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Ronald Shusterman IN DEFENSE OF ELITISM I One recent trend in criticism, starting notably widi die work of Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels,1 has suggested diat literary theory is either useless, harmful, or bodi. This pragmatist line ofargument can be seen to go hand in hand widi contemporary attacks on the distinction between "high" and "low" art, claiming that a rap text deserves die same attention or esteem as a poem by Eliot. My purposes here are predetermined by die polemical nature of this debate. I shall endeavor to show diat tiieory is useful and diat diere is a valid distinction between low and high. I intend to do so, somewhat negatively, notby giving examples—diough diis would be easy enough— but rather by underlining die contradictions inherent in some of these arguments. I shall also deal widi anodier debate, which may at first appear unrelated, concerning die limits of interpretation. I diink it can be noted that the criteria of judgment involved in distinguishing between high and low are connected to die criteria of interpretation which, though diey do not close die open work, do permit the identification of misreadings. If judgment involves refined analysis, then theory is necessary as an instrument of refinement. If misreadings exist, dien absolute interpretive relativism cannot be justified. One might expect me to begin by defining "literary tiieory," but one of my main points is that such a definition is futile. The dieoretical endeavor is myriad. The term theory can be fruitfully used to designate a wide continuum of discourses about literature diat range from pure explication to pure philosophy. I see no need to find a common denominator diat would bring togedier under a single description narratology, stylistics, deconstructionist criticism, and so on. Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 242-252 Ronald Shusterman243 Indeed, in dieir original attack on literary theory, Knapp and Michaels were careful to set aside the more "empirical" approaches such as narratology as not relevant to their criticisms (p. 11). Their basic complaint has to do widi theories of interpretation, and they conclude: . . . theory is nothing else but the attempt to escape practice . . . theory is notjust another name for practice. It is the name for all the ways people have tried to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without. Our thesis has been that no one can reach a position outside practice, that theorists should stop trying, and that the theoretical enterprise should therefore come to an end. (p. 30) The point seems to be that criticism, as a practice, can and must be undertaken widiout die interference of a supposed realm of independent principles or axioms. That was ten years ago. Joel Weinsheimer has recently defended similar conclusions in an article entitled "Suppose Theory Is Dead."2 He invokes Gadamer to argue diat "understanding can and does succeed even widiout die imprimatur of theoretical self-consciousness" (p. 252). Weinsheimer refuses what he sees as the "first principle of the first theorist of literature: that only theory counts as knowledge" (p. 263). This, of course, echoes pragmatist philosophy's new emphasis on praxis as a valid form of knowledge: The kind of knowledge involved in acting or story-telling or teaching or practical criticism is practical knowledge, and if it cannot satisfactorily explain orjustify from principles what it practices, that is not its fault but its nature—even its particular significance. . . . Literature is to be practiced, is the practice of it, its own practice, and in this light at least theory is merely the self-defeating attempt to abstract literature from its presentations, from the concrete practice diat is itself. (Weinsheimer, p. 263) To those who would argue that any practice presupposes theoretical principles, Weinsheimer retorts that such presuppositions need not be considered as tiieory: "Interpretation supposes a form of life, perhaps, but a form of life is not a theory" (p. 255). I admit to being somewhat confused when he writes that practical criticism "involves tacit knowledge, certainly, but such knowledge is not necessarily dieoretical" (p. 255) . I do not think diat what we do when 244Philosophy and Literature reading critically can be assimilated to what we do when, say, riding a bicycle...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 242-252
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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