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Diacritics 31.3 (2001) 30-56

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The Priceless Interval
Theory in the Global Interstice

Reingard Nethersole

In a poignant scene in Goethe's Faust [1.2038-39] an eager student seeking what we would call curriculum advice today asks what subjects he should study. Counseled by Mephisto in the guise of the master, Faust, the student is admonished to read for anything but theory because: "Grey, my friend, is all theory, / Green alone is life's golden tree." Uttered from within the epitome of an ivory tower image, a vaulted "gothic study," the advice gains rhetorical strength from alliterative, juxtaposed color metaphors which celebrate an organicist, holistic vision of life. Given current attitudes toward literary theory, many enthusiastic freshmen will receive similar guidance. Theoretical deliberation and mediation in the academy were not always popular, to be sure, but the resistance to theory was never as acute as it is now, when the very institutional space inhabited by thought is being curtailed largely because of financial considerations. Thus drawn into cost-benefit calculations that figure the student (in South Africa) as "client," the professor as "cost factor," and education as branded product, the University sees itself compelled, under the hegemony of the economic, to side with praxis in place of theory. "Doing" rather than thinking, action rather than reflection might have seemingly won the day, yet the controversy surrounding the relation between theory and literature on the one hand and theory and praxis on the other persists both inside and outside the academy.

At the heart of a modern organization of knowledge, the dichotomy of theory and praxis is inscribed in Kant's Conflict of the Faculties. It will be remembered that Kant divided the domains of philosophy, theology, law, and medicine that constituted the University of his day into the "lower faculty," philosophy (lower from the point of view of government), and the "higher" faculties of theology, law, and medicine (higher because they are closer to government power). However, by granting philosophy (reason) implicit guardianship over the "higher faculties," lest these would revert to magical practices, Kant's Enlightenment philosophy placed a wedge between theory and praxis, a wedge that not only recast an ancient (Western) fissure between contemplation and action, a conscious I think and an active I do, but also opened a space for a troubled relationship between philosophy and the other faculties and between the faculties and state power—or as is the case today—economic power.

Kant's university, of course, did not know the "humanities" of which history and literature were to become an integral part along with philosophy in the early nineteenth century, but by ranking reason below the utilitarian subjects or "faculties" while, at the same time, recognizing philosophy's preeminence as their imperative, Kant's positioning of thought/theory in relation to praxis 1 set up a tension between thinking and doing [End Page 30] that reverberates, for instance, in literary studies' perennial conflictual pairing between a "green" intuitive, untrammeled appreciation of literary texts and a "grey" theory. Moreover, supported by a particular modern, Western socioreligious structure (Protestantism) that values (bourgeois) industriousness or labor more than (aristocratic) leisure, the legacy of the "conflict of the faculties" implicates the connection between the university as institution of knowledge production in relation to the various domains of knowledge application and/or consumption.

Concerned about the multiple changes that involve our being and acting in the world before an ever-expanding planetary horizon, which in turn profoundly alters the educational objective of institutions of higher learning in general and menaces such sites of thought as literary theory in particular, I shall, in the following, sketch the interval, a topos borrowed from musicological discourse, as a place for theory under global conditions. In addition I shall attempt to conjoin the disparate sides/sites of criticism and theory by cross-stitching Bill Readings's thoughts on the transformation of the university, descriptions of university "reform" currently under way in South Africa, and Goethe's text in order to illustrate the kind of subject/self produced by education or Bildung in contrast...


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