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  • The Lessons of Theory
  • Jay Parini

One does not have to look far these days to find someone bashing literary theory, and in some respects it deserves it. Joseph Epstein, for one, has almost never tired of picking away at the motives of those who engage in literary theory: “The major impulse of theory was suspicion,” he has said. “In this regard theory gave that portion of the professoriat who came through the sixties unfulfilled, and those younger professors—women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals—who chose to squeeze all they could out of their self-created status of victimhood, a large and lovely outlet for their resentment.” The irony is that one hears in this semi-hysterical cri de coeur the very suspicion that the author is supposedly complaining about. Mr. Epstein, neither female nor gay, apparently feels passed over. Inadvertently, he has become the Victim himself.

Literary theory—or just “theory”—has frightened a whole generation of intellectuals into early mental retirement, mostly because they have not the stamina or will to enter into appropriate conversation with their younger colleagues. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the debate over theory has been this extension into the academy of what, in the sixties, used to be called the generation gap; indeed, many of the same dynamics seem to apply, with theorists pitting themselves against all forms of authority. “Never trust anyone under thirty” has been transmogrified into “Never trust anyone who doesn’t appreciate Foucault.”

In the seventies, theory moved toward the center of the curriculum at most American graduate schools of literature, and it has remained in place for nearly a quarter of a century. The charge is often heard, perhaps with some justice, that students now spend more time reading [End Page 91] Foucault or Derrida than Shakespeare or Dante, and that this has created an imbalance. But even here, the situation is exaggerated; graduate students do indeed get a heavy dose of theory, yet one sees few undergraduate classrooms in the United States where anything resembling literary theory has displaced the teaching of canonical texts. For the most part what has happened is that the canon has been widened to include texts by previously overlooked writers—usually texts by women or minorities. Such a development hardly threatens to erase or even partially to occlude Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

The charge that theory is unreadable is, for me, a more important criticism. (There’s a joke I like in this regard: Question: What do you get when you cross a deconstructionist with a mafioso? Answer: An offer you can’t understand.) Jargon has overwhelmed literary criticism to the point where the so-called Common Reader is now fiercely excluded from the conversations that take place in most professional journals and academic conferences, and the consequences of this exclusionary practice are profound. The most obvious effect is that serious literature itself, and thinking about literature and its place in the world, is removed from mainstream consumption. As a result, the general quality of our national discourse—in the arts as well as collateral areas, such as politics—is diminished.

This said, I would still argue that an intellectual revolution of sorts has indeed occurred in the last thirty years, and that theory has permanently changed the ways that we—as readers and writers—go about our reading and, yes, our thinking. The peak of the battle over theory passed several years ago; in fact, we seem to have entered a “post-theoretical” moment, and so the time may have arrived for reassessing some of the lessons of theory. This “revolution” is pretty much a literal one: a turning of the wheel. But the wheel has been turning for a long time. Our ways of reading have been challenged almost continuously from the beginning of this century, when the belles-lettres style of criticism popular just after the Great War was dislodged by the philologists, and the philologists were attacked by the literary historians, and the historians were pushed temporarily to one side in the late forties and early fifties by the New Critics. And so forth. The history of criticism is simply a history of overturnings, or absorptions (I rather...

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