Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Theory and Youth

As an English major, I have been blessed to be under the tutelage of various teachers and professors who reject the fundamental belief that Theory is the core of literature studies. That said, I still have been exposed, through assigned readings, literary conferences, and research to the ubiquitous presence of literary theory. , in a of the book Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent over at policyreview.com, challenges the forces of Theory and suggests that its reign is coming to an end.

Last October, I had the privilege of attending The International Conference on Romanticism in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The paper I was presenting there was on fragment poem, “Christabel.” Since I am both bored and philosophically opposed to , , and “ism” theoretical approaches, my paper was focused on the structure of the poem and its relation to the themes. Before the panel began, I was able to chat with the panel chair, a professor who had made his life’s work in the British Romantic poets and was also presenting on Coleridge. When I told him my topic, he was shocked that I was not applying any theoretical paradigms. He remarked that his paper was also theory free. As if the odds of two non-theoretical papers being presented at the same panel wasn’t absurd enough, the third presenter (who like me was a graduate student) also defied academia with her paper. The chair confided in me that at a panel the night before, two graduate students presented papers which were theory free, much to the surprise of himself and other established academics. He suggested that perhaps a subtle move is happening within higher education, starting with young academics, away from Theory.

In his review, Berkowitz posits this question: “Can aging hipsters rambling on in the classroom in opaque language about oppositional aspirations and transgressive interpretations while living comfortable and conformist lives really be a pretty sight to curious and intelligent college students?”

For me, the answer is no. A shift is occurring, and must occur, which returns humanity to some semblance of order, faith, and absolutes. As I have before, the are a part of this shift, as are those with faith in God. The fact is that art and criticism cannot continue to exist in an intellectual world without grounding. Music, literature, film; all these mediums have suffered in recent years from tremendous stagnation, criticism likewise has drained the lifeblood out of our universities. There comes a time in the life of an artist or critic living in this postmodern intellectual environment that they must ask why they bother to write, create, or work. Without final meaning, is not even a discussion of meaninglessness absurd? That is why a work of nihilistic fiction is a paradox.

Read Berkowitz’s review and tell me what you think about our intellectual future afterwards.


josh kemble said...

Rock. I wrote my final paper in my art theory class on a similar theme, which was that of non-theory based art. I'm surprised that in the university system, mainly the circle of literature and the arts, people haven't noticed that there is a major decline in the quality (yeah, I'm gettin Greenburgian) of art. The critic fails to be able to be critical, thus negating their need to be a "critic" at all, then goes on to ramble pointlessly in a territory which was priorly reserved to philosophy. I'm surprised that no one has called this theory based art as well as theory based writing for the true thing that it is. I'm glad to hear that there's a movement towards more of a traditional standard of value, rather than the old school of supposed "post" modern theory. Basically, Baudillard (sp?) has already shown us the absurdity of focussing on theory too much, which results in the old philosophy of no purpose. Writers and artists need to get back to wanting to make good art and writing again. I know that in the arts there is a large movement back to representation, without theory. It's good to hear that there are others trying to make this movement happen. My essay pretty much stated that I do comic books because they're
"low" art, thus aren't bound by the theory that has dragged down so much of high art. Theory (not to be marxist) is a rich man's game, and winds up saying nothing to the common man, but instead distancing them from the arts in general

noneuclidean said...

You have to check out this book:
Theory's Empire : An Anthology of Dissent . It's making some waves in the academy. I can't remember if I mentioned it in the post, but the article that I'm quoting is actually a review of this book.

What is really exciting about all this is that nature abhors a vacuum; something must take Theory's place. But what?

You know, I totally disagree with almost all Marxist criticism, I never want to think of art as didactic; however, like you, I'm very sympathetic to the idea that "high art" is wrong. In some earlier post I argued that really good Christian art functions like Huck Finn, it is accessible to people of all levels of intellect and it always encourages the reader to delve deeper. A child can understand its basic plot and love the adventure and a professor can devote several life times to revealing it's complexities. To me, that's good art.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

As someone (hopefully!) about to go into grad school and finally enter the world of higher literary criticism, I have to say that it seems to me there are two problematic means for dealing with "theory." On the one hand, a lot of people, I admit, are rather theory mad. A whole lot.

