Article 3



Course Syllabi

Curriculum Vita



(Published in Profession 2005. New York: Modern Language Association, 2005: 122-28.)

The theory renaissance of the late twentieth century in North America was marked by an unprecedented proliferation of schools and movements, ranging from the maturing of formalism, myth criticism, and the social criticism of the New York intellectuals to new developments in Marxism, psychoanalysis, and hermeneutics to the rise and spread of reader-response criticism, structuralism and semiotics, poststructuralism, feminism, and critical race theory to the emergence of postcolonial theory, new historicism, cultural studies, queer theory, and personal criticism. At the turn of the twenty-first century many branches of the newer movements and schools have gathered together, more or less willingly, under the capacious banner of cultural studies, displacing the previously dominant banner of poststructuralism and taking the form of an increasingly disaggregated front characterized by several dozen recognized subfields: body studies, disability studies, whiteness studies, media studies, indigenous studies, narrative studies, porn studies, performance studies, working-class studies, popular culture studies, trauma studies, and so on.

            As a consequence, theory in the current framework has at least a half dozen different meanings, each of which has a distinct reception history and set of effects. First, the term refers loosely to the gamut of contemporary schools and movements, plus their offshoots in cultural studies. That is to say, it names the broad field and is synonymous with criticism. Starting in the 1980s and persisting to the present, conservatives dedicated to mid-century moral and formalist analysis of canonical literary works have waged a campaign against such theory (Bloom; Ellis). Second, theory designates general principles and procedures--methods--as well as the self-reflection employed in all areas of literary and cultural studies. A small but vigorous skirmish against such theory has been enjoined  by neopragmatists who oppose foundational principles, with the result that few nowadays defend theory in its most ambitious methodological or scientific pretensions (Knapp and Michaels; Fish). Third, theory is widely considered a toolbox of flexible, useful, and contingent devices, judged for their productivity and innovation. The critique of such pragmatic theory, small in scale, has come from various defenders of objective interpretation, ranging from curmudgeons committed to the old days before theory to defenders of New Criticism to much more challenging hermeneuticists (Harris; Mohanty). Fourth, theory denotes professional common sense--what goes without saying and what every specialist knows--so that everyone in the field has a theory, although some people don’t realize it. In this view theory is a sociohistorical construction complete with contradictions and blind spots yet shored up by the current status quo. But the equating of theory with professionally configured common sense paradoxically ends up diluting its specificity, its conflicts, and its counterhegemonic agendas. Fifth, theory signifies more narrowly structuralism and poststructuralism, the works of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Kristeva, and company, plus their followers and imitators. This is frequently called high or grand theory, with low (or vernacular) theory and posttheory arriving after structuralism and poststructuralism (Williams). Opposition has come to such briefly triumphant theory not only from conservative scholars, but also a broad array of contending liberal and left theorists, indicting it (particularly deconstruction) for philosophical idealism, nominalism, obscurantism, and quietism, charges early made famous by certain Marxists, feminists, critical race theorists, and cultural studies scholars (Said; Scholes; Christian; and Gilbert and Gubar).1 The latter-day persistence of poststructuralism has appeared in two forms: its continued widespread use past its two-decade-long hegemony; its belated turn to ethics and politics, occurring after the revelations in 1987 of Paul de Man’s WW II anti-Semitic writings, the symbolic moment that, nevertheless, marks the waning of poststructuralism as dominant (and orthodox) theory and the broad spread of talk about new historicism, cultural studies, and posttheory. Sixth, theory names a historically new postmodern mode of discourse that breaches long-standing borders, fusing literary criticism, philosophy, history, sociology, psychoanalysis, and politics.2 This cross-disciplinary pastiche is, not surprisingly, subject to the broad critique of postmodernism, especially for its undermining the hard-won autonomy gained during modern times for both the university and the academic disciplines, particularly literary criticism and aesthetics.

