July 31, 2008, 03:12 PM ET
How Theory Damaged the Humanities
Hard as it is to believe, given the passions it continues to arouse, 42 years have passed since critical theory started to infiltrate the humanities in the United States. That’s if we count the famous Hopkins conference of 1966 as its inaugural event. And almost as old as theory is its antagonist, anti-theory, which since the early-70s has charged it with a set of intellectual sins.
Anti-theorists claimed that theory denied stable meanings to texts, thus opening interpretation to gamesmanship, setting cleverness above scrupulousness. (Call this “semantic nihilism.”)
They claimed that theory introduced a circular skepticism into literary practice, whereby before one studied the classics one had to interrogate the notion “classic,” and before one could do that, one had to interrogate the terms with which one interrogated the notion “classic,” … (Call this “endless bracketing.”)
They claimed that theory played fast and loose with concepts from philosophy and the social sciences, applying them to literature without observing the methodological baggage they carried. (Call this “dilettante interdisciplinarity.”)
And they claimed that theory turned teaching and training into induction procedures, the production of advocates, not independent thinkers. (Call this “disciplining disciples.”)
When a second generation of theorists extended theoretical outlooks to ideological and identitarian (race, gender, sexuality, colonial, etc.) matters, another indictment was added. Theory politicized the fields, it said, letting identity politics displace aesthetic criteria in the handling of works and displace intellectual criteria in the handling of practitioners.
Each of these accusations had some merit, I think, but theory was such a diverse and headlong mix of ideas and approaches and talents that it could handily invoke aspects of the enterprise that refuted them. Besides, none of the claims were sufficient to bring about the damages that anti-theorists saw in the humanities as a whole.
No, theory didn’t kill the humanities by its contents or its premises. There was nothing in Discipline and Punish or Orientalism that would hasten the end of liberal arts learning. However much they problematized the self, meaning, tradition, high/low, and so on, theorists didn’t really endanger humanitas by theorizing.
Rather, they damaged it by making a new professional demand. It was, quite simply, the assumption that in order to be competent and qualified, you had to know theory.
I found a good example in a letter by Paul de Man advising the Irvine Comparative Literature department about its proper mission. (It’s in Irvine’s Critical Theory Archive.) It dates from 1978, which means that it follows the flood of theories that overwhelmed the humanities for some 15 years previously — Derridean deconstruction, Levi-Strauss’s structuralism, French feminism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge,” Fredric Jameson’s Marxism, and reader-response criticism. De Man believed that the “new situation” had produced a basic change in the nature of humanistic activity all the way down to the mental disposition of the humanist. De Man terms it:
“a new kind of skill … the capacity to use and feel at home in a whole series of different critical and theoretical codes and systems, as one would use a particular foreign language, without remaining rigidly locked into any one of them, but rather developing the capacity to translate those findings into different codes, systems, critical positions, as the case may require.”
This is a professional qualification. You have to know your theories, and handle them with a lightsome flexibility. We live amidst theories, de Man says, and the true art of the scholar is to skate well across them. Erudition, eloquence, taste … all the old virtues are fine, but this new one, this theory-savvy, bears a special value. It is what will make your conference paper noteworthy, your job application letter interesting, your article eye-catching. Theory-savvy means that you are, precisely, a new professional.
The problem is obvious. The theories that one had to master saw their day pass, and in the cold light of time it no longer seems necessary to know the arguments of deconstruction, reader-response … This is not to say that various theories were wrong or unimportant or worthless. It is to say that the 70s and 80s stewards of the humanities invested the profession in theory way too quickly and sweepingly. They grounded graduate training and hiring and promotion and publication in an enterprise that was uncertain and fluctuating. They announced that theory marked a revolution, but theory wasn’t strong enough to sustain a new institution.