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


There are a dozen or more identifiable contemporary antitheory factions in North America and the United Kingdom. It’s an odd phalanx. Among them are traditional literary critics; aesthetes; critical formalists; political conservatives; ethnic separatists; some literary stylisticians, philologists, and hermeneuticists; certain neopragmatists; champions of low and middlebrow literature; creative writers; defenders of common sense and plain style; plus some committed leftists. What most characterize many of the antitheory factions as well as independent and maverick critics of theory are arguments calling for a return to the close reading of canonical literature, for clear writing of critical prose that avoids obscurity and jargon, and for settling disagreements through reasoned argumentation rather than statements of personal beliefs. Antitheorists often complain bitterly about contemporary theory’s commitments both to social constructionism (versus scientific truth and objectivity) and to multiculturalism with its critical focus on race-class-gender analyses. For their part, theorists refer to antitheorists as the “I love literature crowd.” I’ll unpack this loaded accusation as I progress through this chapter. When tolerated at all by antitheorists, theory serves as a handmaiden to appreciation of literary texts. In no case should theory become autonomous, a separate field, or a new academic discipline. This is a consecration to be accorded only to literature itself.

With its 48 pieces written over three decades, Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral and published in 2005, remains the bible of contemporary antitheory arguments. It is a hodgepodge, with selections from such notables as René Wellek, M. H. Abrams, Marjorie Perloff, Tzvetan Todorov, and Denis Donoghue. They are brought together to criticize theory, defend the canon of great works and literary analysis, uphold a commonsense realist theory of language, and excoriate the politicization of literary study characteristic of much contemporary theory. The general point of view is conservative, characteristically looking backward to earlier better times and approaches (the modern versus the postmodern). As the title suggests, the thesis of this doorstop volume is polemical: theory during the postmodern era has come to dominate literary studies, creating in the process an enduring empire and an orthodoxy. So, the critics of theory are here marshaled as anti-imperialist dissenters against empire. It is a telling self-aggrandizing conceit.

In this chapter, I portray a half dozen of the best of the best antitheorists and their arguments, offering my own assessments. Then I return to the big picture and the two editors’ summary of claims against theory. My primary argument is that we should not have to choose between theory and antitheory. My secondary argument, foregrounded from start to finish here and also in Chapter 3, is that an account of contemporary theory is incomplete without accounting for its many adversaries. The phenomenon of antitheory constitutes a revealing segment of the history of theory. To file it away under “culture wars” or the “battle of the ancients versus the moderns revisited,” while provocative, is shortsighted. Much can be learned from the antitheory phenomenon about contemporary literary studies, the corporate university, and cultural politics.

Taken from his book Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (1997), John Ellis’s “Is Theory to Blame?” gathers the theory of the closing three decades of the twentieth century under the banner “race-gender-class theory.” Ellis has been among the most visible and active of the antitheorists starting in the 1980s. His explicit standpoint is postwar Euro-American formalist stylistics as embodied in the landmark book, Theory of Literature (1949), coauthored by René Wellek and Austin Warren. As a historian of theory, nothing attracts his favorable attention after the 1950s. On key issues of theory, such as the nature of authorial intention, literary quality, and historical context, mid-century theorists are purportedly far more complex, convincing, well-informed, committed to analysis, independent, and original than their thankless present-day heirs. For Ellis, contemporary race-gender-class theory is simple-minded, ill-informed, dogmatic, and conformist. Furthermore, the topics of real concern today, long debated in the history of criticism, receive unsophisticated handling. Nowadays, nothing is new, just diluted. Standards of argumentation and logic have deteriorated. John Ellis’s mission is to save real theory from bad theory: “what now passes for theory is a degraded and corrupt shadow of what theory should be” (106). What has been especially disturbing, historically speaking, is the becoming fashionable of theory and its jargon: “As theory became fashionable, there arose a theory cult in literary studies, and its leadership became a kind of theory jet set, a professional elite with a carefully cultivated aura of au courant sophistication. In this atmosphere, only recent theory counted; anything from earlier times was wooden and out-moded. The persistent ignorance of prior theory was therefore no accident but an essential feature of this new development” (104—105).1

Obviously lumping all post-1950s theory under the category race-gender-class is a problem. While it might apply in a way, however unflattering and homogenizing, to ethnopoetics, feminism, New Historicism, queer theory, Marxism, postcolonial theory, or cultural studies, it does not depict psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, structuralism, deconstruction, reader-response theory, or poststructuralism. Theory is not one thing.2 So, the charge of “political correctness,” proffered by Ellis, amounts to a dismissive as well as careless slur. Also, Ellis’s definition of real theory and theorists is narrow and prescriptive. Real “theorists do not run in packs; they are individuals who set out to crack particular problems by thinking hard about them. Their work is solitary; it is never fashionable and must always be estranged from orthodoxies … . Real theorists thrive on the concept of argument and counterargument that is central to theoretical analysis, but race-gender-class scholars show a marked tendency to avoid facing the substance of the arguments of their critics” (105—106). This view proposes a Great Man and solitary genius theory of cultural history that not only dissolves historical context but also discounts forerunners. Ironically, it does not apply at all to Ellis’s beloved formalists, who ran in packs and became fashionable members of a reigning orthodoxy. Ellis damns everything that comes after the 1950s, a time when he was a student. He positions himself as a resentful defender of the old guard, a curmudgeon.

