septembre 2002), pp. 71-83. For Compagnon la French Theory has delegitimized literature outside France and within it. François Cusset’s French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2003) arrives at similar conclusions and expands on them by tracing the paradox of how what he calls “intellectuels français marginalisés dans l’Hexagone” (p. 11) could become extremely successful in America, whereas in France their ideas were used to point out the dangers of “la pensée 68.”

4. Harry Harootunian, “Theory’s Empire: Reflections on a Vocation for Critical Inquiry,” Critical Inquiry 30:2 (Winter 2004), p. 399.

Comments are closed.