Theory’s Empire – TLS Review

March 19, 2007 at 4:17 pm (Uncategorized)

One of the first things I’ve been reading in my catch-up effort is Patai and Corral’s anti-Theory anthology, Theory’s Empire, and all the fun that’s been going on in the blogosphere around that book. Having missed out on the dialogue at the time, I’ll have to vent in a monologue here instead…

The best-worst reviews reviews of the book seem to me to have come from Berube and Jarvis. It’s quite interesting to think about these two critiques in conjunction, as B and J are talking from a similar, half-for half-against Theory position. But Jarvis first.

I was impressed with the magisterial poise of Jarvis’s argument, not least because, myself, I can’t even pretend to any sort of detachment when it comes to this topic. But I was dissatisfied with the argument – and relieved to find out that I had some cogent reasons, on top of the gut ones. Part of the problem is that Jarvis makes his subject more manageable by dealing mainly with the adequacy of TE’s contributors’ answers to the question of literary value, and not many of them really deal with that head-on. But I’m also unhappy about the style and manner of a review coming from such a well-qualified theoretical (but not paid-up Theoretical) critic.

I think this bit is symptomatic:

Paisley Livingston complains that ‘not a single contributor’ in George Lewis Levine’s collection ‘Aesthetics and Ideology’ refers to any item on a long list which he then gives of contributions to philosophical aesthetics. Since I have read some of the items on that list, I can confirm that one reason why I haven’t read all of them is that they quite often come up with unenlightening conclusions like the following, from Livingston’s own essay: ‘An aesthetic experience of literature, I suggest, is an intrinsically valued experience occasioned by the contemplation of the qualities of a literary work of art’.

A few things about this. First, Livingston doesn’t actually complain, merely remarks. But second – given that Jarvis is about to ‘complain’ that Livingston attacks ‘the Very Big Claims’ of Theory in over-general terms and without providing enough textual proof, isn’t this dismissal of all the work on aesthetics done in the analytical tradition, on the basis of one sentence, a little sweeping? Jarvis says “Livingston’s procedure of inviting readers to imagine for themselves who is being attacked is extreme” – isn’t it just as extreme to expect us to imagine what’s wrong with this sentence, and then to take his word for it that all of analytical aesthetics is equally, as he sees it, absurd? Jarvis doesn’t even seem to think it’s worth saying what’s wrong with Livingston’s sentence. I must say, the problem with the sentence is nowhere near as obvious to me as is the tendency of Theory to make big claims (anyone, anywhere, keen to deny this?). But I’m guessing that Jarvis dislikes the careful, slow, and – from his perspective – boring, style of this very ‘Analytical’ sentence, which is so careful as to spend a lot of words on (from J’s point of view) a very small bit of argumentative progress. This is a pedantic sentence, from Jarvis’s point of view. Funnily enough, Jarvis’s ridicule of this sentence shows that he acctually accepts Livingston’s point (even without the long footnote he’s demanding), that not only Theorists but almost everyone else habitually makes ‘Very Big Claims’ in very little space, in comparison to your careful analytical philsopher.

I’m always amazed when people who work on the work of the likes of Kant and Adorno baulk at the language of analytical philsophy – I know which I find harder to deal with. But I’m prepared to accept that that’s just the way my brain works, and I think it’s a good thing some people are prepared to make more effort with continental philosophy than I am. Jarvis, though, doesn’t seem inclined to live and let live. Which is weird, given the way he starts his article, with a lengthy parable, here potted:

Imagine, please, that you have detected some star of the Theory circuit in a simple but significant error…Your first thought is to make it known, for the public good. Yet …Your article goes unread…At last…Your work begins to resemble a campaign to have this star and others like her deleted from the firmament…

That is one kind of story about resisting Theory. But perhaps there can also be another kind. You find that one problem has a nasty way of leading into others…You read all the star’s work. You become impatient with attacks on it …You appear in print to defend it against such attacks. Your enemy has corrupted you – or, has educated you.

Jarvis is coy about what all this is supposed to mean, but I guess one’s supposed to feel that the second story is happier – and, perhaps, to feel chastised if your relation to Theory has not followed this pattern. To feel this, you have to agree with the assumption that there is probably something to learn from all thinkers, and all schools of thought.

Now, apart from the fact that this degree of relativism about schools of thought is pretty contentious (begging some of the biggest questions at stake in the Theory row), it is, on the evidence of this article, not part of Jarvis’s own practice. So why not just be a bit more up-front about the fact that there are some disagreements unlikely to be got over simply by being less curmudgeonly – and that those disagreements are worth thrashing out?

