Philosophy and Literature 30.1 (2006) 289-298
[Access article in PDF]
Theory Is Dead—
Like a Zombie
Are we "after Theory"? And if so, then where are we? Seven years after Post-Theory (1996) came Reading After Theory (2002) and then After Theory (2003).1 Students inducted into the mysteries of Theory by an aging professoriate can no longer feel the zeal their teachers themselves have mostly long since lost. Theory's own leaders point out its failings.2 Like Queen Anne, Theory is surely dead. Or is it?
In 1982 Jonathan Culler argued that post-structuralist literary theory should be called just Theory and that Theorists should play the "central role" in intellectual life (TE, pp. 26, 215). What now sounds hubristic seemed heady in the expansionist days of Theory's empire. But less than two decades later it could be pointed out in print that "everyone knows that if you want to locate the laughingstock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English department" (TE, p. 315).
So was theory dead by this point, five years after the start of the Bad Writing Contest and three years after the Sokal hoax? Not at all. The year of the "laughingstock" remark, David Scott Kastan's Shakespeare After [End Page 289] Theory (1999) claimed that we are "after theory" "not because theory's claims have been shown to be intellectually bankrupt but because its claims have been accepted as both useful and productive." A reviewer could demur: "As formulated the claim may be overstated—it sometimes seems that Shakespeare studies is insufficiently theorized."3
But that was seven years ago. Surely things are different now, ten years after the Sokal hoax? Yes and no. After Reading After Theory and After Theory, a literature professor at the top of his field, Louis Menand, can (1) bemoan the sickness of the humanities and (2) deplore the culture of conformity in their Theorized students, and at the same time still (3) offer thanks that Theory "rescued" literature departments from "the literary" and (4) urge that despite their unhealthy state the Theorized humanities should resolve not "to retrench" but "to colonize."4
So again, are we after Theory or not, and where are we, if we are? Are reports of the death of Theory exaggerated? Or is Theory dead in a special way, one of the Undead, a zombie or a vampire?
There have been many blows driven through the heart of Theory in the last thirty years, but if Theory is at least dying now it is not because of blows from outside but only from its own terminal internal tedium. It has "always already" been immune to criticism because it refused to listen to critical arguments, treating them as so much unfriendly fire, proof of the enemy's perfidy, all the more reason to close ranks.
I described Menand as at the top of his field because he belongs to the Harvard English Department, is a star essayist for the New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize winner, and was speaking to the 2004 MLA convention. There he wished some young Turks would stand up to challenge his generation, and tell them "You got it all wrong." But critics have been doing this cogently for decades. His generation has paid only enough heed to dismiss such criticism as proof that reactionary forces needed to be resolutely resisted.
And the potential young Turks are simply too scared to speak up. Among all the many indictments of Theory collected in Theory's Empire, one of the most chilling indices of the betrayal of intellectual freedom and honesty in the Theorized humanities comes from a junior faculty...