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. Peter Berkowitz, in a review 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 Coleridge’s fragment poem, “Christabel.” Since I am both bored and philosophically opposed to postmodern, Marxist, 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 discussed before, the positivists 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.