            Starting in the early 1990s, we have regularly heard announcements of the end, death, or day after theory (McQuillan et al.; Butler, Guillory, and Thomas; Payne and Schad; Eagleton). But to mourn theory is to assume a certain stance toward as well as a definition of it. If theory means poststructuralism(s) or all contemporary movements and schools or postmodern discourse, then we can project historical passing, an end. Yet certain features of such theory will no doubt live on as, for instance, the deconstruction of binary concepts, as interdisciplinary writing, and as the critique of discriminatory gender and race conventions. Such talk about the passing of theory contains a disguised wish among some for its demise and, amongst others, a nostalgic lament about heady, intoxicating earlier days. End-of-theory sentiments arose, in fact, very early in the contemporary period: when the classical Enlightenment project of theory culminated in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism; when a bit later an array of new schools and movements were ascendant over formalism; then when French poststructuralism overwhelmed U.S. formalism; again when poststructuralism was displaced by cultural studies; and now when cultural studies, in its exemplary 1970s British form as opposed to its later, disaggregated North American version, projects in retrospect a comparatively coherent politics and project. Mourning theory expresses both a defense of certain earlier instantiations of it and, given current anxieties about an uncertain future, a longing for better times.

            It is worth considering for a moment the notion of ends. The word has numerous connotations: withering, eclipse; fullness; closure, termination, catastrophe, death; turning or stopping points; goals and targets. It summons an army of phenomena: finitude, beginnings, and middles, expected change, nostalgia, mourning. It suggests remains, revenants, immortality. When ends designates regulated or calculated passing, it evokes cyclical patterns as well as shelf life, fusing historiography and fashion. Fashion itself brings to mind boredom, opportunism, mutability, superficiality. Ends, like origins, appear multiple and complex, which is the situation with "theory ends."

            The past of theory demonstrates that theory has a future. Its long history, in its current telling, extends from the pre-Socratics through the lengthy Middle Ages; from the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic epochs to the Victorian, modern, and postmodern eras. Of course, historical periods are reconfigured regularly in the light of new findings and pressing concerns. But neither the history of theoretical concepts, problems, and debates nor the search for effective methods and pragmatic protocols nor the influence of perennial theory texts nor the borrowing from neighboring fields nor the critique of the status quo seems likely to disappear. Like a riverbed, theory changes yet abides.

            In its most colloquial sense, everyone has a theory, even if unconsciously held. Defined in this way, there can be no passing of theory tout court, only a loss of separate identity, an eclipse of certain functions, a reconfiguration or renaming. That is what is occurring at present, as cultural studies annexes various segments and tasks of theory.

            Perhaps the main question today is, Where in the colleges and universities of the future will literary and cultural theory be housed and studied? Under what conditions? How much? How widely? In most or a few literature departments? In general education, introductory, or advanced theory courses? All these questions raise the broader question of the future of the university. Will corporatization, with its addiction to casualized labor and its disinterest in humanities education, effectively reduce theory teaching, along with tenured full-time faculty members to a mere shell of its former self (Leitch)? Could expanding service teaching of the arts and humanities fully subordinate the research mission and its commitment to theory? Conversely, is it possible that emerging interdisciplinary formations might further disseminate theory? Even if passed and mourned, wouldn’t theory return like a ghost in unexpected forms?

            The theory market plays a role in this account. Such a thing hardly existed in North America before the 1970s. But the job market for theory expanded dramatically from the early 1980s to the early 1990s, with many academic jobs going to theorists (labeled as such), especially in English and comparative literature programs. After that, the job demand for theory diminished compared with that for other specialties in literature and rhetoric. It appears to have remained steadily at the level of such pre-modern historical periods as the eighteenth-century English literature. However, a large number of jobs during recent years list theory as a second preferred strength. That need provides openings to employment. More telling still is the role of theory has come to play in research and publication. In most fields, it is difficult to publish without some sort of informed theoretical orientation in use and on display. As a result, there are innumerable scholars not labeled as theorists who know and use theory in their published work and in their teaching. So the market for theory is a matter not simply of designated specialists and specialty jobs but more or less of the whole profession. Publication and also hiring are linked with theory across many fields, and it has been this way for a quarter century. The institutionalization of theory explains why it is sometimes regarded as a new orthodoxy, although there are so many different kinds and contentious factions that it is difficult to picture theory convincingly as one unified or unifying, not to say stifling, force. The consecration of theory on the job market has helped ensure a future.

            As is well known, fin-de-siècle moments prompt retrospection. Gains and losses are reckoned, futures solicited. For example, theory anthologies of recent years like the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001; 2010 2nd ed.) exhibit a retrospective tenor, displaying in bulky form and apparatus a full lineage for theory. All this reckoning entails the work of consolidation, defense, monumentalization. It puts on display Theory Incorporated, a holding company but a company with an eye toward the future. Fashion and market models have sprung to the fore from the anxious unconscious of late-capitalist times, and theory appears a niche market with fashions coming and going. Graduate students, in particular, wonder and frequently ask, Who is in? Who is out? What are the latest trends?