But on the other hand, to say you reject theory seems to be a bit extreme. Just because great art transcends time, for instance, doesn't mean that we can understand art as existing within a societal framework and serving (or resisting) the interests of society. Similarily, I recently served as a student reader for a textbook on the Classical tradition that included an extensive collection of analysis from various theoretical viewpoints. While using any theory in a reductionist manner in order to "explain away" problematic texts seems to be the vogue among "theoryheads," nevertheless I'm not convinced that the various theories put forth haven't actually advanced and enriched our studies of texts.

But then, as I said, I'm still a bit of an unitiate in the field, so maybe "reject theory" just means "think critically and refuse to automatically apply a predefined system to my analysis." In which case, I suppose what we burn besides theoryheads should be "more theoryheads!"

Btw, assuming I do get accepted to grad school, is your previous comment on my blog an indication that I might actually have enough time to waste a bit of it on video games? I'll be really sad if the PS3's release date isn't an important day for me.

noneuclidean said...

Well, I do have to say that I don't entirely reject Theory. For instance, I would not hesitate to evoke some Marxist theory here and there. On the whole I would support a "tool box" approach to theory, if reading as a deconstructionalist helps you understand a passage in a text, use that, if formalism helps use that. That said, I personally find that theory has not advanced my understanding of any text. Whenever I find something compelling being said about a text based on a theory, it is usually because the critic is making some absurd statement that cannot be realistically substantiated with the text.

In addition, there are many fundamental problems with theory (particularly at its linguistic foundation). My linguistic professor loves to point out that all Deconstructionalist/Po-Mo/"isms" theory is based on lingustic research from the 1920's that has been since disproven. Until I can get my poor hands on Theory's Empire I can't quote anything as evidence for this statement, but I can say with certainty that many leading linguists think theory is just bad scholarship.

As Josh pointed out, theory does tend to ruin art. Theory almost always strips art of its importance and reduces it down to political issues (this is the Marxist influence), or it deconstructs the text leaving us with a statement of language's inadequacy.

On a spiritual level, theory is part of a larger attempt to replace metaphysical issues with natural ones. Almost all great literature speaks to the nature of man and his relation to some sort of God. Our society as a whole has generally rejected God and put in His place Society. The idea being that if the world is not perfect, we will use all our abilities to achieve true justice. So what becomes important in a text are social issues, not metaphysics. Theory forces the reader to focus on issues that validate the importance of Society as opposed to God. An example would be the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael in Moby Dick. Queer studies as made it a point to argue that their relationship was homosexual. Textually the evidence is quite sketchy, but my point is this book is explicitly about metaphysical issues, and theory distracts from that by making us focus on social issues (which aren't even in the text...).

I'm ranting again. Sorry. My point is that theory cannot be rejected completely; there are some valid applications of the criticism. However, we must be very careful to discern: first, whether there is any reason to trust these theories; second, how they impact art; third, what are the spiritual ramifications of supporting theory? I think it is very possible that you'll find as you continue your education that theory continues to thrive not on merit, but on reputation.

Jon Edwards said...

The review you cite says, "It is the rigidity and vacuousness of the form of theory that goes by the name Theory that needs to be rejected." And this is critical for the kind of engagement you seem to be attempting.

For me, theory (or Theory if you prefer--although I have a problem with the way the term is limited to particular theoretical perspective in the review essay) is, of course, a tool for analysis, but it seems as though you would limit it to a kind of ad hoc appropriation.

You say, "I would support a "tool box" approach to theory, if reading as a deconstructionalist helps you understand a passage in a text, use that, if formalism helps use that." This confuses me, because, as I understand it, theory is the underlying set of interpretive apparatuses which creates the possibility for interpretation. If you say the author's work should be understood on the author's terms, that is a theoretical approach. If you say the text is impossible to pin down to a single interpretation and always involves an excess of meaning that must not be circumscribed in any absolutist way, that is also a theoretical approach.

Augustine is thinking theoretically when he selectively appropriates certain Ciceronian ideas to his study of the Bible and rejects others. He is not only reading the text in its particularity, but also trying a apply a particular interpretive framework to a broader set of theological, philosophical, and anthropological concerns. Derrida is doing the same thing--not only exploring the meaning of particular texts, but also identifying a broader set of interpretive apparatuses that he believes are functioning in the meaning formation of all texts.

To, for example, accept Augustine and reject Derrida--or, as some have done, to try and find a balance between the two--is not to reject theory. Limiting the definition of "theory" to a particular set of theoretical approaches does nothing to advance our understanding of texts, art, or discourse in any way.

