Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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I don't know that it's impossible to succeed in grad school without an understanding of theory. I'm halfway through a PhD and I'll jump through the critical hoops when I have to, but I don't really have an understanding of, nor an appreciation for, criticism. In studying for a comprehensive on the novel, I'll trot through the major theories of the novel and play matching games for the exam, but in doing so I'm only proving I can complete an exercize. Maybe I've just been lucky so far. Professors have been rather open to my approach.


For whatever it's worth, in my experience as a student the best professors are those who are able to "bring theory to life." And to do so without sacrificing attention to the text, or merely imposing some dogmatic or prescriptive agenda. On the contrary. They are the ones who truly understand, who GET theory, while unfortunately most are content to fake it. Granted the system seems more than amply set up to encourage such posturing. But the answer is not to flee from critical theory, especially when it seems that all that is required today to be a "theorist" is a quick skim of say, Eagleton, Christopher Norris or Mark Taylor. One might justifiably wish like hell that more professors had half a clue about Critical Theory--a rigorous appreciation for its history, from Adorno to Derrida--rather than a mere fetish for something now so mantrically, self-evidently invoked as "theory."

Very bluntly, and too quickly: I'm not convinced that such a rigorous thinking--call it "theorizing" if you must--inherently precludes an appreciation for what you call, "intrinsic worth." Although it would seem that the burden of articulating such a thing remains hanging somewhere, overhead. Which is not--this burden--necessarily a bad thing, maybe.

Chad Orzel

"Again, what I find most telling about this formulation is that denying students access to theory would impede their ability "to have a meaningful understanding of modern literary scholarship" (emphasis mine). The almost unconscious assumption is that to study literature in modern American universities is perforce to study the scholarship on literature, to become familiar with what others who have devoted themselves to the study of literature have written about the study of literature."

That formulation was quite deliberate, for more or less the reasons you cite. It's also important to the analogy I was making between literature classes and science classes: In the same way that you can enjoy science without doing any math, but can never hope to be a scientist without math, it seems like you can enjoy literature without theory (I do it all the time), but can't become a literary scholar without knowing something about theory.

Of course, this is all from my perspective as a professor in the sciences, talking to colleagues in the humanities. I'm probably wrong about some aspects of this, and I'd be happy to hear the perspective of someone with a more direct knowledge of the humanities side of academia.

Dan Green

Perhaps you can no longer become a literary "scholar" without knowing theory--although this was not always the case: even twenty-five years ago you could become a scholar just by knowing more about a particular period of literature than most people--but you can certainly become a literary critic or just learn to love literature without it. In fact, those now called "literary scholars" increasingly know less and less about literature themselves. Only theory. Or how literature is really politics.

dave munger

Nice, thoughtful post. Very interesting. I'm not sure I buy your argument that there was no "theory" before there were English departments. There was, but it wasn't taught in English departments, it was taught in philosophy departments. Nietszche, Augustine, Origen, Plato, and many others had an awful lot to say about literary theory.

Dan Green

I said there was no "literary theory." No "theory" developed by literary critics or others primarily interested in literature rather than philosophy. Nietszche et. al. were only made into literary theorists by literature professors once they inhabited the English department.

dave munger

I suppose it's really a semantic point. Your right in the sense that if there were no literature departments, then it's pretty hard to say there was such a thing as "literary theory." There was theory about literature, but there weren't jobs for "literature professors" because there were no literature departments.

But 20th century literary scholars didn't invent the concept of theory about literature, and they didn't impose some alternate interpretation of Nietzsche, or or Longinus, or Plato. These philosophers were making theory about literature. They didn't think they were making theory about science, or economics, or politics, or anything else. Nothing was imposed on them by 20th century scholars.

Dan Green

I don't think it is a semantic point. The very concept of "literature" as we think about it now is more or less an invention of the literary academy. Before the 20th century, certainly before the 19th century, there was "poetry," but I don't think the "literary theorists" you mention would really understand our talk these days about "literature." Nietzsche mostly thought he was still talking about philosophy when he wrote about Greek drama (a "world view" more broadly) and Plato wrote about poetry, but, again, I'm not sure he would have known what it means to speak of "literature" in our sense of the word.

dave munger

I suppose that's true, but again I believe that's simply a semantic point. There wasn't the category "literature," but there were other categories which have now been partially or completely subsumed by the larger category, "literature," such as "drama," "poetry," and even "rhetoric." We don't say these genres have disappeared, now that they have been lumped together into a larger category, and we don't say that theory about a single genre isn't also "literary theory."

Dan Green

Precisely. There are various forms of writing that "have now been partially or completely subsumed" to the idea of "literature." But this was done by the literary academy. The first thing that had to be "theorized" once "literature" became an academic subject was exactly what that thing was. All of our talk about "literary theory" is an artifact of that process, not of the literary history that came before. Literary scholars did indeed "invent the concept of theory about literature."

dave munger

But isn't it this way with all disciplines? Yes, the "liberal arts" have existed for quite some time, but some of them didn't evolve into their current form until very recently. "Chemistry," for example, is barely two centuries old. Does this mean the alchemists that preceded them didn't practice "chemistry?" Psychology emerged as a discipline at roughly the same time as literary study. Yet we can trace the basis of psychology all the way back to Hippocrates. We don't say that 20th century psychologists invented the idea of studying human behavior.

It's disingenious to suggest that a discipline that synthesizes thought which has occurred over centuries is somehow now just foisting itself upon academe. "Rhetoric," now a discipline generally centered in English departments, has been a part of the academy since its very inception, and many of the more "radical" aspects of rhetoric were being debated by Plato and the sophists the 5th century B.C.

Dan Green

You speak of literature as a "discipline." The point of my post is precisely that we ought to stop thinking of it that way. Works of literature don't amount to a "discipline." They're discreet works meant to be read by individual readers. For these readers to enjoy and appreciate such works, they don't need "theory." Unless, indeed, their commitment is finally more to the "discipline" than it is to fiction or poetry or drama.

A discipline can't "foist" itself upon academe. Academe created it.

dave munger

Chemicals don't amount to a discipline. Human behavior doesn't amount to a discipline. The study of these things does.

"Academe" created all these things, as it created literary studies.

Dan Green

Academe did indeed create literary studies. And it would be in the best interest of the very subject that was to be studied--literature--that academe confess it's not any longer much interested in that subject--at least not those "discreet works" I mentioned earlier.

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