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Joel Weinsheimer SUPPOSE THEORY IS DEAD Let me begin with a simple and no doubt simplistic fiction: Theory is dead. By confessing this to be a fiction at the outset, I mean to make my job easier by obviating any need for documentation or argument . Evidence for the demise of theory could be offered, of course, but anything like proof would depend so much on questions of definition that it would doubdess end up inconclusive.1 In any case I am really not interested in demonstrating here whether the reports of theory's death are much exaggerated or substantially accurate. Rather, I want in what follows simply to make the presumption and to speculate about what the future holds for literary criticism if it turns out to be somehow true that something generally called literary theory has in some undefined sense had its day. Moreover, I want to read the posttheoretical future of literature as if Gadamer held its key. Now this may seem paradoxical in one respect. If literary theory is dead, it hardly seems promising to consult yet another theorist. This objection, however, can be quickly met. Gadamer is not a literary theorist.2 In Truth and Method he had little to say about literature as such; and theory (in the form of methodology, at least) was one of his main targets. Obviating this immediate objection, however , merely raises a larger one. Thirty years after the publication of his great work, Gadamer has still had relatively little impact on literary criticism in the United States.3 The reasons for this are many, but most relevant to thinking about the future of literature is that Gadamer's hermeneutics culminated in no "new and improved" method for interpreting literature or anything else. Not only did Gadamer not tell his readers how they could understand better (better than the author or even better than their predecessors), but the man who wrote "we Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 251-265 252Philosophy and Literature understand differently, if we understand at all" neglected to mention how we should go about understanding differently. And given the ravening appetite for difference, the rage for innovation typical of theory in the last two decades, Gadamer's silence was unforgivable. On the implications of philosophical hermeneutics Gadamer is perfectly explicit. "These consequences," he says, "do not need to be such that a theory is applied to practice so that the latter is performed differently—i.e., in a way that is technically correct. They could also consist in correcting (and refining) the way in which constandy exercised understanding understands itself" (p. 266).4 It is not that Gadamer has nothing new to offer, then. What he offers is a new understanding of understanding, and what is new about it is that it is a specifically nontheoretical conception of what it means to understand. As Gadamer shows, the practice of understanding neither has been, nor ultimately can be, unpacked in any theory of it. And yet, however untheoretical, understanding is not thereby precluded. Gadamer affirms the ultimate autonomy of practice as such—that is, he affirms that understanding can and does succeed even without the imprimatur of theoretical selfconsciousness . The implications for literature follow from this affirmation : literary study in the wake of theory will come to a new selfunderstanding . It will understand itself, without defensiveness or embarrassment, as practical criticism. The very words summon memories of I. A. Richards and American Formalism, and that past is hardly what I envision for the future of literature—a return to the halcyon days before theory entered the world and all our woe. Rather, if "practical criticism" seems to represent all the pretheoretical naivete we thought we had gotten beyond, I mean to assert that everything that currently goes by the name of theory did not in fact get us beyond anything—certainly not "beyond interpretation ," still less "beyond formalism"—as Culler's and Hartman's titles would seem to promise. Theory did not transport us beyond formalist practical criticism because formalism was in fact not pretheoretical at all, and will seem so only to those who date the dawning of theoretical consciousness from the publication ofSpeech and Phenomena or The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 251-265
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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