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The Death of Theory

Michael Cook

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For 25 years or more, the humanities have been in thrall to postmodern theory. Now its empire seems to be breaking up.

The Australian state of Queensland, three times the size of France and mostly flat, arid, and empty, is an odd place to brawl over French-inspired literary theory. But after a campaign by a national newspaper, the state’s education minister felt compelled to vow to remove postmodern "mumbo-jumbo" from its classrooms.

The Australian presented to the scandalized minister a child’s essay about the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale "Rapunzel"—of "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let down your hair." Here is how this macabre little story was analyzed:

"Even the title Rapunzel is not left without the gender assumption. For example, the story title Rapunzel is in fact the name of a vegetable, therefore reinforcing the gender roles of women as a vegetable, and linked with cooking chores deemed to be a woman’s profession."

With reading, especially amongst boys, in a losing race against video games and TV, wringing feminist morals out of classic children’s literature looked like an utter waste of time to Mr. Welford. The literary criticism underpinning this deconstruction was a "marginal theory," he fumed: "Nothing will leave this department that I don’t understand." Without a report on the minister’s IQ, it is hard to tell whether this is good news for the Queensland education system. Nonetheless, his determination to expunge postmodern literary theory was greeted with whoops of joy by many parents and teachers.

At first glance, postmodern literary theory might seem merely a fusty academic interest. In fact, apart from the Iraq war and Rafael Palmeiro’s steroids, there is almost nothing more inflammatory for lovers of the humanities. Let me explain why the decision by a minister in Queensland is good news and why this literary bunfight really is important.

The key concepts

Since the 1980s, literary Theory (always written with a capital T, like the G in God) has captured English department after English department in universities throughout the English-speaking world. The fact that high school students in rural Queensland are regurgitating it now reflects a generation of indoctrination in colleges and universities.

Theory resists definition. It is not monolithic but fissured and fractured into scores of squabbling schools. But here are ideas that nearly all of them share:

  • All reality is constructed. That is, since we cannot, with any certainty, know what exists outside our own experience, we cope by constructing frameworks that we project upon reality. Consequently, a text does not contain the author’s meaning; it merely reflects the reader’s prejudices.
  • There is no such thing as truth; all opinions are relative. Living in a world with no fixed boundaries, no absolute definitions, and no ultimate truths could be a fearful burden. The ingenuity and playfulness of Theory teaches us to cope.
  • The job of the reader-critic is to identify the prejudices inherent in a text. The task of analyzing a text in this way is called "deconstruction." The critic’s job is to dismantle it and show what it really means—which may be a far cry from the author’s intention.
  • Everything is a text, from Shakespeare and the Bible to "South Park" and Harry Potter to billboards in Las Vegas and the New York skyline. One of the best-known shibboleths of Theory is the French phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-texte": there is nothing outside of the text.
  • Theory’s usefulness is not exhausted by literature. Since everything is a text, it can be deployed to analyze everything in our culture. Ultimately, it is a political commitment.
  • The author’s intention is irrelevant. In its most radical form, Theory proclaims the death of the author. Persons literally disappear, becoming merely relations of intersecting texts in a vast cultural conversation. Most theory is resolutely anti-humanist.
  • No doubt the accuracy of my account would be described as bumptious ignorance by an academic Theorist. But it’s close enough, especially for a theory in which it is axiomatic that there are no definitions.

The roots of Theory stretch back to Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who demolished the stifling rationalism of great 18th- and 19th-century thinkers like Kant, Mill, and Hegel. He defied what he regarded as their smug confidence that all of reality could be ordered and grasped by the human mind and asserted that there are no truths, just interpretations. "Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions, worn-out metaphors now impotent to stir the senses, coins which have lost their faces and are considered now as metal rather than currency," he wrote.

Nietzsche's heirs

Nietzsche was an obscure and contradictory figure but independent, poetic, and insightful. His offspring unto the fifth and sixth generations inherited mostly the obscure and contradictory bits. They first emerged in the "Anglo-Saxon" (to use a French turn of phrase) literary world as figures like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Paul De Man. Initially, the main players were French, which was an enormous handicap amongst the Colonel Blimps of English academe. But the adroitness with which they interpreted texts, the startling freshness of their insights, the secret language of their Gallic jargon, their sexual adventurousness and political rebelliousness appealed to a younger generation of critics. In what seemed a blink of the eye, their disciples stormed the ramparts of English departments everywhere.

I witnessed this generational change myself in a small provincial university where I was scraping and bowing and tugging the forelock in the hope of securing a badly-paid tutoring job. When I made my first approach, greybeard members of the Department were still teaching survey courses in the American novel, Shakespeare, Jacobean tragedy, Modern Poetry from T.S. Eliot to Robert Lowell, and things of that sort—a conventional historical approach to the classics. I warmed to the environment, because it was very much like the department where I had done my undergraduate work. "Don’t read the critics," my tutor had told me. "They soften the brain. You can read them in graduate school." I investigated one survey course in great critics, but it looked suspiciously like hard work, and I decided he was right. I gorged myself on novels instead.

Read the entire article on the Salvo magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 05-Oct-2008

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