- Introduction:Toward a Substantial Chinese–Western Theoretical Dialogue
Ours could be called a post-theoretical era. In describing the decline of literary and cultural theory in the West, Terry Eagleton points out:
The pioneering works of Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are several decades behind us. So are the path-breaking early writings of Raymond Williams, Luce Irigary, Pierre Bourdieu, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Jürgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson and Edward Said. Not much has been written since has matched the ambitiousness and originality of these founding mothers and fathers.1
The golden era of theory has already become a history which can never return. Literary theory in its traditional, formalistic sense has to some extent been replaced by a type of cultural theory which does not exclusively focus on literature and literary studies. Unfortunately, even cultural theory is no longer so effective in interpreting various social and cultural phenomena, nor can it be used to solve the severe challenges facing literature and elite culture. No doubt Eagleton’s pessimistic view toward contemporary literary and cultural theory represents quite a few theorists’ concern about the future of the field. Confronted with his view, several scholars from China and the West have responded differently. Diverging from Eagleton’s diagnosis, I argue that although literary and cultural theory has been on the decline in the West, this trend does not necessarily mean that it is on the decline elsewhere.2 The burning [End Page 562] interest of Chinese literary theorists and scholars in various contemporary Western theories in the past decades could justify this assertion. As a result of China’s opening up and economic reform, almost all the Western modern and postmodern literary currents and theoretical doctrines have flooded into China, either through translation or direct importation, exerting tremendous influence on China’s literary production and theory and criticism. Some Chinese literary scholars could not but complain that we Chinese literary critics do not have our own theoretical discourse and that what we are doing in literary and critical studies cannot go beyond Western-centric theoretical discourse. Even when we write our critical works on Chinese literary works, we still dutifully apply established Western theoretical doctrines merely to prove the justification of these theories within Chinese literary practice. It is not surprising that some of my Chinese colleagues claim that Chinese literary criticism and studies suffer from a sort of “aphasia.”3 Even so, there are still some eminent Chinese literary critics and scholars who, in receiving various Western theories, have developed their own critical thinking and understanding to evaluate Western theories and offer alternatives. Some of them, not satisfied with publishing domestically, even try to directly dialogue with those influential Western theorists from their Chinese and comparative perspective.
The following exchange between two eminent Chinese and Western literary theorists will reveal to our international audiences how Chinese literary scholars are enthused by Western literary theories, how they conscientiously study an important Western literary critical work and raise relevant, challenging questions, and how they are very eager to have dialogues with their Western counterparts on issues concerning literary studies. Readers will also see how a senior Western literary theorist like J. Hillis Miller patiently and seriously answers his Chinese colleague’s questions and gives his dynamic responses. In this way, a dialogue between Chinese and Western literary theory and scholarship has been effectively carried out through the international lingua franca of English.
As I have mentioned earlier, it is true that in the past decades, with China’s opening up and economic reform, large numbers of Western academic works, especially literary theoretical and critical works, have been translated into Chinese or introduced to Chinese humanities scholars and have exerted profound influence on their critical thinking and research methodology. In today’s Chinese literary-critical circles, if any literary scholar or critic is not familiar to some extent with the thought of renowned contemporary Western names such as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Northrop Frye, Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Fredric Jameson, J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha...