Theory futures

Literary criticism in the 21st century : theory renaissance - Vincent B. Leitch 2014

Theory futures

I want to make a claim, a prediction, directed at aspiring theorists and all other interested parties. Consider this my letter to young colleagues. The future for theory in higher education, specifically in the humanities and social sciences, looks good. To use the dominant laissez-faire market language of the day, I am bullish. This is with the longish as well as the middle and short terms in mind. Of course, there are some caveats and complications. But I am offering a buy signal. And you readers, especially theorists, may well wonder why.

For starters, the demand for research and publication in higher education is not going away anytime soon. On the contrary, it continues to seep out from major research universities into many other educational institutions. This has been going on particularly in North America since the 1960s and has spread across the globe. Within many humanities and social science disciplines, theory answers the call. It provides new topics of inquiry, new approaches, and new objects for investigation. Here I would cite the continuous productivity, for example, of Marxist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial theory; of feminist, gender, and queer theory; and particularly of the many innovative subdisciplines charted at the outset of this book in Figure 1. Mix and match any three or more of those items to create a new area of inquiry. Antitheory and posttheory sentiments of recent decades only make sense in the context of theory as a dominant paradigm. Inside higher education theory appears an empire to some of its strongest opponents. Well, amen, despite the inept metaphor and associated hysteria.

Large numbers of undergraduate and graduate students are required to take one or more courses of introductory theory, contemporary or classical. In addition, there are usually optional courses beyond these. Various institutions offer minors, certificates, and specializations in theory. There are numerous guides, dictionaries, glossaries, and anthologies covering theory. And their numbers keep increasing. All of this is what I think of as Theory Incorporated.

In recent years I, like others, have been invited as a theorist to lecture and teach in foreign countries: Brazil, China, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, Germany, and Hungary in my case. The textbook I worked on, Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, makes nearly half of its annual sales outside the United States. Theory has gone global. It may be expected to continue going global, furthermore, by incorporating “foreign” elements, both classic and contemporary. At present, theory in North America and Europe does not usually include Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Persian, or other non-European traditions. In the future, it will increasingly do so. During its initial stages, America will likely be the hub of the emerging world republic of theory (Keucheyan 255).

In a nutshell, the way I see it, theory provides many resources: cultural capital, fertile canons and traditions, critique, useful tools, a professional lingua franca, plus ample materials and new perspectives for research, publication, and teaching. This has motivated innumerable franchising operations, part of Theory Incorporated.

Now if aspiring theorists ask me which theory in particular to invest in today, we have to face some complications. Up until the mid-1990s, contemporary theory, for example in literary studies, was configured as a set of schools and movements, both major and minor. This picture, of course, changes with different academic disciplines and departments. In North American literary studies and English departments in particular, the sequence of contemporary theories covers, to recite the standard list one last time, Marxism, psychoanalysis, formalism, myth criticism, existentialism and phenomenology, hermeneutics and reader-response theory, structuralism, poststructuralism, feminism, race and ethnicity theory, New Historicism, gender and queer theory, postcolonial theory, personal criticism, and cultural studies. Despite this abundance, the dominant forces over these years were during the 1950s and 1960s formalism, the 1970s and 1980s poststructuralism, and the 1990s to the present cultural studies. Coherence can be found amid expanding plenty.

Starting in the 1970s, however, crossovers and fusions, postmodern pastiches and assemblages, began to appear. I would cite again as an instance the well-known pioneering Marxist feminist deconstructive postcolonial work of Gayatri Spivak. Many other examples of theoretical eclecticism could be listed. Since the early 1990s, North American cultural studies has rather quickly branched out from its more or less coherent British forerunner into dozens of semiautonomous subfields or studies areas. I have in mind whiteness studies, body studies, trauma studies, border studies, disability studies, animal studies, subaltern studies, working-class studies, and so on. Each of these areas has its own history and theoretical configuration. None is in a position of dominance, quite the contrary. So the theory renaissance has a structure of disaggregation. Not surprisingly, my argument is that twenty-first-century theory is unmasterable yet knowable. It remains roughly recognizable in its current disseminated highly productive postmodern form as “theory.”

Like any investment or purchase today, this one that we are entertaining—to buy into theory and in which one or ones—faces a proliferation of choices. We all regularly confront this type of problem whether we are looking to buy a breakfast cereal, a six pack of beer, or a bottle of wine. Innumerable choices confront us accompanied frequently by muted feelings of bewilderment, dismay, astonishment. Not unexpectedly, I have had doctoral students ask me whether to buy, sell, or hold theory and cultural studies and in just these terms. The structure of our late capitalist consumer societies consists precisely of abundance and disorganization typified as gaudy dispersion. Neither higher education nor theory has escaped this form. In any case, I’m sending a general buy signal.

Everywhere there are guides, top ten lists, books for dummies, and self-help manuals and media. If you are recognized today as a professional theorist or a serious devotee of theory, you are unashamedly positioned from time to time as an investment counselor, a futures advisor. That’s the role I play here. People want very badly to know what are the newest approaches to the arts, society, and culture. What is the latest thing? In these times, such market vanguardism is insistent. Given this context, theory gets swept up in fashion. There is a queer theory approach, a postcolonial approach, and many hot cultural studies approaches. Some areas or niches are very hot and some not. This is part of what I think of as the Theory Market. We live in a world of commodities, abundance, advertising, competition, speeded-up obsolescence, utilitarian choices, and calculated investments. It is no surprise that theory as well as scholarship, research, and academic publishing reside there. This goes for the arts and humanities as well as the sciences, social sciences, and professions.

But there is a further complication. Can one choose, for example, feminism, critical race theory, or postcolonial theory as an attractive option preferable to others? These theories stem from certain personal as well as collective experiences, histories, oppressions, values. In this sense theory is rooted in standpoints, worldviews, and existential situations. The category “consumer choice”—construed as an individual human right and citizen’s responsibility, according to today’s neoliberal theory of homo economicus—doesn’t begin to explain how one comes to such theory.

A great deal of what counts as theory has a critical edge and cuts across the grain of contemporary society. The tools of the trade today bear me out: Marxist-derived ideological analysis, race-class-gender cultural critique, deconstruction of venerable binary concepts, minority counter-histories, psychoanalytically inflected hermeneutics of suspicion, rhetorical analysis of political discourse, Foucaultian genealogy, and so on. This equipment is part of the DNA of many contemporary humanistic and social scientific fields. It complements the usual and expected traditional street smarts, self-reflection, and methodological prudence plus close reading and exegesis. If we look around, much criticism needs to be done. Theory is well positioned and predisposed to do it. This is why, in considerable part, conservative cultural warriors condemn it. They have kept on the attack for decades. Theory represents continuous challenge. That to me provides ample reason to recommend as well as defend it.

The situation today of newly minted PhD theory specialists seeking work in, for example, North American higher education differs tellingly from that of the high watermark during the 1980s. In the eighties, theory broke away from its long-standing subordinate role and became a free-standing specialty and major paradigm for various disciplines, certainly literary studies. Nowadays, theory has permeated most of the specialties and subspecialties of various disciplines to the point that everyone, it seems, is doing theory of some sort. That includes for literature the local Shakespearean, Victorianist, and ethnic specialist. Like feminism, theory is everywhere and nowhere. So there is no apparent need to hire any theory specialist per se. Today’s applied theory has innumerable local habitations and names. Consequently, stand-alone theory has fallen by the wayside. It is not a preferred academic specialty, but a secondary backup one, playing supporting roles.

Beginning card-carrying theorists, therefore, need a professional identity linked to a more venerable specialty or recognized subspecialty, not this recent upstart field alone. To give a few examples, British Romantic celebrity literary culture, or globalization in Renaissance travel literature, or early Cold War American confessional poetry would nicely complement and moderate primary investment in theory. Here, and everywhere else across the literature curriculum, well-attested historical periods, genres, and themes reassert the mid-century structure of the discipline. It is not that theory is dead now. Not at all. It is ubiquitous and thriving, but quite abruptly in the back seat and in the old vehicle. The modern university lives on in many of its structures.

The various reconfigurations of theory charted thus far are tied to the postmodernization of higher education. It is a matter of uneven development. On the one hand, the university is a modernist institution in which early twentieth-century disciplines and departments constitute its perdurable infrastructure and its very architecture. On the other hand, these modern disciplines have lost their autonomy in a new era of interdisciplinarity and crossdisciplinarity. Think of all the new fields built up following the 1960s such as gender studies, ethnic studies, semiotics, or cultural studies and dozens of more recent subdisciplines like cognitive studies, disability studies, and globalization studies. I have not even mentioned all the new fields in the sciences.