Insofar as advocates of new paradigms often ignore earlier competing paradigms, Ellis is misguided to expect the formalist tradition to be carefully examined as opposed to rudely dismissed by postformalists. For example, Yale-educated theorists Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, and Stephen Greenblatt were trained by leading formalists but turned away from them with very little looking back or reasoned argumentation. They are prodigal sons (J. Williams). Intellectual change is often abrupt; it need not be respectfully conformist. Ellis is a poor historiographer. Moreover, his antitheory attacks leave out of account larger social dynamics such as the contemporary corporatization of the university and its requirements for productivity and innovation, not to mention its related nurturing of an elite star system. It makes little sense to form judgments on the role of contemporary theory in the absence of the historical transformation, for good and ill, of the university. Not surprisingly, the advent of multiculturalism, liberal diversity management, and their theoreticians uniformly constitute disasters in Ellis’s unnuanced account.

One of the most lucid and earliest contemporary antitheory arguments appears in M. H. Abrams’s short piece “The Deconstructive Angel.” This memorable paper was originally delivered in the 1970s at a session of the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. On the panel were Abrams (distinguished literary historian), Wayne Booth (advocate of Chicago school critical pluralism), and J. Hillis Miller (leading deconstructive critic). What prompted the panel was an earlier hostile review by Miller of Abrams’s book Natural Supernaturalism. Miller cast the book as an example of “the grand tradition of modern humanistic scholarship” (6), whereupon he proceeded to critique the tradition in the name of Derridean and de Manian deconstruction. Wayne Booth wanted the antagonists to debate their differences publicly. Abrams portrays himself on the panel as a traditional historian of Western culture and a critical pluralist, meaning someone tolerant of different approaches to linguistic and historical interpretation. In his presentation he offers, first, fair-minded and cogent accounts of both Derrida’s and Miller’s theories of language and interpretation. Second, he cleverly counterpoises his own ideas.

Just before Miller is to make his presentation, the last of the three papers, Abrams concludes his argument with a telling witty prognostication about Miller’s talk:

I shall hazard a prediction as to what Miller will do then. He will have determinate things to say and will masterfully exploit the resources of language to express these things clearly and forcibly, addressing himself to us in the confidence that we, to the degree that we have mastered the constitutive norms of this kind of discourse, will approximate what he means … . What he says will manifest, by immediate inference, a thinking subject or ego and a distinctive and continuant ethos … . (209)

Each feature of discourse singled out in this mock praise of Miller constitutes a component of Abrams’s commonsensical pragmatic account of language posited over against deconstruction’s counterintuitive theory of discourse. For Abrams, speakers and writers use norms and conventions of language, including professional language, to express more or less determinable thoughts and feelings. They can be masterful or not, clear or not, and we the audience will make sense of these utterances crafted by individual persons. These persons possess consciousness, distinctive identities, and certain intentions. They are capable not only of initiating discourse but also of mutual understanding.

Deconstructive accounts of language for their part highlight the potential indeterminacy of language, most notably in polysemous literary and philosophical texts. Finnegans Wake comes to mind. Connotations always precede the orderly denotations of the belated dictionary makers. Grammar compounded by rhetoric (tropes are ineradicable) introduces slippage and uncertainty in language. Innumerable bits of previous intertexts run through texts (historical assemblages) beyond any accounting. Moreover, authorial intentions are not so much inferred as assigned always in retrospect with certain interests and prejudices, conscious and unconscious, in reserve. Here is how Abrams, exaggerating more than slightly, characterizes the upshot of Miller’s deconstructive theory: “what it comes to is that no text, in part or whole, can mean anything in particular, and that we can never say just what anyone means by anything he writes” (206). Such deconstructive critical skepticism weakens the grounds for objective literary and historical interpretation, Abrams’s main concern to support and defend.

What bearing does this debate have on the antitheory phenomenon? Early on and up to the present moment—for four decades—“theory” has often too simply meant deconstruction, that is, Derrida and his followers first at Yale University and then elsewhere. The common phrases “after theory” and “posttheory,” echoed in so many titles of books and articles starting in the 1990s, signify both “after the triumph of deconstruction in the 1980s” and “after its supercession during the 1990s” by the growing successes of postcolonial and ethnic theory, the spread of new historicisms, and the emergence of queer theory and cultural studies. Occasionally, “posttheory” and “after theory” get broadened and designate what comes after “French theory.” But actually what comes after is more theory and often influenced by deconstruction. The ubiquity and dissemination of deconstruction’s notorious critiques of “binaries” testify to the survival of this particular theory. I have in mind the many critical inquiries up to today scrutinizing traditional hierarchical binary conceptual pairs, for example, nature/culture, masculine/feminine, human/animal, self/other, conscious/unconscious, and normal/abnormal. These pairs recur in major Western literary and philosophical discourses and are topics of contemporary concern. My point is that there is no after theory—or after deconstruction—pure and simple. What there is is a devout wish for theory’s demise, meaning the eradication of deconstruction and poststructuralism, plus their legacies. For the editors of Theory’s Empire, Abrams’s paper furthers that cause and is all to the good.

In his “The Rise and Fall of ’Practical’ Criticism: From I. A. Richards to Barthes and Derrida,” taken from his book Double Agent: The Critic and Society (1992), Morris Dickstein, a fourth-generation New York intellectual, argues from the standpoint of a self-willed amateur non-specialist independent literary critic (yet distinguished professor). He addresses a shrinking educated public and champions clear style and commonsense. Not surprisingly, Dickstein is unhappy about the professionalization of literary criticism, criticizing its jargon, its impotence and willed separation from the public sphere, and its deadening irresponsible formalisms. In addition, he deplores recent critics’ careerism, intellectual cleverness and narcissism, plus pedagogy’s dumbing down of literary criticism. Morris Dickstein identifies with the great canonical literary figures. For him genuine literature is meaningful, vital, and experiential, despite its fictional forms and artificial conventions. While critical analysis must attend to formal technical features of art, its most important focus must be on affective and philosophical matters, that is, truly human concerns: “The test of a critic comes not in his ideas about art, and certainly not in his ideas about criticism, but in the depth and intimacy of his encounter with the work itself—not the work in isolation, but the work in its abundance of reference, richness of texture, complexity and feeling” (64). The theory that Dickstein explicitly faults is formalism, whether the brilliant technical analysis pioneered by I. A. Richards in the 1920s or the admittedly clever poststructuralist decodings of Roland Bathes and Jacques Derrida in the late twentieth century.

Theory has an important secondary meaning in Dickstein’s argument, namely presuppositions, particularly any ones that disable openness to the new. That is to say, Morris Dickstein positions himself as an independent modernist critic reliant on his educated sensibility. He lets us know in passing that he spent time at Yale and Cambridge Universities. He has no business with critical methods and movements. He presents himself as the last of the independents. He positions himself back in the fin de siècle with Henry James and D. H. Lawrence before the advent of Anglo-American formalism, before the thorough academic professionalization of literary criticism, before the fall. He exhibits mixed feelings about the tradition of modern periodical criticism. On the one hand, this mode of learned journalism addresses the public in a lucid manner, yet on the other hand, it is partisan, uncivil, and identified with one group or another. It is no surprise that Morris Dickstein’s review of twentieth-century theory fails to mention psychoanalysis, feminism, ethnopoetics, or postcolonial theory. These are telling omissions from an isolated connoisseur. What we have here is an articulate and moving yet backward-looking conservative liberalism unhappy with postmodern conditions as well as high modernist trends. The best one can say is that Dickstein sensitively registers the brilliance of Richards’s and Barthes’s theorizing while discounting technical analysis and, by omission, cultural critique in favor of literary appreciation informed by history and individual sensibility. Dickstein’s strong antitheory position is sui generis.

Eugene Goodheart’s “Casualties of the Culture Wars” (2005) is clear and straightforward in its defense of aesthetic criticism against ideology critique.3 His ultimate goal is to make peace between these two warring camps of the culture wars. He presents himself as an elder statesman. The main job of literary criticism for Goodheart is the interpretation and evaluation of literary works in the context of history. He is a critical pluralist tolerant of other approaches and perspectives. The task of aesthetic criticism entails appreciation and discrimination not only of craft and content but of personal experiences and emotions. The critic has a trained sensibility. Amateurs are out. Scholarship is the sine qua non of proper criticism. The distinctive features of literary aesthetics for Goodheart consist of several kinds (although he doesn’t package them this way): (a) rightness and splendor of language, wit and ingenuity; (b) imagination and beauty, pleasure and power especially familiar from the sublime in art; and (c) disinterest, freeplay, and ineffability. What distinguishes his treatment of aesthetics is an openness to impurities and entanglements. He is wary of the mystifications coming from advocates of pure aesthetics and art for art’s sake. While politics and morality admittedly play roles in aesthetics from Shaftesbury, Addison, and Hogarth to Kant, Schiller, and Arnold, Goodheart holds out for distinctive aesthetic experience. In this, he joins contemporaneous parallel turns to affect theory, to new formalisms, and to a return to literature.

What most typifies American criticism and theory since the 1970s is, according to Goodheart, a shift from formalism to ideology critique. It’s a stark Manichean vision he offers. “Ideology critique rules the roost” (510), he declares ruefully. Thus the editors of Theory’s Empire cast him as an antitheorist. Ideology critique suspects behind everything the operations of interests. Its faults are many for Goodheart. It construes the task of criticism as the uncovering of hidden interests. This hermeneutics of suspicion is morally righteous and reductive. It refuses debate (argumentation, evidence, logic). It abjures and anathematizes aesthetics. It practices bad prose style without any concern for elegance or clarity. It has no interest in literary sensibility and taste other than to be suspicious of them. It disregards open-mindedness and objectivity, letting beliefs take the place of knowledge. Finally, “there is nothing more aggressive than the effort to demystify the supposed illusions of others” (510). Who are these practitioners of ideology critique, according to Goodheart? It’s a loose, not to say violent, assemblage of theory-affiliated schools and movements: Marxism, structuralism, feminism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, New Historicism, postcolonial theory, and cultural studies. Goodheart paints with an impossibly broad brush creating caricatures.

