Conclusion: Reading Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Conclusion: Reading Literary Theory

all words, there’s nothing else, you must go on, that’s all I know Beckett, The Unnameable

Readers confronted with literary theory often feel overwhelmed by technical language and a style of writing that can often be dense or opaque. As I have indicated throughout this Guide, many literary and cultural theories emerged out of philosophy and other technical fields. Difficulties in reading theory often result from a lack of knowledge of these fields. But they can also result from stylistic strategies that are calculated to keep readers from falling into the traps of conventional thinking. At its best, theory employs complex terminologies and writing styles in a principled attempt to explain ideas that cannot be explained in any other way. Many theorists invent new terms to accommodate new methods, techniques, and objects of study. Indeed, inventing or modifying terms may be the most important part of the work of contemporary theory, in large measure because they designate new or modified concepts and ideas.

In some cases, problems of comprehension are due to cultural and linguistic differences. Translation, of course, introduces special difficulties. What sounds familiar to French or German readers with even a slight knowledge of philosophical traditions may sound dauntingly unfamiliar to British or US readers relying on translations. Whenever possible, consult the translator's introduction or preface; these sections often contain explanations of important concepts and provide historical and cultural contexts. Writers like Jacques Derrida and Theodor Adorno are difficult for British and US readers in part because of the latter's unfamiliarity with French and German philosophical styles of writing. Aside from taking a detour into the works of Hegel and Heidegger, the reader could consult a resource (e.g., this Guide and, if necessary, an encyclopedia of philosophy, many of which are readily available on-line) that explains important terms and concepts. It is not necessary to be fluent in the philosophical traditions from which theorists draw their ideas; it is enough to be familiar with them in a general (but accurate) way. For example, the concept of DIALECTICS comes up time and again in literary and cultural theory, often as the object of critique. Though the word dialectic can be found in a dictionary, the definition given there will not be enough; the reader needs to find more focused and in-depth resources. A working understanding of Hegelian dialectics can be achieved by a targeted search in reliable resources, beginning with this Guide. A small amount of time spent consulting such resources would yield enough background knowledge to enable most readers to comprehend what Derrida and Adorno mean when they critique dialectical thinking.

Nearly every theory explored in this Guide owes an important debt to philosophy from which many of the terms used to talk about gender, sexuality, language, race, textuality, and a host of other themes and problems have been borrowed and adapted for new uses, sometimes radically new uses. Theoretical thought, in order to articulate generalizations and assumptions with any precision, must call into play such terms to achieve a particular force in analysis. Terms denote fundamental concepts within a theoretical discourse. Knowing them and their functions can allow the reader to deduce the nature of a given theory, its major concepts, key principles and assumptions, permissible strategies and techniques, and sometimes the kinds of relations that might obtain between one theory and another. The function of terminology is to mediate between the reader and the theoretical concepts employed by the author. Some terms are so general (e.g., SUBJECT, AGENCY, DISCOURSE) that there is no one theory that could be said to have given rise to them, while others (e.g., DIFFERANCE, ECRITURE FEMININE, HOMOSOCIAL DESIRE, and HYBRIDITY) have much more decisive points of emergence (e.g., Deconstruction, Feminism, theories of Gender and Sexuality, and Postcolonial Studies). The complexity and subtlety of theoretical terms are therefore not an effect of the terms themselves but of some aspect or operation of the theory in which they perform a specific function. Sometimes the confusion and irritation that readers experience when they encounter theory is due to vague, inconsistent, or ambiguous use of terms in the material they are assigned to read or come across in the course of research. Jargon is what occurs when otherwise useful terms have been uprooted from their contexts and become part of a pseudo-theoretical discourse in which they are used inconsistently and incoherently.

Another important aspect of theoretical discourse is style. Many theorists (e.g., Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) write in an elliptical style; they are intentionally subverting the standards of academic prose, in large part because they are critiquing the criteria of logic, rationality, and sequential presentation of information that underwrite clear and accessible prose. So how does one follow this kind of theoretical discourse? The first step, which this Guide is designed to provide, is for the reader to become familiar with the broad contours of a particular theory. The second step is to develop a method of reading that is appropriate for the difficulties presented by that theory. When one reads a difficult text only once and stops frequently to puzzle over terminology or difficulties in phrasing, there will be inevitable problems following the thread of the argument. Therefore, it might be best to read theoretical texts twice. The first reading should be done without pausing (no matter how difficult it might seem), in order to get a feel for the rhythm and texture of the prose. Readers would be surprised, I think, at how much can be picked up in a first reading; very often a general sense of the argument can be gleaned, which can then be fleshed out in the second, more careful reading. In this second, more deliberative reading, the reader should highlight the author's thesis/ argument, which is often stated overtly, and try to identify key points that follow from it. Though many key points can be located at the beginning or end of subsections, it is nevertheless the case that they may not be as clearly marked as an initial statement of the argument. But despite the difficulties, trying to identify them engages the reader more closely with the details of the text.

Readers should be aware of key terms. Use a glossary like the one in this Guide to define specialized terms. Many of the important terms in a given theoretical argument will be repeated, so the reader should be watchful for repetitions and mark them. (Light pencil in library books, please!) Being aware of these repetitions will not only allow the reader to become familiar with them but will clarify the contexts in which they are used. The same idea applies to phrases (e.g., signifying practices, ideological hegemony): once the reader has defined the terms, the ways in which they are used in such phrases (and in larger contexts) can be more easily determined.

The extra time taken to read in this fashion will be worth it in the long run, because it mitigates frustration and leaves the reader feeling more engaged with theoretical ideas. By and large, literary and cultural theories are worth the candle. By following some of the practical tips I have provided here, and by being aware of the special status of theoretical terms, readers should feel less anxiety and gain greater clarity from the texts they read. The point is not to understand every single sentence encountered in theoretical texts but rather to comprehend the arguments within which each sentence can, given world enough and time, be rendered comprehensible. This Guide was designed to facilitate this process by providing a first step toward greater understanding of literary and cultural theory.