Maybe we don’t all want to write like analytical philsophers, but we may need to be a little more explicit in expressing ouselves than Theory has tended to be, or than Jarvis is here, if our debates are to be meaningful. I’ve had to ‘guess’ what point he’s making once or twice in expounding his argument here, and this is part of his style, and the style of many otherwise excellent writers in English departments. It’s fashionable to leave as much as possible to the interpreter, in compliment to their good sense and taste. An elliptical style is flattering – and exciting. Theory works best of all in this regard – it can get us from textual references to india rubber balls to an undermining of the whole project of empire in a few words, especially with the help of a few footnotes full of authoritative names. Certainly, the analytical style can’t do that for you.

But it can help you make your argument clear, and fair. Jarvis says that ‘Anthologies of literary theory make…little [space] for outright attacks on…shared assumptions underpinning the whole field…that is a bad thing.’ Sounds like a supplementary volume like TE should be a good thing then? Later, he says that ‘if…the question of literary value is again to recapture the attention of the…most intellectually ambitious graduate students and young academics…a lot more is required’ than an anti-Theory anthology. I’m positive the editors of this volume would agree on this obvious point – the tone of their introduction is modest, not megalomaniac. TE is designed to make space for such a rediscovery, to bolster the confidence of students and young academics who feel inclined to challenge, or sidestep, the awesome conceptual and institutional edifices of Theory. An analytical philsopher would probably say that TE is perhaps a necessary, but not a sufficient, step towards saving the soul of literary studies. But Jarvis instead gives us another argumentative ellipsis – from the ‘not sufficient’ argument he skips any investigation of whether TE might be necessary, or even useful, and takes us straight to the elegant proclamation that ‘What is needed is something quite different.’

‘All the humanities are philosophical through and through’, says J — in the same way as Eagleton used to say they were all political through and through? I must say, that without wanting to try to disprove the statement, I groan when I hear that ”Thinking about literature cannot but be philosophical’. I just do not believe that all, or even most, academics in literature departments, let alone most students in those departments, are either truly willing or properly prepared to take on the full implications of a non-trivial interpretation of that sentence.

Like J, I believe that ‘There is no reason why laxer standards should be permissible’ in philosophising about literature than in philosophising about anything else. But the fact that, on my reading, even J himself doesn’t seem to have come close to these standards even while discussing them, suggests to me that he is not really taking that statement seriously. There seems to me to be a huge tension between it and his dismissal of Livingston and other people ‘in the pay of a Department of Philosophy’. I don’t see why we can’t accept that many of us have put too much effort into archive work, or training our ears to the rhythmns of verse, or whatever, to have the time left to be philosophers as well. Why can’t we accept a bit of help from departments of philosophy, if scientists can from the philosophers of science in those departments?

Not that there isn’t room, and indeed need, for theoretical literary critics, as there is for theoretical physicists. But the big lesson of Theory is that we really do have to take theorising seriously – philosophy isn’t a break from the details and hard work of textual and historical research – it’s more hard work, requiring, if anything, more patience – and not all Nietszchean aphorisms. I don’t think Jarvis’s style in this review suggests such patience.

Having to attend to works of creative genius, in which the most profound and complex truths are sometimes captured in a single turn of phrase, no wonder litcrit is perpetually tempted towards suggestive imprecision. There may be some truth in the old story that the idea of ‘taste’, expressed in a style of knowing and tactful reticence about the details, used to cater to this vanity. Perhaps it still does. But pre-Theory, all the rhetoric of reticence was likely to claim was that you, and your chosen reader (whom your style seemed to single out and take aside for a quiet sherry at the end of the SCR) both knew exactly what Shakespeare was getting at in this couplet, even if you couldn’t exactly say.

But Theory’s stylistic appeal on this front is unrivaled, and ‘theory’ as a separate activity from criticism offers far greater temptations. Setting aside the debate about the hierarchical relation between literature and the supplementary activity of criticism, it seems to me that if we step out of criticism into a more abstract discursive space, and then try to do theory in a style which disdains the patience, care and modesty of properly logical argument, the product will not deserve to be honoured with the name of theory, or philosophy. It will rather be terrible, and nightmarishly dull, creative writing. If the experience of Theory, captured in TE, teaches us anything, it’s that in literary studies we need to take particular care to resist the vanity and self-indulgence of indulging in boring abstraction in the name of theory, in conceptual tangles in the name of complexity, and in careless obscurity in the name of profundity or elegance.

Can’t those of us who can’t understand the significance of sentences like Livingston’s just take literary value as read, and read and write about literature in ways that make that value jump off the page? And can’t that majority just focus on showing our students how to do that too? Those of us with the right sort of brains, prepared to do the right sort of research — from them I think we do need more theory — but let’s do it properly this time.

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