Eugene Goodheart positions himself as a liberal centrist against the extremisms of left and right cultural camps. One problem is he doesn’t detail the problems of the right. Another is he doesn’t define ideology other than as interests (hidden, disguised, or open). There is a great deal more to this venerable concept, for example, the base/superstructure dialectical model of society. To get a sense of Goodheart’s ultimately vehement antitheory stance, consider the progression in this statement: “Ideology critique can be a valuable activity if it knows its limits, discriminating between what requires and what does not require demystification. In contemporary practice in the academy, it has become an imperial obsession with disastrous consequences” (510—511). Here emerges the metaphor of theory as imperialist empire. There are a handful of revealing passages where Goodheart, the Manichean, tries to strike a balance between left and right, ideology and aesthetics, critique and criticism (his oppositions). “The critic need not, indeed cannot, avoid talking about ethical, political, religious, or historical issues. What is decisive is the way he speaks or writes about the work, the kind of attention he gives to what counts as aesthetic qualities. An aesthetic response foregrounds the work and doesn’t allow it to be devalued by one or another discourse” (513). This is Goodheart’s modest proposal. He is motivated to make it because he foresees no going back to earlier times of aesthetic criticism free from ideology critique. As with many other antitheorists, the tone here is a mixture of sadness and outrage. Still, Goodheart seeks balance and a middle way. The love of literature always comes first. That’s the main point, plus of course the criticism of theory. These are doubtlessly the two main reasons the editors include him in Theory’s Empire.

Among the sharpest critics of theory from the middle generation is Mark Bauerlein, high- profile cultural warrior, English professor, and defender of the humanities. In his article, “Social Constructionism: Philosophy for the Academic Workplace,” published by Partisan Review in 2001, he notes unhappily that social constructionism has become the dominant epistemology of the contemporary humanities, especially literary theory. He defines social constructionism succinctly: “It is a simple belief system, founded upon the basic proposition that knowledge is never true per se, but true relative to a culture, a situation, a language, an ideology, or some other social condition” (341). Key terms of contemporary theory that embody this noxious standpoint include antifoundationalism, contingency, and situationism, plus the slogan of many theorists following Fredric Jameson’s famous axiom “always historicize.” Pitted against such relativisms are truth, objectivity, knowledge, and facts, all subject to verification, validity, and argumentation, none of which concepts and procedures social constructionism bothers with.4 The latter is a belief system, not an epistemology. Touchstones for Bauerlein are science and logic. In ignoring and refusing debate (logic, evidence, justification), social constructionism shows itself to be a dogma, a creed, replete with a party line and an attitude. Representative theorists (constructionists) singled out by Bauerlein include Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, Terry Eagleton, Stanley Fish, Eve Sedgwick, and Paul Lauter. These social constructionists are committed to a morality of social justice not a real epistemology open to philosophical scrutiny. They do not label their concepts as opinions, hypotheses, or speculations. They should. In argument, they operate through psychology not epistemology, proceeding ad hominem. It is no use, therefore, to point out that social constructionism commits the genetic fallacy or is a form of relativism.

Why has social constructionism, asks Bauerlein, been so successful in the humanities? He offers a persuasive hypothesis:

What has emerged from social constructionism is not a philosophical school or a political position, but an institutional product, specifically, an outpouring of research publications, conference talks, and classroom presentations by subscribers. For many who have entered the humanities as teachers and researchers, social constructionism has been a liberating and serviceable implement of work, a standpoint that has enhanced the productivity of professors. (348)

Bauerlein explains further that the US academic tenure system today requires a beginning professor in the humanities to produce a book manuscript within three and a half years of hiring. This speedup means long-term projects and careful methods no longer serve. He rues the day that humanities professors let the quick book become the main criteria for tenure (“lifetime security”). As a result, beginning “professors will avoid empirical methods, aware that it takes too much time to verify propositions about culture, to corroborate facts with multiple sources, to consult primary documents, and to compile evidence adequate to inductive conclusions” (350). Facts, objectivity, and truth fall by the wayside. In short, social constructionism has been successful because “it is the epistemology of scholarship in haste, of professors under the gun. As soon as the humanities embraced a productivity model of merit, empiricism and erudition became institutional dead ends, and constructionism emerged as the method of the fittest” (353).