You say, "I personally find that theory has not advanced my understanding of any text. Whenever I find something compelling being said about a text based on a theory, it is usually because the critic is making some absurd statement that cannot be realistically substantiated with the text." But this statement assumes that the text possesses an obvious, or, at least, a discernable, meaning that the critic can access in a particular way. That is a theoretical approach.

If you prefer, why not look at this from Francis Schaeffer's arguments about the nature of worldviews? A theoretical approach is a worldview--a particular explanatory system that allows you to fit your reading of a particular text into a broader conception of meaning formation. This is the "cosmographic formation" of Daniel Dubuisson; the "God-term" of Kenneth Burke; the "systemic boundary" of Ernesto Laclau. Saussure talks about it as the fundamental oppostion that allows for the formation of definitional circumscriptions. The marxist critics borrow from Hegel and talk about the dialectical moment. Kierkegaard talks about the "horror religiousus"--the separation between the divine command and the human ethic. Lacanians talk about the Object A and the slippage between the ego and the real. Even the relativists like Stanley Fish admit that you must at least act as though you're opposed to something and supporting something else that exceeds the immediate text in front of you or nothing you do can have any meaning or application whatsoever.

The point is that, by claiming the eschew theory, it seems as though you're just concealing your own biases and reading practices and acting as though you can come at the meaning of the text through purely rational or deductive processes and a consideration of the "obvious meaning." Ironically, this is precisely the kind of disavowal that have produced two of the most virulent contemporary attacks on Christianity and religion tout court.

The first is the public/private distinction most famously articulated by Jurgen Habermas, which presupposes that we can arrive at meanings through a wholly obvious and rational exchange of ideas. This, of course, eschews the need for religion, faith, or any divine presupposition and limits religious intervention to the private realm of individual or family concerns that can have no immediate effect on public discourse. Contrast this with Derrida, who says, "The sign [which provides a common set of definitional assumptions that allow for public communication] and divinity have the same place and time of birth. The age of the sign is essentially theological." Habermas assumes that a certain kind of theoretical intervention is unnecessary because the public citizen is endowed with natural rationality--an assumption ultimately detrimental the Christianity and its assumption that God, not rationality, must represent the beginning of human explorations of human nature and the text. Calvin says the knowledge of God and of the self are the essential opposite sides of the same coin that are both required for human knowledge. Derrida affirms this (although he considers it dangerous); Habermas rejects it. The point is that, in both cases, there isn't an obvious meaning to the text that the reader or critic can derive without any theoretical base. Augustine could not simply "pick up and read" at his moment of salvation; he also had to have a particular set of eyes to see that the passage he read was connected to his own situation.

The second attack comes from relativism, which assumes that each reader could--in a perfect world at least--eschew theory and each read according to his or her own whims. Relativists have produced some wonderfully creative readings of particular texts, but they must get away from relativism in order to make any stronger connections.

I hope this doesn't appear as a rant. This is an issue that concerns me deeply. I study religious discourse, and I'm concerned about the inability of religious scholars and thinkers to move beyond their own immediate object and connect with religion as a real, powerful, and public engagement. My point is absolutely not to promote the cult of theory. Like you, I dislike analyses that invoke theory to such a degree that they lose any sense of a real text or artwork that people are actually looking at. The purely theoretical reading has value, but it is limited and can only be read in the context of other, more object focused studies. On the other hand, however, the study that eschews theory and tries to engage in a purely object study runs into a wall as soon as anyone tries to move beyond the immediate text to any broader considerations or questions. You can't read Huck Finn, for example, without--well--READING it. Pure theory won't get it done. On the other hand, without a theory--without a broader, conscious theorization that informs your reading--you can't say what Huck Finn's doing, why it survives, and, most importantly, why it matters.

OK, I'm done. I would love to get your response.


noneuclidean said...

I think our struggle here is semantic. I agree with everything you wrote. My fault was to use the review's language. The word "Theory," in the review, and as I meant it (although apparently I failed to some extent), seems to focus on deconstructionalist theory and more particularly the cult of theory (as you put it). So when I say Theory, I am just using language badly. Technically theory is merely a way to approach a text; therefore, all readings involve a theory of some kind. Just as you pointed out. However, some theories are valid, and some aren’t. Some uses of theory add to our understanding, and some don't. I see the use of theory by many as the result of a larger return to Rationalism. Since the study of literature is hardly a science, many in Lit dept appeal to the power of theories to find some scientific ground. This allows prof’s to better justify their research. That is not to say that I am against either rationalism, or theory, but both taken to extremes (as the often are) leads us down a dangerous road. I hope this is clearer than my post seems to have been.


noneuclidean said...

