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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 458-462

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Historicizing Theory

Beth Kowaleski Wallace

[Works Cited]

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2001.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (NATC) is a paradox: as an attempt to collect and to contain within the covers of a single volume an entire history of Western theory and criticism, it canonizes what has resisted canonization. Moreover, as an anthology aiming for comprehensiveness, it implicitly totalizes a theoretical field that—particularly under poststructuralism—has most recently rejected the idea of totalization. The paradox of a theoretical canon becomes richer when we pause to consider that so many of the individual theories, when pursued to their logical conclusions, seek to undo the very terms that make a neighboring theory tenable. For example, it has long been a purpose of feminist criticism to resist the supposedly timeless message of philosophy's predominantly masculine themes and approaches. Hence it is possible for entire historical schools or movements—take neoclassicism, for instance—to be reconsidered in terms that undermine their "universal" appeal (see Salvaggio 1988). While the Marxist critic would dislodge the formalist's privileged and transcendent art object, the queer theorist might question the binary understanding of gender relations that underlies the Marxist analysis of economic life. And so on. In short, the neat package that has become the NATC is misleading: theories as historically divergent and wide-ranging as those presented in it rarely exist pacifically side by side; more often they collide and do battle, taking prisoners in the process. And practitioners of theory rarely slip gracefully from one position to the next. They are far more inclined to entrench, occasionally lobbing grenades at those on the other side.

Responding to these "theory wars," both the NATC and the accompanying teaching guide rightly acknowledge that in fact there is no such thing as being "outside" theory. As the anthology asserts at the outset, even antitheorists calling for a return to the study of literature as literature occupy a position with theoretical presuppositions. Thus "the antitheory position turns out to rely on unexamined—and debatable—theories of literature and criticism" (1). Or, as M. Keith Booker (2001: 1-2) reiterates in his introduction to the teacher's guide, the suggestion that students have a choice between reading literature with theory and without theory is false. Given the decoding and interpretive strategies any student very likely already possesses, "the choice is. . . between being aware of the theoretical approach one is using and not being [End Page 458] aware of that approach. The concerted study of literary theory and criticism can help make students more aware of the theoretical choices they are already making." Booker further identifies a "dramatic increase in the self-consciousness with which scholars and teachers of literature have pursued theoretical approaches to their work" (2), and the truth of this assertion can be seen in a number of contexts. Even high school teachers are now being encouraged to provide their students with access to a theoretical vocabulary, on the assumption that "literary theory can help secondary literature classrooms become sites of constructive and transactive activity where students approach texts with curiosity, authority, and initiative" (Appleman 2000: 9).

Yet precisely because theory has become so self-consciously taught and applied, it is surprising to find that this anthology is not always as self-conscious or explicit about its terms and organizing principles as one might wish. Take the obvious example of the title. According to the preface, the term theory encompasses "significant works not only of poetics, theory of criticism, and aesthetics as of old, but also of rhetoric, media and discourse theory, semiotics, race and ethnicity theory, gender theory, and visual and popular culture theory" (xxxiii). In addition, the introduction explains: "Theory raises and answers some old and some new questions about a broad array of fundamental issues, some old and some new, pertaining to reading and interpretative strategies, literature and culture, tradition and nationalism, genre and gender, meaning and paraphrase, originality and intertextuality, authorial intention and the unconscious, literary education and social...


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