Bauerlein positions himself here as both critical of the current period and nostalgic for slower, more deliberative yet unspecified earlier times. He appears in the role of conservative defender of traditional humanities and transcendental truths based on reasoned method. It’s a “timeless” ideal yet borne of modernity. He is hostile to all manner of contemporary theory and postmodernity as his list of social constructionists suggests (against poststructuralism, neopragmatism, post-Marxism, reader-response theory, gender and queer theory, plus cultural studies). Nonetheless, he is a penetrating critic (unaffiliated) of the contemporary corporate research-oriented university—with its addiction to productivity, speedup, and short-term accountability. He presents his Darwinian theory—a mode of historical and ideological critique after all—that social constructionism is a fit response to savage productivity demands as a hypothesis, a hunch. Scientific method requires such a gesture of modesty.

But Bauerlein has forgotten that the great leap forward in research and publication productivity was spawned by early Cold War-era formalism, especially New Criticism. Its successful formula for book writing survives to this day: a first chapter on a critical approach or method followed by four or five chapters of close readings of individual texts. Productivity does not stem from social constructionism. It derives from the business management model undergirding the research university established in the 1950s and 1960s and culminating with the corporate university of recent decades.

The corporatization of the university associated with the dominant economic paradigm of laissez-faire late capitalism is not Bauerlein’s target, although it should be. Productivity demands come from where? Like most antitheorists in Theory’s Empire, Bauerlein is no social critic, nor does he want to be. Yet social currents run through his as well as their arguments in very obvious yet repressed ways. For Mark Bauerlein, the standard of truth is Newton’s law—true in all times and all places. Such knowledge is not relativistic social construct. The humanities today, rightly defensive and in a survival mode, need to emulate scientific truth. That is Bauerlein’s main point, which ironically happens to be an antihumanistic belief, one could argue. In any case, he finesses the tension between science and culture.

Given the dominance of cultural studies in recent decades, the wide-ranging critique by Stephen Adam Schwartz, titled “Everyman as Übermensch: The Future of Cultural Studies,” is both relevant and au courant. It’s a good place to conclude this critical survey of antitheory sentiments and arguments. Published originally in 2000 in SubStance, a North American journal of contemporary French literary culture, Schwartz’s essay targets cultural studies as theorized and practiced especially in US English departments. He is a professor of French language and literature, an interested but dispassionate outsider. What is wrong with cultural studies? Most of the piece is given to impersonal exposition and critique of its various features and faults. Many faults are listed. Nothing good is said. Cultural studies is antidisciplinary and antimethodology. Hélas. It promotes popular culture and explodes the literary canon, jettisoning aesthetic value and distinction. It remains suspicious of social institutions in their support of norms and their policing of deviances. It buys into social constructionism, regarding knowledge as always enmeshed with both interest and power. It reduces facts to mere values and points of view. There is no neutral epistemological space in its faulty perspective. Cultural studies sees all of reality as a social construct, including notably science, literature, and truth. It is committed to a project of demystification, not appreciation. It buys into cultural relativism. It is unremittingly hostile to all hierarchies. Most importantly, it has a flawed concept of culture entangled with idiosyncratic notions about politics.

The idea of culture propounded by contemporary culture studies, argues Schwartz, pits master narratives against particular ones. It is always a matter of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces in struggle, where cultural studies sides predictably with subaltern, subcultural, and multicultural minorities. It routinely celebrates resistance, transgression, and difference. In this sense it is reminiscent for Schwartz of modernist avant-gardes, especially surrealism: both end up with ineffectual content-poor politics and merely aesthetic vanguardist appeal. What most characterizes the culture concept of cultural studies, claims Schwartz, is its surprising foundation in “the individual and his or her preferences.” “In other words, individuals—replete with a full set of interests, desires, and beliefs—come first and culture is something not only derived and secondary but pernicious and, therefore, ultimately unnecessary. Personal preferences—someone’s choices—turn out to be lying behind all collectively shared categories” (373). This charge of individualism leads Schwartz to project for cultural studies its unspoken utopia. He portrays an antihierarchical and leveling cultural studies depicted as an incoherent polyphony, an indistinction, of equally valid voices. Cultural studies “ends up with an epistemological and political anarchism rooted in the purest individualist voluntarism” (376). In a final twist of his argument, Schwartz concludes that cultural studies, after all, promotes the modern Western ideas of egalitarianism and expressive individualism, being just one more seemingly radical form of individualism in our time.

It takes guesswork to know what Stephen Adam Schwartz’s own standpoint might be. He keeps it tightly under wraps. His highly dramatized description of cultural studies is fair enough, except for the characterization of its ideas on culture and anarchism. Pace Schwartz, cultural studies exhibits a distinctively leftist anarchism, not a disguised rightwing libertarianism: it privileges the community over the individual. That is the upshot of race-class-gender analyses. In addition, there is no way that culture is unnecessary or secondary in cultural studies theory. It is inescapable. It molds individuals ineradicably. We are born into culture, its norms, conventions, and prejudices. It is more or less clear that Schwartz wants to respect hierarchies and preserve canonical literature over against popular culture. He is a critic of social constructionism and apparently a believer in classical canons of objectivity, truth, and disinterestedness. All that is evidently more than enough to make him a dissenter from the contemporary empire of theory and a card-carrying antitheorist.

From the point of view of the long history of criticism and theory ranging from Gorgias and Plato to bell hooks and Judith Butler, it’s a mistake to equate theory with contemporary cultural studies, or French theory, or any one school or method. The panorama especially in our time is much wider than all that. It’s a rich age of theory, varied and complex. A main fault of antitheorists is a blindness to this bigger picture and to the renaissance of theory and criticism during recent times. This blindness accounts for why the antitheory campaigns undertaken during contemporary culture wars sometimes evoke from theorists comparisons with earlier struggles between ancients and moderns. The polemical point is that moderns always win, incorporating yet transforming, sometimes drastically, ancient traditions.

The editors of Theory’s Empire, Professors Patai and Corral, add a final document to their antitheory anthology (a moral coda to their story). It’s a two-page excerpt from Wayne Booth’s book, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979), titled “A Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist.” It propounds five basic rules to insure critical justice as well as to reduce the onslaught of published criticism and theory. The five admonitions to critics are: read before you write about a text; understand before critiquing a text; remain suspicious of texts and critiques; take the time necessary for a project; and be self-critical. Here is Booth’s closing homily addressed to fellow academic literary critics:

Using these five simple ordinances, we could quickly reconstruct our experience of criticism: we would write and read only about one-fourth as many critical words; we would experience a renewed sense that our critical sanity does not depend on “covering” as many works as possible; and we would find leisure to enter full-heartedly into those that met or expanded our interest and heightened pleasure and profit from what we did read. (689)

The gist is that the reconstruction of criticism and theory depends on more time to read and write fewer critical works, a lot fewer, 75% less. The problem is we are drowning in published scholarship and its main consequences, namely, fast reading, quick writing, and superficial coverage. Missing from the current regime are leisure time, expanded interests, and real pleasure and profit in reading criticism. Clearly, Wayne Booth’s oath harkens back to another simpler time, wishing for a different higher education system and a better society, as so much antitheory does. Yet the editors gloss the oath this way: “The spread of Theory has made this call more necessary now than when it was written” (687). Whatever else one can say about this poorly targeted commentary, it blames theory for sins it did not commit, and it is very obviously not a model of Booth’s patient pluralism or of his well-known pro-theory sentiments, just the opposite.

My own arguments against contemporary theory, if I can generalize, come down to a half dozen or so complaints. Too many theorists’ writing style lacks clarity and economy, not to mention elegance. A related problem is a relative lack of attention to formal craft, stylistics, and aesthetics, not that I want criticism done by strict formalist checklists. Some theorists are righteous and pious to the point of stern intolerance, where tone veers off badly. I have no problem with pleasure reading, a life-enhancing mode of “nonacademic” criticism that many theorists discount or overlook. I understand but worry about the utilitarian tendency among academic theorists to reduce all theories to formulaic approaches and methods as quickly as possible. Then there is the problem of market vanguardism, that is, theorists jumping on the latest theoretical bandwagon no matter what it might be. Some theorists are more interested in being provocative than convincing; it should not be a choice between these two values. Last but not least, too many theorists to this day downplay the shaping context of the corporate university, with its demands for productivity, its onslaught of publications, its 55-hour work week, its addiction to cheap adjunct labor, its proliferation of student debt, and its obsession with research innovation and grants. But all things considered, these complaints do not add up to a case against theory.

The vehement antitheory line of the editors of Theory’s Empire is pounded into readers’ heads across the 15 pages of the Introduction. It lacks the nuance of many of its contributors and of Wayne Booth’s pluralist oath. Nothing good is said about theory. The indictment is long on theory’s sins and faults. The editors’ self-declared point of view is resolutely 1950s formalist criticism, stylistics, and aesthetics focused upon literature (not culture). That’s the alternative to “theory.” The definition of literature is taken for granted. All formalist analyses are homogenized retrospectively into one newly desirable mode of criticism. No differences are highlighted or suggested, for example, among the many individual formalists and formalist groups (for instance, Moscow, Leningrad, and Prague schools; American New Critics and Chicago Critics; Kenneth Burke vs Cleanth Brooks vs Murray Krieger).5 No faults of formalism are recorded, nor are the many disputes among stylisticians, aestheticians, and formalists examined. None of the innumerable critiques of formalisms receive attention. The editors’ allegiance to formalism is thin, uninformed, and defensive.

The closing argument of the Introduction fabricates, not to say socially constructs, a common sentiment—an incredible credo—for the 48 antitheorist contributors: “All share an affection for literature, a delight in the pleasure it brings, a respect for its ability to give memorable expression to the vast variety of human experience, and a keen sense that we must not fail in our duty to convey it unimpaired to future generations” (14). While I can’t think of a single theorist who would disagree with this sentiment, disagreement would surely erupt over the concept “human experience.” Does it, for instance, include experiences related to race, class, gender, nationality, and subject formation? Evidently not, or only if these are subordinate to literary pleasures. Taboos come quietly into place here. Criticism’s job is to serve literature and to read “literature as literature” (6). So much for human experience. This is an unsupported, dogmatic version of the old American formalist heresy of paraphrase. It casts “theory” (reduced to ideology critique) as “textual harassment” and political allegory (8). But in light of the numerous schools, movements, and subdisciplines of theory during recent decades, “Theory,” this bogeyman of the editors, capitalized here, is a stark instance of othering, scapegoating, and politicizing. It is a grandiose homogenized allegorical figure: the Big Bad “T.”