I've thought some more about what you had to say Jon, and I have some questions. How do you think your ideal use of theory differs from mine? I'm not sure I find a difference except in the use of the word theory with a capital "T". I have to admit that I have probably not read as much theory as it sounds like you have. You didn't say if you were a Christian yourself, if you are or aren't, could you suggest how you think Christian's should use theory? I'm not asking this to bait you or anything, I'm personal very interested in how Christians should make and view art, so any suggestions from someone more well read than myself would be wonderful.

JEdwards said...

I've struggled quite a bit with this question of theory and the proper place of theory. When I was getting my master's degree, it was in a program that didn't particulalry emphasize theory and theoretical approaches, and I came into my PhD program with a somewhat anti-theoretical bias.

However, the more I've been forced to study the different theoretical approaches that scholars take (and it did take some forcing at first), the more I've realized just how important it is for scholars to take this work seriously if they want to say anything relevant. It's OK to dispute a particular theory or set of theories, but you have to read it and gain a basic understanding of it first. As I said before, theory is the underlying set of interpretive apparatuses that sets the standard by which a scholarship can connect the immediate object of study with a broader set of questions.

It's very hard to get into theory. Most theorists are speaking within a very particular jargonistic language, and you have to learn the language to get anything out of what you're reading. It took me about a year to get to the point where I felt like I could really wrestle with what I was reading.

I'll give you a quick glance through some of the theoretical approaches that I've found most helpful for my own work.

Foucault is a great place to start. Both because he's important and because he's much more readable than some of the others. Foucault's most important book is probably "Discipline and Punish," and his overall concerns are with power and the way power moves. In D&P, he starts with the question: Why don't we torture people anymore? And he considers the way in which society has moved from punishing the body to disciplining the mind--creating a set of boundaries and surveilance techniques to push people to discipline themselves. Foucault is all about denaturalizing the establishments of power. He believes that power flows and can't be securly held by anyone--although people try to make it seem as though they have a right to their power. Foucault's work is a great critique, although, because he is equal opportunity in his work of denaturalization, I'm still struggling to figure out whether it's possible to build any positive centralization of power through his work.

Derrida is significant for me, because his work takes him into such close contact with religion. The deconstructionist project is based on the idea that there is always an excess of meaning that exceeds the "correct" reading of any text. He says, "The idea of the book, which always refers to a natural totality, is profoundly alien to the sense of writing. It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing." In other words, every reading of a text suppresses other possible readings, and if you can reveal these concealed meanings, you can deconstruct the established meaning of the text. For Derrida, deconstruction is not destruction--it's a positive thing--an unveiling of that which has been violently suppressed. In his later life, Derrida (who was raised an orthodox Jew) struggled to reconcile religion with his theory. He wanted to find a faith that you couldn't deconstruct, and it's from this that he derives his idea of "religion without religion" or a faith that is based on the ethical command of the human and not the divine decree. Incidently, there's a guy at Calvin College named James K. A. Smith, who has written some really great stuff on the importance of Derrida for Christianity. Smith disagrees with Derrida's "religion without religion" construction, but he argues that Derrida's work is hugely significant. Incidently, I first came across Smith because he wrote a really beautiful obituary for Derrida (who died in 2004) for Christianity Today. I'm sure you can still find it online.

The marxists (and I do them a huge disservice by lumping them together like this) are concerned that theory needs to be grounded in physical (in their case economic) reality. As a group, they tend to dislike deconstructionism (although Derrida was marxist) and the relativists because they believe they are losing the foundation from which to build their work. If this sounds familiar, it should. While many Christians explicitly ground themselves in the stable "Word of God," the marxists ground themselves in the stable laws of capital. Beyond this, there are many variations. Scholars like Georg Lukacs and the so-called "Frankfurt school," which includes people like Horkheimer and Adorno, tend to play up our inability to escape from the centralized power of the bourgesie (notice this is a very different conception of power than Foucault) and they basicly tell us that we're stuck and need outside help to get us out (this seems to be a major problem in the Leninist style marxism, which creates a new hierarchy to overthrow the old one, because the people can't or won't act on their own). Marxist media scholars, like Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, say we're trapped in a media culture that presents televised images as reality and different brands of deoderant as choice. The major difference between these two is that Debord is upset about, what he calls, "The society of the spectacle," while Baudrillard gains a certain delight from pointing out how bound we are to media images and adopts an almost playful attitude. Baudrillard, incidently, was a major philosophical influence on the Wachowski brothers when they wrote "The Matrix," and the term "Matrix" comes from Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation."

The newer marxists (sometimes called neo-marxists) still maintain an interest in economic issues and the differentiation between rich and poor, but they no longer believe there will be any kind of "revolution" in the sense Marx described it. Instead, they focus on ways in which marxist ideals and democratic processes can come together. Jurgen Habermas is probably the best known of the first wave of neo-marxists, and his work has concentrated on public sphere theory (I said a bit about him in the last post).

More interesting to me is the work by Ernesto Laclau, who concentrates on the development of populism and the way in which a group of persons establish themselve as a "people." Laclau basically argues that people come together around shared opposition to something beyond themselves, and this shared opposition causes them to come together and form a system of discourse. However, he argues that these systems are unstable, because they are defined by something outside themselves, which they need (because it defines them) but cannot accept. Therefore, systems are always in tension.

I'll stop with the listing now, because I'm not sure that I'm demonstrating the applicability of this stuff.

You asked what the role of theory for the Christian should be and how it helps us make and view art. The answer, I think, is complicated. Does it matter, for example, that Wagner and Nietzsche were friends? Does it make any difference of our consideration or appreciation of his operas that Wagner was an atheist? I'm getting married in a few months, so this question is highly relevant to me at the moment. The church where we're having the ceremony says we can only have "Christian music," but they include Wagner's wedding march in a list of acceptable suggestions. What should I make of this? It seems as though this church has lost its sense of something bigger than the immediate object. In other words, when they say "Christian music" they mean music that is not recognizably written by someone who might be immediately recognized as non-Christian. They don't want somebody playing Led Zeppelin in the sanctuary. But classical music somehow transcends this distinction because it's an acceptable form of art.

This, for me, is a place where theory hits the ground. On what basis do Christians adopt one set of musical standards and reject another? What does this say about the way we view culture? What does this say about elitism, money, and power?

I know you've responded to Jared Olivetti's blog before, so you may be familiar with the view he takes on exclusive psalmody--only singing the Psalms in a worship service. Psalmody is an interesting question for me, because--having been in a church that sang only Psalms and several that never do--I have to ask what is being suppressed (in the Derridean sense)in both cases. I'll just say a word about what I think is being suppressed when the church doesn't sing Psalms, because that's the more common situation. I'm not speaking as a proponent of exclusive psalmody, but all of the hymns and worship songs I here on a Sunday morning are pretty one dimensional. They always speak of God as good, as loving, as beautiful, as caring. I have no problem with this, except that the Psalms also contain passages about God as angry or passages in which the psalmist is angry at God. In the Psalms, sometimes things are confused, sometimes they're hard, sometimes they're just plain bad. Why does the church suppress all of these negative or questioning or doubting or confused emotions? What is gained and lost in the process? Derrida would, I think, ask, what emotions exceed the hymnal or the worship song selection that is not being acknowledged, and what purpose does that serve?

Anyway, I'm not sure why I focused in on music examples today, but I hope they give you a clearer picture of what I'm thinking about when I study theory.

I'd love to get your comments.


noneuclidean said...

Thanks for explaining your take on theory. While your detailing of the various approaches failed to persuade me that there is any substantial value in theory, the fact that your a believer who has genuinely considered the issues and still supports theory does encourage me to reconsider.

As it stands, I continue to believe that theory is more often a distraction from the text than a tool for discovery. And where it does help, often the same discoveries could be made without appealing to theory (theory meaning here, Marxist, Psychoanalysis, and Decon.). For instance, in your example about music there is no need to use Derrida in order to pose the questions that you did. Many people have addressed this very topic, myself included, without learning the obfuscated jargon and complicated systems that theory often gives us. While I'm using your example to make my point here, I have also felt the same way in many of the scholarly works of criticism I have read.

But, I'm not really trying to argue this point. The truth is that I probably don't have a good enough grasp on theory to judge it. This is something I need to make the time to do. Once again, I have to say that the thing that has influenced me the most in your replies is the fact that you have faith and have critically examined theory. Although I must stand by my experience, wish has consistently taught me to reject theory except in limited use, I will take your words into account as I learn more. Until then, I would love to hear more examples of how theory can be useful for a believer. If you have time, maybe you could comment on other posts of mine and present theoretical approaches to some of the topics I deal with? I would also be interested in what you think of Theory's Empire.

Thanks for taking the time to explain to me your view of theory,