But where are the new “interdisciplines” housed? Rarely in their own departments, rather in skimpily funded and casually staffed programs or centers. This is one of my pet peeves. Are there teaching jobs in these exciting and productive fields? Well, no, not exactly, not directly. They usually have to be camouflaged to fit into the accredited modern (prepostmodern) disciplines and specialties. If, for example, you are an English professor interested in punk—punk music, dress, dancing, and cultural locations—you need to find a literary tie-in such as punk slang, lyrics, and zines. You position yourself as specializing in late twentieth-century literature and culture, with a focus on subcultural vernacular aesthetic discourses. Not surprisingly, many jobs seekers in this phase of theory and interdisciplinarity are in disguise. On one hand, the university, its departmentalization and staffing, appear frozen in an earlier mid-twentieth-century configuration. On the other, offshoots and crossovers proliferate like crabgrass. Theory is part of this growth and deterritorialization. It went viral in the fin de siècle and continues to do so in our new century. It’s a prolific renaissance accompanied by countercurrents.

Here is what I or probably any veteran theorist would say nowadays to a PhD student aspiring to be an academic theorist. Invest in theory. Just be aware that cosmetic finessing will be required to your professional image and curriculum vitae. Makeovers are necessary. Flexibility is the watchword. Have a traditional profile, fit in the old framework, and be instantly recognizable to the oldest of old timers. Yet appear innovative, creative, smart, committed to the new, even to the newest of the new, but again within the old frame of recognized disciplines and specialties. Face the fact, for instance in North America, that less than half of new PhDs will secure a tenure-track job after an average of ten years of PhD study and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. Moreover, part of your makeover routine is to look suitable as well for the insecure Macjobs that in the twenty-first-century US constitute about three-quarters of the higher education academic workforce. Be aware that this degraded job category calls for trimming back obvious theory inclinations in favor of robust basic education. Welcome to the corporate university.

At this point I want to own up to a fantasy of mine. Sometimes I feel theory should be part of basic education like composition and mathematics. In this scenario there ought to be a course or two of interdisciplinary theory required of all undergraduate students. It would doubtlessly be staffed by faculty in the humanities and social sciences, consisting of core and optional modules, drawing from contemporary and perhaps classic sources. But then I vacillate, thinking theory should be reserved for certain majors and only in the advanced upper-division course work. In the former scenario, theory is tantamount to critical thinking in its various genuine contemporary modes. In the latter, theory is advanced critical and creative thinking as well as methods and approaches within the delimited contexts of recognized disciplines and their traditions. A great deal is in question here: the places of critical and creative thinking in higher education curriculum; the future of Theory Incorporated and the Theory Market, including the theory job market for PhDs; and the mission of higher education in today’s societies.

What lies in the immediate future for theory? Here are three predictions. To begin with, theory will continue to be disseminated through innumerable specialties, periods, subspecialties, disciplines, and national contexts to the point of losing its identity in various settings. So be it. At the same time, challenges can be expected in North America and elsewhere to the now standard three graduate and undergraduate theory course offerings and requirements, namely Introduction to Theory, History of Theory, and Modern/Contemporary Theory. Let theorists be prepared to defend while continuously transforming their bread-and-butter courses. Lastly, theory must go global. To reiterate, it needs to include materials from Arabic, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Persian, and other traditions, reaching back often to ancient times and recontextualizing theory’s lingering Eurocentrism. Such globalizing will not bring an end to national identities, regional affiliations, or local distinctions, quite the opposite.

There are those who say theory is past. They generally mean poststructuralism or the broader interdisciplinary configuration of theory in the 1980s and 1990s. They are right, yet only superficially as I have argued throughout this book. Theory in the sense of methods and approaches, perennial texts and intellectual problems, plus critique is alive and well. It is indispensable for those in humanistic and social scientific fields, students as well as faculty. It shapes professional discourse, consciously and unconsciously. What is past and missing just now is the general sense of excitement sometimes approaching hysteria that accompanied the early days of the theory boom during the 1980s. The current stage of market society, casino capitalism, solicits quick fashion changes, rapid obsolescence, and hyper excitement, both manufactured and real. Theory is caught up in these shifting currents of highs and lows.