The editors have a strong political orientation that goes undisclosed. None of the vast body of antitheory works produced on the left gets excerpted or even mentioned in Theory’s Empire. Fredric Jameson’s early critique of structuralism is missing, so is Edward Said’s attack on deconstruction, plus Mary Louise Pratt’s on reader-response theory, all three well-known and dating from the 1970s.6 Innumerable other sources, early and late, could be cited, including many published during recent times.7 But only right-wing and centrist antitheorists appear in Theory’s Empire. The editors’ attempt at depoliticizing literary studies, like so many other antitheorists’s similar attempts, fails abjectly.

I believe literary criticism, in its practice and its theory, in publications and classrooms, should employ technical analysis of craft, aesthetic appreciation, and both ideology and culture critique. The latter includes intimate critique rooted in personal experience. Such methods and approaches are not mutually exclusive nor should they be. Projects of antitheory to purify or reconstruct the discipline of literary studies risk resuscitating formalist taboos against “extrinsic” concerns (namely, politics, economics, history, sociology, psychology, morality, theology, biography, and reader response). Much of human experience and of the world is thus cordoned off or rendered peripheral. Criticism gets ferociously emptied and rarefied. This is a way to insure the further mummification and antiquation of literature in our time. If it came down to it, I would probably choose, speaking hypothetically and tactically, a middle-way liberal centrist project of keeping literary works at the core of criticism with extrinsic matters at its periphery over the arch conservative enterprise of magnifying the literary work and outlawing its worldly “contexts.” But why should I have to choose? And should my students be subject to such a mandatory truncation of critical perspectives? The via negativa of much formalist and aestheticist antitheory enacts a drastic renunciation, a displaced religious zeal, against the world. It’s a theologizing of literature and its acolyte criticism. Count me out. However, count me in on the critique of productivity speedups characteristic of contemporary free-market society and corporatized education. I support the old goal of a 30-hour work week. But antitheorists refuse to talk about such matters. My point is it’s shortsighted and foolish as well as authoritarian to restrict the worldly topics fit for discussion amongst literary critics.

I am aware that formalist aesthetics during the interwar period, especially the 1930s, constituted a tactic for safeguarding the arts and literature from fascist and state communist censors, book burners, and executioners. It provided protection, sought freedom, and devoutly wished for autonomy. Yet art for art’s sake carries a politics that very much alters depending on context and circumstances. Given certain conditions, it can become dogmatic, antihumanistic, and reactionary, as it frequently risks doing amongst contemporary antitheorists.

I have a coda to add and a confession to make in closing this chapter. In their Introduction to Theory’s Empire, the editors indict half a dozen recent theory anthologies. They include the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, on which I serve as general editor along with five associate editors. So I stand indicted. The two editors charge the leading anthologies with various shortcomings such as grandiose ambitions, promoting theory about theory in place of love of literature, advocating ideology critique, and omitting leading antitheorists.

I hasten to add that the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism does not come in for special treatment in Theory’s Empire. It is presented as one of many such anthologies. It represents a trend. That being the case, I don’t know whether to be relieved at escaping personal buffeting or to be irritated because the distinctive features of the Norton project go unmarked. Yet there is something much bigger at issue that the editors deplore. They nickname it big “T” Theory.

The antitheorist editors of Theory’s Empire have no problem with theory (little “t”) where it means approaches to literature and its appreciation, or textual methods and tools, or rational reflection and argumentation. But when theory is narrowly equated with or limited to structuralism, deconstruction, and poststructuralism—French theory—they complain and rightly so. There is so much more to theory, starting especially with many more contending contemporary schools, approaches, and subfields mostly ignored by the editors. The real problem for them is big “T” Theory.

Let me provide some background to contextualize this issue otherwise. Many new fields of inquiry were born in the late twentieth century, the early years of the postmodern period. Some have developed into new breakaway disciplines housed in separate academic departments; others have been situated in interdisciplinary programs (rather than fully funded departments); and still others have become subdisciplines of traditional disciplines. Examples of new humanities departments, programs, and subdisciplines—location and status depending on each institution—include African American Studies, American Studies, Creative Writing, Film and Media, Linguistics, Semiotics, Rhetoric and Composition, and Women’s Studies. In the sciences there are similar instances such as Biochemistry, Computer Science, Immunology, and Nanotechnology. In the social sciences, one finds new areas like Cognitive Studies, Econometrics, and Gender Studies. Where does theory fit in this epochal transformation and how does it get defined?

