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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 545-553

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Theory as Cultural Conversation

Marcel Cornis-Pope

Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. 2d ed. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

A traditional expectation in classes that introduce "theory" to undergraduates or beginning graduate students is a positivistic transmission of information accompanied by an initiation into the mysteries of the field, a search for the key that would open every cache of knowledge. Students who bring such expectations to theory classes are unfailingly disappointed. An alternative model that David H. Richter's Falling into Theory suggests is one that encourages students to take the plunge into theory conceived as an ongoing cultural dialogue rather than a reified body of knowledge, a matter of conflict and negotiation. This model has distinct advantages: by "teaching the conflicts," as Gerald Graff has argued for a decade (see Graff's foreword, v-vii), but also the interchanges between critical discourses, we enable students to participate in them both as attentive listeners and as informed respondents. To adapt Kenneth Burke's (1941: 110) apt description of a cultural "polylogue," the critical conversation has "already begun long before any of [us get] there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for [us] all the steps that [have] gone before." What we need to do is listen to the conversation until we catch the "tenor of the argument," then input our own responses and theorizings. We need to bear in mind, however, that the "discussion is [and must remain] interminable" (111).

The three questions around which Falling into Theory is organized, "Why we read," "What we read," and "How we read," tap into the larger conversation that has animated academic--and, on occasion, nonacademic-- [End Page 545] circles over the last few decades. These questions have acquired a new urgency in the present environment, dominated as it is by popular culture and the "new media" that have put to the test our traditional definitions of literature and literacy. A fourth possible question, "Do we write the texts we read?" (240) is raised in the third section of Richter's book, but the concept of a "writerly" reading is reduced to Peter Rabinowitz's notion of "overstanding--interpreting texts in ways that go beyond authorial reading" (242). There are suggestions of an alternative pedagogy of reading as (re)writing in Paulo Freire's text, "The 'Banking' Concept of Education," which argues that education should be more than "an act of depositing. . . . Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention" (69), in a creative partnership that converts the passive listener into a "re-creator" (71). Even more to the point, Robert Scholes speaks of the need for a comprehensive involvement of students in a production of texts ("Better reading and better writing go hand in hand" [116]), but his exemplifications include only "pastiche and parody" of styles. Finally, Roland Barthes's famous but somewhat outdated "Death of the Author" emphasizes the writerly aspect of every text and, implicitly, of its process of reading, but mainly in deconstructive terms: "Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body of writing" (253). Missing from these descriptions is a more positive understanding of reading and writing as the space where identity is refashioned, where the other is encountered, and where language performs a transformation of the culture's texts.

In Richter's book, "theory" plays that role, providing the space where the encounter with the other is mediated and theorized. Theory allows us to imagine new paradigms as the old "'tacit dimension' of scholarly understanding" (2) collapses under the pressures of our postindustrial/postmodern/ post-Cold War transition. As Richter puts it in his general introduction, "When nothing goes without saying" (3), when "a consensus breaks down, when we begin to disagree about fundamental principles," theory is "the sort of talk we talk" (9). The fall "into a state of theory" (3) every time old beliefs erode is, as Scholes suggests in one of the...


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