            Causerie. Some theory brokers say new historicism; others say cultural studies are running out of energy. Yet other observers say the high times of North American theory -- that is, the 1970s and 1980s and their legacies -- are passing away. Belletrism is returning. Queer theory has now gone mainstream. Postcolonial theory is past its prime. Critical race theory definitely has legs.

            Such speculations, reductions, preludes to calculated investments and disinvestments reify and commodify theory -- not surprisingly. It is how academic business is handled nowadays. In this context, there will be and must be discussions of passing, mourning, the day after, the end, finitude. Indeed, there will be talk of shelf life, marketability, boom-bust cycles, new developments, the latest wave; the consumerist episteme of the times calls forth such talk.

            Theory is part of its time. The New Criticism of the middle third of the twentieth century harmonized with the emergence of expanded higher education during its Keynesian era of big business+big labor+big government, mass media, the incorporation of avant-garde modernism, large powerful political parties, and the coherent nuclear family. The poststructuralism of the later twentieth century was consonant with the spread of the disaggregated multiversity form and the rise of neoliberal capitalism, with its programs of minimal government+deregulation+deunionization, media proliferation, numerous reformist new social movements, and the flexibilization of monogamy. The U.S. cultural studies of recent years suits the stepped-up disorganization of higher education and growing globalization, characterized by dismantling governments, temped and insecure labor, mobile transnational businesses, the vulnerable single-headed family, proliferating yet conglomerated media, ubiquitous popular culture disseminated on a 24-7 basis, and literatures globalized (Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanophone, Sinophone, etc.).3 Theory reflects its time and, while criticizing or sometimes ignoring or not analyzing, responds to the forces at play. The recent replacement of the vanguardist schools-and-movements paradigm of modern and contemporary theory by the rhizomatous studies model of the post-cold war era foregrounds simultaneously three such forces: (1) the rapid dedepartmentalization of knowledge and research (versus teaching); (2) the collapse of the Enlightenment goal of maximum autonomy of spheres; and (3) the niche marketization of all research areas now scrambling for publicity, funding, and legitimacy in neo-Darwinian struggles for survival and a piece of the future. Yet the shifts from high theory to posttheory to vernacular theory show theory not as moribund but, on the contrary, in a new viral form responsive to its time and place, materially engaged, socially symptomatic, critical, opportunistic, a changeling.


1See also Gorman, who helpfully distinguishes three modes of antitheory from “countertheory,” which is a movement skeptical and critical of poststructuralism and amenable to alternatives such as hermeneutics and speech-act theory. Note that for Gorman the root “theory” means poststructuralism. Also see Patai and Corral, who gather four dozen anti- and countertheory statements.

2According to Culler, today “works of literary theory are closely and vitally related to other writings within a domain as yet unnamed but often called ‘theory’ for short. . . . Many of its most interesting works do not explicitly address literature. It is not ‘philosophy’ in the current sense of the term, since it includes Saussure, Marx, Freud, Erving Goffman, and Jacques Lacan as well as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. . . . This new genre is certainly heterogeneous“ (8). Jameson similarly notes: “A generation ago there was still a technical discourse of professional philosophy . . . alongside which one could still distinguish that quite different discourse of the other academic disciplines--of political science, for example, or sociology or literary criticism. Today, increasingly, we have a kind of writing simply called ‘theory’ which is all or none of those things at once” (14).

            Insofar as contemporary theory and postmodernism are often linked with social constructivism, standpoint epistemology, cultural relativism, and popular culture (versus literary canon), they constitute threats and often targets for conservative thinkers left- and right-wing.

3Globalization today has also meant the devolution of national literatures toward loose assemblages composed of different regions, languages, and ethnic and minority groups. Not surprisingly, the number of recognized genres has increased and the hierarchy has changed, expanding the definition of literature. For the example of U.S. literature, see Lauter and also Shell and Sollors. Shell and Sollors provide original texts and translations from twenty languages, ranging from Lenape, Massachusett, Navajo, French, Spanish, and Arabic to Chinese, German, Italian, Polish, Welsh, and Yiddish.



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