On the one hand, theory in recent times has become a crossover interdiscipline fusing literary criticism, linguistics, philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and politics. It possesses a distinctive postmodern identity captured in contemporary theory anthologies. On the other hand, it remains a subdiscipline housed in traditional departments such as English and comparative literature. There are no autonomous departments and only a few semiautonomous programs of theory in the Anglophone world. In other words, theory remains subject to literature in most jurisdictions while maintaining a sense of independence, especially from the traditional service functions of criticism, specifically narrow textual explication and exclusive aesthetic evaluation. Meanwhile, the modes of critical reading have multiplied and the value of canonical literature has been relativized under pressure from excluded minorities and from popular culture and media. So, it is in the name of pre-postmodern discipline and the old order that antitheorists call theory to its role as handmaiden to literature (defined adamantly as canonical belles lettres). Anathema, therefore, is theory (big “T”) as speculation, multiculturalism, populist cultural studies, ideology critique, antihumanism, intellectual vanguardism, academic celebrity culture or, worst of all, an interdiscipline engaged in explicit transdisciplinary projects. This is big “T” Theory swollen with grandiose ambitions. For the humble editors of Theory’s Empire, it signals a lamentable degeneration. They deplore the self-enclosed jargon-ridden arcane world of Theory and call it back to the proper love of literature:

We believe that in the thirty years between the publication of the first edition of Hazard Adams’s Critical Theory since Plato [1971] and the appearance of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism [2001], much has been lost with respect not only to theory and criticism that actually illuminate literary texts but also to the appreciation of criticism’s actual contributions to academic discourse. That time span also saw the dissemination of theoretical principles in innumerable books aiming to ease readers’ way into the arcane world of Theory, while in no way encouraging a love of literature. (6)

The message to Theory is clear: get back where you belong, the appreciation of literature. Put first things first. Reverse the tragic decline. Restore the canon. Fall in line. Declare your love for literature. I love literature. I say, I love literature.

I have responded to such arguments on several occasions in defense of theory, as, for example, in my manifesto Living with Theory.8 So I won’t rehearse those efforts here. The way I see it, the editors of Theory’s Empire represent a conservative countercurrent—a politically oriented center-and-right front they summon to arms in retrospect—in order to defend formalist and aestheticist modes of literary criticism against innumerable heresies of criticism and theory.9 They speak for a true faith in all its purity and issue condemnations in its name. While they can’t admit it, many antitheorists are critical of contemporary postmodern society for its disorganization, proliferation of options, and miscegenations (fusions, pastiches, hybridities). Core traditions appear in tatters. A problem for antitheorists is that I, myself a Theorist (big “T”), love literature, and I doubtlessly represent most theorists in saying so. An even bigger problem for antitheorists is that we Theorists insist on examining how the I of “I love literature” works, and who gets to define “literature,” and where and why certain critical oaths of allegiance and related condemnations come about both in the past and the present. Critical inquiry creates disruption. It can be accused of corrupting society especially students, as we know, which is the case with much accusatory antitheory. In the end, there are many ways to love literature. Attacking theory has not helped.

1John Ellis emerged as a leading figure in the culture wars that started during the 1980s and continue today in the US. Early on, he occupied the roles of defender of traditional Western humanities and critic of theory. In 1993, he cofounded the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, an affiliate of the National Association of Scholars (founded 1987), both conservative organizations with antiliberal agendas. The ALSCW had and has as a main goal to create an alternative organization to the Modern Language Association (founded 1883). Many antitheorists are hostile to the 30,000-member MLA for accommodating theory. In its initial years between 1994 and 2007, ALSCW received more than thirty grants from well-known right-wing foundations, primarily Bradley, Olin, and Scaife, reaching a million dollars ( ALSCW and NAS have Websites with archives.

2For six different current definitions of theory, see my “Theory Ends,” Living with Theory, chap. 1.

3Eugene Goodheart’s article in Theory’s Empire melds extracts from two earlier works by him: Does Literary Studies Have a Future and “Criticism in the Age of Discourse.”

4Compare Amanda Anderson, who examines the nature of argumentation amongst theorists, especially feminists, poststructuralists, and pragmatists, from a Kantian Habermassian perspective that promotes critical reflection. In 2008, Anderson became Director of the School of Criticism and Theory, the venerable summer institute that has trained 2,000 theorists since 1976.

5See my American Literary Criticism Since the 1930s, especially Chapters 2, 3, and 9, which differentiate in detail more than a half dozen modes of formalism.

6My American Literary Criticism Since the 1930s surveys the critiques as well as the tenets of leading theorists and schools.

7For wide-ranging leftist critiques of contemporary theory, see, for varied instances, Timothy Brennan and Michael Bérubé.

8See also Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd edition, which contains celebrated antitheory essays as well as canonical and contemporary pieces advocating formalism and aesthetics. The Alternative Table of Contents lists nine selections under the category “Antitheory.” They represent a very broad spectrum of critical perspectives (humanistic, scientific, aestheticist, formalist, and epistemological), coming from left, right, and center.

9The literary Web blog, the Valve, which was hosted by ALSCW, sponsored one of its Book Events—a roundtable book review, chat, and promotion—on Theory’s Empire. The edited proceedings with contributions from two dozen academics and a brief Afterword by Patai and Corral is available from Parlor Press in free PDF format or in standard book form compiled by John Holbo. The Valve has been inactive since March 2012.